Copyright
Charles Dudley Warner.

Backlog Studies online

. (page 7 of 12)
Online LibraryCharles Dudley WarnerBacklog Studies → online text (page 7 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


understood that the Bible is very well spoken of there, but it is not
antiquated enough to be an authority.

OUR NEXT DOOR. There was a project on foot to put it into the
circulating library, but the title New in the second part was considered
objectionable.

HERBERT. Well, I have a good deal of sympathy with Concord as to the
news. We are fed on a daily diet of trivial events and gossip, of
the unfruitful sayings of thoughtless men and women, until our mental
digestion is seriously impaired; the day will come when no one will be
able to sit down to a thoughtful, well-wrought book and assimilate its
contents.

THE MISTRESS. I doubt if a daily newspaper is a necessity, in the higher
sense of the word.

THE PARSON. Nobody supposes it is to women, - that is, if they can see
each other.

THE MISTRESS. Don't interrupt, unless you have something to say; though
I should like to know how much gossip there is afloat that the minister
does not know. The newspaper may be needed in society, but how quickly
it drops out of mind when one goes beyond the bounds of what is called
civilization. You remember when we were in the depths of the woods last
summer how difficult it was to get up any interest in the files of late
papers that reached us, and how unreal all the struggle and turmoil of
the world seemed. We stood apart, and could estimate things at their
true value.

THE YOUNG LADY. Yes, that was real life. I never tired of the guide's
stories; there was some interest in the intelligence that a deer had
been down to eat the lily-pads at the foot of the lake the night before;
that a bear's track was seen on the trail we crossed that day; even
Mandeville's fish-stories had a certain air of probability; and how to
roast a trout in the ashes and serve him hot and juicy and clean, and
how to cook soup and prepare coffee and heat dish-water in one tin-pail,
were vital problems.

THE PARSON. You would have had no such problems at home. Why will people
go so far to put themselves to such inconvenience? I hate the woods.
Isolation breeds conceit; there are no people so conceited as those who
dwell in remote wildernesses and live mostly alone.

THE YOUNG LADY. For my part, I feel humble in the presence of mountains,
and in the vast stretches of the wilderness.

THE PARSON. I'll be bound a woman would feel just as nobody would expect
her to feel, under given circumstances.

MANDEVILLE. I think the reason why the newspaper and the world it
carries take no hold of us in the wilderness is that we become a kind of
vegetable ourselves when we go there. I have often attempted to improve
my mind in the woods with good solid books. You might as well offer a
bunch of celery to an oyster. The mind goes to sleep: the senses and the
instincts wake up. The best I can do when it rains, or the trout won't
bite, is to read Dumas's novels. Their ingenuity will almost keep a man
awake after supper, by the camp-fire. And there is a kind of unity about
them that I like; the history is as good as the morality.

OUR NEXT DOOR. I always wondered where Mandeville got his historical
facts.

THE MISTRESS. Mandeville misrepresents himself in the woods. I heard him
one night repeat "The Vision of Sir Launfal" - (THE FIRE-TENDER. Which
comes very near being our best poem.) - as we were crossing the lake, and
the guides became so absorbed in it that they forgot to paddle, and sat
listening with open mouths, as if it had been a panther story.

THE PARSON. Mandeville likes to show off well enough. I heard that he
related to a woods' boy up there the whole of the Siege of Troy. The
boy was very much interested, and said "there'd been a man up there that
spring from Troy, looking up timber." Mandeville always carries the news
when he goes into the country.

MANDEVILLE. I'm going to take the Parson's sermon on Jonah next summer;
it's the nearest to anything like news we've had from his pulpit in ten
years. But, seriously, the boy was very well informed. He'd heard of
Albany; his father took in the "Weekly Tribune," and he had a partial
conception of Horace Greeley.

OUR NEXT DOOR. I never went so far out of the world in America yet that
the name of Horace Greeley did n't rise up before me. One of the first
questions asked by any camp-fire is, "Did ye ever see Horace?"

HERBERT. Which shows the power of the press again. But I have often
remarked how little real conception of the moving world, as it is,
people in remote regions get from the newspaper. It needs to be read in
the midst of events. A chip cast ashore in a refluent eddy tells no tale
of the force and swiftness of the current.

