How To Do It
Edward Everett Hale
Part 1 out of 3
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How To Do It.
Edward Everett Hale.
Chapter I. Introductory.--How We Met
Chapter II. How To Talk
Chapter III. Talk
Chapter IV. How To Write
Chapter V. How To Read. I.
Chapter VI. How To Read. II.
Chapter VII. How To Go Into Society
Chapter VIII. How To Travel
Chapter IX. Life At School
Chapter X. Life In Vacation
Chapter XI. Life Alone
Chapter XII. Habits In Church
Chapter XIII. Life With Children
Chapter XIV. Life With Your Elders
Chapter XV. Habits Of Reading
Chapter XVI. Getting Ready
How To Do It.
Introductory.--How We Met.
The papers which are here collected enter in some detail into the success
and failure of a large number of young people of my acquaintance, who are
here named as
Enoch Putnam, _brother of_ Horace,
Fanny, _cousin to_ Hatty Fielding
George Ferguson (Asaph Ferguson's _brother_),
Horace Felltham (_a very different person_),
Oliver Ferguson, _brother to_ Asaph _and_ George,
It may be observed that there are thirty-four of them. They make up a
very nice set, or would do so if they belonged together. But, in truth,
they live in many regions, not to say countries. None of them are too
bright or too stupid, only one of them is really selfish, all but one or
two are thoroughly sorry for their faults when they commit them, and all
of them who are good for anything think of themselves very little. There
are a few who are approved members of the Harry Wadsworth Club. That means
that they "look up and not down," they "look forward and not back," they
"look out and not in," and they "lend a hand." These papers were first
published, much as they are now collected, in the magazine "Our Young
Folks," and in that admirable weekly paper "The Youth's Companion," which
is held in grateful remembrance by a generation now tottering off the
stage, and welcomed, as I see, with equal interest by the grandchildren as
they totter on. From time to time, therefore, as the different series have
gone on, I have received pleasant notes from other young people, whose
acquaintance I have thus made with real pleasure, who have asked more
explanation as to the points involved. I have thus been told that my
friend, Mr. Henry Ward Beecher, is not governed by all my rules for young
people's composition, and that Miss Throckmorton, the governess, does not
believe Archbishop Whately is infallible. I have once and again been asked
how I made the acquaintance of such a nice set of children. And I can well
believe that many of my young correspondents would in that matter be glad
to be as fortunate as I.
Perhaps, then, I shall do something to make the little book more
intelligible, and to connect its parts, if in this introduction I tell of
the one occasion when the _dramatis personae_ met each other; and in order
to that, if I tell how they all met me.
First of all, then, my dear young friends, I began active life, as soon as
I had left college, as I can well wish all of you might do. I began in
keeping school. Not that I want to have any of you do this long, unless an
evident fitness or "manifest destiny" appear so to order. But you may be
sure that, for a year or two of the start of life, there is nothing that
will teach you your own ignorance so well as having to teach children the
few things you know, and to answer, as best you can, their questions on
all grounds. There was poor Jane, on the first day of that charming visit
at the Penroses, who was betrayed by the simplicity and cordiality of the
dinner-table--where she was the youngest of ten or twelve strangers--into
taking a protective lead of all the conversation, till at the very last I
heard her explaining to dear Mr. Tom Coram himself,--a gentleman who had
lived in Java ten years,--that coffee-berries were red when they were
ripe. I was sadly mortified for my poor Jane as Tom's eyes twinkled. She
would never have got into that rattletrap way of talking if she had kept
school for two years. Here, again, is a capital letter from Oliver
Ferguson, Asaph's younger brother, describing his life on the Island at
Paris all through the siege. I should have sent it yesterday to Mr.
Osgood, who would be delighted to print it in the Atlantic Monthly, but
that the spelling is disgraceful. Mr. Osgood and Mr. Howells would think
Oliver a fool before they had read down the first page. "L-i-n, lin,
n-e-n, nen, linen." Think of that! Oliver would never have spelled "linen"
like that if he had been two years a teacher. You can go through four
years at Harvard College spelling so, but you cannot go through two years
as a schoolmaster.
Well, I say I was fortunate enough to spend two years as an assistant
schoolmaster at the old Boston Latin School,--the oldest institution of
learning, as we are fond of saying, in the United States. And there first
I made my manhood's acquaintance with boys.
"Do you think," said dear Dr. Malone to me one day, "that my son Robert
will be too young to enter college next August?" "How old will he be?"
said I, and I was told. Then as Robert was at that moment just six months
younger than I, who had already graduated, I said wisely, that I thought
he would do, and Dr. Malone chuckled, I doubt not, as I did certainly, at
the gravity of my answer. A nice set of boys I had. I had above me two of
the most loyal and honorable of gentlemen, who screened me from all
reproof for my blunders. My discipline was not of the best, but my
purposes were; and I and the boys got along admirably.
It was the old schoolhouse. I believe I shall explain in another place,
in this volume, that it stood where Parker's Hotel stands, and my room
occupied the spot in space where you, Florence, and you, Theodora, dined
with your aunt Dorcas last Wednesday before you took the cars for
Andover,--the ladies' dining-room looking on what was then Cook's Court,
and is now Chapman Place. Who Cook was I know not. The "Province Street"
of to-day was then much more fitly called "Governor's Alley." For boys
do not know that that minstrel-saloon so long known as "Ordway's," just
now changed into Sargent's Hotel, was for a century, more or less, the
official residence of the Governor of Massachusetts. It was the
On the top of it, for a weathercock, was the large mechanical brazen
Indian, who, whenever he heard the Old South clock strike twelve, shot off
his brazen arrow. The little boys used to hope to see this. But just as
twelve came was the bustle of dismissal, and I have never seen one who did
see him, though for myself I know he did as was said, and have never
questioned it. That opportunity, however, was up stairs, in Mr. Dixwell's
room. In my room, in the basement, we had no such opportunity.
The glory of our room was that it was supposed, rightly or not, that a
part of it was included in the old schoolhouse which was there before the
Revolution. There were old men still living who remembered the troublous
times, the times that stirred boys' souls, as the struggle for
independence began. I have myself talked with Jonathan Darby Robbins, who
was himself one of the committee who waited on the British general to
demand that their coasting should not be obstructed. There is a reading
piece about it in one of the school-books. This general was not Gage, as
he is said to be in the histories, but General Haldimand; and his
quarters were at the house which stood nearly where Franklin's statue
stands now, just below King's Chapel. His servant had put ashes on the
coast which the boys had made, on the sidewalk which passes the Chapel as
you go down School Street. When the boys remonstrated, the servant
ridiculed them,--he was not going to mind a gang of rebel boys. So the
boys, who were much of their fathers' minds, appointed a committee, of
whom my friend was one, to wait on General Haldimand himself. They called
on him, and they told him that coasting was one of their inalienable
rights and that he must not take it away. The General knew too well that
the people of the town must not be irritated to take up his servant's
quarrel, and he told the boys that their coast should not be interfered
with. So they carried their point. The story-book says that he clasped his
hands and said, "Heavens! Liberty is in the very air! Even these boys
speak of their rights as do their patriot sires!" But of this Mr. Robbins
told me nothing, and as Haldimand was a Hessian, of no great enthusiasm
for liberty, I do not, for my part, believe it.
The morning of April 19, 1775, Harrison Gray Otis, then a little boy of
eight years old, came down Beacon Street to school, and found a brigade of
red-coats in line along Common Street,--as Tremont Street was then
called,--so that he could not cross into School Street. They were Earl
Percy's brigade. Class in history, where did Percy's brigade go that day,
and what became of them before night? A red-coat corporal told the Otis
boy to walk along Common Street, and not try to cross the line. So he did.
He went as far as Scollay's Building before he could turn their flank,
then he went down to what you call Washington Street, and came up to
school,--late. Whether his excuse would have been sufficient I do not
know. He was never asked for it. He came into school just in time to hear
old Lovel, the Tory schoolmaster, say, "War's begun and school's done.
_Dimittite libros_"--which means, "Put away your books." They put them
away, and had a vacation of a year and nine months thereafter, before the
school was open again.
Well, in this old school I had spent four years of my boyhood, and here,
as I say, my manhood's acquaintance with boys began. I taught them Latin,
and sometimes mathematics. Some of them will remember a famous Latin poem
we wrote about Pocahontas and John Smith. All of them will remember how
they capped Latin verses against the master, twenty against one, and put
him down. These boys used to cluster round my table at recess and talk.
Danforth Newcomb, a lovely, gentle, accurate boy, almost always at the
head of his class,--he died young. Shang-hae, San Francisco, Berlin,
Paris, Australia,--I don't know what cities, towns, and countries have the
rest of them. And when they carry home this book for their own boys to
read, they will find some of their boy-stories here.
Then there was Mrs. Merriam's boarding-school. If you will read the
chapter on travelling you will find about one of the vacations of her
girls. Mrs. Merriam was one of Mr. Ingham's old friends,--and he is a man
with whom I have had a great deal to do. Mrs. Merriam opened a school for
twelve girls. I knew her very well, and so it came that I knew her ways
with them. Though it was a boarding-school, still the girls had just as
"good a time" as they had at home, and when I found that some of them
asked leave to spend vacation with her I knew they had better times. I
remember perfectly the day when Mrs. Phillips asked them down to the old
mansion-house, which seems so like home to me, to eat peaches. And it was
determined that the girls should not think they were under any "company"
restraint, so no person but themselves was present when the peaches were
served, and every girl ate as many as for herself she determined best.
