Byways of Literature

BOOKS NEW AND OLD.

MR. HENRY JAMES once said of Thoreau, “He was more than provincial; he was parochial. ” The remark has so much the air of finality, it is so obviously a statement of fact, that one’s first instinct is to bolt it without ado. Presently, it may be, that mild inward monitor which does so much to conserve the eupeptic mind suggests that fact is not truth, and that the morsel will bear reconsideration. What is it to be provincial ? and what is it supposed to do or undo for a man or his work? One has heard it said that London itself is provincial. Certainly Mr. James’s cosmopolitanism has not kept him from dwelling among and upon a class of Londoners whose local preoccupation, if this were the point at issue, is quite equal to that of a New England villager. But local preoccupation is not the point; to be provincial is to be in a sense unpresentable, to hail patently, as we may fancy Mr. James saying, from an ineligible somewhere.

The cosmopolitan idea has apparently given us a new standard of eligibility. People used to take the grand tour for their souls’ good; but they “dragged at each remove a lengthening chain.” They traveled to become more worthy of staying at home. They did not dream that absenteeism would come to be held actually a state of grace. They would hardly have seen the point of that witty comment upon Mr. James, “To be truly cosmopolitan a man must ʚbe at home even in his own country.” It is something, after all, to be indigenous. Thoreau had his own simple philosophy as to home-staying. “There is no more tempting novelty, ” he writes, “than this new November. No going to Europe or to another world is to be named with it. Give me the old familiar walk, post-office and all, with this ever new self, with this infinite expectation and faith which does not know when it is beaten. We ’ll go nutting once more. We ’ll pluck the nut of the world and crack it in the winter evenings. Theatres and all other sightseeing are puppet-shows in comparison. I will take another walk to the cliff, another row on the river, another skate on the meadow, be out in the first snow, and associate with the winter birds.”

I.

It is surprising how many books which the world preserves are built upon local observation and anecdote. Natural historians have not a few to their credit; there seems to be some property in this gentle trade which gives especial kindliness to the pen. The printed word of a Thoreau, a Jefferies, a John Muir, has a richness and mellowness which seem to come direct from soil and sun. Even when a naturalist’s facts are discredited by later authority, his writing is likely to be cherished as literature. Gilbert White was one of the few careful observers of his time, and is still much more than a name to naturalists, his swallow speculations to the contrary. Nevertheless, the editor of the latest reprint 1 puts the case for White in a way which can hardly be disputed: “’T is as a literary monument, therefore, I hold, that we ought above all things to regard these rambling and amiable Letters. They enshrine for us in miniature the daily life of an amateur naturalist in the days when the positions of parson, sportsman, country gentleman and man of science were not yet incongruous.” Mr. Allen has treated the text successfully from this point of view, marking here and there a point of error, but for the most part confining his notes to the suggestion of additional facts about the man or the place.

Richard Jefferies was White’s most notable English successor. His work has not the background of a serene existence like White’s. It is more tense, more imaginative, more consciously endowed with the quality of literature. Wild Life in a Southern County, one of the best of Jefferies’s books, has just been reprinted in Boston, — with an unfortunate change of title.2 As a study of the author’s native habitat it bears some analogy to Thoreau’s Walden. Its range of subject is broader, however, for Jefferies was as keen an observer of rustic human types and manners as of the objects more commonly admitted to be within the province of the natural historian. He was the son of a Wiltshire farmer; early proved himself unfit for farm life, read much, became a journalist, and wrote a series of worthless novels; at last, as if by chance, hit upon his right vein, produced the five or six books upon which his reputation rests, and died at thirty-nine. His distinguishing trait is a sort of brooding quietude, a gentle poignancy of attitude toward the visible world and its creatures. He is, it seems, never very far from the elegiac mood; “Just outside the trench, almost within reach, there lies a small white something, half hidden by the grass. It is the skull of a hare, bleached by the winds and the dew and the heat of the summer sun. The skeleton has disappeared, nothing but the bony casing of the head remains, with its dim suggestiveness of life, polished and smooth from the friction of the elements. Holding it in the hand, the shadow falls into and darkens the cavities once filled by the wistful eyes which whilom glanced down from the summit here upon the sweet cloverfields beneath. Beasts of prey and wandering dogs have carried away the bones of the skeleton, dropping them far apart; the crows and the ants doubtless had their share of the carcass.” Alas, poor Yorick! Just here the mourning note is obvious ; elsewhere it is a mere over-tone, as in this impression of a moment in an old village belfry: “Against the wall up here are iron clamps to strengthen the ancient fabric, settling somewhat in its latter days; and, opening the worm-eaten door of the clock-case — the key stands in it — you may study the works of the old clock for a full hour, if so it please you; for the clerk is away laboring in the field, and his aged wife, who produced the key of the church and pointed the way across the nearest meadow, has gone to the spring. The ancient building, standing lonely on the hill, is utterly deserted; the creak of the boards under foot or the grate of the rusty hinge sounds hollow and gloomy. But a streak of sunlight enters from the arrow-slit, a bee comes in through the larger open windows with a low inquiring buzz; there is a chattering of sparrows, the peculiar shrill screech of the swifts, and a ‘ jack-daw-jack-daw ’-ing outside. The sweet scent of clover and of mown grass comes upon the light breeze —mayhap the laughter of haymakers passing through the churchyard underneath to their work, and idling by the way as haymakers can idle.”

