W. T. Stead’s Novel on the Chicago Exibition

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W. T. Stead’s Novel on the Chicago Exibition

The American Review of Reviews (January, 1893)

The American Review of Reviews could hardly be expected to judge with severity any literary performance by its founder and its mentor, Mr. W. T. Stead. But certainly no prepossessions in favor of the author are needed to find that Mr. Stead’s latest achievement is one of the most admirable and one of the most brilliant feats of what may be termed literary journalism that any man of our day has ever accomplished. In England it is somewhat customary for monthly and weekly periodicals to issue in December a special number, as novel and as attractive as its publishers can invent, usually containing more profuse illustrations than the regular issues. This Christmas number is not one of the regularly dated numbers, but in the case of a monthly it is a thirteenth issue, quite distinct from the December and the January numbers. In the United States, on the other hand, the leading periodicals as a rule mark the holiday season by giving the regular December number a special cover, or by adapting the contents of that number to the supposed demands of the Christmas time.

Two years ago Mr. Stead and the English Review of Reviews celebrated Christmas by bringing out the December number in double size with a vast number of illustrations, and while many other novel and original features were distributed through the number, an especially large amount of space was devoted to an illustrated guide to the books – especially the holiday publications – of the season. It was at that moment that Dr. Koch’s great discovery was exciting the attention of the whole world, and a notable character sketch of Dr. Koch, with an account of his lymph and its supposed value, was the most conspicuous single feature of the number.

Last year Mr. Stead chose not to expand his December number into a special holiday publication, but brought out instead an extra number devoted to psychical research and to authentic narratives of occult experience. We need hardly add that this was the famous “Real Ghost Stories” of which an exceedingly large edition was sold out within a week or two after publication.

Mr. Stead is nothing if not original, and this year he has accomplished something as unique in its way, and in many respects decidedly more comfortable in its sensationalism, than his weird and creepy ghost stories of a twelve month since. It is perhaps within the bounds of truth to say that no other man in Europe has looked forward to the World’s Fair at Chicago with such unbounded faith in it, such eager expectancy regarding its possibilities, and such profound belief in the influence it is destined to exert upon the world – particularly the English-speaking regions of the world – as Mr. Stead. His imagination has for a year hovered constantly about the great, smoky, rushing metropolis on Lake Michigan, and the new “White City” that has been rising as by magic in Jackson Park.

So keen has been his interest that he has absorbed information almost unconsciously. Although Mr. Stead has never crossed the Atlantic, he is well known to be the best interviewer the modern profession of journalism has anywhere produced; and he has so drawn upon the knowledge and the impressions of the many intelligent Americans whom he constantly meets in London that out of their fragments of knowledge he has constructed a symmetrical conception of Chicago, and particularly of the World’s Fair itself, that might well put to shame the less rounded view of any one of his informants. Moreover, Mr. Stead has been supplied with the most prodigious quantities of the pamphlets, special announcements and various publications which have from time to time for two years been issued in such bewildering profusion in the interest of the World’s Fair.

Great numbers of English people naturally have been planning to visit the United States and Chicago in 1893. None of them are so well informed as they might be, and the large majority of them are particularly ill-informed, as to what awaits them. It occurred, therefore, to Mr. Stead that he might make his Christmas number of the Review of Reviews this year a Steadesque prospectus of the Chicago show, which should at once stimulate in the British mind an irresistible desire to go to America in 1893, and at the same time give some specific and intelligent direction to its plans and anticipations.

The more Mr. Stead thought about the World’s Fair the more strongly he felt himself impelled to put on record his impressions of America before he had ever seen the country and to produce a sort of clairvoyant and anticipatory guide-book, in which there should be such a strange mixture of fact and fancy, of considerations material on the one hand and considerations ethereal and elusive on the other, with illustrations artistic and fanciful and illustrations as architectural and matter-of-fact as the World’s Fair buildings and the Chicago Masonic Temple – such a Christmas dream, in short, of the World’s Fair and of the journey from the old world to the new as to make men think, arouse their imaginations, and lead them to some glimmering notion of the tremendous symbolic significance of Chicago and its colossal exhibition in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

As this idea took on some definite form in Mr. Stead’s mind it became clear to him that the book must be a novel; that a very pronounced and orthodox love story must run through it; that the initial scene of the story must be laid in England at Christmas time in the year 1892; that the characters, while British for the most part, must include representatives of the Continent and of the United States; and that the English situations in the preliminary chapters must afford an easy opportunity for conversations upon very recent questions of all sorts which should lay well the foundation for later observations and discussions in America, with due regard to strong effects of contrast.