When they all rode horseback, Mrs. Merriam and I used to ride together
with these young folks behind or before, as it listed them. So, not
unnaturally, being a friend of the family, I came to know a good many of
them very well.
For another set of them--you may choose the names to please
yourselves--the history of my relationship goes back to the Sunday school
of the Church of the Unity in Worcester. The first time I ever preached in
that church, namely, May 3, 1846, there was but one person in it who had
gray hair. All of us of that day have enough now. But we were a set of
young people, starting on a new church, which had, I assure you, no dust
in the pulpit-cushions. And almost all the children were young, as you may
suppose. The first meeting of the Sunday school showed, I think,
thirty-six children, and more of them were under nine than over. They are
all twenty-five years older now than they were then. Well, we started
without a library for the Sunday school. But in a corner of my study Jo
Matthews and I put up some three-cornered shelves, on which I kept about a
hundred books such as children like, and young people who are no longer
children; and then, as I sat reading, writing, or stood fussing over my
fuchsias or labelling the mineralogical specimens, there would come in one
or another nice girl or boy, to borrow a "Rollo" or a "Franconia," or to
see if Ellen Liston had returned "Amy Herbert." And so we got very good
chances to find each other out. It is not a bad plan for a young minister,
if he really want to know what the young folk of his parish are. I know
it was then and there that I conceived the plan of writing "Margaret
Percival in America" as a sequel to Miss Sewell's "Margaret Percival," and
that I wrote my half of that history.
The Worcester Sunday school grew beyond thirty-six scholars; and I have
since had to do with two other Sunday schools, where, though the children
did not know it, I felt as young as the youngest of them all. And in that
sort of life you get chances to come at nice boys and nice girls which
most people in the world do not have.
And the last of all the congresses of young people which I will name,
where I have found my favorites, shall be the vacation congresses,--when
people from all the corners of the world meet at some country hotel, and
wonder who the others are the first night, and, after a month, wonder
again how they ever lived without knowing each other as brothers and
sisters. I never had a nicer time than that day when we celebrated
Arthur's birthday by going up to Greely's Pond. "Could Amelia walk so
far? She only eight years old, and it was the whole of five miles by a
wood-road, and five miles to come back again." Yes, Amelia was certain she
could. Then, "whether Arthur could walk so far, he being nine." Why, of
course he could if Amelia could. So eight-year-old, nine-year-old,
ten-year-old, eleven-year-old, and all the rest of the ages,--we tramped
off together, and we stumbled over the stumps, and waded through the mud,
and tripped lightly, like Somnambula in the opera, over the log bridges,
which were single logs and nothing more, and came successfully to Greely's
Pond,--beautiful lake of Egeria that it is, hidden from envious and lazy
men by forest and rock and mountain. And the children of fifty years old
and less pulled off shoes and stockings to wade in it; and we caught in
tin mugs little seedling trouts not so long as that word "seedling" is on
the page, and saw them swim in the mugs and set them free again; and we
ate the lunches with appetites as of Arcadia; and we stumped happily home
again, and found, as we went home, all the sketch-books and bait-boxes
and neckties which we had lost as we went up. On a day like that you get
intimate, if you were not intimate before.
O dear! don't you wish you were at Waterville now?
Now, if you please, my dear Fanchon, we will not go any further into the
places where I got acquainted with the heroes and heroines of this book.
Allow, of those mentioned here, four to the Latin school, five to the
Unity Sunday school, six to the South Congregational, seven to vacation
acquaintance, credit me with nine children of my own and ten brothers and
sisters, and you will find no difficulty in selecting who of these are
which of those, if you have ever studied the science of "Indeterminate
Analysis" in Professor Smythe's Algebra.
"Dear Mr. Hale, you are making fun of us. We never know when you are
Do not be in the least afraid, dear Florence. Remember that a central rule
for comfort in life is this, "Nobody was ever written down an ass, except
Now I will tell you how and when the particular thirty-four names above
happened to come together.
We were, a few of us, staying at the White Mountains. I think no New
England summer is quite perfect unless you stay at least a day in the
White Mountains. "Staying in the White Mountains" does not mean climbing on
top of a stage-coach at Centre Harbor, and riding by day and by night for
forty-eight hours till you fling yourself into a railroad-car at
Littleton, and cry out that "you have done them." No. It means just living
with a prospect before your eye of a hundred miles' radius, as you may
have at Bethlehem or the Flume; or, perhaps, a valley and a set of hills,
which never by accident look twice the same, as you may have at the Glen
House or Dolly Cop's or at Waterville; or with a gorge behind the house,
which you may thread and thread and thread day in and out, and still not
come out upon the cleft rock from which flows the first drop of the lovely
stream, as you may do at Jackson. It means living front to front, lip to
lip, with Nature at her loveliest, Echo at her most mysterious, with
Heaven at its brightest and Earth at its greenest, and, all this time,
breathing, with every breath, an atmosphere which is the elixir of life,
so pure and sweet and strong. At Greely's you are, I believe, on the
highest land inhabited in America. That land has a pure air upon it. Well,
as I say, we were staying in the White Mountains. Of course the young
folks wanted to go up Mount Washington. We had all been up Osceola and
Black Mountain, and some of us had gone up on Mount Carter, and one or two
had been on Mount Lafayette. But this was as nothing till we had stood on
Mount Washington himself. So I told Hatty Fielding and Laura to go on to
the railroad-station and join a party we knew that were going up from
there, while Jo Gresham and Stephen and the two Fergusons and I would go
up on foot by a route I knew from Randolph over the real Mount Adams.
Nobody had been up that particular branch of Israel's run since Channing
and I did in 1841. Will Hackmatack, who was with us, had a blister on his
foot, so he went with the riding party. He said that was the reason,
perhaps he thought so. The truth was he wanted to go with Laura, and
nobody need be ashamed of that any day.
I spare you the account of Israel's river, and of the lovely little
cascade at its very source, where it leaps out between two rocks. I spare
you the hour when we lay under the spruces while it rained, and the little
birds, ignorant of men and boys, hopped tamely round us. I spare you even
the rainbow, more than a semicircle, which we saw from Mount Adams.
Safely, wetly, and hungry, we five arrived at the Tiptop House about six,
amid the congratulations of those who had ridden. The two girls and Will
had come safely up by the cars,--and who do you think had got in at the
last moment when the train started but Pauline and her father, who had
made a party up from Portland and had with them Ellen Liston and Sarah
Clavers. And who do you think had appeared in the Glen House party, when
they came, but Esther and her mother and Edward Holiday and his father. Up
to this moment of their lives some of these young people had never seen
other some. But some had, and we had not long been standing on the rocks
making out Sebago and the water beyond Portland before they were all very
well acquainted. All fourteen of us went in to supper, and were just
beginning on the goat's milk, when a cry was heard that a party of young
men in uniform were approaching from the head of Tuckerman's Ravine. Jo
and Oliver ran out, and in a moment returned to wrench us all from our
corn-cakes that we might welcome the New Limerick boat-club, who were on a
pedestrian trip and had come up the Parkman Notch that day. Nice, brave
fellows they were,--a little foot-sore. Who should be among them but Tom
himself and Bob Edmeston. They all went and washed, and then with some
difficulty we all got through tea, when the night party from the Notch
House was announced on horseback, and we sallied forth to welcome them.
Nineteen in all, from all nations. Two Japanese princes, and the Secretary
of the Dutch legation, and so on, as usual; but what was not as usual,
jolly Mr. Waters and his jollier wife were there,--she astride on her
saddle, as is the sensible fashion of the Notch House,--and, in the long
stretching line, we made out Clara Waters and Clem, not together, but
Clara with a girl whom she did not know, but who rode better than she, and
had whipped both horses with a rattan she had. And who should this girl be
but Sybil Dyer!
As the party filed up, and we lifted tired girls and laughing mothers off
the patient horses, I found that a lucky chance had thrown Maud and her
brother Stephen into the same caravan. There was great kissing when my
girls recognized Maud, and when it became generally known that I was
competent to introduce to others such pretty and bright people as she and
Laura and Sarah Clavers were, I found myself very popular, of a sudden,
and in quite general demand.
And I bore my honors meekly, I assure you. I took nice old Mrs. Van
Astrachan out to a favorite rock of mine to see the sunset, and, what was
more marvellous, the heavy thunder-cloud, which was beating up against the
wind; and I left the young folks to themselves, only aspiring to be a
Youth's Companion. I got Will to bring me Mrs. Van Astrachan's black furs,
as it grew cold, but at last the air was so sharp and the storm clearly so
near, that we were all driven in to that nice, cosey parlor at the Tiptop
House, and sat round the hot stove, not sorry to be sheltered, indeed,
when we heard the heavy rain on the windows.
We fell to telling stories, and I was telling of the last time I was
there, when, by great good luck, Starr King turned up, having come over
Madison afoot, when I noticed that Hall, one of those patient giants who
kept the house, was called out, and, in a moment more, that he returned
and whispered his partner out. In a minute more they returned for their
rubber capes, and then we learned that a man had staggered into the stable
half frozen and terribly frightened, announcing that he had left some
people lost just by the Lake of the Clouds. Of course, we were all
immensely excited for half an hour or less, when Hall appeared with a
very wet woman, all but senseless, on his shoulder, with her hair hanging
down to the ground. The ladies took her into an inner room, stripped off
her wet clothes, and rubbed her dry and warm, gave her a little brandy,
and dressed her in the dry linens Mrs. Hall kept ready. Who should she
prove to be, of all the world, but Emma Fortinbras! The men of the party
were her father and her brothers Frank and Robert.
