The Perils of the Literate


To look a gift horse in the mouth is justly considered the height of ungraciousness. Among the greatest gifts to humanity has been that of reading and writing; and though it may have its drawbacks, its value is not to be disputed. The invention of the alphabet was a great achievement, and we now find it difficult to imagine how we could get on without it. The later invention of printing from movable types added vastly to the conveniences of human intercourse. What had been intellectual luxuries were brought within the reach of all. Literacy, in the sense of ability to read, is no longer an unusual condition. Society is still sharply divided into the two great classes, the literate and the illiterate; but the latter are being slowly driven to the wall. In most civilized countries the powers of the laws are invoked against them, and their numbers are continually reduced, in spite of the fact that the birth-rate is in their favor.

All this is very gratifying. In our day and country, where education in the alphabet is free and compulsory, it is a disgrace to be illiterate. The adult who refuses to learn his letters has doubtless refused to learn a great many other things that would be good for him. He is generally of a stubbornly unteachable disposition, and he is more or less a menace to the community.

But though in our day the illiterates have fallen into a low estate, and are distinctly behind the times, it was not always thus. There was a time when the illiterate intellectuals did their own thinking without the aid of labor-saving machinery, and they often did it surprisingly well. Among some groups this has continued to recent times.

In a newspaper of the fifties of the last century I came across an account of a meeting of the Presbytery of Cincinnati, devoted to the cause of missions. The moderator made a long address, which was printed in full. It was rather dull and complacent. At the end he introduced a Sioux chieftain as representing a people sadly in need of missionary attention. The Indian’s reply contrasted sharply with the address to which he had politely listened. He said, ‘My people are not like your people. You have books. You listen to what men said who lived long ago and far away. You see what they saw; you do what they did; you hear what they heard; you think what they thought. My people cannot do this. We cannot read. We can only see with our own eyes, and hear with our own ears, and think with our own minds.’

I suspect that the Indian chief was not unaware that he was the mental superior of the person he was addressing, and that he attributed this superiority to his illiteracy. His irony was that of a gentleman of the old school humoring the foibles of the newly rich.

In this I think he was mistaken. It does not follow that a person loses the power of direct observation because he has learned to read, any more than that the possession of an automobile deprives one of the use of his own legs. It is quite possible to follow the words of a book with as keen an eye for reality as that of the Indian on the warpath.

Nevertheless, the remarks of the illiterate critic are worth considering. As fingers were before forks, so culture was before books. Reading, while an admirable exercise, is no substitute for direct observation of nature or for the ancient art of meditation. It has dangers of its own.

All the arts had their origin, and reached a high degree of development, among people who were unable to read or write. These gifted illiterates, while they had their limitations, had one great advantage over us — they always knew what they were about. When they were doing one thing they were not under the impression that they were doing something else. Each art was distinct, and the work of art was not confused with somebody’s description of it.

We literates have been taught to read poetry, and taught also that it is highly commendable to enjoy it. In order to know what kind of poetry ought to be especially enjoyed, we read other books, written by critics. In order to understand what the poetry that ought to be admired means, we read other books by professional grammarians. By the time we have finished this preparatory reading, we are somewhat confused. We are in doubt as to what poetry actually is, and how it differs from prose. In this predicament we fall back on the printer. If every line begins with a capital letter, we assume that it is poetry.

In the old illiterate days there were no such difficulties. There were no books of poems to be criticized. People got their poetry direct from the poet and saw him in the act of making it. There was no possibility of mistake.

Poetry was the form of speech used by a poet. When a person who was not a poet tried to say the same thing he said it differently: that was prose.

The poet was a care-free person who went about uttering what was in his heart. You never knew what he was going to say till he said it, but you were quite sure he would say it poetically, that is, according to his own nature. That was the license that you gave him. It was not because he was wiser than other men that you listened to him, but because he gave you a peculiar pleasure. There was a lilt in his voice and a fire in his eye that strangely moved you. You never got tired listening to him as you did to the droning elders of your tribe. It was like playing truant from the humdrum world.

