THE PROBLEM NOVEL AND THE DIVERSION FROM NATURALISM*
No sooner was naturalism fairly under way than it was well-nigh submerged under a wave of social speculation and inquiry. The years 1903-1917 were a distinctive period-a time of extraordinary fer-ment, when America was seeking to readjust her ideals and insti-tutions to a revolutionary economic order that had come upon her. The popular phase was revealed in the muckracking movement, a movement which instructed the American middle class in certain elements of economics-particularly the close connection between economics and politics. But underneath, an intellectual revolution was in progress, setting steadily towards a new social philosophy. The old America had been intensely conservative, naively pro-vincial and self-satisfied, compassed by a complacence founded on optimism-the gospel of the business man. The new America was eager and hopeful, impatient to square institutions to the new conditions. The total movement was profoundly democratic-a new Jacksonianism rising in protest against a menacing plutocracy.
1. The Movement of Criticism. The work of a vigorous social idealism. Passed through three broad phases:
a. Political. The movement of Progressivism, 1903-1912. An attempt to democratize the machinery of government to the end that the will of the majority shall prevail. Its impulse and much of its program came from Populism; and it resulted in a clarification of the issue between republicanism and democracy. An attack on the representative system and the checks and balances of the Fathers. It gave rise to a critical examination of the spirit and purpose of the Constitution.'
b. Economic. A growing conviction that talk of political democ-racy is futile except in so far as it leads to economic democracy. That power is economic in origin and that those who control the economics will control the government. The gospel of economic determinism. Certain conclusions emerged:
1. That capitalism is no longer competitive but monopolistic.
2. That laissez-faireism no longer suffices.
3. That centralization has submerged the individual citizen; that he is impotent before the leviathan corporation; and that henceforth the struggle is to be between organized groups for the control of the state.2
c. Literary. An examination and rejection of traditional literary and cultural ideas. An attack upon:
1. Puritan reticence and smug respectability.
2. Middle-class optimism and sentimentality. Led by H. L. Mencken, Ludwig Lewisohn, and the younger in-tellectuals. The bias aristocratic.
2. The Incoming of Old-World Thought. The breaking-down of the older provincialism and the reception of new ideas.
a. The philosophy of collectivism. Derived chiefly from Ger-many and England; largely Marxian and Fabian. The conviction that the state must absorb the trust. Later the appearance of syndicalism and guild socialism, based on a distrust of the bureau-cratic, omnicompetent state. Anarchism has remained alien in spirit.3
b. The new aristocracy. A reversion from an easy-going Jack-sonianism based on the doctrine of equalitarianism. A direct denial of that doctrine and the theory of leadership. In business the doctrine of the expert and the rule of efficiency. In philosophy the doctrine of the intellectual aristocrat-a suggestion of Nietzsche and the will to power. Thus Mencken joins hands with judge Gary in upholding the ethics of the strong. The total result an effective denial of our traditional ideal of democracy.
c. The problem novel. All this ferment entered into literature, tyrannizing in its insistence. Old forms became old-fashioned over-night. The novel was so useful that it was drafted by the new crusading enthusiasm. Romance and naturalism alike were swept away; the political novel and the economic novel took their place to arouse public opinion to action. It was the glorification of prop-aganda. Except for James Branch Cabell and Edith Wharton not a writer escaped. There is something pathetic in the way the harmless bleating romantics were dragged at the chariot wheels of social problems. Booth Tarkington, Mary Johnston, Winston Churchill, William Allen White, were sacrificed equally with poten-tial naturalists like Robert Herrick, Upton Sinclair, and Ernest Poole. Their careers may be seen from Churchill, Poole, and Her-rick.
1. Winston Churchill. [The most representative of the spirit of Progressivism.] A conscientious middle-class romantic. Churchill was a faithful reflector of middle-class movements. His work falls into three phases:[a. Romantic historical tales. Richard Carvel (1899) the type of Cavalier romance. A blend of Thackeray's Henry Esmond and The Virginians, John Paul Jones added for extra historical flavor. A double background: (I) the old South of the Revolu-tion with a Loyalist villain and a patriot hero; (z) the London of Brooks Club and a gaming aristocracy, with Charles Fox. The heroine another edition of Beatrix Esmond the hero another Henry Esmond. The Crisis (1910) a romance of the borderland of the Civil War: a fire-eating Southern heroine and a sober Yankee-Puritan hero. The Crossing (1904) a romance of the set-tlement of the Inland Empire. A theme not yet adequately dealt with in American fiction. The story breaks in two: the first half Churchill's best work in romance; the last half his worst. 4
b. Political novels. Coincided with the rise of the Progressive movement. Coniston (1906) a study of the legislative boss in New Hampshire. A reflection of his experience in the state legislature. How the "interests," and in particular the railroads, manage to put their bills through. Jethro Bass sells political control to the highest bidder.
