On Making Low People Interesting
On Making Low People Interesting
Harper's
September, 1927

Having lived of late in a part of Europe where there is very little doing in the way of English, I went for many months without reading a word in my own tongue. By working in a different set of sequences so long, my mind got a bit away from the familiar ones; it rather slacked off on the English-reading habit, as I suppose any mind that has any flexibility is bound to do. But not thinking about this, I was not conscious of the change while it was going on, and when at the end of a long period I fell heir to a dozen cast-off English novels I was surprised to find that I approached them a good deal like a stranger. On this account, I suppose, certain features of them seemed more odd and unusual than they would have seemed if I had not so completely broken with the English reading habit, and broken also so largely with the life which they represented.

Some of these novels were British, some American, and all were recent, several being of the current crop, and none more than a couple of years old, I think. They were all good sellers, and had been much talked about. One feature common to them all was that they dealt with low people. I cannot recall a single character out of the whole lot whom one would not rate as pretty distinctly low. This was all to the good, for low people are a great asset to an artist. He can do more with them than with any other kind, because their lives give him a larger range, being lived in a freer fashion, less subject to external directions and restraints. But what impressed me most was that not one of these low people was interesting. Not one of them had anything which touched off the waiting fancy and imagination of the reader. I take it that an interesting person in literature is just what he is in life. He is the kind of person who powerfully stirs your fancy and imagination, so that you want to go back to him and see him again and again, and keep on seeing him as much as you can. None of these people was like that. Bring one of them to life, and you would not cross the street to meet him or give a button to get acquainted with him. They were all so colourless in fact, so unsubstantial for literary purposes, that the authors had to be continually helping them out, finding something lively for them to do, creating one striking situation after another, to keep them going. This threw over the story a general air of fictitiousness and unreality which was dissatisfying. One novel, for instance, which dealt with the progress of a hard fisted, bull-headed English farmer-girl on her way to prosperity, culminated in her acquisition of an illegitimate child. This episode had a touch of embarrassment about it, as of something which did not belong there but had been lugged in by the ears. One might say at first sight that it was put in at a publisher's suggestion, as a gratuitous handful of incense to what Matthew Arnold called "the great goddess Aselgeia." Still, as one thought it over, there was little else for the poor girl to do, little else that was within her competence. If she had been an interesting character she need not have done it. Some one once asked Thackeray whether Becky Sharp actually did or did not "go wrong," and Thackeray replied that, for the life of him, he didn't know.

The only interest that I could discover in these stories, therefore, was in virtue of various literary devices, some legitimate, ingenious, and workman-like, and others rather ramshackle. There was not a vestige of character portrayal that was anywhere near above par; no vestige of the art that creates a character interesting in itself, irrespective of plot and dramatic action, powerfully stimulating the reader's fancy and imagination, like the forty Flemish types in Old Breughel's sketch-book—just faces, studies in feature and expression, nothing more—but what faces! Still, as I said, I had been long away from my native life and letters, and did not feel sure of my judgment; so I rummaged around for something to true up by, and finally emerged with a copy of the Pickwick Papers.

There are eighty two characters in that book, not counting those in the inserted stories, which come to sixteen more, I think; say about a hundred, all told. Regarded as folks, nearly all of them are low; and those whom one might not class precisely as low are middling ordinary. Even the virtues of Pickwick himself are prosaic. None of these people would ever set the river afire with his genius or make one's head swim with the elevation of his spirit. The great majority, I think, would be put down at once as the very riddlings of creation. But how interesting!—why, one would walk miles unending to meet one of them and, having met him, would haunt him, and delightedly follow him up and down the earth. Not especially the major characters, either, but those who appear and disappear in the course of half a page, whose personalities are so clearly and vividly struck out in a single paragraph that the reader's fancy and imagination instantly get their whole measure for life by a kind of flashlight photography. Think of Mr. Smangle, Pott, Mr. Peter Magnus, Grummer, Pell, Dowler, Mr. Leo Hunter, Bantam; think of Bob Sawyer, and of his landlady, Mrs. Raddle! It is conceded that Dickens did little with female character and did not seem interested in it, and this has led some critics to say that he was not able to do much with it. I suggest that this assumption runs hard aground on Mrs. Raddle. But there those people are, low as they can be, mostly the sheer scum of the earth, none of them really doing anything in particular—the book has hardly any literary machinery even at the outset, and promptly drops what little it starts with. There they are—that is practically all one can say about them, and since they are what they are, it is all one need say.

