The Value of the Corner

SOLITUDE is a kind of posterity. That is, it gives us a position from which we can survey our contemporaries and ourselves somewhat as a future generation may be expected to look at us. “ How much solitude, so much power,”also, was De Quincey’s persuasive formula. But that statement is no doubt excessive; for solitude works in extremes, and may at times foster too much egotism. Yet those people who never have any solitude, whose existence is a restless whirling amid the dusty sunbeams of the business world or of social amusement, are apparently just as liable to an exaggerated self-esteem (and that, too, of a small and grasping sort) as the men and women who live quietly, somewhat withdrawn. Further, if solitude engenders egotisms, one must admit that it also tends frequently to the other extreme of developing great modesty. It is, in fact, the mixture of these two moods, an alternation of quiet, isolated self - confidence with an equally pronounced modesty in rating the worth of human efforts, which enables one to withstand the popular optimistic current, and throw things into that perspective which, as I have hinted, resembles the view of posterity.

Not, of course, that either posterity itself or this imaginary anticipation of it is always right. We of the present may be appreciably wrong in many of our most confident and cherished judgments upon a former age ; and, similarly, the generations yet to come are likely enough to misjudge us. What more likely, seeing that a whole race of fathers and sons living together, with every facility for explaining themselves and interchanging ideas, so frequently fail to understand each other or to form just mutual estimates ? So, the man who plays at posterity by getting off into a corner to do his thinking, and there passing in review current actions or affairs, may no doubt surround himself with an abundance of errors. Numerous evidences of this are to be met with in literature. Yet mistakes are really one of the greatest charms of literature ; they take a large part in composing that curious, inimitable combination known as individuality. Do we accept without question all that we find in Carlyle or, especially, in Ruskin, writers who seemingly have often gone out of their own way in order to put themselves in our way? Not at all. They are the sort of men who have drawn much from solitude, have built up their intellectual character in seclusion, and have believed themselves commissioned to correct the faults of their time; to pronounce upon the present from the stage of a sort of improvised futurity, entered only by their own little side-doors and belonging exclusively to them. We sometimes question their utterances as freely as we would those of our most gifted but unrenowned companions of daily life; although if, everything considered, the choice were to be made deliberately, we should hardly dare to wish their defects and misconclusions removed, since, without these, they would lose their peculiar value as individuals. I do not at the moment think of any American writer (unless it be Thoreau) possessing their vigor of self-assertion, or their delightful vein of error, wandering like a thread of gold through solid blocks of what would generally be received as good sense.

Of the quality which they represent we have hardly enough, as it seems to me, in our books and magazines. Vigor and downrightness crop out plentifully enough in our newspapers, where, however, they are for the most part dissociated from the literary element, and lack the saving grace of frank and earnest personality. In American character, again, there is any quantity of resolute force and untrammeled expression. The country abounds in persons who believe in themselves, confidently hold positive opinions, and have little hesitation in announcing them. They are bold in their utterances ; they know how to make their way ; they effect prodigies by their energetic action. This is what makes us interesting and refreshing to Europeans, and sometimes puzzling ; for they never know just where or how we are going to explode, in some new form, with some new notion or unexpected scheme. A democratic republic, one would suppose, ought to afford an almost unlimited opportunity for the manifestation of such characteristics in its literature. But, so far as we may judge by actual accomplishment, our republic does not do so. Among the reasons usually given to explain the fact, by those who are convinced that it is a fact, there are two that seem to account for it in a measure. One of them is our formerly natural dependence on foreign literature ; which dependence we have taken pains to continue by artificial means, and with some success, — notwithstanding the steady growth of American authorship under difficulties, — through our unhealthy system of seizing upon such literature without remuneration. The other reason, which possibly has a good deal more to do with the matter, is our observable inclination to cultivate a certain outward uniformity ; although it is impossible to extend this uniformity to our real and interior selves, which, in spite of every effort to the contrary, insist upon remaining diverse. To some extent, of course, uniformity is indispensable in every civilized nation. The willingness of men in the mass to have their hair cut and brushed, their beards trimmed or effaced, according to prevalent custom, and their submissiveness in wearing clothes substantially alike, are unconscious tributes to that unity of the race which most of us regard as something to be prized. Custom in these little matters is an essential accompaniment in the organization of society, as consent to certain principles and adherence to the forms of civil government are necessary. It is more than doubtful whether custom should apply with the same rigidness to the exhibition of thought and character in literature. But in this country we seem to treat our literature as if it were a church or state ; a fixed and accepted form of belief or a political party; something to be organized and “ run ” on a particular plan, within lines which a constant pressure tries to fix exactly and conventionally, in the spirit of hair-cutting and clothing.

