The Author Himself

"In every case of literary immortality there is present originative personality ... origination which takes its stamp and character from the originator, which is his substance given to the world, which is himself outspoken."
More

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the comedy of man's life as it was never pictured before, and must on that account be read and read again as not to be superseded.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.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Remote Warehouse Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where the Wild Things Go

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Adults Need Playtime Too

When was the last time you played your favorite childhood game?

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In