Part 1 out of 5
Transcribed from the 1873 James R. Osgood and Company edition by
David Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org
THE AUTOCRAT OF THE BREAKFAST-TABLE
THE AUTOCRAT'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY
The interruption referred to in the first sentence of the first of
these papers was just a quarter of a century in duration.
Two articles entitled "The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table" will be
found in the "New England Magazine," formerly published in Boston
by J. T. and E. Buckingham. The date of the first of these
articles is November 1831, and that of the second February 1832.
When "The Atlantic Monthly" was begun, twenty-five years
afterwards, and the author was asked to write for it, the
recollection of these crude products of his uncombed literary
boyhood suggested the thought that it would be a curious experiment
to shake the same bough again, and see if the ripe fruit were
better or worse than the early windfalls.
So began this series of papers, which naturally brings those
earlier attempts to my own notice and that of some few friends who
were idle enough to read them at the time of their publication.
The man is father to the boy that was, and I am my own son, as it
seems to me, in those papers of the New England Magazine. If I
find it hard to pardon the boy's faults, others would find it
harder. They will not, therefore, be reprinted here, nor as I
But a sentence or two from them will perhaps bear reproducing, and
with these I trust the gentle reader, if that kind being still
breathes, will be contented.
- "It is a capital plan to carry a tablet with you, and, when you
find yourself felicitous, take notes of your own conversation." -
- "When I feel inclined to read poetry I take down my Dictionary.
The poetry of words is quite as beautiful as that of sentences.
The author may arrange the gems effectively, but their fhape and
luftre have been given by the attrition of ages. Bring me the
fineft fimile from the whole range of imaginative writing, and I
will fhow you a fingle word which conveys a more profound, a more
accurate, and a more eloquent analogy." -
- "Once on a time, a notion was ftarted, that if all the people in
the world would fhout at once, it might be heard in the moon. So
the projectors agreed it fhould be done in juft ten years. Some
thousand fhip-loads of chronometers were diftributed to the
selectmen and other great folks of all the different nations. For
a year beforehand, nothing else was talked about but the awful
noise that was to be made on the great occafion. When the time
came, everybody had their ears so wide open, to hear the universal
ejaculation of BOO,--the word agreed upon,--that nobody spoke
except a deaf man in one of the Fejee Islands, and a woman in
Pekin, so that the world was never so ftill fince the creation." -
There was nothing better than these things and there was not a
little that was much worse. A young fellow of two or three and
twenty has as good a right to spoil a magazine-full of essays in
learning how to write, as an oculist like Wenzel had to spoil his
hat-full of eyes in learning how to operate for cataract, or an
ELEGANT like Brummel to point to an armful of failures in the
attempt to achieve a perfect tie. This son of mine, whom I have
not seen for these twenty-five years, generously counted, was a
self-willed youth, always too ready to utter his unchastised
fancies. He, like too many American young people, got the spur
when he should have had the rein. He therefore helped to fill the
market with that unripe fruit which his father says in one of these
papers abounds in the marts of his native country. All these by-
gone shortcomings he would hope are forgiven, did he not feel sure
that very few of his readers know anything about them. In taking
the old name for the new papers, he felt bound to say that he had
uttered unwise things under that title, and if it shall appear that
his unwisdom has not diminished by at least half while his years
have doubled, he promises not to repeat the experiment if he should
live to double them again and become his own grandfather.
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES.
BOSTON. Nov. 1st 1858.
I was just going to say, when I was interrupted, that one of the
many ways of classifying minds is under the heads of arithmetical
and algebraical intellects. All economical and practical wisdom is
an extension or variation of the following arithmetical formula:
2+2=4. Every philosophical proposition has the more general
character of the expression a+b=c. We are mere operatives,
empirics, and egotists, until we learn to think in letters instead
They all stared. There is a divinity student lately come among us
to whom I commonly address remarks like the above, allowing him to
take a certain share in the conversation, so far as assent or
pertinent questions are involved. He abused his liberty on this
occasion by presuming to say that Leibnitz had the same
observation.--No, sir, I replied, he has not. But he said a mighty
good thing about mathematics, that sounds something like it, and
you found it, NOT IN THE ORIGINAL, but quoted by Dr. Thomas Reid.
I will tell the company what he did say, one of these days.
- If I belong to a Society of Mutual Admiration?--I blush to say
that I do not at this present moment. I once did, however. It was
the first association to which I ever heard the term applied; a
body of scientific young men in a great foreign city who admired
their teacher, and to some extent each other. Many of them
deserved it; they have become famous since. It amuses me to hear
the talk of one of those beings described by Thackeray -
"Letters four do form his name" -
about a social development which belongs to the very noblest stage
of civilization. All generous companies of artists, authors,
philanthropists, men of science, are, or ought to be, Societies of
Mutual Admiration. A man of genius, or any kind of superiority, is
not debarred from admiring the same quality in another, nor the
other from returning his admiration. They may even associate
together and continue to think highly of each other. And so of a
dozen such men, if any one place is fortunate enough to hold so
many. The being referred to above assumes several false premises.
First, that men of talent necessarily hate each other. Secondly,
that intimate knowledge or habitual association destroys our
admiration of persons whom we esteemed highly at a distance.
Thirdly, that a circle of clever fellows, who meet together to dine
and have a good time, have signed a constitutional compact to
glorify themselves and to put down him and the fraction of the
human race not belonging to their number. Fourthly, that it is an
outrage that he is not asked to join them.
Here the company laughed a good deal, and the old gentleman who
sits opposite said, "That's it! that's it!"
I continued, for I was in the talking vein. As to clever people's
hating each other, I think a LITTLE extra talent does sometimes
make people jealous. They become irritated by perpetual attempts
and failures, and it hurts their tempers and dispositions.
Unpretending mediocrity is good, and genius is glorious; but a weak
flavor of genius in an essentially common person is detestable. It
spoils the grand neutrality of a commonplace character, as the
rinsings of an unwashed wineglass spoil a draught of fair water.
No wonder the poor fellow we spoke of, who always belongs to this
class of slightly flavored mediocrities, is puzzled and vexed by
the strange sight of a dozen men of capacity working and playing
together in harmony. He and his fellows are always fighting. With
them familiarity naturally breeds contempt. If they ever praise
each other's bad drawings, or broken-winded novels, or spavined
verses, nobody ever supposed it was from admiration; it was simply
a contract between themselves and a publisher or dealer.
If the Mutuals have really nothing among them worth admiring, that
alters the question. But if they are men with noble powers and
qualities, let me tell you, that, next to youthful love and family
affections, there is no human sentiment better than that which
unites the Societies of Mutual Admiration. And what would
literature or art be without such associations? Who can tell what
we owe to the Mutual Admiration Society of which Shakspeare, and
Ben Jonson, and Beaumont and Fletcher were members? Or to that of
which Addison and Steele formed the centre, and which gave us the
Spectator? Or to that where Johnson, and Goldsmith, and Burke, and
Reynolds, and Beauclerk, and Boswell, most admiring among all
admirers, met together? Was there any great harm in the fact that
the Irvings and Paulding wrote in company? or any unpardonable
cabal in the literary union of Verplanck and Bryant and Sands, and
as many more as they chose to associate with them?
The poor creature does not know what he is talking about, when he
abuses this noblest of institutions. Let him inspect its mysteries
through the knot-hole he has secured, but not use that orifice as a
medium for his popgun. Such a society is the crown of a literary
metropolis; if a town has not material for it, and spirit and good
feeling enough to organize it, it is a mere caravansary, fit for a
man of genius to lodge in, but not to live in. Foolish people hate
and dread and envy such an association of men of varied powers and
influence, because it is lofty, serene, impregnable, and, by the
necessity of the case, exclusive. Wise ones are prouder of the
title M. S. M. A. than of all their other honors put together.
- All generous minds have a horror of what are commonly called
"facts." They are the brute beasts of the intellectual domain.
Who does not know fellows that always have an ill-conditioned fact
or two which they lead after them into decent company like so many
bull-dogs, ready to let them slip at every ingenious suggestion, or
convenient generalization, or pleasant fancy? I allow no "facts"
at this table. What! Because bread is good and wholesome and
necessary and nourishing, shall you thrust a crumb into my windpipe
while I am talking? Do not these muscles of mine represent a
hundred loaves of bread? and is not my thought the abstract of ten
thousand of these crumbs of truth with which you would choke off my
[The above remark must be conditioned and qualified for the vulgar
mind. The reader will of course understand the precise amount of
seasoning which must be added to it before he adopts it as one of
the axioms of his life. The speaker disclaims all responsibility
for its abuse in incompetent hands.]
This business of conversation is a very serious matter. There are
men that it weakens one to talk with an hour more than a day's
fasting would do. Mark this that I am going to say, for it is as
good as a working professional man's advice, and costs you nothing:
It is better to lose a pint of blood from your veins than to have a
nerve tapped. Nobody measures your nervous force as it runs away,
nor bandages your brain and marrow after the operation.
There are men of esprit who are excessively exhausting to some
people. They are the talkers who have what may be called JERKY
minds. Their thoughts do not run in the natural order of sequence.
They say bright things on all possible subjects, but their zigzags
rack you to death. After a jolting half-hour with one of these
jerky companions, talking with a dull friend affords great relief.
It is like taking the cat in your lap after holding a squirrel.
What a comfort a dull but kindly person is, to be sure, at times!
A ground-glass shade over a gas-lamp does not bring more solace to
our dazzled eyes than such a one to our minds.
"Do not dull people bore you?" said one of the lady-boarders,--the
same that sent me her autograph-book last week with a request for a
few original stanzas, not remembering that "The Pactolian" pays me
five dollars a line for every thing I write in its columns.
"Madam," said I, (she and the century were in their teens
together,) "all men are bores, except when we want them. There
never was but one man whom I would trust with my latch-key."
"Who might that favored person be?"
- The men of genius that I fancy most have erectile heads like the
cobra-di-capello. You remember what they tell of William Pinkney,
the great pleader; how in his eloquent paroxysms the veins of his
neck would swell and his face flush and his eyes glitter, until he
seemed on the verge of apoplexy. The hydraulic arrangements for
supplying the brain with blood are only second in importance to its
own organization. The bulbous-headed fellows that steam well when
they are at work are the men that draw big audiences and give us
marrowy books and pictures. It is a good sign to have one's feet
grow cold when he is writing. A great writer and speaker once told
me that he often wrote with his feet in hot water; but for this,
ALL his blood would have run into his head, as the mercury
sometimes withdraws into the ball of a thermometer.
