At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: February 4, 1893


       The young writers of to-day who are determined to be true to themselves and have a greater ambition than to be merely the creatures of our current literary combines, cannot but feel keenly the bitter truths spoken by Mr. W. Blackburn Harte in his "In a Corner at Dodsley's" in the February number of The New England Magazine. If ever a man were hampered on all sides it is the sincere literary man of to-day who is determined to write his own work and be original. Mr. Harte has evidently discovered the inner workings of things, as most of us have. But it is getting pretty bad when he has to say, speaking of the profession of letters, "A man can only become honored in the community by being dishonest, for men love not qualities but the appurtenances of power." And yet this is too true. There are men to-day who get into literary prominence as a politician gets into power. They affect a sort of mock modesty, but furnish themselves with an army of sycophants and parasites, who occupy all sorts of contemptible positions in the slime of current book-making and journalism, who are glad of the doubtful honor of being associated with a name a little above them in the climbing scale. A private letter of carefully veiled flattery, written as these men make it an art to write, binds this class of creature to them forever. One would think that writers who had certain gifts would not stoop to such contemptible methods of procedure, but the fact remains that there is too much of such "machine worth" in so-called literary circles to-day. I have been approached at different times by these rings, who through one of their members propose an attitude of "defence or of offence" against some imaginary enemy of their affected ideas, or against some person like myself, who persistently refuses to enter into a fraternal system of back-scratching among themselves and back-biting of outsiders who refuse to accept their disgusting overtures. Sad to say, this condition of things runs like a dry rot all through our system of literary toil and ambition. It lurks in corners of some of our best critical journals, it haunts the doors of great city editors, worms it way into great publishing houses, until even Homer does not stand on his own merit, but must enter as an abashed second to the patronage of his modern literary ring-master, who has deigned to re-introduce him. Shakespeare is inaccessible because of the mighty wall of rubbish concerning his worth that surrounds him. It is Shakespeare no more on the stage or off it, but it is somebody else's Shakespeare or his opinion of Shakespeare that confronts the startled reader. It is not the original Wordsworth that the Wordsworthians worship, but Arnold's Wordsworth. They don't even allow the poor old poet to give his own idea of himself or his work, but say he was too much of a simpleton to see his own greatness. It is the same with the Shelleyites. They follow some miserable critic, who ought to have been hanged ere he dared to misinterpret genius in the face of its own words. No wonder, then, in an age when even the great ancients are snuffed out by their patrons, that original work of to-day has no chance. Mr. Harte has hit the truth when he says:—"The abolition of thought is one of the effects of the complete commercialization of literature in these days." This is the secret of the whole matter. The growth of large publishing houses as commercial ventures has turned literature into a trade. A certain class of clever-mediocre men have usurped the place of the old literary men, and genius is being gradually driven out. Even poetry is regarded as a business. Sonnets are all the go, until I wonder why some ingenious American does not invent a systematic rhymster after the manner of the rapid calculators. They could have a Keats or Shelleyian attachment for variety. The remarkable fact that the respectable part of America's literary men were constantly apologizing for poor old Whitman is evidence of what I have said. They would have done the same for Longfellow or Emerson had they lived to-day. They were out of keeping with this spruce, matter-of-fact age, when America's laureate keeps himself like a military diner-out. Even Lowell, who tried to adapt himself to the times, used to carry about manuscripts in his pockets; and Whittier, long before his death, was relegated to the past as far as literature was concerned. Everything is style and appearance in letters as well as in every-day life; the chief idea is to be successful, and to be successful one must be popular. The great magazines and the great publishing houses are the stairways by which one must climb to the literary heavens, and to do so the aspirant must conform to their ideal, which is a purely commercial one. It is only mediocrity that will bow to the yoke and condescend to study the "wants" of even a widely-read magazine or the "catechism" of a popular publishing house. "Thus," Mr. Harte says, "we have produced the interesting spectacle of our contemporary literary world. The publishers offer the public the crystals of sugar loaves, but they refuse to give currency to diamonds. Genius is more one-idead, and it cannot surrender its individuality even in the interests of conventional morality." Mr. Harte adds:—

       "But it is absurd for the publishers to be so desperately anxious to pass all their authors through a moulding machine, that turns them out like children's pop-guns, which will all make exactly the same report upon discharge. Of course, the indiscriminating do not weary of these small noises, but once you give boys or men the chance to handle genuine pistols and artillery, pop-guns lose their hold upon their imaginations. The popular writers and the popular critics have always prevented the popularization of the great authors; for pop-guns lose their significance the moment great field pieces are brought on the scene."

       The reader cannot help but admire this vigorous writer, not only for his wide and deep knowledge of contemporary literary affairs, but also for his remarkable daring, as when he says:—

       "The fact is, the position of the publishers is an impertinence. They should rightly be middlemen, authors' agents, who put forth and distribute literature without any power of interference in its character. Only fools buy books for the imprints of publishers. Thinkers buy books to add thinkers to their circles—not publishers. We buy books, and even magazines, to learn the authors' opinions, and to get their opinions expressed in their own fashion. It is very good of the publishers, no doubt, to attempt to exclude from circulation any opinions which from their point of view we may not agree with. But it is precisely the people we differ from that we desire to meet."

