War stops literature. This is the belief of a man who for more than a quarter of a century has been in the front rank of the world's novelists, who wrote The Rise of Silas Lapham and A Modern Instance and nearly a hundred other sympathetic interpretations of American life.
Mr. William Dean Howells was the third writer to whom was put the question, "What effect will the Great War have on literature?" And he was the first to give a direct answer.
A famous French dramatist replied: "I am not a prophet. I have enough to do to understand the present and the past; I cannot concern myself with the future." A famous English short-story writer said, "The war has already inspired some splendid poetry; it may also inspire great plays and novels, but, of course, we cannot tell as yet."
But Mr. Howells said, quite simply, "War stops literature." He said it as unemotionally as if he were stating a familiar axiom.
He does not consider it an axiom, however, for he supplied proof.
"I have never believed," he said, "that great events produced great literature. They seldom call forth the great creative powers of man. In poetry it is not the poems of occasion that endure, but the poems that have come into being independently, not as the result of momentous happenings.
"This war does not furnish the poet, the novelist, and the dramatist with the material of literature. For instance, the Germans, as every one will admit, have shown extraordinary valor. But we do not think of celebrating that valor in poetry; it does not thrill the modern writers as such valor thrilled the writers of bygone centuries. When we think of the valor of the Germans, our emotion is not admiration but pity.
"And the reason for this is that fighting is no longer our ideal. Fighting was not a great ideal, and therefore it is no longer our ideal. All that old material of literature—the clashing of swords, the thunder of shot and shell, the great clouds of smoke, the blood and fury—all this has gone out from literature. It is an anachronism."
"But the American Civil War produced literature, did it not?" I asked.
"What great literature did it produce?" asked Mr. Howells in turn. "As I look back over my life and recall to mind the great number of books that the Civil War inspired I find that I am thinking of things that the American people have forgotten. They did not become literature, these poems and stories that came in such quantities and seemed so important in the sixties.
"There were the novels of J. W. De Forest, for instance. They were well written, they were interesting, they described some phases of the Civil War truthfully and vividly. We read them when they were written—but you probably have never heard of them. No one reads them now. They were literature, but that about which they were written has ceased to be of literary interest.
"Of course, the Civil War, because of its peculiar nature, was followed by an expansion, intellectual as well as social and economic. And this expansion undoubtedly had its beneficial effect on literature. But the Civil War itself did not have, could not have, literary expression.
"Of all the writings which the Civil War directly inspired I can think of only one that has endured to be called literature. That is Lowell's 'Commemoration Ode.'
"War stops literature. It is an upheaval of civilization, a return to barbarism; it means death to all the arts. Even the preparation for war stops literature. It stopped it in Germany years ago. A little anecdote is significant.
"I was in Florence about 1883, long after the Franco-Prussian War, and there I met the editor of a great German literary weekly—I will not tell you its name or his. He was a man of refinement and education, and I have not forgotten his great kindness to my own fiction. One day I asked him about the German novelists of the day.
"He said: 'There are no longer any German novelists worthy of the name. Our new ideal has stopped all that. Militarism is our new ideal—the ideal of Duty—and it has killed our imagination. So the German novel is dead.'"
"Why is it, then," I asked, "that Russia, a nation of militaristic ideals, has produced so many great novels during the past century?"
"Russia is not Germany," answered the man who taught Americans to read Turgenieff. "The people of Russia are not militaristic as the people of Germany are militaristic. In Germany war has for a generation been the chief idea of every one. The nation has had a militaristic obsession. And this, naturally, has stifled the imagination.
"But in Russia nothing of the sort has happened. Whatever the designs of the ruling classes may be, the people of Russia keep their simplicity, their large intellectuality and spirituality. And, therefore, their imagination and other great intellectual and spiritual gifts find expression in their great novels and plays.
"I well remember how the Russian novelists impressed me when I was a young man. They opened to me what seemed to be a new world—and it was only the real world. There is Tcheckoff—have you read his Orchard? What life, what color, what beauty of truth are in that book!
"Then there is Turgenieff—how grateful I am for his books! It must be thirty years since I first read him. Thomas Sargent Perry, of Boston, a man of the greatest culture, was almost the first American to read Turgenieff. Stedman read Turgenieff in those days, too. Soon all of the younger writers were reading him.
"I remember very well a dinner at Whitelaw Reid's house in Lexington Avenue, when some of us young men were enthusiastic over the Russian novel, and the author we mentioned most frequently was Turgenieff.
"Dr. J. G. Holland, the poet who edited The Century, lived across the street from Mr. Reid, and during the evening he came over and joined us. He listened to us for a long time in silence, hardly speaking a word. When he rose to go, he said: 'I have been listening to the conversation of these young men for over an hour. They have been talking about books. And I have never before heard the names of any of the authors they have mentioned.'"
"Were those the days," I asked, "in which you first read Tolstoy?"
"That was long before the time," answered Mr. Howells. "Tolstoy afterward meant everything to me—his philosophy as well as his art—far more than Turgenieff. Tolstoy did not love all his writing. He loved the thing that he wrote about,9 the thing that he lived and taught—equality. And equality is the best thing in the world. It is the thing for which the Best of Men lived and died.
"I never met Tolstoy," said Mr. Howells. "But I once sent him a message of appreciation after he had sent a message to me. Tolstoy was great in the way he wrote as well as in what he wrote. Tolstoy's force is a moral force. His great art is as simple as nature."
"Do you think that the Russian novelists have influenced your work?" I asked.
"I think," Mr. Howells replied, "that I had determined what I was to do before I read any Russian novels. I first thought that it was necessary to write only about things that I knew had already been written about. Certain things had already been in books; therefore, I thought, they legitimately were literary subjects and I might write about them.
