Grant Martin Overton.

The women who make our novels. online

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quite so far."

Do you detect something? Do you perceive (i)
a set of impressions acquired at the most plastic age
and with a sharpness of configuration never to be lost
and (2) an extraordinary blend of intellectual and
emotional feeling of heart and mind which carried
the girl beyond the spoken word; and also (3) an im-
aginative faculty which could go on living a thing
after merely hearing about it and living it through to
the unnarrated, possibly unexperienced, conclusion?
Do you get a hint of any or all of these things? Of
course you do !



WILLA SIBERT GATHER 259

Going further we learn that when Miss Gather be-
gan to write she tried to put the Swedish and Bohe-
mian settlers she had known in her girlhood into her
short stories. "The results," we are informed, "never
satisfied /her." She discussed this dissatisfaction
afterward.

"It is always hard to write about the things that are
near your heart," she argued. "From a kind of in-
stinct of self-protection you distort and disguise them.
Those stories were so poor that they discouraged me.
I decided that I wouldn't write any more about the
country and the people for whom I had a personal
feeling.

"Then I had the good fortune to meet Sarah Orne
Jewett, who had read all of my early stories and had
very clear and definite opinions about them and about
where my work fell short. She said : 'Write it as it
is, don't try to make it like this or that. You can't
do it in anybody else's way; you will have to make a
way of your own. If the way happens to be new,
don't let that frighten you. Don't try to write the
kind of short story that this or that magazine wants;
write the truth and let them take it or leave it.'

"It is that kind of honesty, that earnest endeavor to
tell truly the thing that haunts the mind, that I love
in Miss Jewett's own work. I dedicated O Pioneers!
to her because I had talked over some of the characters
with her, and in this book I tried to tell the story of
the people as truthfully and simply as if I were telling
it to her by word of mouth."

Ah! This is downright enlightening. Miss Gather
does not specifically say that she had to depart from



260 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

actual persons when she came to do her good work,
but that is the inference we draw. She does not en-
tirely lay bare the real reason; and for the benefit of
those who may be puzzled over it let us supplement
what she says.

There is a pitch of emotion at which the artist can-
not work; he can only see, feel, learn, store up; the
rendering of what he has felt and seen somes after-
ward. Wordsworth said that poetry was emotion rec-
ollected in tranquillity. He might just as well have
extended the definition to include all forms of art.
When you or I come to sit down and put on paper
actual persons whom we knew and loved (or hated)
we cannot do it if the feeling is still very strong, any
more than we can write about them while loving or
hating them. Our hands shake and our emotional and
mental disturbance is so great that we cannot colhct
our thoughts, or, if we contrive to collect them par-
tially, we cannot put them down on paper. Tears blur
the vision. We have to wait, then, until a little time
has passed and we are calmer; until we can recall in
a warm, remembering glow, the feeling of that time,
recall it just sufficiently for our artist's purpose. We
sail through it then, but are not awash.

Very often this intensity of feeling about actual
persons so persists as to make it impracticable to write
honestly about them at all. And so the artist is thrown
back on his imagination for the bodying forth of other
persons and characters, typical enough, real enough,
true enough, but not the flesh of his flesh and blood
of his blood. About these creations of his own he can
write and write well. And this, we are surmising, is



WILLA SIBERT GATHER 261

the experience that Miss Gather underwent as so many
others have undergone it before her.

In her case the difference was that she had an im-
agination to come to her rescue. So few have! Or
rather, sd few have an adequate imaginative faculty,
one that will bear them forward, one that will sustain
their created people, that will meet every demand made
upon its resources early and late, that will not flag,
that will not weary, that will not die in the middle of
the creative task.

We have built up our hypothesis. Now let us see
if we can support it.

"According to Miss Gather, all the material for her
writing had been collected before she was 20 years old.
'I have had nothing really new since that time/ she
said. 'Every story I have written since then has been a
recollection of some childhood experience, of some-
thing that touched me while a youngster. You must
know a subject as a child, before you ever had any
idea of writing, to instill into it, in a story, the true
feeling. After you grow up impressions don't come
so easily. And it is for the purpose of recalling the
old feelings I had in my youth that I come West every
summer. The West has for me that something which
excites me, and gives me what I want and need to
write a story/ '

Surely this is all the confirmation we need. She
goes West to get the warm, remembering glow that is
necessary for her artist's purpose.

