The Contributors' Club
FOR some years I have been a contributor to magazines and other periodicals, and for much of the time I have been editorially connected either with a magazine or with a newspaper. My experience, therefore, has often been somewhat novel. I remember one instance in which I successfully resisted a temptation, and a man has so few opportunities of recording a victory of this kind that I cheerfully avail myself of the chance.
A certain editor asked me for a contribution, and I sent him one. In a very short time he returned it, with a letter almost as long as my article, in which he stated, with great minuteness, exactly what his periodical required of its contributors. He mentioned the subjects which should be treated, with the regulation length of articles, and explained what particular emotions they ought to excite, and what good principles they should encourage. He did not say that my article was lacking in any of the necessary requisites, but, as he sent it back, I was left to infer that it was so lacking.
Now, of course it was perfectly right for the editor to say what he wanted, but I could not help wishing that he had expressed himself thus clearly when he asked me to write for him.
Some months passed on, and this editor sent an article to the periodical with which I was " editorially connected.” He was not aware that I was so connected, and that it was my duty to decide upon manuscripts submitted for publication. If he had known it, I think he would have addressed himself directly to me.
I read his article very carefully. I desired, earnestly, to accept it. I wanted to write him a note over my own name, in which I should gratify that desire for revenge, — sometimes small and evanescent, but which is as certain to spring up in the mind of the author of a rejected contribution as the desire to cackle is sure to spring up in the mind of a hen who has just laid an egg, — by telling him how much I liked his article, and how I would use my every effort to have it printed at an early date. But all this was simply impossible. His paper was moderately good in its way, but in subject and treatment it was as entirely unsuitable for my periodical as an article on the Ramifications of Buddhism would be for the Wheelwright’s Gazette. It would not do at all; there was no possibility of its being accepted.
It then occurred to me that, as I could not make use of any coals of fire, I might have recourse to an entirely different policy, and try what lumps of ice would do. This method of treatment I could follow by returning his article with a note, in which I should copy verbatim his remarks about the kind of contributions that were needed for the periodical which he edited. These remarks would apply very well to our publication, and he could then see in regard to his returned contribution what I had seen regarding mine. I regret to say that I considered this matter for some time. There was a neatness about the contemplated act which tempted me, as a stiletto in the belt of a sleeping monk would have tempted the hand of an unoccupied Italian bravo. My soul yearned to place on the back of that manuscript the inscription, “ Dec. w. i. n.,” which would mean, “ Decline, with inclosed note.” But my better editorial nature began to assert itself, and I felt that I must not inclose the only note I cared to write. I could not even justify myself in indorsing the article, “ Dec. ten.,” or, “ Decline tenderly,” by which the clerk of our returning board would know that he must write a regretful and soothing letter ; for, in this case, such action would be clear hypocrisy. So I simply wrote, “ Dec. w. s.,” or, “ Decline, with slip,” which inscription would cause the article to go back to the writer with one of those printed slips containing a form of refusal in which the English language is made to fulfill to the utmost the Talleyrandic idea of the use and purpose of speech.
I suppose the author in question was shocked when his article came back to him in this wise, and felt., probably, very much as the before-mentioned monk would have felt had he been rudely awakened from his pleasant dreams by a kick from the repentant bravo. But little he knew what a rueful thrust he had escaped!
— I have come to the conclusion that small towns are not good institutions, although at first sight they would seem to possess advantages of their own over both cities and rural districts.
In that it is not, a city, the small town rejoices in the absence of monotonous blocks of tall houses shutting out the light and air, and also of unpleasant odors, and other such city nuisances; while, on the other hand, the town contrasts favorably in some respects with the mere country village, as in its good flagged sidewalks, for instance, which replace the muddy pathways on which the patient villager must trudge for half the year at least. But this, I consider, is only a superficial view of the small town; it is what tempts the inexperienced to try living in it; but a few years of residence make clear what is to be said on the other side of the question. Briefly stated, the objection to the town is that it is neither city nor country, and gives none of the special pleasures of rural or metropolitan life. In the great city you give up the sight of green fields and running brooks and ample sky spaces for the sake of libraries, music, the drama, and society. In the village you learn, after a fashion, to do without these, finding compensation in your farm or your garden, your dogs, your pleasant walks and drives. But how much of any of these things does the small-townsman enjoy ? Perhaps his town, after a time, calls itself a city, begins to raise the taxes and lay out superfluous streets; perhaps, too, it attains to some books and a reading-room; yet, after all, it remains in essentials a town still. And one town is pretty much like another in all its chief features ; one comparative advantage is counterbalanced by some disadvantage. Experto crede. I have lived in half a dozen different ones.
