A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Novel as the Educator of the Imagination." by Miss May Rogers.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 586-589.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 586] 

THE NOVEL AS THE EDUCATOR OF THE IMAGINATION.

By MISS MAY ROGERS.

Edgar Fawcett says:

"We, who write novels for existing time,
Should face our task with fortitude sublime.
Twice daily now we hear our critics mourn
The unpleasant fact that we were ever born."

MISS MAY ROGERS.
Howells complains of the "little digs" that annoy authors, and he attributes them to woman's intrusion among critics. The most spiteful feminine dig into masculine vanity is as a pin-scratch to a dagger-thrust in comparison with the ordeal of some of our women novelists, who are suspected of being their own heroines; with ruthless disregard of the rights of privacy, the lives of these authoresses are reviewed as a commentary on their romances. The career of the woman artist is beset with pain and peril, between the impertinent gossip and the malignant slanderer, whispers the insinuator, who is always anonymous. Anyone who aspires to sit in critical councils should know that observation and imagination are essentials in artistic creation, and not identical experience. Criticism should have the positive value of recognizing talent rather than the negative quality of defining limitations. The service of criticism is to cultivate, and as critics, St. Beuve, Arnold and Lowell are educators. Guy de Maupassant advised the critic to say to the novelist: "Make us something beautiful in the form which suits you best, according to your own temperament." This ideal attribute could be possible in France, but the young English or American novelist should early learn that the English-reading public buys translations of the most naturalistic of foreign novels, but it demands that the balance of virtue be sustained by the conventionality of fiction originally written in English. Our novelists must conform or be accused of immorality. A novelist should be an artist, who can imagine and tell a story that will entertain and move his readers. If his art is true, the ethical situation will be evident without emphasis. Thackeray is more critical than psychological. With sardonic scorn he lashes snobbery, vulgarity in high places, and human folly. His incessant expressions of hate divert us from judging the characters by the author's sermon about them. But in his historical novel he leaves the narration to that grand gentleman, Henry Esmond. Most English readers do not agree with Mr. Taine in admiring the constructive art of Henry Esmond more than the satire of Vanity Fair. The difficult [Page 587]  task of historical fiction has never been better executed, and since Thackeray, only Romola and John Inglesart can be compared with Henry Esmond, which revivified the age of Queen Anne. Emerson felt that it was a "jugglery" for a novelist to combine characters and fortunes fancifully and sensationally, for he said there was in nature a "magic by which she fits a man to his fortunes by making them the fruits of his character." Realism is a protest against "jugglery" with the logic of character. Mr. Hardy in his great novel was guilty of "jugglery" when he makes a betrayed girl return to her betrayer. As Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to ridicule the bombastic tales of chivalry, so the realistic novel is a reaction from the hysteria and exaggeration of old-fashioned romanticism. The conscience of realistic art is sincerity in describing the facts of life. Ouida reminds us that the passion-flower is as real as the potato. The reality of the beautiful and the heroic is as much in the province of realism as is the reality of the horrible and the commonplace. Truth is the only restraint of a realist, and whether he writes of flowers or potatoes is a question of taste and, perhaps, of vision.

In our Dubuque library last year, out of a circulation of over twenty-five thousand books over nineteen thousand were juveniles and fiction. The report of the Chicago public library for 1892 states that over forty-two per cent of the circulation was English prose fiction, and over twenty per cent was juvenile literature. The Nineteenth Century Magazine for June, 1893, states that the per cent of fiction in the Battersea free libraries of England was four-fifths of the circulation. But of a circulation of five millions in the Boston public library, extending over five years, four-fifths of the books were juvenile and fiction.

Novels are the amusement and refreshment of our practical, overworked, overwrought age. Even children tire of monotony and seek the fairies. Novels are read by those who read no other books, and they are also the recreation of scholars and thinkers. Charles Darwin said they rested him. As long as age cherishes tender memories, and as long as love is the dream of youth, romance will be the most fascinating literature. A description of all the novels now being read would be a mirror of the multiform modern mind. Any human interest is a legitimate theme for the novelist, and it is as useless to dogmatize about the sphere of the novel as it is useless to dogmatize about the sphere of woman. There are novels for those who admire philosophic analysis, and for those who want exciting adventures on land and on sea, and also for those who ask that their love stories shall give information about history, science, reform, theology and politics. Harriet Martineau wrote Political Economy in the story form, and I am surprised that there was not a tariff novel during the last campaign.

