The Contributors' Club
WHEN Malthus wrote his book on population, some indignant critics, with the talent for misrepresentation with which such people are apt to be endowed, maintained that the practical outcome of his views would be a return to the ancient customs of exposing infants or sacrificing them to Moloch. Warned in this way, I hardly dare to indulge in Malthusian talk about the increase of books; and yet the subject is a tempting and a worrying one. That books multiply in a high geometrical ratio seems undeniable, though in what sort of ratio our means of making any good use of them increase I have never computed. And then the most discouraging thing about, it is that when they have once been born, we preserve them artificially, and do our very best to insure an immortal existence to every one of them. A book is a tough-lived thing in any case, and decomposes but slowly under ordinary circumstances of atmosphere and vermin: when carefully protected it may endure almost indefinitely. The awful consequences of this incessant production, unchecked by at least partially equivalent destruction, are seldom thought of, because the evil is yet in its infancy. Libraries of a million volumes may be tolerated by society, but when these millions come to be multiplied by millions, what is going to be done? Prescient thinkers, contemplating the modest extension of Gore Hall, at Harvard, which is now nearly finished, have already alluded to the time when Gore Hall is to cover every inch of the college yard; but this is a narrow view of the case. To appreciate it properly we should look forward to a future era when Gore Hall shall have met the Boston Athenæum and the Public Library, the three institutions covering all the space from Dorchester to Arlington, and when the entire population of Eastern Massachusetts shall be employed in collating and cataloguing books and sorting pamphlets. For my part I see no prospect of a natural check to the process until all the ingredients of the earth’s crust fit for entering into ihe composition of books shall have been exhausted. When we fall into the sun, it wall be only a repetition en gros of the literary bonfire which Ximenes lighted in the public square of Granada.
But how is history going to be either written or read, with such an accumulation of materials as is going on? The report of the Geneva Arbitration fills twenty stout volumes, and if Congress sends a committee South to investigate Ku-Klux outrages, it is sure to result in at least a dozen volumes of testimony. When a man sits down to write the history of England, one volume will carry the story over a thousand years, from the invasion of Cæsar to the Norman conquest. A second will go over two hundred years, down to Edward I. To get through the wars of the Roses will take two more volumes. Then a dozen wall barely suffice for the Tudors, and twenty or thirty for the Stuarts, while the Hanoverian period, if treated with equal minuteness, would require fifty or sixty,—and all because of the accumulation of material. Where, when, and how is this sort of thing to stop?
— Whether the respective Roman Chariot Race pictures of Gérôme and of Wagner have not excited much comparative criticism, adverse to Gérôme? Privately, of course, for it must be a crime of some kind against something to speak doubtingly of Gérôme, when his American public pays from six to eight thousand dollars for some of his minor pictures. With the public taste which attaches princely values to Gérôme’s notable works — the Roman Chariot Race among them—there can be no quarrel. The merchant prince who secured the latter considered it a rare treasure, and it has been publicly exhibited as such. Everybody saw Wagner’s Chariot Race at the Centennial Exhibition. It was some what in keeping with the foreign art display at Philadelphia (a few exhibits excepted) that this should not have been the original Chariot Race, or even its successful counterfeit. Foreign artists thought they saw in Memorial Hall not an antechamber to the Temple of Fame, but the seam in brother Jonathan’s pocket. The original Chariot Race, but half as ambitious in size, and vastly superior in coloring, happens to be the property of a lucky English gentleman. It was exhibited at Vienna, and made Wagner’s fame.
