The Contributors' Club
FEW readers of the Club papers, I imagine, are aware that Mr. H. James, Jr., has been enthusiastically translated into German, and that his Passionate Pilgrim may now be read in that language under the attractive title of Der Leidenschaftliche Erdenpilger. The Transatlantic Sketches and Roderick Hudson, though not so susceptible to polysyllabic treatment, have still been liberally endowed with German text, and the Fatherlandish critics bestow much praise upon the author. Julian Schmidt, whose name is a powerful prop to book advertisements, says, “ He does not, in-
deed, introduce us to the more characteristic life, but shows one side of it which deserves attention, namely, the impulse of young America toward culture, and its longing for the Old World; ” and he accords to him a remarkable artistic faculty. But the latest act of appreciation is a little peculiar. The publishing house of Auerbach has issued The American in translation, accompanied by a prospectus full of laudatory phrases, setting forth that Bret Harte and H. James, Jr., go hand in hand as the exponents of contemporary American life in fiction, that Mr. James takes a place quite above the level of ordinary Uebersetzungs literatur (a word suggestive, to the uninitiated, of Massachusee), and that he has become the Mode-Liebling or “ fashionable darling ” of the Teuton public. All this is very well, but the prospectus neglects to explain that the fastidious translator, despite his high opinion of Mr. James, has written an entirely new ending to the story. He declares that The American is a magnificent exhibition of democracy, and this belief it may be that inspired him to expunge the ignominious catastrophe which closes the original work, and substitute a scene in which Mr. James comes on to the stage in his own person, saying, substantially, “ Some time after these events, I met Newman in San Francisco, with a graceful, foreign-looking lady at his side. A goldenhaired child was playing near them,” etc. Newman is glad to see him: “ Sit down, Mr. James. Have a cigar and a glass of wine,” etc. He then turns to the lady, formerly Madame de Cintré, and asks her to step out into the garden with their daughter; whereupon he proceeds to narrate to Mr. James how he came to marry Madame de Cintré, after all. This narrative it would hardly be just for me to report. What I most wish to call attention to is the development of a new sort of literature here involved. The German editor, as I have noticed, alludes to a special order of “ translation - literature,” to which he reckons The American much superior. Does the superiority consist in the fact that it need n’t be translated at all, and is fair prey for all sorts of tampering, without acknowledgment? Has the doctrine of Elongated Classics found a following in Germany? Or is this innovation a new move in the direction of international copyright ?
— Certain of us are getting up, with great care and small expense, a decoration for the gifted statesman who devised the postal law concerning authors’ MSS. It is considered that a decoration of some sort is also due to the Congress which passed the law, provided it can be shown that that Congress meant the law to be understood as the postmasters now understand it: to wit, as covering MSS. for books alone. There is nothing in the dictionary, or in the law, which decides that there is but one kind of authors' MSS., namely, that which is written for a book. Yet a luminous postmaster-general has at some time or other decided that the law meant books, and books alone, when it said “authors’ MSS.” Where do you suppose that postmaster-general was educated ? Here is a law which pretends on its face to be a charity to poor scribblers; it tells them that authors’ MSS. shall be carried through the mails for mere newspaper postage. Now, where is the value of this law, thus construed? No man has ever yet sent the manuscript of a book through the mail since expresses existed; no man ever will intrust so precious a thing as the manuscript of a book to the United States mail while expresses continue to exist. The mail would convey such a package for ten or twenty cents, and probably lose it on the way; the express will convey it for double the money, and take it through safely. Do you imagine that that “ author ” lives who is poor enough to be willing to accept ten cents’ worth of this charity of the United States government, with its burden of insecurity, when for a few cents added he can have the trusty services of the express companies ? No, indeed. The fact is as I have stated it before: no one ever sends a book manuscript by mail.
That law is a dead letter. One cannot send an article to a magazine under it; no, the crystal intellects of the postal service have decreed that nothing but books are written by authors. Mr. Longfellow is often and innocently referred to as the author of the Psalm of Life, but he could not send that poem through the mails on reduced postage, because the department knows that a little thing like that has no author, authorship being determined by bulk and not otherwise. He would have to pay letter postage on it, because post-office law — which is as noble in its way, and as clear as crowner’s quest law —has decided that every manuscript that is not a book is a letter. The department knows perfectly well that there are only two kinds of manuscripts,—books and letters. Poe is spoken of as the author of that long and curious tale called The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Author is a false title in this case, likewise. The department has so decided, for that tale lacks the essential qualities of authorship, — bulk and weight.
