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Literary Counsel


As Eugenio—we will call him Eugenio: a fine impersonal name—grew older, and became, rightfully or wrongfully, more and more widely known for his writings, he found himself increasingly the subject of appeal from young writers who wished in their turn to become, rightfully or wrongfully, more and more widely known. This is not, indeed, stating the case with the precision which we like. His correspondents were young enough already, but they were sometimes not yet writers; they had only the ambition to be writers. Our loose formulation of the fact, however, will cover all its meaning, and we will let it go that they were young writers, for, whether they were or not, they all wished to know one thing: namely, how he did it.

What, they asked in varying turns, was his secret, his recipe for making the kind of literature which had made him famous: they did stint their phrase, and they said famous. That always caused Eugenio to blush, at first with shame and then with pleasure; whatever one's modesty, one likes to be called famous, and Eugenio's pleasure in their flatteries was so much greater than his shame that he thought only how to return them the pleasure unmixed with the shame. His heart went out to those generous youths, who sometimes confessed themselves still in their teens, and often of the sex which is commonly most effective with the fancy while still in its teens. It seemed such a very little thing to show them the way to do what he had done, and, while disclaiming any merit for it, to say why it was the best possible way. If they had grouped him with other widely known writers in their admiration, he never imagined directing his correspondents to those others' methods; he said to himself that he did not understand them, and at bottom he felt that it would have been better taste in the generous youths to have left them out of the question.

In the end he never answered his correspondents in the handsome way he had fancied. Generally he did not answer them at all, or, if he did, he put them off with some such cheap excuse as advising them to be sure they had something to say, and then to say it as simply and clearly as they could. He knew very well that this was begging the question; that the question was how to be artistic, graceful, charming, and whatever else they said he himself was. If he was aware of not being all that, he was aware also of having tried to be it; of having sought from the beginning to captivate the reader's fancy as well as convince his reason. He had never been satisfied with being plain and direct; he had constantly wished to amuse as well as edify, and following the line of beauty, as that of the least resistance, had been his practice if not his precept. If he counselled his correspondents otherwise, he would be uncandid, and when he had imagined putting them off in that fashion he was more ashamed than he had been with their praise.

Yet, upon reflection, he perceived that what they asked was impossible. If ever he had a formula he had lost it; he was no longer in his own secret, if ever he had been. All that he could have said with perfect honesty would have been that he had never found any royal road to literature; that to his experience there was not even a common highway; that there were only byways; private paths over other people's grounds; easements beaten out by feet that had passed before, and giving by a subsequent overgrowth of turf or brambles a deceitful sense of discovery to the latest-comer.

His correspondents would not have liked that. He knew that what they wanted was his measure of the old success in some new way, which they could feel their own after it had been shown them. But the only secret that he was still in was the very open one of working hard at whatever he had in hand, and this he suspected they would have scorned sharing with him. He could have said that if you want to keep three or five balls in the air at once you must learn how by practising; but they knew that as well as he; what they asked was being enabled to do it themselves from his having practised.

The perception of this fact made Eugenio very sad, and he asked himself if the willingness to arrive only after you had got there had gone out of the world and left nothing but the ambition to be at this point or that without the trouble of having reached it. He smiled as he recalled the stock criticism of the connoisseur in The Vicar of Wakefield, that the picture would have been better if the painter had taken more pains; but he did not smile gayly: there seemed to him a sum of pathetic wisdom in the saying which might well weigh down the blithest spirit. It had occurred to him in connection with an old essay of Hazlitt's, which he had been reading, on the comparative methods of English and French painters in their work. The essayist held, almost literally, that the French pictures were better because the French painters had taken more pains, and taken especial pains in the least interesting parts of their pictures. He was dealing more specifically with copying, but his words applied to the respective schools in their highest work, and he could only save his patriotic pride, so far as he might, by saying: "Courage is pure will without regard to consequences, and this the English have in perfection. Poetry is our element, for the essence of poetry is will and passion. The English fail as a people in the fine arts, namely, because the end with them absorbs the means."

