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´╗┐Title: A Plea for Old Cap Collier
Author: Cobb, Irvin S. (Irvin Shrewsbury), 1876-1944
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
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.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Plea for Old Cap Collier" ***

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A PLEA FOR OLD CAP COLLIER

By Irvin S. Cobb


To Will H. Hogg, Esquire



For a good many years now I have been carrying this idea round with me.
It was more or less of a loose and unformed idea, and it wouldn't jell.
What brought it round to the solidification point was this: Here the
other week, being half sick, I was laid up over Sunday in a small hotel
in a small seacoast town. I had read all the newspapers and all the
magazines I could get hold of. The local bookstore, of course, was
closed. They won't let the oysters stay open on Sunday in that town. The
only literature my fellow guests seemed interested in was mailorder tabs
and price currents.

Finally, when despair was about to claim me for her own, I ran across an
ancient Fifth Reader, all tattered and stained and having that smell of
age which is common to old books and old sheep. I took it up to bed with
me, and I read it through from cover to cover. Long before I was through
the very idea which for so long had been sloshing round inside of my
head--this idea which, as one might say, had been aged in the wood--took
shape. Then and there I decided that the very first chance I had I would
sit me down and write a plea for Old Cap Collier.

In my youth I was spanked freely and frequently for doing many different
things that were forbidden, and also for doing the same thing many
different times and getting caught doing it. That, of course, was before
the Boy Scout movement had come along to show how easily and how sanely
a boy's natural restlessness and a boy's natural love for adventure may
be directed into helpful channels; that was when nearly everything a
normal, active boy craved to do was wrong and, therefore, held to be a
spankable offense.

This was a general rule in our town. It did not especially apply to any
particular household, but it applied practically to all the households
with which I was in any way familiar. It was a community where an
old-fashioned brand of applied theology was most strictly applied.
Heaven was a place which went unanimously Democratic every fall, because
all the Republicans had gone elsewhere. Hell was a place full of red-hot
coals and clinkered sinners and unbaptized babies and a smell like
somebody cooking ham, with a deputy devil coming in of a morning with an
asbestos napkin draped over his arm and flicking a fireproof cockroach
off the table cloth and leaning across the back of Satan's chair and
saying: "Good mornin', boss. How're you going to have your lost souls
this mornin'--fried on one side or turned over?" Sunday was three weeks
long, and longer than that if it rained. About all a fellow could do
after he'd come back from Sunday school was to sit round with his feet
cramped into the shoes and stockings which he never wore on week days
and with the rest of him incased in starchy, uncomfortable dress-up
clothes--just sit round and sit round and itch. You couldn't scratch
hard either. It was sinful to scratch audibly and with good, broad, free
strokes, which is the only satisfactory way to scratch. In our town they
didn't spend Sunday; they kept the Sabbath, which is a very different
thing.

Looking back on my juvenile years it seems to me that, generally
speaking, when spanked I deserved it. But always there were two
punishable things against which--being disciplined--my youthful spirit
revolted with a sort of inarticulate sense of injustice. One was for
violation of the Sunday code, which struck me as wrong--the code, I
mean, not the violation--without knowing exactly why it was wrong; and
the other, repeated times without number, was when I had been caught
reading nickul libruries, erroneously referred to by our elders as dime
novels.

I read them at every chance; so did every normal boy of my acquaintance.
We traded lesser treasures for them; we swapped them on the basis of
two old volumes for one new one; we maintained a clandestine
circulating-library system which had its branch offices in every stable
loft in our part of town. The more daring among us read them in school
behind the shelter of an open geography propped up on the desk.

Shall you ever forget the horror of the moment when, carried away on the
wings of adventure with Nick Carter or Big-Foot Wallace or Frank Reade
or bully Old Cap, you forgot to flash occasional glances of cautious
inquiry forward in order to make sure the teacher was where she properly
should be, at her desk up in front, and read on and on until that subtle
sixth sense which comes to you when a lot of people begin staring at
you warned you something was amiss, and you looked up and round you and
found yourself all surrounded by a ring of cruel, gloating eyes?

I say cruel advisedly, because up to a certain age children are
naturally more cruel than tigers. Civilization has provided them with
tools, as it were, for practicing cruelty, whereas the tiger must rely
only on his teeth and his bare claws. So you looked round, feeling that
the shadow of an impending doom encompassed you, and then you realized
that for no telling how long the teacher had been standing just behind
you, reading over your shoulder.

