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MR. POET,” said the Idiot, the other morning as his friend, the Rhymster, took his place beside him at the breakfast-table, “tell me: How long have you been writing poetry?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said the Poet, modestly. “I don’t know that I’ve ever written any. I’ve turned out a lot of rhymes in my day, and have managed to make a fair living with them, but poetry is a different thing. The divine afflatus doesn’t come to every one, you know; and I doubt if anybody will be able to say whether my work has shown an occasional touch of inspiration, or not until I have been dead fifty or a hundred years.”
“Tut!” exclaimed the Idiot. “That’s all nonsense. I am able to say now whether or not your work shows the occasional touch of inspiration. It does. In fact, it shows more than that. It shows a semi-occasional touch of inspiration. How long have you been in the business?”
“Eighteen years,” sighed the Poet. “I began when I was twelve with a limerick. As I remember the thing, it went like this:“There was a young man of Cohasset
“Good!” said the Idiot. “That wasn’t a bad beginning for a boy of twelve.”
“So my family thought,” said the Poet. “My mother sent it to the Under the Evening Lamp Department of our town paper, and three weeks later I was launched. I’ve had the cacœthes scribendi ever since—but, alas! I got more fame in that brief hour of success than I have ever been able to win since. It is a mighty hard job, Mr. Idiot, making a name for yourself these days.”
“That’s the point I was getting at,” said the Idiot, “and I wanted to have a talk with you on the subject. I’ve read a lot of your stuff in the past eight or ten years, and, in my humble judgment, it is better than any of that rhymed nonsense of Henry Wintergreen Boggs, whose name appears in the newspapers every day in the year; of Susan Aldershot Spinks, whose portrait is almost as common an occurrence in the papers as that of Lydia Squinkham; of Circumflex Jones, the eminent sweet-singer of Arizona; or of Henderson Hartley MacFadd, the Canadian Browning, of whom the world is constantly hearing so much. I have wondered if you were going about it in the right way. What is your plan for winning fame?”
“Oh, I keep plodding away, doing the best I can all the while,” said the Poet. “If there’s any good in my stuff, or any stuff in my goods, I’ll get my reward some day.”
“Fifty or a hundred years after you’re dead, eh?” said the Idiot.
“Yes,” smiled the Poet.
“Well—your board-bills won’t be high then, anyhow,” said the Idiot. “That’s one satisfaction, I presume. They tell me Homer hasn’t eaten a thing for over twenty centuries. Seems to me, though, that if I were a poet I’d go in for a little fame while I was alive. It’s all very nice to work the skin off your knuckles, and to twist your gray matter inside out until it crocks and fades, so that your great-grandchildren can swell around the country sporting a name that has become a household word, but I’m blessed if I care for that sort of thing. I don’t believe in storing up caramels for some twenty-first-century baby that bears my name to cut his teeth on, when I have a sweet tooth of my own that is pining away for the lack of nourishment; and, if I were you, I’d go in for the new method. What if Browning and Tennyson and Longfellow and Poe did have to labor for years to win the laurel crown, that’s no reason why you should do it. You might just as well reason that because your forefathers went from one city to another in a stage-coach you should eschew railways.”
“I quite agree with you,” replied the Poet. “But in literature there is no royal road to fame that I know of.”
“What!” cried the Idiot. “No royal road to fame in letters! Why, where have you been living all these years, Mr. Poet? This is the age of the Get Fame-Quick Scheme. You can make a reputation in five minutes, if you only know the ropes. I know of at least two department stores where you can go and buy all you want of it, and in all its grades—from notoriety down to the straight goods.”
“Fame? At a department store!” put in Mr. Whitechoker, incredulously.
“Certainly,” said the Idiot. “Ready-made laurels on demand. Why not? It’s the easiest thing in the world. Fact is, between you and me, I am considering a plan now for the promoting of a corporation to be called the United States Fame Company, Limited, the main purpose of which shall be to earn money for its stockholders by making its customers famous at so much per head. It won’t make any difference whether the customer wishes to be famous as an actor, a novelist, or a poet, or any other old thing. We’ll turn the trick for him, and guarantee him more than a taste of immortality.”
“You may put me down for four dollars’ worth of notoriety,” said Mr. Brief, with a laugh.
“All right,” said the Idiot, dryly. “There’s a lot in your profession who like the cheap sort. But I warn you in advance that if you go in for cheap notoriety, you’ll find it a pretty hard job getting anybody to sell you any eighteen-karat distinction later.”
“Well,” said the Poet, “I don’t know that I can promise to be one of your customers until I know something of the quality of the fame you have to sell. Tell me of somebody you’ve made a name for, and I’ll take the matter into consideration if I like the style of laurel you have placed on his brow.”
“Lean over here and I’ll whisper,” said the Idiot. “I don’t mind telling you, but I don’t believe in giving away the secrets of the trade to the rest of these gentlemen.”
The Poet did as he was bade, and the Idiot whispered a certain great name in his ear.
“No!” cried the Poet, incredulously.