A friend of mine tells an amusing anecdote about a tailor, which I shall venture to borrow. Having long been puzzled to guess why millions of men, through one decade after another, should persist in wearing on the backs of their coats, just at the waist, two buttons for which there is no discoverable use, he asked his tailor why buttons are invariably attached in that spot. “Oh,”was the answer, “ they are put there to — to carry out the idea!" The nature of the idea, however, was not explained; and probably it never can be. So with too much of American literature : it must have buttons on its back. It must be deferential to — something, I don’t know what; for it is as hard to say what the standard is as to find out who fixes it and why. At all events, there is a lack of independence, an insufficient variety of bold opinion, an indefinable disposition to discourage or modify salient individuality, in our writing, which is detrimental to vigor and diversity. Yet we have no lack of appreciation for those qualities when we find them in the foreign authors whose works we read with avidity.

If I am wrong in this view, still it may be of service to state it; for some one will perhaps take the trouble to set me right. The wise are careful of their wisdom ; remembering the precept ns to a proper economy in disposing of pearls. But sometimes they are more careful than they need be. They become too reticent. It is possible to push reticence to the extent of making it a foible. A wise man should at least make known his conclusions, for the benefit of the world ; and upon the foolish man also it is incumbent occasionally to present for inspection such opinions as he may have. Let it be admitted that I am now meditating in a corner, and speaking from one, — a corner where, although I have an impression that it is light, I may be in the dark. Even so, we are testing the supposed benefit of solitude, of thinking and speaking for one’s self. A very natural effect of solitude is to cause divergence from the beaten track. It is apt to stimulate a disposition to differ from what may seem to be the general belief or want of belief, the prevailing sentiment or absence of sentiment, among our fellows. It emphasizes the distinction between that which we actually think and that which we are expected to think or assent to ; between our own views as we know them and the views of others as we see them. These little differences are of immense importance in life. There is much more significance in fractions than the world commonly recognizes, except when it is dealing with arithmetic or driving a bargain. It is the small variations from tone to half-tone in the scale of sound that make it possible, when we understand them, to create music and command harmony. In stating a difference or uttering dissent, one may not be setting forth indisputable truth, but may on the contrary be sounding merely one of those discords without which, curiously enough, some of the highest reaches of harmony would be impossible. Perhaps one has got hold of a partial truth or a bit of error; but, whatever be the fragment, he has grasped it by means of his own conviction, and contributes it towards that general fund of ideas, or half-ideas if you choose, which is bound to become by additions from many hands a complete and beneficent accumulation. We shall understand the whole truth better from having handled and helped to gather the imperfect parts; including sundry isolated half-truths and errors, deposited somewhat at random but sure to be adjusted at last.

It is very well. I should say, to hoard up your wisdom for use at the suitable moment; but, on the theory just advanced. you should be quite as solicitous to treasure up your unwisdom, your error, knowing it to be a valuable commodity. You will do well, of course, to be modest in displaying it, and expend it cautiously. But your caution should not obey the ordinary motive, which is simply a fear that some one will deride your foolishness. The controlling idea should rather be that, having this element which may become useful, you ought not to throw it away. Most persons see no more value in a good, sound, conscientious mistake than the Indian sees in the coal mine under his wigwam. Yet there is very little doubt that mistakes may serve excellently as fuel. If they do nothing else, they keep us warm with debate; and heat, in the human system, is necessary to circulation and life. To confer a mistake upon the world, candidly and good-naturedly, is a notable performance. I like the man or woman who comes to us, with the frankness and good faith of childhood, bringing some little shard or honest scrap of observation, and exclaiming in substance, “ See what a beautiful specimen of dissent, what a sparkling crystal of protest, I ’ve discovered ! ”

