Kate Sanborn.

The vanity and insanity of genius online

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UJarnell Hnioeraity Slihcarg

3t^aca, Nctn ^ork




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Cornell University

The original of tiiis book is in
the Cornell University Library.

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the United States on the use of the text.










" La vanite nous agite toujours."

— La Rochefoucauld


No. 5 East Seventeenth Street

Copyright, 1885,
By Kate Sanborn




o RMC %

f^ -v j'v






"A man never is so honest as when he speaks well
of himself.''''


Vanity, like space, is illimitable and all- UniversaiUy
surrounding. I have noted one of its°
phases, not in an irreverent or sneering
spirit, but as a study of human nature.
Just as much vanity exists in commonplace
men and women ; but that would make too
big a book and lack the charm which
Genius throws around its accompanying

Then the vanity of nations would be a The vanity
fertile and interesting theme. We are first '
in that regard, as we fondly fancy is the
case in other directions. Sam Slick ex-
pressed the general conviction when, in
chapter eighth of the ■' Clockmaker," he
said : '* I guess we are the greatest nation
on the face of the earth, and the most en-

of nations.

viii Preface.

lightened too. Our ships go ahead of the
ships of other folks, our steamboats beat
the British in speed, and so do our stage-
coaches, and I reckon a real right-down
New York trotter might stump the universe
for going ahead. But since we introduced
the railroads, if we don't 'go ahead,' it's a
pity. We never fairly knew what going the
whole hog was till then ; we actilly went
ahead of ourselves, and that's no easy matter,
I tell you." And again : "What a beautiful
night it is, beant it lovely ? — I like to look
up at them are stars, when I am away from
home, they put me in mind of our national
flag, and it is generally allowed to be the
first flag in the univarse now. The British
whip all the world, and we can whip the
British ! "
Yankee trav- Our boasting and bragging when in other
\t2y.^^ countries have brought upon us well-de-
served ridicule. We are apt to tell hoAV
high our buildings are and what an enor-
mous sum they cost. You remember the
Yankee who, on arriving in Italy, was asked
if he crossed the Alps. He hesitated a lit-
tle, but at length replied, *' Now you men-

Preface. ix

tion it, it seems to me I did come over some
risin' ground ! " and I once heard of a
western orator, who proposed to destroy
the naval supremacy of England, by turn-
ing the Mississippi into the Mammoth Cave
and thus drying up the Atlantic.

Novalis said, " Every Englishman is an
island," and Mackintosh added, " Every
American is a declaration of Independ-
ence." Bulwer, in the first chapter of
*' England and the English," is frank and
fearless in illustrating this point, saying :

" The passions are universally the same — Bulwer on
the expression of them as universally vary- the^E^ngiish.
ing. The French and the English are both
vain of country ; so far they are alike — yet
if there be any difference between the na-
tions more strong than another it is the
manner in which that vanity is shown.
The vanity of the Frenchman consists (as
I have somewhere read) in belonging to so
great a country ; but the vanity of the Eng-
lishman exults in the thought that so great
a country belongs to himself. The root of
all our notions, as of all our laws, is to be
found in the sentiment of property. It is

X Preface.

my wife whom you shall not insult ; it is my
house that you shall not enter ; it is 7ny
country that you shall not traduce ; and by
a species of ultra-mundane appropriation,
it is my God whom you shall not blas-
Why the " In his own mind, the Englishman is the

i^'vS"'^" pivot of all things, the centre of the solar
system. Like virtue herself, he

" ' Stands as the sun,
And all that rolls around him
Drinks light and life and glory from his aspect.'

He is vain of his country for an excellent
reason — it produced Him.

"A few months ago I paid a visit to
Paris; I fell in with a French marquis of
the Bourbonite politics ; he spoke to me of
the present state of Paris with tears in his
eyes ; I thought it best to sympathize and
agree with him ; my complaisance was dis-
pleasing ; he wiped his eyes with the air of
a man beginning to take offence. ' Never-
theless, sir,' quoth he, 'our public buildings
are superb.' I allowed the fact. * We have
made great advances in civilization.' There

Preface. xi

was no disputing the proposition. ' Our
writers are the greatest in the world.' I
was silent. ' Enfin — what a devil of a cli-
mate yours is, in comparison with ours ! '

After so much from an Englishman, Hor-
ace Greeley's remarks in one of his letters
from abroad may be accepted :

