James Lane Allen
( Originally Published 1907 )
A FEW novelists know the world which renews its youth every spring and that dies every autumn, as intimately as Thoreau knew it. One of these novelists is Thomas Hardy, whose description of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native " has long been in use as a model in the English Department at Harvard. One of these also is James Lane Allen, the Kentucky schoolmaster.
The chapter entitled " Hemp " in " The Reign of Law," contains abundant evidence of this loving power. Here is a random choice :
" One day something is gone from earth and sky : Autumn has come, season of scales and balances, when the earth, brought to judgment for its fruits, says, ' I have done what I could now let me rest ! '
" Fall ! — and everywhere the sights and sounds of falling. In the woods, through the cool silvery air, the leaves, so indispensable once, so useless now. Bright day after bright day, dripping night after dripping night, the never-ending filtering or gusty fall of leaves. The fall of walnuts, dropping from bare boughs with muffled boom into the deep grass. The fall of the hickory-nut, rattling noisily down through the scaly limbs and scattering its hulls among the stones of the brook below. The fall of buckeyes, rolling like balls of mahogany into the little dust paths made by sheep, in the hot months, when they had sought those roofs of leaves. The fall of acorns, leaping out of their matted green cups as they strike the rooty earth. The fall of red haw, persimmon, and pawpaw, and the odorous wild plum in its valley thickets. The fall of all seeds whatsoever of the forest, now made ripe in their high places and sent back to the ground, there to be folded in against the time when they shall rise again as the living generations ; the homing, downward flight of the seeds in the many-colored woods all over the quiet land."
Mr. Mabie, writing once in The Outlook, dwelt on what has been called the " landscape beauty " of Mr. Allen's work. No American novelist," he said " has so imbedded his stories in Nature as has James Lane Allen; and among English novels one recalls only Mr. Hardy's three classics of pastoral England, and among French novelists George Sand and Pierre Loti. Nature furnishes the background of many charming American stories, and finds delicate or effective remembrance in the hands of writers like Miss Jewett and Miss Murfree ; but in Mr. Allen's romances Nature is not behind the action ; she is involved in it. Her presence is everywhere ; her influence streams through the story ; the deep and prodigal beauty which she wears in rural Kentucky shines on every page; the tremendous forces which sweep through her disclose their potency in human passion and impulse."
And when James MacArthur was editing The Bookman he said : "Poetry, ' the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge,' according to Wordsworth, the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science,'— that poetry irrespective of rhyme and metrical arrangement which is as immortal as the heart of man, is distinctive in Mr. Allen's work from the first written page. Like Minerva issuing full-formed from the head of Jove, Mr. Allen issues from his long years of silence and seclusion a perfect master of his art unfailing in its inspiration, unfaltering in its classic accent." It was Mr. MacArthur, who, speaking of " The Choir Invisible," said that " it would be difficult to recall any other novel since ' The Scarlet Letter' that has touched the same note of greatness, or given to one section of our national life, as Hawthorne's classic did to another, a voice far beyond singing."
Mr. MacArthur's remark that Mr. Allen came forth from " his long years of silence and seclusion a perfect master of his art " is largely true. Although born about half a century ago, it was not until 1884 that he settled down to writing. Not many of our distinguished writers passed thirty be-fore tasting the bitter-sweet fruit of authorship.
Mr. Allen was born on a farm in Fayette County, Kentucky, a few miles from Lexington ; and on the farm he spent his early childhood. His mother's maiden name was Helen Foster. Her parents, who were of the Scotch Irish stock which settled in Pennsylvania before the Revolution, had found a permanent home in Mississippi. On his father's side he is a descendant of the Virginians who formed the Kentucky pioneers. The son was graduated from Kentucky University — which has been pictured in the history of his latest hero, David,— in 1872. For several years after-ward he taught in district schools, at first near his home, and later in Missouri. Still later he became a private tutor; then he took a professorship in his alma mater; and at length he brought his career as a teacher to a close while at Bethany College, West Virginia. That very year, 1884, he moved to New York, put away his text-books, and plunged into the sea of literature. One who knew him in those days has described him as " a blond young giant with a magnificent head and a strong, kindly face."
From the day of his decision to be a writer until the present time Mr. Allen has worked industriously and successfully. Fifteen years ago the chief literary and critical magazines published many of his essays, and from time to time his short stories appeared in Harper's Magazine and The Century Magazine. These short stories were afterward collected and published under the title of " Flute and Violin." Then appeared at irregular intervals The Blue Grass Region of Kentucky," A Kentucky Cardinal" and its sequel, "After-math," A Summer in Arcady," " The Choir Invisible," and, latest of all, " The Reign of Law."