We literates have upon our shelves ponderous historical works written by learned men for our edification. These volumes await some hours of leisure which are long delayed. But when one speaks of History as an art, we are often confused. We think of a book, and not of an artist at work upon living materials.

In the days of unabashed illiteracy every community had its historian. He was the story-teller of the tribe. The sources on which he drew were not dusty parchments, but the memories of men who could tell him of the stirring events in which they had taken part, and of the traditions handed down to them by their fathers.

One who practised this art had to have a good memory, but he must not allow it to be overloaded. To try to salvage too much from the past was to invite disaster: all would be swallowed up in the black waters of oblivion.

He must have a good judgment in selecting the incidents to be preserved. His history must be composed of memorable things; they were the only things that could be remembered. There must always be a vital connection between the incidents, so that the Past may live again in the Present. A tale that is printed may be cluttered up with all sorts of learned irrelevancies, but a tale that is told must hold the listeners’ attention. The illiterate historian had no way of reaching posterity except by telling his story in such a vivid and dramatic way that some of his listeners would tell it again to their children. That is what made him such a consummate artist. A story might be told in a dozen different ways and each time be forgotten. At last, in a happy moment, is achieved immortality. In these primitive tales we have an art which the skilled literary man cannot improve.


The invention of printing has produced a change like that which has taken place in modern manufacture. There has been a vast increase in quantity, but with danger to the quality of the product. There has been also a tendency to standardization, with a danger to the individuality of the producer. Once the craftsman worked in his little shop open to the view of all interested persons. They could watch him at work and see each personal touch. Now there is less room for improvisation.

The literate person gets his ideas from two sources. There is the field of personal experience, which is essentially the same as that of his illiterate ancestors. His senses are continually informing him of what happens in his immediate vicinity. He exchanges thoughts with his neighbors; he reasons with himself in regard to the expediency of certain actions; he learns many homely and wholesome truths by experience. But he is also acted upon by a literary environment. He cannot remember the time when he did not know how to read; and it is very hard for him to distinguish between the ideas which came to him directly and those which came indirectly. Often it is the book which has made the most powerful influence on his mind.

A New Testament writer compares the forgetful hearer of the word to a man who, seeing his natural face in a glass, goes his way and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he is. He might have gone further, and said that the person who looks ever so carefully at his reflection in a mirror gets only a misleading impression of what manner of person he is. He never really sees his own face as his neighbor sees it.

It is the boast of the literary artist that he holds the mirror up to Nature. But the mirror is nothing more or less than his own mind, and the reflection must depend upon the qualities of that mind. The mirror may be cracked, it may have all sorts of convexities and concavities, its original brightness may have been lost. All kinds of distortions and flatteries are possible. Some minds are capable only of caricature, and every object reflected becomes amusing. Others invest the most trifling circumstance with mystery and dignity.

The most perfect artist in words cannot express a higher or larger truth than he is capable of feeling. Only so much of reality as he can comprehend can he offer to the reader.

This being so, it might be supposed that we would read warily, and be skeptical in regard to those who sought to influence us. We have eyes to see as well as they, and our vision of reality is to be preferred to their report.

This is what we do in conversation, and it is what gives conversation its charm. Among intellectual equals there is no dogmatizing, and yet the fullest expression of individual opinion. The pleasure and profit come from the fact that each mind has approached the fact from a different angle, and one view may be used to correct another.

But we are superstitious creatures, and we are easily imposed upon by print. Curiously enough, we are apt to attribute a greater validity to what we have read than to what we have seen or heard. We are more likely to believe what we have read in the daily newspaper than what our neighbor tells us. This is because we know our neighbor, and we do not know the young man who wrote the paragraph for the paper. The fact that thousands of our fellow citizens are reading the same words makes an impression on the imagination. If it is not true that ‘everybody says so,’ yet it is probable that everybody will say so when they have read the article. We have a comfortably gregarious feeling in being subjected to the same influence which moves so many of our fellow beings. It is pleasant to think that our minds synchronize with theirs. There is safety in numbers.