- You don't suppose that my remarks made at this table are like so
many postage-stamps, do you,--each to be only once uttered? If you
do, you are mistaken. He must be a poor creature that does not
often repeat himself. Imagine the author of the excellent piece of
advice, "Know thyself," never alluding to that sentiment again
during the course of a protracted existence! Why, the truths a man
carries about with him are his tools; and do you think a carpenter
is bound to use the same plane but once to smooth a knotty board
with, or to hang up his hammer after it has driven its first nail?
I shall never repeat a conversation, but an idea often. I shall
use the same types when I like, but not commonly the same
stereotypes. A thought is often original, though you have uttered
it a hundred times. It has come to you over a new route, by a new
and express train of associations.
Sometimes, but rarely, one may be caught making the same speech
twice over, and yet be held blameless. Thus, a certain lecturer,
after performing in an inland city, where dwells a Litteratrice of
note, was invited to meet her and others over the social teacup.
She pleasantly referred to his many wanderings in his new
occupation. "Yes," he replied, "I am like the Huma, the bird that
never lights, being always in the cars, as he is always on the
wing."--Years elapsed. The lecturer visited the same place once
more for the same purpose. Another social cup after the lecture,
and a second meeting with the distinguished lady. "You are
constantly going from place to place," she said.--"Yes," he
answered, "I am like the Huma,"--and finished the sentence as
What horrors, when it flashed over him that he had made this fine
speech, word for word, twice over! Yet it was not true, as the
lady might perhaps have fairly inferred, that he had embellished
his conversation with the Huma daily during that whole interval of
years. On the contrary, he had never once thought of the odious
fowl until the recurrence of precisely the same circumstances
brought up precisely the same idea. He ought to have been proud of
the accuracy of his mental adjustments. Given certain factors, and
a sound brain should always evolve the same fixed product with the
certainty of Babbage's calculating machine.
- What a satire, by the way, is that machine on the mere
mathematician! A Frankenstein-monster, a thing without brains and
without heart, too stupid to make a blunder; that turns out results
like a corn-sheller, and never grows any wiser or better, though it
grind a thousand bushels of them!
I have an immense respect for a man of talents PLUS "the
mathematics." But the calculating power alone should seem to be
the least human of qualities, and to have the smallest amount of
reason in it; since a machine can be made to do the work of three
or four calculators, and better than any one of them. Sometimes I
have been troubled that I had not a deeper intuitive apprehension
of the relations of numbers. But the triumph of the ciphering
hand-organ has consoled me. I always fancy I can hear the wheels
clicking in a calculator's brain. The power of dealing with
numbers is a kind of "detached lever" arrangement, which may be put
into a mighty poor watch--I suppose it is about as common as the
power of moving the ears voluntarily, which is a moderately rare
- Little localized powers, and little narrow streaks of specialized
knowledge, are things men are very apt to be conceited about.
Nature is very wise; but for this encouraging principle how many
small talents and little accomplishments would be neglected! Talk
about conceit as much as you like, it is to human character what
salt is to the ocean; it keeps it sweet, and renders it endurable.
Say rather it is like the natural unguent of the sea-fowl's
plumage, which enables him to shed the rain that falls on him and
the wave in which he dips. When one has had ALL his conceit taken
out of him, when he has lost ALL his illusions, his feathers will
soon soak through, and he will fly no more.
"So you admire conceited people, do you?" said the young lady who
has come to the city to be finished off for--the duties of life.
I am afraid you do not study logic at your school, my dear. It
does not follow that I wish to be pickled in brine because I like a
salt-water plunge at Nahant. I say that conceit is just as natural
a thing to human minds as a centre is to a circle. But little-
minded people's thoughts move in such small circles that five
minutes' conversation gives you an arc long enough to determine
their whole curve. An arc in the movement of a large intellect
does not sensibly differ from a straight line. Even if it have the
third vowel as its centre, it does not soon betray it. The highest
thought, that is, is the most seemingly impersonal; it does not
obviously imply any individual centre.
Audacious self-esteem, with good ground for it, is always imposing.
What resplendent beauty that must have been which could have
authorized Phryne to "peel" in the way she did! What fine speeches
are those two: "Non omnis mortar," and "I have taken all knowledge
to be my province"! Even in common people, conceit has the virtue
of making them cheerful; the man who thinks his wife, his baby, his
house, his horse, his dog, and himself severally unequalled, is
almost sure to be a good-humored person, though liable to be
tedious at times.
- What are the great faults of conversation? Want of ideas, want
of words, want of manners, are the principal ones, I suppose you
think. I don't doubt it, but I will tell you what I have found
spoil more good talks than anything else;--long arguments on
special points between people who differ on the fundamental
principles upon which these points depend. No men can have
satisfactory relations with each other until they have agreed on
certain ultimata of belief not to be disturbed in ordinary
conversation, and unless they have sense enough to trace the
secondary questions depending upon these ultimate beliefs to their
source. In short, just as a written constitution is essential to
the best social order, so a code of finalities is a necessary
condition of profitable talk between two persons. Talking is like
playing on the harp; there is as much in laying the hand on the
strings to stop their vibrations as in twanging them to bring out
- Do you mean to say the pun-question is not clearly settled in
your minds? Let me lay down the law upon the subject. Life and
language are alike sacred. Homicide and verbicide--that is,
violent treatment of a word with fatal results to its legitimate
meaning, which is its life--are alike forbidden. Manslaughter,
which is the meaning of the one, is the same as man's laughter,
which is the end of the other. A pun is prima facie an insult to
the person you are talking with. It implies utter indifference to
or sublime contempt for his remarks, no matter how serious. I
speak of total depravity, and one says all that is written on the
subject is deep raving. I have committed my self-respect by
talking with such a person. I should like to commit him, but
cannot, because he is a nuisance. Or I speak of geological
convulsions, and he asks me what was the cosine of Noah's ark;
also, whether the Deluge was not a deal huger than any modern
A pun does not commonly justify a blow in return. But if a blow
were given for such cause, and death ensued, the jury would be
judges both of the facts and of the pun, and might, if the latter
were of an aggravated character, return a verdict of justifiable
homicide. Thus, in a case lately decided before Miller, J., Doe
presented Roe a subscription paper, and urged the claims of
suffering humanity. Roe replied by asking, When charity was like a
top? It was in evidence that Doe preserved a dignified silence.
Roe then said, "When it begins to hum." Doe then--and not till
then--struck Roe, and his head happening to hit a bound volume of
the Monthly Rag-bag and Stolen Miscellany, intense mortification
ensued, with a fatal result. The chief laid down his notions of
the law to his brother justices, who unanimously replied, "Jest
so." The chief rejoined, that no man should jest so without being
punished for it, and charged for the prisoner, who was acquitted,
and the pun ordered to be burned by the sheriff. The bound volume
was forfeited as a deodand, but not claimed.
People that make puns are like wanton boys that put coppers on the
railroad tracks. They amuse themselves and other children, but
their little trick may upset a freight train of conversation for
the sake of a battered witticism.
I will thank you, B. F., to bring down two books, of which I will
mark the places on this slip of paper. (While he is gone, I may
say that this boy, our land-lady's youngest, is called BENJAMIN
FRANKLIN, after the celebrated philosopher of that name. A highly
I wished to refer to two eminent authorities. Now be so good as to
listen. The great moralist says: "To trifle with the vocabulary
which is the vehicle of social intercourse is to tamper with the
currency of human intelligence. He who would violate the
sanctities of his mother tongue would invade the recesses of the
paternal till without remorse, and repeat the banquet of Saturn
without an indigestion."
And, once more, listen to the historian. "The Puritans hated puns.
The Bishops were notoriously addicted to them. The Lords Temporal
carried them to the verge of license. Majesty itself must have its
Royal quibble. 'Ye be burly, my Lord of Burleigh,' said Queen
Elizabeth, 'but ye shall make less stir in our realm than my Lord
of Leicester.' The gravest wisdom and the highest breeding lent
their sanction to the practice. Lord Bacon playfully declared
himself a descendant of 'Og, the King of Bashan. Sir Philip
Sidney, with his last breath, reproached the soldier who brought
him water, for wasting a casque full upon a dying man. A courtier,
who saw Othello performed at the Globe Theatre, remarked, that the
blackamoor was a brute, and not a man. 'Thou hast reason,' replied
a great Lord, 'according to Plato his saying; for this be a two-
legged animal WITH feathers.' The fatal habit became universal.
The language was corrupted. The infection spread to the national
conscience. Political double-dealings naturally grew out of verbal
double meanings. The teeth of the new dragon were sown by the
Cadmus who introduced the alphabet of equivocation. What was
levity in the time of the Tudors grew to regicide and revolution in
the age of the Stuarts."
Who was that boarder that just whispered something about the
Macaulay-flowers of literature?--There was a dead silence.--I said
calmly, I shall henceforth consider any interruption by a pun as a
hint to change my boarding-house. Do not plead my example. If _I_
have used any such, it has been only as a Spartan father would show
up a drunken helot. We have done with them.
- If a logical mind ever found out anything with its logic?--I
should say that its most frequent work was to build a pons asinorum
over chasms which shrewd people can bestride without such a
structure. You can hire logic, in the shape of a lawyer, to prove
anything that you want to prove. You can buy treatises to show
that Napoleon never lived, and that no battle of Bunker-hill was
ever fought. The great minds are those with a wide span, which
couple truths related to, but far removed from, each other.
Logicians carry the surveyor's chain over the track of which these
are the true explorers. I value a man mainly for his primary
relations with truth, as I understand truth,--not for any secondary
artifice in handling his ideas. Some of the sharpest men in
argument are notoriously unsound in judgment. I should not trust
the counsel of a smart debater, any more than that of a good chess-
player. Either may of course advise wisely, but not necessarily
because he wrangles or plays well.
The old gentleman who sits opposite got his hand up, as a pointer
lifts his forefoot, at the expression, "his relations with truth,
as I understand truth," and when I had done, sniffed audibly, and
said I talked like a transcendentalist. For his part, common sense
was good enough for him.
Precisely so, my dear sir, I replied; common sense, AS YOU
UNDERSTAND IT. We all have to assume a standard of judgment in our
own minds, either of things or persons. A man who is willing to
take another's opinion has to exercise his judgment in the choice
of whom to follow, which is often as nice a matter as to judge of
things for one's self. On the whole, I had rather judge men's
minds by comparing their thoughts with my own, than judge of
thoughts by knowing who utter them. I must do one or the other.
It does not follow, of course, that I may not recognize another
man's thoughts as broader and deeper than my own; but that does not
necessarily change my opinion, otherwise this would be at the mercy
of every superior mind that held a different one. How many of our
most cherished beliefs are like those drinking-glasses of the
ancient pattern, that serve us well so long as we keep them in our
hand, but spill all if we attempt to set them down! I have
sometimes compared conversation to the Italian game of mora, in
which one player lifts his hand with so many fingers extended, and
the other gives the number if he can. I show my thought, another
his; if they agree, well; if they differ, we find the largest
common factor, if we can, but at any rate avoid disputing about
remainders and fractions, which is to real talk what tuning an
instrument is to playing on it.
