At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: June 10, 1893


       The New York Critic has offered a prize to the first person naming correctly the ten best American books, the ten best books in this case being decided by the vote of the whole, those ten books getting the most votes being accepted. The Critic has set a hard task if it wants to be true to the best interests of American literature. If it had asked for the best three or four or five books, from a literary standpoint, the question would not be hard to settle. It is generally acknowledged that from the highest critical standard Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter," "Emerson's Essays," and "Poe's Poems" are the most remarkable contributions to continental literature. Then would come as a second three Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," Motley's "Dutch Republic," and Howells' "Modern Instance." Holmes' "Autocrat" might well come in as a good seventh, but beyond this there would be no certainty. There are a host of fine works all so worthy of our consideration that it would be hard to decide. Washington Irving's "Legends of the Hudson" would have a foremost place. Among the poets we have Lowell, Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier and Emerson, all with strong individual claims. On the other hand there are Lanier and Miller, who have characteristics not found in the New England school. In history there are Parkman, Prescott and Bancroft, the value of whose works is in each case individual, not to speak of Nicolay and Hay's splendid "Life of Lincoln." Irving's "Life of Columbus" also could not be passed over. Two such fine dictionaries as Worcester's and Webster's could not be left unmentioned, nor could the remarkable "Century Dictionary." We have also "Appleton's Encyclopedia," the only worthy rival of the "Britannica." A great work and one of the most monumental of our times is Kennan's "Siberian Exiles." In archeology, Dr. Brinton of Philadelphia has done invaluable work. In this department valuable dates have been furnished in Donelly's "Atlantis," a work no longer despised by scholars. In philosophy, Noah Porter and many others have made important contributions, and in the domain of philosophy, history, and mythology, Prof. Fiske of Harvard takes a high rank. Among remarkable humorists, Holmes easily comes first, and Artemus Ward and Mark Twain would follow with especially strong qualities of their own. In fiction, beginning with Hawthorne, Howells, Irving, Cooper, James, Harte, Craddock, Eggleston and Cable, there is a whole host of strong and clever writers whose ranks are always being augmented. In theology, New England especially has produced such writers as Channing, Freeman Clarke, Mulford and Allen. Clarke's "Ten Great Religions" is the one great work on comparative theology ever written in America, and Mulford's "Republic of God" is a work of genius. Able writers like Schaff, Munger and Abbott are but a few among a great regiment of theological writers. A valuable addition to contemporary culture is Mrs. Van Rensselaer's "English Cathedrals." But I must stop, as I have mentioned enough names to show the great variety we have to choose from. It is interesting to know that nearly all of America's great writers are of the past, and only two of the first dozen, Holmes and Howells, are now living.

       The following very beautiful lines by Mr. E.W. Thomson of The Youths' Companion, and formerly of Toronto, have been going the rounds of the United States press from St. Paul to New Orleans. They are entitled "The Song Sparrow," but the mood and cadence in them suggest to me that the author is thinking of the vesper sparrow, whose note is somewhat different from that of the song sparrow, and is much richer and more poetic.

                     The Song-Sparrow.
When ploughmen ridge the steamy brown,
       And yearning meadows sprout to green,
And all the spires and towers of town
       Blent soft with wavering mists are seen;
When quickening woods in freshening hue
       With bursting buds begin to swell,
When airs caress and May is new,
       Oh, then my sky bird sings so well!

Because the blood-roots flock in white,
       And blossomed branches scent the air,
And mounds with trillium flags are dight,
       And dells with violets dim and rare;
Because such velvet leaves unclose,
       And new-born rills all chiming ring,
And blue the sun-kissed river flows,
       My timid bird is forced to sing.

A joyful flourish lilted clear—
       Four notes—then fails the frolic song,
And memories of a vanished year
       The wistful cadences prolong;
"A vanished year—O heart too sore—
       I cannot sing," thus ends the lay;
Long silence, then awakes once more
       His song, ecstatic of the May!

