Brander Matthews.

Pen and ink; papers on subjects of more or less importance online

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it is the celebrity who waits at the door like an
usher to declare the titles of the young man who
is about to cross the threshold for the first time.
Thus the young author has granted to him a pass
port by which he may gain admittance where else


he might not enter. Jules Janin was a master-
hand at the issuing of these introductory letters of
credit ; he was easy and good-natured, and rarely
or never did he refuse a novice the alms of a Pref
ace. Janin had the ear of the public, and he liked
to lead the public by the ear. Perhaps, too, he
liked the opportunity of using his high praise of
the new-comer slyly to deal a blow between the
ribs or under the belt of some old favorite whose
reputation came between him and the sun. He
who makes the Preface to another's book stands
on a vantage-ground and is free from responsi
bility ; he may classify under heads the things that
he hates, and then, in accordance with the precept
and the practice of Donnybrook, hit a head where-
ever he sees it. Truly a man may wish, " O that
mine enemy would let me write his Preface !
Could I not damn with faint praise and stab with
sharp insinuendo? " to use the labor-saving and
much-needed word thoughtlessly invented by the
sable legislator of South Carolina.

The Preface by another hand is often a pleasant
device for the display of international courtesy.
Merimee introduced Turgenef to the Parisians. In
the United States an English author may be pre
sented to the public by an American celebrity, and
in Great Britain an American book may be pub-


lished with a voucher of its orthodoxy signed by a
dignitary of the Church. The exalted friend of the
author who provides the introduction, if he be but
a true friend, may praise far more highly than even
the wiliest author would dare to praise himself.
If he understands the obligation of his position and
does his duty, he should blare the trumpet boldly
and bang the big-drum mightily, and bid the
whole world walk up and see the show which is
just about to begin. Even if the public be dull
and laggard and refuse to be charmed, the author
has at least the signal satisfaction for once in his
life of hearing his effort properly appreciated at its
exact value. If by any chance he is a truly modest
man a rare bird indeed, a white black-bird he
may have some slight qualms of conscience on
seeing himself over-praised in the pages of his own
book. But these qualms are subdued easily
enough for the most part. "I never saw an
author in my life saving perhaps one," says the
Autocrat, "that did not purr as audibly as a full-
grown domestic cat on having his fur smoothed
the right way by a skilful hand."

In default of a friend speaking as one having
authority, the author must perforce write his own
Preface and declare his own surpassing virtues.
The old-fashioned Preface, inscribed to the Gentle


Reader of the vague and doubtful past, often failed
to reach its address. The Preface of the new
school, constructed according to the true theory,
is intended solely for the critic. Now, the critic is
the very reverse of the Gentle Reader, and he
must be addressed accordingly. He studies the
Preface carefully to see what bits he can chip away
to help build his own review. " A good Preface
is as essential to put the reader into good humor
as a good prologue to a play," so the author of the
'Curiosities of Literature' tells us; but nowadays
our plays have no prologues, and it is the critic
whom the Preface must put into good humor.
Now, the critic is not the ogre he is often repre
sented ; he is a man like ourselves, a man having
to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, a man
often over-worked and often bound down to a dis-
tastefultask. He is quick to takea hint. Forhisbene-
fit the Preface should fairly bristle with hints. The
Preface should insinuate adroitly that the book it pre
cedes is in the choice phrase of the advertise
ment "a felt-want filled." This need not be done
brutally and nakedly. On the contrary, it is bet
ter to lead the mind of the critic by easy steps.
Dwell on the importance of the subject, and de
clare that in the present work it has been regarded
for the first time from a new and particular point


of view. Point out, modestly but firmly, the
special advantages which the author has enjoyed,
and which make him an authority on the subject.
Casually let drop, in quotation marks, a few words
of high praise once addressed to the author by a
great man, now no longer with us, and trust that
you have done all in your power to merit such
gratifying encomiums. You may even venture to
intimate that although you cannot expect the pro
fane vulgar to see the transcendent merit of your
work, yet the favored few of keener insight will
recognize it at once : flattery is a legal-tender with
out Act of Congress, and the critic accepts it as
readily, perhaps, as the author. The critic is only
a fellow human being after all, and like the rest of
our fellow human beings he is quite ready to take
us at our own valuation. Hold the head up; look
the world in the eye ; and he is a churlish critic
who does not at least treat you with respect.

