Thieves of Time


WHEN ‘honest’ Iago, in a transport of virtuous indignation, assures the simple-minded Othello that the stealing of his (Iago’s) purse is a trifle, but that the stealing of his reputation is a heavy wrong, he shows some insight into varieties of theft. The plain professional, who used to be called a pickpocket or a footpad, — low, common terms, both of them, — but who is now respectfully alluded to as a bandit, is honest in so far that he makes no pretense to honesty. He is amenable to the law, if the law can lay hold of him; he is liable to a term in jail, if sentimentalists do not secure his premature release. But a man who takes the simplest precautions can safely steal his neighbor’s reputation, and a man can steal his neighbor’s time without taking any precautions whatever. In this form of filching he has the acquiescence of his conscience and of the world.

Time, we are told, is money. It is not always so transmutable as one could wish; but it is a necessary ingredient in the making up of an income. We use the precious hours to earn our bread, and keep ourselves decently and reputably from the almshouse. No one should be more ready to snatch at these hours, or at the work which is done in them, than to snatch at the money which is their fee. Yet God-fearing persons who would shrink shamefaced from the one form ot pillage justify the other. Time is intangible. It has no standing under the law, and no sanctity in the minds of men.

A year or two before the war I met in Ischl a Prussian artist of some renown. He was agreeable and friendly, and I ventured to ask him for two addresses I wanted in Berlin, prefacing my request with the customary formula,‘Will you do me a favor?' To which he replied in feverish haste: ‘With pleasure, if you do not ask me for a sketch.’

This was so unexpected that I gasped. He had the air of a man prepared for desperate resistance. When I recovered my breath I murmured that I wanted nothing more valuable than two addresses which I thought he could give me, and I added: ' Is it possible that people who know you no better than I do are in the habit of asking you for sketches?’

He looked a little abashed—I must acknowledge that; but he also looked more than a little relieved. ' I give you my word,’ he said, ‘that people who do not know me so well as you do ask me for them all the time. A lady proposed yesterday that I should, by way of pastime, make a drawing of her little daughter. I am afraid to speak to a child in the hotel for fear of being begged to paint it.’

Germans are of tougher fibre than the rest of us. They are not lightly restrained from seeking what they want. But most of the holiday crowd at Ischl were Austrians. Certainly neither Germans nor Austrians would have asked casual acquaintances for the money value of that artist’s sketches. But they did not hesitate to ask for the sketches themselves, which represented the artist’s time and toil and talent. By the same token, neither English nor Americans would ask an author for the money value of his books; but they ask for the books themselves as if he had published them to give away. I once suggested to the librarian of a perfectly well-to-do club, who had signified his readiness to accept as many volumes as I would send him, that I had hoped my books might be a source of income rather than an additional expenditure. He made no reply, and I am sure this original point of view had never occurred to him before.


There are three classes of highly specialized mendicants who prey upon defenseless authors. The first seeks copy; the second, speeches; the third, opinions or personal gossip. For the first class I have the most respect. Its members are running periodicals which the world could do without, and does, in fact, do without so determinedly that they have no money with which to pay contributors. As conveyors of literature these periodicals are negligible; as business propositions they are nowhere. What recommends them to the harassed author is their candor, the robust simplicity of their demands. Their editors say, ‘We want something for which we cannot pay. Will you give it to us for nothing?’ The author, who has a sense of fellowship with poverty, very often forgoes a portion of his daily bread and sends the copy. If he rebels, it is because he is too heavily or hardily patronized. I was once asked to do a troublesome — and unpaid — piece of work for a local guidebook. The editor, by way of emphasizing my good fortune, informed me he had compiled a list of the places he wished written up, and all I should have to do would be ‘to sit at home and weave the story, making it delightful with touches of incident.’ He seemed to think this was a rare opportunity for enjoyment. He was apparently unaware that to sit at home and weave a word-fabric of some sort was the monotonous record of my daily life.

