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- Taken Alive - 4/66 -


published, a book was far away from the still waters of which one's friends are the protecting headlands. That I knew my work to be exceedingly faulty goes without saying; that it was utterly bad, I was scarcely ready to believe. Dr. Field, noted for his pure English diction and taste, would not publish an irredeemable story, and the constituency of the New York "Evangelist" is well known to be one of the most intelligent in the country. Friendly opinions from serial readers were reassuring as far as they went, but of course the great majority of those who followed the story were silent. A writer cannot, like a speaker, look into the eyes of his audience and observe its mental attitude toward his thought. If my memory serves me, Mr. R. R. Bowker was the earliest critic to write some friendly words in the "Evening Mail;" but at first my venture was very generally ignored. Then some unknown friend marked an influential journal published in the interior of the State and mailed it so timely that it reached me on Christmas eve. I doubt if a book was ever more unsparingly condemned than mine in that review, whose final words were, "The story is absolutely nauseating." In this instance and in my salad days I took pains to find out who the writer was, for if his view was correct I certainly should not engage in further efforts to make the public ill. I discovered the reviewer to be a gentleman for whom I have ever had the highest respect as an editor, legislator, and honest thinker. My story made upon him just the impression he expressed, and it would be very stupid on my part to blink the fact. Meantime, the book was rapidly making for itself friends and passing into frequent new editions. Even the editor who condemned the work would not assert that those who bought it were an aggregation of asses. People cannot be found by thousands who will pay a dollar and seventy-five cents for a dime novel or a religious tract. I wished to learn the actual truth more sincerely than any critic to write it, and at last I ventured to take a copy to Mr. George Ripley, of the New York "Tribune." "Here is a man," I thought, "whose fame and position as a critic are recognized by all. If he deigns to notice the book, he will not only say what he thinks, but I shall have much reason to think as he does." Mr. Ripley met the diffident author kindly, asked a few questions, and took the volume. A few weeks later, to my great surprise, he gave over a column to a review of the story. Although not blind to its many faults, he wrote words far more friendly and inspiring than I ever hoped to see; it would seem that the public had sanctioned his verdict. From that day to this these two instances have been types of my experience with many critics, one condemning, another commending. There is ever a third class who prove their superiority by sneering at or ignoring what is closely related to the people. Much thought over my experience led to a conclusion which the passing years confirm: the only thing for a writer is to be himself and take the consequences. Even those who regard me as a literary offender of the blackest dye have never named imitation among my sins.

As successive books appeared, I began to recognize more and more clearly another phase of an author's experience. A writer gradually forms a constituency, certain qualities in his book appealing to certain classes of minds. In my own case, I do not mean classes of people looked at from the social point of view. A writer who takes any hold on popular attention inevitably learns the character of his constituency. He appeals, and minds and temperaments in sympathy respond. Those he cannot touch go on their way indifferently; those he offends may often strike back. This is the natural result of any strong assertion of individuality. Certainly, if I had my choice, I would rather write a book interesting to the young and to the common people, whom Lincoln said "God must love, since He made so many of them." The former are open to influence; the latter can be quickened and prepared for something better. As a matter of fact, I find that there are those in all classes whom my books attract, others who are repelled, as I have said. It is perhaps one of the pleasantest experiences of an author's life to learn from letters and in other ways that he is forming a circle of friends, none the less friendly because personally unknown. Their loyalty is both a safeguard and an inspiration. On one hand, the writer shrinks from abusing such regard by careless work; on the other, he is stimulated and encouraged by the feeling that there is a group in waiting who will appreciate his best endeavor. While I clearly recognize my limitations, and have no wish to emulate the frog in the fable, I can truthfully say that I take increasing pains with each story, aiming to verify every point by experience--my own or that of others. Not long since, a critic asserted that changes in one of my characters, resulting from total loss of memory, were preposterously impossible. If the critic had consulted Ribot's "Diseases of Memory," or some experienced physician, he might have written more justly. I do not feel myself competent to form a valuable opinion as to good art in writing, and I cannot help observing that the art doctors disagree wofully among themselves. Truth to nature and the realities, and not the following of any school or fashion, has ever seemed the safest guide. I sometimes venture to think I know a little about human nature. My active life brought me in close contact with all kinds of people; there was no man in my regiment who hesitated to come to my tent or to talk confidentially by the campfire, while scores of dying men laid bare to me their hearts. I at least know the nature that exists in the human breast. It may be inartistic, or my use of it all wrong. That is a question which time will decide, and I shall accept the verdict. Over twelve years ago, certain oracles, with the voice of fate, predicted my speedy eclipse and disappearance. Are they right in their adverse judgment? I can truthfully say that now, as at the first, I wish to know the facts in the case. The moment an author is conceited about his work, he becomes absurd and is passing into a hopeless condition. If worthy to write at all, he knows that he falls far short of his ideals; if honest, he wishes to be estimated at his true worth, and to cast behind him the mean little Satan of vanity. If he walks under a conscious sense of greatness, he is a ridiculous figure, for beholders remember the literary giants of other days and of his own time, and smile at the airs of the comparatively little man. On the other hand, no self-respecting writer should ape the false deprecating "'umbleness" of Uriah Heep. In short, he wishes to pass, like a coin, for just what he is worth. Mr. Matthew Arnold was ludicrously unjust to the West when he wrote, "The Western States are at this moment being nourished and formed, we hear, on the novels of a native author called Roe." Why could not Mr. Arnold have taken a few moments to look into the bookstores of the great cities of the West, in order to observe for himself how the demand of one of the largest and most intelligent reading publics in the world is supplied? He would have found that the works of Scott and Dickens were more liberally purchased and generally read than in his own land of "distinction." He should have discovered when in this country that American statesmen (?) are so solicitous about the intelligence of their constituents that they give publishers so disposed every opportunity to steal novels describing the nobility and English persons of distinction; that tons of such novels have been sold annually in the West, a thousand to one of the "author called Roe." The simple truth in the case is that in spite of this immense and cheap competition, my novels have made their way and are being read among multitudes of others. No one buys or reads a book under compulsion; and if any one thinks that the poorer the book the better the chance of its being read by the American people, let him try the experiment. When a critic condemns my books, I accept that as his judgment; when another critic and scores of men and women, the peers of the first in cultivation and intelligence, commend the books, I do not charge them with gratuitous lying. My one aim has become to do my work conscientiously and leave the final verdict to time and the public. I wish no other estimate than a correct one; and when the public indicate that they have had enough of Roe, I shall neither whine nor write.

