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´╗┐Title: Fashions in Literature
Author: Warner, Charles Dudley, 1829-1900
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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FASHIONS IN LITERATURE

By Charles Dudley Warner



INTRODUCTION

Thirty years ago and more those who read and valued good books in this
country made the acquaintance of Mr. Warner, and since the publication of
"My Summer In a Garden" no work of his has needed any other introduction
than the presence of his name on the title-page; and now that reputation
has mellowed into memory, even the word of interpretation seems
superfluous. Mr. Warner wrote out of a clear, as well as a full mind, and
lucidity of style was part of that harmonious charm of sincerity and
urbanity which made him one of the most intelligible and companionable of
our writers.

It is a pleasure, however, to recall him as, not long ago, we saw him
move and heard him speak in the ripeness of years which brought him the
full flavor of maturity without any loss of freshness from his humor or
serenity from his thought. He shared with Lowell, Longfellow, and Curtis
a harmony of nature and art, a unity of ideal and achievement, which make
him a welcome figure, not only for what he said, but for what he was; one
of those friends whose coming is hailed with joy because they seem always
at their best, and minister to rather than draw upon our own capital of
moral vitality.

Mr. Warner was the most undogmatic of idealists, the most winning of
teachers. He had always some thing to say to the ethical sense, a word
for the conscience; but his approach was always through the mind, and his
enforcement of the moral lesson was by suggestion rather than by
commandment. There was nothing ascetic about him, no easy solution of the
difficulties of life by ignoring or evading them; nor, on the other hand,
was there any confusion of moral standards as the result of a confusion
of ideas touching the nature and functions of art. He saw clearly, he
felt deeply, and he thought straight; hence the rectitude of his mind,
the sanity of his spirit, the justice of his dealings with the things
which make for life and art. He used the essay as Addison used it, not
for sermonic effect, but as a form of art which permitted a man to deal
with serious things in a spirit of gayety, and with that lightness of
touch which conveys influence without employing force. He was as deeply
enamored as George William Curtis with the highest ideals of life for
America, and, like Curtis, his expression caught the grace and
distinction of those ideals.

It is a pleasure to hear his voice once more, because its very accents
suggest the most interesting, high-minded, and captivating ideals of
living; he brings with him that air of fine breeding which is diffused by
the men who, in mind as in manners, have been, in a distinctive sense,
gentlemen; who have lived so constantly and habitually on intimate terms
with the highest things in thought and character that the tone of this
really best society has become theirs. Among men of talent there are
plebeians as well as patricians; even genius, which is never vulgar, is
sometimes unable to hide the vulgarity of the aims and ideas which it
clothes with beauty without concealing their essential nature. Mr. Warner
was a patrician; the most democratic of men, he was one of the most
fastidious in his intellectual companionships and affiliations. The
subjects about which he speaks with his oldtime directness and charm in
this volume make us aware of the serious temper of his mind, of his deep
interest in the life of his time and people, and of the easy and natural
grace with which he insisted on facing the fact and bringing it to the
test of the highest standards. In his discussion of "Fashions in
Literature" he deftly brings before us the significance of literature and
the signs which it always wears, while he seems bent upon considering
some interesting aspects of contemporary writing.

And how admirably he has described his own work in his definition of
qualities which are common to all literature of a high order: simplicity,
knowledge of human nature, agreeable personality. It would be impossible
in briefer or more comprehensive phrase to sum up and express the secret
of his influence and of the pleasure he gives us. It is to suggest this
application of his words to himself that this preparatory comment is
written.