The Pickwick Papers, however, are rather a special kind of literary product. The preface tells us that they are not meant to be the conventional type of novel, but a loosely organized aggregation of individual characters run together on a weak thread of commonplace adventure. So, as well as I could without having the book at hand, I revived my recollections of Dickens's next story, which is in all respects quite the regular thing. Nicholas Nickleby has a formal plot, well worked out in plenty of dramatic action, for whatever these devices amount to; other authors have done as well with both, and some better. There, again, it is character, mostly of the very lowest, that gives this book its hold upon the reader's fancy and imagination. Mantalini, Gride, Crummles and his barnstormers, the Kenwigses, Squeers, Noggs, Lillyvick—surely the rarest assortment of utter riff raff, of sheer human sculch, that was ever raked together between two covers, but interesting beyond expression. The plot of Nicholas Nickleby might be what it liked, the dramatic action might go this way or that way, and no one would give a penny for the difference. So long as these people are what they are, who cares what they do? Let them stand out and mark time, if they choose, like the characters in Pickwick, for all the odds it would make. Imagine some go-getting publisher telling Charles Dickens that to "sustain the human interest," and really to "put the book over with a bang," he ought to get Kate Nickleby in the family way by Sir Mulberry Hawk, and fork in all the biological details of the episode that the law allows!

II

But Dickens is Dickens, and one may not expect the average run of authorship to match him, and certainly one would not wish it to imitate him. One might reasonably expect it to emulate him, however, if indeed character portrayal be any longer regarded as part of authorship's job. The samples I had been assaying did not show traces of any such effort, so I resolved to look farther into the matter. When I came back into the English-speaking world, therefore, I began to persecute my whole literary acquaintance for points on the status of character-portrayal. Was it by way of becoming a lost art, and if so, why? There seemed to be a complete consensus of opinion that it was. Cultivated amateurs and those whose connection with literature is professional told me that character in current English fiction was becoming standardized into a very few types, and that even those few were vague and vapid. As for my second question, I got various answers which I think may be susceptible of synthesis.

To begin with a rather extreme view, a brisk young acquaintance of mine, who is fond of drawing distinctions in favour of "this generation" and "the modern spirit in art" (probably noticing that I am getting on in years and my critical guns a little honeycombed) tells me that no one cares any more for character portrayal. This shift in taste is due to "the new psychology"—whatever that is--and the thing nowadays is to produce a kind of literary chart or graph of "what goes on in a person's mind." The acme of achievement in the new art is reached, I believe, when one succeeds in showing by what seems a pretty strictly journalistic method "how he got that way." I speak cautiously about these matters, for I feel uncertain about them, not sure that I understand them very well. Like Artemus Ward, I skurcely kno what those air. As well as I can judge, however, one of the novels in my original exhibit would seem to come somewhere near filling my young friend's bill.

It was rather literally the inside story of the development, if one may call it that, of a young girl of the period, a flapper. This flapper was a filthy little trollop—which I hasten to say is no objection to her, for many great characters in fiction are shocking trollops. A trollop is a first rate literary property, plenty good enough for anybody as far as she goes; but qua trollop, she does not go very far, and a good artist knows it. His literary instinct warns him that in this capacity alone she is worth only about a stickful, nonpareil, on the eighth page, last column. If he wants her to be a real headliner, he must freight her up with something more substantial for literary purposes.

