AFTER the firing on Fort Sumter had proved the malignity of the Rebel feeling, there was a general burst of patriotism out of the depths of the nation’s heroic heart, which seemingly swept into its current and overwhelmed in its flood every mean prejudice and huckstering policy and selfish impulse on the surface of the public mind ; but events soon proved that while honest men were eager to sacrifice everything for the country, knaves were scheming to make money out of the country’s necessities, and coolly seizing on the very disinterestedness of their nobler neighbors as an excellent occasion to glut their ravenous greed. The marvels of moral inspiration all round them, emancipating men from the dominion of mercenary motives, only seemed to sharpen their vulpine minds and intensify their wolfish instincts ; and to prey on the patriotism they disdained to emulate became the one object of their ambition. To pillage the government which they would not defend, and swindle the soldiers whose breasts shielded them from pillage, seemed a proper exercise of their peculiar gifts, while the nation, realizing the vision of the poet, “ was rousing herself, like a strong man out of his sleep, and shaking her invincible locks.” Soon came the cry from the camps that cheats at home were thriving on the miseries of the volunteers ; that the soldier starved in order that the contractor might feast ; especially that the defenders of the nation, hurrying from their homes to insure safety to the homes of their plunderers, were so sleazily clothed that they were literally “left naked to their enemies ”; and a word of ominous and infamous significance, a word in which is concentrated more wrath and wretchedness than any other in the vocabulary of the camp, the word “ shoddy,” flew into general circulation, to embody the soldier’s anathema on the soldier’s scourge.
But it seems to us that a word of such ill repute should not be confined to one class of offences, but should be extended to follies, errors, vices, and policies which, though they boast of softer names, illustrate the same essential quality. For what is the essential characteristic of shoddy clothing ? Is it not this, that it will not wear ? In its outside appearance it mimics good cloth, but use quickly reduces it to its elemental rags. Now, it might be asked, have we, in our experience during the past ten years, been deceived by no other plausible mockeries of reality than shoddy uniforms ? Have we not all, more or less, been wearing shoddy clothing on our minds and consciences ? Have we not seen it fall into shreds and tatters with perhaps only a week’s use ? And have we not quickly replaced the sleazy garment of opinion and prejudice with one only a little less “ ready made,” anxious at all events not to be clad in the wellwoven cloth of enduring principle ? Is shoddy, in fact, anything more than a superficial symbol of a deep-seated moral disease ? Shoddy in business everybody detects and denounces ; let us see if we have not been fooled as much by shoddy politics, shoddy generalship, shoddy literature, shoddy ethics, and — shall I say it ? — shoddy religion. In all these great instrumentalities of individual and national well-being have we always selected those which will stand the test of experience, — which will wear ?
And first for our politics, and our politics in connection with the Confederate War. If there ever was an occasion in the history of nations when the national heart should have given depth and sagacity to the national mind, when principle should have been identified with policy and impassioned purpose with practical performance, it was on the breaking out of that contest in which a perjured horde of slaveholders and liberticides attempted to destroy a republic and give the law to a continent. The crime was patent. It was stigmatized by all codes as the blackest of all iniquities. Yet through what confusing and slippery expedients did our policy stagger and stumble on before we reached the principle which should have guided us at the start ! One is reminded of the story of the Englishman, who, riding in a remote Devonshire lane, came upon a swampylooking place, and said to a rustic who was near, “ I say, is there a good firm bottom here ? ” “ O yeas, sir,” was the reply, “ that there be.” He rode on, and soon plunged up to the horse’s girths. “ Hilloa, you rascal, did n’t you tell me there was a good firm bottom ?” “ Soa there be, sir, when you come to it, but you beant half-ways to the bottom yet.” That we might have avoided the swamp altogether is one of the plainest teachings of our exasperating experience in the mud ! We were driven into ideas by the drift of events, instead of shaping events by the insight and foresight of ideas. The fault was in no particular man, but in the public mind, which could be taught to distrust shoddy maxims and shoddy expedients by no masters less austere than disaster and defeat.