When "My Summer In a Garden" appeared, it won a host of friends who did
not stop to ask whether it was a piece of excellent journalism or a bit
of real literature. It was so natural, so informal, so intimate that
readers accepted it as matter of course, as they accepted the blooming of
flowers and the flitting of birds. It was simply a report of certain
things which had happened out of doors, made by an observing neighbor,
whose talk seemed to be of a piece with the diffused fragrance and light
and life of the old-fashioned garden. This easy approach, along natural
lines of interest, by quietly putting himself on common ground with his
reader, Mr. Warner never abandoned; he was so delightful a companion that
until he ceased to walk beside them, many of his friends of the mind did
not realize how much he had enriched them by the way. This charming
simplicity, which made it possible for him to put himself on intimate
terms with his readers, was the result of his sincerity, his clearness of
thought, and his ripe culture: that knowledge of the best which rids a
man forever of faith in devices, dexterities, obscurities, and all other
substitutes for the lucid realities of thinking and of character.

To his love of reality and his sincere interest in men, Mr. Warner added
natural shrewdness and long observation of the psychology of men and
women under the stress and strain of experience. His knowledge of human
nature did not lessen his geniality, but it kept the edge of his mind
keen, and gave his work the variety not only of humor but of satire. He
cared deeply for people, but they did not impose on him; he loved his
country with a passion which was the more genuine because it was exacting
and, at times, sharply critical. There runs through all his work, as a
critic of manners and men, as well as of art, a wisdom of life born of
wide and keen observation; put not into the form of aphorisms, but of
shrewd comment, of keen criticism, of nice discrimination between the
manifold shadings of insincerity, of insight into the action and reaction
of conditions, surroundings, social and ethical aims on men and women.
The stories written in his later years are full of the evidences of a
knowledge of human nature which was singularly trustworthy and
penetrating.

When all has been said, however, it remains true of him, as of so many of
the writers whom we read and love and love as we read, that the secret of
his charm lay in an agreeable personality. At the end of the analysis, if
the work is worth while, there is always a man, and the man is the
explanation of the work. This is pre-eminently true of those writers
whose charm lies less in distinctively intellectual qualities than in
temperament, atmosphere, humor-writers of the quality of Steele,
Goldsmith, Lamb, Irving. It is not only, therefore, a pleasure to recall
Mr. Warner; it is a necessity if one would discover the secret of his
charm, the source of his authority.

He was a New Englander by birth and by long residence, but he was also a
man of the world in the true sense of the phrase; one whose ethical
judgment had been broadened without being lowered; who had learned that
truth, though often strenuously enforced, is never so convincing as when
stated in terms of beauty; and to whom it had been revealed that to live
naturally, sanely, and productively one must live humanly, with due
regard to the earthly as well as to heavenly, with ease as well as
earnestness of spirit, through play no less than through work, in the
large resources of art, society, and humor, as well as with the ancient
and well-tested rectitudes of the fathers.

The harmonious play of his whole nature, the breadth of his interests and
the sanity of his spirit made Mr. Warner a delightful companion, and kept
to the very end the freshness of his mind and the spontaneity of his
humor; life never lost its savor for him, nor did his style part with its
diffused but thoroughly individual humor. This latest collection of his
papers, dealing with a wide range of subjects from the "Education of the
Negro" to "Literature and the Stage," with characteristic comments on
"Truthfulness" and "The Pursuit of Happiness," shows him at the end of
his long and tireless career as a writer still deeply interested in
contemporary events, responsive to the appeal of the questions of the
hour, and sensitive to all things which affected the dignity and
authority of literature. In his interests, his bearing, his relations to
the public life of the country, no less than in his work, he held fast to
the best traditions of literature, and he has taken his place among the
representative American men of Letters.

HAMILTON W. MABIE.



FASHIONS IN LITERATURE

If you examine a collection of prints of costumes of different
generations, you are commonly amused by the ludicrous appearance of most
of them, especially of those that are not familiar to you in your own
decade. They are not only inappropriate and inconvenient to your eye, but
they offend your taste. You cannot believe that they were ever thought
beautiful and becoming. If your memory does not fail you, however, and
you retain a little honesty of mind, you can recall the fact that a
costume which seems to you ridiculous today had your warm approval ten
years ago. You wonder, indeed, how you could ever have tolerated a
costume which has not one graceful line, and has no more relation to the
human figure than Mambrino's helmet had to a crown of glory. You cannot
imagine how you ever approved the vast balloon skirt that gave your
sweetheart the appearance of the great bell of Moscow, or that you
yourself could have been complacent in a coat the tails of which reached
your heels, and the buttons of which, a rudimentary survival, were
between your shoulder-blades--you who are now devoted to a female figure
that resembles an old-fashioned churn surmounted by an isosceles
triangle.

