Not Fiction, but Great Truths

New York Times Saturday Review

Nov. 11, 1899, p. 764

To The New York Times Saturday Review:

Some of your correspondents who “take me up” in your next issue of last week for my letter decrying the excessive novel reading of the day are apparently laboring under the impression that I am opposed to the novel per se. Nothing is further from the truth. No one places the art of the novel writer higher than I do, and I hold that when one has a read “The Scarlet Letter,” “Vanity Fair,” “L’Assomoir,” “Richard Feveral,” and “Henry Esmond,” he has read five of the literary masterpieces of the age. To me they are not fiction, but great truths, to be absorbed into the woof and weft of one’s spiritual nature. I do not indict the novel, but the novel-reading public—those who in our libraries allow Goethe, Taine, Spencer, and Browning to grow cobwebbed with persistent disuse, and who crowd around the frothy fiction cases like flies around the sugarbowl. The majority of these latter read merely for amusement—seldom for instruction. They belong to that class of people who subscribe to The Daily Batteringram and Evening Shock, and who patronize the Girl from Paris and the latest disrobing humbug from oversea.

They live by and through their feelings. Their higher centres have become atrophied through a long period of poisonous desuetude. To them Darwin is the man who said, “We came from monkeys,” Henry George “That man who believes in killing the rich,” and Browning—“Why ain’t he the poet who had a fight with his father-in-law?” They know next to nothing of the tremendous philosophic, religious, economic movements of the age, which are intimately connected with the fortunes of you and me and all of us. As Prof. James says, these people are becoming a source of danger to the National character. Novels are sapping their strength; they welter in emotions and revel in the warm baths of sense—though they would indignantly disclaim any such thing. One correspondent tells me that there is enough of the tragic in life without reading Ibsen. Parodoxical as it may seem, I reply that there is so much tragedy in life because we don’t make our lives tragical enough. No ill was ever gotten over by ignoring it. Ibsen has grappled with the problems of all time. All hail to the grapplers and fighters! The kingdom of the spirit does not belong to moon-struck Le Gallienne or broadsword Kipling, but to the Ibsens and Zolas, Tolstoïs, Turgeneffs, and Hauptmanns.

We have had enough of the novel for awhile. The new century is portentous with ominous signs. Rose Nouchette Carey, Mrs. Alexander, Hall Caine, and Le Gallienne are doing nothing to interpret them. They hold a preponderating influence in the world of literature to-day—even among the cultivated; but, as Goethe says, “among those we call cultivated there is little earnestness to be found.” And let us hope that the first shall be last.

BENJAMIN De Casseres.
Philadelphia, Penn., Oct. 24, 1899