from Atlantic Monthly
The Scenic Novel
by Ellis Parker Butler
I have just been at work on what will undoubtedly be my masterpiece when I get all the trimmings on it. At present I only have the framework up, but every day will see progress, from now on. I am thinking of having a lithographed picture of a pretty girl on the cover, as a novelty, but that is a mere detail.
In planning the novel I have avoided the commonplace. The ordinary method of writing a novel is brick by brick, as houses were built in the old days, but I have adopted the sky-scraper type of construction, erecting a steel frame first and then filling in the terra-cotta veneer. By this means I shall secure a strong, earthquake-proof novel, fireproof and carrying a low rate of insurance. That is one of the strong features. The other is that this is to be a scenic novel. I think it will be, probably, the most scenic novel ever written.
I have done this because I believe the public is pining for a great scenic masterpiece. Heretofore, it has been the custom to use scenery for the framework of the novel only, building a frame of local color, weather, hills, and houses, and then filling in with courtship and love, sudden death, happenings and events. But I believe the time has come when the love-novel is beginning to pall, and I have reversed the thing. I have turned the novel idea wrong side out. I am using the love and adventure for the inconspicuous frame, and am putting all the excitement into the scenery. Already I have written some of the most exciting scenery ever written by the hand of man. I believe people will read my novel with the same intense desire to see what happens to the scenery in the next chapter as that with which they have heretofore followed the fortunes of mere heroes and heroines.
About all the attention scenery has received from the novelist lately is shown by the beginning of a recent great novel: 'The woods were as the Indians had left them, but the boys who were playing there--' And then come four hundred and thirty-four pages about the boys -- and a girl or two; but the reader who feels an intense and hungry interest in scenery hardly gets ten cents' worth in the whole dollar-and-a-half novel, until the final pages are reached and a mill-pond arises in its might and does some drowning. Here the frame of the novel is scenery, and the novelist neglects it and mistreats it until the last chapter, and then he has to come on his knees and beg the poor, neglected scenery to rise up and drown the villain, making him an angel at last. That is not the right way to treat scenery.
The framework of my novel is so simple that it will hardly arouse any interest in the reader at all. I have made it so in order that the strong, virile scenery may, by contrast, grasp the reader with a terrific grip and give him thrills of joy. My framework, or plot, is this: My hero is invited out to tea, and in the first chapter he cannot decide whether he will go or not. He sits thinking, silently. In the second chapter he decides to go to the tea, because the weather is fair, with a rising barometer. In the third chapter the barometer falls a point and he becomes doubtful of the advisability of going to tea that afternoon. Along toward the end of the novel he tries to make up his mind whether he wants to go out to tea or have tea at home, and decides he will have tea at home. In the last chapter he goes to the tea-caddy to get his tea ready, and discovers he is out of tea, and so he goes out to tea after all, and the novel ends happily.
The framework, you see, is strong and free from flaws. It has a beginning and a middle and an end, and works up to a surprise in the climax, yet ends happily. A pessimist would have him drop dead when he discovers he has no tea in his tea-caddy, but I do not require any such crude expedients. I get my thrills through my scenery. Instead of beginning my novel with the woods, and then neglecting them, I begin with the hero:--
'Horace looked out of the window. Dashed madly against the side of the hill, as if cast there by ten thousand wall-eyed giants, the gashed and gnarled oak trees struggled in a holocaust of upheaved geology. The western sky gushed fire. Adown the valley the stream leaped in globes of purple splendor and broke itself upon the mountain crest, where its spuming spray gathered new impetus and broke the dead inertia of the supine peninsula. It was Autumn!'
That is interesting scenery, I think. But the interest increases in Chapter II, where he decides to go to tea:--
'With a sigh, Horace crossed his feet. Over the eastern ridge the hollyhocks bent in huge parabolas, now kissed by the purling plain, now caressed by the dazzling rainbow that struck the plateau amidships and dashed down, down, down, until it lost itself on the narrow verge of the moss-covered crags. Beneath this and over the fen, an uprooted daisy -- relic of some vast, prehistoric page -- gave forth a glimmer of greenish gold, and echoed the mirroring face of the embattled hemlock. The intervale lay placidly palpitating under its garnered fringe of whispering sunbeams. All was peace! The hemlock twined around the clinging vine and gave forth its fragrance to the summer seas. Beyond the hollow of the sweeping sky the low-lying heights crumbled slowly into the gathering gloom, and a mighty knob, shaped not unlike an amethyst blue, seemed to rock the sturdy sunbeams in the hollow of their hands. They were not lost. Each, as it dartled off, gathered them unto its, and theirs was thems. Thems was is.--'
Of course, that bit is not polished up yet. It will be a little better when I get the polish on, but it shows what can be done with scenery when the mind is set firmly on the task. This is what I call the Heroic Style, and it arouses a triumphal feeling in the soul. It holds the clash of arms and strains the English language to the breaking-point. After this burst, and in Chapter III, I work in some of what I call the Docile Style of scenery. This style calms the fevered mind, and renders it fit for the sharp change to the Chivalric Style, which I use in the next chapter. Chapter III begins:--
'Horace yawned. The farm was wrapped in deep repose. Beyond the drowsy garden, which lay asleep in the afternoon sun, the fields lay in the afternoon sun, asleep; and still beyond, sleeping in the sun, lay the meadows. Beyond this lay the sun, asleep on the calm bosom of the sleeping pasture. Here lay the cows and kine, asleep in the shade of the drowsy trees, while the cattle slept in the shadows of the umbrageous foliage, and the blades of grass bent drowsily in the heavy somnolence of the hour. A solitary bee, alone in that vast stillness, buzzed drowsily, swayed, and fell asleep in the heart of a nodding poppy.' (I hope the printer gets this 'poppy' and not 'puppy.' The last time I had a bee fall asleep it was in a nodding peony, and the printer got it 'pony.') 'Now all was peace. Not a movement disturbed the quiet of the earth, and thus all remained for one full un-wakeful hour. Then, suddenly and as if by magic, all remained exactly the same for another hour. It was now an hour later, and all remained unchanged for an hour. Peace now seemed about to reign o'er hill and dale when, like a thunder-burst, a blade of grass grew one one-hundred-thousandth of an inch. The drowsy bee opened one eye, sighed, and all was still!'