These vagaries of taste, which disfigure or destroy correct proportions
or hide deformities, are nowhere more evident than in the illustrations
of works of fiction. The artist who collaborates with the contemporary
novelist has a hard fate. If he is faithful to the fashions of the day,
he earns the repute of artistic depravity in the eyes of the next
generation. The novel may become a classic, because it represents human
nature, or even the whimsicalities of a period; but the illustrations of
the artist only provoke a smile, because he has represented merely the
unessential and the fleeting. The interest in his work is archaeological,
not artistic. The genius of the great portrait-painter may to some extent
overcome the disadvantages of contemporary costume, but if the costume of
his period is hideous and lacks the essential lines of beauty, his work
is liable to need the apology of quaintness. The Greek artist and the
Mediaeval painter, when the costumes were really picturesque and made us
forget the lack of simplicity in a noble sumptuousness, had never this
posthumous difficulty to contend with.

In the examination of costumes of different races and different ages, we
are also struck by the fact that with primitive or isolated peoples
costumes vary little from age to age, and fashion and the fashions are
unrecognized, and a habit of dress which is dictated by climate, or has
been proved to be comfortable, is adhered to from one generation to
another; while nations that we call highly civilized, meaning commonly
not only Occidental peoples, but peoples called progressive, are subject
to the most frequent and violent changes of fashions, not in generations
only, but in decades and years of a generation, as if the mass had no
mind or taste of its own, but submitted to the irresponsible ukase of
tailors and modistes, who are in alliance with enterprising manufacturers
of novelties. In this higher civilization a costume which is artistic and
becoming has no more chance of permanence than one which is ugly and
inconvenient. It might be inferred that this higher civilization produces
no better taste and discrimination, no more independent judgment, in
dress than it does in literature. The vagaries in dress of the Western
nations for a thousand years past, to go back no further, are certainly
highly amusing, and would be humiliating to people who regarded taste and
art as essentials of civilization. But when we speak of civilization, we
cannot but notice that some of the great civilizations; the longest
permanent and most notable for highest achievement in learning, science,
art, or in the graces or comforts of life, the Egyptian, the Saracenic,
the Chinese, were subject to no such vagaries in costume, but adhered to
that which taste, climate, experience had determined to be the most
useful and appropriate. And it is a singular comment upon our modern
conceit that we make our own vagaries and changeableness, and not any
fixed principles of art or of utility, the criterion of judgment, on
other races and other times.

The more important result of the study of past fashions, in engravings
and paintings, remains to be spoken of. It is that in all the
illustrations, from the simplicity of Athens, through the artificiality
of Louis XIV and the monstrosities of Elizabeth, down to the undescribed
modistic inventions of the first McKinley, there is discoverable a
radical and primitive law of beauty. We acknowledge it among the Greeks,
we encounter it in one age and another. I mean a style of dress that is
artistic as well as picturesque, that satisfies our love of beauty, that
accords with the grace of the perfect human figure, and that gives as
perfect satisfaction to the cultivated taste as a drawing by Raphael.
While all the other illustrations of the human ingenuity in making the
human race appear fantastic or ridiculous amuse us or offend our taste,
--except the tailor fashion-plates of the week that is now,--these few
exceptions, classic or modern, give us permanent delight, and are
recognized as following the eternal law of beauty and utility. And we
know, notwithstanding the temporary triumph of bad taste and the public
lack of any taste, that there is a standard, artistic and imperishable.

