Here to return to
THERE IS a kind of writing by which the reader is led along, perhaps hurried along, if it be a narrative, without pause from beginning to end. Everything follows directly from what has gone before; the mind is held upon the same level of interest; and the impression produced is, as it were, a single impression. There is another kind of writing, which brings the reader now and then to a halt. He looks up from the page, perhaps, fixing his eyes upon vacancy, and turning the thought, or the expression of it, over in his mind; or he betakes himself to a book of extracts and conveys a sentence or two into its keeping; or, possibly, if he is one of the rare ones who buy books and read with pencil in hand, he may indite a note on the margin of the leaf, or at least set a mark there, — as one blazes a tree at the foot of which treasure is buried. The author has said something, — something in particular, fresh, surprising, original; something that seems to have come from his own mind; a thing to be pondered over and returned upon. For the moment there is no going further; the reader has turned thinker, or is lost in a dream. It is as if a man had been walking down a pleasant road bordered with hedges and fields, one much like another, and now of a sudden has rounded a corner, and sees before him a lake or a waterfall, something new, different, unexpected, at the sight of which he stops as by instinct. Or you may say, it is as if a man had been traveling steadily forward, thinking only of his journey’s end, and all at once catches the shine of a gold piece in the path, or sees by the wayside a flower so novel and beautiful that it must be stepped aside for and looked at.
We have had in America three writers, living in the same country village at the same time, who exemplified in a really striking manner these two styles of writing: Hawthorne on the one hand, and Emerson and Thoreau on the other.
Hawthorne’s work you may read from end to end without the temptation to transfer so much as a line to the commonplace book. The road has taken you through many interesting scenes, and past many a beautiful landscape; you may have felt much .and learned much; you might be glad to turn back straightway and travel the course over again; but you will have picked up no coin or jewel to put away in a cabinet. This characteristic of Hawthorne is the more noteworthy because of the moral quality of his work. A mere story-teller may naturally keep his narrative on the go, as we say, — that is one of the chief secrets of his art; but Hawthorne was not a mere story-teller. He was a moralist, — Emerson himself hardly more so; yet he has never a moral sentence. The fact is, he did not make sentences; he made books. The story, not the sentence, nor even the paragraph or the chapter, was the unit. The general truth — the moral — informed the work. Not only was it not affixed as a label; it was not given anywhere a direct and separable verbal expression. If the story does not convey it to you, you will never get it. Hawthorne, in short, was what, for lack of a better word, we may call a literary artist.
Emerson and Thoreau, on the other hand, were journalizers. Their life was not to create, but to think, to see, to read, and to set down the results of it all, day by day. When Emerson would make a piece of literature, — a lecture, or an essay, or even a book, — he sought out related paragraphs from his diary, dovetailed them together, disguising the joints more or less successfully, as might happen, — it was no great matter, — added collateral ideas as they occurred to him, and the job was done. It was done the more easily because the journal was not a receptacle for impressions hastily noted. Sentence and paragraph had been assiduously finished to a word, turned this way and that and settled finally into shape, before they went into it; for a journal, with him, was not a collection of rough jewels, but a drawer full of pearls and precious stones, each carefully cut and polished, ready for the setting or the string.
And what was true of Emerson was true in good degree of Thoreau, who followed the same general method, but with a less pronounced and continuous effect of discontinuity: partly, it would appear, because of a difference in the turn of his mind (more given to reason, and less to intuition), and partly because of the narrative form into which his natural historical bent almost of necessity carried him, — a form by which pages and whole chapters of his work are held pretty closely together.
If with Hawthorne we put Irving, — who was like him so far as the point now under consideration is concerned, fluidity of style and an absence of “passages,” — we have four of our American classics in well-contrasted pairs. One pair, we may say, did work that was like tapestry, woven throughout; the other’s product was rather like patchwork, — composed of rare and valuable stuff, but still patchwork.
This comparison, be it understood, is not to be taken as an attempt to settle a question of comparative rank. A contrast is not of itself an appraisal, nor a figure of speech an end of the argument.
And after all, if figures of speech are to be regarded, a floor of tiles may be as beautiful, and even as “artistic,” as the finest of woven carpets. Let comparisons go. We may study differences without exalting one or depreciating another. Of the four writers now named,. we are not to say that any one was greater than all the rest. Each had his superiorities and his inferiorities, the second necessary concomitants of the first; for every virtue casts its shadow.
Emerson, for his part, seems to have been keenly aware of the disconnectedness of his work, — his “formidable tendency to the lapidary style,” he terms it, — and even to have accepted it as a defect. “I dot evermore in my endless journal, a line on every knowable in nature,” he writes to Carlyle; “but the arrangement loiters long, and I get a brick-kiln instead of a house.” That was one face of the medal; but his “bricks” are now of more value than many another man’s streetful of buildings.
