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A Search for Celebrity

We lately received a publication which has interested us somewhat out of proportion to its size. It is called The Way into Print, but it does not treat, as the reader might rashly suppose, of the best method of getting your name into the newspapers, either as a lady who is giving a dinner to thirteen otherwise unknown persons, or is making a coming-out tea for her débutante daughter, or had a box full of expensively confectioned friends at the opera or the vaudeville, or is going to read a paper at a woman's club, or is in any sort figuring in the thousand and one modern phases of publicity; it does not even advise her guests or hearers how to appear among those present, or those who were invited and did not come, or those who would not have come if they had been invited. Its scope is far more restricted, yet its plane is infinitely higher, its reach incomparably further. The Print which it proposes to lead the Way into is that print where the elect, who were once few and are now many, are making the corridors of time resound to their footsteps, as poets, essayists, humorists, or other literary forms of immortality. Their procession, which from the point of the impartial spectator has been looking more and more like a cake-walk in these later years, is so increasingly the attraction of young-eyed ambition that nothing interests a very large class of people more than advice for the means of joining it, and it is this advice which the publication in point supplies: supplies, we must say, with as much good sense and good feeling as is consistent with an office which does not seem so dignified as we could wish.

Inevitably the adviser must now and then stoop to the folly of the aspirant, inevitably he must use that folly from time to time with wholesome severity, but he does not feel himself equal to the work unaided. Our sudden national expansion, through the irresistible force of our imaginative work, into an intellectual world-power has thrust a responsibility upon the veterans of a simpler time which they may not shirk, and the author of The Way into Print calls upon them to share his task. He is not satisfied with the interesting chapters contributed by younger authors who are in the act of winning their spurs, but he appeals to those established in the public recognition to do their part in aiding us to hold our conquest through the instruction and discipline of those who must take their places when they put their armor off. He does this by means of a letter, almost an open letter, addressed personally to each veteran by means of the substitution of his typewritten name for that of some other veteran, but not differenced in the terms of the ensuing appeal to his kindness or his conscience. He puts himself upon a broad humanitarian ground, and asks that the typewritten author, who, he assumes, is "prominently before the public," shall answer certain questions to which the appellant owns that he has already received hundreds of replies.

By an odd mischance one of his half-open letters found its way to the Easy Chair, and, although that judgment-seat felt relieved from the sense of anything like a lonely prominence before the public by the very multitude of those similarly consulted, it did not remain as Easy as it would have liked under the erring attribution of prominence. Yet to have refused to help in so good a work would not have been in its nature, and it lost as little time as possible in summoning a real author of prominence to consider the problems so baffling to a mere editorial effigy; for, as we ought to explain, the de facto editor is to be found in the Study next door, and never in the Easy Chair. The author prominently before the public came at once, for that kind of author has very little to do, and is only too happy to respond to calls like that of the friend of rising authorship. Most of his time is spent at symposiums, imagined by the Sunday editions of the newspapers, to consider, decide the question whether fig-paste is truly a health-food; or whether, in view of a recent colossal gift for educational purposes, the product of the Standard Oil Company was the midnight oil which Shakespeare had in mind when he spoke of the scholar wasting it; or something of that kind. His mind is whetted to the sharpest edge by its employment with these problems, and is in prime condition for such simple practical inquiries as those proposed by the letter we had received. But, of course, he put on an air of great hurry, and spoke of the different poems, novels, essays, and sketches which he had laid aside to oblige us, and begged us to get down to business at once.

"We wish nothing better than to do so," we said, to humor him, "for we know you are a very busy man, and we will not keep you a moment longer than is absolutely necessary. Would you like to have all the questions at once, or would you rather study them one after another?"

He said he thought he could better give an undivided mind to each if he had them one at a time, and so we began with the first:

"'1. Would you advise the young story-writer to study the old masters in literature or the stories in the current magazines, in order to meet the demands of the current editors?'"