" I have said that the British in manner Horace
are not a winning people. Their self-con- Englishmen
ceit is the principal reason. They have
solid and excellent qualities, but their self-
complacency is exorbitant and unparalleled.
The majority are not content with esteem-
ing Marlborough and Wellington the great-
est generals, and Nelson the first admiral
the world ever saw, but claim a like su-
premacy for their countrymen in every field
of human effort. They deem machinery
and manufactures, railroads and steamboats,
essentially British products. They regard
morality and philanthropy as in effect pecu-
liar to 'the fast-anchored isle,' and liberty
as an idea uncomprehended, certainly un-
realized, anywhere else. They are horror-
stricken at the toleration of slavery in the
United States, in seeming ignorance that

xii Preface.

our Congress has no power to abolish it,
and that their Parliament, which -^a;^ ample
power, refused to exercise it through gen-
erations down to the last quarter of a cen-
tury. They cannot even consent to go to
heaven on a road common to other nations,
but must seek admission through a private
gate of their own, stoutly maintaining that
their local Church is the very one founded
by the Apostles, and that all others are
more or less apostate and schismatic. Other
Nationshave natious havc their weak points — the French,
potntsT glory ; the Spaniards, orthodoxy ; the Yan-
kees, rapacity ; but Bull plunders India
and murders Ireland, yet deems himself
the mirror of beneficence, and feeds his
self-righteousness by resolving not to fel-
lowship with him slaveholders of a different
fashion from himself ; he is perpetually
fighting and extending his possessions all
over the globe, yet wondering that French
and Russian ambition ivill keep the world
always in hot water. Our Yankee self-con-
ceit and self-laudation are immoderate, but
nobody else is so perfect on all points —
himself being the judge — as Bull."

Preface. xiii

Yes, as a shrewd farmer said to me the
other day, " Self is always the first man on

Self-praise is seen in States as well as na- The rustic

,.,..., T . , from Maine.

tions and mdividuals. I can laugh yet over
the rustic at the Centennial w^ho hailed
from the Pine Tree State, and, surveying
the main building with wonder, inquired
what it was. " That is the main building,"
said a kindly stranger. " Wall, I thought
our State would beat all the rest in build-
ings, and she has ! "

A Massachusetts man expresses his views The great-
in this style : "A great State. Old Massa- sute^ofMas-
chusetts has ever taken the lead in what's ^^'^^"^^"^"
great, good, useful, and profitable. She
established the first school in the United
States, the first academy and the first college.
She set up the first press, printed the first
book and the first newspaper ; ^le planted
the first apple tree, and caught the first
whale ; she coined the first money, and hoist-
ed the first national flag ; she made the first
canal, and the first railroad ; she invented the
first mouse-trap, and washing-machine, and
sent the first ship to discover islands and con-

xiv Preface.

tinents in the South Sea ; she produced the
first philosopher, and made the first pin ;
she fired the first gun in the Revolution,
and gave * John Bull ' his first beating, and
put her hand first to the Declaration of In-
dependence. She invented ' Yankee Doo-
dle,' and gave a name forever to ' the Uni-
versal Yankee Nation.' Truly a great State."

My publisher suggested a brief preface,
stating how I happened to collect and ar-
range this mosaic of quotations. I should
enjoy doing so, but the study of egotism
has made me prudent and self-denying. I
will only say I do not believe any one else
could have done it as well !





Chapter I., i

Chapter II., 30

Chapter III., 67


Chapter I., 107

Chapter II., 157

Index 193

"Vanity is so anchored in the heart of man that a soldier^
sutler, cook, street porter, vapour and uuish to have their ad-
mirers ; and philosophers even ivish the saine. And those
■who write against it wish to have the glory of having written
well ; and those who read it wish to have the glory of having
read well ; and /, who write this, have perhaps, this desire;
and perhaps those who will read this.'" — Pascal






It is difficult to decide on a title for this various
talk ; no one word expressing the idea, for typw of"
words as well as characters have such a^'^""^"
variety of shading in their meaning. Self-
consciousness, vanity, undue estimation or
proper estimation unduly blazoned, colos-
sal conceit that is simply laughable, a state-
ment of one's superiority that all are willing
to acknowledge, but somewhat too ponder-
ous and egotistic for everyday life, a full re-
alization of genius ; all these types must be
mentioned and illustrated.