And at home were you caught in the act of reading them, or--what from
the parental standpoint was almost as bad--in the act of harboring them?
I was. Housecleaning times, when they found them hidden under furniture
or tucked away on the back shelves of pantry closets, I was paddled
until I had the feelings of a slice of hot, buttered toast somewhat
scorched on the under side. And each time, having been paddled, I was
admonished that boys who read dime novels--only they weren't dime novels
at all but cost uniformly five cents a copy--always came to a bad
end, growing up to be criminals or Republicans or something equally
abhorrent. And I was urged to read books which would help me to shape
my career in a proper course. Such books were put into my hands, and
I loathed them. I know now why when I grew up my gorge rose and my
appetite turned against so-called classics. Their style was so much like
the style of the books which older people wanted me to read when I was
in my early teens.

Such were the specious statements advanced by the oldsters. And we
had no reply for their argument, or if we had one could not find the
language in which to couch it. Besides there was another and a deeper
reason. A boy, being what he is, the most sensitive and the most
secretive of living creatures regarding his innermost emotions, rarely
does bare his real thoughts to his elders, for they, alas, are not young
enough to have a fellow feeling, and they are too old and they know too
much to be really wise.

What we might have answered, had we had the verbal facility and had we
not feared further painful corporeal measures for talking back--or what
was worse, ridicule--was that reading Old Cap Collier never yet sent
a boy to a bad end. I never heard of a boy who ran away from home and
really made a go of it who was actuated at the start by the nickul
librury. Burning with a sense of injustice, filled up with the
realization that we were not appreciated at home, we often talked of
running away and going out West to fight Indians, but we never did. I
remember once two of us started for the Far West, and got nearly as far
as Oak Grove Cemetery, when--the dusk of evening impending--we decided
to turn back and give our parents just one more chance to understand us.

What, also, we might have pointed out was that in a five-cent story
the villain was absolutely sure of receiving suitable and adequate
punishment for his misdeeds. Right then and there, on the spot, he
got his. And the heroine was always so pluperfectly pure. And the hero
always was a hero to his finger tips, never doing anything unmanly or
wrong or cowardly, and always using the most respectful language in
the presence of the opposite sex. There was never any sex problem in
a nickul librury. There were never any smutty words or questionable
phrases. If a villain said "Curse you!" he was going pretty far. Any one
of us might whet up our natural instincts for cruelty on Fore's Book
of Martyrs, or read of all manner of unmentionable horrors in the Old
Testament, but except surreptitiously we couldn't walk with Nick Carter,
whose motives were ever pure and who never used the naughty word even in
the passion of the death grapple with the top-booted forces of sinister
evil.

We might have told our parents, had we had the words in which to state
the case and they but the patience to listen, that in a nickul librury
there was logic and the thrill of swift action and the sharp spice
of adventure. There, invariably virtue was rewarded and villainy
confounded; there, inevitably was the final triumph for law and for
justice and for the right; there embalmed in one thin paper volume, was
all that Sandford and Merton lacked; all that the Rollo books never
had. We might have told them that though the Leatherstocking Tales and
Robinson Crusoe and Two Years Before the Mast and Ivanhoe were all well
enough in their way, the trouble with them was that they mainly were so
long-winded. It took so much time to get to where the first punch
was, whereas Ned Buntline or Col. Prentiss Ingraham would hand you an
exciting jolt on the very first page, and sometimes in the very first
paragraph.

You take J. Fenimore Cooper now. He meant well and he had ideas, but his
Indians were so everlastingly slow about getting under way with their
scalping operations! Chapter after chapter there was so much fashionable
and difficult language that the plot was smothered. You couldn't see the
woods for the trees, But it was the accidental finding of an ancient and
reminiscent volume one Sunday in a little hotel which gave me the cue to
what really made us such confirmed rebels against constituted authority,
in a literary way of speaking. The thing which inspired us with hatred
for the so-called juvenile classic was a thing which struck deeper even
than the sentiments I have been trying to describe.

The basic reason, the underlying motive, lay in the fact that in the
schoolbooks of our adolescence, and notably in the school readers,
our young mentalities were fed forcibly on a pap which affronted our
intelligence at the same time that it cloyed our adolescent palates.
It was not altogether the lack of action; it was more the lack of plain
common sense in the literary spoon victuals which they ladled into us at
school that caused our youthful souls to revolt. In the final analysis
it was this more than any other cause which sent us up to the haymow for
delicious, forbidden hours in the company of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill
Hickok.

Midway of the old dog-eared reader which I picked up that day I came
across a typical example of the sort of stuff I mean. I hadn't seen
it before in twenty-five years; but now, seeing it, I remembered it
as clearly almost as though it had been the week before instead of a
quarter of a century before when for the first time it had been brought
to my attention. It was a piece entitled, The Shipwreck, and it began as
follows:

  In the winter of 1824 Lieutenant G-----, of the United States
  Navy, with his beautiful wife and child, embarked in a packet
  at Norfolk bound to South Carolina.

