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The Author Himself
by Woodrow Wilson
Who can help wondering, concerning the modern multitude of books, where all these companions of his reading hours will be buried when they die; which will have monuments erected to them; which escape the envy of time and live. It is pathetic to think of the number that must be forgotten, after being removed from the good places to make room for their betters.
Much the most pathetic thought about books, however, is that excellence will not save them. Their fates will be as whimsical as those of the humankind which produces them. Knaves find it as easy to get remembered as good men. It is not right living or learning or kind offices, simply and of themselves, but something else that gives immortality of fame. Be a book never so scholarly, it may die; be it never so witty, or never so full of good feeling or of an honest statement of truth, it may not live.
When once a book has become immortal, we think that we can see why it became so. It contained, we perceive, a casting of thought which could not but arrest and retain men's attention; it said some things once and for all because it gave them their best saying. Or else it spoke with a grace or with a fire of imagination, with a sweet cadence of phrase and a full harmony of tone, which have made it equally dear to all generations of those who love the free play of fanciful thought or the incomparable music of perfected human speech. Or perhaps it uttered with full candor and simplicity some universal sentiment; perchance pictured something in the tragedy or the comedy of man's life as it was never pictured before, and must on that account be read and read again as not to be superseded. There must be something special, we judge, either in its form or in its substance, to account for its unwonted fame and fortune.
This upon first analysis, taking one book at a time. A look deeper into the heart of the matter enables us to catch at least a glimpse of a single and common source of immortality. The world is attracted by books as each man is attracted by his several friends. You recommend that capital fellow So-and-So to the acquaintance of others because of his discriminating and diverting powers of observation: the very tones and persons—it would seem the very selves—of every type of man live again in his mimicries and descriptions. He is the dramatist of your circle; you can never forget him, nor can any one else; his circle of acquaintances can never grow smaller. Could he live on and retain perennially that wonderful freshness and vivacity of his, he must become the most famous guest and favorite of the world. Who that has known a man quick and shrewd to see dispassionately the inner history, the reason and the ends, of the combinations of society, and at the same time eloquent to tell of them, with a hold on the attention gained by a certain quaint force and sagacity resident in no other man, can find it difficult to understand why men still resort to Montesquieu? Possibly there are circles favored of the gods who have known some fellow of infinite store of miscellaneous and curious learning, who has greatly diverted both himself and his frieiids by a way peculiar to himself of giving it out upon any and all occasions, item by item, as if it were all homogeneous and of a piece, and by his odd skill in making unexpected application of it to out-of-the-way, unpromising subjects, as if there were in his view of things mental no such disintegrating element as incongruity. Such a circle would esteem it strange were Burton not beloved of the world. And so of those, if any there be, who have known men of simple, calm, transparent natures, untouched by storm or perplexity, whose talk was full of such serious, placid reflection as seemed to mirror their own reverent hearts,—talk often prosy, but oftener touchingly beautiful because of its nearness to nature and the solemn truth of life. There may be those, also, who have felt the thrill of personal contact with some stormy peasant nature full of strenuous, unsparing speech concerning men and affairs. These have known, have experienced, why a Wordsworth or a Carlyle must be read by all generations of those who love words of first-hand inspiration. In short, in every case of literary immortality there is present originative personality. Not origination simply,—that may be mere invention, which in literature has nothing immortal about it; but origination which takes its stamp and character from the originator, which is his substance given to the world, which is himself outspoken.
Individuality does not consist in the use of the very personal pronoun, I: it consists in self expression, in tone, in method, in attitude, in point of view; it consists in saying things in such a way that you will yourself be recognized as a force, an influence, in saying them. Do we not at once know Lamb when he speaks? And even more formal Addison, does not his speech bewray and endear him to us? His personal charm is less distinct, much less fascinating, than that which goes with Lamb's thought, hut a charm he has sufficient for immortality. In Steele the matter is more impersonal, more mortal. Some of Dr. Johnson's essays, you feel, might have heen written hy a dictionary. It is impersonal matter that is dead matter. Are you asked who fathered a certain brilliant, poignant bit of political analysis? You say, Why, only Bagehot could have written that. Does a wittily turned verse make you hesitate between laughter at its hit and grave thought because of its deeper, its covert meaning? Do you not know that only Lowell could do that? Do you catch a strain of pure Elizabethan music and doubt whether to attribute it to Shakespeare or to another? Do you not know the authors who still live?