Perhaps the most mischievous of these maxims was that which attempted to conceal the real nature of the late civil war by inculcating a superficial view of slavery, its real cause. There is, it may be said here, a class of persons who resent the intrusion into politics of a moral principle. They believe it has no business there, and they fear it will bite them ; they go for the dear, old comfortable shams and lies on which, as they think, the safety of society reposes ; and accordingly it is common even now to hear intelligent and worthy people assert that the whole outburst, which rent the continent like a convulsion of nature, was produced by a few Southern nullifiers and a few Northern abolitionists ; and that, if Calhoun and his set and Garrison and his set had been hanged at the start, honest men, who did n’t care a straw for the matter they squabbled about, would have trudged peacefully on in their honest business, unvexed by any disturbance. Such reasoning as this seems founded on the precedent of the honest Hibernian, who, sweating at his work, indignantly smashed the thermometer, and then boasted that he had “ killed the baste which made the weather so hot ! ” Indeed, this theory of the cause of the war seems to us as reasonable as it would be to seek the cause of an eruption of Vesuvius in a piece of the lava shot from its flaming mouth. The war was not only produced by slavery, but it was a perfectly logical and necessary result of the development of the principles inherent in that peculiar institution. Indeed, the principles on which a society is organized ever dictate the course both of its politics and politicians. Men are but the accidents and instruments of the system ; and the course adopted by the leaders of the Southern slave aristocracy was one into which they were forced by the necessities of their system, and which we Northerners would have followed had we been in their place, and had we agreed in their views. Calhoun and McDuffie, Davis, Yancey, Toombs, and Mason, were but top twigs of that Upas-tree whose roots ran under the whole Southern soil.
If, then, we fasten our attention on the development of this system of slavery, passing over the persons accidentally connected with it, we shall find, independent of all philanthropic considerations, that its death was from the start the condition of national life ; that it was more important to kill it than to hang them; and that it would be better that a thousand Jefferson Davises should live than that one infectious vice of slavery should be allowed to survive its legal abolition. The people of the States early discovered that the country was a geographical unit, and should be, for all general purposes, a political unit. The nation, an infant Hercules in all but this, that it did not strangle the serpents that strayed into its cradle, compromised with slavery on the implied condition that it should creep into a corner and die, giving little practical heed to the poisonous vitality of its animating principle. Accordingly, the Constitution, which seemingly made North and South one people, did not prevent the growth of those organic germs which really made them two communities, — communities guided by different ideas, impelled by different passions, a thousand miles apart in space, a thousand years apart in time, and sure to clash the moment they really came together, and the grown giant of Freedom met the grown giant of Slavery face to face. The terms of the written Constitution could only postpone the unavoidable collision ; for written constitutions are efficient only when they reflect the unwritten laws of national habits, customs, sentiments, ideas, and character ; and in their practical administration they are ever bent into the service of the great organic forces of the national life. In our country this is done by a process of legislative and judicial “ interpretation " and “ construction ”; but these words could conceal from no intelligent politician the fact that the Constitution has repeatedly changed, without being constitutionally “ amended,” even if the shriek of the defeated party, that the Constitution was violated, did not constantly inform us of it. Now the method by which the Southern section of the United States changed the Constitution was by forcing its own ideas into the words of that instrument, — dosing it, in fact, with “ plantation bitters,” and then threatening secession in case its construction was denied. It plainly said that it would belong to no government it could not rule, and dignified this impudence by calling it by the name of Southern Rights. Every instructed man knew that, entirely independent of the Constitution, the “ rights ” of the South were recognized only so far as the “ power ” of the South was felt in Congress, and, in consequence of its power in Congress, on the decisions of the Supreme Court.
But why would the Southern States belong to no government they could not rule ? It was because the South had sacrificed the interests of all other classes of Southern society to the slaveholding class ; had organized its local governments on the basis of slavery ; had fully committed itself to all the measures, no matter how absurd and atrocious, which that system dictated ; and well knew that, if it could not wield the forces of the national government in aid of the institution of slavery, they would inevitably be directed against it. For the law which limits the profitableness of slave labor is as inexorable as any other law of political economy. It demands, against the interests and rights of human nature itself, that population shall be scanty and the area of territory large ; and, as population increases, it exacts that the territory shall be correspondingly extended. The perpetuity of slavery was therefore inextricably connected with its spread, its indefinite preservation with its indefinite extension. To limit it was to ask it to die by inches. Calhoun long ago said that, if it perished at all, it would perish in a convulsion. The cry of “ Liberty national, slavery local,” contained its doom, for “ liberty national ” would, without touching a local law, have eventually made liberty local, by the peaceful operation of the law of population. But slavery national, which was necessary for its continued existence, made the free States accomplices in its extension ; and it was inevitable that this fact should rouse a twofold opposition at the North, — an opposition of interest against the increase of the political power of slavery, and an opposition of conscience against its iniquity. As the development of slavery was the necessity of its existence, so the development of an opposition to it was a necessity of the existence of freedom.