- What if, instead of talking this morning, I should read you a
copy of verses, with critical remarks by the author? Any of the
company can retire that like.
When Eve had led her lord away,
And Cain had killed his brother,
The stars and flowers, the poets say,
Agreed with one another
To cheat the cunning tempter's art,
And teach the race its duty,
By keeping on its wicked heart
Their eyes of light and beauty.
A million sleepless lids, they say,
Will be at least a warning;
And so the flowers would watch by day,
The stars from eve to morning.
On hill and prairie, field and lawn,
Their dewy eyes upturning,
The flowers still watch from reddening dawn
Till western skies are burning.
Alas! each hour of daylight tells
A tale of shame so crushing,
That some turn white as sea-bleached shells,
And some are always blushing.
But when the patient stars look down
On all their light discovers,
The traitor's smile, the murderer's frown,
The lips of lying lovers,
They try to shut their saddening eyes,
And in the vain endeavour
We see them twinkling in the skies,
And so they wink forever.
What do YOU think of these verses my friends?--Is that piece an
impromptu? said my landlady's daughter. (Aet. 19 +. Tender-eyed
blonde. Long ringlets. Cameo pin. Gold pencil-case on a chain.
Locket. Bracelet. Album. Autograph book. Accordeon. Reads
Byron, Tupper, and Sylvanus Cobb, junior, while her mother makes
the puddings. Says "Yes?" when you tell her anything.)--Oui et
non, ma petite,--Yes and no, my child. Five of the seven verses
were written off-hand; the other two took a week,--that is, were
hanging round the desk in a ragged, forlorn, unrhymed condition as
long as that. All poets will tell you just such stories. C'est le
DERNIER pas qui coute. Don't you know how hard it is for some
people to get out of a room after their visit is really over? They
want to be off, and you want to have them off, but they don't know
how to manage it. One would think they had been built in your
parlour or study, and were waiting to be launched. I have
contrived a sort of ceremonial inclined plane for such visitors,
which being lubricated with certain smooth phrases, I back them
down, metaphorically speaking, stern-foremost, into their "native
element," the great ocean of out-doors. Well, now, there are poems
as hard to get rid of as these rural visitors. They come in
glibly, use up all the serviceable rhymes, DAY, RAY, BEAUTY, DUTY,
SKIES, EYES, OTHER, BROTHER, MOUNTAIN, FOUNTAIN, and the like; and
so they go on until you think it is time for the wind-up, and the
wind-up won't come on any terms. So they lie about until you get
sick of the sight of them, and end by thrusting some cold scrap of
a final couplet upon them, and turning them out of doors. I
suspect a good many "impromptus" could tell just such a story as
the above.--Here turning to our landlady, I used an illustration
which pleased the company much at the time, and has since been
highly commanded. "Madam," I said, "you can pour three gills and
three quarters of honey from that pint jug, if it is full, in less
than one minute; but, Madam, you could not empty that last quarter
of a gill, though you were turned into a marble Hebe, and held the
vessel upside down for a thousand years.
One gets tired to death of the old, old rhymes, such as you see in
that copy of verses,--which I don't mean to abuse, or to praise
either. I always feel as if I were a cobbler, putting new top-
leathers to an old pair of boot-soles and bodies, when I am fitting
sentiments to these venerable jingles.
. . . . youth
. . . . . morning
. . . . . truth
. . . . . warning
Nine tenths of the "Juvenile Poems" written spring out of the above
musical and suggestive coincidences.
"Yes?" said our landlady's daughter.
I did not address the following remark to her, and I trust, from
her limited range of reading, she will never see it; I said it
softly to my next neighbour.
When a young female wears a flat circular side--curl, gummed on
each temple,--when she walks with a male, not arm in arm, but his
arm against the back of hers,--and when she says "Yes?" with the
note of interrogation, you are generally safe in asking her what
wages she gets, and who the "feller" was you saw her with.
"What were you whispering?" said the daughter of the house,
moistening her lips, as she spoke, in a very engaging manner.
"I was only laying down a principle of social diagnosis."
- It is curious to see how the same wants and tastes find the same
implements and modes of expression in all times and places. The
young ladies of Otaheite, as you may see in Cook's Voyages, had a
sort of crinoline arrangement fully equal in radius to the largest
spread of our own lady-baskets. When I fling a Bay-State shawl
over my shoulders, I am only taking a lesson from the climate that
the Indian had learned before me. A BLANKET-shawl we call it, and
not a plaid; and we wear it like the aborigines, and not like the
- We are the Romans of the modern world,--the great assimilating
people. Conflicts and conquests are of course necessary accidents
with us, as with our prototypes. And so we come to their style of
weapon. Our army sword is the short, stiff, pointed gladius of the
Romans; and the American bowie-knife is the same tool, modified to
meet the daily wants of civil society. I announce at this table an
axiom not to be found in Montesquieu or the journals of Congress:-
The race that shortens its weapons lengthens its boundaries.
Corollary. It was the Polish LANCE that left Poland at last with
nothing of her own to bound.
"Dropped from her nerveless grasp the SHATTERED SPEAR!"
What business had Sarmatia to be fighting for liberty with a
fifteen-foot pole between her and the breasts of her enemies? If
she had but clutched the old Roman and young American weapon, and
come to close quarters, there might have been a chance for her; but
it would have spoiled the best passage in "The Pleasures of Hope."
- Self-made men?--Well, yes. Of course everybody likes and
respects self-made men. It is a great deal better to be made in
that way than not to be made at all. Are any of you younger people
old enough to remember that Irishman's house on the marsh at
Cambridgeport, which house he built from drain to chimney-top with
his own hands? It took him a good many years to build it, and one
could see that it was a little out of plumb, and a little wavy in
outline, and a little queer and uncertain in general aspect. A
regular hand could certainly have built a better house; but it was
a very good house for a "self-made" carpenter's house, and people
praised it, and said how remarkably well the Irishman had
succeeded. They never thought of praising the fine blocks of
houses a little farther on.
Your self-made man, whittled into shape with his own jack-knife,
deserves more credit, if that is all, than the regular engine-
turned article, shaped by the most approved pattern, and French-
polished by society and travel. But as to saying that one is every
way the equal of the other, that is another matter. The right of
strict social discrimination of all things and persons, according
to their merits, native or acquired, is one of the most precious
republican privileges. I take the liberty to exercise it, when I
say, that, OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL, in most relations of life I
prefer a man of family.
What do I mean by a man of family?--O, I'll give you a general idea
of what I mean. Let us give him a first-rate fit out; it costs us
Four or five generations of gentlemen and gentlewomen; among them a
member of his Majesty's Council for the Province, a Governor or so,
one or two Doctors of Divinity, a member of Congress, not later
than the time of top-boots with tassels.
Family portraits. The member of the Council, by Smibert. The
great merchant-uncle, by Copley, full length, sitting in his arm-
chair, in a velvet cap and flowered robe, with a globe by him, to
show the range of his commercial transactions, and letters with
large red seals lying round, one directed conspicuously to The
Honourable etc. etc. Great-grandmother, by the same artist; brown
satin, lace very fine, hands superlative; grand old lady, stiffish,
but imposing. Her mother, artist unknown; flat, angular, hanging
sleeves; parrot on fist. A pair of Stuarts, viz., 1. A superb
full-blown, mediaeval gentleman, with a fiery dash of Tory blood in
his veins, tempered down with that of a fine old rebel grandmother,
and warmed up with the best of old India Madeira; his face is one
flame of ruddy sunshine; his ruffled shirt rushes out of his bosom
with an impetuous generosity, as if it would drag his heart after
it; and his smile is good for twenty thousand dollars to the
Hospital, besides ample bequests to all relatives and dependants.
2. Lady of the same; remarkable cap; high waist, as in time of
Empire; bust a la Josephine; wisps of curls, like celery-tips, at
sides of forehead; complexion clear and warm, like rose-cordial.
As for the miniatures by Malbone, we don't count them in the
Books, too, with the names of old college-students in them,--family
names;--you will find them at the head of their respective classes
in the days when students took rank on the catalogue from their
parents' condition. Elzevirs, with the Latinized appellations of
youthful progenitors, and Hic liber est meus on the title-page. A
set of Hogarth's original plates. Pope, original edition, 15
volumes, London, 1717. Barrow on the lower shelves, in folio.
Tillotson on the upper, in a little dark platoon of octo-decimos.
Some family silver; a string of wedding and funeral rings; the arms
of the family curiously blazoned; the same in worsted, by a maiden
If the man of family has an old place to keep these things in,
furnished with claw-footed chairs and black mahogany tables, and
tall bevel-edged mirrors, and stately upright cabinets, his outfit
No, my friends, I go (always, other things being equal) for the man
who inherits family traditions and the cumulative humanities of at
least four or five generations. Above all things, as a child, he
should have tumbled about in a library. All men are afraid of
books, who have not handled them from infancy. Do you suppose our
dear didascalos over there ever read Poli Synopsis, or consulted
Castelli Lexicon, while he was growing up to their stature? Not
he; but virtue passed through the hem of their parchment and
leather garments whenever he touched them, as the precious drugs
sweated through the bat's handle in the Arabian story. I tell you
he is at home wherever he smells the invigorating fragrance of
Russia leather. No self-made man feels so. One may, it is true,
have all the antecedents I have spoken of, and yet be a boor or a
shabby fellow. One may have none of them, and yet be fit for
councils and courts. Then let them change places. Our social
arrangement has this great beauty, that its strata shift up and
down as they change specific gravity, without being clogged by
layers of prescription. But I still insist on my democratic
liberty of choice, and I go for the man with the gallery of family
portraits against the one with the twenty-five-cent daguerreotype,
unless I find out that the last is the better of the two.
- I should have felt more nervous about the late comet, if I had
thought the world was ripe. But it is very green yet, if I am not
mistaken; and besides, there is a great deal of coal to use up,
which I cannot bring myself to think was made for nothing. If
certain things, which seem to me essential to a millennium, had
come to pass, I should have been frightened; but they haven't.
