I WAS sitting, one winter’s morning, in the office of the Blankenburg Salt Works, of which corporation I was then secretary. The Blankenburg salt business did not occupy me more than two or three hours every day, and I had cheeked the entries in my bank-book, had balanced my cash, and was sitting before the fire smoking a pipe, with my feet on the desk-lid near me, debating whether I should wait and see the “ boss ” of the mine where the Blankenburg Salt Works gets its supply of coal, and who usually dropped in about that hour of the morning, or whether I should get into my buggy and take myself off to another office where I should find another fire, another pipe, another bank-book, and another cash-book awaiting me.
While I was dividing the swift mind, the outer door of the office opened, presently a smart tap was heard on the inner door, and to me there entered a man who had the indelible impress of a vagabond. He was of middle age and of middle size, and was dressed in a very seedy and ill-fitting suit of clothes, which, though without a rent or a smear, looked as if they had been slept in for a long time. His face, raw with a recent application of the razor, was sodden, and his eyes were bleary and red. He leaned against the open door, and began in a high-pitched and monotonous voice : —
“ Sir, I am a cigar-maker by profession. I have sought for work in this and the adjoining town, but without success. There appears to be a plethora of cigar-makers in this vicinity. I have seen better days. I formerly lived at No. 12 South Gaty Street, Baltimore, and was a man of wealth. I was possessed of the sum of $80,000, $60,000 of which I received from my father and $20,000 with my wife. I am a man of the world. I have traveled in Europe, Asia Minor, and Egypt. Yes, sir, I have ascended the Nile to the second cataract. ‘ I have been,’ as the great poet says, ‘ where bells have knolled to church, and have sat at good men’s feasts; ’ now, through my own careless and improvident habits, and indeed by actual dissipation, I am reduced to the menial occupation of making cheap cigars. Ay, sir, of wrapping and twisting leaves of native tobacco, and saturating them with an essence of most leprous distillment, and calling them Havanas. And further, sir, I am compelled by stern poverty to ask of you the loan of half a dollar to pay for a night’s lodging.” Having glibly made this harangue, he humbly cast his eyes upon the floor and awaited the result.
Being idly inclined for the moment, and perceiving a chance of some amusement, I told him to be seated. “ Is it possible,” said I, “that from the possession of wealth and position you are reduced to your present unfortunate plight ? ”
“ It is, sir, a sad and solemn fact.”
“ Then you admit that dissipation was the cause of your ruin ? ”
“ I do, sir, frankly. Hark ye, sir ! I am so peculiarly constituted that I cannot lie; I must tell the truth. I claim no praise for it. It is no virtue in me. There are times when it would afford me great satisfaction to lie. But there is no such pleasure for me. Nature so formed me that it is impossible for me knowingly to tell a lie. Be kind enough to look carefully at my head. Peruse these lineaments, mark these features. If you are anything of a physiognomist you will at once perceive that truth is written there. It has been, perchance, a disadvantage to me all my life that I could not dissemble. I must tell the truth. It will come out. I cannot restrain it.”
By this time I began to be very much interested, and proceeded to question the Man of Truth quite closely. He did not attempt to make any excuses for himself. He freely admitted that he had been extravagant, dissipated, worthless, an annoyance to his friends and a disgrace to his relatives. His wife was dead long ago, and they had never had any children. I asked him what his plans were. He said he intended making his way on foot to Parkersburg, the nearest railroad station, where he hoped to beg or steal a ride to Baltimore. Once there, he should throw himself on the kindness of his relatives, turn over a new leaf, and be a man again.
“ My friend,” said I, “ your story is a good one, — rather too well told, perhaps; but put yourself in my place. Suppose, for instance, that you were still in possession of your fortune, and were sitting in the parlor of No. 12 South Gaty Street, Baltimore, and I should enter the room looking as if I had an intimate acquaintance with haystacks and barroom benches, and rather the worse, too, for drink, and should ask you for the loan of the price of a night’s lodging ; would you give it to me? ”
“ Sir,” said he, “ I would not give you one d-d cent.” He smiled faintly. “You see, sir, I cannot tell a lie. I must tell the truth.”
I was beginning by this time to think that I had had a half dollar’s worth of amusement, but yet I hesitated.
“ You say that you are trying to get to Baltimore, where you expect to reform, ‘ leave sack and live cleanly ’ ? ”
His eye twinkled at the quotation. “ You are right, sir.”
“ Now I will give you half a dollar, on one condition.”
“ Name it.”
“ It is that when you reach Baltimore you will write me a line to let me know that my contribution was of use to you. I don’t ask you to return the money, but your writing will have the effect of somewhat reëstablisliing my faith in human nature, and the next man who asks for aid from me will meet with a warmer reception.”
“ A capital idea, sir, a capital idea! Not only benefit myself, but pass the benefit along to some other poor wretch, or, as Longfellow touchingly expresses it, 1 some forlorn and shipwrecked brother.’ Your address, sir, if you please.”
