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Homage to Robert Herrick

A few weeks ago, in his daily department in the New York Times, John Chamberlain remarked that the decade “yawned abysmally” between “Sister Carrie” and “Ethan Frome,” the first decade of the century, was one of the dreariest in American literature; and he went on to raise the question whether, after one has mentioned “The House of Mirth” and “The Jungle,” there is a scrap of imaginative writing in that decade that anyone would feel like rereading now. John Chamberlain knows those years, of course, as few of the younger writers know them, and he is not given to highly colored generalizations. It means something that a journalist usually so careful should have nothing to say of three books, “The Common Lot,” “The Memoirs of an American Citizen” and “Together,” which appeared between 1904 and 1908, which are three of the most impressive novels in our literature, and which, it seems highly probable, will be read with deep re-vhen “The House of Mirth” is an elderly reader’s memory and “The Jungle” a valued but resrvedly estimated document.

If the literary life in America were not mainly a scramble, desperate on the one hand and vulgar on the other; if it had something of the continuity, the integrity and the adulthood that, in spite of corruption and inanition, it still tends to have in Europe, it would not be necessary to add that these novels are the work of a writer named Robert Herrick. Nor would it at this date be necessary, as it may be, to say that Mr. Herrick’s has been the most humane, the most capacious and the most truly critical mind at work in American fiction since Howells and Norris; that his novels, if we have the wisdom to let them, constitute for us a body of writing no less educative, and in most ways far finer and firmer in quality, than the novels of Wells and Galsworthy for English readers; that they are, at the very least, an indispensable bridge between “A Traveler from Altruria” and “To Make My Bread.”

It was in a review of “The Smart Set Anthology,” as it happens, that Mr. Chamberlain made the observation I have quoted, and the circumstance is strikingly ironic. It is very well to say that “the air rushed long and pleasantly into the American literary vacuum” when Mencken and Nathan took over the editorship of The Smart Set, but the completeness of that vacuum is really debatable, and certainly the freshness and the salubrity of all the air that rushed in are hardly so evident today as this assumes. The legend of the wonders worked by the Wilsonian literary generation is wearing thinner and thinner; it is harder and harder to swallow some of the pious frauds that, along with many services, it perpetrated. At any rate, while the Lessings of that decade were smacking their lips over the adulterated Cabellian bonbons, advertising to responsive readers the brilliant red makeup of Hergiesheimer’s art and seeing the lineaments of a Flaubert in the bright but shallow satirical talent of Sinclair Lewis, they were allowing a truly distinguished literary career to evolve behind their backs; and a younger generation has them to thank for the results that inevitably follow when literary and human values are badly shuffled. Fortunately, a younger generation no longer takes its values from these sources, or even from the intellectual cellars of the twenties, and perhaps several young writers appreciated the symbolism of the incident when, writing some months ago in The New Republic, Herrick held out a cordial hand to his juniors by so many years, the proletarian novelists.

If, as seems possible, his name meant less to some of them than it ought to have meant, this was partly because many of their elders had been essentially irresponsible, and partly because they themselves may not unnaturally have got the impression at second hand that Herrick is a rather typical reformist writer of the muckraking generation. This he certainly is not. His earlier books betray their origins in the age of the Big Stick, to be sure, but they have none of the real earmarks of novelistic trust-busting; none of the ingenuous idealism or the misdirected indignation, the absorption in incidentals or the thinness in ideas, that together with some unmistakable merits come to one’s mind when one thinks of “A Certain Rich Man,” “The Thirteenth District” and all that genus.