Now, the noteworthy thing ahout such individuality is that it will not develop under every star, or in one place as well as in another; there is an atmosphere which kills it, and there is an atmosphere which fosters it. The atmosphere which kills it is the atmosphere of sophistication, where cleverness and fashion and knowingness thrive: cleverness, which is froth, not strong drink; fashion, which is a thing assumed, not a thing of nature; and knowingness, which is naught.
Of course there are born, now and again, as tokens of some rare mood of Nature, men of so intense and individual a cast that circumstance and surroundings affect them little more than friction affects an express train. They command their own development without even the consciousness that to command costs strength. These cannot be sophisticated; for sophistication is subordination to the ways of your world. But these are the very greatest and the very rarest; and it is not the greatest and the rarest alone who shape the world and its thought. That is done also by the great and the merely extraordinary. There is a rank and file in literature, even in the literature of immortality, and these must go much to school to the people about them.
It is by the number and charm of the individualities which it contains that the literature of any country gains distinction. We turn anywhither to know men. The best way to foster literature, if it may be fostered, is to cultivate the author himself,—a plant of such delicate and precarious growth that special soils are needed to produce him in his full perfection. The conditions which foster individuality are those which foster simplicity, thought and action from self out, naturalness, spontaneity. What are these conditions?
In the first place, a certain helpful ignorance. It is best for the author to be born away from literary centres, or to be excluded from their ruling set if he be born in them. It is best that he start out with his thinking, not knowing how much has been thought and said about everything. A certain amount of ignorance will insure his sincerity, will increase his boldness and shelter his genuineness, which is his hope of power. Not ignorance of life, but life may be learned in any neighborhood—not ignorance of the greater laws which govern human affairs, but they may be learned without a library of historians and commentators, by imaginative sense, by seeing better than by reading—not ignorance of the infinitudes of human circumstance, but knowledge of these may come to a man without the intervention of universities—not ignorance of one's self and of one's neighbor, but innocence of the sophistications of learning, its research without love, its knowledge without inspiration, its method without grace; freedom from its shame at trying to know many things as well as from its pride of trying to know but one thing; ignorance of that faith in small confounding facts which is contempt for large reassuring principles.
Our present problem is not how to clarify our reasonings and perfect our analyses, but how to reenrich and reenergize our literature. It is suffering, not from ignorance, but from sophistication and self-consciousness. Ratiocination does not keep us pure, render us earnest, or make us individual and specific forces in the world. Those inestimable results are accomplished by whatever implants principle and conviction, whatever quickens with inspiration, fills with purpose and courage, gives outlook, and makes character. Reasoned thinking does indeed clear the mind's atmospheres and lay open to its view fields of action; but it is loving and believing, sometimes hating and distrusting, often prejudice and passion, always the many things called the one thing, character, which create and shape the acting. Life quite overtowers logic. Thinking and erudition alone will not equip for the great tasks and triumphs of life and literature, the persuading of other men's purposes, the entrance into other men's minds to possess them forever. Culture broadens and sweetens literature, but native sentiment and unmarred individuality create it. Not all of mental power lies in the processes of thinking. There is power also in passion, in personality, in simple, native, uncritical conviction, in unschooled feeling. The power of science, of system, is executive, not stimulative. I do not find that I derive inspiration, but only information, from the learned historians and analysts of liberty; but from the sonneteers, the poets, who speak its spirit, and its exalted purpose,—who, recking nothing of the historical method, obey only the high methods of their own hearts,—what may a man not gain of courage and confidence in the right ways of politics?
