Archives For Civil War

Not Wholly Contemptible

April 13, 2016 — 4 Comments

cornwallisEveryone loves a compliment. Allow me to rephrase that. Most people appreciate a sincere compliment when it is genuinely flattering.

Actually, “flattering” isn’t a good word choice here. Flattery has a bad rep. The way it’s currently used, it hints of exaggeration and manipulation.

So let’s return to the concept of “compliments” in general. Most, we know, are welcome. It’s nice to have someone tell us we did a commendable job or had a good idea.

Then there are those less sincere “compliments” that require a bit of intelligence or wit to offer. The go by different names, but are commonly referred to as “left-handed compliments” or “backhanded compliments.”

This type of statement might sound on its surface like a compliment, but includes an element that undermines the praise. The Urban Dictionary offers the following example:

“Boy, you’re pretty hot . . . for a fat (or skinny) chick!”

Now, that is nothing but an insult. And it’s an insult of the crassest variety. One that demands no wit at all.

The British, on the other hand, are often capable of offering highly refined backhanded compliments.

I just came across a delightful one, delivered by the commander of the King’s forces during America’s War of Independence. What makes this exquisite is that it was offered in the wake of the general’s defeat at the close of the war.

When finally brought to heel at Yorktown, Lord Cornwallis reported, “I will not say much in praise of the Militia of the Southern Colonies, but the list of British officers and Soldiers killed or wounded by them since last June, proves but too fatally that they are not wholly contemptible.”

You can read more about the context for that statement in an excellent article about the American legacy of “citizen soldiers” published in Hallowed Ground magazine. This excellent journal is published by the Civil War Trust, which works diligently to preserve battlefields from the Civil War. They have recently expanded those efforts to include the Revolutionary War.

C.S. Lewis & Compliments

Lewis included backhanded compliments in his fictional works. Two simple examples follow. The first is found in The Screwtape Letters, where the tempter frequently commends the skill of God (“the Enemy”) in redeeming the lost.

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours.

Here is an offhanded compliment that Lewis places on the lips of Prince Corin in The Chronicles of Narnia. He is asked where Queen Susan is, on the eve of a battle and he responds like a typical young boy (which he still is at the time). He praises the martial spirit of her sister, Queen Lucy, who is a young adult at this point in the series.

At Cair Paravel. She’s not like Lucy [her sister who is in the ranks of the archers], you know, who’s as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy. Queen Susan is more like an ordinary grown-up lady. She doesn’t ride to wars, though she is an excellent archer. (The Horse and His Boy).

The late Bruce Edwards described how C.S. Lewis offered H.G. Wells a backhanded compliment. He did so by following the structure of Wells’ works, but devoting them to a vastly different philosophical purpose.

In Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Lewis adapted the general plot outline from H.G. Wells’s First Men in the Moon in order to tell an essentially anti-Wellsian tale. In Perelandra, Lewis pays a similar backhanded compliment to the man he admired as a speculative writer, but not as a philosopher.

The broad narrative structure of Perelandra resembles another novel by H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895). . . . In Wells’s novel, this narrative outline provides the basis of a quasi-Marxist fable about effete bourgeoisie and surly proletariat. In Lewis’s hands, a similar story structure tells a very different tale, one in which the ultimate battles are not economic and political, but rather cosmic and spiritual. (C.S. Lewis: Fantasist, Mythmaker, and Poet).

Compliments: the Good & the Bad

Lewis’ use of Wells’ science fiction template was not meant to slight him. It was actually a tribute. Likewise, in the examples from his fiction, Lewis is simply representing (effectively) the attitudes of the speakers.

Returning for a moment to the abject General Cornwall, we recognize as well the grudging nature of his praise of the enemy. They were certainly rabble—possessing no great military skill, in his estimation. Yet, in terms of bringing the army of the greatest power in the world at that time to its surrender, “they are not wholly contemptible.”

And that, when it came to winning the war, apparently proved quite sufficient.

Misplaced Values

March 30, 2016 — 14 Comments

lewis penAn elderly church usher just left his home as a bequest to his church. That isn’t uncommon, but the fact that his home was filled with a vast collection of toy cars accumulated during a lifetime, was rather unusual.