No! that is not all. After the excitement was over they joined us in our
circle round the stove,--and we should all have been in bed, but that Mr.
Hall told such wonderful bear-stories, and it was after ten o'clock that
we were still sitting there. The shower had quite blown over, when a
cheery French horn was heard, and the cheery Hall, who was never
surprised, I believe, rushed out again, and I need not say Oliver rushed
out with him and Jo Gresham, and before long we all rushed out to welcome
the last party of the day.
These were horseback people, who had come by perhaps the most charming
route of all,--which is also the oldest of all,--from what was Ethan
Crawford's. They did not start till noon. They had taken the storm,
wisely, in a charcoal camp,--and there are worse places,--and then they
had spurred up, and here they were. Who were they? Why, there was an army
officer and his wife, who proved to be Alice Faulconbridge, and with her
was Hatty Fielding's Cousin Fanny, and besides them were Will Withers and
his sister Florence, who had made a charming quartette party with Walter
and his sister Theodora, and on this ride had made acquaintance for the
first time with Colonel Mansfield and Alice. All this was wonderful enough
to me, as Theodora explained it to me when I lifted her off her horse, but
when I found that Horace Putnam and his brother Enoch were in the same
train, I said I did believe in astrology.
For though I have not named Jane Smith nor Fanchon, that was because you
did not recognize them among the married people in the Crawford House
party,--and I suppose you did not recognize Herbert either. How should
you? But, in truth, here we all were up above the clouds on the night of
the 25th of August.
Did not those Ethan Crawford people eat as if they had never seen
biscuits? And when at last they were done, Stephen, who had been out in
the stables, came in with a black boy he found there, who had his fiddle;
and as the Colonel Mansfield party came in from the dining-room, Steve
screamed out, "Take your partners for a Virginia Reel." No! I do not know
whose partner was who; only this, that there were seventeen boys and men
and seventeen girls or women, besides me and Mrs. Van Astrachan and
Colonel Mansfield and Pauline's mother. And we danced till for one I was
almost dead, and then we went to bed, to wake up at five in the morning to
see the sunrise.
As we sat on the rocks, on the eastern side, I introduced Stephen to
Sybil Dyer,--the last two who had not known each other. And I got talking
with a circle of young folks about what the communion of saints
is,--meaning, of course, just such unselfish society as we had there. And
so dear Laura said, "Why will you not write us down something of what you
are saying, Mr. Hale?" And Jo Gresham said, "Pray do,--pray do; if it
were only to tell us
"HOW TO DO IT."
I wish the young people who propose to read any of these papers to
understand to whom they are addressed. My friend, Frederic Ingham, has a
nephew, who went to New York on a visit, and while there occupied himself
in buying "travel-presents" for his brothers and sisters at home. His
funds ran low; and at last he found that he had still three presents to
buy and only thirty-four cents with which to buy them. He made the
requisite calculation as to how much he should have for each,--looked in
at Ball and Black's, and at Tiffany's, priced an amethyst necklace, which
he thought Clara would like, and a set of cameos for Fanfan, and found
them beyond his reach. He then tried at a nice little toy-shop there is a
little below the Fifth Avenue House, on the west, where a "clever" woman
and a good-natured girl keep the shop, and, having there made one or two
vain endeavors to suit himself, asked the good-natured girl if she had
not "got anything a fellow could buy for about eleven cents." She found
him first one article, then another, and then another. Wat bought them
all, and had one cent in his pocket when he came home.
In much the same way these several articles of mine have been waiting in
the bottom of my inkstand and the front of my head for seven or nine
years, without finding precisely the right audience or circle of readers.
I explained to Mr. Fields--the amiable Sheik of the amiable tribe who
prepare the "Young Folks" for the young folks--that I had six articles all
ready to write, but that they were meant for girls say from thirteen to
seventeen, and boys say from fourteen to nineteen. I explained that girls
and boys of this age never read the "Atlantic," O no, not by any means!
And I supposed that they never read the "Young Folks," O no, not by any
means! I explained that I could not preach them as sermons, because many
of the children at church were too young, and a few of the grown people
were too old. That I was, therefore, detailing them in conversation to
such of my young friends as chose to hear. On which the Sheik was so good
as to propose to provide for me, as it were, a special opportunity, which
I now use. We jointly explain to the older boys and girls, who rate
between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, that these essays are
exclusively for them.
I had once the honor--on the day after Lee's surrender--to address the
girls of the 12th Street School in New York. "Shall I call you 'girls' or
'young ladies'?" said I. "Call us girls, call us girls," was the unanimous
answer. I heard it with great pleasure; for I took it as a nearly certain
sign that these three hundred young people were growing up to be true
women,--which is to say, ladies of the very highest tone.
"Why did I think so?" Because at the age of fifteen, sixteen, and
seventeen they took pleasure in calling things by their right names.
So far, then, I trust we understand each other, before any one begins to
read these little hints of mine, drawn from forty-five years of very quiet
listening to good talkers; which are, however, nothing more than hints.
How To Talk.
Here is a letter from my nephew Tom, a spirited, modest boy of seventeen,
who is a student of the Scientific School at New Limerick. He is at home
with his mother for an eight weeks' vacation; and the very first evening
of his return he went round with her to the Vandermeyers', where was a
little gathering of some thirty or forty people,--most of them, as he
confesses, his old schoolmates, a few of them older than himself. But poor
Tom was mortified, and thinks he was disgraced, because he did not have
anything to say, could not say it if he had, and, in short, because he
does not talk well. He hates talking parties, he says, and never means to
go to one again.
Here is also a letter from Esther W., who may speak for herself, and the
two may well enough be put upon the same file, and be answered together:--
"Please listen patiently to a confession. I have what seems to me very
natural,--a strong desire to be liked by those whom I meet around me in
society of my own age; but, unfortunately, when with them my manners have
often been unnatural and constrained, and I have found myself thinking of
myself, and what others were thinking of me, instead of entering into the
enjoyment of the moment as others did. I seem to have naturally very
little independence, and to be very much afraid of other people, and of
their opinion. And when, as you might naturally infer from the above, I
often have not been successful in gaining the favor of those around me,
then I have spent a great deal of time in the selfish indulgence of 'the
blues,' and in philosophizing on the why and the wherefore of some
persons' agreeableness and popularity and others' unpopularity."
There, is not that a good letter from a nice girl?
Will you please to see, dear Tom, and you also, dear Esther, that both of
you, after the fashion of your age, are confounding the method with the
thing. You see how charmingly Mrs. Pallas sits back and goes on with her
crochet while Dr. Volta talks to her; and then, at the right moment, she
says just the right thing, and makes him laugh, or makes him cry, or makes
him defend himself, or makes him explain himself; and you think that there
is a particular knack or rule for doing this so glibly, or that she has a
particular genius for it which you are not born to, and therefore you both
propose hermitages for yourselves because you cannot do as she does. Dear
children, it would be a very stupid world if anybody in it did just as
anybody else does. There is no particular method about talking or talking
well. It is one of the things in life which "does itself." And the only
reason why you do not talk as easily and quite as pleasantly as Mrs.
Pallas is, that you are thinking of the method, and coming to me to
inquire how to do that which ought to do itself perfectly, simply, and
without any rules at all.
It is just as foolish girls at school think that there is some particular
method of drawing with which they shall succeed, while with all other
methods they have failed. "No, I can't draw in india-ink [pronounced
in-jink], 'n' I can't do anything with crayons,--I hate crayons,--'n' I
can't draw pencil-drawings, 'n' I won't try any more; but if this tiresome
old Mr. Apelles was not so obstinate, 'n' would only let me try the
'monochromatic drawing,' I know I could do that. 'T so easy. Julia Ann,
she drew a beautiful piece in only six lessons."
My poor Pauline, if you cannot see right when you have a crayon in your
hand, and will not draw what you see then, no "monochromatic system" is
going to help you. But if you will put down on the paper what you see, as
you see it, whether you do it with a cat's tail, as Benjamin West did it,
or with a glove turned inside out, as Mr. Hunt bids you do it, you will
draw well. The method is of no use, unless the thing is there; and when
you have the thing, the method will follow.
So there is no particular method for talking which will not also apply to
swimming or skating, or reading or dancing, or in general to living. And
if you fail in talking, it is because you have not yet applied in talking
the simple master-rules of life.
For instance, the first of these rules is,
Tell the Truth.
Only last night I saw poor Bob Edmeston, who has got to pull through a
deal of drift-wood before he gets into clear water, break down completely
in the very beginning of his acquaintance with one of the nicest girls I
know, because he would not tell the truth, or did not. I was standing
right behind them, listening to Dr. Ollapod, who was explaining to me the
history of the second land-grant made to Gorges, and between the sentences
I had a chance to hear every word poor Bob said to Laura. Mark now, Laura
is a nice clever girl, who has come to make the Watsons a visit through
her whole vacation at Poughkeepsie; and all the young people are delighted
with her pleasant ways, and all of them would be glad to know more of her
than they do. Bob really wants to know her, and he was really glad to be
introduced to her. Mrs. Pollexfen presented him to her, and he asked her
to dance, and they stood on the side of the cotillon behind me and in
front of Dr. Ollapod. After they had taken their places, Bob said: "Jew go
to the opera last week, Miss Walter?" He meant, "Did you go to the opera
"No," said Laura, "I did not."
"O, 't was charming!" said Bob. And there this effort at talk stopped, as
it should have done, being founded on nothing but a lie; which is to say,
not founded at all. For, in fact, Bob did not care two straws about the
opera. He had never been to it but once, and then he was tired before it
was over. But he pretended he cared for it. He thought that at an evening
party he must talk about the opera, and the lecture season, and the
assemblies, and a lot of other trash, about which in fact he cared
nothing, and so knew nothing. Not caring and not knowing, he could not
carry on his conversation a step. The mere fact that Miss Walter had shown
that she was in real sympathy with him in an indifference to the opera
threw him off the track which he never should have been on, and brought
his untimely conversation to an end.
Now, as it happened, Laura's next partner brought her to the very same
place, or rather she never left it, but Will Hackmatack came and claimed
her dance as soon as Bob's was done. Dr. Ollapod had only got down to the
appeal made to the lords sitting in equity, when I noticed Will's
beginning. He spoke right out of the thing he was thinking of.
"I saw you riding this afternoon," he said.
"Yes," said Laura, "we went out by the red mills, and drove up the hill by
"Did you?" said Will, eagerly. "Did you see the beehives?"
"Beehives? no;--are there beehives?"
"Why, yes, did not you know that Mr. Pond knows more about bees than
all the world beside? At least, I believe so. He has a gold medal from
Paris for his honey or for something. And his arrangements there are
"I wish I had known it," said Laura. "I kept bees last summer, and they
always puzzled me. I tried to get books; but the books are all written for
Switzerland, or England, or anywhere but Orange County."
"Well," said the eager Will, "I do not think Mr. Pond has written any
book, but I really guess he knows a great deal about it. Why, he told
me--" &c., &c., &c.
It was hard for Will to keep the run of the dance; and before it was over
he had promised to ask Mr. Pond when a party of them might come up to the
hill and see the establishment; and he felt as well acquainted with Laura
as if he had known her a month. All this ease came from Will's not
pretending an interest where he did not feel any, but opening simply where
he was sure of his ground, and was really interested. More simply, Will
did not tell a lie, as poor Bob had done in that remark about the opera,
but told the truth.
If I were permitted to write more than thirty-five pages of this
note-paper (of which this is the nineteenth), I would tell you twenty
stories to the same point. And please observe that the distinction
between the two systems of talk is the eternal distinction between the
people whom Thackeray calls snobs and the people who are gentlemen and
ladies. Gentlemen and ladies are sure of their ground. They pretend to
nothing that they are not. They have no occasion to act one or another
part. It is not possible for them, even in the _choice of subjects_, to
The principle of selecting a subject which thoroughly interests you
requires only one qualification. You may be very intensely interested in
some affairs of your own; but in general society you have no right to talk
of them, simply because they are not of equal interest to other people. Of
course you may come to me for advice, or go to your master, or to your
father or mother, or to any friend, and in form lay open your own troubles
or your own life, and make these the subject of your talk. But in general
society you have no right to do this. For the rule of life is, that men
and women must not think of themselves, but of others: they must live for
others, and then they will live rightly for themselves. So the second rule
for talk would express itself thus:--
Do Not Talk About Your Own Affairs.
I remember how I was mortified last summer, up at the Tiptop House, though
I was not in the least to blame, by a display Emma Fortinbras made of
herself. There had gathered round the fire in the sitting-room quite a
group of the different parties who had come up from the different houses,
and we all felt warm and comfortable and social; and, to my real delight,
Emma and her father and her cousin came in,--they had been belated
somewhere. She is a sweet pretty little thing, really the belle of the
village, if we had such things, and we are all quite proud of her in one
way; but I am sorry to say that she is a little goose, and sometimes she
manages to show this just when you don't want her to. Of course she shows
this, as all other geese show themselves, by cackling about things that
interest no one but herself. When she came into the room, Alice ran to her
and kissed her, and took her to the warmest seat, and took her little cold
hands to rub them, and began to ask her how it had all happened, and
where they had been, and all the other questions. Now, you see, this was
a very dangerous position. Poor Emma was not equal to it. The subject was
given her, and so far she was not to blame. But when, from the misfortunes
of the party, she rushed immediately to detail individual misfortunes of
her own, resting principally on the history of a pair of boots which she
had thought would be strong enough to last all through the expedition, and
which she had meant to send to Sparhawk's before she left home to have
their heels cut down, only she had forgotten, and now these boots were
thus and thus, and so and so, and _she_ had no others with her, and _she_
was sure that _she_ did not know what _she_ should do when _she_ got up in
the morning,--I say, when she got as far as this, in all this thrusting
upon people who wanted to sympathize a set of matters which had no
connection with what interested them, excepting so far as their personal
interest in her gave it, she violated the central rule of life; for she
showed she was thinking of herself with more interest than she thought of
others with. Now to do this is bad living, and it is bad living which
will show itself in bad talking.
But I hope you see the distinction. If Mr. Agassiz comes to you on the
Field day of the Essex Society, and says: "Miss Fanchon, I understand that
you fell over from the steamer as you came from Portland, and had to swim
half an hour before the boats reached you. Will you be kind enough to tell
me how you were taught to swim, and how the chill of the water affected
you, and, in short, all about your experience?" he then makes choice of
the subject. He asks for all the detail. It is to gratify him that you go
into the detail, and you may therefore go into it just as far as you
choose. Only take care not to lug in one little detail merely because it
interests you, when there is no possibility that, in itself, it can have
an interest for him.
Have you never noticed how the really provoking silence of these brave men
who come back from the war gives a new and particular zest to what they
tell us of their adventures? We have to worm it out of them, we drag it
from them by pincers, and, when we have it, the flavor is all pure. It is
exactly what we want,--life highly condensed; and they could have given us
indeed nothing more precious, as certainly nothing more charming. But when
some Bobadil braggart volunteers to tell how _he_ did this and that, how
_he_ silenced this battery, and how _he_ rode over that field of carnage,
in the first place we do not believe a tenth part of his story, and in the
second place we wish he would not tell the fraction which we suppose is
Life is given to us that we may learn how to live. That is what it is for.
We are here in a great boarding-school, where we are being trained in the
use of our bodies and our minds, so that in another world we may know how
to use other bodies and minds with other faculties. Or, if you please,
life is a gymnasium. Take which figure you choose. Because of this, good
talk, following the principle of life, is always directed with a general
desire for learning rather than teaching. No good talker is obtrusive,
thrusting forward his observation on men and things. He is rather
receptive, trying to get at other people's observations; and what he says
himself falls from him, as it were, by accident, he unconscious that he is
saying anything that is worth while. As the late Professor Harris said,
one of the last times I saw him, "There are unsounded depths in a man's
nature of which he himself knows nothing till they are revealed to him by
the plash and ripple of his own conversation with other men." This great
principle of life, when applied in conversation, may be stated simply then
in two words,--
You are both so young that you cannot yet conceive of the amount of
treasure that will yet be poured in upon you, by all sorts of people, if
you do not go about professing that you have all you want already. You
know the story of the two school-girls on the Central Railroad. They were
dead faint with hunger, having ridden all day without food, but, on
consulting together, agreed that they did not dare to get out at any
station to buy. A modest old doctor of divinity, who was coming home from
a meeting of the "American Board," overheard their talk, got some
sponge-cake, and pleasantly and civilly offered it to them as he might
have done to his grandchildren. But poor Sybil, who was nervous and
anxious, said, "No, thank you," and so Sarah thought she must say, "No,
thank you," too; and so they were nearly dead when they reached the
Delavan House. Now just that same thing happens whenever you pretend,
either from pride or from shyness, that you know the thing you do not
know. If you go on in that way you will be starved before long, and the
coroner's jury will bring in a verdict, "Served you right." I could have
brayed a girl, whom I will call Jane Smith, last night at Mrs. Pollexfen's
party, only I remembered, "Though thou bray a fool in a mortar, his
foolishness will not depart from him," and that much the same may be said
of fools of the other sex. I could have brayed her, I say, when I saw how
she was constantly defrauding herself by cutting off that fine Major
Andrew, who was talking to her, or trying to. Really, no instances give
you any idea of it. From a silly boarding-school habit, I think, she kept
saying "Yes," as if she would be disgraced by acknowledging ignorance.
"You know," said he, "what General Taylor said to Santa Anna, when they
brought him in?" "Yes," simpered poor Jane, though in fact she did not
know, and I do not suppose five people in the world do. But poor Andrew,
simple as a soldier, believed her and did not tell the story, but went on
alluding to it, and they got at once into helpless confusion. Still, he
did not know what the matter was, and before long, when they were speaking
of one of the Muhlbach novels, he said, "Did you think of the resemblance
between the winding up and Redgauntlet?" "O yes," simpered poor Jane
again, though, as it proved, and as she had to explain in two or three
minutes, she had never read a word of Redgauntlet. She had merely said
"Yes," and "Yes," and "Yes" not with a distinct notion of fraud, but from
an impression that it helps conversation on if you forever assent to what
is said. This is an utter mistake; for, as I hope you see by this time,
conversation really depends on the acknowledgment of ignorance,--being,
indeed, the providential appointment of God for the easy removal of such
And here I must stop, lest you both be tired. In my next paper I shall
begin again, and teach you, 4. To talk to the person you are talking with,
and not simper to her or him, while really you are looking all round the
room, and thinking of ten other persons; 5. Never in any other way to
underrate the person you talk with, but to talk your best, whatever that
may be; and, 6. To be brief,--a point which I shall have to illustrate at
If you like, you may confide to the Letter-Box your experiences on these
points, as well as on the three on which we have already been engaged.
But, whether you do or do not, I shall give to you the result, not only of
my experiences, but of at least 5,872 years of talk--Lyell says many
more--since Adam gave names to chattering monkeys.
May I presume that all my young friends between this and Seattle have
read paper Number Two? First class in geography, where is Seattle? Eight.
Go up. Have you all read, and inwardly considered, the three rules, "Tell
the truth"; "Talk not of yourself"; and "Confess ignorance"? Have you all
practised them, in moonlight sleigh-ride by the Red River of the
North,--in moonlight stroll on the beach by St. Augustine,--in evening
party at Pottsville,--and at the parish sociable in Northfield? Then you
are sure of the benefits which will crown your lives if you obey these
three precepts; and you will, with unfaltering step, move quickly over
the kettle-de-benders of this broken essay, and from the thistle, danger,
will pluck the three more flowers which I have promised. I am to teach
To Talk To The Person Who Is Talking To You.
This rule is constantly violated by fools and snobs. Now you might as well
turn your head away when you shoot at a bird, or look over your shoulder
when you have opened a new book,--instead of looking at the bird, or
looking at the book,--as lapse into any of the habits of a man who
pretends to talk to one person while he is listening to another, or
watching another, or wondering about another. If you really want to hear
what Jo Gresham is saying to Alice Faulconbridge, when they are standing
next you in the dance, say so to Will Withers, who is trying to talk with
you. You can say pleasantly, "Mr. Withers, I want very much to overhear
what Mr. Gresham is saying, and if you will keep still a minute, I think I
can." Then Will Withers will know what to do. You will not be preoccupied,
and perhaps you may be able to hear something you were not meant to know.
At this you are disgusted. You throw down the book at once, and say you
will not read any more. You cannot think why this hateful man supposes
that you would do anything so mean.
Then why do you let Will Withers suppose so? All he can tell is what you
show him. If you will listen while he speaks, so as to answer
intelligently, and will then speak to him as if there were no other
persons in the room, he will know fast enough that you are talking to him.
But if you just say "yes," and "no," and "indeed," and "certainly," in
that flabby, languid way in which some boys and girls I know pretend to
talk sometimes, he will think that you are engaged in thinking of somebody
else, or something else,--unless, indeed, he supposes that you are not
thinking of anything, and that you hardly know what thinking is.
It is just as bad, when you are talking to another girl, or another girl's
mother, if you take to watching her hair, or the way she trimmed her
frock, or anything else about her, instead of watching what she is saying
as if that were really what you and she are talking for. I could name to
you young women who seem to go into society for the purpose of studying
the milliner's business. It is a very good business, and a very proper
business to study in the right place. I know some very good girls who
would be much improved, and whose husbands would be a great deal happier,
if they would study it to more purpose than they do. But do not study it
while you are talking. No,--not if the Empress EugA(C)nie herself should be
talking to you. [Footnote: This was written in 1869, and I leave it _in
memoriam._ Indeed, in this May of 1871, EugA(C)nie's chances of receiving
Clare at Court again are as good as anybody's, and better than some.]
Suppose, when General Dix has presented you and mamma, the Empress should
see you in the crowd afterwards, and should send that stiff-looking old
gentleman in a court dress across the room, to ask you to come and talk to
her, and should say to you, "Mademoiselle, est-ce que l'on permet aux
jeunes filles AmA(C)ricaines se promener A cheval sans cavalier?" Do you look
her frankly in the face while she speaks, and when she stops, do you
answer her as you would answer Leslie Goldthwaite if you were coming home
from berrying. Don't you count those pearls that the Empress has tied
round her head, nor think how you can make a necktie like hers out of that
old bit of ribbon that you bought in Syracuse. Tell her, in as good French
or as good English as you can muster, what she asks; and if, after you
have answered her lead, she plays again, do you play again; and if she
plays again, do you play again,--till one or other of you takes the trick.
But do you think of nothing else, while the talk goes on, but the subject
she has started, and of her; do not think of yourself, but address
yourself to the single business of meeting her inquiry as well as you can.
Then, if it becomes proper for you to ask her a question, you may. But
remember that conversation is what you are there for,--not the study of
millinery, or fashion, or jewelry, or politics.
Why, I have known men who, while they were smirking, and smiling, and
telling other lies to their partners, were keeping the calendar of the
whole room,--knew who was dancing with whom, and who was looking at
pictures, and that Brown had sent up to the lady of the house to tell her
that supper was served, and that she was just looking for her husband that
he might offer Mrs. Grant his arm and take her down stairs. But do you
think their partners liked to be treated so? Do you think their partners
were worms, who liked to be trampled upon? Do you think they were
pachydermatous coleoptera of the dor tribe, who had just fallen from
red-oak trees, and did not know that they were trampled upon? You are
wholly mistaken. Those partners were of flesh and blood, like you,--of the
same blood with you, cousins-german of yours on the Anglo-Saxon side,--and
they felt just as badly as you would feel if anybody talked to you while
he was thinking of the other side of the room.
And I know a man who is, it is true, one of the most noble and unselfish
of men, but who had made troops of friends long before people had found
that out. Long before he had made his present fame, he had found these
troops of friends. When he was a green, uncouth, unlicked cub of a boy,
like you, Stephen, he had made them. And do you ask how? He had made them
by listening with all his might. Whoever sailed down on him at an evening
party and engaged him--though it were the most weary of odd old
ladies--was sure, while they were together, of her victim. He would look
her right in the eye, would take in her every shrug and half-whisper,
would enter into all her joys and terrors and hopes, would help her by his
sympathy to find out what the trouble was, and, when it was his turn to
answer, he would answer like her own son. Do you wonder that all the old
ladies loved him? And it was no special court to old ladies. He talked so
to school-boys, and to shy people who had just poked their heads out of
their shells, and to all the awkward people, and to all the gay and easy
people. And so he compelled them, by his magnetism, to talk so to him.
That was the way he made his first friends,--and that was the way, I
think, that he deserved them.
Did you notice how badly I violated this rule when Dr. Ollapod talked to
me of the Gorges land-grants, at Mrs. Pollexfen's? I got very badly
punished, and I deserved what I got, for I had behaved very ill. I ought
not to have known what Edmeston said, or what Will Hackmatack said. I
ought to have been listening, and learning about the Lords sitting in
Equity. Only the next day Dr. Ollapod left town without calling on me, he
was so much displeased. And when, the next week, I was lecturing in
Naguadavick, and the mayor of the town asked me a very simple question
about the titles in the third range, I knew nothing about it and was
disgraced. So much for being rude, and not attending to the man who was
talking to me.
Now do not tell me that you cannot attend to stupid people, or long-winded
people, or vulgar people. You can attend to anybody, if you will remember
who he is. How do you suppose that Horace Felltham attends to these old
ladies, and these shy boys? Why, he remembers that they are all of the
blood-royal. To speak very seriously, he remembers whose children they
are,--who is their Father. And that is worth remembering. It is not of
much consequence, when you think of that, who made their clothes, or what
sort of grammar they speak in. This rule of talk, indeed, leads to our
next rule, which, as I said of the others, is as essential in conversation
as it is in war, in business, in criticism, or in any other affairs of
men. It is based on the principle of rightly honoring all men. For talk,
it may be stated thus:--
Never Underrate Your Interlocutor.
In the conceit of early life, talking to a man of thrice my age, and of
immense experience, I said, a little too flippantly, "Was it not the
King of Wurtemberg whose people declined a constitution when he had
offered it to them?"
"Yes," said my friend, "the King told me the story himself."
Observe what a rebuke this would have been to me, had I presumed to tell
him the fact which he knew ten times as accurately as I. I was just saved
from sinking into the earth by having couched my statement in the form of
a question. The truth is, that we are all dealing with angels unawares,
and we had best make up our minds to that, early in our interviews. One of
the first of preachers once laid down the law of preaching thus: "Preach
as if you were preaching to archangels." This means, "Say the very best
thing you know, and never condescend to your audience." And I once heard
Mr. William Hunt, who is one of the first artists, say to a class of
teachers, "I shall not try to adapt myself to your various lines of
teaching. I will tell you the best things I know, and you may make the
adaptations." If you will boldly try the experiment of entering, with
anybody you have to talk with, on the thing which at the moment interests
you most, you will find out that other people's hearts are much like your
heart, other people's experiences much like yours, and even, my dear
Justin, that some other people know as much as you know. In short, never
talk down to people; but talk to them from your best thought and your best
feeling, without trying for it on the one hand, but without rejecting it
on the other.
You will be amazed, every time you try this experiment, to find how often
the man or the woman whom you first happen to speak to is the very person
who can tell you just what you want to know. My friend Ingham, who is a
working minister in a large town, says that when he comes from a house
where everything is in a tangle, and all wrong, he knows no way of
righting things but by telling the whole story, without the names, in the
next house he happens to call at in his afternoon walk. He says that if
the Windermeres are all in tears because little Polly lost their
grandmother's miniature when she was out picking blueberries, and if he
tells of their loss at the Ashteroths' where he calls next, it will be
sure that the daughter of the gardener of the Ashteroths will have found
the picture of the Windermeres. Remember what I have taught you,--that
conversation is the providential arrangement for the relief of ignorance.
Only, as in all medicine, the patient must admit that he is ill, or he can
never be cured. It is only in "Patronage,"--which I am so sorry you boys
and girls will not read,--and in other poorer novels, that the leech
cures, at a distance, patients who say they need no physician. Find out
your ignorance, first; admit it frankly, second; be ready to recognize
with true honor the next man you meet, third; and then, presto!--although
it were needed that the floor of the parlor should open, and a little
black-bearded Merlin be shot up like Jack in a box, as you saw in
Humpty-Dumpty,--the right person, who knows the right thing, will appear,
and your ignorance will be solved.