The author's high reputation was firmly established by "A Kentucky Cardinal " and " Aftermath." " In these two books," said one critic, looking backward, Nature was intervoven benignantly with the human nature resting on her bosom, leading her lover, Adam Moss, with gentle influences to the human lover, and, when bereft of human love, receiving him back into her healing arms." The books made as deep an impression upon Englishmen as upon Americans; indeed, as late as the spring of 1900 the London Academy de-voted a page to a flattering and most sympathetic review of them. The gentle, playful humor, the healthy joyousness, the rare tenderness displayed by Mr. Allen in these two books, are irresistible. Months, and even years, after laying the books down, the reader must remember the many delightful sketches of which they are made.
" And while I am watching the birds, they are watching me. Not a little fop among them, having proposed and been accepted, but perches on a limb, and has the air of putting his hands mannishly under his coat-tails and crying out to me, ' Hello ! Adam, what were you made for?' 'You attend to your business, and I'll attend to mine,' I answer, ' You have one May ; I have twenty-five ! ' He didn 't wait to hear. He caught sight of a pair of clear brown eyes peeping at him out of a near tuft of leaves, and sprang thither with open arms and the sound of a kiss."
What charming sport ! What uncommon perception ! And here is one of his choice, frank, bucolic sentiments:
" The longer I live here the better satisfied I am in having pitched my earthly camp-fire, gypsylike, on the edge of a town, keeping it on one side, and the green fields, lanes and woods on the other. Each, in turn, is to me as a magnet to the needle. At times the needle of my nature points towards the country. On that side everything is poetry. I wander over field and forest, and through me runs a glad current of feeling that is like a clear brook across the meadows of May. At others the needle veers round, and I go to town — to the massed haunts of the highest animal and cannibal. That way nearly everything is prose. I can feel the prose rising in me as I step along, like hair on the back of a dog, long before any other dogs are in sight. And, indeed, the case is much that of a country dog come to town, so that growls are in order at every corner. The only being in the universe at which I have ever snarled, or with which I have rolled over in the mud and fought like a common cur, is Man."
" Summer in Arcady " shocked many who had fallen in love with the pastoral simplicity and spiritual delicacy of the two preceding books ; but it was generally admitted that the book showed an advance in the author's powers, particularly in his power of vivid dialogue. In his first novel Mr. Allen had written that " The, simple, rural, key-note of life is still the sweetest," and a change to another key-note, tremulous with pathos and tragedy, surprised the reading public ; but the opinion that it was likely to prove a stepping-stone to higher things found general favor. Nor was this opinion unsound, for " The Choir Invisible " lifted its author for the time above the heads of all his contemporaries.
Both here and in England the book fairly leaped to success ; both here and in England it was praised almost unqualifiedly. An American critic, writing of it, said :
"Mr. Allen stands to-day in the front rank of American novelists. ' The Choir Invisible' will solidify a reputation already established and bring into clear light his rare gifts as an artist. For this latest story is as genuine a work of art as has come from an American hand." An English critic noted that it was highly praised, and with reason." " It is written," he said, "with singular delicacy, and has an old-world fragrance which seems to come from the classics we keep in lavender."
The book succeeded so immensely that an attempt was made to dramatize it, but the attempt failed. The atmosphere of the book proved to be too ethereal, too spiritual, for dramatization.
That " The Choir Invisible " solidified Mr. Allen's reputation was demonstrated by the eagerness of the demand for The Reign of Law." In some respects this is Mr. Allen's greatest work : it reveals even a deeper knowledge of nature than he ever revealed before, and it deals more intimately with things which have revolved around his own career.
Fame has little to do with the sale of books. If " The Kentucky Cardinal," " The Choir Invisible," and " The Reign of Law" had not been sold by the thou-sands, Mr, Allen's fame would still be of more than transient quality. There is nothing ephemeral about these stories: they are, strictly speaking, a part of our classical literature. The vividness of the pictures will always be fresh and interesting.
Taking too literally Mr. Allen's remark in " The Reign of Law" that Kentucky University is a ruin and will always remain a ruin, the reading public has generally decided, we have found, that the university, the author's alma mater, does not exist. It does exist, but, apparently, not in the condition in which the author would have it. Before The Reign of Law" had been long on the market, he and the president of Kentucky University fell into a controversy which makes an interesting chapter in the academic side of the history of the Blue Grass State.
Mr. Allen works slowly and carefully, as may be inferred from the number and the character of his books. And he lives quietly, modestly. He is not in the least given to the exploitation of his habits and his manners, even so far as they may be connected with his literary work. Little has ever been heard of him by the thousands who hurry to read his books, and who read them only to praise him. Some time ago his publishers issued a brochure dealing with his career, and the vital facts contained in it, if put together, would not cover more than twenty or thirty ordinary lines.
It should be said before ending, however, that the author of " The Reign of Law " is looked up to almost filially by the younger writers of the middle West. They are never weary of applauding him and of indicating, publicly as well as privately, his extraordinary reputation. Traces of his style, notably as it appears in his Corot-like pictures of nature, may be found in their writings. Indeed, it is quite likely that nothing would please one of these fine young men more than to have it said of his work that it resembles the masterly work of James Lane Allen.