Cable, Harris and Crawford: as American Novelist

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      In 1879, 1880, and 1882 three men, the first of whom is still producing, set out on long careers of popularity. They were George W. Cable (1844-1925 ), Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908), and F. Marion Crawford (1854–1909). Mr. Cable’s contribution has been the interpretation of the elusive and fascinating character of the New Orleans creole. Cable was bred in the river port when the old part of the city was less like the decaying heart of a mushroom than it is to-day. He grew up in an understanding of the courtly, high-spirited gentry of this exotic people, not studying either the people or their traditions for the sake of writing them up. He felt the beauty, but no less the futility, of their life. He was in no hurry to write for publication, but when he did so his fame was soon made. His subsequent departure from the South and his settling in New England seemed to many critics to be an abandonment of the richest field that life had to offer him. It was said for years, until it became one of the literary commonplaces, that Mr. Cable would never again rise to the level of “Old Creole Days” (1879), “The Grandissimes” (1880), or “Madame Delphine” (1881). The fourteen volumes of the next third of a century seemed to fulfill this dreary prophecy. Yet all the time the South was the home of his imagination, and with 1918 he gave the lie to all his Jeremiahs. The “Lovers of Louisiana” has quite as fine a touch as the works of nearly forty years ago. Mr. Cable sees the old charm in this life of an echoing past and the same fatuousness. At this distance into the twentieth century he leads his old characters and their children by new paths into the future, but he presents the graces of their obsolescent life in the familiar narrative style of his early successes—a style as fleeting yet as distinctive as the aroma of old lace.

George W. Cable (1844-1925 ), Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908), and F. Marion Crawford (1854–1909)
American Novelist

      Joel Chandler Harris, like George W. Cable, did his work in presenting the life of a vanishing race—the antebellum negro. He finished off his formal education, which ended when he was twelve, with the schooling of the printing shop, and passed from this into journalistic work with a succession of papers, of which the Atlanta Constitution is best known. Boy life on the plantation gave him his material in the folklore of the negro, and a chance bit of substituting gave him his very casual start as the creator of “Uncle Remus.” Northern readers were quick to recognize that Harris had given a habitation and a name to the narrative stuff that folklorists had already begun to collect and collate. The material goes back to the farthest sources of human tradition, but “Uncle Remus” was a new story-teller with a gift amounting to little short of genius. So his stories have the double charm of recording the lore of the negro and of revealing his humor, his transparent deceitfulness, his love of parade, his superstition, his basic religious feeling, and his pathos. Harris seemed to draw his material from a bottomless spring. Starting with “Uncle Remus: his Songs and Sayings” in 1881, Harris produced six other volumes in the next ten years and brought the total to fourteen in folk stories alone before his death in 1908. As the aptest of criticisms on his own work, one of his admirers has well quoted Harris’s comment on a book of Mark Twain: “It is history, it is romance, it is life. Here we behold a human character stripped of all tiresome details; we see people growing and living; we laugh at their humor, share their griefs, and, in the midst of it all, behold, we are taught the lesson of honesty, justice and mercy.”

      The fluent romance of Marion Crawford is of a different and a lower order. He was a sort of professional cosmopolitan—American by birth, educated largely abroad, widely traveled, and resident for most of his maturity on the Bay of Naples. He could turn off romances of Persia, of Constantinople, of Arabia, of medieval Venice, of Rome, and of England with about equal success. He had no great artistic purpose, admitting complacently that he was not great enough to be a poet or clever enough to be a successful playwright. He had no ethical purpose. He had not even a high ideal of craftsmanship, putting out eight volumes in 1903 and 1904 alone. He deserves mention as a prolific and self-respecting entertainer who converted his knowledge of the world into a salable commodity and established a large market for his superficial romances.

      With the turn of the century—almost two decades after the debuts of Cable, Harris, and Crawford—a new interest began to spread from the collegians to the reading public as a whole, the same influences which were producing as leaders in the scholastic field Von Holst, Channing, McMaster, Hart, Jameson, and McLaughlin—masters of American history—extending to the people at large. In 1897 appeared Weir Mitchell’s “Hugh Wynne.” In the spring of 1898 came the war with Spain. In 1899 Ford’s “Janice Meredith” and Churchill’s “Richard Carvel” were published; in 1900, Mary Johnston’s “To Have and to Hold”; and in 1901 Churchill’s “The Crisis”—four novels which by the end of the latter year had reached a combined sale of 1,200,000 copies. For a little while the vogue of the historical romance passed all recent precedent. The natural zest for stories of olden days was reënforced by the revival of national feeling, and the popular authors of the moment reaped a golden harvest from the public, whom they at once charmed and instructed.

      In the meanwhile, however, the describers and critics of contemporary American life were by no means on the wane. In the shifting currents of fiction various types of realism have come to the surface and are conspicuous in the tide. They all fall under the definition formulated by Mr. Perry: the sort of fiction that “does not shrink from the commonplace or from the unpleasant in its effort to depict things as they are and life as it is”; but within this definition they may be separated into two main classes. The first is the type that begins and ends with portrayal of human life, deals with the individual, and aims only to please. The second is written with the intent of pronouncing a criticism on the ways of men as they live together, presents its characters against a social and institutional background, and aims to influence the opinions of its readers. The difference between the two is, of course, the difference between the earlier and the later novels of Mr. Howells. In his later studies Mr. Howells is always dealing unaggressively but searchingly with the problem of economic justice, but this is only one of three broad fields. All modern problem and purpose novels are devoted, simply or complexly, to the market—property; the altar—religion; and the hearthstone—domestic life. This classification, which is useful only as long as it is employed cautiously for a general guide, leads to a cross-survey of recent fiction by kinds rather than by individual authors.

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