In one of his stories, Mr. Henry James numbers among the misfortunes endured by the agreeable widow Cecilia her residence in Northampton. I don’t suppose the writer has any spite against that particular town, but means to indicate his opinion with respect to the small town in general; and one cannot help feeling that life in it is a real, undeniable discomfort for all persons of any social, literary, or artistic tastes. But village life affords gratification for one healthy taste, — the love of nature. In exchange for the museum and theatre it offers the enjoyment of woods and fields ; and this is just what the town does not offer. You must take a longer walk than Americans commonly enjoy before you can get beyond the limits of the straggling town, — most of our towns do straggle. I know that the actual village in New England, at least, is not the one that fancy paints ; it is not even Miss Mitford’s village in picturesque Old England, for one searches in vain for the shady green lanes and bowery hedgerows she tells of. Yet our villages, if not in the richest country, are in the country still : one has enough, of grass and trees, such as they are; the roads go wandering as they choose; and the sky shows itself not in patches, but from one side to the other of its great dome. The town merely tantalizes you with the suggestion of nature’s sweetnesses; in the city you forget all about them. I believe that citizens who are sensible enough to spend their summer vacation in genuine country places make more acquaintance with nature and come to love her more than the townsfolk who content themselves the year round with the half acre or acre of ground that separates them from their neighbors, and such trees and flowers as they can crowd into it. Of course in the village there is no society ; but neither is there in the town. Even if society means for us not a succession of receptions and balls, but intercourse with a circle of genial friends, we are certain to find these among the whole city-full; but in the town, where the number to choose from is so diminished, the circle reduces itself to perhaps but one or two persons, and we are no better off than in the village.
— One is constantly tempted, in writing of Mr. James’s stories, to employ the terms belonging to art, so curiously does his work seem to encroach on the painter’s ; to borrow an illustration from the technique of art, he appears to have devised for Confidence a scheme of color, by which all the parts are nicely related to each other, so that consistency is secured, while no one part has a distinct individual relation to nature. Take, for example, the dead matter of fact presupposed of Gordon Wright. In the world in which all the other characters move it is highly reasonable and consistent; but the moment the reader withdraws the character from the book, and compares him with truthful, candid, and outspoken people of his acquaintance, there is a collapse ; he cannot stand the air of nature. The old story, at which artists shudder, of the birds pecking at the grapes in Zeuxis’s painting might he reversed in the case of Mr. James’s novel: we put out our hand to feel the canvas.
The subtlety and grace of his writing pique us into a critical mood. It seems impossible to enjoy his work rationally, that is, to follow the fortunes of his characters with a lively interest in them ; we are curious to see how he achieves his effects ; we become critics with him ; his own attitude toward his creations, essentially an analytic one, becomes ours, and we get our satisfaction in winding with him through the mazes of their psychology. A device which he has employed in Confidence, not for the first time, heightens this temper. The book is narrated in the third person, yet nothing takes place except under the immediate ken of one of the characters. If Mr. Bernard Longueville had been writing the story in autobiographic form, he could not more carefully have preserved the proprieties of that mode of composition. The novelist’s license of shifting the scenes is ascetically avoided ; if the scene shifts Mr. Longueville shifts with it. It is a clever device for holding the story together without the apparent disadvantages of an autobiographic form; but one consequence is the further concentration of interest in the evolution of the characters. These have still less individuality and separateness of existence; they are all spun out of Mr. Longueville’s brain, and the author fortifies himself by advertising at the outset that this young man was “ of a contemplative and speculative turn.”
But how ingenuously in all this talk about Confidence have I pronounced my own criticism upon the critic! I have not described the book, nor given an inkling of its plot; I have only done what I have accused Mr. James of doing unconsciously, — I have written the writer. By such frivolity have I intimated the cosmogony of Mr. James’s novels; they rest on criticism, and out of that criticism is spun other criticism, and out of that other, and so on to the nth power. Criticise the critic, good reader, and be criticised yourself in turn.
— Confidence is no better in point of workmanship than its author’s earlier novels, but neither is it any less finished than they. Mr. James has been writing with such continuousness and rapidity that it was pleasant to be confirmed by the reading of this last story in my trust that he was too thorough an artist, and one too careful of his reputation among the best appreciators of good work, to permit himself any relaxation in the effort after perfection. The story, of that ingenious but slight kind which only writers gifted as Mr. James should attempt to handle, seems to me a pleasanter though not more interesting one than any he has yet written. We are not balked of our natural if weak-minded desire to have matters turn out comfortably for the good hero and heroine. Here is a peculiar and delicate situation or complication of affairs, out of which all the actors come with satisfaction to themselves, and with equal credit to the hearts, if not to the heads, of all. I have heard the dreadful accusation brought against this delightful novelist of seeming a somewhat cold-blooded chronicler ; and though, remembering his sympathetic treatment of such singularly goodhearted fellows as Rowland Mallet and Christopher Newman, the charge always seemed to me quite unfounded, yet I am glad to be able henceforth to point confidently to Confidence in refutation of it. No indifferent dissector of human nature wrote it, I am convinced. If I were going to find any fault with Mr. James it would be that he sets his cleverness, to call it by no higher name, easier tasks than it seems equal to; but perhaps he estimates his own abilities and their limitations more fairly than others can do for him.