The church will doubtless reap unexpected treasure from the collection’s sale, along with that of a couple of well restored classic autos. That’s nice news for them, and for the other collectors who will find some rare treasures “recycled” into the hobby during the months ahead.

What disturbed me, was the first comment offered on the website in response to the story.

“I throw everything away, even photos people hand me. Keeps me living in the present.”

That comment is disturbing on several levels. First of all, it reveals an utter disregard for the people who give gifts, “even photos,” to the writer. I hope the person has the integrity to tell their acquaintances not to waste their time and money on offering him (or her) tokens of their concern.

Second, if taken literally, the statement that he (I’ll assume it’s a guy, since I have a difficult time picturing a woman this crass) “throw[s] everything away,” is criminal. While things like photographs rarely have value to anyone but those who know the people in them, virtually any other sort of item possesses some tangible value. To toss them in the garbage—presumably for one’s selfish convenience—is terrible, when every community has charities that could use unwanted possessions to generate support for worthy enterprises.

The third thing that offends me about this comment is the inference that people who do not dispose of things in a similar manner become incapable of “living in the present.” What an impoverished view of the power of images and objects to evoke powerful and valuable memories and sentiments!

We are not talking here about someone who is afflicted with “compulsive hoarding,” that has been recognized as a psychiatric disorder. We are talking about a collector with an innocent interest. Or, removing the comment from this specific context, we would be referring to anyone who bothered to retain a photograph of their nephew or niece they received from a sibling.

I love history. But I don’t expect others to share my interest in the same sorts of artifacts that I have gathered through the years. Still, holding a coin with the image of Constantine the Great, or a civil war token with the USS Monitor adorning the obverse, don’t confine me to the distant past.

Studying history does just the opposite. It enables me to live with greater wisdom and insight in the present. C.S. Lewis summarized this truth quite eloquently.

To study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place. But I think it liberates us from the past too. I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. (Selected Literary Essays, “De Descriptione Temporum”).

Another observation about history’s importance from the pen of Lewis is found in The Weight of Glory. He reveals how only through the study of history can we be delivered from the danger of believing that “living in the present” is being held prisoner to current cultural conventions.

We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

Thank God that you are not one of those whose vision is restricted to the current age, with its cacophony of reality television and unbridled hedonism. (I can confidently make that observation based on your reading this column to its end.)

Obviously, it’s not necessary to handle or possess actual artifacts to appreciate history . . . although I occasionally take my civil war sabre down from the wall and think about how my great-grandfather wielded one just like it.

That said, who among us would not love to have in their personal library the very copy of a book that had come from C.S. Lewis’ own?

For an excellent exploration of the current disposition of C.S. Lewis manuscripts and legacy, check out the current post at the always excellent A Pilgrim in Narnia.

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The image above of pipe and pen is from a display at The Wade Center, at Wheaton College.

Free C.S. Lewis Course

November 10, 2015 — 11 Comments

hillsdaleA free college course about C.S. Lewis? Too good to be true? No, it’s for real . . . and it’s offered by a well respected American College that traces its roots back more than 170 years. (Note, for the Europeans reading this, that makes it quite mature here in North America.)

Hillsdale college is currently offering its online course, “An Introduction to C.S. Lewis: Writing and Significance” at no charge. Here is the link to the enrollment page.

In addition to being a first class college today, Hillsdale has a very distinguished past. Founded in 1844, its leadership in the anti-slavery cause allowed it to host two speeches by Frederick Douglass. The first was delivered during the Civil War itself.*

C.S. Lewis offered a fascinating twist on the injustice of slavery. In an essay entitled “Equality,” written 80 years after Douglass decried slavery at Hillsdale, Lewis advocated democracy as an imperfect philosophy. I agree with his inference that despite its shortcomings, it is the least-flawed form of government.

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. . . . I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people—all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumours.

The real reason for democracy is . . . Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

This is the barest example of C.S. Lewis’ keen mind. Enrolling in the course will certainly introduce participants to much, much more.

Like most online resources, this class is offered for personal growth. While a certificate is offered to those who complete the course, it doesn’t result in formal college “credit.” That said, the course could also be of great benefit to a motivated high school student.

