The Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Literary Aspects of America

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Literary Aspects of America: An After Luncheon Talk Between Dr. A. Conan Doyle and Hamilton W. Mabie is an interview of Arthur Conan Doyle conducted by Hamilton W. Mabie published in the Ladies' Home Journal in march 1895.

The interview was conducted when Arthur Conan Doyle was touring in USA giving lectures about literature.

Literary Aspects of America

Ladies' Home Journal (march 1895, p. 6)

An After Luncheon Talk Between Dr. A. Conan Doyle and Hamilton W. Mabie

Printed in substitution of the announced article on "How Your Women Impressed Me," by Dr. Doyle, the present subject being considered more in line with the author's work.

Few foreign writers who have visited this country have made more friends than A. Conan Doyle. His personality is a peculiarly attractive one to Americans, because it is so thoroughly whole-some. The first impression which he makes is one of entire health of body and mind, and further acquaintance with him confirms this first impression of what Emerson would call his sanity. His nature is essentially objective, and he is apparently without that self-consciousness which is the bane of so many highly-organized Americans of his own craft. Simple, sincere, unaffected and honest, Dr. Doyle has that background of old English qualities which, united with great kindliness of spirit and courtesy of manner, makes friends and holds them. Moreover, Dr. Doyle is one of those Englishmen whose readings and affinities not only made a visit to this country inevitable, but prepared the way for mutual confidence and liking.

I the conversation, the substance of which is recorded here, he spoke with undisguised enthusiasm of his early acquaintance with American books and of his delight in them. No American boy could have come more intimately into association with the early American writers than did the boy whose early youth was spent in Edinburgh. From the time when he began to read with any degree of intelligence, Dr. Doyle declared, he had been greatly interested in American history and fiction. If he did not tumble about in an American library, he tumbled about with American books, and his Americana were among the very best. The future writer of historical romance and adventure was especially drawn to Fenimore Cooper, whose tales of sea and land caught the fancy of his boyhood, and for whom he still entertains a great regard ; and to two other Americans as distinctive in their individuality and their quality as any story writers who have yet written on this continent, Hawthorne and Bret Harte. Dr. Doyle speaks of "The Scarlet Letter" as the greatest novel yet written in America. He was fascinated as a boy by the subtle genius of the author of "The Snow Image" and "The Great Stone Face," and those other finely-conceived bits of psychology so dramatic in their expression and so touched with the imperishable charm of art. The novelty of the situations in Bret Harte's stories, the newness of the dialect and the uncommon blending of heroic and criminal qualities in hero and heroine had a kindred spell for an imaginative boy, who had active hands and feet, as well as an active mind, and whose imagination responded to the appeal of that which is adventurous, as well as that which is unusual and subtle. Dr. Doyle says that he knew "Tennessee's Partners" and "The Luck of Roaring Camp" by heart.

He was early drawn, also, to American historical writing. He revealed, as many an American boy has done, in Washington Irving's "Conquest of Granada," which he regards as a storehouse for the imagination of a boy of chivalrous impulse ; and one may venture to guess that it was this kind of reading which laid the foundation for the writing of "The White Company." He was also an assiduous reader of Prescott. One of the great regrets of his visit to this country was the fact that he could not shake hands with Dr. Holmes, and tell the genial "Autocrat," in his youthful age how many delightful hours had been spent in Edinburgh in the society of the Boston wit, poet and philosopher. Dr. Doyle regards "The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table" as one of the most distinctive and original of American books. Of Poe's genius as a writer of short stories he cannot say enough. He regards him as pre-eminently the master of this literary form, and as the inventor of the detective story, to which the "Sherlock Holmes" series makes the most definite and extended English contribution. The imaginative quality, the intellectual skill, the keen adaptation of means to ends, the subtlety of insight, the management of dramatic effects — upon all these qualities Dr. Doyle delights to dwell by way of emphasizing his own indebtedness to Poe and his recognition of Poe's great abilities.

