At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: April 1, 1893


       There is one question in which the Canadian reading public and the Canadian writer have a common interest, that is the art of bookmaking in Canada. Every one knows what the Canadian book of a few years ago was like. I have had something to do with the publication of a few Canadian books, and I know with what a pained surprise the suggestion that the old-fashioned Canadian book was not a perfect example of the art was received by one of our publishers. "What!" he exclaimed, "do you want anything better than that?" at the same time producing a copy of somebody or other's speeches bound in that peculiar cloth that seems to have broken out into goose pimples. The cover was warped and fitted the pages like a charity coat, and it was labelled like a grocer's cannister, but to the astonished publisher it was a sample of the best he could do, and he was satisfied with it. But there has of late years been great improvement in the art of bookmaking in Canada, and although there is room yet for advancement I hope it will not be long before we can show as well made a book as our neighbors. Not that I would advise our publishers to take American books as models of what books should be. The Americans, it is true, print attractive books, and occasionally beautiful ones, but they are too fond of what is merely pretty, and often the attractiveness of their work wears off speedily and leaves one with a sense of the commonness of the design. Their ordinary work will not compare with English work of the same class, and the best English work remains unrivalled in the world. There is a style about the issues of a good English house that one can see nowhere else. It is the result of experiment and experience since the fifteenth century; and it is not to be wondered at, when one thinks of the thousands of handicraftsmen who have been trained during these centuries, that English books are the best in the world. So it is rather to England that our publisher should look for his models; it is from them that he should study the nice distinction which governs the way in which the type should be set upon the page, the balance of margins, the manner of lettering and all of the many nice points which go to make a perfect book. The use of cloths for binding which have smooth surfaces and pleasant tints, and papers which are neither hard nor brittle, will add much to the pleasure of a lover of books. It is a pleasure to own a book whose cover will not scream owing to its roughness as you take it down from your shelves, and whose print will not appear after a half an hour's reading to be so many points of sand pricking the eyes and fatiguing the brain.

       New Zealand appears to be the paradise of the philosopher and the poor man. It is said that there are no rich men there, and no poor, and the laboring man is king. They have a prime minister, Mr. Ballance, who is taking every measure possible to confirm and perpetuate this admirable state of things. The sale of public land has been stopped, and it is law that no more of it shall pass from the public ownership forever. It may be let only upon leases of short duration. The premier is endeavoring to carry a land bill under which no man may possess more than 2,000 acres of land, under penalty of five years' imprisonment for false declaration. "With the exception of a short line from Wellington to Palmerston, all the New Zealand railways are in the hands of the government, and it is the premier's ambition to see the state in possession of all mines, factories and steam transit lines." Of the two houses of parliament, the lower is purely democratic, the members being elected on the "one man one vote" principle. The upper house is the only place where the plutocrat holds any vestige of power, and Mr. Ballance is taking measures to "fix" that by getting some stout democrats and workingmen added to the present number. On the whole, what with land acts, coal mine acts, factories acts, lands income assessment acts and many more acts, it seems to be rather difficult in New Zealand for a man to line his pocket with very much "unearned increment." I think we had better emigrate. The continent of America is getting too full of practical politicians and railway magnates to be a fit place for any simple and honest man to live in.