"Will you read that again?" the author prominently before the public demanded, but when we had read it a second time it seemed only to plunge him deeper into despair. He clutched his revered head with both hands, and but for an opportune baldness would probably have torn his hair. He murmured, huskily, "Do you think you have got it right?"

We avoided the response "Sure thing" by an appropriate circumlocution, and then he thundered back: "How in—nature—is a young writer to forecast the demands of current editors? If an editor is worth his salt—his Attic salt—he does not know himself what he wants, except by the eternal yearning of the editorial soul for something new and good. If he has any other demands, he is not a current editor, he is a stagnant editor. Is it possible that there is a superstition to the contrary?"

"Apparently."

"Then that would account for many things. But go on."

"Go on yourself. You have not answered the question."

"Oh, by all means," the author sardonically answered; "if the current editor has demands beyond freshness and goodness, let the young writer avoid the masters in literature and study the stories in the current magazines."

"You are not treating the matter seriously," we expostulated.

"Yes, I am—seriously, sadly, even tragically. I could not have imagined a condition of things so bad, even with the results all round us. Let us have the second question of your correspondent."

"Here it is: '2. Has the unknown writer an equal chance with the well-known author, provided his work is up to the standard of the latter's?'"

"Of the latter's?—of the latter's?—of the latter's?" Our friend whispered the phrase to himself before he groaned out: "What a frightful locution! Really, really, it is more than I can bear!"

"For the cause you ought to bear anything. What do you really think?"

"Why, if the former's work is as good as the latter's, why isn't the former's chance as good if the current editor's demands are for the same kind in the former's case as in the latter's? If the latter's aim is to meet the imaginary demands of the stagnant editor, then the former's work ought to be as attractive as the latter's. Ha, ha, ha!"

He laughed wildly, and in order to recall him to himself we read the third question: "'3. Which is the more acceptable—a well-told story with a weak plot, or a poorly told story with a strong plot?'"

"Oh, but that is a conundrum, pure and simple!" the author protested. "It is a poor parody on the old End-man pleasantry, 'Would you rather be as foolish as you look, or look as foolish as you are?' You are making it up!"

"We assure you we are not. It is no more a conundrum than the others. Come: question!"

"Well, in the first place, I should like to know what a plot is. Something that has occurred to you primarily as an effect from your experience or observation? Or something you have carpentered out of the old stuff of your reading, with a wooden hero and heroine reciprocally dying for each other, and a wooden villain trying to foil them?"

"You had better ask a current editor or a stagnant. Do you confess yourself posed by this plain problem? Do you give it up?"

"For the present. Perhaps I may gather light from the next question."

"Then here it is: '4. What do you consider the primary weakness in the average stories or verses of the old writers?"

"Oh, that is easy. The same as in the average stories and verses of the younger writers—absence of mind."

"Are you sure you are not shirking? Cannot you give a categorical answer—something that will really help some younger writer to take the place which you are now more or less fraudulently holding? The younger writers will cheerfully allow that the trouble is absence of mind, but what line of reading would you suggest which would turn this into presence of mind?"

"There is none, except to have themselves newly ancestored. Presence of mind as well as absence of mind is something derived; you cannot acquire it."

"We think you might be a little less sardonic. Now here is the next problem: '5. What are the successful author's necessary qualifications in the matters of natural ability, education, life as he sees it and lives it, technical training, etc?'"

"This will be the death of me!" the prominent author lamented. "Couldn't I skip that one?"

"It seems to cover some of the most important points. We do not think your self-respect will allow you to skip it. At any rate, make an effort to answer it."