       Mr. Harte is rapidly making for himself a continental reputation as an able and strong writer of an aggressive character, and his truthful unveiling of humbug is making its influence felt in more than one quarter. What is to be particularly noted in his style is its rugged and direct simplicity, where language is powerfully used for the conveyance of thoughts that burn for utterance, in contradistinction to the too abundant affectation of style and lack of sincerity that infest so much of our current criticism.

       The publication of the fourth volume of the correspondence of Gustave Flaubert brings that writer to the notice of the world once again. The personality of Flaubert is to a great extent hidden from the readers of his novels; his artistic sense, morbid in the search after the essential form which ideas should take, would not allow him to live in his books, which remain models of art and of his artistic aims. Founder, as he was, of the modern realistic school in France, he surpasses his followers in the eagerness with which he sought perfection in expression. This passion, which consumed his whole mind and which came to be almost a madness, a madness of discontent at the stubbornness of the vehicle by which he was compelled to express his thought, distinguishes him from every other writer of his time. It arose from a supreme development of the artistic sense overshadowing and dwarfing his capacity for his art, so that he demanded for the expression of his thought some form as absolute and as inevitable as the thought itself, and would not be satisfied with less. Nothing could be a more unfortunate possession for the literary artist who at the same time has the creative desire strongly developed; he is between the Scylla of production and the Charybdis of expression. His happier brother who has the sense of form and the capacity for production evenly balanced will know more of the joys which spring from the creative effort. The musician Mozart will be forever the example to all workers in any art whatsoever of the perfect balance of form and context. All art, as Walter Pater points out, is constantly striving towards the condition of music, and perhaps Flaubert was born with a musician's idea of form and was constantly searching for the absolute fusion of form and context which is found in no other art. This implies that he might have been challenging the impossible. But it is better to do that than to deny the existence of any power in form and to battle for the native might of ideas in themselves. And so Flaubert becomes an admirable figure, although we may be willing to trace his nervous, irritable, almost desperate desire after perfection to his morbid bodily condition, and he takes his place as a type of the artist who will not be distracted by the intractableness of his material, but who works at his God-given task without despair. As he describes himself—"sick, irritated, the prey a thousand times a day of cruel pain, I continue my labor like a true working-man, who with sleeves turned up, in the sweat of his brow, beats away at his anvil, never troubling himself whether it rains or blows, for hail or thunder."

       A writer in The Canada Presbyterian draws attention to the lack of humor in most of our public speakers, and it is true; a great deal of our public speaking is unutterably long-winded, unutterably tiresome, unutterably uninteresting. Our orators have plenty of ability of a sort—the ability of the hard-headed and successful man of business, with an interminable flow of language; but what they lack is imagination. There is certainly no inherent wane of intellectual flexibility or vivacity in the Canadian people, for I believe that this country, as soon as every impediment is removed from its free development, will produce the ablest people in every way upon the continent; but there is a general mental and spiritual depression which necessarily results from the maintenance of an inferior colonial position. Beyond a certain point—that point, viz., when the national spirit begins to show itself, as it is now distinctly doing with us—it is impossible for a people to remain in the attitude of colonists without intellectual deterioration—especially deterioration in all those activities of the mind which call into play the imagination and the finer emotions dependent upon the imagination. As long as the status quo is maintained we must be prepared for an unusual degree of dulness in an unnecessarily large proportion of our public speakers. It is a noticeable fact in this connection that the most brilliant, amiable and vivacious of all our orators, the Hon. Mr. Laurier, is an advocate of independence.

       I have often been tempted to sing the praises of Ottawa—this city from which I write—not as a commercial city or as the seat of government, but as a site, as a most picturesque and wholesome foundation for the dwelling of men. It is a city which need not excite in the least degree the jealousy of its greater sisters of the Dominion, for as a centre of traffic it can never rival either Toronto or Montreal. But it has certain advantages—I should say subtle advantages—which are not enjoyed in the same measure by either of those cities. I venture to say that Ottawa will become in the course of ages the Florence of Canada, if not of America, and the plain of the Ottawa its Val d'Arno. Old Vasari said that there was a certain "air" in Florence which possessed a magical potency in exciting intellectual and imaginative energy. The great Florentine artists found that they could only produce their best at Florence. In other cities—even in Rome—they experienced a decline of power, which they could only attribute to the inferior quality of the atmosphere. I have noticed the same thing in Ottawa. Perched upon its crown of rock, a certain atmosphere flows about its walls, borne upon the breath of the prevailing northwest wind, an intellectual elixir, an oxygenic essence thrown off by immeasurable tracts of pine-clad mountain and crystal lake. In this air the mind becomes conscious of a vital energy and buoyant swiftness of movement rarely experienced in a like degree elsewhere.
       Another advantage which Ottawa enjoys is that of uncommon and romantic beauty of situation. Viewed at a distance of two or three miles, from any point of the compass, bossed with its central mass of towers, its lower and less presentable quarters buried behind rock or wood, it is one of the loveliest cities in the world. It is so placed that it can never be anything but beautiful, and as the years go on, bringing with them the spread of a finer architecture and a richer culture of the surrounding country, its beauty will be vastly greater than it is even now. It will become an ideal city for the artist.