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 littérateur. 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.