IT was Balzac, I think, who used to listen with what patience he could to discussions of current affairs, but finally would break in with the exclamation, " Let us talk about real matters; let us discuss the characters in my last novel.” It is with this sense of the difference between things real and things of the moment that I wish the readers of The Atlantic would turn aside from the presidential question, to consider a subject recently brought before Congress which concerns such lasting matters as national literature and well-being. We are to be a nation, whoever is president; but whether or not national literature is to have a healthy growth depends in part upon the reception which Congress gives to the bill introduced by Mr. Seelye in the House of Representatives for the removal of duties upon all imported books. At present, government institutions and institutions of learning may import books free of duty; books, too, more than twenty years old may be imported free. Upon all others an ad valorem duty is laid.
At first blush it looks like a bill to encourage learning, but it proves to be a very unblushing measure indeed, and its proper title would be, A Bill to encourage Importers of English Books and discourage the Producers of American Books. Here and there a special student is aggrieved at the high price charged for an English, unreprinted work, and is told that the high duty imposed makes the price in this country excessive. A removal of the duty would enable him to get his book a little cheaper; but let us suppose that this special student is also a writer, who is buying English books that he may qualify himself to write one for his own countrymen. He has been congratulating himself that his library has cost less since the removal of the iniquitous tax on learning, as he has heard it called; he has, perhaps, also found it a pleasure to look at the fresh English books of all kinds which seem to accumulate rapidly on the book-seller’s counter, and with a connoisseur’s eye he finds a charm in them which the occasional American books he sees seem to lack. Now he goes armed with his manuscript to the publisher’s office, and after a chat upon books in general he comes to his own in particular. This is what he may expect to hear: —
“ The title and subject of your book are attractive; we will suppose the treatment to be sound and good, and if you will bear all the expenses of manufacture and publication, I shall be happy to publish your book for you, charging a commission of ten per cent. on the retail price for my services as agent. I cannot risk my money in the enterprise because the publishing of books in America has become too hazardous. If you can reduce your book to the dimensions of a magazine article, I can perhaps print it in my magazine. But as to books, I am as rapidly as possible confining myself to the publication of special works which are local in their character and cannot well be made and published abroad, such as law books and a certain class of school books. I once published books for children, taking pains to illustrate them well and to make them descriptive of American life, history, and nature; but I found that people in buying books for children were mainly impressed by three considerations: cheapness, abundance of illustration, and general attractiveness. The English books were cheaper, more profusely illustrated, and externally often more attractive, and were bought in preference. To be sure these books taught of English nature, and reflected a society different in many respects from our own, but the bookstores were full of them; it was difficult to make mine as cheap and as pretty, even though the reading matter was better, and when the tariff was taken off, competition was impossible, and I gave up publishing books for children, to the regret of some very competent authors who were obliged to take up the less congenial work of teaching, and of some judicious parents who found it hard to give their children an American education.
“ Well, that lopped off what was once, — especially during the war, when there was practically a protective tariff on books, owing to high rates of exchange, — an important part of my business, but I continued to publish books in general literature until I found that I was waging an uneven contest there. I was handicapped in the race with the English publishers. The cost of living, in this country, for the printer is higher than it is in England, both because it is higher for all classes, and because our printer has become accustomed to a cheerful manner of living which to the Englishman would be luxury. We don’t think it so, because we have added to our stock of necessities the best education for our children, sunlight and good water in our houses, and good food for body and for mind. But the result is that as manual labor is ninety per cent, of the cost of stereotype plates, we can’t make books as cheaply as in England; and as people in buying books only now and then have an intelligent preference for an American author, the cheapest books are sold most freely, and the English books are cheapest. A man who wishes to amuse himself at the play rarely cares whether the manager is an Englishman or American, or whether the play is English, American, or French; and the person who wants a novel or book of travels for casual reading will go to the bookstore and take that which is cheapest and brightest looking. As the writers of books in England greatly outnumber those in America, and as English book-makers can undersell American book-makers, the bookstores are filling with English books to the exclusion of American.
