Mr. Beecher has stopped preaching f[or] the summer, and gone to Peekskill, to sit under his old apple-tree, and to finish “Norwood.” The novel (as far as Mr. Bonner has yet printed it) is about half completed. Or, rather, let us not call it a novel, but a pastoral. “Have you read Mr. Beecher’s novel?” we are constantly asked. No; and for the good reason that, properly speaking, Mr. Beecher is not writing a novel. He is writing something very different from what we ordinarily look for, and expect to find, in a novel. Novels are abundant; but such a work as Mr. Beecher is now writing is infrequent. Are Joseph Addison’s “Roger de Coverly Papers” a novel? No. It is true, a thread of narrative runs through them—a faint and unimportant plot; yet the object of Addison, in writing those immortal sketches, was not to tell a story, to devise a plot, to unravel a situation, but to make a thousand wise, rich, and valuable observations on human life. Mr. Beecher has a similar object in writing “Norwood.” Walton’s “Complete Angler” is in the form of a dialogue; and, though not a novel or story, is nevertheless one of the delightful and precious books of the world. In view of Mr. Beecher’s object, his plot (if so it may be called) might almost as well be one thing as another; and people who are reading “Norwood” simply for the sake of the plot might as well not read it at all. It is not written for such readers. The true way to enjoy “Norwood” is to read it aloud in the home-circle; or, what is still better, to listen while some other person reads it. No sentence should be skipped—no thought overlooked. Thus studied, the book is likely to be read several times over by all thoughtful people who enjoy reading it once. Never in his life has Mr. Beecher written anything so carefully and lovingly as these tranquil chapters, which, like still waters, run deep. The thoughts, the experiences, the gathered knowledge of a lifetime are outpoured into this noble narrative—a piece of writing which, we believe, will be better appreciated a generation hence than now. We are continually hearing intelligent people say, “Well, I have been reading ‘Norwood;’ but I don’t see much connection in it.” We advise such readers not to look for the connection, but to look at the things connected—not to hunt for the string, but to be contented with the beads. The path through “Norwood” is like a walk up Broadway—where the people who walk are expected to keep stopping and looking at the shop-windows. The truth is, that Mr. Beecher conceived, and is successfully accomplishing, the happy design of crowding into a single volume—neither theological nor philosophical, neither didactic nor pretentious—the ripened thoughts of a thirty years’ ministry; thoughts on subjects social, asthetic, moral, and religious. In fact, it is not The Independent, nor The Examiner, nor The Methodist, nor the Boston Traveler, but the New York Ledger, that is now printing Mr. Beecher’s sermons. Our energetic, Old School Presbyterian neighbor, Mr. Robert Bonner, has latterly become a kind of lay-bishop, who has been laying his hands of ordination on college presidents and eminent clegymen for the purpose of inducting them into a ministry to the multitude. Perhaps the multitude will not appreciate Mr. Beecher’s new kind of ministration so well as the old. Nevertheless, “Norwood” is a granary of golden sentences, a fountain of moral inspiration, a manual of invaluable hints for human conduct; a book which could have been written by no other American writer, for the reason that we have no other man among us of equal knowledge of the human mind and heart.
It is now about six months since the public first heard it rumored that Mr. Beecher was engaged in writing a story for the New York Ledger; and those who, at first, refused to credit the rumor were soon called upon to acknowledge their mistake, and to buy the initial chapters of “Norwood; or, Village Life in New England.”
It is difficult to see why people generally seemed so loath to believe the truth, unless it was because Mr. Beecher’s detractors, who are mostly feeble brethren and sisters, fainting and falling by the wayside, unable to keep pace with the rapid march of this great and advancing age, usually made mention of the story only in a disparaging way, hoping he would not do it, and vaguely hinting at the enormity of a minister of the Gospel writing a novel! Yet, even in this light, it seems strange that his friends should have been hurried into a superficial judgment of him; as if he had not been, all his life long, pre-eminent among those great men who are constantly doing startling and wholly unexpected things—who see so clearly through and beyond the clouds which envelop many of us that they are strong to keep on in the right way without stopping to consider whether each action is a proper and natural sequence of the preceding one, and will help to complete the symmetrical proportions of a reputation in the eyes of men.
Of course, he foresaw all that would be said of him and of his motives; but, being secure in his own conscience, he rejoiced heartily in his new opportunity to do good, and set himself to the work with his usual energy and earnestness—for he is not one of those servants who only stand and wait, but rather one who doeth with all his might whatsoever his hands find to do.
But, whatever may have been the feelings—half-approving, half-disapproving—with which “Norwood” was received, certainly no one who has followed its slow development from week to week, no one who has truly at heart the best interests of the public, can fail to see that there is not a thought which would have been better unuttered, or a chapter which, omitted, would not deprive us of both pleasure and instruction.
It is a noble work; and I use the word work because I can find nothing which will faithfully characterize what is neither a novel nor a story, in any ordinary acceptation of those terms, and indeed can hardly be regarded as coming under the head of fiction at all. It is, rather, a study of nature, animate and inanimate; but that alone does not describe it—it is more, much more. It is a series of earnest essays on the True, the Beautiful, and the Good; an album of photographs taken from life in New England; a long, quiet, twilight talk on all the great topics which absorb the minds of men; a portfolio of glorious landscapes, painted by a master hand—it is all these, and more.
You will find it as you like it; for, read it when and how you will, it will suit all moods, and will strike every chord of your being, if you but read it with a heart in true harmony with the great heart of its author.
But, above all, it is a delicate, subtle, half-unconscious revealing of the inner self, not a complete revelation, but just a shadowy form, “encolored faintly,” with here a light and there a shade of the beautiful hidden life, the “soul-side,” that never would have been seen but for this book. And in this last sense it is more nearly an autobiography than anything else; nothing he has ever done has borne so plain to the view the image of himself. He does not realize it yet; but it is easy to see how lovingly he works over it, and how unconsciously he is weaving into its fabric the deepest convictions, the most profound and tender feelings, and the richest and ripest results of his whole life-experience. Is it strange that those who begin to read it from motives of idle curiosity find themselves irresistibly impelled to continue on to the end—not by curiosity, but by something higher and better?
But as a story, if it must be considered as one at all, it is, of course, a failure. The characters—or rather the people who live, and move, and have their being in it—are apparently as unconscious of any plot which they are introduced to evolve as any party of friends would be who might chance to meet and converse together for an hour of an evening.
If there be a plot, I confess I do not know what it is; but that there are people in “Norwood” who are vivified, as it were, by the wondrous vitality of Mr. Beecher’s mind, transfused by his warm imagination—in short, partakers of the very essence of essence of his character—this I know.
Around “Dr. Wentworth” his pen ever lingers; and who cannot see that this character is but a clear mirror in which he himself is reflected? Mark how the Doctor loves converse with Nature, and how his daughter is educated in a sort of Nature-culture, if such an expression be admissible.
It is hardly worth while to call attention to any part in particular; but what could be more beautiful than the love of Dr. Buell and his wife for each other—their long, happy married life, and the slow approach of death to her, he knowing well that she was going, and making such heroic preparation as he might? It is only a little thing, but it is perfect. And there are many other parts which might be particularized; but the book must be read carefully, earnestly, slowly, if its beauties are to be known and appreciated.
Theodore Tilton has called it a “lay sermon,” and perhaps nothing better can be said of it; certainly no sermon he has ever written has been so sure of doing multitudes of people good as is this newspaper story.
Can any one doubt that it will do good? Think of the thousands who could never have been reached by him in any other way. Think of the attractive manner in which he presents his message; never forgetting his mission, never losing sight of the object which is dearer than anything else to him in life—this object being to do the greatest good to the greatest number.