"But soon I knew that this idea was wrong, that I must get my material, not out of books, but out of life. And I also knew that it was not necessary for me to look at life through English spectacles. Most of our writers had been looking at life through English spectacles; they had been closely following in the footsteps of English novelists. I saw that around me were the materials for my work. I saw around me life—wholesome, natural, human.
"I saw a young, free, energetic society. I saw a society in which love—the greatest and most beautiful thing in the world—was innocent; a society in which the relation between man and woman was simple and pure. Here, I thought, are the materials for novels. Why should I go back to the people of bygone ages and of lands not my own?"
"Do you think," I asked, "that romanticism has lost its hold on the novelists?"
Mr. Howells smiled. "When realism," he said, "is once in a novelist's blood he never can degenerate into romanticism. Romanticism is no longer a literary force among English-speaking authors. Romanticism belongs to the days in which war was an aim, an ideal, instead of a tragic accident. It is something foreign to us. And literature must be native to the soil, affected, of course, by the culture of other lands and ages, but essentially of the people of the land and time in which it is produced. Realism is the material of democracy. And no great literature or art can arise outside of the democracy."
Tolstoy was mentioned again, and Mr. Howells was asked if he did not think that the Russian novelist's custom of devoting a part of every day to work that was not literary showed that all writers would be better off if they were obliged to make a living in some other way than by writing. Mr. Howells gave his answer with considerable vigor. His calm, blue eyes lost something of their kindliness, and his lips were compressed into a straight, thin line before he said:
"I certainly do not think so. The artist in letters or in lines should have leisure in which to perform his valuable service to society. The history of literature is full of heartbreaking instances of writers whose productive careers were retarded by their inability to earn a living at their chosen profession. The belief that poverty helps a writer is stupid and wrong. Necessity is not and never has been an incentive. Poverty is not and never has been an incentive. Writers and other creative artists are hindered, not helped, by lack of leisure.
"I remember my own early experiences, and I know that my writing suffered very much because I could not devote all my time to it. I had to spend ten hours in drudgery for every two that I spent on my real work. The fact that authors who have given the world things that it treasures are forced to live in a state of anxiety over their finances is lamentable. This anxiety cannot but have a restrictive influence on literature. It is not want, but the fear of want, that kills."
"Still, in spite of their precarious financial condition, modern authors are doing good work, are they not?" I asked.
"Certainly they are," answered Mr. Howells, "the novelists especially. There is Robert Herrick, for example. His novels are interesting stories, and they also are faithful reflections of American life. Will Harben's work is admirable. It has splendid realism and fine humor. Perhaps one thing that has kept it, so far, from an appreciation so general as it will one day receive, is the fact that it deals, for the most part, with one special locality, a certain part of Georgia.
"And in Spain—what excellent novelists they have there and have had for a long time! The realistic movement reached Spain long before it reached England and the United States. In fact, English-speaking countries were the last to accept it. I have taken great pleasure in the works of Armando Valdés. Then there are Pérez Galdós and Emilia Pardo Bazián, and that priest who wrote a realistic novel about Madrid society. All these novelists are realists, and realists of power.
"Then there are the great Scandinavians. I hope that I may some time attempt to express a little of my gratitude for the pleasure that Björnson's works have given me."
I asked, "What do you think of contemporary poetry?"
"I admired chiefly that of Thomas Hardy," said Mr. Howells. "His poems have force and actuality and music and charm. Masefield I like, with reservations. Three modern poets who give me great pleasure are Thomas Hardy, William Watson, and Charles Hanson Towne. The first one of Mr. Towne's poems that I read was "Manhattan." I have not forgotten the truth of that poetic interpretation of New York. His poems are beautiful and they are full of humanity. In his latest book there is a poem called 'A Ballad of Shame and Dread' that moved me deeply. It is a slight thing, but it is wonderfully powerful. Like all of Towne's poetry, it is warm with human sympathy."
"Do you think," I asked, "that the great social problems of the day, the feminine unrest, for instance, are finding their expression in literature?"
"No," said Mr. Howells, "I cannot call to mind any adequate literary expression of the woman movement. Perhaps this is because the women who know most about it and feel it most strongly are not writers. The best things that have been said about woman suffrage in our time have been said by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She has written the noblest satire since Lowell. What wit she has, and what courage! Once I heard her address a meeting of Single-Taxers. Now, the Single-Taxers are all right so far as they go, but they don't go far enough. The Single-Taxers heckled her, but she had a retort ready for every interruption. She stood there with her brave smile and talked them all down."
"Do you think that Ibsen expressed the modern feminine unrest in The Doll's House?" Mr. Howells was asked.
"Ibsen seldom expressed things," was his reply. "He suggested them, mooted them, but he did not express them. The Doll's House does not express the meaning of unrest, it suggests it. Ibsen told you where you stood, not where to go."
Mr. Howells had recently presided at a meeting which was addressed by M. Brieux, and he expressed great admiration for the work of the French dramatist.
"He is a great dramatist," he said. "He has given faithful reports of life, and faithful reports of life are necessarily criticisms of life. All great novels are criticisms of life. And I think that the poets will concern themselves more and more with the life around them. It is possible that soon we may have an epic in which the poet deals with the events of contemporary life."
Mr. Howells is keenly awake to the effect which the war is having on conditions in New York. And in his sympathy for the society which inevitably must suffer for a war in which it is not directly concerned, the active interest of the novelist was evident. "If all this only could be reflected in a book!" he said. "If some novelist could interpret it!"
Return to the William Dean Howells Home Page