It used to be said of the pulpit that it was the ‘coward’s castle.’ The man who invented that phrase did not mean to bring a railing accusation against the clergy. He did not say that the occupant of a pulpit was more apt to be a coward than other men. What he had in mind was the opportunity for defense. If a man happened to be a coward, and at the same time wished to say unpleasant things about his neighbors, a pulpit seemed to be a safe place to say them from. People are accustomed to listen to the pulpiteer without answering back.

But if a person is a real coward, a pulpit is not such a safe vantage-ground after all; for it stands in a very exposed position. Even if the congregation does not talk back, it has an excellent opportunity to look at the pulpiteer and size him up. This, to a timid person, is very disconcerting, as he stands behind a barricade which does not protect the most vulnerable part of his person — his tell-tale countenance. What avail his mighty words if his chin is weak and his eyes are shifty? With a hundred pairs of eyes directed upon him it requires a good deal of bravery to enable him to ‘carry on.’

The true coward’s castle is the printed page. Here, secure from observation, free from prying eyes, the writer may make his attacks without fear of reprisal. Nobody sees him in the act of composition; nobody knows what he looks like. Even if they know his name, his readers do not make any searching inquiry into his personal characteristics. When a strange voice is heard over the telephone, we inquire as politely as possible: ‘Who is speaking, please?’ But when we take up a newspaper or magazine, we do not take the trouble to find out who is addressing us. Even with a book, unless the author is a very noted writer, we are incurious as to the personality behind the words. We think of the author as the eighteenth-century Deists thought of the Great First Cause. He is a logical necessity. He sets things going, and then returns into the Unknown, where it would be a kind of sacrilege to attempt to follow him. His attributes are sufficiently, though vaguely, revealed through his works.

The person with literary skill has the same kind of advantage which the government has over private capitalists in being able to print money and force it into circulation.

Dean Swift took a sardonic delight in an exhibit of this power. The almanacmaker Partridge had made an honest living by publishing an annual in which the events of the coming year were predicted with sufficient vagueness to fit the circumstances as they might arise. Swift, under the name of Isaac Bickerstaff, set forth a rival almanac which should be more definite in its prognostications. Instead of prophesying in general terms, he put down the exact day of the month in which the death of Partridge the almanac-maker would take place. The day came, and Swift saw to it that on the morrow the announcement of the sad event appeared in all the London newspapers. Attention was called to the fact that the death occurred in exact accordance with the Bickerstaffian chronology. Of course, Partridge was annoyed and attempted to set himself right. But Bickerstaff was the better writer and had caught the public eye. His cause was presented with such fullness of detail that there was no resisting it. Against the mass of documentary evidence the unsupported word of one man who was evidently prejudiced in his own behalf could not avail. Poor Partridge might gain credence among the few people to whom he could exhibit himself in the flesh, but the reading public preferred the printed obituary.

I had occasion recently to observe the helplessness of those who attempt to contend against a first-rate literary tradition. For several years the nineteenth of April has, in the vicinity of Boston, been celebrated in dramatic fashion by reproducing the historic ride of Paul Revere. It happens that the historic route does not go through Cambridge, so this year our citizens arranged a rival, or rather supplementary, celebration. It seems that Paul Revere was not the only patriot who rode forth on that fateful night in 1775 to warn the farmers of Middlesex County, Massachusetts. One William Dawes galloped on the same errand and, as good luck would have it, took the road that led past the college at Harvard Square. So this year a citizen impersonating William Dawes rode through Cambridge, and the mayor and local dignitaries gathered to see him do it.

But alas, the public imagination was not stirred. William Dawes was not a name to conjure with. Every school child resented the substitution. It would be vain to say, ‘Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of William Dawes.’ They would not listen to what seemed a contradiction of what they had read.

Our most familiar experience teaches us how our contacts with nature are interpreted by what we have read. The amateur gardener never tires of calling attention to the fact that the vegetables he raises taste different from those he buys in the market. He attributes this to the circumstance that they come to the table in a fresher condition. But do they?

