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Chapter 31: the prejudice in favor of retiracy

Miss Alcott, when serving as nurse in a soldiers' hospital, justified her demand of a small curtain for her chamber window on the fact of “the female mind having a prejudice in favor of retiracy during the nightcapped periods of existence.” But the truth is that if people could only be induced to believe it, such a prejudice exists not only for women, but for many men also, and during much more extended periods. An able Western critic, a lady, writes in despair that of three different poets of her own sex whom she wished to include in a biographical article, every one has replied that she preferred not to give any personal details about herself. Two of these reside at the East, one at the West; all desire to earn a modest income by their poems, and all to some extent succeed; all readily admit that a page or two of personal gossip about [207] them would help their market, yet all with one accord make excuse. Is it to be accounted to them as a virtue or as a weakness? Their critic naturally thinks it rather a weakness; if they plunge into printer's ink, why not accept the consequences? But surely in the sympathetic breast there is something which pulsates in their defence.

The instinct of “retiracy” is not wholly limited to women. Tennyson, whom Lord Lytton called “Miss Alfred,” in his day, says frankly of the poet generally, “His worst he kept, his best he gave,” and pleads earnestly that all of his life except what he puts in print may be recognized as his own. Hawthorne, Emerson, Whittier, and many others have claimed a similar shelter. Longfellow confessed to a dislike to seeing his name in print. Swift, while seeming defiant of the world, read family prayers “in secret” in his household-“in a crypt,” as Thackeray said — that they might not be talked about; not only retiring to the Scriptural closet, but taking his whole family there. Shakespeare, while engaged in the most conspicuous of all professions, yet kept his personality so well concealed that there are those who doubt to this day whether he wrote the plays which bear his name, and [208] no one has yet conjectured why he left only his second-best bedstead to his wife. Charles Lamb, when asked for personal details, could remember nothing notable in his own career except that he once caught a flying swallow in his hand. Campbell, the poet, was so shy that on receiving a compliment he would withdraw within his shell and say no more; he was afraid, as Irving finely said, of the shadow which his own fame cast before him. It would be easy to make up a long list of authors of eminence who have deprecated instead of encouraging all personal information, and who would have been eminently unfitted to live in an age or land of interviewers.

It is not apparent that there is any distinction of sex in this matter. The writer has seen a letter to a friend by an authoress not unknown to fame, or at least popularity, in which she points out that renown is almost wholly a matter of small newspaper items, and so encloses a written series of personal scraps about herself-her looks, voice, sayings, doings, and the like — for this friend to distribute among friendly editors. This is at the opposite extreme from the recusant poets who give so much trouble to their biographers. It would be well if some compromise could be made, as [209] was done by the traveller described by Dr. Franklin, who, on arriving in a strange city at once called upon the mayor with a printed slip stating his birthplace, age, height, occupation, destination, sect, political party, and the like, in the hope that, having supplied gossip with these essential facts, he might thenceforth be let alone. Yet it is doubtful whether this would present any serious obstacle to the enterprise of modern journalism; for, indeed, no matter how often a man's biography has been written, there always seems to be a lingering expectation that he can with a little trouble get up a wholly new one, having an entirely different set of incidents, for the latest historian.

If a greater personal shyness exists among literary persons than in any other occupation, it probably comes from the fact that the author, and especially the poet, feels more detached from his work, when done, than is the case with anybody else. His work comes to him as something outside of himself, and, when it is done, his ordinary life is but the nest from which that bird of fancy has flown. Why then should he dwell upon it, or give its precise measurements? The poem comes to him; he cannot sit down and make it by an [210] effort of will. It is strange to him that the word “poet” should mean “maker,” when his experience is that the poem, even if a poor one, makes itself. Its production also affords a relief; and this explains the many cases where-as, in America, with Emily Dickinson and Francis Saltus-one may spend a whole lifetime in making verses, and yet let almost nothing be published until after death. This explains also why their own works often seem to authors so remote and worthless; they feel as an apple-tree might feel, if it were human, towards a barrel of its own apples of last season. When to all this is added a woman's lingering tradition of the seclusion due to her sex, it is not strange if authors of that sex hide themselves under initials or feigned names, and decline to publish autobiographies.

It is to be observed that those who, like Mr. Bellamy, put into type their dreams of an ideal future state, do not make it clear to us which way we are tending, whether to greater publicity or greater seclusion. Perhaps the more we are destined to have in common, the more we shall take refuge in what we can preserve of “retiracy.” It is to be noticed that Fourier, the arch-organizer, in the midst of his elaborate “groups” and intricate “series,” [211] still recognizes the rights of individuality here and there; and preserves, amid all the inexorable machinery, some little corners where personal privacy may hold its own.


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