The people who ask me to make addresses to high schools, normal schools, business schools (the infant schools have so far manifested no thirst for my brand of information), art schools, summer schools, and schools for the teaching of things whose very names are unfamiliar to me, are not troubled by diffidence or doubt. The ‘warm welcome’ they assure me is, in their eyes, an ample compensation for time, trouble, and fatigue. A journey of ninety miles in midwinter or midsummer should be but an additional incentive. The students, they explain, are ‘keenly intelligent,’ they are doing ‘important work,’ they are prepared to give me ‘appreciative attention.’ Men and women of distinction have accepted invitations to speak or read to them. They are particularly anxious to ‘entertain’ — they call it entertaining — authors and artists. It is all so true, it is all so reasonable, but it is all so oft-repeated. If there were but one school in the country, in the state, in the town. ‘If,’ as Charles Lamb remarks, ‘children were young phœnixes! ’

The most frequent and the most imperious demands upon my time come from correspondents who ask questions. There is nothing they do not want to know, and — what is far more amazing— there is nothing they think I cannot and will not tell them. No ignorance on my part is understood, no reticence respected. A young man asks me for advice on the ‘fundamentals of novel-writing’ — a query which might have staggered Thackeray. An older man asks my confidential views on ‘the durable satisfactions of life.’ ‘What,’ he writes, ‘have been in your own life the experiences of real value, the things essential and elemental — in other words, the sine qua non?'

Is anyone prepared to impart information of this kind to strangers? Is anyone else desirous to read it when imparted? Who can disentangle the experiences of real value from the crowded recollections of a lifetime? And what passionate egotism would prompt their revelation? A lady who is writing a series of articles on children sends me a list of fourteen questions to be answered ‘in full.’ She wants to know whether or not I told the truth and obeyed my parents when I was a little girl. Did I enjoy the multiplication tables? (‘Enjoy’ seems a curious word to use in this connection.) How old was I when I began to believe that the world was round, and what convinced me? Was I afraid of the dark? Did I have any impulse to commit suicide when I was not yet sixteen? If I had, why did I not act on it?

Why, indeed! Who knows, or has ever known, the heart of a child? He walks secure in his own kingdom, and it is well for him that no adult crosses the border. Mothers sometimes think they dwell there with him. Fathers know perfectly well they do not. Teachers spy with the friendliest purpose over the walls. Adults of various sorts ask and answer arid questions, groping back into the lost land of childhood, and finding nothing there but the ghosts of the children they once were. Suppose I anwered truly about my budding, blundering lies. The child who uttered them has gone. Suppose I wrote with Lamb’s sensitive pen about my nightly tremors. Who knows the child, Charles Lamb? We glimpse him for a moment in ‘Witches and Other Night Fears’; but the writer of that paper, in love with a fantastic theme, and overlaying it with delicate conceits, wandered far away from the little frightened English boy who was the corner stone of the structure.

The editor of a thriving periodical who requests me to answer thirteen questions, all leading up to one supreme and soul-searching question, ‘How Much Money Does an American Want?’ is to be pardoned, because he thinks (and the thought is a flattering one) that I know something about the subject. I am to begin by telling him how rich or how poor I was in childhood, how much money I aspired to make in youth, and now much in maturity. I am then to say whether or not my friends are saving money (a point on which I am lamentably ignorant), and what type of family I consider happiest. Finally, with a whole-hearted abandonment of reserve,

I am to reveal the living American who approaches most closely to my ideal. This question was asked, I am told, at a public luncheon, and a few of the names proposed are offered me as an index of popular opinion. They are not helpful. I do not know how far such men court, or how far they avoid, publicity; but I can imagine nothing more appalling to a man of distinction and humor than to be informed in print that he is the ideal of sundry unknown citizens whom it has not been his purpose in life to edify.

People who have papers to write, and who think these papers would be more interesting if I wrote them, form a class apart. A student whose chosen theme is ‘Woman’s Field in Journalism’ asks my views on a list of American women journalists, on the relative value of their work and the work of women journalists in England, on the relative value of their work and the work of men journalists at home, on the points of resemblance or of difference in the work of men and women journalists the world over, and finally on the usefulness of schools of journalism in American colleges, and the place they should occupy in the curriculum.

