The Contributors' Club

FRESH from reading Professor Wood’s ingenious paper on The Trail of the Sea-Serpent in the last Atlantic, I lighted on the following passage in Thoreau’s new volume, Summer, — a volume wholly made up from the author’s unpublished manuscripts, and filling one with a desire instantly to have further draughts from those seemingly inexhaustible fountains. The passage in question, which would admirably have served Professor Wood’s purpose, had he chanced upon these pages, is dated at Plymouth, Massachusetts, June 14, 1857 : “ B. M. W-tells me that he learns from pretty good authority that Webster once saw the sea-serpent. It seems it was first seen in the bay between Manomet and Plymouth Beach by a perfectly reliable witness (many years ago), who was accustomed to look out on the sea with his glass every morning the first thing, as regularly as he ate his breakfast. One morning he saw this monster, with a head somewhat like a horse’s, raised some six feet above the water, and his body, the size of a cask, trailing behind. He was careering over the bay, chasing the mackerel, which ran ashore in their fright, and were washed up and died in great numbers. The story is that Webster had appointed to meet some Plymouth gentlemen at Manomet and spend the day fishing with them. After the fishing was over he set out to return to Duxbury in his sail-boat with Peterson, as he had come, and on the way they saw the sea-serpent, which answered to the common account of this creature. It passed directly across the bows only six or seven rods off, and then disappeared. On the sail homeward, Webster, having had time to reflect on what had occurred, at length said to Peterson, ‘ For God’s sake, never say a word about this to any one; for if it should be known that I have seen the sea-serpent, I should never hear the last of it, but wherever I went should have to tell the story to every one I met.’ So it has not leaked out till now.”

— I lost myself for an hour or two the other day — and very pleasantly — over the thirty-fifth volume of the No Name series. My studies in that quiet walk of literature had been suspended for a good while. I had, in fact, almost forgotten that the procession of the “ great unknown ” was still defiling away over the sands of time, when there arrived this new anonyma, clasped with the horseshoe and wreathed with the clover as of old, and having a tale to tell full of freshness and charm. Though new to the American public, the author of Diane Coryval is evidently not new to her work. To great natural vivacity she adds the ease of a thoroughly practiced writer, and her pictures of French rural life, especially of purely provincial types of character, like Madame Brae and the Brothers Byarson, are delightful. The heroine of the little story is a dear creature, too ; the hero (why is this so often the case, in the novels of women ?) a rather poor one. There is a terrible mortality among the secondary characters, but that, happily or unhappily, is not unnatural. What is so is the hero’s resuscitation after he had been a year or two drowned. I am sure that the skilled author of Diane Coryval never intended this. I recognized the miracle, on the instant, for a publisher’s dénoûment ; and it is this rattling, clanking descent of the deus ex machina against which I here take occasion seriously to protest, both on the writer’s behalf and the reader’s. Publishers are a great deal too tenderhearted, as a class ; and they credit the reading public with a similar weakness. They think that the average “ consumer ” of novels would rather see two young people preposterously made happy than have his own artistic instincts gratified ; but I venture to think that they are entirely wrong. The world — that is to say, the reading world — is so very much more artistic nowadays than it is romantic ! The veracious author of John Bull et son He, in his brief but brilliant review of the æsthetic movement, informs us that en 1881 on s’est mis à adorer le beau, and ever since then art for art’s sake has been as common as dandelions in May. The comparison is exact. It is like Lord Tennyson’s weed: —

“ Most can grow the flowers now, For all have got the seed.”

When, therefore, the exigencies of high art plainly require it, let the novelist slay his creatures without mercy, and sternly resist their galvanization. “ Three hulking brothers more or less don’t matter ; ” but “ form ” does matter, and “ symmetry,” and “unity,” and “tone,” and “chiar-oscuro,” — especially oscuro !