Wagner may have borrowed the idea from Gérôme, but he has not laid himself open to the charge of servile imitation. It was perhaps an ambition of the professor of the Munich Academy to eclipse the pet of the French Academic school. In handling the peculiar subject, demanding consummate harmony and intensity of action, it was and ought to have been the artist’s purpose not to have the eye consider separately a brilliancy of coloring, or a grace and beauty of form, or the mind the antiquated story. To my eye Wagner’s picture fulfills this essential. With Gérôme’s, the eye and mind immediately fall to analyzing. This yields a quiet delight; for there is the beauty of the sky, the exquisite coloring, and the grand perspective as seen in the magnificent proportions of the amphitheatre. But its life is more symbolic of action than the thing itself, if we except the sky, for in that there is the purity and the even pulse of nature. The imperfect suggestion— contained in the mottled rows of men, mechanically straight and stiff, and in the horses, looking for all the world as if copied from Assyrian sculpture — that the Circus Maximus is filled with excitable human beings watching the thrilling chariot race, merely emphasizes the vacuity of the picture. Eliminate this symbolism of life from Gérôme’s painting, and the canvas would acquire a classic solemnity and beauty from the silent grandeur of the amphitheatre and the touch of nature in the sky. Frozn the Emperor Romitian down, the spectators have the posture of self-conscious moderns sitting for a photograph. Where are the children, the hangers-on of the stables, the friends of the charioteers, the priests and fair women, whom Wagner, on the contrary, picturesquely represents as perched on the middle wall, the spina of the arena? Gérôme avoids everything that might appear undignified to his academic taste. Think of the dignity of a Roman populace at a chariot race! If the Roman of the empire were truly half tiger, half voluptuary, it were cruelty indeed to compel him to sit. out Gérôme’s dumb show with complacency and composure. The Gerome painting is eminently respectable, but so very stupid.
For once, at least, Wagner seems to have found in himself a trace of that “ divine frenzy ” which was the genius of Rubens. He fills his canvas with flesh and blood and irradiates it with stimulated spirit, he chooses the most dramatic situation in the race, and gives it scope and intensity of action. The scene is beyond the turning goal. The spinning chariots, checked at the turn, are getting off again in full career. The decisive moment lias arrived. The action and strife are almost heroic, as out of the dust and confusion of the turn three chariots emerge, on almost equal terms, and dash into the foreground. All the excitable blood of mettled horse and intrepid charioteer boils, and their nerves bound. The horses are in full plunge, ears erect, eyes afire, nostrils nervously distended, and foam flaking from the bit. The handsome young daredevil Roman who drives the foremost four is wild over the advantage he has won. His voice rings loud and quick, his whip cracks, the race is still too tame for him. His concern is on the left; his eyes almost see through the back of his head; he knows that the surly, bearded charioteer, who takes the race so coolly, is close after him with a team that share with their driver a dangerous perseverance and pluck. The galleries are in a tumult of wild gesticulation and cheers; even the cold Domitian and his servile attendants are carried away by the thrilling scene. The picturesque groups on the middle wall of the arena are transported by the dash of the young charioteer, and swing their arms and shout encouragement. The contest is the focus of light and action in the picture. The architectural detail is complete. The grandeur of the setting and the fierceness and earnestness of the sport fulfill the imaginative conception of a chariot race in the days of imperial Rome.
— I summon all good Bostonians who cherish the spirit of 1776 to resist another invasion from Old England. A hundred years ago the British threatened the liberty of our government: to - day they attack the purity of our pronunciation. Our English neighbors have begun to say “hăouse,” or rather “hĕouse,” for house, “rĕound” for round, etc., etc.! Perhaps this is old news to you, but I first heard of it two years or so ago, when I found that all the English actors who supported the comedian Toole were nasally addicted to the mispronunciation.
I made little account of the circumstance then, nor was I much disturbed upon learning half a year afterward that many Englishmen of high literary traditions had the same vile habit, and that even a part of Oxford had succumbed to it. But a fortnight since the barbarism reached my ears through the lips — or perhaps I should say the nose — of one of our own Phil-Anglican swells, who told me that it was quite the correct thing, that our “ best ” people were generally adopting it, and that it would soon find its way into the dictionaries. It is strange how “ the whirligig of time brings in his revenges” here, and lays upon classic Oxford the burden of contempt which once was cast upon rural New England with its “ hăows ” and “ căows.” But never mind about poetic justice now. Let all of us who love our mother and her tongue — which is about the best part of her — clasp our Worcester’s dictionaries to our hearts and solemnly relegate such inelegancies of speech to the nation over the seas which is “too lazy to enunciate.”
