On Commencing Author
IF to be misunderstood is to be great, then all my life I have been great, and never greater than in these last few months.
It came about in this way. My life has always been a singularly duplex affair: one half of it — no, much more, nine tenths of it — has been hard work, the rest of it has been spent in my library; even when I was a boy and had only a shelf or two of books, I always called it my library.
As a result of much reading — and very little thinking, for like Charles Lamb, books do my thinking for me — I became moved to write a paper on the pleasure of buying and owning books; and, much to my delight, not only was it accepted by a well-known editor, paid for, and published, but people read it and asked for more. It is the first step qui coûte, as the French so eloquently say. After the acceptance of my first article my ascent was easy.
I have said that I have always been misunderstood. For example: I never had any education, whereas it is commonly supposed that I have sat, or at least stood, at the knee of some great scholar like Kittredge. The fact is that kindly disposed relatives took me in hand at an early age and sent me from one dame — I had almost said damn — school to another, according to the views of the one who had me in charge for the time being. This is a bad plan.
In like manner, when I grew up I got a job in a bookstore, Porter & Coates’s, and a fine bookstore it was; but I never sold any books. I suppose it was early discovered that, though I might take a customer’s money, I would never part with the books, never deliver the goods, as it were, and for that reason I was put in the stationery department. I made my first acquaintance with pens, ink, and paper by selling them, and in those days I had no idea what delightful playthings they make. Because I spent a few years at Porter & Coates’s, I am supposed to have gained there the knowledge of books that I am credited with.
And later on I was for a time in a banking-house, and a most respectable banking house it was, too: Brown Brothers & Co. — a sort of younger son of Brown, Shipley & Co. of London. There I drew bills of exchange in sets of three: first, second, and third of exchange, I remember they were called. I never became much of a draftsman, but I soon became expert enough to make three separate blunders in a single bill. It took time for these blunders to come to the surface. I made a mistake in June in Philadelphia, and it came to light in Shanghai in December. I used to dread the arrival of a steamer. I did not mind ‘steamer day’: that meant outgoing mail; what I hated was an incoming post. I can see now the brief notes written in clerkly longhand, — it was before the introduction of typewriters in respectable houses, — ‘calling attention for the sake of regularity to the error in draft ’ — number, name, and amount given. I came to know just how long after the arrival of the mail it would be before someone would tell me that Mr. Delano wanted to see me in the back office.
This was the unhappiest time of my life, and I determined to throw up my job and go into business for myself: to do in a wholesale way what I had done at retail. After some years, when I had accumulated a little money, a man, thinking I had much, called on me with a view to selling me an interest in an electrical business. I was told that what was needed was a financial manager; and when upon investigation I discovered that the business was in the hands of the sheriff, I knew that I had not been deceived.
A story of suffering and disaster is usually more interesting than a story of commonplace success. How in time I became the president of an electrical manufacturing company, without knowing a volt from an ampere, or a kilowatt from either, might be interesting to my family, had they not heard it before, but to no one else. It is enough for me to say that by the happiest kind of a fluke I came to have a name not unknown in electrical and financial circles, although nothing of an electrical engineer and very little of a financier.
And now in my old age, — for if an electrical business will not prematurely age a man, nothing will, — when I sometimes so far forget myself as to talk of eddy currents and hysteresis, I see that I deceive no one; that I am listened to as an old man is, when for the hundredth time he starts to tell what he thinks is a funny story; for I am known to hate every living mechanical thing with a royal hatred — automobiles especially, with their thousand parts, each capable of being misunderstood. Even a screw-driver fills me with suspicion, and a monkey-wrench with horror.
And I am not altogether alone in this: others so situated share my weakness. I was dining once in London, quite informally, with a great electrical engineer, a very trig maid in attendance. On the table near my host’s right hand was a small block of white marble and a tiny silver mallet. When he wanted the maid, he struck the marble a resounding blow.
I was somewhat amused, and asked him if he had ever heard of a pushbutton for the same purpose.
‘My boy, I have,’ was his reply, ‘but I get enough of electrical devices in the city; I don’t want a single one of them in my own home. I ’ve not come yet to using gas; I prefer candles; they are not so likely to get out of order. I hate this pushing a dimple and waiting for something to happen. When I make a noise myself I begin to feel a sense of progress; that’s what we stand for in this country ’ — with a knowing wink — ‘progress.’
Do not be alarmed, gentle reader; this introduction is almost over. It is like a door stuck tight which, when, by a great effort, you have forced it open, you find leads nowhere.
I set out some time ago to tell how I came to be an author, and then I lost my place; better authors than I ever hope to be have done the same.
