Rum,/ years ago American fiction was celebrated for its humour. The humorous element still persists, though not in its original robustiousness ; its high spirits have grown hysterical, its extravagance has become exaggeration, and its whimsical vocabulary a dialect that needs a glossary.
It is still romantic, but not with the romance of Hawthorne or even of 0. Henry. But in the main American fiction no longer insists on the lighter side of funerals and cows and contrivances for lightening domestic labour. It sneers at the art of the raconteur and finds subtler occasions for mirth. Neale Crittenden, the hero of - Miss Canfield's latest book, is discussing the aesthetic value of the brilliant Roman.
" ' If I should ever have any personal happiness in my life,' he says, ' I'd want daylight to see it by. But when it's a question of looking at the interior decoration of the average modern church, why, the more mystery and twilight the better.'
This made Marise laugh. He often made her laugh, more than she had ever laughed before. And yet he never told funny stories."
Neither does Miss Canfield. It is characteristic of her book —the quality of the humour that moved Marise Allen to a merriment not at all damped by the fact that her interlocutor,
already turned twenty-six, had never known personal happi- ness and solemnly wondered whether he should ever know it. The next most resounding laugh in Rough Hewn (and, incidentally, almost the most effective incident) is provided by Eugenia Mills's French tutor, a tragic actor, who, on a very grim occasion, uses his histrionic talent to " raise " a laugh as a tour de force ; Eugenia and Marise join in, and are left grinning sheepishly when the actor's face contracts.
All the chief characters take life hard, all except Marise's easy-going father, who, when his daughter was eleven, spoke
for the first time as if he meant what he said. The rest are afraid of life or do not know what to make of it. This is natural enough in the case of Marise. The daughter of Americans, she was brought up in Bayonne by a self-indulgent father, a mother whose secret longing was to be a granule
Bough Boon. By Dorothy Canfield, London: Jonathan Cape. [78. 131]•
amoureuse, and a .grim Basque serving-maid, whom passionate adoration, united as it was to a furtive and unlovely tempera- ment, embarrassed rather than helped her. No wonder she dreaded life and all the signs of life which, through the sugges- tions of .her waiting woman, she was made to connect with the restless behaviour of a pet cat in the mating-season. But Neale Crittenden's early years were free from these 'sinister mentors. He is represented as, par excellence, the normal boy ; happy in his home-life, interested, at first in ships and wharves and winches, then for four long years in football, the nuances and technicalities of which he found almost as baffling as we do. Every summer he retired to his grandfather's sawmill. His life was one round of exercise : there is scarcely a page which does not record some increase in his inches or on which we are not made aware that his health is being built up. His very bones are described as being " brutally normal."
Perhaps the cult of normality was so single-hearted that it revenged itself. Neale, who by every purpose and accident of upbringing might have grown full straight,, couldn't settle down ; Marise, with every incentive to a distorted develop- ment, found ,an outlet in music. The narrative, that has swung backwards and forwards between Vermont and Bayonne, at last brings Marise and Neale together in Rome. ,Thenceforward it languishes ; for Miss Canfield's pen, so expert in conveying contrasts and dissatisfactions and dis- crepancies, lags when it comes to the business of reconciliation and passionate accord.
So far as the principal characters go, Rough Hewn does no more than set the stage for a previously-written sequel, The Brimming Cup. There we see how the impersonality and matter-of-factness which first attracted Marise to Neale became a source of irritation after eleven years of hum- drum existence in a New England village. Rough Hewn is a study in youth, almost in. celibacy ; for both Marise and Neale are haunted by a conviction of present and future loneliness. They will be satisfied with nothing less than an ideal relationship, realization of which is their aim and almost their creed. The energy of the Puritan conscience which will accept ao compromise and let nothing slide is harnessed to this ideal of a perfect compatibility, a compatibility to be enjoyed consciously, at every moment, or the " sea of life is unsavoured of its saltness." In Marise this craving has to be tested by continuous reference to her feelings : is she, emotionally, getting the most out of life ? And how can one logically control and correct and discipline impulses when the satisfaction of those impulses is the end of life ?
As a book whose theme is transition and development Rough Hewn is panoramic, almost picaresque, and its casual figures are doubly vivid : they are vignettes, ,portraits in themselves, and are seen large, through the eyes of childhood. Miss Canfield has been very successful in portraying earnest children—irresponsible they are not, even Neale, whose earliest recorded recreation was strictly competitive, a matter of win or lose, of giving or getting a black eye. Children are notoriously selfish, but these (if one may risk. a moral criticism) seem to turn upon the sweets of life an incurably predatory glance ; they will let nothing outstrip them ; even their highest ideals they pursue at a distance that is neither safe nor respectful. But it would be hypercritical to quarrel with the vitality of Miss Canfield's people and wrong to suggest that her book is even mainly concerned with " conscience- scraping." It is always vigorous and often penetrating ; it is full of the sights and sounds of many countries without ever being tiresome about them ; it conveys vividly the sensations and half-perceptions of youth. In dealing with childhood many writers affect a vagueness, proceeding from dot to dot ; Miss Canfield's method, in its firmness and conciseness, is the reverse of this and gives even to her youngest characters an assured air of ripe immaturity.