Mr. Wheeler's Handbooks

IN the republic of letters there are books which perform all the functions of servants and valets. True equality in books, as in men, is not inconsistent with distinctions of rank and service ; and as there are good servants and poor servants, as well as gentlemen and parvenus, so, in the order of servant-books, there are some which receive respect for their honesty and thoroughness, as there are others which constantly offend by the carelessness and indifference and poor training which they display.

It happens that literature brings credit to its professors, and thus there are always persons who are diffident of their ability to make a position for themselves in original work, yet think to become recognized in literature by making an index, or editing a classic, or compiling a volume of poems, or arranging a concordance, a bibliography, a hand-book, a catalogue, or a dictionary. They may not aspire to make books which shall be leaders in society, but books which shall be servants or valets. They are apt to think lightly of the work they undertake, and to assume that inferior mental qualities go into the composition of a servant book.

To all such we commend a faithful study of the late Mr. W. A. Wheeler’s work. Mr. Wheeler himself wrote little. He was an industrious literary workman and collector ; he produced a series of books which suppose literature as servants suppose masters, and the thoroughness and conscientiousness with which he performed his self-imposed task are qualities which deserve a hearty recognition. He never made the mistake of undervaluing the work which he undertook ; he respected it and himself.

As long ago as 1865 he prepared a book, his Dictionary of the Noted Names of Fiction,1 which is issued from time to time in new editions, and has never been superseded. The book is well known as a directory, which shows the street and number of the famous men, women, and children who live in the city of fiction, and its service in this way is very great. A biographical dictionary contains the names of people not half so important as many in the same ranks of life in books. The facts in the life of some sea-captain who has been pressed in the hortus siccus of a biographical dictionary are of less concern than information respecting the undying Cap’n Cuttle, but the prejudice of Dr. Dryasdust prevents him from doing what Mr. Wheeler has done.

One of the hardest problems which a dictionary-maker has to encounter is to know where to draw the line, and in the logic of his calling he is inevitably driven to make a series of dictionaries, each of which serves as a complement to its neighbor. In the preface to his Dictionary of the Noted Names of Fiction, Mr. Wheeler wrote, “ The author has been urged to extend his plan so as to include the titles of famous poems, essays, novels, and other literary works, and the names of celebrated statues, paintings, palaces, country-seats, churches, ships, streets, clubs, and the like ; inasmuch as such names are of very common occurrence in books and newspapers, and for the most part are not alphabetically entered and explained in encyclopædias, dictionaries, or gazetteers. That a dictionary which should furnish succinct information upon such matters would supply a want which is daily felt by readers of every class is not to be doubted ; but it should constitute an independent work. A manual of this description the author has for some time had in preparation ; and he hopes to publish it, at no distant day, as a companion to the present volume.”

Mr. Wheeler died in 1874, leaving this task well advanced, but not completed. His nephew, Mr. Charles G. Wheeler, undertook the final preparation, and the result appears in two different, books, — such is the tendency of dictionaries to subdivide themselves, — recently published. Who Wrote It?2 has the preface which the original compiler had prepared and printed, when death interrupted a task the limits of which appeared then to be clearly marked in his mind. The design of the work, as therein explained, was “ to furnish a handy book for ascertaining or verifying the authorship of famous poems, plays, essays, novels, romances, philosophical and literary treatises, and the like, so far as they bear a specific and distinctive title.”The design is well carried out. It would have been possible to expand the separate articles, but the brevity and conciseness of the work, while precluding much that would have been interesting and valuable, increase the utility of the book as a clew to literature, since it is possible thus to enter more names in the same compass. Such a book, like an anthology, will never wholly satisfy any one, since every person has a different gauge for the reputation of authors and books ; but the omissions which occur to us are not many, and we are thankful for the insertion of titles which personally we might have thought too obscure to come under the head of famous.

To instance some cases which we failed to find in a rapid survey, there is no mention of Burnand’s Happy Thoughts series, a title which has become somewhat proverbial; Whittier’s Leaves from Margaret Smith’s Journal does not appear, nor its more famous prototype, Lady Willoughby’s Diary; we should have looked for Hans Andersen’s celebrated Ugly Duckling, and possibly his enigmatical O. T.; neither is Lamb’s Mr. H. mentioned, which this last suggests to us ; the Widow Bedott Papers do not appear, nor Cozzens’s Sparrowgrass Papers ; Alphonse Karr’s Journey Round my Garden is not given, though it falls short only of its prototype in popularity; Annie Laurie is omitted, and songs on better known are given ; nothing is said of the Forged Decretals, though it may be thought not to come within the compass of the book ; Lyra Germanica and Hymns of the Ages occur to us as having equal claims with Lyra Innocentium. Every one may annotate his copy, if he chooses, but he will find that his task is after all that of the gleaner; Mr. Wheeler has already been over the field pretty carefully.

The other and more considerable work which grew out of Mr. Wheeler’s original task is one in which Mr. Charles Wheeler’s hand appears to have had the larger part. Familiar Allusions 3 is an expression which permits a wide range of illustration, and the full title of the work easily tapers off into the unmapped country of the “ and so forth.” The task of selection must have been a difficult one, and here, as in the former case, one maybe individually surprised at the absence of what is familiar to him, and at the introduction of what seems to him unfamiliar, while he remains representatively satisfied that the great field of miscellaneous information has been tolerably well explored. Our chief criticism would be on the title, which seems to comprehend more than it really does. Thus, the first entry in the book, Aaron’s Tomb, at once suggests Aaron’s Serpent, which is not included, and a large body of phrases, which one would naturally classify as familiar allusions, do not appear, because not distinctly connected with concrete objects. However, once it is understood what is meant by Familiar Allusions, one may apply to the book with confidence for the answer to his questions. The value of such a work is best tested by use ; the use will quickly come at the hands of readers who have not yet attained the point of universal knowledge. The series, in short, may stand upon one’s nearest shelf, and serve the purpose of foot-notes to a large library. There are other opportunities for those who would furnish literature with useful servant-books; it will be well if such literary workmen show themselves as thorough and faithful as Messrs. Wheeler.

  1. An Explanatory and Pronouncing Dictionary of the Noted Names of Fiction. Including also Familiar Pseudonyms, Surnames bestowed on Eminent Men, and Analogous Popular Appellations often referred to in Literature and Conversation. By WILLIAM A. WHEELER. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1882.
  2. Who Wrote It ? An Index tn the Authorship of the more Noted Works in Ancient and Modern Literature. By WILLIAM A. WHEELER. Edited by CHAKLKS G. WHEELER. Boston: Lee & Shepard. 1882.
  3. Familiar Allusions. A Handbook of Miscellaneous Information, including the Names of Celebrated Statues, Paintings, Pa aces, Country-Seats, Ruins, Churches, Ships, Streets, Clubs, Natural Curiosities, and the like. Begun (but left unfinished) by WILLIAM A. WHEELER. Completed and edited by CHARLES G, WHEELER. Boston: Janies R. Osgood & Co. 1882.