Formal studies, even those like this one for which we set a personal pace, are worthwhile. Not only do we profit from the wisdom of the team of professors. Most of us also benefit from the discipline a course offers. Left to our own devices, most of us would not end up with the well-rounded familiarity with Lewis’ work that this class promises.

Shared Wisdom from Douglass and Lewis

One contemporary author noted a parallel thought in the writings of these two men. Thomas Sowell is a distinguished thinker and a talented writer. (Traits he shares with these two gifted authors.) On his website** Sowell has an extremely selective collection of quotations, on which he pairs the following. The first was written by Frederick Douglass and the second by C.S. Lewis.

Everybody has asked the question. . . “What shall we do with the Negro?” I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are wormeaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! (Frederick Douglass, “What the Black Man Wants”).

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. (C.S. Lewis, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”).

I think Sowell’s connection of these two excerpts is quite perceptive. Although he is an economist by PhD, I regard him as a brilliant sociologist as well.

Education is a worthwhile pursuit. It is one embraced by Douglass, Lewis and Sowell. Hillsdale’s invitation to enroll in this course allows all of us to engage in the same meaningful exercise. After all, learning is one of the pleasures that makes life truly worth living.

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* You can read about Douglass’ speeches at Hillsdale College here.

** This link will take you to Sowell’s website.

Getting Fresh

September 18, 2014 — 8 Comments

freshenIt’s possible for blogs to get stale. That’s no surprise, to regular readers.

Like everything else in life, same old same old (American slang) gets old.

I’ve never been one to desire change for its own sake. C.S. Lewis satirizes such notions in his poem, “Evolutionary Hymn.”

Lead us, Evolution, lead us

     Up the future’s endless stair:

Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us.

     For stagnation is despair:

Groping, guessing, yet progressing

     Lead us nobody knows where.

Still, for some time I have felt like I wanted to freshen up the look of Mere Inkling.

I’ve taken the plunge and purchased the package where I can tailor colors and fonts. I’ve also decided to move some of my old websites here to Mere Inkling.

First of all, I have added The Odes of Solomon. If you’re interested in learning about the most ancient Christian hymnal, check it out. I have included paraphrases of five of the Odes.

Next I will either move my C.S. Lewis Chronicles pages here, or the information that I’ve assembled online for two of our family’s ancestors who served in the American Civil War. I have also added a link to the military chaplaincy journal I edit.

Those will all be static pages, of course. The main feature of Mere Inkling will continue to be the regular columns, or posts.

I hope you enjoy the new format. I think it is an improvement, and enabling me to get all of these efforts under a single digital “roof,” will certainly help me stay better organized.

In expanding the offerings of Mere Inkling, I have maintained the valued past and am importing material that will be of interest to some. My goal has been to have the site “grow,” in the sense used by C.S. Lewis in “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem.”

Mere change is not growth. Growth is the synthesis of change and continuity, and where there is no continuity there is no growth.

Misnaming Kids

August 21, 2014 — 5 Comments

baby namesWhy do they do it? I’m sure they considered it witty. They may have laughed as they inscribed his name on the birth certificate of their newborn son. (I doubt he shared the humor of the moment.)

Let’s think about this for just a moment. If your family name was Lemon, a totally respectable and not uncommon name, would you give your child a first name that is also a citrus?

That’s what I encountered as I completed the current issue of the military chaplaincy journal that I edit. One of the American Civil War chaplains I mentioned in the current issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy bore the striking name “Orange V. Lemon.”

Really? Yes, really.

It reminded me of a quaint Canadian television series that my dad used to enjoy, The Red Green Show. His parents should have known that one color in a person’s name is sufficient.

Still, the temptation to be silly is irresistible to some people. Years ago I knew an attorney whose last name was Cain. Her parents had named her Candy, of course. Peculiar names are so common today, of course, that there are myriads of internet repositories for them.

Names are more important than many of us realize. I’ve written in the past about how my wife and I followed the biblical example of choosing our children’s names based on their meanings.

Even if that approach doesn’t appeal to a parents, there are an almost unlimited number of options that would not subject their children to unwanted attention.

Fortunately, when we get older, we have some control over what we are called. I was “Robbie” in my childhood, and graduated to “Rob” as soon as I could. “Robert’s” always been fine with me, since it’s my given name and what I expect someone I’ve never met to call me. “Bob,” however, is not okay. There’s nothing wrong with “Bob,” except that I’ve never been one. And when someone greets me as such it projects a very false familiarity.

