On Reading Proof

A galley slave! The ancient representative was a wretch chained to the oars; the modern example is fettered to labor of more exacting type. What spirit of malicious satire, naming the instruments of modern printing, chose to devise the galley and its proof, true symbols of that black slavery into which innocent authors are forced by the modern press-gang ?

There was a time when I looked upon the printed book as the sign of some one’s felicity, the accomplished revelation to the world of the deepest truths perceived by the author; to-day I regard the volume as the triumph not of thinking but of inking. I render homage to the alert eye of the proofreader, whose devotion to truth leads him to observe so carefully the letter of the law and to contend against misspelling and other Capital offenses.

No mailed hand in the days of chivalry could strike so profound a blow as that of the postman who delivers a roll of proof. Summon all your faculties, try to be all vision, something will escape your vigilance, and in your poem, in your article, in your book, there will appear one of the petty, exasperating inaccuracies that brings a shame more unendurable than that attendant upon some actual misdeed. To find “lyrioal ” gleaming derisively out of a page of serious disquisition, to discover Browning’s line printed, —

“O lyric love, half orgel and half bird,”

is to suffer without hope. Sometimes one has an escape from life-long humiliation. A gifted friend of mine had the insight to insert a “t” in the following passage included by her printer in a chapter of noble idealism, — “ We must rise to the level of our loftiest inquiry. The first suspicion we get of immorality makes us responsible for it.” I can proudly boast of having rescued two verses from corruption. One compositor, firmly opposed to simplified spelling, established a new reading of a modern poem, —

“ With yellow evening in the skies,
And rhyme upon the tawny hills.”

Another improved Keats, ameliorated him, to speak truly:

“Honey from out the gnarled bevi I ’ll bring.”

Surely the psychologists have neglected their legitimate prey. Much could be learned by the study of such lapses from the normal, and the men and women who wrote volumes upon the subject would have, in support of their theories, what few psychologists do have, indubitable proof.

If, in these days, there be any one who has not appeared in print, let him be warned in time. The sentence that seemed to flow so melodiously will become, in the fifth earnest scanning of your proof, a thing more odious than the newspaper of a year ago. The adjectives that you chose with so much care for effectiveness will seem only pitfalls for misprinting; little by little you will arrive at the desperate mood of using only words of one syllable and those easy to spell. The colon and the semi-colon will disappear (except in messages from Panama). You will be glad that you learned Greek because you know how to make the mystic sign δ.

Certain voluble critics have said that Shakespeare’s indifference toward the question of printing his plays was, and is, inscrutable. Let those triflers in human experience read Henry VI, where the poet in raillery anathematized the whole race of printers: “Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.”

I agree with Shakespeare; the old days of manuscript were better, when monks labored day by day over their copying, and adorned their pages with brightly colored letters. Then writers were really illuminating; they were never represented by a leaden cast of thought.