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Backlog Studies - Third Study Post by :prospertogether Category :Essays Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :1060

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Backlog Studies - Third Study

I

Herbert said, as we sat by the fire one night, that he wished he had turned his attention to writing poetry like Tennyson's.

The remark was not whimsical, but satirical. Tennyson is a man of talent, who happened to strike a lucky vein, which he has worked with cleverness. The adventurer with a pickaxe in Washoe may happen upon like good fortune. The world is full of poetry as the earth is of "pay-dirt;" one only needs to know how to "strike" it. An able man can make himself almost anything that he will. It is melancholy to think how many epic poets have been lost in the tea-trade, how many dramatists (though the age of the drama has passed) have wasted their genius in great mercantile and mechanical enterprises. I know a man who might have been the poet, the essayist, perhaps the critic, of this country, who chose to become a country judge, to sit day after day upon a bench in an obscure corner of the world, listening to wrangling lawyers and prevaricating witnesses, preferring to judge his fellow-men rather than enlighten them.

It is fortunate for the vanity of the living and the reputation of the dead, that men get almost as much credit for what they do not as for what they do. It was the opinion of many that Burns might have excelled as a statesman, or have been a great captain in war; and Mr. Carlyle says that if he had been sent to a university, and become a trained intellectual workman, it lay in him to have changed the whole course of British literature! A large undertaking, as so vigorous and dazzling a writer as Mr. Carlyle must know by this time, since British literature has swept by him in a resistless and widening flood, mainly uncontaminated, and leaving his grotesque contrivances wrecked on the shore with other curiosities of letters, and yet among the richest of all the treasures lying there.

It is a temptation to a temperate man to become a sot, to hear what talent, what versatility, what genius, is almost always attributed to a moderately bright man who is habitually drunk. Such a mechanic, such a mathematician, such a poet he would be, if he were only sober; and then he is sure to be the most generous, magnanimous, friendly soul, conscientiously honorable, if he were not so conscientiously drunk. I suppose it is now notorious that the most brilliant and promising men have been lost to the world in this way. It is sometimes almost painful to think what a surplus of talent and genius there would be in the world if the habit of intoxication should suddenly cease; and what a slim chance there would be for the plodding people who have always had tolerably good habits. The fear is only mitigated by the observation that the reputation of a person for great talent sometimes ceases with his reformation.

It is believed by some that the maidens who would make the best wives never marry, but remain free to bless the world with their impartial sweetness, and make it generally habitable. This is one of the mysteries of Providence and New England life. It seems a pity, at first sight, that all those who become poor wives have the matrimonial chance, and that they are deprived of the reputation of those who would be good wives were they not set apart for the high and perpetual office of priestesses of society. There is no beauty like that which was spoiled by an accident, no accomplishments--and graces are so to be envied as those that circumstances rudely hindered the development of. All of which shows what a charitable and good-tempered world it is, notwithstanding its reputation for cynicism and detraction.

Nothing is more beautiful than the belief of the faithful wife that her husband has all the talents, and could, if he would, be distinguished in any walk in life; and nothing will be more beautiful--unless this is a very dry time for signs--than the husband's belief that his wife is capable of taking charge of any of the affairs of this confused planet. There is no woman but thinks that her husband, the green-grocer, could write poetry if he had given his mind to it, or else she thinks small beer of poetry in comparison with an occupation or accomplishment purely vegetable. It is touching to see the look of pride with which the wife turns to her husband from any more brilliant personal presence or display of wit than his, in the perfect confidence that if the world knew what she knows, there would be one more popular idol. How she magnifies his small wit, and dotes upon the self-satisfied look in his face as if it were a sign of wisdom! What a councilor that man would make! What a warrior he would be! There are a great many corporals in their retired homes who did more for the safety and success of our armies in critical moments, in the late war, than any of the "high-cock-a-lorum" commanders. Mrs. Corporal does not envy the reputation of General Sheridan; she knows very well who really won Five Forks, for she has heard the story a hundred times, and will hear it a hundred times more with apparently unabated interest. What a general her husband would have made; and how his talking talent would shine in Congress!

HERBERT. Nonsense. There isn't a wife in the world who has not taken the exact measure of her husband, weighed him and settled him in her own mind, and knows him as well as if she had ordered him after designs and specifications of her own. That knowledge, however, she ordinarily keeps to herself, and she enters into a league with her husband, which he was never admitted to the secret of, to impose upon the world. In nine out of ten cases he more than half believes that he is what his wife tells him he is. At any rate, she manages him as easily as the keeper does the elephant, with only a bamboo wand and a sharp spike in the end. Usually she flatters him, but she has the means of pricking clear through his hide on occasion. It is the great secret of her power to have him think that she thoroughly believes in him.