Thus challenged, the prominent author pulled himself together. "Oh," he said, sadly, "which of us knows whether he has natural ability or not, and what is education, and what is life as one sees it, and what is technical training? Do these poor young fellows think that one is tall or short by taking thought? It is the same as that, it seems to me; or if you prefer a mystical solution, I should say, if you have a longing, from your earliest consciousness, to write poetry or fiction, and cannot keep from doing it for any long time together, you are possibly born with a gift for it. But this may be altogether a mistake; it may be the effect of your early and incessant scribblings on the minds of spectators wholly incompetent to judge of your abilities, such as your fond parents. This must rather often happen if we can judge from what nine-tenths of what is called literature is composed of. If your longing to write is the real thing, or is not, still education will not help or hinder you in doing it. No man was ever yet taught any art. He may be taught a trade, and that is what most of the versing and prosing is, I suppose. If you have the gift, you will technically train yourself: that is, you will learn how to be simple and clear and honest. Charm you will have got from your great-grandfather or great-grandmother; and life, which is only another sort of school, will not qualify you to depict life; but if you do not want to depict life, you will perhaps be able to meet the demands of what our friend calls the current editors."

Here the prominent author rose, but we stayed him with a gesture. "There is another question, the last: '6. Do you care to convey any hints or suggestions gleaned from your personal experiences in the climb to success that may make easier the gaining of the heights for the beginner?"

The prominent author roared with laughter. "Read that again!" But when we had done so, he became grave, even sorrowful. "Is it really true, then, as we seem to see, that there is a large body of young people taking up literature as a business? The thing that all my life I have fondly dreamed was an art, dear and almost holy! Are they going into it for the money there is in it? And am I, in my prominence—more or less fraudulent, as you say—an incentive to them to persevere in their enterprises? Is that what one has to come to after a life of conscientious devotion to—an ideal? Come, old friend, say it isn't so bad as that! It is? Then"—the prominent author paused and sank weakly into the chair from which he had risen—"perhaps I have been dreaming all these years; but in my dream it seems to me that everything outside of myself which seemed to hinder me has really helped me. There has been no obstacle in my way which if I were at the bottom of the hill, where I might very rightfully be, I would have removed. I am glad that the climb to success, as your friend calls it, has been hard and long, and I bless God for my difficulties and backsets, all of them. Sometimes they seemed cruel; they filled me with despair and shame; but there was not one that did not make me stronger and fitter for my work, if I was fit for it. You know very well that in this art of ours we need all the strength we can get from our overthrows. There is no training that can ever make the true artist's work easy to him, and if he is a true artist he will suspect everything easily done as ill done. What comes hard and slow and hopelessly, that is the thing which when we look at it we find is the thing that was worth doing. I had my downs with my ups, and when I was beginning the downs outnumbered the ups ten to one. For one manuscript accepted, and after the days of many years printed, I had a dozen rejected and rejected without delay. But every such rejection helped me. In some cases I had to swallow the bitter dose and own that the editor was right; but the bitter was wholesome. In other cases I knew that he was wrong, and then I set my teeth, and took my courage in both hands, and tried and tried with that rejected manuscript till the divinely appointed editor owned that I was right. But these are the commonplaces of literary biography. I don't brag of them; and I have always tried to keep my head in such shape that even defeat has not swelled it beyond the No. 7 I began with. Why should I be so wicked as to help another and a younger man over the bad places? If I could only gain his confidence I should like to tell him that these are the places that will strengthen his heart for the climb. But if he has a weak heart, he had better try some other road. There! I have given you all the 'hints and suggestions from my experience' that I can think of, and now let me go."

Once more he rose, and once more we stayed him. "Yes," we said, "no doubt you think you have spoken honestly and faithfully, but you have addressed yourself to the wrong audience. You have spoken to artists, born and self-made, but artists can always manage without help. Your help was invoked in behalf of artisans, of adventurers, of speculators. What was wanted of you was a formula for the fabrication of gold bricks which would meet the demands of current dealers in that sort of wares."

"But if I have never made gold bricks myself, or not knowingly?"

"Ah, that is what you say! But do you suppose anybody will believe you?"

The prominent author put on the hat which he flattered himself was a No. 7, but which we could plainly see was a No. 12, and said, with an air of patronizing compassion, "You have sat here so long in your cushioned comfort, looking out on the publishing world, that you have become corrupt, cynical, pessimistic."

William Dean Howells