It seems to me that, had he never accomplished any other work in his whole life, this noble and beautiful creation might suffice; for it is full of ideas and thoughts, lessons and arguments, which it would become us all to take home and remember forever. It is the rich fruit of a rich experience; and, whatever its faults may be (that it has faults and blemishes no one can deny, since it is a human production), I believe it is destined to do much for the elevation of mankind, much to advance the work of the Great Master, to be counted among whose servants is the chief glory of Henry Ward Beecher.
A clergyman, when remonstrated with for having permitted the introduction into his kirk of music with a smaller share of the usual Orthodox drawl and nasal elongation deemed proper, declared that he was “tired of the Devil having all the good things.” This world is full of compensation, and if the pulpit has borrowed from the profane, the latter are now borrowing in a small way from the pulpit; for a production of the brain of Henry Ward Beecher, called “Norwood,” a novel, written by him for Mr. Bonner of the Ledger, has been produced on the stage of the New York theatre, with Mr. Beecher’s full assent. Mr. Daly has dramatized it, and improved upon it, some say, and now it will doubtless be served up nightly before hundreds of people who have never seen the inside of a theatre, and hundreds of others who for years have not seen the interior of a church except at a wedding, or a funeral, or when they have attended at the Rev. Dr. Osgood’s sanctuary since it became the New York Theatre. We hope to see the Rev. Mr. Beecher in the Worrell sisters’ private box on some night after the new drama has been worked into presentable shape, and between you and me, good reader, he is just plucky enough to go there and witness the performance of his own lean bantling. Now let us tell you, in a few words, what “Norwood” is as a drama. In the first place it is very prosy and s[t]upid in language, flimsy in plot, and without a strongly marked character in it: none of which short-comings are to be charged upon Mr. Daly, but all upon the material with which he had to deal. His sin lies in the attempt to dramatize it. The scenery is in some parts commendable, more especially the first and last sets by Mr. Schell, and the music by Mr. Tissington good. Of the acting we will say nothing until the people have committed some portions of their parts to memory, and the piece has been pruned and effective incidents introduced into it: all of which will no doubt be done. The drama will run for some time on Beecher’s name, and will become a card in New England cities, when it comes to be let out on shares.
“Let the Cobbler stick to his last,” is a pithy old mandatory proverb, and it applies with great force to Beecher turning Novelist. We have no doubt but there are some very good men who are clergymen, but most gnerally they are theorists who know little or nothing of the practical workings of human life. This remark especially applies to those among them who are truly religious men. Whether Beecher is one of such we are not informed, and certainly no judgment in this respect can be based upon his lectures, his speeches on politics nor upon anything that he has done in public outside of that close corporation known as Plymouth Church, the members of which are stockholders in a private road that leads to Heaven. The idea of such a mere Gospelian as he writing a novel that could be dramatized is preposterous. None but a practical man or strong-minded woman can perform such a task. He preaches against the sin of gambling, and still does not know the difference between three card monte and a square game of faro. He assails prostitution and probably never crossed the threshold of a bagnio in his life. He writes about war and yet he was one of those
“That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster.”
He gingerly warns Dives against certain sins: but he knows little of Lazarus and his stern realities of miseries: for Lazarus is not a pew-holder in Plymouth Church, nor a stockholder in the private celestial road. In short he theorizes over the surfaces of human actions and their motives, but his practical knowledge amounts to nothing. Mr. Beecher may sow in the field of fiction, but never can reap. This want of practical knowledge is what led to the insipidity of “Norwood” as a novel, and to the failure of Mr. Daly as its dramatist, for lay figures in a book will be lay figures on a stage, and in such a case as the present the dramatist must go further than to merely transfer; he must create, or fail. …
Norwood is finished. The concluding chapter lies before us and the charming Quaker family only lately introduced, but with whom we were getting so cosily intimate, have disappeared with older acquaintance. It is very tantalizing, and we hereby suggest to Mr. Beecher to ‘go on with the Hetheringtons’ in a new novel.
The story winds gently and lingeringly to its conclusion, and the finale and a wedding—two weddings indeed—under a grand patriarchal elm; attended, as the picture shows, by a vast cloud of witnesses. One touch of nature in this final chapter will ‘tell’ upon every heart that has not taught itself to scorn simple, manly feeling. And it is such a decided ‘Beecherism.’ The young soldier bridegroom would have his horse to see him married.
“Rose, my horse, that carries a man’s heart in him, that never flinched under fire, that was wounded as well as I, that carried me along the hardest journeys unflagging, and more than once saved me from captivity—it may be very foolish, but I want him near me when I am married.” Rose joyfully acquiesces, and the noble creature occupies a ‘reserved front seat’ under the noble tree.
We are on the whole well satisfied with the story, and well reconciled to ourselves for having ‘taken the Ledger’ six whole months. The first half is in reality a prose poem, full of pathos, more poetical than ‘Katrina,’ and touching with a finer hand, the metaphysical subtleties of New England religious thinking. A tender loyalty to Nature is manifest on every page. Some bits of scenery painting are vivid as a Kensett landscape. Lovingly he lingers among October woods, when something made the yellow maples laugh, and the scarlet maples blush; and the brilliant ampelopsis climbed into the cedars to peep out and see what the sun was doing to cause so much laughing and blushing—and so, undoubtedly, got a red face of her own.
But most of these delicious passages are too long to quote. Here is a character sketch:
“As for Dr. Wentworth—nobody saw through him, and everybody trusted him. There was no dormant faculty in him—he was alive all around his soul. There were no Arctic and Antarctic zones. The whole globe of his nature was tropical, and yet temperate.
[“]His moods ran through the whole scale of faculties. He was various as the separate days. He carried the germs of everything which bore fruit in other men’s characters, and so could put himself into sympathy with every kind of man. A great talker at times, yet even when most frank, he was yet more silent than talkative, and left the impression of one who had only blown the foam off from unfathomable thoughts.”
And here is Rose: “She was a double child. Her outward nature was sensible, practical, worldly; her inward nature was deep in feeling, solemn and mystical, but veined and traced throughout with the richest flow of imagination. None except her father knew this inward life; nor he, nor she herself except in a dim and twilight way.”
The acme of comfort, according to a western wagoner:
“Well, stranger, I’ve seen some pretty jolly times. But, for solid comfort, I think I’ve enjoyed the most when I was laying in my wagon near a creek, and the fire was flickering among the trees, and I was jest goin’ to sleep—I think I never heard anything quite so pleasant as my horses, at both ends of the wagon, chankin corn!”
Agate Bissell, pondering how so good a man as the Doctor can walk in his garden on the sabbath, discourses:
“Either Sunday is worth keeping or it is not. If you do keep it, it ought to be strictly done. But lately Sunday is ravelling out at the end. We take it on like a summer dress, which in the morning is clean and sweet, but at night it is soiled at the bottom and much rumpled all over.”
Delicate films of mystic philosophy:—“This world is not the same world to any two persons in it. But between the lowest human organization and the highest, the difference is so wide, that the world which each sees would not be recognized by the other. The thermometer and barometer are the perpetual witness of men’s coarse and sensitive natures. They say to us every hour, “See what world-affecting changes are going on, which you are not fine enough to notice, but which we feel and indicate.
“But the sphere of effects not perceived, in human life, is even greater than in the natural world. Every feeling which rises in the soul has its own signal in the body. If our eyes were fine enough, if our minds were sensitive enough, we should see the face and carriage of men going through endless variations, as the soul moves through all its affluent moods.” * * *
“Do you think that a flower, in and of itself, has any moral meaning?”
“Do you think that words, in and of themselves, have any signification? Words mean whatever they have the power to make us think of when we look on them. Flowers mean what sentiment they have the power to produce in us. The image which a flower casts upon a sensitive plate is simply its own self-form; but, cast upon a more sensitive human soul, it leaves there not mere form, but feeling, excitement, suggestion. God gave it power to do that, or it would not have done it.”
