Turning the Old Leaves
THERE is too much said at New Year’s — in the Toastmaster’s opinion — about turning over a new leaf. Are the old leaves all so badly written that one must hasten to forget them ? Is the blank whiteness of the untouched page more pleasant to the eye or more fortifying to the will than those closely-written, underlined, untidy, but familiar pages which make up the story of one’s life? These pages of experience turn so easily in the hand! They open by themselves, almost, to so many passages worth remembering. Will the trim virgin pages of the New Year yield anything really more desirable? Doubtless there may be finer bread than is made of wheat, and a nobler fish than the salmon, and a better book than Henry Esmond, but we shall be lucky if we find them during 1907.
No, this annual counsel to turn over a new leaf is but a restless, dissatisfied injunction. One’s old habits may not have been such bad habits, after all. Does the handwriting always improve with age and practice? Some of the old habits may be deemed actually good, even by the sharpest-visaged conscience that ever went peering about, like a meticulous housekeeper, on New Year’s morning. And even if the old ways, hopes, and day’s works were not all of the very first quality, the Toastmaster protests against that unmindful virtue that would turn them all out-doors at the end of December, to make room for the guests of the New Year. The new guests come, indeed, but the house seems empty.
Have any of the Atlantic’s readers, in the course of one of those changes of residence so typical of our migratory race and epoch, ever sat perplexed before a packing-box, hesitating whether to keep or to throw away a bundle of old chequebooks ? Hesitation is dangerous. If you once begin to turn over the stubs of those cheques long since drawn and cashed, the moments slip by unheeded. What an odd summary of experience is chronicled in those names and dates and figures ! They are abstracts of duties and pleasures that had slipped quite down between the cracks of memory, yet here they are as fresh as yesterday’s. Here are the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker, with faces no longer blurred, for you, by dozens of their successors. You smile at this stub, and the next you turn hastily over; you find yourself angry still at the record of some ancient extortion on the part of plumber or tax-gatherer; you look ruefully at the figures representing some unwonted extravagance or folly; or you catch yourself in the act of pious approbation of some forgotten benevolence. That cheque, at least, ought to have been larger! A curious sense of reality takes possession of you, as you scan these laconic entries, they recall so much. The half-filled packing-box, the littered room, the confused misery of migration, all shift into dream-land; while you, through the magic wrought by a few dusty, outlawed slips of paper, seem to feel the touch of Life’s very garment, — it is all so real! A great historian once sneered at that method of historical research which scrutinizes mediæval wash-lists in the hope of learning something about mediæval men and women. If he had ever looked over his own old chequebooks. he would have spared the sneer.
Some such intimate contact with the spirit of this magazine has the Toastmaster recently experienced, in turning the leaves of the earliest numbers. For 1907 is the Atlantic’s jubilee year. The fiftieth anniversary falls in November. There is a historical sketch to be written, and there will be such decorous glorification as shall seem appropriate to a semi-centennial. But before beginning any formal record of the past, the Toastmaster, in temporary forgetfulness of new authors, new issues, and new subscribers, has been absorbed in re-reading the famous early Atlantics. Those were cheque-books indeed ! What rich accounts of wit, of poetry, and of scholarship to draw upon, and how liberal were the drafts! And the readers of that day, eager for intellectual pleasures, for new information, for moral stimulus, indorsed so promptly the cheques drawn by the contributors! To each subscriber there must have come the excited consciousness of a largesse up to the very limit of his capacity for enjoyment. There were dull contributions now and then, and doubtless there was an unappreciative reader here and there, but it the subscriber of fifty years ago did not, in the course of a twelve-month, have his money’s worth of pleasure, it was not the fault of Dr. Holmes and Professor Lowell and the other capitalists of wit and learning. These Autocrats, Biglows, and other Olympians drew the cheques lavishly, and the Atlantic subscribers might cash them if they wished.
It is all recorded in those bound volumes that stand upon the library shelves of so many of the older generation of Atlantic readers. There are the names and dates and subjects. Some of them arc still vital, still a part of our national literature. Yet a large proportion of the pages in those files must necessarily seem of outworn value unless they are viewed as stubs in an old cheque-book. So read by the curious or pious, how full of significance they become for the interpretation of the last half-century of American letters and American history! The fading, outlawed leaves are once more coin of the realm of thought. Behind the dusty volumes rise troops of eager readers, — applauding, questioning, combative, — precisely like the subscribers of to-day. For that matter, the Atlantic is immensely proud that a long roll of names, first inscribed in 1857, are still upon its subscription lists. When two or three of this old guard take pains to write and say that a current article is good, the Toastmaster believes them. Only the other day one of these valiant souls wrote that she had just finished reading every volume from the beginning, except for a period of two years, when the magazine was unaccountably dull! The Toastmaster, who has the curiosity but not the courage to ask the date of those two lean years, congratulates his correspondent upon possessing the alchemy of an imagination which brings the old days back and still hears the old voices speaking with undiminished charm.
To most of us, lacking as we do that evoking imagination, the secret of literary vitality seems baffling, incommunicable. Why should it be that one poem or story, printed for good “journalistic” reasons in 1857, should be recognized a half century later as “literature,” while its companion pieces have utterly vanished from memory? We have our private guesses, of course, and our triumphant public demonstrations of the presence of this or that antiseptic quality in the piece in question. But the explanations do not wholly explain. It is only the listening imagination that can divine the mystery, and distinguish the immortal from the transient voices.