Perhaps you would like to hear my
When legislators keep the law,
When banks dispense with bolts and locks,
When berries, whortle--rasp--and straw -
Grow bigger DOWNWARDS through the box, -
When he that selleth house or land
Shows leak in roof or flaw in right, -
When haberdashers choose the stand
Whose window hath the broadest light, -
When preachers tell us all they think,
And party leaders all they mean, -
When what we pay for, that we drink,
From real grape and coffee-bean, -
When lawyers take what they would give,
And doctors give what they would take, -
When city fathers eat to live,
Save when they fast for conscience' sake, -
When one that hath a horse on sale
Shall bring his merit to the proof,
Without a lie for every nail
That holds the iron on the hoof, -
When in the usual place for rips
Our gloves are stitched with special care,
And guarded well the whalebone tips
Where first umbrellas need repair, -
When Cuba's weeds have quite forgot
The power of suction to resist,
And claret-bottles harber not
Such dimples as would hold your fist, -
When publishers no longer steal,
And pay for what they stole before, -
When the first locomotive's wheel
Rolls through the Hoosac tunnel's bore; -
TILL then let Cumming a blaze away,
And Miller's saints blow up the globe;
But when you see that blessed day,
THEN order your ascension robe!
The company seemed to like the verses, and I promised them to read
others occasionally, if they had a mind to hear them. Of course
they would not expect it every morning. Neither must the reader
suppose that all these things I have reported were said at any one
breakfast-time. I have not taken the trouble to date them, as
Raspail, pere, used to date every proof he sent to the printer; but
they were scattered over several breakfasts; and I have said a good
many more things since, which I shall very possibly print some time
or other, if I am urged to do it by judicious friends.
I finished off with reading some verses of my friend the Professor,
of whom you may perhaps hear more by and by. The Professor read
them, he told me, at a farewell meeting, where the youngest of our
great Historians met a few of his many friends at their invitation.
Yes, we knew we must lose him,--though friendship may claim
To blend her green leaves with the laurels of fame;
Though fondly, at parting, we call him our own,
'Tis the whisper of love when the bugle has blown.
As the rider that rests with the spur on his heel, -
As the guardsman that sleeps in his corselet of steel, -
As the archer that stands with his shaft on the string,
He stoops from his toil to the garland we bring.
What pictures yet slumber unborn in his loom
Till their warriors shall breathe and their beauties shall bloom,
While the tapestry lengthens the life-glowing dyes
That caught from our sunsets the stain of their skies!
In the alcoves of death, in the charnels of time,
Where flit the gaunt spectres of passion and crime,
There are triumphs untold, there are martyrs unsung,
There are heroes yet silent to speak with his tongue!
Let us hear the proud story which time has bequeathed
From lips that are warm with the freedom they breathed!
Let him summon its tyrants, and tell us their doom,
Though he sweep the black past like Van Tromp with his broom!
* * * * *
The dream flashes by, for the west-winds awake
On pampas, on prairie, o'er mountain and lake,
To bathe the swift bark, like a sea-girdled shrine,
With incense they stole from the rose and the pine.
So fill a bright cup with the sunlight that gushed
When the dead summer's jewels were trampled and crushed:
THE TRUE KNIGHT OF LEARNING,--the world holds him dear, -
Love bless him, Joy crown him, God speed his career!
I really believe some people save their bright thoughts, as being
too precious for conversation. What do you think an admiring
friend said the other day to one that was talking good things,--
good enough to print? "Why," said he, "you are wasting
mechantable literature, a cash article, at the rate, as nearly as I
can tell, of fifty dollars an hour." The talker took him to the
window and asked him to look out and tell what he saw.
"Nothing but a very dusty street," he said, "and a man driving a
sprinkling-machine through it."
"Why don't you tell the man he is wasting that water? What would
be the state of the highways of life, if we did not drive our
THOUGHT-SPRINKLERS through them with the valves open, sometimes?
"Besides, there is another thing about this talking, which you
forget. It shapes our thoughts for us;--the waves of conversation
roll them as the surf rolls the pebbles on the shore. Let me
modify the image a little. I rough out my thoughts in talk as an
artist models in clay. Spoken language is so plastic,--you can pat
and coax, and spread and shave, and rub out, and fill up, and stick
on so easily when you work that soft material, that there is
nothing like it for modelling. Out of it come the shapes which you
turn into marble or bronze in your immortal books, if you happen to
write such. Or, to use another illustration, writing or printing
is like shooting with a rifle; you may hit your reader's mind, or
miss it;--but talking is like playing at a mark with the pipe of an
engine; if it is within reach, and you have time enough, you can't
help hitting it."
The company agreed that this last illustration was of superior
excellence, or, in the phrase used by them, "Fust-rate." I
acknowledged the compliment, but gently rebuked the expression.
"Fust-rate," "prime," "a prime article," "a superior piece of
goods," "a handsome garment," "a gent in a flowered vest,"--all
such expressions are final. They blast the lineage of him or her
who utters them, for generations up and down. There is one other
phrase which will soon come to be decisive of a man's social
STATUS, if it is not already: "That tells the whole story." It
is an expression which vulgar and conceited people particularly
affect, and which well-meaning ones, who know better, catch from
them. It is intended to stop all debate, like the previous
question in the General Court. Only it doesn't; simply because
"that" does not usually tell the whole, nor one half of the whole
- It is an odd idea, that almost all our people have had a
professional education. To become a doctor a man must study some
three years and hear a thousand lectures, more or less. Just how
much study it takes to make a lawyer I cannot say, but probably not
more than this. Now most decent people hear one hundred lectures
or sermons (discourses) on theology every year,--and this, twenty,
thirty, fifty years together. They read a great many religious
books besides. The clergy, however, rarely hear any sermons except
what they preach themselves. A dull preacher might be conceived,
therefore, to lapse into a state of quasi heathenism, simply for
want of religious instruction. And on the other hand, an attentive
and intelligent hearer, listening to a succession of wise teachers,
might become actually better educated in theology than any one of
them. We are all theological students, and more of us qualified as
doctors of divinity than have received degrees at any of the
It is not strange, therefore, that very good people should often
find it difficult, if not impossible, to keep their attention fixed
upon a sermon treating feebly a subject which they have thought
vigorously about for years, and heard able men discuss scores of
times. I have often noticed, however, that a hopelessly dull
discourse acts INDUCTIVELY, as electricians would say, in
developing strong mental currents. I am ashamed to think with what
accompaniments and variations and fioriture I have sometimes
followed the droning of a heavy speaker,--not willingly,--for my
habit is reverential,--but as a necessary result of a slight
continuous impression on the senses and the mind, which kept both
in action without furnishing the food they required to work upon.
If you ever saw a crow with a king-bird after him, you will get an
image of a dull speaker and a lively listener. The bird in sable
plumage flaps heavily along his straight-forward course, while the
other sails round him, over him, under him, leaves him, comes back
again, tweaks out a black feather, shoots away once more, never
losing sight of him, and finally reaches the crow's perch at the
same time the crow does, having cut a perfect labyrinth of loops
and knots and spirals while the slow fowl was painfully working
from one end of his straight line to the other.
[I think these remarks were received rather coolly. A temporary
boarder from the country, consisting of a somewhat more than
middle-aged female, with a parchment forehead and a dry little
"frisette" shingling it, a sallow neck with a necklace of gold
beads, a black dress too rusty for recent grief and contours in
basso-rilievo, left the table prematurely, and was reported to have
been very virulent about what I said. So I went to my good old
minister, and repeated the remarks, as nearly as I could remember
them, to him. He laughed good-naturedly, and said there was
considerable truth in them. He thought he could tell when people's
minds were wandering, by their looks. In the earlier years of his
ministry he had sometimes noticed this, when he was preaching;--
very little of late years. Sometimes, when his colleague was
preaching, he observed this kind of inattention; but after all, it
was not so very unnatural. I will say, by the way, that it is a
rule I have long followed, to tell my worst thoughts to my
minister, and my best thoughts to the young people I talk with.]
- I want to make a literary confession now, which I believe nobody
has made before me. You know very well that I write verses
sometimes, because I have read some of them at this table. (The
company assented,--two or three of them in a resigned sort of way,
as I thought, as if they supposed I had an epic in my pocket, and
was going to read half a dozen books or so for their benefit.)--I
continued. Of course I write some lines or passages which are
better than others; some which, compared with the others, might be
called relatively excellent. It is in the nature of things that I
should consider these relatively excellent lines or passages as
absolutely good. So much must be pardoned to humanity. Now I
never wrote a "good" line in my life, but the moment after it was
written it seemed a hundred years old. Very commonly I had a
sudden conviction that I had seen it somewhere. Possibly I may
have sometimes unconsciously stolen it, but I do not remember that
I ever once detected any historical truth in these sudden
convictions of the antiquity of my new thought or phrase. I have
learned utterly to distrust them, and never allow them to bully me
out of a thought or line.
This is the philosophy of it. (Here the number of the company was
diminished by a small secession.) Any new formula which suddenly
emerges in our consciousness has its roots in long trains of
thought; it is virtually old when it first makes its appearance
among the recognized growths of our intellect. Any crystalline
group of musical words has had a long and still period to form in.
Here is one theory.
But there is a larger law which perhaps comprehends these facts.
It is this. The rapidity with which ideas grow old in our memories
is in a direct ratio to the squares of their importance. Their
apparent age runs up miraculously, like the value of diamonds, as
they increase in magnitude. A great calamity, for instance, is as
old as the trilobites an hour after it has happened. It stains
backward through all the leaves we have turned over in the book of
life, before its blot of tears or of blood is dry on the page we
are turning. For this we seem to have lived; it was foreshadowed
in dreams that we leaped out of in the cold sweat of terror; in the
"dissolving views" of dark day-visions; all omens pointed to it;
all paths led to it. After the tossing half-forgetfulness of the
first sleep that follows such an event, it comes upon us afresh, as
a surprise, at waking; in a few moments it is old again,--old as
[I wish I had not said all this then and there. I might have known
better. The pale schoolmistress, in her mourning dress, was
looking at me, as I noticed, with a wild sort of expression. All
at once the blood dropped out of her cheeks as the mercury drops
from a broken barometer-tube, and she melted away from her seat
like an image of snow; a slung-shot could not have brought her down
better. God forgive me!
After this little episode, I continued, to some few that remained
balancing teaspoons on the edges of cups, twirling knives, or
tilting upon the hind legs of their chairs until their heads
reached the wall, where they left gratuitous advertisements of
various popular cosmetics.]
When a person is suddenly thrust into any strange, new position of
trial, he finds the place fits him as if he had been measured for
it. He has committed a great crime, for instance, and is sent to
the State Prison. The traditions, prescriptions, limitations,
privileges, all the sharp conditions of his new life, stamp
themselves upon his consciousness as the signet on soft wax;--a
single pressure is enough. Let me strengthen the image a little.