— At a recent meeting of the Club a contributor became truly pathetic over the fate of the letters h and r in the “ American ” language, and referred very neatly to a kind of color-deafness as the cause of the evils he laments. This color-deafness, I take it, is the source of all that differentiation of sound which finally results in clearly marked dialects. I have heard some very amusing experiments with persons from a certain capital, who can no more see why Bostonians laugh at them for calling bird “ byud ” and first “ fyust ” than the Bostonian can see why the Westerner is scandalized at hearing “ bu-u-hd ” instead of “ bir-r-rd.” My especial grief is for the danger which threatens our short ŏ. A very careful teacher in the grammar school taught me that o has two sounds, — ō as in “ no,” and ŏ as in “ notand until lately it seemed quite clear how “ not ” was to be pronounced. If here and there one heard the sound “ năht ” one wrinkled one’s nose, said scornfully “ New York! ” and dismissed the barbarism. Now, however, it is really getting dangerous. I heard a lady say that a certain gentleman must surely be named “ Martin,” for she had heard members of his family call him “ Mart.” The name proved to be “ Mott.” A professor of German in Harvard College tells his students that the German word “ hat ” is pronounced like the English word “ hot.” The family referred to was from Philadelphia, the professor was from New York, These are cases of oral transmission of an error. But now comes Life, with its keen eyes and ears, to add the force of the printed word to the destructive power of color-deaf conversation. In its gentle satire on Boston pronunciation, it can find no better expression for the local “ pápa ” than “ popper,” and enforces the point by an illustrated “joke,” as follows: Small boy to sister popping corn : “ You ’ve got two papas, — your real papa and your cornpopper.” Now why not “ cahrn-păhpper,” and done with it? Let anyone carefully pronounce “ corn ” and then “ pop ” as it should be pronounced, and he will find that the vocal organs are in precisely the same position in the two cases. In other words, the o in “ pop ” pronounced like the ŏ in corn, but field during a sfiorter interval, gives the true short o. Let us have, therefore, either “ corn-popper ” or “ cahrn-păpper.” In the former case, the lips, in pronouncing both words, are carried forward, and slightly approach ; in the latter, they are drawn backward and slightly apart. All that is needed is a little training of the ear in early life, so that the true value of sounds shall become fixed. A learned gentleman, who has always lived in Eastern New England, assured me that both the Life jokes were wholly unintelligible to him, while a young man, belonging west of the Connecticut in Massachusetts, being asked how he would express the sound of “ pápa,” promptly answered “ popper,” in complete agreement with the New York journal.

But the worst remains. My own household is invaded ! My daughter, the descendant of an almost unbroken line of New England sailors on the one side, and of New England farmers on the other, now in the second year of her life, is devoted to her “ dăhllies ” and her “ dăhggy.”

Is there no remedy ? Must this really valuable sound be lost to our language, because a fraction of our people are too indolent to throw their lips forward when they come to it ? Where is the missionary who will march through the land and teach the color-deaf how they may be healed ?

— In the Revue Politique et Littéraire of April 5th, M. Abraham Dreyfus, one of the most promising of the younger Parisian playwrights, prints a lecture recently delivered by him in Brussels, on the Art and Mystery of Writing Plays. The lecture owes its chief interest to the letters it contains from the leading dramatists of France, in answer to M. Dreyfus’s request that they should set down for him in writing the secret of their success. Oddly enough, the letters all agree in declaring that a play makes itself somehow, and that no rules can be laid down for its making. The younger Dumas writes that he once asked his father how to write a play, and that the elder Dumas answered, “ It is very simple : the first act clear, the last act short, and interest everywhere.” M. Émile Augier declares that he knows no more about the methods of play-making than M. Dumas, and he, too, quotes from another, who prescribed “the steeping of the last act in gentle tears, and the sprinkling of the preceding acts with wit.” M. Labiche says that his method is simple ; strangely enough, the frank humorist is almost the only one of M. Dreyfus’s correspondents who seems to know how he works. M. Labiche, when he has no idea, bites his nails and invokes Providence; when he has an idea, he still invokes Providence, but with less fervor, for he thinks he can get along without its aid. Having an idea, he writes out a detailed plan of the play, scene by scene, from the rising of the curtain until the final falling thereof. Finally, declares M, Labiche, to make a gay play you must have a good digestion. M. Legouvé’s advice is like unto M. Labiche’s : In a play you begin at the end ; or in other words, while a novel may ramble about whithersoever it will, a play should be a straight line, the shortest distance between two points. The nearest approach to a formula was furnished by M. Dennery : “ Take an interesting starting-point, a subject neither too old nor too new, neither too commonplace nor too original, so that you may not shock either the stupid or the clever.” The perusal of M. Dreyfus’s clever pages may be recommended to the new school of American dramatists.

