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Author's Introductory Sketch

Photo of W. D. Howells

In one of the old-fashioned books for children there was a story of the adventures of a cent (or perhaps that coin of older lineage, a penny) told by itself, which came into my mind when the publishers suggested that the readers of a new edition of this book might like to know how it happened to be written. I promptly fancied the book speaking, and taking upon itself the burden of autobiography, which we none of us find very heavy; and no sooner had I done so than I began actually to hear from it in a narrative of much greater distinctness than I could have supplied for it.

"You must surely remember," it protested to my forgetfulness, "that you first thought of me in anything like definite shape as you stood looking on at the trotting-races of a county fair in Northern Ohio, and that I began to gather color and character while you loitered through the art-building, and dwelt with pitying interest upon the forlorn, unpromising exhibits there.

"But previous to this, my motive existed somewhere in that nebulous fore-life where both men and books have their impalpable beginning; for even you cannot have forgotten that when a certain passionately enterprising young editor asked you for a novel to be printed in his journal, you so far imagined me as to say that I would be about a girl. When you looked over those hapless works of art at the Pymantoning County Fair, you thought, 'What a good thing it would be to have a nice village girl, with a real but limited gift, go from here to study art in New York! And get in love there! And married!' Cornelia and her mother at once stepped out of the inchoate; Ludlow advanced from another quarter of Chaos, and I began really to be.

"The getting me down on paper was a much later affair—nearly two years later. There were earlier engagements to be met; there was an exciting editorial episode to be got behind you; and there was material for a veridical representation of the ardent young life of the New York Synthesis of Art Studies to be gathered as nearly at first hands and as furtively as possible.

"I should be almost ashamed to remind you of the clandestine means you employed before you were forced to a frankness alien to your nature, and went and threw yourself on the mercy of a Member who, upon your avowing your purpose, took you through the schools of the Synthesis and instructed you in its operation. Not satisfied with this, you got an undergraduate of the Synthesis to coach you as to its social side, and while she was consenting to put it all down in writing for your convenience, you were shamelessly making notes of her boarding-house, as the very place to have Cornelia come to.

"Your methods were at first so secret and uncandid that I wonder I ever came to be the innocent book I am; and I feel that the credit is far less due to you than to the friends who helped you. But I am glad to remember how you got your come-uppings when, long after, a student of the Synthesis whom you asked, in your latent vanity, how she thought that social part of me was managed, answered, 'Well, any one could see that it was studied altogether from the outside, that it wasn't at all the spirit of the Synthesis.'

"It was enough almost to make me doubt myself, but I recovered my belief in my own truth when I reflected that it was merely a just punishment for you. I could expose you in other points, if I chose, and show what slight foundations you built my facts and characters upon; but perhaps that would be ungrateful. You were at least a doting parent, if not a wise one, and in your fondness you did your best to spoil me. You gave me two heroines, and you know very well that before you were done you did not know but you preferred Charmian to Cornelia. And you had nothing whatever to build Charmian upon, not the slightest suggestion from life, where you afterwards encountered her Egyptian profile! I think I ought to say that you had never been asked to a Synthesis dance when you wrote that account of one in me; and though you have often been asked since, you have never had the courage to go for fear of finding out how little it was like your description.

"But if Charmian was created out of nothing, what should you say if I were frank about the other characters of my story? Could you deny that the drummer who was first engaged to Cornelia was anything more than a materialization from seeing a painter very long ago make his two fingers do a ballet-dance? Or that Ludlow was not at first a mere pointed beard and a complexion glimpsed in a slim young Cuban one night at Saratoga? Or that Cornelia's mother existed by any better right than your once happening to see a poor lady try to hide the gap in her teeth when she smiled?

"When I think what a thing of shreds and patches I am, I wonder that I have any sort of individual temperament or consciousness at all. But I know that I have, and that you wrote me with pleasure and like me still. You think I have form, and that, if I am not very serious, I am sincere, and that somehow I represent a phase of our droll American civilization truly enough. I know you were vexed when some people said I did not go far enough, and insisted that the coast of Bohemia ought to have been the whole kingdom. As if I should have cared to be that! There are shady places inland where I should not have liked my girls to be, and where I think my young men would not have liked to meet them; and I am glad you kept me within the sweet, pure breath of the sea. I think I am all the better book for that, and, if you are fond of me, you have your reasons. I——"

"Upon my word," I interrupted at this point, "it seems to me that you are saying rather more for yourself than I could say for you, if you are one of my spoiled children. Don't you think we had both better give the reader a chance, now?"

"Oh, if there are to be any readers!" cried the book, and lapsed into the silence of print.

Handwritten signature of W. D. Howells

William Dean Howells