The Writer and the University


I WRITE this paper to show, if I can, why men and women who propose to write for a living ought to have the benefit of professional training, as men and women may now have professional training who propose to practice any other art; why post-graduate professional schools for writers at our universities would make good writing more common, by dignifying and improving the everyday practice of the art; why such schools of practice, vigorously conducted, would give new life also to the literary studies in our universities; and why they would, I think, make more common among the educated class a good use of both written and spoken language.

I may prevent confusion of thought by saying at the outset that I am not now writing about what the schoolmen usually call literature, nor about men and women of “ genius.” I am writing only about those who write every day or every week for their livelihood, and about what we generally call current literature. I pray you before reading farther, then, to set aside in a special class all young persons whose writings you are sure will be read with joy fifty years hence, or even five years hence; for they, I grant, may be pardoned for ignoring teachers. Nor have I anything to say about those persons who have contracted the divine afflatus, nor those for whom “ professors of English ” predict brilliant careers because they have written excellent undergraduate themes. I have in mind only the big volume of writing that is done every day in the United States by journeymen writers, and the need of training us to do our work better, us who regard our trade as an honest and difficult occupation at which we wish to excel.

Such journeymen’s writing has now come to be an important trade for several reasons. In the first place, journeymen writers write almost everything that the American people read. They write our advertisements; they write our newspapers; they write our magazines; they write our novels; they write our scientific books; they write travels and adventures for us; they write our histories and biographies; they write our textbooks, — all our books of instruction from almanacs to encyclopædias. Leaving out the reading that is done by a small class and that done by students chiefly during the period of formal education, most of the writing that is read in the United States is written by persons who write for a living; most of it was written during the last few years, much of it within the last year, much of it, in fact, within the last month, and a good deal of it was written yesterday. The journeymen writers write almost all that almost all Americans read. This is a fact that we love to fool ourselves about. We talk about “ literature ” and we talk about “ hack writers,” implying that the reading that we do is of literature. The truth all the while is, we read little else than the uniting of the hacks, — living hacks, that is, men and women who write for pay. We may hug the notion that our life and thought are not really affected by current literature, that we read the living writers only for utilitarian reasons, and that our real intellectual life is fed by the great dead writers. But our hugging this delusion does not change the fact that the intellectual life even of most educated persons, and certainly of the mass of the population, is fed chiefly by the writers of our own time. Let us hope that the great writers of the past do set the standards whereby a few judge the writing of the present. But, even if this be true, it is still true also that the intellectual life of the American people is chiefly shaped by current writing.

And the writers’ craft is now become a very large craft. In numbers it ranks perhaps second or third among the professions. There are more teachers and possibly more lawyers than there are persons who make their living wholly or in the main part by writing; and possibly there are as many physicians. But, if you could count the reporters and correspondents, the special writers for the newspapers, the makers of textbooks, the writers for magazines, the novelists, the playwrights, the writers of governmental and other public documents, and all the rest who make their living wholly or in the main part by writing, you would be astonished to see how large a company they are.

The craft has come to be a fairly well paid craft, too. No writers make such great fortunes as some lawyers, nor even such fortunes as some physicians and surgeons make; but many of them make more money than most lawyers and most physicians; and they are better paid than teachers and preachers. By sheer economic demand, therefore, writing as a career is attracting as capable men and women as most of the other professions and almost as many of them as any other. It is an interesting fact, too, that the earnings of writers during the last twenty years have increased faster than the earnings of most of the other professions. The writers of current literature, then, form a craft influential enough, big enough, and well enough paid to deserve as careful training as those who ply the other trades which we usually call professions.

Regarding the skill and character of current writers, it is probable that they fall below the level of lawyers in the excellence of their craftsmanship, but not in the character that their work shows, and that they do no better than physicians and perhaps as badly as teachers and preachers. Of course they ought to do a great deal better than teachers or preachers, because they both teach and preach to all the people all the time, and not merely on Sundays or during the period of school age. Newspaper writing, of course, runs from very good to very bad. The most important part of it, which is the reporter’s part, is generally very bad. Magazine writing is just shaping itself into a craft. Until a few years ago it was a sideproduct of scholars and men of action. Most of it was then very proper and stilted, just as much of it now imitates the vices of the newspaper. The American magazine is just finding its power and its opportunity, and shaping its character to definite ends. It is become the most influential form of current literature, and the chance that it offers for strong men is just beginning to be understood.