If you were going to print but a single copy of a book, the gifted department would let you mail the MS. for it at the reduced rate. But if you mentioned the fact that your magazine article would infallibly be bound along with other articles into hundreds of bulky volumes of the magazine at the end of the year, and that it was therefore author’s MS., since it was going to be part of a book, what do you suppose the department would say? I solemnly believe that so intricate a question as this would unseat the reason of the most powerful-minded postal department we ever have had.
We authors write about twenty-five magazine articles each, a year. Postage, letter rates, averages forty cents on each article: ten dollars a year for each of us. There are eight hundred and forty-eight authors in the country who write for magazines. Most of our articles are not accepted, but are returned to us. We pay postage just the same, though, — both ways. Considering, for the sake of argument, that we use the mail and not the express, our postage on matter sent aggregates eight thousand four hundred and eighty dollars in a year; return postage on upwards of two thirds of our work hurled back upon our hands, say six thousand dollars. Aggregate for the year, fourteen thousand four hundred and eighty dollars. Aggregate for three years, say, in round numbers, forty-three thousand five hundred dollars. Among us, in this country, there are four hundred and forty - one who write books as well as magazine articles. But we do not write a book every year; we are not quite so prolific as that. We average a book each, every three years. That is an aggregate of four hundred and forty - one books in three years. Postage on each book (as authors’MS.), an average of twenty cents. Now observe: aggregate postage (letter rates) on three years’ magazine manuscripts, forty-three thousand five hundred dollars; aggregate postage on three years’ book manuscripts ( authors’ MS. rates), eighty - eight dollars and twenty cents !
And, after all, we do not trust more than about three dollars and fifteen cents’ worth of those book manuscripts to the mails in the course of eleven years.
Now I suggest that the postal alms be taken away from books, and conferred upon magazine articles, or, better still, that the whole law be routed and scouted from the statutes, to the end that the United States government may be estopped from glorifying itself any longer over its charity to authors, — a charity, indeed, which is, like all its generosities toward literature, a sham.
— I once heard an old novel-reader say, impatiently, “ Whenever I open a book and see ‘Hoot, mon!' I always close it immediately.” Something of the same feeling comes over one on reading That Lass o’ Lowrie’s; there is a weariness in continually changing “reet ” into “ right,” “ yo ” into “ you,” and, at last, an impatience even as to the treasure-trove itself, “graidely.” The localisms of rural England are hard reading for us Americans; we understand something of Scotch pronunciations, thanks to long familiarity with Walter Scott and Burns, but we labor heavily among the English dialects, and are inclined to be as impatient over them as we are over the slow Lancashire man himself when be comes to dig in our gardens or to carry our messages to a neighbor.
When, however, we have at length translated this story of Mrs. Burnett’s into our own tongue, what do we find? Simply the old, long-mooted question, Can an educated man marry an inferior, lift to the position of wife a woman destitute of cultivation and without knowledge of the smaller refinements of life, — can he do this with any chance of happiness? All the educated and refined women will instantly arise and answer, “ No; ” for a woman knows so well that, leaving mere education apart, no aftertraining can ever eradicate entirely the habits of the common working-girl, or supply the exquisite little personal refinements which cannot he bought, or taught, or even made tangible enough to be fixed in words, but which are yet the most powerful adjuncts of the lady.
But, on the other hand, educated men are sometimes found who arise and answer, “ Yes;” and prove their belief by their marriages.
Dickens attacked this question in Our Mutual Friend, where Eugene marries Lizzie, the boat-girl; but he gave her every aid he could think of, — striking beauty, intense devotion, and the chance to save her lover’s life. Reade took up the point in Christie Johnstone, giving Christie the same wonderful loveliness, devotion, and the saved life of the little painter; but Reade, great master of fiction, withdrew before the end the hardest part of the dose by placing Gatty nearer Christie after all, his mother turning out to have been only a cook. Mrs. Burnett’s heroine has the same beauty, devotion, and life - saving opportunities of her predecessors; in fact, it needs all these to make the thing go down. And, in this case, has it gone down? Extraordinary loveliness, like Joan’s, can do a great deal; still, in the long course of married life, can it make up for other deficiencies? Will not Derrick sometimes feel like fleeing away from his wife into the old atmosphere where ease and refinement are known already without the learning? And then, will he not call himself a brute, and return to her with a determined effort which she will see, and feel, like a knife in her loving heart ? In the case of Eugene and Lizzie, in this of Joan and Derrick, and in the few instances we see in real life, the marriage at the last is a dramatic tableau which we accept because it is striking, and also because it touches in our hearts something which is deeper than conventionality. But, when the chimes have ceased ringing and all the people have gone home, when the personages in the tableau have stepped down to common life, how then ? Can any one look forward five years, ten, and not feel sure that the husband has gone through —whether with good grace or ill — scenes of mortification and deep annoyance almost beyond numbering?
