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قراءة كتاب American Sketches

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‏اللغة: English
American Sketches

American Sketches

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
الصفحة رقم: 6

citizens are always ready to discuss Shakespeare, except when Tennyson is the subject of the last discourse, and zoology remains attractive until it be obscured by the newest sensation in chemistry. And the appetite of Boston is unglutted and insatiable. Its folly is frankly recognised by the wise among its own citizens. Here, for instance, is the testimony of one whose sympathy with real learning is evident. "The lecture system," says he, "in its best estate an admirable educational instrument, has been subject to dreadful abuse. The unbounded appetite of the New England communities for this form of intellectual nourishment has tempted vast hordes of charlatans and pretenders to try their fortune in this profitable field. 'The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.' The pay of the lecturer has grown more exorbitant in proportion to the dilution of his mixture, until professional jokers have usurped the places once graced by philosophers and poets; and to-day the lyceums are served by a new species of broker, who ekes out the failing literary material with the better entertainment of music and play-acting."

I am not sure whether the new species of broker is not better than the old. So long as music and play-acting do not masquerade in the worn-out duds of intellect, they do not inflict a serious injury upon the people. It is culture, false and unashamed, that is the danger. For culture is the vice of the intelligence. It stands to literature in the same relation as hypocrisy stands to religion. A glib familiarity with names does duty for knowledge. Men and women think it no shame to play the parrot to lecturers, and to pretend an acquaintance with books whose leaves they have never parted. They affect intellect, when at its best it is curiosity which drives them to lecture hall or institute—at its worst, a love of mental dram-drinking. To see manifest in a frock-coat a poet or man of science whose name is printed in the newspapers fills them with a fearful enthusiasm. To hear the commonplaces of literary criticism delivered in a lofty tone of paradox persuades them to believe that they also are among the erudite, and makes the sacrifice of time and money as light as a wind-blown leaf. But their indiscretion is not so trivial as it seems. Though every man and every woman has the right to waste his time (or hers) as may seem good, something else besides time is lost in the lecture hall. Sincerity also is squandered in the grey, dim light of sham learning, and nobody can indulge in a mixed orgie of "culture" without some sacrifice of honesty and truth.

Culture, of course, is not the monopoly of Boston. It has stretched its long arm from end to end of the American continent. Wherever you go you will hear, in tram or car, the facile gossip of literature. The whole world seems familiar with great names, though the meaning of the names escapes the vast majority. Now the earnest ones of the earth congregate in vast tea-gardens of the intellect, such as Chautauqua. Now the summer hotel is thought a fit place in which to pick up a smattering of literature or science; and there is an uneasy feeling abroad that what is commonly known as pleasure must not be unalloyed. The vice, unhappily, is not unknown in England. A country which had the ingenuity to call a penny reading "university extension," and to send its missionaries into every town, cannot be held guiltless. But our poor attempts at culture dwindle to a paltry insignificance in the light of American enterprise; and we would no more compare the achievement of England in the diffusion of learning with the achievement of the United States, than we would set a modest London office by the side of the loftiest sky-scraper in New York. America lives to do good or evil on a large scale, and we lag as far behind her in culture as in money-making.

When I left Boston for the West, I met in the train an earnest citizen of a not uncommon type. He was immensely and ingenuously patriotic. Though he had never left his native land, and had therefore an insufficient standard of comparison, he was convinced that America was superior in arms and arts to every other part of the habitable globe. He assured me, with an engaging simplicity, that Americans were braver, more energetic, and richer than Englishmen; that, as their buildings were higher, so also were their intelligence and their aspirations. He pointed out that in the vast continent of the West nothing was lacking which the mind of man could desire. Where, he asked, would you find harvests so generous, mines so abundant in precious metals, factories managed with so splendid an ingenuity? If wine and oil are your quest, said he, you have but to tap the surface of the munificent earth. One thing only, he confessed, was lacking, and that need a few years would make good. "Wait," said he, with an assured if immodest boastful-ness,—"wait until we get a bit degenerate, and then we will produce a Shakespeare"! I had not the heart to suggest that the sixteenth century in England was a period of birth, not of decay. I could only accept his statement in awful appreciation. And emboldened by my silence, he supported his argument with a hundred ingeniously chosen facts. He was sure that America would never show the smallest sign of decadence until she was tired of making money. The love of money was the best defence against degeneracy of every kind, and he gasped with simple-hearted pride when he thought of the millions of dollars which his healthy, primitive compatriots were amassing. But, he allowed, the weariness of satiety might overtake them; there might come a time when the ledger and counting-house ceased to be all-sufficient, and that moment of decay would witness the triumph of American literature. "Ben Jonson, Goldsmith, and those fellows," he asked, "lived in a degenerate age, didn't they?" I assented hastily. How could I contradict so agreeable a companion, especially as he was going, as fast as the train could carry him, to take a rest cure?

Such is one victim of the passion for culture. He had probably read nothing in his life save the newspapers and Dickens's 'American Notes,' a work to which he referred with the bitterest resentment. But he had attended lectures, and heard names, some of which remained tinkling in his empty head. To his confused mind English literature was a period of degeneracy, one and indissoluble, in which certain famous writers lived, devoting what time they could snatch from the practice of what he called the decadent vices to the worship of the bottle. There was no harm in him. He was, as the common phrase has it, his own enemy. But he would be better employed in looking at a game of baseball than in playing with humane letters, and one cannot but regret that he should suffer thus profoundly from a vicious system. Another victim of culture comes to my mind. He, too, was from Boston, and as his intelligence was far deeper than the other one's, his unhappiness was the greater. I talked to him for a long day, and he had no conversation but of books. For him the visible world did not exist. The printed page was the beginning and the end of existence. He had read, if not wisely, at least voraciously, and he displayed a wide and profound acquaintance with modern biography. He had all the latest Lives at his finger-tips. He knew where all our great contemporaries lived, and who were their friends; he had attended lectures on every conceivable subject; withal he was of a high seriousness, which nothing could daunt. For him, as is but natural, the works of Mr Arthur Benson held the last "message" of modern literature. He could not look upon books as mere instruments of pleasure or enjoyment. He wanted to extract from them that mysterious quality called "help" by the elect of the lecture hall; and without the smallest persuasion he told me which authors had "helped" him in his journey through the world. Shelley, of course, stood first on the list, then came Walt Whitman, and Pater was not far from the top. And there was nothing more strange in this apostle of aesthetics than his matter-of-fact