“Fancy is itself a fact, just as much as an argument, a leaf or a stone. God made the soul to be played upon by its fellows, by the whole round of visible nature, by invisible things, and more than all, by Himself. If shaking leaves stir up the soul, there was a power in them to do it, as much as in the soul to be agitated. I insist on a living, divine power in physical things. Why should men be so anxious to degrade nature? Is it unsafe to believe that God’s eye follows every sparrow, and that his taste unrolls every flower, and that his feelings have an alphabetic expression in all natural forms, harmonies, colors, contrasts and affinities?”
“Words are of the flesh, opaque. Looks are of the spirit, luminous.” “Not what they say do we remember of absent friends; but, how they looked while saying it.”
Parson Buell’s wife dies, and the whole of the death-scene is exquisit[e]ly told. His speech at the funeral grates a little upon our feelings.
“A better coffin was never brought into town. Poor thing! I knew her taste. She was awful neat. The last thing afore they put the linin’ in I went myself and stood the coffin on end and brushed it out, every crack and corner, just as she would have done herself, poor sufferin’ creature, if she had been there. But she was a kind thing—very good to folks in distress, and I felt like suitin’ her if I could. I just said to myself, ‘Turfmould, this is the last time you can pay her back any thing for all she did for your child, poor thing!’ ”
Here are truths to be pondered:
“All natures come to their manhood through some experience of fermentation! With some it is a ferment of passions; with some, of the affections; and with richly endowed natures it is the ferment of thought and of the moral nature.
“Many think they are artists because they have facility in copying what they see. But this is as if a man should copy a Spanish poem in beautiful handwriting, without understanding a word of the language, and then call himself a poet.”
“Prose is the work-day dress in which truths do secular duty. Poetry is the robe, the royal apparel, in which truth asserts its divine origin. Prose is truth looking on the ground: eloquence is truth looking up to heaven. Poetry is truth flying upward toward God!”
“All hail work! Man lost Paradise by the temptations that beset indolence. He will regain it again by those wholesome qualities which are the fruit of intelligent work! The curse, “thou shalt earn thy bread in the sweat of thy brow,” was not a curse on work, but on drudgery. It is time that the curse on the ground should be worked out. There has been sweat enough to wash it clean. There have tears enough fallen down to make the earth sweet. Work shall beautify it. Work shall drive out Drudgery and bring in Leisure, and then men shall eat their bread under cool shadows with unsweated brows!
“Continuous and intense excitement of feeling works a morbid physical condition of the brain. It becomes at once fertile and poor. It pours out an endless abundance of thought and emotion, but without variety or control. The same feeling rises and breaks, only to bubble up again, pass through the same course, to be followed a hundred times by the same process.
“A conscience that is idealized, that clothes the minutest shades of life with transcendent importance, and sees refinements in duty far beyond common eyes, cannot help stamping the character with a peculiar experience.
“Expect no lectures from Barton Cathcart. But he has a vital nature, peculiarly stimulating, but in no wise demonstrative or noisy. The sun is no mechanic because it builds up all the world’s growths. The winds are not engineers because they urge ships and mills. A man may stimulate your whole nature without officious or garrulous habits.
“He was silent. The fire had lost much of its zeal, and lay like a rich community, with great banks of hot coals; while, here and there, a brand that had fallen the wrong way, like a disappointed man in society, lay smoking,—white on the outside with ashes, and black with charcoal within.”
Here is what Dr. Wentworth thinks of Ruskin:
[“]Ruskin is full of wildness, and tangles himself up with himself like a vine twisting on itself: you read Ruskin just as you explore a region, finding many treasures and much that you avoid. He has his brier thickets, his contorted trees, his muddy morasses. But taken as a whole, the landscape is rich and grand. My young friend, Ruskin is not to be read in extracts—nor simply read either. You ought to take him as an infection. He should throw you into a fever. The whole system should be pervaded by it. He is like those diseases which renovate the system. Do not try to check it. Let it run its full period. Afterward you will recover well; you will throw off much. You will retain, perhaps, little. But, your whole constitution will be changed. You will observe differently, think differently, reason differently, all the rest of your life.[”]
The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher—who, without doubt, is the most eminent Baptist clergyman in this vicinity—seems to get a good deal of rough usage from his Baptist brethren. First, the New York Conference of Baptist pastors passed a resolution condemning his sermons, as published in a Baptist paper; and, next, that same Baptist paper now sticks briers into Mr. Beecher’s bosom because he did not try to prevent (what he could not have prevented, if he had tried) the dramatization of “Norwood.” The Examiner thus speaks:
“If a minister of the Gospel may thus open the path to the theater in the case of one play, “destined to a great run,” who shall close up the avenues to any other play in any “respectable theater?” It is our deliberate judgment, and we express it with the sincerest grief, that, in thus interposing no objections to the putting of Norwood in stage dress, Mr. Beecher has done more to weaken the restraints upon theater-going, in circles where it had been held as demoralizing and forbidden, than any other man in the country could have done.”
To a man who, like Mr. Beecher, has never seen a play at a theater in all his life this charge that he has been actually “opening a path to the theater” must seem sufficiently solemn to be almost ludicrous. We have, it is true, often heard Plymouth church called a “play-house,” and the sermons there preached called “as good as plays.” But, until reading the lucubration of the theatrical critic of The Examiner, we had supposed that Mr. Beecher had sufficiently atoned for the dramatic character of his sermons by the semonic character of his novel. As to the play, Mr. Beecher is as completely innocent of it as the man in the moon.
On Friday night, at the general prayer-meeting, a member of Plymouth church called Mr. Beecher’s attention to the putting of Norwood on the stage, and his permission to have it done. Mr. Beecher denied the right of any member of his church to arraign him for what he did as a citizen or as a literary man. He made a marked distinction between what he did as pastor of Plymouth church and what he did as a man. Being assured that the brother did not bring the matter up as a church matter, Mr. B. said, but as an individual, he had no objection to state that he did not intend his letter as an approval. He only meant to say that if Mr. Bonner was willing that Norwood should be put on the stage, “he wouldn’t make any fuss about it.” Norwood being acted in Brooklyn, and the whole city placarded with the consent of Mr. Beecher, has produced more excitement than has existed in that church for many years.
We take the above from the Examiner and Chronicle. Mr. Beecher’s distinction between what he does as a pastor, and what he does as a man, reminds us of the Bishop who was reproved by one of his flock for profane swearing. The Bishop defended himself by saying that he did not swear as a Bishop, but only as a man. “Yes,” answered the other, “but when the man goes to hell for swearing, what will become of the Bishop?”
[Transcriber’s note: The Anthenaeum was a British periodical.]