The conflict came in the natural order of events. Individual statesmen may have postponed or hastened, but they could neither produce nor prevent it Its causes were down deep in the instincts, passions, and ideas of the two societies which it brought into collision. Compromise and concession, though carried to their most cowardly extremes, would at last have been compelled to face demands which would have stung cowardice itself into the utterance of a heroic “ No ! ”
Think of it ; the nation, homogeneous but for one institution, became heterogeneous through that institution. We could easily mould into our free system Irishmen, Germans, Danes, Swedes, Italians, even Chinamen, but we could not mould slaveholders into it. A form of labor was more than a match for the assimilating genius which was peacefully fusing into one grand nationality the most various and discordant races. It was therefore inevitable that we must remove what refused to be assimilated, or be assimilated by it. It was a dragon in the path of our national progress, and our only choice lay between slaying the monster and being devoured by it !
The opposition to slavery, because of its principle, was confined to a few. The opposition to the logical development of that principle in slavery extension included large and continually increasing masses of the population. But if the death-grapple of the two principles had not occurred on that question, had concession or compromise patched up that cause of disturbance, it would have occurred on some other demand of slavery, — such as the reopening of the slave-trade, — on which no concession or compromise was possible ; for it is not to be supposed that we could have gone on forever, in keeping the favor of the South, as the patient wife of the legend kept the favor of her husband by doing all that pleased him and enduring all that displeased her. The fundamental fact to be considered is this, that the South, having come to the conclusion that its great interest was slavery, having bullied Southern ethics, philosophy, and religion into declaring that slavery was reasonable and right, and having debauched education into a school where moral darkness was, on this point, taught as a duty, it was bound to stop at no absurdity and no atrocity which was a logical step in the development of its organic principle. It therefore seems to us that all our attempts, in the early part of the war, to blink the radical facts and principles of the case, to substitute plausibilities for realities, to shirk the grim duty for the amiable counterfeit, and to pour ever anew the waters of concession into the bottomless buckets of expediency, — that all these were but indications that the element of shoddy was in our politics. The cloth looked well, but it could not, and was not made to, stand the wear and tear of experience.
The essential mischief of this shoddy clothing for the popular mind is due, in a great degree, to the name it assumes. It eludes the grip of thought by calling itself common sense. If its object were to distinguish itself thus from real sense, its modesty might be commended ; but when its purpose palpably is to point the finger at all clear perception and sound thinking, its impudence merits the rod. Common sense, in its just meaning, is that sense which one mind holds in common with all others. It is thus the intellectual bond of the human race. It is the effect of a combination of the instincts of the general reason with the results of the general experience. We all cry “ halves ” in it. It is my sense because it is yours, and yours because it is mine, Sydney Smith playfully says that common sense was invented by Socrates, that philosopher having been one of its most conspicuous exemplars, in conducting the contest of practical sagacity against stupid prejudice and illusory beliefs. It is also of the essence of common sense, that it understands that occasions will not wait, and must be seized at the instant they occur. We all remember the story of the negro soldier who, in one of our Western battles, came up with a retreating Rebel officer and bade him surrender. “ I never will surrender to a nigger,” was the haughty reply. “Very sorry, massa,” said the negro, pointing his rifle at him, “ must kill you den ; have n’t time to go back and get a white man.” There is wisdom in this for certain of our politicians, who have let some splendid opportunities slip, in their fastidious taste for white men to do the business.
