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Department of English
Omaha High School

Read before the Nebraska Library Association

at the Eighteenth Annual Meeting, held in

Lincoln, Nebraska, October 30-31, 1912

Printed for the Omaha Public Library by the courtesy of Mr. C. N. Dietz,
President of the Omaha Public Library Board

Foreign Literature in



Department of English, Omaha High School

Read before the Nebraska Library Association at the Eighteenth Annual
Meeting, held in Lincoln, Nebraska, October 30-31, 1912

Printed for the Omaha Public Library by the courtesy of Mr. C. N. Dietz,
President of the Omaha Public Library Board


The fiction shelves of the average small public library
contain little except a few standard English novels and
the works, in more or less completeness, of our American
writers. That much of our current fiction is of slight
value the librarian knows, and that to confine her pur-
chases to our own writers leads to provincialism. She
would like to add books more vigorous in tone and she
would like to introduce her patrons to a world beyond
our own borders, but in approaching foreign fiction she
feels the timidity of venturing into an unknown field.
The tradition of wickedness still clings to the "French

It was to stimulate in our Nebraska librarians an
interest in these continental writers and to inform them
of what was desirable and available in translation that
we asked Miss Zora Shields, a woman of unusual attain-
ments and breadth of reading, to prepare this paper for
a meeting of the Nebraska Library Association. The
limited edition, printed chiefly for use in our own state,
was quickly exhausted and an unexpected demand came
from outside. To meet this demand it was decided to
reprint. In reprinting for more general distribution, this
word of explanation seems necessary, for it will be seen
that the purpose of the paper was only to suggest and
not in any sease to furnish a complete bibliography.

Secretary. Public Library Commission.

Foreign Literature in Translation

I have limited my subject in two ways: I have considered
only fiction, the novel and the drama; and I have tried to keep
to the nineteenth century, and toward the close rather than the
beginning of that period.

Twenty-five years ago, even fifteen years ago, the average
American had little or no acquaintance with European literature.
If he were well-read, he knew Goethe, Schiller, Victor Hugo,
Dante, Cervantes. But usually he was indifferent toward all
"foreign" writing, even contemptuous, feeling that Shakespeare
and the Bible were all he needed in the way of literature.

To-day the situation has changed. In literature, as in all
other lines, the range of general knowledge demanded in every-
day life has broadened immensely. We are brought into daily,
almost hourly communication with all parts of the globe; the
cable, the telegraph, the increased facility of travel everything
combines to bring us into touch with other peoples. In a new
sense we realize that "Nothing relating to man is foreign to me."
Also this is the age of psychology, the study of the human mind ;
so we are interested not merely in the government, the wealth,
the products of these peoples, but more in their manners, their
characters, and their modes of thinking. In no way can we so
easily begin to study a nation's thought as in its literature, espe-
cially in its novel and drama, which are direct portrayals of human
life. So to-day, the American reading public demands the modern
writers of Europe. Our newspapers and magazines are filled
with references, criticisms, and discussions of the later writers,
the more recent novels and dramas of the other world. This fact
shows that these must already be known and of interest to a large
number of people; also it arouses curiosity among those not
already informed. To read one's paper comfortably in these
days, it is necessary to know who or what these men are, this
Strindberg, or d'Annunzio, or Gorki.

Then for a broad view and an adequate understanding of our
own literature, we must know books other than those of our own


r> w er

race; our English authors have borrowed and imitated on all
sides, to understand them more clearly we must know their origi-
nals, their models, or their masters. The well-read person now
must be familiar with the drama in Norway, in Russia, in Ger-
many, if he would listen intelligently, say, to an American prob-
lem play. More and more we realize the truth of Matthew
Arnold's words: "The criticism which alone can much help us
for the future is a criticism which regards Europe as being, for
intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation, bound
to a joint action and working to a common result."

And when we consider a matter of even deeper importance
than the appreciation of literature, we find that the most striking
and important problems of the day, social, political, sex, re-
ligious, all have been treated more fully, more carefully, more
earnestly in European writings than in English or American,
perhaps because these questions have been brought home more
pressingly in older and more crowded communities. So there is
a great and serious reason for our study of these books, not so
much because they suggest remedies, for they give only vague,
tentative directions for the most part, but because they state the
case so clearly, paint the picture with such wonderful accuracy of
detail; they are experts in diagnosis. And any cure can come
only after a thorough understanding of the disease.

