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Club Talk
by [?]

A few weeks ago our novelists were discussing the reasons why they were novelists and not playwrights. The discussion was sterile enough, in all conscience: but one contributor–it was “Lucas Malet”–managed to make it clear that English fiction has a character to lose. “If there is one thing,” she said, “which as a nation we understand, it is out-of-doors by land and sea.” Heaven forbid that, with only one Atlantic between me and Mr. W.D. Howells, I should enlarge upon any merit of the English novel: but I do suggest that this open-air quality is a characteristic worth preserving, and that nothing is so likely to efface it as the talk of workshops. It is worth preserving because it tends to keep us in sight of the elemental facts of human nature. After all, men and women depend for existence on the earth and on the sky that makes earth fertile; and man’s last act will be, as it was his first, to till the soil. All empires, cities, tumults, civil and religious wars, are transitory in comparison. The slow toil of the farm-laborer, the endurance of the seaman, outlast them all.

Open Air in Criticism.

That studio-talk tends to deaden this sense of the open-air is just as certain. It runs not upon Nature, but upon the presentation of Nature. I am almost ready to assert that it injures a critic as surely as it spoils a creative writer. Certainly I remember that the finest appreciation of Carlyle–a man whom every critic among English-speaking races had picked to pieces and discussed and reconstructed a score of times–was left to be uttered by an inspired loafer in Camden, New Jersey. I love to read of Whitman dropping the newspaper that told him of Carlyle’s illness, and walking out under the stars–

“Every star dilated, more vitreous, larger than usual. Not as in some clear nights when the larger stars entirely outshine the rest. Every little star or cluster just as distinctly visible and just as high. Berenice’s hair showing every gem, and new ones. To the north-east and north the Sickle, the Goat and Kids, Cassiopeia, Castor and Pollux, and the two Dippers. While through the whole of this silent indescribable show, inclosing and bathing my whole receptivity, ran the thought of Carlyle dying.”

In such a mood and place–not in a club after a dinner unearned by exercise–a man is likely, if ever, to utter great criticism as well as to conceive great poems. It is from such a mood and place that we may consider the following fine passage fitly to issue:–

“The way to test how much he has left his country were to consider, or try to consider, for a moment the array of British thought, the resultant ensemble of the last fifty years, as existing to-day, but with Carlyle left out. It would be like an army with no artillery. The show were still a gay and rich one–Byron, Scott, Tennyson, and many more–horsemen and rapid infantry, and banners flying–but the last heavy roar so dear to the ear of the trained soldier, and that settles fate and victory, would be lacking.”

For critic and artist, as for their fellow-creatures, I believe an open-air life to be the best possible. And that is why I am glad to read in certain newspaper paragraphs that Mr. Gilbert Parker is at this moment on the wide seas, and bound for Quebec, where he starts to collect material for a new series of short stories. His voyage will loose him, in all likelihood, from the little he retains of club art.

Of course, a certain proportion of our novelists must write of town life: and to do this fitly they must live in town. But they must study in the town itself, not in a club. Before anyone quotes Dickens against me, let him reflect, first on the immensity of Dickens’ genius, and next on the conditions under which Dickens studied London. If every book be a part of its writer’s autobiography I invite the youthful author who now passes his evenings in swapping views about Art with his fellow cockneys to pause and reflect if he is indeed treading in Dickens’ footsteps or stands in any path likely to lead him to results such as Dickens achieved.