“Yes, sir. Fact!” said the Idiot. “He was made famous in a night. The first thing we did was to get him to elongate his signature. He was writing as—P. K. Dubbins we’ll call him, for the sake of the argument. Now a name like that couldn’t be made great under any circumstances whatsoever, so we made him write it out in full: Philander Kenilworth Dubbins—regular broadside, you see. P. K. Dubbins was a pop-shot, but Philander Kenilworth Dubbins spreads out like a dum-dum bullet or hits you like a blast from a Gatling gun. Printed, it takes up a whole line of a newspaper column; put at the top of an advertisement, it strikes the eye with the convincing force of a circus-poster. You can’t help seeing it, and it makes, when spoken, a mouthful that is nothing short of impressive and sonorous.”
“Still,” suggested Mr. Brief, with a wink at the Bibliomaniac, “you have only multiplied your difficulties by three. If it was hard for your friend Dubbins to make one name famous, I can’t see that he improves matters by trying to make three names famous.”
“On the modern business principle that to accomplish anything you must work on a large scale,” said the Idiot. “Philander Kenilworth Dubbins was a better proposition than P. K. Dubbins. The difference between them in the mere matter of potentialities is the difference between a corner grocery and a department store, or a kite with a tail and one without. Well, having created the name, the next thing to do was to exploit it, and we advertised Dubbins for all there was in him. We got Mr. William Jones Brickbat, the eminent novelist, to say that he had read Dubbins’s poems, and had not yet died; we got Edward Pinkham, the author of “The Man with the Watering-pot,” to send us a type-written letter, saying that Dubbins was a coming man, and that his latest book, Howls from Helicon, contained many inspired lines. But, best of all, we prevailed upon the manufacturers of celluloid soap to print a testimonial from Dubbins himself, saying that there was no other soap like it in the market. That brought his name prominently before every magazine-reader in the country, because the celluloid-soap people are among the biggest advertisers of the day, and everywhere that soap ad went, why, Dubbins’s testimonial went also, as faithfully as Mary’s Little Lamb. After that we paid a shirt-making concern down-town to put out a new collar called “The Helicon,” which they advertised widely with a picture of Dubbins’s head sticking up out of the middle of it; and, finally, as a crowning achievement, we leased Dubbins for a year to a five-cent cigar company, who have placarded the fences, barns, and chicken-coops from Maine to California with the name of Dubbins—‘Flora Dubbins: The Best Five-Cent Smoke in the Market.’”
“And thus you made the name of Dubbins famous in letters!” sneered the Doctor.
“That was only the preliminary canter,” replied the Idiot. “So far, Dubbins’s greatness was confined to fences, barns, chicken-coops, and the advertising columns of the magazines. The next thing was to get him written up in the newspapers. That sort of thing can’t be bought, but you can acquire it by subtlety. Plan one was to make an after-dinner speaker out of Dubbins. This was easy. There are a million public dinners every year, but a limited supply of good speakers; so, with a little effort, we got Dubbins on five toast-cards, hired a humorist out in Wisconsin to write five breezy speeches for him, Dubbins committed them to memory, and they went off like hot-cakes. Morning papers would come out with Dubbins’s picture printed in between that of Bishop Potter and a member of the cabinet, who also spoke. Copies of Dubbins’s speeches were handed to the reporters before the dinner began, so that it didn’t make any difference whether Dubbins spoke them or not—the papers had ’em next morning just the same, and inside of six months you couldn’t read an account of any public banquet without running up against the name of Philander Kenilworth Dubbins.”
“Well, I declare!” ejaculated Mr. Whitechoker. “What a strange affair!”
“Then we got Dubbins’s publishers to take a hand,” said the Idiot. “They issued a monthly budget of gossip concerning their authors, which newspaper editors all over quoted in their interesting items of the day. From these paragraphs the public learned that Dubbins wrote between 4 A.M. and breakfast-time; that Dubbins never penned a line without having a tame rabbit, named Romola, sitting alongside of his ink-pot; that Dubbins got his ideas for his wonderful poem, ‘The Mystery of Life,’ from hearing a canary inadvertently whistle a bar of ‘Hiawatha;’ that Dubbins was the best-dressed author in the State of New York, affecting green plaid waistcoats, pink shirts, and red neckties; witty things that Dubbins’s boy had said about Dubbins’s work to Dubbins himself were also spread all over the land, until finally Philander Kenilworth Dubbins became a select series of household words in every town, city, and hamlet in the United States. And there he is to-day—a great man, bearing a great name, made for him by his friends. Howls from Helicon is full of bad poems, but Dubbins is a son of Parnassus just the same. Now we propose to do it for others. For five dollars down, Mr. Poet, I’ll make you conspicuous; for ten, I’ll make you notorious; for fifty, I’ll make you famous; for a hundred, I’ll give you immortality.”
“Good!” cried the Poet. “Immortality for a hundred dollars is cheap. I’ll take that.”
“You will?” said the Idiot, joyfully. “Put up your money.”
“All right,” laughed the Poet. “I’ll pay—C. O. D.”
“Another hundred gone!” moaned the Idiot, as the party broke up and its members went their several ways. “I think it’s abominable that this commercial spirit of the age should have affected even you poets. You ought to have gone into business, old man, and left the Muses alone. You’ve got too good a head for poetry.”
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