But this young woman was a trollop all the time, twenty-four hours a day, being apparently devoid of any other faculty. She was good for nothing else. This gave the story a pathological turn—a turn of very special and extremely limited interest, quite ludicrously inadequate to the amount of space employed to tell it. I was reminded by contrast, though the stories have essentially something in common, of Bill Nye's story of an omnivorous dog that he once had, named Entomologist, who ate some liquid plaster-of-Paris one day, and did not survive the experiment. Bill held an autopsy and salvaged the plaster for a memento, using it as a paperweight, with the inscription, "Plaster cast of Entomologist, taken by himself—interior view." This was as much of a story as these humble literary properties were worth, and Bill was enough of a literary artist to refrain from trying to stretch it. Consequently, as far as he goes, Entomologist is an interesting figure; he stirs one's fancy and imagination in a small way, but an agreeable way, and sets them at work reconstructing the circumstances and filling in the details for oneself. A good artist is one who prods up one's fancy and imagination to do all this sort of work. If the creator of this flapper had been anything of an artist, her annals would have amounted to a paragraph. I think I know what went on in Mr. Jingle's mind most of the time, quite as well as if Dickens had psychologized and analyzed him and delivered long winded disquisitions on how he got that way.

This may be the logical place to comment on one general tendency common to the dozen novels that formed my corpus vile for dissection. They all dealt largely with sex-relations, usually irregular. Complaint of this tendency is common enough, but the ground of complaint never seemed to me well taken, and I always wondered why so much should be made of bad reasons for complaining of it when it is just as easy to propose a good one. Sexual irregularities are in themselves unobjectionable for literary purposes, as far as I can see, and I think it is simply silly to pretend a "moral issue" in their treatment. The real trouble is with the author's own relation to his subject. An author's own obvious preoccupation with sexual affairs, regular or irregular—I say obvious, because one can discern it instantly—is objectionable, for the reason that the amount of actual literary material which these affairs provide is never enough to satisfy this preoccupation. It will not go far in the construction of a noveli and his preoccupation keeps him trying to make it go farther than it will go.

For instance, one of the novels in my exhibit propounded a curious prairie dog's nest of unwholesome mortals, whose whole existence seemed to be made up of pigging together in joyous squalor through three hundred solid pages. This was the total impression conveyed by the story, and it was most unpleasantly dull. Not a character in the book had the slightest pretension to interest—one listlessly wished they would all go off together down a steep place into the sea and get drowned, like their lineal forefathers of Gadara. A very good story can be made of the antecedents and consequences of any mode or form of concubinage, from marriage up and down, but the actual technique of concubinage itself is not diversified enough to permit a writer to do anything with it worth speaking of. It is too undifferentiated, except for subjective conditions which are not reproducible upon a reader. Except for these conditions, which are potent enough but quite unreproducible upon a third person, living with one woman is almost precisely like living with another—even the standard jokes and cartoons on the subject show that; and if it be so in life which brings into play all the small interest-provoking accidents of social contact and entourage, the general effect of which also is quite unreproducible, how much more so in literature!

To make the case clearer, let us introduce a couple of parallels from one, by the way, who is the unquestioned master in the art of showing "what goes on in a person's mind"—from Tourgueniev. First Love, to begin with, is a story of low people; only one person in it, the narrator, is anything but a very poor affair. The heroine, Zinaida, is a flapper of seventeen or so. Here you have the real thing in flappers and the real thing in trollops. Qua flapper and qua trollop, Zinaida makes the candidates put forward by our contemporary literature look like Confederate money. The bare story is squalid and repulsive; a journalistic report of it would be unreadable. But as Tourgueniev unfolds it, the great goddess Lubricity gets not a single grain of incense. Not one detail is propounded for the satisfaction of prurience. The people, dreadful as they are, and the drama, weighted as it is with all that is unnatural and shocking in Zinaida and her paramour, are more than interesting; they are profoundly moving, they release a flow of sympathy that effaces all other emotions, and one lays down the book with a sense of being really humanized and bettered by having read it. Let the reader get it in Mrs. Garnett's excellent translation, and experiment for himself. Then let him go even farther, and try Torrents of Spring. This is a story of the antecedents and consequences of adultery plus seduction, brought about under inconceivably loathsome circumstances. The three principal characters are detestably low. The foremost among them, Maria Nikolaevna, in my judgment the most interesting woman in the whole range of fiction—what would one not give to see her and talk with her for an hour?—is the world's prize slut, if ever there were one. But the author has not the slightest preoccupation with her sluttishness, and hence he communicates none to the reader, and the great goddess Aselgeia goes begging again.