Robert Herrick is certainly not a proletarian novelist or a Marxist writer in any strict sense whatever; but he has never been a literary “progressive”; he has never been in the camp of the political or ethical liberals. On the contrary, his studious and inclusive chronicle of American society in his time has been solidified, tempered and edged by an inherently radical criticism of its ascendant morality; a criticism in whose dry light liberalism appears in very much its true proportions. The unity of Herrick’s fiction, in short, is his severe and cumulative remonstrance against our inherited individualism: the drift of all his work is set by his conviction, illustrated with almost Balzacian fullness, that “egotism is the pestilence of our day.” What Hawthorne instinctively and rather indolently felt in his time, what Howells and Bellamy saw more clearly but still imperfectly in theirs, Herrick has felt and seen sharply, consistently and from many angles in the twentieth century. He has thus done as much as any man to raise to the upper and open levels a strain that has run obscurely and as it were unconsciously through American literature for several generations.

His work, in other words, is in the cultural and historical center. He derives directly from his immediate predecessors, and carries the tale to a point at which young writers are taking it up without break or strain. Herrick’s instalment of the tale has been the history of the American people, chiefly those of the middle and prosperous classes, in the period roughly from the hard times of the seventies to the present crisis, though his special assignment has been the years between the panic of 1893 and the Armistice; and he has made his report dryly, unsparingly and about as revealingly as possible. It is a report in which there have been no romantic quests, no fine old furniture, no drums and tramplings, and comparatively little interesting degeneracy, elegant ennui or inner monologism; a report mainly made up of such matters as the packing industry, suburban real estate, trust funds, hotel and apartment-house building, the exploitation of power sites, university “expansion,” medical and legal chicanery and unsuccessful marriages.

On the whole, it has been an unlovely, unexhilarating and increasingly somber report. It has been shadowed from beginning to end by what Herrick calls “the individualistic nightmare.” It has been the picture of a society driven and disunified by the lust for power, which it calls “honorable ambition” by greedy acquisitiveness, which it calls “enterprise and “initiative”; by the cult of moneyed success, which it calls “useful achievement”; and, especially among its women and its artists, by various more or less refined forms of egotism, which it calls “self expression,” “self-development,” “leading one’s own life” and the like. There have been lights and shades in the picture naturally, for it has been a true if of course limited one; but the main outlines have not been charming.

They have composed, however, an intelligible whole, and that is perhaps Herrick’s truest distinction. Unlike even the bravest and most serious of his contemporaries, he has not wabbled or backed water in his estimate of the leading moral forces in American life. His work has perhaps not had the magnetically youthful vehemence of Norris’s or Jack London’s; the ungainly but coercive tenderness with which Carrie Meeber and Clyde Griffiths are made real, is no part of his effect; and he would probably never have caught the general imagination with a comic portrait so vivacious as George F. Babbitt’s. But Herrick has seen steadily what those Other writers saw early or late or only by fits and starts. To Frank Norris, there was something disarmingly poetic even in obsessive greed; Jack London was a revolutionary socialist, a superpatriot, a hater of injustice and a worshiper of the Nordic hero; Dreiser could not repress his admiration for his cheaply successful and coarse-natured Cowperwood; and, even in the portrait of Babbitt, Lewis betrayed his sympathy and spiritual kinship, on one side, with the American business man.

Robert Herrick has been emotionally less versatile, if you will, than these writers, but his fiction has been the gainer in integrity. He has had but one attitude toward material aggression on the part of “strong” individuals, and that is that it is inherently mean, brutal, degrading, wasteful of everything good and in the long run utterly destructive. Its only result when it is made a social principle, he argues, is the squalor that, palliate it as one may, defaces American life so largely under the profit system. There is a real variety in his portraits of business men, and none of them is represented as monster: they range from the generous if pragmatic John Lane of “Together” to the pompous Aleck Gerson of “Waste,” from the unpretentious but insensitive Van Harrington of “The Memoirs” to the bestially greedy and dishonest contractor, Graves, of “The Common Lot”; but not one of them is invested with a moment’s glamor; not one of them is seen as the Titan he would like to consider himself; not one of them is endowed with disinterestedness or imagination or real self-forgetfulness; they are a dull and covetous lot, and one’s memory retches at with the burden of them.

