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XXXVIII. A plea for the uncommonplace.

In that mine of symbolic wisdom, “Alice in the looking-glass,” Humpty Dumpty claims that he received a certain gift as an “unbirthday present.” When Alice asks an explanation of the phrase, he points out that an unbirthday present is given to you on the days when it is not your birthday; and that this is far better than a birthday present, because you have but one birthday in a year, and you can get a great many more presents by celebrating the other three hundred and sixty-four days. In that “carnival of commonplaceness” which is afforded, as some critics maintain, by the current school of novels, it is necessary to have such a word as “uncommonplace” to express something different.

There is much that is thoroughly admirable in the present tendency, led by one or two men of positive genius, to elevate the commonplace into absorbing interest — to show the struggles, the emotions, the complications, not only of the daily life around us, but of the average and mediocre examples [193] of that life. It enriches existence to do this; it makes us all look on humanity with a kindlier eye. If a man has the genius to do it in literary art, he is a benefactor. The error begins when he or his admirers begin to decry or disparage all other forms of literary creation. The merit of discovering the obscure is almost cancelled and neutralized when the discoverer goes on to say that henceforth nothing but the obscure can have any value. I knew a botanist who discovered two undescribed and almost invisible species of plants on Cambridge Common, Massachusetts. It was a boon to science, no doubt; but would it have been a boon if he had induced all cultivators to annihilate their greenhouses, root lip their orchids, and spend the rest of their lives poring with spectacles among the scant grasses of that not very luxuriant enclosure where he found his fame?

“The novel of pure character,” says Mr. Gosse, in the Pall Mall Gazette, “is the novel of the future. The after-ages will wonder that we preferred our assassins and our bigamists to the ‘Lady of the Aroostook,’ just as we ourselves wonder that an age which had Colonel Newcome and Becky Sharp before its eyes could waste its time on the false, crude, high-flown romanticism of the first Lord Lytton and his idealistic waxworks.” There is always something very impressive in the way these [194] young poets deal with “after-ages;” and it might be pointed out that Becky Sharp was practically a bigamist and probably an assassin; and why, moreover, select for condemnation a novelist who would have been meretricious even had he been a realist? The real question is whether there is only one kind of excellence. Because Miss Austen is good, is Scott without value? It being conceded that Becky Sharp is worth drawing, is Dorothea worthless?

The error lies, like most errors, in narrowness. Non constat, it does not follow, that there can be no faithful drawing except of commonplace things. That done, why not go a step farther and draw the uncommonplace? Because any well-trained French artist at Barbizon can go out and paint a peasant, does it follow that Millet's art is valueless when he draws that peasant at a moment when the Angelus touches his quiet soul, and makes him for a moment a sentient part of the great anthem of the universe; or when in sowing the seed he becomes a symbol of the grandeur and glory of all creative and beneficent power? Great is the little; but why not go a step farther, and say, “Greater is the great?” An artist is commissioned to unlock for us all the mysteries of the human soul. Is Silas Lapham everything, and Arthur Dimmesdale nothing?

“The sincere observer of man,” Mr. Howells says in “Their wedding Journey,” “will not desire to [195] look upon his heroic or occasional phases, but will seek him in his habitual moods of vacancy and tiresomeness.” Tis simply illustrates Coleridge's remark that we may safely take every man's opinion of the value of that which he knows, but should distrust his opinion as to the worthlessness of that which he does not know. The point asserted is valuable; the point denied implies narrowness in the denier. Grant that the sincere observer of man will seek him in his tamest moods; why should sincere observation not follow him also into his heroic or occasional phases? Admit that a young man of twenty-one is worth painting as he lies in a hammock and smokes a cigarette; that is not the question. The question is whether he is utterly worthless as an object of art when he rides to certain death in a cavalry charge. Is he not then also “real?” This is the whole point at issue between Mr. Howells and what he calls “the childish demands” of his contemporary critics.

If it be said that it is because the uncommonplace demands too much skill that authors avoid it, that is a legitimate excuse. Only let this be called, as it is, a confession of weakness, not a claim of strength. The trouble is that by yielding to this weakness we confirm it, so that there comes to be a distrust of everything which does not lie close on every side of us. When Mr. Pickwick explains to Mr. Peter Magnus [196] that he likes Sam Weller because he thinks him rather original, Mr. Magnus doubtingly replies that for himself he doesn't like anything original-doesn't see the necessity for it. The public is always ready enough to doubt the necessity for it, and almost to resent the introduction of any combination which is not to be found at every street corner. A friend of mine spent a summer in a large old house in a seaport town, where he had lived for weeks before discovering that a closed door opposite his chamber door led to a concealed stairway which wound from the basement to the attic, and was now unused. It was a relic of the old period of smuggling and privateering for which that town had once been famous; but it so haunted my friend's imagination that he wrote a romance about it. The critics all agreed that there were some good things about the story, but that the device of a secret stairway — the thing which really suggested the whole book — was wholly far-fetched and unreasonable. I suppose that whosoever ventures on the uncommonplace must say to himself in advance, as the Duke of Wellington is reported to have said when meditating the publication of his memoirs, “I should like to speak the truth, but if I do I shall be torn in pieces.” The question is, whether it is not worth the risk.

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