How Books Become Immortal

September 1891

By

In 1891 Woodrow Wilsonthen a popular professor at Princeton and a frequent contributor to The Atlantic—considered what it is about the greatest authors that makes their works last. (Wilson later went on to become the president of Princeton, the governor of New Jersey, andafter defeating both Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in a three-way race in 1912the president of the United States.)

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the comedy of man's life as it was never pictured before, and must on that account be read and read again as not to be superseded.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

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 …

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.

Volume 68, Number 407, pp. 406-413

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/01/how-books-become-immortal/304495/