American Metaphor

— A member of the Club, not long ago, wrote regretfully of the lack of proverb and metaphor in the everyday speech of Americans. So far as his criticism applies to the language of society, or to that of domesticated foreigners or their immediate descendants, it is perhaps just ; but I cannot help thinking that he would not have made his regret so general had he recalled the turns of expression which are common in secluded communities, where native stock still holds undisputed sway, and where the flatiron of academic education has not yet smoothed out the wrinkles of individuality. In the hill towns of New England, for example, every one of the older generation has his personal set of expressions, sometimes adopted, but often original, which from long use have become an essential part of his private vocabulary. The inventive faculty in speech is highly prized in such neighborhoods, and a felicitous twist of words is always a source of satisfaction to the discoverer.

Occasionally, the quaint and expressive phrases are carried into the outer world by some district school graduate with energy and force enough to make his way among men. Probably everybody can think of such characters. James Fisk, Jr., furnished New York city with metaphors and similes which still echo in the speech of the town. His superabundant vitality and luxuriant imagination enabled him to coin his phrases in quantities as plentiful as the new issues of Erie stock which he and his partner, Gould, poured out upon Wall Street in the memorable campaigns which they planned to teach the old speculators new tricks. Of his never failing supply of anecdote and illustration very little now remains, so soon is the authorship of spoken words forgotten ; but the investigation of the great gold conspiracy of 1869, by the congressional committee of which James A. Garfield was chairman, gives some idea of the Fisk manner.

Fisk had been one of the principal actors in the train of events which culminated on Black Friday in the ruin of dozens of business houses, and he was among the chief witnesses summoned before the committee. Of course, on so formal an occasion, a witness standing on slippery ground would naturally be more than ordinarily careful in his choice of words, and the stenographic report of the trial shows that Fisk felt some constraint ; but it also shows that he was irrepressible even then. By his own account, he had never felt sure of the success of the gold plot. “ I had a phantom ahead of me all the time,” he said, “ that this real gold would come out; ” and when the catastrophe came, in the shape of the government’s order to sell the “ real gold,” he summed up the situation by saying, “ I knew that somebody had run a saw right into us.” He told the committee that on the day after the collapse of the conspiracy, when he thought his fortune had been swept away by the sudden fall in the gold premium, he went to see the unfortunate Corbin, President Grant’s brother - in - law, through whom Gould had sought to influence the administration to keep its gold locked in the treasury vaults. This is Fisk’s story of what occurred during the visit : “ He was on the other side of the table weeping and wailing, and I was gnashing my teeth. ‘ Now,’ he says, ‘ you must quiet yourself.’ I told him I did n’t want to be quiet ; I had no desire ever to be quiet again. He says, ‘ But, my dear sir, you will lose your reason.’ Says I, ‘ Speyers has already lost his reason. Reason has gone out of everybody but me.’ The soft talk was all over. He went upstairs (to fetch his wife), and they returned tottling into the room, looking older than Stephen Hopkins. His wife and he both looked like death. He was tottling just like that” (illustrated by a trembling movement of the body). “ Finally I said, ‘ Here is the position of the matter : we are forty miles down the Delaware, and we don’t know where we are.’ ” Fisk described the panic thus : “ It was each man drag out his own corpse. Get out of it as well as you can.” Being asked how Gould had stood up under the destruction of his hopes, he replied, “ Oh, he has no courage at all. He has sunk right down. There is nothing left of him but a heap of clothes and a pair of eyes ! ”

Fisk was first a man of business, and next an artist in words, but his ease of expression was distinctly a New England gift, inherited, no doubt, from the tin-peddler, his father, who “ would not tell a lie for a shilling, but might tell eight of them for a dollar.” Around the stove in the village store among the hills, on any winter’s evening, there is a waste of apt simile and forceful metaphor which would fill pages in the notebook of some American Flaubert. Among these men, who neither know nor need to know the rhetorical names of the figures of speech, the figures themselves are used simply and naturally ; but the faculty of employing them, if not innate, is to be acquired only after long effort, and even then it bears much the same relation to the actual gift that modern French poetry bears to the songs of Burns.