This interest in American writers, which I gave Dr. Doyle's childhood in Edinburgh an American background and environment, has never died out. On the contrary, he shows great familiarity with the later writers and with contemporary novelists in this country. He gives George W. Cable very high rank as a literary artist, and puts "The Grandissimes" among the best American works of fiction. For Miss Wilkins' "Pembroke" he expresses the very highest admiration. It is the greatest American novel, he says, since "The Scarlet Letter." Of the genius of Henry James he is also very appreciative ; and although he finds himself differing very widely from Mr. Howells in his view of fiction and literature in general, he has a hearty word for the delightful art, the genuine humor, and the high-minded moral endeavor of the author of "A Modern Instance." In Joel Chandler Harris he finds one of the raciest and most original of American writers, and in "Uncle Remus" he has taken unbounded delight. Among books for children he places "Uncle Remus" and Rudyard Kipling's "Jungle Book" at the very top of the list. These are all books of genius — fresh, original, genuine, and conceived and expressed from the child's standpoint.

In answer to the question, "What do you think is the special tendency of fiction in this country and in England?"

Dr. Doyle said : "I think the special tendency at present is toward what may be called local fiction — the presentation of local types, and I think this is likely to become a great danger. Provincialism is a thing to be avoided in art. The value of the local type depends entirely upon the power of the writer to make it significant of universal traits. In the Window in Thrums' Barrie describes with charming art an old-world village, full of local color, shut off in a way from the movement of life, intensely provincial, but that which he describes under these local forms is the universal substance of human nature. We are interested in Thrums because behind those local types and that local dialect, which have a novelty for us, there are revealed with a powerful hand the impulses, the passions and the experiences which are common to all mankind. This is the secret of the power of Miss Wilkins in Pembroke,' which deals with a little New England village, and with very strongly-marked New England types, but which works out in that village and through those characters a drama of human passion and suffering which is local only in the sense that it is placed on a particular stage. In England, as in this country, the present tendency in fiction is very strongly toward local portraiture. Almost every new work of fiction is a study of some section of the United Kingdom. Scotland has not only been divided up among the novelists, but England is fast being divided also. There are novels of Devonshire, of Cornwall, of Sussex, of the Isle of Man, of Yorkshire, of Somersetshire. It looks as if the map of literature were being broken up into counties. So far these local types have been drawn by very strong hands, and they have made a great impression, because the artistic instinct behind them has made the local character illustrative of universal experience ; but there is danger that the tendency, if carried too far, will end in a very bare and unprofitable study of details and local minutiae without general significance. I have heard a good deal of talk in this country which has seemed to me essentially unsound, because it has emphasized geographical divisions rather than the principles of art. In the nature of things there cannot be such a thing as a sectional literature. You may have schools of writers in the West and the South, as you have had in the East, but the attempt to build up literature on sectional lines is doomed to failure. Wherever Eastern, Southern and Western life has been touched with a powerful hand it has been immensely interesting, not because of its sectional, but because of its universal features. In all true fiction the type must be very strongly and distinctly drawn, and in this way all literature must be very definitely localized. But it should be borne in mind that the emphasis must be laid not on the local, but on the universal elements, and it will be a great mistake to emphasize the sectional tendency as opposed to the national tendency."

Mr. Mabie : "What do you regard as the most striking difference between current French and English fiction?"

Dr. Doyle : "The greater freedom with which the facts of life are used by French writers. The realistic movement in France has concerned itself altogether too much with the duel between man and woman, and it has stated it in language altogether too free. It has dealt with it too much in detail and with too little reserve. It is impossible for writers who have an English education, or who use the English language, to employ the same freedom in dealing with this fundamental question between the sexes, and therefore the realistic movement in England, instead of taking the direction which it has taken in France, has expressed itself in a very close and careful study of local types."

In answer to the question as to whether he noted any generic difference between English and American writing, Dr. Doyle said that he thought there might be, on the whole, greater virility in English writers and more refinement and spirituality among American writers. "This is brought out, perhaps, by contrasting Carlyle and Emerson. Emerson has altogether the purer and more spiritual element. Carlyle has the greater force. He is not so wedded to principles as Emerson, nor so open to truth from all sides. He has far less universality, but he has a tremendous grasp of facts. In America, too, I think the art instinct is more highly developed. There is more attention paid to style. Prose work, as a whole, is more carefully done here than in England, but there is some danger in this refinement of spirit. It is the danger of substituting the mustard for the roast beef. Style must be kept well in hand with relation to substance, or the work loses its solidity and reality."