THE YOUNG LADY STAYING WITH Us. And you call this hypocrisy? I have heard authors, who thought themselves sly observers of women, call it so.

HERBERT. Nothing of the sort. It is the basis on which society rests, the conventional agreement. If society is about to be overturned, it is on this point. Women are beginning to tell men what they really think of them; and to insist that the same relations of downright sincerity and independence that exist between men shall exist between women and men. Absolute truth between souls, without regard to sex, has always been the ideal life of the poets.

THE MISTRESS. Yes; but there was never a poet yet who would bear to have his wife say exactly what she thought of his poetry, any more than he would keep his temper if his wife beat him at chess; and there is nothing that disgusts a man like getting beaten at chess by a woman.

HERBERT. Well, women know how to win by losing. I think that the reason why most women do not want to take the ballot and stand out in the open for a free trial of power, is that they are reluctant to change the certain domination of centuries, with weapons they are perfectly competent to handle, for an experiment. I think we should be better off if women were more transparent, and men were not so systematically puffed up by the subtle flattery which is used to control them.

MANDEVILLE. Deliver me from transparency. When a woman takes that guise, and begins to convince me that I can see through her like a ray of light, I must run or be lost. Transparent women are the truly dangerous. There was one on ship-board (Mandeville likes to say that; he has just returned from a little tour in Europe, and he quite often begins his remarks with "on the ship going over;" the Young Lady declares that he has a sort of roll in his chair, when he says it, that makes her sea-sick) who was the most innocent, artless, guileless, natural bunch of lace and feathers you ever saw; she was all candor and helplessness and dependence; she sang like a nightingale, and talked like a nun. There never was such simplicity. There was n't a sounding-line on board that would have gone to the bottom of her soulful eyes. But she managed the captain and all the officers, and controlled the ship as if she had been the helm. All the passengers were waiting on her, fetching this and that for her comfort, inquiring of her health, talking about her genuineness, and exhibiting as much anxiety to get her ashore in safety, as if she had been about to knight them all and give them a castle apiece when they came to land.

THE MISTRESS. What harm? It shows what I have always said, that the service of a noble woman is the most ennobling influence for men.

MANDEVILLE. If she is noble, and not a mere manager. I watched this woman to see if she would ever do anything for any one else. She never did.

THE FIRE-TENDER. Did you ever see her again? I presume Mandeville has introduced her here for some purpose.

MANDEVILLE. No purpose. But we did see her on the Rhine; she was the most disgusted traveler, and seemed to be in very ill humor with her maid. I judged that her happiness depended upon establishing controlling relations with all about her. On this Rhine boat, to be sure, there was reason for disgust. And that reminds me of a remark that was made.

THE YOUNG LADY. Oh!

MANDEVILLE. When we got aboard at Mayence we were conscious of a dreadful odor somewhere; as it was a foggy morning, we could see no cause of it, but concluded it was from something on the wharf. The fog lifted, and we got under way, but the odor traveled with us, and increased. We went to every part of the vessel to avoid it, but in vain. It occasionally reached us in great waves of disagreeableness. We had heard of the odors of the towns on the Rhine, but we had no idea that the entire stream was infected. It was intolerable.

The day was lovely, and the passengers stood about on deck holding their noses and admiring the scenery. You might see a row of them leaning over the side, gazing up at some old ruin or ivied crag, entranced with the romance of the situation, and all holding their noses with thumb and finger. The sweet Rhine! By and by somebody discovered that the odor came from a pile of cheese on the forward deck, covered with a canvas; it seemed that the Rhinelanders are so fond of it that they take it with them when they travel. If there should ever be war between us and Germany, the borders of the Rhine would need no other defense from American soldiers than a barricade of this cheese. I went to the stern of the steamboat to tell a stout American traveler what was the origin of the odor he had been trying to dodge all the morning. He looked more disgusted than before, when he heard that it was cheese; but his only reply was: "It must be a merciful God who can forgive a smell like that!"

II

The above is introduced here in order to illustrate the usual effect of an anecdote on conversation. Commonly it kills it. That talk must be very well in hand, and under great headway, that an anecdote thrown in front of will not pitch off the track and wreck. And it makes little difference what the anecdote is; a poor one depresses the spirits, and casts a gloom over the company; a good one begets others, and the talkers go to telling stories; which is very good entertainment in moderation, but is not to be mistaken for that unwearying flow of argument, quaint remark, humorous color, and sprightly interchange of sentiments and opinions, called conversation.