I suspect that the indescribable something which he enjoys is derived largely from literary associations. While the ground was yet frozen, he had gloated over the pages of a seed-catalogue, and his mouth had watered over the delectable fruits which were there described. In imagination he saw his future garden ‘without spot or blemish or any such thing.’ There he saw radishes and super-radishes, not tough and stringy, but with the dew of their youth yet upon them. There were, on each side of the garden walk, twelve manners of peas, some dwarf and some of gigantic growth, but each excelling the other in earliness and deliciousness. There were dwarf-giants combining the excellencies of dwarfishness and gianthood in a manner wonderful to relate. Each dwarf bore pods so full and heavy that a giant might be proud to lift them. The cauliflowers never refused to head; the lettuce never exhibited signs of premature senility; the cucumbers were all beautiful within. All the tomatoes were smooth and of a ruddy countenance, solid of flesh and wonderfully prolific. Even the modest spinach merited the adjective superb, which was freely bestowed upon it. The pole-beans were veritable skyscrapers of the vegetable world.

When the literate gardener had read all this, he straightway bought the little packets of seed which contained these marvelous potentialities. This done, he considered his work half accomplished, for had he not read that the secret of success is in buying the right kind of seed from thoroughly reliable dealers? The rest is a mere detail.

When in midsummer he invites you to partake of vegetables that not only are the fruit of toil but come as the fulfillment of early dreams, you should be in a sympathetic mood. He has a satisfaction unknown to one who has not read the seed-catalogue. His palate has been trained by long anticipation to taste that of which it has had a literary foretaste. Accidents may have happened not set down in the books, but the essentials are there. All that the garden aspired to be, and is not, comforts him. He welcomes to his table the wizened survivors of the campaign against insect enemies and an unusual season. They have been traveling through an unfriendly world, but they have arrived. How many comrades they have left behind them on the field, he does not inquire. It is not a time for retrospection. Any appearance of meagreness is overlooked. He sees upon the table the symbols of the marvelous prodigality of nature. The consideration which gives mystical significance to this feast of first fruits is that he is now actually eating the vegetables he has read about.


In regard to what lies outside the field of our personal experience the power of literary suggestion has no natural check. We generalize more easily from what we have read than from what we have tested by our own senses. We have fixed ideas as to what happened in distant times and places, and we spend little time in inquiring as to the source of our opinions. In general, we accept the authority of the books we have read without inquiring in regard to the personal bias of the writer.

Suppose we were to put the ideas of the docile reader in the form of a catechism.

Question. At what time was society in the Roman Empire most corrupt?

Answer. In the age of Juvenal.

Question. When was the life of the lower classes in London most picturesque and amusing?

Answer. In the time of Charles Dickens.

Question. At what precise period were the manners of Americans at the lowest ebb?

Answer. At the time when Dickens wrote his American Notes.

Question. When did they begin to improve?

Answer. About the time when James Bryce published the American Commonwealth.

Question. When did the English Puritans lose their original sincerity and become canting hypocrites?

Answer. When Samuel Butler wrote Iiudibras.

Question. Who was the most brilliant sovereign of England?

Answer. Queen Elizabeth.

Question. How do you prove this?

Answer. From the writings of the brilliant Elizabethans.

Question. When was Spain a happy country, and all classes of people easily moved to laughter?

Answer. In the age of Cervantes.

Question. When did England most deserve to be called ‘Merry England’?

Answer. In the age of Chaucer. Question. When did the Scotch peasant lose his dourness and become genial?

Answer. In the days of Robert Burns.

Question. When was French family life most sordid and mean?

Answer. In the days of Zola.

Question. What historical period is indicated by the term ‘Ages of Faith’?

Answer. The period during which the only literature which has survived was written by monks.

Question. Who was the most influential preacher of the early church — Paul or Apollos?

Answer. Paul.

Question. What makes you think so?

Answer. Because Paul wrote letters which have been preserved, while Apollos probably preached without notes.

The moment we stop to analyze our impressions of the events of the past, or the personages of human history, we realize how dependent we are on the literary medium through which our ideas are obtained. The merest literary accident — the preservation or the loss of a scrap of paper — may make or mar the greatest reputation.

