JOHN JAY CHAPMAN, of whom Owen Wister has written a distinguished memorial in this issue, was an author who, as one of his friends once said, ‘never sold a book.’ By this he meant that Chapman’s talents were first and last those of the artist, never those of the business man. He would not lend himself to the little tricks of personal exploitation which authors sometimes have to adopt to win an audience. Once he had written a thing, there it was; if the public did not want to read it, so much the worse for the public. Perhaps it was natural, therefore, that he never won the acclaim to which his genius entitled him. He himself had no illusions about this. With philosophic amusement he would sometimes speak of his garret, where he had stored hundreds of copies of his books that he had taken off the hands of his publishers.
Even among the well-read there are many who have never come across a line of Chapman. We quote below a few stanzas from one of his long poems. They are casual verses written to serve an occasion, and, having served it, left to die, but they are pertinent to a discussion of him because they reveal the seer, careless of tact and careful of his conscience, the habit of cutting deep regardless of the pain, and courage in letting consequences look after themselves. It is interesting to note that these lines were written at a time when most of us let ourselves believe we had perfected a formula for perpetual prosperity; they were read at the annual dinner of the Signet Society in Cambridge on March 12,1927.
And loved this land peculiarly. Amen.
I hope so. But the feeling should not blind us
To taking some precautions now and then;
For God will have his hands full: he’ll soon find us
A nation with no educated men.
I’d not be blasphemous. — Let’s think it o’er.
At least He never saved that kind before.
Our continent was peopled by corsairs,
However much we brag about the few
Who came for liberty to say their prayers.
The spirit of the land is to push through:
In childish eyes the ancestral passion glares
Of those who came from climates cold or sunny
For Liberty — the freedom to make money
Entitled List of Early Emigrants
From England to the Colonics, a solemn,
Expensive sort of thing, suggesting grants
Of land, with column after column
Of sturdy English names (Your burgher wants
To know his ancestry); the interest centres
In criminals and vagrants and dissenters.
Though not addicted to quill pens and parchment;
The books they knew were naval — the portbooking
That gave them intellectual detachment;
Onward-and-upward strugglers, little brooking
Inquiry as to what their forward march meant,
These new crusaders planted and unfurled
The business banner of the modern world —
And rub their eyes; praise, damn, and prophesy:
The tireless pioneers hew, scheme, and swink,
Welding the fetters nicknamed Liberty,
Till round the world they run, and every link
That thrift can bless or cunning sanctify
Is in its place. ‘The thing will hold, I guess,’
Exclaim the children of the wilderness.
As to the ore from which the chain was made;
Perhaps there is some element left out,
Not scheduled in the Lexicon of Trade,
Yet noted in the Book of Man throughout
His history — by its own light betrayed —
The radium that makes a nation shine:
Without it, trust me, business will decline
Is that the search for Truth, and that alone,
Survives the toil of nations. The last act
Shows Truth in flight, and rings the curtain down.
Alas, our early emigrant who packed
(Some of them hastily) his axe and gun,
Boarding a brig, resolved to do or die,
Had little leisure for philosophy.
The student and the poet and the man
Of thought and feeling whose sole halidome
Is but to work as fiercely as he can
At some obsession, till his dream become
A part of all men’s instincts. Art began
Like that, and as some peasant’s predilection,
Till private taste turned public benediction.
They look when gathered round a table!
(And each with a Corona in his mug.)
How bold and bright, how competent, how stable!
Yet put a thought, he winces with a shrug.
‘It’s not his business. Someone should be able
To solve your doubts.’ He’s potent, shaved, and gay;
But as an intellect he fades away.
Timidities, the dreaded neighbor’s ear;
We live and move like mice about a throne,
Fearing to name the causes of our fear.
We whisper our convictions; for if known
They might upset, sidetrack, or interfere
With quiet hopes we nurse and friends that serve us:
Habitually we are a little nervous.
A sham solidity that soon or late
Dissolves through some defect that’s everywhere;
Walls, columns, dome, and spire disintegrate:
The weaknesses of private character
Support each other, but bring down the state:
And ours will fall through some specific vice.
What if that vice were Moral Cowardice?