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From The Literary Digest: “‘The Yellow Book’ on Modern Literature”

The most advanced writers of England established a few
months ago a periodical of their own, The Yellow Book,
an illustrated quarterly, which was to be the mouthpiece of
modern literature. The sensation created in the first number
was enormous. The second, just issued, bids fair to create no
less stir by its radicalism and its outspoken defiance of the old

To this number, Hubert Crackanthorpe contributes an article
entitled “Reticence in Literature.” There is no apparent relation-
ship between the title and the subject of the essay, which consists
of rambling, but very interesting, notes on modern progressive
literature. We quote the author as follows:

“During the past fifty years, as every one knows, the art of
fiction has been expanding in a manner exceedingly remarkable,
till it has grown to be the predominant branch of imaginative lit-
erature. But the other day we were assured that poetry only
thrives in limited exquisite editions; that the drama, in
England at least, has practically ceased to be literature at all.
Each epoch instinctively chooses that literary vehicle which is
best adapted for the expression of its particular temper: just as
the drama flourished in the robust age or Shakespeare and Ben
Jonson; just as that outburst of lyrical poetry, at the beginning
of the century in France, coincided with a period of extreme
emotional exaltation: so the novel, facile and flexible in its con-
ventions, with its endless opportunities for accurate delineation
of reality, becomes supreme in a time of democracy and of science
—to note but these two salient characteristics. And, if we pur-
sue this line of thought, we find that, on all sides, the novel is
being approached in one special spirit, that it would seem to be
striving, for the moment at any rate, to perfect itself within cer-
tain definite limitations. To employ a hackneyed, and often
quite unintelligent, catchword—the novel is becoming realistic.”

The author defines idealism and realism, and goes on to say :

“Completely idealistic art—art that has no point of contact with
the facts of the universe, as we know them—is, of course, an im-
possible absurdity: similarly, a complete reproduction of Nature
by means of words is an absurd impossibility …. Art is not
invested with the futile function of perpetually striving after im-
itation or reproduction of Nature: she endeavors to produce,
through the adaptation of a restricted number of natural facts,
an harmonious and satisfactory whole. Indeed, in this very pro-
cess of adaptation and blending together, lies the main and
greater task of the artist. And the novel, the short story, even
the impression of a mere incident, convey each of them the im-
print of the temper in which their creator has achieved this
process of adaptation and blending together of his material.
They are inevitably stamped with the hall-mark of his personal-
ity. A work of art can never be more than a corner of Nature,
seen through the temperament of a single man. Thus, all liter-
ature is, must be, essentially subjective; for style is but the
power of individual expression. . . . So, then, the disparity be-
tween the so-called idealist and the so-called realist is a matter,
not of esthetic philosophy, but of individual temperament.”

The author rightly prefaces his article: “Some Roundabout Re-
marks.” He does not treat any of his subjects exhaustively, but
skips lightly from one to another. He next comes to talk about
the moral effect of modern literature, and says:

“Now, it would have been exceedingly curious if this recent
specialization of the art of fiction, this passion tor drawing from
the life, as it were, born, in due season, of the general spirit of
the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, has not provoked a
considerable amount of opposition—opposition of just that kind
which every new evolution in art inevitably encounters.”

After hinting at the arrest Vizitelly for “issuing English
translations of celebrated specimens of French realism,” and the
reception given Zola, he goes on to say,

“During the past year, things have been moving very rapidly.
The position of the literary artist toward Nature, his great in-
spirer, has become more definite, more secure. A sound, organ-
ized opinion of men of letters is being acquired: and in the little
bouts with the bourgeois—if I may be pardoned the use of that
wearisome word- no one has to fight single-handed. Heroism is
at a discount: Mrs. Grundy is becoming mythological: a crowd
of unsuspected supporters collect from all sides, and the deadly
conflict of which we had been warned becomes an interesting skirmish.
Books are published, stories are printed, in old, estab-
lished reviews, which would never have been tolerated a few years
ago. On all sides, deference to the tendency of the time is
spreading. The truth must be admitted: the roar of unthinking
prejudice is dying away.”

The writer does not think this success is “a matter for absolute
congratulation.” He fears indifference and would like opposi-
tion: “directly or indirectly, they will knock a lot of nonsense
out of us, will these opponents”: “take, for instance, the gentle-
man who objects to realistic fiction on moral grounds:”—

“He is the backbone of our nation: the guardian of our medi-
ocrity; the very foil of our intelligence…. To him, morality
is concerned only with the established relations between the
sexes and with fair dealings between man and man: to him the
subtle, indirect morality of Art is incomprehensible.

“Theoretically, Art is non-moral. She is not interested in any
ethical code of any age or any nation, except in so far as the
breach or observance of that code may furnish her with material
on which to work.”

Mr. Crackanthorpe continues to expose “this moral man’s”
notions: how he “patters glibly of the ‘gospel of ugliness,'” “how
he talks about “the cheerlessness of modern literature” and how he
condemns “the whole business as decadence,” but all the while he
laughs at “this moral gentleman.” He finishes by quoting Gasse :

“A new public has been created—appreciative, eager, and de-
termined: a public, which has eaten of the apple of knowledge,
and will not be satisfied with mere marionettes. Whatever
comes next, we cannot return, in serious novels, to the inanities
and impossibilities of the old well-made plot, to the children
changed at nurse, to the madonna-heroine and the godlike hero,
to the impossible virtues and melodramatic vices.”

MLA citation:

“‘The Yellow Book’ on Modern Literature.” Review of The Yellow Book, vol. 2, July 1894, The Literary Digest 18 August 1894, p. 458. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.