Looking Literary

IN The Real Thing Mr. James expresses a disenchantment the like of which, it is to be feared, has come to many another. ‘It was a truth,’ he says, ‘of which I had for some time been conscious that a figure with a good deal of frontage was, as one might say, almost never a public institution.’

Such a disenchantment may well be gradual and reluctant, for even the most sordid science seems to foster an expectation that phenomena will, in some recognizable degree, ‘look the part.’ To be sure, we may early encounter the shock of discovering that Alexander the Great, Cæsar, Napoleon, Wellington, Grant, had no heroic proportions, that they were little men, as men go; but history and poetry alike see to it that these figures are invested with abundantly identifying marks of greatness. We may have learned, then, to spare mere stature, dubiously as we may have done it in the case of the fighters, without altogether giving up hope that the natural lapse may be corrected in later evidences.

Mr. Howells has commented somewhere upon the popular attitude of mind as illustrated in the familiar remark, ‘I thought he was taller.’ That the marked man should be discovered not to be tall is, unquestionably, a fact perennially disappointing, even after something like resignation has been acquired. A stunted hero retains the capacity to give us a pang, even when he is not making Wagnerian love to a towering Brünhilde.

This attitude of mind is evidently not essentially vulgar or even juvenile. Writers of eminence have not been immune from the habit of halting before brevity of stature in other writers, for example, even when the discoverers are not so candid as Carlyle, who quite inevitably pounced upon De Quincey as ‘one of the smallest men you ever in your life beheld,’ and found Macaulay ‘a squat, thick-set, low-browed, short, grizzled little man of fifty.’ The rather brutal tautology in the description of Macaulay had, of course, collateral provocation. You will guess what it was. Margaret Fuller, whom the caustic philosopher in Cheyne Walk set down as ‘a strange, lilting, lean old maid,’ remarked that ‘the worst of Carlyle is that you can’t interrupt him.’ Macaulay, who was a pretty good torrent himself, with plenty, as Emerson put it, of ‘fire, speed, fury, talent, and effrontery,’ tried the impossible, and got all three adjectives. How much worse Miss Fuller might have fared is to be judged from Carlyle’s memorandum that she was ‘not nearly such a bore as I expected.’

Thus it was inevitable that George Ticknor should observe that Schlegel was a ‘short, thickset little gentleman,’ and that he should, apparently, be relieved to find Goethe ‘something above middle size.’ To be only ‘something above middle size’ seems only vaguely alleviating, but it serves the purpose of rescue from the class that is more sharply noted. If Chesterfield, for instance, could have grown perhaps a couple of inches further, Thackeray’s picture of him as ‘a little, beetlebrowed, hook-nosed, high-shouldered gentleman,’ would have been shaven of al least its most accusatory term. And the term often is an implement of resentment. Lamb was irritated when he picked out a London contemporary as ‘a middle-sized man both in nature and understanding.’ Of course, even faceto-face opportunity does not always assure conclusive estimate. Miss Hawkins says that Walpole was tall; Pinkerton as flatly declares that he was short, though both agree that he walked ‘as if the floor were wet.’

And here is our great difficulty when it comes to calling up images of the literary great by the agency of personal testimony. ‘Figure,’ says Carlyle, ‘a fat, flabby, incurvated personage, at once short, rotund and relaxed, with a watery mouth, a snuffy nose, a pair of strange, brown, timid, yet earnestlooking eyes, a high tapering brow, and a great bush of gray hair; and you have some faint idea of Coleridge.’

Not so faint an idea, perhaps, if we went no further. But how shall we reconcile the Carlylean brutality with Wordsworth’s portrait of the ‘wrapt one with the godlike forehead, the heaven-eyed creature’? It is such disparities that might well drive us to a Cubism which forgot the outward and visible signs altogether, and showed us Genius in a geometrical litter.

Yet it is just these outward and visible signs that are least likely to go unsought and unmentioned. Neither nicety nor ardor of description has ever seemed certain to insure forgetfulness of the outward shell. No adversities of contact deter us from eagerly reading descriptions which may disturb, or from writing the same sort of thing to jostle someone else’s preconceptions. Sometimes, it is true, the meeting or the description may be pleasantly or at least interestingly corrective. ‘Instead of having a thin and rather sharp and anxious face, as he has in his pictures,’ writes Professor Ticknor, after his meeting with Byron, ‘it is round and open, and smiling; his eyes are light and not black; his air easy and careless, not forward and striking.’ But we shall meet our shock, you may be sure, before we have gone far. We shall have idealized a Fielding, then wince to learn that ‘a few pensive lines about the nose showed that snuff and sorrow7 had been there.’ We shall have developed a fine reverence for Dr. Johnson, then run across a description of the spectacle he presented at dinner. Indeed, the anguish of discovering that our giant is not tall will pale before vastly more distressing readjustments.

