Against Being Clever


IT is a significant fact that the word “ clever ” in its proper sense is only of recent use in this country, and that use is even now very much restricted. To most Americans “ clever ” signifies good natured or kind. Thus, horse dealers say “ clever as a kitten,” meaning that the horse in question is safe in harness, and free from tricks. The simile is an absurd one, by the way, for a kitten the size of a horse would be about as dangerous an animal as one could imagine. But let that pass. We have had little use for the word “clever” in its true sense in this country, because, Heaven be praised ! we have had but a small amount of the quality which the word indicates. Cleverness belongs only to an urban, an ultra-sophisticated, an idle, a luxurious, a superficial population. What is it to be clever ? I hardly dare to define the word, for definitions are dangerous things to put forth ; but when we speak of clever people, the reader and I know whom we have in mind. We are thinking of that girl who always has something bright and metallic to say ; of that young man who talks about Ibsen and Browning, who has no settled Opinions upon any deep subject, who has the latest boots from England and the latest slang from the studios of Paris, who goes “ over ” to New York.

The worst accusation that we can bring against clever people is this : they do not care about the truth ; their ambition is not to say what is true, but to say something ingenious and entertaining. “ ‘ What is truth ? ’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” In this single sentence Bacon depicted a clever man. It has been suggested, not without reason, that in so doing he misrepresented Pilate. Pilate may have spoken in a sad or bitter rather than in a jesting mood. Be that as it may, the clever man is a jester who does not care for truth. However, let us not make the mistake of taking him too seriously. No terrible responsibility rests upon his shoulders ; he simply desires to make the time pass pleasantly for himself and his friends, and, more especially, to acquire a reputation for being literary, or artistic, or witty. Why, then, should we complain of him ? The great trouble is that he has got into literature.

In writing of George Meredith, Miss Repplier remarks, in her usual acute manner : “ There is such a thing as being intolerably clever, and Evan Harrington and The Egoist are fruitful examples of the fact. The mind is kept on a perpetual strain, lest some fine play of words, some elusive witticism, should be disregarded ; the sense of continued effort paralyzes enjoyment ; fatigue provokes in us an ignoble spirit of contrariety, and we sigh perversely for that serene atmosphere of dullness which in happier moments we affected to despise.”

Another form of objectionable cleverness is that of far-fetched imagery, of which the following is an oxarqple : “It should seem that if it be collision with other minds and with events that strikes or draws the fire from a man, then the quality of those might have something to do with the quality of the fire,—whether it shall be culinary or electric.” That sentence was written by an exceptionally clever man.

Here is another example : “But whatever we might do or leave undone, we were not genteel, and it was uncomfortable to be continually reminded that, though we should boast that we were the Great West till we were black in the face, it did not bring us an inch nearer to the world’s West End.”

And I will add a further instance from the same writer : “ Dr. Holmes tells us that we change our substance, not every seven years, as was once believed, but with every breath we draw. Why had I not the wit to avail myself of the subterfuge, and, like Peter, to renounce my identity, especially as in certain moods of mind ? I have often more than doubted of it myself.” This is clever, no doubt, but it is ultra-sophisticated and artificial, and it serves not to enrich or stimulate the intellect, but simply to give it a languid pleasure.

In literature, still more in conversation, cleverness often takes the trivial form of expressing some commonplace thought in big language, thus raising an amusing contrast between the idea and the words. This was a favorite practice with Dickens. Here is an illustration, though not perhaps a very good one, from a contemporary writer : “ When we reflect on the dismal fate of Uriel Freudenberger, condemned by the canton of Uri to be burnt alive in 1760 for rashly proclaiming his disbelief in the legend of William Tell’s apple, we realize the inconveniences attendant on a too early development of the critical faculty.” This is very good in its way, but one can easily get a surfeit of the trick. There are people, Boston-bred people especially, whose whole idea of conversation is to manufacture little verbal sweetmeats like the foregoing Specimen, and hand them to you with a pleased smile. Ah, the ennui, the fatigue, the despair, that I have suffered at their hands ! They are brilliant, — I acknowledge it ; they have brains ; they outshine me ; perhaps, indeed, I am envious of their talents. Nevertheless, I can lay my hand upon my heart and declare that it is not envy, but resentment, that moves my pen against them. The great fault that I find with clever people is this : they do not help us to get “ forrard ; ” there is nothing to be learned from them, nothing to be got out of them. All mankind may be divided into two classes : (1) those from whom ideas or facts can be derived; (2) those from whom neither ideas nor facts can be derived. Of course this division is supplemental to the still more important one which depends upon the affections. The chief use of human beings to one another is to supply an object upon which affection can be bestowed, and from which it may be received. For this purpose do we have wives, husbands, children, lovers, and the like. Some persons maintain dogs, and some cats, for the same reason. But, apart from this relation, the most important use that one has for human beings — at least I find it so — is as feeders for the mind. A man is like a book, — to be read, and then either to be put back on the shelf for future reading, if he deserves it, or, as is more likely, to be got rid of ; not rudely, of course, but gently, and with due consideration for his feelings.