The meaning of common sense, then, is plain ; but how often do we use the term as a cover for common nonsense, the nonsense which one mind has in common with others ; or, what is worse, as a convenient phrase to impart dignity to any narrow opinion or obstinate misjudgment or foolish crochet, which we may personally pamper and pride ourselves upon, and thus give to our private whim the character of a universal belief. This shoddy common sense is the most detestable of all forms of nonsense. For example, a philosophic statesman, with the sense to search into the law of events, offends my superficial notions or party creed, and I answer him with a passionate or pitying, “ Pooh ! the fellow has no common sense ! ” Another, comprehensively grasping a dozen or fifty facts and relations, links them in a chain of reasoning which I have n’t the brains to follow ; and, holding fast to my one fact, and making that the measure of all things, I shout, “Abstractionist! no common sense ! ” Another still thinks it is folly to let your enemies have the exclusive advantage of the labor and the lives of those who are naturally your friends, and that the negro’s vote may be as necessary to our safety as the negro’s musket has proved to be ; and I, in my lofty scorn of “ niggers,” taunt him with the question : “ Now, you miserable fanatic, why don’t you take a common-sense view of the matter?” In this way I may do all I can to expel sense from the world, and put nonsense in its place, while I am perhaps all the while felicitating myself that human reason is my debtor, and that with my decease wisdom will make her disastrous exit from an unappreciating world.
Now in a republican government this mass of error, wilfulness, passion, narrow-mindedness, self-conceit, and self-deceit, which calls itself common sense, insists on having itself respected by the administration and represented in it. President Lincoln, that miracle and martyr of clemency, who not only seemed to have no malignity in his own nature, but to lack the perception of it in others, early took the ground that he must not only obey the impulses of the heroic popular heart, but must defer to whatever wrong-headedness there might be in the prejudiced popular mind. Well, we were indulged in that meanest and most expensive of all luxuries, — we had our prejudices petted, and it cost us millions of treasure and torrents of blood ! There was a time, during the war, when domestic defeat and foreign intervention threatened our Republic with extinction ; and had it been destroyed, its epitaph in history would have been, “ Died of want of will and want of brains ! ”
See also how this shoddy element was projected into our generalship as well as into our statesmanship. Our military leaders were captains and colonels suddenly raised to be commanders of great armies ; and we immediately treated them as though they were extemporized Napoleons and Fredericks. Our civil war, indeed, stands out from all other wars in history as having given birth to the “ edited ” MajorGeneral ; that is, to the hero created by the newspaper correspondent. “ We keeps a poet,” said the proprietors of Day and Martin’s blacking ; “ We keeps a reporter,” might have been said by the manufactured celebrities of some of our camps. But the rarity of the highest military genius was unaffected by these generous puffers of mediocrity. Though the world has been fighting ever since it was created, it has succeeded in producing only five generals of the first class, namely, Alexander, Hannibal, Cæsar, Frederick, and Napoleon ; and certainly our war has not added a sixth to the list. On the sea, however, it may be said we had, in Farragut, the most skilful and heroic naval commander of all time, — the man who did the most difficult things ever done with ships, with the most marvellous combination of science, genius, and dash ;
Who made his mast a throne ! ”
To generals of the more numerous second class, the Scipios, the Pompeys, the Wallensteins, the Turennes, the Condés, the Marlboroughs, the Wellingtons, we have probably added two, Grant and Sherman ; and Grant we thought a blunderer, and Sherman we thought insane, at the time we looked at men and things through shoddy spectacles. But a man may not be even a general of the second class, and yet be a man of great ability, and fully competent to lead an army to victory. The trouble with us was that, after the first disappointment of our unreasonable expectations, we fell into the habit of judging our generals, not by their generalship, but by the notions they entertained on certain matters connected with the passions of conservatism or the passions of philanthropy ; and we turned even our camps into debating societies, discussing the merits of their chairman, the general in command. The question whether a commander had the resolution and the resource, the quick eye, steady hand, and fertile brain of the accomplished soldier, was subordinated to the question whether he was “ sound on the goose.” Nobody could behave so badly but he had a party ready to prove that his failures showed more genius than other men’s triumphs ; and the incompetents perfectly understood the game. Thus one general was defeated in a battle, and he hastened to inform us that he went for “ the vigorous prosecution of the war ” ; another surrendered a great strategic point, and he vehemently asserted his intention never to surrender “ the principle of emancipation ”; another lost a campaign, and then enlightened us by an elaborate essay on “ the constitutional rights of the South.” Now we have a democratic bitterness of contempt against that custom in corrupt monarchies of putting the favorite of the monarch, or the favorite of the monarch’s favorite, at the head of the force which is to sustain the honor of the nation, as when Louis the Fifteenth’s Madame de Pompadour sent Prince Soubise, with a large French army, to be ignominiously routed at Rosbach by Frederick the Great ; but we do the same thing when we force on an administration a general whose competency for command consists in his being a reflection of our party feelings and a courtier of the people.