The student of manners might find an interesting field in noting how, in
our Occidental civilizations, fluctuations of opinions, of morals, and of
literary style have been accompanied by more or less significant
exhibitions of costumes. He will note in the Precieux of France and the
Euphuist of England a corresponding effeminacy in dress; in the frank
paganism of the French Revolution the affectation of Greek and Roman
apparel, passing into the Directoire style in the Citizen and the
Citizeness; in the Calvinistic cut of the Puritan of Geneva and of New
England the grim severity of their theology and morals. These examples
are interesting as showing an inclination to express an inner condition
by the outward apparel, as the Quakers indicate an inward peace by an
external drabness, and the American Indian a bellicose disposition by red
and yellow paint; just as we express by red stripes our desire to kill
men with artillery, or by yellow stripes to kill them with cavalry. It is
not possible to say whether these external displays are relics of
barbarism or are enduring necessities of human nature.

The fickleness of men in costume in a manner burlesques their shifty and
uncertain taste in literature. A book or a certain fashion in letters
will have a run like a garment, and, like that, will pass away before it
waxes old. It seems incredible, as we look back over the literary history
of the past three centuries only, what prevailing styles and moods of
expression, affectations, and prettinesses, each in turn, have pleased
reasonably cultivated people. What tedious and vapid things they read and
liked to read! Think of the French, who had once had a Villon,
intoxicating themselves with somnolent draughts of Richardson. But, then,
the French could match the paste euphuisms of Lyly with the novels of
Scudery. Every modern literature has been subject to these epidemics and
diseases. It is needless to dwell upon them in detail. Since the great
diffusion of printing, these literary crazes have been more frequent and
of shorter duration. We need go back no further than a generation to find
abundant examples of eccentricities of style and expression, of crazes
over some author or some book, as unaccountable on principles of art as
many of the fashions in social life.--The more violent the attack, the
sooner it is over. Readers of middle age can recall the furor over
Tupper, the extravagant expectations as to the brilliant essayist
Gilfillan, the soon-extinguished hopes of the poet Alexander Smith. For
the moment the world waited in the belief of the rising of new stars, and
as suddenly realized that it had been deceived. Sometimes we like
ruggedness, and again we like things made easy. Within a few years a
distinguished Scotch clergyman made a fortune by diluting a paragraph
written by Saint Paul. It is in our memory how at one time all the boys
tried to write like Macaulay, and then like Carlyle, and then like
Ruskin, and we have lived to see the day when all the girls would like to
write like Heine.

In less than twenty years we have seen wonderful changes in public taste
and in the efforts of writers to meet it or to create it. We saw the
everlastingly revived conflict between realism and romanticism. We saw
the realist run into the naturalist, the naturalist into the animalist,
the psychologist into the sexualist, and the sudden reaction to romance,
in the form of what is called the historic novel, the receipt for which
can be prescribed by any competent pharmacist. The one essential in the
ingredients is that the hero shall be mainly got out of one hole by
dropping him into a deeper one, until--the proper serial length being
attained--he is miraculously dropped out into daylight, and stands to
receive the plaudits of a tenderhearted world, that is fond of nothing so
much as of fighting.

The extraordinary vogue of certain recent stories is not so much to be
wondered at when we consider the millions that have been added to the
readers of English during the past twenty-five years. The wonder is that
a new book does not sell more largely, or it would be a wonder if the
ability to buy kept pace with the ability to read, and if discrimination
had accompanied the appetite for reading. The critics term these
successes of some recent fictions "crazes," but they are really sustained
by some desirable qualities--they are cleverly written, and they are for
the moment undoubtedly entertaining. Some of them as undoubtedly appeal
to innate vulgarity or to cultivated depravity. I will call no names,
because that would be to indict the public taste. This recent phenomenon
of sales of stories by the hundred thousand is not, however, wholly due
to quality. Another element has come in since the publishers have
awakened to the fact that literature can be treated like merchandise. To
use their own phrase, they "handle" books as they would "handle" patent
medicines, that is, the popular patent medicines that are desired because
of the amount of alcohol they contain; indeed, they are sold along with
dry-goods and fancy notions. I am not objecting to this great and wide
distribution any more than I am to the haste of fruit-dealers to market
their products before they decay. The wary critic will be very careful
about dogmatizing over the nature and distribution of literary products.
It is no certain sign that a book is good because it is popular, nor is
it any more certain that it is good because it has a very limited sale.
Yet we cannot help seeing that many of the books that are the subject of
crazes utterly disappear in a very short time, while many others,
approved by only a judicious few, continue in the market and slowly
become standards, considered as good stock by the booksellers and
continually in a limited demand.