From more than one point of view Mr. Henry Ward Beecher is a man of mark. No popular preacher is in greater favour with the ladies of New York than the orator of Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, who is also no less successful as a speaker from secular platforms than as a lecturer from his peculiar pulpit. His literary publications are read with delight by his many admirers; moreover, he is the brother of Mrs. Beecher Stowe. But his present work shows that a man may be a fluent preacher, and brother of a clever woman, and yet break down when he attempts to write a novel. Had Mr. Beecher adhered to what appears to have been his original design, and given us a series of detached sketches illustrative of village life in New England, his “Norwood” might have taken rank by the side of Miss Mitford’s portraitures of village life in Berkshire; but he threw away his only chance of rendering his book acceptable to any numerous body of readers when he decided to give it the form of a long, straggling, pointless three-volume novel. That his representations of rural worthies and their ways are faithful to nature, and executed with conscientious pains, we admit; but they lack the simplicity and poetic insight of “Our Village.” Moreover, he is guilty in a high degree of the besetting sin of popular preachers, who, more than other class [sic] of educated men, delight in verbose utterances of common-place thoughts. Had Mr. Beecher submitted his manuscript to a critical and fearless editor, with a view to its amendment for the press, it would have been relieved of numerous offences against good taste. Now that the Southerners are broken and humiliated, it ill becomes a Northern partisan to taunt them with the lack of fortitude which is said to have characterized their soldiers when lying in military hospitals. “Hundreds of wounded rebels,” says the novelist, with a partisan’s bitterness, at that point of the book where village life disappears into the life of camps, “had been captured, and lay among our men, subject to the same kindness. In the hospital there was peace; wounds were counted as amicable settlements. The South, impulsive and unrestrained in the expression of feeing; the North, grave and self constrained, more apt to repress than to show feeling—both carried into battle and into the hospital their peculiarities. The Southern brigades, impetuous and fiery, charged yelling and noisy. The Northern men, sometimes hurrahing, yet oftener silent, put their feelings into blows. The rebels wounded groaned and cried out—the surgeon’s knife set loose their tongues. The Northern wounded lay quiet, suppresed their groans, fighting their pains as stubbonly and silently as they had fought the rebels.” Without accusing the author of the malignity which some readers will think they discern in this allusion to suffering men who, however craven they may have been under the surgeon’s knife, bore themselves right gallantry [sic] on many hard-fought fields, we cannot do otherwise than regret that the triumph of his political cause has not mollified Mr. Beecher towards its brave, though misguided adversaries.
A correspondent who has discovered a singular feature in Mr. Beecher’s novel, writes as follows:
“It is from some accidental cause, doubtless—perhaps an excessive trinitarianism—that Mr. Beecher has been led to create his personages not in couples or pairs, but in trines. There are the three old men, Dr. Buell, Dr. Wentworth, and Judge Bacon, who furnish the philosophy and talk; there are three fine young fellows, Cathcart, Heywood, and Ezel, [sic] who do the love-making; there are three pretty girls, two Roses and Alice; there are the three queer sticks, Tommy, Pete, and Hiram; the three mothers, Mrs. Cathcart, Mrs. Wentworth, and Mrs. Heffington; [sic] and finally, three deaths and three marriages. Another singular thing in Mr. Beecher’s world of Norwood is, that it contains no bad fellows in it, not a single villain, and hardly so much as a first-rate sinner. Old Tommy does a little swearing, Pete a little drinking, and Hiram don’t go to church a little; but beyond these mild offenders, everybody is good, honest, upright, generous, and in a state of saving grace. If Norwood be a pattern of other New England villages, we have many a paradise upon earth without knowing it. The higher classes are extremely cultivated, the lower classes have no vices, the girls are as lovely as they can be, and the young men patterns of morals, refinement, and manliness. It has never been our lot to live in such villages, nor do we commonly encounter such impeccable mortals, but we are sure that Mr. Beecher must have done both, or he would not have been at such pains to describe to us ‘Life in New England.’ ”
The great preacher is not a great novelist. His book will not be read through in hot haste. In many ways it caricatures rather than characterizes Life in New England; at least, during ten years passed in a New England village not a hundred miles
from the region from which this story takes its departure, we found no such life. There is, however, a great deal of pleasant and suggestive writing within the covers of the volume, notwithstanding its shortcomings as a work of fiction; and had the writer contented himself with making up a bundle of “fragments,” so gathering and making use of material which even Mr. Beecher’s not very severe taste rejected from the weekly Sermons, it would have been as well for Mr. Bonner and the readers of the “Ledger,” and far better for the author’s literary reputation.
Norwood. Mr. Beecher’s contributions to the New York Ledger, under the head of “Norwood,” are now gathered up in a printed volume, to be issued by C. Scribner & Co. on March 14th. They make a 12mo volume of 549 pages. Of the character of the work, so many of our readers have formed their own opinion, that extended comment is unnecessary. Whatever may be thought of the dramatic unity of the story, the characters are portrayed with a vividness and individuality that will impress them on the memory. His pictures of nature are admirably drawn, and in this department he stands facile princeps among the writers of the day.
Norwood; or, Village Life in New England. By Henry Ward Beecher. pp. 549. New York: Charles Scribner & Co.
This is a republication in book form of the novel written by Mr. Beecher for the “New York Ledger.” A pleasantly written preface concludes by saying, “To all the other pleasant associations of Norwood, Mr. Bonner has, by his more than fraternal kindness, added the highest and most enduring charm of a generous friendship.” We believe the general opinion that has been formed of the story is, that if it be regarded, as the lawyers say, qua novel, it will be found in many respects defective and inartistic; but if regarded as a series of sketches of character, or of bits of dialogue, or as presenting specimens of pictures in words, it will be found to contain much that is excellent.
Norwood; or Village Life in New England. By Henry Ward Beecher. Published by Charles Scribner & Co., New York Received through Mesrs. Ingham & Bragg, Cleveland. 549 pages. Price, $1,50.
Hundreds of thousands of people have read the serial chapters of Norwood, as it was running through the pages of the N. Y. Ledger last season, and now the same people, and many others, will read it with still better relish, and more satisfactory understanding, in the neat form here presented by Scribner & Co., at such a low price. This work has already been well introduced to the readers of the Ohio Farmer. All great writers are not great in all literary details. Like Dr. Holmes’ Guardian Angel, the plot or story of Norwood does not amount to much. Sylvanus Cobb or Miss Braddon can beat Dr. Holmes or Mr. Beecher to death, in the mere plot of a story. In this respect, Norwood is like the Black Crook, of which the play or dialogue is very feeble, while the legs and dancing are perfectly splendid. A plot in the hands of Mr. Beecher is only a lay figure, on which to show off his splendid literary milinery and pure philosophic jewels, in both of which Norwood is richly bedight.
Norwood; or, Village Life in New England. By Henry Ward Beecher. New York: Chas. Scribner & Co. (From the N. Y. Ledger.)
The public already having had abundant opportunity of becoming acquainted with Mr. Beecher’s work through the columns of the Ledger, we as reviewers are spared the necessity of fortifying our assertions and justifying our remarks, by text quotations. The present reappearance of the story in book-form, offers a suitable occasion for passing upon it as a whole, while the importance of Mr. Beecher’s position in the community, and the influence which his name of itself commands, must be our excuse for dwelling upon a theme which lies somewhat outside of the general scope of The American Athenaeum.
Mr. Beecher, like all men that have attained to eminence, may truthfully say that his friends are often his worst enemies. We are puzzled with the query—what would the public have said were “Norwood” the firstling of some promising young novelist? We might then have read some clear, impartial, satisfactory critique, one that would have done credit to the critic, and rendered an important service to the novelist. As the case now stands, we have been witness to the usual, perhaps an unusual, amount of puffing by the press, daily, weekly and monthly, a flinging about of stale brains and a lavish display of gratuitous advertisement, but no sound criticism. Were Mr. Beecher of a less robust and well-balanced mental organization, we should fear for his future usefulness.
From the Preface we gather that the author was brought to the task of writing the tale, by the assiduous urging of Mr. Bonner, of the Ledger and that his only purpose was to awaken a certain amount of pleasure by narrating the “experience of daily life among the common people, not so much by dramatic skill as by a subtle sympathy with nature, and by a certain largeness of moral feeling.” It is only just that we should judge of the author by what he has attempted, and not by what he has left unattempted; we must, therefore, ascertain whether he has successfully realized his fundamental idea or not.
