The Contributors' Column
IT is hard to imagine a human being more utterly beyond mortal aid than Kathryne Mary Frick, who in her sixth year was stricken by a devastating malady which left her blind, deaf, speechless, and lame. During the two years that followed, the use of her legs gradually returned, but her journey from darkness into light did not begin until, as a pupil of the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf, she was placed under a special teacher who, deaf herself, was a graduate of the Institution. The story of Kathryne’s training defies the impossible as Helen Keller’s did before her, but the essential miracle of Kathryne’s life was her teacher, Miss Foley, whose patience and understanding were of the highest order. Miss Whitman, who followed Miss Foley and who unhappily is no longer living, carried her pupil still further along her arduous road. This installment of Kathryne’s story deals with the first desperate efforts to reach her in her living grave. We print here a letter from Miss Foley.
I offer the following in answer to your inquiry as to how much hope I felt in the beginning, and what I regarded as the turning point in Kathryne’s education.
When I caught my first glimpse of Kathryne on June 2, 1909, I was surprised at once by the friendliness and ease with which she greeted me, and after observing her for a while a load seemed lifted from the task I was about to undertake. Instead of the dull, sullen, spoilt, problem child I had expected to see, I found a sprightly, happy one, full of curiosity and eager to (as she then expressed in gestures) ‘ I you go away, way to hook house. I learn push pencil up down ou paper’ — which was her way of telling me that she would go far away to school with me and learn how to write.
However, there were times during her first few days under instruction when ! had my doubts about her being anything more than just another deaf problem. What I consider the first turning point in Kathryne’s education came after she had been in school about three weeks, when she spelled her first word, ‘bun,’ with meaning, the incident concerning which is explained in her manuscript. The grasping of the noun concept, thus demonstrated, caused my hopes to run high, for I knew that she had grasped the key to the deaf child’s greatest problem — language. My hopes were further strengthened a few days later when she spelled ‘run’ with meaning, showing that she had grasped the verb concept as well.
The next turning point came two years later when Miss Mabel P. Whitman was giving Kathryne a one-hour speech lesson daily. After Kathryne had taken several oral lessons she seemed to have discovered all at once that it would be possible for her to learn to say orally every word that she could spell or write. After that her progress in education was very rapid.
I was delighted to hear the good news from Kathryne and thank you for taking such interest in her.
JULIA A. FOLEY
Mrs. Mabel Barbee Lee has had many years’ experience in the guidance of young women in a coeducational college before taking up her work as assistant dean at Radcliffe. Frans August Larson is still a duke in Mongolia. Moorfield Storey, for a generation leader of the Boston Bar, became, soon after his graduation from Harvard University, secretary to Senator Sumner, an experience which shaped both his character and his life. Bradford K. Daniels tells the singular story of his early years. He still lives in the Far West. George H. Grant is captain of a United Fruit liner plying between Boston and Central America. Joseph Wood Krutch, critic of the drama and of life, has served as an assistant professor at Columbia and as dramatic editor of the Nation. He is now on a lecture tour in the West. His paper on Boccaccio is the first in a projected series on the great story tellers, not merely essays in criticism, but rather designed to give the reader real understanding of man, book, and circumstance alike. ∆ The author of ‘Teacher or Factory Hand?’ is a grade teacher who has given thought as well as effort to her profession. John Finley, Jr., poet and Platonist, is the son of that John Finley sometime president of the College of the City of New York, and now presiding over the editorial page of the New York Times.
Ernest Weekley is a professor of French in an English university, and, for pure love of it, a lexicographer and curious inquirer into the origins of language. Julian Huxley is professor of physics in the University of London. Pernet Patterson grew up on a plantation and has known and appreciated the colored race all his life long. Frank Kendon is a British poet. F. Lauriston Bullard is the chief editorial writer of the Boston Herald, the excellence of whose work has been recognized by a Pulitzer award. Paul Mazur is a partner in the New York firm of Lehman Brothers. His interesting paper will form a chapter in his new book, America Looks Abroad, which the Viking Press will publish shortly after the appearance of the April Atlantic. This is a volume we strongly commend to our readers. Professor E. L. Bogart is an economist of reputation now serving as a visiting professor at Berkeley, California.
Perhaps criticism of the poet Shelley has always suffered from maturity. We remember his genius and forget what a boy he was. Read this consideration by a youth of twenty-one.