As a rule, I certainly stumble on my stories, as well as stumble through them perhaps. Some incident or unexpected impulse is the beginning of their existence. One October day I was walking on a country road, and a chestnut burr lay in my path. I said to myself, "There is a book in that burr, if I could get it out." With little volition on my part, the story "Opening a Chestnut Burr" took form and was written.

One summer evening, when in New York, I went up to Thomas's Garden, near Central Park, to hear the delicious music he was educating us to appreciate. At a certain point in the programme I noticed that the next piece would be Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and I glanced around with a sort of congratulatory impulse, as much as to say, "Now we shall have a treat." My attention was immediately arrested and fixed by a young girl who, with the gentleman escorting her, was sitting near by. My first impression of her face was one of marvellous beauty, followed by a sense of dissatisfaction. Such was my distance that I could not annoy her by furtive observation; and I soon discovered that she would regard a stare as a tribute. Why was it that her face was so beautiful, yet so displeasing? Each feature analyzed seemed perfection, yet the general effect was a mocking, ill-kept promise. The truth was soon apparent. The expression was not evil, but frivolous, silly, unredeemed by any genuine womanly grace. She giggled and flirted through the sublime symphony, till in exasperation I went out into the promenade under the open sky. In less than an hour I had my story "A Face Illumined." I imagined an artist seeing what I had seen and feeling a stronger vexation in the wounding of his beauty loving nature; that he learned during the evening that the girl was a relative of a close friend, and that a sojourn at a summer hotel on the Hudson was in prospect. On his return home he conceives the idea of painting the girl's features and giving them a harmonious expression. Then the fancy takes him that the girl is a modern Undine and has not yet received her woman's soul. The story relates his effort to beautify, illumine the face itself by evoking a mind. I never learned who was the actual girl with the features of an angel and the face of a fool.

In the case of "He Fell in Love with His Wife," I merely saw a paragraph in a paper to the effect that a middle-age widower, having found it next to impossible to carry on his farm with hired help, had gone to the county poorhouse and said "If there's a decent woman here, I'll marry her." For years the homely item remained an ungerminating seed in my mind, then started to grow, and the story was written in two months.

My war experience has naturally made the picturesque phase of the Great Conflict attractive material. In the future I hope to avail myself still further of interesting periods in American history.

I find that my love of horticulture and outdoor life has grown with the years. I do not pretend to scientific accuracy or knowledge. On the contrary, I have regarded plants and birds rather as neighbors, and have associated with them. When giving to my parish, I bought a place in the near vicinity of the house which I had spent my childhood. The front windows of our house command a noble view of the Hudson, while on the east and south the Highlands are within rifle-shot. For several years I hesitated to trust solely to literary work for support. As I have said, not a few critics insisted that my books should not be read, and would soon cease to be read. But whether the prediction should prove


Taken Alive - 4/66

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