Curiously, I recall reading in the Oxford dictionary of names that more primitive nicknames for Robert included Hob, Dob and Nob. So I suppose I should count my blessings when addressed as Bob.

C.S. Lewis chose his own name. Many people are surprised when they learn that he went by the name of Jack. How, they wonder, could one get “Jack” out of “Clive Staples?” Good question.

Lewis was not enamored with the name Clive. When he was only four, he decided to use the name of a pet dog that had been killed by an early motorist. The pet’s name was a human-friend designation, “Jacksie.” His brother Warren relates the event thusly, in his 1966 collection of Lewis’ letters.

Then, in the course of one holiday, my brother made the momentous decision to change his name. Disliking “Clive”, and feeling his various baby-names to be beneath his dignity, he marched up to my mother, put a forefinger on his chest, and announced “He is Jacksie.” He stuck to this next day and thereafter, refusing to answer to any other name: Jacksie it had to be, a name contracted to Jacks and then to Jack. So to his family and his intimate friends, he was Jack for life: and Jack he will be for the rest of this book.

It’s fascinating that Lewis’ family acquiesced to his demand, but it took. One small consequence, of course, is that this gifted writer is known today as “C.S.” rather than by his full names.

As for faithful Orange, I don’t know if he adopted any other name during his lifetime. He may have been quite content. It certainly did not prevent him from enjoying a meaningful life. He became a Methodist pastor and served as chaplain with the 36th Indiana Infantry.

Suspicious Séances

June 3, 2014 — 13 Comments

lincolnsDid you hear about the séances that were held at the White House? It’s true, but it’s not recent news. They were conducted for Mary Todd Lincoln, and her husband, the president, apparently joined in attendance at some of them.

The Lincoln’s had lost their eleven year old son Willie to Typhoid in February 1862. Nearly all historians describing Mary’s grief accurately use the word “inconsolable”.

Since the Lincoln’s were not Christian, Mary sought the illusion of comfort in spiritualism, a thriving movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Spiritualism typically contends that the spirits of the dead survive in a manner where they can, and do, communicate with the living. This interchange is typically facilitated by a “medium,” someone particularly attuned to the “spirit world.”

Mediums sometimes allow themselves to become physical vessels for these spirits.

Christians either dismiss such experiences as fraud, or as demonic possession. Which depends on their own worldview. Some Christians dismiss the spiritual realm, while others recognize it is quite real.

C.S. Lewis would be in the latter camp, as his preface to The Screwtape Letters amply illustrates.

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

Christians who acknowledge the spiritual warfare which is waged beyond our physical senses understand the meaning of Paul’s words: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Returning to the 1800s

The reason I have been thinking about Mary Lincoln—who would later be institutionalized and attempted suicide—is because I’m finishing up an article for the online journal I edit about the military chaplaincy. It’s called Curtana: Sword of Mercy, and the new issue will be posted by the end of the month.*

The specific article relates the story of Ellen Elvira Gibson (Hobart),** who was the first woman chaplain in the American military. She served a Wisconsin regiment, and her story is nothing short of fascinating.

Hobart was a spiritualist, and “ordained” by a group of the same who banded together to provide just such credentials. Interestingly, although she gave hundreds of (paid) lectures in a spiritual “trance” state, she would ultimately reject spiritualism. She turned to a more radical and secular “freethinking” as spiritualism was waning in popularity, but still a formidable presence.

Chaplain Hobart would gain renown in anti-Christian circles for her book The Godly Women of the Bible by an Ungodly Woman of the Nineteenth Century. Numerous atheist websites cite a quotation from the volume. “The abominable laws respecting [women in the Bible] . . . are a disgrace to civilization and English literature; and any family which permits such a volume to lie on their parlor-table ought to be ostracized from all respectable society. . .”