Yet we shall, it seems, go on hoping if not expecting to objectify our ideals and our prejudices. The instinct cannot be wholly sentimental. Though we may be piqued by the paradoxes, surely there is something elementally practical in this expectation that ‘looking the part’ will become a fact. Despite Macbeth, there surely is an art ‘to find the mind’s construction in the face,’ — an art to be questioned, to be sure, when it is made a profession, yet one not at all in contempt when it is practiced by individuals. Nothing in postDarwinian science seems to scold us for the expectation.

Moreover, since life imitates art, there must be psychic pressure which will stamp its influence, however subtly, on physiognomy, and if Epictetus was serious in saying that ’we ought not even by the aspect of the body to scare the multitude from philosophy,’ it need not be entirely fanciful to suspect that exponents of literature have felt the same obligation with regard to the multitude. Indeed, Mr. Zangwill dares assert, that Tennyson ‘dressed for the part almost as well as Beerbohm Tree could have done.’

This influence of the multitude is to be reckoned with. Max Müller, who was astonished that English universities should try to develop manliness without dueling, admitted that in German universities ‘pistol duels are usually preferred by theological students, because they cannot easily get a living if the face is scarred all over.’ While Epictetus, like the clergyman, was influenced with regard to the ‘aspect of the body’ by the conditions surrounding the delivery of philosophy in person, and while the literary man is not commonly a man of the forum but of the study, the chance that the writer may hide behind his book grows daily smaller. The psychological century is the most pictorial of all.

Epictetus did not specifically insist that the philosopher should look like a philosopher. Max Muller has not said that the clergyman must look like a clergyman, but the multitude will, you may be sure, go on matching the mask to the fact. Gil Blas found Dr. Sangrado to have ‘a medical face.’ Lucky Dr. Sangrado, to fulfill all logical requirements and escape the halting obscurations! Shakespeare, who lived before photography, is assumed to have looked sublimely poetical, and thus avoids infinite explanation of one sort at least. Nowadays, shouldered by the camera, the painter must be so literal that we cannot hope to beg the question. Even Futurism does not sweeten the details.

‘He does not look like a literary man.’ There you have it, much reiterated, in newspaper descriptions, in ‘literary gossip,’ current and between stiff covers. How he should look, to look literary, we are never told. How he does look now that he does not look literary, we are informed in a thousand phrases. To get at the theoretic image we must creep by the eliminations.

In earlier times it was different. There can be no pretense that genius ever advertised itself by infallible signs. But there were good old days when you were supposed to tell a poet as quickly as you would a policeman. This must have been a great comfort. If you doted on poets you could be grateful for the label that made it easy to pick them out. If you disliked poets, or if you were merely conservative about them, you might be equally grateful. The long hair was an immense help to the imagination — to the poet’s, I have no doubt, as well as to the spectator’s. It became a sign, and much of humanity joins the Tammany chieftain in welcoming the ‘symblem.’

The danger always was—and it came in for remark long before Mr. James’s skepticism as to the ‘public institution’ — that ample locks and a Byronic collar could be acquired by persons who were not literary at all, much less poets or real Parnassian toffs of any sort. Nature will have its joke and men will connive. If no one could be so great as Daniel Webster looked, I have no doubt that no one could be so transcendently literary as some of the counterfeits have succeeded in looking.

But this does not change the fact that the poet, for example, once was standardized. There are a thousand descriptions which prove the existence of an accepted mould for the literary personality, though most description goes by resentment of variation. Goldsmith reminded Miss Reynolds of ‘a low mechanic,’ particularly of ‘a journeyman tailor.’ Rogers was never forgiven for being ugly — so gracious an observer as Mr. Whipple saw ‘something withered and ghastly in his appearance.’ The same writer was quite sure that Lewes was ‘one of the homeliest men in Great Britain.’ Miss Evans said that he looked like a ‘ miniature Mirabeau,’ though she afterward (that was a richly significant afterward for both!) admitted that ‘he is much better than he seems.' DeQuincey was well enough pleased with the head of Wordsworth, but Lamb’s head, he declared,’was absolutely truncated in the posterior region — sawn off, as it were, by no mean sawyer.’

Tennyson was an instance of the popularly acceptable type. Mrs. Carlyle, who evidently regarded him as extraordinarily handsome, discerned ‘something of the gypsy’ in his appearance, and for her this was ‘ perfectly charming.’ Comments on the impressiveness of Tennyson recall the ardor of Pope in ascribing to Wycherley ‘the true nobleman look.’ But of all handsome authors our own Motley appears to have been most fervently described. Lady Byron declared that he more resembled her husband than any person she had ever met. To Wendell Phillips this was not praise enough, for he insisted that Motley was handsomer than Byron. Bismarck, who met the American at Göttingen University, says that Motley’s ‘most striking feature’ was his ‘ uncommonly large and beautiful eyes,’ and that he ‘never entered a drawing room without exciting the curiosity and sympathy of the ladies.’