These, it must be confessed, are not usually the popular persons. But they exercise an influence which is often wholesome, and in emergencies they may actually become leaders ; for their little pebbles, which seem to be so misdirected when cast into our reservoir of reflection, send out ripples spreading through a wide circuit, that, unlike glory, do not “ disperse to naught.” It may be asked, by the way, What is a real leader in the accepted sense ? What is that man who is adopted by large bodies of other men as a guide, and somehow or other is always found going with the current, or, if he seem to oppose it for a time, first makes sure of a strong following ? In the actual course of events, he frequently turns out to be no more than an aggressive combination of errors, with a leavening measure of truth and accuracy, varied in its proportions to meet the situation of the hour. The extraordinary career of Gladstone gives a striking illustration in point. Here is an eminent man, of wonderful ability, who has never hesitated to move in a circle, and at the same time has always risen; his course being a spiral, on which at different stages he has stood diametrically opposed to some position which he had previously occupied. In passing through so many changes of opinion and policy, some of them very pronounced and extreme, it is fair to infer, without throwing the slightest discredit on his essential sincerity, that he must at some time have been wrong, may be wrong now, or may be wrong hereafter. Perhaps he has been somewhat carried away, here and there, by the necessities of public life, which compel a popular leader to keep moving, and at all hazards to keep on top. But it cannot well be denied by us, who are impartial observers at a distance, that he has been a factor of the utmost importance in the conduct of English affairs, notwithstanding his inconsistencies, and perhaps in part because of them. It is also clear, I think, that in those crises where he has felt obliged to make some new stand, to adopt a view contradicting some former view, he must first have fallen back upon convictions independently matured by him, in solitary reflection. He must have retreated into a corner of his own mind, and fortified himself there, before beginning a fresh campaign on a new plan. So much he has in common with humbler minds that consult their own convictions. Gladstone is popular, though he has often had to face the hisses of transient unpopularity. The man who is not swept away by public life, and ensconces himself in his corner for free reflection, will not be popular, like Gladstone. He will appear less graceful, because he will fail to accommodate himself to the elastic Gladstone spiral; but he will have the compensation of facing-things squarely and straightforwardly at all times, instead of at uncertain intervals.

It is in the nature of a corner, if well constructed, that it should be square ; and in the support of its rectangled sides there is something that braces and reassures. Every life built on enduring lines should have its points of support in angles that include something of the recluse and the dissenter. In a letter to Sir George Beaumont, dated May, 1807, Wordsworth wrote, after publishing his complete poems : “ Trouble not yourself upon their present reception ; of what moment is that, compared with what I trust is their destiny ? To console the afflicted; to add sunshine to daylight, by making the happy happier ; to teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to think and feel, and therefore to become more actively and securely virtuous : this is their office, which I trust they will faithfully perform, long after we (that is, all that is mortal of us) are mouldered in our graves. I am well aware how far it would seem, to many, I overrate my own exertions when I speak in this way, in direct connection with the volume I have just made public. I am not, however, afraid of such censure.” In those words one hears the tone of solitude and self-reliance. Doubtless, if any man were so to prophesy concerning himself to-day, his condition of mind would appear to the majority of observers fatuous. Yet the resolve to look beyond the immediate popular estimate, precisely as Wordsworth did ; to sustain individuality, and make bases for independent thought and action, might well be brought to a higher pitch than it now reaches in our common life, our literary development, and our public functions. Loyalty to party, for example, which is quite necessary up to a certain point, is insisted upon among us to an extent that may easily work against the real good both of parties and of the country. Party leaders do not hesitate to be inconsistent, and a party itself becomes inconsistent. Its membership is sometimes greatly changed within ten years; perhaps within a single year. New captains come to the front, with new aims that may differ essentially from those which controlled it before. Nevertheless, the citizen who has once joined such a body is loudly called upon to follow without question, wherever it may bid him go. In this unqualified demand there is an obvious element of unreasonableness ; yet, familiar and selfevident though the conditions are that I am here only restating, how seldom they are recognized, and how often are they misunderstood or perversely misrepresented ! It is the habit, with many, to assume that a careless or insincere ballot, yielded to a party for form’s sake, offends but verbally ; is a mere political white lie, harmless and spotless as the paper of which it consists. But the ethereal chemistry of morals remarks a change in the hue of that ballot, as it falls into the voting-box and is converted into a dark calumny against good citizenship.