Eugenio knew nothing practically and very little theoretically of painting; but it appeared to him that what Hazlitt said was of equal force with respect to the fine art of literature; and that in his own American field the English race failed, as far as it had failed, for the same reason as that given by Hazlitt for its failure in painting. In his mind he went further than Hazlitt, or came short of him, in refusing the consolation of our race's superiority in poetry because it was will and passion. As far as they had excelled in that, it was because they had tried hard and not neglected the means for the end. Where they had excelled most, it was quite imaginable that the poem would still have been better if the poet had taken more pains. In the case of prose, he thought we failed of the end because we were impatient of the means, and as elderly men will, he accused the present of being more hasty and indifferent to form than the past. He recalled the time when he was apprentice in the art in which he could not yet call himself a master workman, and thought how he tried to make what he did beautiful, and fashioned his work with tireless pains after some high model. Perhaps the young writers of this time were striving as earnestly; but he could not see it, or thought he could not. He fancied their eyes dazzled by the images of easy success, instead of taken with the glory of a thing beautifully done. He remembered, with fond emotion, how once his soul had glowed over some "cunning'st pattern of excelling nature," and had been filled with longing to learn from it the art of surprising some other mood or aspect of nature and making that loveliness or grandeur his own. He had talked with other youths who were trying at the same time to do good work, and he remembered that they too were trying in the same way; and now, long after, he fancied that their difference from the youth of the present day was in their willingness to strive for perfection in the means and to let the end take care of itself. The end could no more justify bad means in æsthetics than in ethics; in fact, without the carefully studied means there could be no artistic result. If it was true that the young writers of the present expected a high result from hurried or neglected processes, they could have only the results that Eugenio saw around him. If they admired these, and were coming to him for the secret of achieving them, they were coming to the wrong shop.

Yet he did not harshly blame them. He remembered how he, too, when he had been impatient of the means, had once fancied postponing them to the end. That was in the days which were mainly filled for him with the business of writing fiction, and when the climax of his story seemed always threatening to hide itself from him or to elude his grasp. There were times when it changed to some other end or took a different significance from that it had primarily had. Then he had said to himself that if he could only write the end first, or boldly block it out as it first presented itself, and afterward go back and write in the events and characters leading up to it, he would have an effect glorified by all the fervor of his primal inspiration. But he never did that, or even tried to do it. Perhaps, when he came to consider it more carefully, it appeared impossible; perhaps it approved itself ridiculous without experiment. His work of art, such as it was, was a growth from all his thinking and feeling about it; and without that it could no more eventuate in a climax than a tree could ripen fruit without the preliminaries of striking its roots into the ground, coming of the age to bear, and then some springtime budding, putting out leaves, breaking into blossom, and setting its young apples, or whatever else it was going to bear. The fruit it bore would be according to its kind, and he might have been mistakenly expecting to grow peaches from an apple stock when he was surprised to find apples on it, or the end of his novel turning out other than he had forecast it.

In literature the reader's affair is with results, but the author's with processes. Eugenio had realized this more and more distinctly, and, as he now reflected on the appeals of those fond young correspondents of his, it occurred to him that their confusion as to literary methods and manners lay in their being still readers so largely and so little authors as yet. They were dealing with the end, in their mistaken minds, and not with the means, as they supposed. The successes which dazzled them might very well have been written backward in some such fashion as he had once imagined, for the end was the main thing with them, and was the end of the story as well as the end of the book. But the true story never ends. The close of the book is simply the point at which the author has stopped, and, if he has stopped wisely, the reader takes up the tale and goes on with it in his own mind.