Let us consider her four books.

Alexander's Bridge might have been written by
Edith Wharton. It has only one fault, a certain



262 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

cloudiness characteristic of finely-written stories in
which the mentality of one or two of the characters
is of the essence of the whole thing. It needs for its
full appreciation Miss Gather's own explication of its
purpose. She says:

'The bridge builder with whom this story is con-
cerned began life a pagan, a crude force, with little
respect for anything but youth and work and power.
He married a woman of much more discriminating
taste and much more clearly defined standards. He
admires and believes in the social order of which she
is really a part, though he has been only a participant.
Just so long as his ever-kindling energy exhibits itself
only in his work, everything goes well; but he runs
the risk of encountering new emotional as well as new
intellectual stimuli [a pity that in the effort to explain
it should be necessary to resort to this jargon!].

"The same qualities which made for his success in-
volve him in a personal relationship [with an actress,
a youthful love] which poisons his peace of mind and
dissipates his working power. His behavior changes,
but his ideals do not.

"He was the kind of a man who had to think well
of himself. His relation to his wife was not a usual
one ; when he hurt her, he hurt his self-respect and lost
his sense of power. His bridge fell because he him-
self had been torn in two ways and had lost his single-
ness of purpose which makes a man effective. He had
failed to give it the last ounce of himself, the ounce
that puts through every great undertaking."

There! That last paragraph's better! It makes
quite clear the inner action of the novel. And the only



WILLA SIBERT GATHER 263

fault with the novel, we repeat, is that this inner ac-
tion should be clear right there! It should not be
necessary for any one of ordinary intelligence to have
to read Miss Gather's explanation of what really takes
place inside Bartley Alexander.

Pioneers! is utterly different. Some one has said
that reading a novel by Miss Gather gives you no as-
surance at all as to what her next novel will be like.
That seems to be true. It is the stamp, we may add,
of a very original gift talent genius; the degree of
her endowment is not precisely determinable even yet.
In O Pioneers! it is a woman who dominates the
whole story, tall, strong, sensible, not so much kind-
hearted as human-hearted, which means a great com-
prehension with sympathy to serve it. We see the girl
Alexandra and her two brothers left by a dying father
with the charge to hold to the land, the untamed soil
of the prairie. The father has made his daughter
the head of the family because she has intelligence and
her brothers have not. They work well, but they do
not use their heads in their work. The girl justifies
her father's faith in her and by her intelligent antic-
ipation makes her brothers prosperous and herself
rich. There is a third brother, distinctly younger than
the others, whom she has under her especial care and
upon whom she lavishes the maternal affection that is
in her. The terrible tragedy which involves him would
have blasted irretrievably a woman less strong, less
intelligent than Alexandra. She survives it as she
would survive anything that life could do to her.

The quality of the story is dual. There is the
fidelity to character which marks the true novelist, the



264 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

resolute putting through of what these people, in con-
tact with each other, will certainly bring about. That
calls for courage! How severe the temptation to
shirk an inevitable but bitter event! It is so easy to
persuade yourself that this and that will not mean
disaster, that such and such chemicals when joined
need not explode, that oil and water will mix this once,
that two and two may for the moment make five ! Why
must there be a blighting catastrophe ? Why cannot a
happy ending be a truthful ending? The answer is
that sometimes it can, but when it can't you mustn't
make it so. Miss Gather's O Pioneers! doesn't try
to.

The second aspect of this novel we have already
named. It is cyclic, that is, it sums up an era. Such
a quality always gives a book a historical value ; where
it is wedded to high fictional art, as here, the satisfac-
tion of the reader is complete.

