TEN years ago the name of Gertrude Atherton had a remote place in American literature. What place does the name occupy today ?
It is really hard to say. One critic has boldly likened her to George Eliot; an-other has spoken of her as a ” literary experimenter on generally unfortunate subjects.” Of one thing we are certain : the reading public takes a lively interest in her books.
Probably Mrs. Atherton would wish to be judged by “Senator North.” That story, to be sure, appeared during a period of flamboyant advertising, when many books were expanded balloon-like some of them to explode ignominiously. Let us see what sort of judgment was passed on the author of ” Senator North.”
The critic who saw in her another George Eliot said : ” Mrs. Atherton . . . is a real writer in every sense of the word. She is as born to tell stories as the men who made the ,Arabian Nights,’ and she has that rare power of evoking a living human being with a stroke or two, with almost the mere mention of a name. However she may elaborate a character later on, we have never to wait for that elaboration to realize her heroes and heroines. Like a clever hostess she has a gift for making them really ‘ known’ to the reader by little more than saying Miss So-and-So, or she will start off with a bit of dialogue that subtly sets two people before you in less than a page. Then she has command of a spontaneous, direct, supple and pointed prose style, which is entirely free from affectation. She is one of the wittiest of modern writers, but the wit is the crack-ling of the superabundant electricity of her brain and not that paradoxical jigging of the mind which is one of the warnings of cerebral paralysis. She is ‘ smart,’ of course, at times, but all wit is sometimes that. More than any living writer I can think of, her wit reminds me, in its essential quality, of Mr. George Merediththough superficially, it lacks the manner-isms which occasionally obscure the calm spaces of that great wisdom. Real wit flashes out of the full conquering mind, as real laughter ripples from a full happy heart, like wine out of a bottle.”
Another opinion possibly a minority opinion handed down, characterized ” Senator North ” as ” a somewhat hysterical study of Washington life.” The judge passed over the literary aspects of the case, however, and differed with Mrs. Atherton on sociological points.
It has been thus for the last six years. We doubt that any other American romanticist divides the critics into two camps so regularly and so resistlessly. Of the profit-able faculty of exciting critical disputes Mrs. Atherton is one of the largest possessors.
During the reign of ” Senator North ” we met the suggestion that an Atherton “birthday book” might be compiled.
Here are a few quotations, taken at random from ” Senator North,” that illustrate the author’s wit and wisdom :
” Betty (the heroine of course you re-member Betty Madison) had been educated by private tutors, then taken abroad for two years to France, Germany and Italy, in order, as she herself observed, to make the foreign attaché feel more at ease when he proposed.”
” We are none of us taken long for what we are not.”
” Betty thought the women very nice, but less interesting than the men, possibly because they were women.”
The good in human nature predominates.”
” Washington had a brain of ice, and his ideal of American propriety was frozen within it.”
” Women make a god of what they can-not understand in a man. If he has a bad temper they think of him as a dominant personality.”
” Her husband, brilliant and charming, had possessed a set of affections too rest-less and ardent to confine themselves within the domestic limits. His wife had buried him with sorrow, but with a deep sigh of relief that for the future she could mourn him without protest.”
“You always have prided yourself,” remarks Betty, ” that I am intellectual, and so I am in the flabby ‘ well-read’ fashion. I feel as if my brain had been a mausoleum for skeletons and mummies.”
Frankly, we discover nothing in Mrs. Atherton to warrant crowning her with the laurels worn by George Eliot. As we have already said, ” Senator North ” and its predecessors all stirred up more or less controversy, sometimes social, as in the case of ” American Men and English Women,” but more often literary. For strictly within the limits of literary criticism stands the matter of choice of a subject; and even her staunchest admirers would not claim that the Californian writer has been very happy in the choice of subjects. By subjects we mean especially, characters, of which, perhaps, the most unfortunate is the young woman in “A Daughter of the Vine.” Admitted too by some of her most enthusiastic adherents is the fact that Mrs. Atherton’s genius is a variable quality. “She is unequal, of course,” remarks one, ” but seeing that every real writer that ever lived has been unequal,’ and the greatest most unequal, it is a weak concession to modern phases of criticism even to mention that universal limitation.”
Yes, Mrs. Atherton is ” unequal,” indeed. Inequality if that be the word is prominent in her intellectual make-up. Her writings fit the description of her movements uncertain, impetuous. One day she is penning a chapter to fascinate her friends and stagger the poor literary gentry ; the next day she is airing her opinions in the columns of a yellow journal.
Mrs. Atherton was born in the Rincon Hill quarter of San Francisco in 1857.
Her mother was the daughter of Stephen Franklin, a descendant of the immortal Benjamin’s youngest brother, John. Stephen Franklin left Oxford, N. Y., when he was a young man and went to New Or-leans, where, after having amassed a large fortune, he was almost ruined by a false partner. He then moved from New Or-leans to Central America and later to California, where before long he became influential. When his daughter, who had been educated at Spingler Institute, in New York City, arrived in California, she was hailed as the most beautiful girl in the country. She married Thomas L. Horn, a native of Stonington, Conn., who was a prominent citizen of San Francisco and a member of the historical Vigilant Committee.