But if the Preface is weak in tone, if it is nerve
less, if it is apologetic, then the critic takes the
author at his word and has a poor opinion of him,
and expresses that opinion in plain language. If
you throw yourself on the mercy of the court, the
critic gives you at once the full penalty of the
law. Confess a lamb and the critic hangs you
for a sheep. Give him but five lines of Preface


and he can damn any book. Acknowledge any
obligation, however slight, and the critic pounces
upon it ; and your character for originality is lost.
Every admission will be used against you. He be
lieves that you undervalue your indebtedness to
others ; and if you rashly call his attention to it, he
tries to balance the account by overstating your
debt. I know an author who had studied a sub
ject for years, contributing from time to time to
periodicals an occasional paper on certain of its
sub-divisions, until at last he was ready to write
his book about it ; his honesty moved him to say
in the Preface of the volume that he had made use
of articles in certain magazines and reviews. He
did not specifically declare that these articles were
his own work, and so one critic called the book "a
compilation from recent periodical literature," leav
ing the reader to infer that the author had been
caught decking himself out in borrowed plumes.
Two friends of the same author kindly consented
to read the proof-sheets of another of his books ;
and in the Preface thereof he thanked them by
name for " the invaluable aid they have kindly
given me in the preparation of these pages for the
press." One critic took advantage of this acknowl
edgment to credit the two friends with a material
share in the work of which they had only read the


proof. The author of that remarkable book, the
' Story of a Country Town,' wrote a most pathetic
Preface, a cry of doubt wrung from his heart ; and
there was scarcely a single favorable review of
the volume the praise of which had not been
dampened by the Preface.

The only safe rule is resolutely to set forth the
merits of the book in the Preface, and to be silent
as to its faults. Do not apologize for anything.
Confess nothing. If there are omissions, pride
yourself on them. If the book has an inevitable
defect, boast of it. A man has the qualities of his
faults, says the French maxim ; in a Preface, a man
must defiantly set up his faults as qualities. Of
course this needs to be done with the greatest
skill ; and it is seen in perfection only in the Pref
aces of those who have both taste and tact, and
who combine a masculine vigor of handling with
a feminine delicacy of touch. Anybody can write
a book, as I have said already, but only a man
singularly gifted by nature and richly cultivated by
art can write a Preface as it ought to be written.

If common decency requires absolutely that the
author confess something, an indebtedness to a
predecessor, or the like, even then this confession
must not encumber and disfigure the Preface.
Dismiss the thought of the confession wholly from


your mind while you are composing the Preface.
Then declare your indebtedness and avow any of
the seven deadly sins of which you may have been
guilty in a note, in a modest and unobtrusive
little note, either at the end of the book or at the
bottom of the page. The critic always reads the
Preface, but only a man really interested in the
subject ever digs into a note. A foot-note, lurking
shyly in fine type, is perhaps the best place for a
man to confess his sins in. And yet there is a
great advantage in postponing the bad quarter of
an hour as long as possible that is to say, to the
very end of the book. When the aspiring drama
tist brought his tragedy to Sheridan as the mana
ger of Drury Lane, he said that he had written the
prologue himself and he had ventured to hope that
perhaps Mr. Sheridan would favor him with an
epilogue. "An epilogue, my dear sir," cried
Sheridan ; "it will never come to that ! "

