On Catering for the Public

IN that brief catalogue of New Year’s resolutions which the good American is periodically tempted to construct, the resolve not to talk shop deserves a place of honor. To be silent about one’s trade is the beginning of virtue ; but it is difficult for most of us to maintain such reticence for long. That an editor of a magazine should presume to the possession of qualities beyond the compass of his readers is not to be thought of, and the present writer proposes, even before the New Year has fairly begun, to break that fragile resolution of discretion, and to turn his yearly greetings to the Atlantic’s company into a discourse upon one aspect of his own profession. May the Toastmaster, before the real entertainment for 1904 begins, chat for a moment upon the perilous art of catering for the public ?

The best that may be said for Thoreau’s regimen of beans is, not that that immortal diet was merely wholesome or cheap, or even that it was transmuted into delightful literature, — but that Thoreau liked it. He was catering for himself and to himself. When Byron came of age, he provided the conventional roast ox and ale for his tenants in honor of his majority, and then dined alone upon his favorite delicacy, eggs and bacon. He catered for his public first, and to himself afterwards. But the only editors who permit themselves such solitary luxury of personal indulgence are the young men who own, write, and print the queer little 5x7 magazines with still queerer names. They give no hostages to fortune except paper, printer’s ink, and time. If you would seek a better analogy to the real editorial function, follow some excellent citizen of Baltimore, or of a foreign city where marketing bears as yet no social stigma, as he journeys to the public market, with basket upon his careful arm, intent upon selecting a dinner for his family.

Observe him. For all his apparent leisureliness of manner, the good gentleman is carrying the burden of a theory. He has certain convictions, more or less definite, about desirable combinations of food and drink. Convention, which is only common sense deposited for long periods upon the reluctant mind of our species, has dictated to him some rude outline of a bill of fare. He has individual partialities of taste, but he has also tolerably distinct ideas of what is possible for his purse. Terrapin and champagne must be for high days only. And our worthy householder has also some fixed notions as to what is best for his family. They will thrive better, he knows, upon honest soups and roasts than upon cocktails and éclairs. Thus, as he makes his way from stall to stall, does he select, from the countless appetizing things displayed, the material for a foreordained dinner. He buys it, precisely as he would gather harmoniously colored flowers for a bouquet, and tucking it into that ample basket, takes it home in all innocence of heart. It is his affair, after all. If he and his family like what is purchased, well and good, provided their tastes do not become a public scandal, or their cookery grow too menacing to their neighbors’ peace of mind. It is a simple matter, this catering for a family table, though not quite so simple as Thoreau’s beans or Byron’s eggs and bacon. But where is the analogy to editing a magazine ? Is it so cunningly hidden away in this image of the householder that one cannot find it at all ?

“ Patience a moment,” — to quote the most impatient of poets. We are getting “ warm,” as the children say, and in a minute more we shall discover our complete and archetypal editor. He is foreshadowed in the market-haunting householder, but he is — the being who keeps boarders.

Is it not so ? The boarding-house keeper is no vulgar caterer to the public in general. He leaves that art to the yellow journal and the corner saloon. But he does cater for that portion of the public who have done him the honor to become his guests. Individual dietary theory may still lurk in his imagination, but it must not be over-indulged. His own favorite beans or eggs and bacon will be too monotonous for his boarders. The family responsibilities of the householder linger in him, too; he must not poison his boarders, or subtly undermine their faith in human nature. Yet he has his weekly or monthly bills to meet, and he can meet them only by pleasing his patrons. Not what his boarders ought to like, if they would grow truly fat and wise and good, but what they do like, gradually comes to affect the policy of even the most stubborn-souled Provider.

The Toastmaster wonders if any readers of the Atlantic recall the once famous pension in Paris, kept by M. Alphonse Doucette, “ formerly professor at Lyons ? ” It was known in the AngloAmerican colonies, from one end of Europe to the other, as the pension des violettes,— spoken with a smile. Yes, one smiled at M. Doucette’s amiable vagaries, but one kept on going there, and paying a whole franc more a day than was charged at any pension of its class in Paris. For, as every one hastened to explain, it was really an admirably kept establishment, — and then there were the violets! Every night at dinner, in season or out of season, there was a tiny boutonnière of them for each gentleman, and a corsage bouquet of violets was laid by each lady’s plate. And Monsieur himself, “formerly professor at Lyons,” if you please, always sat at the head of the table and addressed his variegated company with the most incessant and exquisite drollery. Only a franc more than was charged at the commonplace pensions, and all those violets thrown in!

