What the Public Wants to Read

IT is everywhere conceded, in commercial pursuits, that the manufacturer must comply with the demands of the market. He must be ready to forsake the old hand-powered methods and adopt machinery. To-day, it is less important that any one bolt in a bedplate, for instance, shall be beautifully chased than that it shall be exactly like every one of a thousand of that standard thread and size. The British manufacturer, we are told, is penalized heavily, in the world’s commerce, because he insists upon sacrificing time to unnecessary finish and solidity. The American manufacturer is passed by, in the race for new markets, because he makes his packages too large for carriage on a mule’s back, or wraps his wares in brown paper, when the heathen purchaser prefers red, as being luckier.

For general manufactures these timely hints are conveyed to us in the consular reports, which, next to the necessity of rewarding political fidelity, are our greatest reason for maintaining agents in foreign parts. It is to be regretted, therefore, that for the professional literary man there is no official bureau of statistical information on such subjects as : what flavor of literary product may be put forth in carload lots, what may be tentatively introduced in small quantities, and what the public will not take on any condition ; what lucky labels may be affixed to make slow sellers go like hot cakes, and so forth and so on. It must be confessed that many or most of those who get their living by writing would pay no heed to such reports, if they existed, for they are as conservative or obstinate (it comes to the same thing) as any British bridgebuilder that ever lost a contract in the Soudan. They lay off each book or article as differently as possible from every other book of the same kind. Instead of fitting adjectives to nouns after standard patterns, they fuss and fiddle by the hour hunting up new arrangements. Instead of snatching up the first word that comes handy, they paw over the whole big dictionary to find just the right one. And then, when the parts are all assembled, they take a rag and some putz pomade and go over all the bright work till you can see to comb your hair in it. A heavy coat of green paint, say, for such running gear as descriptions of scenery, wears better and gives as good general satisfaction, but you can’t beat that into their heads.

I admit that there will always be a market for hand-made literature, though it rarely pays adequately to the time expended upon it. There are plenty of British manufacturers that never ship out of the United Kingdom, and plenty of American manufacturers that do not care a pin if the folks in Bogota or Hankow never see or hear tell of their goods ; but great fortunes are to be amassed by those who study the wants of the multitude, and it is important that the young writer, desirous of becoming rich by his pen or typewriter, shall consider this while his mind is yet plastic, and before it becomes obsessed by “devotion to his art.”

Some little inkling is to be had from talks with editors, though most of them have learned their trade under the old hand-powered system. Their words are full of wisdom, but the public gets from them, not what it wants, but as much as their prejudices will let get into print. They are like papa buying Christmas gifts for baby. When it is n’t something deadly instructive, it is some footy tin toy that winds up with a key.

No. To learn the wants of the public, one must study the public, which I take to mean that portion of the American people that can read, that wants to read, and that will pay money for a book instead of drawing it out of the free library. In the default of consular reports, there is much to be picked up from the consideration of recent popular successes. Some of them have done fairly well, though, as compared with the book to which I propose directing your attention, there is no occasion for enthusiasm over them. Each in its brief day has been much in evidence ; but at present one had almost rather be caught whistling After the Ball than reading Richard Carvel, and what typewriter lady rides to the office now with her nose in David Harum ? The volume I have in mind loses not its charm with one perusal, but is carried about in trolley car and ferryboat year after year, read and re-read and read again, until its tattered leaves, browned at the edges and rounded at the corners from much thumbing, drip from its broken binding. Even in the advertising columns of the publisher few of these “ books of the season ” pass the quarter-of-a-million mark, but this one has. Really, that figure should be doubled ; for of these “ books of the season,” what must one pay for a copy ? At the most $1.75, oftener $1.00, to say nothing of department-store prices. But this book of 651 pages, none too well printed on indifferent paper, and bound in the ugliest of brown muslin, sells for $3.00, and at wholesale $2.75. The American Bible Society will retail a book twice as big, of the same type, and better paper and binding, for 50 cents ; so that it is fair to suppose that the author’s share is not the common beggarly royalty of 15 cents on every $1.50 book, but nearer $2.50 on each of the 250,000 copies sold. This does not include the profits on editions in “ levant, divinity circuit, leatherlined to edge, round corners, gold edges, silk-sewed, each, prepaid, $6.00.”