I shall start over again. There is a rhyme to this effect: —
A little wife well willed,
Are great riches.
Having these, I wanted one thing more. I wanted to add a leaf — I did not ask to add a tree, not even a sapling, only a single leaf, to that forest which we call English literature, that stately forest in which for many years I have delighted to lose myself. It is an honorable ambition and I gave it full play, and I was as pleased as Punch when, after a time, it was suggested that if, in addition to a number of essays that had already appeared in the Atlantic, I had some other literary material, as it is called, it would be read with the idea of publication in book form.
In due time a book appeared; a book, mind you. Boswell, in conversation one day with Johnson, remarked that he had read a certain statement. ‘Why, Sir, no doubt,’ replied the sage, ‘but not in a bound book.’ There is a great difference between an essay in a magazine and the same essay in a bound book. My book was bound. As one of my critics very kindly said of the publication, it might not be worthy of the immortality of morocco, but it certainly was a very pretty success ‘ in boards.’
But, after all, reading is the test. Anyone can write and print and bind a certain number of pages; the thing is to get people to read them. A great man can wait for posterity, but for a little man it is now or never. A book’s life is almost as brief as a butterfly’s. There is something pathetic about the brevity of the life of a book. A man works over it, thinks about it, talks about it, if he can get anyone to listen to him; at last he finds a publisher, and the book appears. For a few days perhaps it may be seen in the bookshops, and then, like the snowflake in the river, it disappears, and forever. Speaking by and large, the greatest successes escape this fate only for a moment. There are so many books! Go into any public library and ask what proportion of the books on the shelves are called for, say, once in ten years. The answer should make for modesty in authors. That it does not do so only proves with what eagerness we pursue the phantoms of hope.
But I must avoid a minor note in my carol. D’lsraeli has written of the Calamities and Quarrels of authors — I write only of the amenities of authorship. When writing ceases to be a delight, I will give it over. Meanwhile the trifling honor that has come to me is very gratifying. My book was published in November, 1918. Within a short time commendatory letters began to arrive. They came from every part of the country, at first single spies, and then battalions. Almost all of them from entire strangers. Not many of my friends wrote me. When a man is publishing his first book, his friends, feeling that a great joke is being perpetrated, want to have a hand in it and do not hesitate to remind him that they are looking forward to receiving a presentation volume, the inference being that they, at least, may be depended upon to read it. But I remembered Dr. Johnson’s remark: ‘Sir, if you want people to read your book, do not give it to them. People value a book most when they buy it.’
When the book finally appeared, and people began to read and talk of it, many things, grave as well as gay, resulted, the gayest being a dinner given to me at one of the clubs, at which I was presented with a copy of my own book superbly bound by Zucker in full crushed levant morocco. A special page was inserted in it, whereon was printed, among other gibes and floutings, a paragraph from the book itself: ‘I trust my friends will not think me churlish when I say that it is not my intention to turn a single copy of my book into a presentation volume.’ This was followed by a ‘stinging rebuke from the uncommercial committee which is paying for the dinner and which regards presentation copies as the cardinal virtue of good book-collecting.'
It was a merry dinner, and well on toward morning, after the wine had been flowing freely for several hours, my friend Kit Morley wrote on the back of a menu card the following parody of Leigh Hunt’s well-known poem, ‘Abou Ben Adhem’: —
ABOU A. EDWARD
Awoke one night from dreaming of Rosenbach’s,
And saw among the bookshelves in his room,
Making it like a ‘Shelley first’ in bloom,
A Boswell writing in a book of gold.
Amenities had made Ben Edward bold,
And to the vision in the room he said,
‘What writest thou?’ The Boswell raised its head,
And with a voice almost as stern as Hector’s,
Replied, ‘An index of the great collectors.’
‘Sir, am I one?’ quoth Edward. ‘Nay, not so,’
Replied the Boswell. Edward spake more low,
But cheerly still: ‘Sir, let us have no nonsense!
Write me at least as a lover of Dr. Johnson’s.’
The Boswell wrote and vanished. The next night
He came again with an increase of light,
And showed the names whom love of books had blessed —
And lo, A. Edward’s name led all the rest!
In the cold gray light of the morning after, it was seen that this poem lacks some of those transcendent qualities which have given Shelley’s ‘Cloud’ and Keats’s ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ such enduring fame; but at the time it was composed and read, it produced a prodigious effect upon the company, and some day my heirs, executors, administrators, and assigns may sell the manuscript at auction for a price which will amaze them. — But this verges upon prophecy.
