Two New Novelists
The appearance of two new writers whose work has the quality which Miss Mary Johnston put into "Prisoners of Hope" and "To Have and to Hold," and Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt into "The Conjure Woman" and "The Wife of His Youth," all with the imprint of Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., is a matter of deep interest to all those who care for the expression of American life in art. It is encouraging to be able to record in a single year the appearance of two novelists of such genuine insight and artistic skill, and to note that the two kinds of society which they describe are separated by two hundred years in time, and by an almost incalculable distance in social development. Those who once contended that American life lacks the elements of romance have found abundant reason in recent years for revising that hasty opinion; for, since our later historians have begun to make plain to us the wide range and the great depth of romantic material in the background of life on this continent, writers of fiction have found an increasing attraction in the Colonial and Revolutionary periods, and have discovered great tracts of early history full of every kind of material which goes to the making of the romance and the semi-historical novel; while, on the other hand, a closer study of the manifold aspects of social and industrial life has brought into clear view the fact that wherever men live the novelist finds his material, and that, in a life so various as our own, that material is well-nigh inexhaustible.
Miss Johnston made a distinct impression last year in her earlier story, "Prisoners of Hope," a study of early colonial life in Virginia, evidently based on first-hand knowledge of the period, and on a loving sympathy with the country, the people, and the time. That impression is deepened by her latest work, "To Have and to Hold," which has attracted very wide attention as it has appeared from month to month in the columns of the "Atlantic," and which now makes its appeal to the American reading public in a substantial volume. The ease and confidence with which Miss Johnston deals with her themes indicates that she has a large mass of material within reach, and that she could probably write a dozen stories descriptive of life in the same epoch--an epoch full of vicissitude, of peril, and of the formative struggles of a new society in a new world, and not lacking in striking, heroic, and beautiful characters. "To Have and to Hold" is primarily a novel of adventure. In fact, it presents too much adventure; there are too many hair-breadth escapes; the pages are overcrowded with incident. Artistically this is the defect of the story; but it is also the promise of the writer, because it betrays the fullness of her imagination and the largeness of her resources. "To Have and to Hold" is also a study of manners; a very careful picture of the life of the old Commonwealth in its early and critical stages, when men had begun to strike roots into the soil, but before their society had taken on its final forms. In such social condition there was wide range for the freest development of individuality, and this story, in the pages of which appear the courtier from the Court of James I., the colonial Governor, and the Indian who is still hovering on the outskirts of civilization and sometimes making forays within its lines, is as rich in variety of character as it is in range of incident. Miss Johnston has not been content with a surface familiarity with her people or with the times in which she places them. She has entered sympathetically and by the imagination into the spirit of those times, and so has possessed herself of a kind of material which does not always yield readily to the uses of the imagination. She might easily have made a story which would have been mechanically correct but imaginatively dead; she has, on the contrary, suffused her novel with vitality. From such a writer there is much to anticipate.
Mr. Chesnutt finds his field in the life of the negro, and writes as one who knows that life at first hand, and who is able to comprehend and interpret it both on the side of humor and of tragedy, because he has to a certain extent shared its fortune. In "The Conjure Woman" he presented a series of studies in the old-time superstitions of the [end page 440] plantation negro; the darkest side of the life of slavery; reminiscences of barbaric religions brought from beyond the sea. Some of these stories are humorous; none of them lacks those quiet touches of humor which are so characteristic of the negro character; but the are also full of side-lights on the tragedy of slave life--a tragedy which is brought into more striking relief because it comes out, so to speak, incidentally and by the way. In his more recent volume, "The Wife of His Youth," Mr. Chesnutt concerns himself largely with the negro of to-day under the new conditions under which he finds himself; and it is safe to say that no finer psychological study of the negro in his new life has been presented than that which is found in the story which gives its title to this volume--a story which, in keenness of perception, in restraint and balance, in true feeling and artistic construction, must take its place among the best short stories in American literature. The two volumes taken together constitute an important addition, not only to our literature, but to our knowledge of the negro race; exhibiting, as they do, the negro under two entirely different conditions. The tragedy of the slave is not the tragedy of the freeman; but the case of the latter is hardly less pathetic in many ways than the case of the former, and this pathos Mr. Chesnutt has brought out in several very effective short stories. The tragedy lies in the situation, and must remain there until the negro has reached a much higher stage of evolution. It is part of the artistic value of these stories that this revelation is made incidentally, and not with a didactic purpose. When the negro begins to speak for himself, as he is already doing through three or four mean of distinct gift and insight, he is furnishing the best evidence of his ability to rise, and of the fact that he has already gone a considerable way on his journey toward higher self-development.
It is in such work as that which Miss Johnston and Mr. Chesnutt have recently contributed to contemporary literature that the advancing movement of the American literary spirit is to be discerned. For this work has its roots in reality; its chief concern is the portrayal of life; it deals at first hand with original materials; it gives us new aspects of American life; it is the expression of what is going on in the spirit of man on this continent.
Mabie, Hamilton Wright, "Two New Novelists," The Outlook 64(Feb 24 1900): 440-1.