I have been an author for 20 years and an ass for 55.
There are three infallible ways of pleasing an author, and the three
form a rising scale of compliment: 1, To tell him you have read one of
his books; 2, To tell him you have read all of his books; 3, To ask him
to let you read the manuscripts of his forthcoming book. No. 1 admits
you to his respect; no. 2 admits you to his admiration; No. 3 carries
you clear into his heart.
I never saw an author who was aware that there is any dimensional difference
between a fact and a surmise.
When we are hot with the fires of production we would even distort the
facts of the multiplication-table, let alone the facts of Genesis.
When one is going to choose twelve authors, for better for worse, forsaking fathers & mothers to cling unto them & unto them alone, until death shall them part, there is an awfulness about the responsibility that makes marriage with one mere individual & divorcible woman a sacrament sodden with levity by comparison.
In my list I know I should put Shakspeare; & Browning; & Carlyle (French Revolution only); Sir Thomas Malory (King Authur); Parkman's Histories (a hundred of them if there were so many); Arabian Nights; Johnson (Boswell's), because I like to see that complacent old gasometer listen to himself talk; Jowett's Plato; & "B.B." (a book which I wrote some years ago, not for publication but just for my own private reading.)
I should be sure of these; & I could add the other three -- but I should want to hold the opportunity open a few years, so as to make no mistake.
- letter to Rev. C. D. Crane, 20 January 1887
I have worked for copyright in all the different ways that its friends have suggested ever since 1872, seventeen or eighteen years, and I am cordially willing to continue to work for it all the rest of my life in all those ways but one -- but I want to draw the line there -- the platform.
We can point to an aggregate of about twelve authors' readings now, since the first attempt, but we can't point to a single one of them and say it was rationally conducted. Conducting a show is a trade. To do it well must be done by a master, not novices or apprentices. There is no master with grit enough for the place. You can't find him. He hasn't been born yet. Consider what is required of him. He must say to the small fry: 'You are allowed ten minutes of platform time; if you overpass it two minutes I shall bring down the gavel and shut you off.' To the very greatest poet he must say: 'For your own sake you are allowed but fifteen minutes; you must test your piece at home, and time it by a friend's watch, and allow for the difference between platform time and parlor time, which is three minutes. If it overpasses twelve minutes at home you must cut it down to twelve. If you try to ring in an extra piece you'll hear the gavel.' He must say to the audience: 'The performance will close at 10 o'clock whether the programme is finished or not,' and then keep his word. He must find obscurities who are willing to take the tailpieces on the plain condition that they may possibly never be called up, or notorieties who will promise that they will not answer to their names after 10 o'clock, and will honorably keep that promise.
"There is no such man alive, unless it might be General Sherman, author of the brisk and delightful personal memoirs. And even then you would have to appoint me to police him and whisper from time to time, 'General, your time's up;' for possibly you have noticed it, in no instance in history has the chairman of an authors' reading failed to add an hour to the already intolerably long bill.
No: an authors reading, conducted in the customary way, turns what ought to be the pleasantest of all entertainments into an experience to be forever remembered with bitterness by the audience. Remember Washington. There are now living but four persons who paid to get into that house; it is also a fact, howsoever privately it has been kept, that twenty-two died on the premises and eight-one on their way home. I am miserable when I think of my share in that wanton, that unprovoked massacre.
Tell me any other way that I can help the cause and I will do my level best.
- letter to Richard R. Bowker, 9 October 1889. Printed in Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 December 1889, p. 4, which reprinted the letter from the New York Sun.
There is something about this naive intrepidity that compels admiration. It is a lofty and reckless daring which I suppose is exhibited in no field but one -- the field of literature. We see something approaching it in war, but approaching it only distantly. The untrained common soldier has often offered himself as one of a forlorn hope and stood cheerfully ready to encounter all its perils -- but we draw the line there. Not even the most confident untrained soldier offers himself as a candidate for a brigadier-generalship, yet this is what the amateur author does. With his untrained pen he puts together his crudities and offers them to all the magazines, one after the other -- that is to say, he proposes them for posts restricted to literary generals who have earned their rank and place by years and even decades of hard and honest training in the lower grades of the service.
I am sure that this affront is offered to no trade but ours. A person
untrained to shoemaking does not offer his services as a shoemaker to
the foreman of a shop -- not even the crudest literary aspirant would
be so unintelligent as to do that. He would see the humor of it; he would
see the impertinence of it; he would recognize as the most commonplace
of facts that an apprenticeship is necessary in order to qualify a person
to be tinner, bricklayer, stone mason, printer, horse-doctor, butcher,
brakeman, car conductor, midwife -- and any and every other occupation
whereby a human being acquires bread and fame. But when it comes to doing
literature, his wisdoms vanish all of a sudden and he thinks he finds
himself now in the presence of a profession which requires no apprenticeship,
no experience, no training -- nothing whatever but conscious talent and
a lion's courage.
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