The Coast Of Bohemia – William Dean Howells
Mr. Howells has always had a pretty taste in titles, and ‘The Coast of Bohemia’, by its name alone, brings pleasurable anticipations. Nor are they doomed to disappointment in this instance, for the story is pleasing in all its aspects. The Bohemia upon whose coasts it bids us linger is the somewhat sophisticated and denationalized Bohemia of the New York art schools and studios ; the flavor of its life is very different from that of the enchanted region which Murger opened for us, but its ways are engaging if decorous, and its denizens are very much alive while not too much in earnest. We do not discover among them any of the queer creatures that we have rather learned to expect in a novel by Mr. Howells – for once those creatures with their fads seem to have been shelved – but find merely a little group of humanly interesting men and women, leading lives rational in the main, and brought into relations which elicit the author’s best powers of serious analysis, relieved by touches of his dry and delightful humor. The manner is still that of real ism, but a realism not too exclusive of the methods of art, and capable of giving the name of Charmian to one of the characters, no slight concession to the enemy. Moreover, the story is essentially a love-story, and it comes to the proper conclusion of love-stories, although there is one period of suspense when, knowing the perverse capabilities of the writer, the reader wonders if it really is going to end anywhere. It is well that there should be searchings of soul, but it is not well that they should rob stories – as Mr. Howells sometimes permits them to – of their legitimate endings.
The Coast Of Bohemia.
Excerpt from the text:
The forty-sixth annual fair of the Pymantoning County Agricultural Society was in its second day. The trotting-matches had begun, and the vast majority of the visitors had abandoned the other features of the exhibition for this supreme attraction. They clustered four or five deep along the half-mile of railing that enclosed the track, and sat sweltering in the hot September sun, on the benching of the grandstand that flanked a stretch of the course. Boys selling lemonade and peanuts, and other boys with the score of the races, made their way up and down the seats with shrill cries; now and then there was a shriek of girls’ laughter from a group of young people calling to some other group, or struggling for a programme caught back and forth; the young fellows shouted to each other jokes that were lost in mid-air; but, for the most part, the crowd was a very silent one, grimly intent upon the rival sulkies as they flashed by and lost themselves in the clouds that thickened over the distances of the long, dusty loop. Here and there some one gave a shout as a horse broke, or settled down to his work under the guttural snarl of his driver; at times the whole throng burst into impartial applause as a horse gained or lost a length; but the quick throb of the hoofs on the velvety earth and the whir of the flying wheels were the sounds that chiefly made themselves heard.
The spectacle had the importance which multitude givers, and Ludlow found in it the effects which he hoped to get again in his impression. He saw the deep purples which he looked to see with eyes trained by the French masters of his school to find them, and the indigo blues, the intense greens, the rainbow oranges and scarlets; and he knew just how he should give them. In the light of that vast afternoon sky, cloudless, crystalline in its clearness, no brilliancy of rendering could be too bold.
If he had the courage of his convictions, this purely American event could be reported on his canvas with all its native character; and yet it could be made to appeal to the enlightened eye with the charm of a French subject, and impressionism could be fully justified of its follower in Pymantoning as well as in Paris. That golden dust along the track; the level tops of the buggies drawn up within its ellipse, and the groups scattered about in gypsy gayety on the grass there; the dark blur of men behind the barrier; the women, with their bright hats and parasols, massed flower-like,—all made him long to express them in lines and dots and breadths of pure color. He had caught the vital effect of the whole, and he meant to interpret it so that its truth should be felt by all who had received the light of the new faith in painting, who believed in the prismatic colors as in the ten commandments, and who hoped to be saved by tone-contrasts. For the others, Ludlow was at that day too fanatical an impressionist to care. He owed a duty to France no less than to America, and he wished to fulfil it in a picture which should at once testify to the excellence of the French method and the American material. At twenty-two, one is often much more secure and final in one’s conclusions than one is afterwards.
