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An essay by Charles Dudley Warner


Title:     Truthfulness
Author: Charles Dudley Warner [More Titles by Warner]

Truthfulness is as essential in literature as it is in conduct, in fiction as it is in the report of an actual occurrence. Falsehood vitiates a poem, a painting, exactly as it does a life. Truthfulness is a quality like simplicity. Simplicity in literature is mainly a matter of clear vision and lucid expression, however complex the subject-matter may be; exactly as in life, simplicity does not so much depend upon external conditions as upon the spirit in which one lives. It may be more difficult to maintain simplicity of living with a great fortune than in poverty, but simplicity of spirit--that is, superiority of soul to circumstance--is possible in any condition. Unfortunately the common expression that a certain person has wealth is not so true as it would be to say that wealth has him. The life of one with great possessions and corresponding responsibilities may be full of complexity; the subject of literary art may be exceedingly complex; but we do not set complexity over against simplicity. For simplicity is a quality essential to true life as it is to literature of the first class; it is opposed to parade, to artificiality, to obscurity.

The quality of truthfulness is not so easily defined. It also is a matter of spirit and intuition. We have no difficulty in applying the rules of common morality to certain functions of writers for the public, for instance, the duties of the newspaper reporter, or the newspaper correspondent, or the narrator of any event in life the relation of which owes its value to its being absolutely true. The same may be said of hoaxes, literary or scientific, however clear they may be. The person indulging in them not only discredits his office in the eyes of the public, but he injures his own moral fibre, and he contracts such a habit of unveracity that he never can hope for genuine literary success. For there never was yet any genuine success in letters without integrity. The clever hoax is no better than the trick of imitation, that is, conscious imitation of another, which has unveracity to one's self at the bottom of it. Burlesque is not the highest order of intellectual performance, but it is legitimate, and if cleverly done it may be both useful and amusing, but it is not to be confounded with forgery, that is, with a composition which the author attempts to pass off as the production of somebody else. The forgery may be amazingly smart, and be even popular, and get the author, when he is discovered, notoriety, but it is pretty certain that with his ingrained lack of integrity he will never accomplish any original work of value, and he will be always personally suspected. There is nothing so dangerous to a young writer as to begin with hoaxing; or to begin with the invention, either as reporter or correspondent, of statements put forward as facts, which are untrue. This sort of facility and smartness may get a writer employment, unfortunately for him and the public, but there is no satisfaction in it to one who desires an honorable career. It is easy to recall the names of brilliant men whose fine talents have been eaten away by this habit of unveracity. This habit is the greatest danger of the newspaper press of the United States.

It is easy to define this sort of untruthfulness, and to study the moral deterioration it works in personal character, and in the quality of literary work. It was illustrated in the forgeries of the marvelous boy Chatterton. The talent he expended in deception might have made him an enviable reputation,--the deception vitiated whatever good there was in his work. Fraud in literature is no better than fraud in archaeology, --Chatterton deserves no more credit than Shapiro who forged the Moabite pottery with its inscriptions. The reporter who invents an incident, or heightens the horror of a calamity by fictions is in the case of Shapiro. The habit of this sort of invention is certain to destroy the writer's quality, and if he attempts a legitimate work of the imagination, he will carry the same unveracity into that. The quality of truthfulness cannot be juggled with. Akin to this is the trick which has put under proper suspicion some very clever writers of our day, and cost them all public confidence in whatever they do,--the trick of posing for what they are not. We do not mean only that the reader does not believe their stories of personal adventure, and regards them personally as "frauds," but that this quality of deception vitiates all their work, as seen from a literary point of view. We mean that the writer who hoaxes the public, by inventions which he publishes as facts, or in regard to his own personality, not only will lose the confidence of the public but he will lose the power of doing genuine work, even in the field of fiction. Good work is always characterized by integrity.

These illustrations help us to understand what is meant by literary integrity. For the deception in the case of the correspondent who invents "news" is of the same quality as the lack of sincerity in a poem or in a prose fiction; there is a moral and probably a mental defect in both. The story of Robinson Crusoe is a very good illustration of veracity in fiction. It is effective because it has the simple air of truth; it is an illusion that satisfies; it is possible; it is good art: but it has no moral deception in it. In fact, looked at as literature, we can see that it is sincere and wholesome.