A little swift arithmetic will show that even these enormous profits will not foot up a million dollars (which is the reputed fortune of the author, who was once very poor), but as the adherents to the book’s doctrine have been mainly well-to-do persons, their personal gifts have been large. Bellamy’s novel made him a following, and the disciples of Henry George are extant unto this day; but their converts were mainly among those to whom the world had not been kind. Martyrs in a mild, tepid sort of way they certainly have been ; but so far as I know, there is no instance in this country where a Socialist or Single Taxer has ever offered up his life for his principles. This book can number hundreds of such cases ; it can even boast of baby martyrs.

But who is this fortunate author that has discovered exactly what the public wants ? What the hitherto unexploited province of thought ? What the secret charm of style ?

I have half a mind to keep you waiting till the last, did I not know that, devoured by curiosity, you would turn the leaves to look, and then, in revenge, reading no farther, would miss my consular report. I will be frank with you. Ladies and gentlemen, I take great pleasure in introducing to you the most popular writer of the day, the Rev. Mary Morse Baker Glover Patterson Eddy, author of Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures. (I think I have all the name as per schedule. Some say there ought to be a “Mason ” in there somewhere ; some say not. The lady herself preserves silence, as she does in regard to the date of her birth.) She has also published : Miscellaneous Writings, 1883-1896 ; Christ and Christmas ; Retrospection and Introspection ; Pulpit and Press ; Unity of Good ; and several pamphlets, sermons, and poems, — all offered at about double the prices ordinarily asked for works of the same size. Photographs for sale for her own benefit : tinted, $3.00 ; untinted, $1.00, only correct, authorized, and latest likeness, taken in 1865.

The success which has crowned the lady’s literary efforts has been due, in the first place, to the accuracy with which she has planted her arrow in the very centre of Americanism, which is: We are all right; and if we are not, we don’t want to hear about it. Through a glass darkly the editors have been permitted to glimpse a little of this great truth ; for, as the kind-hearted Mr. Editor of one of our leading magazines has recently confessed, they have “ a predilection for stories that end happily,” —a statement that may be multiplied by ten and still come far short in intensity of what the editor would say were he not so gentle with the young author.

So far as I have been permitted to observe, and hence to generalize, the beginner in literature is unfailingly sad. Whether or not it is the ink that engenders his gloom I cannot say, but his first stories are either about little children dying amid peculiarly heart-rending circumstances, or adults that perish in the most discouraging and depressing manner. When he essays verse, he becomes so downhearted and distrustful of this naughty world that editors dare not read more than one of his submitted stanzas, lest they be thereby unfitted for business.

Now, I grant you that this is a pretty tragic world, and that it is much easier to make a story true to life that is fairly soggy with tears than one that fizzes with joy. It is a world conducted on business principles, and to get a verisimilar hero into a tight place, whence he can be extricated by nobility of character, without making him look silly, and so forfeit respect, is extremely difficult. That is just it. If it were easy to do these things, there would n’t be any money in the business. It is easier to pick up dornicks than diamonds, but harder to get high prices for them.

Other authors think they do pretty well, when, in the last chapter, “ she gets him,” and Uncle John dies and leaves the pair a million dollars. But a moment’s thought will show that such novelists are unprofitable servants. They dodge the question. What have they to say about the other girls in the world that don’t “ get him,” and the sad fate of Uncle John, who must die and leave behind him all that money ? What about the starving multitudes that have no Uncle John ? If everybody had a million, then our hero and heroine were as poor as the poorest. No. We shut the book, and realize, with a sigh, that this is still the same old tragic world, conducted on strictly business principles.

Mrs. Eddy does not so deceive us for a little while, making life seem all the sadder afterward. She permanently proves that nobody, except by willful self-delusion, can possibly be unhappy. Does the approach of the King of Terrors cause affright ? Are there bodily aches or ails ? Or — ah ! hardest of all fates!—does a guilty conscience burn with unquenchable fire ? Sin, sickness, and death are all put to flight by this book, and it costs only $3.00.