Women of refinement are always at heart intensely severe upon men who fall in love— seriously, I mean — with pretty chambermaids, lovely laundresses, or astonishing collier-girls. They ask themselves how it would be if they should set about discovering ideal qualities in handsome coachmen, cooks, and restaurantwaiters. May they not have “ good hearts” and all sorts of capacities? Might they not be " grand creatures,” too, if brought out and educated and given a chance? Certainly they might, being human. But here is the difference: in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a thousand, a lady could not endure the personal manners of the son of the soil for one moment, no matter if he was as handsome as an Apollo, and had saved her life a hundred times.
Mrs, Burnett’s book as a whole seems to me very well done; we do not come from it empty - handed, but bear away with us a clear image of Joan, grandlyshaped, majestic creature, with her deep, inarticulate love for the engineer. Derrick himself is not much more than a figure-head; but he is big and strong, self - possessed and good - looking, and that is sufficient. How few modern novels add distinct personages to the galleries of our memory! They add paintings of society and manners, of events, or odd corners of unfamiliar scenery; but personages — how few! Grandcourt is the latest in my collection. I tried hard to get in Gabriel Conroy, but he kept dissolving. I am almost inclined to think that this Joan is going to win a place, however; she keeps standing at the door in a haunting kind of way, and looking in. But ah! if she had only died down there in the mine, how much more impressive and convenient it would have been for herself and Derrick, and the reader, also!
— Mr. Stedman in his Victorian Poets has clearly presented and illustrated with much care the relation between the poet laureate of England and the idyllic Alexandrian school. But, so far as I know, neither he nor any one else has called attention to the influence exercised upon Tennyson by some of the older English poets.
Compare, for example, the Talking Oak (that cross, to speak profanely, between the pastoral and the vers de société ) with Drayton’s Quest of Cynthia, the finest poem of its kind, as I think, in the language. Not only is the metre the same, but there is a marked similarity in the topics, the style of treatment, the selection of epithets, and even in the music of the two pieces. Each turns upon the subject of a fair one, fancifully worshiped and somewhat extravagantly described. In each, the tree with the names carved upon it is pressed early into service. In each, inanimate objects are compelled to render their tribute of eulogy. But it is hardly necessary to pursue the parallel further.
Tennyson opens with a modernization ; —
Beneath its drift of smoke.
But ah ! with what delighted eyes
I turn to yonder oak !”
Now, there is a certain quality of this versification that recalls very readily Drayton’s first lines: —
The fields dressed all in flowers,
And that the sleek-haired nymphs were seen
To seek them summer bowers,
To find where Cynthia sat,
Whose name so often from the hills
The echoes wondered at.”
There is a peculiar attractiveness (with perhaps a spice of surprise in it) in these abrupt terminations in short syllables. Of course, it would disappear on much repetition, and such sounds as “at” certainly have no great melody in themselves; but the general effect when they follow rhymes of long syllables is often quite exquisite and piquant. We have the device over and over again in both poems; and Drayton especially presents a stanza or two of this sort, whose delicate sweetness has very seldom been rivaled. For instance: —
At all was seen to stir.
While, tuning to the water’s fall,
The small birds sang to her.”
Tennyson’s fastidious choice of epithets has often been remarked upon; but you will find the same in Drayton: —
Come bounding o’er the brake.”
That sweet nor tender flower
That damasked not the checkered floor
Of Cynthia’s summer bower.”
Of that delicious girl
The nymphs upon their dainty food
Drank for dissolvèd pearl.”
Also the “ sliding rills” and “ sleekhaired nymphs ” already mentioned, and a number of other instances which might be given.
