The Glory of Intolerance

TO-DAY I passed through a moment of queer pain — the pain of memory — and it answered for me a question which has often importuned my fancy. This question had to do with a paradise I once conceived, full of the brightness and flying laughter of youth, an immortality of memories fashioned into realities once more. Here the early bravery of the spiritless and old should live unconquered, and the fleetness of the youthful runner be treasured up for him. Which of the gifts anciently mine should I claim in such a place?

To-day, in the library, I suddenly knew. I had opened a volume of Stevenson and begun to read a favorite passage, when some dimming instinct uttered its voice, a voice of scorn against my pleasure. This remembered scorn has come to me only rarely — to-day it had the vividness of an expiring memory. As its lost voice smote me, I put down the book, for it was then I knew.

‘Give me back,’ I said, ‘my intolerance.’

All young readers know it — the period of intolerance, that time of complete spontaneity, when epithets rush to the lips almost with the first opening of a book. The youthful critic knows what is bad in books, and he cannot overlook it. His makeup is merciless, and he never forgets. He cannot be made to look for virtue where he has just unmasked vice. He draws some very black lines. Compromise he cannot understand. I remember well my first reading of Stevenson, and how I overtook him in some venial sin or other in the middle of the first page. ‘Poseur!’ I cried—I can feel now how my lip curled. For years I would not change the disdainful word. So, too, was Kipling rejected; I could not endure his salable situations, his eye out for the unworthy majority. I remember clearly the things I said: back come the epithets — ‘ Commercial! ’ ‘ Meretricious! ’ lighted up in a blaze of virgin wrath.

Meredith, Benson, Shelley, Crothers, Rossetti, Howells, Whitman! Naming them at random from my most familiar shelves, I feel that I have fallen off indeed. They were all once on that long list of worthy hatreds which I maintained (as I remember it) with honor. One after another there return to me the swift impulsions of thought which swept them magnificently into the heap of the condemned. One after another I recall the very causes of condemnation: a cheapness which I thought I detected, an insincerity which called aloud for correction, a pose, a liberty taken with my sensibilities — no matter about each one; they were all challenges, all vivid and conclusive enough. Cleverness in particular outraged me; Chesterton was long a synonym for the deliberately unseemly. But whatever the cause, my reaction to it was speedy and intense. And I was true to the reaction. I was not polite, social, or reasonable in my commerce with authors; I was, rather, arrogant and outlandish. And yet, within my own narrow limits, I was consistent.

The undiscerning philosopher would account for youthful intolerance in one way — a true explanation, so far as it goes. It is due, he would say, to the fewness of the young reader’s ideas, and his attitude toward them. The mature mind harbors its multitudes, each tempered by the others, jostled from its absoluteness, and at peace with its kind. The mind of youth is sparely stocked, and those scant numbers are all in all to him. Each concept is so sharply bounded, so excitingly itself, that he cannot trifle with its meaning. He is helpless before the absolute. There is for him an importance at once rapturous and awful about the principle that two and two make four. His literary judgment partakes of the nature both of a rite and of a triumph, and every criticism he utters is a recourse to what he deems an eternal truth. This joyous logic has not yet been saddened by the discovery that two and two may make any sum, from zero to infinity.

But the philosopher who has loved books in his youth would know the deeper truth — the other, finer reason for youthful intolerance. To the older critic, judgment is a matter of opinion; to the younger, it is a matter of service. No one else in the world serves so whole-heartedly the idea in which he believes and the beauty which he has seen. This is his mission. His intolerance is only the reverse side of real literary passion; if he is ruthless, it is only because he is inspired by ideals of deathless strength and impossible beauty. If real poetic insight is ever granted him, it is granted now; and in the midst of unaccountable enthusiasms, he has gleams — let no one doubt this — of truer readings and surer raptures. There is something dedicated and knightly in his attitude. I remember that my first reading of Milton was a sort of accolade, an entrusting to me of a secret of incommunicable loveliness by which all else must stand or fall. I know other young readers who, unconsciously, also accept their revelations as a trust and a charge. Error must be met, truth defended, the unworthy sent down to defeat. To take new manners and new ideas on sufferance only; to judge them instantly; above all, to reject, denounce, destroy — all this is part of the service of the reader-errant, part of his narrow generosity and his bigotry of beauty. As ideas are the supreme excitement, so each book is the Great Adventure. No faltering is felt in the attack, no quarter given, and all his banners are planted firmly and haughtily upon a beetling hill.