As for the variance of the close from the forecast of it, Eugenio was less and less dismayed by that, when in the course of time he looked more closely at his own life and the lives of other men. Only on some spiritual terms was there the fulfilment of forecast in them, and the more art resembled life the less responsive it was to any hard-and-fast design. He perceived that to find the result changing from the purpose might very well be a proof of vitality in it, an evidence of unconscious insight, the sort of inspiration that comes to crown faithful work with unimagined beauty. He looked round at the great works of literary art, and he believed that he saw in them the escape from implicit obedience to a first intention. Only in the inferior things, the mechanical things, could he discern obedience. In something supreme, like Hamlet, say, there was everything to make him think that the processes had educated Shakespeare as to the true nature of his sublime endeavor and had fixed the terms of its close. Probably the playwright started with the notion of making Hamlet promptly kill his stepfather, rescue Ophelia from the attempt to climb out over the stream on a willow branch, forgive his erring mother as more sinned against than sinning, welcome Laertes back to Denmark, and with the Ghost of his father blessing the whole group, and Polonius with his arm in a sling, severely but not fatally wounded, form the sort of stage picture, as the curtain went down, that has sent audiences home, dissolved in happy tears, from so many theatres. But Shakespeare, being a dramatist as well as a playwright, learned from Hamlet himself that Hamlet could not end as he had meant him to end. Hamlet, in fact, could not really end at all, and, in the sort of anticlimax in which the tragedy closes, he must rise from death, another and a truer ghost than the buried majesty of Denmark, and walk the world forever.

Could Eugenio, however, advise his youthful correspondents to work so reckless of their original conceptions as Shakespeare had probably done? The question was serious; it put him upon his conscience, and he decided that at the most he could not do more than urge them, with all the earnestness of his nature, to write their Hamlets from the beginning forward, and never from the ending backward, even in their own minds. He saw that if he were to answer them collectively (and he certainly did not intend to answer them severally) he must say that their only hope of producing an effective whole was through indefatigable work upon every part. Make each smallest detail beautiful, and despise none because it seemed to perform a poor and lowly office in the assemblage of the parts. Let these youths be sure that they could not know the meaning of any design from imagining it, but only from expressing it, and that the true result could come only from the process. They could not hope to outdo Shakespeare and foreknow their respective Hamlets; they must slowly make their Hamlets' acquaintance by living with them.

If Eugenio's correspondents were dashed by this hard saying, he thought he might raise their spirits by adding that they would find compensation for their slow, arduous toil in particulars from a fact which he had noted in his own case. A thing well done looks always very much better in the retrospect than could have been hoped. A good piece of work would smile radiantly upon them when it was accomplished. Besides, after a certain experience in doing, they would learn that the greatest happiness which could come to them from their work would be through the perfecting of details. This would make their performance a succession of little victories which alone could constitute the great ultimate triumph.

"But style, but style!" they might return. "What about style? That was one of the miracles we asked you the sleight of, and are you going to say nothing about that? Or did you mean style, in your talk about perfecting details? Do you want us to take infinite pains in acquiring a style?"

"By no means," Eugenio was prepared to declare in the event of this come-back. "Do not think about style. If you do your work well, patiently, faithfully, truly, style will infallibly be added unto you. That is the one thing you must not try for. If you try for style, you will be like a man thinking about his clothes or his manners. You will be self-conscious, which is the fatal opposite of being yourself. You will be yourself when you are lost in your work, and then you will come into the only style that is proper to you: the beauty and the grace that any sort of workman has in the exercise of his craft. You will then have, without seeking it, your own swing of phrase, your own turn of expression, your own diction, and these will be your style by which every reader will know you. But if you have a manner which you have borrowed or imitated, people will see that it is second-hand and no better than something shop-worn or cast off. Besides, style is a thing that has been grossly overvalued in the general appraisal of literary qualities. The stylists are not the greatest artists, the supreme artists. Who would think of Shakespeare as a stylist, or Tolstoy, or Dante?"

Eugenio thought he could count upon a vanity in his correspondents so dense as not to be pierced by any irony. In fact, it could not be said that, though he felt the pathos of their appeals, he greatly respected the motives which actuated them in writing to him. They themselves respected their motives because they did not know them as he did, but probably they did not pity themselves so much as he pitied them. He realized that they turned to him from a literary remoteness which they did not realize, and it was very natural that they should turn for help outside their circumstance; but Eugenio had not lived to his age without learning that many natural impulses are mistaken if not wrong. He reflected sadly that those far-off solitaries could alone burst their circumstance and find their way out of it. He perceived that they could do this only by their own devout and constant toil in the line of their aspiration. But would it avail to tell them so?