OUR NEXT DOOR. I don't exactly get the drift of that last remark; but
I rather like a remark that I can't understand; like the landlady's
indigestible bread, it stays by you.

HERBERT. I see that I must talk in words of one syllable. The newspaper
has little effect upon the remote country mind, because the remote
country mind is interested in a very limited number of things. Besides,
as the Parson says, it is conceited. The most accomplished scholar will
be the butt of all the guides in the woods, because he cannot follow a
trail that would puzzle a sable (saple the trappers call it).

THE PARSON. It's enough to read the summer letters that people write
to the newspapers from the country and the woods. Isolated from the
activity of the world, they come to think that the little adventures of
their stupid days and nights are important. Talk about that being real
life! Compare the letters such people write with the other contents of
the newspaper, and you will see which life is real. That's one reason I
hate to have summer come, the country letters set in.

THE MISTRESS. I should like to see something the Parson does n't hate to
have come.

MANDEVILLE. Except his quarter's salary; and the meeting of the American
Board.

THE FIRE-TENDER. I don't see that we are getting any nearer the solution
of the original question. The world is evidently interested in events
simply because they are recent.

OUR NEXT DOOR. I have a theory that a newspaper might be published at
little cost, merely by reprinting the numbers of years before, only
altering the dates; just as the Parson preaches over his sermons.

THE FIRE-TENDER. It's evident we must have a higher order of
news-gatherers. It has come to this, that the newspaper furnishes
thought-material for all the world, actually prescribes from day to day
the themes the world shall think on and talk about. The occupation of
news-gathering becomes, therefore, the most important. When you think of
it, it is astonishing that this department should not be in the hands
of the ablest men, accomplished scholars, philosophical observers,
discriminating selectors of the news of the world that is worth thinking
over and talking about. The editorial comments frequently are able
enough, but is it worth while keeping an expensive mill going to grind
chaff? I sometimes wonder, as I open my morning paper, if nothing did
happen in the twenty-four hours except crimes, accidents, defalcations,
deaths of unknown loafers, robberies, monstrous births, - say about the
level of police-court news.

OUR NEXT DOOR. I have even noticed that murders have deteriorated; they
are not so high-toned and mysterious as they used to be.

THE FIRE-TENDER. It is true that the newspapers have improved vastly
within the last decade.

HERBERT. I think, for one, that they are very much above the level of
the ordinary gossip of the country.

THE FIRE-TENDER. But I am tired of having the under-world still occupy
so much room in the newspapers. The reporters are rather more alert for
a dog-fight than a philological convention. It must be that the good
deeds of the world outnumber the bad in any given day; and what a good
reflex action it would have on society if they could be more fully
reported than the bad! I suppose the Parson would call this the
Enthusiasm of Humanity.

THE PARSON. You'll see how far you can lift yourself up by your
boot-straps.

HERBERT. I wonder what influence on the quality (I say nothing of
quantity) of news the coming of women into the reporter's and editor's
work will have.

OUR NEXT DOOR. There are the baby-shows; they make cheerful reading.

THE MISTRESS. All of them got up by speculating men, who impose upon the
vanity of weak women.

HERBERT. I think women reporters are more given to personal details
and gossip than the men. When I read the Washington correspondence I am
proud of my country, to see how many Apollo Belvederes, Adonises, how
much marble brow and piercing eye and hyacinthine locks, we have in the
two houses of Congress.

THE YOUNG LADY. That's simply because women understand the personal
weakness of men; they have a long score of personal flattery to pay off
too.

MANDEVILLE. I think women will bring in elements of brightness,
picturesqueness, and purity very much needed. Women have a power
of investing simple ordinary things with a charm; men are bungling
narrators compared with them.

THE PARSON. The mistake they make is in trying to write, and especially
to "stump-speak," like men; next to an effeminate man there is nothing
so disagreeable as a mannish woman.

HERBERT. I heard one once address a legislative committee. The knowing
air, the familiar, jocular, smart manner, the nodding and winking
innuendoes, supposed to be those of a man "up to snuff," and au fait in
political wiles, were inexpressibly comical. And yet the exhibition
was pathetic, for it had the suggestive vulgarity of a woman in man's
clothes. The imitation is always a dreary failure.

