The Contributors' Club

IS N’T it rather an advantage to live fifty miles from a circulating library, so as to escape from the malign influence of new books ? This influence is not imaginary; it is too real. Such is its strength that it threatens to destroy all true love for wholesome literature. Any one who visits circulating libraries cannot fail to notice the immoderate demand for new books. Novels, of course, are sought first, because fiction always will continue to form a large proportion of the mental pabulum of general readers ; then come books of travel, essays, memoirs, criticisms. A clerk in a large public library, whose experience extends over many years, said to me, recently, “ Most of the people who come here get their ideas of literature from book reviews and gossip in society, just as many men gather their political opinions from their favorite paper and the talk among their club associates. People, as a rule, don’t care for books as books; it is only because they are talked about, and one must have sufficient information about them to escape the imputation of ignorance. Many clever women skim the reviews, and will rattle off cut-and-dried opinions about current books with a glibness that would make even a professional critic’s hair stand on end. The majority, however, like to read the books for themselves, as they have n’t the confidence and tact to adopt the review method. Here comes a fair specimen of our readers. Notice what she asks for, and you will get a good idea of the popular demand for books.”

A matronly old lady came up to the counter, with an intelligent face and a pleasant smile. She placed upon the counter The Colonel’s Opera Cloak and John Caldigate, and then said, “ Now, I must have L’Assomoir, — not that I have much desire to read it, it must be very disgusting; but then every one has been talking about it for so long a time that there is nothing else to be done. Please get me the most decent translation, the one with the least shocking bits of realism. And then I want Froude’s Cœsar. It will be heavy reading, I know, but Gertrude declares that we must not let slip anything that Mr. Froude writes. Ah, so you have it : that’s fortunate. Well, good day.”

“ I told you,” said my friend, “ that she would ‘ give away ’ the tribe of novelty hunters.”

This may seem like a caricature, but it is not overdrawn. Young and old patrons of large libraries, with very few exceptions, all have this one touch of nature ; they “ praise new-born gauds,” and leave the solid old worthies of literature to languish in the dim back alcoves. Little can be done to counteract it while the present yearning for novelty remains. Frederick Harrison may bewail the evil days, but he will have no more influence in literature than he has in religion, which I fancy is small. Do you ever nowadays surprise any of your friends reading a good standard author, like Shakespeare, Bunyan, Milton, or Fielding? Do you find any of the English classics near at hand and showing traces of constant daily use ? Instead, yon will usually find the latest novel or the freshest contribution to criticism.

In a multitude of books there is no safety. In fact, it has become almost a positive evil to live near a great centre of books. The temptation to join the mob of superficial readers is too strong to be resisted save by those of exceptional self-control. Unless a specialist, you are constantly seduced from any systematic course of reading. You call at the library, perhaps with the intention of getting some standard work. You catch a glimpse of the attractive title-page of that latest novel, whose piquant charms have been sung by the most acrid critics, and your fine resolutions dissolve ; you succumb to the tyranny of the novel. The books that you ought to read over and over again, until they become as familiar as nursery rhymes, are neglected. You fall unconsciously into the habit of rapid reading of many books. You lose your taste for old favorites, — a taste which was acquired, perhaps, when you had not more than twenty books to select from. They may look down reproachfully upon you from their shelf, but you are too much engrossed with the claims of new-comers to heed your ancient companions. Your friends, too, have fallen into the same evil ways, so that it is exceptional now to find a resident of a large city who knows a few great authors well, and is willing to acknowledge ignorance of a host of writers whose fame will die with the century. And for these evils of perverted taste and bad habits in reading the circulating library must be held largely responsible.

