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Carl Van Doren (1885–1950).  The American Novel.  1921.


Page 205

  If the international novels had shown the “dense categories of dark arcana” of European life threatened by Americans, and The Princess Casamassima by revolution, The Tragic Muse (1890) showed them threatened by art. Nicholas Dormer resigns his seat in Parliament to become a mere portrait painter, to the ineffable horror of his very political mother and fiancée and patron. Parallel to his career is that of Miriam Rooth, who without at first being a lady contrives to become, with the help of genius, a great actress, incidentally refusing, for the sake of her art, a rising diplomat who proposes to make her the most brilliant lady in Europe. The conflict between art and “the world” had early struck James as “one of the half-dozen great primary motives.” That conflict had governed and shaped his own career. So far as he had been a partizan at all in his pictures of life he had sided with “the world” in its compacter, urbaner phases as against uncivilized crudity and cruelty. But now, standing at the center of the compact, urbane “world,” he studied the phenomenon of genius which deflects Nick Dormer from all that his caste regards as desirable or even respectable; and which makes Miriam seem “important” as a human being in spite of her shortcomings as an ornament of society. That singular personage Gabriel Nash, who has no art but the art of living and who has no rôle in the novel but that of chorus, sums up the general problem. “It’s the simplest thing in the world; just take for granted our right to be happy and brave. What’s essentially kinder and more helpful than that, what’s more beneficent? But the tradition of dreariness, of stodginess, of dull dense literal prose, has so sealed people’s eyes



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