Who can wonder at conceit in the Immor- Conceit m
tals when it is so largely displayed in the ranks"'"
humblest ranks ? Who has not met persons
of most moderate attainments weighted
with such an overpowering conceit that we

2 The Vanity of Genius.

could only stare, smile, and succumb ? I
recall a semi- or two-third idiot who, for
reasons of family friendship, was allowed
to draw a modest salary as porter in a large
wholesale store, while others did most of
the work. His face was at once repulsive
and ridiculous ; a forehead of unnatural
height, eyes crossed and vacant, an im-
mense nose, teeth of the horse variety, a
lank, loose jointed, ungainly figure, and a
shambling, knock-kneed gait ! Yet this un-
fortunate object, this being that you pitied
so sincerely, had a tremendous amount of
conceit. He would gravely sit and recount
his usefulness, his advice to the head of the
firm, suggestions which saved the establish-
ment from ruin ; and his whole air and con-
versation gave the impression that he felt
he was wasting his time on a most inferior
set of people out of pure kindness to those
so far below him in insight and business sa-
Conceitde- gacity. Sucli illusion is a blessing. And a

sirable if not , . ^ . . ...

necessary, ccrtam amouut of couccit Or conviction of
capacity, properly concealed, is absolutely
necessary for success and comfort. *' Talk
about conceit as much as you like," says Dr.

TJie Vanity of Genius. 3

Holmes, " it is to h.uman character what salt Dr. Holmes'
is to the ocean ; it keeps it sweet and renders conSt" °"
it endurable."

The world is so hurried and worried, so
occupied with its own affairs, that it cannot
stop to supply timid talent with props and
bolsters, or coax modest worth out of her
corner. The advice of Home Tooke was
profound : " If you wish to be powerful,
pretend to be powerful."

People are generally taken at their own People taken

, , _ 1 . -, , at their own

estmiate, and cheerful, consistent seli-ap- estimate,
preciation should not be condemned. The
Rev. Dr. Cuyler felt this, when, speaking
lately of the charge of egotism brought
against Joseph Cook, he said : " He has no
more egotism than every truly great man,
who has taken his own measurement, and
who speaks out the truths which God has
given him to utter." Daniel Webster was
not an egotist when he said in the Senate :
" When any man drives me from this posi-
tion, then let him talk of discomfiture — and
not till then." Nor was the great Apostle
an egotist when he exclaimed — "They glori-
fied God in me."

4 The Vanity of Genius.

Few realize how well- they do think of
themselves until it is brought out by an
adroit student of human nature, or by skil-
ful flattery, but almost every human being,
high or low, is vulnerable on that point.
For instance, some Frenchmen who had
landed on the coast of Guinea, found a
Vanity of a ucgro princc seated under a tree, on a block
negroprince. ^^ ^Qod for his throne, and three or four
negroes, armed with wooden pikes for his
guards. His sable majesty anxiously in-
quired : " Do they talk much of me in
France ? "
Scottish And I recall a story of a Scottish driver

thTDuTe of of pigs, who was led on by a waggish Eng-
weiiington. lig^man to talk of himself. At last, it was
boldly stated by this wicked fellow that the
driver was in fact a greater man than the
Duke of Wellington ! The stupid lout
scratched his thick head, and, with a satis-
fied expression, replied : " Aweel, Welling-
ton was a great mon, and verra smart in his
own way ; but I doot — I doot, if he could
ha driven seven hundred pigs fra Edinboro
to Lonnon — and not lose one — as / ha

The Vanity of Genius. 5

"Vanity has taken so firm- liold in the Pascal's ob-
heart of man," says Pascal, " that a porter, ^*''''^"°"^-
a headman, a turnspit, can talk greatly ,
of himself, and is for having his admirers."
And he goes on to say that the very frogs
find music in their own croaking, and that
the look of self-satisfaction on the face of a
croaking frog is scarcely to be matched in
nature. This so disgusted the saintly
Pascal, that it is said he wore a girdle of
spikes which he pressed into himself when-
ever he was conscious of vanity.