“ The sum of the matter is this: authorship of books in America goes with publishing of books in America. Here and there, an author will ask his introduction through a London house, but those cases are exceptional, although the effect of the present system is to place the author in the hands of the London publisher. Here and there, too, an exceptional book will insist upon recognition, and will be bought and kept in the bookstores, irrespective of English competition. But in order that the publisher may carry on a business in which such books shall have a place, he must succeed moderately with a score of lesser books, each having its minor success, but going to swell the general business. The interests of authors and publishers are identical, not antagonistic; if the legislation and general prosperity of the country make publishing a successful industry, then authors may expect to find publishers who, as capitalists, will undertake their books. If through adverse legislation and the imposition of heavy burdens publishing is unprofitable, the chances for authors will steadily diminish.”
I hope the disappointed author will go home and reflect whether it was quite worth his while to buy a few books a little cheaper, if the reason for this was the reason also that the publishing business was rendered sluggish and unprofitable.
— I was turning over a subject in my mind the other day, and some things (thoughts, we will charitably call them) occurred to me in regard to the uncertainty of one’s possession of personal courage, of the sort which is equal to occasions. I know that I should always be brave enough before or after the fact; the doubt I have is in regard to the moment of peril. What occurred to me I threw into the form of drama (which I believe is a kind of writing you wish to encourage), the dialogue taking place between two young men who are intimate friends, but of different shades of polities.
One (continuing the talk). If we are actually to come to blows and have the internecine war into which the fanatics seem disposed to plunge us, this question of courage has a new and personal application. I have sometimes doubted whether I have any.
The Other. I cannot conceive myself mixed up in an internecine war. 1 should not know how to act. Fancy having to stick a bayonet into our good-natured postmaster or collector here ! Before I could thrust hard enough to be of any avail, I should want somebody to convince me beyond peradventure that he was a black-hearted villain who had been run out of the place where he used to live, and that he meditated something atrocious towards me and mine if he was not dispatched. It would most likely be necessary to go off to attack or defend some place, as Washington, where we have not intimate associations, and where the persons are against whom we have a prejudice. Then the fighting would begin very easily.
One. I should not like it any the better for that. As I was saying, I am at a loss whether I possess such a quality as physical courage or not. It has never been tested. I was never garroted, or saw anybody fall off a bridge, or was offered any opportunity to act in a way that was physically resolute, to say nothing of heroic. It is an even thing whether in case of emergency I should meet it half-way respectably, or do something of which I should afterwards be ashamed. At the best, I should probably be scared out of a year’s growth. It is not a pleasant thing, I can tell you, to have such an uncertainty hanging over one.
The Other. You are not by any means the only person in the world who does not understand himself in this matter. I am inclined to think it is the normal condition of most respectably brought up young men of quiet dispositions. It is a defect of education. Our institutions of learning ought, to have some Spartan device for Steadying the nerves and familiarizing one with the practice of regarding himself as a belligerent. A chair of experimental infant or heiress rescuing, or of applied bull-dozing, might not be a bad idea. Without some such practice they might as well expect a fellow who has only a theoretical idea of music to sit down to the piano-forte and dash off a symphony of Beethoven at sight.
One. Still, I have had at times — as I suppose everybody else has — vague symptoms of a feeling like doing something in the way of a first-class wind-up, — something for the good of somebody or something, you know.
The Other. Oh, you have. Well, I should say there was hope in that.
One. The ending of Carton, now, in the Tale of Two Cities; I think it is one of the most inspiring things in all literature. It seems as if one must be all right at last, regardless of what he had been, if he could close his career like that.
The Other. I fear I have forgotten it. Let me see,—he went to the guillotine in somebody’s place, did he not?
One. Yes; that of the happy lover of the girl who had refused him on account of his general good-for-nothingness. It was a sublime sacrifice.
