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TO NIV TCK PUBLIC LICRARY
ASTOR, LENOX AND TILDEN FOUNDATIONS
LONDON GRANT AND CO., PRINTERS, 72-78, TURNMILL STREET, .E.C.
HE other day, at the Literary Fund dinner, in an
eloquent and practical address, the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone condemned the encouragement too often given
to an aspirant for literary honours simply on the ground of the disadvantages under which said aspirant had written. The Premier said that to support and encourage a book simply because it was written by a mechanic, or by some person who could not be expected from his position to write a book, was an injury to the man himself and to society. All literary works should stand on their own merits, and no man has a right to claim indulgence because of the educational disadvantages under which his book may be produced.
I commend this practical philosophy to some of my numerous correspondents. An editor suffers much at the hands of uncommissioned contributors; but most from amateur writers, from men and women and young people who, somehow discovering that they can turn a rhyme or build up a reasonably good sentence, suddenly believe they have a call to the world of Letters. Thereupon they commence to pester editors everywhere ; but as I am here and there credited with the weakness of editorial courtesy, they all seem to fix upon me for their first or last efforts at publication.
In many cases their MSS. are accompanied by long confidential letters, appeals to one's feelings, attacks on one's sympathy. Now and then I detect something of merit in an amateur article ; but too often the merit lies in the evident disadvantages of the circumstances under which the paper has been written. Misled on this tack, I return a civil reply and say, "Try again ; you may succeed.” The writer tries again. He does not succeed. I say so. His MS. goes back. Then I have been unkind; I have raised hopes only to blight them. Sometimes the MS. is lost or mislaid, the writer having omitted to put his name or address upon it. Then it cannot be returned; and the young author pours out his wrath wildly upon the editor. I sympathise with him, despite the suffering he causes; but I tell him now, as I have told him before, that if he would retain his literary treasures, he must keep copies of them. This is easily done; the manifold letter writer and the copying press are old institutions.
Another troublesome contributor is the young author whose first article is accepted. Seeing himself in print, he thinks he has not only become famous, but has laid the foundation of his fortune. He launches out in social expenses; he suddenly appears in literary society, and wants to join an Art Club. He has read those wonderful paragraphs of London Correspondents about the vast sums which are paid to successful authors; he expects for his article a cheque equal to a king's ransom ; like the Scotchman (who made a guinea joke in Punch, and came from Edinburgh to spend a week in London, on the strength of having all his expenses paid), he is disappointed. He gets over this, however, on the hope of becoming a constant contributor; but finding his other MSS. rejected, he comes to the conclusion that the editor is jealous of his success, and at the same time pounces on the discovery, and declares it in writing, that the editor is not a gentleman. Solemnly I caution this vast crowd of young and old that literature, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, is a forlorn hope. It makes my heart ache to see the pale faces, the anxious eyes that haunt the outer passages of editorial rooms, and the offices of publishing houses. Everybody seems to think, not only that he can write, but that he can live by his pen. The young aspirant is jostled by an army of parsons and barristers, and gentlemen in Government employment, educated men not wholly dependent upon journalism and literature; as a rule, this active and clever army writes well; its industry is enormous ; it makes the profession utterly impossible for thousands of other outsiders who swarm up from the country in the hope of taking a place in the ranks. At best, literature gives even comparatively successful men but a hard crust, though Mr. Jacox, in “ Aspects of Authorship,” very properly contends that the loaf of bread earned by the competent author is not so hard and crusty as it was. Nevertheless, he cannot help quoting some of the best known instances of disappointment, even among successful men "Mr. Carlyle glances grimly at the Heynes dining on boiled peasecods; the Jean Pauls on water ; the Johnsons bedded and boarded on fourpence halfpenny a day. So does Longfellow at Johnson and Savage rambling about the streets of London at midnight, without a place to sleep in; at Otway, starved like a dog; at Goldsmith, penniless in Green Arbour Court. Next to the * Newgate Calendar,' the biography of authors is the most sickening chapter in history." In spite of modern successes, I would repeat the question asked by Thackeray in 1843 :