What is this quality of truthfulness which we all recognize when it exists in fiction? There is much fiction, and some of it, for various reasons, that we like and find interesting which is nevertheless insincere if not artificial. We see that the writer has not been honest with himself or with us in his views of human life. There may be just as much lying in novels as anywhere else. The novelist who offers us what he declares to be a figment of his own brain may be just as untrue as the reporter who sets forth a figment of his own brain which he declares to be a real occurrence. That is, just as much faithfulness to life is required of the novelist as of the reporter, and in a much higher degree. The novelist must not only tell the truth about life as he sees it, material and spiritual, but he must be faithful to his own conceptions. If fortunately he has genius enough to create a character that has reality to himself and to others, he must be faithful to that character. He must have conscience about it, and not misrepresent it, any more than he would misrepresent the sayings and doings of a person in real life. Of course if his own conception is not clear, he will be as unjust as in writing about a person in real life whose character he knew only by rumor. The novelist may be mistaken about his own creations and in his views of life, but if he have truthfulness in himself, sincerity will show in his work.

Truthfulness is a quality that needs to be as strongly insisted on in literature as simplicity. But when we carry the matter a step further, we see that there cannot be truthfulness about life without knowledge. The world is full of novels, and their number daily increases, written without any sense of responsibility, and with very little experience, which are full of false views of human nature and of society. We can almost always tell in a fiction when the writer passes the boundary of his own experience and observation--he becomes unreal, which is another name for untruthful. And there is an absence of sincerity in such work. There seems to be a prevailing impression that any one can write a story. But it scarcely need be said that literature is an art, like painting and music, and that one may have knowledge of life and perfect sincerity, and yet be unable to produce a good, truthful piece of literature, or to compose a piece of music, or to paint a picture.

Truthfulness is in no way opposed to invention or to the exercise of the imagination. When we say that the writer needs experience, we do not mean to intimate that his invention of character or plot should be literally limited to a person he has known, or to an incident that has occurred, but that they should be true to his experience. The writer may create an ideally perfect character, or an ideally bad character, and he may try him by a set of circumstances and events never before combined, and this creation may be so romantic as to go beyond the experience of any reader, that is to say, wholly imaginary (like a composed landscape which has no counterpart in any one view of a natural landscape), and yet it may be so consistent in itself, so true to an idea or an aspiration or a hope, that it will have the element of truthfulness and subserve a very high purpose. It may actually be truer to our sense of verity to life than an array of undeniable, naked facts set down without art and without imagination.

The difficulty of telling the truth in literature is about as great as it is in real life. We know how nearly impossible it is for one person to convey to another a correct impression of a third person. He may describe the features, the manner, mention certain traits and sayings, all literally true, but absolutely misleading as to the total impression. And this is the reason why extreme, unrelieved realism is apt to give a false impression of persons and scenes. One can hardly help having a whimsical notion occasionally, seeing the miscarriages even in our own attempts at truthfulness, that it absolutely exists only in the imagination.

In a piece of fiction, especially romantic fiction, an author is absolutely free to be truthful, and he will be if he has personal and literary integrity. He moves freely amid his own creations and conceptions, and is not subject to the peril of the writer who admittedly uses facts, but uses them so clumsily or with so little conscience, so out of their real relations, as to convey a false impression and an untrue view of life. This quality of truthfulness is equally evident in "The Three Guardsmen" and in "Midsummer Night's Dream." Dumas is as conscientious about his world of adventure as Shakespeare is in his semi-supernatural region. If Shakespeare did not respect the laws of his imaginary country, and the creatures of his fancy, if Dumas were not true to the characters he conceived, and the achievements possible to them, such works would fall into confusion. A recent story called "The Refugees" set out with a certain promise of veracity, although the reader understood of course that it was to be a purely romantic invention. But very soon the author recklessly violated his own conception, and when he got his "real" characters upon an iceberg, the fantastic position became ludicrous without being funny, and the performances of the same characters in the wilderness of the New World showed such lack of knowledge in the writer that the story became an insult to the intelligence of the reader. Whereas such a romance as that of "The MS. Found in a Copper Cylinder," although it is humanly impossible and visibly a figment of the imagination, is satisfactory to the reader because the author is true to his conception, and it is interesting as a curious allegorical and humorous illustration of the ruinous character in human affairs of extreme unselfishness. There is the same sort of truthfulness in Hawthorne's allegory of "The Celestial Railway," in Froude's "On a Siding at a Railway Station," and in Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress."

The habit of lying carried into fiction vitiates the best work, and perhaps it is easier to avoid it in pure romance than in the so-called novels of "every-day life." And this is probably the reason why so many of the novels of "real life" are so much more offensively untruthful to us than the wildest romances. In the former the author could perhaps "prove" every incident he narrates, and produce living every character he has attempted to describe. But the effect is that of a lie, either because he is not a master of his art, or because he has no literary conscience. He is like an artist who is more anxious to produce a meretricious effect than he is to be true to himself or to nature. An author who creates a character assumes a great responsibility, and if he has not integrity or knowledge enough to respect his own creation, no one else will respect it, and, worse than this, he will tell a falsehood to hosts of undiscriminating readers.

[The end]
Charles Dudley Warner's essay: Truthfulness