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Apparently the novel and the short story, as we have known them, are to be scrapped. Plot, which began to break down with the Russians, has crumbled into a maze of incident. You can no longer assume that the hero's encounter with a Gipsy in Chapter II is preparation for a tragedy in Chapter XXIX. In all probability the Gipsy will never be heard from again. She is irrelevant except as a figment in the author's memory, as an incident in autobiography. Setting, the old familiar background, put on the story like wall-paper on a livingroom, has suffered a sea change also. It comes now by flashes, like a moviefilm. What the ego remembers, that it describes, whether the drip of a faucet or the pimple on the face of a subway conductor. As for character, there is usually but one, the hero; for the others live only as he sees them, and fade out when he looks away. If he is highly sexed, like Erik Dorn, the other figures appear in terms of sex, just as certain rays of light will bring out only one color in the objects they shine against.
The novel, in fact, has melted and run down into a diary, with sometimes no unity except the personality whose sensations are recorded. Many of us have wished to see the conventional story forms broken to bits. It was getting so that the first sentence of a short story or the first chapter of a novel gave the whole show away. We welcomed the English stories of a decade ago that began to give the complexities of life instead of the conventions of a plot. But this complete liquidation rather appals us.
It is not surprising that, having given up plot, these writers escape from other restraints also. The more
energetic among them revel in expression, and it seems to make little difference whether it is the exquisite chiaroscuro of Chicago they are describing, or spots on a greasy apron. The less enthusiastic are content to be as full of gritty realistic facts as a fig of seeds; but with all of them everything from end to beginning, from bottom to top, must be said.
And just here lies the explanation of the whole matter. As one considers the excessive naturalism of the young realists and asks just why they find it necessary to be so excessively, so effusively realistic, the conviction is inborn that they are not realists at all as Hardy, Howells, even James were realists; they are romanticists of a deep, if not the deepest, dye, even the heartiest lover of sordid incident among them all.
The novels I have mentioned so far in this article have all together not enough plot to set up one lively Victorian novel. Benét, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald-the flood-gates of each mind have been opened, and all that the years had dammed up bursts forth in a deluge of waters, carrying flotsam and jetsam and good things and mud.
I am aware, of course, that "romantic" is a dangerous word, more overworked than any other in the vocabulary of criticism, and very difficult to define. But in contrast with its opposites it can be made to mean something definite. Now, the romanticism of the juniors is not the opposite of realism; it sometimes embraces realism too lovingly for the reader's comfort. But it is the opposite of classicism. It is emotional expansiveness as contrasted with the classic doctrine of measure and re
straint. By this, the older meaning of romanticism, we may put a tag upon the new men that will help to identify them. Their desire is to free their souls from the restraints of circumstance, to break through rule and convention, to let their hearts expand.
But they do not fly into Byronic melancholy or Wordsworthian enthusiasm for the mysterious abstract; they are far more likely to fly away from them. Byron and Wordsworth do not interest them, and Tennyson they hate. Romantic in mood, they are realistic, never classical, in their contact with experience. In poetry they prefer free verse, in prose they eschew grand phrases and sonorous words. It has been the hard realism of an unfriendly world that has scraped them to the raw, and they retaliate by vividly describing all the unpleasant things they remember. Taught by the social philosophers and war's disillusions that Denmark is decaying, they do not escape to Cathay or Bohemia, but stay at home and passionately narrate what Denmark has done to them. Romantic Zolas, they have stolen the weapons of realism to fight the battle of their ego. And the fact that a few, like Ben Hecht, Dos Passos, and Stephen Benét, pause in their naturalism to soar into idyllic description or the rapture of beauty merely proves my point, that they are fundamentally romantics seeking escape, and that autobiographical realism is merely romanticism à la mode.
Let us criticize it as such, remembering that we may be reading the first characteristic work of a new literary era. Let us give over being shocked. Those who were shocked by Byron, the apostle of expansive
ness, merely encouraged him to be more shocking. Nor is it any use to sit upon the hydrant of this new expansiveness. If a youth desires to tell the world what has happened to him, he must be allowed to do so, provided he has skill and power enough to make us listen. And these juniors have power even when skill has not yet been granted them. What is needed is a hose to stop the waste of literary energy, to conserve and direct it. Call for a hose, then, as much as you please, but do not try to stop the waters with your Moses's rod of conservative indignation.
