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Around a Rainy-Day Fire

A number of the Easy Chair's friends were sitting round the fire in the library of a country-house. The room was large and full of a soft, flattering light. The fire was freshly kindled, and flashed and crackled with a young vivacity, letting its rays frolic over the serried bindings on the shelves, the glazed pictures on the walls, the cups of after-luncheon coffee in the hands of the people, and the tall jugs and pots in the tray left standing on the library table. It was summer, but a cold rain was falling forbiddingly without. No one else could come, and no one could wish to go. The conditions all favored a just self-esteem, and a sense of providential preference in the accidental assemblage of those people at that time and place.

The talk was rather naturally, though not necessarily, of books, and one of the people was noting that children seemed to like short stories because their minds had not the strength to keep the facts of a whole book. The effort tired them, and they gave it up, not because a book did not interest them, but because it exhausted their little powers. They were good for a leap, or a dash, or a short flight in literature, even very high literature, but they had not really the force for anything covering greater time and space.

Another declared this very suggestive, and declared it in such a way that the whole company perceived he had something behind his words, and besought him to say what he meant. He did so, as well as he could, after protesting that it was not very novel, or if so, perhaps not very important, and if it was important, perhaps it was not true. They said they would take the chances; and then he said that it was merely a notion which had occurred to him at the moment concerning the new reading of the new reading public, whether it might not be all juvenile literature, adapted in mature terms to people of physical adolescence but of undeveloped thinking and feeling: not really feeble-minded youth, but æsthetically and intellectually children, who might presently grow into the power of enjoying and digesting food for men. By-and-by they might gather fortitude for pleasure in real literature, in fiction which should not be a travesty of the old fairy-tales, or stories of adventures among giants and robbers and pirates, or fables with human beings speaking from the motives and passions of animals. He mentioned fiction, he said, because the new reading of the new reading public seemed to be nearly altogether fiction.

All this had so much the effect of philosophical analysis that those comfortable people were lulled into self-approving assent; and putting themselves altogether apart from the new reading public, they begged him to say what he meant. He answered that there was nothing more phenomenal in the modern American life; and he paid a pretty tribute to their ignorance in owning that he was not surprised they knew nothing of that public. He promised that he would try to define it, and he began by remarking that it seemed to be largely composed of the kind of persons who at the theatre audibly interpret the action to one another. The present company must have heard them?

His listeners again assented. Was the new reading public drawn from the theatre-going, or more definitely speaking, the matinée class?

There was something odd, there, the philosopher returned. The matinée class was as large as ever: larger; while the new reading public, perfectly interchangeable with it in its intellectual pleasure and experiences, had suddenly outnumbered it a thousandfold. The popular novel and the popular play were so entirely of one fibre and texture, and so easily convertible, that a new novel was scarcely in every one's bread-trough before it was on the boards of all the theatres. This led some to believe that we were experiencing a revival of the drama, and that if we kept on having authors who sold half a million copies we could not help having a Shakespeare by-and-by: he must follow.

One of those listening asked, But how had these people begun so instantaneously to form themselves into this new innumerable reading public? If they were of that quality of mind which requires the translation of an unmistakable meaning from the players to the playgoers, they must find themselves helpless when grappling in solitude with the sense of a book. Why did not they go increasingly to the theatre instead of turning so overwhelmingly to the printed word?

The philosopher replied that they had not now begun to do this, but only seemed to have begun, since there really was no beginning in anything. The readers had always been in the immense majority, because they could read anywhere, and they could see plays only in the cities and towns. If the theatre were universal, undoubtedly they would prefer plays, because a play makes far less draft upon the mental capacities or energies than the silliest book; and what seemed their effort to interpret it to one another might very well be the exchange of their delight in it. The books they preferred were of the nature of poor plays, full of "easy things to understand," cheap, common incidents, obvious motives, and vulgar passions, such as had been used a thousand times over in literature. They were fitted for the new reading public for this reason; the constant repetition of the same characters, events, scenes, plots, gave their infantile minds the pleasure which children find in having a story told over and over in exactly the same terms. The new reading public would rebel against any variance, just as children do.

The most of the company silently acquiesced, or at least were silent, but one of them made the speaker observe that he had not told them what this innumerable unreasoning multitude had read before the present plague of handsome, empty, foolish duodecimos had infested everybody's bread-trough.

The philosopher said the actual interior form of non-literary literature was an effect of the thin spread of our literary culture, and outwardly was the effect of the thick spread of our material prosperity. The dollar-and-a-half novel of to-day was the dime novel of yesterday in an avatar which left its essence unchanged. It was even worse, for it was less sincerely and forcibly written, and it could not be so quickly worn out and thrown away. Its beauty of paper, print, and binding gave it a claim to regard which could not be ignored, and established for it a sort of right to lie upon the table, and then stand upon the shelf, where it seemed to relate itself to genuine literature, and to be of the same race and lineage. As for this vast new reading public, it was the vast old reading public with more means in its pocket of satisfying its crude, childish taste. Its head was the same empty head.