The Other. Do you think the fortunate one would have been capable of such a thing ?
One. I am afraid not; happiness is too selfish, or rather, perhaps, it has too much to lose.
The Other. Does the feeling you speak of induce you to keep always on the lookout for the first chance at runaway teams, and so on?
One. Well, no; not to any extent. My practice is to see if there is not somebody else more anxious to take the job than myself. Up to this time I have always found that there was. I give enthusiastic volunteers the widest facilities. The feeling I speak of is undoubtedly a fag end of mawkish sentimentalism nourished by too much romance reading.
The Other. Now I shall stand up for the romancers. I think this is one of the noblest uses of literature, that in presenting ideals which cause a thrill of admiration as we idly turn the pages, it creates the possibility that, in some sudden access of enthusiasm, we may decide that there are things better than a whole skin after all, and try to be like the heroes.
One. If that is the case, may I trouble you to pass me a fresh cigar from that box under your elbow ? These are Morro Castle’s latest. They are better than the dark ones you took of him.
— Your Boston publisher, Loring, in reprinting Ashford Owen’s tale, A Lost Love, has done something more like a personal favor to certain people than he probably knows. I am not going to review it, — I suppose your Club is not the place for that,—and I only wanted to speak of it because of the curiously enthusiastic following — worship, cult — that it has among certain refined American women. I do not know anything about the fact, but I should doubt, on general principles, whether it was equally a cult with English women. My observation is that it was expressly written for some ten or a dozen ladies of my acquaintance, who read it fifteen or twenty years in the English edition, and who have ever since gone about proselyting people to it. I have — don’t you think we all have? — a strong prejudice against books which are much talked into me; and I held out long against A Lost Love, with a stubbornness which I now feel to have been heathen. It seems to me that I know no other book so simply and merely and just sufficiently touching. I have heard a book decribed as not having more than three thrills in it; I don’t know whether A Lost Love has even so many; but as a friend of mine said of it, the other day, it has a real gulp: you will understand the sort of heart - break meant, which will not suffer you to read the book aloud quite to the end. It is not at all an exciting story, I should say: the scene is largely that everlasting English country house, which is in itself almost enough to render any action and person loathsome; but the manner in which the skeptical reader is convicted of his former hardness of heart and darkness of mind, as the story progresses, must be highly gratifying to the early Lost Lovers, — as I may call them. What should be so wonderful about a young girl’s not getting the man whom she loves, and who loves her as much as, if not more than, he loves the brilliant woman who does get him? That is the author’s secret, and you are made to know that it is a very great matter, —a matter of life and death. The little book is truth and life, treated with consummate, unfailing, uninsistent art. There is no bearing on; where your voice breaks in reading it aloud is simply the last of touches, as light as they are deathly sad. Which is the saddest, the most poignant of all, is a nice question, and each follower of the book will have his or her (mostly her) own mind about it; but to my thinking there is at least nothing forlorner than where Georgy Sandon, having come up to London from the country where she had grown familiar with the kindly mother of the man she loves, finds herself at this good lady’s house, very strange and shy and frightened. when some other ladies call. “ The elder lady ” — I apologize to all the original Lost Lovers for quoting; they have the book by heart—“told some story; and, being opposite to Georgy, courteously recognized her presence, addressing it partly to her; but it was a story the point of which hung on the knowledge of Charles Seymour and his peculiar idiosyncrasies. Georgy did not know him, and felt the separation from them all which that implied. ’ ’ When I came to this place I felt incomparably homesick and forsaken. The little book is full of such keen and rather recondite knowledge of the heart.