— When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for a people to twist the fine old word gentleman into “gent,” I have no doubt that life and literature, however much they may laugh in their sleeve, will bow politely to the innovation. But neither life nor literature will ever be able to detect the slightest connection between the dropping of the u from such words as honour and the telescoping of the word gentleman. “Gent” is simply a contraction of the first two syllables of the word, and represents gentleman no more than it represents gentlewoman. I do not object to “gents” as a contraction of gentlemen, for that is precisely what it is not. I object to it for what it is, — a bastard word, disowned by its putative father, and frequenting only the lowest company. Where on earth did it get that “ s,”— that pert, wicked little s, which refuses to give any coherent account of itself? What is it doing there, any way, except trying to make a plural of “ gentle ” ?
No doubt posterity is lying in wait to play strange tricks with our language, just as we have done and are doing with that of our ancestors. I have no warm blood to shed in the matter. I am quite willing to indulge the hope that the philologist of the future will endeavor to simplify things for those honest souls who look upon language as merely a means of communication, so that all gents, may be enabled to transact their bis. with as little troubas pos.
— The contributor who instances the abbreviation of “ cabriolet ” into cab as a good reason for condensing gentleman into gent employs a specious argument. Because a legitimate abridgment of a certain word is excellent, it by no means follows that all abridgments, whether legitimate or not, are equally excellent. “ Cabriolet ” and “ caravan ” belong to a class of words with which one may take liberties; but there are words which refuse to lend themselves to indignity.
Gentlemen is a fine, strong word, and gents is a very feeble substitute. It is, moreover, an arbitrary contraction, for we do not say “ gentlemens.” (Even the garment which gents always wear is less objectionable than the wearers themselves, for pants is honestly cut out of “ pantaloons.”) Of course the reply to this will be that gents is the natural plural of gent. But our colored brethren, who say “ gen'I'men,” are the contractors to whom I would give the job of pruning the word gentleman, if it must be pruned. To be sure, they lop it rather cruelly, but they at least manage to leave a little of its original significance.
— I hasten to sustain, so far as I can, the position assumed by the contributor who had the courage to speak out in the June meeting and defend gent. It is a firm, simple, sonorous word, and is bound to supplant the pretentious, toddling compound “ gentleman.” Rosewatered literary men, who part their hair in the middle and use tooth-powder, and have no sympathy with the philological struggles of the poor, may turn up their noses, but gent is a word that appeals to the intelligence of the great masses. Thackeray understood this perfectly when he penned those beautiful lines, —
Go, lose or conquer, as you meant;
But if you fail, or if you rise,
Be each and all, pray God, a gent! ”
How finely Tennyson speaks of
And what felicitous use is made of the word by Dekker, the dramatist, where he says of Christ,—
That e’er wore earth about him was a sufferer;
A soft, meek, patient, humble, tranquil spirit,
The first true gent that ever breathed ” !
— Lately, in a mixed company, one called attention to the high-flown description of “a Beacon Street boudoir,” forming part of a story in the March number of a certain popular monthly. After describing the silks, satins, velvets, laces, bricabrac, etc., the aspiring author (or authoress) caps the climax by saying, “ The odor of pot-pourri is everywhere prevalent.” Whereupon we all laugh hugely. “ Oho ! Here’s richness ! Onions and garlic — turnips and beans — melodies and harmonies. Happy heiress, who could afford to have her boudoir thus scented! ” It was a rather good joke, certainly, at the expense of the absent romancer. But there happened to be a bright-eyed Boston woman present, who (waiting till the laugh had been fully enjoyed) said quietly, “ But don’t you know that potpourri is also used as the name of a perfume ? Our grandmothers used to put rose-leaves and violets and rosemary and spices into a great jar, — with salt, I believe, — and keep them for years to spread a perfume through their rooms.” After a pause of blank dismay, and after an appeal to the dictionary, we all laughed again, though this time it was at our own expense. Well, it is not often we can get two merry-thoughts out of the same bird, or two laughs out of the same jest.
— What another member of the Club says about traveling is worthy of far wider application. How universal is the desire in all social life to follow the lead of the crowd rather than our private tastes ! People buy clothes, read books, select music, china, ornaments, in short everything, — even build their houses,—for other people’s admiration rather than their own comfort. For instance, every person of common sense knows that a square house, ample, and with a hall running right through to kitchen and offices in a wing, is the most comfortable and inexpensive of all houses; but there is not one house in five hundred constructed in these days without a tower, or a tiny bay-window, or a sharp gabled roof ; while within, two cramped rooms and a bedroom nine feet square make the habitation for the owners, who might have built a plain dwelling forty feet or even fifty feet square for the same money. This exterioration is the curse of the age.