There was a sort of dreadful finality in this, and for a while no one spoke. Then some one tried in vain to turn the subject, while the philosopher smiled upon the desolation he had made; and then one of that sex which when satisfied of the truth likes to have its "sense of satisfaction ache" through the increase of conviction, asked him why the English reading public, which must be so much more cultivated than our new reading public, seemed to like the same sort of puerile effects in works of imagination, the stirring incidents, the well-worn plots, the primitive passions, and the robustious incentives. He owned the fact, but he contended that the fact, though interesting, was not so mysterious as it appeared at first sight. It could be explained that the English had never taken the imagination very seriously, and that in their dense, close civilization, packed tight with social, political, and material interests, they asked of the imagination chiefly excitement and amusement. They had not turned to it for edification or instruction, for that thrill of solemn joy which comes of vital truth profoundly seen and clearly shown. For this reason when all Europe besides turned her face to the light, some decades ago, in the pages of the great prose poets who made the age illustrious, England preferred the smoky links and dancing camp-fires which had pleased her immature fancy, and kept herself well in the twilight of the old ideal of imagination as the mother of unrealities. There could be no doubt, the philosopher thought, that the recrudescence which her best wits recognized as the effects of this perversity, was the origin of the preposterous fiction which we now feed to the new reading public, and which we think must somehow be right because it was hers and is ours, and has the sanction of race and tradition.

It was not, he continued, a thing to shed the tear of unavailing regret for, though it was not a transitory phase, or a state of transition, for the condition that now existed had always existed. The new reading public was larger than ever before not merely because there was a fresh demand for reading, but because more people were lettered and moneyed and leisured, and did not know what otherwise to do with themselves. It was quite simple, and the fact was less to be regretted in itself than for an indirect result which might be feared from it. He paused at this, in order to be asked what this result was, and being promptly asked he went on.

It was, he said, the degradation of authorship as a calling, in the popular regard. He owned that in the past authorship had enjoyed too much honor in the reverence and affection of the world: not always, indeed, but at certain times. As long as authors were the clients and dependents of the great, they could not have been the objects of a general interest or honor. They had then passed the stage when the simple poet or story-teller was wont to

—sit upon the ground,

And tell sad stories of the deaths of kings,

to wondering and admiring circles of simple listeners, and they had not yet come to that hour of authorship when it reverted to the peasantry, now turned people, and threw itself upon the people's generous acceptance and recognition for bread and fame. But when that hour came, it brought with it the honor of a reverent and persistent curiosity concerning literature and the literary life, which the philosopher said he was afraid could not survive the actual superabundance of authors and the transformation of the novelist into the artisan. There seemed, he pursued, a fixed formula for the manufacture of a work of fiction, to be studied and practised like any other. Literature was degraded from an art to a poor sort of science, in the practical application of which thousands were seen prospering; for the immense output of our press represented the industry of hundreds and thousands. A book was concocted, according to a patent recipe, advertised, and sold like any other nostrum, and perhaps the time was already here when it was no longer more creditable to be known as the author of a popular novel than as the author of a popular medicine, a Pain-killer, a Soothing Syrup, a Vegetable Compound, a Horse Liniment, or a Germicide. Was it possible, he asked, for a reader of the last book selling a hundred thousand copies to stand in the loving or thrilling awe of the author that we used to feel for Longfellow and Tennyson, for Emerson and Carlyle, for Hawthorne and George Eliot, for Irving and Scott, or for any of their great elders or youngers? He repeated that perhaps authorship had worked its worshippers too hard, but there was no doubt that their worship was a genuine devotion. For at least a hundred and fifty years it had been eagerly offered in a full acceptance of the Schiller superstition that at the sharing of the earth the poet, representing authorship, had been so much preoccupied with higher things that he had left the fleshpots and the loaves and fishes to others, and was to be compensated with a share of the divine honors paid to Jove himself. From Goethe to Carlyle, what a long roll of gods, demigods, and demisemigods it was! It might have been bad for the deities, and the philosopher rather thought it was, but burning incense on the different shrines was an excellent thing for the votaries, and kept them out of all sorts of mischiefs, low pleasures, and vain amusements. Whether that was really so or not, the doubt remained whether authorship was not now a creed outworn. Did tender maids and virtuous matrons still cherish the hope of some day meeting their literary idols in the flesh? Did generous youth aspire to see them merely at a distance, and did doting sires teach their children that it was an epoch-making event when a great poet or novelist visited the country; or when they passed afar, did they whip some favored boy, as the father of Benvenuto Cellini whipped him at sight of a salamander in the fire that he might not forget the prodigy? Now that the earth had been divided over again, and the poet in his actual guise of novelist had richly shared in its goods with the farmer, the noble, the merchant, and the abbot, was it necessary or even fair that he should be the guest of heaven? In other words, now that every successful author could keep his automobile, did any one want his autograph?