But when I began to write, it was really not so much with the intention of speaking of A Lost Love, as of touching on a fact in literature of which it is an eminent instance: I mean books with a following. They are not often — I don’t know that they are ever — books of the first fame; though I am inclined to think they are books of the first quality, relegated by some obscure circumstance or condition of their being to a secondary renown. But for this reason those who praise them rave of them, and recompense them for the absence of the general favor by a passionate constancy. Every reader will have some such book in his mind, I can think now of Mr. Curtis’s Prue and I, as distinguished among American books by the fervid devotion of its followers: I suppose Paul Ferroll, terrible as it was, enjoyed an enthusiastic following; Björnson’s Arne promised to be of the same idolized sort, but too many people came to know it was good, and that spoiled its worship. For a long time Browning was a cult; and Tourguéneff, if it is true that his books sell only enough to pay expenses, is still so in our country; Henry Taylor is strictly and merely a cult of the narrowest kind. But it was books I meant, not authors; and I wish some other correspondent of yours would help me to enlarge my list.
P. S. A friend, on whom I tried A Lost Love, after writing the foregoing, brings back the book with the announcement that it is very subtly written, but not particularly touching.
— Coming into my house, here in Florence, the other day, Signor Pietrocola Rossetti (cousin to Dante and William Rossetti) saw my youngest boy, then in his months, before he could walk. flying across the room in his cestino, — a basket support, — intent on baby mischief, and was so struck with his look and movement that he immediately perpetrated this poetical jeu d’esprit: —
Ne' belli occhi sfolgoranti;
Rimirate l' amorino
Ruba-côre della Mamma.
Nel cestino rinserrato
Salta come un' augellino
Dove mai nascendi I' ale ?
Non favella, ma cinguetta,
Ma il parlar del bambolino
È d' amor che l' alme accende.
Certo, è Marte il suo pianeta,
Perchè questo paladino,
Urla e batte le sorelle.
Viene, egli è tonante Giove,
Che’ nel suo furor divino
Che minaccia, e tuona, e grida !
Egli è cima di dottore,
Ma il super del mio bambino
Dotto è tal che niun l’ intende.
Guai per tntte le fanciulle!
Perchè il vispo cicciutino
È un amorino
Ch' arde il saugue nelle vene.
Sclama ormai la Genitrice :
‘ Questo caro Cherubino,
M' è venuto dal Signore ! ”
Ne’ belli occhi sfolgoranti,
Rimirate l' amorino
Ruba-côre della Mamma!
— As to The Scarlet Letter, as dramatized by the Comte de Nagac and Mrs. Lander, and lately produced at the Boston Theatre, I wish you could present one point which has not been brought out at all in the newspapers: and this is, that the successful putting on the stage of so finished and subtile a work of fiction as this romance of Hawthorne’s is an effort on a plane entirely above the attempts at play writing which have hitherto claimed to be the true and only “ American drama.” Strictly speaking, I suppose this stage version must be called a melodrama; The Scarlet Letter transplanted into the atmosphere of the theatre could hardly be anything else. Yet it is not quite true to call it simply a melodrama, for it comes so near being tragedy, and tragedy of a high order, too. The book itself is not melodramatic, but tragic; and the play gets its superior tone by closely following the original work. It is richly picturesque, powerful in holding the attention of a mixed audience, and very pathetic in the closing scene. When you reflect that this is an American drama, as well as Kit, the Arkansas Traveler, or Paul Revere, or Saratoga, Marriage, and Metamora, you begin to see an opening for something in the way of real dramatic creation based on purely American themes, whenever some man of genius among us shall act on an inspiration to mold his thought for the stage, without the aid of adapters.