Another characteristic of Jefferies is his strongly developed sense of color, which leads him to dwell often upon the purely pictorial quality of the smaller landscape which he knows best. It may be the mosaic of an orchard with its many-tinted fruits; or the simpler chromatic scale of a ripening meadow: “All the summer through fresh beauties, indeed, wait upon the owner’s footsteps. In the spring the mowing-grass rises thick, strong, and richly green, or hidden by the clothof-gold thrown over it by the buttercups. He knows when it is ready for the scythe without reference to the almanac, because of the brown tint which spreads over it from the ripening seeds, sometimes tinged with a dull red, when the stems of the sorrel are plentiful. At first the aftermath has a trace of yellow, as if it were fading; but a shower falls, and fresh green blades shoot up. ”

It is impossible, in short, to read this book without being conscious of impact with a nature singularly susceptible to impression and rich in expression. It is to be hoped that many American readers who may have remained ignorant of Jefferies will make use of this volume to scrape acquaintance with him.

II.

Within recent years several books have been produced in America which have done for one or another countryside much what Jefferies did for Wiltshire and Thoreau for Walden. Mr. Burroughs’s A Year in the Fields,3 so often reprinted, has been given another form. It is a record of what the seasons bring to an acute and genial observer on the Hudson. The book has the qualities of wholesomeness and simplicity which are so common in provincial writing, and which are not a little diverting to cosmopolitan critics. The reader, if he gives himself a chance, carries away a grateful sense of contact with air and soil, of having given the slip, for the moment at least, to everything silly and morbid and insincere.

Mr. Torrey’s 4 natural laboratory lies farther east, and his field is suburban rather than rural. The present notebook is frankly and agreeably Bostonian in flavor. Dr. Holmes would have delighted in it, not only for its neighborhood lore, but for its suave and unobtrusive humor, its irrepressible undercurrent of (shall we say) Waltonian moralizing. The present commentator has had some acquaintance with Mr. Torrey’s work for a long time, but he has never been so much impressed with its mellowness and individuality as in reading this volume. He confesses to having proceeded from cover to cover at one sitting, — not a fair way to treat a book, but not a bad tribute to it. This series of papers is a record not only of natural things seen, but of a natural flow of thought and feeling. The author’s habit of ruminative discursus accounts largely for his charm; and the New England reader, at least, will find nothing to balk at even in serious passages like this: —

“A strange thing it is, an astonishing impertinence, that a man should assume to own a piece of the earth; himself no better than a wayfarer upon it; alighting for a moment only; coming he knows not whence, going he knows not whither. Yet convention allows the claim. Men have agreed to foster one another’s illusions in this regard, as in so many others. They knew, blindly, before any one had the wit to say it in so many words, that ‘ life is the art of being well deceived.’ And so they have made you owner of this acre or two of woodland. All the power of the State would be at your service, if necessary, in maintaining the title.”

This would be dull enough — one would have the right to be resentful — if it were a text for some socialistic propaganda. But as a purely spontaneous speculation it has its effective value. The suggestion is made and dropped; it is a thought, not a theory. Mr. Torrey, in short, has several of the rarer qualifications of that rare person, the essayist.

