« PreviousContinue »
I gather, feels that education should not merely equip men and women with scholarship but that it should also help them to find for themselves some happiness in their lives this side of heaven. Some people find their bliss in being burned at the stake for trying to change the ideas and morals of their friends. But if these individuals are to achieve this ardent destiny, there must be somebody to chop the wood. As a general rule the difference between the people who are burned by the fagots and those who cut and light them, is that the former have not been able to adjust themselves to the thought of their day and the latter have. even the noble spirits with messianic missions might accomplish more by proceeding from a sympathetic comprehension of their world than by basing their propaganda for reform on a misapprehension of the facts.
History, of course, is necessary. The literature of the past is necessary. One can't comprehend his own day unless he knows what happened last week. But neither can one understand the problems of the moment from a knowledge of the past alone. Contemporary literature is the expression of life as these young Americans in our colleges have got to face it. An ostrich-like posture will not help them. They had better learn a few things vicariously through literature than thrust cruelly against them totally unprepared when they walk off the campus with a sheepskin tucked under their
In the second place, classroom contact with contemporary literature gives the student an opportunity to make an honest, individual judgment of values, both moral and æsthetic. In fact, such contact forces him to make a personal judgment. I would not be understood as decrying the importance
of old literature for the student. He should have all of it he will read. But what actually happens in courses in Shakespeare, or Milton, or eighteenth century prose, is this (having studied and taught in half a dozen universities from Connecticut to the Golden Gate, I know whereof I speak): There has been so much criticism of the older literature, this criticism has become so well codified, and has been made so accessible in convenient form, that what the students really do is to read it in abstract and swallow it like a cocktail in one gulp. They read a comedy by Congreve by Congreve - that is, if they are conspicuously assiduous they may then read what Macaulay said about it, and let the matter rest at that. Often they may omit the reading of the comedy, but they always read the criticism on it.
Now turn a group of students loose on the contemporary drama and they have to use their heads. The criticism is not codified. It is scattered and comparatively hard to get at. The students have to do their own thinking. They have to read the play itself. They learn, in this process, to distinguish the wheat from the tares.
One more point. I grant Dr. Moody that a lecherously minded instructor can do some damage in the field of contemporary literature. But so can he in every field of literary study, or any study. I grant that in every college is a coterie of pseudo-æsthetes who, reclining on chaise longues sipping synthetic cognac and inhaling incense, luxuriate in that notorious chapter in "Jurgen" which most young men and women find, not immoral, but unutterably dull. I may, though, say this: The number of students who are hypnotized by the decadent strain in contemporary fiction is entirely negligible. There are always some people who,
whether or not they are exposed to decadence, are just naturally sick in their souls. But I have smoked a great deal of tobacco with American undergraduates in the last three years, I have listened to a great many sincere statements of undergraduate opinion, and I have observed the picked youth of the land under conditions where they could be making no bid for professorial favor. The American undergraduate, both male and female, may frequently carry a liberal quantity of gin, but this same individual seldom permits the gin to
displace a wholesome regard for the fundamental decencies of life. If our undergraduates were a representative sample of our population instead of a carefully selected class, neither Dr. Moody nor anyone else ever need fear for the morals of this country. And it is not necessary that contemporary literature be taught in a manner calculated to impinge upon the decent ideals of American youth. There are surely plenty of instructors available whose attitude toward literature and life is sufficiently sane.
THE OLD WOMAN LOOKS IN THE GLASS
By Ruth Manning-Sanders
'VE a-got a stocking,
I've a-got a treasure,
I've a-got a house that should not belong to me,
I've a-got a secret,
Forty years I hid it
In the night, in the storm, by the black unlighted sea.
Oh my precious secret,
Lips may never shape it,
Ears must be deaf to what was done by me!
But now comes a witness,
A sly and artful witness,
And lays my secret naked for all the world to see.
I've a-got a dressing table,
I've a-got a looking glass,
Frilled up in muslin, pretty as can be
But an old bitter weed I am,
Oh the Lord, he knows that,
And now he's took and wrote it on my face, for all to see.