In talking over the true theory of the Preface
with friends engaged in other trades than that of
letters, I have found that the same principle ob
tains elsewhere. A learned professor told me that
he never declared the limitations of his course in
his first lecture ; he preferred to begin by getting
the attention of the students ; when he had once
acquired this, why, then he found occasion casu-


ally in the second or third, or even the fourth
lecture, to let his hearers know, as if by accident,
just what bounds he proposed to set to his dis
course. The case of the dramatist is even harder,
for an acknowledgment of any kind printed in the
playbill, before the curtain rises on the first act for
the first time, is more dangerous than the most
apologetic Preface. Dramatists have always
availed themselves of the royal privilege of prig
ging or, if this sound unseemly, let us say, of
taking their goods wherever they found them. So
many playwrights have presented as new and
original plays which were neither new nor original,
that critics are wary and suspicious. They are
inclined to believe the worst of their fellow-man
when he has written a play : after all, as M. Thiers
said, it is so easy not to write a tragedy in five
acts. But if a man has written a tragedy in five
acts or a comedy in three, if a man is an honest
man, and if he is under some trifling obligations
to some forgotten predecessor, what is he to do ?
The critics are sure to suppose that the author has
understated his indebtedness. If he say he took a
hint for a scene or a character from Schiller or Sir
Walter Scott or Alexandre Dumas, the critics are
likely to record that the play is derived from
Schiller, or Scott, or Dumas. If he say his plot


was suggested by a part of an old play, they are
likely to set it down as founded on the old play.
If he confess that his piece is remotely based on
another in a foreign tongue, they call it an adapta
tion. And if he, in the excess of his honesty, pre
sents his play humbly as an adaptation, they go a
step farther and accept it as a translation, and are
even capable of finding fault with it because it
does not exactly reproduce the original. If Mr.
Pinero, when in his charming comedy, the
' Squire,' he sought to bring the scent of the hay
across the footlights, had made an allusion to Mr.
Hardy's story, not a few dramatic critics would
have called the play an adaptation of the story
which it was not. It is impossible for the drama
tist to frame an acknowledgment which shall
declare with mathematical precision his indebted
ness to any given predecessor for a bit of color,
for a vague suggestion of character, for a stray hint
of a situation, or for a small but pregnant knot of
man and motive. It cannot be set down in plain
figures. Unfortunately for him who writes for
the stage, the playbill which everybody reads
is the only Preface ; and there are no foot-notes
possible. The dramatist has to confess his obliga
tion at the very worst moment, or else forever
after hold his peace.


"A Preface, being the entrance to a book,
should invite by its beauty. An elegant porch an
nounces the splendor of the interior," said the
elder Disraeli, setting forth the theory of the Pref
ace as it was in the past. But this is not the new
and true theory of the Preface, which should be
written in letters of gold in the study of every
maker of books : "If you want to have your
book criticized favorably, give yourself a good
notice in the Preface ! " This is the true theory,
in the very words of its discoverer. If it is not ab
solutely sound and water-tight, it is, at all events,
an admirable working hypothesis. Although others
had had faint glimmerings of the truth, it was left
for a friend of mine to formulate it finally and as I
have given it here. To him are due the thanks of
all makers of books and he is a publisher.





F it chance that artists fall to talking
about their art, it is the critic's place
to listen, that he may pick up a
little knowledge. Of late, certain of
the novelists of Great Britain and the
United States have been discussing the principles
and the practice of the art of writing stories. Mr.
Howells declared his warm appreciation of Mr.
Henry James's novels ; Mr. Stevenson made public
a delightful plea for Romance ; Mr. Besant lectured
gracefully on the Art of Fiction ; and Mr. James
modestly presented his views by way of supple
ment and criticism. The discussion took a wide
range. With more or less fulness it covered the
proper aim and intent of the novelist, his material
and his methods, his success, his rewards, social
and pecuniary, and the morality of his work and
of his art. But, with all its extension, the discus
sion did not include one important branch of the
art of fiction : it did not consider at all the minor
art of the Short-story. Although neither Mr.



Howells nor Mr. James, Mr. Besant nor Mr. Ste
venson specifically limited his remarks to those
longer, and, in the picture dealer's sense of the
word, more " important," tales known as Novels,
and, although, of course, their general criticisms
of the abstract principles of the art of fiction ap
plied quite as well to the Short-story as to the
Novel, yet all their concrete examples were full-
length Novels, and the Short-story, as such,
received no recognition at all.

