The Contributors' Club

DOUBTLESS there are persons so happily constituted by nature that, metaphorically speaking, they can “shut up shop” at a moment’s notice, and go junketing with a merry comrade, or at least can enjoy all the legal holidays in their lot without suffering Black Care to follow them. But the most of us live under a very different dispensation : when we are not pursuing our occupation, our occupation is diligently pursuing us; in truth, we are not long in discovering that there is no earthly paradise but our tyrant has an extradition treaty with that country ; no reputed free soil, but a fugitive slave law is in force there. Everywhere we meet our fellow - runaways. From being runaways ourselves, we are able to detect others in like case. Moreover, some of these fled too hastily to fit themselves with a proper disguise, and therefore their shop garments do bewray them. And again, while we have been in conversation with them, — even as the word was upon their lips, have they not been nabbed by the Demon of Brown Study, and spirited away before our very eyes ? We smiled indulgently upon the unceremonious manner of their leave-taking, knowing that in this respect we had much to be remitted to ourselves. All vocations are represented by these refugees ; and where any two of like occupation meet, a third person shall overhear much that might be termed shoptalk ; thus merchant converses with brother merchant, school-teacher with school-teacher, farmer with farmer, each two in an idiom of their own, the import of which but vaguely reaches the intelligence of the uninitiate. Of all these fugitive shop-keepers, the writer, though seemingly most free, is perhaps least able to snap the charmed tether that binds him to his occupation. Wherever he goes, he still must be gathering, in the interest of a recondite and incalculable fund technically known as Material. So, although he may decree to himself a vacation, drop his faithful implement, the pen, and leave behind him the four walls of his shop, it is only to find himself in a larger shop, where the abundance of riches is like to prove an embarrassment. His scope of inquiry has a Socratic breadth, including all manner of men, their occupations and amusements. It is his business to know something of everything, from the generation of antique gods to the combinations, human and circumstantial, that seat prime ministers and the presidents of republics. He aims to know what life is in a trapper’s or a squatter’s hut in the unkempt western wilderness, and what it is in the courtly circles of the metropolis. It is within his province to understand the processes employed in a paper-mill, and the delicate craftsmanship given to the making of a watch. To him there is nothing great or small, since with a stroke of the pen he can render marvelous the dullest commonplace, or can reduce a hero to the figure which he is said to present to his valet.

It is probably not well understood outside the profession how extreme is the impatience which seizes upon the littérateur at beholding any cultivable ground left fallow. I once heard one of the craft remark to another : “ What a pity it is your friend does not write her memoirs, or at least put the material in some clever person’s hands to work up : if I were you, I would nag her until she let me do it! ” Such, commonly, is the writer’s abhorrence of waste that his economic and utilitarian principles are applied selfward as well as to the outer world. With Heine he might affirm,

“ Out of my own great woe
I make my little songs.”

He can’t afford to let any tender or romantic passage in his own experience go tithe-free ; it must be turned to account to swell the bulk of Material. The note-taking instinct never slumbers. In the midst of some delightful vagary, he must catch himself up, to recall how it originated, and to determine whether it be worth clapping into some pigeon-hole of the memory for use hereafter ; if he walks with Nature, he looks and listens with shrewd inquisitorial eye and ear, having intent to report every trick of manner, every tone and syllable of her artless confidence ; if he reads a book, he is not without the impulse to lay up serviceable quotations.

It may be observed that the literary adept has a way of engaging his friends and acquaintances in conversation upon the particular subject in which he happens to be interested. He does this in so skillful a manner that his obliging fellow-conversationalists never suspect the turn they have served; indeed, it takes one of his own trade, acquainted with all its methods and exigencies, to discover his social thrift. Otherwise, how should I have guessed that the distinguished preacher, who came down from his study to chat with us for a few moments, was endeavoring to compensate for the interruption by laying us all under contribution to the sermon left unfinished upstairs ? With an apparently careless, “ I have been thinking,” he drew the conversation into the channel in which his own thoughts were running. So I surmised at the time, and was agreeably corroborated in my supposition when a few days later I had the pleasure of reading the sermon in print.

It not infrequently happens that those who live under the same roof with a literary workman acquire an almost professional zeal in looking after the interests of the shop, constituting themselves a reportorial association to lay before him whatever in their daily experience and observation they may deem of use as Material. Such service being based upon love, and totally disconnected from lucre, is a department in literary hackwork which has never yet received the recognition to which it is entitled by desert.