Next to the Ground 5 is another book which should have a fair chance of survival among books of this order. It gives a remarkably minute description of life, both natural and human, upon a large country place in Tennessee. It deals in an orderly but not mechanical way with methods of farming, with the habits of wild and domestic animals, with hunting, with trees and flowers, insects, local sounds and odors, with types of negro, poor white, and country gentleman. The author seems, indeed, the complete chronicler of the conditions of country life upon a large Tennessee estate. Her book, like all faithful studies of this sort which are fortunate enough to possess that rightness of expression which is called literary, is likely to appeal not less to outsiders than to Tennesseeans. Of natural history proper the chronicle contains not a little. It is all presented in a vigorous idiomatic style, — a style full of local flavor, and embellished here and there with delightful provincialisms, or rather (for most of them are as old as Shakespeare) archaisms. Here is an interesting bit of wood-lore; the passage may serve as a fair example of the author’s matter and manner: —

“Trees felled as the new wood is hardening give the very best timber, provided the trunks are at once lopped of boughs and branches. Should they lie as they fall, with all their leaves and twigs, the wood becomes brash and lifeless. . . . Whether wind - felled, or ax-felled, the timber lasts twice as long as that cut in May or June. Big trees do not sprout after August cutting, and even tenacious shrubs like sassafras often die of it. Indeed, there is a short period in the month when woody things die almost at a touch. The stroke of an ax, a wheel jolting roughly over an exposed root, the wrenching of a branch, or a slight wound to the bark may be fatal then to the tallest, sturdiest oak. Greenly alive to-day, to-morrow it may be withered to the tip, and next week dry and dead.”

The American desert has had more than one chronicler of late. Mrs. Austin does more than any one else has done to make us feel the personality of this Land of Little Rain,6 this Country of Lost Borders. Fiction has told us enough and more than enough of the mere horrors of desert experience. On the other hand, Professor John Van Dyke not long ago constituted himself a sort of champion of the desert. He wished to make us understand, more than anything else, the physical beauty of these waste places. He spoke, however, rather as an enthusiastic visitor than as one who knew his subject from long and intimate experience. He had an æsthetic appreciation of desert landscape, and an intellectual appreciation of the grandeur of the wilderness as a symbol. Mrs. Austin unmistakably loves it for its own sake; it is part of her life. It has, no doubt, colored her way of thought and feeling; there is a touch of grimness in both, not coming quite to pessimism, not quite to stoicism, but suggesting them. A morbid impulse well under control, yet not without its reactions upon a style almost too fine, almost too tense : something like this, whether or not her theme is responsible for it, one cannot help feeling in Mrs. Austin’s work. Several of these intimate interpretations (of which more than one originally appeared in the pages of the Atlantic) have to do with human life on the desert frontier. There is no attempt to make mannerly, or even to make picturesque, the rude conditions which the writer has to portray; but she does not find the life unintelligible: " It is pure Greek in that it represents the courage to shear off what is not worth while. . . . Here you have the repose of the perfectly accepted instinct which includes passion and death in its perquisites. I suppose that the end of all our hammering and yawping will be something like the point of view of Jimville. The only difference will be in the decorations.”

III.

Footprints of Former Men in Far Cornwall 7 is a book of pure description and anecdote, and one of the most delightful among masterpieces of parochial literature. It was first published some thirty years ago. Its author, R. S. Hawker, was for a long time vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall, a zealous local antiquary, who had, before turning his hand to prose, gained some repute as a ballad-writer. The combination of functions is significant, for in the present papers it is hard to say whether piety or fancy plays the greater part. By the confession of his editor, indeed, the Hawkerian fancy does not scruple now and then to assume the garb of fact. However, the point of fact is not the important one. The sketches are no doubt faithful enough to the detail of local color to which we moderns attach so much importance. For the rest, they possess a style so forcible, so quaint, so engaging, as to make one content to waive all possible questions of authenticity. The Reverend Mr. Hawker’s professed purpose was to arrange and set down the legends about certain ancient Cornish worthies, which he found still current in his neighborhood. Many of them have to do with wrecks or castaways hurled upon the wild Cornish coast. There, for example, is the story of Cruel Coppinger, skipper of a Danish vessel driven ashore during a famous tempest. Never was there a more dramatic entrance for a villain: “A crowd of people had gathered from the land, on horseback and on foot, women as well as men, drawn together by the tidings of a probable wreck. Into their midst, and to their astonished dismay, rushed the dripping stranger : he snatched from a terrified old dame her red Welsh cloak, cast it loosely around him, and bounded suddenly upon the crupper of a young damsel, who had ridden her father’s horse down to the beach to see the sight. He grasped her bridle, and, shouting aloud in some foreign language, urged on the doubleladen animal into full speed, and the horse naturally took his homeward way. ” Cruel Coppinger appropriately marries the damsel, maltreats her and everybody else, his name becomes a byword throughout the countryside, and he finally disappears to a satisfactory accompaniment of thunder and lightning. The book is not all in this vein, be it understood. There are passages of measured description, records of personal experience, the varied annals of an ancient and in the main a quiet neighborhood.