Gertrude attended various small private schools for a time ; afterwards she was a pupil at St. Mary’s Hall, Benicia, California, and at Sayre Institute, Lexington, Ky. But delicate health kept her away from school a. great deal, and thus she came to enjoy the tutelage of her grand-parents. At the age of four she was taught reading and spelling by her grand-mother. Her grandfather, Mr. Franklin, who meantime had established the first newspaper of San Francisco, The Golden Era, possessed the largest private library in the State, and therein Gertrude was free to browse before she entered her ‘teens. It is not to be wondered at that her mind had an early development ; that it acquired some masculinity and considerable originality; that it formed a taste for strange-flavored literature. And there was an abundance of that kind of literature in the library books that had come down from generation to generation. We can trace back to this juvenile independence, this mingling of youth with old age, many of the author’s idiosyncrasies. Although the Greek and Latin classics were in the library, we have been informed that Gertrude derived her knowledge of ancient literature mostly from translations. For this Emerson would have applauded her and Gladstone scolded her.
Gertrude still had two years of school before her when she married George Henry Bowen Atherton, of Menlo Park, California, a Chilean by birth, as was his mother, but an American on his father’s side. At the time of the marriage the Athertons, socially, were the leading family of California.
Of the beginning of her literary career Mrs. Atherton has informed us : ” I began to write, or rather to compose, which took then the form of spinning astonishing yarns about my daily doings, when I was at some tender age, and when I went to school I remember the big girls gave me blank books in which to write stories for them. The first story I published, shortly after I married, was called ‘ The Randolphs of Redwoods,’ and was the same fundamentally as ‘A Daughter of the Vine.’ It was published in the San Francisco Argonaut. The name of my first published book although I should like all my ancient and amateur efforts to rest decently in their graves was ‘ What Dreams May Come,’ which came out in 1888. Then came ‘ Hermia Suydam,’ ‘ Los Cerritos,’ ‘ The Doomswoman,’ ‘ A Whirl Asunder,’ ‘ Patience Sparhawk and Her Times,’
His Fortunate Grace,’ ‘ American Wives and English Husbands,’ ‘ The Californians,’ ‘ A Daughter of the Vine,’ and ‘ Senator North.’ ”
At the age of fifteen, we are told, she wrote a play, which was acted at St. Mary’s Hall, Benicia, Cal.
It was Mrs. Atherton’s early purpose to exploit the romance of the juvenile age of the far West. She went about her task wisely and energetically. There was a temptation to depend upon the more or less mythical tradition which from time to time found its way into the San Francisco newspapers, but Mrs. Atherton put this aside and went straight to headquarters. They say that she made her residence in the old adobe settlements, and with sharpened eyes and ears, mixed with the surviving Spanish pioneers. For they, too, were pioneers, those hardy, brownfaced men and women from over the sea pioneers no less than the Americans who pushed on farther north, even to the shores of the Columbia. And though their history has less of the strenuous in it than that of the resolute state-makers who followed Lewis and Clark, still it has as much of the picturesque and of the romantic. Out of these experiences Mrs. Atherton wrote ” Before the Gringo Came,” which was published in 1893. Her first books were as rounds of the ladder. Patience Sparhawk” finally brought her into prominence. We mean literary prominence. Her sharp comments on Anglo-American society had elevated her to the distinction of a subject of public controversy.
Naturally enough, Mrs. Atherton’s popularity was first established in the West; and it is the West that up to to-day has been truest to her. It is in the West that one still meets such a remark as this, for instance : “But, whatever her shortcomings, Mrs. Atherton is the buoyant possessor of three important qualities of the novelist the novelist, that is, pure and simple : She compels one to read on, she can tell a story, and she creates characters -and all these things she does, not because she tries, but because she cannot help it.”
We still meet readers and many readers, by the way, are persons of superlatively fine judgment who prefer “Patience Sparhawk and Her Times,” which was published in 1897, to all the other Atherton books. Certainly, previous to “Sena-tor North,” it was the novelist’s most ambitious and most praiseworthy effort. It came within an ace of being a literary phenomenon. For it must be remembered that in her youth, Mrs. Atherton missed many of the advantages enjoyed by the average girl. San Francisco, to be sure, was not without a strong literary atmosphere ; nor was it without the appearances of polite society (vide Bret Harte’s “Under the Redwoods “). But Gertrude had been pent-up, immured, and she had been fed mostly at the old-fashioned classical table. We have been informed that, until her marriage, she had only the barest acquaintance with modern fiction, that is, we presume, with American novels. This is much the same as if Claude Monet had in his youth been acquainted only with Perugino and Fra Angelico. Fancy an impressionist reared on such a diet!
But it was in Mrs. Atherton to write powerfully and originally almost as powerfully and originally, sometimes, as any other woman among her contemporaries.
After her husband’s death, Mrs. Atherton crossed the continent to New York ; then she spent some years abroad. She went abroad, she declares, rather bitterly, “” to make my reputation, for the press and the literary powers here fought me persistentlyI suppose because I was not a child of the regiment. Now a great many American publishers ask for my books.”
The press and the literary powers of the country may have fought her persistently, but they could not have fought her maliciously. She also declares that she thinks ” with the advanced minority which is precious small in this country.” Such a declaration, coming from a woman, compels silence. Mrs. Atherton, by the way, is to return to Europe very soon.
During the greater part of the year she has been engaged on a dramatized biography as she calls it of Alexander Hamilton. She says of it : ” A novel is a pivotal thing. This is written with the sequence of biography, nothing omitted, not even funding, taxes and finance ! but the personalities carry off the tiresome subjects to the average reader and there is no great amount of detail.” She will also edit a volume of Hamilton’s letters ! The dramatized biography is due to appear early this season under the title of ” The Conqueror.”