By common people, Mr. Beecher means, of course, New England folk. So far then as “Norwood” is a characterization of the daily life, thoughts, customs and personages of a New England village, we have no fault to find. To us citizens of the outside barbarian world there is much in the book that is wearisome. Still, New England is New England, and inasmuch as Mr. Beecher has given us a faithful daguerreotype of that mixed phase of local character, so far at least as it enters into the substance of his story, we must applaud the execution, whatever we may think of the conception. He has not given us rationalistic New England, nor could we expect so much from an orthodox minister. We must confess that Mr. Beecher, despite all the show of heterodoxy which makes him the object of both admiration and dislike, has ever impressed us as being a man who takes one step forward and two backward. How often have we waited in patient attention for some clear, unmistakable utterance, only to be rewarded with a metaphysical jugglery worthy of the scholastic ages.
The author attempts to narrate the “experiences of daily life among the common people.” As critic, we must say that he has wandered from his theme. He has indeed portrayed the common people, but not as his heroes and heroines. The common people, such as Tommy Taft, Hiram Beers, Pete Sawmill and the rest, play subordinate parts, while it is the author’s evident purpose, throughout the entire story, to make everything centre around his heroine, Rose Wentworth. Rose, however, does not belong among the common people, nor does her lover, Barton Cathcart. Dr. Wentworth is a man of wealth and of universal culture. Frank Esel and Tom Heywood are both young gentlemen of the purest water. In a word, the chief actors are all taken from the upper classes of society; and it is an artistic misconception to designate “Norwood” as a narrative of daily life among the common people. It would not be a greater mistake to call “Henry IV” by the high-jingling appellation of a popular play, because Shakespeare has delineated in it such characters as Bardolph, Pistol, Poins and Dame Quickly, or depicted the scenes at Gadshill and the Boar’s Head in Eastcheap. In “Norwood” the common people are but the supports upon which the upper social stratum rests, and from which it derives its best nutriment.
We may now examine a little more closely into Mr. Beecher’s treatment of his hero and heroine. Rose Wentworth is, we admit, the type of a numerous class of young ladies with whom we come in daily contact. Perhaps she may be regarded as the type of the American girl—so far as any type can be said to exist in a country where there is no permanency of charac[ter]istic or of thought. Clear-headed, affectionate, gifted with that inner poise of emotion and judgment which guarantee the possessor a successful life in the midst of any ordinary complication of circumstances, she quietly wins for herself a place in every one’s heart. Her treatment of the baffled suitors, Heywood and Esel—why has Mr. Beecher selected a so strangely-suggestive pseudonym as that of Esel?—is in its way a gem. Yet, with all her gifts and her tact, Rose Wentworth is not the type of American women. Were Mr. Beecher to reply with the query—Pray, then, what do you regard as the type of American womanhood? we should be puzzled for an answer. Yet that inner voice, which, according to Schiller, never deceives one, assures us that the American woman has not yet been drawn at full length, either by Mr. Beecher or by his more gifted sister, or by any other of our nine hundred and ninety-nine big and little novelists. Number one thousand is yet to come, and roll aside the heavy curtain and bid Hermione step forth from her obscurity.
Of the hero, Barton Cathcart, we have but little to say. Like most heroes, he is not over interesting. There is a trifle too much of the saint in him, which, like a little knowledge, is a dangerous thing. An out-and-out saint, like Jean Valjean or M. Bienvenn (Myrièl), is an object of refreshing study. But a New England college immaculatus is rather a bore than otherwise. On page 204, Rose gives the following characterization of her lover, which is good in itself, but to our notion, exceedingly out of place. “Barton is a world too sensitive for his own good, capable of being a hero, and quite as capable of becoming a fanatic,” &c. This revelation is made to young Esel, who, as Rose must have perceived, was hopelessly smitten with herself. We fear that Mr. Beecher has not yet sounded the depths of the female heart; otherwise he could not have suffered a girl like Rose Wentworth to have made such a revelation of the character of one whom she unconsciously loved. No quick-witted girl would ever have betrayed the length to which she had gone in studying the character of her best friend; and no loving girl would have deliberately spoken a like harsh judgment, whatever she might have thought.
Throughout the latter half of “Norwood,” we detect a falling off in dramatic power. Mr. Beecher has, in his preface, deprecated any unusual share of dramatic skill. This, however, may not excuse undue deficiency. The plot is fully elaborated, the characters are all developed, the hero and the heroine are playing at cross-purposes in a tantalizing manner; yet we have no scenes where soul meets soul, in the dark though it may be. Barton Cathcart runs away to the west and then to the war, whither Rose follows him. The loss of Barton’s declaratory letters is too conventional to weave from it any but the most commonplace misfortune. We have the war, the war, interumgal bellum, a description of the state of feeling in the South, and also of diverse battles which have taken their position in the archives of history. Of course young Cathcart comes out a hero and a general, and is restored to his mourning Rose, while Heywood breaks Alice Cathcart’s heart by his death on the field of Gettysburg. We have thus a glimpse, but only a glimpse, into the tragic side of human life, with its wayward perversity in bestowing happiness upon those who are able to dispense with it, and crushing the heart that really sickens for love.
Mr. Beecher’s theological and philosophical views, whatever they may be, differ so widely from our own, that we are perhaps disqualified from passing an impartial judgment upon them. We must admit that “Norwood” contains, in our opinion, too many cheap appeals to theological prejudices not to cause the sober critic as much dissatisfaction as pleasure. Mr. Beecher’s nature is too much Ruskinized, and his philosophy savors too much of the pulpit. The book is replete with thoughts and suggestions which will amply repay a careful examination, provided, however, we look at them from the proper standpoint, not suffering ourselves to be borne away by the undertow of logic incoherency.
Mr. Beecher’s own nature is deep and genial; his thoughts, even when not original, are put with a force and a freshness which have recoined them into new images of beauty; his affections are lively and sincere. For all that, he is not a profound nor an accurate thinker; nor is “Norwood” a masterpiece even of quiet life. Why Barton Cathcart, who is evidently a born rationalist, should all at once return to the orthodox fold, is a problem which
Mr. Beecher has signally failed to solve, even to his own satisfaction. The author says that in New England, more than elsewhere, men are more differentiated. Has he then shown us the New England character in its variety? Has he even drawn for us the salient features of that character, its longing after knowledge, its plasticity under novel circumstances, its independence, its self-sustainment?
“Norwood” is thoroughly American in its tone and tendency, and as such we feel called upon to meet it with sincere though discriminating approbation. Had Mr. Beecher, however, properly subordinated the war scenes in the latter half of the volume; had he condensed his discussions upon art and philosophy; above all, had he portrayed his hero and his heroine more amply in their direct personal action and reaction upon one another, his book would have been far more of a success as an artistic production.
The leading event of the month in the book line is the publication of Norwood, by Messrs. Charles Scribner & Co., which appeared as a serial in The Ledger some months since. It excited no little surprise at the time, that a leading and popular clergyman should engage to write a novel for Mr. Bonner’s paper, and it seemed a bold adventure on the part of this sagacious and enterprising publisher, especially considering the large sum he was understood to pay for the MS. But the result justified the arrangement as a business matter, and, as we honestly believe, in a moral and religious point of view also. We are frank to confess that we were among those who regretted the step on Mr. Beecher’s part, and we did not read a line of the story as it appeared on the Ledger. But now that we have read it carefully in its new and completed form, we cannot refrain from expressing our gratitude, both to Mr. Beecher and Mr. Bonner, for the book. It is no small thing to get a work of this kind into the hands of at least a million and a half of readers of the class accustomed to read for the most part of the trashy and frivolous literature of the day. In every respect, certainly Norwood is incomparably superior to most of the reading furnished for this class of eager readers. It is pure, healthful, and bracing in its social and moral tone. Its entire influence is favorable to Christianity, its ministry, and its institutions. There is likewise no little positive religion in it, doctrinal and experimental and practical, and presented in a way which must commend it to men of the world, as well as to those who have felt its power. Not that the book is faultless in this respect; not that some expressions are not unhappy and to be regretted; but, taken as a whole, we unhesitatingly affirm it as our conviction, that Norwood does substantial justice to the theology, the moral and institutions of New England. In this particular it reflects New England sentiment and life far more truthfully than do two other works we noticed not long since in Hours at Home, both written by distinguished sons of New England Ministers—Doctor Johns, and The Guardian Angel. The contrast here is most striking, and altogether in favor of Mr. Beecher. Mr. Mitchell’s representative minister, every intelligent and discriminating man cannot fail to see, is a gross caricature, while Mr. Holmes’ is as unfair and untruthful as can well be conceived. But the character and ministry of Dr. Buell, the pastor of Norwood, is evidently drawn by one in full and hearty sympathy with the Evangelical sentiment and life of New England. And what a noble, glorious Christian faith and life have we in Dr. Wentworth, the physician of the village! And his daughter Rose, the heroine of Norwood—no lovelier, truer, or more symmetrical Christian character has genius ever sanctified. While Barton Cathcart, the hero, is the embodiment of all true and manly Christian virtue.