Tennyson’s good taste, however, has kept him quite free from any of the grotesque conceits into which a superlative love for the fanciful and the mode of an earlier day combined to hurry his model. For instance, you would never find him declaring that the bank upon which his sweetheart had rested on leaving her bath became straightway so fragrant and precious that the “ mold ” was removed
A young lady having such Midas-like properties would make a good partner for a druggist. Even more preposterous things are told of the effect of the water (after her person had left it) upon subsequent bathers of less exalted purity.
But if the earlier poem has the greater number of blemishes, it also excels in beauties. The Talking Oak does not anywhere reach the highest point of the Quest either as regards originality of illustration and adornment, or richness and delicacy of verbal music. There is more equality of merit about Tennyson’s work, but as a whole it must nevertheless take a lower place.
— It is an old subject of complaint that our country is all spotted over and discolored by wretched local names. But the worst of it is that in altering them we seldom make any improvement.
Some of the names, given on a casual impulse, are very suggestive. I have been looking over the list of places set down in the Postal Guide, and have come to the conclusion that if Niagara had been a torrent of words, and we had sprinkled it with a garden-hose through all the States, we could not have got more bizarre results than are now to be found. North Hero, in Vermont, and Green Tree, in Pennsylvania, assume a classic and every-day air by the side of the Western inventions in town names; for example, Orodelfan and Ni Wot, in Colorado. California retains its Bret Harte-ish atmosphere in Slide and Big Pine. Iowa and Wyoming come still nearer the mark, each having a Last Chance. Even Illinois retains some novelties, as East Paw Paw, Teutopolis, and Samsville. One place shows traces of a wandering Latin grammar, the verb Amo having been fixed upon to designate the locality where the whitening bones of the volume were probably found by a train of emigrants. Nevada, of course, has its Bullion, Diamond, Treasure City, and Mineral City, about which there is a slight monotony. But there is something inspiring about these fabrics from Nebraska, namely: Wild Cat, Rescue, Gazelle, Centennial. And alliteration has seldom been more strikingly used than in the title of Verdigris Valley. Slaughter (Dakota) cannot be a place altogether pleasant to refer one’s youthful memories to; but I find something really interesting in names like Big Bone Lick and Wagon Wheel Gap. Often the choice of early settlers in these matters is determined by circumstances that are too trivial and irremediably sordid; but for all that, they often have a genuineness that is wanting to our more ambitious Eastern nomenclature. We are forever pulling up the most fortunate of our names, and trying new ones, as if these were something like city pavements, — the only real use of which is to be made the source of lucrative experiments in tearing up and restoring. Killingworth, for example, in Connecticut, which appears in Longfellow’s delightful poem, The Birds of Killingworth, has since been changed to Clinton; and a village known as Nine Partners, where Fitz-Greene Halleck’s father lived, is now stupidly called Washington Hollow. Think of Washington being hollow, —all the pith taken out of him! Sawpits, in New York, which formerly meant something, though it did not sound pretty, has become Port Chester, which means nothing. I might cite a good many instances, but there are two which have especially annoyed me of late. In Newport there was a street which ended in broad, green fields, and had thus won the delicious appellation of the Green End Road. But because some rich people, without taste, built villas there, the fresh informality of the name had to be discarded for that of Lafayette Avenue. In the other case, a spot near Boston, on the road along which the British retreated from Concord, was called Percy’s Ring, which certainly reminded one of the young Percy who was in that memorable retreat, whether it actually referred to him or not. In any case, there was a pleasant little romantic hint in the words, Percy’s Ring. But a land company went to work putting up houses there, and having some idea that the name of a place is like the “ To Let ” bill in the window of a vacant house, they rechristened it Arlington Heights. The people who do this sort of thing seem to me to answer exactly to that adjective which country-folk have charged with so much contempt— “ cityfied.” Being an absurdly hybrid word, it is admirably suited to the crude and hybrid notions that he at the bottom of our foolish names, sometimes so prosaic, and at other times so sentimental. I therefore offer for public use, through your Club, this word “ cityfier,”to point out the people who represent that kind of civilization which removes simplicity and wholesome naturalness, to make way for artificiality, “ stuck-up-ativeness,” and so on. You will find that it describes elements in our art, literature, society, and religion, also; and I believe it will be as useful as the German term of Philistine.