He was vexed that a lingering doubt of the subject had kept him from bringing a canvas with him at once, and recording his precious first glimpses of it. But he meant to come to the trotting-match the next day again, and then he hoped to get back to his primal impression of the scene, now so vivid in his mind. He made his way down the benches, and out of the enclosure of the track. He drew a deep breath, full of the sweet smell of the bruised grass, forsaken now by nearly all the feet that had trodden it. A few old farmers, who had failed to get places along the railing and had not cared to pay for seats on the stand, were loitering about, followed by their baffled and disappointed wives. The men occasionally stopped at the cattle-pens, but it was less to look at the bulls and boars and rams which had taken the premiums, and wore cards or ribbons certifying the fact, than to escape a consciousness of their partners, harassingly taciturn or voluble in their reproach. A number of these embittered women brokenly fringed the piazza of the fair-house, and Ludlow made his way toward them with due sympathy for their poor little tragedy, so intelligible to him through the memories of his own country-bred youth. He followed with his pity those who sulked away through the deserted aisles of the building, and nursed their grievance among the prize fruits and vegetables, and the fruits and vegetables that had not taken the prizes. They were more censorious than they would have been perhaps if they had not been defeated themselves; he heard them dispute the wisdom of most of the awards as the shoutings and clappings from the racetrack penetrated the lonely hall. They creaked wearily up and down in their new shoes or best shoes, and he knew how they wished themselves at home and in bed, and wondered why they had ever been such fools as to come, anyway. Occasionally, one of their husbands lagged in, as if in search of his wife, but kept at a safe distance, after seeing her, or hung about with a group of other husbands, who could not be put to shame or suffering as they might if they had appeared singly.
Ludlow believed that if the right fellow ever came to the work, he could get as much pathos out of our farm folks as Millet got out of his Barbizon peasants. But the fact was that he was not the fellow; he wanted to paint beauty not pathos; and he thought, so far as he thought ethically about it, that, the Americans needed to be shown the festive and joyous aspects of their common life. To discover and to represent these was his pleasure as an artist, and his duty as a citizen. He suspected, though, that the trotting-match was the only fact of the Pymantoning County Fair that could be persuaded to lend itself to his purpose. Certainly, there was nothing in the fair-house, with those poor, dreary old people straggling through it, to gladden an artistic conception. Agricultural implements do not group effectively, or pose singly with much picturesqueness; tall stalks of corn, mammoth squashes, huge apples and potatoes want the beauty and quality that belong to them out of doors, when they are gathered into the sections of a county fair-house; piles of melons fail of their poetry on a wooden floor, and heaps of grapes cannot assert themselves in a very bacchanal profusion against the ignominy of being spread upon long tables and ticketed with the names of their varieties and exhibitors.
Ludlow glanced at them, to right and left, as he walked through the long, barn-like building, and took in with other glances the inadequate decorations of the graceless interior. His roving eye caught the lettering over the lateral archways, and with a sort of contemptuous compassion he turned into the Fine Arts Department.
The fine arts were mostly represented by photographs and crazy quilts; but there were also tambourines and round brass plaques painted with flowers, and little satin banners painted with birds or autumn leaves, and gilt rolling-pins with vines. There were medley-pictures contrived of photographs cut out and grouped together in novel and unexpected relations; and there were set about divers patterns and pretences in keramics, as the decoration of earthen pots and jars was called. Besides these were sketches in oil and charcoal, which Ludlow found worse than the more primitive things, with their second-hand chic picked up in a tenth-rate school. He began to ask himself whether people tasteless enough to produce these inanities and imagine them artistic, could form even the subjects of art; he began to have doubts of his impression of the trotting-match, its value, its possibility of importance. The senseless ugliness of the things really hurt him: his worship of beauty was a sort of religion, and their badness was a sort of blasphemy. He could not laugh at them; he wished he could; and his first impulse was to turn and escape from the Fine Arts Department, and keep what little faith in the artistic future of the country he had been able to get together during his long sojourn out of it. Since his return he had made sure of the feeling for color and form with which his country-women dressed themselves. There was no mistake about that; even here, in the rustic heart of the continent he had seen costumes which had touch and distinction; and it could not be that the instinct which they sprang from should go for nothing in the arts supposed higher than mantua-making and millinery. The village girls whom he saw so prettily gowned and picturesquely hatted on the benches out there by the race-course, could it have been they who committed these atrocities? Or did these come up from yet deeper depths of the country, where the vague, shallow talk about art going on for the past decade was having its first crude effect? Ludlow was exasperated as well as pained, for he knew that the pretty frocks and hats expressed a love of dressing prettily, which was honest and genuine enough, while the unhappy effects about him could spring only from a hollow vanity far lower than a woman’s wish to be charming. It was not an innate impulse which produced them, but a sham ambition, implanted from without, and artificially stimulated by the false and fleeting mood of the time. They must really hamper the growth of æsthetic knowledge among people who were not destitute of the instinct.
He exaggerated the importance of the fact with the sensitiveness of a man to whom æsthetic cultivation was all-important. It appeared to him a far greater evil than it was; it was odious to him, like a vice; it was almost a crime. He spent a very miserable time in the Fine Arts Department of the Pymantoning County Agricultural Fair; and in a kind of horrible fascination he began to review the collection in detail, to guess its causes in severalty and to philosophize its lamentable consequences.