An illusion to which the reader is subject arises from the selective nature of all literary art. The writer, even when he thinks he is most realistic, is compelled to choose both his subject and his way of treating it. This means that he must ruthlessly reject all phases of reality which are irrelevant to his purpose. lie is a creator making a new world, and all that cannot be remoulded by his intelligence is to him but a part of the primal chaos. That which to him is unintelligible is treated as if it were non-existent. On the other hand, that which interests him is exhibited as if it were the only reality.

When the reader is literal-minded and of a too docile disposition, he accepts the writer’s representation of the world at its face-value. It is a very crowded little world, and full of terrifying objects; and the reader has moods of depression unknown to his illiterate brethren, who, however hard their lot, are accustomed to take one trouble at a time.

In the old-fashioned geography book there was a full page devoted to a pictorial view of the animal life of the Western Hemisphere. It was a terrifying collection of wild beasts and birds. Wild cats, jaguars, lynxes, and alligators, grizzly bears, polar bears, rattlesnakes, eagles, and condors abounded. They were all visible at the same time, and each creature was exhibited in its most threatening attitude. The Western Hemisphere was evidently a perilous place for a small boy. Even if armed with a shot-gun, he had a small chance for his life; for if one wild beast did not eat him up, another would. As for the Eastern Hemisphere, that was no safer, for it was crowded with lions, elephants, tigers, leopards, and orang-outangs.

The anxieties of the small boy might have been allayed by the consideration that the Western Hemisphere was larger in reality than might be imagined from the wood-cut. There were great spaces between the wild beasts. One did not encounter them all at once. In that part of the hemisphere that is infested by polar bears there is immunity from alligators. A person may travel over wide stretches of country where the only specimen of wild life he will see is likely to be an inquisitive chipmunk. The dangers are so diluted by the distances as to be almost negligible to anyone who does not insist on traveling all the time.

The literate person needs to be continually reminded that the things he is reading about do not all happen to the same people or in the same place. The risks are well distributed. Nor need he think that the things he reads about are the most important, either in themselves or in their effects.

It is in his ability to concentrate the report of a large number of facts of the same kind into a small space, and then fix the reader’s attention upon them, that the writer has his strategic advantage. He can, with a really inferior force, produce the impression of overwhelming power. It is a repetition of the military tactics of Gideon. The resourceful Israelite, by the use of trumpets and pitchers, was able with three hundred men to put to flight the Midianites and Amalekites whose army ‘lay along in the valley like grasshoppers for multitude; and their camels were without number, as the sand by the sea side for multitude.’

There was perhaps not a single ablebodied Amalekite who would have been scared if Gideon had appeared before him in broad daylight and broken a pitcher and blown ever so loudly with his trumpet. But when all the Amalekites heard a loud sound at the same time, they frightened each other terribly. And when they heard the shout ‘The sword of the Lord and of Gideon,’ they ‘fled to Beth-shittah in Zererath and to the border of Abelmeholah, unto Tabbath.’ Gideon and his three hundred, ‘faint but pursuing,’ had really nothing to do after he had started the stampede.

Among illiterates the mob-spirit is something fierce, cruel, irrational, but it is apt to be short-lived. Something happens that arouses the passions of anger and fear, and a victim is found. The mob tears him to pieces and then disperses.

But among literates the mob-spirit may be preserved for generations, sometimes smouldering but always liable to be fanned into a flame. A hatred preserved in print and multiplied through literary art assumes the dignity of a first principle and the force of an instinct.

Anti-Semitism is of this nature. When one attempts to analyze it, he becomes conscious that he is not dealing with the modern Jew, but with an almost endless array of literary allusions. There are taunts that have become classic.

The Irish Question is similarly complicated. So much has been written about it during the last five hundred years that it seems unscholarly not to keep it up. Any amicable settlement would be at the mercy of the next literary revival.

