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What a world-wide recreation novels have afforded the multitude! There is much solace, as well as entertainment, obtained from them - perhaps much of their amusement is accounted for in the fact that they depict life, delineate character and describe situations and emotions that most of us have dreamed for ourselves or similar experiences for which we have secretly longed and contain much delightful uncertainty that creates romance.
As a rule, however, their meaning lies on the surface and there is an absence of the deeper purpose of life - their principal aim appears to be to invest the ordinary matter-of-fact details of life with complicated ideals and varied romances that awaken interest and arouse curiosity sufficient to peruse a volume to the end.
They analyze, criticise and ridicule life in its various aspects but, as a rule, give no illuminating theories of reform nor offer any solution of the many problems involved, leaving one in an unsatisfactory, perplexed state - the exposure of an evil being held all sufficient; something more, however, should be demanded in the way of a suggestion for a remedy.
People of little or no knowledge or taste in literature make up the majority of the vast audience served by the writers of sensational fiction; the unfolding of a delectable tale, whose plot is commonplace and climax predetermined, impresses them like a galvanic spell, soon, however, exhausted; that these readers suffer mental indigestion and are fickle is shown by the early relegation of this much-advertised, overworked, pernicious food, which discriminating booklovers don't buy and whose popularity is soon tested, to the rear rows and the accumulation, in a few months, of a huge quantity of back numbers in the second-hand shops with a constant demand for fresh material to devour, for the transient life, depending upon advertising and forcing, of a "Best seller" is short and strenuous, as it lacks lasting, permanent qualities.
It is only the novels with dramatic, analytic and synthetic powers that paint human nature as it is that survive, and those offered recently seem to be devised more for the cerebellum than the cerebrum.
This is not a critical dissertation on literature, for the world is filled with books on books, but over a wide range of reading I have selected the following as the most interesting and entertaining to chat about.
In juvenile literature there is a quartet of boy's books: Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe," Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer," Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues under the Sea," Marryat's "Masterman Ready," with Alcott's "Little Women," Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland," and Mrs. Wiggin's "Rebecca" for the girls, and "Arabian Nights," La Fontaine's "Fables" and Andersen's "Sand Hills of Jutland" for them both. How many happy hours have been spent by youngsters poring over these stories! "John Halifax Gentleman" by Miss Mulock should be placed in the hands of every young man - the patient and successful career of this self-made man is a worthy and interesting study, as also that patriotic lesson contained in Hale's "Man Without a Country."
A novel of sentiment without being softly sentimental is "Memories" by Max Mullertender and beautiful with a charming atmosphere of affection. The most delightful love story I know of is from the Hindoo entitled "A Mine of Faults" by F. W. Bain; another is "Graziella" by Lamartine.
Perhaps the most complimentary thing that can be said about Scott is that he is an author's author and his two great works, in my estimation, are "Ivanhoe" and the "Heart of Midlothian." Undoubtedly more popular with the crowd is Dickens with his "David Copperfield" and "Pickwick Papers" in which is displayed his versatile humor.
The novelist who has helped me most is Thackeray. His style is inimitable and "Pendennis" and "Vanity Fair" an education in human nature. Closely allied to him is Balzac with his masterpieces "Le Pere Goriot" and "Eugenie Grandet," and then George Eliot's "Adam Bede" and "Mill on the Floss." In Marion Crawford's "Mr. Isaacs" is a soliloquy on life and death that is exquisite and may be read and reread. Fielding's "Tom Jones" is thought by many to be the best novel ever written, but I prefer "The Three Musketeers" of Dumas or Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables."
There is a long line of historical novels of which the best are Bulwer Lytton's "Last Days of Pompeii," a poetical picture of the life in that city just before its doom; Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities," a wonderful description of Paris and the French Revolution, without a single French phrase in it. Scott's works are full of historical references, perhaps the most accurate picture being that of the times of Louis XI in "Quentin Durward"; "Ben Hur" by Wallace, a biblical tale; "Aspasia" by Hamerling, showing the life of the Hellenic people at the height of their glory; Eber's "Uarda," a tale of ancient Egypt; "Marius" by Walter Pater, a prose poem of Roman life written in the purest English.
The "Semiramus" of Peple, "Salambo" of Flaubert and "Quo Vadis" of Sienkiewicz are all good, as are also Porter's "Scottish Chiefs," Reade's "Cloister and the Hearth," Thackeray's "Esmond," Muhlbach's "Empress Josephine," Abbott's "Mary, Queen of Scots," and Froude's "Caesar," while Churchill's "Richard Carvel," Irving's "Astoria," Lummis's "Spanish Pioneers" and Parkman's "Oregon Trail" represent interesting American periods.