I hasten to say that they are not darkly and sensationally isolated as the Grandets or the Jonas Chuzzlewits of Herrick’s comedie. When he says that egotism is the pestilence of our day, he means it more comprehensively than this; he means it of most modern men and women, especially in the unexploited classes. He is not the kind of writer who encourages complacency in the heart of the middle-class woman or the professional man or the intellectual. On the contrary, he holds the typical American woman of the well-to-do classes as largely responsible in her way for the feverish, the squalid materialism of our culture; according to him, her wwn vanities and sensualities have contributed to build it up; and his attitude toward the conceit of emancipation, of individual expansion, on the part of such women as Isabelle Lane in “Together” and Cynthia Walton in “Waste” is one of mingled compassion and contempt. For the professional, the technician, the teacher, the physician, as such, Herrick seems to have instinctive respect; but from his study of the medical profession in “The Web of Life” to his study of the American university in “Chimes,” he has repeatedly shown how often such men, too, in a world governed by money standards, succumb to the general mania or compromise somehow with it, and prostitute their technique or their learning to the passion for worldly success. As for writers and artists in such a world, he may be open to the charge of exaggerating the prevalence among them of vanity, parasitism and flaccidity; but I doubt it.

At any rate, it would be clumsy to speak of Robert Herrick’s work and leave the impression that, if he is a critical and somber writer, he is a cynical or simply negative one. If he had taken an insistently low and fatalistic view of human beings, if he had seen nothing but squalor in their destiny, his novels would have been far more fashionable in the last two decades than they have been. But unlike so many of his European and American contemporaries, he has not been a romantic ironist, a corrupt skeptic or an idolater of Not-being. The fond of his work has been deeply humane and positive, and the sooty colors that prevail in his compositions have never monopolized them. He has heartily disliked and even detested the qualities in human beings that he has seen most conspicuous and triumphant about him; he has shown how the worship of property debases everyone who subscribes to it; but he has always lingered on the exceptions. What he has admired in human beings has not been success or brilliance, but certain unindividualistic virtues: unaffected humility, the love of a task for its own sake, homely incorruptibility, freedom from self-absorption, and the sense of solidarity with a family, a profession or a class; and these he seems to have found as a rule among those whom, without the least touch of condescension, he calls “little people”—hard-working farmers like Thornton’s aunt and uncle in “Waste,” small-town blacksmiths like Sol Short in “Together,” or such workers as the bookbinder Hussey in “The Common Lot” and the stone-mason Tom Clark in “Clark’s Field.” These are the unsuccessful people you hear about, he seems to say; well, look here upon this picture, and on this!

It is true, as I say, that Herrick is no Marxian; and if his fiction fails to emerge quite free from among the circumstances of his generation, it is mainly because his own positive philosophy is a kind of idealistic anarchism—probably native and even Yankee in its origins—which, after his exposure of decadent individualism, seems both paradoxical and anti-climactic. Certainly it is no longer possible to take just the view Herrick takes of the relations between the individual and society, and to this extent his picture of the times seems now an unhappily biased one. But in onevital respect his sense of human affairs is closer to the feeling of the youngest writers than is that of the intervening generation; I mean, in his strong conviction that men can change the world they live in, and that plasticity is the secret of their own nature. The phrase, “human nature being what it is,” he quotes and repeats with derision in his latest book, “Sometime,” as an expression of the vulgarest superstition to which the civilization of our age is a victim. No one of his characters seems to speak more directly for Herrick himself than the physician Renault in “Together”; it is Renault who says: “Life is plastic—human beings are plastic—that is one important thing to remember!” and a sense of the infinite undeveloped possibilities in that human nature which the vulgarians say is unchangeable is the real grain, for those who care to see it, of his superficially grayish fiction. He harks back, in this respect, to Emerson and Whitman; but he looks forward, too, to Dos Passos and Grace Lumpkin; and thus does much to redeem that first decade from the charge of barrenness brought against it.