Did you ever happen to see that most soft-spoken and velvet-handed
steam-engine at the Mint? The smooth piston slides backward and
forward as a lady might slip her delicate finger in and out of a
ring. The engine lays one of ITS fingers calmly, but firmly, upon
a bit of metal; it is a coin now, and will remember that touch, and
tell a new race about it, when the date upon it is crusted over
with twenty centuries. So it is that a great silent-moving misery
puts a new stamp on us in an hour or a moment,--as sharp an
impression as if it had taken half a lifetime to engrave it.
It is awful to be in the hands of the wholesale professional
dealers in misfortune; undertakers and jailers magnetize you in a
moment, and you pass out of the individual life you were living
into the rhythmical movements of their horrible machinery. Do the
worst thing you can, or suffer the worst that can be thought of,
you find yourself in a category of humanity that stretches back as
far as Cain, and with an expert at your elbow who has studied your
case all out beforehand, and is waiting for you with his implements
of hemp or mahogany. I believe, if a man were to be burned in any
of our cities tomorrow for heresy, there would be found a master of
ceremonies that knew just how many fagots were necessary, and the
best way of arranging the whole matter.
- So we have not won the Goodwood cup; au contraire, we were a "bad
fifth," if not worse than that; and trying it again, and the third
time, has not yet bettered the matter. Now I am as patriotic as
any of my fellow-citizens,--too patriotic in fact, for I have got
into hot water by loving too much of my country; in short, if any
man, whose fighting weight is not more than eight stone four
pounds, disputes it, I am ready to discuss the point with him. I
should have gloried to see the stars and stripes in front at the
finish. I love my country, and I love horses. Stubbs's old
mezzotint of Eclipse hangs over my desk, and Herring's portrait of
Plenipotentiary,--whom I saw run at Epsom,--over my fireplace. Did
I not elope from school to see Revenge, and Prospect, and Little
John, and Peacemaker run over the race-course where now yon
suburban village flourishes, in the year eighteen hundred and ever-
so-few? Though I never owned a horse, have I not been the
proprietor of six equine females, of which one was the prettiest
little "Morgin" that ever stepped? Listen, then, to an opinion I
have often expressed long before this venture of ours in England.
Horse-RACING is not a republican institution; horse-TROTTING is.
Only very rich persons can keep race-horses, and everybody knows
they are kept mainly as gambling implements. All that matter about
blood and speed we won't discuss; we understand all that; useful,
very,--OF course,--great obligations to the Godolphin "Arabian,"
and the rest. I say racing horses are essentially gambling
implements, as much as roulette tables. Now I am not preaching at
this moment; I may read you one of my sermons some other morning;
but I maintain that gambling, on the great scale, is not
republican. It belongs to two phases of society,--a cankered over-
civilization, such as exists in rich aristocracies, and the
reckless life of borderers and adventurers, or the semi-barbarism
of a civilization resolved into its primitive elements. Real
Republicanism is stern and severe; its essence is not in forms of
government, but in the omnipotence of public opinion which grows
out of it. This public opinion cannot prevent gambling with dice
or stocks, but it can and does compel it to keep comparatively
quiet. But horse-racing is the most public way of gambling, and
with all its immense attractions to the sense and the feelings,--to
which I plead very susceptible,--the disguise is too thin that
covers it, and everybody knows what it means. Its supporters are
the Southern gentry,--fine fellows, no doubt, but not republicans
exactly, as we understand the term,--a few Northern millionnaires
more or less thoroughly millioned, who do not represent the real
people, and the mob of sporting men, the best of whom are commonly
idlers, and the worst very bad neighbors to have near one in a
crowd, or to meet in a dark alley. In England, on the other hand,
with its aristocratic institutions, racing is a natural growth
enough; the passion for it spreads downwards through all classes,
from the Queen to the costermonger. London is like a shelled corn-
cob on the Derby day, and there is not a clerk who could raise the
money to hire a saddle with an old hack under it that can sit down
on his office-stool the next day without wincing.
Now just compare the racer with the trotter for a moment. The
racer is incidentally useful, but essentially something to bet
upon, as much as the thimble-rigger's "little joker." The trotter
is essentially and daily useful, and only incidentally a tool for
What better reason do you want for the fact that the racer is most
cultivated and reaches his greatest perfection in England, and that
the trotting horses of America beat the world? And why should we
have expected that the pick--if it was the pick--of our few and
far-between racing stables should beat the pick of England and
France? Throw over the fallacious time-test, and there was nothing
to show for it but a natural kind of patriotic feeling, which we
all have, with a thoroughly provincial conceit, which some of us
must plead guilty to.
We may beat yet. As an American, I hope we shall. As a moralist
and occasional sermonizer, I am not so anxious about it. Wherever
the trotting horse goes, he carries in his train brisk omnibuses,
lively bakers' carts, and therefore hot rolls, the jolly butcher's
wagon, the cheerful gig, the wholesome afternoon drive with wife
and child,--all the forms of moral excellence, except truth, which
does not agree with any kind of horse-flesh. The racer brings with
him gambling, cursing, swearing, drinking, the eating of oysters,
and a distaste for mob-caps and the middle-aged virtues.
And by the way, let me beg you not to call a TROTTING MATCH a RACE,
and not to speak of a "thoroughbred" as a "BLOODED" horse, unless
he has been recently phlebotomized. I consent to your saying
"blood horse," if you like. Also, if, next year, we send out
Posterior and Posterioress, the winners of the great national four-
mile race in 7 18.5, and they happen to get beaten, pay your bets,
and behave like men and gentlemen about it, if you know how.
[I felt a great deal better after blowing off the ill-temper
condensed in the above paragraph. To brag little,--to show well,--
to crow gently, if in luck,--to pay up, to own up, and to shut up,
if beaten, are the virtues of a sporting man, and I can't say that
I think we have shown them in any great perfection of late.]
- Apropos of horses. Do you know how important good jockeying is
to authors? Judicious management; letting the public see your
animal just enough, and not too much; holding him up hard when the
market is too full of him; letting him out at just the right buying
intervals; always gently feeling his mouth; never slacking and
never jerking the rein;--this is what I mean by jockeying.
- When an author has a number of books out a cunning hand will keep
them all spinning, as Signor Blitz does his dinner-plates; fetching
each one up, as it begins to "wabble," by an advertisement, a puff,
or a quotation.
- Whenever the extracts from a living writer begin to multiply fast
in the papers, without obvious reason, there is a new book or a new
edition coming. The extracts are GROUND-BAIT.
- Literary life is fun of curious phenomena. I don't know that
there is anything more noticeable than what we may call
CONVENTIONAL REPUTATIONS. There is a tacit understanding in every
community of men of letters that they will not disturb the popular
fallacy respecting this or that electro-gilded celebrity. There
are various reasons for this forbearance: one is old; one is rich;
one is good-natured; one is such a favorite with the pit that it
would not be safe to hiss him from the manager's box. The
venerable augurs of the literary or scientific temple may smile
faintly when one of the tribe is mentioned; but the farce is in
general kept up as well as the Chinese comic scene of entreating
and imploring a man to stay with you with the implied compact
between you that he shall by no means think of doing it. A poor
wretch he must be who would wantonly sit down on one of these
bandbox reputations. A Prince-Rupert's-drop, which is a tear of
unannealed glass, lasts indefinitely, if you keep it from meddling
hands; but break its tail off, and it explodes and resolves itself
into powder. These celebrities I speak of are the Prince-Rupert's-
drops of the learned and polite world. See how the papers treat
them! What an array of pleasant kaleidoscopic phrases, which can
be arranged in ever so many charming patterns, is at their service!
How kind the "Critical Notices"--where small authorship comes to
pick up chips of praise, fragrant, sugary, and sappy--always are to
them! Well, life would be nothing without paper-credit and other
fictions; so let them pass current. Don't steal their chips; don't
puncture their swimming-bladders; don't come down on their
pasteboard boxes; don't break the ends of their brittle and
unstable reputations, you fellows who all feel sure that your names
will be household words a thousand years from now.
"A thousand years is a good while," said the old gentleman who sits
- Where have I been for the last three or four days? Down at the
Island, deer-shooting.--How many did I bag? I brought home one
buck shot.--The Island is where? No matter. It is the most
splendid domain that any man looks upon in these latitudes. Blue
sea around it, and running up into its heart, so that the little
boat slumbers like a baby in lap, while the tall ships are
stripping naked to fight the hurricane outside, and storm-stay-
sails banging and flying in ribbons. Trees, in stretches of miles;
beeches, oaks, most numerous;--many of them hung with moss, looking
like bearded Druids; some coiled in the clasp of huge, dark-stemmed
grape-vines. Open patches where the sun gets in and goes to sleep,
and the winds come so finely sifted that they are as soft as swan's
down. Rocks scattered about,--Stonehenge-like monoliths. Fresh-
water lakes; one of them, Mary's lake, crystal-clear, full of
flashing pickerel lying under the lily-pads like tigers in the
jungle. Six pounds of ditto killed one morning for breakfast. EGO
The divinity-student looked as if he would like to question my
Latin. No, sir, I said,--you need not trouble yourself. There is
a higher law in grammar, not to be put down by Andrews and
Stoddard. Then I went on.
Such hospitality as that island has seen there has not been the
like of in these our New England sovereignties. There is nothing
in the shape of kindness and courtesy that can make life beautiful,
which has not found its home in that ocean-principality. It has
welcomed all who were worthy of welcome, from the pale clergyman
who came to breathe the sea-air with its medicinal salt and iodine,
to the great statesman who turned his back on the affairs of
empire, and smoothed his Olympian forehead, and flashed his white
teeth in merriment over the long table, where his wit was the
keenest and his story the best.
[I don't believe any man ever talked like that in this world. I
don't believe _I_ talked just so; but the fact is, in reporting
one's conversation, one cannot help BLAIR-ing it up more or less,
ironing out crumpled paragraphs, starching limp ones, and crimping
and plaiting a little sometimes; it is as natural as prinking at
- How can a man help writing poetry in such a place? Everybody
does write poetry that goes there. In the state archives, kept in
the library of the Lord of the Isle, are whole volumes of
unpublished verse,--some by well-known hands, and others quite as
good, by the last people you would think of as versifiers,--men who
could pension off all the genuine poets in the country, and buy ten
acres of Boston common, if it was for sale, with what they had
left. Of course I had to write my little copy of verses with the
rest; here it is, if you will hear me read it. When the sun is in
the west, vessels sailing in an easterly direction look bright or
dark to one who observes them from the north or south, according to
the tack they are sailing upon. Watching them from one of the
windows of the great mansion, I saw these perpetual changes, and
SUN AND SHADOW.
As I look from the isle, o'er its billows of green,
To the billows of foam-crested blue,
Yon bark, that afar in the distance is seen,
Half dreaming, my eyes will pursue:
Now dark in the shadow, she scatters the spray
As the chaff in the stroke of the flail;
Now white as the sea-gull, she flies on her way,
The sun gleaming bright on her sail.