— If ever a historian of Philistines should arise, like the famous historian of Snobs, he will have to avow on the titlepage that the book is by “ one of themselves.” For, upon the current definitions, there is none of us who is free of the taint. Matthew Arnold himself, the self-appointed crusader against Philistinism, has been proved to be a Philistine by Swinburne. It is said that the note of provincialism, or insularity, is the great test; that the term includes all those who cannot love, admire, or worship without hedging in their love, admiration, or worship with hatred, contempt, dislike, of everything exterior to the immediate object of those affections. The traditional John Bull, whose love of England is compounded with hatred of foreigners, has always been held up as a very archetype of the class. But even the Greeks and Romans were sufficiently barbarous to hold all people barbarians except themselves. And which one of the modern nations is exempt from this failing? Coming down from nations to individuals, this definition of Philistine would include all those who look upon themselves and their belongings as the most interesting facts in the inhabited globe; all those who gaze at the world through a pin hole and imagine that the view from their pin hole represents the universe; all those who cannot divest their minds of the “ shop,” whether it be the tailor who looks upon all his fellows as mere clothes-horses for the display of his own manufactures, or the artist who insists upon the sacredness of his calling and the general ignobleness of the rest of the avocations of men. It would include that school of Genius with a big G of which Bulwer in some of the moods of his mind is the most offensive exemplar, as well as that cheap sort of pessimists who despair of the race whenever they examine their neighbor’s heart, and who make up for the severely virtuous standard which they hold up for their neighbor’s guidance by a genial, largehearted charity for their own weaknesses. It would include all those who mistake individual preferences for general principles. It would include Byron and Shelley; it would not be difficult to show that it would include the nobler minds of Carlyle and Ruskin. And if the whole of mankind have not already been marshaled under the banner of Philistinism the remainder could very easily be proved to belong there by that other definition which is the favorite formula of advanced thinkers, — that Philistinism means an indifference to the higher intellectual interests. When Carlyle denies to Walter Scott the epithet of great, because “his life was worldly, his ambitions worldly ; ” because “ the great mystery of existence was not great to him, did not drive him into rocky solitudes to wrestle with it for an answer,” etc., and then adds that “our best definition of Scott were perhaps even this, that he was, if no great man, then something much pleasanter to be, a robust, thoroughly healthy, and withal very prosperous and victorious man,” he simply means to say that Scott was a Philistine in the acceptation of the word which we are at present considering. And Emerson’s criticism of Macaulay gives us a neat summary of the Philistine theory of life : “ The brilliant Macaulay,” he says, “ explicitly teaches that good means good to eat, good to wear, material commodity.” Macaulay, indeed, has so long been given up on all hands as a specimen of hopeless Philistinism, — the marvelously wrong-headed ingenuity of his Bacon essay condemning him with the thinkers, and the bigotry of his political and literary partisanships with all other men, — that it comes upon one with the freshness of a new sensation to find any one undertaking to relieve him from the stigma. Such a sensation is afforded by Karl Hillebrand in the Familiar Letters from England now running through the Nineteenth Century.

“ The word Philistine,” says Mr. Hillebrand, “ is a new expression taken from the German ; and if an Englishman uses it he is bound to use it in the German sense, or to declare be gives it another sense. . . . This word, indeed, has always kept in the German mind something of its origin, — the opposition to the liberty and Bohemian life of the student. What constitutes Philistinism is pedantic regularity of habits, both in life and thought, prosiness, want of enthusiasm, narrowness of social and intellectual horizon, a certain mild conventionalism, and timid shrinking from paradox, noise, and fantasy. Never was there a man less Philistine than the dashing, bustling, passionate Whig [Macaulay], whose ponderous rhetoric charmed the youth of our generation throughout the civilized world.”

After all, I wonder if we won't have to fall back upon Mr. Leslie Stephen’s definition as the most satisfactory, namely, that it is a “ term of abuse given by prigs to the rest of their species ” ?

— A man who had been sentenced with unpleasant regularity would not lack for listeners, should he enter upon an encomium on the judge who had done him these favors. Even the crier would wear an appreciative smile. As one who has been the recipient at quite regular intervals of those documents from the editorial room which quench expectation, I am sure of a hearing, for I appear to defend the average editor. I stand with but one foot on the lowest round of the ladder of fame. In that heroic attitude, allow me to remark : (1.) The allegation that unfeeling haste governs the adverse decisions of the editor ought not to be accepted as equitable. The doctor reads your symptoms while you are entering his office. When fairly seated, you may be sure that a portion of the diagnosis is concluded. The fleeting colors of the bank-notes are included in the swift glance of the teller who rushes through the package of bills. He does more than merely see the absolute counterfeits. But a contributor who never read a dozen manuscripts, save those in his own handwriting, charges unfairness, because the editor swiftly winnows what is laid before him. Incessant reading ought to make one a ready judge of literary material. The complaining author might be even more agile were he set for the judgment which retains or returns the precious sheets. Practice perfects.

(2.) I take exception to the assertion, made in the Contributors’ Club for January, that the negative answer should be sent out in varying terms. The proposed scale of merit would be undesirable, I am very sure. The impersonal imperative of the printed form (dear, it may be, from long association) ought not to be exchanged for the reward card system. You fail to secure recognition for your contribution, and that is the end of it. If so be you have the testimony of a good (literary) conscience, why seek the unpractical approbation of the editor who bars you out ? You want the consolation of print, not of phrase. If your own judgment condemns your work, why add to your intellectual remorse by receiving unfound ed compliments ? The peremptory style is effective in correcting conceit. Bald failure is what most need. My best moments succeed the opening of the envelope — too bulky for hope to rest upon — which conveys the homeward-bound article. Our waste-basket, it must be remembered, is an annex to the editor’s receptacle for deficient material. Let us keep it well filled, — so will our future be secure!

(3.) I may receive a fresh sentence of condemnation by the next mail, but I will kiss the hand that smites me! I believe, and will believe, that the editors who represent our active literary life in this country are bent on securing better English, and less of it, rather than the mere increase of profit. I will trust their educated judgment more than my own.