— There are two kinds of extremists with which I confess myself sadly unable to deal. One is the tyrant of faith, and one is the tyrant of skepticism, and they are both, in their Separate ways, dreadful despots. The magnificent condescension with which my extremist of the first class treats every human problem that has ever come beneath his observation is a fact that deserves comment. Indeed, there is very little that he does not accurately and lucidly account for. Nature has very few secrets from him; most of the vexed questions that have made clever men rub their foreheads for centuries melt away before his magic investigations. He talks a great deal about the ways of Providence, and shows an easy familiarity with the subject of final causes that makes me nervously to wonder whether, after all, the well-known limitations of science have not been mistakenly established. He explains the most baffling mysteries of human existence with that tranquil decisiveness which scorns contradiction. He pities Mr. Herbert Spencer with a kind of annihilating compassion; he sometimes persuades himself that he has utterly hurt to death the Darwinian theory; he thinks that evolution is only a mantle under which certain traditional horns and cloven hoofs are concealed, and his omission to tear aside this contemptible disguise is merely through a serene disdain of the whole trivial proceeding. If you tell him that you do not understand the possibility of a miracle, he will laugh very heartily indeed and ask you if there is anything you do understand, from a star to a blade of grass.
My extremist of the second class is a very different sort of person. It is only justice to say that he is commonly not, at the furthest, outside of his twenties. Quite often he has recently returned from a German university, though he is frequently a graduate of Harvard or Columbia. He gives a knowing smile when anything is said about the immortality of the soul, as though mentally remarking that he has had private information of an opposite character from certain indisputable authorities. When you mention to him some of the finest points in transcendentalism he will shake his head in pity and murmur “ Poetry ” to you. He has a contempt for the imagination; he is sorry to hear you say that it has had anything whatever to do with science, which he passionately reveres. If you speak of going to church he usually looks amused. If you talk to him of the vast spiritual suggestiveness found in such purely abstract questions as the ideals of beauty, truth, or love, he will pretend not to understand you and declare that you do not put your statements into the forms of “ thinkable propositions.” If you mention “spirit,” he will act as though you had said something in Hindostanee. He sometimes tells you so much about the superb skepticism of Buckle, Mill, Huxley, or Tyndall, that you have misgivings as to whether you yourself have read these writers attentively enough; it does not strike you until later that perhaps he may possess only a smattering of their works and merely show himself one of those extremely small fish that often swim in the wakes of larger ones. Some of our great leaders of thought in this nineteenth century, I think, have suffered from the pompous and utterly shallow “ skepticism ” shown by my extremist of the second class. But after all, I cannot say whether he is any worse than my extremist of the first class.
— If the great American novel is to have its scene laid in New York, I am afraid that it cannot pass into fame except over the veto of not a few reigning critics. During the past four years I have written two novels, which judged purely as pieces of literary work may have been extremely bad. I am inclined to believe that they were not; but as such convictions have never confined themselves to writers of merit, I do not presume to rank my own as at all valuable. Let it be allowed, then, that my two novels were very slight performances indeed; the point which I wish to present is not that they were or were not proclaimed as such, but that they were, in several eases, declared wholly to misrepresent " New York society. The people whom I had chosen to describe were of what I know to be the aristocracy of New York, and in most cases the gay, fashionable portion of it. The word “ aristocracy” is advisedly used; I do not mean plutocracy; I mean, rather, a certain body of people, who are perhaps five thousand in number, and who claim (no matter how strongly, how logically, or how successfully this claim may be disputed) to constitute the finer social element of our metropolis. I know these people; I have been put face to face with their virtues and their faults since childhood ; I am not now speaking either praisefully or blamefully of them; I do not say whether their birth is or is not as good as they often declare; I do not assert that there are or are not many people of yesterday who have crowded in among these Van Rensselaers, Stuyvesants, Livingstons, and other widelyknown Knickerbocker families ; I merely make one simple statement: this New York aristocracy, self-constituted though it may be, and worthy of all imaginable republican scorn, exists.