— There ought to be a movement for the Prevention of Cruelty to Readers. No man has the right to spoil the pleasure and comfort of people who are pleased with his manner of writing by the wanton murder of his dramatis persona. I feel that I have been swindled out of several hours of enjoyment by the way in which Mr. William Black has ended his Madcap Violet. The first half of this book is very entertaining. The characters of Drummond and Violet are sketched with no great depth or subtlety, it is true, but with a free and skillful hand, and a certain friendliness of tone that gains singularly upon the sympathies. When our feelings are fully enlisted, Drummond’s sister, who is represented as a good sort of person, does a stupid but hateful thing which poisons the lives of everybody in the book. This shows not only bad art but bad heart, or at least a great lack of right feeling. There is no reason in art or morals for the slow torture to which the readers of the book are subjected from the middle to the close. The only emotion excited by it is one of anger and grief. It is not touching, it is simply exasperating. We see no Fate slowly settling down on the doomed lovers. We merely perceive Mr. Black putting out their eyes, and killing them when they begin to grow heavy on his hands. It was said to be the custom of the stage-drivers of Nevada, after an overturn of their vehicles, to go about among the maimed survivors and knock them all on the head with a monkey-wrench, to prevent their annoying the company with lawsuits. Mr. Black seems to have adopted the same prudent policy. He evidently could think of no better way than this to dispose of two of the most engaging people he has ever created. His taste for murder as a solvent appears almost a mania in this book. He wants Violet to miss her steamer to New York, and can think of no other means to effect this than by killing the harmless little poet of the furniture shop, —so that at the close there is not a household mentioned in the story without its corpse. It is not the awkwardness of all this to which I so much object, as its wanton cruelty. The book is spoiled by it. It is as if your cook should put wormwood in your omelette, simply because leaving out the wormwood is the conventional way of making omelettes. I believe if authors believed in their characters they could not treat them so monstrously. This wanton use of death is utterly unlike the spirit of tragedy and serious romance. It is petty and heartless. If it is done in a book otherwise clever, as one of Mr. Black’s is sure to be, it shows that the writer cares more for an easy and effective way of getting at the end of his story than he does for the comfort of his readers or the natural development of his characters. I admit that I say these things more in anger than in sorrow.
— I wonder if most people realize the sort of contempt which painters generally have for one of their guild who lays down the brush to wield the pen or lecture upon the subject of art. In the first place they are apt to regard it as a confession of failure, to be on the lookout for another dogmatist or a possible discloser of professional secrets. That such a course would afford a larger field, or give another outlet to the artistic instinct, they would, I think, be very loath to admit. Any that I have ever heard speak on the subject seem to regard Ruskin, Hamerton, and others of that sort, as meddlesome go - betweens rather than benefactors, inasmuch as they have filled the Philistine mind with conceit rather than penetration. In fact, an analytical paper on art is apt to be as a red rag before the inflammable eyes of the impressionable worker on canvas. Perhaps he is, individually, right in thus resenting whatever interferes with his fancies, his spontaneity, or even his whims. Certainly all the modern men who have disregarded dogma only afterwards to found schools of their own turned a deaf ear to all interference from outside; though, unlike some of ours, that was after they had served a long apprenticeship to their trade. Most of the old artists who did such great things must have been as intellectual as creative, while now, among many modern artists, it seems to be a fashion largely to divorce intellect from impression. I have often wondered if the constant narrowing down of vista necessary to the limits of a canvas has not something to do with finally cramping the minds of so many painters, — I won’t say artists, — so rare is it to find one that can see an inch beyond his own pet school or master. Yet that very narrowness, so far as it goes, often achieves better results than where the artist is capable of more mental but less artistic grasp,— or perhaps where he is less capable of imitating somebody else. We all know artists who can write well and theorize broadly on the subject of art, but do they not paint tlicir best pictures in words? On the whole, it is hard to believe that successful picture making— in contradistinction to great creative art — is a thing that enlists the intellect beyond that part of it to which belong the perceptions and senses.
