Nov 9th '06
Dear Mr. Davis:—

Your letter of the 5th inst. has pleased me so much in the re-reading, and I am so delighted with your incorrigible honesty, that I am strongly moved to drop you a line.

I have no doubt that your knowledge of me is sufficient to assure you that I would rather have one sincere rough word flung in my teeth than to listen to a whole serenade of euphonious syllables that lie. Therein lies the charm of your letter. As a cross between Adese and Townsendish (I am forced to coin words) it is undeniably clever;

But —
It is not criticism!

"I don't like those primitive women who pass through three strata of the social geology to get into the blue mud and wallow"!

What of that?

Neither do I particularly "like" the bull-frog that croaks in the slime and ooze — yet, unfortunately perhaps, that same frog is an undeniable fact.

I think you will hardly dispute me when I affirm that Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" is a rare masterpiece. Yet, who in God's name "likes" a woman of the Madame's type - a silly hussy of a country town pulling the wool over the eyes of the child-like Doctor? I don't "like" Madame Bovary the personality, but my dislike in no way affects Madame Bovary the character. Surely no man "likes" the personality of Vantrin, the human viper of the many incarnations; but nevertheless all intelligent men must grant the greatness of him as a character in fiction. Who would want Becky Sharp for a wife or a sister or a mother? But is she, as a character, not a great creation? I would not "like" the erratic and often despisable Richmond Roy for a father, but nevertheless I admire him as a character creation.

You must distinguish between the personality of the character depicted and the character itself as a creation; and you can never turn out true criticism until you do.

"The right kind of a woman"!

In the name of God, my friend, is Literature to be merely a catalogue of the Virtues? What are we going to do with the other 99% of humanity? Or have you succumbed to the popular ideal which reduces literature to a dress suit and an evening gown racing madly for the parson's, with all post-nuptial details carefully supressed?

Am I to understand that Literature has for its mission the entertainment of kindergartners?

As an act of friendship, it seems that I must acquaint you with the fact that Literature is "neither moral nor immoral", but absolutely independent of moral considerations! Deny this fact, and then watch the greatest masterpieces of the world go up in smoke for you! Deny this fact, and tell me what you have done with that which is one of the very greatest of human masterpieces — the Bible!

You are merely flippant when you announce that you can "buy for $1.60 per ounce better perfume than any French grisette ever exhaled in her life"; and you will not be unfair enough to deny that of all cheap things, flippancy is the cheapest!

You think that "the girl should have been pinched on the Rue de Rivoli at about fourteen"!

Why, my friend, I don't deny that! But what has that fact to do with literary values? I was not producing a model of the virtues! That sentence of yours might have been written by the most English of Englishmen! Had you forgotten that Yellow Fox is telling the story, and naturally colors it according to his understanding? Did I offer the girl as an angel? Of course she should have been "pinched" — you are quite correct there.

Your last allusion to "Huyler's candy" and "American Beauty roses" does you an injustice. You are not ignorant of the great truth which you feign to have missed; I need not argue with you on that point. I wonder if you have ever spent much time on Kraft-Ebing. Also I wonder if you are really ignorant of the relation of the sense of smell to the passion of love among primitive peoples.

You approach "Mignon" as though you were horribly frightened! I am wondering if you sing in the choir of some very hard-shelled Baptist church! I could almost accuse you of telling your beads! If a woman or some "hen-minded" male had written that letter, I could have pigeon-holed it without another thought; but that a man should resort temporarily to merely feminine "reasons" simply astounds me!

As to the probability of the story, I have the full Nelson on you there — for the story actually happened, and I have proof that the woman in the case was sufficiently attractive to set the whole country agog.

You temporarily suppressed your knowledge of human possibilities when you protested against "wikiups and river- bottoms for a honeymoon".

Now for another side of the case: If "The Luck of Roaring Camp" were written today by an unknown Bret Harte and offered to you, what would you do about it? Why, you'd fire it back in holy horror with a flippant protest against the vulgar practice of giving a baby a she-ass for a mother! Of course you would — I could almost produce the very letter that you would send. And you would also hint that "Cherokee Sal" was probably not ready to go to heaven when she cashed in!

Now really, can't you imagine yourself writing just about that kind of stuff to that unknown Bret Harte?

I think it is hardly necessary for me to assure you that my reference to masterpieces in this letter are made only for the sake of illustration. I am by no means shallow enough to compare "Mignon" with masterpieces. I am merely taking a fling at superficial criticism in general and this single evidence of it that I have yet found in your letters.

Not so did you write of the pups in the first version of "The Alien". You objected to that portion of the story upon perfectly legitimate grounds - its incompatibility with the requirements of your magazine. And you will remember that I fell in at once with your suggestion, readily recognizing the soundness of your position.

It is not the rejection of "Mignon" of which I am writing. Have you not rejected several manuscripts of mine? But in doing so you did not resort to feminine reasoning.

You will note that I have been quite as frank as you were; and I need not assure you that I am incapable of the least bitterness toward a man who calls me his friend and then tells me what he thinks.

I attack not Davis the man, the Davis the critic in his most uncritical mood.

Surely we are getting rather well acquainted!

Most sincerely yours,

Jno. G. Neihardt Robert H. Davis, Esq., New York City.