NEW YORK, N. Y.—
It was with keen interest that I read ‘Shelley’s Lost Letters to Harriet,’ which you published recently, and I was of course amazed at their childlike tone and found it difficult to reconcile the frank sincerity of Shelley with his thoughtless, selfish behavior. Then, towards the end of the article, after completely forgiving Shelley and wondering how to interpret Harriet’s contradictory nature, 1 read the sentence, ‘She was twenty-one when she died.’ Somehow, I had forgotten this important fact — forgotten the youth of both of them — in reading about the monstrous problems that weighed upon their inadequate shoulders. With a jolt I realized that I myself am only just of age. Then it occurred to me that in other generations so much more was expected of youth than nowadays. How perfectly ridiculous that Shelley’s atheism was taken seriously! What a stupid father he must have had! I remember delighting in radical thoughts at the age of eighteen. Who does n’t? With the slightest flattering discouragement I would have gone Bolshevistic. Instead I was given — and am still being given — a fair chance to come to my senses. To pay any attention to the philosophy of a boy in his teens, even though he be Percy Bysshe Shelley, seems absurd. Nor is it likely that a more understanding father, money and care of his health, and avoiding the misalliance with Harriet would have lessened his genius.
I recall three lucky escapes I have made from youthful blunders — thanks to my parents, who have wisely eased me out of one misstep after another. Twice I have announced to them that I was in love. And both times, since marriage was out of the question, they were humorous enough to prevent me from being the bally idiot I really am. The most important thing in life I have always believed (except when I am in love and unaccountable) is financial independence. And it is my greatest wish to attain that through the work that I most enjoy and have dreamed of doing as long as I can remember. But sometimes I have to be protected from myself.
Harriet is criticized for not being a capable mother. What girl in her teens ever can be? And what boy in his early twenties wants to meet the landlord at the end of the month? It is ridiculous to judge Harriet or Shelfey at all. Her lack of perspective tallies with lack in years. She might even have thrown off the yoke of her sister at twenty-five. The tragedy is that such a mentally and spiritually immature person was mature enough physically to have two children; that her life, which in its way was as worth living as Shelley’s, was so utterly ruined; and that he could get himself into so much mischief. His very attit ude towards his children is that of a boy playing at being a father. But, unfortunately, those children were not teddy bears.
Yet even to-day we youngsters are often allowed to make a muddle of our perfectly good lives. I know many instances of boys and girls who have unwittingly dragged themselves too soon down to earth — all their ambitions thwarted. Apparently the only thing to do is to lock us up. I, for one, need a padded cell.
S. B. AKMES
Among Atlantic readers potential lexicographers are legion. We inquired of them a month or so ago the source of ‘hunkydory.’ Up went three hands in the class voicing the correctness of this reply by Mrs. Gertrude Fisher Harding, of San Diego, California.
Answering the query about ‘all hunkydory’: In the Japanese language a dori is a street. Honko-dori (or Hunko-dori) is the street in Yokohama that leads to the harbor. In bygone days, sailors (English-speaking, let us say) when in port were apt to imbibe too much sake. Their friends would see them as far as Honkodori, after which they could find their way to the ship, for it lay straight before them. Thus we have come to say ‘all hunky-dory’ when everything is all right.
I do not find a picture of Honko-dori among my postcards, but enclose one of Motomachidori, Kobe.
To the kindness of Mrs. Henry C. Hawkins, of Claremont, New Hampshire, we owe a brief collection of sayings and who said them, of which the following are pleasant items.
It was Thomas Morton who queried long ago, ‘What will Mrs. Grundy say?’ while Goldsmith answers, ‘Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no fibs.’
Washington Irving gives us ‘the Almighty Dollar.’
‘When Greeks joined Greeks, then was the tug of war,’ said Nathaniel Lee in 1692.
Shakespeare is, of course, at the peak of the phrase-makers, but, as every oldster knows, Edward Young has a great place in every book of quotations. To him we owe ‘Death loves a shining mark,’ ‘A fool at forty is a fool indeed,’ and he taught Goldsmith a famous phrase by his own ‘Man wants but little, nor that little long.’