The reader will perceive that all hope is gone here of deciding whether Herbert could have written Tennyson's poems, or whether Tennyson could have dug as much money out of the Heliogabalus Lode as Herbert did. The more one sees of life, I think the impression deepens that men, after all, play about the parts assigned them, according to their mental and moral gifts, which are limited and preordained, and that their entrances and exits are governed by a law no less certain because it is hidden. Perhaps nobody ever accomplishes all that he feels lies in him to do; but nearly every one who tries his powers touches the walls of his being occasionally, and learns about how far to attempt to spring. There are no impossibilities to youth and inexperience; but when a person has tried several times to reach high C and been coughed down, he is quite content to go down among the chorus. It is only the fools who keep straining at high C all their lives.

Mandeville here began to say that that reminded him of something that happened when he was on the--

But Herbert cut in with the observation that no matter what a man's single and several capacities and talents might be, he is controlled by his own mysterious individuality, which is what metaphysicians call the substance, all else being the mere accidents of the man. And this is the reason that we cannot with any certainty tell what any person will do or amount to, for, while we know his talents and abilities, we do not know the resulting whole, which is he himself. THE FIRE-TENDER. So if you could take all the first-class qualities that we admire in men and women, and put them together into one being, you wouldn't be sure of the result?

HERBERT. Certainly not. You would probably have a monster. It takes a cook of long experience, with the best materials, to make a dish "taste good;" and the "taste good" is the indefinable essence, the resulting balance or harmony which makes man or woman agreeable or beautiful or effective in the world.

THE YOUNG LADY. That must be the reason why novelists fail so lamentably in almost all cases in creating good characters. They put in real traits, talents, dispositions, but the result of the synthesis is something that never was seen on earth before.

THE FIRE-TENDER. Oh, a good character in fiction is an inspiration. We admit this in poetry. It is as true of such creations as Colonel Newcome, and Ethel, and Beatrix Esmond. There is no patchwork about them.

THE YOUNG LADY. Why was n't Thackeray ever inspired to create a noble woman?

THE FIRE-TENDER. That is the standing conundrum with all the women. They will not accept Ethel Newcome even. Perhaps we shall have to admit that Thackeray was a writer for men.

HERBERT. Scott and the rest had drawn so many perfect women that Thackeray thought it was time for a real one.

THE MISTRESS. That's ill-natured. Thackeray did, however, make ladies. If he had depicted, with his searching pen, any of us just as we are, I doubt if we should have liked it much.

MANDEVILLE. That's just it. Thackeray never pretended to make ideals, and if the best novel is an idealization of human nature, then he was not the best novelist. When I was crossing the Channel--

THE MISTRESS. Oh dear, if we are to go to sea again, Mandeville, I move we have in the nuts and apples, and talk about our friends.

III

There is this advantage in getting back to a wood-fire on the hearth, that you return to a kind of simplicity; you can scarcely imagine any one being stiffly conventional in front of it. It thaws out formality, and puts the company who sit around it into easy attitudes of mind and body,--lounging attitudes,--Herbert said.

And this brought up the subject of culture in America, especially as to manner. The backlog period having passed, we are beginning to have in society people of the cultured manner, as it is called, or polished bearing, in which the polish is the most noticeable thing about the man. Not the courtliness, the easy simplicity of the old-school gentleman, in whose presence the milkmaid was as much at her ease as the countess, but something far finer than this. These are the people of unruffled demeanor, who never forget it for a moment, and never let you forget it. Their presence is a constant rebuke to society. They are never "jolly;" their laugh is never anything more than a well-bred smile; they are never betrayed into any enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is a sign of inexperience, of ignorance, of want of culture. They never lose themselves in any cause; they never heartily praise any man or woman or book; they are superior to all tides of feeling and all outbursts of passion. They are not even shocked at vulgarity. They are simply indifferent. They are calm, visibly calm, painfully calm; and it is not the eternal, majestic calmness of the Sphinx either, but a rigid, self-conscious repression. You would like to put a bent pin in their chair when they are about calmly to sit down.