It happened that the Toastmaster returned to the Pension Doucette very late one night, after witnessing a most dreary seven-act tragedy at the Français. In the little office off the dining-room sat M. Doucette in his shirt-sleeves, drinking sugared water, and looking more tragic than Mounet-Sully at his worst. Something had gone wrong. It was a trivial matter enough, but the former professor at Lyons opened his whole heart. Never before or since—save once in a Vermont woodshed on a Sunday morning, when my host was morosely freezing the ice cream for dinner and imparting with each slow turn of the crank some darkly pessimistic generalization on the subject of summer boarders — has the Toastmaster seen deeper into the Caterer’s professional soul. Oh, the sorrows of trying to hold the fickle taste of English and American visitors in Paris !

“ But there are the violets,” I ventured.

“ The violets ! ” M. Doucette spread his palms.

A ghastly suspicion dawned upon me. Was his love for violets only a pretense?

“ I loathe violets ! ” he broke out. “ À bas les violettes ! The odor and the sight of them are nauseating to me. But it is too late. If I were to give up the violets, I should lose my trademark, my prestige, my clientèle. My pensionnaires expect violets ! ”

I saw the trap he had laid for himself. And, oddly enough, my thoughts wandered to the veteran editor of a famous magazine, who was once discussing two sonnets by the same poet. He had accepted one and rejected the other; and now he was praising the one he had returned.

“ But it was the other which you printed ! ” exclaimed his puzzled auditor.

“ Oh, that was my choice for the magazine, certainly ; but personally ” — And he waved his cigar stub in a parabola that opened up infinite distances of perspective into the editorial consciousness. Was it possible that he, too, loathed his violets ?

And yet, why not ? Not to speak it profanely, does anybody suppose that Mr. Munsey’s favorite reading is the Munsey Storiettes? Does “the sound of the swashbuckler swashing on his buckler ” seem less humorous to the editors who encourage it than it does to Mr. Howells, who has laid aside his editorial armor and can smile at the weaknesses of his former fellow warriors ? Do the peaceful editors of The Outlook really thrill with those stern praises of fighting men and fighting machines which adorn its secularized pages ? Or does the talented conductor of The Ladies’ Home Journal really . . . No, he cannot. As the Toastmaster makes these too daring interrogations, it seems to him that he perceives a faint odor of violets, — not the shy flower of the woodside, but the brazen-faced, tightly laced boutonnière of the pavement, — in a word, the violet of commerce.

That single glimpse of M. Doucette in his shirt-sleeves and in his despondency ought not to obliterate the memory of a hundred nights when, clothed in proper evening attire, he reigned gloriously over his long table-full of guests, giving and receiving pleasure. When all is going well, catering has its innocent delights and its honest satisfactions. To invent a new dish, or to serve an old one with recognized skill, is to share at once the artist’s joy and the bourgeois’s complacency. Yet having once beheld the confidential shirt-sleeves, one is thenceforward subtly aware of them, hidden though they be for another hundred nights by the dress coat. They are there, those shirt-sleeves of the Caterer, and his workaday responsibilities are inescapable. In vain does Sir Leslie Stephen, in one of those papers which have lately charmed the Atlantic’s readers, blithely assert that an editor “ only vouches for the readability of the article, not for the correctness of the opinions expressed.” It is a millennial dream. It asks too much of human nature. Shall the Toastmaster, except in a New Year’s confidence, dare to say, “ My dear guests, I am no mycologist. This dish may be toadstool or mushroom for all I know, but I assure you that the odor is appetizing ” ?

Alas, it is true that he is no mycologist; he prints every month a dozen articles on topics concerning which he knows nothing, as well as a half dozen more whose views of politics and society and criticism are the very opposite of his own. He vouches for their readability, that is all ; — and sometimes this is quite enough to take upon his conscience. But the public is shrewdly suspicious of this happy impartiality of ignorance. It keeps reminding the Toastmaster that he is Caterer too ; that he has the responsibility of buying the provisions in the open market as well as merely arranging them upon the table and announcing the bill of fare.

In one sense, the public is quite right. Some one must take the responsibility of decision. But the public sometimes forgets how the Caterer must make up in faith what he lacks in special knowledge. He depends upon the honesty of the marketmen, the producers. This confidence is rarely betrayed. M. Doucette would have died of shame, no doubt, if he had really served toadstools to his trusting company. Yet it never happened. His mushrooms were always mushrooms. It is the contributors to a magazine like the Atlantic who maintain, after all, the fine traditions of the institution. For purposes of convenience, it is assumed that the editor knows what he is purchasing. In reality, he is only exercising faith in writers who know what they are writing and whose views — strange as it may seem ! — may be worth consideration even if they do not harmonize with his own. The monthly table of contents is neither more nor less than such a confession of faith. It cannot be made without a certain hardihood. In camp, when it is your week to cook, you can always enjoy the luxury of finding fault with the man who laid in the supplies: he should have bought more bacon or a different brand of coffee, and why did he forget the onions ? Even the suave conductor of the dining-car, who presents you with a menu which requests explicit criticism of meals and service, can shrug his shoulders and explain that he did not buy that steak himself. But here in the magazine world there is no shuffling. Month by month what is in the larder comes on to the table, and if it is mouldy or tough or raw the Toastmaster cannot blame the Caterer, for he is both in one : Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the red slayer and the slain.

