The Gentle Theme-Reader


THERE are times in every man’s life when, in an extravagance of sympathy for his fellow sufferers, he casts an eye about him for one most deserving of his fraternal love. It lights on the laborer in red shirt bent over his cobblestones, on the shop-girl scurrying under the orders of an officious manager, on the young reporter describing fires as a preliminary — so he hopes —to dramatic criticism, on the theatrical usher at a long-run house, on newsboys, applewomen, street-car conductors, stokers, miners, weavers, all worthy of sympathetic attention and some organized to demand it. Yet all these folk have their compensations, if not immediate and material, at least prospective and ideal. The laborer may become a ward politician, the shop-girl a buyer, the reporter— oh, it’s barely possible — a city editor, the usher a ticket-seller. Let such then be contented and vote the Republican ticket. I record a man whose posture attracts no roving eye, who is bent over a task totally devoid of compensation, immediate or remote, who has no time to indulge in hopes, had he any to entertain.

He is the theme-reader. His work consists in criticizing the daily literary productions of about one hundred college freshmen. Could you talk to a college freshman for — let us be generous — six minutes, you would realize the horror of the task. And yet a freshman’s talk is somewhat removed from banality by the eagerness which invests it. His writing is not so choicely arrayed. No boyish enthusiasm lifts its thoughts to the skies. No youthful abandon carries them along on skipping feet. The bacchic dance which we usually attribute to the emotions of our juniors is quite absent. Contrariwise, his thoughts are solemn and staid; they tramp heavy-shod over roads macadamized with platitudes; dully they sound their note of inherited wisdom; ponderously they traffic in levity.

A freshman leaves no subject, however quotidian, without the imprint of his personality, a trait which he shares with the Greeks. But his personality has itself been impressed. It has been impressed with a die used uniformly upon all his fellows. Speculate upon the number of freshmen in the United States from Harvard to Pomona, and you will see what this means.

The expression — for it is not a plurality — of these souls, then, is what the theme-reader has to read. Not only must he read, he must judge. He must mark in the margins cautions about repetitions, reprimands for mis-spellings, suggestions for improvement, commendation for those rare and, one must think, accidental notes of sincerity so voiced as to sound sincere. To be sure, he does not carry out his programme too faithfully as he grows in service. In the beginning of his career his finished work is as red as it is black. Its texts are pools amid reeds of comment, its covers brilliant in ink and sentiment. As he goes on, however, he treads a passage from English to abbreviation; a question mark does what a sentence did before; a vertical wavy line substitutes for a paragraph. The critical aphorisms he used to display give way to exclamation points; his notes of approval have shrunk to a ‘Good!’

In this manner also his soul, even as its utterance, shrinks and shrivels, until at last it invigorates the thin-haired, thick-spectacled nonentity known as the ‘Assistant in English.’ He is so tired of professional criticism that he no longer judges at all. He is so busied with reading nth-rate literature that he has no time for anything else. He is so used to thinking in grammatical terms that life has become the index to his Rhetoric and all its pleasures the categories of mood and tense. When he is asked to converse he is at a loss, until set upon the track of his work. Then, if he be not too old, he will recite for a whole sitting anecdotes of the conference and class-room. He will give you story after story of freshmen’s bulls. This is his stock of humor, seldom exhausted, for each day brings a new supply. If he is trapped into real conversation, he will discuss the ignorance of the American college student who does not know that Wordsworth was born after Milton or that the Gothic novel was not written in Gothic. Such matters irritate him immensely. He does not see how irrelevant they are to a freshman’s needs and interests. They make up a theme-reader’s life.

Left to himself, the theme-reader is well-behaved. When angered he becomes petulant. There is nothing so pathetic and yet so amusing as a petulant theme-reader. He walks rapidly back and forth, he talks in a falsetto, he wags his fingers, he damns. What is more pathetic than a falsetto damn? He wastes this temper over a poor freshman who cares more for his health than for his speech.

