From Sunday Magazine Of the Boston Sunday Post Part 5 (November 11, 1906)
The books that I read oftenest and take the keenest pleasure from are Kipling's earlier short stories about India, and I believe that I should rather have written some of these than anything else in fiction that I can think of.
I am aware that it may seem a rather singular preference for me, because, as you know, I cannot write short stories myself. Through Kipling I feel that I know India better than any foreign country in the world. For atmosphere, for depth of human interest and passion, for humor, for the striking quality of being able to set down the reader in a jungle, in a teeming Oriental city, in a desert, or to perch him in a little village swinging on the top of a Himalaya precipice, he is to me marvelous. The stories have another quality which in my opinion is an essential, that of treating all classes of life of a country, high and low, rich and poor. A human life is so intricately bound up with other human lives, that the truest and most lasting portraits in fiction are apt to be those in which the surrounding characters are most ably depicted.
For my part, I should agree with the writer you quote, I think; but there are so many masterly books it is hard for an apprentice and amateur to declare assuredly that this or that one is the particular book he would like to have achieved.
However, if pinned down to one, I should say that if I had written “The Egoist” I could be thoroughly content. For that matter, I can think of several thousand books which I should most like to have written. Your question elicits only despair; and it isn't quite decent of you to make us think “along such lines.” If you had asked, “What do you most admire?” you might have been forgiven; but when you inquire what one would have liked best to have done, you evoke hopelessness and envy, and a host of other demons unfit for mention.
If one had written “The Egoist,” he would certainly be wise enough to know that he had written a great book — a most enviable feeling! You indicate in your note, I take it, that you wish me to state my reasons for selecting one novel which I should most like to have written; but I guess that no one could thoroughly understand those reasons except a sympathetic reader of “The Egoist,” and such a reader would require no explanation. Roughly, however, “The Egoist” seems to me a superb comedy of human life, presented with supreme skill — or at least a skill so far beyond present criticism that only a “Solemn Ass” could find a flaw in it. Comedy of that great sort is infinitely more difficult to make effective than tragedy. This book is so great that praise is superfluous and impertinent. I had infinite difficulty in reading it for the first time, followed by infinite ease and delight in subsequent readings.
In brief, I agree with the writer you quote, as I said first — and that's all.
Of all books of which I have any knowledge, I should most like to have written “The Federalist”; not only because it is a classic in thought and style, but because it has had more to do with the building and developing of a nation than any single book in any language. This is not a modest regret, but it has the merit of sincerity.
My eyes have roamed the shelves a dozen times since this inquiry came to hand, and in every instance they have rested finally upon a venerable copy of “Henry Esmond.” I frankly confess that in naming this novel my choice is governed by considerations that would not impress austere critics. I can see it only through the golden haze my youth wove about it. Its defects and weaknesses have often been called to my attention; but the word novel always summons to my horizon the “gray familiar towers at Castlewood.” I know of no fairer portrait in the gallery of the novelists than that of Beatrix at Walcote House, “holding her dress with one fair rounded arm, and, her taper before her, tripping down the stair to greet Esmond.” And Esmond breaking his sword and burning his papers before the Prince has to me still a fine air. Thackeray's appeal to the pictorial sense is, I should say, particularly strong, and I like to think of his dear spectacled eyes brightening over the manuscript as he contrived that scene.
Fiction these days travels a quicker pace; but the leisurely pages of Esmond never fail to win me back to the spacious times when on treasonable nights coaches rattled up to the doors of dark inns, and sleepy stable boys tumbled out with torches to welcome mysterious arrivals. I glance again over the shelves, still looking for the most lovable and cheering and wholesome of English novels, and my eyes come back to Harry Esmond and his adventures. So here's my meanest envy and covetousness upon Mr. Thackeray, and my sincerest sorrow that I cannot filch from his brilliant gallery Beatrix and Lady Castlewood and Harry (God bless him!) and Dick Steele and Father Holt and all the rest of them.
I have so little choice among several books, and should have so liked to have written them all, that I am somewhat puzzled to make a selection. The books which I have in mind are “Lorna Doone,” “Les Miserables,” “Pan Michel,” and “Anna Karenina,” also one or two of Thomas Hardy's, “The Scarlet Letter,” “Vanity Fair,” and “The Rise of Silas Lapham.” However, I will choose, after some considerations, “Les Miserables” as the book of them all which I should most like to have written. I choose this for several reasons. The book appeals to me, perhaps, in more ways than any one of the others. It is romantic, emotional, tragic, poetical, dramatic, and, more than all, calculated to benefit humanity, by the creation of a hero which is second to none but the Christ — Jean Valjean. It has wonderful pathos; it points a most tremendous moral lesson.
There is in it, to my mind, only one element which possibly is essential toward the making of a perfect book: it has no actual humor. The humor of “Les Miserables” only serves to bring out in stronger relief the tragedy and pathos. Still, to my mind, this book has a broader range and greater heights, and depths, than any book I know.
You ask me what work I should prefer to have written had I the choice. Had the fates given me such a choice, without a moment's hesitation I would say the old Norwegian and other northern sagas. It seems to me they mark the period when man's spirit became greater than the elements; at least, when man's spirit set itself seriously to contesting the sovereignty of brute force, blind chance — in a word, when spirit asserted itself supreme.
The spirit of those old sea warriors of the Viking ages, which was so dauntless it chose to ride down to death lashed to a spar in the turmoil of tempest, is the spirit that wills to conquer, or to die trying to conquer; and that is the heroic spirit of all ages. To be sure, it is pagan; but it is paganism reaching up from the wild beasts of human nature to God. It is paganism from which Christianity would do well to borrow a lesson, the lesson that good must be stronger than the powers of evil.
Therefore, had I choice, I should have chanted one of those old pagan sagas. Quite absurd, of course; but then you have asked a quite absurd question.
For my part, I should like to have written “The Three Musketeers.” I make this choice independent of any critic or critics, who have somtimes tried to belittle the brilliant genius of “brave old Alexander,” as Thackeray was wont to call the author. The book first fell into my hands when I was a lad of fifteen, and I believe that I have read it twenty times since that memorable day. I refer to the entire series, from D'Artagnan's entrance to Paris to his death on the battle field.
There are a thousand and one reasons why I should like to have written this classic: I should have been the author of one of the bravest and wittiest books in the world; I should have given to the world a clear idea of how the French Kings and nobels lived, loved, and dies; I should have given to the world a story of such color and movement that it still remains unmatched; and, above all else, I should have been the author of the most gallant hero in fiction — D'Artagnan.