It is a large order, and not easily filled by a woman who has never been a journalist, never been a feminist, and never gone to college. But, on the whole, there is less difficulty in proffering opinions when one is entirely ignorant — and consequently unprejudiced — than in speaking with propriety and accuracy about one’s daily toil. I cannot conceive anyone paying any attention to my views (presuming I had views) on schools of journalism; but when I am asked to expound to a class of college students my habits of thought, my methods of work, the influences derived from favorite authors, the funded experience of a lifetime largely spent in the secret companionship of books, I have an extraordinary reluctance to comply. It is not only that I lack the time to instruct students whom it is not my business to instruct; but that it is outside the possibilities of my nature to expose my mental processes to their consideration. As for submitting to them examples of what I consider my best work, with my reasons for considering it best, I could as easily vivisect myself for the benefit of a class in anatomy.

Yet even the correspondents who represent themselves as doing ‘ research work,’ whose postage and stationery are paid for by a ‘Fund,’ and who send me portentous printed forms to be filled up in the interests of education, ask the same intimate and useless questions. They would like to know, not only what I think of other people’s essays, but what I think of my own. Even the correspondents who are conducting ‘symposiums find it desirable that I should be ’frank, which means confidential, in my disclosures. Even the correspondent who is a graphologist, and who merely desires to read my character in my handwriting, is not content with a few lines of copy. He sends a list of questions which I am expected to answer. Who is my favorite author? Who are my favorite ‘movie stars’? What is my favorite medium-priced automobile? Even the correspondents who desire my autograph, to which they are always welcome, are now beginning to intimate that they would like a ‘personal letter,’a ‘message,’ a few words that will be ‘fresh and tonic,’ a line or two about my ‘life and work,’ to which they are not welcome at all.

The ‘personal touch’ fallacy has become an unmitigated nuisance. An artist expresses himself in his pictures, a poet in his poems, a novelist in his novels. These are the things they have to give — or to sell — the world. The rest of themselves belongs to themselves. It is not public property at all. But the public, which is healthily indifferent to the pictures and the poems, — and sometimes to the novels, — wants to know all about the producers. Their favorite cereal or cigarette is a matter of lively interest. Their infant transgressions are regarded as prophetic. Their proneness to colds may afford a clue to the not very mysterious actions of their lives.

Even school children evince this fearful curiosity, and take bold steps to gratify it. They write, and they write very often, to say that they are including my name in a theme on American essayists, and that they cannot find out anything about me. One child artlessly adds, ‘I have nothing to go by but your books’; and these she plainly considers alien to the subject. Another, who asks for a signed photograph, says that her teacher has bidden her keep a scrapbook, and that she is taking this means of filling it. A third, — a high-school student, — who also asks for a photograph, and with it some ‘ interesting information ' about myself, explains that her class ‘is studying magazines,’ a course so comprehensive that it cannot leave much time for anything else. Except ‘the whole circle of the sciences,’ which a little English girl told Hannah More she was engaged in mastering, I can think of no such diversified field of instruction as the American magazine.


It is strange that Alice Brown, when she undertook the defense of the anonymous letter, which has had few defenders, should have ignored its one supreme and shining merit. It. cannot be answered. It need not be read unless the recipient so desires; but the burden of replying to it is lifted peremptorily from his shoulders. The anonymous letter writer never wants to know what is my choice for a state flower; or if I have consciously increased my working vocabulary, or if I think Walt Whitman’s popularity is on the wane, or whether I consider longhand writing, or typing, or dictating ‘ best suited to literary production.’ The anonymous letter writer is happily indifferent to my experiences with the franchise, and he forbears to ask me if I consider that politics have been purified by the entrance of women into the field — a ticklish question which calls for a more courageous pen than mine to answer. It has even happened that letters full of spirit and understanding, of gayety and good feeling, have been written to me anonymously, and that books which I am well pleased to possess have been sent to me by anonymous donors. These benefactions have a peculiar charm. They have fallen from the skies into my lap, and the heavens ask for no acknowledgment.