Concerning current book-writing, it is true, I suppose, that our best novelists are, as a rule, the best writers of our time, just as our worst novelists are the worst. The average quality of writing in current books is probably higher than the average was a generation ago, and surely a very much larger number of persons write reasonably well than ever before. But is it not fair to say that a general view of the whole mass of new books that come out year by year would show that as a rule our book writers do not do a high grade of work ? The most common fault is a lack of form, of orderliness, and of construction. A certain verbal smartness is very common, but the careful construction of books is rare.

There are two great departments of current literature that are very badly written. One is what may be called the literature of reports and documents, — from commercial reports to governmental documents. The waste in printing these, if it could be saved, would be enough, I am sure, richly to endow a professional school of writing at half the colleges in the land. So badly are governmental reports and documents written, as a rule, that the public seldom finds out what the government, municipal, state, or national, is doing. This is one cause of bad political conditions. Large amounts of money are spent to gather useful information which is so ill told that it remains practically unknown. The national government, for instance, through all its departments and bureaus at Washington, prints an incalculable mass of things at an enormous cost, which it cannot give away because they are so ill written that nobody wants them. Nothing is gained by this waste of labor and of paper, and yet nobody seems able to stop it or to change the “ system,” or even to induce those in authority to employ men to edit such of these reports as might be read if they were written with common intelligibility.

The other department of current literature that is such “ tough ” reading that much of it is valueless is the work of academic men, the publications of many societies, the monographs and “ theses ” and “ studies ” of teachers and students of our universities, — books on science, on historical subjects, even on politics and sociology,which fail of their purpose because they are written without form or style. Some of our academic men go on year after year piling up these unreadable things, as the government writers go on piling up their unreadable things; and the habit has become so fixed that they are even held in esteem for writing unintelligibly. The public is asked to believe that learning makes unintelligibility necessary.

A professor of English literature in one of our universities once brought to me to publish in this magazine such a learned piece of writing. It seemed to me a pretty dull thing and not important, according to my judgment, to anybody, and not possibly interesting to more than a handful of special students. I wrote him this opinion as politely as I could. He came to see me again and smilingly took me into his confidence. “ I hardly expected,” he said, “ that you would publish that * study ’ that I offered you. In fact, I care little about it myself. I wrote it because my professional standing demands that I shall produce something at certain intervals. But now I have a piece of writing that I do take great pride in, and I want you to publish it without betraying the authorship to any living being. It would hurt my professional standing if it became known that I wrote this.” It was a novel!

Well, Scott wrote novels, and Thackeray, and Goethe, and Turgénieff, and some great writers of every modern nation that has a literature. It is truly often a much debased form of literature in our day, but the most powerful living form for all that; and that a professor of English literature should assume an apologetic attitude toward it sets a plain journeyman to thinking. His dissertation was published in one of the learned organs of his university and duly catalogued by title, by subject, and by author in the library. His novel has, so far as I know, never been published. Of course any editor or any publisher could tell dozens of such experiences to illustrate how in a didactic and critical atmosphere a man is forced against his will to compile burdensome erudition that is of no value, and is permitted by the false feeling about him to try his imagination and creative powers only as a secret pleasure. The tragedy of it is, such a man does not become either a great scholar or a tolerable novelist. In the first place, he never learns even the fundamental graces of an English style.