Thoreau, though he too had his humble moods, was in general more self-reliant — or at least more self-assertive — than his older friend and master. He believed in the “lapidary style,” or in some wholesome approach to it; and what he believed in he would stand up for. “We hear it complained of some works of genius,” he says, “that they have fine thoughts, but are irregular and have no flow. But even the mountain peaks on the horizon are, to the eye of science, parts of one range.” He is defending Emerson, — though he does not name him, — and, indirectly, himself; and with the same end in view he goes on to praise Sir Walter Raleigh, whose style, he says, has a natural emphasis, like a man’s tread, “and a breathing space between the sentences.” And he declares, correctly enough, that what the ignorant applaud as a “flow” of style is much of it nothing but a “rapid trot.”
One thing is certain: a man must work according to his own method. For him that is the best method, and indeed the only one. Carlyle entreated Emerson to “become concrete, and write in prose the straightest way.” “I wish you would take an American Hero, one whom you really love; and give us a History of him, — make an artistic bronze statue (in good words) of his Life and him. I do indeed.” Thoreau’s appeal to Emerson is for exactly the opposite: less art, if need be, and less concreteness, but more “far-off heats,” more “star-dust and undissolvable nebulae.” To that end he turns Emerson’s own verse against him. “From his
‘lips of cunning fell
The thrilling Delphic oracle.’
And yet sometimes, —
We should not mind if on our ear there fell
Some less of cunning, more of oracle.”
Clever critics, both of them, the Scotchman and the Yankee; but meanwhile, between the two fires, Emerson kept on polishing pearls and cutting cameos, with hardly so much as an attempt at an “artistic bronze statue.” The author of the essay on Self-Reliance” knew that a man must work with his own mind, as he must wear his own face; that no method is so good or so bad but that it may be damaged by an attempt to make it as good as another’s.
And admirable as artistic perfection and absolute unity are, there remains a place, and a high place, for works of another order. All the world, even the stickler for classical perfection, loves a good sentence. Blessed is the writer who now and then makes one. We forgive him for carelessness of construction, and, almost, for every other literary fault, if once in a while — not too infrequently — he packs wit or wisdom into a score or so of memorable words.
In speaking of a quotable style, we are not thinking of works like the Wisdom of Solomon, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and the Thoughts of Pascal and Joubert, books that are nothing but collections of maxims and aphorisms; nor even of books like Bacon’s Essays or Amiel’s Journal, that come near to falling under the same head. To find a happy and pregnant sentence in such a place is like taking an apple out of a dish and eating it at the table; to run upon one in the reading of a book is like plucking an apple from a wayside tree in the midst of a half-day ramble, and munching it on the road.
The fruit may be as fair and well-flavored in the first case as in the second, but what a difference in the relish of it! It is one thing to receive a coin over the banker’s counter, and another to pick a nugget out of the gravel. In reading, as well as anywhere else, a man enjoys the thrill of discovery.
Here, in great part, lies the enduring charm of an author like Montaigne, who wrote without plan, rambling at his own sweet will, never sticking to his text, and never so much as dreaming of unity or anything else that could be called “artistic,” yet making a book to live forever. As Sainte-Beuve says, you may open it at what page you will, and be in what mood you may, and you are sure to find a wise thought expressed in lively and durable phrase, a beautiful meaning set in a single strong line. And the best of it all is that these fine sentences, so detachable and memorable, are written like all the rest of the essay, and are part and parcel of it. No attention is called to them; they call no attention to themselves. They drop on the page, and the pen runs on.
Seemingly, it was as easy for the writer to set down a “durable” phrase — done once for all and past all bettering — as to mention the kind of fish he preferred or any other trivial every-day matter. His good things are never tainted with smartness, the besetting vice of sentence-makers in general, nor have they at all the appearance of things designed to nudge the reader, to keep him awake, as if the writer had said to himself, “Go to, let us brighten up the discussion a bit.”
A gift of this sort comes mostly by nature, but no one ever wrote much and well without arriving at some pretty definite notions as to the art of writing; and so it was with Montaigne. If his style was discursive, formless, highly sententious, and yet to an extraordinary degree familiar, he was not only aware of the fact, but gloried in it. He loved a natural and plain way of speaking, he tells us; the same on paper as in the mouth; juicy and sinewy (succulent et nerveux), irregular, incontinuous and bold, every piece a body by itself, — “a soldier-like style.” Fine words he had no place for. “May I never use any other language than what is used in the markets of Paris!” he exclaims. As for mere rhetoric, he held it cheap, as every good writer does. Word painting, no matter how well done, is “easily obscured by the lustre of a simple truth.” But a good sentence, a thing worth saying and well said, he believed to be always in order. “If it is not good for what went before nor for what comes after, it is good in itself.” He praises Tacitus for being “full of sentences.” And therein, perhaps, as in Thoreau’s eulogy of Sir Walter Raleigh, we may see the author defending his own practice. There is no neater way of speaking well of ourselves than by complimenting our own special virtues in the person of another. In truth, however, Montaigne had no need to apologize even with indirectness. His “good sentences” are not only good in themselves, but good for what precedes and follows. They are never stuck on nor thrust in. On the contrary, as has been already observed, they are sure to be part of the very substance of the essay itself. You will never find Montaigne writing or retaining a paragraph for the sake of its snapper, like those authors of whom he said that they would “go a mile out of their way to run after a fine word.”