— The recent discussion as to the origin and adventures of Mr. Charles Reade’s story The Picture has prompted the Saturday Review to a declaration of the Ethics of Plagiarism. The writer begins by girding at the American literary detectives who are always on the alert to catch the tripping Briton ; and then, a little later, justifies the existence of this detective force by speaking of “ the cultured city of Michigan.” Nor is he quite frank in referring to the English novelist accused of plagiarism because he borrowed a bit of local color from an obscure description of the Southern States. The allusion, we take it, is to Mr. Thomas Hardy’s unavowed appropriation for use in an English novel of a comic sketch of a militia muster, from Judge Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes. But these slips on the part of the English journalist do not impugn the soundness of the three principles which he lays down : (1.) “In the first place, we would permit any great modern artist to recut and to set anew the literary gems of classic times and of the Middle Ages.” (2.) “ Our second rule would be that all authors have an equal right to the stock situations which are the common store of humanity.” (3.) “ Finally, we presume that an author has a right to borrow or buy an idea, if he frankly acknowledges the transaction.” Under the first head come the borrowings of Virgil from Homer, of Plautus from Menander, of Shakespeare from Plutarch, of Molière from Plautus ; and in more recent times, of Gray, Tennyson, and Longfellow from the poets of the past. Gray’s great poem, for instance, may be shown to be but little more than a cento, but it is not the less Gray’s own. Of course the difficulty lies in the application of the law. Who is to declare whether a writer is great enough to be allowed to annex the outlying property of his predecessor? And who is to declare the date-line which divides conquering from theft ? Poe was severe on Mr. Longfellow and Other Plagiarists, but he borrowed for his Marginalia Sheridan’s joke about the phœnix, and Whitbread’s poulterer’s description of it; yet we should not hesitate to excuse Poe’s use of Mudford’s Iron Shroud as an incident in his own The Pit and the Pendulum, the fundamental idea of which may be Mudford’s, while the appalling effect is Poe’s. A very important question is the relative value to the borrower of the thing borrowed. The man of genius touches nothing that he does not adorn, and he may be allowed the dangerous privilege of “ resetting gems.” The plagiarist is he who steals his brooms ready made. M. Sardou had read Poe to advantage when he wrote his Pattes de Mouche, but it is absurd to call that delightful comedy a plagiarism from The Purloined Letter.

The second rule is indisputable. No man has a monopoly of the Lost Will, of the Missing Heir, or of the Infants Changed at Nurse. Whoso will may get what effect he can out of these wellworn properties of the story-teller. The law is clear, but it is a question of fact for the jury whether or not any given situation is common property. It is to be remembered also that when a writer makes a new combination of the stock situations, it is plainly enough plagiarism to repeat this combination, however old may be the single situations of which it is composed. The third rule is even more difficult to apply exactly. All depends on the frankness and fullness of the acknowledgment of obligation. M. Sardou once brought out a farcical comedy which was at once seen to be an adaptation of one of Charles de Bernard’s stories. M. Sardou met this exposure by proof that he had the permission of the owner of the Bernard copyright, for which he was paying a share of his royalties from the play. This was an inadequate defense, as the transaction had been secret, and would have remained secret but for the exposure, and M. Sardou would have received credit for a humorous invention not his. In like manner, Charles Reade sought to meet the charge that he had taken the plot of Hard Cash from the Pauvres de Paris of MM. Nus and Brisebarre by the assertion that he had bought the right to adapt the play from the French authors. This, of course, is not an adequate defense, even if Mr. Reade had paid MM. Nus and Brisebarre, which, in fact, he never did, — so M. Nus informed the present writer ten years ago. We are not altogether sure that the three rules of the Saturday Review may not be contained in two, or rather in one with a double clause, namely : A writer is at liberty to use preëxisting material as he will, provided always, (1) that he does not take credit (even by implication) for what he did not invent, and (2) that he does not interfere with the pecuniary rights of the original owner. It was this second clause that M. Sardou obeyed in arranging with the holders of the Bernard copyright, and that Charles Reade respected in agreeing to pay for the use of the plot of the Pauvres de Paris. But when Reade made his play Shilly-Shally out of a novel of Trollope’s, and his play Joan out of a novel of Mrs. Burnett’s, in each case against the will of the original novelist, he violated this second clause. The charge of plagiary is very easy to bring and very hard to refute ; it ought therefore to be brought with the greatest circumspection, and when unsubstantiated it ought to recoil heavily to the lasting discredit of the bringer.