— I have been very much interested in the articles on Western Farming in your December and January numbers. I have been a small farmer for several years, and hope to be one again. Naturally, I consider my class the most important, one in the economy of the republic, and view the encroachments of capital on our “ancient rights and privileges” with a semi-professional jealousy. In spite of all this, I cannot share the apprehensions of your correspondent. I think that twenty years at the utmost will see the bonanza farms split up into fragments as small as those of the great Sullivant farm of Illinois. A disintegrating force begins to work as soon as the big farm is under way. Notice, in the first place, that the capital of a farm is easily divisible. You cannot cut a railroad up into ten-mile sections, each worked by an individual stockholder, but when a tract of land is sold it is “ in lots to suit purchasers.” As soon as a partner dies or fails the partition must be made. Farming cannot be carried on by a corporation, because the standard of commercial honor is not high enough to make it safe ; or rather the advantages of large farming operations are not decided enough in the long run to compensate for the risk of parting with individual ownership. The title must be held by a partnership or by an individual, and remains “ joint and several.” But of course the decisive question is, How long will wholesale farming be profitable? The immense profits which are received at first shrink year by year, and disappear as soon as the yield of wheat falls to ten bushels an acre, which it must do after five or six crops, whether continuous or not. After that the profits reappear with a minus sign before them. The profits of a small farm of two hundred acres, worked under a judicious system of mixed husbandry, ought to increase with every crop.

An industrious man can always find a day’s work on a farm which he owns, the remuneration of which, though small, goes into his fixed capital. The regular operations of seed-time and harvest should yield a support to him and his family, and the rest of the year can be filled with work of improvement, such as underdraining, planting and trimming trees, gathering and preparing fertilizing material, and the thousand and one “ odd jobs ” of repairing. Thus a small farm solves the great problem of the day. It finds a “ fair day’s work and pays a fair day’s wage ” at all seasons. The capitalist farmer cannot afford to buy the minute, careful work a man puts on his own acres, and the land must have it or deteriorate. The subtle combinations of lime and potash and phosphorus which nature has elaborated in the soil become exhausted. The capitalist cannot replace them at a profit by buying commercial manures. The old law reasserts itself: “ In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” Legislation, by making the transfer of land expensive, as in England, can arrest its tendency to subdivision ; but the tendency, it seems to me, is inherent, and based on a law which in this country can operate freely. The skinning system of the great bonanza farmers is essentially vicious, for it realizes the fixed capital of the nation represented in the accumulated power of the prairies, sends it over the sea in the shape of food, and receives it back as money, which may be spent or wasted. It would be much better for all parties if they could export the land itself. The wisdom of the homestead law and the folly of railroad land grants are receiving their most striking exemplification.

— From a purely historical standpoint the distinction between ancient and modern history is only conventional ; but it is none the less true that history is divided into cycles, that the world in turn grows old and is rejuvenated. Society, that is to say, regularly goes to seed, and its place is occupied for a time by the growing and still incomplete society of the future, till that, in its turn, blossoms and decays. Now I can imagine no surer proof of a society’s being on its last legs than the discussion of such problems as Is Life worth Living ? With material civilization goes hand in hand intellectual (as distinguished from spiritual) refinement, and it is not till both of these have reached a high development that people begin to ask themselves, Is life worth living ? It is the theory of the Catholic church that for the mass of mankind intellectual development is bad ; and this seems to be the lesson of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the only perfect civilization with whose decay we are well acquainted. For intellectual development consists simply in increased appreciation of beauty, in greater sensitiveness to sensuous impressions, in a cultivated taste. In so far as he is a critic, the admirer of a Raphael is not at all superior to a connoisseur in sauces. Intellectual development, we may say, results in everywhere making ends of what with common folk are but means or incidents.

Now the high-strungedness as to both body and mind which is a necessary result of luxurious living does not invariably bring happiness with it, and for those who are not satisfied with such joys as it bestows this world can do nothing more, and they know it. If death is but a sleep and a forgetting, then for them life certainly is not worth living.

But these hot-house specimens of the human race are too few to be important as a class, except as they influence the mass below them by their example and opinion. To a student of the signs of the times Mr. Mallock’s book is very disappointing ; not because what he says is not worth the saying, but from the fact that he takes up but a single and comparatively unimportant phase of it. For what he asks is not whether life is, but whether it ought to be, found worth living, — a question which occurs not to one man in ten thousand, while the number of persons who ask themselves the simple question, and with practical intent, is increasing in an enormous ratio. Next to civil marriage, the Protestant clergy of Germany regard the annual increase of suicides as the clearest proof of the materialistic character of the age. In the never-ceasing shaking which civilization imposes on mankind, round men are constantly settling into square holes and square men into round ones. Such persons are necessarily miserable, and the scientific gospel, by its negation of a future life, furnishes them a peace which may not pass understanding, but which is none the less valuable from their point of view. There can be no doubt that these doctrines are spreading, and that they are destined to exercise great influence on society. The result will be a survival of the fittest, not through the forcible extinction but by the voluntary effacement of the unfittest, that is, the weakest. Thus may the sad and the weary put an end to the sadness which they have not the energy to throw off, and the over-refined and sensitive step out of a world which is no world for them.