Woodrow Wilson and Wells, War's Great Authors

An Interview with Honoré Willsie

"The war has thus far produced two great pieces of literature. One of these is H. G. Wells' 'Mr. Britling Sees It Through.' The other is President Wilson's War Message. I was curiously moved by 'Mr. Britling Sees It Through.' The effect of that novel on me was to move me away from the war, to let me get a picture of the war as a great procession against the horizon.

"Every code that I had—in government, in religion, in ethics—had been obliterated by the events of the last three years. But this novel showed me that there could be a code—that something coherent and true must come out of the chaos. Reading as many manuscripts as I do, I grow stale on ideas. I want to read out-and-out trash or else something that will give me a new philosophy of life. And Wells, at any rate, showed me that there could be a new philosophy.

"The great task before our writers to-day is to do for the individual what President Wilson's Declaration of War did for the nations of the world. This is the most important thing a writer can do—to make a new code for mankind. I can't think of any American writer able to do it. But did any of us expect Wells to write such a book as 'Mr. Britling Sees It Through'?

"One significant thing about President Wilson's message is that its author is absolutely sure of the hereafter. He is convinced that God is Eternal Goodness. All his utterances are the utterances of a man with a deep faith that never has been disturbed. And that sort of man is essentially the man for statesmanship.

"Religious fervor was the driving force of the fathers of our country. For an agnostic like myself to witness an exhibition of this force is to look wistfully at a power that cannot be understood. It is the spirit of the little red schoolhouse, of the meeting-house, of the town meeting—the spirit of American statesmanship and of American democracy.

"Human beings aren't big enough to get along without religion. Somehow or other we moderns have got to have some faith—as Lincoln had it, and Adams, and Washington—as Wilson has it. We need a new religion. For Wilson won't happen again very often.

"President Wilson's message formulates a new philosophy of government. His message came on Europe like a flash of light in the darkness of battle.

"President Wilson seems to have started his message with a definite conviction as to the existence of God. Mr. Wells must have started his novel with the hope of finding God through it. I size Wells up as a modern with the modern craving for God. Wells does not lead you to God, but he gives you the idea that God exists, and is just over beyond.

"But then religion is a favorite theme of the novelist. Winston Churchill's 'The Inside of the Cup' indicated that social service would take the place of religion. Well, maybe it would for some people. But nowadays most people need a religion that says that there is a hereafter.

"I think that I am the only human being in captivity who has read all of Holt's book on the cosmic relations. And what I got out of it was not a belief in spiritualism, but a realization of the fact that every one, high and low, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, has a craving for knowledge of life after death, has a craving for belief in life after death. And the war has raised this feeling to the nth power. We feel that we shall go mad if there is no hereafter. Mr. Wells leads us to believe that he will find that there is a hereafter. President Wilson shows us that he is sure there is one.

"This craving for conviction of the hereafter, increased by the war, inevitably makes our literature more spiritual. So we are seeing the last for awhile of the sex novel and of sordid realism. We no longer find people who believe that since you are an artist you should describe the contents of a garbage can. The soul of man as well as the body of man is coming into its own as the theme of the novelist.

"And the war is responsible. You can't stick out your tongue and make a face at God when a shell may momentarily hurl you from the earth. And who cares to read a sex novel now? What do the little bedroom scandals of the flimsy novels matter when the womanhood of Belgium has been despoiled?

"I am asked if our writers have deteriorated of late years. I think that the rank and file of our serial writers are way below those of forty or fifty years ago. Then our novelists were fewer and better. Look at the files of the old magazines and you will find that the novels that appeared serially in those days were much better than those that are appearing to-day. But one or two of our best novelists are just as fine as any of our writers of a bygone generation—Margaret Deland and Gertrude Atherton, for instance.

"And in other branches of literature I think we have improved on our forefathers. American poets have never before done such exquisite things as they are doing to-day, and one or two short story writers are doing better things than were ever done before in this country. If you compare the short stories in old issues of the magazines with those in the current issues you will find that the old short stories are as much inferior to the new short stories as the old novels—the serialized novels—are superior to the new ones."