— If I owned Pegasus and a few acres of good upland, not too cold and dry, I would go plowing; and as I shaped the course and depth of the furrow, grasping the stilts with firm hands, I would sing a pæan for the plow. Every great plowman, from the founder of Rome to the finder of the mountain daisy crushed by the share, should be celebrated in my song; and I would teach that there is still something sacred about the furrow, as there was when Romulus marked out the walls of his city and lifted the share over the places designed for gateways.

The heroic-romantic interest which some attach to an old, dismantled, peaceenduring cannon I find in the plow during its winter vacation. All its features, if I may so speak, express the idea of enforced idleness : the out-thrust handles assert its impatience to be taken afield ; the share and the mould-board, though they have gathered rust, signify their readiness and avidity.

I would like to see again certain plowed fields of my childhood’s haunting, — fields next the woods, slowly, by repeated grabbing and burning, won over from wild nature. Here and there are beds of ashes; also, charred stumps, out of whose hollow centres dart occasional slender flames, pale in the sunshine : one might fancy that these are some species of harmless small snake native in such places. The plow works its way among the stumps, and leaves untouched many a defiant oasis of weeds and wild grass. Would it not be well to remodel the verse which represents the soil as “ patient of the bending plow”? Here, the bending plow, or rather the plowman, must be patient of the soil. But the scent of the freshturned earth, of baked clods and charred wood, with now and again whiffs of smoke brought along by the moist wind, is, memory declares, incense most grateful to the rural deities.

To some extent, new-uncovered land satisfies my desire to visit new-discovered land. The plowed field which I visit to-day was a meadow last year. Such turning and reshaping of the old garment of the soil should give this spot of earth span-new attractiveness in my eyes. As I listen to the snapping of grass roots (stout stitches in the old garment!), as small stones tinkle against the plowshare, and as I see the turf quickly and cleanly turned by the invisible iron or steel toothed rodent, I am ready to applaud : “Well said, old mole ! Canst work i’ the earth so fast ? A worthy pioneer ! ”

The furrow-slice, — does it not look appetizing to a hungry eye ? And the field, when it is plowed, — does it not somehow suggest a giant brown-loaf, or gingerbread, methodically cut in impartial pieces ? How cordially the earth invites the husbandman ! It is either, “ Ho ! here is your racy soil for corn ; ” or, “ Here is your choice land for wheat; ” else, “ Why seek you further for a vegetable garden plot? ”

As this dry-land keel pursues its course, lifting the brown waves around it and leaving a permanent wake, scores of adventurers flock hither. What bird of the air spread the news among his kind that this field was to be plowed today ? Before one furrow’s length is completed the farmer has a following of blackbirds and robins ready to share the toils and profits of tillage. Say what you will, this is coöperation : the birds have man to thank for to-day’s entertainment, and man has the birds to thank for their services in behalf of future harvests. Down these feathered throats, almost too much engrossed with the pleasures of the palate to exchange the civilities of the day, goes the angleworm, with all its knots and kinks ; item, cutworm, slug, beetle, and mischievous larvæ? unnumbered. Some one with a turn for numerical statistics has by calculation ascertained that “ a redbreast requires daily an amount of food equal to an earthworm fourteen feet long.” Consider, O man of toil, how greatly thy own welfare depends upon this surprising appetite : if the redbreast should be out of health but for a single season, what ill fortune might befall thee and thine!

The ground that was broken this morning is, long before sunset, disputed over by wandering clans of gnats. These fretful children of the earth have not yet learned that their air privilege extends beyond the limits of the furrow whence they come. Flies lazily sail hither and thither, their wings glimmering in the sunshine; fireflies of the daytime, I see, carrying sparks of argent light and leading fancy along the sylph trail. In a few hours after the plowing the ground is often covered with fine webs ; delicate springes, perhaps, with which to catch the swarming gnats and flies.

