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Full Online Book HomeEssaysDoes The Young Man Know Everything Worth Knowing?
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Does The Young Man Know Everything Worth Knowing? Post by :paughnee Category :Essays Author :Jerome K Jerome Date :February 2011 Read :934

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Does The Young Man Know Everything Worth Knowing?

I am told that American professors are "mourning the lack of ideals" at Columbia University--possibly also at other universities scattered through the United States. If it be any consolation to these mourning American professors, I can assure them that they do not mourn alone. I live not far from Oxford, and enjoy the advantage of occasionally listening to the jeremiads of English University professors. More than once a German professor has done me the honour to employ me as an object on which to sharpen his English. He also has mourned similar lack of ideals at Heidelberg, at Bonn. Youth is youth all the world over; it has its own ideals; they are not those of the University professor. The explanation is tolerably simple. Youth is young, and the University professor, generally speaking, is middle-aged.

I can sympathise with the mourning professor. I, in my time, have suffered like despair. I remember the day so well; it was my twelfth birthday. I recall the unholy joy with which I reflected that for the future my unfortunate parents would be called upon to pay for me full railway fare; it marked a decided step towards manhood. I was now in my teens. That very afternoon there came to visit us a relative of ours. She brought with her three small children: a girl, aged six; a precious, golden-haired thing in a lace collar that called itself a boy, aged five; and a third still smaller creature, it might have been male, it might have been female; I could not have told you at the time, I cannot tell you now. This collection of atoms was handed over to me.

"Now, show yourself a man," said my dear mother, "remember you are in your teens. Take them out for a walk and amuse them; and mind nothing happens to them."

To the children themselves their own mother gave instructions that they were to do everything that I told them, and not to tear their clothes or make themselves untidy. These directions, even to myself, at the time, appeared contradictory. But I said nothing. And out into the wilds the four of us departed.

I was an only child. My own infancy had passed from my memory. To me, at twelve, the ideas of six were as incomprehensible as are those of twenty to the University professor of forty. I wanted to be a pirate. Round the corner and across the road building operations were in progress. Planks and poles lay ready to one's hand. Nature, in the neighbourhood, had placed conveniently a shallow pond. It was Saturday afternoon. The nearest public-house was a mile away. Immunity from interference by the British workman was thus assured. It occurred to me that by placing my three depressed looking relatives on one raft, attacking them myself from another, taking the eldest girl's sixpence away from her, disabling their raft, and leaving them to drift without a rudder, innocent amusement would be provided for half an hour at least.

They did not want to play at pirates. At first sight of the pond the thing that called itself a boy began to cry. The six-year-old lady said she did not like the smell of it. Not even after I had explained the game to them were they any the more enthusiastic for it.

I proposed Red Indians. They could go to sleep in the unfinished building upon a sack of lime, I would creep up through the grass, set fire to the house, and dance round it, whooping and waving my tomahawk, watching with fiendish delight the frantic but futile efforts of the palefaces to escape their doom.

It did not "catch on"--not even that. The precious thing in the lace collar began to cry again. The creature concerning whom I could not have told you whether it was male or female made no attempt at argument, but started to run; it seemed to have taken a dislike to this particular field. It stumbled over a scaffolding pole, and then it also began to cry. What could one do to amuse such people? I left it to them to propose something. They thought they would like to play at "Mothers"--not in this field, but in some other field.

The eldest girl would be mother. The other two would represent her children. They had been taken suddenly ill. "Waterworks," as I had christened him, was to hold his hands to his middle and groan. His face brightened up at the suggestion. The nondescript had the toothache. It took up its part without a moment's hesitation, and set to work to scream. I could be the doctor and look at their tongues.

That was their "ideal" game. As I have said, remembering that afternoon, I can sympathise with the University professor mourning the absence of University ideals in youth. Possibly at six my own ideal game may have been "Mothers." Looking back from the pile of birthdays upon which I now stand, it occurs to me that very probably it was. But from the perspective of twelve, the reflection that there were beings in the world who could find recreation in such fooling saddened me.

Eight years later, his father not being able to afford the time, I conducted Master "Waterworks," now a healthy, uninteresting, gawky lad, to a school in Switzerland. It was my first Continental trip. I should have enjoyed it better had he not been with me. He thought Paris a "beastly hole." He did not share my admiration for the Frenchwoman; he even thought her badly dressed.

"Why she's so tied up, she can't walk straight," was the only impression she left upon him.

We changed the subject; it irritated me to hear him talk. The beautiful Juno-like creatures we came across further on in Germany, he said were too fat. He wanted to see them run. I found him utterly soulless.

To expect a boy to love learning and culture is like expecting him to prefer old vintage claret to gooseberry wine. Culture for the majority is an acquired taste. Speaking personally, I am entirely in agreement with the University professor. I find knowledge, prompting to observation and leading to reflection, the most satisfactory luggage with which a traveller through life can provide himself. I would that I had more of it. To be able to enjoy a picture is of more advantage than to be able to buy it.

All that the University professor can urge in favour of idealism I am prepared to endorse. But then I am--let us say, thirty-nine. At fourteen my candid opinion was that he was talking "rot." I looked at the old gentleman himself--a narrow-chested, spectacled old gentleman, who lived up a by street. He did not seem to have much fun of any sort. It was not my ideal. He told me things had been written in a language called Greek that I should enjoy reading, but I had not even read all Captain Marryat. There were tales by Sir Walter Scott and "Jack Harkaway's Schooldays!" I felt I could wait a while. There was a chap called Aristophanes who had written comedies, satirising the political institutions of a country that had disappeared two thousand years ago. I say, without shame, Drury Lane pantomime and Barnum's Circus called to me more strongly.