On some points Mr. Beecher—especially considering that Norwood was written for a secular paper like the Ledger—quite surprises us. He has the reputation of not liking “doctrinal” preaching. But what can be asked more explicit than the following: “Look at the history of New England mind in a large way. I think we owe everything to her theologians, and most to the most doctrinal. They were shut out from the world—in danger of becoming provincial and narrow. The outlet was found—not in cosmopolitan social customs, nor in art or literature—but in theology. Such men as Edwards, Hopkins, Smalley, West, Bellamy, Backus, Burton, Emmons, lifted up the New England mind into a range of speculation and conviction that ennobled and strengthened it as art never could have done.”
And what a deserved tribute to the New England Sabbath! Would that such testimony might ring through the land and check the tide of desecration which threatens to sweep away all that is distinctive in it! “The one great poem of New England is her Sunday! Through that she has escaped materialism. That has been a crystal dome over head, through which Imagination has been kept alive. New England’s imagination is to be found—not in art, or literature—but in her inventions, her social organism, and, above all, in her religious life. The Sabbath has been the nurse of that. When she ceases to have a Sunday, she will be as this landscape is—now growing dark, all its lines blurred, its distances and gradations fast merging into sheeted darkness and night.”
Norwood can scarcely be called a novel. It has no plot, no dramatic interest, no unity or character as a story. Its author evidently began and finished it without any definite aim or plan. It is simply various pictures of New England life to to-day, truthful in all their as-
pects, exceedingly graphic in detail, intensely interesting in parts, abounding with passages of rare beauty—the whole instinct with genius of no mean order. The impression which, as a whole, it makes is not doubtful, but such as every right-minded man and woman must approve.
Norwood.*—At last the editor of the Ledger has given permission to Mr. Scribner to publish Norwood in a volume! This unexpected favor will be greeted by the expectant public with a pean [sic] of grateful thanksgiving, and tons of thousands of copies will doubtless be sold. Have not scores of thousands of persons already read it in the columns of the Ledger? Will not other myriads who do not take the Ledger, but who have heard of it, or even heard of Mr. Beecher, also be constrained to buy it? Mr. Beecher and The New York Ledger are fixed facts. The man who does not do justice to these potent elements of American society, does not know the Great American Republic as it is to-day.
We do not advertise in the Ledger, but we find that we have advertised the Ledger and Norwood also, and we trust that Mr. Bonner and Mr. Beecher will be satisfied.
But what of Norwood, in sober earnestness and with critical honesty? Has Mr. Beecher written a good novel? We can say with truth that he has written an interesting book. Parts of it are tedious and long winded, as Judge Bacon describes Dr. Wentworth’s conversational lecutres; but there are many choice passages; and we were going to say many fine characters; but we correct ourselves by saying many fine descriptions of characters. One of the chief defects of the book, as a tale, is that there is so little individualization of character. The characters are too heavily Beechered to be allowed much individuality of their own. They are skillfully draped and masked, but through all the dominoes one sees the glistening of Mr. Beecher’s eyes, and hears the tones of Mr. Beecher’s voice. Barton Cathcart, Rose Wentworth, and even Hiram Beers and Tommy Taft, are all Mr.
* Norwood: or Village Life in New England. By Henry Ward Beecher. [From the New York Ledger]. New York: Charles Scribner & Co. 1868. New Haven: Judd & White.
Beecher in various moods and guises. All their conversations, saving the occasional swearing, remind us of parts of Mr. Beecher’s sermons and lectures. We do not doubt that Mr. Beecher, in drawing each of these characters, had some living person in mind. We think we have heard from him before of the person who sat for Hiram Beers. But he has failed, because he has projected so much of himself into their being, instead of transfusing their being into himself. He preaches too much through all his characters, though the preaching is much of it very good, and quite to our mind. But, notwithstanding all this, one cannot help being interested in these varied personifications—perhaps, in part, because he sees so much of Mr. Beecher in them all.
The tale purports to give us village life in New England. But does it give this life as it is, or as it ever was? We wish we could truly answer this question in the affirmative. Life in New England would be far better than it is in fact, were this picture to be accepted as a just, even though an idealized, portraiture. We do not doubt that Mr. Beecher desired to set off what he deems its peculiar features to the best advantage, but we cannot accept his realizations even as bright reflections of sober truth. This life is in some respects far better, and in others far worse than he has rendered it. Its cultivated people are not so stilted and soaring, and its common people are not so uncouth and rude as he would make them to be. Its theologians are not so unpractical, nor are its old maids quite so stiff as Dr. Buel[l] and Agate Bissel[l]. Solid good sense, practical insight into men and things, faith in God and love to man, as exemplified by deeds rather than evanesced in sentiment, these are the prominent characteristics of its people. Exaggeration is Mr. Beecher’s besetting sin, and when he attempts to idealize, he gives too often an extravaganza. But with all its defects and overdoings, Norwood will be read, and will, in the main, leave a good impression of New England life, as well as an elevating impression of the purposes and aims of human existence.
Norwood; or Village Life in New England. By Henry Ward Beecher. New York: C. Scribner & Co. 1868. pp. 594
The author of this work is well known to the reading community. Perhaps no public man of the present age possesses greater versatility of talent than he. He seems to throw a charm around almost every thing he undertakes. It appears strange that a clergyman should enter the sphere of Romance; yet even stranger things than this do not seem incompatible with Mr. Beecher’s peculiar genius. The present work is acknowledgedly a Novel. It is, however, one of the better class. It was written originally for the “New York Ledger,” at the solicitation of Mr. Bonner, the proprietor of that publication, and appeared in its columns in successive numbers. It is now given to the public in a substantial volume. The demand for it seems to be great. Large editions have already been published, and the call for it still continues. Mr. Beecher has a way of his own in telling things. His style is peculiar and attractive in itself, and the incidents he weaves in his story, illustrative of New England life and manners, are forcible and striking. This work is destined to be more extensively read than any thing which has heretofore proceeded from the same prolific pen.
NORWOOD; or, Village Life in New England. By Henry Ward Beecher. New York: Chas. Scribner & Co. Cincinnati: Robt. Clarke & Co., 65 West Fourth-street. 549 pp. 12mo. Price, $1.50.
What shall a religious paper do with novels? Certainly, this is a difficult question, if under the head of novels we rank all fictions. A large part of our Sunday school literature would thus be condemned. Mr. Wesley also must be condemned for his “Fool of Quality.” We must, in fact, all be condemned. “Norwood” is “Beecher’s novel.” It was published in the “New York Ledger.” We have had, therefore, a kind of adverse prejudgment of its merits. Let us candidly confess, however, that, now that we have seen it, many of our prejudices disappear. We doubt whether it would answer the definition of novel given in the dictionaries. There is no deep-laid plot, no long-retained mystery, no exciting under plot. It is merely “village life in New England” personified; its every-day features embalmed in story. Such life naturally gives room for theological and religious presentations, and in these the work abounds, with all that wealth and quaintness of pointed illustration that so distinguishes the eminent author’s pulpit performances.