For months, each day brought me at least one letter, and frequently several, which added greatly to the joy of life and proved a very welcome change from the more usual communications, which I have grown accustomed to, that ‘a prompt remittance would be highly appreciated.’
Written, as my book professedly was, for the tired business man, it had an equal success with the sex which we have been taught to think of as fair. I came to have in some small measure the astonished feeling that Byron had when he awoke and found himself famous, except that I feared to wake and discover that my success was a dream. I dreaded the arrival of the time when flattering letters would be a thing of the past, and when friends would no longer stop me in the street to tell me that they never would have supposed that I could write a book.
My reputation as a Johnsonian grew out of all proportion to my knowledge; and if I recast a bit of dialogue with a casual acquaintance on a street corner it must stand, not for the single encounter, but for a hundred.
FRIEND. — I never hear Dr. Johnson’s name mentioned without thinking of you.
N. — That ’s very good of you (with a leer).
FRIEND. — There were two Johnsons were n’t there? Did n’t one write plays ?
N. — Yes, but they spelled their names differently, and Ben Jonson died —
FRIEND. — I remember I sat in his seat in a tavern the last time I was in London in 1907 — no, 1909, I can’t remember now whether it was 1907 or 1909, — but I sat in Dr. Johnson’s seat in a tavern; let me see, I have forgotten the name, but it was in the Strand.
N. (wearily). — No, it was not in the Strand, it was in Fleet Street, and the name of the tavern was the Cheshire Cheese —
FRIEND (exultingly, as one who has found great treasure). — That’s it — the Cheshire Cheese! I had lunch there and I sat in Dr. Johnson’s seat. Have you ever been there?
N. — Yes, and it may surprise you to know that there is not one single contemporary reference to Johnson’s ever having visited the Cheshire Cheese.
FRIEND. — Why, that’s queer. I was told —
N. (firmly). — Yes, I know very well what you were told, but it’s all fiction. The legend that he frequently visited the Cheshire Cheese has grown up in the last century, and is founded on nothing more than possibility, or at most probability.
FRIEND. — You surprise me. Well, it’s a dirty old place, anyhow. I always preferred going to Simpson’s.
N. — Now you ’re talking! Don’t you wish you were there now? Well, I must be on my way.
For the reason, I suppose, that it was soon recognized that my book was written in the leisure hours of a busy man, it escaped severe treatment at the hands of the critics. Allowances were made, — Dr. Johnson suggests that a woman’s preaching should not be criticized; rather, one should be surprised that she does it at all,—so amiably was my writing considered. It was, however. rather disconcerting to discover that in no single instance, I believe, have I been asked a question that I was able to answer. This leads me to reach the profound conclusion that there are many more questions than answers in this world.
One thing greatly surprised me: it seems that my book had created the very erroneous idea that all old books are valuable, especially those in which f’s takes the place of s’s. This form — which began almost with the art of printing, continued throughout the eighteenth century, and signifies exactly nothing at all—was supposed to be a mark of special significance; and it took all the tact I was master of to break this news gently to those who were thinking of selling a few volumes which had long been regarded as invaluable family treasures.
When the famous Gutenberg Bible was bought by Mr. Huntington at the Hoe sale in New York, in 1911, people generally — especially in the remote country — formed the idea that, Mr. Gutenberg having recently died, his widow had disposed of the family Bible for the sum of fifty thousand dollars, and, it was thought, would be willing to pay a substantial moiety of this sum for any other old Bible which might be offered. Consequently, ‘Mrs. Gutenberg’ was overwhelmed with offerings of Bibles, most of which would have been dear at one dollar.
In like manner, I was overwhelmed with offerings of Burns. I had casually mentioned, in speaking of a Kilmarnock Burns in boards uncut, that the price might be about five thousand dollars. The book was published in 1786, and the reasoning which went on in the minds of those who addressed me on the subject seems to have been: if a copy of Burns printed one hundred and twenty-five years ago is worth five thousand dollars, a copy half as old would be worth half as much; certainly a copy of Burns printed in 1825 must be worth, say, a thousand dollars.
One old lady, suffering from sciatica and desirous of spending some months at Mount Clements, decided to part with her copy for this amount. She wrote me as follows: ‘My copy of Burns belonged to my grandfather. It is of 1825 edition, bound with gilt edges, and is in fair condition for so old a book (almost a hundred years). It is of course very yellow and some pages are much worn; however, it is all there.'