Mr. Crewe's Career (1908): the same theme a generation later. Consolidation of the railroads has brought about absentee dicta-torship of state politics. The boss has removed to New York and manages the legislature through his local lawyer. The philosophy of big-business prosperity rests on property rights, held in trustee-ship by the corporations that fill the empty dinner pails, make and unmake business confidence. The revolt of the younger generation -Austen Vane and Victoria Flint, in whom stirs a new social conscience.
c. Economic novels. Began with The Inside of the Cup (1913), a venture in higher criticism and social interpretation. So compare Robert Elsmere (1888). An attack on old dogmas and an attempt to discover the democratic springs of Christianity. The clash between the reborn Son of God and an unregenerate society, and the need to establish the Kingdom of God in this world. The church today controlled by business subscriptions. The solution to be sought in a free pulpit, supported by the common people, preaching a new social Christianity.
A Far Country (1915), a study in the emptiness of the profit motive. A background of banking-J. P. Morgan and Company. The dissatisfaction of the prodigal son who has wasted his intel-lectual and moral patrimony-the lawyer who sells his brain to rise and loses the things that make life worth while. His conversion brings the call to self-education.
The Dwelling Place of Light (1917), a study of the blighting effect of industrialism on the native Yankee stock that has failed to rise into the exploiting class. The restlessness of modern life due to the failure of normal instincts to find satisfaction in daily existence an emptiness due to loss of beauty, freedom, creative craftsman-ship. The search for compensation brings death and not life. A background of the Lawrence strike and syndicalism.
2. Robert Herrick. The most promising of the potential natural-ists. An intellectual fascinated by the crude materialism of Chicago in the late nineties. Suffered from the inhibitions of a Puritan idealism; the problems of this raw world cried aloud for solution- the woman question, the labor question, the problem of the pro-fessions-and warped him away from naturalism, making him an easy victim of the new social enthusiasm. The key to his thought- economic determinism.
The Memoirs of an American Citizen (1905). His best work and the nearest approach to naturalism. A detailed study of the American business man-the captain of industry who rises in a competitive society by his own will. The competitive order, he perceives, requires an ethics different from the Christian ideal. The survival of the fittest means the survival of the strongest, the most cunning and unscrupulous. The realist who deals with facts discovers that he lives in a world of pigs-little pigs of the village, larger hogs of the city. To get in the trough a man must have fingers and toes and use them. The world belongs to the strong.
That which gives dignity is bigness: the larger the hog, the more imposing. Little business is dirty and petty, but big business may become poetic. To grind a mess of sausages is messy, but to provide sausages for every breakfast table in America is grandiose. To realize his ambition Van Harrington plays fast and loose with conventional ethics, but unlike Frank Cowperwood he seeks a new ethics. As a superman his work will be justified by its creativeness, by its service to humanity.
A Life for a Life (XXXX). In certain other of his work Herrick betrays naturalistic tendencies, notably in The Web of Life (1900), where he considers the problem of social complexity and how it binds the life of men and women and determines their fate. But in A Life for a Life he surrenders wholly to the problem. His theme is how the predatory egoism of the profit-struggle may be cured, and he presents alternative solutions: syndicalism and Chris-tianity. The cure lies in individual self-conquest-breaking through the web of "things as they are" and choosing life instead of power.
Herrick was on the threshold of naturalism. He felt the complex-ity of life and the determining force of that complexity; but he failed to achieve the attitude of objectivity.
3. Ernest Poole. The Harbor (1915). The culmination of the novel of naturalistic propaganda and the most widely read. A dramatic record of a changing industrial order, traced through three stages: (1) The old world of small competitive business that is dead; (2) The present world of corporation control; (3) The world of syndicalistic control that struggles to be born.
Against this changing world stands the young idealist troubled in his loyalties, who sets up different gods to worship: (1) The idol of art-aloofness from the mass struggle; (2) The idol of efficiency by the supermen who rule in trusteeship; (3) The idol of mass solidarity and workers' control-the conclusion that is on the dawn of realization: "The world for all the workers." Conclusion. The ferment of social thought, shot through with Marxianism, famil-iarized the American novelists with one doctrine important for the naturalist-the doctrine of economic determinism. In none of them did it pass over into a larger conception of philosophical determin-ism, and this sets the limitation to their naturalism. The common zeal for reform or revolution, moreover, kept them from objec-tivity. In none is there the calm detachment and the amoral presentation of material without which naturalism sinks into prop-aganda. Their position presupposes a large confidence in individ-ual initiative -a confidence in the power of men to alter the world they live in. It is admirable, but it is not the way of the naturalists, who do not seek to change what they regard as an essentially unresponsive world that changes only after its own way.
*R* Lecture notes.--Publisher.
1See J. Allen Smith, The Spirit of American Government; W. A. White, The Old Order Changeth.
2Representative books are: C. A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) and The Economic Basis of Politics (1922); Walter Lippman, Public Opinion (1922).
3See Bertrand Russell, Proposed Roads to Freedom (1919); Richard Roberts, The Unfnished Programme of Democracy (1920).
4From the syllabus.--Publisher.