How much truth Sir Philip Sidney ex- sir Philip
pressed in the sentence : " Self-love is bet- flectJoL^and
ter than any gilding to make that seem gor- masten"^
geous w^herein ourselves are parties." This
truth, he says, was "driven into him" by
the daily bragging of his riding-master.
" When the right virtuous E. W. and I
were at the Emperor's court together, we
gave ourselves to learn horsemanship of
Gio. Pietri Pugliano — one that, with great
commendation, had the place of an esquire
in his stable ; and he, according to the fer-
tileness of the Italian wit, did not only
afford us the demonstration of his practice,

6 The Vanity of Genius.

but sought to enrich our minds with the

contemplation therein, which he thought

Sir Philip vvas most prccious. But with none, I re-

flections%nd iT^^e^ber, mine ears were at any time more

his riding loaden than when (angered with our slow

master. ^ ' - '

payment, or moved with our learner-like
admiration) he expressed his speech in
praise of his faculty. He said soldiers were
the noblest of mankind, and horsemen were
the noblest soldiers. He said they were the
masters of war, and the ornament of peace ;
speedy goers and strong abiders ; triumph-
ers both in camps and courts ; nay, to so
unbelieved a point he proceeded, as that
no earthly thing bred so much wonder to a
prince as to be a good horseman ; skill in
government was hwX. pedanteria in compari-
son. Then would he add certain praises,
by telling what a peerless beast the horse
was ; the only serviceable courtier without
flattery ; the beast of beauty, faithfulness,
courage, and such more, that, if I had not
been a piece of a logician before I came to
him, I think he would have persuaded me
to have wished myself a horse ! " And he
uses this illustration to introduce his own

The Vanity of Genius. /

" Defence of Poesie. " The wise Erasmus,
in his " Praise of Folly," said :

*' We should sink without rescue into mis-
ery and despair, if we were not buoyed up
and supported by Self-love, which is but the
elder sister of Folly. For what is or can be
more silly than to be lovers and advisers of
ourselves ? And yet if we are not so, there
will be no relish to any of our words or
actions. Take away this one property of a
fool, and the orator shall become as dumb
and silent as the pulpit he stands in ; the
musician shall hang up his untouched in- Defence of

1 111 1 . / self-love by

strument on the wall ; the completest actors Erasmus,
shall be hissed off the stage ; the poet shall
be burlesqued upon his own doggerel
rhymes ; the painter shall himself vanish
into an imaginary landscape ; and the phy-
sician shall want food more than his pa-
tients do physic. In short, without self-
love, instead of beautiful, you shall think
yourself an old beldame of fourscore ; in-
stead oi youthful, you shall seem just drop-
ping into the grave ; instead of eloquent,
a stammerer — it being so necessary that
every man should think well of himself be-

8 TJie Vanity of Genius.

fore he can expect the good opinions of
George From Erasmus and the 15th century to

mlision" '''^" George Eliot is along step, but you will
find the same thought in her novel of
" Amos Barton : " " We are poor plants
brought up by the air-vessels of our own con-
ceit ; alas for us if we get a few pinches that
empty us of that windy self-subsistence !
The very capacity for good would go out of
us. For, tell the most impassioned orator
that his wig is awry, or his shirt lap hanging
out, and that he is tickling people by the
oddity of his person, instead of thrilling
them by the energy of his periods, and you
The effect of would infallibly dry up the spring of his
isi usion. g|Qq^^gj^(>g Lgj- jj,g |-)g persuaded that my

neighbor Jenkins considers me a blockhead,
and I shall never shine in conversation with
him any more. Let me discover that the
lovely Phoebe thinks my squint intolerable,
I shall never be able to fix her blandly with
my disengaged eyes again. Thank heaven,
then, that a little illusion is left us, to enable
us to be useful and agreeable — that we don't
know exactly what our friends think of us —

The Vanity of Genius. g

that the world is not made of looking-glass
to show us just the figure we are making,
and just what is going on behind our backs !
By the help of dear, friendly illusion, we are
able to dream that we are charming — and
our faces wear a becoming air of self-pos-
session. We are able to dream that other
men admire our talents — and our benignity
is undisturbed ; we are able to dream that
we are doing much good — and — we do — a

But I must not wander so far from the Famous men

J- 1 , , . and women

famous men and women who are crowdinsfwho


around me all anxious for notice. Do you vain.^*^'^, ^
not see them ? Just at my elbow " poor
Goldy" is waiting, in his fine plum-colored
coat, gorgeous breeches and red vest, with
an unpaid bill for sky-blue satin in his
hands ; Dickens with his eye-glass, dainty
boutonniere, and fastidious arrangement of
hair ; Madame de Stael, with showy head-
dress, displaying her beautiful arms, but
like a peacock careful to conceal those big
feet, about which Talleyrand made such a
good pun, when she was draped as a statue.
He was asked if he could distins:uish the