So far so good. At least, here is a direct beginning. A family group
is going somewhere. There is an implied promise that before they have
traveled very far something of interest to the reader will happen to
them. Sure enough, the packet runs into a storm and founders. As she
is going down Lieutenant G----- puts his wife and baby into a lifeboat
manned by sailors, and then--there being no room for him in the
lifeboat--he remains behind upon the deck of the sinking vessel, while
the lifeboat puts off for shore. A giant wave overturns the burdened
cockleshell and he sees its passengers engulfed in the waters. Up to
this point the chronicle has been what a chronicle should be. Perhaps
the phraseology has been a trifle toploftical, and there are a few words
in it long enough to run as serials, yet at any rate we are getting an
effect in drama. But bear with me while I quote the next paragraph, just
as I copied it down:

  The wretched husband saw but too distinctly the destruction of
  all he held dear.  But here alas and forever were shut off
  from him all sublunary prospects.  He fell upon the deck--
  powerless, senseless, a corpse--the victim of a sublime
  sensibility!

There's language for you! How different it is from that historic passage
when the crack of Little Sure Shot's rifle rang out and another Redskin
bit the dust. Nothing is said there about anybody having his sublunary
prospects shut off; nothing about the Redskin becoming the victim of a
sublime sensibility. In fifteen graphic words and in one sentence Little
Sure Shot croaked him, and then with bated breath you moved on to the
next paragraph, sure of finding in it yet more attractive casualties
snappily narrated.

No, sir! In the nickul librury the author did not waste his time
and yours telling you that an individual on becoming a corpse would
simultaneously become powerless and senseless. He credited your
intelligence for something. For contrast, take the immortal work
entitled Deadwood Dick of Deadwood; or, The Picked Party; by Edward
L. Wheeler, a copy of which has just come to my attention again nearly
thirty years after the time of my first reading of it. Consider the
opening paragraph:

  The sun was just kissing the mountain tops that frowned down
  upon Billy-Goat Gulch, and in the aforesaid mighty seam in the
  face of mighty Nature the shadows of a Warm June night were
  gathering rapidly.

  The birds had mostly hushed their songs and flown to their
  nests in the dismal lonely pines, and only the tuneful twang
  of a well-played banjo aroused the brooding quiet, save it be
  the shrill, croaking screams of a crow, perched upon the top
  of a dead pine, which rose from the nearly perpendicular
  mountain side that retreated in the ascending from the gulch
  bottom.

That, as I recall, was a powerfully long bit of description for a nickul
librury, and having got it out of his system Mr. Wheeler wasted no
more valuable space on the scenery. From this point on he gave you
action--action with reason behind it and logic to it and the guaranty of
a proper climax and a satisfactory conclusion to follow. Deadwood Dick
marched many a flower-strewn mile through my young life, but to the best
of my recollection he never shut off anybody's sublunary prospects. If
a party deserved killing Deadwood just naturally up and killed him,
and the historian told about it in graphic yet straightforward terms of
speech; and that was all there was to it, and that was all there should
have been to it.

At the risk of being termed an iconoclast and a smasher of the pure
high ideals of the olden days, I propose to undertake to show that
practically all of the preposterous asses and the impossible idiots of
literature found their way into the school readers of my generation.
With the passage of years there may have been some reform in this
direction, but I dare affirm, without having positive knowledge of the
facts, that a majority of these half-wits still are being featured in
the grammar-grade literature of the present time. The authors of school
readers, even modern school readers, surely are no smarter than the run
of grown-ups even, say, as you and as I; and we blindly go on holding
up as examples before the eyes of the young of the period the characters
and the acts of certain popular figures of poetry and prose who--did but
we give them the acid test of reason--would reveal themselves either
as incurable idiots, or else as figures in scenes and incidents which
physically could never have occurred.

You remember, don't you, the schoolbook classic of the noble lad who by
reason of his neat dress, and by his use in the most casual conversation
of the sort of language which the late Mr. Henry James used when he was
writing his very Jamesiest, secured a job as a trusted messenger in the
large city store or in the city's large store, if we are going to be
purists about it, as the boy in question undoubtedly was?

It seems that he had supported his widowed mother and a large family
of brothers and sisters by shoveling snow and, I think, laying brick or
something of that technical nature. After this lapse of years I won't
be sure about the bricklaying, but at any rate, work was slack in his
regular line, and so he went to the proprietor of this vast retail
establishment and procured a responsible position on the strength of
his easy and graceful personal address and his employment of some of the
most stylish adjectives in the dictionary. At this time he was nearly
seven years old--yes, sir, actually nearly seven. We have the word of
the schoolbook for it. We should have had a second chapter on this boy.
Probably at nine he was being considered for president of Yale--no,
Harvard. He would know too much to be president of Yale.