To return to our poor craft of journeymen writers, — please regard us all as a class, as a craft, as a profession (call us what you will). Think of writers for newspapers, for magazines, waiters of governmental reports, of advertisements, of novels, of books of information, poets, — all who make it their business to write and who earn all or part of their incomes by writing; think of us all, if you can, as you think of any other class of workers,— physicians, or teachers, or architects, for examples. You will discover that there is one great difference between your conception of writers and your conception of physicians. Although you know that there are all kinds of physicians, good and bad, when I say that a man is a physician, that fact at once classifies him in your mind, no matter how many incompetent physicians there are. You take it for granted that he has been trained at a school of medicine, that he practices his profession in an orderly way, that he has a certain definite body of knowledge and a certain minimum degree of skill. He may be a skillful or an unskillful physician. But the bare fact that he is a member of the professon means something. But, when I say that a man is a writer, what does that convey to any mind ? an impertinent newspaper reporter, or a gutter novelist, or a historian, or a professor in a university ? You get no clearcut notion at all; and you say that there is no such profession of writing as there is of physicking people, or of teaching them, or of preaching to them, or of building houses for them. Yet as many persons earn their livings by writing as by practicing medicine, and they serve society in quite as important ways. There was a time, not very long ago, when professional training was not thought necessary, or at least was not provided, for the other professions. The barber bled his patient. The young lawyer “read law” in the office of an older lawyer. The engineer learned his trade in any way he could. Even now the teacher is just coming to have a professional standing and consciousness. All these callings gradually came to have a definite relation to society and some dignity of position by special professional training. As soon as opportunities for such special professional training were given, a definite body of knowledge and a definite degree of skill were required of the best practitioners. Quacks and incompetents yet flourish, and they always will. Still, medical schools and pedagogical schools find justification, and they keep raising the standard of knowledge and of skill. Professional writers have yet no standard or standing, as a class. Why could their profession not profit by the experience of these others ?

The successful practice of the writer’s craft, whether as a novelist, a reporter, an historian, a writer of advertisements or what not, surely requires a degree of experience and professional skill, Yet our educational institutions do not seem to be aware of this fact. For instance, a little while ago I received a letter from the president of a college asking me to give “magazine writing” to a gentlewoman of cultivation who had been overtaken by misfortune. If he had asked me to get her a place in grand opera, he would not have made a more absurd request. Every year a procession of young men and women comes from the colleges to the newspaper offices, the publishing houses, and the magazine offices, who wish to make their living by waiting. Many of them bring pathetically simple letters from their professors of English. They are ready to begin to instruct or to amuse the nation, and the professors predict great things for them. Sometimes, in utter despair, we who work at current literature with hammers and anvils say to them, “Well, you wish to write? ”


“Go and write, then; nobody will hinder you. We will buy your writing and publish it if it be good enough.”

“Oh, but I wish to learn.”

“Well, we are sorry, but we don’t keep school. We must deal in finished products.”

They must serve, of course, a long apprenticeship and then fall short of doing as well as they could have been taught to do; for the masters to whom they are apprenticed have no time, even if they have the skill, to teach them systematically. They pick up the tricks of the craft rather than learn its principles; and in this harum-scarum, untrained way they come in time to write perhaps half the matter that the American people read. Then these same professors of English, and suchlike gentlemen, who do not themselves write, complain that our newspapers and magazines and novels are ill written.

Nor is even this the worst of it. Most of the young men who come thus raw into the trade come with high aims; they have literary standards; they have worthy ambitions. But they soon discover that the trade is not the making of “ literature.” They have not been prepared by a reasonable amount of practice even to understand what writing, day by day, means. They have their heads full of “literary” notions, which are, as a rule, very false notions. They are not prepared for the orderly practice of a useful art. They hope rather to do some great piece of work quickly. They are in a false relation to work and to life. When the inevitable disillusion comes, they either lose ambition and sink into hopeless drudgery, or they lose their bearings and run off into “yellow ” journalism, where they can at least do spectacular jobs and earn (for a little while) more money.

Thus, although many capable and ambitious youths come to the doors of the writers’ workshops, so few of them are properly prepared to begin work or even look upon it in a proper way, — as young physicians look upon their work, or as young lawyers, or as young architects,— so few come with proper preparation or in the proper state of mind, that the demand for honest, capable, trained journeymen writers is not supplied. Every editor of a magazine, every editor of an earnest and worthy newspaper, every publisher of books, has dozens or hundreds of important tasks for which he cannot find capable men: tasks that require scholarship, knowledge of science, or of politics, or of industry, or of literature, along with experience in writing accurately in the language of the people. The profession is yet a harum-scarum, rough-and-tumble business into which men and women come chiefly from our universities, with academic superstitions instead of principles; and every one has to blaze his own way. And this in a democracy where public opinion rules congresses and presidents and courts, and where the machinery for the proper training of men, one would think, -would be especially adjusted to the training of those who are to write the public journals, adjusted to training at once the judgment and the style of men who are to write; for even style requires most excellent good judgment.

