My Decennial

A DECENNIAL of mine is about to be observed. Decennials are usually celebrated, I believe; but I have no cause to rejoice over this particular one, for it registers the completion of ten years of failure. For this reason, if there is a Failures’ Club, I am not only eligible for, but I highly merit, its presidency. One hundred and twenty months ago, the Atlantic refused my first contribution; one week ago, my latest was returned. The even tenor of this experience through so long a period of years shows that my failure has at least the virtue of consistency. There have been no successes, and hardly any encouragements, to mar the sheer and blinding beauty of my failure’s symmetry and the perfection of its whole. My rejections have not only been regular; they have been absolute. True, the editorial wind has often been tempered to the shorn literary lamb; and many a letter from the Atlantic office has been far more human and kindly than any that I have, in trembling hope, been able to devise to the Editor. That austere gentleman has been ‘ever so sensible’ of my goodness in sending undesirable manuscripts; he has been ‘grateful’ for my tireless persistence in continuing to send contributions that did not suit. And seventy times seven (as admonished by Holy Writ) he has apparently forgiven me for trespassing on his time and his bounteous patience.

These emotions of grief and gratitude that he has expressed — I have wondered about them; not that I doubt their genuine nature, but that I must class them as editorial sorrows, not likely to bring the one who experiences them to an early and tragic end. After so long and so satisfactorily uniform a career of unsuccess, I am beginning to feel that this coming decennial of mine should celebrate my obsequies. As so much of my material has been rejected, I am evidently rejected; therefore I should observe my final rites.

About such solemn matters, one should ponder seriously and coolly. And indeed I have often pondered in a cool and serious mood. I wondered why it was that I, who had tried so faithfully, had never succeeded; who had knocked so patiently, had never been admitted. Of course, faithfulness is of dubious literary value; pure genius has often seemed allied to forms of unfaithfulness. But advantages were mine which should have been my allies in my attempts to attain this coveted success. By heritage, by breeding, by education, by inclination, by profession, I was literary. Seven generations of my family had been college-bred. Many of the literary men of the first half of the nineteenth century had been entertained by my family; and those who remembered the happy experience had always encouraged me to emulate, if possible, the lives of Agassiz, Holmes, Longfellow, and Hawthorne. In the university, I was one of the few unusual creatures who delighted to delve (for the pure love of it) into old poems and ancient plays. My face was almost as familiar a feature of the library as was the marble bust of Homer there. The college authorities made me the editor of two publications; my classmates indicated by their choice that they believed I could write a class poem. True, I had never visited Boston; but about the time of my graduation, a third cousin of mine from the far South spent a few days in the Hub; so I felt that in some subtle way my education had been completed.

At that time I was perfectly familiar with the Atlantic and with the ideals which it so admirably represented. My introduction to it, several years before, had been rather unusual. Of course, I knew the magazine by sight; but I had always been a little apprehensive of my ability to understand what the simple cover declared that the magazine contained. One day I was reprimanded by one of the university professors who had supervision over one of the magazines whose destinies I was guiding. The matter in one issue of the periodical had, I believe, been poorly arranged. I shall never forget what was said. ‘Don’t you understand what I mean?’ the professor asked. ‘Have you no model? Don’t you read the Atlantic? Well, here is a copy. Take it home and study it carefully. In all respects, including its general plan, it is the best magazine in the world.’

For a while, being entirely human, I seriously resented the perfection of the Atlantic. And I was dubious of the degree of success that would follow the modeling of a weekly newspaper after a monthly literary magazine. But I studied the Atlantic. And I can truthfully say that, having studied every issue since that day, I am fully prepared to pass any examination set on the contents of the magazine since February, 1904. Moreover, the names of those who have contributed to the Atlantic have seemed to me names with which one might conjure; though, conjure I never so wisely, the admiration I have for those names and the appreciation with which I read those writers’ work have so far brought me no nearer my goal. And I believe I understand the spirit of the magazine; for I feel that no experience on earth confers quite the same sense of pleasurable refinement and of genuine culture as the experience of drawing a chair before the evening fire and adjusting the light at one’s shoulder so that it falls on the pages of a new Atlantic. Milton must have had some glimmering forethought of joy like this when he wrote of ‘the sober certainty of waking bliss.’

After my first genuine acquaintance with the Atlantic, and after my education and a few experiences in real life had confirmed my opinion of the qualities of that periodical, I began to think of the time when the Editor would be writing to find out how many articles I could spare him every year. Ah, that was long ago; it was in the days of golden youth and of roseate hopes. Yet my desire of achieving literary success was not in vain. At least a score of magazines accepted from me stories, articles, poems. One critic even had the hardihood to declare that a book of mine contained ‘poems of promise.’ Such faint praise bears the breath of fame, however damning it may be. I began to experience the ecstasy of drawing from a letter-box envelopes of small size and significant contents. Indeed, as far as money was concerned, I succeeded. But apparently such success was not what I desired. I never earned real happiness. I never achieved the goal of my desires. The Atlantic remained obdurate; or perhaps it should be said that I continued to be uninteresting. Reputable magazines featured my work, and reputable artists illustrated it. Who ’s Who took a deep personal (or was it financial?) interest in the facts of my life. Certain alluring offers came from good publishers. But I was like Elaine who could not have Lancelot: —

’Of all this will I nothing ’; and so fell,
And thus they bore her swooning to her tower.

To such a tower am I shortly to be borne; there to observe my decennial, which now fast approacheth. How shall the date be fitly celebrated? As the ideal guiding spirit of the Failures’ Club, I fail to know. But there remains a bare possibility that this decennial in question may never materialize; so I am as yet not issuing invitations. It all depends on the Editor of the Atlantic. It is said that the world is becoming better, and that humanity is growing more thoughtful and considerate. All these forces, making for joy and peace, may penetrate the erstwhile (to me) inviolate doors of the Sanctum, and even the kindly but (to me) inviolate heart of the Editor.

Should this notable self-confession be rejected, the decennial will be observed. Knowing what for ten years they have escaped, all the great family of Atlantic readers should enter jubilantly into the spirit of the occasion. It will be an odd funeral, to be sure; for while some rejoice, others will mourn. The corpse will be the chief mourner, and the Editor will be the dominating figure of the whole occasion.

Send no flowers.