A sitting hen on her nest is calm, but hopeful; she has faith that her eggs are not china. These people appear to be sitting on china eggs. Perfect culture has refined all blood, warmth, flavor, out of them. We admire them without envy. They are too beautiful in their manners to be either prigs or snobs. They are at once our models and our despair. They are properly careful of themselves as models, for they know that if they should break, society would become a scene of mere animal confusion.

MANDEVILLE. I think that the best-bred people in the world are the English.

THE YOUNG LADY. You mean at home.

MANDEVILLE. That's where I saw them. There is no nonsense about a cultivated English man or woman. They express themselves sturdily and naturally, and with no subservience to the opinions of others. There's a sort of hearty sincerity about them that I like. Ages of culture on the island have gone deeper than the surface, and they have simpler and more natural manners than we. There is something good in the full, round tones of their voices.

HERBERT. Did you ever get into a diligence with a growling English-man who had n't secured the place he wanted?

(Mandeville once spent a week in London, riding about on the tops of omnibuses.)

THE MISTRESS. Did you ever see an English exquisite at the San Carlo, and hear him cry "Bwavo"?

MANDEVILLE. At any rate, he acted out his nature, and was n't afraid to.

THE FIRE-TENDER. I think Mandeville is right, for once. The men of the best culture in England, in the middle and higher social classes, are what you would call good fellows,--easy and simple in manner, enthusiastic on occasion, and decidedly not cultivated into the smooth calmness of indifference which some Americans seem to regard as the sine qua non of good breeding. Their position is so assured that they do not need that lacquer of calmness of which we were speaking.

THE YOUNG LADY. Which is different from the manner acquired by those who live a great deal in American hotels?

THE MISTRESS. Or the Washington manner?

HERBERT. The last two are the same.

THE FIRE-TENDER. Not exactly. You think you can always tell if a man has learned his society carriage of a dancing-master. Well, you cannot always tell by a person's manner whether he is a habitui of hotels or of Washington. But these are distinct from the perfect polish and politeness of indifferentism.

IV

Daylight disenchants. It draws one from the fireside, and dissipates the idle illusions of conversation, except under certain conditions. Let us say that the conditions are: a house in the country, with some forest trees near, and a few evergreens, which are Christmas-trees all winter long, fringed with snow, glistening with ice-pendants, cheerful by day and grotesque by night; a snow-storm beginning out of a dark sky, falling in a soft profusion that fills all the air, its dazzling whiteness making a light near at hand, which is quite lost in the distant darkling spaces.

If one begins to watch the swirling flakes and crystals, he soon gets an impression of infinity of resources that he can have from nothing else so powerfully, except it be from Adirondack gnats. Nothing makes one feel at home like a great snow-storm. Our intelligent cat will quit the fire and sit for hours in the low window, watching the falling snow with a serious and contented air. His thoughts are his own, but he is in accord with the subtlest agencies of Nature; on such a day he is charged with enough electricity to run a telegraphic battery, if it could be utilized. The connection between thought and electricity has not been exactly determined, but the cat is mentally very alert in certain conditions of the atmosphere. Feasting his eyes on the beautiful out-doors does not prevent his attention to the slightest noise in the wainscot. And the snow-storm brings content, but not stupidity, to all the rest of the household.

I can see Mandeville now, rising from his armchair and swinging his long arms as he strides to the window, and looks out and up, with, "Well, I declare!" Herbert is pretending to read Herbert Spencer's tract on the philosophy of style but he loses much time in looking at the Young Lady, who is writing a letter, holding her portfolio in her lap,--one of her everlasting letters to one of her fifty everlasting friends. She is one of the female patriots who save the post-office department from being a disastrous loss to the treasury. Herbert is thinking of the great radical difference in the two sexes, which legislation will probably never change; that leads a woman always, to write letters on her lap and a man on a table,--a distinction which is commended to the notice of the anti-suffragists.

The Mistress, in a pretty little breakfast-cap, is moving about the room with a feather-duster, whisking invisible dust from the picture-frames, and talking with the Parson, who has just come in, and is thawing the snow from his boots on the hearth. The Parson says the thermometer is 15 deg., and going down; that there is a snowdrift across the main church entrance three feet high, and that the house looks as if it had gone into winter quarters, religion and all. There were only ten persons at the conference meeting last night, and seven of those were women; he wonders how many weather-proof Christians there are in the parish, anyhow.