It is amusing to realize that, while ‘putting your foot in it’ is not a very elegant mode of expression, it touches a fine point of law. In Hindustan when a title to land is disputed, so legend says, two holes are dug in the ground and used to encase the limbs of two lawyers. They are then allowed to talk as lawyers will, — to their hearts’ content, — and the one first fatigued loses his client’s case. Whether this report be strictly accurate or not, the obvious superiority of the method to the dilatory practices we are accustomed to justifies its appearance here.
Two words more and we are done. Miss Elizabeth F. Percy, of Lynchburg, Virginia, gives us a local version of the ‘bitter end.’
A young school-teacher in our town some years ago was explaining to her class the meaning of ‘bitter end.’
‘Now, won‘t someone give a sentence with “bitter end” in it, that I may see if you really understand the meaning?’
A little hand shot up and an eager little voice startled the schoolroom: ‘The dog chased the cat under the porch, and bit her end!’
And finally this: —
‘WITUENS,’ LAKE BANK
Accurdin’ to what we Lanky fowks say, Dick’s ’atband wur quare because it went reaund nahnteen tahms and then wouldna tee. Tha’ might tell thi contributor that.
An ne’th’en, mesther editor, let me say a ward ur two abaht thi magazine — th’ Atlantic Monthly. Dun ya know, a felly eaut i’ Californy who’s a friend o’ a friend o’ mahn buys it first, and afther he’s read it, he sends it ower to England fur ma friend to read, and when he’s read it, he gis it me, and when aw’ve read it, aw gis it him back, and then he sends it off to a chap in Cardiff. An’ what happens to it arter that, aw dunnot know. It’s ma monthly tonic, and aw only wish aw could say it wur published i’ England — aw’d feel that preaud on it then. We’n nowt like it here.
WILFRID F. HEMINGWAY
To the widow of LeRoy L. Hight we owe his charming footnote to the bibliography of Stevenson.
STEVENSONIANA — AN ITEM
At eight o’clock on the morning of March 21, 1918, began a battle greater than any which had been recorded from the beginning of wars among men. At that hour the Battle of Picardy began to flame and thunder along a fifty-mile front. More than half a million Germans stormed the Allies, and on the Sunday morning when the dispatches under grim headlines spread the news through the frightened world, there were few who did not fear that dire catastrophe was at hand. We were told of destructive force so great as to leave our minds overwhelmed when we tried to comprehend it. We were told of cannon innumerable, more than had ever been assembled since the world began, roaring continuously along all that fifty miles; and, worst of all, we were told that the British line had broken at La Fère.
The names of many places, strange to most of us, had flashed before us from the time of the assassination at Sarajevo, and we had spelled, tried to pronounce them, searched for them on our maps, and forgotten them; but this La Fere had a familiar sound. Somehow it entered our minds as one claiming a renewal of old favor and friendship; and to those who remembered the earlier meeting, this was the reward: —
Once upon a time the Cigarette went off the slip at the Antwerp Docks ‘with a splash and a bubble of small breaking water,’ and the Arethusa went after her. Then began that delectable voyage which has been followed in the imagination of countless lovers of the best in books — through the meadows of the Sambre, where the white-faced cattle came to the banks of the river to see the strange progress, down the Oise, and through the Golden Valley, on to where the voyage ended, a little short of the place where the voyagers could have heard the surf roaring for the river on the sands of Havre.
And on this delightful Inland Voyage they passed through La Fère, just at the beginning of the Golden Valley, and of this part of his journey here is what the gods gave Stevenson to write, years before the cannon thundered their overture to the Battle of Picardy: —
‘The artillery were practising at La Fère; and soon the cannon of heaven joined in that loud play. Two continents of cloud met and exchanged salvos overhead; while all round the horizon we could see sunshine and clear air upon the hills. What with the guns and the thunder, the herds were all frighted in the Golden Valley. We could see them tossing their heads, and running to and fro in timorous indecision; and when they had made up their minds, and the donkey followed the horse, and the cow was after the donkey, we could hear their hoofs thundering abroad over the meadows. It had a martial sound, like cavalry charges. And altogether, as far as the ears are concerned, we had a very rousing battle piece performed for our amusement.’
Did the gods know, when they helped to fashion the words he wrote, that here at La Fère, in years to come, the great guns were to thunder in real war, and here his sturdy compatriots, fighting fiercely, were to yield before a force too great to withstand? And knowing this, toying with the secrets of Destiny, did these whimsical gods make him an unconscious prophet?