But there are several New York critics who stoutly affirm that it does not exist. I have, they inform me, described what has no foundation in fact. It is not a question of whether my people are silly, flippant, unworthy of being written about; it is the mere point of their existence alone. There are no such people; there is no aristocracy in New York; there is nothing but a struggle of one rich man or woman to outdo the other. The snobbery, arrogance, and pride of birth, no less than the difficulty of entrée within certain circles, have no being outside of my own imagination. So say my “ critics.” I have conceded, it will be kindly remembered, that my two novels are without literary value, and therefore in my own case let it be supposed that no special injury is done. But how will the case be with future Thackerays, if they ever appear among us? The social dividing lines of a people are of inestimable service to a novelist; he cannot, indeed, do without them. It is somehow the literary curse of our country as regards the writing of fiction that what few lines of this sort truly exist are denied by those living nearest them. I do not know any active man of letters in New York who moves in the circles previously referred to; it may be that he would disdain them if circumstance had thrown him among them, but this is surely no reason why he should deny that they are. It is possible to conceive of a novel which treats of life among these New York aristocrats, and is also a well-written, sensible novel. But if such a book ever appears, it will be denounced as a falsehood.
— Now that we have the Memoir of Charles Kingsley, I suppose we shall all take the chance to put this much-discussed reformer back on to the scales again, for reweighing and labeling. That such a book should be at all surprises many of us who heard the canon but a short time before his death express his indignation and disgust at all memoirs or biographies. “As a rule,” he said, “ the record is made by a friend or member of the family whose sole claim to literary distinction lies in his connection with the dead man, and who is, therefore, least fitted to convey a correct idea of him to the public. In any case,” he added, vehemently, “ what right has the public to your private life or mine? Such work as we can do belongs to it. Nothing more.” The protest, however, may have been but the ebullition of a passing mood, as Mrs. Kingsley assuredly would know and respect any fixed determination to hold the public at arm’slength from his grave. Though indeed so strong was Canon Kingsley’s affection for his family that I have no doubt he is quite willing to-day that they should lay bare his most secret thought to the world if it gratifies their fond pride in him.
The majority of Americans, as a matter of course, will be as discontented with the book as they were with the man himself. Middle-aged people to whom Alton Locke had been a voice crying in the wilderness of their youth demanded the prophet, and would have none of this canon with his conservative orthodox virtues. They appealed from Cæsar sober to Cæsar drunk with the divine ichor; and not finding him, denounced him savagely. He had sold his birthright for a mess of church patronage, and a very small mess, at that. Now nobody could come in contact with Charles Kingsley for ten minutes and believe that he had ever sold or throttled a conviction knowingly. He was a man sincere to rudeness, and there had been no great falsehood in his past life to diminish his stern self-respect. He had merely changed his point of view. Charles Kingsley was the exponent of radical tailors, poachers’ wives, and their base-born babies; and if Canon Kingsley chose to express to us the meaning of a cathedral or the opinions of the cultured class in England, it was because he had been pushed by circumstances into closer contact with them than the younger man. His eyes were just as keen to discover virtue and reason as when he was Lancelot and twenty-five. And after all, the poacher has not a monopoly of virtue or reasons.
— One of your contributors recently rallied a Boston house which advertises for sale a collection of rugs illustrating purely Oriental thought. As the accepted theory about such work is that it illustrates blind impulse and feeling, and not thought at all, the carpet man probably got no more than his deserts. But may I offer for what it is worth this speculation: whether the arabesque of ornament with which not only Turkish rugs but all the rest of the work of man’s hands is so thickly covered may not, after all, have in each of its characters and combinations a definite significance like that of handwriting or hieroglyphics. It would not be that of its executors, because they are often ignorant persons professedly without any, but a meaning infused into it by some indexible law. in short, are not our paper-hangings a mysterious system of handwriting on the wall, and our carpets, furniture chintzes, and dress goods a record of current or past events or intimate emotions? Perhaps some future Champollion will decipher the secret and open to the world a vast new revelation more full of vital significance than anything we have been able to keep in the usual way.
— Mr. James’s Conversation about Daniel Deronda is clever. But the critics generally seem to pass over the most complete and distinct character in the book, namely, Grandcourt himself. He is the one we remember when the volume is closed; Gwendolen too, of course, but principally in connection with him, and his narrow eyes. No woman cares in the least for Deronda; if she says she does, she is talking for appearance’ sake. I have met only two Theodoras, and they were wives of clergymen, talking for " the parish,” and for their children who sat near.