However we may hesitate to commit ourselves to any theory of form, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Lowell, Bryant, Dr. Hale, all surely ‘visualize well’; so well that the vivid impression of their utter distinction might easily embarrass any effort to determine the later type.

And when we turn to the later type it is difficult not to feel that the last vestiges of picturesqueness are slipping away to join the periwig, the lace, the buckles, and the snuff-box. For the Delilah of convention has shorn the world. Can the august modern author feel the complacency of Mr. Pepys when he had used his new ‘razer’ after a week of lying fallow? ‘ How ugly I was yesterday,’ he bursts forth in his diary, ‘and how fine to-day!’ Are we to watch the ruthless snipping of the new Zeitgeist without a word of protest?

The hard contemporary fact is that the gloriously maned authors are becoming sadly rare, even rarer than long-haired actors. The long-haired musician is still with us, though one of the most eminent masters of the pianoforte has yielded something to the modern spirit by submitting briefly to the shears. Individual age has here a potent influence — age, or the getting through with things. What a wonderfully picturesque person Dickens was at twenty-five! And how matter-offact at forty! Browning suffered a similarly sobering and averaging effect. The same thing is true of many other figures in that period, and it is not easy to guess whether the changing fashion set in during their middle years, or whether advancing age would have effected the same change in any case.

Those of us who feel bereaved by the departure of the endeared aureole from the head of the type will dwell with the greater warmth of feeling upon memories inspired by Mark Twain, by George Meredith, by Parke Godwin, by Donald G. Mitchell, by Joaquin Miller, as well as by the bearded ones, like Fields and Scudder and Stedman and John Fiske. It may be that my impression of John Fiske’s head was affected by the bigness of the man, but surely that head was more than ordinarily impressive. Beecher one day called to one in his audience to join him on the platform. ‘Come up here, you shaggy man!’ was his challenge. It was Edward Eggleston. But, alas! Eggleston trimmed that splendid mane in his twilight years — a calamity as profound, it seemed to me, as if Walt Whitman had trimmed his.

It might, then, be urged that a change of fashion has made identification of the literary man a nicer, a more exacting matter, though this would be to affront the tradition that there really is a ‘literary face.’ But it does not at all explain why literary men are so frequently held to look specifically like something else.

Close upon twenty years ago one critical commentator noted that Ibsen ‘did not look like a poet,’but ‘like a prosperous railroad president.’ It was earlier, I think, that I read of George William Curtis as looking ‘the beau ideal of the English country gentleman.’ Mr. Davis described Coppée, seen at the Grand Prix, as ‘suggesting a priest or a tragic; actor.' James Payn looked ‘more like a prosperous physician than author.’

Again ‘ prosperous,’ mark you. There is something in that which should, perhaps, be examined. Mr. Howells is not so often described as looking like a ‘prosperous banker’ as he was, say, a score of years ago. Evidently the phrase has had its day. Authorial prosperity has become trite. New descriptives are needed. Yet what, other prosperous thing can you look like after you have looked like a prosperous banker? Most of us would be willing to stop there.

And having ventured among the moderns, is there any entirely proper form in which I may, conscientiously, offer the opinion that the evidences to-day are strangely puzzling? John Burroughs and Dr. Mitchell certainly seem to touch the traditions. So does Hall Caine, and perhaps Barrie. But Kipling, and Hardy, and Hewlett and Riley and James we are likely at any moment to see designated as typifying some abstractly professional or merely gentlemanly embodiment. Chesterton, though he suggests Dumas, is no more literary looking than Conan Doyle or H. G. Wells. I have not seen Sir Gilbert Parker for many years, but here is a photograph of him talking to Edward VII, and it is evident that, so far as traditional signs go, he might be no more differentiated than a king.

These personal contentions are made in the face of the fact that some one with a Futurist perspective will rise to insist that ‘there ain’t no such animal,’ which would be equivalent to maintaining that looking literary is, or has been, either a trick or a delusion. This cynicism belongs with the ancient superstition that the feminine literary type was to be traced by its clothes. If the clothes were antiquated, particularly if they did not fit, the lady was literary. Happily this absurdity is obsolete. Now that literary women are (as I am told) quite commonly fashionable (fancy a ‘hobbled’ blue-stocking!), even the clothes flippancy cannot aid in an identification that always was precarious.

Let us not be diverted by skepticisms. Science and sentiment alike point to the probability that the type still holds true if there be eyes to see. It is not a matter of asking for any reiteration of the ‘serene Olympian beauty’ of Goethe, not a matter of objectifying either the ascetic or the rebellious on archaic lines, or of risking the receipt of a fling like that of Henley at Thackeray as ‘representing the gentlemanly interests.’ Surely it is a matter of re-standardization, under the correcting influence of which we shall, like Hogarth, be able once more, and with closer nicety of discrimination, to ‘see the manners in the face.’