It is enough to point out to the young author that the public will reward richly any one that drives dull care away. Mrs. Eddy’s book sells because it makes everybody cheerful that reads it. Those who believe in its teachings cannot choose but be happy. Those who do not believe have the choice of being actively happy with laughter or passively happy with sleep : one or the other result is sure to be the skeptic’s portion.

But in Mrs. Eddy’s style as well as in her matter there is a lesson for the young author to learn. There is none of that so offensive assumption of superiority that manifests itself in words not in common use, compelling the reader to guess at their meaning, or be humiliated by having to turn to the dictionary. It is true that she frequently says “brainology,” which is somewhat rare, but any one would know at once what that means,I should think. What she has to say is set forth “ just as a body would talk that never had no college education.” To be sure, her magnum opus, Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures, bears traces of having been ironed out smooth by some one possessing a nodding acquaintance with the English grammar. There is, I admit, some work in it yet for an editor to do ; though, if I had the job, I should draw but one blue-pencil mark, beginning on page 1 and ending on page 651.

To get the pure and unsophisticated flavor of Mrs. Eddy’s style, it is necessary to turn to Miscellaneous Writings, 1883-1896. It is not my purpose here to cull out large excerpts from it and set them before you. A discriminating public, such as that to which I now address myself, will ask no more than a thin slice, delicately shaved off and allowed to dissolve upon the tongue. To get a taste of that which has enchanted a million readers, take this conclusion of a sentence: “For it is a Delilah who would lead him into the toils of the enemy where Cerberus (the apt symbol of Animal Magnetism) waits to devour the self-deceived.” The allusion to an anthropophagous foe might lead one to suppose that our author had in mind “ an allegory on the banks of the Nile ; ” but I am morally certain that Mrs. Eddy would never dream of plagiarizing from the works of that other celebrated literary character, Mrs. Malaprop. Mrs. Eddy is, as she so often says, “ hopelessly original.” She meant Cerberus, no doubt, for classical allusions are frequent in her writings, as witness this testimonial of her deep learning: “ The parable of the Ten Virgins is derived from the pathetic tale of little Vesta, condemned at the tender age of eight years to a life of celibacy under the penalty of severe torture.”

But mythology and classical allusion are not the only flowers with which the authoress adorns her pages. Figures of speech are strewed upon them with no sparing hand. Metaphors she does not scorn, not even mixed metaphors. This concluding paragraph of the preface to Miscellaneous Writings is, in fact, as fine a selection of mixed metaphor as I have ever seen : “ With armor on I continue the march, command and countercommand, meanwhile interluding with loving thought this afterpiece of battle. Supported, cheered, I take my pen and pruning hook to learn war no more, and with strong wing to lift my readers above the smoke of conflict into life and liberty.”

I dismiss the pettifogging criticism that there is no such word in the dictionary as “ counter-command,” and pass on to the contemplation of the splendid picture here presented. I would I were a painter, that I might limn it. I would spread upon the canvas the rolling cloud of battle smoke, and in the middle foreground set the aged figure of the Discoveress and Foundress, clad in breastplate, casque, and iron petticoats, commanding and counter - commanding ; provided with some musical instrument to interlude upon (an accordion seems about the thing) ; supported I know not how, unless by crutches, since one hand holds the pen, and the other the pruning hook ; cheered, I doubt not, by the contents of her canteen, for she is on the march ; and pinnated, with at least one strong wing on which to lift her readers somewhat lopsidedly “ into life and liberty.” Mr. Howells, no doubt, would give her rubbers as a further panoply against all ills that might befall her, — supposing, for the sake of argument, that there were such things as ills.

Though Goethe was a philosopher, and, in a way, the forerunner of the Evolution theory, it is as a poet he is known to fame. It is the other way round with Mrs. Eddy. Her philosophy tends to obscure the fact that she is a poetess of the first rank. (The word “ poetess ” is used advisedly.)