Here is a poser! The Northern Pacific Railway has just acquired the largest locomotive extant: ‘A thundering Mammoth! Massive bulk looming above the rails. Huge knots of steel “muscles” bulging upon a mighty frame. Almost half an ordinary city block long, 16 feet, 4 inches high, this Leviathan makes the average large locomotive alongside look like a very “little brother.”’ Consider this lyrical description and then say, kind reader, whether the giant is a ’he’ or a ‘she.’ That is the question officially asked of us. Perhaps you can guess our answer.
If there is any infraction of the prohibition law in publishing the following, we request the authorities to investigate the writer rather than the publisher.
It is gratifying that ‘The Last of the Squires’ should have elicited so much interest, for I hold that these memorials of a fine past are valuable and may even be made useful to-day.
The expression of ignorance as to the exact method of producing metheglin has brought out many informative contributions from widespread places in the United States and also from the City of Mexico and ‘Istambul.’ Some of these are rather delightful examples of seventeenth-century English. You may care to print them on this account at least, as well as for the valuable information they convey.
First gather a bushel of Swcetbriar Leaves and a bushel of Thyme, half a bushel of Rosemary and a peck of Bay Leaves. Seathe all these (being well washed) in a furnace of Fair Water, and let them noil the space of an hour, or better, and tben pour out all the Water and Herbs into a vat, and let it stand till it be but milk warm; and then strain the Water from the Herbs and take to every six gallons of Water one gallon the finest Honey and put into the boorn (that is the wort of the boiled liquor) and labour it together half an hour; then let it stand two days stirring it twice or thrice each day. Then take the liquor and boil it anew; and when it doth seethe, skim it as long as there remaineth any dross. When it is clear, put it into the vat as before and there let it he cooled.
You must then have in readiness a kind of new Ale or Beer which, as soon as you have emptied, suddenly whelm it upside down, and then set it up again, and presently put in the Metheglyn and let it stand three days aworking. And then turn it up in barrels, tying at every top hole (by a pack thread) a little bag of beaten Cloves and Mace, to the value of an ounce. It must stand half a year before it be drunk. (Worthies of England, by Thomas Fuller, 1662)
Take one measure of Honey, and three measures of fair Water, and set them over so soft a fyre that you can endure to lade and break the Honey with your hands. When the Honey be quite dissolved, teste it with an Hens Egge and if the Liquor be strong enough to bear the Egge the breadth of a Groat, it is strong enough; if not put more Honey to it, till it be so strong.
Then take Sweet-bryar, Eye-bright, Cowslip, Tansy, Rosemary, Wild-Thyme, Summer-savory, Horehound, Clown’s all-heal, Marjoram, Maidenhair and Mouse-ear, or such herbs as please you, of each a pretty lot; and such spices as Cloves, Mace, Ginger, Peppercorns, Nutmeg, Cinnamon, of each a burthen, but of Ginger the most, which must be tyed up all together in a bundle.
When you have put these things together, let them be hanged over a quick fyre till they boyle a walm or two and are clearly and well skimmed.
Then take it from the fyre and put it presently into some clean cobers till next morning, when you may put in some barm, or ale-yeast, and let it work together before you stop it up. If you tun it thus it will make it ready the sooner to drink. (The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened, 1669)
To Make American Honey Wine
Put a quantity of the comb, from which honey has been drained, in a tub, and add a barrel of cider, immediately from the press; this mixture stir, and leave for one night. It is then strained before fermentation; and honey added, until the specific gravity of the liquor is sufficient to bear an egg. It is then put into a barrel; and after the fermentation is commenced, the cask is filled every day, for three or four days, that the froth may work out of the bung-hole. When the fermentation moderates, put the bung in loosely, lest stopping it tight might cause the cask to burst. At the end of five or six weeks, the liquor is to be drawn off into a tub, and the whites of eight eggs, well beaten up, with a pint of clean sand, are to be put into it; then add a gallon of cider spirit, and after mixing the whole together, return it into the cask, which is to be well cleaned, bunged tight, and placed in a proper situation for racking off, when fine. In the month of April following, draw it off into kegs, for use; and it will be equal to almost any foreign wine. (MacKenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts, 1829)
RALPH ADAMS CHAM
And speaking of Mr. Cram’s delightful paper, the following gloss is worth printing.