The English essayists have spent a good deal of time lately in discussing
the question whether it is possible to tell a good contemporary book from
a bad one. Their hesitation is justified by a study of English criticism
of new books in the quarterly, monthly, and weekly periodicals from the
latter part of the eighteenth century to the last quarter of the
nineteenth; or, to name a definite period, from the verse of the Lake
poets, from Shelley and Byron, down to Tennyson, there is scarcely a poet
who has attained world-wide assent to his position in the first or second
rank who was not at the hands of the reviewers the subject of mockery and
bitter detraction. To be original in any degree was to be damned. And
there is scarcely one who was at first ranked as a great light during
this period who is now known out of the biographical dictionary. Nothing
in modern literature is more amazing than the bulk of English criticism
in the last three-quarters of a century, so far as it concerned
individual writers, both in poetry and prose. The literary rancor shown
rose to the dignity almost of theological vituperation.

Is there any way to tell a good book from a bad one? Yes. As certainly as
you can tell a good picture from a bad one, or a good egg from a bad one.
Because there are hosts who do not discriminate as to the eggs or the
butter they eat, it does not follow that a normal taste should not know
the difference.

Because there is a highly artistic nation that welcomes the flavor of
garlic in everything, and another which claims to be the most civilized
in the world that cannot tell coffee from chicory, or because the ancient
Chinese love rancid sesame oil, or the Esquimaux like spoiled blubber and
tainted fish, it does not follow that there is not in the world a
wholesome taste for things natural and pure.

It is clear that the critic of contemporary literature is quite as likely
to be wrong as right. He is, for one thing, inevitably affected by the
prevailing fashion of his little day. And, worse still, he is apt to make
his own tastes and prejudices the standard of his judgment. His view is
commonly provincial instead of cosmopolitan. In the English period just
referred to it is easy to see that most of the critical opinion was
determined by political or theological animosity and prejudice. The rule
was for a Tory to hit a Whig or a Whig to hit a Tory, under whatever
literary guise he appeared. If the new writer was not orthodox in the
view of his political or theological critic, he was not to be tolerated
as poet or historian, Dr. Johnson had said everything he could say
against an author when he declared that he was a vile Whig. Macaulay, a
Whig, always consulted his prejudices for his judgment, equally when he
was reviewing Croker's Boswell or the impeachment of Warren Hastings. He
hated Croker,--a hateful man, to be sure,--and when the latter published
his edition of Boswell, Macaulay saw his opportunity, and exclaimed
before he had looked at the book, as you will remember, "Now I will dust
his jacket." The standard of criticism does not lie with the individual
in literature any more than it does in different periods as to fashions
and manners. The world is pretty well agreed, and always has been, as to
the qualities that make a gentleman. And yet there was a time when the
vilest and perhaps the most contemptible man who ever occupied the
English throne,--and that is saying a great deal,--George IV, was
universally called the "First Gentleman of Europe." The reproach might be
somewhat lightened by the fact that George was a foreigner, but for the
wider fact that no person of English stock has been on the throne since
Saxon Harold, the chosen and imposed rulers of England having been
French, Welsh, Scotch, and Dutch, many of them being guiltless of the
English language, and many of them also of the English middle-class
morality. The impartial old Wraxall, the memorialist of the times of
George III, having described a noble as a gambler, a drunkard, a
smuggler, an appropriator of public money, who always cheated his
tradesmen, who was one and sometimes all of them together, and a
profligate generally, commonly adds, "But he was a perfect gentleman."
And yet there has always been a standard that excludes George IV from the
rank of gentleman, as it excludes Tupper from the rank of poet.

