Accidental Literature

LET your stylists and your dovetailers of plots fret their art to its uttermost limits, they will never compile anything more fascinating than the fortuitous charm of dictionaries, directories, concordances, gazetteers, and such lore. It is true, these suffer the stigma of being only words, words, words,” and they are indictable of the old charge of changing the subject over often. But for all their monotony of variety, who ever picked up any of these works to hunt down one word that he did not read a dozen more ? Directories I find particularly irresistible ; if they are too far out of date to serve your immediate purpose, there is still more hypnotism about them, especially if a line of impatients is waiting for you to have done with your search. There is then added to the delightful egotism of keeping people champing for your whim the further sweetness of stolen perusal — such a fearful pleasaunce as the foolhardy used to take when they peeked into the chained Bibles.

A somewhat similar and equally fruitful field of chance literature is the belles-lettres of signboards, romances set up so that he who runs may read, and stop running. This compilation and collaboration of accident and unintention makes what Horace Greeley called “ mighty interesting reading.” Every city has its literature of this engaging sort, but it seems as if the cosmopolitanism of America gave its nominology a special breadth and piquancy. Every American city has its curiosities, and its whole districts of foreign and native oddities of namery. But the fact that New York is the funnel of the country’s immigration, and that a modicum of everything that starts through lingers behind, gives the signs of the city an infinite variety.

There are of course the regions and wards where one seems to have stepped into a foreign land instanter : the streets where one sees nothing but Hebrew letters on the walls and the outswung shingles ; and streets where Italian is the only wear, or French, or Chinese. But the expected happens here, and that is death to literary charm. The great arteries of the city offer a more poignant entertainment. It is true, as somebody has remarked, that the lower part of Broadway reads like a list of Rhine wines ; but even at the worst of this obsession, there is a sprinkling of names that are recherchés from all corners of the world.

It looks sometimes as if these tall buildings were so many Towers of Babel, with the confusion of tongues finding its wildest climax in the streets, rioting in the unassimilated jargon of the names, names, names.

To run the eye up the front of certain of these structures pied with signs is like reading a geological table of strata and epochs. In one Broadway block I noted these names in this order : Bernheim, Carroll, Lin Fong, Lester, Lissa, Pulaski. Other oddities, a few out of a myriad, range from Moje to Hiltpoltstein, from Semel and Propos to Boos and Doob, Ping and Pinner, Krüsi and Kiffé, Livor, Jellif, Goldflam, Massoth, Schnatz, Jaulus, Gussaro, Teese, Radt, and Mihalik. And yet there are strange, inconsistent beings who assert that we Americans are Anglo-Saxon in speech, tradition, and sympathy ! In the agricultural regions the un-English name is not in such majority, but there are whole states where some foreign colony makes a little Sweden, or Finland, Mexico, or Cuba.

When the weather is not encouraging to conning the signs of the times, the partisan of accidental literature can always read the advertisements. The lists of real estate transfers and recorded mortgages are a very anthology of poesy. Of course there is the eternal speculation as to the causes for the transfer, and the very word “ mortgage ” is as redolent of romance as an Italian salad is of garlic. There is the banality of such records as the mortgaging of O’Beirne’s property to Ehret, and of Finnerty’s to Weinstein ; but the unexpected enthralls you now and then with such a reversion of the natural order of things as a transfer from Goldberg to Dooley (sic !). It is picturesque, too, just to know that such people exist, even in the relation of mortgagor and mortgagee, as Flank and Marinus, Panish and McCauslan, Miss Moth and Mr. Weeks, Lang and Langbein, Feletti and Kehoe, Mordecai and Dramien.

Aside from the absolute interest of the names themselves, which the initiate will enjoy without extraneous matters (as the learned musician finds his highest pleasure in pure music without relying on that charm of association which chiefly occupies the layman), there is the occasional dissipation of imagining romance, or at least characterization, around certain suggestive names which inevitably fume up pictures of their owners as Arabian bottles distil genii, once you uncork them. Of course your fancy is a deceitful will-o’-the-wisp, but it leads you into no bogs or fens, moors or wolds, or any of those literary places of gloom, and you have at least the benefit of the exercise, and your fiction for your pains. Some of the names you meet send through you a pang of regret that the patient Balzac or the studious Dickens, ransacking the streets of Paris or London for fit handles for their creatures, should have missed the boon and stimulation of these New York or Chicago signboards.

Then your sympathies are often called into play as acutely as at any tragedy by pity for the wretches that are given certain names for crosses to bear. You think of the miserables who must always be met with the same old puns every time they are introduced to anybody, and you writhe with them in anguish over the necessity of greeting the odious quotidian with a sickly smile of courtesy. Then you read names that are hard to live up to — feudal and literary names, that consort ill with a lowly trade for the men folk, and with freckles and fat for the women. You encounter names that must be hard to live down to — shocking names, belittling names, that handicap a pretty face or a lofty mind irrevocably. How can people with the tag of — or — be said to be created free and equal with wearers of such altisonance as — or — ?

The literature of the subject is too large even to hint ; but enough has surely been said to prove that the adventures of a whole Dumas school cannot vie in fascination or variety with the adventition of proper (and improper) names.