It is your direct, unhesitating, intent, headlong man, who has sources in the mountains, who digs deep channels for himself in the soil of his times and expands into the mighty river, who becomes a landmark forever; and not your "broad" man, sprung from the schools, who spreads his shallow, extended waters over the wide surfaces of learning, to leave rich deposits, it may be, for other men's crops to grow in, but to be himself dried up by a few score summer noons. The man thrown early upon his own resources, and already become a conqueror of success before being thrown with the literary talkers; the man grown to giant's stature in some rural library, and become exercised there in a giant's prerogatives before ever he has been laughingly told, to his heart's confusion, of scores of other giants dead and forgotten long ago; the man grounded in hope and settled in conviction ere he has discovered how many hopes time has seen buried, how many convictions cruelly given the lie direct by fate; the man who has carried his youth into middle age before going into the chill atmosphere of blase sentiment; the quiet, stern man who has cultivated literature on a little oatmeal before thrusting himself upon the great world as a prophet and seer; the man who pronounces new eloquence in the rich dialect in which he was bred; the man come up to the capital from the provinces,—these are the men who people the world's mind with new creations, and give to the sophisticated learned of the next generation new names to conjure with.
If you have a candid and well-informed friend among city lawyers, ask him where the best masters of his profession are bred,—in the city or in the country. He will reply'without hesitation, "In the country." You will hardly need to have him state the reason. The country lawyer has been obliged to study all parts of the law alike, and he has known no reason why he should not do so. He has not had the chance to make himself a specialist in any one branch of the law, as is the fashion among city practitioners, and he has not coveted the opportunity to do it. There would not have been enough special cases to occupy or remunerate him if he had coveted it. He has dared attempt the task of knowing the whole law, and yet without any sense of daring, but as a matter of course. In his own little town, in the midst of his own small library of authorities, it has not seemed to him an impossible task to explore all the topics that engage his profession; the guiding principles, at any rate, of all branches of the great subject were open to him in a few books. And so it often happens that when he has found his sea legs on the sequestered inlets at home, and ventures, as he sometimes will, upon the great, troublous, and much-frequented waters of city practice in search of more work and larger fees, the country lawyer will once and again confound his city-bred brethren by discovering to them the fact that the law is a manysided thing of principles, and not altogether a one-sided thing of technical rule and arbitrary precedent.
It would seem to be necessary that the author who is to stand as a distinct and imperative individual among the company of those who express the world's thought should come to a hard crystallization before subjecting himself to the tense strain of cities, the dissolvent acids of critical circles. The ability to see for one's self is attainable, not by mixing with crowds and ascertaining how they look at things, but by a certain aloofness and self-containment. The solitariness of some genius is not accidental; it is characteristic and essential. To the constructive imagination there are some immortal feats which are possible only in seclusion. The man must heed first and most of all the suggestions of his own spirit; and the world can be seen from windows overlooking the street better than from the street itself.
Literature grows rich, various, fullvoiced, largely through the repeated rediscovery of truth, by thinking re-thought, by stories re-told, by songs re-sung. The song of human experience grows richer and richer in its harmonies, and must grow until the full accord and melody are come. If too soon subjected to the tense strain of the city, a man cannot expand; he is beaten out of his natural shape by the incessant impact and press of men and affairs. It will often turn out that the unsophisticated man will display not only more force, but more literary skill even, than the trained littˇrateur. For one thing, he will probably have enjoyed a fresher contact with old literature. He reads not for the sake of a critical acquaintance with this or that author, with no thought of going through all his writings and "working him up," but as he would ride a spirited horse, for love of the life and motion of it.
A general impression seems to have gained currency that the last of the bullying, omniscient critics was buried in the grave of Francis Jeffrey, and it is becoming important to correct the misapprehension. There never was a time when there was more superior knowledge, more specialist omniscience, among reviewers than there is to-day; not pretended superior knowledge, but real. Jeffrey's was very real of its kind. For those who write books, one of the special, inestimable advantages of lacking a too intimate knowledge of the "world of letters" consists in not knowing all that is known by those who review books, in ignorance of the fashions among those who construct canons of taste. The modern critic is a leader of fashion. He carries with him the air of a literary worldliness. If your book be a novel, your reviewer will know all previous plots, all former, all possible motives and situations. You cannot write anything absolutely new for him, and why should you desire to do again what has been done already? If it be a poem, the reviewer's head already rings with the whole gamut of the world's metrical music; he can recognize any simile, recall all turns of phrase, match every sentiment; why seek to please him anew with old things? If it concern itself with the philosophy of politics, he can and will set himself to test it by the whole history of its kind from Plato down to Henry George. How can it but spoil your sincerity to know that your critic will know everything? Will you not be tempted of the devil to anticipate his judgment or his pretensions by pretending to know as much as he?