He took my address and departed. A few minutes after, finding it was near lunch time and too late to expect the “ mine boss,” I locked my office, jumped into my buggy, and was quickly trotting over the stretch of road that lies between the Blankenburg Salt Works and the village. I soon saw the Man of Truth plodding ahead of me. There was a lion in the path, and I anxiously watched to see what he did. He has reached it, he has passed it! No, he has flung himself into its jaws ! I whipped up my horses, and looking over the red curtain of a grocery window I saw the Man of Truth draining the last drops of a glass of whisky.
My half-dollar was gone, swallowed up; it would pay for no night’s lodging, for that night the Man of Truth’s lodging would be on the cold, cold ground, under the lee of some sheltering haystack.
About two years afterward I had occasion to go to my private office, which was near my house, quite early one morning, before breakfast. I was busy writring, when some one opened the door and came in. I merely glanced in his direction, and rather impatiently said, “ Well, say on! ”
“ I am a cigar-maker by profession. I have tried to find work in this and the adjoining town, but without success. There appears to be a plethora of cigar-makers in this vicinity. I am making my way to Parkersburg, and have called to ask the loan of half a dollar to pay for a night’s lodging. I have seen better days. I ” —
“ What ! ” said I, as I recognized the Man of Truth, dingier, seedier, and more red-eyed than before. His story, however, was the same, fresh with perennial bloom. He was rather taken aback at my exclamation, but began his sing-song again, thinking perhaps that I had not heard him.
“ I am a cigar-maker by profession. I have ” —
“ Where is that half-dollar that I lent you ? ” I thundered out.
He changed color slightly. “I don’t understand you, sir.”
11 Where is that half-dollar I lent you two years ago to pay for a night’s lodging on the road to Parkersburg ! ”
“ I don’t know what you mean, sir. I never saw you before. I was never in this town before.”
“ What I ” said I, “ the man that could n't lie ! that must tell the truth, even to his own disadvantage, — the man that had truth written upon every feature! ”
I burst out laughing as I recalled his words of two years before, so completely belied to-day. I laughed loud and long, but there was no answering smile on the face of the Man of Truth. Detected and abashed he stood, with a hopeless look in his eyes.
He turned to go, and muttered, “ I suppose it is a good joke, sir, but there is no fun in it for me.”
Here his lip quivered slightly. I laughed no more. I saw in his face the hopeless, baffled, despairing look of a degraded soul. “ You poor devil,” said I, “ tell the truth for once ! Your coppers are hot from last night’s spree, and you want a drink.”
“ That’s what’s the matter ! ” he said, with an eager look that there was no mistaking.
“ Take this quarter and get it, then, but don’t try to spin that yarn to me again.” He joyfully took the coin, with a nod and a wink, and he went on his way, and I saw him no more.
— Superstition has not been driven out entirely from this world of the nineteenth century. Its dwindled shade lingers still, not only in the more unenlightened minds of the rural population, but in those of educated people, accustomed to exercise their reasoning faculties. I have found that almost every one of whom I have inquired as to the matter was willing to own that he or she cherished some one pet superstition. They rejected all others, but held to a faith in the truth of some favorite old saying, confessing, often with a laugh at themselves, that they habitually obeyed its warning or injunction, as the case might be. I know a sensible, middle - aged lady who, if she happen to put on a garment wrong side out, will not reverse it, for fear of changing luck. I know a young lady who will stoop in the muddiest street to pick up a pin ; and one who at every change of habitation carries with her a horse-shoe to hang over her door. Some persons will never cut their hair except with the growing moon; others will not start on a journey, or attempt any particular undertaking, on a Friday. I read the other day of a clergyman of the English church, who died only lately, who firmly believed in the influence of the “ evil eye,” and who would not step within a “fairy ring.” He was a remarkably eccentric and mediæval-minded man, however. One of the commonest of these superstitions is that about sitting thirteen at table. I have known many persons who would refuse to make one in a company of that number. I have no doubt that a great many more of these old sayings exist than I have ever heard of, and people everywhere who credit them. These confessions of faith have always amused me very much; and yet, since I cannot suppose myself to be of stronger intellect than so many of my otherwise rational-minded acquaintance, I conclude that I too must have my pet superstition, which I shall discover some day. As a testimony to a belief in the existence of more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in modern materialistic philosophy, I am rather inclined to rejoice, while I laugh, at the appearance of this pallid ghost of superstition.
— The interesting paragraphs on Cincinnati Faïence in a late number of the Contributors’ Club suggest the mention of other work in this way which is being done among us. Mrs. N. B. Plimpton, of that city, is working out an original style of decoration in faïence, whose effects are different from anything hitherto known.