The difference between a Novel and a Novelette
is one of length only : a Novelette is a brief Novel.
But the difference between a Novel and a Short-
story is a difference of kind. A true Short-story is
something other and something more than a mere
story which is short. A true Short-story differs
from the Novel chiefly in its essential unity of im
pression. In a far more exact and precise use of
the word, a Short-story has unity as a Novel can
not have it. Often, it may be noted by the way,
the Short-story fulfils the three false unities of the
French classic drama : it shows one action in one
place on one day. A Short-story deals with a sin
gle character, a single event, a single emotion, or
the series of emotions called forth by a single situ
ation. Poe's paradox that a poem cannot greatly
exceed a hundred lines in length under penalty of


ceasing to be one poem and breaking into a string
of poems, may serve to suggest the precise differ
ence between the Short-story and the Novel. The
Short-story is the single effect, complete and self-
contained, while the Novel is of necessity broken
into a series of episodes. Thus the Short-story
has, what the Novel cannot have, the effect of
"totality," as Poe called it, the unity of impres
sion. The Short-story is not only not a chapter
out of a Novel, or an incident or an episode ex
tracted from a longer tale, but at its best it im
presses the reader with the belief that it would be
spoiled if it were made larger or if it were incor
porated into a more elaborate work. The differ
ence in spirit and in form between the Lyric and
the Epic is scarcely greater than the difference
between the Short-story and the Novel ; and the
' Raven ' and ' How we brought the good news
from Ghent to Aix ' are not more unlike the ' Lady
of the Lake ' and ' Paradise Lost,' in form and in
spirit, than the ' Luck of Roaring Camp ' and the
'Man without a Country,' two typical Short-
stories, are unlike ' Vanity Fair ' and the ' Heart
of Midlothian,' two typical Novels.

Another great difference between the Short-
story and the Novel lies in the fact that the Novel,
nowadays at least, must be a love-tale, while the


Short-story need not deal with love at all. Al
though ' Vanity Fair ' was a Novel without a Hero,
nearly every other Novel has a hero and a heroine,
and the novelist, however unwillingly, must con
cern himself in their love-affairs. But the writer
of Short-stories is under no bonds of this sort. Of
course he may tell a tale of love if he choose, and if
love enters into his tale naturally and to its enrich
ing ; but he need not bother with love at all unless
he please. Some of the best of Short-stories are
love-stories too, Mr. Aldrich's 'Marjory Daw'
for instance, Mr. Stimson's ' Mrs. Knollys , ' Mr.
Bunner's ' Love in Old Cloathes ' ; but more of
them are not love-stories at all. If we were to
pick out the ten best Short-stories, I think we
should find that fewer than half of them made any
mention at all of love. In the ' Snow Image ' and
in the ' Ambitious Guest,' in the ' Gold Bug ' and
in the ' Fall of the House of Usher, ' in ' My Double,
and how he Undid me,' in ' Devil-Puzzlers,' in the
' Outcasts of Poker Flat,' in ' Jean-ah Poquelin,' in
' A Bundle of Letters,' there is little or no mention
of the love of man for woman, which is the chief
topic of conversation in a Novel. While the
Novel cannot get on without love, the Short-story
can. Since love is almost the only thing which
will give interest to a long story, the writer of


Novels has to get love into his tales as best he
may, even when the subject rebels and when he
himself is too old to take any interest in the
mating of John and Joan. But the Short-story,
being brief, does not need a love-interest to hold
its parts together, and the writer of Short-stories
has thus a greater freedom: he may do as he
pleases ; from him a love-tale is not expected.

But other things are required of a writer of
Short-stories which are not required of a writer of
Novels. The novelist may take his time : he has
abundant room to turn about. The writer of
Short-stories must be concise, and compression,
a vigorous compression, is essential. For him,
more than for any one else, the half is more than
the whole. Again, the novelist may be common
place, he may bend his best energies to the photo
graphic reproduction of the actual ; if he show us
a cross section of real life we are content ; but the
writer of Short-stories must have originality and
ingenuity. If to compression, originality, and in
genuity he add also a touch of fantasy, so much
the better. It may be said that no one has ever
succeeded as a writer of Short-stories who had
not ingenuity, originality, and compression, and
that most of those who have succeeded in this
line had also the touch of fantasy. But there are


not a few successful novelists lacking not only in
fantasy and compression, but also in ingenuity
and originality : they had other qualities, no
doubt, but these they had not. If an example
must be given, the name of Anthony Trollope will
occur to all. Fantasy was a thing he abhorred ;
compression he knew not ; and originality and in
genuity can be conceded to him only by a strong
stretch of the ordinary meaning of the words.
Other qualities he had in plenty, but not these.
And, not having them, he was not a writer of
Short-stories. Judging from his essay on Haw
thorne, one may even go so far as to say that
Trollope did not know a good Short-story when
he saw it.