It is no crime to be a romantic,—it is a virtue, if that is the impulse of the age,-but it is a shame to be a wasteful romantic. Waste has always been the romantic vice-waste of emotion, waste of words, the waste that comes from easy profusion of sentiment and the formlessness that permits it. Think of "The Excursion," of Southey, and the early poems of Shelley, of Scott at his wordiest. And these writers also are wasteful, in proportion to their strength.
They waste especially their imagination. Books like "The Three Soldiers" spill over in all directionsspill into poetry, philosophy, into endless conversation, and into everything describable. Books like "The Beginning of Wisdom" are still more wasteful. Here is the poignant biography of a boy who loves his environment even when it slays him, plus a collection of prose idylls, plus a group of poems, plus a good piece of special reporting, plus an assortment of brilliant letters; and imbedded in the mass, like a thread of gold in a
tangle of yarn, as fresh and exquisite a love-story as we have had in recent English. Of course I do not mean that all these elements cannot be woven into, made relevant to, a theme, a story. Stendhal, himself a romantic, as these men are romantics, could do it. But our romantics do not so weave them; they fling them out as contributions to life's evidence, they fail to relate them to a single interpretation of living, and half of the best incidents are waste, and clog the slow-rolling wheels of the story.
They waste their energy also. So keenly do they love their own conception of true living that their imaginations dwell with a kind of horrid fascination upon the ugly things that thwart them. Hence in a novel like "Main Street," the interest slackens as one begins to feel that the very vividness of the story comes from a vision strained and aslant, unable to tear eyes from the things that have cramped life instead of expanding it. The things that these writers love in life often they never reach until the last chapter, and about them they have little to say, being exhausted by earlier virulence.
Waste, of course, is a symptom of youth and vitality as well as of unbridled romanticism, but that is no reason for praising a book because it is disorderly. We do not praise young, vigorous states for being disorderly. Life may not be orderly, but literature must be. That is a platitude which it seems necessary to repeat.
the merits of the young romanticists. My guess is that some of them will go far. But the diagnosis at present seems to show an inflammation of the ego. The new generation is discovering its soul by the pain of its bruises, as a baby is made aware of its body by pin-pricks and chafes. It is explaining its dissatisfactions with more violence than art.
Therefore at present the satirists and the educators hold the best cards, and most of them are elderly. No one of les jeunes writes with the skill, with the art, of Mrs. Wharton, Miss Sinclair, Tarkington, Galsworthy, or Wells. Wells. It should not long be so in a
creative generation. In sheer emotion, in vivid protest that is not merely didactic, the advantage is all with the youngsters. But they waste it. They have learned to criticize their elders, but not themselves. They have boycotted the books of writers who were young just before themselves, but they have not learned to put a curb on their own expansiveness. We readers suffer. We do not appreciate their talents as we might, because we lose our bearings in hectic words or undigested incident. We lose by the slow realization of their art.
Youth is a disease that cures itself, though sometimes too late. The criticism I have made, in so far as it refers to youthful impetuosity, is merely the sort of thing that has to be said to every generation, and very loudly to the romantic ones. But if these autobiographians are, as I believe, expansive romanticists, that is of deeper significance, and my hope is that the definition may prove useful to them as well as to readers who with an amazed affection persist in following them wherever they lead.
Behind the Rose O'Neill best known to the American public only through her kewpies is the serious artist the latest phase of whose work is herewith reproduced for the first time. Miss O'Neill has exhibited in Paris, where the critics were quick to appreciate the tremendous poetic imagination which lies back of a power of expression so virile and forceful as to be comparable to Rodin, the more because of a technic which has the plastic quality of sculpture. Her first American exhibit is soon to be held in New York. Arsène Alexandre, the well known French critic, has written of her drawings:
"One will not be surprised, in coming upon the drawings by Rose O'Neill, to learn that this strange and profound artist is also a poet. Her melodious and haunting verses, written in the tongue of Edgar Allan Poe, are both the product and stimulus of a sensitive soul. But for us it is our opportunity at this moment to enjoy only the visions traced by her pencil, and these are enough to bring us pleasure-pleasure a little strong and disquieting, to be sure, but very rare in this hour-in significant form adequate to express significant thought. Rose O'Neill has achieved the alliance of pagan force with an intellectual conception that the pagan world could not have produced. Her drawings are at once mysterious and revealing, exalted and terrifying. If she draws her inspiration in a certain measure from the ancient Greek, an influence modified by intense modern culture, it is from Pan rather than from Apollo that she receives it."