— Why can we not have more of the dramatic form in our novels? Why should not novel-writers in a dialogue which is kept up to any length indicate who is the speaker by a name or contraction at the head of the speech? Conversation loses by even the faintest seeming of being reported. Perhaps the realizing power of the author is affected by the feeling that he is reporting rather than constructing. The eternal repetition of “ said Wiggins” has a deadening effect, and it is infinitely worse when, as occasionally in Tom Brown at Oxford, we are left to discover the speaker by a mathematical computation. On the other hand we do not want a too slavish adhesion to the dramatic form. A writer should never fear to break in upon his dialogue with such explanations as, for example, “ K—— was somewhat taken aback by this and paused a little before he replied,” etc. What we want is that frequent and unobtrusive gliding from one form to the other found in The Pilgrim’s Progress and Boswell’s Johnson. Perhaps — the matter is worth considering— these celebrated works may owe somewhat of their interest to this very characteristic. An innovator in this respect would not at any rate be without some countenance. Each of the forms has its own advantages and its own disadvantages, but those two books seem to have so combined them as to secure the advantages of both without the disadvantages of either.
— My grudge against the postal card is that it is gradually developing an affection of the eye— in others as well as myself— which on the hint of Mr. Grant White’s “ heterophomy ” I may call helerapsis; that is, the tendency to read against your own will postal cards not addressed to yourself. There is a fascination about the. thing which is very like kleptomania. I knew a clerk in the post-office who had his salary reduced, to make allowance for the time which he spent in this way. He would have lost his place, too, if I had not pointed ont to the postmaster the frailty of the human eye in this matter. I ingeniously dropped on the postmaster’s table a card addressed to his unmarried sister: as we were talking, he picked it up and read an impassioned declaration written by myself but signed with imaginary initials. He smiled, I tore up the card, and the clerk was retained. But clerks can be trained; other people cannot, — for example, myself. What misplaced confidence it is for people to address postals to other persons, under my care! Yet they constantly do it. But that is not half the trouble about postal cards. They also expose you to the worst imprudences of friends who are profuse of intimate advice, but so sparing of their pennies that they can’t afford an envelope to hold it in. They force you to suffer the grossest errors of taste on the part of well-meaning but mistaken acquaintances. They have the unpleasantness of the telegram without its necessity and without the sacredness which the telegram had before Congress so far yielded to heteropsis as to destroy the privacy of the wires. Postal cards have only two advantages, that they are handy for printed circular announcements, and that they can’t, become dead letters. But their disadvantages are many and cannot be controlled by law or by custom, unless every one follows my example and announces that after a fixed date he will read no more postal cards except formal circular announcements,— and possibly excepting also postals addressed to others than himself. But indeed, why could not government withdraw the postal and give us instead a very small piece of stamped (one cent) paper, gummed for folding and fastening in the decent fashion of eld?
— I notice that one of your contemporaries rejoices in the high physical vitality possessed by some popular preachers, who can preach to vast crowds daily with a certain magnetic effect, of which the robust body insures an inexhaustible supply. Men vastly superior to them in mental and spiritual insight could neither attract nor hold such crowds. It occurs to me that they ought not to desire to do so. I write just now in a house where is hanging that delicate, ethereal portrait of Dr. William E. Channing, by his friend, Allston. The small mouth and slender lips are closed over the thin voice; it waits within the reticent lungs for the moment of ethical ardor to mold a clarion, silvery and fine, craving breathless silence through which to reach the ear. In the mean time “robustious” gentlemen are pelting crowds with platitudes.
I am told “ a thousand sermons, constructed by the finest brains the country possesses, and warmed all through with love and zeal, fall dead every Sunday, which if they were preached by strong men would work miracles of movement and transformation.” Then every parish where a lofty soul with Paul’s contemptible body is settled should be furnished with a speaking-trumpet. There might be competitive trials for the position of stentor. A training school might be established to teach the calisthenic gestures which should accompany the exploding vowels. In the mean time the writer of the sermon would have to follow the speaker in dumb show. In course of time a class of trained men would arise, deep-chested, unmatched in mouth, with cheeks like cherubs emitting blasts; and a healthy rivalry would spring up in parish committees to provide their heavenly minded clergyman with his æolian attachment. Then revivals would become superfluous. Perhaps women who preach might persuade persons like Miss Von Hillern to develop her speaking rather than her walking powers. The latter will be serviceable if women are ever going to the polls; the former if they take largely to preaching. Will any cynic say that woman will never surrender the privilege of being her own mouth-piece?
Are we not importing too much robustness into a claim for popular admiration? I recollect that Weston finished within the prescribed time his five hundred miles amid the rapturous applause of crowds. It was late on Saturday night. He mentioned that he would attend divine service the next day, and sent to the chorister a request to have the hymn sung, “Nearer, my God, to thee!” — five, hundred miles nearer than all the rest of us. Truly, there is something spiritual in gymnastics.