The Song of the Lark gains over O Pioneers! in
the first place by its sheer bulk. O Pioneers! was a
series of scenes in a single but changing setting; to
cover so much ground, in point of time, the author had
to strip her action of all that was not indispensable.
But as The Song of the Lark is entirely centered about
the development of a single person there is a chance
to enrich the narrative with no end of detail; more,
it is necessary to do so. For here we are trying to
come at the innermost secret of Thea Kronberg, we
are trying to find out what what it was in her that
made her great. To get at that we must have ex-
haustively every item which can be made to contribute
the least mite cf information. We must have every-



WILLA SIBERT GATHER 265

thing about her from her girlhood to her success on
the New York stage, we must have all the persons who
came in contact with her and who had their effect on
her, or upon whom she had her effect, for it was gen-
erally theft way about! We must have her as she ap-
peared to each and every one of the few really privi-
leged to know her. What they saw and said, the con-
clusions they drew, are the material from which we
have to dig out the secret. And Miss Gather gives us
all we need. She is replete with the facts and she puts
them in their entirety before us. The result is a biog-
raphy, no less; but a biography unencumbered with/
letters and irrelevant conversations and unimportant
views and the unendurable conscientiousness of the
faithfully recording friend.

My Antonia is a book to be put alongside O Pio-
neers! It is less epical but of more historical value
for its minute and colorful depiction of life on the
Nebraska prairies and in the Nebraska towns about
1885. The book is really a chronicle of people and
their surroundings, a mosaic of character sketches and
scenes and short stories brought within a single ken.
The material ranges from tragedy, horror and re-
pellent occurrences to pathos, humor and farce. It
is perfectly handled, however; the reader is never of-
fended and is variously touched and amused and
always the book is engrossing. Such a book is worth
a dozen formal historical records. And the figure
of Antonia Cuzak is a biographical triumph. Rem-
iniscence here surpasses fiction.

There is no more to be said and it may easily be that
too much has been said already. If this chapter has



266 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

been too venturesome in its inferences and too de-
clamatory in its exposition, forgive that, O reader!
If you have read Miss Gather's notable novels you may
disagree but you will understand and condone ; if you
have not read them you will be more indulgent toward
us after doing so; and actually if what we have said
shall lead you to read her books the whole of our
striving will have been fulfilled. She is a novelist
whose work already adds measurably to American
literature; whether all of us put the same estimate
upon her accomplishment does not matter at all; it
matters supremely that as many of us as possible
should be acquainted with it.

BOOKS BY WlLLA SlBERT GATHER

April Twilights, 1903. R. G. Badger, Boston.
The Troll Garden, 1905. Doubleday, Page & Co.,
New York.

Alexander's Bridge, 1912.
O Pioneers! 1913.
The Song of the Lark, 1915.
My Antonia, 1918.

Miss Gather's books are published by Houghton
MifHin Company, Boston.



CHAPTER XXII

CLARA LOUISE BURNHAM

TO write twenty-six books is something, is it
not? To have written twenty-six books which
have sold half a million copies (the publisher's
offhand guess) is something else again and more.
Clara Louise Burnham has done that; and the cold
arithmetical statement does not begin to convey the
real nature of her achievement. You must read her
to know how capable a novelist she is, how expert, how
gifted with humor, insight, fertility in those slight
inventions which make up the reality of a fictionist's
whole. Mrs. Burnham's writings are associated in the
minds of many thousands who have not read her
tales, or have read only a few of them, with the doc-
trines of Christian Science. And it is true that she
is the author of several novels in which the principles
of this faith are of the essence of the stories. Equally
true is it that she has said of her book, Jewel :

"I like Jewel best. I think she is my high water
mark. It is a Christian Science book and without the
Christian Science terminology that is used in the story
it, well, it would be a kind of second Little Lord
Fauntleroy, and besides, it wouldn't be Jewel."

Which may be so but which does not hold true of
The Right Princess. There the identification of

267



268 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

Frances Rogers's beliefs with the faith of which Mrs.
Eddy was the founder is not indispensable to the
narrative. Miss Rogers need not have been a Scien-
tist. We should still have an unusual and effec-
tively told story, a novel quite as entertaining and
worth the reader's while as The Opened Shutters,
from which the terminology of the Scientists is en-
tirely absent.