If that is not a peaceful rural scene I do not know one when I see it, and yet things are happening in that scenery all the time. It is jammed full of action. But, by this time, Horace has yawned, and the chapter closes. In the beginning of Chapter IV, his eye alights on his own tea-caddy, which is of tin, with a painted decoration of a tropical scene:--
'Above this shore the luscious palms sprang upward, and around it the lagoon swirled dizzily, beating its interminable rune upon the coral depths. But inward all was changed. Dank in the deep hollows of the sweltering mist the moist langoust climbed the lithe branches of the banyan tree and dipped its tips in the wraith of a by-gone day. Along the studding soil, here covered with unending vertebrae of insects, huge monolithic madrepores groped their sightless way and wrapped their crass coils about the dank verbiage.'
That is a good deal of scenery to have painted on one side of a tin tea-caddy, and it is told in pretty fine language; but Horace turns the tea-caddy around and looks at the other side of it:--
'In the centre of this glowering mass shimmered an isochromatic pool. It seemed as if wrested out of the yesterdays of some carboniferous age but to be planted here by some gigantesque hand. Here anthracite and hematite vied in common council, and locked themselves in an embrace of steely pangs. Their many-spored anticles swayed tremulously in the forbidding miasma, and wept sad tears of pale sickly collodion that fell with a nauseating splash into the humid coffer of the moor.'
Naturally, Horace decides he does not want any tea anywhere, but in the next chapter, as he is putting the tea-caddy back on the shelf, he sees the third side of the tea-caddy:--
'Not elsewhere on earth could the same riot of color and hue be seen. Vast splashes of indigo ran dazzlingly athwart the crimson greens, and cried aloud in purple ochre. Like shocks of arms, the blistering bistre stabbed the insurgent grays and burst in gold and copper -- red as the rosy morn -- against the general undertone. And yet -- and yet -- and yet mauve was everywhere! It tinged the orchids hanging from the silent baobabs and flashed in the raucous birds that darted glowingly among the tangent boughs. Huge lizards stared at monster newts, big-eyed and glowering, and in the silence clashed their fangs upon the doom of day.
'It was the tropic noon. The heat arose in burning clouds of gauze and swept the hill above with shuddering glance. Far, far up, the eagle swayed above the pallid crest and swooped to gash the passing of the morn. But in these depths no light of sun sank down; here all was dark!'
I'll bet that was hard to paint on a tea-caddy! At any rate it made Horace hungry, and he decides to have tea at home with thin bread sandwiches. He looks into the tea-caddy, gasps, and faints.
While he is fainting the barometer falls steadily, with rain and gales predicted for Western Connecticut and Eastern New York. He comes to with the empty tea-caddy in his hand, fully resolved to go out for tea, just as the storm breaks:--
'It came unheralded, springing from whence nor where, wracking its dreadsome teeth upon the undertones. The harsh wind howled among the piute trees, tossing the laden fruit in scores upon the same, and whirling ever to the rhythmic zones. The crash of mighty giants clashed the ear and wrested thus the peace that fled from sight, sobbing and shuddering in the awful gloom, while splash on splash the lightning burst upon the haughty head of hematite and vox. and slang them upward with unwearying tangs. Chaos was loose, bold aeons sank. and the black gross cosine of primeval days!
But, as might have been expected, it all turns out to be a gentle little afternoon shower. The clouds drift over, the barometer rises, and--
'Swift, swift upon the deadened ear as sombre cymbal through the startled air, dull silence fell, awakened only by the moaning soul, side-swept from some ethereal subterfuge to pass completely by the sodden soil!
Horace looks at the barometer, puts on a pair of rubber overshoes, takes his umbrella in his hand, and goes out to tea, and the novel ends happily.