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The Westminster Abbey of a book catalogue

the American visitor enters Westminster Abbey prepared to be hushed in awe before the multitude of great names. To his amazement he finds himself vexed and bored with the vast multiplicity of small ones. He must approach the Poets' Corner itself through avenues of Browns, Joneses, and Robinsons. It seems that even Westminster Abbey affords no test of greatness, nor do any of the efforts to ascertain it by any other test succeed much better. The balloting in various newspapers for ‘the best hundred authors’ or ‘the forty immortals’ has always turned out to be limited by the constituency of the particular publication which attempted the experiment; or sometimes even by the action of jocose cliques, combining to force up the vote of pet candidates. As regards American authors, the great ‘Library [153] of American Literature’ of Stedman and Hutchinson aims to furnish a sort of Westminster Abbey or Valhalla, where the relative value of different writers may be roughly gauged by the number of pages assigned to each candidate for fame. But this again is determined by the taste of the compilers, and their judgment, however catholic, is not infallible. Still another test, and one coming nearer to a general popular consensus may be sought in the excellent catalogues which are now prepared for our public libraries—catalogues in which the list of each author's works is supplemented by appending the titles of all books or parts of books written about him; not usually including, however, magazine or newspaper articles. By simply counting the entries of this subsidiary literature which has already grown up around each eminent man, we can obtain a certain rough estimate of the extent and variety of interest inspired by him in the public mind.

Let us take, for instance, one of the best and most recent of these catalogues—the large quarto volume which enumerates the English [154] books in the Cleveland (Ohio) public library. This selection is made partly because of the thoroughness and excellence of the work itself, and partly because, as Emerson once said, ‘Europe stretches to the Alleghanies,’ and, by going west of them, we at least rid ourselves of any possible prejudices of the Atlantic border. I have carefully counted the list of entries in this catalogue under the names of many prominent Americans not now living; and the results have been such as to surprise not merely the present writer, but all with whom he has compared notes. No person to whom he has put the question has yet succeeded in hitting, at a guess, the first four names upon the list presently to be given; the list, that is, of those under whose names the entry of biographical and critical literature is largest. The actual table, arranged in order of pre-eminence, is as follows, the number following each name representing the number of books, or parts of books, referring to the person named, and enumerated in the Cleveland catalogue. The actual works of the author himself are not included. The list is as follows:— [155]

Emerson, Lincoln (each)41
Franklin 37
Beecher, Poe, M. F. Ossoli (each)16
Theodore Parker, Lowell (each)15
John Adams, Sumner (each)14
Cooper, Greeley, Sheridan, Sherman (each)12
John Brown, Channing, Farragut (each)10
Garrison, Hamilton, Prescott, Seward, Taylor (each) 9
Edwards, Motley (each)5

This list certainly offers to the reader some surprises in its details, but it must impress every one, after serious study, as giving a demonstration of real intelligence and catholicity of taste in the nation whose literature it represents. When, for instance, we consider the vast number of log cabins or small farmhouses where the name of Lincoln is a household word, while that of Emerson is as unknown as [156] that of Aeschylus or Catullus, one cannot help wondering that there should have been as many books written—so far as this catalogue indicates—about the recluse scholar as about the martyr-president. The prominence of Washington and Franklin was to be expected, but that Longfellow should come so near Webster, and that both he and Hawthorne should distinctly precede Jefferson and Grant, affords surely some sensations of surprise. Again, there is something curious in the fact that Poe should stand ‘bracketed,’ as they say of examination papers, with the Margaret Fuller whom he detested; that the classic Everett should fall so far below the radical Parker; and that Dr. Channing and John Brown, the antipodes of each other as to temperament, should rank together on the returns. But all must agree that these figures reflect, to a greater degree than one would have expected, the actual prominence of these various personages in the public mind; and could the table include a number of printed catalogues instead of one, it really would afford as fair an approximation as we are likely to obtain to a National gallery of eminent persons. [157]

It is easily to be seen that no similar gallery of living persons would have much value. It is not, ordinarily, until after a man's death that serious criticism or biography begins. Comparing a few living names, we find that there are already, in the Cleveland catalogue, subsidiary references to certain living persons, as follows:—

Holmes, Whittier12
Mrs. Stowe8
Ex-President Cleveland4
Blaine, Howells, James2
Hale, Parkman1

These figures, so far as they go, exhibit the same combination of public and literary service with those previously given. Like those, they effectually dispose of the foolish tradition that republican government tends to a dull mediocrity. Here we see a people honoring by silent suffrages their National leaders, and recording the votes in the catalogue of every town library. There is no narrow rivalry between literature and statesmanship, or between either of these [158] and military qualities, but all leaders are recognized for what they have given. The result is a tribute to that natural inequality of men which is as fully recognized, in a true republic, as their natural equality; that is, they are equal in the sense of being equally men, but not equal in their gifts as men. It is curious to see how the social falsities of English society tell on educated Englishmen, so surely as they grow old enough to shed the generous impulses of youth. It was in vain that Tennyson wrote ‘Clara Vere de Vere,’ and Froude ‘The Nemesis of Faith,’ and RuskinModern Painters,’ and Swinburne the ‘Song in Time of Order:’ let them once reach middle life and they are all stanch Tories and ‘accept dukes;’ and now Huxley follows in their train. But here in America we find no difficulty in selecting our natural leaders, sooner or later, and owning them; they do not have to fight for recognition, in most cases; it comes by a process like the law of gravitation.

In our colonial town records the object of the meeting was often stated as being ‘to know the Town's Mind’ on certain questions; the Town's [159] Mind being always written with capitals and ‘mentioned with reverence, as if it were a distinguished person, hard to move.’ The result of this unconscious selection in the book catalogues is to give us the Nation's Mind in regard to our foremost men. As time goes on, the decision varies; some reputations hold out better, some less well; the relative position of Dr. Channing, for instance, has changed a good deal within fifty years, and so has that of Henry Clay; but in the end the scale settles itself and remains tolerably permanent. And there is this advantage in a hierarchy of intellect and public service thus established, that it does not awaken the antagonism which follows an hereditary aristocracy; and that if the sons of these eminent persons do not distinguish themselves, they are simply ignored and passed by, whereas under a hereditary aristocracy their high position may be a curse to the community. This Westminster Abbey of the newspapers excites no such feelings as Heine confesses himself to have experienced among the graves of the crowned heads at Westminster Abbey in London. He tells us that he did not grudge [160] the eighteen pence he had paid to see them; but told the verger that he was delighted with his exhibition, and would willingly have paid as much more to see the collection complete.

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