In the silence that fell upon the company at these words, the ticking of the clock under its classic pediment on the mantel was painfully audible, and had the effect of intimating that time now had its innings and eternity was altogether out of it. Several minutes seemed to pass before any one had the courage to ask whether the degradation of authorship was not partially the result of the stand taken by the naturalists in Zola, who scorned the name of art for his calling and aspired to that of science. The hardy adventurer who suggested this possibility said that it was difficult to imagine the soul stirred to the same high passion by the botanist, the astronomer, the geologist, the electrician, or even the entomologist as in former times by the poet, the humorist, the novelist, or the playwright. If the fictionist of whatever sort had succeeded in identifying himself with the scientist, he must leave the enjoyment of divine honors to the pianist, the farce-comedian, the portrait-painter, the emotional actor, and the architect, who still deigned to practise an art.

The philosopher smiled, and owned that this was very interesting, and opened up a fresh field of inquiry. The first question there was whether the imaginative author were not rather to blame for not having gone far enough in the scientific direction in the right scientific fashion than for having taken that course at all. The famous reproach of poetry made by Huxley, that it was mostly "sensual caterwauling," might well have given the singer pause in striking the sympathetic catgut of his lyre: perhaps the strings were metallic; but no matter. The reproach had a justice in it that must have stung, and made the lyrist wish to be an atomic theorist at any cost. In fact, at that very moment science had, as it were, caught the bread out of fiction's mouth, and usurped the highest functions of imagination. In almost every direction of its recent advance it had made believe that such and such a thing was so, and then proceeded to prove it. To this method we owed not only the possession of our present happy abundance of microbes in every sort, but our knowledge of the universe in almost every respect. Science no longer waited for the apple to fall before inferring a law of gravitation, but went about with a stick knocking fruit off every bough in the hope that something suggestive would come of it. On make-believes of all kinds it based the edifices of all kinds of eternal veracities. It behooved poetry, or fiction, which was radically the same, to return to its earliest and simplest devices if it would find itself in the embrace of science, and practise the make-beliefs of its infancy. Out of so many there were chances of some coming true if they were carried far enough and long enough. In fact, the hypothetical method of science had apparently been used in the art of advertising the works in which the appetite of the new reading public was flattered. The publishers had hypothesized from the fact of a population of seventy millions, the existence of an immense body of raw, coarse minds, untouched by taste or intelligence, and boldly addressed the new fiction to it. As in many suppositions of science their guess proved true.

Then why, the hardy listener who had spoken before inquired, was not make-believe the right method for the author, if it was the right method for the scientist and the publisher? Why should not the novelist hypothesize cases hitherto unknown to experience, and then go on by persistent study to find them true? It seemed to this inquirer that the mistake of fiction, when it refused longer to be called an art and wished to be known as a science, was in taking up the obsolescent scientific methods, and in accumulating facts, or human documents, and deducing a case from them, instead of boldly supposing a case, as the new science did, and then looking about for occurrences to verify it.

The philosopher said, Exactly; this was the very thing he was contending for. The documents should be collected in support of the hypothesis; the hypothesis should not be based on documents already collected. First the inference, then the fact; was not that the new scientific way? It looked like it; and it seemed as if the favorite literature of the new reading public were quite in the spirit of the new science. Its bold events, its prodigious characters, its incredible motives, were not they quite of the nature of the fearless conjecture which imagined long and short electric waves and then spread a mesh of wire to intercept them and seize their message?

The hardy inquirer demanded: Then if so, why despise the literature of the new reading public? Why despise the new reading public, anyway?

The philosopher responded that he despised nothing, not even a thing so unphilosophical as modern science. He merely wished his interpellant to observe again that the unification of the literary spirit and the scientific spirit was degrading the literary man to the level of the scientific man. He thought this was bad for the small remnant of mankind, who in default of their former idolatry might take to the worship of themselves. Now, however bad a writer might be, it was always well for the reader to believe him better than himself. If we had not been brought up in this superstition, what would have become of the classics of all tongues? But for this, what was to prevent the present company from making a clearance of three-fourths of the surrounding shelves and feeding that dying flame on the hearth?

At this the host, who had been keeping himself in a modest abeyance, came forward and put some sticks on the fire. He said he would like to see any one touch his bindings; which seemed to be his notion of books. Nobody minded him; but one of those dutyolators, who abound in a certain sex, asked the philosopher what he thought we ought to do for the maintenance of author-worship among us.

He answered, he had not thought of that; his mind had been fixed upon the fact of its decay. But perhaps something could be done by looking up the author whose book had sold least during the season, and asking him candidly whether he would not like to be paid the divine honors now going begging from one big seller to another; for the decay of author-worship must be as much from the indifference of the authors as from the irreverence of the readers. If such a low-selling author did not seem to regard it as rather invidious, then pay him the divine honors; it might be a wholesome and stimulating example; but perhaps we should afterward have the demigod on our hands. Something might be safelier done by writing, as with the present company, and inquiring into "the present condition of polite learning." This would keep the sacred flame alive, and give us the comfort of refined association in an exquisite moment of joy from the sense of our superiority to other people. That, after all, was the great thing.

The company drew a little closer round the fire. The rain beat upon the panes, and the wind swept the wet leaves against them, while each exhaled a sigh of aspiration not unmixed with a soft regret.

William Dean Howells