Major Beith (Ian Hay), lecturing on authorship, which he has found pleasant and profitable, ranks among its gains the correspondence of unknown, and presumably admiring, readers. This is in accord with his happy and humorous outlook upon life. He is that rara avis, a British soldier and author who does not proclaim himself ‘disillusioned,’ and the world is naturally grateful for his forbearance. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who did not lack confidence in herself, went so far as to solicit correspondence concerning Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and she got it by the wagonload. Thackeray, who was content to receive letters, though disinclined to answer them, discovered, after the publication of Lovel the Widower, that ladies of the ballet, whom he had never supposed to be among his readers, were exceedingly indignant at the slights he had cast upon their profession. They gave him to understand in the plainest of plain language that they were as reputable as their neighbors. They protested against his being invited to preside at the Dramatic Fund dinner because he had seemed insufficiently aware of this fact.

A handful of letters written by strangers to Mrs. Riggs (Kate Douglas Wiggin) have been published recently in the Bookman. Most of them are of the kind with which we are already familiar. The schoolgirl who has asked for an autograph, and who writes, ‘ How much nicer and more ladylike it makes you appear to grant such a request!’ is true to type. So also is the woman who wishes some information upon ‘Sources of Power in the World,’ because her college daughter has been given this simple and concise theme for an oration. But the young man who feels moved to write a sequel to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, who is sure he could make it more interesting than the original, and who asks Mrs. Riggs if she will arrange for its publication, is unique in the long annals of petitioners. ‘Could you tell me if Rebecca met with a good sale, and what were the royalties paid on it?’ demands this amazing youth, this peerless and perfect example of a correspondent.


Compared with the letter writers who make requests, the letter writers who merely express opinions are welcome as summer showers. It happens sometimes that these opinions are in the nature of commendations, and are read by their recipients with purrs of complacency. When they are censorious, they are frequently amusing, and to be amused is no small blessing in a dull world. During the four years of the Great War, when we were unhappy but never dull, men and women were consumed by enthusiasms and animosities to which they seemed impelled to give utterance. Letters were one form of expression, one outlet for emotions. Now we are, if not serene, at least sluggish, and comparatively polite to one another. A young woman who once traveled with me from Constantinople to Cairo denied that the latter city was Oriental. It had been policed by the British into cosmopolitanism. I suggested that the streets still held the color and atmosphere of the East. ‘Color and atmosphere, yes,’ she retorted, ‘but the place is slack. Why, I have n’t been spat at once since I came.’

This is the kind of slackness which has settled down upon a peaceful world, wrangling sourly over international debts. The unknown correspondent who once told me frankly that he hated me, and would like to see me riddled with bullets on the firing line, now writes more in sorrow than in anger that he hopes I have seen the error of my ways, and am prepared to make the amende honorable to the Germany I misjudged. The correspondent who once informed me that I was ‘congenitally cruel’ now encloses in a mildly reproachful letter an advertisement of his own books; and no one can feel very harshly toward a fellow being whom he invites to purchase his poems in an octavo volume for two dollars and a half.

The only spark of the old fire which I have kindled for years followed the publication in the Atlantic Monthly of a harmless paper entitled ‘To Counsel the Doubtful.’ In it I ventured to observe that the scheme devised by an American weekly for sett ling the affairs of Great Britain and Ireland (which were not our affairs, and which the British and Irish speedily settled for themselves) was in the nature of an impertinence. The unblushing obviousness of such a remark might have saved it from notice; but I have long observed that it is the obvious which can be trusted to strike sparks from the public mind. In this instance a displeased reader in New York and an agitated reader in Cleveland called me to account for my injurious attitude toward Ireland. Both professed to believe that I had sold my pen to Great Britain, a grand and rather flattering sort of accusation. ‘You probably needed some of that money borrowed from America with which the British Propaganda is desperately striving to destroy American morale, American nationality, and American sovereignty,’ wrote the disgruntled gentleman in New York.