       It has always been a vexed question what problems or conditions of human life are fit and proper subjects for the novelist's art. We have the disputants occupying all conceivable positions, and carrying on their battle with weapons of every fashion. In the meantime the novelists choose the subjects that suit them, and draw their pictures of human nature as they conceive it to be, and the battle field of the critic is constantly shifting between the old masterpieces and the new. From the point of view of art no subject is immoral, as the reproduction of any diseased or abnormal condition of life should be so managed as to portray at the same time the hideousness of it, the wrongness of it, and in some measure at least to suggest its antidote. The really immoral novel is the one in which these accompanying forces of life and art are obscured or altogether obliterated, in which we have the glamor of vice without a hint that there is anything more than the glamor. It is not frequently given us in life to trance the results of disobedience to the moral laws worked out to a conclusion before our eyes. These results are often so subtle that they would escape the eyes of the keenest observer, and even when we see them we are prone to attribute the change to some other cause. It is just here that the novel (and I may add the drama) steps in with its aid. Through the eyes of one gifted with no ordinary vision, and with logical and casuistic powers which draw conclusions unerringly from certain premises, we see life laid bare and come to understand something of its complexity and depth. Supposing such a man, his choice of subject becomes a matter of indifference. If it deals with the lurid side of life we can trust him that the shadows thrown will be more terribly black. It is childish to restrict to that which is within the scope of polite conversation in society the powers of a genius bent on searching life. The great problem of existence is worked out far beyond the parlors, and the laws of life are wider than the decalogue by which society steers its empty ship. Every one knows that there is mis-doing in the world; the record of it is dumped at our doors every morning and evening like nothing so much as a garbage barrel, through which we have to grope for the little bits of metal we expect to find, and he is at bottom a vicious man and a barbarian who would allow his daughter to read the newspapers and to refuse them the great moral novels which deal with the severer aspects of life. But let us consider:—There are two classes of persons whom such books hurt. The first is the white-minded, the pure-souled, the class which cannot bear to be shocked, which lives a life of even tranquillity, which winces at the approach of evil and seeks only the pleasant things of life. This is a small class, but it should not be asked to read books which do not appeal to it. There is a literature perfectly adapted to its needs; it may enjoy the "Midsummer Night's Dream" and forget "Lear." The other is the class which reads for the love of the mere immoral incident. It carries its own doom with it. We may very well let it gloat, unable to read its own sentences of death in the very pages it cannot appreciate.

       An article in a recent number of The Week, describing the beautiful and mountainous reserve which has been set aside at Banff, in British Columbia, as a national park, brought again to my mind a subject upon which every lover of nature and every one who has interest and pride in his mother earth must feel deeply, viz., the rapid and certain destruction of the primeval pine forests. In the older provinces these noble and irreplaceable forests are already nearly gone. While there are still adequate specimens of them left, ought not some reservation to be made, in order that our children and we ourselves in the years to come may have an opportunity of knowing what our country looked like in its natural condition. An ancient and close-grown pine forest is a unique and wonderful spectacle, and its effect upon the imagination is something not produced by any other thing in the world. Once gone they are gone for generations; as far as we are concerned, forever. Is it impossible to expect that any light, any gracious impulse, any ray of imaginative ardor, should penetrate the barbarism of our rulers? Could they not be induced, at the small sacrifice of some pitiful gain, to set aside even a moderate space of the unbroken wild in each province as a national or provincial park? As I have remarked before, all nature-loving people feel strongly on this point. I never see a sawlog afloat on one of our rivers without a pang, not because I would not have logs cut, but because I know that the trees must go, must all perish irrecoverably.

       I was very glad to learn the other day that Mr. Thomas McIlwraith was contemplating a new and enlarged edition of his "Birds of Ontario." The book is a capital one, and is written in just the form which makes the study of ornithology interesting at once to the scientist and the lover of birds. There is no better authority on the birds of Ontario than Mr. McIlwraith, who brings to his subject rare knowledge and a true love for the beautiful creatures he writes about.

       To the credit of our age be it said that acts of charity on a vast scale are not uncommon, and are indeed becoming more frequent. One of the causes of this no doubt is the growth of a feeling of moral uneasiness among people of great wealth. The unflinching directness of modern thought has affected them. They feel that their position is not a just or strictly honest one, and they endeavor to make amends to humanity by giving lavishly of the store which they themselves or their fathers put together in an age of a less delicate sympathy.
       Certain people in Vienna have been trying for a long time to establish an asylum for sufferers from pulmonary diseases, but in vain. Just recently Baron Nathaniel Rothschild came forward and offered them his chateau in the Styrian Alps, agreeing to make all the alterations necessary to place it in a condition to receive patients. It will probably be ready for its work by next winter. This property is worth $1,250,000, and there is accommodation in the chateau, which is situated in one of the most salubrious places in the world, for 500 beds. The same nobleman has thrown open his park and greenhouses in Vienna to the public, a small entrance fee being charged, which is devoted to certain charities.