— This Club, I hope, is not too exclusively æsthetic in its tastes to let me write in it of a quaint-looking little book which has lately come into my hands. The book is called A Wreath of Stray Leaves, to the Memory of Emily Bliss Gould, and though it contains many clever and pretty things by such distinguished members of the Anglo-American colony at Rome as Messrs. Adolphus Trollope, W. W. Story, Matthew Arnold, William Hewitt, Cowden Clarke, Mrs. Clarke, Mrs. Howitt, Mrs. Trollope, and others, it interests me mostly because it was printed by the poor little Italian people whom the good woman it commemorates picked up out of the streets of Rome, clothed, housed, fed, and taught letters and their saving art. Every one who has been at Rome of late years has known of Mrs. Gould and her work, and whoever knew of her must have heard with a sense of something like personal loss of her death in the midst of the work to which she had dedicated herself. I never saw her school, but I have seen something of the Protestant ragged-schools in Naples, and I could imagine the good which an establishment supplementing literary instruction with all the influences of a veritable home — she called it so, and aimed to make it nothing less — would do among the children of a race so susceptible to all intellectual and spiritual influences as the Italian. It seems to have fulfilled her utmost hopes of good, and she lived long enough to see a promise of permanence in it. She had intended to make it self-supporting, and she had found that she could not do better than have her boys taught to be printers, — to whom the political regeneration of Italy gives increasing employment, — and the now-memorial Wreath of Stray Leaves was planned by their self-sacrificing friend and teacher as a convincing proof of their proficiency in their trade. Since her death the home has gone into the hands of the Waldensen Church in Rome (strange to think of that old martyr-faith there!), and with the help of Christian charity everywhere will be carried on as she planned it. The committee in charge of it is made up of English and American people, and of Italian Protestants, and its success so far has met only with welcome from the Italians, who are not always pleased with foreign efforts for their redemption. Of course, more money is needed to establish it beyond failure, and I suppose the American ageuts (Messrs. Edward Lamson, 66 Sears Building, Boston, and A. S. Barnes, 111 William Street, New York) will give any desired information about it.
— I have been reading, without great edification, the collection of Balzac’s letters, lately published by MM. Michel Lévy. The book is, indeed, one not to pore over or to recur to. Though interesting as a whole, Balzac’s correspondence is painful reading, and contains little of the wisdom that we desire to store up. Much is made clear in his career that was hitherto relatively vague, but neither the artist nor the man particularly gains by it. The man seems terribly egotistical; the artist seems to take a narrow and sordid view of his art. The artist and the man in Balzac were indeed one and the same; he was, from the beginning, simply a colossal seribbling-machine. He regarded his life-time as a sheet of blank paper, and society as a huge inkstand. What the letters throw into admirable relief, however, is the artisan, as I may call it, — the worker. Here, Balzac was heroic and unequaled, and these volumes prove that the familiar legends and anecdotes about his enormous industry fall rather below the facts. For many years he worked habitually fifteen and eighteen hours a day. When one considers the nature of this work and the exhausting character of sustained imaginative writing, of perpetual invention, which is, as compared with most other brain labor, what the expenditure of capital is to the expenditure of income, such achievements seem marvelous; we wonder what such a head, and such a physical structure generally, were made of. Balzac’s head and his whole constitution, however, broke down; not immediately, but when he had reached what might have been merely a robust maturity. He was barely fifty years of age when he died. The letters, which are conspicuous for their want of editorship, begin in the year 1819, just after he had come up to Paris, with the reluctant consent of his family, to make by his pen the fortune that was so long in coming to him; and they terminate with the last lines that fell from his hand, —a note to Théophile Gautier, dictated upon his death-bed in 1850. They are addressed for the most part to his relatives and to his nearest friends; and it is noticeable that his principal correspondents were women: his sister, the