The point we would make, then, the point that
ought, in sheer honesty, to be made at the very outset
of any consideration of Mrs. Burnham's work, is her
genuine and incontestable achievement as a straight-
way, out-and-out, talented story-teller, a pure and
simple fictioneer, an experienced and popular Ameri-
can novelist. That some of her novels have probably
done more to put Christian Science precepts before the
world in what the Scientist believes to be the true
light than anything ever written other than the
church's texts that this is so may be granted. But
it is not a fact we have to concern ourselves with here.
We concede it and pass on. We pass on in either di-
rection, going back to the fourteen books which pre-
ceded The Right Princess or forward to the eight nov-
els which have appeared since The Leaven of Love.
They are the bulk of Mrs. Burnham's work. And yet
it is to be feared we shall have to bestow most of our
attention upon the six books between! They repre-
sent Mrs. Burnham's widest popularity and what is
possibly her best work judged strictly in literary as-
pects. But enough of this for the present; it is time
enough to cross bridges when we come to them. Let
us first get a glimpse of Mrs. Burnham herself.



CLARA LOUISE BURNHAM 269

A tall woman, spare in build, with light hair, blue
eyes and a merry manner, a conversationalist with an-
ecdotes, a manner of great simplicity, serenity, calm
pleasantness. She was the eldest daughter of George
F. Root, as popular a songwriter as this country has
produced. Born in Newton, Massachusetts, she has
lived most of her life in Chicago. She summers in
Maine. Her education was in the public and in pri-
vate schools in Chicago, and at the New Church
School, Waltham, Massachusetts. Politically she is,
or was, a Progressive ; and at this point we cannot do
better than to quote her own words in the Chicago
Record-Herald of November 24, 1912:

"People who see the large, sunshiny hotel room in
which I work, whose bay windows command a wide
expanse of lake, say that they no longer wonder at
the good cheer of my stories. If I ever had the blues
I should believe in the water cure. I have always
believed in the ounce of prevention. Indeed, I try it
all summer up in Maine.

"Bailey Island, my summer home, is only a sma?.
green hill in the superb sweep of the Atlantic. My
cottage stands eighty feet above the sea, and there is
nothing but water between me and Europe. It is
great fun for a woman who usually lives at a hotel
to keep house three months of the year.

"But Bailey Island is not an inspiring place. I never
work in summer. My father always told me to let
the water in the reservoir fill up then. Besides, a
brick wall is all the view I want when I am at work.
Even this dear Lake Michigan is almost too distract-
ing at times.



270 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

"Lake Michigan explains why I have not followed
the tide of successful writers to New York. I love
Chicago, with all its soot and wind. I am naturally
optimistic, and therefore expect that within the next
decade the Illinois Central will be electrified. Then
won't this spot be a winter paradise ?

"Nevertheless, it is tempting to use rny island as
a background for my stories. In The Inner Flame I
have gone back to it again. Besides, the Villa Chan-
tecler is a real place a henhouse cleared and reno-
vated by an enthusiastic young artist and given that
clever name. The Chantecler studio was too pictur-
esque an incident not to become material.

"However, very little of my material is taken from
real life. It is playing with fire to draw recognizable
portraits of people; but I fancy nearly all authors are
quite aware that they are making composite pictures
of friends or acquaintances. For instance, the man
who inspired the character of Philip Sidney, the hero
of The Inner Flame, is a brother-in-law of John Mc-
Cutcheon; while Edgar Fabian's personality and
mannerisms are copied faithfully from another one of
my friends whose character is as different from Ed-
gar's as can be imagined. It is very seldom that any
individual appeals to me as material, but when he or
she does, I generally fall. Inasmuch as in all my
books there is not one villain, I should not think they
would mind.

"I have been asked whether I have a 'method' in
writing. I have necessarily. Genius has inspira-
tions. It writes in the night, or walking in the field,
and burns cords of cigarettes. Mere talent must be



CLARA LOUISE BURNHAM 271

persistent and industrious, and can often forego cigar-
ettes.

"When I was a very young girl I read something
Miss Mulock said apropos of writing which made a
deep impression. It was this: 'An author should go
to his desk as regularly as a carpenter to his bench,
and with as little thought of inspiration.' I point to
my twenty novels as a proof that I have heeded that
direction; for if any one doubts the manual labor of
book writing let him pick up any story and copy a
chapter from it in long hand. I have averaged one
novel a year, yet my maximum period of daily work
is three morning hours.