Wishing to give the old gentleman a chance, I dipped into translations. Some of these old fellows were not as bad as I had imagined them. A party named Homer had written some really interesting stuff. Here and there, maybe, he was a bit long-winded, but, taking him as a whole, there was "go" in him. There was another of them--Ovid was his name. He could tell a story, Ovid could. He had imagination. He was almost as good as "Robinson Crusoe." I thought it would please my professor, telling him that I was reading these, his favourite authors.

"Reading them!" he cried, "but you don't know Greek or Latin."

"But I know English," I answered; "they have all been translated into English. You never told me that!"

It appeared it was not the same thing. There were subtle delicacies of diction bound to escape even the best translator. These subtle delicacies of diction I could enjoy only by devoting the next seven or eight years of my life to the study of Greek and Latin. It will grieve the University professor to hear it, but the enjoyment of those subtle delicacies of diction did not appear to me--I was only fourteen at the time, please remember--to be worth the time and trouble.

The boy is materially inclined--the mourning American professor has discovered it. I did not want to be an idealist living up a back street. I wanted to live in the biggest house in the best street of the town. I wanted to ride a horse, wear a fur coat, and have as much to eat and drink as ever I liked. I wanted to marry the most beautiful woman in the world, to have my name in the newspaper, and to know that everybody was envying me.

Mourn over it, my dear professor, as you will--that is the ideal of youth; and, so long as human nature remains what it is, will continue to be so. It is a materialistic ideal--a sordid ideal. Maybe it is necessary. Maybe the world would not move much if the young men started thinking too early. They want to be rich, so they fling themselves frenziedly into the struggle. They build the towns, and make the railway tracks, hew down the forests, dig the ore out of the ground. There comes a day when it is borne in upon them that trying to get rich is a poor sort of game--that there is only one thing more tiresome than being a millionaire, and that is trying to be a millionaire. But, meanwhile, the world has got its work done.

The American professor fears that the artistic development of America leaves much to be desired. I fear the artistic development of most countries leaves much to be desired. Why the Athenians themselves sandwiched their drama between wrestling competitions and boxing bouts. The plays of Sophocles, or Euripides, were given as "side shows." The chief items of the fair were the games and races. Besides, America is still a young man. It has been busy "getting on in the world." It has not yet quite finished. Yet there are signs that young America is approaching the thirty-nines. He is finding a little time, a little money to spare for art. One can almost hear young America--not quite so young as he was--saying to Mrs. Europe as he enters and closes the shop door:

"Well, ma'am, here I am, and maybe you'll be glad to hear I've a little money to spend. Yes, ma'am, I've fixed things all right across the water; we shan't starve. So now, ma'am, you and I can have a chat concerning this art I've been hearing so much about. Let's have a look at it, ma'am, trot it out, and don't you be afraid of putting a fair price upon it."

I am inclined to think that Mrs. Europe has not hesitated to put a good price upon the art she has sold to Uncle Sam. I am afraid Mrs. Europe has occasionally "unloaded" on Uncle Sam. I talked to a certain dealer one afternoon, now many years ago, at the Uwantit Club.

"What is the next picture likely to be missing?" I asked him in the course of general conversation.

"Thome little thing of Hoppner'th, if it mutht be," he replied with confidence.

"Hoppner," I murmured, "I seem to have heard the name."

"Yeth; you'll hear it a bit oftener during the next eighteen month or tho. You take care you don't get tired of hearing it, thath all," he laughed. "Yeth," he continued, thoughtfully, "Reynoldth ith played out. Nothing much to be made of Gainthborough, either. Dealing in that lot now, why, it'th like keeping a potht offith. Hoppner'th the coming man."

"You've been buying Hoppners up cheap," I suggested.

"Between uth," he answered, "yeth, I think we've got them all. Maybe a few more. I don't think we've mithed any."

"You will sell them for more than you gave for them," I hinted.

"You're thmart," he answered, regarding me admiringly, "you thee through everything you do."

"How do you work it?" I asked him. There is a time in the day when he is confidential. "Here is this man, Hoppner. I take it that you have bought him up at an average of a hundred pounds a picture, and that at that price most owners were fairly glad to sell. Few folks outside the art schools have ever heard of him. I bet that at the present moment there isn't one art critic who could spell his name without reference to a dictionary. In eighteen months you will be selling him for anything from one thousand to ten thousand pounds. How is it done?"

"How ith everything done that'th done well?" he answered. "By earnetht effort." He hitched his chair nearer to me, "I get a chap-- one of your thort of chapth--he writ'th an article about Hoppner. I get another to anthwer him. Before I've done there'll be a hundred articleth about Hoppner--hith life, hith early thruggie, anecdo'th about hith wife. Then a Hoppner will be thold at public auchtion for a thouthand guineath."

"But how can you be certain it will fetch a thousand guineas?" I interrupted.

"I happen to know the man whoth going to buy it." He winked, and I understood.

"A fortnight later there will be a thale of half-a-dothen, and the prithe will be gone up by that time."

"And after that?" I said.

"After that," he replied, rising, "the American millionaire! He'll jutht be waiting on the door-thtep for the thale-room to open."

"If by any chance I come across a Hoppner?" I said, laughing, as I turned to go.

"Don't you hold on to it too long, that'th all," was his advice.


(The end)
Jerome K Jerome's essay: Does The Young Man Know Everything Worth Knowing?

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