We complain, and we complain justly, of the commercialization of the press and, to a degree, of all current literature. And it would be strange if it had escaped commercialization in this rush of industrialism which is the most striking fact of our time; for all the professions have to some extent suffered the same misfortune. But, if the press is commercialized, it is not the writers who have commercialized it. They are the victims of this commercialization. We have left the writing to be done by those who lack the strength and the skill that come from good training, and the forces of commercialism have found many of them easy victims. For most men when they set out to write set out with high aims. The first impulse that drives men to their pens is usually a noble impulse. They wish to teach their fellows. They wish to win names for themselves. They wish to exert a good influence. When they succumb they succumb because they are weak rather than because they are depraved. Yet the strong man who can write well is the man of real power. He can capture and command the machinery of publicity. If, then, this great machinery of publicity is controlled and used too much by sheer commercial men, this has come to pass because strong men have not been trained as good writers. Is it not true, then, that our universities, which are justly offended at the commercialization of current literature, have failed of their duty to prevent it ?

For the usual undergraduate practice of composition and study of the English language and literature, good enough as far as they go, go little farther toward training a boy for writing than the usual undergraduate courses in mathematics go toward training him as an astronomer or as an engineer. Nor can undergraduate work do more. There is not time to do more. Nor has the undergraduate sufficient maturity to learn more than the rudiments of so difficult an art.


A proper course of practice and study for such a professional post-graduate school could be prepared only by men who are both good writers and good teachers, and only after some experience. But the general principles that should guide them are obvious. No student ought to be admitted who has not such a “general education” and such maturity as an A. B. degree implies; and only such students ought to be admitted as mean to make their living and their careers by writing, and only such as show some aptitude for the art, some facility of expression, some love of the right use of speech, and who get joy from its right use.

The teachers in such a professional school ought to be scholars in literature and men who have a good sense of right speech; men, too, who are themselves writers of some degree of skill, not mere lecturers, and not mere scholars. Writing is an art, and the teaching would be too theoretical if it were done by men who are not themselves practitioners of the art, just as the teaching of painting would be too theoretical that should be done by men who cannot paint fairly well themselves. No man can write well who has not written a good deal; and I doubt whether a man could be a successful teacher of good writing who had not written much.

The main work in such a school would be practice, just as the main work in a school for painters or sculptors or musicians must be practice. We should have to throw away at the gate the notion that mere scholarship is a sufficient equipment for a successful writer. For scholarship alone never made a good writer; nor did reading alone ever make one, however close and loving communion a man may have with great writers. This fallacy lingers in our academic life as stubbornly as the dogma of the divine afflatus itself.

Suppose every student were required to write a thousand words a day, — for a time narrative, such as a biography or a bit of history; then description, then argument, then a novel, then a play, then for a time, instead of tasks in prose, a sonnet a day or practice in other forms of verse. A student who should write a thousand words a day would in a year of three hundred working days gain such practice as the writing of three books of the usual size of a novel would give. In three years he would have written as much as nine such books contain. Of course, his writing would every day have to undergo the criticism of his teacher and of his fellows. No teacher could properly have more than half a dozen students, and the teacher himself ought to write as much as any of his students. They ought, at times at least, to write together, and about the same subjects. Doubtless it would be helpful, as Robert Louis Stevenson found it helpful, sometimes to write in conscious imitation of great writers, one after another.

Of course, there must go along with this practice definite, well-planned courses of post-graduate study in language and in literature. In most post-graduate work that I know of in the United States such studies now take the direction given by the philologists or the historians. Theirs is a science, not an art. The results of philological study are necessary for a good writer; but, if he get himself deeply entangled in philology for its own sake, he may become a great scholar, but the chances are that he will never learn the art of writing. To the philologist a word is material for historical study. To a writer a word is an instrument of expression, a tool. He must know his tools well to use them well, but he cannot give himself to the study of the history of tools. The same may be said of the historical study of literature. Of the great literature itself no writer who wishes to do his best can be ignorant. He must steep himself in it. He must continue to live with it; for no man can write his best who does not read great writers constantly. He will gain incalculably, too, if he can read the ancient as well as the modern.