I have written Short-story with a capital S and
a hyphen because I wished to emphasize the dis
tinction between the Short-story and the story
which is merely short. The Short-story is a high
and difficult department of fiction. The story
which is short can be written by anybody who
can write at all ; and it may be good, bad, or in
different ; but at its best it is wholly unlike the
Short-story. In ' An Editor's Tales ' Trollope has
given us excellent specimens of the story which is
short ; and the stories which make up this book
are amusing enough and clever enough, but they


are wanting in the individuality and in the com
pleteness of the genuine Short-story. Like the
brief tales to be seen in the English monthly mag
azines and in the Sunday editions of American
newspapers into which they are copied, they are,
for the most part, either merely amplified anec
dotes or else incidents which might have been
used in a Novel just as well as not. Now, the
genuine Short-story abhors the idea of the Novel.
It can be conceived neither as part of a Novel nor
as elaborated and expanded so as to form a Novel.
A good Short-story is no more the synopsis of a
Novel than it is an episode from a Novel. A slight
Novel, or a Novel cut down, is a Novelette : it is
not a Short-story. Mr. Howells's ' Their Wed
ding Journey ' and Miss Howard's ' One Sum
mer' are Novelettes, little Novels. Mr. Anstey's
' Vice Versa/ Mr. Besant's ' Case of Mr. Lucraft/
Hugh Con way's ' Called Back,' Mr. Julian Haw
thorne's 'Archibald Malmaison,' and Mr. Steven
son's ' Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'
are Short-stories in conception, although they are
without the compression which the Short-story
requires. In the acute and learned essay on vers
de sodete which Mr. Frederick Locker prefixed to
his admirable ' Lyra Elegantiarum,' he declared
that the two characteristics of the best vers de



societe were brevity and brilliancy, and that the
'Rape of the Lock' would be the type and model
of the best vers de societe if it were not just a
little too long. So it is with the ' Case of Mr.
Lucraft/ with ' Vice Versa/ with 'Archibald Mal-
maison ' : they are just a little too long.

It is to be noted as a curious coincidence that
there is no exact word in English to designate
either vers de societe or the Short-story, and yet in
no language are there better vers de societe or
Short-stories than in English. It may be re
marked also that there is a certain likeness be
tween vers de societe and Short-stories : for one
thing, both seem easy to write and are hard.
And the typical qualifications of each may apply
with almost equal force to the other: vers de
societe should reveal compression, ingenuity, and
originality, and Short-stories should have brevity
and brilliancy. In no class of writing are neatness
of construction and polish of execution more
needed than in the writing of vers de societe and
of Short-stories. The writer of Short-stories
must have the sense of form, which Mr. Lathrop
has called "the highest and last attribute of a
creative writer." The construction must be logi
cal, adequate, harmonious. Here is the weak
spot in Mr. Bishop's ' One of the Thirty Pieces,'


the fundamental idea of which has extraordinary
strength perhaps not fully developed in the story.
But other of Mr. Bishop's stories the ' Battle of
Bunkerloo,' for instance are admirable in all
ways, conception and execution having an even
excellence. Again, Hugh Conway's ' Daughter
of the Stars' is a Short-story which fails from
sheer deficiency of style : here is one of the very
finest Short-story ideas ever given to mortal man,
but the handling is at best barely sufficient. To
do justice to the conception would task the execu
tion of a poet. We can merely wonder what the
tale would have been had it occurred to Haw
thorne, to Poe, or to Theophile Gautier. An idea
logically developed by one possessing the sense of
form and the gift of style is what we look for in

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Online LibraryBrander MatthewsPen and ink; papers on subjects of more or less importance → online text (page 4 of 14)