Then there was the familiar instance of the Spartan youth who having
stolen a fox and hidden it inside his robe calmly stood up and let the
animal gnaw his vitals rather than be caught with it in his possession.
But, why? I ask you, why? What was the good of it all? What object was
served? To begin with, the boy had absconded with somebody else's fox,
or with somebody's else fox, which is undoubtedly the way a compiler of
school readers would phrase it. This, right at the beginning, makes
the morality of the transaction highly dubious. In the second place, he
showed poor taste. If he was going to swipe something, why should he not
have swiped a chicken or something else of practical value?

We waive that point, though, and come to the lack of discretion shown
by the fox. He starts eating his way out through the boy, a messy and
difficult procedure, when merely by biting an aperture in the tunic he
could have emerged by the front way with ease and dispatch. And what is
the final upshot of it all? The boy falls dead, with a large unsightly
gap in the middle of him. Probably, too, he was a boy whose parents
were raising him for their own purposes. As it is, all gnawed up in
this fashion and deceased besides, he loses his attractions for everyone
except the undertaker. The fox presumably has an attack of acute
indigestion. And there you are! Compare the moral of this with the moral
of any one of the Old Cap Collier series, where virtue comes into its
own and sanity is prevalent throughout and vice gets what it deserves,
and all.

In McGuffey's Third Reader, I think it was, occurred that story about
the small boy who lived in Holland among the dikes and dams, and one
evening he went across the country to carry a few illustrated post cards
or some equally suitable gift to a poor blind man, and on his way back
home in the twilight he discovered a leak in the sea wall. If he
went for help the breach might widen while he was gone and the whole
structure give way, and then the sea would come roaring in, carrying
death and destruction and windmills and wooden shoes and pineapple
cheeses on its crest. At least, this is the inference one gathers from
reading Mr. McGuffey's account of the affair.

So what does the quick-witted youngster do? He shoves his little arm
in the crevice on the inner side, where already the water is trickling
through, thus blocking the leak. All night long he stands there, one
small, half-frozen Dutch boy holding back the entire North Atlantic.
Not until centuries later, when Judge Alton B. Parker runs for president
against Colonel Roosevelt and is defeated practically by acclamation
is there to be presented so historic and so magnificent an example of a
contest against tremendous odds. In the morning a peasant, going out to
mow the tulip beds, finds the little fellow crouched at the foot of the
dike and inquires what ails him. The lad, raising his weary head--but
wait, I shall quote the exact language of the book:

  "I am hindering the sea from running in," was the simple reply
  of the child.

Simple? I'll say it is! Positively nothing could be simpler unless it be
the stark simplicity of the mind of an author who figures that when the
Atlantic Ocean starts boring its way through a crack in a sea wall you
can stop it by plugging the hole on the inner side of the sea wall with
a small boy's arm. Ned Buntline may never have enjoyed the vogue among
parents and teachers that Mr. McGuffey enjoyed, but I'll say this
for him--he knew more about the laws of hydraulics than McGuffey ever
dreamed.

And there was Peter Hurdle, the ragged lad who engaged in a long but
tiresome conversation with the philanthropic and inquisitive Mr. Lenox,
during the course of which it developed that Peter didn't want anything.
When it came on to storm he got under a tree. When he was hungry he ate
a raw turnip. Raw turnips, it would appear, grew all the year round in
the fields of the favored land where Peter resided. If the chill winds
of autumn blew in through one of the holes in Peter's trousers they blew
right out again through another hole. And he didn't care to accept the
dime which Mr. Lenox in an excess of generosity offered him, because,
it seemed, he already had a dime. When it came to being plumb contented
there probably never was a soul on this earth that was the equal of
Master Hurdle. He even was satisfied with his name which I would regard
as the ultimate test.

Likewise, there was the case of Hugh Idle and Mr. Toil. Perhaps you
recall that moving story? Hugh tries to dodge work; wherever he goes he
finds Mr. Toil in one guise or another but always with the same harsh
voice and the same frowning eyes, bossing some job in a manner which
would cost him his boss-ship right off the reel in these times when
union labor is so touchy. And what is the moral to be drawn from this
narrative? I know that all my life I have been trying to get away from
work, feeling that I was intended for leisure, though never finding
time somehow to take it up seriously. But what was the use of trying to
discourage me from this agreeable idea back yonder in the formulative
period of my earlier years?