It was also clear that the ocean would afford a neutral ground, so to speak, for the discussion of many topics of international range, and that the most exciting episodes, and most interesting developments of the plot of the tale might well belong to the passage across the sea in one of the great liners. Successive chapters would be occupied with the landing at New York, some cursory visiting of the sights of Gotham and a discussion of American ways and matters that would most naturally strike a group of English visitors as unusual.

Next it would be feasible to send members of the party by different railroad routes to Chicago, with, perchance, some brief visits on the way. Once arrived at Chicago, the visitors would have quite enough to do with contemplating the marvelous city itself and with their inspection to the World’s Fair. It would then be easy to make it compatible with the purposes of the plot to send the visitors on tourist trips to the Yellowstone Park, to the Canon of the Colorado, to the Yosemite Valley, or anywhere else that for guide-book purposes might be deemed desirable.

And all this, in fact, Mr. Stead has done, with the result of producing a highly amusing and decidedly instructive book, which at points is tremendously sensational and which, while it has its flagging passages, sustains its interest most absorbingly to the very end. Considered simply as a love story – and this by the way is Mr. Stead’s first attempt at fiction – the book is decidedly good. A very charming romance could be culled from the volume and printed separately in about one-third of the compass; yet so skillfully are the other parts woven in that the story carries them very successfully. In its discussions of many of the most recent phases of thought and the most stirring topics of the day, the book does full justice to Mr. Stead’s reputation as an aggressive thinker and an audacious and brilliant journalistic expositor.

Considered as a guide-book this volume is certainly not methodical. Yet the intending visitor to America, who shall have made diligent practical use of Mr. Stead’s Christmas number will be the gainer thereby, for it contains much ingenious information about traveling by land and by sea, has managed to tell of things in New York and Chicago with a remarkably good sense of proportion, and has set forth the plan and character of the World’s Fair in such a way as to lodge in the minds of its readers a true idea of what in general to expect, and how in general to proceed in order to derive the best advantages from the visit.

Mr. Stead took his materials and his lively conception of the book up into a quiet Yorkshire retreat, where, with a stenographer or two (for he dictates with great precision and extraordinary rapidity) he gave tangible utterance and form to his “Christmas dream.” After an absence of ten days or two weeks, he brought back to London the bulk of his manuscript, and the final touches were added in his busy office on the Thames embankment near the Strand.

There are about one hundred and twenty-five large pages of the book, of the same size as the regular pages of the Review of Reviews. The illustrations, are perhaps two hundred and fifty in number. They have the widest imaginable range, many of them of course being pictures of the World’s Fair buildings, of Chicago scenes and the like, while, on the other hand, one finds a very large number of admirable drawings which illustrate the story itself. The most important of these are drawn by Mr. Arthur Twidle, an accomplished English illustrator. The book is printed on fine paper, and when one considers the costliness of its illustration, its size, and its character throughout, the statement will not be gainsaid in any quarter that never before has a new novel or special publication of so expensive and so valuable a character been put upon the market at so low a price as this (35 cents). It is a book which will on some accounts interest Americans even more than Englishmen; and a very large sale for it is predicted in both countries.

It contains two or three chapters which enter so boldly into the domain of clairvoyance and spiritualism that the book must on those accounts alone attract a very special attention. Mr. Stead has shown by his wonderful work on Oberammergau and the Passion Play, his guide to the Paris Exhibition, his guide to the London Naval Exhibition of two years ago, and now by this Chicago World’s Fair book, that there is such a thing as putting genius into the making of guide-books – a branch of literature which had generally been regarded as one not particularly inviting to authors of an imaginative temperament. This latest book also shows that Mr. Stead can write love stories, and we may expect with some confidence that he will be emboldened by the success of this story, which has its denouement on the World’s Fair grounds, to give us at some future time a novel of English and American life which shall not be hampered by any of the limitations of the guide-book maker.