person whom (at least in his youth) he seems to have loved best in the world; his mother, who survived him; Madame Carraud; Madame Hanska, the Polish lady to whom he had been “ attentive ” for years and whom, after many obstacles, he married a few months before his death. Madame Hanska was rich, but on marrying Balzac she gave up her property to her children. This point is worth touching on in speaking of a record which is above all a history of the consuming desire to make a fortune. The letters are almost exclusively a register of Balzac’s money-matters. These form his inveterate, his absorbing topic, and the present publication throws a great deal of additional light upon them. The writer rarely alludes to anything else or appears to suppose that his correspondent can be interested in anything else. There are no observations, no descriptions, no gossip, no anecdotes. They are all gloomy business letters, with here and there an interval of gloomy sentiment, or more rarely a cry of almost ferocious exultation over difficulties vanquished. The want of time to observe, to narrate, to gossip, or even to feel, is what they chiefly express. Balzac had no time to do anything but write, write, and still write; one wonders when and where and how he collected his enormous fund of material. The basis of all this is his debt, — the heavy pecuniary obligations he contracted from 1825 to 1830 by unsuccessful commercial ventures, especially by his famous attempt to establish a printing-house. He had apparently gone to work on a large scale. The printinghouse came to grief, and by the catastrophe his whole fortune was mortgaged. He became above all things, as M. Taine says, an homme d'affaires. Novel-writing, for him, meant business, and business meant novel-writing. His earlier works were poorly paid, and up to 1840 he appears to have had very little money for his personal use. But gradually he won the race; he made large sums, cleared off his debts, and gained a somewhatt luxurious independence. His most expensive taste seems to have been that of bric-a-brac and upholstery. By this time, however, as I said, his health was gone, and he lived to occupy but a few months the beautiful bouse in the Rue Fortunée to whose adornments the Parents Pauvres and the Paysans had contributed. The letters, altogether, give an impression of an extraordinary nature; a nature of little delicacy, but of extreme, robustness, frankness, and lovingness, and of a certain wholesome simplicitywhich was not to be expected. Upon his genius itself they throw not a particle of light. They explain how the bad parts of his great work come to be so strangely bad; but they leave the finer portions enshrouded in the mystery of his magnificent inspiration.
— In reading lately, in The Nation, some remote praise of Mr. James’s story of The American by a critic who “ confessed to having had at first a feeling of irritation at being called upon to take an interest in a specimen of a type which, as a type, was to say the least, not æasthetically attractive,” I felt a concern which I wish to express for the condition of a mind so febrile in its sensitiveness as to be shocked at the bare thought of a type like Newman being introduced into a novel, as hero. I at once perceived how greatly this select being must have to limit his reading of fiction, in order to retain any nervous system whatever. Such a story as Le Père Goriot, or César Birotteau, for example, would not simply subject him to “ nervous irritation ” at the start, but must prostrate him for days. Freytag’s Soll und Haben would be very damaging to him. Adam Bede, Silas Warner, and Alton Locke should be kept under lock and key wherever there is danger of this gentleman’s accidentally getting hold of them. I do not quite like to think of the consequences of his coming in contact with Thackeray’s Hoggarty Diamond; and there are people so common in Shakespeare’s plays that I am sure those dramas cannot be pleasant reading to The Nation’s critic. How does he manage with Sancho Fanza, or Gil Blas ? So superior a critic is cut off from the great variety of fiction in which ruder readers take delight. For instance, in a case like Reade’s Love Me Little, Love Me Long, the lover, Dodd, is not a whit more æsthetie than the lover, Newman, in Mr. James’s American. A devout admirer of The Nation, however, tells me we should be glad that a person of such nice discrimination has not long before this perished through suffering from vulgar types in literature. I should like to believe that the case is not so bad as it seems, and that this critic appears more precariously situated than he is, simply because he has allowed himself to talk rubbish.