There is yet another reason, an urgent, imperative need, that
we should become familiar with the minds, lives, and characters
of our European neighbors, for these very Europeans are in our
borders, they dwell with us, they are soon to be our fellow-
Americans. How can we hope to make American citizens of
them, unless we understand their strength and their weakness,
that we may develop the one and remedy the other? We gain
some of this knowledge from contact with the people themselves,
but slowly and imperfectly, for they are dazed and bewildered in
a strange new environment, their national characteristics are
blurred. Their books, the embodiment, the very essence of their
national spirit, can give us this much needed information more
clearly, and far more quickly. Perhaps we are inclined to look
down on these people as "foreigners," to despise them a little as
our inferiors. But as we study their masterpieces, we must lay
aside our arrogant sense of superiority, to realize that in a literary
way we are unsophisticated beginners who are permitted to go to
school to great artists. We are made to recognize facts to which
our eyes have been closed, we are thrilled and swept along in

lofty flights of imagination, we see laid bare before us the human
heart and soul with all its intricacies of vice and virtue and there
fs little room left for petty pride; we must feel toleration, sym-
pathy, respect, brotherhood, toward the races which have given
the world an Ibsen, a Tolstoi, a Maeterlinck.

If then, from the standpoint of public need, it seems essential
that the public library should contain a considerable amount of
modern European fiction, there is still another motive which must
appeal to the librarian, and that is the charm and attraction offered
by the new, the unusual, the unfamiliar. Stories of out-of-the-
way corners of the world have always had a mighty fascination
for countless readers, and here are hundreds of books about
places known to most of us only by name. True, English authors
have imitated these books, but the freshness and force of the
original is more alluring than any copy. To a librarian who is
struggling, almost vainly, against the popularity of a Robert
Chambers, a Harold McGrath, an Augusta Evans Wilson, it would
seem a boon indeed to see a list of books, attractive, thrilling,
exciting, and really worth printing. To be sure translations are
inadequate, faulty, and generally unsatisfactory, but even crude
translations often reveal the great thought or the wonderful work
of characterization, though we must miss the beauties of sound
and style and all the delicate shades of meaning.

There are two notes of warning to be sounded. In the first
place, many of these books are not intended for amusement ; the
true purpose and value is revealed only after careful reading,
re-reading and study. They are worth the time required, but
they can never be popular. The lovers of mere plot, who are
filled with a feverish excitement of curiosity as to how the story
is to end, will do well to stick to "The Prisoner of Zenda" and
its hundreds of imitations. Then, too, as to sex and religion,
these Europeans seem to have a point of view other than our own.
There is a franker, bolder attitude ; details from which we shrink
are recognized as necessary factors in human life and characters.
I feel an essential difference in the treatment of sex relations
among the Northern and the so-called Southern races. I believe
almost all thoughtful, serious people admit that Ibsen and Tolstoi
dwell on such problems, not out of love of portraying morbid
erotic and neurotic conditions, but because of an agonized per-
ception of a destroying ulcer, and a sincere desire to effect a cure.
Is not Jane Addams actuated by the same motive? It may be
questioned whether that is the motive in many French, Italian,

and Spanish writers, or whether we find there mainly delight in
riotous emotionalism. For this reason I feel that for general
circulation more of the literature of the North than of the South
is advisable. And there must be a choice. Once the librarian
who wished anything but classic German literature was limited to
translations by "E. Marlitt." Now such a flood of European
literature in translation is surging upon us, that we have to
choose. My list does not pretend in the least to be complete, even
up to this year, 1912 ; it merely presents some of the books which
appear especially interesting or valuable, or which have aroused
an unusual amount of discussion. Each year brings us so many
new translations, of constantly increasing attractiveness and
value, that no list could long pretend to be complete.