In Harper's Fourth Reader, edition of 1888, I found an article entitled
The Difference Between the Plants and Animals. It takes up several pages
and includes some of the fanciest language the senior Mr. Harper could
disinter from the Unabridged. In my own case--and I think I was no more
observant than the average urchin of my age--I can scarcely remember
a time when I could not readily determine certain basic distinctions
between such plants and such animals as a child is likely to encounter
in the temperate parts of North America.

While emerging from infancy some of my contemporaries may have fallen
into the error of the little boy who came into the house with a haunted
look in his eye and asked his mother if mulberries had six legs apiece
and ran round in the dust of the road, and when she told him that such
was not the case with mulberries he said: "Then, mother, I feel that I
have made a mistake."

To the best of my recollection, I never made this mistake, or at least
if I did I am sure I made no inquiry afterward which might tend further
to increase my doubts; and in any event I am sure that by the time I
was old enough to stumble over Mr. Harper's favorite big words I was old
enough to tell the difference between an ordinary animal--say, a house
cat--and any one of the commoner forms of plant life, such as, for
example, the scaly-bark hickory tree, practically at a glance. I'll add
this too: Nick Carter never wasted any of the golden moments which
he and I spent together in elucidating for me the radical points of
difference between the plants and the animals.

In the range of poetry selected by the compilers of the readers for my
especial benefit as I progressed onward from the primary class into
the grammar grades I find on examination of these earlier American
authorities an even greater array of chuckleheads than appear in the
prose divisions. I shall pass over the celebrated instance--as read by
us in class in a loud tone of voice and without halt for inflection or
the taking of breath--of the Turk who at midnight in his guarded tent
was dreaming of the hour when Greece her knees in suppliance bent would
tremble at his power. I remember how vaguely I used to wonder who it was
that was going to grease her knees and why she should feel called upon
to have them greased at all. Also, I shall pass over the instance of
Abou Ben Adhem, whose name led all the rest in the golden book in which
the angel was writing. Why shouldn't it have led all the rest? A man
whose front name begins with Ab, whose middle initial is B, and whose
last name begins with Ad will be found leading all the rest in any city
directory or any telephone list anywhere. Alphabetically organized as he
was, Mr. Adhem just naturally had to lead; and yet for hours on end my
teaches consumed her energies and mine in a more or less unsuccessful
effort to cause me to memorize the details as set forth by Mr. Leigh
Hunt.

In three separate schoolbooks, each the work of a different compilator,
I discover Sir Walter Scott's poetic contribution touching on Young
Lochinvar--Young Lochinvar who came out of the West, the same as the
Plumb plan subsequently came, and the Hiram Johnson presidential boom
and the initiative and the referendum and the I. W. W. Even in those
ancient times the West appears to have been a favorite place for
upsetting things to come from; so I can't take issue with Sir Walter
there. But I do take issue with him where he says:

  So light to the croupe the fair lady he swung,
  So light to the saddle before her he sprung!

Even in childhood's hour I am sure I must have questioned the ability of
Young Lochinvar to perform this achievement, for I was born and brought
up in a horseback-riding country. Now in the light of yet fuller
experience I wish Sir Walter were alive to-day so I might argue the
question out with him.

Let us consider the statement on its physical merits solely. Here
we have Young Lochinvar swinging the lady to the croupe, and then he
springs to the saddle in front of her. Now to do this he must either
take a long running start and leapfrog clear over the lady's head as
she sits there, and land accurately in the saddle, which is scarcely a
proper thing to do to any lady, aside from the difficulty of springing
ten or fifteen feet into the air and coming down, crotched out, on a
given spot, or else he must contribute a feat in contortion the like of
which has never been duplicated since.

To be brutally frank about it, the thing just naturally is not possible.
I don't care if Young Lochinvar was as limber as a yard of fresh
tripe--and he certainly did shake a lithesome calf in the measures of
the dance if Sir Walter, in an earlier stanza, is to be credited with
veracity. Even so, I deny that he could have done that croupe trick.
There isn't a croupier at Monte Carlo who could have done it. Buffalo
Bill couldn't have done it. Ned Buntline wouldn't have had Buffalo Bill
trying to do it. Doug Fairbanks couldn't do it. I couldn't do it myself.