The literature of creation naturally falls into two kinds: that which interprets nature or phenomenal man, and that which interprets self. Both of these may have the flavor of immortality, but the former not unless it be free from self-consciousness, and the latter not unless it be naive. No man, therefore, can create after the best manner in either of these kinds who is an habitué of the circles made so delightful by those interesting men, the modern literatti, sophisticated in all the fashions, ready in all the catches of the knowing 1iterary world which centres in the city and the university. He cannot always be simple and straightforward. He cannot be always and without pretension imimself, bound by no other man's canons of taste in saying or conduct. In the judgment of such circles there is but one thing for you to do if you would gain distinction: you must "beat the record;" you must do certain definite literary feats better than they have yet been done. You are pitted against the literary "field." You are hastened into the paralysis of comparing yourself with others, and thus away from the health of unhesitating self-expression and directness of first-hand vision.
It would be not a little profitable if we could make correct analysis of the proper relations of learning—learning of the critical, accurate sort—to origination, of learning's place in literature. Although learning is never the real parent of literature, but only sometimes its foster-father, and although the native promptings of soul and sense are its best and freshest sources, there is always the danger that learning will claim, in every court of taste which pretends to jurisdiction, exclusive and preeminent rights as the guardian and preceptor of authors. An effort is constantly being made to create and maintain standards of literary worldliness, if I may coin such a phrase. The thorough man of the world affects to despise natural feeling; does at any rate actually despise all displays of it. He has an eye always on his world's best manners, whether native or imported, and is at continual pains to be master of the conventions of society; he will mortify the natural man as much as need be in order to be in good form. What learned criticism essays to do is to create a similar literary worldliness, to establish fashions and conventions in letters.
I have an odd friend in one of the northern counties of Georgia,—a county set off by itself among the mountains, but early found out by refined people in search of summer refuge from the unhealthy air of the southern coast region. He belongs to an excellent family of no little culture, but he was surprised in the midst of his early schooling by the coming on of the war; and education given pause in such wise seldom begins again in the schools. He was left, therefore, to "finish" his mind as best he might in the companionship of the books in his uncle's library. These books were of the old sober sort: histories, volumes of travels, treatises on laws and constitutions, theologies, philosophies more fanciful than the romances encased in neighbor volumes on another shelf. But they were books which were used to being taken down and read; they had been daily companions to the rest of the family, and they became familiar com panions to my friend's boyhood. He went to them day after day, because theirs was the only society offered him in the lonely days when uncle and brothers were at the war, and the women were busy about the tasks of the home. How literally did he make those delightful old volumes his familiars, his cronies! He never dreamed the while, however, that he was becoming learned; it never seemed to occur to him that everybody else did not read just as he did, in just such a library. He found out afterwards, of course, that he had kept much more of such company than had the men with whom he loved to chat at the post office or around the fire in the chief village shops, the habitual resorts of all who were socially inclined; but he attributed that to lack of time on their part, or to accident, and has gone on thinking until now that all the books that come within his reach are the natural intimates of man. And so you will hear him, in his daily familiar talk with his neighbors, draw upon his singular stores of wise, quaint learning with the quiet colloquial assurance, "They tell me," as if books contained current rumor, and quote the poets with the easy unaffectedness with which others cite a common maxim of the street! He has been heard to refer to Dr. Arnold of Rugby as "that school-teacher over there in England."
Surely one may treasure the image of this simple, genuine man of learning as the image of a sort of masterpiece of Nature in her own type of erudition, a perfect sample of the kind of learning that might beget the very highest sort of literature; the literature, namely, of authentic individuality. It is only under one of two conditions that learning will not dull the edge of individuality: first, if one never suspect that it is creditable and a matter of pride to be learned, and so never become learned for the sake of becoming so; or, second, if it never suggest to one that investigation is better than reflection. Learned investigation leads to many good things, but one of these is not great literature, because learned investigation commands, as the first condition of its success, the repression of individuality.