— What right have literary seavengers to arrogate to themselves the exclusive name of “realists”? I deny that the dark and foul side of life is any more real than the bright and pleasing. A rose is just as real as a poison vine; a perfume-bottle is as real as a dunghill; a spring of clear water is as real as a cess-pool. It seems to be taken for granted that “reality” means nastiness, and the more of the hideous rottenness of the lowest deeps of life a writer can rake up, the more real and natural his descriptions must be. I deny this utterly. M. Zola and his far-off comrades only describe one half of life, just like the “romantic ” writers they decry; the only difference is that the former give the worst and the latter the best half. Reality ought at least to demand an equal division of labor between the good and the bad, between misery and happiness, vice and virtue; it might be granted that no preference should be shown the latter; but when the former is given sole possession and the latter wholly excluded, the writer forfeits his claim to impartial description of real life as much as if he picked out the golden grains and left the others. Even allowing that the choice of subjects is not to weigh at all, this bears as much for my argument as its opposite; for a less revolting subject could be chosen, and its faithful depiction would be as well entitled to the name of “ realism ” as the other. This is not at all a question of art versus morality; it is a question as to whether art working in comparatively clean material is not as truly art as that which seeks out specially the foulest material. Granting that the chemist must analyze alike spices and ordure, why should the selection for study exclusively of the latter entitle him to call himself a more thorough chemist than one who devoted himself to the former?
— I sometimes wonder whether the present generation, especially the younger portion of it, sufficiently reads and appreciates the works of the man who has just gone from us, an irreparable loss to the world in general, but to ourselves in particular, — regretted I feel sure by hundreds, I would like to think, thousands. I mean John Lothrop Motley and his great histories. I wonder also whether those who are possibly frightened by the several large volumes know how much they lose, what a mine of treasures, what an immortal panorama of all that is noblest and highest and most divine in human nature, they pass coldly by. For myself, I can mention nothing that is more inspiring, elevating, and truly “ heart-strengthening ” than these books. To me The Rise of the Dutch Republic was the source of perhaps the deepest and purest enthusiasm of my life; and, though it is but too true that the years are in nothing so mercilessly cruel to us as in the dampening chill — it seems inevitable and inexorable as fate, and none “of woman born ” can wholly escape it — which they cast upon the fervency and intensity of our more youthful sentiments, a warm after-glow of that first enthusiasm lingers with me still. Mr. Motley’s recent death has vividly brought back to me the happy days when my own life seemed bound up in the fortunes of the great people whose story he has told with such consummate ability.
I cannot, of course, go into detail here, but, to mention only a single period, who that has “ a living soul within him to be stirred ” can read, for instance, his Siege of Leyden without trembling and tears and heart-throbs of sorrow and joy? To be sure, his subject here, and indeed throughout, is a very fine one, but perhaps he alone was thus capable of doing it full justice, bringing out its whole beauty and grandeur, and I cannot but rejoice that it was reserved for an American to depict the successful struggles of another great people for freedom. Mr. Motley has a most happy dramatic faculty of grouping scenes and minor personages round one great central figure, which, combined with his extraordinary powers of description, makes us fancy that, in spite of the two unsuccessful novels of his youth, he might sometime have taken high rank as a writer of fiction, had not a certain leaning in his nature towards absolute truth and scientific fact marked out his career in another direction. His style, always particularly racy and strong, — indeed, there breathes from his pages an atmosphere as fresh and pure and grateful as that of “ saltsea air” or the odor of pine woods,— often rises into impassioned eloquence and pathos, and carries us easily and without fatigue even through the barren sands of diplomatic negotiations, which he is sometimes obliged to traverse. Occasionally, too, the severity of the narrative is lit up by a gleam of most delightful humor or quiet satire, which has all the charm of a smile on a grave, noble countenance; or it is colored by a striking bit of delicate and poetical description,— the picture of some landscape, city, or church. His account of Antwerp Cathedral, for instance, is as fine a piece of writing in prose — I am almost tempted to call it a poem— as I have read.
I find in him so rare a combination of high and great qualities, and those in such rare perfection, he came to his task so fully and peculiarly fitted, so richly and completely equipped for the great undertaking, that, take him for all in all, I am sure we shall indeed not soon “look upon his like again! ” He was cut off before the labor of his life was completed, but let us be profoundly grateful for the precious legacy he has left us.