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA
The song quoted by Mr. Cram on page 84 of the January Atlantic was sung in Ontario sixty years ago by a minister who came direct from Ulster to Canada. There were variations: —
(Galloping dreary done),
He’ll get a wife as soon as he can,
With his hailey-gailey, gamborailey,
Higgling, niggling, galloping galloway
Draggletail, dreary done.
The last line ran
And now I think better I’d better go sleep.
Commenting on A. W. Smith’s pleasant story, ‘A Bountiful Providence,’ Miss Ailecn Templeton has this confirming anecdote.
CARRIGLEA, RIVERSIDE, CONN.
Here is a true story of how Little Sisters of the Poor accept heaven-sent gifts, but the scene is laid nearer home than Bombay, for in Chicago there arc Little Sisters of the Poor too. In Chicago, last year, the winter was an old-fashioned one, and when Chicago goes oldfashioned, it goes old-fashioned. One way-belowzero day a doctor, very snug in a brand-new overcoat, leaving the house, bethought him of his two last winters’ overcoats still hanging in his closet, and said he, ‘Bess, would you see that the Little Sisters get those two old coats of mine for the old men? It is too cold to keep overcoats idle.’
His college-girl daughter was just starting out in her sports model for her first morning class. Her way lay by the door of the Little Sisters of the Poor, so in with Beth went the two coats instanter. Now Beth knew from experience that the Little Sisters have many thanks for gifts for their poor old men, and she was in a hurry (perhaps she had a date as well as a class waiting). Any way, this was Beth’s method of delivering the coats. She deposited them in the vestibule, rang the bell, and showed a pair of twinkling high heels to the door. Even the ear had disappeared around the corner on two wheels before the Little Sister in charge of the door could open it. But, though no visible hand had rung, she found lying at her feet an answer to prayer — warm overcoats.
Did the Little Sister think, gayly, ‘It is not snowing snow to-day, just warm overcoats’? She did not. She thought, ‘Two good overcoats, and no donor! ’ — and she telephoned the police. The police came and took charge of the coats. Wise in the ways of tailors, they found the doctor’s name in a pocket. And in the telephone book they found his name and number. ‘ Had Dr.—— missed two of his overcoats?" an official voice inquired. The doctor’s wife, wise in the ways of Beth, deducted the true tale of the coats; but, said a thoughtful official voice, was she sure that the doctor meant those two good overcoats? On being reassured that it had been the doctor’s own thought to give those very two overcoats to the Little Sisters, the incident was closed. And two tall old men blessed their height that day.
So I wish Sister Veronica, truer to type, had sought out Crown Sergeant O’Neill herself. The end of the story could have been the same. Not for worlds would I deprive Sister Veronica of Mr. Gaunt’s letter. It is priceless.
To quiet the alarm occasioned by the publication of a paper on the doubtful issue of the war between insects and man, we print the following note which we have recently received from the Methodist Episcopal Mission, Sibu, Sarawak, Borneo.
The Rajah has just given us a large concession between the Binatang and Serekei rivers tor planting pepper and we will plant a lot next year. Cocoanuts and oil palms are also being planted. But the thing I am most interested in now is ‘tuba.’ It is a native root that makes the best insecticide in the world. It is instant death to any bug, beetle, fly, or worm, but it is perfect ly safe to handle. America needs tons of it and there is no limit to the amount we can raise. It will win the war for America. Tell Professor James E. Boyle (see his article, ‘Insects and Men,’ October Atlantic Monthly). I am now in correspondence with an American firm in Singapore to see if they will not try to put it on the market.
J. M. HOOVER
A recent Newtonianism has excited much comment. Here is an authoritative word upon it.
Uncle Sam’s Post Office has been working nights in an effort to deliver the many communications, approving and otherwise, regarding my paper on Jerusalem in the February Atlantic. A few letters are from Jews who seem greatly offended at my question: ‘What Jew is going to leave New York, where there are a hundred million of us [Christians] to prey upon?’ There, apparently, they stopped, enraged, and did not finish the sentence, which reads, ‘and only a handful of Scotch to be guarded against.’ As yet I have not heard from any offended Scotchmen. It takes time for a joke to sink in. When I wrote, I had in mind the old saying, ’A Jew can get no foothold in Aberdeen.’ I am sorry to have to explain this.