Among the peoples of Europe who offer us literature that
we can not afford to miss, are Norwegians, Danes, Swedes, Ger-
mans, Russians, Poles, Spaniards, Italians, Belgians, Hungarians,
Frenchmen. Certainly comparisons are odious here, and it were
a rash critic indeed who would venture to pronounce on com-
parative merits, to declare one literature more important than
another, for each has its own special contribution to the intellec-
tual content of the world. But we still have a fondness for call-
ing ourselves Anglo-Saxons, so we may logically begin with
Teutonic races, and among them with the Scandinavians, when
we consider how many Norwegians, Danes and Swedes are within
the borders of our own state.

Modern Scandinavians are alert, progressive, brilliant, keen
and clear thinkers along practical, ethical and artistic lines.
To-day we are just beginning to awaken to a realization of the
tremendous importance of Norse myth and saga. Comparative
philology, history, Wagnerian opera, modern art, all direct our
attention to this field; here too there is a new realm of wonder,
of supernatural beings and events marvelously appealing to child
and youth an entirely new Arabian Nights. Brunhilde, Freya,
Valhalla, Yggdrasil, Sigurd, Balder, Odin, the Valkyries, can
any names be more potent? We find in Scandinavian literature
a terseness, a vigor, an intensity of feeling and expression which
seem peculiar to these peoples an intensity essentially different
from Celtic or Oriental fervour and passion, but no less stirring,
with its background of glaciers and fjords, dark, turbulent waters
and lands wrapped in snow. The spirit of the Vikings still lives,
still sweeps all before it in irresistible victory ; the "splendid


seriousness" is still there, and still may it be said, "Hard and cold
grey, with hidden fire, was the temper of these people."

It is surely unnecessary to say that a complete edition of
Ibsen's dramas is much to be desired. Whether we feel antagon-
ism or admiration for this modern prophet, at least he has stirred
more minds, and aroused more discussion than any other one
modern dramatist; and to arouse thought, to awaken the world
to some of its weaknesses and mistakes was surely his aim;
Huneker calls him "a dynamic grumbler, like Carlyle." It is
absolutely necessary to know "The Doll's House," "Ghosts/'
"The Pillars of Society," "Hedda Gabler," if we try to keep up
at all with the march of modern thought.

If we shrink from the pessimistic pictures and cold, abrupt,
clear-cut style of Ibsen, we find the opposite in his famous friend
and rival, Bjornson. "Synnove Solbakken," "Arne," and "The
Bridal March" must attract youth as well as age, with their mar-
velous simplicity and idyllic qualities, their depth of understand-
ing for the sufferings of youth, its shyness, ignorance, restlessness
and passion. Bjornson is not merely happy, he is joyous; he
expresses himself with simplicity, clearness, and terseness. Since
he loves the people and is the very personification of the demo-
cratic spirit, he seems especially suitable for our Republic. Two
books of his later years are interesting in a deeper, more prob-
lematic way : in "In God's Way," Bjornson has studied carefully
the effect of narrow orthodoxy, conventionality and prejudice;
in "The Heritage of the Kurts" he has given us a new ideal of
education, its problems, methods and aims, very appealing to us
because we are beginning to work a little along the lines he sug-
gests. A drama, "Sigurd Slembe," seems to me important be-
cause it deals with the old Viking period, so stirring and wild,
and still has for its central problem a modern ethical question.
If we can draw near in any way the Eddas, the Sagas, it certainly
is worth while.

Another Norwegian writer, decidedly less familiar in
America, is Jonas Lie. In this man himself and reflected in his
work, there is a strange but attractive mixture; he is the son of
an able, practical Norwegian lawyer with an intense grip on
reality, and of a mother of Finnish or Gypsy blood, who imparted
to her son a love of the eerie, the uncanny, a fondness for lux-
uriant wealth of color, a sympathy with the wild, the untamed,
the rebellious in nature and in human beings. "The Barque
Future" is interesting because of its realistic picture of sailors'

and fishers' life in Norway, also for its touches of weird Finnish
life and character; it is a haunting tale with an intensely realistic
and prosaic plot, which still is permeated by a romantic atmo-
sphere. Much like it is "The Pilot and His Wife." But in
"Niobe" and "The Commodore's Daughters" the other side of
Lie's mind appears, for they are detailed stories of every-day life,
convincing in their simple reality, the exact study of the psychol-
ogy of modern family life, just as true in America as in Norway.
Lie reminds one somewhat of Arnold Bennett, but his work is
simpler, the outlines are clearer, and he is always intensely in

One or two books of the Swedish writer, Selma Lagerlof,
are desirable, because of her vivid imagination and very unusual
style. Following no law, no rule, she has worked out in "The
Story of Gosta Berling" several important problems. She belongs
to the extreme romantic school and her short stories in "From a
Swedish Homestead" and "The Girl from the Marsh Croft" are
almost like Irish folk-tales.

