The Tyranny of Timeliness

IT began, as most tyrannies do, in a small and humble way; it pretended, like other tyrants, that it was working for the good of the public.

The editors did n’t dream it would ever get away from them when they first began their zealous work of keeping their public what they called “abreast of the times; ” and all they did to that end was very praiseworthy as long as Timeliness was secondary and the interest of the subject of first importance. But naturally, when Timeliness saw writers turn ragpickers (for timely paragraphs can be made from cast-off shoes), it saw it had gotten the upper hand, and arrogated to itself a fictitious importance, until timeliness or nothing has become the cry of almost every magazine, —and if the public won’t read, let it run. And now, when any man, great or small, becomes, through the working of a mysterious law, timely, every magazine feels it its duty to “feature” him.

His portrait “comes out” as multitudinously as the measles, until one would suppose it was catching, like a contagious disease. It makes no difference whether the public is interested or not. The clock of timeliness has struck, and Mr. This or That is haled forth from his dust, and not a detail concerning him is too humble for the scavengers of the fetich timeliness.

Take the recent case of John Paul Jones; for months there was no escaping the gallant gentleman. One met him not only in those magazines whose custom it is to take a kindly interest in historical matters, but also in the so-called popular magazines, which three years ago would n’t have touched the choicest bit of Jonesiana at any price.

Three years ago this admirable sailor was not timely. He is now, and so became from the moment the cellars of Paris yielded up his cinders, — one hopes that they really are his cinders, for if they are not we may have it all to do over again.

So when he was started forth on the journey of state to the shores of the country he so nobly defended, the editorial heart of the country gave a great timely throb of patriotism, and the writers who had their fingers on the editorial pulse sped hastily to the libraries, that they might improve the golden moment by recounting every detail of the patriot’s life, death, burial, and resurrection. While those who had been fortunate enough to “view the remains” had information to give which went straight to the public heart, — details of far greater interest than accounts of historical sea fights.

Paul Jones, it seems, was a triumph of the embalmer’s art; his grateful grave yielded up, not a mere handful of bones, but a perfectly good corpse, as good as, even better than, if it had been interred last week. Indeed,had not the deceased’s nose unfortunately been crushed by the coffin lid, the great officer would have awaited his resurrection and ascension into public interest as “natural as life.”

As to just how and why and in what way the nose came to grief no one need remain ignorant. There are even photographs to be seen of the damaged member. Into such narrow paths does timeliness lead us.

It is interesting to inquire into what makes a man timely. Even a little great man becomes timely when he dies, even though he may have passed his declining years in obscurity. When a great man has been dead a hundred years, he becomes timely; but when he has been dead only ninety years he is n’t to be spoken of. We don’t write about him, — he must wait his turn, which will be his centennial.

A writer of some reputation happened while abroad to come across some unedited material concerning one of the great authors of France. This material brought out the author’s character from a somewhat new point of view, and shed light on the conditions under which some of his best work had been accomplished. When the article was sent to a well-known magazine its writer received answer that his work was not timely.

In eight years, wrote the editor, the author’s centenary would occur. If, however, the writer did n’t mind waiting eight years for the publication of his article, the magazine would be glad to accept it. The editor further pointed out that it would be an advantage to the writer to wait, as the timeliness of his article would cause it to receive much more attention than it could when the great man was dead only ninety-two years and the public consequently had no interest in him.

But no man in view needs to wait for his death, to become timely. There are other methods to accomplish this end: a scandal, for instance, or an accident, will do almost as much for him as death. Then, great public events have their anniversaries, and battles their centennials, along with the men who made them. It is rather cheerless to reflect that by consulting a history and a biographical dictionary one may foresee a certain part of one’s magazine reading for the next several years.

But this is not the only way that the fetich of timeliness decides for us what we are to read. The tyranny of the calendar is even worse than the anniversary mania, which after all has its root in one of the passions of mankind.

The time of year is permitted to dictate what sort of fiction we must read, for magazines change the backgrounds of their stories to suit the seasons, with the same regularity with which their editors put on or take off their winter flannels ; while the magazine covers mark the month as punctiliously as any pictorial calendar.

Take the month of July, for instance: punctually in the middle of the peaceful, temperate month of June a large proportion of the popular magazines appear ornamented with covers in which fire-crackers, rockets, and Roman candles play their part, while everywhere the country’s flag unfurls itself. Now there is no intelligent man who does not dread the most unspeakable of holidays, and if he has children he fears it. It is a hideous day at its best, a day of noise and heat preceded by a night of sleeplessness and profanity; it is the day when our children blow off their fingers, get gunpowder in their eyes; the day when the eyebrows and hair of half the youth of our country are laid on the altar of a noisy patriotism. Who wants to have it rubbed in that Frankie has a bureau drawer full of cannon crackers, and is presently going to run the danger of tetanus from his toy pistol ? And yet every news-stand is a reminder of what we are soon to go through, and the irritating part of it is that the magazines act as if the country rejoiced in its day of torment. Nor does this editorial jubilation end here. Inside those firecrackersprinkled covers we know what is waiting for us; sonnets on Our Country, ballads of Independence. Come, get ready to drop a timely tear over the old boys of the blue and the gray, for there must be in the July number patriotic fiction of all sorts.

But if we have our noses rubbed in Fourth of July, the way Christmas is flung at us is enough to make a Mahometan of Everyman.

There are few grown-ups so insincere as not to admit frankly that there are troubles enough in the world without Christmas. But the magazines, with smug jollity, remind us about Thanksgiving time that the day is coming when we again will have to face the problem of what to give Uncle William this year; and lest we forget, on every cover the Christmas chimes ring, holly and mistletoe bristle, children prance around Christmas trees, while in countless Christmas tales the progeny of Scrooge again punctually on Christmas eve open the doors of their hearts and the clasps of their purses.

We can be perfectly sure that in the next January number we shall read again about Van Sniggin’s Good Resolution. We know there will be stories in February appropriate for Saint Valentine’s day, that the same things that were said about last Decoration Day will be said this Decoration Day also, and that “fiction numbers” and “vacation numbers” — timely summer reading — will be as inevitable and as plentiful as pumpkins in October.

So let us look forward with patience to what is inevitably before us. Let us resign ourselves, remembering that the avoidance of the unexpected saves trouble, and let us plod through the eighteenth article on John Paul, — remembering that there will be a Jean Paul to follow him.