The standard of literary judgment, then, is not in the individual,--that
is, in the taste and prejudice of the individual,--any more than it is in
the immediate contemporary opinion, which is always in flux and reflux
from one extreme to another; but it is in certain immutable principles
and qualities which have been slowly evolved during the long historic
periods of literary criticism. But how shall we ascertain what these
principles are, so as to apply them to new circumstances and new
creations, holding on to the essentials and disregarding contemporary
tastes; prejudices, and appearances? We all admit that certain pieces of
literature have become classic; by general consent there is no dispute
about them. How they have become so we cannot exactly explain. Some say
by a mysterious settling of universal opinion, the operation of which
cannot be exactly defined. Others say that the highly developed critical
judgment of a few persons, from time to time, has established forever
what we agree to call masterpieces. But this discussion is immaterial,
since these supreme examples of literary excellence exist in all kinds of
composition,--poetry, fable, romance, ethical teaching, prophecy,
interpretation, history, humor, satire, devotional flight into the
spiritual and supernatural, everything in which the human mind has
exercised itself,--from the days of the Egyptian moralist and the Old
Testament annalist and poet down to our scientific age. These
masterpieces exist from many periods and in many languages, and they all
have qualities in common which have insured their persistence. To
discover what these qualities are that have insured permanence and
promise indefinite continuance is to have a means of judging with an
approach to scientific accuracy our contemporary literature. There is no
thing of beauty that does not conform to a law of order and beauty--poem,
story, costume, picture, statue, all fall into an ascertainable law of
art. Nothing of man's making is perfect, but any creation approximates
perfection in the measure that it conforms to inevitable law.

To ascertain this law, and apply it, in art or in literature, to the
changing conditions of our progressive life, is the business of the
artist. It is the business of the critic to mark how the performance
conforms to or departs from the law evolved and transmitted in the
long-experience of the race. True criticism, then, is not a matter of
caprice or of individual liking or disliking, nor of conformity to a
prevailing and generally temporary popular judgment. Individual judgment
may be very interesting and have its value, depending upon the capacity
of the judge. It was my good fortune once to fall in with a person who
had been moved, by I know not what inspiration, to project himself out of
his safe local conditions into France, Greece, Italy, Cairo, and
Jerusalem. He assured me that he had seen nothing anywhere in the wide
world of nature and art to compare with the beauty of Nebraska.

What are the qualities common to all the masterpieces of literature, or,
let us say, to those that have endured in spite of imperfections and
local provincialisms?

First of all I should name simplicity, which includes lucidity of
expression, the clear thought in fitting, luminous words. And this is
true when the thought is profound and the subject is as complex as life
itself. This quality is strikingly exhibited for us in Jowett's
translation of Plato--which is as modern in feeling and phrase as
anything done in Boston--in the naif and direct Herodotus, and, above
all, in the King James vernacular translation of the Bible, which is the
great text-book of all modern literature.

The second quality is knowledge of human nature. We can put up with the
improbable in invention, because the improbable is always happening in
life, but we cannot tolerate the so-called psychological juggling with
the human mind, the perversion of the laws of the mind, the forcing of
character to fit the eccentricities of plot. Whatever excursions the
writer makes in fancy, we require fundamental consistency with human
nature. And this is the reason why psychological studies of the abnormal,
or biographies of criminal lunatics, are only interesting to pathologists
and never become classics in literature.

A third quality common to all masterpieces is what we call charm, a
matter more or less of style, and which may be defined as the agreeable
personality of the writer. This is indispensable. It is this personality
which gives the final value to every work of art as well as of
literature. It is not enough to copy nature or to copy, even accurately,
the incidents of life. Only by digestion and transmutation through
personality does any work attain the dignity of art. The great works of
architecture, even, which are somewhat determined by mathematical rule,
owe their charm to the personal genius of their creators. For this reason
our imitations of Greek architecture are commonly failures. To speak
technically, the masterpiece of literature is characterized by the same
knowledge of proportion and perspective as the masterpiece in art.