III

Some of my literary acquaintances whom I have questioned tell me that authors write too fast. Eager to satisfy the market, they do not take time to portray character. I doubt the force of this. Dickens wrote furiously against time all his life. Haste drove him into some pretty indifferent grammar sometimes, and often loosened his constructions. But it never switched him off from a straight drive at the essential features of character. If he sketched an individual in seven strokes, you "get" that individual—you get him all. Those seven are the essential strokes, and you can fill in the rest for yourself without any trouble. In this power of instant penetration to the essential he is like Old Breughel. Haste should not interfere with this power in the modern artist, if he has it. It might make him a little slovenly in his technical expression of the essentials after he has caught them, but it should not impair his ability to catch them. It seems to me, therefore, that this explanation will not wash.

Another said that authorship nowadays did not compose with its eye on the object. Its vision wavered about sometimes on the object, sometimes on arbitrary formulas of interpretation set by publishing-policy, sometimes on possible liberties to be taken with the reader's mind, and so on. But if an artist's eye wanders, he is aware of it; he tears up his sketch, curses himself once or twice, and starts all over again. He knows at once where the trouble is. If he did not he would be no artist, and should be advised to give up literature and take to something else. This criticism, there fore, amounts to saying that we have no artists, or the chance of any, which I doubt. I doubt it on the strength of collateral evidence presented by some of the novels that I am discussing. An other said that current authorship did not know enough about human beings; its experience was superficial and journalistic, not going deep enough to provide a mature, objective, but kindly insight. There is no doubt something in this, but if so, I suggest that it only moves the problem one step backward. Granted that the author has not enough depth of experience, why does not the instinct of an artist make him bestir himself and get it?

My notion is that the author is not altogether at fault. It takes more than the man to make an artist; it takes the combination of the man and the moment, the man and the milieu. An artist must have models, and for him to have them, the civilization around him must produce them. Old Breughel sketched marvellously interesting faces, but the faces were there for him to sketch; the civilization of Brussels produced them, as it still does—you can see a hundred an hour there, any day. British literature, up to a half century ago, has been peculiarly rich in interesting character—well, British life was peculiarly rich in it. By all accounts, London of 1827 was swarming with models for Dickens.

No doubt the modern author might do better than he does, since we all might well do that, but I suggest that he cannot be expected to do inordinately better than the civilization around him provides him the technical means of doing. A physician once told me that smallpox had been so far subdued that a whole generation of physicians had come on who had never seen a case; and if one of them by chance did encounter a stray case, he had nothing but booklearning to meet it with. If an author does not reproduce a character of interesting distinction, it is fair to ask how many such characters he ever saw. If his insight into character is superficial, it is fair to ask how much opportunity his civilization ever gave him for deepening it. If his people—especially his low people, his flappers and trollops, his ragamuffins and adventurers—lack savour and individuality, how many such people has he ever known who actually had more? If his types are few and standardized, how about his practicable models? It is rather significant, I think, that the best work, the most artistic work, in character-portrayal done in America is done upon models furnished by encysted cultures, by people who cleave with obstinate tenacity to their traditional bent, and maintain it against the levelling force of the civilization around them—the Irish, for example, and the Jews. Even so capable and experienced a writer as Willa Cather never succeeded in depicting character as she has done in her last book by going back to a transplanted civilization for available models. Potash and Perlmutter, their bloodthirsty competitors, their operators and finishers, their wives' relations, are all really pretty dreadful people, but what profoundly interesting characters they are, how vivid, brilliant, and individual are their qualities! In actual life, too, they are pretty dreadful people. I sometimes think there will be a record-breaking pogrom in New York some day, and there are occasions even now when the most peace-loving person among us wishes he could send over for a couple of sotnias of Cossacks to floor-manage the subway rush. But if one can get on an isle of safety somewhere and survey them, how absorbingly interesting they are. Think of Mr. Goldblatt and his son-in-law, of Henry Feigenbaum and, above all of Uncle Mosha Kronberg!—there is an interesting individual for you, as full of fascinations as a cucumber is of seeds.