— It was at the theatre the other evening. The curtain had fallen on the second act. The play was stupid. The chevalier is not stupid, so he did n’t talk about the play. He said, —
“I have been reading a criticism of Lowell, to-day. Is it true, as this critic says, that Lowell is didactic? ”
“ In the sense that Pope is didactic, and Young, and — Mr. Tapper? No!” “Ah! Well?”
“ His thought always underlies his music, and beats through it with no uncertain sound; his poems are, some of them, whole philosophies. What then? Plato was a poet, too. Pope’s Essay, for instance, is thought ‘ done into ’ poetry. Lowell’s, like all pure poetry, is truth translating itself through imagery, because it is too high or too subtle for literal language. The theme controls him as it does Händel.”
“ Should the theme control him? Does it measure the sky-lark’s song? ”
“ Yes, or it would, save that he is immeasurably glad.”
“ He has never been before the footlights when a crew of tepid wretches were behind them. But after all, is there not too much Yankee self-assertion in Lowell’s best, a positiveness equally in his doubts and beliefs that belongs to the professor and not to the poet? ”
“ There is Yankee self-assertion in The Biglow Papers, but Lowell found it in Hosea. He did not put it there. There are also such lines as those of A New England Spring: —
The cat-bird in the lay-look bush is loud,
The orchards turn to heaps of rosy cloud ;
Red cedars blossom, too, tho' few folks know it,
And look all dipt in Sunshine like a poet
. The lime-trees pile their solid stacks o’shade,
An’ drows’ly simmer with the bee’s sweet trade.
Nuff said. June’s brides-man poet of the year,
Gladness on wings, the bobolink, is here :
Half-hid in tip-top apple blooms he swings,
Or climbs against the breeze with quivering wings ,
Or, giving way to’t in a mock despair,
Runs down a brook of laughter thro’ the air.’
What more did you say? Your sentences are so long to carry.”
“ Quite unlike your own! I think I said he was too positive.”
“ Oh, certainly; that was precisely what you said. There spoke the overnew school. We are wise only when we know nothing, we are singers only when we are incoherent, we only are poets who are faithless. Because a man finds no undiscovered country while he is moored, he is to put to sea without rudder or compass. What has high art to do with ethics ? ”
“ Don’t sneer, my friend. Swinburne would not like it. The Lorelei never sneered.”
“No; I beg his pardon. Portia and Katharine and Beatrice are capable of a fine scorn, but the world was young then, and Laus Veneris sleeping under some cocoa-tree, in the brain of an orang-outang, let us suppose.”
“ Yet Swinburne can sing.”
“ Sing! I think so. So matchlessly that I can shut my eyes and chant his verse to myself until I hear the swelling of waves on some tropic shore, and the warm, heavy winds that blow over it. Oh, well for the lotus-eaters if they had one such aboard! Wonderful growths are there, too, but nothing is growing. You know Lowell’s Commemoration Ode: —
For never shall their aureoled presence lack.
We find in our dull road their shining track ;
In every nobler mood
They come transfigured back
Part of our life’s unalterable good,
Secure from change in their high-hearted ways,
Set that over against this: —
Not known of the cliffs and the hills and the sea.
Not a breath of the time that has been hovers
In the air now soft with a summer to be;
Not a breath shall there sweeten the seasons hereafter
Of the flowers or the lovers that laugh now or weep,
While as they that are free now of weeping and laughter
We shall sleep.’ ”
“ Very fair poetry, — that last.”
“ Very noble poetry, — that first.”
“ How, then, is it that we care most — for we do in all art — for that which is simply beautiful, and resent the moral element as an intrusion? Is Hogarth a great comfort to you ? ”
44 You have answered yourself. Most of the truth-tellers are ambitious to give you the whole round truth instead of that small section which their stand-point shows them; but they must guess at the other side of the sphere, and hence the failure for them, and the sense of incompleteness for us. When Hogarth starts out with his ' dreadful examples of universal application,’we only smile. We know very well that the end of that man who has for the first time thrown his dice is very likely to be a seat in the senate. Not the truth, which is always beauty with Lowell and Whittier and the Brownings, but a lack in their inferiors of conscience in the telling it makes us impatient.”
“ Yet, my dear Miss Dorothea,” — And the curtain rose.