The Sèvres porcelain gives us the most exquisite effects in color ; the Haviland a bewildering depth of richness and of changeful iridescence ; the old Meissen has its individual beauty, differing from all in its deep-modeled decorations in alto-relievo ; but differing from these, or from any important type of decoration, is the method now being wrought out by Mrs. Plimpton. It is a decorative relief in different clays, so delicately blended and shaded that only the trained eye of the connoisseur would see that these exquisite blendings of color were not painted, but were worked in in the different clays, which, through the process of firing, retain their relative colors, — these colors being, of course, changed in the firing, but coming out with relative variations.
The finest example of this is shown in a vase of light-yellow clay ornamented with a butterfly in relief, of that large and curious variety known as the South American. The butterfly is shown in four shades of browns, — the rich sepia browns, — and white, and no one on first observing it would dream that not a brush had touched it with paint, but that each different shade of color is a different clay, or combination of clays. The insect is shown in as precise a portraiture of all the little anatomical details as a painting could give. The little antennæ, the “ suckers ” about the mouth and head, the all but invisible peculiarities of butterfly structure, are faithfully reproduced. The butterfly is represented as soaring from some reeds and starry-flowered grasses. The little star-eyed flowers are in white, and the petals as distinct as in nature. This decoration is all modeled in the wet clays. After firing, the coat of glazing is added, — for it should be clearly understood that this is all under-glaze work, — and the last firing is given.
The superiority of Mrs. Plimpton’s work lies in the fact that the different clays themselves are combined to form different colors in the relief, modeled as a sculptor models his figures. The colors, being in solid clay and under the glaze, can never change or fade, for the decorations are as solid as the article on which they are placed. There is nothing in the line of recent ceramic discovery that contains such possibilities and promises for the future as this work of Mrs. Plimpton. It marks an era in pottery manufacture, whose results are the development of a new style of decoration.
— In the preface to his Marble Faun, Hawthorne says: —
“ Italy, as the site of his Romance, was chiefly valuable to him as affording a sort of poetic or fairy precinct, where actualities would not be so terribly insisted upon as they are, and must needs be, in America. No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land. It will be very long, I trust, before romance-writers may find congenial and easily handled themes, either in the annals of our stalwart republic, or in any characteristic and probable events of our individual lives. Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens, and wall-flowers need ruin to make them grow.”
It seems to me that Hawthorne is widely astray in the above extract. To my way of thinking, America, or any other bustling young modern country, is the spot of all others for a dealer in the weird and the supernatural to work in. It is precisely because of that practical, work-a-day character of our daily life, complained of by Hawthorne, that this country affords the best field for the introduction of the supernatural element into fictitious literature.
What is the object of introducing the supernatural into literature at all ? It is, as I understand it, to excite in us feelings of awe and surprised dread, — something of the sort we experienced at the ghost stories of our childhood, when we avoided dark corners, and hurried through long, gloomy halls. A novel dealing entirely with men and things of our every-day life may be profoundly interesting; it may be comic, or pathetic, or sentimental, or all three together; but it can never produce that feeling which makes a man feel “ goose-fleshy,” and inclines him to look over his shoulder as he goes up-stairs at midnight to make sure that nothing queer is coming up the stairs after him. If the novelist would produce this effect, he must introduce the supernatural element into his work ; and the question then is, How can he most effectively bring this element into play ? To my mind, he can best accomplish this by introducing it among the scenes and characters with which we are most familiar, and to which supernatural personages and occurrences are most unfamiliar.
To most of us a ghost and a haunted tower are among the proper and requisite paraphernalia of a moldy Italian palace, or a moss-covered castle on the Rhine. To read of strange sounds heard and strange sights seen in their old banqueting halls and creaky corridors is perfectly in keeping with all the rest of the place. The whole thing is of a piece in its strangeness and unfamiliarity to us, — that is, to those among us who have not disenchanted ghost-land by visiting, or taking up our residence among, ruinous castles and palaces.
