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The literary pendulum

“After all,” said the great advocate Rufus Choate, ‘a book is the only immortality.’ That was the lawyer's point of view; but the author knows that, even after the book is published, the immortality is often still to seek. In the depressed moods of the advocate or the statesman, he is apt to imagine himself as writing a book; and when this is done, it is easy enough to carry the imagination a step farther and to make the work a magnificent success; just as, if you choose to fancy yourself a foreigner, it is as easy to be a duke as a tinker. But the professional author is more often like Christopher Sly, whose dukedom is in dreams; and he is fortunate if he does not say of his own career with Christopher: ‘A very excellent piece of work, good madam lady. Would 'twere done!’

In our college days we are told that men change, while books remain unchanged. But in [214] a very few years we find that the circle of books alters as swiftly and strangely as that of the men who write or the boys who read them. When the late Dr. Walter Channing of Boston was revisiting in old age his birthplace, Newport, R. I., he requested me to take him to the Redwood Library, of which he had been librarian some sixty years before. He presently asked the librarian, with an eagerness at first inexplicable, for a certain book, whose name I had never before heard. With some difficulty the custodian hunted it up, entombed beneath other dingy folios in a dusty cupboard. Nobody, he said, had ever before asked for it during his administration. ‘Strange!’said Dr. Channing, turning over the leaves. ‘This was in my time the show-book of the collection; people came here purposely to see it.’ He closed it with a sigh, and it was replaced in its crypt. Dr. Channing is dead, the librarian who unearthed the book is since dead, and I have forgotten its very title. In all coming time, probably, its repose will be as undisturbed as that of Hans Andersen's forgotten Christmas-tree in the garret. Did, then, the authorship of that book give [215] to its author so very substantial a hold on immortality?

But there is in literary fame such a thing as recurrence—a swing of the pendulum which at first brings despair to the young author, yet yields him at last his only consolation. L‘éternite est une pendule, wrote Jacques Bridaine, that else forgotten Frenchman whose phrase gave Longfellow the hint of his ‘Old Clock on the Stair.’ When our professors informed us that books remained unchanged, those of us who were studious at once pinched ourselves to buy books; but the authors for whom we madeeconomies in our wardrobe are now as obsolete, very likely, as the garments that we exchanged for them. No undergraduate would now take off my hands at half price, probably, the sets of Landor's ‘Imaginary Conversations’ and Coleridge's ‘Literary Remains,’ which it once seemed worth a month of threadbare elbows to possess. I lately called the attention of a young philologist to a tolerably full set of Thomas Taylor's translations, and found chat he had never heard of even the name of that servant of obscure learning. In college we studied [216] Cousin and Jouffroy, and he who remembers the rise and fall of all that ambitious school of French eclectics can hardly be sure of the permanence of Herbert Spencer, the first man since their day who has undertaken to explain the whole universe of being. How we used to read Hazlitt, whose very name is so forgotten that an accomplished author has lately duplicated the title of his most remarkable book, ‘Liber Amoris,’ without knowing that it had ever been used! What a charm Irving threw about the literary career of Roscoe; but who now recognizes his name? Ardent youths, eager to combine intellectual and worldly success, fed themselves in those days on ‘Pelham’ and ‘Vivian Grey;’ but these works are not now even included in ‘Courses of Reading’—that last infirmity of noble fames. One may look in vain through the vast mausoleum of Bartlett's ‘Dictionary of Quotations’ for even that one maxim of costume, which was ‘Pelham's’ bid for immortality.

Literary fame is, then, by no means a fixed increment, but a series of vibrations of the pendulum. Happy is that author who comes to be [217] benefited by an actual return of reputation— as athletes get beyond the period of breathlessness, and come to their ‘second wind.’ Yet this is constantly happening. Emerson, visiting Landor in 1847, wrote in his diary, ‘He pestered me with Southey—but who is Southey?’ Now, Southey had tasted fame more promptly than his greater contemporaries, and liked the taste so well that he held his own poems far superior to those of Wordsworth, and wrote of them, ‘With Virgil, with Tasso, with Homer, there are fair grounds of comparison.’ Then followed a period during which the long shades of oblivion seemed to have closed over the author of ‘Madoc’ and ‘Kehama.’ Behold! in 1886 the Pall Mall Gazette, revising through ‘the best critics’ Sir James Lubbock's ‘Hundred Best Books,’ dethrones Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, Lamb, and Landor; omits them all, and reinstates the forgotten Southey once more. Is this the final award of fate? No: it is simply the inevitable swing of the pendulum.

Southey, it would seem, is to have two innings; perhaps one day it will yet be Hayley's [218] turn. ‘Would it please you very much,’ asks Warrington of Pendennis, ‘to have been the author of Hayley's verse?’ Yet Hayley was, in his day, as Southey testifies, ‘by popular election the king of the English poets;’ and he was held so important a personage that he received, what probably no other author ever has won, a large income for the last twelve years of his life in return for the prospective copyright of his posthumous memoirs. Miss Anna Seward, writing in 1786, ranks him, with the equally forgotten Mason, as ‘the two foremost poets of the day;’ she calls Hayley's poems ‘magnolias, roses, and amaranths,’ and pronounces his esteem a distinction greater than monarchs hold it in their power to bestow. But probably nine out of ten who shall read these lines will have to consult a biographical dictionary to find out who Hayley was; while his odd protege, William Blake, whom the fine ladies of the day wondered at Hayley for patronizing, is now the favorite of literature and art.

So strong has been the recent swing of the pendulum in favor of what is called realism in fiction, it is very possible that if Hawthorne's [219] ‘Twice-told Tales’ were to appear for the first time to-morrow they would attract no more attention than they did fifty years ago. Mr. Stockton has lately made a similar suggestion as to the stories of Edgar Poe. Perhaps this gives half a century as the approximate measure of the variations of fate—the periodicity of the pendulum. On the other hand, Jane Austen, who would, fifty years ago, have been regarded as an author suited to desolate islands or long and tedious illnesses, has now come to be the founder of a school, and must look down benignly from heaven to see the brightest minds assiduously at work upon that ‘little bit of ivory, two inches square’ by which she symbolized her novels. Then comes in, as an alterative, the strong Russian tribe, claimed by realists as real, by idealists as ideal, and perhaps forcing the pendulum in a new direction. Nothing, surely, since Hawthorne's death, has given us so much of the distinctive flavor of his genius as Tourgueneff's extraordinary ‘Poems in Prose’ in the admirable version of Mrs. T. S. Perry.

But the question, after all, recurs: why [220] should we thus be slaves of the pendulum? Why should we not look at these vast variations of taste more widely, and, as it were, astronomically, to borrow Thoreau's phrase? In the mind of a healthy child there is no incongruity between fairy tales and the Rollo Books; and he passes without disquiet from the fancied heart-break of a tin soldier to Jonas mending an old rat-trap in the barn. Perhaps, after all, the literary fluctuation occurs equally in their case and in ours, but under different conditions. It may be that, in the greater mobility of the child's nature, the pendulum can swing to and fro in half a second of time and without the consciousness of effort; while in the case of older readers, the same vibration takes half a century of time and the angry debate of a thousand journals.

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