Putnam's Monthly Magazine
New York: November 1855


  A CROP OF NOVELS.—The autumn brings us, along with the pears and grapes, a large ingathering of novels, and these, like the fruit, are some of them under-ripe, some just ripe enough, and some so over-ripe as to be rotten. Among the names to be recorded are Twice Married, Clouds and Sunshine, Oakfield, Ethel, or the Double Error, Aspirations, Light and Darkness, The Old Homestead, The Old Farm House, The Rag Picker, Isora's Child, The Elder Sister, The Match Girl, The Deserted Wife, etc., etc. Strange as it may appear, we confess to have read the greater part of these without having been obliged to send for a physician, or exciting the solicitude of our friends as to the continued sanity of our intellects. At the same time, it should be remembered that we have had much experience in this line, and that our head is become very hard. We should not advise any immature or unseasoned brain to expose itself to the same operation

  ...As to the other novels on our list, we cannot speak of them in detail. They are of various merits, some pretty good, but the most of them indifferent; that is, as Pope unjustly says of women, they have no character at all. They are stories of passion and sentiment, without much local truth or probability of incident, and incapable of lasting effects. They are written mainly by females, who, with acute and lively feelings, and a tolerable command of English, have yet no decided artistic impulse, and who now write novels, as


they formerly wrote tales and verses for the newspapers, partly to get rid of a present uneasiness, but mainly in the hope of reaping a pecuniary reward. They are rather inspired by the successes of others than by any genius of their own: and the consequence is, a great lack of originality in their plots and characters, and a kind of stereotyped flux of sentiment. Mr. Charles Dickens and Mrs. Stowe are answerable for a large number of these offenders. The Little Nell and her old Grandfather of the one, and the Uncle Toms and George Harrises of the other are the parents of an immense progeny of similar personages. Among our American novels, in particular, it seems to be absolutely essential that they should contain, one shabby old gentleman, who is also a perfect miracle of goodness, a Lamplighter, a Rag-picker, a Newsman, or what not, a little girl or little boy, deserted by their relatives, whom the old gentleman provides for, and who are also miracles of precocious goodness, one hardened, desperate villain, who, for inscrutable reasons, insists upon persecuting the little one, one amiable, and pious, and sweet, and all-accomplished young lady of the upper circles, who goes about among the poor quoting Scripture and doing an immense deal of indefinable good; and one selfish, fashionable woman, very rich, who turns out to be the mother of the little girl or the little boy, and leaves her or him all her wealth, when he or she marries the pious young lady or her pious brother, and everybody, including the old Rag-pickers and Lamplighters, get vastly happy. Or else our novelists take up the temperance and anti-slavery "dodges," and perfectly inundate us with beastly drunkards, who afterwards reform and become model husbands, fathers, and citizens, or with villainous Haleys, unprincipled and cruel, but gentlemanly Southerners, and marvelous fugitive negroes. One reads so much, indeed, of these classes, that he is tempted to forswear temperance and anti-slavery all the days of his life. As to the notions of happiness which some of these writers cherish, we quote a specimen from one of the novels before us. Describing a New Year's day, after all the characters had got fairly through their troubles, and the right ones were married, it says:—

  "They evinced their joy and hilarity in 'blind-man's buff,' 'searching for the key-hole,' 'hunt the slipper,' and all sorts of 'forfeitings,' during which Julie was kissed, and Carrie was kissed (suspicious Charlie Wells not playing fair by any means) a hundred times, and Annie was kissed, and they all kissed Toney, and Henry, and Charlie Wells (who, when he was questioned, said he liked it), and Davy, and even the boy Buff, who kissed right back again (as if he was no nigger at all!), and they rollicked and raced to their heart's content, while everybody kissed good old Davy, and Davy kissed everybody else, and there seemed to be no end to the love, and joy, and ecstasy of this gloriously happy gathering."

  We presume, therefore, that they have gone on kissing to this very day, and that the pop of the smackings must, by this time, be as loud as the rattle of musketry at Sebastopol.

  The writers of these novels mean to be very moral: the sentiments they depict or inculcate are all, as Sir Peter Teazle would say, "excellent sentiments:" they would scorn to be thought anything else than the superfinest friends of virtue; and yet the highest that most of them attain is to a milk-and-water, puling, superficial and nauseous sentimentalism. They work upon the sensibilities, and not upon the conscience of the will; and the good feelings they excite, by their highly-cololred pictures, are about as lasting as the fine friendships a fellow forms over his cups, or the religion he puts on during a stress of weather at sea. It is the easiest thing in the world to invent a series of characters, and place them in situations which shall draw tears from the eyes of every reader: the French literature and the French stage abound in tales and dramas, commonly of the domestic sort, which are positively heart-rending; all the while, too, they are radically false in principle and untrue to life. But it is not easy to create a character which shall enlarge our ideals of the power and greatness of our nature, nor combine circumstances into a clear and beautiful narrative, which the reader will forever carry in his memory as an inspiration and a charm. It is not, however, at these ends that fiction should aim, and not at the excitement of transient, and, for the most part, fictitious emotion?

  What the "mob of ladies who write with ease" now-a-days chiefly fail in, is charac-


ter—the principal element of success in fiction, as it is the highest and best attainment of conduct in actual life. They seldom get beyond a few conventional symbols, which they christen with new names, and call characters. Yet there is no more individuality in them, no more organic life, than there is in the show images which the boys make at school. After reading four or five hundred pages of their sayings and doings, all the conception you have of them is of puppets, one one of whom represented the darling little Annie, and another the good old David, and a third the dark-visaged villain, Mr. Anthracite. They are brought together, put through a certain course of events, alternately adverse and propitious (and most generally improbable), and then disappear, when there is an end of them altogether. Like the infant of whom the wag wrote the epitaph, "they are so soon done for, we wonder what they were begun for." Born inanities, they die inanities, and nobody is helped, and nothing is gained. Now, old Homer's heroes, though three thousand years old, are to-day as distinct as statues; and so are Shakespeare's, and Cervantes', and Fielding's, and Scott's, and Thackeray's, and some of Dickens's. Our children's children will know them intimately as we know them; but as for that rabble of pretended personages which crowds the pages of our current fiction—pages which it is so sad a waste of time to write or to read—it will pass away like the figures of the magic lantern, when the candles are lighted.