There are aversions that may last for thousands of years, and then be suddenly intensified. In Palestine to-day there must be thousands of persons who are descended from the ancient inhabitants who dwelt in the land before Joshua descended upon it with his militant Israelites. Many of these are peaceful persons against whose conduct there is no reasonable complaint. But if they should reassume the name of Canaanites in their plea for the selfdetermination of nations, they would find the literate world against them. A Canaanitish restoration would be stoutly resisted by all persons who have not forgotten their Sunday-school lessons. The old text ‘cursed be Canaan’ would raise a vague feeling of revenge which might easily be mistaken for religion.

The feuds and panics which have been largely confined to the reading classes seem to have very little to do with what is actually taking place at any given time. They represent the state of mind into which a company of imaginative young people can throw themselves when they sit around a dying fire and tell ghost-stories. Some dreadful thing has happened in the past. Long after the danger is over, the story can be told so as to produce a tremor.

The Spanish Inquisition, the religious persecutions in the Netherlands, the martyr-fires of Smithfield, the descent of the Armada, were real facts of the sixteenth century. But this period came to an end. Men’s minds turned to new issues, and priestcraft lost its power.

But for two centuries in England innumerable pamphlets were printed by alarmists who were fighting the old battles of the sixteenth century over again. The literate mob was continually inflamed by stories of Jesuit plots. Everyone who was not in good and regular standing in the Church of England was subject to suspicion. Richard Baxter, author of the Saint’s Everlasting Rest, had to deny the charge of a secret leaning toward the Scarlet Woman. William Penn, on returning from Philadelphia, found himself described as a Jesuit in disguise, who had been educated in the college of St. Omer in France and who had celebrated mass in the palace of St. James. To be sure William Penn did not look like a Jesuit or talk like a Jesuit, but that only proved the completeness of his disguise. In the next century John Wesley had the same charge hurled against him. What more subtle way of advancing the Catholic conquest of Britain could be devised than to entice the working-people of England into Methodist meeting-houses. King James I, uniting two prejudices in one, coined the term Papist-Puritan. In its comprehensiveness it reminds one of the way in which many people in our day are able to think of anarchists and socialists as members of the same party.

The Reign of Terror in France had a similar effect upon the imagination of the reading public in England and America. For a whole generation the press told of the ferocious Jacobins who were about to set up the guillotine in London and Philadelphia. Who were the Anglo-Saxon Jacobins? Joseph Priestly, man of science and scholarly minister, was one. Horne Tooke, the eccentric scholar who advocated parliamentary reform, was another. He was put on trial for his life and barely escaped the gallows. In America the most feared of all Jacobins was Thomas Jefferson of Virginia.

At a later period the literate mob had a classical revival. When General Grant was proposed for a second term as President of the United States, the cry of ‘Cæsarism’ was raised. There was something in it that brought back lessons learned in early youth. Everybody knew about Cæsar. The analogy between past and present was obvious to the humblest understanding: indeed, the humbler the understanding, the more satisfactory it was. Cæsar was a great general; so was Grant. Cæsar, after the Civil War, went into politics; so did Grant. Both men attained the highest honors within the gift of the people. Then Cæsar destroyed the Republic. Could anyone doubt that Grant would do the same?

After an interval such historic doubts are tolerated. We are able to see that William Penn was not a Jesuit, and Thomas Jefferson was not a Jacobin, and Ulysses Simpson Grant was not a reincarnation of Julius Cæsar. But when at the breakfast-table we read of a strike in a Massachusetts textile factory, of a convention of Western farmers who are organizing against their enemies the middlemen, and of the remarks of a teacher in the public schools whose opinions are more radical than ours, it is quite natural to connect them all together, and think of them as manifestations of Russian Bolshevism. Things which appear under the same head-lines must have some sinister connection, though we may not know what it is.

In calling attention to some of the perils of the literate, I do not mean to discourage the reading habit. Indeed, the persons who are most superstitious in regard to printed matter are those who have most recently crossed the boundary line from illiteracy. On the other hand, some of the most levelheaded people I have known have been constant and even omnivorous readers. But I have noticed that they have always used their own minds when they were reading.