‘ As a Catholic, I am shocked and scandalized at you,’wrote the perturbed lady in Cleveland. ‘You have your reparation to make. God pity you if you have not the moral courage to make it as loudly as you counseled the Doubtful. If you are not too proud of intellect to take unpaid advice, I urge you to change your glasses, reread history, make a good confession, and mend your ways.’

Now I cannot but think that this last letter (there are four closely written pages) is rather out of the ordinary. Its author, evidently a member of my own church, evinces a concern for my spiritual welfare which is unusual in these days, when the one thing we do not excite ourselves about is our neighbor’s soul. The relation between my soul and a self-appointed commission to hear evidence which could be put to no use when heard is not, at first sight, clear. The relation between my harmless utterances and the comments of my critics seldom is clear. I once said that I thought Americans were unduly sentimental in their attitude toward crime and criminals (I think so still), and a correspondent asked me if I had ever read the Sermon on the Mount. I once said I did not believe that dead men wrote books (the wish being father to the thought), and a correspondent wrote me that humor was not the last word on a scientific question. I once said (bromidically) that denying evil did not seem to do away with it, and a correspondent wrote me from a railway train in Japan (think of it!) that I had ‘darkened counsel by zeal without knowledge.’

However, when all is said and done, the pirates of the post are not the men and women who pour broadsides into me. I don’t have to fire back, and so am robbed of nothing. It is the deadly questionnaire which, under a hollow pretense of flattery, rakes me fore and aft. I am pleased to note that educators, who are born to be plagued, have protested vigorously against this particular form of plague. They say they are kept so busy answering queries and filling up dotted lines that they have no time to correct their pupils’ exercises. The educational questionnaire aims at gratifying our passion for uniformity by finding out what the majority is doing in matters of no importance, and forcing the minority to do it likewise — a notable triumph over individualism.

The Educational Review, which does not often lend itself to fun-making, has recently published a sardonic paper by a New England educator who frees his mind on the subject of the questionnaire. One a day, not counting Sundays, is his average throughout the school term. He admits that when he was young he sometimes hesitated to give decisive answers on matters of which he knew nothing; but that was because he failed to understand the system on which the questionnaire works. All it asks is to be filled up, and filled up, if possible, on the right dotted lines. ‘Every answer is not of equal value; but the square root of the product gives a result which cannot be gainsaid.’ Once assured on this point, he has ever since answered the easy questionnaires himself, handed over the hard ones to his secretary, and given those that seemed wholly nonsensical to the janitor, who brings to bear upon them the vitality of an intelligence that is unimpaired by erudition.

It is a curious habit of mind which endeavors to extract from the many something which only the very few can give. Suppose the cultural value of Latin is in question. We have authorities to whom we can refer, we have notable examples whom we can consider. Who cares a fig for either! The thing to do is to send questionnaires to some hundreds of Latin teachers, whose answers can be safely predicted; to some scores of psychologists, whose answers are hopelessly confusing; to some dozens of financiers, who do not answer at all; and to a number of high-school seniors, who are asked why they have studied Latin, which, for the life of them, they do not know. So great and recognized a nuisance has the questionnaire become that in the Middle West, where the custom is to correct all grievances by law, it has been actually proposed to prohibit the circulation through the mail of interrogations concerning any phase of school activity.

This is an idle dream. The most statute-governed country in the world (and if not Italy, it must be the United States) is powerless to keep its citizens from legally harassing one another. There will always be people who ask useless questions, there will always be people who give foolish answers, and there will always be people who regard questions and answers with naïve regard. A year or so ago a somewhat original seeker after information asked a long list of chorus girls the familiar query: ‘What ten books would you like to have on a desert island?’ He discovered from their replies that a number of the young ladies were not personally acquainted with, or personally attached to, ten books; and one girl of spirit wrote impatiently: ‘What would anybody want with books on a desert island anyway?’ Which goes to show that in spite of standardized education, standardized beliefs, and standardized pretenses, in spite of Babbitts, and Main Streets, and uplifts, and lectures, and moving pictures, and all that makes for sameness, there will still be found in this amazing world someone who thinks for herself.