But how characteristic it is of this people which adores sonority and sensation ! It is the abomination of desolation, “ standing where it ought not.” But a Yankee loves dearly to live loud in the ears of men. At the destruction by fire of a Fall River mill, a brave young fellow saved several of the female operatives at the risk of his own life. Not content with the heroic conduct he went instantly to a photographer’s and was “ took.”
— Probably few of The Atlantic’s readers have any definite knowledge of the Chicago Sunday Lecture Society, whose circular has lately come to my notice. This society began work in the spring of 1874, with a cash capital of six dollars, and has had only one donation since then, amounting to ten dollars. Yet it has given three courses of lectures, to audiences aggregating 61,770 persons, and now has a fund of a little more than four hundred dollars. The admission fee to each lecture was only ten cents. The lectures have been somewhat various in quality, though some that have been given belonged to the highest class of such entertainments; and the society, having established its strength, is now about to drop mere entertainment, and to direct its efforts entirely toward popular instruction and improvement. The most admirable characteristic of this society is that it is not a charity. It gives the lectures at cost price, and it pays for its lectures and advertising, and for the largest public ball in Chicago. The whole management is carried on, down to the details of ticket-selling, etc., by the executive committee, young men who originated the scheme and have given their services to it without compensation. The plan has been imitated in St. Louis and Milwaukee with great success; and it seems to me a very effective and much needed criticism on the expensive and in great part valueless system which the “ lecture bureaus ” have gradually succeeded in fastening on the public.
— I want to dissent emphatically from the dictum set down in the January Club that the prices of books should rise with their literary value. I do not speak as a publisher, and I cannot, I fear, speak as a writer, but I protest, in behalf of the great, greedy public that feeds on authors’ brains I protest! To raise the prices of an author’s works as he grows in reputation would simply make it more difficult to get them as it became more necessary to have them. The number of those who would want his books would increase with his fame, but, on the plan proposed, the number of those who could afford them would just as rapidly diminish. The case of the artist is not a parallel at all. Were he Raphael himself, he could sell but one picture; the author can sell as many books as a press can print, if they arc only good enough. If there is to be discrimination in the prices of books, according to their intellectual, and not their leather and paper value, — and I see no reason why there should not be, — let it run the other way. Let the poor books be damned with high prices, and the good books be sold as cheap as possible, so that all the people to whom publishers’ prices are still a nightmare may have their fill. Then a premium will be put on ignorance that shall make bad books hard to buy, and keep bunglers and upstarts out of authorship. The good writers will be. provided for by the size of their editions, which we, the people, will look after, and the poor writers — well, the poor writers can have the business.
— Is it true that there is to be established at Harvard a Deronda professorship ? The literature of the subject really seems to call for this; and as Miss Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, I see, has been lecturing on George Eliot before the Boston University, I hope that the authorities at your Cambridge seat of learning may be waking up to this great want of the time. The lecture room of the new professor ought to be in the Zoölogical Museum, for convenient reference in a general way to matters pertaining to the Stone Age and various geological strata, which might throw valuable light on George Eliot’s genius. A chemical laboratory adjoining the lecture room would also be necessary, in order to assist the scientific atmosphere and aid the class in establishing suitable habits of analysis. A special lecture-room edition of the work to be expounded should be prepared by interleaving that great ethnic novel-romance with pages from Herbert Spencer and Gall and Spurzheim, and from other works, as the professor might select. I believe that if tlie thing is done at all it ought to be done thoroughly. Moreover, the chair should be a movable one, like those connected with Cornell, which are frequently found situated in parlor-ears en route from New York and Boston to Ithaca.
