Footnote Persons

NOT long ago a fellow-contributor to the Atlantic invented this phrase, threw it into a parenthesis, and passed on his way without a backward glance. For my part, I felt as if, in passing along the highroad of letters, he had chanced to brush away the overgrowth from a veritable finger-post. Only a little stooping at the outset, and there, to be sure, it was, — a bypath too narrow for your ninetyhorse motors of criticism, too winding for your eager literary pedestrian, fussing with his guide-book and his pedometer. Well, that was nothing against it. Now and then the way lay through a thicket: —

“ Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura; ”

no matter, — I was not going to Hell, or to any other of the too, too lively resorts along Vergil’s beat. For me an aimless ramble through a region of harmless obscurity; my guardian spook, if there were to be any, one James Boswell.

I wonder if it has ever occurred to the reader what a relative affair our little earthly immortality is. The famous names, the rare names which the world does not willingly let die, by no means have that Elysian field to themselves. They are destined, throughout their modified eternity, to be jostled by a rabble of lesser shades, a mob of translucent gentlemen whom the world would willingly have let die, if the world had been consulted about it at all. Yet, for one reason or another, they, too, survive, and have to be made the best of. By hook or by crook they have done the trick, a Bavius for a Vergil, and for a Sappho a Mrs. Aphra Behn. Not true fame, nor eminence, nor any kind of absolute achievement is necessary for admission to the grounds. It is enough to be a great man’s enemy, or idol, or butt, or neighbor, or pet, or cook. It is enough to have been that cook’s second husband, or his grandfather the hackney-coachman. Does not every illustrious one enter into his glory, trailing clouds of insects, undying ephemera ? Their very insignificance would appear to give them a kind of stability: nobody has suggested the probability that Bacon was the real proprietor of the Sir Thomas Lucy game-preserves.

After all, can we honestly sniff at the most fortuitous of these survivals ? It is all very comfortable for us to remark that So-and-so lives only in the lines of suchand-such a poet, or in the footnote of such-and-such a biographer. Well, what of it ? Are we, for our part, in a position to patronize him? He is going to live, is n’t he ? and would n’t we give our boots and our bottom dollar to be sure of as much ? Does not Browning’s mention of Vernon Lee guarantee that graceful writer a permanence of which otherwise, in common with a good many other graceful writers, she might reasonably have been in doubt ? For the rest, the allusion chanced to be complimentary, but might just as well have been the reverse. To be cursed by greatness is one of the finest pieces of luck that can fall to mediocrity. Had n’t you rather be a “MacFlecknoe ” or a “piddling Tibbald ” than — than a — never mind who; he is n’t going to owe his immortality to me; let him bear that in mind.

Yes, many a man has been embalmed by an insult. We may call him a fly in amber, but, dear me, most of us are bound to be a good deal worse off than that. Posterity will not even know that we were once a nuisance. This will hardly be a matter for posterity to grieve over.

There was a time, perhaps, that when the buzz was out the bug would die; it must have been before the invention of the first scarab. The world’s memory is heavyladen with immortal objects of scorn and derision. It is we, not their victims, who owe the satirists a grudge; for this swarm of flies is not half so becoming to the amber as the amber is to them.

But I seem to recall that we did not set out to hunt down such persons as may have attained a bad eminence through the casual dispraise — or praise — of poets. Our quarry is of much greater variety than that. These persons have had a footnote immortality thrust upon them; others are born to it; others rise or sink to it by degrees, finding their proper level. No honest literary drudge need despair of attaining it, no brilliant favorite of the hour need fancy himself secure of as much. One of the most engaging classes is made up of those who have lain in the bosom of greatness, whom it has loved; of whom, perhaps, it has expected great things. Johnson’s Savage, Lamb’s Manning, Carlyle’s Sterling, Emerson’s Alcott; yes,and Southey, — Landor’s, Coleridge’s, everybody’s Southey; — are they not already, or by destiny, heroes of the footnote ? Why else should we not very willingly have let Southey’s name die down to the level of a Skeltonian laureateship ? Yet you may read in a hundred memorable passages how big a man he was in the eyes of true genius. Stat nominis umbra; there is no doubt, at all events, of his survival. Even now, perhaps, with his Thalabas, Lives of Nelson, and what not, he may be a peg too high for us to hang our small argument on. So also Bronson Alcott, heavy material that he was, little as his orotund deliverances amounted to: who can calculate what inspiration he may have given the great man who fancied himself a disciple, who listened with unfailing reverence and enthusiasm to the mouthing of that wooden oracle ? It will take a very small footnote to contain the whole of Alcott; but he is sure of it, and he deserves it.

But think of the luck of Savage and of Manning, — Savage, whose life Johnson found it worth while to write, and to whom he paid a tribute now long out of fashion: —

“ Humani stadium generis cui pectore fervet
O eolat humanum te foveatque genus.”

It must have been something to starve in the company of the Cham, if one was going to starve at all. Some of us could have put up with that, without stickling that we should be embalmed in epigram, celebrated in a biography, or even condescended to by a Boswell. As for Manning, we have to take Lamb’s word for it that he was an extraordinary person: “A man of great Power— an Enchanter almost — far beyond Coleridge or any man in power of impressing”— Ah, we imagine, that was just it. Like Alcott and how many other friends of men of creative faculty, Maiming could impress more than he could express; the ordinary fate of your brilliant talker. His status as a footnote person is on the whole less enviable than that of the absurd Dyer, or the weakly amiable Martin Burney, whom Lamb loved without expecting anything of them. That is not always an effective tribute of affection which reacts in the form of a fantastic worship — e. g., FitzGerald’s finding his typical great man in the person of a long-shore skipper. Consider Johnson’s “ Tetty,” and the odd menagerie of his later household: are they not as truly immortal as a Savage, a Beauclerk, or the Thrale-Piozzi herself ?

The moral is simple. If you really want to have your name echo down the ages, employ the Company, shortly to be incorporated, of The Inspired Advertisers. The project merely awaits the accumulation of a sufficient reserve of capitalized inspiration. Sheer Greatness is just now at an almost prohibitive premium; but the market is expected to be easier very shortly, and a strong bull movement among the critics is already manifest.