I once asked an American portrait-painter, a very good one, how many faces had ever turned up in the day's work that really challenged his artistic insight and penetration, like the innumerable great faces put on the canvas by Maes, Hals, Steen, Rembrandt, Fabritius, Koninck, de Backer, and a host of others. He said perhaps two or three. I know that on my return to America after a long sojourn among Belgian types, the most striking impression made upon me was of the curiously uniform, undistinguished, characterless quality of the faces about me. There were perhaps half a hundred Americans on the ship with me, and for two days after we landed, while I was getting my sea-legs off and becoming used to my surroundings, I kept seeing those people all over New York. It was an extremely odd experience. Of course it was not the same person in any case, but each one of the whole series of resemblances was strong enough to take me in for several minutes. What can a portrait painter do? Similarly, what can a literary artist do?

Moreover, the freemasonry of was uns alle bandigt, das Gemeine affects the reading public, as well as the artist, in an unfavorable way. No one can make much out of Dickens without some knowledge of the economic and social life of his day. The appreciation of his power of character-portrayal is largely a matter of the interest bred by general information and general culture. When I saw the play "Potash and Perlmutter" some years ago, I seemed to be the only person in the house who was not a Jew. I saw it twice more, and remarked the same phenomenon. I wondered how its power of character-portrayal, much better felt in the stories than in the play, of course, affected the average of the Goyim; whether their general level of culture was high enough to enable them disinterestedly to appraise it for what it was worth. Several times, at a period when I was in a position to do so, I have experimented with promising young sprigs of the hire learning, who had "specialized in English literature," Gott soll huten, by noting what signs they showed of sparking up over great examples of character-portrayal. I never got my investment back. If I got a net of three cents on the dollar I was as elated as if I had found it in the street. Since those days, when I have see my countrymen pausing before portraits done by the old Flemish masters, I have wondered what impression was made upon them by the faces themselves, as indices of character.

IV

1, therefore, suggest, with all possible delicacy, that hopes of "the great American novel" are extravagant. This art requires great subjects; and the life about us does not provide them. It requires a very special order of correspondence between the artist and his environment; and the life about us does not promote this or even permit it. Our civilization, rich and varied as it may be, is not interesting; its general level falls too far below the standard set by the collective experience of mankind. If one points with pride to our endless multiplication of the mechanics of existence, and our incessant unintelligent preoccupation with them, the artist replies that with all this he can do nothing. What he demands is great and interesting character, character that powerfully stirs the fancy and imagination, and a civilization in which such interests are dominant cannot supply it.

Today's newspapers carry an item from one of our mid-Western towns, saying that in a raid on some swindling charlatan the police discovered hundreds of letters from people who were burdened with intolerable tedium, which they declared they would do anything in the world to escape "if only he would advise them how." Yet these people had an available apparatus of comfort and of enjoyment surpassing anything ever seen in the world. No doubt they had movies handy, and money enough to patronize them, since the submerged tenth does not write to frauds. Probably many of them had Ford cars, and radio sets yielding jazz to dance by; probably they were better dressed and fed, and more comfortably housed, than people of a station corresponding to theirs have ever been! But all this did not make for an interesting life; and they knew so little what such a life consisted in, and the terms on which it was to be had, that they turned to this wretched fellow's nostrum, whatever it was, in pathetic and ignorant hope. Their case is common; everyone knows that it is, let him pretend as he chooses. Everyone is aware that the failure of our civilization is precisely this failure in interest, for which not hing can make up. Our collective life is not "lived from a great depth of being," but from the surface; and the mark of the collective life is on the individual.

Perhaps our civilization knows how to transform itself; if so, the artist may ultimately have his chance. Perhaps, again, it is permissible to see a kind of allegory in the story of the man who fed his horse on shavings. For some reason, he said, just about as the horse began really to like them, "it up and died on him."


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