On the other hand, put a ghost or anything ghostly among the creatures and circumstances of our every-day life, and the incongruity, the strangeness and horribleness, of the supernatural come home to us immediately and impressively. Let the novelist introduce us to Miss Whasername and Mr. Whasisname, and some half dozen other ladies and gentlemen, married and single, old and young, — just such people as we meet in our daily life ; let him dispose of them as to place and circumstance in way and manner familiar to us all; and then let him infuse the smallest drop of supernaturalism, — nowhere else will it go so far, or produce so startling an effect. Our very familiarity with all the other details makes us stare and gasp at the intruder. We can without any exhausting effort of the imagination place ourselves en rapport with the persons and incidents of the tale, and can fancy the ghostly thing or person stealing on us, and chilling ourselves as it does the fictitious creatures of the novelist. Something of the same clammy horror which creeps over them by force of sympathy creeps over us, too. But when the scene is laid among persons and places quite unfamiliar to us, and associated in our minds with mediæval hobgoblins and diablerie, we easily accept the supernatural as a part of all the rest. A ghost racketing about in some Old World relic, banging rusty armor, running down corridors, lighting mysterious flames in moldy turrets, may be very interesting and pleasant to read about, but the supernatural element in him affects us no more than it does when the ghost in Hamlet stalks on the stage, or the figure of Mephistopheles pops up through the trap-door. But a very small and insignificant ghost on a New England farm, or in an American village, brings the awesomeness of the supernatural very much home to our own business and bosoms. The supernatural element in Lytton’s Zanoni, for instance, where the scene is laid in the Europe of a century ago, affects us scarcely at all. For my own part, I threw the book down half read, quite tired of it. Compared with some good specimen of the other class of supernatural fiction, how crude and unreal its overdrawn horrors and unnatural situations appear ! Good specimens of the other class are, however, rare. Blackwood’s seems to have almost a monopoly of them. A couple of short stories published in that magazine in the last year or two illustrate my meaning very well, — one entitled The Secret Chamber, the other The Cottage by the River. How long are we to wait for novelists to work the “ spirits ” and spiritual manifestations generally into fiction ?
— This is a cry from the abyss. I have been reading eagerly the various experiences of authors as told in the Contributors’ Club, hoping to see something which would throw some light upon a certain point which troubles me very much.
In every other art or trade there is a course of training through which all may, or must, pass, under competent instructors, until a degree of skill is attained which stamps their work as marketable. To whom shall the student of literature go for help, advice, or instruction ? To that dreadful Juggernaut, “ the editor ”!
Among the thousands of manuscripts returned with that death-dealing printed slip, there must be a difference in degree, if not in kind. The sender may be an audacious, hopeless idiot, or he may possess more or less talent. An article may be faulty, yet have much merit. Yet the editor’s millstones grind them all up together, relentlessly.
It is customary to laugh at the throes of “ struggling genius.” It is the wicked mirth of bad boys over the contortions of a vivisected frog. I positively believe that nothing short of the rejection of an offer of his hand and heart by an ardent lover can equal the sickening pain caused by the return (with a printed slip ! ) of a manuscript over which one has passed sleepless nights and laborious days. Is there no remedy ? From the awful recesses of the editorial chair comes the answer, — None ! If I were an editor, I would have three printed formulæ. The first, in effect: “You are an ignorant, conceited donkey, without the slightest, remotest prospect of success. Go be a horse-car driver or a book agent.”
The second : “ If you wish to pursue literature as a pastime, we should say, Go ahead. You have talent, but not enough to warrant your making a profession of literature.”
The third: “ We think you should continue to write. Study, think, and don’t get disheartened.”
In such a delicious morsel of jelly the pill of rejection would slip down easily.
Mr. Editor, where shall a determined, ambitious writer, one who is morbidly conscious of his or her own defects, turn for aid or comfort ?
— When I cease to be a divinity student, and acquire a parish and a parsonage, I shall have a knowledge-corner. It shall be the corner of my living-room, readiest of approach, nearest a window ; where the curious and critical parish eye, making its journey around my room to the slow music of mental comment, shall most naturally pause for its first rest; where the wise and honest reader shall easiest turn his glance, as he looks up in the bewilderment of suddenly discovered ignorance from a quotation he cannot place, or a name he does not know. It shall be the Quaker armory of one who has beaten his plowshares into biblical commentaries. It shall be a part of the mental gymnasium, whose Indian clubs will be huge tomes of theological controversies. It shall be — what Sir Thomas Browne would have wished it — a “ treasurehouse ; ” and its riches shall be “ kings’ treasures,” as Ruskin hath it. It shall be furnished with an unpretentious stand and a wooden-seated chair. No superficialities of luxury shall tempt men into my knowledge - corner. No idle caller shall be invited by the easiness of that chair to seat himself in that intellectual angle, and lazily and purposelessly turn over the contents of that stand. There shall be no royal road to my knowledge - corner, and no royal throne to sit upon when you get there. It shall be for true lovers, unmindful of discomforts ; for devout worshipers, who want no cushioned ottoman to kneel on.
The top of the stand shall be made to hold a dictionary, — a stout dictionary, for it will have to undergo innumerable handlings daily. And always open ; for let us be Platonic, or nothing. The dictionary shall hold out a tempting invitation, though its surroundings do not; itself shall be the valued thing, not its dress. The bottom of the stand shall be a rack for atlases, — classical, scripture, modern; and a weather-beaten atlas from our school-days, if possible, to remind us of the horrors of geography made not means but end of study. And above the maps, all by itself, with solemn emphasis of loneliness, shall lie the ignorance-book. This shall be the peculiar gem of my knowledge - corner. Everybody has dictionaries and maps, and everybody makes books, more or less big, of elegant extracts, of things they know; but ignorance-books ! — who has an ignorance-book ? “Who would be wise, let him confess ignorance,” teacheth the good Thomas à Kempis. “ Who would increase in understanding, let him write his ignorance in a book,” teacheth my knowledge-corner.