“ How much money has all the literature in England in the Three per Cents. ?” Look in our own times at the widows of eminent men who are living on the scanty pittance of the Civil List. I could mention a score of modern instances of so-called successful men, leaving their families in want—not that they were spendthrifts, but simply on account of the miserable pittance which is the wage even of prosperous writers. Ellesmere, in “ Friends in Council,” did not exaggerate the experience of many clever men now wandering about the streets of London : “Authorship is the last trade I should think of taking up. Sooner would I elect to be one of those men who carry advertising boards, like tabards, before and behind them .... This would be very superior to making a living by literature.” Milverton agreed with Ellesmere, and it would not be difficult to point out scores of dead and living illustrations of all that can be said against any man selecting literature as a profession with the hope of substantial pecuniary reward. The people of England who buy newspapers and magazines do not pay for the paper and printing, let alone the authors' fees. In these enlightened days, when kings and queens even enter the literary lists with scholars and shoemakers, periodicals and newspapers have actually to be sold at a loss. It is the tradesman and the shopkeeper, the merchant, the financier-in short, the advertiser, who pays for the current literature of the day. It is the great pillman, the starchmaker, the cocoa dealer, the jeweller, the insurance agent, the company monger, who present palace and cottage with their periodical literature, with their daily journals, their religious magazines, their literary papers; and this is the danger which threatens the independence of British journalism. It was not so in the early days of newspapers ; it was not so when Mr. Cave first introduced SYLVANUS URBAN to the world. Journalists then had value for their broadsheets, and with all one's respect and admiration for the press of England, it must be admitted that the age of cheap journalism has not tended to strengthen the impartiality of general newspaper criticism.
There are many changes-most of them for the better, it must be confessed-since my ancient predecessor wrote his Preface in 1752, wherein he says, referring to his cleverest and best contributors,“ Much the greater part of them conceal themselves with such secrecy, that we correspond with them by the Magazine, and can make no other than this public acknowledgment for favours, which are equally the support and honour of our collection.” What an enviable state of things! How vastly surprised would the writer be if he could return to editorial duties in the present day for only a week. I feel sure he would soon desire to go back to the Shades. Apart from the troubles hinted at in the early part of this article, one encounter with the semi-professional gentleman who insists on seeing you, talks to you of good subjects for articles, and then swears you commissioned them, and threatens all sorts of legal proceedings if you do not print them and pay for them whether you print them or not, would settle him. He would surely curse the degeneracy of the age, sigh for the good old times (though they were bad old times in many respects), and be glad to leave the new series of the Gentleman's Magazine in the hands of the shilling editor.
I feel that I owe an apology to many of my readers for devoting so much space to what may seem mere personal matter. Perhaps they may forgive me on the ground that, at all events, this preface is outside the ordinary and established groove. If it induces any young man or woman to pause before adopting literature as a profession, it is worth the printing. In these days, when everybody is to be educated, and looking to a future in which a scholar will be the rule and not the exception, I fear authorship must come more and more to be considered as the luxury of those who can afford to disregard its pecuniary rewards; more of a mere help than a crutch; a thing to be proud of for its fame, but not to live upon, more especially in an age of wealth and luxury, when successful business men make fortunes without apparent effort, while the littérateur struggles miserably and in vain to keep up as good an appearance as the rich who patronise him. Of course these words will not discourage the child of genius burning to use his God-gifted powers; and I would be the last to stay his hand. Nevertheless, I warn him ; for what can he expect when he counts upon his fingers the most successful of our authors, and carefully studies their most popular books?
I commend this present volume of the oldest of all magazines to the friendly criticism of its numerous readers. In the new volume upon which we are now entering I hope to introduce to their notice, in addition to the general attractions of the work, some hitherto unpublished correspondence of Charles Lamb, arranged in the shape of an article by an authoress of distinction; and also some interesting biographical notes of the early life of the late Napoleon III., translated from the private diary of a Prussian lady, by the Countess of Harrington. A new novel will follow the short tale, “ Making the Worst of it”; “Clytie” will run, I hope, through another volume; the “Life in London" sketches will be continued ; and I have, in addition, arranged for the publication of many important and interesting papers in the several departments of history, biography, sports and pastimes, literature, the drama, and society, from the pens of writers accustomed to treat such subjects ably, thoughtfully, and with authority.