Highways and Byways in South Wales 8 is a book of a different kind, but of equal interest and charm. It is founded on local observation upon a larger scale; it covers a considerable sweep of country, and studies the personalities of ancient villages and streams as well as of ancient men. The author has produced similar volumes on North Wales and the Lake District, which have been extremely popular in England. The writer comes to his present task, therefore, not as an amateur observer, but as a trained and tested professional guide. We might expect the result to be equally edifying and tiresome, a heavy drag of text brightened here and there by a facetious anecdote, or a sally of guidebook sprightliness. But Mr. Bradley has an unusual endowment of virtues, the greatest of which is an unaffected love for his theme. He has not gotten it up in a few months because there happened to be a market for the get-up. He is a student of Welsh topography, history, legends, literature, manners, and fish, of many years’ standing; and he draws upon his various stores of learning with well-bred ease, never in the least emphasizing a point of erudition for the sake of display. “These pages,” he says, “are intended for the armchair as well as for the traveler, ” a concession to the sedentary person which may relieve him of unnecessary shame in never having beheld South Wales or wished to behold it. He will get from this book all that other men’s eyes can give him; for to the vivid descriptions of the text are added some illustrations by Mr. F. L. Griggs, which, for their suggestion of mass and color-value, and for their expression of light, are very remarkable.

Mr, Bradley’s style is urbane, idiomatic, leisurely, now and then falling into a pleasant garrulousness. He never seems to have exhausted his subject; yet he knows when it is time to leave off. One has no sense of his being busy over his itinerary; it is easy traveling with him from first to last. It does not matter that the pages bristle with Welsh proper names which offer some obstruction to the Western eye. Bare feet can make a tolerable episode of a stubble field if they do not go too gingerly. Llwynderw, Gwrthreynion, nay, Portrhydfendigaiad, —if one marches boldly with his head up and thinks of clover, it is soon by. We are, at all events, in excellent company, and shall have, in the main, excellent “going: ” “Here, too . . . the Welsh border seems marked by a sudden growth in stature and boldness of the hills and a louder note in the music of the streams. For the Black Mountains on the further or Southern side of the valley begin here to loom up into the imposing shapes and altitudes their name and reputation seem to demand. We on our sides are again in Radnorshire, skirting its southern bound, and indeed a road hereabouts comes plunging down to our smooth highway, which has struggled painfully from Kington, but eight miles distant, over the rugged semi-civilized ridges of Brilley Mountain. ” So goes the wayside talk; the passage is taken quite at random. Here are a few sentences which perhaps illustrate better the quaint fluency of Mr. Bradley’s speech: “It is a trite saying that a mountainbred pony will keep himself and his rider out of trouble in a bog. But a dry summer will sometimes make both the mountaineer and his pony a little over-confident on doubtful ground ; and again the horseman on a strange mountain may get himself into a labyrinth of morass, and in casting about for an outlet, lose touch with the route he came in by and spend a grievous time, only trusting that the sun may not go down on his endeavors, if the day should by any chance be far spent.”

The present reviewer does not know how it may have been with others, but for him four hundred pages of this kind of discourse, on a subject of which he knew nothing and in which he had no especial interest, have not been too many. It has been one of those experiences which feelingly assure him that, dim as the beacon of literature may now burn upon the high places, there are yet a hundred torches, tipped with the true fire, glowing steadily here and there among the byways of a busy world.

H. W. Boynton.

  1. The Natural History of Selborne. By GILBERT WHITE.EDITED BY GRANT ALLEN,AND illustrated by W. H. NEW. London and New York: John Lane. 1903.
  2. An English Village. By RICHARD JEFFERIES. With Illustrations by CLIFTON JOHNSON, and an Introduction by HAMILTON W. MABIE. Boston : Little, Brown & Co. 1903.
  3. A Year in the Fields. By JOHN BURROUGHS. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1903.
  4. The Clerk of the Woods. By BRADFORD TORREY. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1903.
  5. Next to the Ground. By MARTHA MCCULLOCH WILLIAMS. New York : McClure, Phillips & Co. 1902.
  6. The Land of Little Rain. By MARY AUSTIN. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1903.
  7. Footprints of Former Men in Far Cornwall. By R. S. HAWKER. London and New York: John Lane. 1903.
  8. Highways and Byways in South Wales. By W. C. BRADLEY. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1903.