Two Stools

— That a man may fall between two stools we have often seen exemplified ; yet perhaps no more often than that he may rise between two stools, although, for some reason, proverbial philosophy has failed to emphasize or put verbal seal to this latter fact.

Our own country has long been the cherished abode of Jack-of-all-trades. In proof we have but to open the biography of almost any man distinguished in the earlier pages of our national history. Therein we find no characteristic more prevalent than that of versatility, — indeed, a necessary characteristic and precursor of greatness in a country whose forests were yet to be felled, and whose mails were dragged over primitive stumps in an ox-cart at the rate of five miles a day. But it is not versatility per se that so much gives us pause as it is the deft use of that versatility which enables a man possessing many attributes to put his best foot foremost through the employment of any one of these attributes. Our great orators, when “ stumping ” the State in their own behalf, often felt themselves compelled to that exhibition of modern strategy which is generally characterized as “being all things to all men.” Many of these (we are loath to admit) passed from log house to log house, exhorting the godly, swearing with the prayerless, drinking with the convivial, and delivering temperance lectures wherever, in their phrase, such efforts would “do most good.” This mental and moral agility was often exemplified by an aptness of pose which secured them consideration far beyond any award which even they might claim for themselves. That great emotional orator, Henry Clay, invariably referred to himself, when “stumping” the Eastern States, as a rough backwoodsman. On the other hand, his exhortations to the Hoosiers were besprinkled with classical allusions. To them he was the scholar and the gentleman. To such a strategist failure could arrive only through momentary forgetfulness of the rôle assumed with reference to a special occasion or audience. A man is usually one of many parts because he likes to be so, and is restrained from exhibiting his manifold qualities only at cost of much self-sacrifice. We all know the extreme difficulty experienced in segregating a presidential candidate, lest he should expose his real or pretended accomplishments, to his inevitable discomfiture. Lowell speaks jocosely of an instance of such segregation, where the unfortunate candidate was closely confined, without writing materials, in some lonely place ; outlying sharpshooters being detailed to cut off any stray goose which might possibly let fall a quill wherewith the candidate would be sure to write something destined to bring confusion upon his party.

But to return. Among the men of versatility who, in another than the political field, have achieved a reputation, or at least have greatly enhanced it, by the above-described methods of reversal, might be named a poet who, about two decades ago, made his somewhat meteoric début in this country. Metropolitan society received him with the hospitable gladness it usually accords to lions from unknown regions. In the abodes of fashion where he was entertained he was wont to masquerade as a frontiersman, bearded and red-shirted. Knowing that within these precincts he was likely to meet many rivals in verse, he set his pretensions in the opposite direction, in effect announcing, No, I don’t know much about literature, and I don’t pretend to write poetry, but I do know how to ride a horse, and I can sling the lariat with the best of them.” A jaunty consciousness of marksmanship, a presumable readiness with pistol or with knife, a serene delight in recounting such fictitious exploits of himself as came to abound in his poetry, built up for him the reputation of a superb athlete of the plains who dabbled in melodious verse. When sundry sunburnt and bearded officers from our occident lightly derided his nomadic pretensions, and intimated that among Kit Carson’s gang this rough rider was known as an Eastern dude of vast but modest scholarship, such critics were set down as envious calumniators.

A few years ago, there exhibited in the music halls of our leading cities a person who was called the “ cowboy pianist.” A wild-looking youth, with long red hair and neglected finger-nails, pounded the piano with a “perfect looseness,” to use his own phrase. The music as music was not remarkable ; as cowboy music it was startling, — the performance as of an untutored centaur, equally lacking instruction and practice. His tumultuous splashing among the ivory keys seemed an eighth wonder ; but alas ! wayfarers from the far West were ready with a tale that the cowboy pianist was merely a third-rate German music teacher from a country town in Texas. What remained was make-up, — unkempt hair, long finger-nails, and all. Briefly, as a Buffalo Bill or as a Paderewski he would have been a conspicuous failure ; poised on the two stools, he had a season of immoderate success.

Many a literary man has salved a dubious reputation by a pretended affiliation with one of the professions. He is known among lawyers as one who writes ; among writers, as a dull journalist, but a brilliant jurist; the mystery of the unknown in this case proving efficacious. Even churchmen have been observed to set aside their claim to piety to mingle in the tumult of politics, to tempt theatrical perils of oratory. There have been eminent preachers who were viewed askance by theologians, but applauded among their compeers for a political prowess which politicians regarded as worse than useless for their purposes, yet commendable enough in a pious clergyman. But we need not multiply instances. Let us have a new proverb with reference to the “two stools.”