His mind is a great comfort to every man who has one; but a heart is not often to be so conveniently possessed. Hearts frequently give trouble; they are straightforward and impulsive, and can seldom be induced to be prudent. They must be schooled before they will become insensible; they must be coached before they can be made to care first and most for themselves: and in all cases the mind must be their schoolmaster and coach. They are irregular forces; but the mind may be trained to observe all points of circumstance and all motives of occasion.
No doubt it is considerations of this nature that must be taken to explain the fact that our universities are erected entirely for the service of the tractable mind, while the heart's only education must be gotten from association with its neighbor heart, and in the ordinary courses of the world. Life is its only university. Mind is monarch, whose laws claim supremacy in those lands which boast the movements of civilization, and he must command all the instrumentalities of education. At least such is the theory of the constitution of the modern world. It is to be suspected that, as a matter of fact, mind is one of those modern monarchs who reign, but do not govern. That old House of Commons, that popular chamber in which the passions, the prejudices, the inborn, unthinking affections long ago repudiated by mind, have their full representation, controls much the greater part of the actual conduct of affairs. To come out of the figure, reasoned thought is, though perhaps the presiding, not yet the regnant force in the world. In life and in literature it is subordinate. The future may belong to it; but the present and past do not. Faith and virtue do not wear its livery; friendship, loyalty, patriotism, do not derive their motives from it. It does not furnish the material for those masses of habit, of unquestioned tradition, and of treasured belief which are the ballast of every steady ship of state, enabling it to spread its sails safely to the breezes of progress, and even to stand before the storms of revolution. And this is a fact which has its reflection in literature. There is a literature of reasoned thought; but by far the greater part of those writings which we reckon worthy of that great name is the product, not of reasoned thought, but of the imagination and of the spiritual vision of those who see,—writings winged, not with knowledge, but with sympathy, with sentiment, with heartiness. Even the literature of reasoned thought gets its life, not from its logic, but from the spirit, the insight, and the inspiration which are the vehicle of its logic. Thought presides, but sentiment has the executive powers; the motive functions belong to feeling.
"Many people give many theories of literary composition," says the most natural and stimulating of English Critics, "and Dr. Blair, whom we will read, is sometimes said to have exhausted the subject; but, unless he has proved the contrary, we believe that the knack in style is to write like a human being. Some think they must be wise, some elaborate, some concise; Tacitus wrote like a pair of stays; some startle us, as Thomas Carlyle, or a comet, inscribing with his tail. But legibility is given to those who neglect these notions, and are willing to be themselves, to write their own thoughts in their own words, in the simplest words, in the words wherein they were thought.... Books are for various purposes,—tracts to teach, almanacs to sell, poetry to make pastry; but this is the rarest sort of a book,—a book to read. As Dr. Johnson said, 'Sir, a good book is one you can hold in your hand, and take to the fire.' Now there are extremely few books which can, with any propriety, be so treated. When a great author, as Grote or Gibbon, has devoted a whole life of horrid industry to the composition of a large history, one feels one ought not to touch it with a mere hand,—it is not respectful. The idea of slavery hovers over the Decline and Fall. Fancy a stiffly dressed gentleman, in a stiff chair, slowly writing that stiff compilation in a stiff hand; it is enough to stiffen you for life." After all, the central and important point is the preservation of a sincere, unaffected individuality.
It is devoutly to be wished that we might learn to prepare the best soils for mind, the best associations and companionships, the least possible sophistication. We are busy enough nowadays finding out the best ways of fertilizing and stimulating mind; but that is not quite the same thing as discovering the best soils for it, and the best atmospheres. Our culture is, by erroneous preference, of the reasoning faculty, as if that were all of us. Is it not the instinctive discontent of readers seeking stimulating contact with authors that has given us the present almost passionately spoken dissent from the standards set themselves by the realists in fiction, dissatisfaction with mere recording of observation? And is not realism working out upon itself the revenge its enemies would fain compass? Must not all April Hopes exclude from their number the hope of immortality?
The rule for every man is, not to depend on the education which other men prepare for him,—not even to consent to it; but to strive to see things as they are, and to be himself as he is. Defeat lies in self-surrender.