By the time a young man, in such a post-graduate school, had written the equivalent of eight or ten books in prose and verse, under the guidance of a master who had himself written perhaps as much, and with the criticism of his fellows, and had in the meantime also constantly read masters of style, he would at least know whether the writing life is likely to offer the career that he seeks and whether the divine afflatus blows toward him. He would have shown some degree of earnestness; he would have worked out certain definite principles of the craft; he would have acquired a certain degree of skill as an artificer in words and in the orderly arrangement of thought; and he would be likely to begin the practice of the craft with a clearer understanding than he had when he began his professional training, of what the career that he has chosen demands of a man, — in resolution, in ideals, in practice, and in character. And this also surely is true: for them that are fitted by temperament and by capacity for such a calling, these years of training the productive faculties, these years of progressive effort at creation, would be happy and inspiring years. I have never known a successful and earnest writer of current literature who did not wish that he had had such training.

Indeed, it is hard to understand why such schools were not long ago opened at our universities. Those who write for their living are the only large class of skilled workmen for whom professional schools are not provided. Our universities train men not only for the old professions, but they train them to be dentists, pharmacists, foresters, veterinarians, and sociologists. Although nobody supposes that a boy as soon as he finishes his undergraduate life is prepared to begin work at any of these callings, he is supposed even by our educational masters to be prepared to begin work as a writer. These youth surely have as good a claim to professional training as those who wish to practice these other professions. Nor is there any doubt about the demand for such training. Any university that should open such a professional school with well-equipped teachers would have more applicants than the school could properly receive; and, after any one of our principal universities establishes such a school, others will soon follow the example. The demand for those young men, too, in the working world, who had creditably finished a three-years’ course in such a school would far outrun the supply for many years to come.


There are other reasons for post-graduate, professional practice-schools for young scholars who wish to learn to write, and even stronger reasons than those that I have named. For so far I have written only of the needs of the writing craft. But do our universities themselves not need such schools for their own sake and for the better adjustment of their work and influence to our democratic society ?

The dominant method of training in the university work of our time is by research. The higher academic degrees are given for research work. Men are chosen for college faculties who have won these higher degrees. Their mental habit and their methods of teaching are shaped by this method of training. This is the right method of acquiring facts and of acquiring skill in acquiring facts, for it is the scientific method. But, while it is the proper method for scientific work and training, it is not the proper method for the teaching of an art. You cannot apply it to painting, to sculpture, to music, or to the great art of writing.

But the method of training by research has so dominated our university activity that the teaching of the arts has been neglected. Our higher teaching of English has run to philology; our higher teaching of literature has run to such tasks as the tracing of mediæval legends from one language to another. These are scientific pursuits; and one result of their domination of university methods is a neglect of the art of expression, even a sort of contempt for it. You will find this contempt in our schools of science. A scientific man who can write well, — write, I mean, in language that everybody can understand, — is looked at by his fellows with suspicion. He is considered a “ popularizer,” a man who plays to the galleries. It is not considered good form to write well. It is a mark of weakness to cultivate style, or to think about methods of expression, except to make sure of accuracy.

We can see how this neglectful attitude toward good writing has worked sad harm to many of our historical students, for example. There have been published during the last ten or fifteen years a large number of books about the history of the United States, most of them by historical scholars who work in our colleges and universities. They are historical investigators, scientific men. Their first aim — and it is properly the first aim of any man who has to do with history — is to make sure of accuracy, to trace every statement to an original source. So far so good. But when they come to writing history they come to a task of another kind. So long as they are investigating facts it is proper and necessary that every fact should be set down in a row in its proper relation to every fact that comes before and to every fact that goes after it, and then put into a chain. In investigation one fact is of as much importance as any other fact, and a chain is no stronger than its weakest link.

But, as soon as the writing of history begins, one fact is no longer of as much importance as another fact. It is still necessary to be accurate, and no fact may be set down wrong. But sheer accuracy is not enough to make a good narrative. To make a good narrative is an art. The historical investigator must now become an artist. He must not give all his facts equal emphasis. He cannot even use all his facts. For a work of art is often made effective quite as much by what is left out of it as by what is put into it.

But many of our historical students hold the art of expression in almost as low esteem as other scientific men hold it. They think it a mark of weakness to try to write well. They regard it as their sole business to be accurate. They do not regard it as their business to be graceful. They do not understand that the task that they have in hand as writers of history is an artistic and not a scientific task. They do not see that they must now make pictures, — produce artistic effects. They ought not, as historical writers, to be making mere chains of their facts. They ought to group them, putting a strong emphasis on the big facts, a light emphasis on the little facts. They must have a strong light here, a shadow there. They must relieve their narrative by descriptions. They must put men into their procession of events. The reader must understand the historical characters that he reads about, and see them as clearly as we see men in the best portraits. He must hear them talk and come to know them. The writing of history is not a scientific pursuit: it is an artistic task.

