Undistinguished Americans

Edwin E. Slosson

THE LATE Jules Verne about a year before his death created something of a sensation by saying that the novel had reached its height and would soon be displaced from its present position of influence and popularity by new forms of literature. Whether the fact that his later romances had not sold as well as his earlier had anything to do with this pessimistic view of the outlook for his trade, there is much to indicate that he was right. It is true that there are more novels written and read than ever before, and there is no decline in quality, whether we consider the average or the exceptional. But the habitual readers of fiction, notwithstanding their conspicuousness and vocality, form only a small and continually smaller proportion of the total number of readers. Most men and many women prefer to come into closer touch with reality and seek it, often in vain, in the newspapers. Consequently fiction is undergoing

( 2) a process of fission; the cleft between the realistic and romantic novels is widening. The former are becoming more nearly a transcript of life, and the latter, no longer tethered to earth, are soaring into the ether of the imaginary and impossible. In the same way the old-fashioned melodrama is differentiating into the drawing-room comedy and the burlesque opera.

When you propose to tell a story to children they interrupt at the first sentence with the question, "Is it a true story?" As we evade or ignore this natural and pertinent inquiry they finally cease to ask it, and we blur for them the edges of reality until it fades off into the mists. The hardest part of the training of the scientist is to get back the clear sight of his childhood. But nowadays our educators do not do quite so much as formerly to encourage the mythopoeic faculty of children. It has been found that their imagination can be exercised by other objects than the imaginary. Consequently the number of readers who are impatient of any detectable deviation from truth is increasing.

Besides this, most people—perhaps all—are more impressed by the concrete than the abstract. The generalized types of humanity as expressed by the artist in painting and sculpture, romances and poems do not interest them so much as do individuals. A composite photograph of a score of girls is very beautiful, but one is not apt to fall in love with it, notwithstanding the stories for which this has served as the theme. The scientist has a very clear and definite conception of kinetic energy when it is expressed by the formula mv2, but he is more forcibly struck by it when he is hit on the head with a club. Formerly botanists used to talk a great deal about species and types; later they turned their attention to varieties, and now the men who are making the most progress are experimenting with one plant and a single flower of that one. The candidate for a Ph.D. watches a single amoeba under a microscope and writes his thesis on one day's doings of its somewhat monotonous life. The man who can describe the antics of a squirrel in a tree has all the publishers after him, while the zoologist has to pay for the publication of his monograph on the Sciuridae. The type of the naturalist, the ideal statue of the sculptor, the algebraic formula of the physicist and the hero

( 3) and heroine of the romancer have a symmetry, universality and beauty above that of any individual and in a sense they are truer, but their chief value is not in themselves but in their use as guides to the better understanding of the individual, from which they originate and to which they return.

To these two forces tending to develop new forms of literature, the love of truth and the interest in the concrete, we must add one other, the spirit of democracy, the discovery of the importance of the average man. This, after all, is the most profitable branch of nature study, the study of Homo sapiens, and of his wife, who, in this country at least, usually also belongs to the species sapiens. Wild adventures, erratic characters, strange scenes and impossible emotions are no longer required even in fiction. The ordinary man under ordinary circumstances interests us most because he is most akin to us. In politics he has gained his rights and in history and literature he ís coming to be recognized. We realize now that a very good history of France could be written, better than most of the old-fashioned kind, without mentioning the name of Louis XIV or Napoleon.

The resultant of these three forces gives us the general direction of the literature of the future. It will be more realistic, more personal and less exceptional. The combination of these qualities is found in the autobiography, which, as Longfellow said years ago, "is what all biography ought to be." It has always been a favorite form in fiction, from "Apuleius," "Arabian Nights" and "Robinson Crusoe" to the present. Now when we publish a "Life and Letters" we lay the emphasis on the latter part. A great deal of fun has been made of those who preferred to read the love letters of the Brownings rather than the "Sonnets from the Portuguese" and "One Word More," but who will say that the verdict of the future will not vindicate these readers rather than their critics?

One other characteristic of the modern reader must be taken into consideration, his love of brevity. The short story is more popular than the novel, the vaudeville sketch than the drama. We have, then, a demand for the brief autobiography, the life story in a few pages. Since this form of literature seems likely to become a distinct type we might venture to give it the

( 4) provisional name of the "lifelet." Its relation to other literary forms is shown most succinctly by this equation:

lifelet : autobiography :: short story : novel

The short story is older than the art of writing, but it is only recently that it has attained a perfection and definiteness of form which has caused it to be recognized and studied by rhetoricians. The lifelets now being written are like the average short stories of fifty years ago in crudity and indefiniteness of aim, but already we can see something of the laws and limitations of this new literary type. In its construction the same general rules apply as to the short story, and condensation, elimination, subordination and selection are necessary in order to make it readable and truthful. It really demands as much literary skill as any form of fiction, but when it is strictly autobiographical this is likely to be lacking. However, the number of persons who can write fairly well when they have the material is great and increasing with the spread of education. It has been said that every one's life contains the material for one good novel. It would evidently be more plausible to say this of the lifelet.

Short autobiographies of undistinguished people occasionally appear in most of our magazines, but The Independent has published more than any other, for its Managing Editor, Mr. Hamilton Holt, has for several years devoted himself to procuring such narratives with the object of ultimately presenting in this way a complete picture of American life in all its strata. These life stories found favor with the readers of The Independent, so a few of them have been selected for publication in this volume. In the selection the aim has been to include a representative of each of the races which go to make up our composite nationality, and of as many different industries as possible. The book has, therefore, a unity of theme and purpose that may compensate for its diversity of topic and style. It is a mosaic picture composed of living tesserae.

In procuring these stories two methods were used; first and preferably, to have the life written upon his own initiative by the person who lived it; second, in the case of one too ignorant or too impatient to write, to have the story written from interviews, and then read to and approved by the person telling it.

Since the author's name is often omitted or is unknown to the reader, he will have to be content with the Editor's assurance that great pains have been taken in all cases to see that the account is truthful, both as to facts and mode of thought, and that it is a representative, and not exceptional experience of its class. These sketches, therefore, are very different in character from those of professional writers of the wealthy or well-to-do class, who temporarily become tramps, factory girls, or nursery governesses, or who join the crowd of the unemployed for the purpose of later securing employment as professors or editors.

This book is, then, intended not merely to satisfy our common curiosity as to "how the other half lives," but to have both a present and a future value as a study in sociology. If Plutarch had given us the life stories of a slave and a hoplite, a peasant and a potter, we would willingly have dispensed with an equivalent number of kings and philosophers. Carlyle gave to his volume of biographies the title "Heroes and Hero Worship." Emerson gave to his the title "Representative Men." Both were right. We can understand the significance of the great man only when we view him both as a product of his times and as an innovator. So, also, to understand a social class, we must study it both statistically and individually. Biography and demography are equally useful, the former more vivid, the latter more comprehensive. One who studies Charles Booth's nine large volumes on the "Life and Labor of the Poor in London" will know as exactly as possible how many men in that city are hungry and cold, but he will be more likely to gain a definite realization of their condition and a stronger impulse to remedy it, by reading Jack London's "The People of the Abyss."

Lincoln said that "God must love the common people because he made so many of them." In all countries the question of national destiny is always ultimately settled by the will of majority, whether the people vote or not. It is the undistinguished people who move the world, or who prevent it from moving. And the wise statesman is he who can best read the minds of the non-vocal part of the population, the silent partners who have the controlling vote in the governmental firm.



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