— Quiet people, a long way out of the markets, in libraries or cheerful little living-rooms with a few well-worn books on the shelf or the table, rejoiced much more the other day to hear that the longlost poems of Charles and Mary Lamb had been found in an Australian farmhouse, than over all of Dr. Schliemann’s discoveries. Unburied Troy is but the dead bones of history, after all. But word from Charles Lamb! It is just as if news had come from some member of the family, absent and silent for many years, but not dead, — certainly not dead. It is a curious point of inquiry, by the way, why it seems to us all natural and fitting that certain men and authors should die, and that we should mourn for them, while we utterly refuse the fact of death for others. They are living people always, for us, in a living world. The quality of endurance in their work has nothing to do with this matter. Nor is it the most energetic, forcible souls which thus keep their vitality among men, in spite of nature. Nobody now thinks of Dickens as alive, with all his geniality and full-blooded ardor. It would be cruel, perhaps, to say precisely how inexorable the grave was for him, or how suddenly, when the pen fell from his fingers, the man ceased to be a man among us, and nothing was left but the pictures he had painted, — pictures in which, like Sir Joshua’s, the carmines and lakes are already beginning to coarsen and blur. How absolutely, too, Shakespeare’s personality died, so that some of us are not sure whether he ever lived at all! while we are all certain that Doctor Johnson is drinking his twentieth cup of tea somewhere, with little Mrs. Thrale at his elbow, and can see him as distinctly as if we had just passed the big, hunched old man, standing bare-headed in the market-place, the rain drenching him.
Thackeray is no ghost to us, nor Lamb, and I am quite sure my children’s children will strike hands with them both, over a pipe or bowl of bouillabaisse. They will not seem to them old-fashioned or out of date, inestimable specimens of bric-à-brac, as the youngsters of to-day secretly regard Scott and his novels. They belong to no day or date; their jokes and their humor and their humanity will be as real and present to my grandson as the pipe he smokes or the meal he eats with a friend. There is Hawthorne, too, who hid in the outskirts of the real world while he was here. He cannot go a step farther from it now. Not all his critics, or disciples, or time can make the man himself dead to the reader in the next generation who lays down one of his books. The shadowy, gray-haired figure will appear just as when he walked the hill-path in Concord, with the covert smile in the eyes, half weird and half shrewd, and remain thereafter, actual in his life, a man that one knows as one does one’s neighbor.
Of course, we all know that this peculiar sort of immortality, this effect which certain men produce on the world, is the result of the kind of work which they have done. One man looks into his own heart and writes; most likely the very man, too, who would be least willing to bare himself before the public, as in the case of Hawthorne. But he does it. He cannot do otherwise. Thenceforward he is a real man to ail men. His poem or his novel is but the medium through which we look at him, or at humanity through him. He does not die for us when he goes into his coffin; he may be weak, partial, whimsical, but he is long-lived as humanity. Another worker paints men for us: he has insight, the dramatic eye, a reporter’s talent. The glimpses he gives us of truth and human life may be deeper and broader than those of the man who colors his drawing with his own blood, but there is all the difference between their work that there is between the studies of trees in a landscape of Claude’s and the single tree rustling above us, with the thrush in the branches and the beetles in the bark; or between the presentment of a tragedy by Salvini or Janauschek and our neighbor beside his dead, when we can go into the darkened house and touch his hand to comfort him.
The large majority of men and women crowding into authorship, nowadays, belong to the latter class. They may have skill, talent, even that actual force called genius, but it is a motor which has not yet compelled them to write. They do not wait for that. The first necessity which clever young people in this country usually feel is the necessity for bread and butter. So they look about for material, backgrounds, studies, and go to work. There is every degree of success attainable by their cult, — from Dickens’s place to that of the reporter for an illustrated paper. By the time they have wrested the secret of life from their own particular sphinx, in their own particular chasm, they are quite too shrewd or self-conscious to utter it.
No more curious study, on the other hand, is to be found in literature than the course of many living authors who have reached middle age, in passing from the one kind of utterance to the other. Their first book or poem was wrung out of the slow, actual experience of years; they were startled, almost shocked, when the world stood still to listen. Then Came the pleasant conviction that this utterance of theirs was a marketable commodity; and then the attempt to express other men’s lives by it, and the surprise when the world began to treat them, not as oracles, as at first, but as its other hired singers or preachers.
As far as I can see, there are but two chances by which this world may command the best work of either kind from men who handle the pen: either let publishers pay nothing at all for their copy, or let authors all be placed on a pension list. In either case the element of bread and butter would be eliminated from the problem, and humanity and its teachers would meet on level ground.