Cannot you read yonder furrowed field? If the early Greeks wrote their language from right to left and from left to right, alternately, the system resembling, as they thought, the turnings made by the oxen in plowing (Boustrophedon), why should not the plowshare be likened to an immense pen or style, and the field which it traverses to a written page, — or at least to a ruled page, in which sundry themes of great antiquity are copied in endless repetition ? A plowed field is a writing of the palimpsest sort, in which year after year one theme is erased to give place to another, not a trace of the earlier hieroglyphic remaining. In the “ rotation of crops,” the order is, commonly, corn, oats, wheat, grass or clover, to which procession the plow fixes the period. To me, there is something of poetic justice in the precedence given, in this agricultural series, to the red man’s plant: it is as though the virgin soil refused to be propitiated, or tamed to other use, until Indian Mondamin had been commemorated in the plumed and pennoned ranks of the maize. At any rate, it is recognized as good farming strategy to set the native plant to subdue the soil for the adoptive cereals.

Not all the fields which I have seen plowed this season are to be sown or planted. Some must run a course of discipline under the harrow, to rid them of the weeds they have gathered. Some worn fields, for good service done, are granted a time for rest, to lie in the sunshine and mellow during the longest days of the year ; though no harvests be ripened here, this season, the soil itself is ripening. With these seemingly idle fields I have great sympathy. Pegasus plows for summer fallow.

— “ All signs fail,” we say in seasons of particularly bad weather, and the proverb applies equally well to times of disturbance in the world’s moral atmosphere : we recognize the impossibility of predicting accurately what changes may occur in periods of political strife and social disorder, when old laws and precedents have lost authority and prestige, while no new ones are yet formed to serve in their place. The French war of the Fronde in the seventeenth century, though not without significance, was one of party rather than of principle: neither side was urged to the struggle by any deep moral convictions ; each strove for place and power, indifferent as to the means by which these were to be gained. So when La Rochefoucauld took his seat in M. Mazarin’s carriage, beside his late-reconciled enemy, with the remark, “ Everything happens in France,”he described in a word the nature of the contest just come to a close, and in so doing characterized himself and other participants in it. We do not imagine that his remark was made to cover the least embarrassment with the situation; his own easy change of attitude seemed to him the most fit and natural thing possible. The pliant duke appears to me a type of a good many people less famous than he, of whom the world will never be without a fair proportion, and La Rochefoucauld’s saying applies to individuals as well as to nations and political crises.

Everything happens with certain persons ; they may do or say almost any conceivable thing, and the explanation of their aberrations is to be found without much searching. It is simply that such persons are without character, in the true sense of the term. Their words and acts cannot be taken to mean what they would in the mouths of others, as indications of permanent convictions and settled habits of feeling, but only as the expression of temporary, fluctuating opinions and impulses. Character is good or bad; but of whatever sort it may be, character is always force, and whenever we find it we recognize it as the index of conduct. What may not the man do who has no sense of honor, no loyalty to principle, no steadfastness in friendship ? And what may the woman not do who is without dignity and the self-respect that implies respect for others?

Half the people who are called eccentric deserve to have a much worse epithet applied to them. Here and there a man or woman is found whose oddities of opinion and erratic conduct are genuine, and the outcome of some real inborn twist in their mental and moral disposition. Such persons are generally tolerable, and sometimes very likable, their idiosyncrasies serving as a gentle entertainment rather than as an annoyance to us. We feel that they are quite unaware of their own queerness, which is the result of a native incapacity to comprehend the ordinary conventions of society. But there are other people whose eccentricities are not, or ought not, to be endured. They are not innocently ignorant, but willfully disregardful of a reign of law in the social world. The world’s judgments are no doubt superficial, and therefore very commonly defective or false ; but the world’s conventions—that is, its rules tacitly agreed on for the preservation of the order and decency of social intercourse— are on the whole respectable and to be observed. But the unendurable “ eccentric ” prides himself upon being a law to himself in these matters. He likes to know that his acquaintance are saying of him, “ Oh, that is Mr. B.’s way, you know. He is not like other people; he always does and says just what he pleases.” And the notable fact is that so many persons are imposed on by this absurd affectation that they will let certain behavior pass for independence and originality which is nothing but simple rudeness, the expression of egotism and ill-breeding.