Contemporary readers will find it odd that one of the reasons spiritualism received a warm welcome in Europe and America was precisely because it seemed to offer measurable, “scientific” evidence of the afterlife. In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Faust writes:

To an age increasingly caught up in the notion of science as the measure of truth, spiritualism offered belief that seemed to rely on empirical evidence rather than revelation and faith. If the dead could cause tables to rise, telegraph messages from the world beyond, and even communicate in lengthy statements through spirit mediums, an afterlife clearly must exist. Here was, in the words of one popular spiritualist advocate, ‘proof palpable of immortality’” (180-81).

Returning to the Inklings

One of Lewis’ dearest friends was Owen Barfield. Sadly, the two remained separated throughout life by their religious beliefs. Barfield had helped Lewis come to believe in God (i.e. theism) but could not journey with Lewis on to Christianity. Barfield, instead, became one of the greatest of Anthroposophist evangelists.

Anthroposophy possesses elements of philosophy, but is also inarguably a religion in its own right. It also holds a view of the afterlife distinct from both Christianity and historic spiritualism.

But the nature of the religion created by Rudolf Steiner (which evolved from his involvement in Theosophy) is not the subject of our reflections here. However, if one is interested in learning more about Owen Barfield, a 1992 documentary can be viewed here.

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The image above is a famous example of “spirit photography” taken by William Mulmer, who made it popular. He was once placed on trial for fraud, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

* I may delay publication of this particular article since the issue will already carry the biography of another chaplain.

** The reason “Hobart” is bracketed, is because it was her married name at the time of her military service. However, the marriage was short lived, and most of her life she went by “Ella E. Gibson.”

roeShould literary critics look down on authors whose work proves popular with “common” people? Is it appropriate for the literary elite to smirk dismissively whenever the prose of a writer outside their circle resonates with the masses?

These, my friends, are rhetorical questions. The answer to both is “no,” and if you believe otherwise, you probably won’t find yourself too comfortable with the opinions shared here at Mere Inkling.

I believe each piece of literature, regardless of its source, should be judged on its own merits. Not all genres appeal to all people. And not all writers compose their works with equal skill. Nevertheless, it is possible for even a poor miner to strike gold.

Likewise, an accomplished writer is not infallible. Even a master wildcatter can sink a dry well.

I’ve been writing an article about Civil War chaplain who became one of America’s most popular writers during the nineteenth century. In fact, many years his novels outsold the works of Samuel Clemens himself.

And yet, despite his success—or possibly, because average people enjoyed his stories—he received an extraordinary amount of criticism from the literary establishment.

I’m going to share his insights about writing in a moment, but  before doing so, I want to draw a parallel with one of the twentieth century’s most gifts authors. C.S. Lewis was loved by common women and men of Britain and other English-speaking countries. And yet, this very popularity undermined his standing in the world of academia and, I daresay, literary snobbery.

Lewis describes this condescending mindset in a 1939 essay entitled, “High Brows and Low Brows.”

The great authors of the past wrote to entertain the leisure of their adult contemporaries, and a man who cared for literature needed no spur and expected no good conduct marks for sitting down to the food provided for him.

Boys at school were taught to read Latin and Greek poetry by the birch, and discovered the English poets as accidentally and naturally as they now discover the local cinema. Most of my own generation, and many, I hope, of yours, tumbled into literature in that fashion.

Of each of us some great poet made a rape when we still wore Eton collars. Shall we be thought immodest if we claim that most of the books we loved from the first were good books and our earliest loves are still unrepented? If so, that very fact bears witness to the novelty of the modern situation; to us, the claim that we have always liked Keats is no prouder than the claim that we have always liked bacon and eggs. For there are changes afoot.

I foresee the growth of a new race of readers and critics to whom, from the very outset, good literature will be an accomplishment rather than a delight, and who will always feel, beneath the acquired taste, the backward tug of something else which they feel merit in resisting.

Such people will not be content to say that some books are bad or not very good; they will make a special class of “lowbrow” art which is to be vilified, mocked, quarantined, and sometimes (when they are sick or tired) enjoyed. They will be sure that what is popular must always be bad, thus assuming that human taste is naturally wrong, that it needs not only improvement and development but veritable conversion.

For them a good critic will be, as the theologians say, essentially a “twice-born” critic, one who is regenerate and washed from his Original Taste. They will have no conception, because they have had no experience, of spontaneous delight in excellence.