Thus (I hope that I do not write too harsh a judgment) the art of writing well has come to be much neglected in our educational life; its value has come to be misunderstood. It has, to a degree, even come to be despised. So far from being cultivated, except in rudimentary undergraduate work, it is left almost to take care of itself. The result is slovenly expressed erudition. The result is a too low value set on good speech or good writing even by the educated class. The result is a great gap between our scholars and the rest of the community. The result is that men of learning do not deliver to the people the knowledge that is gained by science and by historical study. The result is a detachment of our universities from the life of the people, and their loss of control and even of authority over the intellectual life of the nation; for the medium of communication is neglected.

We hear much of the cultural value of this study or of that. No subject has a very great cultural value that is studied in a dumb way; for is the art of expression not the basis as well as the medium of the best culture ? If the best method of acquiring facts is the method of research, surely the best method of acquiring culture, of acquiring skill in any art, the best method of developing a man for creative (and not merely acquisitive) work is the method of practice, and not exclusively the method of investigation nor yet the method of criticism, — I mean that kind of criticism which men try to exalt into a department of literature, as it is not and never can be.

After a man has written a book and published it, criticism of it seldom helps him, unless he have made errors of fact that may be corrected. Helpful criticism is a personal and friendly and intimate service that can be best done in private; and public criticism usually hardens a writer in his wrong ways by arousing his resentment. The idea that mere criticism of literature will set up a standard whereby men will do their own work well is fallacious; for any standard so wrought out and set up soon becomes remote and theoretical, if it be disassociated from practice. It is at best a sort of secondhand knowledge. It does little to lift the level of the achievement of young men themselves. The time to criticise writing, for artistic improvement, is before it is published; and the only criticism that helps a man to write better is his own criticism and that of fellow workmen while he is still writing. Yet it is chiefly by such criticism or by the criticism of literature in general that our universities seek to train youth in literature. If the energy and the subtlety that are given to the criticism of dead writers — in the vain effort to make criticism a living part of literature — were spent in efforts at production (teachers and pupils writing together and severely criticising one another as they write), a working and inspiring standard in production would be set up.

Moreover (and this is the most serious matter of all), where literature is taught by the historical method and by the critical method and by the method of research, to the practical exclusion of the method of severe and continuous practice in writing, — in such an intellectual atmosphere the feeling grows and becomes at last a conviction, that literature is a closed chapter of human experience, and that it has all been written; and men forget — young men do not even find out — that literature is a continuous expression of every phase of human experience in every period, that it must be continuous, that every generation must contribute to it, ill or well, whether it know it or not; that literature must be written in the present and in the future, and that no man can tell when a great outburst of it will come, or who will write it, or what forms it will take, or whether it will even be recognized when it appears. Youth in our training do not have that feeling of expectancy in literature, that bounding hope, which youth ought to have as a right of its eagerness of spirit; for we do not whet their minds for actual experiment with their own creative impulses. Do we not rather overawe them with the greatness of the past and discourage them by hopelessness of the present ? Such is the inevitable intellectual result of exalting the function of those useful drudges, the commentator and the critic, over the creative impulse itself. Vigorous efforts in the practice of any art are necessary to keep alive a keen appreciation of that art. Vigorous efforts to do good writing are necessary to implant and to keep really alive a proper appreciation of great literature. This is, in fact, the only way to teach or to study great literature so as to make it a vital and not a mere theoretical force in men’s lives, — the only way to keep the stream of literature flowing clear and strong, the only way to keep alive the consciousness that it flows all the time, shallow or deep, muddy or clear, do what we will. For men study most lovingly and profoundly what they themselves wish to do or to imitate or to live by.

