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Chapter 10: Favorites of a day

“Criticism on English writers,” wrote Edward Fitzgerald to Mrs. Kemble, “is likely to be more impartial across the Atlantic and not biased by clubs, coteries, etc.” True as this is, the fact must also be borne in mind that the American critic is always limited by knowing that what he writes will probably not be read in England, and therefore will not reach the persons most concerned. It is not strange if the English author judges America by his balance-sheet, since it is his only point of contact with our readers. The late Mr. Du Maurier had reason to think well of a public that yielded him $50,000; and though it was freely declared here that his style was meretricious, his theme dubious, his title borrowed from Nodier, his group of three Englishmen from Dumas, and his heroine, pretty feet and all, from Delvaux's Les Amours [73] Buissonieresall this naturally did not trouble him, particularly as it never reached him. In the same way the authors who have come here to lecture have inevitably gauged each place by their own audiences; as Matthew Arnold thought that Worcester, Massachusetts, must be a small and trivial town because he had but few to hear him, and was left at a hotel, but regarded Haverhill as a great and promising city, because he was entertained at a private house and had a good audience. The tradewind of prestige and influence still blows from Europe hither; the American author does not expect money from England, for instance, but values its praise or blame; while the Englishman is glad of the money, but cares little for the criticism, since he rarely sees it.

What is hard for authors, foreign or native, to understand is that fame is apt to be most transitory where it is readiest, and that they should make hay while the sun shines. A year ago the bookseller's monthly returns, as seen in The Bookman and elsewhere, gave the leadership in the sales of every American city to English or Scotch books; now one sees the recent American tales by Hopkinson Smith or Mrs. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward, for example, leading in every town. There is [74] no deep national principle involved-only a casual change, like that which takes athletic prizes for a few years from one college and gives them to another. Novels and even whole schools of fiction emerge and disappear like the flash or darkening of a revolving light in a light-house; you must use the glimpse while you have it. “The highways of literature are spread over,” says Holmes, “with the shells of dead novels, each of which has been swallowed at a mouthful by the public, and is done with.” Each foreign notability, in particular, should bear in mind on his arrival the remark of Miss Berry's Frenchman about a waning beauty who was declared by her to be still lovely. “Yes; but she has only a quarter of an hour to be so” (“Elle n'a qu'un quart d'heure pour être”).

The bulk of English fiction fortunately never reaches this country, and the bulk of American fiction as fortunately never reaches England. The exceptions are often wayward and very often inexplicable. Who can now understand why the forgotten novel called The Lamplighter had a wider English circulation than any American book had hitherto conquered except Uncle Tom's Cabin? or why The Wide, Wide World achieved such a success [75] as still to retain its hold on English farmhouses? They were no better than the works of “a native author named Roe,” and probably not so good. In this country the authors who have achieved the most astounding popular successes are, as a rule, now absolutely forgotten. I can remember when Sylvanus Cobb, Jr., received by far the largest salary then paid to any American writer, and Dr. J. H. Robinson spent his life in trying to rival him. The vast evangelical constituency which now reads Ben-Hur then read Ingraham's Prince of the House of David; the boys who now pore over “Oliver Optic” had then Mayne Reid. Those who enjoy Gunter and Albert Ross then perused, it is to be presumed, the writings of Mr. J. W. Buel, whose very name will be, to most readers of today, unknown. His Beautiful Story reached a sale of nearly 300,000 copies in two years; his Living World and The Story of Man were sold to the number of nearly 250,000 each, and were endorsed by Gladstone and Bismarck. This was only ten years ago, for in 1888 he received for copyright $33,000, and in 1889 $50,000; yet I have at hand no book of reference or library catalogue that contains his name. Is it not better to be unknown in one's lifetime, and yet live forever by one poem, like Blanco [76] White with his sonnet called “Life and light,” or by one saying, like Fletcher of Saltoun with his “I care not who makes the laws of a people, so I can make its ballads,” than to achieve such evanescent splendors as this?