I confess I’ve sometimes felt slightly embarrassed when in the presence of a group of people singing the praises of authors of fiction popular among the well-educated. Sometimes I don’t even recognize their names, much less have an idea of what they have written.

Part of my “handicap” rises from the fact that I’m by and large a non-fiction sort of guy. As seminary I was less enraptured by abstract “systematic theology” than the time-proven lessons learned during the Church’s two millennia history. Likewise, I found “practical theology” far more beneficial. After all, I was being equipped not to be a theologian per se, but to become a shepherd entrusted with the cura animarum (the cure of souls).

In that spirit, valuing history and lessons I could put into practice as a pastor and writer, I have been researching the legacy of Edward Payson Roe (1838-1888). He was a Presbyterian pastor who served as a chaplain in the Union cavalry, and later as a military hospital chaplain.

After the war, Roe served a congregation, and eventually turned his energies to writing wholesome fiction. He played a key role in helping many suspicious Protestants realize that, like manna, fiction was neither good nor bad. It’s effects depended on the use to which it was put. Roe proved quite popular with readers. Less so with the literary establishment.

The following account comes from an essay about his life solicited by one of the prominent magazines of his day. It is well worth reading, touching as it does on a broad range of subjects, including international copyrights and the vagaries of publishing in the late 1800s. Most precious, though, are the echoes of Roe’s humility and his realistic understanding of the vocation of writing.

“While writing my first story, I rarely thought of the public, the characters and their experiences absorbing me wholly. When my narrative was actually in print, there was wakened a very deep interest as to its reception. I had none of the confidence resulting from the gradual testing of one’s power or from association with literary people, and I also was aware that, when published, a book was far away from the still waters of which one’s friends are the protecting headlands.

“That I knew my work to be exceedingly faulty goes without saying; that it was utterly bad, I was scarcely ready to believe. Dr. Field, noted for his pure English diction and taste, would not publish an irredeemable story, and the constituency of the New York ‘Evangelist’ is well known to be one of the most intelligent in the country.

“Friendly opinions from serial readers were reassuring as far as they went, but of course the great majority of those who followed the story were silent. A writer cannot, like a speaker, look into the eyes of his audience and observe its mental attitude toward his thought. If my memory serves me, Mr. R.R. Bowker was the earliest critic to write some friendly words in the ‘Evening Mail;’ but at first my venture was very generally ignored.

Then some unknown friend marked an influential journal published in the interior of the State and mailed it so timely that it reached me on Christmas eve. I doubt if a book was ever more unsparingly condemned than mine in that review, whose final words were, ‘The story is absolutely nauseating.’ In this instance and in my salad days I took pains to find out who the writer was, for if his view was correct I certainly should not engage in further efforts to make the public ill.

“I discovered the reviewer to be a gentleman for whom I have ever had the highest respect as an editor, legislator, and honest thinker. My story made upon him just the impression he expressed, and it would be very stupid on my part to blink the fact. Meantime, the book was rapidly making for itself friends and passing into frequent new editions. Even the editor who condemned the work would not assert that those who bought it were an aggregation of asses. People cannot be found by thousands who will pay a dollar and seventy-five cents for a dime novel or a religious tract.

“I wished to learn the actual truth more sincerely than any critic to write it, and at last I ventured to take a copy to Mr. George Ripley, of the New York ‘Tribune.’ ‘Here is a man,’ I thought, ‘whose fame and position as a critic are recognized by all. If he deigns to notice the book, he will not only say what he thinks, but I shall have much reason to think as he does.’ Mr. Ripley met the diffident author kindly, asked a few questions, and took the volume. A few weeks later, to my great surprise, he gave over a column to a review of the story. Although not blind to its many faults, he wrote words far more friendly and inspiring than I ever hoped to see; it would seem that the public had sanctioned his verdict

“From that day to this these two instances have been types of my experience with many critics, one condemning, another commending. There is ever a third class who prove their superiority by sneering at or ignoring what is closely related to the people. Much thought over my experience led to a conclusion which the passing years confirm: the only thing for a writer is to be himself and take the consequences. Even those who regard me as a literary offender of the blackest dye have never named imitation among my sins.

