Mr Mencken Recommends … Dragon’s Blood

There is a nice illustrated version of Henry Milner Rideout’s Dragon’s Blood (Houghton-Mifflin, 1909) available from Project Gutenberg.

From Smart Set 28(3):153-160 (1909-07) [546 words]:

[Dragon’s Blood is] a novel of great merit and greater promise. A hundred journeyman fictioneers might have imagined the story it tells, but a distressingly small number, even among the aristocrats of the craft, could have told it so well.

This, as you will observe, is a reversal of the usual order of affairs. Your typical American novelist, particularly if he be as young as Mr. Rideout, starts out with an ingenious and astonishing plot, and ends with a commonplace story. Having worked out no philosophy of life he is unable to interpret his own fable, and so it becomes a mere anecdote. Having no understanding of causes, motives and mental processes, he is unable to see behind the actual acts of his characters, and so they become mere actors. Mr. Rideout is not of that school. He has the larger vision. He sees that an act is of vastly less significance than its cause; that a man cannot be described save in terms of his environment. In a word, he gets beneath the surface of things. His picture is not that of a clawhammer coat making love to a décolleté gown, but that of a human being striving against fate.

In its externals, Mr. Rideout’s story is a somewhat noisy melodrama. A half-dozen white men and three women, marooned in a God-forsaken Chinese town, are attacked by fanatics and have to fight their way out. They are of widely varying types. One is a silly American missionary—the cause of all the row. Another is his wife—fat, useless and almost yearning for martyrdom. Another is a stolid trader; another is his dubious wife, and yet another is a British outcast with the morals of a horse thief and the courage of a Hugh de Vermandois. Finally, there is Rudolph Hackh—not the hero of the tale, but its Hamlet.

There are all sorts of turbulent doings. The Chinese advance with stinkpot and cannon and try to explode a mine. There are sorties by night and battles by day; men fall and graves are dug; mysterious messengers come and go; the Hugh de Vermandois sallies forth alone and seeks to penetrate the hostile councils; there is even a preposterous duel. But these things are but incidents in the real story, which has its concern with the soul of Hackh. He goes in a somewhat callow youth, oppressed by romance and ready to follow the skirt of a pretty woman to the devil. He comes out a man, every inch of him, with the poise of maturity and experience. Something of Old China’s immemorial calm has been fastened upon him. His blood is still German, but his philosophy has a flavor of the Chinese.

Mr. Rideout’s methods remind one, more than once, of Joseph Conrad. He has not a little of Conrad’s romanticism, and now and then there is a suggestion of Conrad’s uncanny skill at achieving atmosphere. The China that he draws seems as real as the brooding jungle that swallowed Kaspar Almayer. And his view of the eternal mystery of life is essentially that of the great Anglo-Pole. He has still a long and weary road to travel before he may come to Conrad’s high place, but he is headed in the right direction.

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Notes

Henry Milner Rideout (1877-1922).

Hugh I of Vermandois (1057 – October 18, 1101), “called Magnus or the Great, was a younger son of Henry I of France and Anne of Kiev and younger brother of Philip I. He was in his own right Count of Vermandois, but an ineffectual leader and soldier, great only in his boasting.”

Stinkpot, a 19th century Chinese incendiary weapon made of an “an earthenware vessel filled with [gun]powder, sulphur, etc.” which is thrown down onto enemy vessels.

Kaspar Almayer is a Dutch trader in Borneo who appears in Joseph Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895).