If there is a standard of literary excellence, as there is a law of
beauty--and it seems to me that to doubt this in the intellectual world
is to doubt the prevalence of order that exists in the natural--it is
certainly possible to ascertain whether a new production conforms, and
how far it conforms, to the universally accepted canons of art. To work
by this rule in literary criticism is to substitute something definite
for the individual tastes, moods, and local bias of the critic. It is
true that the vast body of that which we read is ephemeral, and justifies
its existence by its obvious use for information, recreation, and
entertainment. But to permit the impression to prevail that an
unenlightened popular preference for a book, however many may hold it, is
to be taken as a measure of its excellence, is like claiming that a
debased Austrian coin, because it circulates, is as good as a gold stater
of Alexander. The case is infinitely worse than this; for a slovenly
literature, unrebuked and uncorrected, begets slovenly thought and
debases our entire intellectual life.

It should be remembered, however, that the creative faculty in man has
not ceased, nor has puny man drawn all there is to be drawn out of the
eternal wisdom. We are probably only in the beginning of our evolution,
and something new may always be expected, that is, new and fresh
applications of universal law. The critic of literature needs to be in an
expectant and receptive frame of mind. Many critics approach a book with
hostile intent, and seem to fancy that their business is to look for what
is bad in it, and not for what is good. It seems to me that the first
duty of the critic is to try to understand the author, to give him a fair
chance by coming to his perusal with an open mind. Whatever book you
read, or sermon or lecture you hear, give yourself for the time
absolutely to its influence. This is just to the author, fair to the
public, and, above all, valuable to the intellectual sanity of the critic
himself. It is a very bad thing for the memory and the judgment to get
into a habit of reading carelessly or listening with distracted
attention. I know of nothing so harmful to the strength of the mind as
this habit. There is a valuable mental training in closely following a
discourse that is valueless in itself. After the reader has unreservedly
surrendered himself to the influence of the book, and let his mind
settle, as we say, and resume its own judgment, he is in a position to
look at it objectively and to compare it with other facts of life and of
literature dispassionately. He can then compare it as to form, substance,
tone, with the enduring literature that has come down to us from all the
ages. It is a phenomenon known to all of us that we may for the moment be
carried away by a book which upon cool reflection we find is false in
ethics and weak in construction. We find this because we have standards
outside ourselves.

I am not concerned to define here what is meant by literature. A great
mass of it has been accumulated in the progress of mankind, and,
fortunately for different wants and temperaments, it is as varied as the
various minds that produced it. The main thing to be considered is that
this great stream of thought is the highest achievement and the most
valuable possession of mankind. It is not only that literature is the
source of inspiration to youth and the solace of age, but it is what a
national language is to a nation, the highest expression of its being.
Whatever we acquire of science, of art, in discovery, in the application
of natural laws in industries, is an enlargement of our horizon, and a
contribution to the highest needs of man, his intellectual life. The
controversy between the claims of the practical life and the intellectual
is as idle as the so-called conflict between science and religion. And
the highest and final expression of this life of man, his thought, his
emotion, his feeling, his aspiration, whatever you choose to call it, is
in the enduring literature he creates. He certainly misses half his
opportunity on this planet who considers only the physical or what is
called the practical. He is a man only half developed. I can conceive no
more dreary existence than that of a man who is past the period of
business activity, and who cannot, for his entertainment, his happiness,
draw upon the great reservoir of literature. For what did I come into
this world if I am to be like a stake planted in a fence, and not like a
tree visited by all the winds of heaven and the birds of the air?