The theme-reader when calm is less amusing and more human than the theme-reader furioso. It is then that he deserves sympathy. For there is in him at such moments the spirit of non-resistance in the face of unconquerable powers. He knows that he is in the fell clutch of circumstance and has not the strength to escape. There is no use in talking about a head bloody but unbowed: he ducks and is done. Thus he manages to survive, not in glory, not in fame, but in mere acquiescence, content to read the poorest literature there is and happy in the ability to recognize a quotation.

The usher may become a ticket-seller if he lives long enough. I have heard of one theme-reader who at the end of his days was an assistant, professor. It was like sending a wreath to a funeral, for in a year or two the fellow died out of gratitude. After his promotion he continued to haunt his old post where so many miserable hours were spent, like a faithful dog who sniffs at his dead master’s carpet-slippers. There was always interrogation in his look; he could never apprehend the situation. But he, as I say, was unique. No other themereader need fear his fate. He had an indomitable strength of physique.

The theme-reader, for all that, should be satisfied. As I was told by one college president whose attention I vainly tried to draw to their plight, ‘Why don’t they study and rise to scholarly eminence? They cannot expect to attain academic promotion simply because they are faithful. That would be rank sentimentalism. What have they done for learning? That is the decisive question.’ Ah, yes, what have they done for learning? They have thrown away their years on the rubbish heaps of mediocrity.

If they abandon scholarship and go in for literature, they are in as bad a fix. At first sight it would appear undeniable that a critic knows how to write. Since he knows the rules, why should n’t he apply them? But even were this gross error a truth, the matter would be no clearer than before. A man may have all the ability in the world and yet have no opportunity to test it. Not only may he not have the opportunity, he may not have the will. When you are surveying the worst possible specimens of an art — as all teachers, theme-readers, or not, must — you soon come to that point where you would prefer a martyr’s death to the guilt of having added to the store. You are content to let artists do the work. One crime at any rate you will be free of.

But should you be willing, what is the result? A man who lives on rules becomes so self-conscious that he can never perform any act described by the rules he lives on. Realizing their economic importance, he attributes to them an æsthetic importance, and what was originally a mere description becomes in the end a law. Consequently the theme-reader cannot express his gentle emotions without seeing — before his pen touches paper — a transgression more awful than that of Nebuchadnezzar. Straightway he sets out to correct the error. And the result is that his pen never does touch paper.

Should he by any chance achieve a completed piece of work, it is sure to be so embalmed in accuracy that it is worthless. If its author has by the grace of God retained his powers of discrimination, he will curse and tear the monster to pieces. If he has not, if he is desperate for publicity and thence promotion, he will have it typed and submit it to some editor. The rest of his days he will employ his petulance against ‘the American magazine.’ He knows that his article is as good rhetorically as Dryden or Burke. That is indisputable; did not a theme-reader write it? If so, he who refused it had not the good taste to prefer literature to rubbish. Therefore the American magazine is on the decline. It never occurs to one who knows the rules that rules are not imagination, not ideas.

The theme-reader thus cannot publish. He cannot study. He can do nothing but sit and read themes until he dies. If he is wise he stops being a theme-reader. And our graduate schools are well punctuated with theme-readers in rebellion. All souls have not this fire, however, and many are doomed to a life in the shadows. They silently go on and on and on as if they were treadmills. One would not mind that too much, if they did n’t so rapidly get. contented with their lot. It is bad enough to be an underling, but to be one wittingly is immoral. ’Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.’

Here then is the gentle theme-reader, an object much more worthy of your sympathy than laborer or stoker or shop-girl. The visitor to a university is taken to see chapels and clubs and libraries— stained glass and soft leather, oak pews and memorial tablets; now let him see the men who are beneath all this, at whose pain these things are bought. They are too crushed to speak for themselves, too proud to welcome a spokesman. Theirs is the sorriest plight of all because it is unknown.