Skipping over Robert Southey's tiresome redundancy in spending so much
of his time and mine, when I was in the Fifth Reader stage, in telling
how the waters came down at Ladore when it was a petrified cinch that
they, being waters, would have to come down, anyhow, I would next direct
your attention to two of the foremost idiots in all the realm of poesy;
one a young idiot and one an older idiot, probably with whiskers, but
both embalmed in verse, and both, mind you, stuck into every orthodox
reader to be glorified before the eyes of childhood. I refer to that
juvenile champion among idiots, the boy who stood on the burning deck,
and to the ship's captain in the poem called The Tempest. Let us briefly
consider the given facts as regards the latter: It was winter and it was
midnight and a storm was on the deep, and the passengers were huddled in
the cabin and not a soul would dare to sleep, and they were shuddering
there in silence--one gathers the silence was so deep you could hear
them shuddering--and the stoutest held his breath, which is considerable
feat, as I can testify, because the stouter a fellow gets the harder it
is for him to hold his breath for any considerable period of time. Very
well, then, this is the condition of affairs. If ever there was a time
when those in authority should avoid spreading alarm this was the time.
By all the traditions of the maritime service it devolved upon the
skipper to remain calm, cool and collected. But what does the poet
reveal to a lot of trusting school children?

  "We are lost!" the captain shouted,
  As he staggered down the stair.

He didn't whisper it; he didn't tell it to a friend in confidence; he
bellowed it out at the top of his voice so all the passengers could hear
him. The only possible excuse which can be offered for that captain's
behavior is that his staggering was due not to the motion of the ship
but to alcoholic stimulant. Could you imagine Little Sure Shot, the
Terror of the Pawnees, drunk or sober, doing an asinine thing like that?
Not in ten thousand years, you couldn't. But then we must remember
that Little Sure Shot, being a moral dime-novel hero, never indulged in
alcoholic beverages under any circumstances.

The boy who stood on the burning deck has been played up as an example
of youthful heroism for the benefit of the young of our race ever since
Mrs. Felicia Dorothea Hemans set him down in black and white. I deny
that he was heroic. I insist that he merely was feeble-minded. Let us
give this youth the careful once-over: The scene is the Battle of the
Nile. The time is August, 1798. When the action of the piece begins the
boy stands on the burning deck whence all but him had fled. You see,
everyone else aboard had had sense enough to beat it, but he stuck
because his father had posted him there. There was no good purpose
he might serve by sticking, except to furnish added material for the
poetess, but like the leather-headed young imbecile that he was he stood
there with his feet getting warmer all the time, while the flame that
lit the battle's wreck shone round him o'er the dead. After which:

  There came a burst of thunder sound;
  The boy--oh! where was he?
  Ask of the winds, that far around
  With fragments strewed the sea--

Ask the waves. Ask the fragments. Ask Mrs. Hemans. Or, to save time,
inquire of me.

He has become totally extinct. He is no more and he never was very much.
Still we need not worry. Mentally he must have been from the very outset
a liability rather than an asset. Had he lived, undoubtedly he would
have wound up in a home for the feeble-minded. It is better so, as it
is--better that he should be spread about over the surface of the ocean
in a broad general way, thus saving all the expense and trouble of
gathering him up and burying him and putting a tombstone over him. He
was one of the incurables.

Once upon a time, writing a little piece on another subject, I advanced
the claim that the champion half-wit of all poetic anthology was Sweet
Alice, who, as described by Mr. English, wept with delight when you gave
her a smile, and trembled in fear at your frown. This of course was long
before Prohibition came in. These times there are many ready to weep
with delight when you offer to give them a smile; but in Mr. English's
time and Alice's there were plenty of saloons handy. I remarked, what an
awful kill-joy Alice must have been, weeping in a disconcerting manner
when somebody smiled in her direction and trembling violently should
anybody so much as merely knit his brow!

But when I gave Alice first place in the list I acted too hastily.
Second thought should have informed me that undeniably the post of
honor belonged to the central figure of Mr. Henry W. Longfellow's
poem, Excelsior. I ran across it--Excelsior, I mean--in three different
readers the other day when I was compiling some of the data for this
treatise. Naturally it would be featured in all three. It wouldn't do to
leave Mr. Longfellow's hero out of a volume in which space was given to
such lesser village idiots as Casabianca and the Spartan youth. Let us
take up this sad case verse by verse:

  The shades of night were falling fast,
  As through an Alpine village passed
  A youth, who bore, 'mid snow and ice,
  A banner with the strange device,
  Excelsior!

There we get an accurate pen picture of his young man's deplorable
state. He is climbing a mountain in the dead of winter. It is made plain
later on that he is a stranger in the neighborhood, consequently it is
fair to assume that the mountain in question is one he has never climbed
before. Nobody hired him to climb any mountain; he isn't climbing it on
a bet or because somebody dared him to climb one. He is not dressed
for mountain climbing. Apparently he is wearing the costume in which
he escaped from the institution where he had been an inmate--a costume
consisting simply of low stockings, sandals and a kind of flowing woolen
nightshirt, cut short to begin with and badly shrunken in the wash. He
has on no rubber boots, no sweater, not even a pair of ear muffs. He
also is bare-headed. Well, any time the wearing of hats went out of
fashion he could have had no use for his head, anyhow.