— I have received from an acquaintance in Lancaster, England, an account of the old King’s Arms Inn at that city, an establishment something over a hundred years old (the house dates back to 1625), which Dickens celebrated in his Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices. It is quite illustrious in its way, Queen Adelaide having reposed under its roof, as well as the present Prince of Wales, and other persons less royal but equally eminent, among them Lord Brougham, the Baroness Burdett Coutts, the Earl of Derby, Charles Dickens, and Mr. Ruskin. The house has a fine Elizabethan staircase, and appears to be crammed with ancient furniture and works of art of real value. For example, there is a bedstead which was made for King James the Second, wonderfully carved; there are pieces of old China and Venetian vases, formerly in the collection of the Duke of Hamilton; there are rich hangings of Gobelin tapestry; and in the Dickens room hangs a specimen of elaborate Florentine needle-work which Mr. Ruskin has described at length and with eloquence in one of his Oxford lectures, the Ariadne Florentina.1 I have not made the most of this description, for I have left out certain portraits “ attributed ” to Sir Godfrey Kneller and Sir Peter Lely. But what is of present importance is that in this remarkable assemblage of objects of vertu — and all in a simple travelers’ house! — there is a clock invented by Benjamin Franklin. It is said to be one of only three which be devised (and, I suppose, superintended in the making), has only three wheels, and strikes the hour. On the face is an inscription: “Dr. Benjamin Franklin, Inventor.” All these objects are, for some reason, to be sold at auction, next May. I think some of our energetic Philadelphia friends, who have lately got into the habit of opening their pockets wide, ought to purchase this apparently curious relic and set it up in Independence Hall, or some other seemly place, to tick out. the interval until the Bicentennial Exhibition for which some other city will have the pleasure of paying. The best thing by far that we could do in the premises of the King’s Arms would be to purchase the whole establishment, transport it to these shores, and engage the proprietor at a liberal salary to run it as a model and training school for American hotel keepers who have sense and modesty enough to study the methods of civility, simplicity, and quiet comfort. But as that is n’t very likely to be done, we ’d better have the Franklin clock.
— The other day, after finishing William Morris’s Sigurd, I turned, as a good many readers are sure to do, to his story of the Fostering of Aslaug in the last volume of the Earthly Paradise, and reread that. The daughter’s dream, or vision, of her illustrious parents, sitting side by side in the serene and home-like paradise of the North — “ God-home,” what an alluring word it is! — was full of balm to a heart which had been freshly broken by the immortal sorrows of Sigurd and Brynhild; while the closing passage of the poem seemed of twofold interest, first as containing a very graceful and skillful transition from mythology to history, and then as linking, in a peculiarly intimate manner, that great story which Mr. Morris insists upon as the “ Iliad of our race” with the more modern and somewhat more authentic tale which Mr. Tennyson and simultaneously a true poet among our own countrymen have just strikingly illustrated.
Aslaug, the daughter of Sigurd and Brynhild, married Ragnar Lodbrok, the Dane who invaded England and died there very horribly, having been thrown into a deep cave of venomous serpents, where he amused himself until the snakes had had their will of him by shouting songs of triumph and defiance. This ghastly but highly honorable solo affected strongly the imagination of many an ancient writer, and, says Mr. Morris,
Full many a tale concerning it.
The days through which these lovers passed
Till death made end of all at last.
But so great, Ragmtr’s glory seemed
To Northern folk, that many deemed
That for his death, when song arose
From that Northumbrian adder-close,
England no due atonement made
Till Harold Godwinson was laid
Beside his fallen banner, cold Upon the blood-soaked Sussex mold,
And o’er the wreck of Senlae field
Full-fed the gray-nebbed raven wheeled.”
Now, then, we have the tale of that costly expiation twice told in one season, and in such a manner that we become “each all Saxon” in our grief over Harold’s defeat and death. There has been so much said and so well said about the laureate’s Harold, that it would be quite impertinent to expatiate upon his portraiture, but I really hope that none of your readers will let it make them wholly overlook Mr. William Leighton’s Son of Godwin. The latter is a careful study, the result of an almost life-long attachment to his theme on the part of the author, and a really admirable piece of blank versification. It is curious illluck for Mr. Leighton that, after his modest effort was actually in press, the great master’s forceful fragment should suddenly have been flung to the world; but our countryman’s lesser light is a clear and steady one, and we ought not to suffer it to be entirely put out.