Yet her pilot is thinking of dangers to shun, -
Of breakers that whiten and roar;
How little he cares, if in shadow or sun
They see him that gaze from the shore!
He looks to the beacon that looms from the reef,
To the rock that is under his lee,
As he drifts on the blast, like a wind-wafted leaf,
O'er the gulfs of the desolate sea.
Thus drifting afar to the dim-vaulted caves
Where life and its ventures are laid,
The dreamers who gaze while we battle the waves
May see us in sunshine or shade;
Yet true to our course, though our shadow grow dark,
We'll trim our broad sail as before,
And stand by the rudder that governs the bark,
Nor ask how we look from the shore!
- Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked. Good
mental machinery ought to break its own wheels and levers, if
anything is thrust among them suddenly which tends to stop them or
reverse their motion. A weak mind does not accumulate force enough
to hurt itself; stupidity often saves a man from going mad. We
frequently see persons in insane hospitals, sent there in
consequence of what are called RELIGIOUS mental disturbances. I
confess that I think better of them than of many who hold the same
notions, and keep their wits and appear to enjoy life very well,
outside of the asylums. Any decent person ought to go mad, if he
really holds such or such opinions. It is very much to his
discredit in every point of view, if he does not. What is the use
of my saying what some of these opinions are? Perhaps more than
one of you hold such as I should think ought to send you straight
over to Somerville, if you have any logic in your heads or any
human feeling in your hearts. Anything that is brutal, cruel,
heathenish, that makes life hopeless for the most of mankind and
perhaps for entire races,--anything that assumes the necessity of
the extermination of instincts which were given to be regulated,--
no matter by what name you call it,--no matter whether a fakir, or
a monk, or a deacon believes it,--if received, ought to produce
insanity in every well-regulated mind. That condition becomes a
normal one, under the circumstances. I am very much ashamed of
some people for retaining their reason, when they know perfectly
well that if they were not the most stupid or the most selfish of
human beings, they would become non-compotes at once.
[Nobody understood this but the theological student and the
schoolmistress. They looked intelligently at each other; but
whether they were thinking about my paradox or not, I am not
clear.--It would be natural enough. Stranger things have happened.
Love and Death enter boarding-houses without asking the price of
board, or whether there is room for them. Alas, these young people
are poor and pallid! Love SHOULD be both rich and rosy, but MUST
be either rich or rosy. Talk about military duty! What is that to
the warfare of a married maid-of-all-work, with the title of
mistress, and an American female constitution, which collapses just
in the middle third of life, and comes out vulcanized India-rubber,
if it happen to live through the period when health and strength
are most wanted?]
- Have I ever acted in private theatricals? Often. I have played
the part of the "Poor Gentleman," before a great many audiences,--
more, I trust, than I shall ever face again. I did not wear a
stage-costume, nor a wig, nor moustaches of burnt cork; but I was
placarded and announced as a public performer, and at the proper
hour I came forward with the ballet-dancer's smile upon my
countenance, and made my bow and acted my part. I have seen my
name stuck up in letters so big that I was ashamed to show myself
in the place by daylight. I have gone to a town with a sober
literary essay in my pocket, and seen myself everywhere announced
as the most desperate of buffos,--one who was obliged to restrain
himself in the full exercise of his powers, from prudential
considerations. I have been through as many hardships as Ulysses,
in the pursuit of my histrionic vocation. I have travelled in cars
until the conductors all knew me like a brother. I have run off
the rails, and stuck all night in snow-drifts, and sat behind
females that would have the window open when one could not wink
without his eyelids freezing together. Perhaps I shall give you
some of my experiences one of these days;--I will not now, for I
have something else for you.
Private theatricals, as I have figured in them in country lyceum-
halls, are one thing,--and private theatricals, as they may be seen
in certain gilded and frescoed saloons of our metropolis, are
another. Yes, it is pleasant to see real gentlemen and ladies, who
do not think it necessary to mouth, and rant, and stride, like most
of our stage heroes and heroines, in the characters which show off
their graces and talents; most of all to see a fresh, unrouged,
unspoiled, high bred young maiden, with a lithe figure, and a
pleasant voice, acting in those love-dramas which make us young
again to look upon, when real youth and beauty will play them for
- Of course I wrote the prologue I was asked to write. I did not
see the play, though. I knew there was a young lady in it, and
that somebody was in love with her, and she was in love with him,
and somebody (an old tutor, I believe) wanted to interfere, and,
very naturally, the young lady was too sharp for him. The play of
course ends charmingly; there is a general reconciliation, and all
concerned form a line and take each others' hands, as people always
do after they have made up their quarrels,--and then the curtain
falls,--if it does not stick, as it commonly does at private
theatrical exhibitions, in which case a boy is detailed to pull it
down, which he does, blushing violently.
Now, then, for my prologue. I am not going to change my caesuras
and cadences for anybody; so if you do not like the heroic, or
iambic trimeter brachy-catalectic, you had better not wait to hear
THIS IS IT.
A Prologue? Well, of course the ladies know; -
I have my doubts. No matter,--here we go!
What is a Prologue? Let our Tutor teach:
Pro means beforehand; logos stands for speech.
'Tis like the harper's prelude on the strings,
The prima donna's courtesy ere she sings; -
Prologues in metre are to other pros
As worsted stockings are to engine-hose.
"The world's a stage," as Shakspeare said, one day;
The stage a world--was what he meant to say.
The outside world's a blunder, that is clear;
The real world that Nature meant is here.
Here every foundling finds its lost mamma;
Each rogue, repentant, melts his stern papa;
Misers relent, the spendthrift's debts are paid,
The cheats are taken in the traps they laid;
One after one the troubles all are past
Till the fifth act comes right side up at last,
When the young couple, old folks, rogues, and all,
Join hands, SO happy at the curtain's fall.
- Here suffering virtue ever finds relief,
And black-browed ruffians always come to grief,
- When the lorn damsel, with a frantic screech,
And cheeks as hueless as a brandy-peach,
Cries, "Help, kyind Heaven!" and drops upon her knees
On the green--baize,--beneath the (canvas) trees,-
See to her side avenging Valor fly:-
"Ha! Villain! Draw! Now, Terraitorr, yield or die!"
- When the poor hero flounders in despair,
Some dear lost uncle turns up millionnaire, -
Clasps the young scapegrace with paternal joy,
Sobs on his neck, "MY BOY! MY BOY!! MY BOY!!!"
Ours, then, sweet friends, the real world to-night.
Of love that conquers in disaster's spite.
Ladies, attend! While woful cares and doubt
Wrong the soft passion in the world without,
Though fortune scowl, though prudence interfere,
One thing is certain: Love will triumph here!
Lords of creation, whom your ladies rule, -
The world's great masters, when you're out of school, -
Learn the brief moral of our evening's play:
Man has his will,--but woman has her way!
While man's dull spirit toils in smoke and fire,
Woman's swift instinct threads the electric wire, -
The magic bracelet stretched beneath the waves
Beats the black giant with his score of slaves.
All earthly powers confess your sovereign art
But that one rebel,--woman's wilful heart.
All foes you master; but a woman's wit
Lets daylight through you ere you know you're hit.
So, just to picture what her art can do,
Hear an old story made as good as new.
Rudolph, professor of the headsman's trade,
Alike was famous for his arm and blade.
One day a prisoner Justice had to kill
Knelt at the block to test the artist's skill.
Bare-armed, swart-visaged, gaunt, and shaggy-browed,
Rudolph the headsman rose above the crowd.
His falchion lightened with a sudden gleam,
As the pike's armor flashes in the stream.
He sheathed his blade; he turned as if to go;
The victim knelt, still waiting for the blow.
"Why strikest not? Perform thy murderous act,"
The prisoner said. (Hs voice was slightly cracked.)
"Friend I HAVE struck," the artist straight replied;
"Wait but one moment, and yourself decide."
He held his snuff-box,--"Now then, if you please!"
The prisoner sniffed, and, with a crashing sneeze,
Off his head tumbled,--bowled along the floor, -
Bounced down the steps;--the prisoner said no more!
Woman! thy falchion is a glittering eye;
If death lurks in it, oh, how sweet to die!
Thou takest hearts as Rudolph took the head;
We die with love, and never dream we're dead!
The prologue went off very well, as I hear. No alterations were
suggested by the lady to whom it was sent, so far as I know.
Sometimes people criticize the poems one sends them, and suggest
all sorts of improvements. Who was that silly body that wanted
Burns to alter "Scots wha hae," so as to lengthen the last line,
"EDWARD!" Chains and slavery!
Here is a little poem I sent a short time since to a committee for
a certain celebration. I understood that it was to be a festive
and convivial occasion, and ordered myself accordingly. It seems
the president of the day was what is called a "teetotaller." I
received a note from him in the following words, containing the
copy subjoined, with the emendations annexed to it.
"Dear Sir,--your poem gives good satisfaction to the committee.
The sentiments expressed with reference to liquor are not, however,
those generally entertained by this community. I have therefore
consulted the clergyman of this place, who has made come slight
changes, which he thinks will remove all objections, and keep the
valuable portions of the poem. Please to inform me of your charge
for said poem. Our means are limited, etc., etc., etc.
Yours with respect,"
HERE IT IS--WITH THE SLIGHT ALTERATIONS!
Come! fill a fresh bumper,--for why should we go
While the [nectar] [logwood] still reddens our cups as they flow?
Pour out the [rich juices] [decoction] still bright with the sun,
Till o'er the brimmed crystal the [rubies] [dye-stuff] shall run.
The [purple glebed clusters] [half-ripened apples] their life-dews
How sweet is the [breath] [taste] of the [fragrance they shed]
[sugar of lead]!
For summer's [last roses] [rank poisons] lie hid in the [wines]
That were garnered by [maidens who laughed through the vines.]
[stable-boys smoking long-nines.]
Then a [smile] [scowl], and a [glass] [howl], and a [toast]
[scoff], and a [cheer] [sneer],
For all [the good wine, and we've some of it here] [strychnine and
whiskey, and ratsbane and beer]
In cellar, in pantry, in attic, in hall,
[Long live the gay servant that laughs for us all!] [Down, down,
with the tyrant that masters us all!]
The company said I had been shabbily treated, and advised me to
charge the committee double,--which I did. But as I never got my
pay, I don't know that it made much difference. I am a very
particular person about having all I write printed as I write it.
I require to see a proof, a revise, a re-revise, and a double re-
revise, or fourth-proof rectified impression of all my productions,
especially verse. A misprint kills a sensitive author. An
intentional change of his text murders him. No wonder so many
poets die young!