In this age of the telegram and the paragraph, the novelist who wishes to be read must be brief as well as brilliant. Tourgeneff's method was to condense and to concentrate. Guy De Maupassant made the short story popular in France by his genius in eliminating the superfluous. His thirteen short tales, published as the Odd Number, are masterpieces of concise but artistically adequate treatment. Our American novelists have been most artistic as writers of short stories, whether we judge the result by effectiveness of story telling, or keenness of character sketching or carefulness in literary construction. In the long list of our successful writers of short stories there has been no discrimination against our sex in the awards of honor. Mrs. Jewett's art is so finished that Howells compares her with Maupassant, to her advantage. I think Miss Woolsen's finest story is her short novel, "For the Major," which has a touch of ideal grace. New England has her Mary Wilkin, and we in Iowa are proud of our Octave Thanet, who spoke at the literary congress of the American flavor of our short stories. International novels have the charm of cosmopolitan culture, but they are not contributions to a distinctive national literature, which must be written from an American point of view about the characteristics of our people, with their local atmosphere. The late Sidney Lanier delivered a series of lectures on the development of the English novel at Johns Hopkins University in 1881. He believed that the novel, [Page 588]  modern music and modern science are the simultaneous expressions of the growth of individuality in man. Richardson, the founder of the English novel, was born in 1689; the musician, Sebastian Bach, in 1685, and the scientist, Newton, in 1642. Thus being born in the same half century, he regards them as contemporary results of the Renaissance. He argues that man's desire to have individual knowledge of his physical environments produced the scientist, man's desire to utter his individual emotions toward the Infinite gave us the modern art and artist of music; man's desire to know the life of his fellow-man resulted in the novel. The drama was inadequate for portrayal of the minute complexities of modern personalities. The novelist succeeded the chorus, and the novel was evolved out of the classic and Elizabethan dramas. Before the printing press the multitudes were entertained and instructed by the theater. The reading public of today studies the story of human life. With the progress of the democratic idea of the rights of man has grown a sense of the kinship of men. In England the novel of individual traits, of manners and domestic life, with an avowed or implied moral motive, began with Richardson's Pamela in 1740, and in this field of fiction the English novel is unrivaled. In his history of European morals, Mr. Lecky charges man's intolerance to feeble imagination, which prevents him from understanding people of a different religion, pursuit, age, country, or temperament from his own. He claims that men tortured in the past and persecute today because they are too imaginative to be tolerant or just. What they can not realize they believe to be evil, and he says that this "power of realization forms the chief tie between our moral and intellectual natures." We think that only those who are intentionally cruel would continue to inflict pain if they knew the suffering they caused. He concludes that the "sensitiveness of a cultivated imagination" makes men humane and tolerant. Thus imaginative literature is a civilizer when it develops tolerance through sympathy.

The hesitancy of writers in other branches of literature to grant the importance of the novel is due to their failure to see that it is the popular educator of the imagination. George Eliot said: "If art does not enlarge man's sympathies, it does nothing morally, and the only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings is, that those who read them should be better able to imagine and feel the pains and joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring human creatures."

What novelists have done to help mankind is incalculable. Imprisonment for debt is now so hateful to us that Dickens' "Little Dorrit" seems a story of a forgotten past. Charles Reade struck heavy blows at abuses in prisons, insane asylums and trade unions in his "Never Too Late to Mend," "Hard Cash," and "Put Yourself in His Place." The People's Palace in London is the result of Walter Besant's "All Sorts and Conditions of Men," and the sorrows of the poor and the oppressed everywhere are told in our novels. It is impossible to measure how much of the preparatory work of emancipation was due to and done by "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

As human nature is the inspiration of literature, characters of a novel must be natural to be of any literary value, and of this anyone can judge who has had the ordinary experience of life. There is so much fiction written only for sensational excitement, and there are tales of silly sentimentality which can justly be called trash. Mature, busy people often feel that it is a waste of time to read of phenomenally gifted heroes and supernaturally beautiful heroines who keep their lovers in awful suspense until the wedding bells of the last chapter. Novels devoted to expert testimony in the art of kissing are unnecessary, and it will always be an experimental science.

John Morley defines literature as the books "where moral truth and human passion are touched with a certain largeness, sanity and attraction of form." A novel has not sanity unless it is true to the probabilities of conduct and represents the passions of love in its ratio to the other interests of life. The "attraction of form" can not be imprisoned in a definition any more than a woman's charms can be described [Page 589]  by an adjective. Its presence is the author's diploma of style, his degree of master in the service of beauty. The French are the successors of the Greeks in the arts, and their literary technique makes their fiction supreme in the "attraction of form" and in description of human passion, but it seldom has the largeness that considers responsibility as well as passion. A novel is written "with a certain largeness" when we are shown passion not only in its relation to individuals, but also to their social environment and to our universal humanity. This largeness was the greatness of George Elliot.

While foreign fiction may have an emotional and artistic fascination, we cherish our English novels for more reasons than those of entertainment. It is the history of the manners and customs and daily life of the English speaking people here and in the mother country. On its pages are recorded all our current thoughts and debates, and all our dreams and despairs. It tells of the happiness of love, and of the anguish of bereavement, of secret wrestling with temptation and of the weary questioning of the mysteries of life and death. It also reflects the moral force and philanthropy of our race, which is striving to make tomorrow nobler than today.

We are fortunate to live in this blessed modern age when electric science writes the minds of men, and when the spirit's subtle sympathy makes us one in heart. What Mrs. Browning says of the poet is true of the novelist:

            "Oh delight
And triumph of the poet, who would say
A man's mere 'yes' a woman's common 'no,'
A little human hope of that or this,
And say the word so that it burns you through.

With special revelation speaks the heart
Of all the men and women in the world."


[Page 586] 

Miss May Rogers is a native of Dubuque, Iowa. Her parents were Thomas Rogers, of New York, a distinguished lawyer, scholar and orator, and Anna Burton Rogers, of Delaware. She was educated in the public schools and by private instructors in Greek, Latin and French. She has traveled in Europe and extensively in the United States, having lectured in New York City, New Orleans, Washington, Cheyenne, San Francisco and Des Moines. Miss Rogers is one of the Board of Directors of the General Federation of Women's Clubs and is a Daughter of the American Revolution. She was president of the Dubuque Ladies' Literary Association for several years. Miss Rogers is a descendant of Dutch and Huguenot ancestors, who emigrated, that they might enjoy religious liberty. Her literary works are the Waverly Dictionary of the characters in Scott's novels, newspaper editorials, lectures and reviews. Her profession is journalism and lecturing. Her postoffice address is No. 547 Locust Street, Dubuque, Iowa.

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom