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Again the Narrative is Retarded
A man who, in season and out of season, forgetting private gain for public weal, has laboured with Promethean and sacrificial ardour to instil the love of reasonable letters into countless thousands; to whom, and to whose colleagues, amid the perishable caducity of human affairs, is largely due the pullulation of literary taste; in honouring whom we seek to honour the noble and self-effacing profession of which he is so representative a member —
Then he could see the modest bookseller, somewhat clammy in his extremities and lost within his academic robe and hood, nervously fidgeting his mortar-board, haled forward by ushers, and tottering rubescent before the chancellor, provost, president (or whoever it might be) who hands out the diploma. Then (in Roger's vision) he could see the garlanded bibliopole turning to the expectant audience, giving his trailing gown a deft rearward kick as the ladies do on the stage, and uttering, without hesitation or embarrassment, with due interpolation of graceful pleasantry, that learned and unlaboured discourse on the delights of bookishness that he had often dreamed of. Then he could see the ensuing reception: the distinguished savants crowding round; the plates of macaroons, the cups of untasted tea; the ladies twittering, "Now there's something I want to ask you — why are there so many statues to generals, admirals, parsons, doctors, statesmen, scientists, artists, and authors, but no statues to booksellers?"
Contemplation of this glittering scene always lured Roger into fantastic dreams. Ever since he had travelled country roads, some years before, selling books from a van drawn by a fat white horse, he had nourished a secret hope of some day founding a Parnassus on Wheels Corporation which would own a fleet of these vans and send them out into the rural byways where bookstores are unknown. He loved to imagine a great map of New York State, with the daily location of each travelling Parnassus marked by a coloured pin. He dreamed of himself, sitting in some vast central warehouse of second-hand books, poring over his map like a military chief of staff and forwarding cases of literary ammunition to various bases where his vans would re-stock. His idea was that his travelling salesmen could be recruited largely from college professors, parsons, and newspaper men, who were weary of their thankless tasks, and would welcome an opportunity to get out on the road. One of his hopes was that he might interest Mr. Chapman in this superb scheme, and he had a vision of the day when the shares of the Parnassus on Wheels Corporation would pay a handsome dividend and be much sought after by serious investors.
These thoughts turned his mind toward his brother-in-law Andrew McGill, the author of several engaging books on the joys of country living, who dwells at the Sabine Farm in the green elbow of a Connecticut valley. The original Parnassus, a quaint old blue wagon in which Roger had lived and journeyed and sold books over several thousand miles of country roads in the days before his marriage, was now housed in Andrew's barn. Peg, his fat white horse, had lodging there also. It occurred to Roger that he owed Andrew a letter, and putting aside his notes for the bookseller's collegiate oration, he began to write:
THE HAUNTED BOOKSHOP
163 Gissing Street, Brooklyn,
November 30, 1918.
It is scandalous not to have thanked you sooner for the annual cask of cider, which has given us even more than the customary pleasure. This has been an autumn when I have been hard put to it to keep up with my own thoughts, and I've written no letters at all. Like everyone else I am thinking constantly of this new peace that has marvellously come upon us. I trust we may have statesmen who will be able to turn it to the benefit of humanity. I wish there could be an international peace conference of booksellers, for (you will smile at this) my own conviction is that the future happiness of the world depends in no small measure on them and on the librarians. I wonder what a German bookseller is like?
I've been reading The Education of Henry Adams and wish he might have lived long enough to give us his thoughts on the War. I fear it would have bowled him over. He thought that this is not a world "that sensitive and timid natures can regard without a shudder." What would he have said of the four-year shambles we have watched with sickened hearts?
You remember my
favourite poem — old George Herbert's Church
Porch — where he says —
By all means use sometimes to be alone;
Salute thyself; see what thy soul doth wear;
Dare to look in thy chest, for 'tis thine own,
And tumble up and down what thou find'st there —
You will not agree with me on what I am about to say, for I know you as a stubborn Republican; but I thank fortune that Wilson is going to the Peace Conference. I've been mulling over one of my favourite books — it lies beside me as I write — Cromwell's Letters and Speeches, edited by Carlyle, with what Carlyle amusingly calls "Elucidations." (Carlyle is not very good at "elucidating" anything!) I have heard somewhere or other that this is one of Wilson's favourite books, and indeed, there is much of the Cromwell in him. With what a grim, covenanting zeal he took up the sword when at last it was forced into his hand! And I have been thinking that what he will say to the Peace Conference will smack strongly of what old Oliver used to say to Parliament in 1657 and 1658 — "If we will have Peace without a worm in it, lay we foundations of Justice and Righteousness." What makes Wilson so irritating to the unthoughtful is that he operates exclusively upon reason, not upon passion. He contradicts Kipling's famous lines, which apply to most men —
Very rarely will he squarely push the logic of a fact
To its ultimate conclusion in unmitigated act.
In this instance, I think, Reason is going to win. I feel the whole current of the world setting in that direction.
It's quaint to think of old Woodrow, a kind of Cromwell-Wordsworth, going over to do his bit among the diplomatic shell-craters. What I'm waiting for is the day when he'll get back into private life and write a book about it. There's a job, if you like, for a man who might reasonably be supposed to be pretty tired in body and soul! When that book comes out I'll spend the rest of my life in selling it. I ask nothing better! Speaking of Wordsworth, I've often wondered whether Woodrow hasn't got some poems concealed somewhere among his papers! I've always imagined that he may have written poems on the sly. And by the way, you needn't make fun of me for being so devoted to George Herbert. Do you realize that two of the most familiar quotations in our language come from his pen, viz.:
Wouldst thou both eat thy cake, and have it?
Dare to be true: nothing can need a
A fault, which needs it most, grows two thereby.
Forgive this tedious sermon! My mind has been so tumbled up and down this autumn that I am in a queer state of mingled melancholy and exaltation. You know how much I live in and for books. Well, I have a curious feeling, a kind of premonition that there are great books coming out of this welter of human hopes and anguishes, perhaps A book in which the tempest-shaken soul of the race will speak out as it never has before. The Bible, you know, is rather a disappointment: it has never done for humanity what it should have done. I wonder why? Walt Whitman is going to do a great deal, but he is not quite what I mean. There is something coming — I don't know just what! I thank God I am a bookseller, trafficking in the dreams and beauties and curiosities of humanity rather than some mere huckster of merchandise. But how helpless we all are when we try to tell what goes on within us! I found this in one of Lafcadio Hearn's letters the other day — I marked the passage for you —
Baudelaire has a touching poem about an albatross, which you would like — describing the poet's soul superb in its own free azure — but helpless, insulted, ugly, clumsy when striving to walk on common earth — or rather, on a deck, where sailors torment it with tobacco pipes, etc.
You can imagine what evenings I have here among my shelves, now the long dark nights are come! Of course until ten o'clock, when I shut up shop, I am constantly interrupted — as I have been during this letter, once to sell a copy of Helen's Babies and once to sell The Ballad of Reading Gaol, so you can see how varied are my clients' tastes! But later on, after we have had our evening cocoa and Helen has gone to bed, I prowl about the place, dipping into this and that, fuddling myself with speculation. How clear and bright the stream of the mind flows in those late hours, after all the sediment and floating trash of the day has drained off! Sometimes I seem to coast the very shore of Beauty or Truth, and hear the surf breaking on those shining sands. Then some offshore wind of weariness or prejudice bears me away again. Have you ever come across Andreyev's Confessions of a Little Man During Great Days? One of the honest books of the War. The Little Man ends his confession thus —
My anger has left me, my sadness returned, and once more the tears flow. Whom can I curse, whom can I judge, when we are all alike unfortunate? Suffering is universal; hands are outstretched to each other, and when they touch . . . the great solution will come. My heart is aglow, and I stretch out my hand and cry, "Come, let us join hands! I love you, I love you!"
And of course, as soon as one puts one's self in that frame of mind someone comes along and picks your pocket. . . . I suppose we must teach ourselves to be too proud to mind having our pockets picked!
Did it ever occur to you that the world is really governed by books? The course of this country in the War, for instance, has been largely determined by the books Wilson has read since he first began to think! If we could have a list of the principal books he has read since the War began, how interesting it would be.
Here's something I'm just copying out to put up on my bulletin board for my customers to ponder. It was written by Charles Sorley, a young Englishman who was killed in France in 1915. He was only twenty years old —
You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble and we do not understand.