— The literature created by people whom De Morgan in his Budget of Paradoxes groups together as “ paradoxers ” is so considerable that in the subjectcatalogue of Harvard College Library it has been found desirable to make a special subdivision of “ Eccentric Literature.” This peculiar department embraces quite a wide variety of subjects, and represents various shades and degrees of oddity, from works on “ pantarehy ” and universal language by Stephen Pearl Andrews down to books and pamphlets which appear as void ,of meaning as if the type with which they were printed had been jumbled together by pure accident. Such works usually abound in initial capitals, words and sentences in italics and small capitals, interjections, sarcastic abbreviations, uncouth compounds, and reduplicated exclamation points; in short, in all the little devices which go to betray the dogmatic fervor, combativeness, and anxiety of the authors. Their style is generally disjointed, explosive, and vituperative. They rarely, if ever, exhibit the faintest trace of humor, but seldom fail to show the most settled conviction that the welfare of mankind, if not even the further continuance of the human race upon the earth, is absolutely contingent upon the immediate and unquestioning adoption of their opinions. The state of mind of their authors is apt to be far from enviable. Most of these writers have called upon men of science and been snubbed as unendurable bores; and they have written long memorials to learned societies, which have been unceremoniously pitched into the wastepaper basket. Under this harsh discipline they have come to regard themselves as martyrs, and hence their hysterical cantankerousness and ill-concealed desire to cuff their fellow-creatures are quite comical to contemplate.
Of this class of authors, the circlesquarers, discoverers of perpetual motion, and mathematical or etymological interpreters of prophecy are the most numerous and combative. Anything that is a sufficiently absurd paradox, however, will serve to arouse the proselyting zeal of these eccentric writers. A small group of them in England have lately taken it into their heads to inveigh against the rotundity of the earth and the Copernican theory of the solar system. The most conspicuous of these paradoxers is one John Hampden, who “with dauntless breast” withstands the petty tyranny of the Royal Geographical Society and of the scientific world in general, and boldly maintains that the earth is motionless and flat, and that the sun “revolves horizontally” above it at a distance of not more than eight hundred miles. This valiant defender of intellectual freedom publishes a monthly journal entitled Terra Firma; or, The Truth Seeker’s Oracle and Scriptural Science Review, in which — to quote its impassioned language — “with the first dip of our pen we throw down the gauntlet to the whole scientific world, and declare bur intention to show that all the geographers, all the astronomers, all the philosophers, all the scientific and educational professors of Europe are, on one particular subject, all wrong, all in error, all guilty of maintaining and upholding one of the most, delusive fictions ever imposed on the ignorance and credulity of mankind.” So sure is Mr, Hampden of the soundness of his views that he offers a prize of ten guineas to any one who will confute them; and any one who will prove that any curvature of the earth is traceable upon the twenty miles’ length of the Bedford Canal shall be rewarded at the rate of ten guineas per mile. Mr. Hampden admits that ships circumnavigate the earth, but maintains that they “swing round the circle” in an enveloping stream like the Homeric okeanos. He has published a map which, as he naïvely tells us, is “so damaging to the prestige of the mock science of the day that it was refused admission by the committee of the council on education to the exhibition at South Kensington in the spring of 1876!” A collaboratcur of this paradox is a Mr. Carpenter, author of a volume entitled Theoretical Astronomy exposed by Common Sense. Of this “ admirable ” work Terra Firma informs us that “ it was not printed from a written copy, but set up in type by the author himself from the first line to the last. Can this be said of any other book of its size and intrinsic worth in Europe ? ”
Apparently these men have a dim notion of what they are trying to maintain; but sometimes the insanity of the paradoxer goes a step further than this. I was once visited by a very refined and cultivated gentleman who informed me, in all due modesty, that he thought he had facts at his command which would overthrow the undulatory theory of light and establish a new theory. His manner was so unlike that of a paradoxer that I listened with respectful attention until I had elicited the fact that he knew nothing whatever of Fresnel or Cauchy, or even of Airy or Humphrey Lloyd, and was entirely ignorant of the higher mathematics. When I asked him to expound his own theory, he assumed an air of cunning secrecy. After a few conversations, in which nothing could be got from him, I began to take account of his intensely melancholy hearing, and made up my mind that he was insane and really had no theory at all, but only labored under the delusion that he had one. I have since learned that this was a very sad case of insanity; but it seems to me that it throws a good deal of light on the mental condition of the writers of eccentric literature in general.
- See pp. 212, 213 of that pamphlet.↩