One of the knowledges of a period of life which we will call the riper maturity is that we need all the accumulated vigilance of the past to secure us from the ever-besetting dangers of the present: the dangers of indolence, of slovenly performance, of indistinct vision, of weakening conscience in our work. We need every atom of force, every particle of the stored electricity of youth, to keep us going in later years. While we are still young we are aware of an environing and pervading censure, coming from the rivalry, the envy, the generous emulation, the approval, the disapproval, the love, the hate of all those who witness our endeavor. No smallest slip, no slightest defect will be lost upon this censure, equally useful whether sympathetic or antipathetic. But as we grow old we are sensible of a relaxing, a lifting, a withdrawal of the environing and pervading censure. We have become the objects of a compassionate toleration or a contemptuous indifference; it no longer matters greatly to the world whether we do our work well or ill. But if we love our work as we ought till we die, it should matter more than ever to us whether we do it well or ill. We have come to the most perilous days of our years when we are tempted not so much to slight our work as to spare our nerves, in which the stored electricity is lower and scanter than it was, and to let a present feeble performance blight the fame of strenuous achievements in the past. We may then make our choice of two things—stop working; stop going, cease to move, to exist—or gather at each successive effort whatever remains of habit, of conscience, of native force, and put it into effect till our work, which we have not dropped, drops us.

Should Eugenio address these hard sayings to his appealing, his palpitating correspondents? He found himself on the point of telling them that of all the accumulated energies which could avail them when they came of his age, or were coming of it, there was none that would count for so much as the force of habit; and what could be more banal than that? It would not save it from banality if he explained that he meant the habit of loving the very best one can do, and doing that and not something less. It would still be banal to say that now in their youth was the only time they would have to form the habit of tirelessly doing their best at every point, and that they could not buy or beg or borrow such a habit for the simple reason that nobody who had it could sell or give or lend it.

Besides, as Eugenio very well perceived, his correspondents were not only young now, but were always intending to be so. He remembered how it used to be with himself, and that was how it used to be. He saw abundance of old, or older, people about him, but he himself instinctively expected to live on and on, without getting older, and to hive up honey from experience without the beeswax which alone they seemed to have stored from the opening flowers of the past. Yet, in due course of time, he found himself an old or older man simply through living on and on and not dying earlier. Upon the whole, he liked it and would not have gone back and died earlier if he could. But he felt that it would be useless trying to convince his youthful correspondents that, whether they liked it or not, they too would grow old, or older, if they lived. How, then, teach them by precept, if they would not learn by universal example, that unless they were to be very miserable old men, and even miserable old women, they must have the habit of work? How instruct them further that unless they had the habit of good work, patient, faithful, fine work, the habit which no one can buy, beg, or borrow, because no one can sell, give, or lend it, they were worse than idle, cumberers of the earth, with no excuse for being above it?

If he had set out to do that, they might have retorted upon him that he was making a petty personal matter of art, which was not only so much longer than life, but so much wider, deeper, and higher. In this event he saw that he would have nothing for it but to confirm his correspondents in their disappointment with him by declaring that art was a personal matter, and that though longer, it was not wider, deeper, or higher than life, and could not be. It might be mysterious in being personal, but it was not necessarily petty. It would be great if the artist was so, but not otherwise; it could be fine on no other terms. There was a theory and an appearance that it existed somehow apart from the artist and that it made him. But the fact was he made it, partly wittingly, partly unwittingly; and it had no being except in his achievement. The power of imagining a work of art was the gift of nature, as being long or short, dark or fair was. The concern of him it was given to was how, after he found it out, to make the most of his gift. It had no power to make much or little of him. If he cherished it and served it, when he had made sure of it, by fulfilling the law that its possession imposed, then it would rise up in something he had done and call him master.

But how could Eugenio make such things—so true and yet so self-contradictory, so mutually repellent—clear to these simple-hearted young correspondents of his? The more he thought of the matter, the more he resolved to do nothing about it.

William Dean Howells