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On the need of background

Mr. R. W. Gilder, in a recent valuable address at Wesleyan University, gives a list of nearly a score of younger American writers, who owe, as he points out, little or nothing to the college; but he leaves the question still open whether it might not be better for some of them if they had owed the college a little more. Most of those whom he names are writers of fiction, an art in which, as in poetry, the spark of original genius counts for almost everything, and what is called literary training for comparatively little. But poetry and fiction do not constitute the whole of literature. The moment the novelist leaves the little world of his own creating and ventures on the general ground of literary production, the moment he undertakes to write history or philosophy or criticism, he feels the need of something besides creative power, something which may be called a literary background. His readers, [114] at any rate, demand for him, if he does not perceive the need of it for himself, that there shall be something which suggests a wide and flexible training, with large vistas of knowledge. They like to see in him that ‘full man’ who is made, as Lord Bacon says, by ‘reading.’

One main reason why Homer and Plato and Horace and even Dante seem to supply more of this kind of fulness than can be got from an equivalent study of Balzac and Ruskin, is doubtless because the older authors are remoter, and so make the vista look more wide. The vaster the better; but there must be enough of it, at least, to convey a distinct sensation of background. Of course, when this background obtrudes itself into the foreground, it becomes intolerable; and such books as Burton's ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’ are tiresome, because they are all made up of background, and that of the craggiest description; but, after all, the books which offer only foreground are also insufficient. I do not see how any one can read the essays of Howells and James and Burroughs, for instance, after reading those of Emerson or Lowell or Thoreau, without noticing in the younger trio [115] a somewhat narrowed range of allusion and illustration; a little deficiency in that mellow richness of soil which can be made only out of the fallen leaves of many successive vegetations; a want, in fact, of background.

It is to be readily admitted that there is no magic in a college, and that any writer who has a vast love of knowledge may secure his background for himself, as did, for example, Theodore Parker. Yet he cannot obtain it without what is, in some sense, the equivalent of a college; long early years spent in various studies, and especially in those liberal pursuits formerly known as the Humanities. No doubt there is much material accessible in other ways, as by wide travel, or even in the forecastle or on a ranch. But, after all, the main preservative of knowledge is in the art of printing; and while the merely bookish man may never make a writer, there is nothing that so enriches prose-writing as some background of book-knowledge. In case of old Burton, just mentioned, the book-knowledge clearly mastered the man; and the same is the case with one who might perhaps have been the most [116] fascinating of modern English authors had not his own library proved too much for him—the Roman Catholic Digby. The inability to cope with his own knowledge has been in his case fatal to renown; his ‘Broad Stone of Honor’ is known to many a lover of good books in America; yet when I was trying to find him in London, I discovered that Froude had never even heard his name. It is the Nemesis of learning; a man who cannot cope with his own attainments is like the Norse giant who was suffocated by his own wisdom and had to be relieved by a siphon. But even he may help others, whereas the man who writes without a background of knowledge gives but a superficial aid to anybody, although his personality considered as a mere foreground may be very charming.

When the writers of Oriental sacred books began with the creation of the world, they undoubtedly went too far for a background; it was also going too far when the House of Commons was more displeased by a false Latin quantity than by a false argument. I am perfectly willing to concede that much time has [117] been wasted, in times past, on the niceties of classical scholarship; and, moreover, that what is most valuable in Greek and Roman literature has been so transfused into the modern literatures that it is no longer so important as formerly to seek it at the fountain-head. It seems only a fine old-fashioned whim when we read of the desire of Dr. Popkin, the old Greek Professor at Harvard College, to retire from teaching and ‘read the authors,’ meaning thereby the Greeks alone. The authors who are worth reading have now increased to a number that would quite dismay the good professor; but the more one has read, the better for his literary background. It is necessary to use the past tense, for the need must commonly have been supplied in early life; and this implies either a college or its equivalent; that is, a period when one reads voraciously, without any limitation but in the number of hours in the day, and without any immediate necessity of literary production.

One sees but few men—I can claim to have personally known but one, the historian, Francis Parkman—for whom a perfectly well-defined [118] literary purpose has shaped itself in early years and has proved the adequate task of a lifetime. This is not ordinarily to be expected, or even desired. Some men simply fill in a wide background without the possibility of predicting where the foreground of their intellectual work will lie. No matter; they may at any moment reap the advantage of this early breadth. There are no departments of study which are more apt to prove useful in the end than those on which Time has for a while set up the sign No Thoroughfare. It has been said that no one is rich in knowledge who cannot afford to let two-thirds of it lie fallow; nor can any one tell in which particular field he may at any moment be called on to resume production, or, at least, to take the benefit of some early harvest that was merely ploughed in.

While I am therefore proud, as an American, of the clever writing and even of the genius of many of the authors who owe nothing to colleges; and while I rejoice to see it demonstrated as has been shown by Mr. Howells and Mr. James, that much of the strength and delicacy of English style can be attained without [119] early academic training; I think that it is unsafe to let our criticism stop here. We need the advantage of the background; the flavor of varied cultivation; the depth of soil that comes from much early knowledge of a great many books. This does not involve pedantry, although it is possible to be pedantic even in fiction, as Victor Hugo's endless and tiresome soliloquizers show. The deeper the sub-soil is, the more diligently the farmer must break it up; he must not prefer a shallower loam to save trouble in ploughing. The two things must be combined,—intellectual capital and labor; accumulation and manipulation; background and foreground. Addison's fame rests partly on the three folio volumes of materials which he collected before beginning the Spectator; but it rests also on the lightness of touch that made him Addison.

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