I shall not bother, at this late date, to enlarge on my opinion of the Jewish race. It is no secret. I have just as high a regard for a fine Jew as I have for a fine Christian, and no higher. One lady writes me to say that she prefers her Hebrew friends to her Christian friends. Yell, this is a matter of taste, as the girl said when she kissed the cow.
Also, see 2 Kings v. 13.
A. EDWARD NEWTON
At the end of a long day we are considering not without sympathy the following proposal: —
I am prepared to write five magazine articles, the first two of which are diatribes on the imbecility of man; the next the solution of the universe, otherwise described as nature or actuality; and the last two are the applications of understanding.
As one might guess, the writer hails from Missouri.
This department aims to be strictly contemporaneous with each issue in which it appears, but in the pursuit of the most disinterested and lofty truth, the apt occasion must be accepted wherever it is found. Not long ago the Atlantic published in a single number two papers on censorship, and promised to publish more if suitable examples were received. This is what comes of living in Massachusetts!
No altogether satisfactory formal discussion reached us, hut our daily correspondence shows that the subject has been active in the minds of our readers, and suggests that many of them at the same time resent censorship and feel a strong distaste for numerous current books — books not so much corrupting as cheap and pretentious. Usually the pretentiousness of the book is as nothing to that of the publisher and blurb writer. Publishing is the art of promoting the whirlwind and discouraging the still small voice.
The problem of applying such wholesome yet contradictory disapproval to a solution of the difficulties of censorship has yet to be surmounted. The ‘limits of decency’ are notoriously unsettled boundaries; they are as changeable as the Balkans. Wise things have been said on either side of the case, but it seems to me that the question which perhaps lies at the root of the whole matter has never been disentangled and made explicit.
Coleridge said of a man that his talk was like ‘the Newgate gutter, flowing with garbage, dead dogs, and mud.’ Literature has its Newgate gutter, and not only in cheap, pretentious books, but in those great books that are veritable cities of the mind, capitals of human thought and experience. If it were not so, the problem of censorship would not exist. The hue and cry that has pursued books, plays, mayors, and societies for suppressing vice would have been a hue and cry after nothing. And so in large part it has been. Books have been attacked in public and private, by district attorneys, religious sects, anonymous complainants, and bands of the ‘unco’ guid,’ and for every offense, from mentioning abortion to speaking disrespectfully of Mrs. Eddy.
America’s moral crusades might amuse and disgust the tolerant and detached observer of society, might arouse the part isans of ancient liberty. But few would be drawn into the brawl unless literature itself were in some measure at stake. Censurable qualities in minor books cannot be dissociated from the same qualities in major books. The great national literatures which boys and girls are sent to college to read contain plenty of the Newgate gutter. Think only of English literature. Yes, I distinctly see a dead dog floating down this page of Chaucer, while here is a notorious piece of garbage sailing past in the powerful but murky current of Swift’s imagination. The Newgate gutter is very prevalent, and those who stand on its banks commanding the waves to recede are apt to find themselves unaccountably smirched about the clothing.
We should all like to rid our cities — and our minds — of their Newgate gutters. No man would enjoy knowing himself the object of Coleridge’s epigram. Yet bowdlerizing is not in favor among mature minds. Why? Is it because we make an exception of literature, and do not really wish to rid it of its Newgate gutter? Is it that in books obscenity under certain conditions has a value of some kind?
I have not heard anyone so bold as to suggest this conclusion. Those who oppose censorship do not take this stand. Their attitude (perhaps for politic reasons) is defensive. If obscenity must appear in books, it must be allowed only on sufferance, and, so to speak, during good behavior. Yet does not this attitude proceed from insufficient courage and consistency? If the Newgate gutter is of no value, then let us remove it, root it out altogether, and no slightest loss will result. But we all know that a loss would result. The bowdlerizing of our books would be intolerable. Literature, great and small, would suffer immeasurably, and through its mutilation our lives also would suffer. Argal, the Newgate gutter has a value.
