Tales of Mean Streets, by Arthur Morrison


After a quarter of a century these, brief and searching tales of Arthur Morrison’s still keep the breath of life in them — modest but precious salvages from the high washings and roarings of the eighteen-nineties. The decade — the last of the Victorian age, as of the century — was so fecund that some Englishman has spread out its record to the proportions of a book. It was a time of youngsters, of literary rebellions, of adventures in new forms. No great three-decker sailed out of it, but what a host there was of smaller craft, rakish and impudent — the first “Jungle Book,” the “Dolly Dialogues,” “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray,” the first plays and criticisms of George Bernard Shaw, “Sherlock Holmes,” the matriculation pieces of H.G. Wells, Jerome K. Jerome, Hewlett, “Dodo” Benson, Hichens and so on, and all the best of Gissing and Wilde. Think of the novelties of one year only, 1894: “The Green Carnation,” “Salomé,” “The Prisoner of Zenda,” the “Dolly Dialogues,” Gissing’s “In the Year of Jubilee,” the first “Jungle Book,” “Arms and the Man,” “Round the Red Lamp,” and, not least, these “Tales of Mean Streets.”

In the whole lot there was no book or play, save it be Wilde’s “Salomé,” that caused more gabble than the one here printed again, nor was any destined to hold its public longer. “The Prisoner of Zenda,” chewed to bits on the stage, is now almost as dead as Baal; not even the stock companies in the oil towns set any store by it. So with “The Green Carnation,” “Round the Red Lamp,” the “Dolly Dialogues,” and even “Arms and the Man,” and, I am almost tempted to add, the “Jungle Book.” But “Tales of Mean Streets” is still on its legs. People read it, talk about it, ask for it in the bookstores; periodically it gets out of print. Well, here it is once more, and perhaps a new generation is ready for it, or the older generation — so young and full of fine enthusiasm in 1894! — will want to read it again.

The causes of its success are so plain that they scarcely need pointing out. It was not only a sound and discreet piece of writing, with people in it who were fully alive; there was also a sort of news in it, and even a touch of the truculent. What the news uncovered was something near and yet scarcely known or even suspected: the amazing life of the London East End, the sewer of England and of Christendom. Morrison, in brief, brought on a whole new company of comedians and set them to playing novel pieces, tragedy and farce. He made them, in his light tales, more real than any solemn Blue Book or polemic had ever made them, and by a great deal; he not only created plausible characters, but lighted up the whole dark scene behind them. People took joy in the book as fiction, and pondered it as a fact. It got a kind of double fame, as a work of art and as social document — a very dubious and dangerous kind of fame in most cases, for the document usually swallows the work of art. But here the document has faded, and what remains is the book.

At the start, as I say, there was a sort of challenge in it as well as news: it was, in a sense, a flouting of Victorian complacency, a headlong leap into the unmentionable. Since Dickens’ time there had been no such plowing up of sour soils. Other men of the decade, true enough, issued challenges too, but that was surely not its dominant note. On the contrary, it was rather romantic, ameliorative, sweet-singing; its high god was Kipling, the sentimental optimist. The Empire was flourishing; the British public was in good humor; life seemed a lovely thing. In the midst of all this the voice of Morrison had a raucous touch of it. He was amusing and interesting, but he was also somewhat disquieting, and even alarming. If this London of his really existed — and inquiry soon showed that it did — then there was a rift somewhere in the lute, and a wart on the graceful body politic.

Now all such considerations are forgotten, and there remains only the book of excellent tales. It has been imitated almost as much as “Plain Tales From the Hills,” and to much better effect. The note seems likely to be a permanent one in our fiction. Now and then it appears to die out, but not for long. A year ago I thought it was doing so — and then came the “Limehouse Nights” of Thomas Burke, and James Stephens’ “Hunger.” Both go back to “Tales of Mean Streets” as plainly as vers libre goes back to Mother Goose.

H.L. Mencken.
Baltimore, 1918.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58