Editor's Study

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine Volume 84 Issue 506 (July 1892)

Is fiction always misleading, especially if it is very realistic, in the impression it gives the reader of any community, country, or civilization, if the reader's knowledge is not supplemented by other and wider sources of information? Do the conditions of every-day life in Russia seem to the Russian as they do to us who study them only in the Russian novels? Does the Frenchman regard the novels written by Parisians as an adequate account of his civilization? Doubtless he would admit that they represent phases of it, and they may have for him a truth which they do not have for us, because he comprehends exactly the place they occupy in the total national existence, the family life, the thrift, the careful education and religious training, the general amiability and social well-being. It certainly does not occur to us in America to judge the present England by the contemporary English fiction. Some of that fiction is of a very high order as social studies, as a revelation of British character, as a report of intellectual scepticism and of mental awakening to discontent. But we should be justly accused of provincial criticism if we estimated the total outcome of English civilization, or even of English well-being, the great pulsing English life, by the types or the social life in novels, by the studies in city slums, and the pictures of sordidness and vulgarity in country communities. It is not for us to dispute the dreariness or the vacuity or the frivolity, either the social meanness or the social queerness, developed as from a photographic plate in the English novel, but we decline to judge by them the experiment which England has been occupied in making for some centuries to show the rest of the world how to live.

There is a town in Vermont called Brattleborough. If it were set down in its spring or summer or autumn array in any part of the world, it would appear to be a most attractive place. Those who know it well find the conditions of life about as agreeable there as anywhere else. It has a New England flavor — and liking for that may be an acquired taste — and we can well imagine that its social usages are unlike those of Grosvenor Square, and that its intellectual life would seem thin to a Cambridge man. Mr. Rudyard Kipling went up there for a week in the winter, and made a paper of his impressions. As a descriptive piece of writing it enhances our estimate of Mr. Kipling's talent, and as a snap-shot at characteristics it is remarkable in its genius for observation. It is true, even in its pathetic note on that eagerness for culture which hopes to satisfy its yearnings by a top-dressing of Browning. The London Spectator praises it almost extravagantly, with that generosity of praise which it likes to give to anything regarding America — when it does not compete with anything that is English. It warms up to the paper because it confirms the Spectator's previous impressions as to the tendency, and indeed the outcome, of life in New England, which it already had from American story-writers. Mr. Kipling's winter picture has no sunlight on it, and it is exactly what the Spectator believed to be the truth about the unpleasantness of life in New England from the stories which have depicted it. And this, then, is the rather sordid, pinched, and melancholy end of what the narrow-minded bigots who settled New England set out to do. And what can be said to critical inferences of this sort? Nothing. The critic shouldn't vex his soul about the unpleasant aspects of distant humanity. The pictures drawn by Miss Jewett, Mrs. Slosson, Miss Wilkins, of traits, character, speech, mental habits, are perfectly true. The Spectator cannot realize how good they are. But life, even in America, is a vast and complex affair. And the people in New England are happy in their poor, humble way, and tolerably intelligent, and keep on producing Jewetts and Slossons and Wilkinses, and now and then a Hawthorne and a Lowell. There is a good deal of horizon and clear sky and vital human stir, and, on the whole, life is not all of one type here, nor altogether one of dialect, nor altogether melancholy. There are always several points of view of any life. One is that of the outside and perhaps unsympathetic spectator, and the other is that of the people who live that life. It may seem to the distant observer, who obtains his impression from the study of peculiarities by a novelist, or from a casual note-take of what is novel to him, that rural and village life in New England is sadly pathetic, not to say gloomy and hopeless. But we doubt if the proportion of intelligent and fairly happy communities is larger in any European country. Thanks to books and newspapers and the telegraph, most of these communities are in vital touch with the great world, and feel that they are part of the moving age. Even the more secluded and ignorant have a certain consciousness of freedom and opportunity that is lacking to secluded and ignorant communities elsewhere. Even where society is illiterate and education thin, the community may get as much enjoyment out of life as many that are otherwise conditioned. Unless there is a widespread delusion over the world, life here has many attractions in the very spirit of its civilization that are not visible to the philosopher. When it comes to the total outcome of a civilization as to the ease of living or the diffusion of happiness, the philosopher is often misled by the to him novel indications. Mommsen, writing of the Roman provinces at a time when rural life has been supposed to be hard and unhappy, and studying the agricultural towns of Africa, the homes of the vine-dressers on the Moselle, the flourishing townships of the Lycian mountains, says, “If an angel of the Lord were to strike the balance whether the domain ruled by Severus Antoninus was governed with the greater intelligence and the greater humanity at that time or in the present day, whether civilization and national prosperity generally have since that time advanced or retrograded, it is very doubtful whether the decision would prove in favor of the present.”