Thus a plea for the training of the poor, honest “hack ” leads to a plea for a more vigorous and direct study of literature in our universities, study by sustained practice, which is the counterpart of the study of science by research. For the study of literature — of the “humanities”— does it not need invigorating? Is not the imitation by our teachers of literature of the more vigorous scientific men a confession of a lapse from the place that they once held in the training of youth ? Have they not lost something of their rightful influence in making “educated ” men cultivated men and in keeping alive among the educated class a proper appreciation of good literature ? And has this loss of influence of the “cultural ” studies not had much to do with the neglect both of good speech and of good writing by this generation of Americans ? And has this in turn not made the way easier for all the spectacular quacks in current literature ? And has this loss of literary power not come because our teachers of literature have forsaken the high laborious method of practice and substituted for it the scientific teacher’s method of research ?

I verily believe that vigorous postgraduate schools for the professional training of writers would attract a number of our most capable youth, would put a new life into literary study at our colleges, by setting up a high working standard instead of merely theoretical standards, would lift the practice and dignify the calling of the professional writer, and would bring our academic life into a more helpful relation to the production of literature and build up the speech of the people. It might again become the mark of an educated American gentleman that he should write well, and a test of an American scholar that he should be more than a vast, dumb Teutonic voracity,— be also a man of some gifts and graces in the democracy in which he lives, a democracy whose intellectual masters yet are masters of the people’s speech.


Of course there are objections and difficulties. Many educated men do not believe that good writing can be taught by any such direct effort. The style is the man. Therefore, as the man is, so will his style be. This is the same as to say that you need not bother with nature’s handiwork. Those that are born to write need no teaching: those that are born unable to write cannot be taught. Old Divine Afflatus dies hard. Many contend, too, that the usual undergraduate theme work and the usual study of the old thing called Rhetoric are all that you can do in the way of direct aid to young writers. They maintain that you can teach men to write only by causing them to read the great masters of style. They think that it is wholly a question of intellectual breeding and association. Men who grow up with a knowledge of the great writers and learn to love good reading will, they say, learn to write well, at least as well as anybody could teach them. That objection is easy to answer. Simply gather your facts. Make a list of the best-read persons you know and set down opposite every name the writings of every one of them, and you will be surprised to find how few of them have written much, and even more surprised to find of how little importance to the world most of the writing is that they have done.

The truth is, if the habit of merely acquiring knowledge be cultivated in the formative time of life, too much to the neglect of the faculties of creation and of expression, these faculties of expression become atrophied, and they are never used. We have all known scholarly men who talked all their lives of what they were soon going to write, and who went on acquiring but never wrote. I do not mean to say that the lives of such men were misspent; but I do mean to say that we cannot depend on such men to do our writing. Those whose acquisitive faculties only are used in their youth are likely to use only these same faculties in their manhood, and they seldom do creative work. They at best become commentators and expounders.

Another objection is that young men who are just out of college do not know anything to write about, that good writing requires knowledge and a good deal of experience of life. Yes, but these same young men who would gladly be trained to write will write without training; and surely a three years’ course of practice and study would not leave them more ignorant of facts than it found them. It ought to strengthen their judgment and to train them in methods of acquiring facts while they are practicing their art.

It is said, too, that the teachers in such schools would come to be mere phrasemakers and rhetoricians. The man who teaches in such a post-graduate school ought to be the man of the greatest intellectual vigor that can be engaged; for of course he must teach not only writing but thinking as well, as every worthy teacher of any subject must. This objection — that such schools will become schools of mere rhetoricians — means that both teachers and pupils will be weak and lazy. Why they should be weaker or lazier than the teachers and pupils of other schools is not plain.

But the most serious difficulty of all is that Americans lack the conception of writing as a teachable art, as the French, for instance, regard it. We regard the great writing of the past as the product of a sort of divine, unteachable gift, and the bad writing of the present as a poor utilitarian trade. We feel, therefore, that it is useless to try to train men who have supernatural gifts, if such men ever come again; and that it is beneath the dignity of universities, which train veterinarians and sociologists, to train men to do the slap-dash work of writing for a living. To change this point of view — that is the very gist of the problem.

The very purpose of such a proposal as I make is to cause young men to look upon writing as a useful art, an art in which men may be trained as they are trained in any other art, so that slapdash journalism and all other bad writing may, at some time, cease to be tolerated, and so that those who write what all the people read shall be honestly trained craftsmen of the pen who do their work worthily. Then, I fancy, literature will really take care of itself. Surely it is true that whatever influence increases the skill and lifts the pride and the dignity of any craft, strengthens the character even of its strongest men and builds up the character even of its weakest men; and every such influence makes that craft a better force in the world.