Fletcherizing in Literature

We are all of us familiar with the teachings, if not with the actual writings, of Mr. Horace Fletcher. Moreover, most of us believe those teachings, in substance, to be true. To our shame, however, it must probably be confessed that few of us practice them with any degree of faithfulness. The principles which, between meals, seem acceptable as well as sound, are apt to vanish suddenly when we sit down to a substantial feast, and feel ourselves equipped to do it justice. When the grim form of indigestion steals toward us under cover of the night, however, and we awake to feel his grasp upon our vitals, we resolve henceforth to Fletcherize. The master of mastication, we decide, shall have another faithful and obedient disciple.

It is not given to many men — or women either — to lend their name to a popular cause or movement of reform. But this is a distinction which belongs to Mr. Fletcher. Whether he deserves the honor or not, is another matter. There is no new thing under the sun, and we have it on the authority of the omnivorous Macaulay that the famous Count Rumford unfolded to the Elector of Bavaria a very practical scheme for economizing on the rations of his soldiers. The plan of the scientific count was very simple. The soldiers were to be compelled ‘to masticate their food thoroughly.’ For, said the man of science, a century and more ago, ‘a small quantity of food thus eaten would afford more sustenance than a large meal hastily devoured.’

Whether or not the Elector of Bavaria acted upon Count Rumford s counsel, history does not say. Perhaps he lacked compelling power over the jaws of his soldiers, and kept on overfeeding them. The Kaiser, however, might issue orders as to the amount of mastication to be applied to bread and sausages in the army and among civilians, and so solve, in part, the present lack of food-supply in Germany. One wonders that it has not been considered, and I hesitate to write these words lest they furnish the Teutons with a weapon whereby to nullify in part the blockade which England has established.

It is a poor teaching, however, which does not apply to more than one of life’s departments. Adaptability is a law of life as well as an attribute of genius. Man does not live by bread alone. The mind is fed by books. I want to suggest, therefore, that we need another Mr. Fletcher to apply this doctrine, not to the dining-room, but to the readingroom; and not merely to the pantry shelves, but to the shelves of our public libraries. There is a form of literary gluttony prevalent at the present time, which is positively distressing, and which bodes ill for the mental health of coming generations. In our schools and colleges, stuffing is mistaken for studying, and cramming for learning; while among the public generally, skimming takes the place of careful reading, and reading comes to be a substitute for thought.

Mental health would certainly be promoted if people should select carefully a few good viands and chew them thoroughly. Many people complain, for instance, of their wretched memories. They read a book this week and have forgotten all about it the next. Perhaps it is well at times that they should forget it. Perhaps there was nothing in it worth remembering. But the process is not wholesome. We remember things when we have cause to think about them; without careful thought there is nothing for memory to lay hold upon.

We cannot, of course, lay down any hard-and-fast rule in regard to things like these; nor did Mr. Fletcher himself seek to do so in setting forth his famous system. ‘One person,’ he declared, ‘may dispose of a morsel of bread in thirty mastications so that the last vestige of it has disappeared by involuntary process into the stomach. Another person, of similar general health and appearance, selecting as nearly as possible an equal morsel of bread, may require fifty acts of mastication before the morsel disappears. The next week, by some change of conditions, this order may be reversed.’ The methodical Mr. Gladstone, who was no less punctilious at the dinnertable than he was at his desk, found saving grace in the number thirty-two. ‘Chew each morsel of food at least thirty-two times,’ was the mathematical announcement that he made to the world, as solemnly as if he were dealing with an item in a national budget.

But, as Mr. Fletcher well remarked in referring to the English statesman’s rule, ‘the dictum has little value except as a general suggestion. Some morsels will not resist thirty-two mastications, while others will defy seven hundred.’ He himself had found, so he tells us, that ‘one-fifth of an ounce of the mid-way section of the garden young onion, sometimes called “challot,” has required seven hundred and twenty-two mastications before disappearing through involuntary swallowing. After the tussle, however, the young onion left no odor upon the breath, and joined the happy family in the stomach as if it had been of cornstarch softness and consistency.’

Much the same, of course, may be said of books and the amount of study they require. Some pieces of writing are like the ‘challot,’ while others are quickly and easily disposed of. There can be no doubt, however, as regards the general value of the Fletcherizing process. It is thus that men have always disciplined themselves and attained to mental strength. We all know how it was with Lincoln, for example, and how it likewise was with Franklin. What seemed the early disadvantages of these men — their lack of many books — became their best and most effective means of education. They digested thoroughly the little literary food they had. In the scanty library of Franklin’s father was a copy of Plutarch’s Lives which the youthful Benjamin ‘read abundantly,’ chewing its chapters many times. His real education began, however, when he met with ‘an odd volume of the Spectator.’ He bought it: read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. Moreover, he adds in his Autobiography, ‘I thought the writing excellent, and wished if possible to imitate it.’ Whereupon he began the wholesome process of reading certain of the articles, putting them aside, and, after a few days, endeavoring to reproduce them in his own words, following out the general sentiments as he remembered them.

There was education for you! And it was the kind of education which the wisest nearly always have pursued in building up a wholesome digestion and educating taste as well as style. Demosthenes, for instance, — to give a classic instance, —is said to have copied out the entire History of Thucydides six times, in order thoroughly to familiarize himself with the matter and the manner of the great historian.

Moreover, Fletcherizing such as this is not only good for the digestion, curing flatulency and building up substantial tissue, but it promotes, as well, the pleasures of the palate. One gets the whole taste out of the food absorbed. Count Rumford knew and stated this fact, too, before the days of our modern prophet. In his essay on Food he wrote, ’The idea of occupying a person a great while, and affording him much pleasure at the same time, in eating a small quantity of food, may perhaps appear ridiculous to some; but those who consider the matter attentively will perceive that it is very important.’

But its importance from a dietary point of view is incommensurate with what it has to teach us in regard to the joys of literature. One need not follow Ruskin’s advice and read ‘word by word, and syllable by syllable, and even letter by letter’; but there is a satisfaction in dwelling upon sentences and tasting their hidden meanings, with which the passing pleasures of the palate cannot be compared.

This truth is one of which we were reminded in that delicately shaded little story entitled ‘Nothing,’ which appeared at some time in the Atlantic. A blind woman was made to speak, and what she said revealed the depth and clearness of the author’s insight into things of this kind. Her words were these, and they may be earnestly recommended to many people who imagine that they see: ‘By taking plenty of time I managed to learn some books by heart: and I found it was much more interesting to sit and think about one paragraph for an hour, than to read twenty pages. Even a few words are enough. Take “Be still, and know that I am God”; or, “Acquaint now thyself with Him anti be at peace.” There’s no end to those sentences.’

Nor is there. But, at the present time, the sad fact is that many people hardly make a beginning on them.