British Novelists on Show
WE should like to know if the British novelist has not at last worn out his welcome as a public reader in the United States. Not his welcome as a visitor and a friend, — that is quite another matter. Public readings themselves were of interest many years ago. The winter lecture course was invaluable to many towns, when books were less accessible than they are now. But in addition to the loss of minds adapted to the peculiar requirements of the old reading desk, the audiences also have changed. Instead of giving the reader an environment of thoughtful attention, they envelop him in a sudden breeze of vapid curiosity. “ Is that the great man who wrote What’s its Name ? Well ! he is not much to look at, is he ? ” And away they go, looking for another victim. One might suspect that even the British novelist, thrice armed as he sometimes is in the complete steel of his self-conceit, would see unpleasant weapons of offense in the eyes of an assemblage which may figuratively be said to have left its ears at home. The world has a quaint suspicion that a waning literary reputation furnishes the motive of these advertising pilgrimages. It suspects that the original message which the author had for his readers has already been written out and delivered, and it begins to look now in every new work from his pen for the same round of characters with which it is familiar, and for a moral which was hoary with antiquity ere novelists began to be. He must feel the injustice which treats him as if he were a specimen astray from some museum. To be the plaything instead of the master of fashion is fatal. The only recourse is to evade the fashion. What shall we suppose would have happened to Sir Walter, if he had resorted to public readings when he found that Byron was supplanting him as a romancer in rhyme ? He never would have been the Wizard of the North, even with all his later achievement.
The outcome of the kind of exhibition to which Americans have been treated of late cannot fail to be unpleasant. It was tried long ago in a case that is conclusive. The Greekling, the small-minded man of letters, who hastened from the East to lecture his rude Western contemporaries, created a contempt in the obtuse Roman mind for everything Greek that was never to be effaced. Yet, in spite of this supply of genius ready at their doors, the Romans who really wished to learn found themselves obliged to go to Athens. The men who preserved the literary traditions of Greece waited to be sought. Things will hardly come to such a pass again. The younger civilization of the United States will not be forced to judge the older culture across the ocean by heralds neither called nor sent. The great men of Europe will be found as of old in their own places. As a figure in history, the Greekling remains positive evidence of the irreparable injury which can be done to a wise and thoughtful nation by men ready to take advantage of an instrumentality, in the form of rhetorical schools or public platforms, that was meant for instruction. The great Roman writers attest the influence of another class of Greeks. These let their writings speak for them ; and of all Romans, the one who knew them best was he who never saw anything of them but their books until his own fame was made beyond the unmaking power of all time.
It is an open question, among English men of letters who have influenced American life in the last half century, which class was the more powerful, — that which never visited America, or that which came often and stayed late. It is doubtful if Dickens and Thackeray, in the second class, balance the weight of De Quincey, Carlyle, Tennyson, Jowett, Browning, Gladstone, and their like. Of course, it would be absurd to say that Americans are not glad to see Englishmen as guests and travelers. But the business of exhibition and instruction is overdone. Lecturing people who are lectured, without alien aid, to the full measure of endurance, and telling stories to people who need restraint rather than example in such practices, are things that lack even the saving merit claimed by St. Paul for his sermons, to wit, foolishness.
One of these days, John Bull, who is older than Methuselah was at the time of his decease, and Uncle Sam, whose age is near that of Enoch when he became too good for this world and had to be translated, — novelists good enough to translate are getting very rare, — will get their heads together and will say: “ Young friends, we have seen the fable of the fly and the coach enacted so often, in the course of our long lives, that we are tired of it. Stop where you are, and let the coach go. It will go, never fear.” Perhaps, after the young friends have stayed at home long enough to do a little thinking, we shall have a book from one side of the water or the other worth reading through, or even reading a second time.