It is not more than sixty years since Maria Edgeworth rivalled Scott in English and American popularity, and Scott's publisher, James Ballantyne, says that he could most gratify the author of Waverley when he could say: “Positively this is equal to Miss Edgeworth.” Fifty years ago Frederika Bremer's works were in English--speaking countries the object of such enthusiasm that publishers quarrelled for the right to reproduce them in English, and old friendships were sundered by the competition to translate them. At that time all young men who wished for a brilliant social career still took for their models either Pelham or Vivian Grey,; and I remember that a man of fine intellect, who had worked in a factory till he was eighteen, once told me that he had met with no intellectual influence to be compared with that exerted upon him by Bulwer's novels. The historical tales of G. P. R. James were watched for by thousands of eager readers, and his solitary horseman rode through the opening page among the plaudits of a [77] myriad hearts. Dickens laughed all these away, as Cervantes smiled away Spain's chivalry; and now Dickens himself is set aside by critics as boisterous in his fun and maudlin in his sentiment. All teaches us that fame is, in numberless cases, the most fleeting of all harvests; that it is, indeed, like parched corn, which must be eaten while it is smoking hot or not at all.

If, however, an author holds his public by virtue of his essential thought, rather than by his mode of utterance, he may achieve the real substance of fame, although his very name be forgotten, because that thought may transfuse other minds. Many men, like Channing and Parker, make their views so permeate the thoughts of their time that, while their books pass partially out of sight, their work goes on. Five different reprints of Channing's Self-Culture appeared in London in a single year; and the English issue of Parker's works remains the only complete one. Again, writers of equal ability may vary immensely in their power of producing quotable passages on which their names may float. No one can help noticing the number of pages occupied by Pope, for instance, in every dictionary of quotations — a number quite out of proportion [78] to his real ability or fame. The same was formerly true of Young's Night Thoughts and Thomson's Seasons, now rarely opened. Many of the most potent thinkers, on the other hand, are in the position of that General Clive, once famous for his wealth and gorgeous jewelry, whom Walpole excused for alleged parsimony on the ground that he probably had about him “no small brilliants.”

In these various ways a man sometimes escapes, perhaps forever, from the personal renown that should seemingly be his. Even if he gains this, how limited it is, at the best! Strictly speaking, there is no literary fame worth envying, save Shakespeare's-and Shakespeare's amounted to this, that Addison wrote An Account of the Greatest English Poets in which his name does not appear; and that, of the people one meets in the streets of any city, the majority will not even have heard of him.

How many thousand never heard the name
Of Sidney or of Spenser, and their books;
And yet brave fellows, and presume of fame,
And think to bear down all the world with looks.

Happy is that author, if such there be, who, although his renown be as small as that of [79] Thoreau in his lifetime, does not greatly concern himself about it, being so occupied with some great thought or hope for man that his own renown is a matter of slight importance. It is for this that Whittier always expressed thanks to the antislavery agitation, because it kept him free from the narrowness of a merely literary ambition. The only absolutely impregnable attitude is in that fine invocation of the radical Proudhon, prefixed to his first work:

Thou God who hast placed in my heart the sentiment of justice before my reason comprehended it, hear my ardent prayer.... May my memory perish, if humanity may but be free!

--(“Ah! perisse ma memoire et que l'humanite soit libre.”)1

He who is thinking only of himself and of the royalty on his books must watch tremblingly over his own fame, and shudder at every adverse breath; he is like an actor, who hears his doom in every shrinkage of applause from the galleries. But the man whose thoughts are fixed on truth and right is better occupied; if he sees the torch carried onward, what matter who carries it? “Still lives the [80] song though Regnar dies” ; and it will not trouble him though a generation of critics go to their graves, as Lady Holland said of Lady Cork, “full of bitterness and good dinners.”


1 Oeuvres Completes;, I. 224.

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