       In Miss L. Munroe's Chicago letter to The New York Critic, she mentions the following amusing and also pathetic condition of things in connection with the selection by the local committee of pictures for the fair:—
       "The fact that seven-eighths of the paintings submitted were rejected foretold a large amount of discontent, but, for the most part, the disappointed have remained discreetly silent. A large proportion of them hailed from small western towns, where the opportunities for study are somewhat restricted, and I am told that great was the merriment of the jury during its three-days' session. Ambitious farmers' daughters sent in their greatest efforts, painted entirely by hand, and teachers of drawing in Podunk contributed landscapes which had been the admiration of despair of their pupils. There is a touch of pathos, which Mary Wilkins alone has probed, in these restricted lives—hopeful, industrious, ambitious, plodding along in ignorance of the fact that their labor is fruitless. If they would only be content with the applause of their neighbors, the average of happiness in the world might be a trifle higher.
       "From a ranch in Texas comes a picture which showed a genuine honest endeavor on the part of the painter to reproduce something that he knew and loved. A note accompanied it, in which the man wrote that he had never had the opportunity for instruction, but that he had worked conscientiously for many years in the hope of achieving an end worthy of the effort. But this picture fell below the standard, and the plucky Texan will have to endure rejection. Another case which appeals less forcibly to one's sympathy is that of a man who has the true American push. He sent in a picture 20 feet long of the capitol at Washington, painted from a photograph, as the creator of this masterpiece has never seen the building. His modesty also commends him to our admiration, for he valued this amount of paint at the meagre sum of $10,000.
       "The most amusing phase of the controversy resulting from the selections connects itself with a prominent Chicago painter who was on the jury. No less than six of his works were among those accepted, and no other artist, with the exception of one from Minneapolis, who was also a member of the jury, approaches this number. When asked for an explanation of the discrepancy, the Chicagoan replied that 'the members of the jury were of course exempt'—exempt, with their laurels still to win—exempt and not ashamed to take advantage of the privilege! Naturally it is only the small men of the jury who would lay themselves open to such a suspicion, but it leads one to ask why men of that calibre should be honored with such a responsibility."
       Though we may smile at such a picture, the facts of the case go to show that no matter how crude the standards may be in the rural west, there is a strong impetus toward culture of some kind, which will blossom some day into something worthy of the new world. Miss Munroe's letter is a clever one, and interesting, though her remarks on Mr. Field's new volume of verse savors perhaps too much of the critical for a correspondence column.
       Turning to the London (England) letter in the same periodical, we also get another picture. This time it is contemporary literary conditions across the water. The picture is drawn by Mr. Arthur Waugh, who appears as London correspondent for the first time, and shows, indeed, if it be a true one, but a sorry outlook for English literature of the near future. He says:—
       "It is proverbially easy to deal in paradoxes, and proverbially futile. Yet, at the risk of being accused of facile futility, I firmly believe that the winter from which the literary world is just emerging has been at once as stagnant and as suggestive as a student of development could desire. Little has happened, but much is astir. 'A storm is coming, though the woods are still.' The books of the season have been uninspiring enough. No great creative work of fiction has been issued for months; readers who, during the corresponding weeks of 1891-2, were indulged by three vastly engrossing novels, 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles,' 'The Little Minister' and 'David Grieve,' have been forced to content their imaginations with captivities in the Mahdi's camp, or jogging journeys through Connemara in a governess cart—things good enough in their way, but still not literature.
       "The fact is that the whole field of literary activity has been paralyzed by the death of Tennyson. Authors themselves are probably unconscious of the cause of their want of alacrity; but the cause is there all the same. Literature is left leaderless; there is a sort of restless discomfort in the air; we have not yet settled down after the blow. Memory and attention are still centred on the loss which the world of letters has sustained. Throughout the winter the demand for Tennyson's work has kept printers and booksellers busy; the monthly bulletins of a certain literary journal show that the interest of the reading public has been almost entirely retrospective—every one has been opening once more the familiar green covers to whose contents the final "Finis" has been written. For a few weeks after the laureate's death the air was full of suppressed excitement and animation; it seemed as though the prospect of a change in the literary kingship were to give a new impetus to poetry. But the moment passed; no new laureate was appointed; a calm followed, but it was the calm of stagnation. Literature seemed at a standstill, and a new home rule bill was far more interesting to the man in the street than the reminiscences of a country squire or a rural dean. I recently saw a letter from one of our leading publishers, complaining that during the week in which Mr. Gladstone moved his bill the sale of books declined to one-third of its normal quantity. Small wonder, then, that the book of the season was the confession of a political spy.
       "And yet, I think, it has been a suggestive season, if a stagnant one. Literary activity must be fed by current events; if the home life is dull and inanimate the inspiration is certain to be sought abroad. And so the past winter has found English literature turning to the continent for aid, and the latest movement is, I think, rather ominously un-English.

       "When shall we hear an English song again?"

says one of our youngest singers, and something may, perhaps, be urged in support of this rather querulous complaint."
       Mr. Waugh goes on to say that "the minor poets have been full of movement." "But their tone is so imitatively French that they can scarcely be regarded as a phase of English literature at all."

       Mr. Gilbert Parker has had a most gratifying success in the United States with his novel, "The Chief Factor." Over 30,000 copies were sold in three weeks. His new novel, "Mrs. Falchion," which will shortly be published, will have a similar success, to judge from the interest which is being taken in its issue.

       People are generally a good deal interested in the habits of famous authors as regards the act of composition, and almost every writer has some peculiar trick of method in composing which a biographer has studiously recorded. We are told that Addison, in the old days, wrote as he paced up and down a long room, where there was a decanter of wine at each end, and the decanter may perhaps account for the liquid mellowness and abundant good humor of some of his pleasant passages. Wordsworth made verses as he walked, and particularly as he paced the length of a secluded path near his house at Rydal. Many of his lines and stanzas must certainly have taken form out of doors, for no indoor atmosphere could have inspired their magical freshness and sunny purity of vision. Tennyson did some work in his rambles, but probably more as he sat with his pipe over the fire. He was sometimes too lazy to write down what he composed, and many things that might well have been preserved slipped from his memory and were forgotten. "Many thousand fine lines," he declared to a friend, "go up the chimney." Poe, when the verse-making fit was upon him—and it did seize him like a sort of convulsion—roamed about his house biting his nails, muttering half aloud, and fretting like a caged beast. Keats wrote easily, without much exertion, and generally, if it was summer, in the open air, lying upon a grassy bank or sitting under a tree. I do not know whether it is really possible for a man to sit squarely down to a table with a sheet of paper before him and write poetry, but I have never heard of anyone who was in the habit of doing it. The commonest habit with imaginative writers of all kinds is that of pacing backward and forward like Wordsworth or Addison—minus the decanters. The gentle exercise of walking relieves the restlessness of the nerves and enables the imagination to concentrate itself upon its subject.