My ignorance-book shall be a big book, — suggestively and modestly big. To the queries shall be allotted the first quarter of the pages ; and a number set against each shall indicate the paging of the answer. Every member of the family shall help at the editing, both by the negative work of questions, and by the positive work of turning over libraries and interviewing friends to find out answers. Out of every book we read, out of every talk we have, the facts we know not shall go to fill the ignorance-book. And out of our own musings, out of all our odd corners of thinking, the metaphysical algebra, whose problems we cannot solve, shall go into these pages.
My ignorance-book shall be a missionary of sincerity and humility and truth. It shall be an ever apt suggester of talk, and shall drive the weather, the state of the popular health, and unhappy comments on the doings of our neighbors out of our conversation. It will help to teach us the secret of culture,—how to read; and one of the needs of society and life, — the “best of life” is Emerson’s name for it, — how to talk.
The effect of an ignorance-book upon one’s reading and thinking is wonderful. I go about as an act of social charity, trying to persuade my friends to start ignorance-books. In my parish I shall first try to do as Richard Baxter did, — get everybody to have family prayers ; then I shall urge the imperative need and the undiluted delight of keeping family ignorance-books.
— I am strongly in favor of a reform in English spelling, and being so I am more pained than are the opponents of the reform by the antics cut by the radicals of the Spelling Reform Association. I believe, that is, in gradual change, so as not to shock and perplex our own public; and I deem ridiculous, and in all respects abominable, a change which would put us Outside the pale of literary civilization. The adoption of an entirely new alphabet, or even of what the S. R. A. calls its “ transision ” alphabet, would place us, as regards Western Europe, in the position of the Russians, and would thus for a long period check the manifest destiny of the English language. The spelling reform that I want is, first, the restoration to their original and proper spelling of such words as rime (French rime, German reim), which, as Mr. Kington Oliphant has shown, owes its h and y to the desire for improvement of ignorant printers. But I do not wish to change the spelling of Latin words (honor, for instance) because they happen to contain a silent letter, though I see no objection to the substitution of f for ph in Greek words (already adopted by several journals), for f represents &248; as well as ph does. Those words to which we have added the barbarous French ue should at once be reformed in the interest of educational progress, if for no other reason. In learning a foreign language there is no means of acquiring a vocabulary so effective as having impressed upon your mind the resemblance between a foreign word and one of similar meaning in your own tongue. Now he who runs may read the likeness between Tung and Zung (e), while there is no apparent resemblance between the latter word and tongue. In general, the words to be subjected to serious change are the purely English words, above all the ughs, against all of which Heaven help us !
— What is the reason that novelists so generally fail in depicting a clerical character ? Of whatever religion the clergyman in a story may be, he is almost always, artistically speaking, a weak conception, or a figure drawn more from conventional models than from nature. Other professions are sometimes caricatured (whether consciously or not, only the writers can tell), but none so much or so often as that of the clergy. I know several books forming an exception to this rule, but the rank and file of story-tellers are remarkably awkward in handling the clerical character. They seem to forget that a clergyman is first a man, and only secondly a minister. Often, in endowing him with the supposed necessaries of his official character, they forget to indicate the human basis on which this is built up. In a word, he is a sort of automaton, bound to behave as an impersonal conception rather than as a human being, or introduced only as a foil to the manly characters in the story. No writer should attempt to deal with such a figure unless he has had experience of one or more suitable average models. Even the womanly or childish side of some ecclesiastics is not the flabby thing that often passes for a conventional clergyman’s portrait. It has its roots in national customs, in the changes and habits of race, in social accidental circumstances, or in the individual history of a man whom a system has almost transformed into a tool. The prejudices of theological education, say among Calvinists of various types, do not so invariably dry up the natural sympathies and suppress the natural temperament of ministers as it is convenient to the novelist to represent. The conventional type is but a husk, sitting lightly on the individual himself; earnest men soon shun the phraseology which they cannot but see helps them little outside the small world of the faithful, though some retain outward distinctions of speech and of countenance through a mistaken sense of duty, feeling the disadvantage they entail, and looking upon this fettered style of warfare as a condition mysteriously ordained by God to show men that the spirit works through ways of its own, not subject to natural influences. Yet beneath such struggling, whose details are seldom accurately studied or minutely reproduced by fiction - writers, human nature is plainly visible, and its contrasts with the superimposed artificial life are sometimes tragically, sometimes grotesquely, evident. The relations between women and the clergy — I include all religions known in civilized countries — are often treated foolishly, and from a superficial point of view. There is much less sentimentality in these relations in real life than one would be led to suppose from the accounts of novelists. Practically speaking, the essence of “ confession ” is common, in some shape or other, to every faith. Writers have invested it with an unreal romance, whereas in its noble forms — its trivial or perfunctory ones I leave out of sight — it generally has to do with the hardest realities of life. Even in the case of an unmarried clergy and comparatively ignorant women, this is the case. Some English novelists, Trollope and Mrs. Oliphant, for instance, have hit upon the truthful and natural side of clerical life; Michelet, in Le Maudit, has given an excellent representation of a manly priest, such as the parochial clergy of France, largely recruited from peasant and lower middle-class life, can show ; Eggleston, in Roxy, has shown us a man who shook off the “minister” when the real influence of his office was most needed, and so succeeded where a stiff religionist would have broken down ; but, as a rule, I know of few truthful portraits of clergymen in current books of fiction. The bulk of men dislike the clergy for the very failings which the worst types of clergymen furnish to the observation of superficial writers. I do not deny that the failings exist, but there are so many modifications that escape observation, although materially altering the conventional type, that one cannot generalize from preconceived notions accidentally confirmed by what some people call experience. Almost every one can recall to his memory at least one manly clergyman, and often more, no matter to what faith he belongs. Let writers search their own memories rather than snatch at the popular, mistaken, sensational type, before they make a sketch of a minister.