Henry Ward revels in the beauties of nature. The most pantheistic of Emersonians could not be dissatisfied with those communings with nature that abound in this expose of life in Norwood. His characters are drawn with sharp lines, and several of them are almost inimitable. He utterly fails in the dialogue. Whoever talks, Beecher talks. His individuality is too strong to be laid aside or lost in a suppositious personage. This is not a book to be devoured at a romance mouthful. It will bear reading, and laying aside, and resuming. No one definite purpose of doctrine, experience, or morals seems to distinguish the book. It is descriptive, a word painting, and very rich in its own peculiar beauties. On the whole we are glad to think the Ledger is seeking so high a style of literature, and we are not particularly regretful that Norwood has been written.
Ingham & Bragg, Cleveland, solicit orders from the trade, and will send the book by mail on receipt of the price.
During its serial publication in the elegeant journal wherein Mr. Beecher “seems to fit more naturally than anywhere else,” we resolutely refrained from reading the ripest fruit of his matured genius. We remembered too vividly the disagreable experiences of our early youth—the unutterable agony of suspense for the whole dreadful week, during which the hapless heroine was left defenceless in the hands of the robber chief, or the unlucky hero, overpowered by numbers and hurled from the battlements of the castle, was falling headlong to destruction on the rocks a thousand feet below. To be sure, we had a moral certainty that the next number would come to the rescue by interposing an opportune cactus in the way of the tumbling Cospetoo, whereby he would gain access to a cave in the face of the cliff and thence penetrate to the dungeons of the castle just in time to deliver the lovely and shrieking Marionette from the foul grasp of her ruffian persecutor. But nevertheless one could not help feeling unpleasantly all the same; the tree might break, you know, or the viscount might lose his way in the labyrinths of the robber cave, or the caitiff knight might get impatient and decline to wait the arrival of the gallant youth before accomplishing his nefarious purpose. The thing, though improbable, was not unprecedented. Once or twice, we remembered, some literary wolf in sheep’s clothing had eluded even Mr. Bonner’s vigilance, and, beginning with the most innocent and harmless commonplaces of romance, had ended with remorseless havoc of heroes and heroines. Our confidence in authors, thus shaken, was not likely to be restored in this instance by what we recalled of Mr. Beecher’s sanguinary disposition in the palmy days of Bleeding Kansas. So we held aloof until we could swallow the dose in a single gulp, without stopping to think how unpalatable it was—that is, if it should be unpalatable, which, however, we had no reason to anticipate, for the entire country press, with singular unanimity, was rapturous in its praise, while metropolitan dailies grew ecstatic in approval. Epithets were showered upon it with almost reckless profusion, and the dictionary ransacked with an extravagance which only an extreme degree of enthusiasm could justify. Beautiful indeed was this agreement of the critics! From those discriminating and impartial endorsements wherewith publishers are in the habit of enlivening and adorning their announcements we learned that Norwood was almost everything that was delightful: that it was “irresistibly humorous, bubbling over with fun, racy, and signally successful;” that it was “enjoyable, exquisite;” that it was “pure, healthful, bracing;” that it was “natural;” that it was “witty and wise;” that it was “odd,” yet yet “charming, genial, kindly;” “tender and genuine,” yet “good and healthful;” “vivid,” “entertaining, and quaint;” “sparkling, brilliant, profound”—finally, that it was “one of the best books of the day.” Beside all this, our already lofty expectation was fortified by another appreciative reviewer with the vague but comforting assurance that “what Whittier’s Snow-Bound is in poetry Beecher’s Norwood is in prose.” To be sure, this last endorsement is subject to the disadvantage that you might not think Whittier’s Snow-Bound was very much in poetry, and that Beecher’s Norwood would therefore suffer by comparison. But the prospect was sufficiently encouraging, and we opened the book with the most gorgeous anticipations.
We have read it through, all of its 549 large 12mo pages, and we lay it down with the same feeling of solemn rapture that Rose Wentworth experienced in looking at the sunset. To read through any novel nowadays of 549 large 12mo pages is surely an achievement to be proud of; but to read through a novel so very long, so apparently interminable, and so amazingly dull as we are reluctantly constrained to consider Norwood to be, is a real triumph of endurance. We are divided between respectful wonder at the extent of our own patience, astonishment at the author’s power of lasting, and admiration of Mr. Bonner’s sublime faith. Yet the book with all its faults proves anew Mr. Beecher’s great originality; for certainly no other man living as smart as that reverend gentleman undeniably is could by any possibility have written so poor a novel. In fact, his book would have been better if he had been less smart or less convinced of his smartness. As it is, the only prominent character in it, the only character that one remembers, is the ubiquitous Mr. Beecher. There is a plethora of Mr. Beecher, a superabundance of Plymouth Church, that to any but the author’s most ardent worshippers is apt to become monotonous. One cannot help feeling that the crowd of personages who sprawl helplessly through his pages are simply more or less transparent excuses for the revelation of Mr. Beecher’s humanity, Mr. Beecher’s humor, Mr. Beecher’s quaintness, Mr. Beecher’s morality. He has no dramatic power; his characters do not live before us, do not stand out from his canvas with the distinctness of individuality. They move with a galvanized vitality, and talk with the charming precision and naturalness of a clairvoyant; or rather they do not talk at all. They preach sermons at one another more or less long, but all about equally tedious. Dr. Wentworth preaches when he thinks he is talking philosophy; Barton Cathcart preaches when he fancies he is making love. It is here that Mr. Beecher’s want of art is most disagreeably evident. His lack of creative power, or rather his deficiency in that highest form of creative power which can sustain as well as conceive, reduces him to the necessity of telling us what his characters are, instead of allowing them to tell us themselves. All his pictures are carefully labelled, This is a man, or This is a woman, to prevent the possibility of mistake. Perhaps Mr. Beecher calculated well the intelligence of his audience, but the average novel reader would find it pleasanter, we imagine, to dispense with the labels, especially where they are untrue, and when their untruth is so emphasized and made patent by their presence. If Mr. Beecher were content to set his walking dolls in motion without so constantly and so triumphantly calling our attention to the fact that they do walk, and that they are all alive—all alive, oh! some of his readers might be careless enough to mistake spasmodic activity for the grace and freedom of actual vitality; but these reiterated endorsements of the showman are a challenge to one’s perspicacity which rarely results to the author’s advantage. The story, too, is about as clumsily managed as it could possibly be, and the greatest care taken to weed it of any little interest it might have intrinsically possessed. The feelings of the reader are constantly outraged by stupid digressions to afford an opportunity for the display of those metaphysical gymnastics and ethical tumblings in which Mr. Beecher delights, but which are less likely to please his secular readers than his Plymouth congregation. There is, too, a sanguinary recklessness of propriety in the way the best people are killed off or crossed in love that is simply revolting to the practised novel reader. As Rose Wentworth is avowedly the heroine, and consequently the desirable parti of the story, one would rather see her married to either Esel or Heywood, who have at least spirit enough to ask for what they wanted, than to owlish Barton Cathcart, who is silly enough to trust to the cold charity and careless charge of a letter the one declaration of all others that needs to be enforced with all the passionate eloquence of eye and tongue and presence. Yet, on the other hand, perhaps we should rather felicitate the author on the humanity which spared two such good fellows the misery of being yoked to a young lady whose chief object in life seems to be to smile softly, and to have deep inner consciousnesses, and to go into solemn raptures on slight provocation, and to know everything that she needn’t know and nothing that she should. On the whole, we think it rather fortunate for Esel and Heywood that they get off as easily as they do, and Cathcart only escapes our sympathy by being such an extremely uninteresting prig. The best character in the book is Tommy Taft, not in conception so much as in execution. Mr. Beecher’s conceptions are often good, but he lacks the knack of artistic developement. [sic] Hiram Beers and Agate Bissell and Deacon Marble are graphic sketches, but they are only sketches which gain much of their interest from the poverty and commonplace around them. Of the style it is needless to say anything; everybody knows Mr. Beecher’s style, and those who admire it will not dis-
* Norwood; or, Village Life in New England. By Henry Ward Beecher. New York: Chas. Scribner & Co. 1868.
like Norwood on that score. There is abundance of fine writing of the sort that The Ledger loves and that critics silently endure, and here and there are scattered felicities of phrase and thought that might suit Mr. Johnson’s counsel in a twaddling Senate. But, in spite of The Church Union, we must protest against Mr. Beecher’s grammar. “Bestrid” may be New Englandish, but it isn’t English; but if Mr. Beecher’s ministers can be so murderous as to say “they do not know as that,” what can we expect of his laymen?