There is a natural relation, it would seem, between a quotable style and a fondness for quoting. If a man’s own thought falls easily into well-minted, separable phrases, he will almost of course be appreciative of similar aphoristic turns of speech in the works of others. So we find Montaigne’s pages bespattered from top to bottom with extracts from the philosophers and poets of an older time. As years passed, and successive editions of the book were published, the quotations grew more and more numerous, till some of the essays seemed in danger of losing their identity and becoming hardly more than leaves out of a commonplace book.
And as it was with the Frenchman, so was it with our two Concord philosophers, Emerson and Thoreau. They were almost as fond of others’ bright things as of their own. And the same may be said of their contemporary and critic, Lowell, who, like them, was also a master of the phrase, a putter forth of “stamped sentences,” like gold and silver coins, as one of his admirers has called them. He, too, is always offering us a nugget out of another man’s pack. All three of these men, be it added, borrowed not only with freedom, but with great advantage to their own work. They had a right to borrow, being in good measure original in their very quotations, because, as has been remarked of Montaigne, “they employed them only when they found in them an idea of their own, or had been struck by them in a new and singular manner.”
But what a change when we turn to Hawthorne! His work is all of a piece, woven in his own loom. As nobody quotes him, so he quotes nobody. Inverted commas are as scarce on his pages as November violets are in the Concord meadows. You will find them, but you will have to search for them. On Thoreau’s page they are thick as violets in May.
We were not undertaking to determine rank or to appraise values, we said, but so much as this we will venture upon suggesting: that a piece of pure art — “The Scarlet Letter,” if you will — is not on that ground alone to be considered as worthier in itself, or better assured of lasting honor, than some work less perfectly constructed, but, it may be, more nobly inspired. In the final result of things, literary merit and literary fame are not portioned out by any critical yardstick. Lowell complained of Thoreau that “he had no artistic power such as controls a great work to the serene balance of completeness.” True enough. It is the same criticism which Carlyle, and Arnold after him, brought against Emerson; in whose case, also, we need not dispute the point. But Lowell said further of Thoreau, “His work gives me the feeling of a sky full of stars;” and again: “As we read him, it seems as if all-out-of-doors had kept a diary and become its own Montaigne. . . . Compared with his, all other books of similar aim, even White’s ‘Selborne,’ seem dry as a country clergyman’s meteorological journal in an old almanac.” In other words, Thoreau was not an artist, but he did something new, and something grandly worth doing. Emerson, likewise, was not an artist; but the critic who tells us so tells us in the same breath that Emerson’s essays are the most important work done in English prose during their century.
Whether Emerson will outlive Hawthorne, or Hawthorne outlive Emerson, who can say? It would be rash guessing to attempt a prophecy. As for Thoreau, there are some, perhaps, who would bid higher for his chance of immortality than for that of either of his two famous townsmen.
Let such things turn out as they may, Emerson and Thoreau have each given to American literature, and better still to American life, something that can never be lost, even though their works and their names together should be forgotten; and they have done this partly by reason of their very limitations, their making of sentences and paragraphs — portable wisdom — instead of “artistic bronze statues.” “Wisdom is the principal thing,” said an ancient writer; and an English critic and statesman of our own day has uttered the same truth in more modern fashion. “Aphorism or maxim,” says Mr. John Morley, “let us remember that this wisdom of life is the true salt of literature; that those books, at least in prose, are most nourishing which are most richly stored with it; and that it is one of the main objects, apart from the mere acquisition of knowledge, which men ought to seek in the reading of books.”
Yes, and it is one of the objects that men do seek; for the history of literature proves abundantly that the world keeps a relish for that which feeds the soul as well as for that which ministers to the passion for beauty; if it crowns the literary artist, it has a wreath also for his humbler brother — if he is humbler — the originator and disseminator of thought. For it is to be considered that a man with a genius for writing is not therefore a man of original ideas, or indeed, so far as the necessity of the case goes, of any ideas at all. His gift may be — nay, perhaps is likely to be — purely artistic and literary, a faculty for seeing and describing. Thus we read of Sterne that he was a great author, “not because of great thoughts, for there is scarcely a sentence in his writings which can be called a thought, . . . but because of his wonderful sympathy with and wonderful power of representing simple human nature.” Obviously, it is not to such as he that we are to go in search of wisdom. The man who furnishes us with that commodity, the quotable man, be his rank higher or lower, is one who thinks, or, lacking that, has an instinct for the discovery and expression of thought, — a man under the friction of whose pen ideas crystallize into handy and final shape, and so become current coin.