— Mr. R. H. Horne, in his Life and Letters of Mrs. Browning, mentions one of his lady correspondents who excuses herself for the brevity of her notes on the ground that letter-writing is one of the lost arts. And Mr. Horne attributes this to “ an impatient sense of the loss of time.” But why this impatient sense of the loss of time he does not proceed to tell us. Doubtless this may be one of the occasions of the decline of the old-fashioned voluminous style of epistolary correspondence. But the cause, or one cause at least, lies deeper, and is found in the growing complexity of life. That there are far more demands upon our thoughts, feelings, and daily life than existed a hundred years ago for our more simple-lived ancestors is, I think, beyond question. The tendency of evolution in all branches and minute ramifications of life, belief, speculation, inquiry, in literature, in science, in all the arts, and in the daily environment of outward condition, is, as Herbert Spencer so well shows in his First Principles, constantly from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous, from the simple to the complex. The habit and practice of letter-writing is crowded out into narrower spaces of time than formerly, because of the greater diversity of interests occupying the field of life.
But there are other causes for the decline of this art. A very evident one is the annihilation of distances by steam and telegraphy. There was no greater stimulus to letter-writing between friends a century ago than the sense of their remoteness from each other, and the difficulty and uncertainty as to their frequent meeting again in life. Into what channel but this could love and friendship pour out their overflowing waters? But now we all live as in one great city. Our friends out West are only in the suburbs; and those across the ocean are off on a summer vacation, or may return at any moment. The sense of nearness neutralizes the old incentives to regular and lengthy correspondence. How absurd for inmates of the same town or house, or for whom there is a probability of soon again meeting, to be all the time scribbling long folios of thoughts and sentiments to one another !
Then the newspaper dispensation has to a great extent covered this field. Once we used to draw much of our water from private wells and pumps. The newspaper is a great reservoir with pipes, and we have only to turn a faucet, and there is abundantly more than we can use. How large a part of the old letters was made up of narratives of events, or allusions to them, the like of which is useless nowadays, when everything is proclaimed from the house-tops ! Our occupation is gone; the wind is taken out of our sails ; our choice private narrations are swamped and swallowed up by public reporters. Even the newspaper can’t afford to wait for news by regular correspondence, but must have it instantaneously in a long telegraphic dispatch. A newspaper correspondent who would send a letter to a daily paper, giving an account of any particularly interesting event, has no chance that way. The telegraph man is a day ahead of him.
Such are some of the modern conditions that explain why it so often happens that the best friends to-day gradually relinquish the habit of corresponding, though separated for years, and with oceans between them.
Then, again, some persons are so constituted that they can accept no such substitute as this for conversation. How hard to fill a sheet of paper with the essence of that liberty, that abandon, with which they could converse ! Their best effort at epistolary communication seems to contract a formal and perfunctory style. A friend said to me the other day, “ Letters seem to me like frozen conversation.”
If letter-writing is to become one of the lost arts (which appears more than probable), we cannot but regret it deeply. It will take from literature one of its most charming forms of expression. For, however our modern surviving correspondents may gain in spontaneity, over the more staid and dignified style of our fathers and mothers, their slipshod utterance can never replace those carefully composed epistles of the old times, where the writer not only had a conscience about fit expression, but was all along conscious that his or her letters would be read and re-read by a circle of friends and relatives ! They dared not write in dishabille in those days. Today we consign our correspondents’ manuscripts to the waste-basket or the fire. But then such writings were lovingly kept and guarded. Even some of us inherit the old instinct to save up almost every letter of interest till it has yellowed with age. A bad habit, I suppose, but very excusable, — at least from some points of view.