THE MISTRESS. Such women are the rare exceptions. I am ready to defend
my sex; but I won't attempt to defend both sexes in one.

THE FIRE-TENDER. I have great hope that women will bring into the
newspaper an elevating influence; the common and sweet life of society
is much better fitted to entertain and instruct us than the exceptional
and extravagant. I confess (saving the Mistress's presence) that the
evening talk over the dessert at dinner is much more entertaining and
piquant than the morning paper, and often as important.

THE MISTRESS. I think the subject had better be changed.

MANDEVILLE. The person, not the subject. There is no entertainment
so full of quiet pleasure as the hearing a lady of cultivation and
refinement relate her day's experience in her daily rounds of calls,
charitable visits, shopping, errands of relief and condolence. The
evening budget is better than the finance minister's.

OUR NEXT DOOR. That's even so. My wife will pick up more news in six
hours than I can get in a week, and I'm fond of news.

MANDEVILLE. I don't mean gossip, by any means, or scandal. A woman of
culture skims over that like a bird, never touching it with the tip of a
wing. What she brings home is the freshness and brightness of life. She
touches everything so daintily, she hits off a character in a sentence,
she gives the pith of a dialogue without tediousness, she mimics without
vulgarity; her narration sparkles, but it does n't sting. The picture
of her day is full of vivacity, and it gives new value and freshness to
common things. If we could only have on the stage such actresses as we
have in the drawing-room!

THE FIRE-TENDER. We want something more of this grace, sprightliness,
and harmless play of the finer life of society in the newspaper.

OUR NEXT DOOR. I wonder Mandeville does n't marry, and become a
permanent subscriber to his embodied idea of a newspaper.

THE YOUNG LADY. Perhaps he does not relish the idea of being unable to
stop his subscription.

OUR NEXT DOOR. Parson, won't you please punch that fire, and give us
more blaze? we are getting into the darkness of socialism.





III

Herbert returned to us in March. The Young Lady was spending the winter
with us, and March, in spite of the calendar, turned out to be a winter
month. It usually is in New England, and April too, for that matter. And
I cannot say it is unfortunate for us. There are so many topics to be
turned over and settled at our fireside that a winter of ordinary length
would make little impression on the list. The fireside is, after all,
a sort of private court of chancery, where nothing ever does come to a
final decision. The chief effect of talk on any subject is to strengthen
one's own opinions, and, in fact, one never knows exactly what he does
believe until he is warmed into conviction by the heat of attack and
defence. A man left to himself drifts about like a boat on a calm lake;
it is only when the wind blows that the boat goes anywhere.

Herbert said he had been dipping into the recent novels written by
women, here and there, with a view to noting the effect upon literature
of this sudden and rather overwhelming accession to it. There was a good
deal of talk about it evening after evening, off and on, and I can only
undertake to set down fragments of it.

HERBERT. I should say that the distinguishing feature of the literature
of this day is the prominence women have in its production. They figure
in most of the magazines, though very rarely in the scholarly and
critical reviews, and in thousands of newspapers; to them we are
indebted for the oceans of Sunday-school books, and they write the
majority of the novels, the serial stories, and they mainly pour out the
watery flood of tales in the weekly papers. Whether this is to result in
more good than evil it is impossible yet to say, and perhaps it would be
unjust to say, until this generation has worked off its froth, and women
settle down to artistic, conscientious labor in literature.

THE MISTRESS. You don't mean to say that George Eliot, and Mrs. Gaskell,
and George Sand, and Mrs. Browning, before her marriage and severe
attack of spiritism, are less true to art than contemporary men
novelists and poets.

HERBERT. You name some exceptions that show the bright side of the
picture, not only for the present, but for the future. Perhaps genius
has no sex; but ordinary talent has. I refer to the great body of
novels, which you would know by internal evidence were written by women.
They are of two sorts: the domestic story, entirely unidealized, and as
flavorless as water-gruel; and the spiced novel, generally immoral in
tendency, in which the social problems are handled, unhappy marriages,
affinity and passional attraction, bigamy, and the violation of the
seventh commandment. These subjects are treated in the rawest manner,
without any settled ethics, with little discrimination of eternal right
and wrong, and with very little sense of responsibility for what is set
forth. Many of these novels are merely the blind outbursts of a nature
impatient of restraint and the conventionalities of society, and are as
chaotic as the untrained minds that produce them.