An amateur lover of history who reads these novels will obtain more entertanment and better ideas of the past centuries than he can get from most histories, for the periods, characters and events have been discriminately selected for their picturesqueness as well as for their action and the facts relating to them and handled and presented with a semblance to truth in a readable, entertaining manner. It is an easy way of assimilating knowledge which, after all, is gained by the general reading public more from literature than history. Their trend is dramatic and carries one far away from one's immediate surroundings.
Books full of adventure and strategic maneuvers, that keep one in a continuous state of excitement, are numerous. I place the "Three Musketeers" by Dumas at the head of the list; Cooper's "Last of the Mohicans" and "The Pilot," Weyman's "The Gentlemen of France," Dana's "Two Years Before the Mast," Pattie's "Narrative" are full of fire; then there are the old romances of "Don Quixote," Cervantes; "Gulliver's Travels," Swift; "Sentimental Journey," Sterne, and "Travels of Baron Munchausen."
Those of Bohemian life are: "Trilby" by Du Maurier and "The Beloved Vagabond" by Locke, and for humor none surpass Charles Lever's "Harry Lorequer" or "Tom Burke of Ours," Lover's "Handy Andy," and Mark Twain's "Roughing It." Thrilling detective tales that arouse your curiosity and keep you in a fever of expectation are Gaboriau's "File No. 113," Conan Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes," and Katherine Green's "House with the Green Shutters."
Of character analysis, the most popular are those of George Meredith, "The Egoist" and "Ordeal of Sir Richard Feverel" which also contain much humor - "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by Stevenson, "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte, the "Anna Karenina" of Tolstoi and "On the Eve" by Turgenieff. The best of the German works are Goethe's "Wilhelm Meister," Richter's "Fruit, Flower and Thorn Pieces" and Heine's "Reisbuilder." Others novels worth reading are, Blackmore's "Lorna Doone," Hardy's "The Return of the Native," "Tom Brown's School Days," Weir Mitchell's "Characteristics"; "Macleod of Dare," Black; "A Window in Thrums," Barrie, and those simple charming characters in "The Fear of Living" by Bordeaux, the sweetest tale of mother love in fiction; "Abbe Constantin" by Halevy, "An Attic Philosopher," Souvestre; "Paul and Virginia," de St. Pierre, and "Crime of Sylvester Bonnard" by Anatole France. A tragedy is "Crime and Punishment" of Dostoieffsky.
Of our American novels, Henry James uses the choicest diction. His best are, "The Ambassadors," "Portrait of a Lady," and "Spoils of Poynton." One may obtain a good idea of Howell by reading "An Indian Summer" and "The Rise of Silas Lapham," and Marion Crawford in" Saracinesca." Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter" is the New England tale; Page's "In Ole Virginia" of Virginia; Cable's "Old Creole Days" of Louisiana; Westcott's "David Harum" of the Middle West. "Ramona" by Helen Hunt Jackson belongs to California, and Bunner's "Story of a New York House" is typical of life in the metropolis; while "Colonel Carter" by Hopkinson Smith is a regular Southern character.
Novels of Western adventure include "Over the Pass," Palmer; "Light of Western Stars," Grey; "Whispering Smith," Spearman, and "Gold," Stewart White.
"The Last American," by J. A. Mitchell, is a study which every American should read. Two political novels are "The Price of Place" by Samuel Blythe, exposing political methods in Washington, and "The New Mayor" by Broadhurst, showing civic corruption in municipalities, while those with a keen analysis of modern society are "The Goldfish" by an anonymous author, "The Husband's Story," Phillips, and Edith Wharton's "House of Mirth."
Professor Leonard, of Harvard, states that there has been produced in the United States during the past twenty-five years but three novels entitled to rank as classics: "The Octopus" by Frank Norris, "Call of the Wild" by Jack London and "The Conquerors" by Gertrude Atherton - all California authors, by the way.
When you are tired of problems, history and adventure, turn for comfort and ease to Goldsmith's "Vicar of Wakefield," Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," George Macdonald's "Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood," Anthony Trollope's "Dr. Thorne," and how! restful you will find these old-fashioned stories of a bygone age in which, nevertheless, human nature was pretty much the same as it is to-day!