What happened to me last week when I was trying to find the History of
Yankee Doodle? Did it come to me without my asking? Not a bit of it.
Nothing that was true came without my asking. Without my asking, there
came that stuff you saw in the newspapers, which said Yankee Doodle was a
Spanish air. That was not true. This was the way I found out what was
true. I confessed my ignorance; and, as Lewis at Bellombre said of that
ill-mannered Power, I had a great deal to confess. What I knew was, that
in "American Anecdotes" an anonymous writer said a friend of his had seen
the air among some Roundhead songs in the collection of a friend of his at
Cheltenham, and that this air was the basis of Yankee Doodle. What was
more, there was the old air printed. But then that story was good for
nothing till you could prove it. A Methodist minister came to Jeremiah
Mason, and said, "I have seen an angel from heaven who told me that your
client was innocent." "Yes," said Mr. Mason, "and did he tell you how to
prove it?" Unfortunately, in the dear old "American Anecdotes," there was
not the name of any person, from one cover to the other, who would be
responsible for one syllable of its charming stories. So there I was! And
I went through library after library looking for that Roundhead song, and
I could not find it. But when the time came that it was necessary I should
know, I confessed ignorance. Well, after that, the first man I spoke to
said, "No, I don't know anything about it. It is not in my line. But our
old friend Watson knew something about it, or said he did." "Who is
Watson?" said I. "O, he's dead ten years ago. But there's a letter by him
in the Historical Proceedings, which tells what he knew." So, indeed,
there was a letter by Watson. Oddly enough it left out all that was of
direct importance; but it left in this statement, that he, an authentic
person, wrote the dear old "American Anecdote" story. That was something.
So then I gratefully confessed ignorance again, and again, and again. And
I have many friends, so that there were many brave men, and many fair
women, who were extending the various tentacula of their feeling processes
into the different realms of the known and the unknown, to find that lost
scrap of a Roundhead song for me. And so, at last, it was a girl--as old,
say, as the youngest who will struggle as far as this page in the
Cleveland High School--who said, "Why, there is something about it in that
funny English book, 'Gleanings for the Curious,' I found in the Boston
Library." And sure enough, in an article perfectly worthless in itself,
there were the two words which named the printed collection of music which
the other people had forgotten to name. These three books were each
useless alone; but, when brought together, they established a fact. It
took three people in talk to bring the three books together. And if I had
been such a fool that I could not confess ignorance, or such another fool
as to have distrusted the people I met with, I should never have had the
pleasure of my discovery.
Now I must not go into any more such stories as this, because you will say
I am violating the sixth great rule of talk, which is
And, besides, you must know that "they say" (whoever _they_ may be) that
"young folks" like you skip such explanations, and hurry on to the
stories. I do not believe a word of that, but I obey.
I know one Saint. We will call her Agatha. I used to think she could be
painted for Mary Mother, her face is so passionless and pure and good. I
used to want to make her wrap a blue cloth round her head, as if she were
in a picture I have a print of, and then, if we could only find the
painter who was as pure and good as she, she should be painted as Mary
Mother. Well, this sweet Saint has done lovely things in life, and will do
more, till she dies. And the people she deals with do many more than she.
For her truth and gentleness and loveliness pass into them, and inspire
them, and then, with the light and life they gain from her, they can do
what, with her light and life, she cannot do. For she herself, like all of
us, has her limitations. And I suppose the one reason why, with such
serenity and energy and long-suffering and unselfishness as hers, she does
not succeed better in her own person is that she does not know how to "be
short." We cannot all be or do all things. First boy in Latin, you may
translate that sentence back into Latin, and see how much better it sounds
there than in English. Then send your version to the Letter-Box.
For instance, it may be Agatha's duty to come and tell me that--what
shall we have it?--say that dinner is ready. Now really the best way but
one to say that is, "Dinner is ready, sir." The best way is, "Dinner,
sir"; for this age, observe, loves to omit the verb. Let it. But really if
St. Agatha, of whom I speak,--the second of that name, and of the
Protestant, not the Roman Canon,--had this to say, she would say: "I am so
glad to see you! I do not want to take your time, I am sure, you have so
many things to do, and you are so good to everybody, but I knew you would
let me tell you this. I was coming up stairs, and I saw your cook,
Florence, you know. I always knew her; she used to live at Mrs. Cradock's
before she started on her journey; and her sister lived with that friend
of mine that I visited the summer Willie was so sick with the mumps, and
she was so kind to him. She was a beautiful woman; her husband would be
away all the day, and, when he came home, she would have a piece of
mince-pie for him, and his slippers warmed and in front of the fire for
him; and, when he was in Cayenne, he died, and they brought his body home
in a ship Frederic Marsters was the captain of. It was there that I met
Florence's sister,--not so pretty as Florence, but I think a nice girl.
She is married now and lives at Ashland, and has two nice children, a boy
and a girl. They are all coming to see us at Thanksgiving. I was so glad
to see that Florence was with you, and I did not know it when I came in,
and when I met her in the entry I was very much surprised, and she saw I
was coming in here, and she said, 'Please, will you tell him that dinner
Now it is not simply, you see, that, while an announcement of that nature
goes on, the mutton grows cold, your wife grows tired, the children grow
cross, and that the subjugation of the world in general is set back, so
far as you are all concerned, a perceptible space of time on The Great
Dial. But the tale itself has a wearing and wearying perplexity about it.
At the end you doubt if it is your dinner that is ready, or Fred
Marsters's, or Florence's, or nobody's. Whether there is any real dinner,
you doubt. For want of a vigorous nominative case, firmly governing the
verb, whether that verb is seen or not, or because this firm nominative is
masked and disguised behind clouds of drapery and other rubbish, the best
of stories, thus told, loses all life, interest, and power.
Leave out then, resolutely. First omit "Speaking of hides," or "That
reminds me of," or "What you say suggests," or "You make me think of," or
any such introductions. Of course you remember what you are saying. You
could not say it if you did not remember it. It is to be hoped, too, that
you are thinking of what you are saying. If you are not, you will not help
the matter by saying you are, no matter if the conversation do have firm
and sharp edges. Conversation is not an essay. It has a right to many
large letters, and many new paragraphs. That is what makes it so much more
interesting than long, close paragraphs like this, which the printers hate
as much as I do, and which they call "_solid matter_" as if to indicate
that, in proportion, such paragraphs are apt to lack the light, ethereal
spirit of all life.
Second, in conversation, you need not give authorities, if it be only
clear that you are not pretending originality. Do not say, as dear
Pemberton used to, "I have a book at home, which I bought at the sale of
Byles's books, in which there is an account of Parry's first voyage, and
an explanation of the red snow, which shows that the red snow is," &c.,
&c., &c. Instead of this say, "Red snow is," &c., &c., &c. Nobody will
think you are producing this as a discovery of your own. When the
authority is asked for, there will be a fit time for you to tell.
Third, never explain, unless for extreme necessity, who people are. Let
them come in as they do at the play, when you have no play-bill. If what
you say is otherwise intelligible, the hearers will find out, _if it is
necessary_, as perhaps it may not be. Go back, if you please, to my
account of Agatha, and see how much sooner we should all have come to
dinner if she had not tried to explain about all these people. The truth
is, you cannot explain about them. You are led in farther and farther.
Frank wants to say, "George went to the Stereopticon yesterday." Instead
of that he says, "A fellow at our school named George, a brother of Tom
Tileston who goes to the Dwight, and is in Miss Somerby's room,--not the
Miss Somerby that has the class in the Sunday school,--she's at the
Brimmer School,--but her sister,"--and already poor Frank is far from
George, and far from the Stereopticon, and, as I observe, is wandering
farther and farther. He began with George, but, George having suggested
Tom and Miss Somerby, by the same law of thought each of them would have
suggested two others. Poor Frank, who was quite master of his one theme,
George, finds unawares that he is dealing with two, gets flurried, but
plunges on, only to find, in his remembering, that these two have doubled
into four, and then, conscious that in an instant they will be eight, and,
which is worse, eight themes or subjects on which he is not prepared to
speak at all, probably wishes he had never begun. It is certain that every
one else wishes it, whether he does or not. You need not explain. People
of sense understand something.
Do you remember the illustration of repartee in Miss Edgeworth? It
Mr. Pope, who was crooked and cross, was talking with a young officer.
The officer said he thought that in a certain sentence an
interrogation-mark was needed.
"Do you know what an interrogation-mark is?" snarled out the crooked,
cross little man.
"It is a crooked little thing that asks questions," said the young man.
And he shut up Mr. Pope for that day.
But you can see that he would not have shut up Mr. Pope at all if he had
had to introduce his answer and explain it from point to point. If he had
said, "Do you really suppose I do not know? Why, really, as long ago as
when I was at the Charter House School, old William Watrous, who was
master there then,--he had been at the school himself, when he and Ezekiel
Cheever were boys,--told me that a point of interrogation was a little
crooked thing that asks questions."
The repartee would have lost a good deal of its force, if this unknown
young officer had not learned, 1, not to introduce his remarks; 2, not to
give authorities; and 3, not to explain who people are. These are,
perhaps, enough instances in detail, though they do not in the least
describe all the dangers that surround you. Speaking more generally, avoid
parentheses as you would poison; and more generally yet, as I said at
first, BE SHORT.
These six rules must suffice for the present. Observe, I am only speaking
of methods. I take it for granted that you are not spiteful, hateful, or
wicked otherwise. I do not tell you, therefore, never to talk scandal,
because I hope you do not need to learn that. I do not tell you never to
be sly, or mean, in talk. If you need to be told that, you are beyond
such training as we can give here. Study well, and practise daily these
six rules, and then you will be prepared for our next instructions,--which
require attention to these rules, as all Life does,--when we shall
HOW TO WRITE.