MANDEVILLE. Don't you think these novels fairly represent a social
condition of unrest and upheaval?

HERBERT. Very likely; and they help to create and spread abroad the
discontent they describe. Stories of bigamy (sometimes disguised by
divorce), of unhappy marriages, where the injured wife, through an
entire volume, is on the brink of falling into the arms of a sneaking
lover, until death kindly removes the obstacle, and the two souls, who
were born for each other, but got separated in the cradle, melt and
mingle into one in the last chapter, are not healthful reading for maids
or mothers.

THE MISTRESS. Or men.

THE FIRE-TENDER. The most disagreeable object to me in modern literature
is the man the women novelists have introduced as the leading character;
the women who come in contact with him seem to be fascinated by his
disdainful mien, his giant strength, and his brutal manner. He is broad
across the shoulders, heavily moulded, yet as lithe as a cat; has an
ugly scar across his right cheek; has been in the four quarters of the
globe; knows seventeen languages; had a harem in Turkey and a Fayaway in
the Marquesas; can be as polished as Bayard in the drawing-room, but is
as gloomy as Conrad in the library; has a terrible eye and a withering
glance, but can be instantly subdued by a woman's hand, if it is not
his wife's; and through all his morose and vicious career has carried a
heart as pure as a violet.

THE MISTRESS. Don't you think the Count of Monte Cristo is the elder
brother of Rochester?

THE FIRE-TENDER. One is a mere hero of romance; the other is meant for a
real man.

MANDEVILLE. I don't see that the men novel-writers are better than the
women.

HERBERT. That's not the question; but what are women who write so large
a proportion of the current stories bringing into literature? Aside
from the question of morals, and the absolutely demoralizing manner
of treating social questions, most of their stories are vapid and weak
beyond expression, and are slovenly in composition, showing neither
study, training, nor mental discipline.

THE MISTRESS. Considering that women have been shut out from the
training of the universities, and have few opportunities for the wide
observation that men enjoy, isn't it pretty well that the foremost
living writers of fiction are women?

HERBERT. You can say that for the moment, since Thackeray and Dickens
have just died. But it does not affect the general estimate. We
are inundated with a flood of weak writing. Take the Sunday-school
literature, largely the product of women; it has n't as much character
as a dried apple pie. I don't know what we are coming to if the presses
keep on running.

OUR NEXT DOOR. We are living, we are dwelling, in a grand and awful
time; I'm glad I don't write novels.

THE PARSON. So am I.

OUR NEXT DOOR. I tried a Sunday-school book once; but I made the good
boy end in the poorhouse, and the bad boy go to Congress; and the
publisher said it wouldn't do, the public wouldn't stand that sort of
thing. Nobody but the good go to Congress.

THE MISTRESS. Herbert, what do you think women are good for?

OUR NEXT DOOR. That's a poser.

HERBERT. Well, I think they are in a tentative state as to literature,
and we cannot yet tell what they will do. Some of our most brilliant
books of travel, correspondence, and writing on topics in which their
sympathies have warmly interested them, are by women. Some of them are
also strong writers in the daily journals.

MANDEVILLE. I 'm not sure there's anything a woman cannot do as well as
a man, if she sets her heart on it.

THE PARSON. That's because she's no conscience.

CHORUS. O Parson!

THE PARSON. Well, it does n't trouble her, if she wants to do anything.
She looks at the end, not the means. A woman, set on anything, will walk
right through the moral crockery without wincing. She'd be a great deal
more unscrupulous in politics than the average man. Did you ever see a
female lobbyist? Or a criminal? It is Lady Macbeth who does not falter.
Don't raise your hands at me! The sweetest angel or the coolest devil is
a woman. I see in some of the modern novels we have been talking of the
same unscrupulous daring, a blindness to moral distinctions, a constant
exaltation of a passion into a virtue, an entire disregard of the
immutable laws on which the family and society rest. And you ask lawyers
and trustees how scrupulous women are in business transactions!

THE FIRE-TENDER. Women are often ignorant of affairs, and, besides, they
may have a notion often that a woman ought to be privileged more than
a man in business matters; but I tell you, as a rule, that if men
would consult their wives, they would go a deal straighter in business
operations than they do go.