"If a young person aspiring to print should ask me
whether there is a definite way to begin, I should
tell him to start by catching a big brother. Prefer-
ably his own, for any one else's might be a hindrance.
Mine is Frederick W. Root, ex-president of the Liter-
ary Club, Cliff Dweller, Little Roomer, and in many
other respects an orthodox Chicagoan. He has been
my mascot ever since the day when he started on the
labor and hard labor it was of drawing a young
sister away from the music which was her chief in-
terest and starting her at story writing. You know
I am one of the Roots. My father, George F. Root,
ivas known chiefly by his war songs, Tramp, Tramp,
Tramp and The Battle Cry of Freedom and so on,
but every home in the land knows his simple, melo-
dious songs, and I should like to feel that the vitality
in my unpretentious stories is akin to the spontaneous
harmony that flowed for fifty happy years from his
clear mind.



272 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

"I suppose the reason I did not wish to write was
that music satisfied me. My brother persisted against
my indifference for a year. At last we were both ex-
asperated. He shut me into a room with him one
day, and opening a very business-like looking knife,
declared with a fearful scowl that I should not leave
that room alive unless I promised to try faithfully to
write a story. I laughed a little and wept a little, and
at last promised to show him that I couldn't do it.

"Some one asked him once in my presence why he
was so certain that I could write. He replied: 'Oh,
she has a picturesque way of telling things and isn't
too much hampered by the truth.' I forgive him even
such aspersions. He is an example of what 'a heart
at leisure from itself can do for another. I owe
him everything ; above all the blessed assurance which
sometimes reaches me that my stories help others.

"It is wonderful that I met no obstacles in starting.
With no conscious preparation I was like a ship ready
to be launched. Fred pushed me off into deep water.

"I enjoy my work, but not quite in the carefree
way I used to enjoy it. With each new book now I am
conscious of some anxiety not to disappoint my large
parish ; not to go backward. Both in books and plays
I believe the destructive is doomed. In this world
there exists only one rose without a thorn. There are
many larger, more alluring, more fragrant, but there
is only one thornless rose; it is work that you love."

Mrs. Burnham rather minimizes the difficulties of
getting started. Her first stories were unfavorably
passed upon but the verdicts did not deter her. A
poem sent to Wide Awake was her first accepted work.



CLARA LOUISE BURNHAM 273

No Gentlemen was her first novel. It should be stated
that her mother also was musically gifted. Though
born in Newton, Massachusetts, the girl lived for some
years in North Reading, Massachusetts. She was nine
when the family went to Chicago to live. She was
married young and it was after her marriage that her
brother induced her to write. She is a member of the
Little Room Club of Chicago and lives there at The
Elms Hotel. Her first play, or rather the first play
made from one of her books, was The Right Princess,
and when, after the usual hitches, it was staged
smoothly at the Alcazar Theater in San Francisco late
in 1912, Mrs. Burnham confessed to the dramatist's
deepest thrill. "I will not act the doting parent ex-
cept to say that after so many years of seeing one's
characters in black and white on the printed page you
can't imagine how fascinating it is to watch them
move about in the flesh, your own creations, speaking
your own lines; and then my first my very first
villain lives in that little play."

To get to Bailey Island, Mrs. Burnham's summer
home in Maine, you go first to Portland, where the
author is as "widely and favorably known" as if she
had lived there all her life. It is, in fact, almost a
quarter of a century since she began spending her
summers in Maine. She has failed to show up but
rarely since 1894, although she did spend two summers
abroad and one visiting Yellowstone Park. "I only
spared a summer to go to Yellowstone because it was
open only in summer," she explained afterward. Her
Bailey Island house, a roomy shingled structure, stands
on a steep, shelving headland, not rocky but covered



274 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

with grass and with a pebbled beach at its foot. It
is called The Mooring. Beside it stands her brother's
house, of the same character but a little larger. The
view is over the Atlantic and Casco Bay and you
may see the White Mountains clearly. The story of
how Mrs. Burnham came to live there is related, with


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Online LibraryGrant Martin OvertonThe women who make our novels. → online text (page 17 of 23)