Those who concern themselves with the printed matter in books and
periodicals are often in despair over the volume of it, and their actual
inability to keep up with current literature. They need not worry. If all
that appears in books, under the pressure of publishers and the ambition
of experimenters in writing, were uniformly excellent, no reader would be
under any more obligation to read it than he is to see every individual
flower and blossoming shrub. Specimens of the varieties would suffice.
But a vast proportion of it is the product of immature minds, and of a
yearning for experience rather than a knowledge of life. There is no more
obligation on the part of the person who would be well informed and
cultivated to read all this than there is to read all the colored
incidents, personal gossip, accidents, and crimes repeated daily, with
sameness of effect, in the newspapers, some of the most widely circulated
of which are a composite of the police gazette and the comic almanac. A
great deal of the reading done is mere contagion, one form or another of
communicated grippe, and it is consoling and even surprising to know that
if you escape the run of it for a season, you have lost nothing
appreciable. Some people, it has been often said, make it a rule never to
read a book until it is from one to five years old, By this simple device
they escape the necessity of reading most of them, but this is only a
part of their gain. Considering the fact that the world is full of books
of the highest value for cultivation, entertainment, and information,
which the utmost leisure we can spare from other pressing avocations does
not suffice to give us knowledge of, it does seem to be little less than
a moral and intellectual sin to flounder about blindly in the flood of
new publications. I am speaking, of course, of the general mass of
readers, and not of the specialists who must follow their subjects with
ceaseless inquisition. But for most of us who belong to the still
comparatively few who, really read books, the main object of life is not
to keep up with the printing-press, any more than it is the main object
of sensible people to follow all the extremes and whims of fashion in
dress. When a fashion in literature has passed, we are surprised that it
should ever have seemed worth the trouble of studying or imitating. When
the special craze has passed, we notice another thing, and that is that
the author, not being of the first rank or of the second, has generally
contributed to the world all that he has to give in one book, and our
time has been wasted on his other books; and also that in a special kind
of writing in a given period--let us say, for example, the
historico-romantic--we perceive that it all has a common character, is
constructed on the same lines of adventure and with a prevailing type of
hero and heroine, according to the pattern set by the first one or two
stories of the sort which became popular, and we see its more or less
mechanical construction, and how easily it degenerates into commercial
book-making. Now while some of this writing has an individual flavor that
makes it entertaining and profitable in this way, we may be excused from
attempting to follow it all merely because it happens to be talked about
for the moment, and generally talked about in a very undiscriminating
manner. We need not in any company be ashamed if we have not read it all,
especially if we are ashamed that, considering the time at our disposal,
we have not made the acquaintance of the great and small masterpieces of
literature. It is said that the fashion of this world passeth away, and
so does the mere fashion in literature, the fashion that does not follow
the eternal law of beauty and symmetry, and contribute to the
intellectual and spiritual part of man. Otherwise it is only a waiting in
a material existence, like the lovers, in the words of the Arabian
story-teller, "till there came to them the Destroyer of Delights and the
Sunderer of Companies, he who layeth waste the palaces and peopleth the
tombs."

Without special anxiety, then, to keep pace with all the ephemeral in
literature, lest we should miss for the moment something that is
permanent, we can rest content in the vast accumulation of the tried and
genuine that the ages have given us. Anything that really belongs to
literature today we shall certainly find awaiting us tomorrow.

The better part of the life of man is in and by the imagination. This is
not generally believed, because it is not generally believed that the
chief end of man is the accumulation of intellectual and spiritual
material. Hence it is that what is called a practical education is set
above the mere enlargement and enrichment of the mind; and the possession
of the material is valued, and the intellectual life is undervalued. But
it should be remembered that the best preparation for a practical and
useful life is in the high development of the powers of the mind, and
that, commonly, by a culture that is not considered practical. The
notable fact about the group of great parliamentary orators in the days
of George III is the exhibition of their intellectual resources in the
entire world of letters, the classics, and ancient and modern history.
Yet all of them owed their development to a strictly classical training
in the schools. And most of them had not only the gift of the imagination
necessary to great eloquence, but also were so mentally disciplined by
the classics that they handled the practical questions upon which they
legislated with clearness and precision. The great masters of finance
were the classically trained orators William Pitt and Charles James Fox.

In fine, to return to our knowledge of the short life of fashions that
are for the moment striking, why should we waste precious time in chasing
meteoric appearances, when we can be warmed and invigorated in the
sunshine of the great literatures?





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