Those who watched the surface of our “ society ” during the progress of the late civil war were wont to make themselves mad or merry over the sudden rush into social eminence of new millionnaires. The old aristocracy of wealth tried to distinguish itself from these parvenus of Plutus, these mushrooms of Mammon, by fixing on them the nickname of the aristocracy of shoddy, refusing to be softened by the glint of its satin or the dazzle of its diamonds. Fashion, as the supercilious custodian of manners and civilization, lifted its eye-glass to survey these bold intruders from unknown depths in the social scale, and pronounced them barbaric, though in broadcloth, and savage, though in silks. It is well, perhaps, to receive with caution this verdict of dandyism ; for of all adepts in impertinence the most accomplished are the nominal professors of politeness. We all originally came from the woods ; it is hard to eradicate from any of us the old taste for the tattoo and the warpaint ; and the moment money gets into our pockets, it somehow or another breaks out in ornaments on our persons, without always giving refinement to our manners. Hence the prodigies of vulgar ostentation which accompanied and followed the horrors of our battle-fields, and the fierce scramble for wealth which threw into stronger contrast the sacrifices of our patriotism. The larger portion of this new wealth, however, has been the production of individual genius and enterprise ; and has not only more than offset the waste of war, but it supplied war with one of her two main sinews of “ iron and gold,” The true shoddy wealth is that which has been acquired by dishonest practices and reckless speculations, and which, though it has transferred money from one individual to another, and generally from the honest man to the trickster, has not added a dollar to the wealth of the nation. The actors in some of these so-called “ enterprises ” bring to mind the anecdote of the man who professed his intention to go West and open a jeweller’s shop. “What is your capital ?” he was asked. “ A crow-bar,” was his reply ; “ can’t I open a jeweller’s shop with that ?” The last ten years have been fertile in examples of this burglary calling itself business. The swindling shoddy companies which have been started for the mere purpose of plunder put to shame the inferior contrivances of professional thieves. A French agrarian theorizer defined property as theft. Could he have come to the United States, he might have pointed to some fortunes which verify his definition to the letter. This speculation appeared all the worse when it followed in the path of our armies, and put on airs of patriotism, while it dabbled in cotton and sugar. “ How did you get this fine house, these splendid grounds, these superb horses ? ” was asked of a patriot who had left the army. “ O, you know I went out to New Orleans as adjutant of that regiment, and had opportunities to operate in sugar. Made a fine thing of it, I can tell you ! Had n’t a cent when I left, and am now worth a hundred thousand dollars.” “ But what made you leave the army ? ” “ O, when Lincoln issued that infernal Proclamation of Emancipation I threw up my commission ! I was n’t a going to fight for them blasted niggers!” We are happy to say that this gentleman still enjoys his well-earned fortune !
But a great many of the sudden fortunes made by the war were the results of the development of new sources of national wealth. Petroleum, for instance, in spite of all the rascalities connected with it, has grown, since the war began, from comparatively nothing to an annual product of some thirty millions ; and to the future historian of our society no story will be more significant than that told of the young woman, who, being reproved by a despairing lover for rejecting him three days after she had pledged to him her heart and hand, answered loftily, “ Why, since I accepted you, dad’s struck ile ! ” Now the “ dads ” that strike “ ile ” are infinitely of more importance to the country than the dandies who set fashions. There is a wretched cant current in certain circles, which professes a kind of sentimental horror of the material advancement of the nation at the expense of its intellectual progress ; but it will be generally found that this genteel contempt of wealth is one of the luxuries of the rich, and is drawled out by blasés in purple, not by workers in homespun. Seneca, with two millions out at usury, can afford to chant the praises of poverty ; but for our own part, we prefer the fine extravagance of that philosopher, who declared “ that no man was as rich as all men ought to be.” For what does competency, in the long run, mean ? It means, to all reasonable beings, cleanliness of person, decency of dress, courtesy of manners, opportunities for education, the delights of leisure, and the bliss of giving.
