Notes of a Bookman

by James MacArthur

From Harper's Weekly Vol. XLV No. 2345 (November 30, 1901)

More than fifteen years ago I clipped a story called “A Humble Romance” from the pages of a Scottish weekly, where it had been copied, doubtless, from the American periodical in which it originally appeared. Although the author was then unknown, the remarkable power and freshness of the story were sufficient to mark one summer Saturday afternoon in the memory of the boy who read it. Since then I have followed with unfailing interest and read with avidity everything that Miss Wilkins has written. Some critics hold that Miss Wilkins's best work has been done in the short story, and I grant that as a short-story writer there are few American authors who rank with her. But although all her novels have not possessed the strong sustained interest and power of her short stories, her art in characterization has seldom failed her, and indeed it is more as a delineator of character and a creator of New England types that she excels as a literary artist. One book among her novels, however, must be excepted from this criticism. Neither in the short story nor in the long novel has Miss Wilkins hitherto done anything better than Pembroke, which Dr. Hamilton W. Mabie, amongst American critics, and Dr. Conan Doyle, amongst English writers, pronounced at the time to be “the greatest piece of fiction in America since The Scarlet Letter.” Notwithstanding the number of American novels that have been produced since Pembroke was written, very few, to my mind, have risen to the pre-eminence of this work. There is one scene in Pembroke which in itself is so consummate in its art, so true to nature, and so searching in its pathos, that it would alone entitle Miss Wilkins to be ranked as a master of fiction.

Next to Pembroke comes The Portion of Labor, which has just been published, after appearing serially in the pages of Harper's Magazine. Indeed, many readers will like it better than anything else Miss Wilkins has written, and I see that several critics have already accorded it the first place in her fiction. It is refreshing to turn with Miss Wilkins again to the life which she knows best, and in which she moves with spontaneity and genuine emotion, after her attempt in The Heart's Highway to use the artifice of historical romance for public entertainment. I can the more readily forgive that artistic aberration that she has in The Portion of Labor so soon retrieved her reputation for the deep and subtle interpretation of human life, its beauty and dignity, its revelation of the humor and pathos that lie so close together in “the sad vicissitude of things.” I sometimes think that in a day when we have fallen upon ephemeral fiction in the guise of literature, we are sadly lacking in the reverence and regard, in the sense of gratitude that is almost a prayer of thanksgiving, for the gifts of genius. For whatever faults the work of Miss Wilkins may bear through human frailty, none may gainsay her the seeing eye, the seizing power that constitutes genius. And I am minded, in saying this, of another writer, whose book was published lately, and who is sure to win recognition in time; whose work inspires the reverential regard I speak of, and of which I wrote a week or two ago. I am sorry for the reader who can finish The Strength of the Hills, by Miss Florence Wilkinson, as I should be likewise for him who can read The Portion of Labor, without being brought to his knees.

The American youth is so ubiquitous in fiction to-day that we are grateful to Miss Wilkins for giving us a vital study of the American girl in her new novel. Ellen Brewster will touch the lives of many girls who read The Portion of Labor; she is drawn with so penetrating an understanding of a girl's ideals and aspirations, her daily struggles in the mill of toil, her reaching out after nobler living under the stress of grinding conditions, the eternal conflict 'twixt love and duty — and all so instinct with life, so true to the type. The place that Ellen Brewster is likely to take in the affections of her readers may be indicated by what one eminent critic says of the book which contains her portrait. “If it had to stand on a bookshelf beside one book rather than another,” he writes, “we should, for choice, put it beside Shirley, that strong product of Charlotte Brontë's mature power, that intensely modern interpretation of the same sort of struggle and conquering under differing external conditions of existence. The Portion of Labor and Shirley would know how to be good friends if they were individuals. They speak, in a way, the same language concerning the issues of life.”