Of one thing I am sure, — that one result of the decline of interest in letterwriting is to fall into a slovenly, if not illegible, style of handwriting. And perhaps this is one reason why we burn up so many letters? When my friend writes to me as if he were in a hurry to catch the train, and all his words are blown about as by a wind, so that I have to call my wife to decipher them, how can I keep them locked up as my father used to lock up his letters ? I don’t expect a neat chirography of all my friends, but I do like it to be legible. There is a satisfaction then in keeping their epistles.
— Do those of your readers who live within reach of the Boston Public Library understand exactly what a blessing they enjoy? It is not only already a large library, but, it is rapidly growing and those who make suggestions in what way it should grow are looked upon by those in charge, not as presumptuous offerers of advice, but benefactors. Any one can recommend a book for purchase, and when it is bought he is notified of the fact, and the book is kept three days for him. I fancy that these things are vaguely known to every one, but whether they are put to practical use is not so certain. What the library needs is more active use. A number of people have a vague aversion to frequenting it. It is only too true that the accommodations for readers within its walls are very meagre, but there are liberal provisions for reading at home. This, to be sure, requires a certain slight amount of formality, which a number of people unnecessarily dread. It is very simple, and when it is once done it is done for all time. A European, an inhabitant of Germany, for instance, cannot get a package from the express office without more bother than this ; yet we who are so unaccustomed to routine are as averse to taking this moderate amount of trouble as is the vast majority of the women of Massachusetts to be registered for a poll-tax. There is, however, one objection to the use of the library that many people find a serious one, and that is the amount of time required for getting a book. The library is vast in size ; the hour that is convenient for one applicant is pretty sure to be the one chosen by a number of others ; and economy demands that money be spent rather in buying books than in hiring supernumerary runners; the result is that, with no one to blame, it often takes fifteen or twenty minutes to ascertain that the book sought for is out. Those who can roam through the alcoves of the Athenæum and help themselves from its shelves revolt at this, and pass by the Public Library with as much indifference as if it were a large gas-meter. It is possible, however, by making use of what is called the Public Library Delivery Company, to order books and have them brought to one’s door for the trifling sum of five cents. Here is a library which will provide any one with almost any book one may want, with conveniences like this for putting the books in the hands of readers ; what more could be asked for ? And it may be added that the more books one asks for, the more one is endeared to the obliging officials, who reverse all the laws hitherto known to mankind, and are grateful in direct proportion to the amount of trouble that is inflicted upon them.
— Of the hundred thousand novels which enrich our libraries, I know but one in which it is intimated that the lover and the loved were not, from the stand-point of disinterested parties, well suited to each other. It is almost universally assumed that in women the one thing needful is beauty, in men strength. In this men have a decided advantage over women, because beauty is ever the same, while strength is manifold. In the Middle Ages, I suppose, and in the California of Mr. Harte, strength meant muscle, because upon a man’s physical force eventually depended even the tenure of house and land. But in our society, skill in the acquirement of money is a far more valued test than was ever success in dismounting one’s opponent in a tourney. So artificial, indeed, is our habit of life, so far are we removed from the state of nature, that a man armed with a good income, even when his possession of it is a mere accident, can face the world and womankind as boldly as a dwarf with a revolver could withstand a pair of navvies. Also, of course, to be considered is strength of character and purpose ; but various as strength may be, the hero of a novel always possesses it in full measure.
But in real life there is not much of this artistic dovetailing of character and sympathy ; marriage seems to bring together contrasts much more frequently than similars. I do not mean that tall women choose short husbands, or that widows sometimes marry boys, but that all shades of character seem to seek their opposites. If this were merely a reverence of the weaker for the stronger, — a preference, for instance, on the part of weak, indecisive women for strong, resolute men, — the fact would explain itself. But quite as often the brave and generous half, or the shrewd and quick, or the deep-thinking and deep-feeling, is not the man, but the woman. Still more curious is it to see a woman, all of whose senses, acute by nature, have ripened under a favorable sun into the perfect flower of delicacy and refinement, living happily with a man who, if neither coarse nor stupid, is yet essentially second-rate ; perhaps a loud, rollicking, superficial, thoroughly light-weight person, whose never-ceasing jollity and inability to regard things from other than a bourgeois stand-point would, one might think, drive such a woman mad.
Now, will not some woman write a novel which shall discover to us the workings of the feminine mind in these matters ? It is not an answer to say to men, You are another, — are you not always making fools of yourselves, falling in love with a pretty face with nothing behind it, and committing other like absurdities ? Ail this, if true, has nothing to do with the matter, for strength is not a man’s criterion. Dorothea Brooke, it may be said, did just this thing in marrying Ladislaw ; but Dorothea had already sought and possessed herself of her ideal of strength, only to find that her doll was stuffed with sawdust. Ladislaw was the consolation of weariness and disappointment, not the goal of hope and young endeavor.