To some Strindberg is an insane and immoral monster; to
others, he bears a great message. He certainly has aroused great
admiration among European critics and considerable discussion
in England and America. The story runs that Ibsen said of him,
"There is one who will be greater than I." But he can hardly be
considered for general circulation.

When we reach German books, we realize anew that the
English and the Germans were sister-races of the same Teutonic
tribe, for our literatures are kindred, and resemble each other
strongly. We find many of our ideas of morality and ethics, the
same familiar atmosphere of every-day home life, the same
commonplace vices and virtues, something of the same emotional
restraint. This very similarity makes it hard to state the differ-
ence, to say just what makes German literature distinct. The
German is philosophical, introspective; he is a student, a worker,
a thinker, a deep ponderer on the problems of life, of the soul, of
fate. He is consciously introspective ; he does not write to amuse,
to entertain. His study of souls may take the form of intense
realism, as in Hauptmann's "Weavers," or it may appear in lofty
symbolism as in "The Sunken Bell." Whichever it is, it is built
on the basis of the slow, exact, careful spirit of German scientific
research, to which the whole world does homage. Solidity and
depth seem to me the chief characteristics, for to Germany we owe
Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel, Leibnitz, Mommsen,


Ranke. Of course it is to be assumed that all libraries own the
works of Goethe and Wagner. There are many German writers
to-day of skill and importance ; I shall attempt to discuss only the
three or four most prominent.

Hauptmann is certainly most lofty in thought, view, and
purpose. He sees the errors, the pettiness, the degradation, the
failures in human life as well as any realist, but he has a nobility,
a lofty morality, an ultimate faith which save him always from
the air of sordidness and debauchery of many modern realists.
"The Sunken Bell" and "Hannele" are necessary in a progressive
library. They are not simple, they will never be popular, but
neither is Shakespeare's "Tempest." Less familiar is "The
Weavers," a play which may well win attention everywhere in
these days of labor agitation, for it is an accurate painting of the
misery of a Silesian weavers' strike. "Lonely Lives" is intro-
spective in the extreme, since it shows us in one blinding flash
the agony and struggle of old-fashioned, orthodox parents of an
advanced, philosophical son, of a simple, loving, uneducated wife,
and of a progressive, educated modern woman, these are not
caricatures, but real people. "The Rats" summons before us the
tragedy and complications of life in a tenement. "Rosa Bernd"
is a most sympathetic study of the struggle made by a beautiful,
lower-class girl, who finally sinks beneath the horror of modern
social conditions, and fate. "And Pippa Dances" will furnish
an enigma over which to study indefinitely.

Sudermann is more simple, easier to understand, more popu-
lar ; his characters are real men and women and his situations are
familiar, but we may quarrel with the probabilities of his plot and
his conclusion. He is not the deep philosopher, but the dramatist,
watching for effective stage tricks. "Dame Care" grips us with
its sordid financial struggle and the petty but bitter anxieties of
family life. "The Joy of Living," wonderfully translated by
Edith Wharton, and "Magda" are becoming so familiar to us as
we see them on the stage, that we even dare to differ from the
interpretations of Mrs. Fiske and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. To my
mind, one of Sudermann's best bits of work is "Fritzchen," one
of the three little plays in "Morituri."