— It does not seem to me that Henry James has quite got at the heart of the matter, when he says in his recent article on George Eliot that the marriage of “ the nunlike ” Dinah Morris “ shocks the reader, who sees in it a base concession.” He calls it a “trouvaille” of Mr. Lewes’, and rejoices to exonerate George Eliot from having conceived it Nevertheless, her responsibility as an artist and moralist is deeply involved in the marriage, as she declares in one of her letters that she “accepted the idea at once, and from the end of the third chapter worked with it constantly in view.” This statement proves that the union was deliberately planned all through the development of the story and of the characters, so that it cannot be considered in the light of a convenient concluding accident. If Dinah be “nunlike,” she was nevertheless created for marriage; but to apply the term “ nunlike ” to her indicates a confusion of ideas. Her saintliness is not of Catholic origin. Methodism and Quakerism produce spiritual and ascetic women without the tendency to celibacy. Lueretia Mott is an instance of such development on a stage of action which gave her character some historical significance, and she was a wife at eighteen; and George Eliot’s aunt, whose religious experience suggested Dinah Morris to the author, was herself a married woman.

The essential reason for the marriage, however, lies in Adam’s own nature and history. In real life, such a man would certainly marry, and in the novel, it is artistically right that he should marry the woman who serves as a link to bind together all the various persons and interests of the story. This office of Dinah’s, as the unifying principle in the story, must not be overlooked in any adequate criticism. To say that a more buxom mate would have been more suitable to Adam, if marry he must, is simply, as George Eliot remarks of a criticism which some one made on the plot of The Mill on the Floss, to say that a book entirely different from Adam Bede should have been written. Surely, it would not have been well to end with the vague statement that after a while Adam married somebody, and it would also have been poor art to introduce another woman into the body of the narrative, who would have diverted attention from the contrasted characters of Dinah and Hetty. I contend that it is not only natural that Adam should marry, but it is artistically necessary, in order that the tragedy may not be over - weighted. Neither Arthur nor Hetty is a character of sufficient moral import to entail lasting consequences of a fatal nature on deeper souls. The agony of Hetty’s wanderings and death; Arthur’s lifelong regret, with the especial sting in it, that it is useless ; Adam and Dinah so pained that they can never take any after happiness quite joyfully, — these suffice. George Eliot knew life and art too well to destroy the harmony between cause and effect by making the tragedy greater still. She was not young when she wrote, and she had known how the heart heals even over a wound from which the soul never quite recovers. Hetty is too slight a thing to move more terrible issues. Had the result of their sins been greater, the reader might have been stirred to irritation against Arthur and Hetty, but George Eliot wishes them to be seen through the medium of pity, — a sort of light which, if not in all senses an artistic light, seems still to partake intimately of the nature of divine art.

— Probably few of us would be greatly strengthened in the secretly cherished dogma of auto-infallibility, could we foresee to what mutation our present opinions, tastes, desires, sympathies, and adherencies would be subject during the next twenty years. We are right to think and feel as we do now (no doubt of that!). Shall we be right also when, by and by, we find ourselves at the very antipodes of our own present estate of thought and feeling ? We are not moodslaves, nor faith-breakers, nor time-servers, yet what vagrancy and zigzagging our line of travel presents! Stability wins our allegiance ; any fickleness of judgment or of will offends us, and turns us away from him who betrays it; we so repel the thought of unsteadfastness in our own purpose and conduct that we are almost ready to announce it a species of virtue to be established, though for the worse, and a species of vice to change, though for the better.

As to mental mutability, the world might be divided into three classes: those who frequently and inconsequently change their minds and who are scarcely more conscious than are other ephemeræ of the metamorphoses undergone ; those who consent to change their minds, dreading not to forsake the old domicile of opinion and purpose if the spirit’s growing life shall be better accommodated in the new; and those who change their minds under protest, grieving at what they regard as evidence of instability in themselves. Such,—

“ Knowing the heart of man is set to be
The centre of this world, about the which
These revolutions of disturbances
Still roll,”

consider that it is laid upon them to maintain a kind of centric immobility, failing of which, nothing less than the destruction of their whole starry system would result. Apparently, they forget that the “ heart of man,” as well as its fluctuating satellites, has an orbit to accomplish in space, which it does, by its own law of motion.

We should perhaps feel less poignantly those alterations which, without our fault, come over our spiritual existence, if we but reflected that, however sudden and startling our discovery of them, their progress has been steady, and not violent. “ Yesterday this day’s madness did prepare ; ” so, if the case be lamentable, the votive cup of our tears belongs to yesterday rather than to the present day. We might do worse than to temper the sharpness of regret, thus, with a drop or two from the vial of fatalism. Who does not feel that in himself are various selves, each destined, by a hidden but just plan of rotation, to have its turn and ascendency ? It belongs to the statesmanship of self-government to find and declare the unity running through all these successive administrations. But it is urged, “ There is in me a Protean spirit that baffles inspection.” How then ? Is not our Proteus like its namesake of old, that after so many antic transformations and sly evasions was at last cornered and brought to reveal to the Argive heroes returning from Troy what they sought to learn regarding their fortunes?

If the physical self is completely renovated once in every seven years, and if in the course of a lifetime we have been provided with so many different tenements, why may there not have been as many different tenants ? In one view of the case, it would seem a pity that nature should give us so many new bodies, and there make a stay of her benevolence, leaving us with the same old minds !