Another lady wrote: ‘Understanding you are desirous of buying old books I write to say that I know of families having same in their possession. Before I make inquiry I want to get all the information possible. I am anxious to make money in a pleasing way, and this seems along the lines of my taste and inclinations. Please let me know what you want to buy, by return mail.’ Not getting a reply by return mail, she wrote another letter, this time sending a stamped envelope: ‘I wrote you recently about old books. I am anxious to begin. Please write at once, sending me a list of books that are valuable.’
From a man in Texas came this gem on a letterhead of William Crawford, who called himself an Electrician, Plumber, and Steamfitter: ‘Dear Sir: I understand you have gotten out a book giving a list of old books that are valuable. Does it come free of charge? If so, send it right along, as I know where some books are that I would like to know the value of.’
Many of these tributes to my genius I owe to the editor of that enterprising paper the Kansas City Star for an excellent review which appeared in that paper, — I call it excellent because it was so flattering, — and which was copied far and wide, even in the metropolitan press. It created the idea that I knew all that was to be known about the entrancing subject of bookcollecting. ‘ Get hold of a book entitled The Amenities of Book-Collecting, by A. Edward Newton, and you will find therein the golden key that will open up for you whatever there is of mystery about the game,’ the review said.
This ‘golden-key’ business bedeviled me for a time. I was asked to send forward promptly the ‘golden key,’ and at the time, not having seen the article, I was quite in the dark to know what was meant. It seemed as if, the moment this phrase met the eye of the reader, he or she followed the instructions au pied de la lettre. One man, evidently a business man in Minnesota with no time for the Amenities, wrote me briefly and to the point: ‘Give me all particulars about old rare books. Send me the “golden key" at once. I have some.’
But not all my correspondence was of this character. I received some letters which would give delight even to so hardened an author as H. G. Wells. Captains of Industry, whose names are household words in Wall Street, seem to have found relief from the cares of the hour in my pages; and officers just returned from duty in France, anxious to forget the horrors of the Argonne, dipped into me as if I were a bath of oblivion. Finally, I was asked to name my price for lectures. Of the many unexpected results of my little success, this was the most amusing. I invariably replied to requests for ‘terms’ by a story told me by Sir Walter Raleigh, the great Oxford scholar. A friend was asked to name his fee for a lecture, and replied, ‘I have a three-guinea lecture and a five-guinea lecture and a tenguinea lecture, but I can’t honestly recommend the three-guinea lecture.’ I said that I had only a three-guinea lecture in stock, and that I could n’t recommend it, especially as I should have to charge a hundred guineas for it. No doubt my correspondents thought me mad.
It was Sir Walter Raleigh who suggested that I write a paper on Mrs. Thrale, although my title for it, ‘A Light-Blue Stocking,’ is my own. And speaking of Sir Walter, let me tell a story of him which I have never seen in print, but which deserves to be immortal.
He was to deliver a series of tenguinea lectures at Princeton University, and was expecting to be met by President Hibben at the railway station. Just at the hour of his arrival Dr. Hibben discovered that he had a very important meeting of the trustees, or something, which he could not very well miss. There was nothing to be done but call upon one of the younger professors to go to the station, meet the distinguished man, and escort him to ‘Prospect,’ Dr. Hibben’s residence.
The professor thus called upon was glad to be of service, but remarked, ‘I have never met Sir Walter. How shall I know him?’
‘Oh, very easily,’ replied Dr. Hibben; ‘Sir Walter is a very large distinguishedlooking man. You can’t miss him; you will probably know almost every man getting off the train from New York; the man you don’t know will be the man you are looking for.’
With these instructions Dr. Hibben’s representative proceeded to the station, met the incoming train, and seeing a large distinguished-looking man wearing a silk hat, approached him, remarking, ‘I presume I am addressing Sir Walter Raleigh.’
The gentleman thus accosted was much astonished, but pulling himself together, quickly replied, ‘No! I’m Christopher Columbus. You will find Sir Walter Raleigh in the smoking-car playing poker with Queen Elizabeth.’
The man, as it turned out, was a New York banker; he had heard much of the impudence of the Princeton undergraduate and decided to nip it in the bud. No one enjoyed the story more than Sir Walter himself when it was told him.
In the words of ‘ Koheleth,’ — as my friend Dr. Jastrow prefers to call the author of Ecclesiastes, in his delightful book, The Gentle Cynic, — ‘Hear the conclusion of the whole matter: “Much study is weariness to the flesh.”’ ‘Much’ study, observe. I have given my subject only such study as has produced, not weariness, but pleasure. Books are for me a solace and a joy. We are told that of the making of them there is no end. Be it so. Let us rejoice that, whatever comes, books will continue to be, books that suit our every mood and fancy. If all is vanity, as ‘The Preacher’ says, how can we better employ our time than by reading books and writing about them.