The truth is that all countries, even England, France, and America, are, when their population is considered as a whole, relatively poor. The creation of wealth has nowhere much more than kept pace with the increase of population, and therefore no people has as yet attained that position of physical comfort which would allow free play to their intellectual and moral energies. In this country, where nearly forty millions of inhabitants are spread over a territory of over three millions of square miles, there is hope that, by the application of science and inventive art, of capital and labor, to the unbounded, undeveloped wealth of the nation, the people, as a people, may get ahead of their daily necessities, force nature to yield greater products with less manual toil, substitute more and more labor-doing machines for laborers, and lift the whole population to a condition of material well-being which will literally make them masters of the situation. Once establish a people on this vantage-ground, and they will develop an amount of morality and creative intelligence, which will not only solve the problem of Malthus, but prevent them from ever falling back into poverty and destitution. It is for this reason that we cannot do too much honor to the creators of new wealth, to the Watts, the Arkwrights, the Stephensons, the Fultons, the Whitneys, the Goodyears, the Howes, the Bigelows, and the whole glorious brotherhood of industrial inventors. They outweigh in importance all the so-called cultivated society in the world, for, without them, cultivated society could have no existence. Take, for example, Henry Cort, the “ Tubal Cain of England,” whose machines created the iron manufacture of Great Britain. It is computed that his inventions have added £ 600,000,000 to the wealth of that nation, — a sum which is about five hundred millions of dollars more than our present national debt. What English lord, what English statesman, what leader of fashion, can afford to sneer at such a record as that ? Again, Bessamer’s process of making steel, a comparatively recent invention, is said to have added £ 200,000,000 to the wealth of Great Britain. The name of William Pitt, the haughty antagonist of Napoleon, occupies in history a more eminent position than that of James Watt, the inventor of the steam-engine, who gave to Great Britain a power now representing a force equal to the manual labor of four hundred millions of men, or twice the number of male workmen on the face of the globe ; but it always seemed to us that the peculiarity of Pitt, the uninventive head of “ his Majesty’s government ” for so many years, consisted in this, that, with all his extravagance, he could not squander the national wealth as fast as James Watt created it. His part in developing the national resources, high as history estimates it. reminds one of the statement in Scott’s novel of “ The Pirate,” that Mordaunt and Magnus Troil sat down to drink brandy and water, — that is, adds Scott, Magnus drank the brandy and Mordaunt the water.
Of the enormous undeveloped resources of the United States it is difficult to speak without an appearance of exaggeration. The taxable value, which all men of property well know is always far below the exchangeable value, of all the property in the United States was, in 1860, in round numbers, $ 16,100,000,000, showing a rate of increase, in ten years, of a fraction over one hundred and twenty-six per cent. It has been computed that if this rate is preserved through the next four decades, the taxable value of the United States would, in 1870, be $ 36,500,000,000, in 1880, $ 82,800,000,000 ; in 1890, $ 187,300,000,000 ; in 1900, $ 423,300,000,000 ; — an increase of wealth which will be over eight times our estimated increase in population. Vast as these sums appear, drowning in their sound all shoddy groans over our predicted financial ruin, and making our big debt of two billions and a half shrink by comparison into dwarf-like dimensions, there is no reason that they should not be realized, provided the brain of the nation adequately seconds its hands. Massachusetts, with an area of only 7,800 square miles, now owns a seventeenth of the whole taxable property of the nation. If the other States, with greater natural advantages, should increase, during the next thirty years, so that their wealth should bear the same proportion to the square mile of territory which the wealth of Massachusetts now does, the property of the nation in 1900 will be $ 415,000,000,000.
Massachusetts now has machines which are said to represent the labor of a hundred millions of men. When the Constitution was established, and the South was granted representation in Congress according to three fifths of its labordoing machines, the slaves, it was not dreamed that in less than ninety years one State would have labor-doing machines nearly equal to three times the population of both North and South, and equal to thirty times the whole slave population. Indeed, only let us have here an increasing throng of inventors of new methods for economizing labor, and discoverers and openers of new sources of national wealth, only let us have industry, skill, science, and genius combined, and the future of this continent is secure. We don’t care if these industrial inventors are individually selfish, for we know they cannot help being benefactors of the community. We don’t grudge their being individually rich, for we know that for every dollar they retain for themselves they give hundreds of thousands to the nation. And even if some of them be cursed with a foolish love of display, bespangle their clumsy persons with costly trinkets, and build palaces which only make their unpalatial manners more conspicuous, we still feel no temptation to taunt them as shoddy aristocrats ; for beneath their weaknesses we discern minds which rightly claim our admiration and gratitude, — minds that force from niggard Nature her hoarded treasures, minds that wring from reluctant Nature her dearest secrets !
