The Crowd and the Adjective

BEING in an educational mood the other evening, I inquired of my cousin Augustina whether she considered that Mr. Soand-So had written the Great American Novel.

“ No,” said Augustina ; “ he has simply written a book of which his publishers, if they can be trusted, have sold some two hundred thousand copies.”

I waited in silence.

“I wish the people of these United States,” said Augustina, “ would learn to distinguish between quality and quantity. The trouble is, there are too many of us that know how to read.”

“ Go on, Augustina,” I said.

“ Yes,” said Augustina calmly, “ we are the victims of compulsory and indiscriminate education. We know how to read, but the majority of us would rather lie down and die than think. So we follow the crowd. The crowd,” said Augustina, “ is only the old mob with a cleaner face and more buttons to its wearing apparel. The crowd, in its youth, happened to fall upon the twentysix letters of the alphabet, and by this means wrestled through a primer and six or seven graded school readers, and then it provided itself with a ticket to some public library. And now it has delivered itself into the hands of the enterprising publisher.”

“ Well?” I said.

“ The publisher has just sent out from his press a naturally told, wholesome, mediocre novel, which some good-natured critic reads, and commends in words far too high for its deserts. The critic smells in each page of the book the vanished pine trees of his youth. So he says, and the crowd, believing him, buys the book, and goes sniffing through it, in the hope of getting its olfactory nerves treated as pleasantly as those of the good-natured critic. Now, to speak the truth,” said Augustina, “ the crowd cannot tell the difference between a plain New England pine and a cedar of Lebanon.”

She plunged ahead.

“ And the crowd passes the book around, and helps to swell the chorus started by the publisher and the goodnatured critic; and at last even those people who do know and love literature begin to have doubts in regard to the matter. And yet Mr. So-and-So’s work is not art and not literature, and I protest against the false position it holds in the estimation of the public. So, I repeat, there are too many of us that know how to read.”

“ And who is to blame in the matter ? ” I inquired.

“The good-natured critic,” answered Augustina promptly. “ He should come out and say: ‘ My dear people, here is a new book, which in regard to style is without form and void. It contains no character that is vital enough to last. But it is a good book, a natural book, a perfectly harmless book. Read it, and you will still be able to sleep the sleep of the just.’ ”

“ And what good would that do ? ” I asked.

“ Well, the critic would tell the truth, and that is good for his soul. It might help to preserve the artistic balance. As it is, the crowd seems to be trying to perpetuate its amateur, lawless opinions. For the crowd,” said Augustina, fixing a solemn eye upon me, “ in spite of all the boards of education in this world or the next, will never know a piece of literature, even if it should live under the same roof with it.”

“ Well ? ” I said helplessly.

“ This may be the land of the free,” said Augustina, resuming the attack, “ but it is not the home of the brave. Witness the general tone of criticism. What we need is some rude old Dr. Johnson to roar out to the good-natured critic, after some particularly genial effusion : ‘ Trash, sir, trash, and you know it! Is this your method of serving the ends of literature ? Are you not aware, sir, that every author needs at first a good sound licking ? ’ ”

“ Go on, Augustina! ” I cried from my corner.

“ I am thinking of organizing a Society for the Preservation of the Adjective,” said Augustina. “ Between the publisher and the critic, and the critic and the crowd, it bids fair to decline into a state of chronic invalidism. I have a sentimental attachment for the adjective; a good, virile one has many a time prevented me from the shedding of blood.”

“ Go on.”

“ The publisher and the critic and the crowd together have so twisted and wrenched and hammered and beaten the adjective that it is fast going its way to the ambulance and the hospital. The national government should be called on to insist upon all writers’ abstaining from the use of this important little part of speech until it has recovered its old-time vitality and health.”

“ Well ? ”

“ Now listen,” and she rattled off a long list of words, and stopped for breath. “ ‘ Cohesive ’ is the last, a brand-new one, but it is already showing signs of senile decay. Suppose Fielding or Thackeray were to come back from the tomb: with what word could we hail him ? Or suppose some one should actually write the Great American Novel ? ”

And this was the last word I could get out of her.