With much less technical skill, less literary craftsmanship,
Frenssen has aroused general interest because of a bare, uncalcu-
lating, homely portrayal of the lives of a group of people. He
is somewhat like De Morgan, or Dickens; he shows the same
kindly sympathy, the same ultimate optimism, the same careless,


involved structure, the same love of digression. Of "Jorn Uhl,"
one critic has said: "This book has sprung from the deep con-
sciousness of modern Germany and utters the longings, thoughts
and aspirations of the German heart in a way no other modern
book has done. It is a living book, it is a book throbbing with real
life, passion and poetry." Again, "Frenssen's books sing of nature
and human life, grand, strong, and true ; of confidence in man, in
the eternal powers, in God. They sing of a simple, original
Christianity the religion of Christ, the Man of Galilee." Un-
doubtedly Frenssen's greatest book is "Jorn Uhl," some even say
he is an author of one book, so again he reminds us of De Morgan.
For myself I have exactly the same experience : "Joseph Vance"
may be De Morgan's greatest book, but I cannot give up "Some-
how Good" and "It Never Can Happen Again;" so also I am
very glad Frenssen wrote "Holyland."

Ebers gives us a chance, a rare one, to read historical novels
of ancient Egypt, written by a thorough scholar in Egyptology.
Auerbach and Rosegger permit us to know and love the German
peasant. And so on.

Within the last ten years, Slavonic races in great numbers
have been surging into our land, and to many of us that has
seemed a danger, a menace, for we thought them crude, almost
savage. In our beet-fields, in our stock-yards are almost number-
less Russians, and of Russia we know little or nothing. For the
last twenty-five years Europe has praised Russian literature and
Russian writers, but America is barely beginning to appreciate
their greatness. The race is puzzling to us in many ways: we
begin to see their capabilities. Within the last year Mary Antin
has taught us a much-needed lesson. In the May Atlantic of this
year Margaret Sherwood has characterized Russian literature very
aptly : "In the Russian work there is a deep and tragic sense of
fate, an undercurrent of emotion which makes their apparently
unmoved recitation of details full of tragic power. One finds it
in Tolstoy, in Turgenieff, in Dostoievsky. It comes from a depth
of temperament that perhaps has in it something of the Oriental
sense of unfathomable meanings. Of the thousand and one facts
of daily life the Russian can work out a drama of destiny wherein
the very surroundings seem heavily charged with significance.
That splendid, listening impersonality of the Russian, the sphinx-
sense of mystery, is a race characteristic, and cannot be borrowed.
. . . That patient suspension of judgment during long brooding no
race can imitate."


To-day the Russian writer best known in America, prac-
tically the only one known generally, is Tolstoi. Whether he be
an artist, a philosopher, a great author, a religious teacher, or
only a gigantic mistake and a pathetic failure, is a question useless
to discuss. This at least is true : he has emphasized the value of
independent thought, of simplicity of life, of purity in spirit and
art, of courage. He may be merely a fanatic, but to many men
in Europe and America, he has been and is a Master. He has
surely given us masterpieces in his studies of the primitive life
and mind: "The Cossacks," which some one has called "a little
idyl of the Caucasus," "Master and Man," "Hadji Murad," "The
Three Deaths," "The Death of Ivan Ilyitch." The most discussed
books are "Anna Karenina," which discusses marriage without
love, and "War and Peace ;" in Russia these are put into the hands
of young girls ; with us young girls and boys and older people will
refrain from two and three volume novels. His religious writ-
ings are more likely to be read, especially "My Confession" and
4< My Religion;" and of his dramas much emphasis is being placed
on "The Power of Darkness." An eminent critic who does not
praise Tolstoi overmuch says "a stranger who would understand
Russia of the nineteenth century must read Tolstoi."

A much greater artist, a much kindlier nature, a more fasci-
nating writer is Turgenev. Both in style and thought he is
attractive; even in translation we can appreciate his beauty and
delicacy, his aptness of expression. In "Dream Tales" we find a
weird, mystic, haunting sense of the supernatural; "Poems in
Prose" are marked by a loftiness of emotional appeal, a keenness
of insight into the soul of man, and an unerring perception of the
slightest details in nature, which are truly poetic. In the novels,
"Fathers and Children," "On the Eve," "Smoke," "Liza," "Virgin
Soil," there is the simplicity, not of the primitive mind but of the
highest culture, and a sympathetic appreciation of the most in-
volved problems of modern life. According to able critics such
as Taine, Turgenev was one of the most artistic natures that has
been among men since classic times. One writer has said of his

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Online LibraryZora I ShieldsForeign literature in translation → online text (page 1 of 3)