In passing to the consideration of the shoddy element in literature, the first thing which arrests the attention is the romance of rascality and the novel of sensation. The authors of these seem to plunge into the records of the criminal courts in search of their plots and characters, and such “ swells ” as Pelham and Pendennis give place to ruffians of the swell mob. The two chief elements of interest are bigamy and murder. In the old sentimental novel the heroine went through three volumes of difficulties to get one husband ; now, as in Miss Braddon’s “ Aurora Floyd,” she begins with two, and devotes her energies through the three volumes to the getting rid of the superfluous one. And then the indifference to human life displayed by these romancers really demands the attention of the literary police. Thus if a character is in their way, or if they get tired of him, they coolly run him through the body with a goose-quill, and literally blot him out of existence, thus furnishing a new proof that “ the pen is mightier than the sword.” All their power is of the blood - letting, brain - shattering, teeth - gnashing, and interjectional sort. Strange that in a war so prolific in heroism as that we have gone through, with the newspapers crammed with incidents that exceed in interest the marvels of fiction, there should be found any class of our society that should go to such horrible trash as the literature of yellow covers for mental excitement ! Nothing lives in literature but that which has in it the vitality of creative art ; and it would be safe advice to the young to read nothing but what is old. In this way they would at least avoid being swindled by the perishable shoddy of the mind, which now woos their attention in the slop-shops of letters. The stuff will not wear ; and if a person could only see his own mind, with the rags of these suits hanging loose on his thoughts and affections, he would start back amazed at the intellectual scarecrow he was made to appear.
But we fear the term “ shoddy " cannot be confined to this kind of literature, but must be extended to many weak though well-intentioned volumes which propose a moral and religious aim. These books have a painfully childish and “ do-me-good ” air, and, while they evince a parrot-like memory of moral truisms and religious phrases, are without an atom of moral vitality and spiritual might. They superficialize the most important principles, are the mere shoddy covering of commonplace morality and lip religion, the text-books whence are drawn the ethics of weaklings and the theology of hypocrites. Good books are never written by “ goodies ” ; and great ideas which represent the deepest facts of life, and which, when wielded by strong souls, communicate inspiration to the heart and power to the will, are soon shorn of their vitality, and dwindle into mere mockeries of spiritual experience, when manufactured mechanically for the religious market.
The literature of religion, so rich in works of religious genius, is strangely neglected in our day for the latest lifeless production of religious mediocrity. In this department of literature, as in all other departments, the test to be applied is vitality, — the positive communication to the recipient mind of new life and energy, so that the increase of power keeps pace with the increase of knowledge, and the intelligence is not only broadened and brightened, but the whole nature kindled, invigorated, and cheered. All moral books that do not do this are but the flimsy fabrications of shoddy, and, in Dr. Bushnell’s phrase, may produce Christian mushrooms, but never Christian men. In seeing one of these sleazy professors of outside piety and inside nervelessness, one is inclined to exclaim with the satirist, “ There is a point, sir, where religion ceases to be a virtue, and that is just the point where you take it up.”