I have nothing more to report at this time, except two pieces of
advice I gave to the young women at table. One relates to a
vulgarism of language, which I grieve to say is sometimes heard
even from female lips. The other is of more serious purport, and
applies to such as contemplate a change of condition,--matrimony,
- The woman who "calculates" is lost.
- Put not your trust in money, but put your money in trust.
[The "Atlantic" obeys the moon, and its LUNIVERSARY has come round
again. I have gathered up some hasty notes of my remarks made
since the last high tides, which I respectfully submit. Please to
remember this is TALK; just as easy and just as formal as I choose
to make it.]
- I never saw an author in my life--saving, perhaps, one--that did
not purr as audibly as a full-grown domestic cat, (Felis Catus,
LINN.,) on having his fur smoothed in the right way by a skilful
But let me give you a caution. Be very careful how you tell an
author he is DROLL. Ten to one he will hate you; and if he does,
be sure he can do you a mischief, and very probably will. Say you
CRIED over his romance or his verses, and he will love you and send
you a copy. You can laugh over that as much as you like--in
- Wonder why authors and actors are ashamed of being funny?--Why,
there are obvious reasons, and deep philosophical ones. The clown
knows very well that the women are not in love with him, but with
Hamlet, the fellow in the black cloak and plumed hat. Passion
never laughs. The wit knows that his place is at the tail of a
If you want the deep underlying reason, I must take more time to
tell it. There is a perfect consciousness in every form of wit--
using that term in its general sense--that its essence consists in
a partial and incomplete view of whatever it touches. It throws a
single ray, separated from the rest,--red, yellow, blue, or any
intermediate shade,--upon an object; never white light; that is the
province of wisdom. We get beautiful effects from wit,--all the
prismatic colors,--but never the object as it is in fair daylight.
A pun, which is a kind if wit, is a different and much shallower
trick in mental optics throwing the SHADOWS of two objects so that
one overlies the other. Poetry uses the rainbow tints for special
effects, but always keeps its essential object in the purest white
light of truth.--Will you allow me to pursue this subject a little
[They didn't allow me at that time, for somebody happened to scrape
the floor with his chair just then; which accidental sound, as all
must have noticed, has the instantaneous effect that the cutting of
the yellow hair by Iris had upon infelix Dido. It broke the charm,
and that breakfast was over.]
- Don't flatter yourselves that friendship authorizes you to say
disagreeable things to your intimates. On the contrary, the nearer
you come into relation with a person, the more necessary do tact
and courtesy become. Except in cases of necessity, which are rare,
leave your friend to learn unpleasant truths from his enemies; they
are ready enough to tell them. Good-breeding NEVER forgets that
amour-propre is universal. When you read the story of the
Archbishop and Gil Blas, you may laugh, if you will, at the poor
old man's delusion; but don't forget that the youth was the greater
fool of the two, and that his master served such a booby rightly in
turning him out of doors.
- You need not get up a rebellion against what I say, if you find
everything in my sayings is not exactly new. You can't possibly
mistake a man who means to be honest for a literary pickpocket. I
once read an introductory lecture that looked to me too learned for
its latitude. On examination, I found all its erudition was taken
ready-made from D'Israeli. If I had been ill-natured, I should
have shown up the little great man, who had once belabored me in
his feeble way. But one can generally tell these wholesale thieves
easily enough, and they are not worth the trouble of putting them
in the pillory. I doubt the entire novelty of my remarks just made
on telling unpleasant truths, yet I am not conscious of any
Neither make too much of flaws and occasional overstatements. Some
persons seem to think that absolute truth, in the form of rigidly
stated propositions, is all that conversation admits. This is
precisely as if a musician should insist on having nothing but
perfect chords and simple melodies,--no diminished fifths, no flat
sevenths, no flourishes, on any account. Now it is fair to say,
that, just as music must have all these, so conversation must have
its partial truths, its embellished truths, its exaggerated truths.
It is in its higher forms an artistic product, and admits the ideal
element as much as pictures or statues. One man who is a little
too literal can spoil the talk of a whole tableful of men of
esprit.--"Yes," you say, "but who wants to hear fanciful people's
nonsense? Put the facts to it, and then see where it is!"--
Certainly, if a man is too fond of paradox,--if he is flighty and
empty,--if, instead of striking those fifths and sevenths, those
harmonious discords, often so much better than the twinned octaves,
in the music of thought,--if, instead of striking these, he jangles
the chords, stick a fact into him like a stiletto. But remember
that talking is one of the fine arts,--the noblest, the most
important, and the most difficult,--and that its fluent harmonies
may be spoiled by the intrusion of a single harsh note. Therefore
conversation which is suggestive rather than argumentative, which
lets out the most of each talker's results of thought, is commonly
the pleasantest and the most profitable. It is not easy, at the
best, for two persons talking together to make the most of each
other's thoughts, there are so many of them.
[The company looked as if they wanted an explanation.]
When John and Thomas, for instance, are talking together, it is
natural enough that among the six there should be more or less
confusion and misapprehension.
[Our landlady turned pale;--no doubt she thought there was a screw
loose in my intellects,--and that involved the probable loss of a
boarder. A severe-looking person, who wears a Spanish cloak and a
sad cheek, fluted by the passions of the melodrama, whom I
understand to be the professional ruffian of the neighboring
theatre, alluded, with a certain lifting of the brow, drawing down
of the corners of the mouth, and somewhat rasping voce di petto, to
Falstaff's nine men in buckram. Everybody looked up. I believe
the old gentleman opposite was afraid I should seize the carving-
knife; at any rate, he slid it to one side, as it were carelessly.]
I think, I said, I can make it plain to Benjamin Franklin here,
that there are at least six personalities distinctly to be
recognized as taking part in that dialogue between John and Thomas.
1. The real John; known only to his Maker.
2. John's ideal John; never the real one, and often very unlike
3. Thomas's ideal John; never the real John, nor John's John, but
often very unlike either.
1. The real Thomas.
2. Thomas's ideal Thomas.
3. John's ideal Thomas.
Only one of the three Johns is taxed; only one can be weighed on a
platform-balance; but the other two are just as important in the
conversation. Let us suppose the real John to be old, dull, and
ill-looking. But as the Higher Powers have not conferred on men
the gift of seeing themselves in the true light, John very possibly
conceives himself to be youthful, witty, and fascinating, and talks
from the point of view of this ideal. Thomas, again, believes him
to be an artful rogue, we will say; therefore he is, so far as
Thomas's attitude in the conversation is concerned, an artful
rogue, though really simple and stupid. The same conditions apply
to the three Thomases. It follows, that, until a man can be found
who knows himself as his Maker knows him, or who sees himself as
others see him, there must be at least six persons engaged in every
dialogue between two. Of these, the least important,
philosophically speaking, is the one that we have called the real
person. No wonder two disputants often get angry, when there are
six of them talking and listening all at the same time.
[A very unphilosophical application of the above remarks was made
by a young fellow, answering to the name of John, who sits near me
at table. A certain basket of peaches, a rare vegetable, little
known to boarding-houses, was on its way to me via this unlettered
Johannes. He appropriated the three that remained in the basket,
remarking that there was just one apiece for him. I convinced him
that his practical inference was hasty and illogical, but in the
mean time he had eaten the peaches.]
- The opinions of relatives as to a man's powers are very commonly
of little value; not merely because they sometimes overrate their
own flesh and blood, as some may suppose; on the contrary, they are
quite as likely to underrate those whom they have grown into the
habit of considering like themselves. The advent of genius is like
what florists style the BREAKING of a seedling tulip into what we
may call high-caste colors,--ten thousand dingy flowers, then one
with the divine streak; or, if you prefer it, like the coming up in
old Jacob's garden of that most gentlemanly little fruit, the
seckel pear, which I have sometimes seen in shop-windows. It is a
surprise,--there is nothing to account for it. All at once we find
that twice two make FIVE. Nature is fond of what are called "gift-
enterprises." This little book of life which she has given into
the hands of its joint possessors is commonly one of the old story-
books bound over again. Only once in a great while there is a
stately poem in it, or its leaves are illuminated with the glories
of art, or they enfold a draft for untold values signed by the
million-fold millionnaire old mother herself. But strangers are
commonly the first to find the "gift" that came with the little
It may be questioned whether anything can be conscious of its own
flavor. Whether the musk-deer, or the civet-cat, or even a still
more eloquently silent animal that might be mentioned, is aware of
any personal peculiarity, may well be doubted. No man knows his
own voice; many men do not know their own profiles. Every one
remembers Carlyle's famous "Characteristics" article; allow for
exaggerations, and there is a great deal in his doctrine of the
self-unconsciousness of genius. It comes under the great law just
stated. This incapacity of knowing its own traits is often found
in the family as well as in the individual. So never mind what
your cousins, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and the rest, say
about that fine poem you have written, but send it (postage-paid)
to the editors, if there are any, of the "Atlantic,"--which, by the
way, is not so called because it is A NOTION, as some dull wits
wish they had said, but are too late.
- Scientific knowledge, even in the most modest persons, has
mingled with it a something which partakes of insolence. Absolute,
peremptory facts are bullies, and those who keep company with them
are apt to get a bullying habit of mind;--not of manners, perhaps;
they may be soft and smooth, but the smile they carry has a quiet
assertion in it, such as the Champion of the Heavy Weights,
commonly the best-natured, but not the most diffident of men, wears
upon what he very inelegantly calls his "mug." Take the man, for
instance, who deals in the mathematical sciences. There is no
elasticity in a mathematical fact; if you bring up against it, it
never yields a hair's breadth; everything must go to pieces that
comes in collision with it. What the mathematician knows being
absolute, unconditional, incapable of suffering question, it should
tend, in the nature of things, to breed a despotic way of thinking.
So of those who deal with the palpable and often unmistakable facts
of external nature; only in a less degree. Every probability--and
most of our common, working beliefs are probabilities--is provided
with BUFFERS at both ends, which break the force of opposite
opinions clashing against it; but scientific certainty has no
spring in it, no courtesy, no possibility of yielding. All this
must react on the minds which handle these forms of truth.
- Oh, you need net tell me that Messrs. A. and B. are the most
gracious, unassuming people in the world, and yet preeminent in the
ranges of science I am referring to. I know that as well as you.