To apply our idea, for a moment, on a somewhat large scale, we may say that in politics and government, in the science of society, the centre of gravity is found somewhere between the extremes of license and tyranny. Both the anarchist and the tyrant, instead of poising on this centre, attempt to balance themselves on some line along the perilous edge of things, — at the supposititious " jumping-off place.”The healthily independent and useful citizen, therefore, must try to counteract their misplaced weight. In doing so he will sometimes be obliged to place himself in unexpected corners, and prop himself therein with all his force. It is quite likely, also, that his attitude at such moments may appear to a casual spectator exaggerated and unnecessary, that it may give him the air of throwing himself altogether too much on one side ; when the real reason for his leaning in that direction is, not a desire to be extreme, but, on the contrary, an earnest effort to maintain an equilibrium, and keep the vehicle of civilization (upon which he is riding as a humble passenger) from overturning. The strict and immovable conservative fancies that, by staying always in one spot, as near to the apparent centre as he can get, he is doing the best that can be done to prevent an upset; and undoubtedly this precaution of his will prove essential to the general safety. He too uses the support of a strong and secure corner, if he can ; but none the less the attitude of the man on the side will present itself to him as ridiculous. When we come to divergences less wide-reaching, and conflicts of opinion as to details in literary and social questions, the same difference of attitude will still exist, naturally, and the same effect of absurdity will be produced on the mind of the fixed conservative. In a light, unconscious way, the negro minstrels present us with a general though imperfect scheme of the arrangement of minds in society. Does not the traditional " Mr. Johnson,” in the minstrels’ hemieyele, always occupy the precise middle of the line ? He typifies the juste milieu; he is the sedate and dignified representative of the conventional; while the extravagant, frolicsome, or defiant members are the bones and tambourine, who sit in opposite corners. But who would abolish the bones or the tambourine ? They appear eccentric, they excite our laughter; yet if we look deeply enough we shall see that they have, if not precisely a sober purpose, at least a solid reason for being. For all sound comedy or travesty is in the end, even if remotely, an independent commentary on the serious business of life, and one that we cannot dispense with.

Just as the independent criticism implied in good comedy is an element of health, so is that kind of impartial observation which adopts the serious tone; even though at times it may seem to be as extreme as the bones and tambourine, and may actually be the reverse of amusing. What we need, at present, is an increased proportion of this comment,— the comment of the corner. Swayed as we are in this country by majorities, let us not overlook the value of the distinct individual voice. The quiet confidence of Wordsworth, the belligerent castigations of Carlyle, the calm, cultivated, slightly obstinate persistence of Matthew Arnold in administering correction to his countrymen, have all played their important part in English literature and life. It can hardly be that our development is so nearly perfect as to relieve us from the need of minds akin to these,—vigorous minds which refuse to be intimidated, which do not hesitate to make protest, and are willing to incur unpopularity, for the sake of preserving to all men the benefit of free expression. It is possible that we rely too much upon a theoretical freedom of speech, as the excuse for our comparative neglect to encourage or support this order of mind, or to develop it in sufficient strength for uttering the untrammeled but reasonable and requisite word of independence. Perhaps it would be well for us if we were to consider and respect more carefully than we do now the man in the corner, who sometimes emerges thence as Abraham Lincoln did, with its angular impress upon him. May we not pertinently bear in mind that Lincoln, skilled in many ways to deal with men, but in other points uncouth and crude, offended some of his strongest associates and allies by his unconventionality, as also by his determined reliance on his own judgment? Yet had it not been for those peculiar traits, which came from his growing up in his own way, his own place, and acting upon his own plan, he would have been of little value to the nation in its time of need. The Lincoln type and quality do not appear often in our public life ; and in our literature they have as yet appeared hardly at all. There is plenty of room for them still, and they would have their use. In the quiet fireside nooks of remote villages there are doubtless many young men to-day who are destined to take an important part in affairs. It is to be hoped that, instead of trying to make corners in the market, some of them will demonstrate the value of the corner in resolute thought and action for some higher end.

George Parsons Lathrop.