THE PARSON. We are all poor sinners. But I've another indictment against
the women writers. We get no good old-fashioned love-stories from them.
It's either a quarrel of discordant natures one a panther, and the other
a polar bear - for courtship, until one of them is crippled by a railway
accident; or a long wrangle of married life between two unpleasant
people, who can neither live comfortably together nor apart. I suppose,
by what I see, that sweet wooing, with all its torturing and delightful
uncertainty, still goes on in the world; and I have no doubt that the
majority of married people live more happily than the unmarried. But
it's easier to find a dodo than a new and good love-story.

MANDEVILLE. I suppose the old style of plot is exhausted. Everything in
man and outside of him has been turned over so often that I should think
the novelists would cease simply from want of material.

THE PARSON. Plots are no more exhausted than men are. Every man is a new
creation, and combinations are simply endless. Even if we did not have
new material in the daily change of society, and there were only a
fixed number of incidents and characters in life, invention could not be
exhausted on them. I amuse myself sometimes with my kaleidoscope, but
I can never reproduce a figure. No, no. I cannot say that you may not
exhaust everything else: we may get all the secrets of a nature into a
book by and by, but the novel is immortal, for it deals with men.

The Parson's vehemence came very near carrying him into a sermon; and
as nobody has the privilege of replying to his sermons, so none of the
circle made any reply now.

Our Next Door mumbled something about his hair standing on end, to hear
a minister defending the novel; but it did not interrupt the general
silence. Silence is unnoticed when people sit before a fire; it would be
intolerable if they sat and looked at each other.

The wind had risen during the evening, and Mandeville remarked, as they
rose to go, that it had a spring sound in it, but it was as cold as
winter. The Mistress said she heard a bird that morning singing in the
sun a spring song, it was a winter bird, but it sang.





SEVENTH STUDY


We have been much interested in what is called the Gothic revival. We
have spent I don't know how many evenings in looking over Herbert's
plans for a cottage, and have been amused with his vain efforts to cover
with Gothic roofs the vast number of large rooms which the Young Lady
draws in her sketch of a small house.

I have no doubt that the Gothic, which is capable of infinite
modification, so that every house built in that style may be as
different from every other house as one tree is from every other, can be
adapted to our modern uses, and will be, when artists catch its spirit
instead of merely copying its old forms. But just now we are taking the
Gothic very literally, as we took the Greek at one time, or as we should
probably have taken the Saracenic, if the Moors had not been colored.
Not even the cholera is so contagious in this country as a style of
architecture which we happen to catch; the country is just now broken
out all over with the Mansard-roof epidemic.

And in secular architecture we do not study what is adapted to our
climate any more than in ecclesiastic architecture we adopt that which
is suited to our religion.

We are building a great many costly churches here and there, we
Protestants, and as the most of them are ill adapted to our forms of
worship, it may be necessary and best for us to change our religion in
order to save our investments. I am aware that this would be a grave
step, and we should not hasten to throw overboard Luther and the right
of private judgment without reflection. And yet, if it is necessary to
revive the ecclesiastical Gothic architecture, not in its spirit (that
we nowhere do), but in the form which served another age and another
faith, and if, as it appears, we have already a great deal of money
invested in this reproduction, it may be more prudent to go forward than
to go back. The question is, "Cannot one easier change his creed than
his pew?"

I occupy a seat in church which is an admirable one for reflection, but
I cannot see or hear much that is going on in what we like to call the
apse. There is a splendid stone pillar, a clustered column, right in
front of me, and I am as much protected from the minister as Old Put's
troops were from the British, behind the stone wall at Bunker's Hill. I
can hear his voice occasionally wandering round in the arches overhead,
and I recognize the tone, because he is a friend of mine and an
excellent man, but what he is saying I can very seldom make out. If
there was any incense burning, I could smell it, and that would be
something. I rather like the smell of incense, and it has its holy
associations. But there is no smell in our church, except of bad
air, - for there is no provision for ventilation in the splendid and
costly edifice. The reproduction of the old Gothic is so complete that


1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12

Online LibraryCharles Dudley WarnerBacklog Studies → online text (page 7 of 12)