But mark this which I am going to say once for all: If I had not
force enough to project a principle full in the face of the half
dozen most obvious facts which seem to contradict it, I would think
only in single file from this day forward. A rash man, once
visiting a certain noted institution at South Boston, ventured to
express the sentiment, that man is a rational being. An old woman
who was an attendant in the Idiot School contradicted the
statement, and appealed to the facts before the speaker to disprove
it. The rash man stuck to his hasty generalization,
[--It is my desire to be useful to those with whom I am associated
in my daily relations. I not unfrequently practise the divine art
of music in company with our landlady's daughter, who, as I
mentioned before, is the owner of an accordion. Having myself a
well-marked barytone voice of more than half an octave in compass,
I sometimes add my vocal powers to her execution of
"Thou, thou reign'st in this bosom."
not, however, unless her mother or some other discreet female is
present, to prevent misinterpretation or remark. I have also taken
a good deal of interest in Benjamin Franklin, before referred to,
sometimes called B. F., or more frequently Frank, in imitation of
that felicitous abbreviation, combining dignity and convenience,
adopted by some of his betters. My acquaintance with the French
language is very imperfect, I having never studied it anywhere but
in Paris, which is awkward, as B. F. devotes himself to it with the
peculiar advantage of an Alsacian teacher. The boy, I think, is
doing well, between us, notwithstanding. The following is an
UNCORRECTED French exercise, written by this young gentleman. His
mother thinks it very creditable to his abilities; though, being
unacquainted with the French language, her judgment cannot be
LE RAT DIES SALONS A LECTURE.
Ce rat ci est un animal fort singulier. Il a deux pattes de
derriere sur lesquelles il marche, et deux pattes de devant dont il
fait usage pour tenir les journaux. Cet animal a la peau noire
pour le plupart, et porte un cerele blanchatre autour de son cou.
On le trouve tous les jours aux dits salons, on il demeure, digere,
s'il y a do quoi dans son interieur, respire, tousse, eternue,
dort, et renfle quelquefois, ayant toujours le semblant de lire.
On ne sait pas s'il a une autre gite que cela. Il a l'air d'une
bete tres stupide, mais il est d'une sagacite et d'une vitesse
extraordinaire quand il s'agit de saisir un journal nouveau. On ne
sait pas pourquoi il lit, parcequ'il ne parait pas avoir des idees.
Il vocalise rarement, mais en revanche, il fait des bruits nasaux
divers. Il porte un crayon dans une de ses poches pectorales, avec
lequel il fait des marques sur les bords des journaux et des
livres, semblable aux suivans: !!!--Bah! Pooh! Il ne faut pas
cependant les prendre pour des signes d'intelligence. Il ne vole
pas, ordinairement; il fait rarement meme des echanges de
parapluie, et jamais de chapeau, parceque son chapeau a toujours un
caractere specifique. On ne sait pas au juste ce dont il se
nourrit. Feu Cuvier etait d'avis que c'etait de l'odeur du cuir
des reliures; ce qu'on dit d'etre une nourriture animale fort
saine, et peu chere. Il vit bien longtems. Enfin il meure, en
laissant a ses heritiers une carte du Salon a Lecture on il avait
existe pendant sa vie. On pretend qu'il revient toutes les nuits,
apres la mort, visiter le Salon. On peut le voir, dit on, a
minuit, dans sa place habituelle, tenant le journal du soir, et
ayant a sa main un crayon de charbon. Le lendemain on trouve des
caracteres inconnus sur les bords du journal. Ce qui prouve que le
spiritualisme est vrai, et que Messieurs les Professeurs de
Cambridge sont des imbeciles qui ne savent rien du tout, du tout.
I think this exercise, which I have not corrected, or allowed to be
touched in any way, is not discreditable to B. F. You observe that
he is acquiring a knowledge of zoology at the same time that he is
learning French. Fathers of families in moderate circumstances
will find it profitable to their children, and an economical mode
of instruction, to set them to revising and amending this boy's
exercise. The passage was originally taken from the "Histoire
Naturelle des Betes Ruminans et Rongeurs, Bipedes et Autres,"
lately published in Paris. This was translated into English and
published in London. It was republished at Great Pedlington, with
notes and additions by the American editor. The notes consist of
an interrogation-mark on page 53d, and a reference (p. 127th) to
another book "edited" by the same hand. The additions consist of
the editor's name on the title-page and back, with a complete and
authentic list of said editor's honorary titles in the first of
these localities. Our boy translated the translation back into
French. This may be compared with the original, to be found on
Shelf 13, Division X, of the Public Library of this metropolis.]
- Some of you boarders ask me from time to time why I don't write a
story, or a novel, or something of that kind. Instead of answering
each one of you separately, I will thank you to step up into the
wholesale department for a few moments, where I deal in answers by
the piece and by the bale.
That every articulately-speaking human being has in him stuff for
ONE novel in three volumes duodecimo has long been with me a
cherished belief. It has been maintained, on the other hand, that
many persons cannot write more than one novel,--that all after that
are likely to be failures.--Life is so much more tremendous a thing
in its heights and depths than any transcript of it can be, that
all records of human experience are as so many bound herbaria to
the innumerable glowing, glistening, rustling, breathing,
fragrance-laden, poison-sucking, life-giving, death-distilling
leaves and flowers of the forest and the prairies. All we can do
with books of human experience is to make them alive again with
something borrowed from our own lives. We can make a book alive
for us just in proportion to its resemblance in essence or in form
to our own experience. Now an author's first novel is naturally
drawn, to a great extent, from his personal experiences; that is,
is a literal copy of nature under various slight disguises. But
the moment the author gets out of his personality, he must have the
creative power, as well as the narrative art and the sentiment, in
order to tell a living story; and this is rare.
Besides, there is great danger that a man's first life-story shall
clean him out, so to speak, of his best thoughts. Most lives,
though their stream is loaded with sand and turbid with alluvial
waste, drop a few golden grains of wisdom as they flow along.
Oftentimes a single CRADLING gets them all, and after that the poor
man's labor is only rewarded by mud and worn pebbles. All which
proves that I, as an individual of the human family, could write
one novel or story at any rate, if I would.
- Why don't I, then?--Well, there are several reasons against it.
In the first place, I should tell all my secrets, and I maintain
that verse is the proper medium for such revelations. Rhythm and
rhyme and the harmonies of musical language, the play of fancy, the
fire of imagination, the flashes of passion, so hide the nakedness
of a heart laid open, that hardly any confession, transfigured in
the luminous halo of poetry, is reproached as self-exposure. A
beauty shows herself under the chandeliers, protected by the
glitter of her diamonds, with such a broad snowdrift of white arms
and shoulders laid bare, that, were she unadorned and in plain
calico, she would be unendurable--in the opinion of the ladies.
Again, I am terribly afraid I should show up all my friends. I
should like to know if all story-tellers do not do this? Now I am
afraid all my friends would not bear showing up very well; for they
have an average share of the common weakness of humanity, which I
am pretty certain would come out. Of all that have told stories
among us there is hardly one I can recall who has not drawn too
faithfully some living portrait that might better have been spared.
Once more, I have sometimes thought it possible I might be too dull
to write such a story as I should wish to write.
And finally, I think it very likely I SHALL write a story one of
these days. Don't be surprised at any time, if you see me coming
out with "The Schoolmistress," or "The Old Gentleman Opposite."
[OUR schoolmistress and OUR old gentleman that sits opposite had
left the table before I said this.] I want my glory for writing
the same discounted now, on the spot, if you please. I will write
when I get ready. How many people live on the reputation of the
reputation they might have made!
- I saw you smiled when I spoke about the possibility of my being
too dull to write a good story. I don't pretend to know what you
meant by it, but I take occasion to make a remark which may
hereafter prove of value to some among you.--When one of us who has
been led by native vanity or senseless flattery to think himself or
herself possessed of talent arrives at the full and final
conclusion that he or she is really dull, it is one of the most
tranquillizing and blessed convictions that can enter a mortal's
mind. All our failures, our shortcomings, our strange
disappointments in the effect of our efforts are lifted from our
bruised shoulders, and fall, like Christian's pack, at the feet of
that Omnipotence which has seen fit to deny us the pleasant gift of
high intelligence,--with which one look may overflow us in some
wider sphere of being.
- How sweetly and honestly one said to me the other day, "I hate
books!" A gentleman,--singularly free from affectations,--not
learned, of course, but of perfect breeding, which is often so much
better than learning,--by no means dull, in the sense of knowledge
of the world and society, but certainly not clever either in the
arts or sciences,--his company is pleasing to all who know him. I
did not recognize in him inferiority of literary taste half so
distinctly as I did simplicity of character and fearless
acknowledgment of his inaptitude for scholarship. In fact, I think
there are a great many gentlemen and others, who read with a mark
to keep their place, that really "hate books," but never had the
wit to find it out, or the manliness to own it. [Entre nous, I
always read with a mark.]
We get into a way of thinking as if what we call an "intellectual
man" was, as a matter of course, made up of nine-tenths, or
thereabouts, of book-learning, and one-tenth himself. But even if
he is actually so compounded, he need not read much. Society is a
strong solution of books. It draws the virtue out of what is best
worth reading, as hot water draws the strength of tea-leaves. If
_I_ were a prince, I would hire or buy a private literary tea-pot,
in which I would steep all the leaves of new books that promised
well. The infusion would do for me without the vegetable fibre.
You understand me; I would have a person whose sole business should
be to read day and night, and talk to me whenever I wanted him to.
I know the man I would have: a quick-witted, out-spoken, incisive
fellow; knows history, or at any rate has a shelf full of books
about it, which he can use handily, and the same of all useful arts
and sciences; knows all the common plots of plays and novels, and
the stock company of characters that are continually coming on in
new costume; can give you a criticism of an octavo in an epithet
and a wink, and you can depend on it; cares for nobody except for
the virtue there is in what he says; delights in taking off big
wigs and professional gowns, and in the disembalming and
unbandaging of all literary mummies. Yet he is as tender and
reverential to all that bears the mark of genius,--that is, of a
new influx of truth or beauty,--as a nun over her missal. In
short, he is one of those men that know everything except how to
make a living. Him would I keep on the square next my own royal
compartment on life's chessboard. To him I would push up another
pawn, in the shape of a comely and wise young woman, whom he would
of course take--to wife. For all contingencies I would liberally
provide. In a word, I would, in the plebeian, but expressive
phrase, "put him through" all the material part of life; see him
sheltered, warmed, fed, button-mended, and all that, just to be
able to lay on his talk when I liked,--with the privilege of
shutting it off at will.
A Club is the next best thing to this, strung like a harp, with
about a dozen ringing intelligences, each answering to some chord
of the macrocosm. They do well to dine together once in a while.
A dinner-party made up of such elements is the last triumph of
civilization over barbarism. Nature and art combine to charm the
senses; the equatorial zone of the system is soothed by well-
studied artifices; the faculties are off duty, and fall into their
natural attitudes; you see wisdom in slippers and science in a
The whole force of conversation depends on how much you can take
for granted. Vulgar chess-players have to play their game out;