“As successive books appeared, I began to recognize more and more clearly another phase of an author’s experience. A writer gradually forms a constituency, certain qualities in his book appealing to certain classes of minds. In my own case, I do not mean classes of people looked at from the social point of view. A writer who takes any hold on popular attention inevitably learns the character of his constituency. He appeals, and minds and temperaments in sympathy respond. Those he cannot touch go on their way indifferently; those he offends may often strike back. This is the natural result of any strong assertion of individuality.

“Certainly, if I had my choice, I would rather write a book interesting to the young and to the common people, whom Lincoln said ‘God must love, since He made so many of them.’ The former are open to influence; the latter can be quickened and prepared for something better. As a matter of fact, I find that there are those in all classes whom my books attract, others who are repelled, as I have said.

“It is perhaps one of the pleasantest experiences of an author’s life to learn from letters and in other ways that he is forming a circle of friends, none the less friendly because personally unknown. Their loyalty is both a safeguard and an inspiration. On one hand, the writer shrinks from abusing such regard by careless work; on the other, he is stimulated and encouraged by the feeling that there is a group in waiting who will appreciate his best endeavor.

“While I clearly recognize my limitations, and have no wish to emulate the frog in the fable, I can truthfully say that I take increasing pains with each story, aiming to verify every point by experience—my own or that of others. Not long since, a critic asserted that changes in one of my characters, resulting from total loss of memory, were preposterously impossible. If the critic had consulted Ribot’s ‘Diseases of Memory,’ or some experienced physician, he might have written more justly.

“I do not feel myself competent to form a valuable opinion as to good art in writing, and I cannot help observing that the art doctors disagree woefully among themselves. Truth to nature and the realities, and not the following of any school or fashion, has ever seemed the safest guide. I sometimes venture to think I know a little about human nature. My active life brought me in close contact with all kinds of people; there was no man in my regiment who hesitated to come to my tent or to talk confidentially by the campfire, while scores of dying men laid bare to me their hearts. I at least know the nature that exists in the human breast.

“It may be inartistic, or my use of it all wrong. That is a question which time will decide, and I shall accept the verdict. Over twelve years ago, certain oracles, with the voice of fate, predicted my speedy eclipse and disappearance. Are they right in their adverse judgment? I can truthfully say that now, as at the first, I wish to know the facts in the case. The moment an author is conceited about his work, he becomes absurd and is passing into a hopeless condition. If worthy to write at all, he knows that he falls far short of his ideals; if honest, he wishes to be estimated at his true worth, and to cast behind him the mean little Satan of vanity. If he walks under a conscious sense of greatness, he is a ridiculous figure, for beholders remember the literary giants of other days and of his own time, and smile at the airs of the comparatively little man. On the other hand, no self-respecting writer should ape the false deprecating ‘’umbleness’ of Uriah Heep. In short, he wishes to pass, like a coin, for just what he is worth.

“Mr. Matthew Arnold was ludicrously unjust to the West when he wrote, ‘The Western States are at this moment being nourished and formed, we hear, on the novels of a native author called Roe.’ Why could not Mr. Arnold have taken a few moments to look into the bookstores of the great cities of the West, in order to observe for himself how the demand of one of the largest and most intelligent reading publics in the world is supplied? He would have found that the works of Scott and Dickens were more liberally purchased and generally read than in his own land of ‘distinction.’ He should have discovered when in this country that American statesmen (?) are so solicitous about the intelligence of their constituents that they give publishers so disposed every opportunity to steal novels describing the nobility and English persons of distinction; that tons of such novels have been sold annually in the West, a thousand to one of the ‘author called Roe.’

“The simple truth in the case is that in spite of this immense and cheap competition, my novels have made their way and are being read among multitudes of others. No one buys or reads a book under compulsion; and if any one thinks that the poorer the book the better the chance of its being read by the American people, let him try the experiment. When a critic condemns my books, I accept that as his judgment; when another critic and scores of men and women, the peers of the first in cultivation and intelligence, commend the books, I do not charge them with gratuitous lying. My one aim has become to do my work conscientiously and leave the final verdict to time and the public. I wish no other estimate than a correct one; and when the public indicate that they have had enough of Roe, I shall neither whine nor write.”

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If you are interested in learning more about E.P. Roe, check out my article in the new issue (4.2) of Curtana: Sword of Mercy which was published online just last week.