There are certain men —to know them is a great privilege — whom you cannot open at random, so to say, without finding a jewel ; men in whose company one never spends half an hour without hearing Something to remember for a lifetime. But how few they are ! As I look back, I count in my own experience only five such. They are as follows : a poet and patriot ; an admiral in the United States navy ; a preacher and writer; a lawyer ; a young fellow who wrote squibs and verses for the magazines and papers. This completes my list, unless I should add to it, as I might not unreasonably, a littérateur who died, indirectly, of drink. Samuel Rogers declared, toward the end of his life, that he had learned far more from men than from books ; but his list of friends and acquaintance held such names as Fox, Burke, Grattan, Porson, Tooke, Talleyrand, Erskine, Sir Walter Scott, and the Duke of Wellington.

Something can be learned from a man who knows but one thing, provided he knows it sincerely, and is not clever. I have a neighbor who knows only cow, but on that subject he is profound, and it is a kind of education to talk with him. The diet of cows, their mental and physical nature, their peculiarities of temperament, their habits, their diseases, their vices and virtues, their similarity to human beings, the wiles and tricks of men who deal in cows, — the subject, particularly the last-mentioned branch of it, is inexhaustible ; and I would rather hear my neighbor talk cow than listen to a whole dinner table of clever people. From such a man I can obtain facts, ideas, points of view, whereas from the clever man I can derive nothing except passing amusement. His concern is not with substance, but with form ; not with things or thoughts, but with the particular mould in which he can cast his thoughts. Hence, as I say, you get nothing out of him. When society is in earnest, there are never any clever people about. They spring up in times of feebleness and decadence. The sophists were clever men ; there were clever verses written in the last days of the Roman Empire. In our own day we have had some monumental examples of cleverness ; such, for example, as Mr. Mallock’s New Republic. In fact, we might take Mr. Mallock as the ideal clever man. Was it not he who said, “A man’s mother is his misfortune ; but his wife is his fault ” ? And this, also, “ A woman of the world should always have a grief, but never a grievance ” ? Mr. Mallock has indeed made frantic efforts to be serious and profound, to be something more than clever, but the fates arc against him. He remains a creature of the age.

Cleverness, as I have suggested already, is a fault of the city. In the country there are plenty of people who are idle enough to be clever, but, lacking the requisite cultivation and book-learning, they become humorous instead, which is something far better. It is the fact, the thing in itself, which pleases a countryman ; he simply calls your attention to that in his own dry, inimitable way; whereas the clever city man uses the fact merely as a peg on which to hang his clever remarks, I was once the witness of a little scene, the recounting of which may serve to illustrate my point. It was on the wharf at Bar Harbor, and a citizen of Philadelphia, with his wife, a pretty, lively woman, and a tertium quid, were just starting off in a rowboat. There had been some quarrel between man and wife, but it was conducted so decorously as to escape my notice. Not so, however, with the two or three long, lanky natives who were lounging on the wharf, apparently lost in whittling their customary sticks. They had taken in the situation perfectly. The husband sat down in the bow by himself, grim and sulky ; and as the boat, rowed by the tertium quid, passed out of earshot, the oldest of the natives remarked, — his hands still busy with the knife, his eyes still fastened upon the stick, —“He’s mad clean through.” The tone as well as the words showed a keen enjoyment of the ludicrous aspect of the affair, tempered by some sympathy for the unfortunate husband. Transplant that man to the city, give him the pursuits and advantages of a dilettante, and instead of dismissing a humorous incident with a single apt remark, he will make it the text for a series of clever phrases.

“ But what are you going to do about it?” some impatient member of the Club will inquire. Well, what I propose is this, — a crusade against clever people. We dull, serious, plodding fellows are superior to them in numbers as in everything else. Why should we not cast them out ? There is a fashion in forms of intellect just as much as there is in forms of clothes. It is the fashion nowadays to be clever. Whether they read or whether they talk, people care only to be amused. I propose that we, the majority, shall change all this : let us make it fashionable to be serious, to be modest, to be instructive, to be learned, — in short, to deal with facts rather than with phrases suggested, sometimes very remotely, by facts. Too long have we suffered the tyranny of the clever, the rattle-headed, the superficial. Let us arise in our might, and sweep them out of the drawing-rooms, out of the magazines, out of the books of the day. I hope and believe that I shall live to see the time when a man will blush to say a clever thing, just as now he would blush to say a solemn one.