The Fire-Tender is in the adjoining library, pretending to write; but it is a poor day for ideas. He has written his wife's name about eleven hundred times, and cannot get any farther. He hears the Mistress tell the Parson that she believes he is trying to write a lecture on the Celtic Influence in Literature. The Parson says that it is a first-rate subject, if there were any such influence, and asks why he does n't take a shovel and make a path to the gate. Mandeville says that, by George! he himself should like no better fun, but it wouldn't look well for a visitor to do it. The Fire-Tender, not to be disturbed by this sort of chaff, keeps on writing his wife's name.

Then the Parson and the Mistress fall to talking about the soup-relief, and about old Mrs. Grumples in Pig Alley, who had a present of one of Stowe's Illustrated Self-Acting Bibles on Christmas, when she had n't coal enough in the house to heat her gruel; and about a family behind the church, a widow and six little children and three dogs; and he did n't believe that any of them had known what it was to be warm in three weeks, and as to food, the woman said, she could hardly beg cold victuals enough to keep the dogs alive.

The Mistress slipped out into the kitchen to fill a basket with provisions and send it somewhere; and when the Fire-Tender brought in a new forestick, Mandeville, who always wants to talk, and had been sitting drumming his feet and drawing deep sighs, attacked him.

MANDEVILLE. Speaking about culture and manners, did you ever notice how extremes meet, and that the savage bears himself very much like the sort of cultured persons we were talking of last night?

THE FIRE-TENDER. In what respect?

MANDEVILLE. Well, you take the North American Indian. He is never interested in anything, never surprised at anything. He has by nature that calmness and indifference which your people of culture have acquired. If he should go into literature as a critic, he would scalp and tomahawk with the same emotionless composure, and he would do nothing else.

THE FIRE-TENDER. Then you think the red man is a born gentleman of the highest breeding?

MANDEVILLE. I think he is calm.

THE FIRE-TENDER. How is it about the war-path and all that?

MANDEVILLE. Oh, these studiously calm and cultured people may have malice underneath. It takes them to give the most effective "little digs;" they know how to stick in the pine-splinters and set fire to them.

HERBERT. But there is more in Mandeville's idea. You bring a red man into a picture-gallery, or a city full of fine architecture, or into a drawing-room crowded with objects of art and beauty, and he is apparently insensible to them all. Now I have seen country people,--and by country people I don't mean people necessarily who live in the country, for everything is mixed in these days,--some of the best people in the world, intelligent, honest, sincere, who acted as the Indian would.

THE MISTRESS. Herbert, if I did n't know you were cynical, I should say you were snobbish.

HERBERT. Such people think it a point of breeding never to speak of anything in your house, nor to appear to notice it, however beautiful it may be; even to slyly glance around strains their notion of etiquette. They are like the countryman who confessed afterwards that he could hardly keep from laughing at one of Yankee Hill's entertainments.

THE YOUNG LADY. Do you remember those English people at our house in Flushing last summer, who pleased us all so much with their apparent delight in everything that was artistic or tasteful, who explored the rooms and looked at everything, and were so interested? I suppose that Herbert's country relations, many of whom live in the city, would have thought it very ill-bred.

MANDEVILLE. It's just as I said. The English, the best of them, have become so civilized that they express themselves, in speech and action, naturally, and are not afraid of their emotions.

THE PARSON. I wish Mandeville would travel more, or that he had stayed at home. It's wonderful what a fit of Atlantic sea-sickness will do for a man's judgment and cultivation. He is prepared to pronounce on art, manners, all kinds of culture. There is more nonsense talked about culture than about anything else.

HERBERT. The Parson reminds me of an American country minister I once met walking through the Vatican. You could n't impose upon him with any rubbish; he tested everything by the standards of his native place, and there was little that could bear the test. He had the sly air of a man who could not be deceived, and he went about with his mouth in a pucker of incredulity. There is nothing so placid as rustic conceit. There was something very enjoyable about his calm superiority to all the treasures of art.

MANDEVILLE. And the Parson reminds me of another American minister, a consul in an Italian city, who said he was going up to Rome to have a thorough talk with the Pope, and give him a piece of his mind. Ministers seem to think that is their business. They serve it in such small pieces in order to make it go round.

THE PARSON. Mandeville is an infidel. Come, let's have some music; nothing else will keep him in good humor till lunch-time.

THE MISTRESS. What shall it be?

THE PARSON. Give us the larghetto from Beethoven's second symphony.

The Young Lady puts aside her portfolio. Herbert looks at the young lady. The Parson composes himself for critical purposes. Mandeville settles himself in a chair and stretches his long legs nearly into the fire, remarking that music takes the tangles out of him.

After the piece is finished, lunch is announced. It is still snowing.

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