Wanted -- A Retrospective Review
A CLEVER man of the past generation had a standing rule to read nothing later than the time of Queen Anne : “ because,” he said, “ there are quantities of good books — enough for me — before that time ; and if anything important has happened since some one will be sure to tell me.” What with the daily newspaper, morning and evening, the magazines and reviews, and the multitude of new books of to-day, one is tempted to follow his example and to make a rule of the same sort for one’s own reading, and, still more, for the reading of one’s children.
The great sayings of one generation have to be repeated for the next. It is in this way that the world’s wisdom is transmitted. The great books have to be reprinted, the great music repeated, the great pictures seen again and again.
Why should we not have a monthly or a weekly magazine devoted entirely to the literature, art, and history of past times ? Such a review would do systematically what is now done more or less at random. Ask the young men of the entering class at Harvard if they have read The Spectator, or any part of it, The Vicar of Wakefield, Plutarch, Gulliver’s Travels, Bacon’s Essays. If these books have not made a part of their school work it is more than likely that they have not been heard of, much less read. Fancy an English-speaking lad who knows nothing of The Pilgrim’s Progress; there are thousands upon thousands of such lads, sons of intelligent families, too. A few inquiries will convince the most skeptical.
One use of the Retrospective Review, then, would be to reprint from time to time the great books of the world that every American child should know. It is not necessary to reprint the half dozen volumes of the Arabian Nights, for example; but the greatest of the Tales can be given as an earnest of the rest, — Hassan of Bussorah, Sindbad’s Voyages, Aladdin, and the like. Time is short, and I suppose that even Ivanhoe can be somewhat abridged without losing the slightest flavor of the original, if the abridgment is done by a skillful hand. Mr. Andrew Lang in his prismatic Fairy Books is supposed to have gleaned all the Fairy Tales of the world, but there are treasures yet untouched by him in Oriental literatures, — and there is no harm in reprinting an old story if it is going to make a new child happy.
But there are books to be reprinted for the fathers, also, books in foreign tongues as well as in English. Voltaire, for example, is almost unread nowadays, and what a loss ! There are a half dozen of his romans that ought to be as familiar to Americans as they are to educated Frenchmen ; if they are printed at all they must be given in French, as well as in the best translation one can obtain of his sparkling, crystal-clear style. A hundred other foreign writers could be named whose names are on every one’s tongue, but whose works are only read by chance as it were, not regularly and as a matter of course, — Cervantes, Goethe, Pascal, La Bruyère, to name only a few. It would be the business of the Review to present these in translation ; and in the original as well, in many cases. Beside the very greatest names there are hundreds of less famous ones that ought to find an intellectual hospitality in such a magazine, — Alfred de Vigny, Stendhal, Le Prèsident des Brosses, Madame de Staël, Vauvenargues, for example. What novel of to-day is as finely romantic as Corinne ?
It is not only in prose that the Review would serve its purpose, but in poetry also. Every one knows that Sa’di is a great poet, but how many of us can quote a line from his Rose-Garden ? or from Ronsard ? or Villon ? or Camoëns ? Who would not be grateful for a poem by Dr. Donne to fill up the space at the bottom of a page ? Who would not be the better for it ? There should be a place for all the fine poetry of the world as well as for all the prose. And after it is so presented there should be a place for critical essays to say why it is fine and how. In essays of the sort the literature of to-day could be taken for granted, and such essays would be the connecting link between actuality and retrospection. Many great essays of this kind already exist, and there will always be a place for more. History can be treated in the same way, and biography.
In the field of art the Review would be most useful. Let us begin, once more, with the children. Every child ought to be familiar with the great pictures and statues of the world, and there is no child so young that it cannot be interested in the Pallas of Botticelli or the David of Michael Angelo. Every number of the Review ought to present some great picture, or some famous statue, or some fine building. A few pages of text would serve to fix the place of the artist and of his work in their right perspective. Children would never forget pictures seen in this way. The accompanying text might even be welcome to their elders. All of us would be grateful for such retrospections, even if they came somewhat at random. Once in a way something more systematic might be given. The whole work of a great painter might be reviewed. We might have a paper on the Abbeys of England or the Mogul architecture in India. There would be a place for everything. In music it would not be useful to reprint long symphonies or sonatas, but there are gems of song quite unknown to the ordinary collections, that would be welcome here ; and might it not be a very useful thing to present Schubert’s Danksagung am Bach to readers who have never heard anything better than Tosti?
I have proved to my own satisfaction that a Retrospective Review is needed, and that it would be a great success from every point of view. There is not a human being that I know from the children upwards who would not enjoy such a magazine far more than all but the very best of the magazines of today. My Review would, some day, reprint Charles Reade’s Peg Woffington. I have not read so good a story as Peg Woffington in English for twenty years. It would reprint Froissart’s Battle of Cressy. Nothing that the war correspondents sent from Cuba compares with this. It would reprint Marriner’s adventures in the Tonga Islands ; Robinson Crusoe is not more interesting. It would reprint Wordsworth’s Ode to Duty. What modern poet has sung the song we need to hear so well as he ? These things, and a thousand more, a Retrospective Review would periodically present to all of us. Can we afford to go on a moment longer without it ?