It is quite apropos of Goethe and Evolution that the first lines to which I turn should happen to be these : —

“ If worlds were formed by matter
And mankind from the dust,
Till Time shall end more timely
There ’s nothing here to trust.
“ Thenceforth to Evolution’s
Geology we say —
Nothing have we gained thereby,
And nothing have to pay.
“ My world has sprung from spirit
In everlasting day ;
Whereof I ’ve more to glory,
Whereof have much to pay.”

Having much to pay has always been a strong point with Mrs. Eddy.

Here is part of a poem addressed to Love : —

“ Brood o’er us with Thy shelt’ring wing
’Neath which our spirits blend
Like brother birds that soar and sing
And on the same branch bend.
The arrow that doth wound the dove
Darts not from those that watch and love.”

That about the birds bending is nice. The too literal mind might say it was the branch that bent, but she is evidently using that familiar figure of speech called — er — called — er — What’s its name, now? Funny I can’t think of it! You know what I mean, — that about the church-going bell.

From the poem called The Isle of Wight I extract these lines : —

“ Soul sublime ’mid human débris
Paints the limner’s work I ween,
Art and Science all unweary
Lighting up this mortal dream.
“ Work ill-done within the misty
Mine of human thoughts we see ;
Soon abandoned when the Master
Crowns life’s cliff for such as we.
“ Students wise He maketh now thus
Those who fish in waters deep,
When the buried Master hails us
From the shores afar complete.”

I think I am safe in saying that the above is as fine a specimen of cryptic verse as is known to English literature, if we except Dodgson’s immortal lines, read by the White Rabbit, in Alice in Wonderland, beginning: —

“ They told me you had been to her
And mentioned me to him.
She gave me a good character,
But said I could not swim.”

In defense of the charge that Mrs. Eddy is often as obscure as Browning, her friends are wont to cite Mother’s Evening Prayer as being at once clear and beautiful. It is such a favorite that it has been set to music, and may be had for the extremely low price of one dollar per copy ; nothing off to music teachers. I quote a stanza : —

“ Oh, gentle presence, peace and joy and power,
Oh, life divine that owns each waiting hour !
Thou Love, that guards the nestling’s falt’ring flight,
Keep thou thy child on upward wing tonight.”

Parse ? Certainly not. Gracious Heaven ! Is poetry made to be parsed, enslaved to petty man-made rules, like “ Verbs must agree with their subjects in number and person ” ? Never.

Again : —

“ The lark’s shrill song doth wake the dawn,
The eve bird’s forest flute
Gives back some maiden melody
Too pure for aught so mute.”

So mute as what ? It were an impertinence to inquire.

Our gifted authoress is quite as much of a Discoveress and Foundress in her verse as in her prose, as this from a familiar hymn of hers will show : —

“Strangers on a barren shore,
Lab’ring long and lone ;
We would enter by the door
And thou know’st Thine own.”

So far as my reading informs me, she is the first poet to establish the great advantage of a door in a barren shore, thus taking rank with the man that, chased by hostile Indians on the boundless prairie, escaped by running up an alley. I am no poet myself, but it seems to me that the obvious rhyme of “ shore ” and “ door ” would have long ago suggested it. I wonder nobody ever thought of it before.

Probably the finest single poem of this popular authoress is that written after the laying of the corner stone of the Mother Church in Boston. For haunting melody and profundity of thought she has never excelled it. Incidentally, the stanza here given settles forever the vexed question of the correct pronunciation of the word “ stone : ” —

“ Laus Deo, it is done.
Rolled away from loving heart
Is a stone.
Lifted higher, we depart
Having one.”

The expression “ having one ” may strike one as being somewhat unattached, lonely and remote, at first ; but as one reads on he will soon cease to be affected by any such slight variations upon grammar.

But I forbear to quote further. Surely I have made it plain to the dullest what it is the public wants in style and matter, what it will pay double prices to obtain, — the cloying sweetness of optimism enlivened with the peppermint of such sayings as that the man that relies on both prayer and drugs to cure him “ divides his faith between Catnip and Christ.” This, young author, is your model, this your guide. If there be those that say to me, “ Physician, heal thyself,” to them I make the answer of a hanging head, and the plea, “ I am too old a dog to learn new tricks.”

Eugene Wood.