Who is there that can tell, after all, precisely how to please even the most indulgent of publics ? The editors of the Atlantic have always been drafted from the ranks of its contributors; mere contributors, who once inclosed stamps for the return of manuscript and waited and wondered if it would prove “ magazinable.” How can such a one, drawn in a moment, like Browning’s conscript, “ From the safe glad rear to the dreadful van ” pretend that he has been invested with infallibility? “I am fain to think it vivacious,” wrote Lowell of a certain Contributor’s Club which he was submitting to the editor in 1890, nearly thirty years after his own editorship closed, “ but if your judgment verify my fears, don’t scruple to return it. I can easily make other disposition of it, or at worst there is always the waste-basket.” His Club was accepted, in spite of Lowell’s fears, — and, as it happened, it was his last contribution to the magazine. But whenever an author’s manuscript carries the bunker of the editor’s judgment, there remains a far more formidable hazard still, namely, the unknown taste of the public.

Who really understands it ? Did not Emerson, that most unmercenary of editors, accept for The Dial, pro honoris causa and with a sinking heart, that article of Theodore Parker’s on the Reverend John Pierpont, which nevertheless, to Emerson’s astonishment, sold out the entire edition ? Did not Coleridge, an equally unworldly member of the guild, lose five hundred subscribers to the illstarred Watchman on the publication of the very second number, by“ a censurable application of a text from Isaiah as its motto” ?

Of one thing only may the editor be sure. No matter what dish be served, some one at the table will be positive that it either ought not to have been brought on at all, or that it should have been cooked differently. If the Atlantic has dispatched a representative to Borrioboola Gha to report upon the condition of blankets-and-top-boots in that unhappy country, some correspondent will turn up, as soon as the article is printed, to prove that he himself was the sole originator of the blankets-and-top-boots idea, and that the Atlantic has misrepresented the blessed work now going forward there. May he not have ample space in the next number to reply? Well, very likely he ought to have it. But the unlucky editor, puzzling at that moment over the problem of finding space in the issue three months henee, thinks with a sigh of M. Doucette’s pension. For at those long table-d’hôte dinners no one was expected to care for every course; if you allowed a dish to pass or left it barely tasted, you must for that very reason talk the more agreeably with your neighbor; and if individual clamor over some unfortunate concoction reached the quick ear of M. Doucette, with what infinite ease and wit did he offer the critic the honor of planning and preparing the next meal in person, — an invitation which was somehow never accepted. Besides, as M. Doucette used sometimes to hint, when flushed with his success, if one did not like the pension des violettes, there were plenty of other pensions across the way, eager for patronage.

Is all this too intimate a survey of the editorial pantry and kitchen ? Pray consider it nothing more than the shirtsleeved conversation of that garrulous M. Doucette, provoked into real confidence by an unusual hour. The New Year’s greetings come but once a twelvemonth, after all. And the Caterer’s sorrows are very few in comparison with the pleasure of spreading the Atlantic’s table and seeing the still increasing guests appear. May every one find in the courses now presented something to his taste ! Not to like Colonel Higginson’s new essays will indeed be to betray a fantastic appetite. If articles upon Advertising and the Ethics of Business savor too much of the very shop which you take up the Atlantic to forget, turn back to the sixteenth century, and follow Mr. Andrew D. White’s account of the singular career of Father Paul. If you love that cheerful sound of the swashbuckler in fiction, you must wait a little longer, for Mr. Herrick’s The Common Lot is only about Chicago, and concerns itself with men and women who are uncommonly like ourselves. There will be some contributions from writers who long since laid down their pens: from Emerson, whose Journals begin in a few months; from Timrod, and the elder Henry James; and from Walt Whitman, who appeared in these pages twice or thrice in his early manhood, and now comes back as a lusty ghost. But many of the contributors are young ; provokingly young, indeed, to know so much and to write so well. There will be variety enough, at least, with some dishes of the fine old substantial sort, and wine that needs no praise, and coffee and cigars for those who like them, or gossip about men and women and books, if that be more to your after-dinner fancy. And perhaps there will be a few violets, purchased with secret anxiety of heart, but laid by each plate with such grace as Park Street may afford.

At any rate, here is a clean cloth for 1904 and an unfeigned welcome. Forget, if you will, the unskilled service, and remember that market-place and kitchen are as yet imperfect places in an imperfect, although improvable and improving world. And here is a boy’s appetite to every guest, and a Happy New Year!

B. P.