I grant you that in the poem Mr. Longfellow does not go into details
regarding the patient's garb. I am going by the illustration in the
reader. The original Mr. McGuffey was very strong for illustrations. He
stuck them in everywhere in his readers, whether they matched the themes
or not. Being as fond of pictures as he undoubtedly was, it seems almost
a pity he did not marry the tattooed lady in a circus and then when he
got tired of studying her pictorially on one side he could ask her
to turn around and let him see what she had to say on the other side.
Perhaps he did. I never gleaned much regarding the family history of the
McGuffeys.

Be that as it may, the wardrobe is entirely unsuited for the rigors of
the climate in Switzerland in winter time. Symptomatically it marks the
wearer as a person who is mentally lacking. He needs a keeper almost as
badly as he needs some heavy underwear. But this isn't the worst of
it. Take the banner. It bears the single word "Excelsior." The youth is
going through a strange town late in the evening in his nightie, and
it winter time, carrying a banner advertising a shredded wood-fiber
commodity which won't be invented until a hundred and fifty years after
he is dead!

Can you beat it? You can't even tie it.

Let us look further into the matter:

  His brow was sad; his eyes beneath
  Flashed like a falchion from its sheath,
  And like a silver clarion rung
  The accents of that unknown tongue,
  Excelsior!

Get it, don't you? Even his features fail to jibe. His brow is
corrugated with grief, but the flashing of the eye denotes a lack of
intellectual coherence which any alienist would diagnose at a glance as
evidence of total dementia, even were not confirmatory proof offered
by his action in huckstering for a product which doesn't exist, in a
language which no one present can understand. The most delirious typhoid
fever patient you ever saw would know better than that.

To continue:

  In happy homes he saw the light
  Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
  Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
  And from his lips escaped a groan,
  Excelsior!

The last line gives him away still more completely. He is groaning now,
where a moment before he was clarioning. A bit later, with one of those
shifts characteristic of the mentally unbalanced, his mood changes and
again he is shouting. He's worse than a cuckoo clock, that boy.

  "Try not the Pass," the old man said;
  "Dark lowers the tempest overhead,
  The roaring torrent is deep and wide!"
  And loud that clarion voice replied,
  Excelsior!

  "Oh stay," the maiden said, "and rest
  Thy weary head upon this breast!"
  A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
  But still he answered, with a sigh,
  Excelsior!

  "Beware the pine-tree's withered branch!
  Beware the awful avalanche!"
  This was the peasant's last Good night;
  A voice replied, far up the height,
  Excelsior!

These three verses round out the picture. The venerable citizen warns
him against the Pass; pass privileges up that mountain have all been
suspended. A kind-hearted maiden tenders hospitalities of a most
generous nature, considering that she never saw the young man before.
Some people might even go so far as to say that she should have been
ashamed of herself; others, that Mr. Longfellow, in giving her away,
was guilty of an indelicacy, to say the least of it. Possibly she was
practicing up to qualify for membership on the reception committee the
next time the visiting firemen came to her town or when there was going
to be an Elks' reunion; so I for one shall not question her motives.
She was hospitable--let it go at that. The peasant couples with his
good-night message a reference to the danger of falling pine wood and
also avalanches, which have never been pleasant things to meet up with
when one is traveling on a mountain in an opposite direction.

All about him firelights are gleaming, happy families are gathered
before the hearthstone, and through the windows the evening yodel may be
heard percolating pleasantly. There is every inducement for the youth
to drop in and rest his poor, tired, foolish face and hands and thaw
out his knee joints and give the maiden a chance to make good on
that proposition of hers. But no, high up above timber line he has an
engagement with himself and Mr. Longfellow to be frozen as stiff as a
dried herring; and so, now groaning, now with his eye flashing, now with
a tear--undoubtedly a frozen tear--standing in the eye, now clarioning,
now sighing, onward and upward he goes:

  At break of day, as heavenward
  The pious monks of Saint Bernard
  Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,
  A voice cried through the startled air,
  Excelsior!

I'll say this much for him: He certainly is hard to kill. He can stay
out all night in those clothes, with the thermometer below zero, and
at dawn still be able to chirp the only word that is left in his
vocabulary. He can't last forever though. There has to be a finish to
this lamentable fiasco sometime. We get it:

  A traveler, by the faithful hound,
  Half buried in the snow was found,
  Still grasping in his hand of ice
  That banner with the strange device,
  Excelsior!

  There in the twilight cold and gray,
  Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay,
  And from the sky serene and far,
  A voice fell, like a falling star,
  Excelsior!