How To Write.
It is supposed that you have learned your letters, and how to make them.
It is supposed that you have written the school copies, from
_Apes and Amazons aim at Art_
_Zanies and Zodiacs are the zest of Zoroaster_
It is supposed that you can mind your p's and q's, and, as Harriet Byron
said of Charles Grandison, in the romance which your great-grandmother
knew by heart, "that you can spell well." Observe the advance of the
times, dear Stephen. That a gentleman should spell well was the only
literary requisition which the accomplished lady of his love made upon him
a hundred years ago. And you, if you go to Mrs. Vandermeyer's party
to-night, will be asked by the fair Marcia, what is your opinion as to the
origin of the Myth of Ceres!
These things are supposed. It is also supposed that you have, at heart and
in practice, the essential rules which have been unfolded in Chapters II.
and III. As has been already said, these are as necessary in one duty of
life as in another,--in writing a President's message as in finding your
way by a spotted trail, from Albany to Tamworth.
These things being supposed, we will now consider the special needs for
writing, as a gentleman writes, or a lady, in the English language, which
is, fortunately for us, the best language of them all.
I will tell you, first, the first lesson I learned about it; for it was
the best, and was central. My first undertaking of importance in this line
was made when I was seven years old. There was a new theatre, and a prize
of a hundred dollars was offered for an ode to be recited at the
opening,--or perhaps it was only at the opening of the season. Our school
was hard by the theatre, and as we boys were generally short of
spending-money, we conceived the idea of competing for this prize. You can
see that a hundred dollars would have gone a good way in barley-candy and
blood-alleys,--which last are things unknown, perhaps, to Young America
to-day. So we resolutely addressed ourselves to writing for the ode. I was
soon snagged, and found the difficulties greater than I had thought. I
consulted one who has through life been Nestor and Mentor to me,--(Second
class in Greek,--Wilkins, who was Nestor?--Right; go up. Third class in
French,--Miss Clara, who was Mentor?--Right; sit down),--and he replied by
this remark, which I beg you to ponder inwardly, and always act upon:--
"Edward," said he, "whenever I am going to write anything, I find it best
to think first what I am going to say."
In the instruction thus conveyed is a lesson which nine writers out of ten
have never learned. Even the people who write leading articles for the
newspapers do not, half the time, know what they are going to say when
they begin. And I have heard many a sermon which was evidently written by
a man who, when he began, only knew what his first "head" was to be. The
sermon was a sort of riddle to himself, when he started, and he was
curious as to how it would come out. I remember a very worthy gentleman
who sometimes spoke to the Sunday school when I was a boy. He would begin
without the slightest idea of what he was going to say, but he was sure
that the end of the first sentence would help him to the second. This is
"My dear young friends, I do not know that I have anything to say to you,
but I am very much obliged to your teachers for asking me to address you
this beautiful morning.--The morning is so beautiful after the refreshment
of the night, that as I walked to church, and looked around and breathed
the fresh air, I felt more than ever what a privilege it is to live in so
wonderful a world.--For the world, dear children, has been all contrived
and set in order for us by a Power so much higher than our own, that we
might enjoy our own lives, and live for the happiness and good of our
brothers and our sisters.--Our brothers and our sisters they are indeed,
though some of them are in distant lands, and beneath other skies, and
parted from us by the broad oceans.--These oceans, indeed, do not so much
divide the world as they unite it. They make it one. The winds which blow
over them, and the currents which move their waters,--all are ruled by a
higher law, that they may contribute to commerce and to the good of
man.--And man, my dear children," &c., &c., &c.
You see there is no end to it. It is a sort of capping verses with
yourself, where you take up the last word, or the last idea of one
sentence, and begin the next with it, quite indifferent where you come
out, if you only "occupy the time" that is appointed. It is very easy
for you, but, my dear friends, it is very hard for those who read and
The vice goes so far, indeed, that you may divide literature into two
great classes of books. The smaller class of the two consists of the books
written by people who had something to say. They had in life learned
something, or seen something, or done something, which they really wanted
and needed to tell to other people. They told it. And their writings make,
perhaps, a twentieth part of the printed literature of the world. It is
the part which contains all that is worth reading. The other
nineteen-twentieths make up the other class. The people have written just
as you wrote at school when Miss Winstanley told you to bring in your
compositions on "Duty Performed." You had very little to say about "Duty
Performed." But Miss Winstanley expected three pages. And she got
them,--such as they were.
Our first rule is, then,
Know What You Want To Say.
The second rule is,
That is, do not begin by saying something else, which you think will lead
up to what you want to say. I remember, when they tried to teach me to
sing, they told me to "think of eight and sing seven." That may be a very
good rule for singing, but it is not a good rule for talking, or writing,
or any of the other things that I have to do. I advise you to say the
thing you want to say. When I began to preach, another of my Nestors said
to me, "Edward, I give you one piece of advice. When you have written your
sermon, leave off the introduction and leave off the conclusion. The
introduction seems to me always written to show that the minister can
preach two sermons on one text. Leave that off, then, and it will do for
another Sunday. The conclusion is written to apply to the congregation the
doctrine of the sermon. But, if your hearers are such fools that they
cannot apply the doctrine to themselves, nothing you can say will help
them." In this advice was much wisdom. It consists, you see, in advising
to begin, at the beginning, and to stop when you have done.
Thirdly, and always,
Use Your Own Language.
I mean the language you are accustomed to use in daily life. David did
much better with his sling than he would have done with Saul's sword and
spear. And Hatty Fielding told me, only last week, that she was very sorry
she wore her cousin's pretty brooch to an evening dance, though Fanny had
really forced it on her. Hatty said, like a sensible girl as she is, that
it made her nervous all the time. She felt as if she were sailing under
false colors. If your every-day language is not fit for a letter or for
print, it is not fit for talk. And if, by any series of joking or fun, at
school or at home, you have got into the habit of using slang in talk,
which is not fit for print, why, the sooner you get out of it the better.
Remember that the very highest compliment paid to anything printed is paid
when a person, hearing it read aloud, thinks it is the remark of the
reader made in conversation. Both writer and reader then receive the
highest possible praise.
It is sad enough to see how often this rule is violated. There are
fashions of writing. Mr. Dickens, in his wonderful use of exaggerated
language, introduced one. And now you can hardly read the court report in
a village paper but you find that the ill-bred boy who makes up what he
calls its "locals" thinks it is funny to write in such a style as this:--
"An unfortunate individual who answered to the somewhat well-worn
sobriquet of Jones, and appeared to have been trying some experiments as
to the comparative density of his own skull and the materials of the
sidewalk, made an involuntary appearance before Mr. Justice Smith."
Now the little fool who writes this does not think of imitating Dickens.
He is only imitating another fool, who was imitating another, who was
imitating another,--who, through a score of such imitations, got the idea
of this burlesque exaggeration from some of Mr. Dickens's earlier writings
of thirty years ago. It was very funny when Mr. Dickens originated it. And
almost always, when he used it, it was very funny. But it is not in the
least funny when these other people use it, to whom it is not natural, and
to whom it does not come easily. Just as this boy says "sobriquet,"
without knowing at all what the word means, merely because he has read it
in another newspaper, everybody, in this vein, gets entrapped into using
words with the wrong senses, in the wrong places, and making himself
Now it happens, by good luck, that I have, on the table here, a pretty
file of eleven compositions, which Miss Winstanley has sent me, which the
girls in her first class wrote, on the subject I have already named. The
whole subject, as she gave it out, was, "Duty performed is a Rainbow in
the Soul." I think, myself, that the subject was a hard one, and that Miss
Winstanley would have done better had she given them a choice from two
familiar subjects, of which they had lately seen something or read
something. When young people have to do a thing, it always helps them to
give them a choice between two ways of doing it. However, Miss Winstanley
gave them this subject. It made a good deal of growling in the school,
but, when the time came, of course the girls buckled down to the work,
and, as I said before, the three pages wrote themselves, or were written
somehow or other.
Now I am not going to inflict on you all these eleven compositions. But
there are three of them which, as it happens, illustrate quite distinctly
the three errors against which I have been warning you. I will copy a
little scrap from each of them. First, here is Pauline's. She wrote
without any idea, when she began, of what she was going to say.
"_Duty performed is a Rainbow in the Soul_.
"A great many people ask the question, 'What is duty?' and there has
been a great deal written upon the subject, and many opinions have been
expressed in a variety of ways. People have different ideas upon it, and
some of them think one thing and some another. And some have very strong
views, and very decided about it. But these are not always to be the
most admired, for often those who are so loud about a thing are not the
ones who know the most upon a subject. Yet it is all very important, and
many things should be done; and, when they are done, we are all
embowered in ecstasy."
That is enough of poor Pauline's. And, to tell the truth, she was as much
ashamed when she had come out to this "ecstasy," in first writing what she
called "the plaguy thing," as she is now she reads it from the print. But
she began that sentence, just as she began the whole, with no idea how it
was to end. Then she got aground. She had said, "it is all very
important"; and she did not know that it was better to stop there, if she
had nothing else to say, so, after waiting a good while, knowing that they
must all go to bed at nine, she added, "and many things should be done."