CURRENT SHORT STORIES
By Gerald Hewes Carson
THE BEST SHORT STORIES
The following ten short stories are selected for special mention as mirroring the best elements in current fiction as it has appeared between September and January. When the stories selected are not by American authors they are, nevertheless, the work of writers who are important influences upon our own creative effort.
The Cyprian. Lyman Bryson. ATLANTIC, November.
Millstones. Konrad Bercovici. PICTORIAL REVIEW, November. Morituri. Caroline E. Aber. MIDLAND, November.
Classified. Edna Ferber. COSMOPOLITAN, November.
The Letter. Bernice Brown. RED Book, October.
Wantin' a Hand. Lorna Moon. CENTURY, November.
Little and Unknown. Elsie Singmaster. LADIES' HOME JOURNAL, December.
Legend. Fleta Campbell Springer. HARPER'S, November.
This is not a proprietary matter for poets and mystics. Life is dramatic, tragic, odd, poignant, tedious, amusing, and futile in turn for all of us, and it is the power of literature, as of life, to move upon each of these planes in turn, and perchance to lift us, at least æsthetically, from the lower to the higher levels. This is what a recent short story anthologist had in mind when he demanded that the business of fiction be recognized as "the portrayal of man's developing consciousness of himself among his contacts with life, and not the superficial gestures he makes trying to realize his superficial ambitions".
An excellent point of contact, that, for resuming THE BOOKMAN's running chronicle of current short stories which will be brought in this article up through September, October, November, December, and January.
A story of unusual promise is "The Cyprian" (Atlantic, November) by Lyman Bryson. The story hangs upon whether or no Captain Mortimer Ladd, British proconsul in Cyprus, will return to England. The whole business is summed up in a splendid climax when the real issue is suddenly revealed: Captain Ladd is in love with a beautiful Cyprian who has become his mistress.
This is not, one should hasten to say, a variation upon Mr. Maugham's favorite theme the Englishman conducting extremely circumspect and extremely physical liaisons to the rhythm of Burmese temple bells. The impli
cations are as delicate, as broad and as narrow as human nature itself under the stress of love, power, and the sentimental ties of country, class, and family. Mr. Bryson is a new writer with a pliant and polished style, an eye for the surface of life, a mind for its depths, and a great eagerness to fuse the whole into a telling presentation. He is sophisticated in whatever good sense the word has, and to borrow an expression which "The American Mercury" has shyly appropriated for its own urbane contributors-eminently civilized.
Another writer who handles the vital contacts of life with great skill and simplicity is Konrad Bercovici. He is one of the most genuine of the modern romancers. Each of his stories is very like its brothers in being as remote from American readers as the Danube. Each is as simple and elemental as life is complex and dispersive. And there is one other touch of uniformity: all of Mr. Bercovici's stories are excellently written.
The scene of "Millstones" (Pictorial Review, November) is laid "not far from where the river gushes into the Black sea". Two millers compete for the hand of Ephrosi, a fisherman's daughter. As a reflex of their competitive courtship they engage in a business duel. So wise little Ephrosi, hearing much of new millstones and little of love, quietly marries Zancu, a humble shoemaker, and a crippled one at that! This story is a perfect representative of the type. More will be said of Mr. Bercovici's romances later.
The emotions of a person with a limited span of life ahead are perennially interesting to fiction writers. Caroline E. Aber in "Morituri" (Midland, November) draws a close, subjective portrait of a woman for the next few hours after her doctor said, "You have
only six months more to live." strict time limits, and within the bounds of a very short story, the mother herself, her daughter, her son in Paris, her brisk, legal husband, her home, and her whole comfortable social order are evoked with a grace of sentiment so poignant and wistful, so restrained, so actual, that as one reads, the real values of a profound mood emerge, crystal-clear and priceless.