This superficial morality and religion looks all the more feeble when we consider the grim practical problem to be solved by Christianity. The question whether human life is a blessing is, should we take the votes of all human beings on the point, still a matter of controversy. Is the statement doubted ? Let us refer, in confirmation of it, to a historical fact which appears to us of the profoundest significance. Seven centuries before the Christian era a prince of one of the royal families of India, having exhausted, in his twenty-ninth year, all the pleasures of the world, and having in him one of the deepest, most comprehensive, and most creative of human intellects, suddenly abandoned in disgust his palace, his family, his treasures, and his state ; took the name of Gotama, which means, “ he who kills the senses ” ; became a religious mendicant ; walked about in a shroud taken from the dead body of a female slave ; taught, preached, and gathered about him a body of enthusiastic disciples, bound together by the most efficient of all ecclesiastical organizations ; dictated or inspired works which, as now published by the Chinese government in four languages, occupy eight hundred volumes ; and died at the age of eighty, the founder of the Buddhist religion. Compared with this man, Mahomet was an ignorant and ferocious barbarian ; and the proudest names in Western philosophy lose a little of their lustre when placed by the side of this thinker, who grappled with the greatest problems of existence with the mightiest force of conception and reasoning. As a philosopher, he anticipated both the idealism of Berkeley and the positivism of Comte ; as a political thinker, he anticipated the noblest truth of our “ Declaration of Independence,” and twenty-five hundred years ago taught, against the caste system of India, the doctrine of the equality of men ; and, in that region of influence, higher than that in which either philosophy or statesmanship works, he founded a religion which is now professed by two fifths of the human race, and which thus exceeds, in the number of its votaries, that of any other religion in the world. Buddhism has been corrupted by a fantastic mythology, but its essential principle, derived from its founder’s disgust of existence, is, that life is not worth living, and that the extinction of life is the highest reward of virtue. To pass, in the next world, through various penal or purifying transmigrations, until you reach the bliss of Nirwana, or mere nothingness and nonentity, that is the Buddhist religion. We have said that it was professed by two fifths of the human race, but its fundamental principle, that life is not worth living, is believed, if not professed, by a large majority of mankind. Not to speak of the hundreds of wailing books which misanthropic genius has contributed to all modern literatures, not to remind the reader that the Buddhist Byron is the most popular British poet of the century, that person must have been singularly blessed with cheerful companions who has not met followers of Gotama among the nominal believers in Christ. The infection of the doctrine as an interpretation of human experience is so great, that comparatively few have altogether escaped its influence. In basing his religion on this disease of human nature, Gotama showed profounder sagacity than that evinced by any other founder of a false religion ; and in the East this disease presented its most despairing phase, for there weariness of life was associated both with the satiety of the rich and the wretchedness of the poor.
But whence comes this disgust of life ? We answer, from the comparative absence of life. No man feels it who feels the abounding reality of spiritual existence glowing within him ; for rightly sings the poet,
No life that breathes with human breath
Has ever truly longed for death.
O life, not death, for which we pant;
More life, and fuller, that we want ! ”
But this disgust of life comes with the decay of vitality ; it comes with the experience that the inward strength is weak before the outward obstacle ; it comes with the cares, perplexities, sorrows, failures, disappointments, deceptions, and ennui of the world. How, — and here is the essential question, — how is this vitality to be preserved and increased ? The answer is, Activity for an object ; for the mind grows by the vigorous assimilation of food which is external to the mind, and eats itself into leanness and imbecility when forced back on itself for nutriment. But, it may be objected, do not most men exercise activity for objects ? Yes, but the objects belong to that large class of things which allure in the pursuit, but do not satisfy in the possession. In other words, they do not wear, — they are shoddy. Hence dissatisfaction, discontent, disbelief, mental weariness, moral disgust. Now the Christian religion, the religion of life, is, in its spirit and essence, the exact opposite of Buddhism, the religion of death. When it is the object of the mind’s activity, it overcomes disgust of life by the positive communication of life. But what if your Christian teaching is lifeless ? What if you eat husks instead of bread ? What it the Christian books you read are not reservoirs of spiritual vitality, but receptacles of juiceless commonplaces ? You will then be Buddhists, though you may boast of sending missionaries to Burmah and thank Heaven you were born in a Christian land ; for shoddy is shoddy all the world over, and the vital laws which make existence a blessing or a plague cannot be balked.
Thus, in whatever direction we look, we detect this pernicious element at work, waging continual war against the creative forces of civilization. In politics, it substitutes expedients for principles ; in generalship, bulletins for abilities ; in society, manners for merit ; in business, trick for enterprise ; in literature, form for substance and puerilities for power ; in morals and religion, truisms for truths, shadows for substance, memory for insight, the discipline of death for the communication of life. In all it shows itself capable of producing nothing which is not a tissue of woven lies, and which does not drop into dishonored rags as soon as it is put to the test of use. And it is not the least of the compensations of the terrible war through which we have passed that it has taught us, in letters of fire and blood, the policy of freedom, the expediency of justice, the worth of reality, and the worthlessness of shams !
E. P. Whipple.