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The Home Monthly

by Helen Delay. [Willa Cather]

From The Home Monthly, 6 (April 1897):  16.

Old Books and New.

"Make me over. Mother April. When the sap begins to stir! When thy flowery hand delivers All the mountain-prisoned rivers, And thy great heart beats and quivers To revive the days that were, Make me over, Mother April, When the sap begins to stir. "Make me over in the morning From the rag-bag of the world! Scraps of dream and duds of daring, Home brought stuffs from far sea-faring, Shreds of banners long since furled! Hues of ash and glints of glory, In the rag-bag of the world!" —Bliss Carmen.

I NEVER feel the spring come back and see the violets on the stands at the street corners, and hear the birds begin to call to each other, that I don't go back and read "Les Misérables" over again. It's a perennial passion with me, and comes on every spring in violet time. When I feel the ground grow soft and springy under my feet, and when all the benign earth-forces come out and go to work again, and the delicious earthy feeling is in everything, in the very air one breathes, then I want again that most human of all books. I want poor Fantine, and Marius and the letters he used to put under the stone for Cosette, and most of all I want Jean Valjean. He is the most Christ-like character ever put into a novel, that galley slave who learns to love all the world because, like Dido of old, he has suffered himself. You remember the good Bishop in the first book, who by a single act made Jean Valjean a good man? And not so much by an act, either, as by his own intrinsic goodness. What we are tells more in the long run than what we do. One has a better opinion of the world after reading that first book. There is no sadder novel than "Les Misérables" and yet none more hopeful, none that makes you rejoice in life more. It is the human tragedy, that book, and far greater than the elaborate human comedy that Balzac constructed. I know it is the fashion among certain clever literary people to scoff at Victor Hugo and say that he had no sense of proportion or form. They might as well rail against the colossal proportions of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. After all, what has as great a soul as Hugo's to do with form or proportion, or limitations of any sort? He was a creator, not a craftsman. Don't be afraid to give "Les Misérables" to young people to read. Every one should read it by the time they are eighteen. They will go at life in a better spirit. I knew a farmer boy once who used to carry it to the field with him and read it while he ate his dinner, propping the book up against a sheaf of wheat. He worked his way through college on the strength and inspiration he got out of that book, and he is one of the fellows who will do something in the world. A young politician from the West whose name has been in every one's mouth this summer once told me that he got all of his political doctrines out of "Les Misérables."

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Have you read any of James Lane Allen's little books? If you haven't lose no time about it. There are some things in life one really cannot afford to miss, especially when they are to be had for a dollar, and "A Kentucky Cardinal" is one of them. I read it first in an old vine-covered porch whose posts were hacked by the knives of many little boys, and one of those same boys was building his nests in the yard in joyful anticipation of the "Easter rabbit." The birds were building their nests, too, up in the vines over my head, and their song and the song of the birds in the book ran together so that you could not for the life of you tell which was the sweetest. The book is just a simple story of the spring world and of a spring romance. It is as melodious as Mendelsshon's Spring Song. It contains the most sympathetic descriptions of growing things and birds and insects that I know of anywhere. Don't read it in winter or summer. Take it up some warm spring night or some afternoon when the sun is doing his best and you can almost hear things grow. Then you will have the little drama in it's proper stage settings and the actors of it all about you. It will be a day you will like to remember. I need not tell you to read "Aftermath," for if you read the "Cardinal" you will read "Aftermath." You can't help yourself. If you can't buy it you will borrow it.

*   *   *

Among the more recent books there is a little volume published by Lippincott called "In Sight of the Goddess." It is a story of political life in Washington, and is of considerable interest just now when a new presidential regime has just begun and Washington is the center of interest. Washington is very unlike other cities, and has an atmosphere of it's own and conditions peculiar to itself. If you didn't go down to the inauguration you had better read "In Sight of the Goddess" and see the city through Miss Harriet Riddle Davis' glasses. Very fair and unprejudiced glasses they are, too. The story is that of a young Washingtonian who acts as secretary to one of the cabinet officers and loves that gentleman's daughter. The story is bright and clever in itself, but the side touches, the description of Washington life and manners, are the most interesting features of the book. Society has come to play a very important part in politics, rather too important perhaps, but it is interesting to see "how the wheels go round" in the inner circles of official life, and to study public men as they are in private. It is said that all the characters of Miss Davis' book were drawn from well-known originals, and that its appearance caused no little stir in Washington.