This conclusion will be shocking to some readers. I put it forward with a feeling of temerity, not knowing exactly where it will lead. Right to the Devil, I hear someone ominously exclaim. Well, I shall not be the first victim of a too consistent logic that he has entertained. And yet I think that anyone who truly knows and loves literature will acknowledge in his heart that what I have said is true. Those who feel a mysterious horror at the suggestion have not learned to read; they do not know what literature is really about. Great literature is composed for the most part of the great fictions that have entertained, enthralled, and refined mankind by presenting spectacles of the world and its figures — not fiction in our impoverished modern sense of the prose novel alone, but the great poetic and dramatic fictions as well. Anyone who has the slightest intuitive sense of what such a fiction is or how it is created will understand easily enough that it would be hard indeed to exclude all traces of the Newgate gutter. To do so would be in large measure to remove from literature both seriousness and moral depth. A great many people would be pleased by such a result, but for them literature does not in any real sense exist.
But what may the value of the Newgate gutter be? The question is difficult and I have no beliefs about it. I have a few thoughts, but reserve the right to think differently on sufficient cause.
It is a temptation to say that while the value of Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is absolute, the value of the obscene is relative. Its worth is to contribute to a general picture, to give a sense of the totality of human nature and experience. A few great works in which the major impression is one of darkness and repulsion may seem exceptions to this principle, yet even these works are not valued in the same way as we should value Keats’s Ode. To read the Ode is to live for just so many moments on the plane of the ideal. A work of the sombre kind we are always contrasting, as we read it, with the better life we know or seek day by day, using it to sober and discipline our minds. One kind of writing is an end; the other is an instrument.
Comic obscenity is also in part an exception, but it, too, has instrumental uses. It has purgative virtue, I think, quite as genuinely as pity and terror; it is a fine safety cock for the needful vulgarity without which we should not he human. Allied with the creative genius of Chaucer or Rabelais, it need not terrify the most exacting moral sense.
But the masters of this branch of literature are all dead, and their art, perhaps unfortunately, seems to belong to the past. The value of the obscene is more and more identifying itself with the value of the tragic. Cases of tragic obscenity, I have no doubt, can be readily cited from the classics. Consider these lines from King Lear. I do not mean that they raise any question of ‘the limits of decency,’ but merely that they make a recognizable dip into the censurable side of human nature. And it is deeply tragic that the aged Lear, ‘every inch a king.’ who in his right mind would never have so far forgotten dignity and social usage, has been driven to such a point of madness that he not only suffers hallucinations, but speaks those thoughts that ordinarily the mind itself would censor.
Whose face between her forks presages snow.
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure’s name, —
The fitchew, nor the soiled horse, goes to’t
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above;
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends’;
There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit,
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie,
fie, fie! pah, pah! Give me an ounce of civet,
good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination.
In modern writers the association of the obscene with the tragic has become perhaps even more characteristic. In its buskin days, tragedy presented stories of the ‘falls of princes,’ the catastrophes of the great. Suffering of course is always in the mind, but the older tragedy was panoramic. It began with externals — the situation of the kingdom as the curtain goes up — and allowed the suffering in the minds of the characters to develop from the spectacle. Modern writers make a different approach. Tragedy depends less upon the worldly eminence of the personœ the catastrophe now is social or psychological. At the same time, many modern writers begin at once with minds, or endeavor so to do, allowing the externals to develop from the ‘stream of consciousness.’ They have looked on the strange new dishes sent up from the psychological scullery, and have helped themselves freely. It is only natural that they have found it necessary to dip more deeply than King Lear into the side of nature that is generally considered subject to censorship.
This development may be a loss to the tragic spirit, but the loss is not total. Literature, looked at in the largest way, is a prolonged, indefatigable attempt to discern and report in imaginative vehicles the totality of man’s experience. The Newgate gutter cannot be left out. And, as tragic drama is not painful, but (without loss of seriousness) enjoyable to the audience, so the obscene, when appropriately used by a master, is not merely disgusting, but is one of the modes whereby the imagination is disciplined to look on life with maturity and understanding. This is why literature is not and cannot of nature be corrupting.
What I have said does not necessarily mean that no place exists for the censor, or that genius may not be guilty of grievous and injurious mistakes. The problem of censorship is now and will always be to keep the police function of suppressing vicious pamphlets from extending to literature. It is because people do not really understand what reading is, what function books perform, it is because so few have ever truly known the experience of reading, that ignorant hands have been too often violently laid on mankind’s intellectual treasure.
THE OFFICE ICONOCLAST