If, some grounds of former belief or action having been relinquished, I am accused of unsteadfastness, nothing daunted, nothing disheartened, let me reply, “ You are mistaken ; I have not changed my mind, — but my mind has changed me.” I would not stand out against the authority of this resident vicegerent, obeying which it is possible to feel an almost jocund irresponsibility as to consequences. I would heed the royal edict of Antoninus, “ Reverence the faculty which produces opinion.”

Observing that Nature abhors a standstill not less than she does a vacuum, that growth and change are everywhere bound together, and that it is the inorganic and senseless which change least effects, I no longer covet static existence ; rather am I thankful that the mind in me is of convertible stuff, and so constituted that it can beat Change on its own ground. It might have been reverie — yet I thought myself fully awake, when lately I heard the Muses chanting this song,

OF THE CONSTANT.

I AM not constant as yon constant rocks,
That have their bases under ocean’s floor,
That yield no piteous span, receive no score,
Though ships make thither, waves deal shocks on shocks;
I am but constant as the sea, whose flocks,
How wide soe’er they wander, evermore
Morning and evening crowd the vacant shore
At beck of her who smiles through silvery locks, —
Constant but as the oak, now bare and dry,
That soon the genial season shall restore
And its gray arms with fluttering honors fill, —
Or as the violet, that seems to die,
Yet can its azure angel lift it still
To greet the coming springtime as before.

— In Lounsbury’s Life of Cooper (of which let me say, in passing, that it seems to me a model for that kind of writing) occurs the following comment: “ There are those with great faults which please and impress us far more than those in which the component parts are better balanced.” The criticism is applied to Cooper’s novels, which the biographer considers as belonging to the class here described. Whether we think this judgment just or not with respect to Cooper, the remark contains a general truth, easily recognized as applicable to certain of Cooper’s fellow craftsmen; to Dickens, for instance, whose extraordinary powers will always continue to impress those who are the quickest to see and feel his imperfections. But the above-quoted sentence struck me at once on reading it as being significant with regard to Cooper himself as well as his works.

Cooper was a man whose worst defects were more readily seen by the outside world in general than his good qualities. It is not surprising that his brusqueness of manner, which in the excitement of discussion often looked like violence, his lack of patience with other people’s opinions, his contempt for which he sometimes was not at the pains to conceal, should have repelled a great many of his acquaintance. Yet those who could see below the surface, and who had opportunity to observe him in his domestic relations, must have felt that while there was much in him to forgive there was also much to love and honor. In this respect Cooper is a type of many others, men and women, whom I, for one, find no difficulty in tolerating, even liking, partly, perhaps, for the reason that they fare so badly with the majority. It is a question of taste, doubtless, and they who prefer a negative character, incapable of giving offense, to one in which faults and virtues are prominent alike, have a right to their preference. It is very unwise and a mark of inexperience to undervalue an amiable disposition ; but, on the other hand, the lack of it may be compensated for by other admirable and lovable qualities, and pure negativity is often the most irritating thing possible. That the irritation is not altogether reasonable and justifiable does not help the matter. Yet complain as we may of the superficial judgments so common in the world, and however much we are disinclined to follow or be led by them, it is impossible to deny that such surface estimates are after all the only ones practicable, as the world goes. The fact is unmistakable, whether we like it or not, that our acquaintance judge of us by the appearance, the outside, not by the inner truth of our being. It can hardly be otherwise. Inner and outer ought to correspond, but who will give us credit for lovely qualities of the spirit that persist in hiding themselves shyly ?

Cooper and those who resemble him forget the outside, — do not realize that to escape the imputation of arrogance, violence, and conceit they must avoid the appearance of anything that may be mistaken for these unlovely traits, since a world not made up of Solomons will not spend time or thought in distinguishing show from substance. Every day

one lives, the plainer it becomes that one’s influence depends almost wholly upon one’s personality, and not only on what one says and does, but how it is done and said. The speech or action gains weight and credit from the speaker or doer ; the same thing said differently by a different person will produce comparatively little impression. Let a man give utterance to what is in reality a well-considered opinion in an eager and hasty fashion, the opinion will be taken not for what it is worth in itself, but as partaking of the ill-advised rashness with which it has been pronounced. Few people are sufficiently interested in an impersonal subject, in the discussion of any more or less abstract truth for its own sake, to overlook anything not to their taste in the manner of their interlocutors, or to prevent prejudice with regard to the speakers from biasing their reception of the words spoken.

Whoso is a really ardent advocate of a special truth or theory, let him then take heed to the fashion of his advocacy, since a small thing may lose him his cause. It will be little comfort to complain of the folly of his hearer, whom, had be had been wise and well informed, the pleader would have had no need to enlighten. Our characteristic modes of behavior and speech may not express us wholly, and therefore not altogether truly; yet how can we deny that, after all, these traits are our own, and so to a certain extent the manner is the man.