You only saw your future bigly planned,
And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,
And in each other's dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.
When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other's truer form
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm
We'll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm
The darkness and the thunder and the rain.
What is it that we find in every form of life? Desire of some sort — some unexplained motive power that impels even the smallest insect on its queer travels. You must have watched some infinitesimal red spider on a fence rail, bustling along — why and whither? Who knows? And when you come to man, what a chaos of hungers and impulses keep thrusting him through his cycle of quaint tasks! And in every human heart you find some sorrow, some frustration, some lurking pang. I often think of Lafcadio Hearn's story of his Japanese cook. Hearn was talking of the Japanese habit of not showing their emotions on their faces. His cook was a smiling, healthy, agreeable-looking young fellow whose face was always cheerful. Then one day, by chance, Hearn happened to look through a hole in the wall and saw his cook alone. His face was not the same face. It was thin and drawn and showed strange lines worn by old hardships or sufferings. Hearn thought to himself, "He will look just like that when he is dead." He went into the kitchen to see him, and instantly the cook was all changed, young and happy again. Never again did Hearn see that face of trouble; but he knew the man wore it when he was alone.
Don't you think there is a kind of parable there for the race as a whole? Have you ever met a man without wondering what shining sorrows he hides from the world, what contrast between vision and accomplishment torments him? Behind every smiling mask is there not some cryptic grimace of pain? Henry Adams puts it tersely. He says the human mind appears suddenly and inexplicably out of some unknown and unimaginable void. It passes half its known life in the mental chaos of sleep. Even when awake it is a victim of its own ill-adjustment, of disease, of age, of external suggestion, of nature's compulsions; it doubts its own sensations and trusts only in instruments and averages. After sixty years or so of growing astonishment the mind wakes to find itself looking blankly into the void of death. And, as Adams says, that it should profess itself pleased by this performance is all that the highest rules of good breeding can ask. That the mind should actually be satisfied would prove that it exists only as idiocy!
I hope that you will write to tell me along what curves your mind is moving. For my own part I feel that we are on the verge of amazing things. Long ago I fell back on books as the only permanent consolers. They are the one stainless and unimpeachable achievement of the human race. It saddens me to think that I shall have to die with thousands of books unread that would have given me noble and unblemished happiness. I will tell you a secret. I have never read King Lear, and have purposely refrained from doing so. If I were ever very ill I would only need to say to myself "You can't die yet, you haven't read Lear." That would bring me round, I know it would.
You see, books are the answer to all our perplexities! Henry Adams grinds his teeth at his inability to understand the universe. The best he can do is to suggest a "law of acceleration," which seems to mean that Nature is hustling man along at an ever-increasing rate so that he will either solve all her problems or else die of fever in the effort. But Adams' candid portrait of a mind grappling helplessly with its riddles is so triumphantly delightful that one forgets the futility of the struggle in the accuracy of the picture. Man is unconquerable because he can make even his helplessness so entertaining. His motto seems to be "Even though He slay me, yet will I make fun of Him!"
Yes, books are man's supreme triumph, for they gather up and transmit all other triumphs. As Walter de la Mare writes, "How uncomprehendingly must an angel from heaven smile on a poor human sitting engrossed in a romance: angled upon his hams, motionless in his chair, spectacles on nose, his two feet as close together as the flukes of a merman's tail, only his strange eyes stirring in his time-worn face."
Well, I've been scribbling away all this time and haven't given you any news whatever. Helen came back the other day from a visit to Boston where she enjoyed herself greatly. To-night she has gone out to the movies with a young protegee of ours, Miss Titania Chapman, an engaging damsel whom we have taken in as an apprentice bookseller. It's a quaint idea, done at the request of her father, Mr. Chapman, the proprietor of Chapman's Daintybits which you see advertised everywhere. He is a great booklover, and is very eager to have the zeal transmitted to his daughter. So you can imagine my glee to have a neophyte of my own to preach books at! Also it will enable me to get away from the shop a little more. I had a telephone call from Philadelphia this afternoon asking me to go over there on Monday evening to make an estimate of the value of a private collection that is to be sold. I was rather flattered because I can't imagine how they got hold of my name.
Forgive this long, incoherent scrawl. How did you like Erewhon? It's pretty near closing time and I must say grace over the day's accounts.