It is like turning from a woodland path into the Boston Post Road on a holiday to take up Edna Ferber's story of lower middle class life in New York City. "Classified" (Cosmopolitan, November) is symptomatic of the democratic impulse which many of our younger writers have given contemporary literature. Neither Miss Ferber nor her heroine, Miss Bobby Comet, "a creature so blond, so slim, so marcelled, so perfumed", would have been possible before 1900. As a matter of fact, the Bobby Comets emerged as a literary type about 1920.
The story has to do with Miss Comet's activities in the classified advertising department of a great metropolitan newspaper, her nocturnal adventures, her scorn for her stogy parents ("They'll never get me that way!''), and her eventual capitulation to love, forty dollars a week, and two rooms on One Hundred and Eighty Sixth Street. Miss Ferber here conveys her own swift, timely version of Things as They Are with unmistakable brilliance. Yet equally unmistakable in her is the war between the reporter and the artist; and it must be admitted that "Classified" hardly gives a clue as to where the victory will ultimately rest.
"The Letter" (Red Book, October) by Bernice Brown is the story of Grover Dahlgren, "a man possessed of every grim, unsparing attribute of success", whose philosophy and emotions
ran at cross purposes. Dahlgren came to love Marion, the quiet wife of honest, ineffectual, dull Walter Pertwee.
There came a moment once when the doctrine of expediency deserted him. Mastered by his emotions, he wrote Marion a love letter. But he was saved from committing himself by an ironic stroke of fate which forestalled the delivery of the letter. So Dahlgren marches on to larger things, triumphant but unhappy, an unmoral opportunist whose sense of values remains permanently entangled. Dahlgren in politics is the prototype of the eminent realtor, Mr. George F. Babbitt, and the Andersonian hero too a man dimly dissatisfied with the quality of the civilization he supports, but eternally scuttled in his vision by a materialistic philosophy.
The protagonist is again a woman in "Wantin' a Hand" (Century, November) by Lorna Moon. This story is simply a picture of the stream of consciousness of a drunken Scotch washerwoman. With morbid and maudlin imagination she reviews the tragic accident which swept love and idealism and hope and kindliness out of her life. As formless and sketchy as the short story ever becomes, this presentation of a pitiful and defeated human being is, nevertheless, an excellent piece of subjective writing, infinitely artistic and moving.
Elsie Singmaster, too, is a student of womankind. Like Ben Ames Williams, she believes that the use of the same characters and background over and over again in short stories makes them richer. "Little and Unknown" (Ladies' Home Journal, December) is one of Miss Singmaster's best stories of those gentle rural Pennsylvanians, Betsy and Tilly Shindledecker. The tragic end of a young city mother throws a tiny baby into the maidenly home of the Shin
dledeckers. The theme of the maternal craving in maidenly breasts has been accorded far more humor and far less sympathy than it deserves, and Miss Singmaster's quiet narrative of these two strange, gentle, devout, tranquilly competent, sharply individualized women has a depth and charm which have seldom been brought to bear upon the subject, and never with happier consequences.
Two other unusual stories of women are "Legend" (Harper's, November) by Fleta Campbell Springer, and “A Finished Story" (Good Housekeeping, October) by Ben Ames Williams.
Mr. Williams uses the frame of his usual "Fraternity" rural neighborhood. As author-auditor he hears and retells the story of a fragile, unhappy wife in the lumber camps who is rescued from her husband's abuse by her young brother, then recaptured. After she is dragged back to the sordid home, and chastised, the climax comes in the stark words of one of the men of Fraternity: "She did it alone. Fixed it so that Lovack hadn't any more use for her."
Mr. Williams is very skilful at being in, but not of, a story. Unobtrusively, he sees and records. His stories, cast in the homely narrative style of his rough countrymen, often achieve a high representativeness, and a quiet, unstressed beauty which has not, I think, been sufficiently recognized.
Mrs. Springer's story seems-in plot to be a story of crime and mystery. Well, it is that, and a good deal more. The father of "the Klinger girls" was found under incriminating circumstances with a murdered man, a stranger in the community. Klinger swore to his innocence and his daughters supported him, but he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. It was pneumonia that