10 The Vanity of Genius.

author of Corinne among the group. ** Ah,"

exclaimed the sarcastic diplomat, looking

Talleyrand's down, and not up at her face, " Je vols le

puiujnMme. ^.^^ ^^ g^^^gj , „ Madame de Genlis— who

acknowledged that Madame de Stael would
have been a good deal of a woman, if trained
and guided by her — sits behind her harp,
with those soft, spiritual eyes raised effect-
ively, and the face in profile, to display that
delicate nose which was her pride ; Lady
Blessington and Lady Morgan, in all the
consciousness of rare attractions, are making
their best courtesy. Rousseau, Montaigne,
Landor, lead a distinguished crowd, who
grumble at being kept longer in the back-
ground, and press forward for a more
prominent position.
Seif-depreci- 'Tis uot casy to distinguish vanity from a

ation dis- , j. . „,, ,

sected by propcr self-estmiate. 1 hen, too, there is
a eyran . ^j£j.gj^ morc coHCcit in morbid self-deprecia-
tion than in a fair regard for one's own
ability, frankly expressed. Some one has
defined this foolish Iiabit of talking about
one's self in a disparaging fashion as " conceit
gangrened and driven inward," and Talley-
rand said : " Unbounded modesty is nothing

The Vanity of Genius. ii

more than unassured vanity." Such dispar-
agement is generally a bid for compliments,
at least for contradiction, and an ingenuous
satisfaction over one's success or expecta-
tion is more natural, and is often quite re-
freshing. Oliver Wendell Holmes says,
*' Apology is only egotism wrong-side

I like to think of Thackeray's delight over Thackeray
an unexpected tribute to his work. OnefTribute ^
day he was walking along Wych Street, asi°^s'*^^
kind of slum thoroughfare leading to Drury
Lane, when he passed a group of dirty little
street Arabs. One little female tatterde-
malion looked up at him as he passed, and
then called out to her younger brother,
" Hi, Archie ! d' you know who him is ?
He's Becky Sharp." Thackeray was as-
tounded to find that a little barefooted
guttersnipe should know sufficient of his
writings, even to confound him with one of
his heroines. On inquiry he found that the
little thing was the child of an actress of
some education, but insufficient histrionic
ability, who had gradually come down to
sewing trousers for cheap tailors. She had

12 TJie Vanity of Genius.

read one or two numbers of "Vanity Fair,"
and on a previous occasion pointed out the
author to her daughter. Thackeray found
the poor woman in a garret, boiling pota-
toes for dinner ; she had not been able to
get the whole of "Vanity Fair," but only a
few odd parts. Thackeray sent her a com-
plete set, and something to give a relish to
her dinner of potatoes. "By Jove!" said
Thackeray to a friend, " strange as it may
seem, that little incident gave me more
pleasure than if I had received a compli-
mentary letter from his Grace the Duke of
Devonshire. When your name gets down
into the slums, that means fame ; you have
touched bottom."
Conflktmg To be honestly aware of advantages, to

views of r , 1 . ^, .

authors. feel a pleasure in their possession, even,
need no more be conceit, than is the swal-
low's confidence and pleasure in his power
of flight. Hazlitt affirmed that " no great
man ever thought himself so ;" a strange
statement, and one that can be disproved by
a host of quotations from the truly great,
who were thoroughly conscious of their pow-
ers and did not hesitate to say so. Tucker-

TJie Va7iity of Genius. 13

man says that " few persons possess talent
of any kind unconsciously. It seems de-
signed by the Creator that the very sense
of capacity should urge genius to fulfil its
mission, and support its early and lonely
efforts by the earnest conviction of ultimate

Homer did not write of himself, but Pindar's ex-
Pindar, the Greek lyric poet, who is far ofhisgenluT
enough back to begin with, had an exalted
opinion of his genius and the honor he con-
ferred on others by condescending to write
about them. One can hardly read a page
of his poetry without finding this ever pres-
ent self-consciousness cropping out, over
forty notable instances occurring in his
Olympian and Pythian odes. He constant-
ly referred to himself as an "eagle," while
designating his contemporaries and rivals
as "jackdaws." "There are many swift
darts under my elbow within my quiver,
which have a voice for those of understand-
ing, but to the crowd, they need interpre-
ters. He is gifted with genius who knoweth
much by natural talent, but those who
learnt boisterous gabbling, like jackdaws,

14 The Vanity of Genius.

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