— In the May Contributors’ Club, I find the exultations of a brother who successfully tripped up a boat-load of clergymen on the text, — or con-text, — “ He that runs may read.” Let him try it next on the generally accepted statement that Absalom was caught by his hair in the boughs of an oak; or that some people “ roll sin like a sweet morsel under their tongue.” Either of these nets will catch plenty of prey.
— It has long been conceded that the general atmosphere of New England is more rife with purely intellectual ambition than any other part of the country, if not of the world ; and it is also evident that the women of New England must necessarily share in that ambition, and drift into the modes of thinking and the intellectual activities which so many agencies about them suggest. The fathers of New England girls are very often much more concerned about educating their daughters than their sons, and take an intense pride in the success with which they make their examinations. The education of girls not only makes no provision for developing the affections, the softer qualities of womanhood, but it ignores and even crushes them ! The New England girl has a horror of being thought warm-hearted so far as men are concerned. She rather cultivates a cool, indifferent manner, as if it were a blemish to have a heart; and if she is inclined to be coquettish it is rarely in a style that would be considered languishing. Yet she has a heart, after all, and will lavish an intense devotion upon female friends, that her critics would probably think was stolen from some man. It is the ambition of American fathers, I repeat, which turns the thoughts of the daughters always in the direction of mental preëminence; as they themselves aim at supremacy of style in dress. But when we reflect upon the woman who holds the truest and steadiest of a man’s affections, whom do we find her to be ? Not the wife, alas, nor the sweetheart even, but the mother. And does the man care that his mother was never handsome, or brilliant, or even well dressed ? Not in the least. But he knows that she always loved him, felt for him, sympathized with him, and for that he gives her an allegiance which ends only with his life. The men of a nation inevitably make the women what they will, and the women in return impress upon their children what they have received from their own fathers. Hence it comes that the existence of the American woman has become almost as purely objective as that of the man. Her ideal of life from her cradle has been associated with the maximum of exertion. There is no quietude among Americans, and wonderfully little egotism in their social life. It is a never-ending series of sensations and mental shocks, which keeps the whole being in a nervous quiver, and allows no time for any quality save that of energy to develop itself symmetrically. The American woman is as unquiet in her thoughts and enslaved by her duties, however light, as the man. Even when she visits she has no air of repose. Her conversation is not thoughtful, but actful. She tells you what she does or suffers, not what she thinks or feels. There is no reverie about her, no suggestion of that brooding spirit which indicates a capacity for impassioned affection,— a capacity which to bachelors is always ideally seductive, however little the married man may appreciate or return it. Yet, generally speaking, undemonstrative as the American girl may be, she will wear her life out in working for the man she loves. She forgets all about being for him in that merciless energy which always drives her into doing for him.
Her character is full of the lights which dazzle, but it is wanting in the tender shadows which soften her personality.
To illustrate the restless activity of American women, I will instance one whom I knew very well. She boasted that she was never idle a moment, and having extraordinary intellectual gifts she wore herself out before she was forty, and left a large family of daughters, whose temperaments were all disastrously affected with an over-nervous susceptibility that will torment them their whole lives.
There is, again, another reason why the American girl seems cold to the superficial observer. It is because she is free. She is educated to repress emotion, because her independent movements expose her to contact with men of all classes, among whom there are many very “ vile persons.” Her coldness of demeanor, therefore, is her armor against impertinence or even worse things. She passes, Diana-like, through crowds of men every day, not one of whom for one instant suspects her of being other than she is, because her manner shows her at once to be a free-born, spotless American woman ! They never dream that because no one is watching her she means to go astray.
The defects of the American girl may be done away with by giving less prominence to the purely intellectual or purely practical side of her education. For while one class of men is striving to solve the problems of life by educating women intellectually, there is another class which is shouting for education in domestic matters. While the professors at Harvard are rejoicing over some girl who can take in their philosophies or their mathematics, the newspaper editor sings the praises of her who can roast a turkey, bake bread, or make her own dresses. Neither gives the poor girl any chance to exist, but only to work, with either hand or brain. No one says to her, “ You are not only yourself, but possibly the future mother of other beings. Do not therefore allow yourself to be driven by either school of apostles beyond what you may do easily, comfortably, or pleasurably. The healthy balance of your nervous system is far more important to you and your future family relations than all the mathematics or dress-making, or even roasting of turkeys. Occupy yourself steadfastly, but without strain, without hurry, and without emulation. As the apostle said (and it must have been meant expressly for Americans), ‘ avoid emulation.’ Find out first what you can do best, and even if it does not come up to somebody else’s standard, learn to content yourself with that.”