To sum up, our conviction is that Norwood would be all our fancy, fired by enthusiastic reviewers, painted it but for these deficiencies—lack of character, of dialogue and of plot. As these are sometimes deemed to constitute a novel of ordinary excellence, we must defer setting the last fruits of Mr. Beecher’s versatile genius on the same shelf with Thackeray and Dickens and Scott. If any other than Mr. Beecher were the author, we should deplore the waste of valuable time in writing, as we do in reading, it. But perhaps the time employed in its composition may have been as profitably spent as it would have been in playing court jester before the throne of the King of Kings.
When the publisher of a sensational weekly announced that he had prevailed on Henry Ward Beecher, in consideration of a large sum of money, to write a novel for serial publication, the public felt that it was a clever money-making project, since every one felt naturally curious to see what manner of production would be the result. Very few, however, except those devoted admirers who believe Mr. Beecher equally qualified to plan a railroad, manage an army, or invent a new lemon-squeezer, expected the novel to be a literary success, and on the appearance of the volume few were disappointed. As a story, “Norwood” possesses little interest. The characters are generally well drawn, and the incidents are natural enough generally; the bits of description through the book are quite cleverly done, and outside of the mawkish sentimentality to be found here and there, there are few objectionable points; but the book can be laid down when the reader is at any part without regret, and when resumed can be read straight on without bewilderment, from the actual lack of close connection. As a work of art, it is unquestionably a failure, and will soon sink to oblivion, but, from curiosity, it will have in its new shape* a considerable sale.
* Norwood; or, Village Life in New England. By Henry Ward Beecher. New York: Charles Scribner & Co. 12mo., pp. 549.
Norwood; or, Village-Life in New England, by Henry Ward Beecher. (C. Scribner & Co.) The opinions thus far printed about Mr. Beecher’s novel have often been merely preëxisting opinions about him. Perhaps this was well enough—it certainly was at once partly unfair and yet perfectly natural; for any one of the single utterances of any nature so strong, and fluent, and productive, will be judged rather by the author than by itself. But again, many of these opinions have been based on a certain theory of what a novel is; and these, so far as we have seen them, have all been wrong. The novel, for the purposes of to-day’s literature, is one of the freest and least formal of all composi-
tions, so much so, that “Norwood” is a novel to all intents and purposes, in virtue of the arrangement of its materials along a thread of story. On no valid principle, we think, can this be denied without absurdly curtailing the number of actually received novels. But instead of seeking to interest merely by structure, or character-painting, or society-sketches, or adventure, or description, “Norwood” utters with a large freedom whatever seemed fit, to communicate the author’s thought of what is the essence of characteristic New England life, together with any other thoughts and views of the author. So the book abides by no strict rule in form; and the careless flow of its style is like the free discursiveness of its thoughts. In mental and moral tone and color, however, it conforms to rules both strict and high; it is luminous and living throughout with kindly and noble feeling, and with the contagious cheerfulness of a happy nature; it is a thoroughly healthy and healthful book, which can scarcely be read in candor without imparting some of its own genial warmth. In what the book did seek to do, it is successful; and not to succeed in what it did not, is success too.
Norwood, or Village Life in New England. By Henry Ward Beecher. New York: Charles Scribner & Co. 1868. 12mo., pp. 549.
Mr. Beecher reminds us of a brilliant lighthouse, on an uncertain foundation, throwing a dazzling blaze of beams through the darkness, and admired by the sailor for the splendor of its illuminations, while he constantly fears it may yield to the storm, and the billow, and sinking in the gloom, leave him alone amid the perils of the midnight. That the author of Norwood has genius, cannot be questioned. Yet, he is the last man in America, reflecting persons would choose for a leader. He has a lively sense of the beautiful. He possesses a quick perception of the ludicrous. His Fancy often blooms with beauty. His Intellect is bold, vigorous, creative. He resembles a vessel, with immense sails, and waving flags, and powerful engine, rushing to sea amid the huzzas of the multitude, yet, in imminent danger from an explosion, or a collision. Superior to his father in wit, and fancy, and fertility, he is greatly inferior to him in that manly logic, which, driving to a point, inspires the respect of the thoughtful, and the confidence, if not the admiration, of the populace. Had Mr. Beecher submitted in childhood and youth to that long course of patient discipline essential to the development of genius, as well as of moderate capacities, he might have stood near the rank of the great Pulpit Orators. As it is, he is simply a most brilliant talker, admired by the multitude for his smartness, yet not trusted, and venerated for deep earnestness, or correct judgment—a rocket flinging off sparks, expiring while they dazzle, rather than a steady light shining usefully over the centuries. Nothing can be more amusing than his assertion that he learned the art of preaching from Jonathan
Edwards. Compare the stately, solemn Divine of Northampton, with his rigid Theology, driven from his Parish for his sharp rebukes of wickedness, with the bright, witty occupant of Plymouth Pulpit, worshipped by the multitude, who pay him sums almost fabulous for Sunday entertainments, where laughter and tears succeed each other like light and shadows chasing over a summer field. All the peculiarities Mr. Beecher exhibits as a Preacher, he evinces as a Novelist. Norwood has the usual New England characters. You find a sturdy youth having to make his way through life—a bright girl, rather masculine in her disposition—a precise maiden, remarkable for her shining floors, and orderly bureaus—a shrewd, successful farmer, an eccentric physician, and a respectable minister. Yet no writer has overlaid the common framework with so many flowers of genius, gay in bloom, and rich in fragrance. Everywhere are original thoughts, and admirable descriptions. Norwood is Plymouth Pulpit transformed to a novel. In the early part of the tale you remark a verbosity, a prolixity, a dearth of dialogue. The Author resembles a gay boy conscious of his own powers, just let loose from a long confinement, who cannot resist the temptation to forget his errand and chase through the fields every bright butterfly flashing over his path. But as he progresses, and becomes familiar with his new vocation, he acquires more and more directness, concentration, and power, until particular scenes occur, exhibiting more than ordinary dramatic excellence. If Norwood were freed from its excrescences, and reduced to its proper size, it might be shaped into a work of art. Perhaps, however, greater culture would diminish its popularity. Enduring excellence is too often acquired with the sacrifice of present fame. The novelist, and the Preacher who flash over their own age do not usually illuminate the Future, except in the case of that rare Genius which is willing to attain the highest, and most enduring excellence by the most patient, and persistent labor, thus providing its own balm for immortality.
We cannot refrain from adding an expression of wonder that the man possessing so keen a perception of Beauty, should be so deficient in veneration. It is difficult to understand how there should be such ecstacy in the Majestic Cathedral with its dim lights, and grand music, and so little respect for an Ancient Creed, formed by the collected wisdom of the Church, made sacred by Centuries, and expressing for all time the universal Christian Consciousness.