Mr. Mabie : "Have you been able to form any opinion as to the relative extent of book reading in this country and in England?"

Dr. Doyle : "I have thought a good deal of that, and I am of opinion that books are more read in England than in this country. The workingmen in England seem to me to be, in a sense, better read than the workingmen in this country, because they read books where the American workingman reads newspapers. I should say that, taking magazines and newspapers into account, the reading habit is more general in America than in England, but that, on the whole, more time is given to the reading of books of the best literature in England than in America. At least, this is the result of my observation."

Mr. Mabie : "Do you think that the international audience, which writers who use the English language now have, will exert any noticeable influence on the literature of the future?"

Dr. Doyle : "I am very strongly of opinion that the international character of the constituency which a writer now secures will exercise a very marked influence on the writers of the future. It will drive out the devil of malice and ignorance which has so long manifested its presence in the comments of one race or one nation upon another. Americans and Englishmen cannot be constantly reading the same books, written by writers of both races, without getting rid of a great deal of the old-time insular ignorance of each other and prejudice against each other. The community of interest and of art which literature is constantly fostering must tend insensibly not only to bring the two races together, but to educate the writers in both races to a broader and juster view of each other. You cannot be always abusing your readers. A writer must finally come not only to respect, but to understand his constituency. International prejudices must die out with international ignorance, and international ignorance cannot resist the influence of a common literature. English writers addressing an American audience will be educated out of insular prejudices and misconceptions, and American writers speaking to English readers will forget the old-time hostilities. In this way the imperceptible drawing together of the two peoples will not only educate the writers of both countries, but the people as well. I believe in the future supremacy of the English-speaking races. In this country you do not appreciate what is going on in Australia and the other great English colonies. You have a good deal of the indifference toward them which used to be felt in England toward yourselves. They are growing mightily, however, and you will have to reckon with them some day."

Mr. Mabie : "What do you think of present literary conditions here?"

Dr. Doyle : "It seems to me that you are in a transition period. You have completed one notable chapter in your literary history and you have opened another ; but it is too soon, and it would be presumptuous, to pass an opinion upon the chapter now being written as if it were complete. You have a great many writers of force and originality, and there are many indications which are full of promise for the future. I was impressed by the literary feeling in the West : the keen interest, the fresh insight, the general openness of mind and readiness to follow new lines. 1 was delighted with some of the men I met : with their first-hand dealing with things, and with their clear perception of literary values and possibilities. In a country so full of original types, and of such immense energy, and among a people so active intellectually, you cannot fail of ultimate literary productiveness on a large scale and of high quality. There is an extraordinary richness of material here, both in your history and your present conditions, and sooner or later the life of the country will express itself in books. Fiction especially ought to find here a rich and stimulating soil. There is everything here which the novelist needs, and the human interest of the country is so great that he ought to need no other stimulus."

Dr. Doyle recurred several times during the conversation to American humor, of which his enjoyment is evidently very keen. He thinks that American humor is one of the most distinctive of American gifts. He notes its intellectual quality, its lightness and keenness, as illustrated in Dr. Holmes; its breadth and power of grotesque contrast, as illustrated in the more popular humorists ; and its kinship to the deepest human feelings and to the pathos of common life, as illustrated in some of the Western humorists of the higher class. "I believe," he said, "that humor is one of the great tests of literature. With two or three exceptions I do not recall any great writers who have not possessed it. It is one of the most distinctive qualities, and one in which racial difference and individual temperament reveal themselves most clearly. It is one of the qualities which cannot be simulated, but which must be original. The humor of Shakespeare, of Dickens, of Thackeray, pervades their most original work."

In answer to the question as to his opinion with regard to two or three novels recently published, which have attracted wide attention by reason of their power and intensity, Dr. Doyle declared that he did not think that the reputation of these stories rested on a lasting basis, because they were defective in humor. The lightness of touch, the variety of interest, and the ease and freshness which go with humor are, in his judgment, very closely allied with it, and together they constitute the essential equipment of the literary artist. Without them in some form no book can endure as a work of art, however much ability it represents, or whatever toil be expended upon it.