— The number of manuscripts rejected by the leading periodicals during last year having largely exceeded that of any previous year, and as it is safe to suppose that many of these were “ those aspiring pieces of egotism, first efforts,” a chapter from the experience of a young writer may not be untimely. There are two, and only two, excuses which can be accepted as a sufficient justification for adding to the masses of existing literature. One is that you want money ; the other, that you cannot help it. My excuse was the former. Reverses of fortune had rendered it necessary for me to earn a livelihood. Teaching was clearly out of the question, since what little knowledge I possessed had been gained mainly by desultory reading, — was not catalogued and put away for future use in convenient fashion. True, I had studied French thoroughly, because it had pleased me to do so, and at first I had some hope of turning this accomplishment to account as a translator; but on writing for advice to a friend who was engaged in such work, I received the reply, “I think you would find translating very pleasant occupation, but original matter is the only thing that pays. The way is long and dusty at first, but it leads to shady groves and pleasant pastures.” This was not encouraging to the success of my plan, but nevertheless I sent to Paris for the freshest novel, the one making the most sensation there at that time, in order to make the experiment. Meanwhile, a literary friend urged me to “ try to write something original.” “ Do not give up,” said he, “ if your first articles are not accepted. Send them to the best magazines first; if they are refused, try the second-class ones; but when once you have won a name, there will always be a place for you.” Some years ago, at an evening party, a young prig put the question to me, “ What magazine do you write for?” I had no literary aspirations then, and the query only excited a smile ; but now the fact that any one had ever thought me capable of writing anything worth reading afforded me some slight encouragement. I would write a story ! How easy it seemed in prospect! What fine sentiments, what brilliant bits of conversation, floated about in a nebulous form in my imagination, and what a harmonious whole was presented whenever the story took shape before my mind’s eye ! I began to write. My plot and my characters were taken from real life. Thus far there was no difficulty ; but where were all the fine sentiments, the witty conversations, now ? How very tame and pointless they all seemed on paper, and how difficult a task was what had once appeared only a pleasant recreation ! Discouraged at my want of success, I became— I blush to confess it — very cross. My younger sister, the “ enfant terrible ” of the family, “ hoped sister would not write another story very soon,” and revenged herself for my impatience with her by saying, when asked her opinion of it, after hearing it read in the family council, that she “had not expected it would be so entirely devoid of backbone as it was.” My dear mother’s criticism was much more favorable. She “ could not see but that it was as good as any of the magazine stories.” I tried to make due allowance for a mother’s partiality, but I fear that her opinion, aided by a lurking suspicion that I was perhaps not capable of judging of my own efforts, and might be unjust to myself, produced an undue elation of spirits. The next thing was to find a publisher. I inclosed with my manuscript an elaborate epistle to the editor of one of the leading periodicals of the country, and launched it on its lonely voyage; one moment hoping that it might find a safe haven in the pages of the magazine, the next fearing that it would be tossed about by the breakers of unfriendly criticism. until it should again be forced to take refuge with its author. How that editor must have smiled at my simplicity — if indeed he read my note at all — in supposing that he could be influenced by a neatly turned compliment to his ability as a writer! I did not at all admire several of his books, — but that fact I carefully concealed, merely commending those of which I really did approve. What misplaced delicacy of feeling this seemed, when one morning, a short time afterward, as we were all at breakfast, the cry of “ Mail! ” and the thud of a heavy package as it fell through the open window to the floor, announced that my cherished story was returned ! I fancied the letter-carrier had divined my secret, and had taken a malicious pleasure in treating the precious package so rudely, and I disliked him ever after. The blood rushed into my cheeks, and I could have cried with mortification, especially when I felt, rather than saw, the halfpitying, half-quizzical glances of my brothers and sisters upon me. With trembling fingers I opened the packet, and beheld only those familiar pages and a printed notice (the editor had not even taken the trouble to write me a line), — a mere printed notice such as was sent to everybody, and which could have had no special reference to my contribution when it declared that “ the return of an article did not necessarily imply a lack of literary merit.” How I hated the cover of that magazine for a long time afterward, and how I felicitated myself on my mental criticism of the editor’s writings! But though cast down, I was not utterly destroyed, and I determined to knock at the door of another firstclass periodical. This time I was more discreet and merely wrote a line or two to the editor. No reply came for several months, but that did not trouble me ; for had I not heard that a young man was surprised by a check for some articles three years after sending them to a magazine ? Meanwhile I occupied my spare time in writing a story for one of the juvenile periodicals, which was also returned, it is true, but accompanied with a delightful note from the editor, which I still keep as the first word of encouragement I ever received. A few weeks after this came a kind note announcing the acceptance of my first story. My mother had always been able to read in the changes of my face every emotion of my heart, whether sad or joyous, but this time her quick ear detected rejoicing in my footstep, even before I had reached her presence. I already saw in that magical slip of paper “ the shady groves and pleasant pastures ” stretching out before me.
“ To feel once more that fresh, wild thrill I’d give — but who can live life over.”