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[189]

Chapter 28: the really interesting people

A newly arrived English authoress, sitting beside an American author at the dinner-table a few years since, looked up and said to him with the cheerful frankness of her nation, “Isn't it a pity, don't you think, that all the really interesting Americans are dead?” It was not, perhaps, a very encouraging inducement for a surviving American to make himself interesting; and probably the talk which followed became a series of obituaries. As a matter of fact, it always seems as if the interesting people had just passed away, as in any town it always seems as if the really fine trees had lately died or had been cut down. But, as Goethe remarked, the old trees must fall in order to give the younger growth a chance; and it would be wiser to say that the really interesting people are always those who survive. The younger they are, indeed, the more [190] interesting. The older ones have been gauged and measured; they may yet, while they live, do something better than they have ever done, but it will be essentially in the same lines. Gladstone goes on with his statesmanship and his scholarship to the end of life; so did Holmes with his inexhaustible sparkle; but their work did not change; we knew what was coming. The interest of the younger generation lies in the fact that we never know just what to expect from them. If we had looked at the late eminent philologist, Professor William D. Whitney, of Yale University, as he appeared in youth, we should have seen a promising geologist; if we had looked at his brother, Professor J. D. Whitney, of Harvard, we should have seen a rising philologist. At a certain period of life they exchanged pursuits; the student of languages gave his brother a Sanskrit grammar, and took in exchange his geological tools. Nothing that either has accomplished, although both have done much, is more essentially interesting than this early interchange of life-work.

Fortunately for all concerned, there is always a period, even in America, when the young look with a certain admiration and envy on the old, and sometimes, for five minutes [191] at a time, would even change places with them. The old discreetly hold their tongues and accept the sort of supremacy thus forced upon them. So long as they say nothing, the mistaken impression stands. Sir Robert Walpole, who lived to be nearly eighty, remarked of his coeval, Lord Tyrawley, “Tyrawley and I have been dead for two years, but we don't tell anybody.” Long before reaching that point it occurs to most persons that, after all, the world belongs to the young, and not to those who seem to control it; the elders have still the nominal ownership, but they are only, as the phrase is, tenants by the courtesy, and in a few days or hours the whole governing body will be essentially different. In some persons this causes a languid indifference to a world so soon to slip from their grasp; in others it creates an almost excessive eagerness for handling the tools of thought or action to the last. But in either case they are brought to the same conclusion, that the really interesting people are the youngsters, and not themselves.

The curious thing is that, while the elders are thus meditating, the young people are looking forward with fear and solicitude, and wondering how they shall ever be able to fill the [192] places of these dignified figures who are sitting, as in Friends' Meeting, “on the high seats.” How little we know, in maturity, of the struggles and terrors of the young! As they look out into the world they see all its problems and difficulties at their full dimensions, or perhaps exaggerated, while the wings are yet undeveloped by which they themselves are perhaps to float airily over all these obstacles. A small boy of my acquaintance once lay awake in tears after an overdose of Miss Martineau's once famous Illustrations of Political Economy, because he did not see how he should ever be able to pay his rent when he became a man; and a little girl wept yet more wildly, beyond all control of her nurse, because she did not know whether, if she died, there would be anybody to attend her funeral. We can smile at these childish solicitudes from the safe vantage-ground of maturer years. But not a year passes without some unexplained tragedy in the newspapers;--some college student or recent graduate, usually a person of good abilities and unstained character, fills his home with anguish by an unexplained suicide in his hotel chamber. Could we look behind the scenes we might perhaps find the explanation to lie in some fancied helplessness, as unfounded [193] as these childish tears, in the outlook on life of this maturer child. With the world before him to enjoy, to help, or to conquer, he finds himself paralyzed with doubts whether he can fill his place. Life alone could test him; but that test he shrinks from applying, and takes refuge in death.

The interest of the world lies in the fortunes of the young. The great works of humanity are still to be accomplished; the great book written; the great picture painted; the great city or nation governed. It is not the nineteenth century, but the twentieth, which now becomes interesting. We turn for a theme to the coming generation; but we must not, like that member of Congress who announced himself as “addressing posterity,” be charged with talking so long that our audience will arrive in season to hear us.

(1896)

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