The meteoric voice said "Excelsior!" It should have said "Bonehead!" It
would have said it, too, if Ned Buntline had been handling the subject,
for he had a sense of verities, had Ned. Probably that was one of the
reasons why they barred his works out of all the schoolbooks.

With the passage of years I rather imagine that Lieutenant G-----, of
the United States Navy, who went to so much trouble and took so many
needless pains in order to become a corpse may have vanished from
the school readers. I admit I failed to find him in any of the modern
editions through which I glanced, but I am able to report, as a
result of my researches, that the well-known croupe specialist, Young
Lochinvar, is still there and so likewise is Casabianca, the total loss;
and as I said before, I ran across Excelsior three times.

Just here the other day, when I was preparing the material for this
little book, I happened upon an advertisement in a New York paper of an
auction sale of a collection of so-called dime novels, dating back to
the old Beadle's Boy's Library in the early eighties and coming on
down through the years into the generation when Nick and Old Cap were
succeeding some of the earlier favorites. I read off a few of the
leading titles upon the list:

Bronze Jack, the California Thoroughbred; or, The Lost City of the
Basaltic Buttes. A strange story of a desperate adventure after fortune
in the weird, wild Apache land. By Albert W. Aiken.

Tombstone Dick, the Train Pilot; or, The Traitor's Trail. A story of the
Arizona Wilds. By Ned Buntline.

The Tarantula of Taos; or, Giant George's Revenge. A tale of Sardine-box
City, Arizona. By Major Sam S. (Buckskin Sam) Hall.

Redtop Rube, the Vigilante Prince; or, The Black Regulators of Arizona.
By Major E. L. St. Vrain.

Old Grizzly Adams, the Bear Tamer; or, The Monarch of the Mountains.

Deadly Eye and the Prairie Rover.

Arizona Joe, the Boy Pard of Texas Jack.

Pacific Pete, the Prince of the Revolver.

Kit Carson, King of the Guides.

Leadville Nick, the Boy Sport; or, The Mad Miner's Revenge.

Lighthouse Lige; or, The Firebrand of the Everglades.

The Desperate Dozen; or, The Fair Fiend.

Nighthawk Kit; or, The Daughter of the Ranch.

Joaquin, the Saddle King.

Mustang Sam, the Wild Rider of the Plains.

Adventures of Wild Bill, the Pistol Prince, from Youth to his Death by
Assassination. Deeds of Daring, Adventure and Thrilling Incidents in the
Life of J. B. Hickok, known to the World as Wild Bill.

These titles and many another did I read, and reading them my mind slid
back along a groove in my brain to a certain stable loft in a certain
Kentucky town, and I said to myself that if I had a boy--say, about
twelve or fourteen years old--I would go to this auction and bid in
these books and I would back them up and reenforce them with some of
the best of the collected works of Nick Carter and Cap Collier and
Nick Carter, Jr., and Frank Reade, and I would buy, if I could find it
anywhere, a certain paper-backed volume dealing with the life of the
James boys--not Henry and William, but Jesse and Frank--which I read
ever so long ago; and I would confer the whole lot of them upon that
offspring of mine and I would say to him:

"Here, my son, is something for you; a rare and precious gift. Read
these volumes openly. Never mind the crude style in which most of them
are written. It can't be any worse than the stilted and artificial style
in which your school reader is written; and, anyhow, if you are ever
going to be a writer, style is a thing which you laboriously must learn,
and then having acquired added wisdom you will forget part of it and
chuck the rest of it out of the window and acquire a style of your own,
which merely is another way of saying that if you have good taste to
start with you will have what is called style in writing, and if you
haven't that sense of good taste you won't have a style and nothing can
give it to you.

"Read them for the thrills that are in them. Read them, remembering
that if this country had not had a pioneer breed of Buckskin Sams and
Deadwood Dicks we should have had no native school of dime novelists.
Read them for their brisk and stirring movement; for the spirit of
outdoor adventure and life which crowds them; for their swift but
logical processions of sequences; for the phases of pioneer Americanism
they rawly but graphically portray, and for their moral values. Read
them along with your Coopers and your Ivanhoe and your Mayne Reids. Read
them through, and perhaps some day, if fortune is kinder to you than
ever it was to your father, with a background behind you and a vision
before you, you may be inspired to sit down and write a dime novel of
your own almost good enough to be worthy of mention in the same breath
with the two greatest adventure stories--dollar-sized dime novels is
what they really are--that ever were written; written, both of them, by
sure-enough writing men, who, I'm sure, must have based their moods and
their modes upon the memories of the dime novels which they, they in
their turn, read when they were boys of your age.

"I refer, my son, to a book called Huckleberry Finn, and to a book
called Treasure Island."





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