In one sense, indeed, the changes wrought by the last half-century are apparent to the most careless eye that glances over those bound volumes of which we have been speaking. Since that panic year of 1857 — darkened by financial disaster and by the ever-nearing conflict over slavery — what political, social, and commercial developments have altered the material aspect of the United States! The magazine writers who have striven to interpret these changes have been dealing with a shifting world. It is like photographing from a raft, the waves of the sea. The writers themselves have often altered their convictions and purpose; they have gained or lost in talent or inspiration. Unknown to themselves, the magazine-reading public has reassessed them, decade after decade, at a lower, or perhaps at a higher figure. That public itself is constantly dropping away, and is as constantly renewed. It is necessarily fickle in its attachments, given to swift enthusiasms and long forgetfulness. “Who was that young fellow who went up and came down again like a rocket?” asked Frank Stockton of the Toastmaster, a year or two after The Red Badge of Courage had been published; “ was it William Crane ? ” “Stephen,” corrected the Toastmaster. There was a whimsical smile upon Stockton’s dark, gentle, tired face, as if he meant to hint that all our little rockets will come down in time. And no doubt most of them do. There are already persons who ask “ Who was Frank Stockton?” and the Toastmaster remembers dining at an American table with an accomplished and cultivated company, not one of whom, as it turned out, had ever read Vanity Fair.
Amid all this impermanence, it is no wonder that even a casual scrutiny of the Atlantic files should reveal editorial inconsistencies and partialities of vision. Here is the dusty record of unskillful literary prophecies, of Presidential “booms” that came to nothing, of social tendencies that sloped, as it proved, in unsuspected directions, and of Utopian rearrangements that still await the fit hour and the man. Some of the intrenched political and social abuses against which the Atlantic’s writers have turned their heaviest guns seem as stoutly intrenched as ever, and likely to afford splendid shooting for another half-century. Many of the “big” articles which were expected to batter down these forts of folly are now recognized by the very officeboys as ill-aimed or premature. The best, editorial devices for winning and holding readers often seem, in the retrospect, so illogical and naïve! Tramping through the Belgian Dinant one rainy evening last summer, the Toastmaster halted in admiration before the tent of some strolling French players, who were winning a harvest at a peasant’s fair. The buxom mother of the family, perched, shortskirted and merry-eyed, upon a platform in front of the tent, harangued her audience of Ardennes peasants upon the merits of the representation that was about to be given. The oldest boy blew painfully at a bugle, while a younger boy — between bites of an apple — rang a brass bell. The half-grown daughter shook a tambourine coquettishly under the noses of the village youth. The father sold the admission tickets. And what was the programme that was packing the tent with honest Ardennes folk, at fifteen, thirty and fifty centimes a head, according to location ?
I.SCENES FROM THE LIFE OF MOSES
In Seven Tableaux Beginning with the Bulrushes
II. THE SIOUX’S REVENGE A Drama of Blood
III. THE SIGHTS OF PARIS In Twelve Tableaux
In fact, the tent was already full, and the Toastmaster reluctantly turned up his coat-collar against the rain, and marched on. But what editorial instinct was revealed in that varied catalogue of dramatic delights! Many a time has the Toastmaster turned the leaves of certain back numbers of the Atlantic, especially remembered for their success or failure with the public, and tried to analyze the causes of their popularity or their negleet. Yet it may have been time wasted. Could the Ardennes people have told whether it was Moses, the Red Indian, or the Boulevard — or the combination of the three —that lured their centimes from their pockets ? Neither can the present-day critic infallibly decide whether it was too many — or not enough — Bulrushes, too much or too little of the Sioux’s Revenge, which made or marred the fortunes of those well-remembered issues of the Atlantic Monthly.
The one thing certain, among these accidents of short-lived glory and shortlived disappointment, these shiftings of scene and subject and tactics altered from decade to decade, is that after all there is something in the Atlantic which does not change. From the beginning, certain men have expressed in it unwavering ideals, an abiding vision of a better United States of America. Some of these writers happily survive. Others, later-born, have instinctively aligned themselves with them. No one who lingers, even at the New Year season, over the rows of bound volumes, can fail to perceive, beneath the altering fashions of speech, an Atlantic “body of doctrine,” — an interpretation, at once sound and fine, of our American civilization. To this persistent faith in the things that are excellent is due the measure of permanence which the magazine has won. “They pounded and we pounded,” explained the simple-hearted Duke after Waterloo, “but we pounded longest.”
It. is in no spirit of mere after-dinner compliment that the Toastmaster adds that this persistency is at once liked and demanded by the Atlantic’s readers. To alter a little the terms of Carlyle’s apothegm, a magazine is a sort of democracy which does succeed in rounding its Cape Horn by vote of the sailors as well as by will of the captain. To this loyal support, in good and bad weather alike, the owners and editors of the Atlantic have always been grateful. But, as Laurence Hutton used to be fond of saying, “there are only two sorts of persons in the world: those who remember to say ‘Thank you ’and those who don’t.” To be able to say “Thank you” to the Atlantic’s guests is the Toastmaster’s annual reward for thus getting, as it were, upon his feet, and stealing the first word of the New Year from the other speakers. He hopes that he is not ton fond of reminding the Atlantic audience of their heritage from the past. One cannot live on the memory of old banquets, whether of sense or spirit. Nevertheless, with the fascination of those yellowing unsigned early pages fresh upon him, the Toastmaster’s first greeting in 1907 shall be to the surviving writers and subscribers of 1857. To them, all thanks and honor, and to the rest, a Happy New Year!