Here to return to
IN DEFENSE OF THE TRAVELER’S NOTE–BOOK
IT is a more or less common habit of Americans to cry out against the conceit of foreigners, Englishmen especially, who, after a run through “the States,” publish their impressions of the country. These outcries — though that may seem too strong a word — are supposed to be quite independent of the character of the comments in question, whether favorable or unfavorable. In the tourist’s eyes, Americans may be an uninteresting, boastful, worldly-minded people. The magnitude of our lakes may not blind him to the imperfections of our newspapers, and in spite of Niagara and the prairies, he may esteem our politicians, for the most part, a vulgar and time-serving set. Whatever criticisms of this sort he in his unwisdom may feel called upon to express are likely to have their modicum of truth; at least they would have, if any one but a foreigner were to utter them. Americans are not slow to say similar things of each other, and especially of their public men. Except on the Fourth of July, we are far from constituting anything fairly to be called a mutual admiration society. The complaint, then, is not that the tourist offers criticism of such and such a tenor, but that he takes it upon himself to offer any criticism at all. What business has he with “impressions of America” after a visit of a month or two? And even if he has impressions, why should he be so presumptuous as to print them? A great people cannot be understood after this haphazard, percursory fashion. True; but the objection is futile, if for no other reason, because it goes wide of the mark. The question is not of understanding a people, but of having something to say about them.
Since the world began, men have traveled, and, having traveled, have recounted their adventures. The two things go together, and are alike inevitable. And the thing that hath been, it is that which shall be. Some authors travel in other men’s books; some travel in the outward and literal sense of the word; and both tell as good a story as they can of the wonders they have seen. It is only here and there a philosopher who can sit at home and spin his web out of his own insides. Thoreau delighted to talk as if Concord were the centre and sum of the world. Everything grew there, everything happened there. Why should a Concord man ever stir beyond the town limits? Sure enough! And yet what are Thoreau’s books but records of his journeys: “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; ““The Maine Woods;” “Cape Cod;” “A Yankee in Canada;” “Excursions.” With him, as with the rest of us, it was the volume he had just read that he liked to talk about; it was the country he had just seen that his pen naturally busied itself with describing. Even his one Concord book is really a book of travels. To write it he went into camp, that he might study the world on its off side, as it were, and feel his life new.
In other words, for here we come to the pith of the matter, it is the fresh impression that is vivid, and therefore will have itself expressed. We may almost say that it is the only thing that can be expressed. This is what Bagehot had in mind. “Those who know a place or a person best,” he said, “are not those most likely to describe it best; their knowledge is so familiar that they cannot bring it out in words.” And this truth, partial though it be, and, like all truth, liable to misunderstanding and abuse, is the scribbling tourist’s encouragement, and, if he be supposed to need it, his perennial justification.
More than one scholar has failed to produce the great work that was expected of him, — that he of all men seemed elected to produce, — simply because he put off the doing of it till his knowledge should be something like complete. So monumental a structure could not be too carefully prepared for, he thought: a conscientiousness most scholarly and honorable, but deadly in its result; for by the time he had laid in his stores, he had lost the freshness of his enthusiasm; a palsy had stricken his pen; and by and by the night came, and his knowledge perished with him.
Writers of travels, whatever their shortcomings, fall into no error of this kind. They strike while the iron is hot; and whether their subject be Africa or America, that is the true method. The value of such literature depends on the observer’s alertness, fairness, good sense, and general competency, rather than upon the length and leisureliness of his journey. Time of itself never did much for a blind man’s vision; and to come back to our Englishman, he may run through America in a month, or spend a year in his note-taking, and in either event he will discover only what he came prepared to discover. If the photographic plate is sensitive enough, it may need but the briefest exposure. And anyhow, let the picture turn out never so badly, no irreparable harm is done. The object itself is not altered because its portrait is drawn awry. What we have to dread is not the foreigner’s unfair opinion of us, but our unfair opinion of the foreigner. It is our own thoughts that do us injury, not other men’s thoughts about us. And if this be too rare an atmosphere for comfortable every-day breathing, we may come at a similar result on lower ground. Who are we, that we should be treated better than the rest of the world? Must our feelings never be hurt, because we are Americans? Have we never learned that it is a man’s part to be thankful for intelligent and friendly criticism, and to bear all other in silence?
Let visitors to “the States,” then, be “impressed;” and let them print their impressions, the more the better. Some of them will be shallow, some of them unkindly and prejudiced, some, perhaps, ignorantly and foolishly eulogistic. We shall be blamed for faults that are beyond our mending, and praised for virtues that were never ours, — if such virtues there be. At best, the criticism and the comment will fall a little short of inerrancy; for perfection is one of the lost arts, even in England; but in the sum many true things will be said, and in the end the cause of truth will be forwarded; and possibly, if a thousand English pens are thus employed, one of them may happen to make an immortal picture of the Great Republic as it now is, and as it will not be, for better or worse, a hundred years hence. Thus it is, at any rate, by one lucky experimenter out of many, that immortal work is done.
Some critics, it is true, would have literature, even current literature, to consist solely of such happy strokes. Let no man write anything till he can write a masterpiece, they say. Yes, and let no boy go near the water till he has learned to swim; and since crows have waxed destructive, let cornfields be planted hereafter with no outside rows; and lest malarial fevers should make an end of the human race, let all plains and valleys be filled up, and nothing remain but mountains. In short, seeing that failure has been the rule hitherto, let us abolish rules, and get on with exceptions alone; a condition of things curiously prefigured in certain Grammars of the Latin Language, of a kind still sorrowfully remembered by elderly people. A fine economy, surely, and well worth thinking about. But for the time being, till dreams become substantial, this present evil world, as we reverently call it, remembering its Creator, must be suffered to jog along in its ancient, expensive, wasteful-seeming, happy-go-lucky, highly-exceptionable manner: a million seeds, and one tree; a million books, and one chef-d’oeuvre. Classics are not yet produced of set purpose, nor do they make their advent in royal isolation, starred and wearing the laurel. They come, as was said just now, with the crowd, the “spawn of the press,” if they come at all, and are only sifted out by the slow hand of time. And meanwhile their humbler fellows, missing of immortality, may nevertheless have their day and serve their turn. Readers, fortunately or unfortunately, are of many grades, and even the wisest of them — in some unwiser but not infrequent mood — desire not a classic, but something a shade less excellent. “There is no book that is acceptable, unless at certain seasons.” So said Milton; and the saying is true, even of “Paradise Lost.” In the great sea of literature there is room both for the big fish and for “the other fry.” Let us be thankful; and if we are scribblers, by nature or by conceit, let us scribble on.