Even then, she did not see that the best thing she could do was to put a
full stop to the sentence. She watched the other girls, who were going
well down their second pages, while she had not turned the leaf, and so,
in real agony, she added this absurd "when they are done, we are all
embowered in ecstasy." The next morning they had to copy the
"compositions." She knew what stuff this was, just as well as you and I
do, but it took up twenty good lines, and she could not afford, she
thought, to leave it out. Indeed, I am sorry to say, none of her
"composition" was any better. She did not know what she wanted to say,
when she had done, any better than when she began.
Pauline is the same Pauline who wanted to draw in monochromatic drawing.
Here is the beginning of Sybil's. She is the girl who refused the
sponge-cake when Dr. Throop offered it to her. She had an idea that an
introduction helped along,--and this is her introduction.
"_Duty performed is a Rainbow in the Soul_.
"I went out at sunset to consider this subject, and beheld how the
departing orb was scattering his beams over the mountains. Every blade of
grass was gathering in some rays of beauty, every tree was glittering in
the majesty of parting day.
"I said, 'What is life?--What is duty?' I saw the world folding itself up
to rest. The little flowers, the tired sheep, were turning to their fold.
So the sun went down. He had done his duty, along with the rest."
And so we got round to "Duty performed," and, the introduction well over,
like the tuning of an orchestra, the business of the piece began. That
little slip about the flowers going into their folds was one which Sybil
afterwards defended. She said it meant that they folded themselves up. But
it was an oversight when she wrote it; she forgot the flowers, and was
thinking of the sheep.
Now I think you will all agree with me that the whole composition would
have been better without this introduction.
Sarah Clavers had a genuine idea, which she had explained to the other
girls much in this way. "I know what Miss Winstanley means. She means
this. When you have had a real hard time to do what you know you ought to
do, when you have made a good deal of fuss about it,--as we all did the
day we had to go over to Mr. Ingham's and beg pardon for disturbing the
Sunday school,--you are so glad it is done, that everything seems nice and
quiet and peaceful, just as when a thunder-storm is really over, only just
a few drops falling, there comes a nice still minute or two with a rainbow
across the sky. That's what Miss Winstanley means, and that's what I am
going to say."
Now really, if Sarah had said that, without making the sentence
breathlessly long, it would have been a very decent "composition" for such
a subject. But when poor Sarah got her paper before her, she made two
mistakes. First, she thought her school-girl talk was not good enough to
be written down. And, second, she knew that long words took up more room
than short; so, to fill up her three pages, she translated her little
words into the largest she could think of. It was just as Dr.
Schweigenthal, when he wanted to say "Jesus was going to Jerusalem," said,
"The Founder of our religion was proceeding to the metropolis of his
country." That took three times as much room and time, you see. So Sarah
translated her English into the language of the Talkee-talkees;
"_Duty performed is a Rainbow in the Soul_.
"It is frequently observed, that the complete discharge of the
obligations pressing upon us as moral agents is attended with conflict
and difficulty. Frequently, therefore, we address ourselves to the
discharge of these obligations with some measure of resistance, perhaps
with obstinacy, and I may add, indeed, with unwillingness. I wish I could
persuade myself that our teacher had forgotten" (Sarah looked on this as
a masterpiece,--a good line of print, which says, as you see, really
nothing) "the afternoon which was so mortifying to all who were
concerned, when her appeal to our better selves, and to our educated
consciousness of what was due to a clergyman, and to the institutions of
religion, made it necessary for several of the young ladies to cross to
the village," (Sarah wished she could have said metropolis,) "and obtain
an interview with the Rev. Mr. Ingham."
And so the composition goes on. Four full pages there are; but you see how
they were gained,--by a vicious style, wholly false to a frank-spoken girl
like Sarah. She expanded into what fills sixteen lines on this page what,
as she expressed it in conversation, fills only five.
I hope you all see how one of these faults brings on another. Such is the
way with all faults; they hunt in couples, or often, indeed, in larger
company. The moment you leave the simple wish to say upon paper the thing
you have thought, you are given over to all these temptations, to write
things which, if any one else wrote them, you would say were absurd, as
you say these school-girls' "compositions" are. Here is a good rule of the
real "Nestor" of our time. He is a great preacher; and one day he was
speaking of the advantage of sometimes preaching an old sermon a second
time. "You can change the arrangement," he said. "You can fill in any
point in the argument, where you see it is not as strong as you proposed.
You can add an illustration, if your statement is difficult to understand.
Above all, you can
"Leave Out All The Fine Passages."
I put that in small capitals, for one of our rules. For, in nineteen
cases out of twenty, the Fine Passage that you are so pleased with, when
you first write it, is better out of sight than in. Remember Whately's
great maxim, "Nobody knows what good things you leave out."
Indeed, to the older of the young friends who favor me by reading these
pages I can give no better advice, by the way, than that they read
"Whately's Rhetoric." Read ten pages a day, then turn back, and read
them carefully again, before you put the book by. You will find it a
very pleasant book, and it will give you a great many hints for clear
and simple expression, which you are not so likely to find in any other
way I know.
Most of you know the difference between Saxon words and Latin words in the
English language. You know there were once two languages in England,--the
Norman French, which William the Conqueror and his men brought in, and the
Saxon of the people who were conquered at that time. The Norman French was
largely composed of words of Latin origin. The English language has been
made up of the slow mixture of these two; but the real stock, out of which
this delicious soup is made, is the Saxon,--the Norman French should only
add the flavor. In some writing, it is often necessary to use the words of
Latin origin. Thus, in most scientific writing, the Latin words more
nicely express the details of the meaning needed. But, to use the Latin
word where you have a good Saxon one is still what it was in the times of
Wamba and of Cedric,--it is to pretend you are one of the conquering
nobility, when, in fact, you are one of the free people, who speak, and
should be proud to speak, not the French, but the English tongue. To those
of you who have even a slight knowledge of French or Latin it will be very
good fun, and a very good exercise, to translate, in some thoroughly bad
author, his Latin words into English.
To younger writers, or to those who know only English, this may seem too
hard a task. It will be doing much the same thing, if they will try
translating from long words into short ones.
Here is a piece of weak English. It is not bad in other regards, but
"Entertaining unlimited confidence in your intelligent and patriotic
devotion to the public interest, and being conscious of no motives on my
part which are not inseparable from the honor and advancement of my
country, I hope it may be my privilege to deserve and secure, not only
your cordial co-operation in great public measures, but also those
relations of mutual confidence and regard which it is always so desirable
to cultivate between members of co-ordinate branches of the government."
[Footnote: From Mr. Franklin Pierce's first message to Congress as
President of the United States.]
Take that for an exercise in translating into shorter words. Strike out
the unnecessary words, and see if it does not come out stronger. The same
passage will serve also as an exercise as to the use of Latin and Saxon
words. Dr. Johnson is generally quoted as the English author who uses most
Latin words. He uses, I think, ten in a hundred. But our Congressmen far
exceed him. This sentence uses Latin words at the rate of thirty-five in
a hundred. Try a good many experiments in translating from long to short,
and you will be sure that, when you have a fair choice between two words,
A Short Word Is Better Than A Long One.
For instance, I think this sentence would have been better if it had been
couched in thirty-six words instead of eighty-one. I think we should have
lost nothing of the author's meaning if he had said, "I have full trust in
you. I am sure that I seek only the honor and advance of the country. I
hope, therefore, that I may earn your respect and regard, while we
heartily work together."
I am fond of telling the story of the words which a distinguished friend
of mine used in accepting a hard post of duty. He said:--"I do not think I
am fit for this place. But my friends say I am, and I trust them. I shall
take the place, and, when I am in it, I shall do as well as I can."
It is a very grand sentence. Observe that it has not one word which is
more than one syllable. As it happens, also, every word is Saxon,--there
is not one spurt of Latin. Yet this was a learned man, who, if he chose,
could have said the whole in Latin. But he was one American gentleman
talking to another American gentleman, and therefore he chose to use the
tongue to which they both were born.
We have not space to go into the theory of these rules, as far as I should
like to. But you see the force which a short word has, if you can use it,
instead of a long one. If you want to say "hush," "hush" is a much better
word than the French "_taisez-vous"_ If you want to say "halt," "halt" is
much better than the French "_arretez-vous"_ The French have, in fact,
borrowed "_halte"_ from us or from the German, for their tactics. For the
same reason, you want to prune out the unnecessary words from your
sentences, and even the classes of words which seem put in to fill up. If,
for instance, you can express your idea without an adjective, your
sentence is stronger and more manly. It is better to say "a saint" than
"a saintly man." It is better to say "This is the truth" than "This is the
truthful result." Of course an adjective may be absolutely necessary. But
you may often detect extempore speakers in piling in adjectives, because
they have not yet hit on the right noun. In writing, this is not to be
excused. "You have all the time there is," when you write, and you do
better to sink a minute in thinking for one right word, than to put in two
in its place,--because you can do so without loss of time. I hope every
school-girl knows, what I am sure every school-boy knows, Sheridan's
saying, that "Easy writing, is hard reading." In general, as I said
before, other things being equal,
"The Fewer Words, The Better,"
"as it seems to me." "As it seems to me" is the quiet way in which Nestor
states things. Would we were all as careful!
There is one adverb or adjective which it is almost always safe to leave
out in America. It is the word "very." I learned that from one of the
masters of English style. "Strike out your 'verys,'" said he to me, when I
was young. I wish I had done so oftener than I have.
For myself, I like short sentences. This is, perhaps, because I have read
a good deal of modern French, and I think the French gain in clearness by
the shortness of their sentences. But there are great masters of
style,--great enough to handle long sentences well,--and these men would
not agree with me. But I will tell you this, that if you have a sentence
which you do not like, the best experiment to try on it is the experiment
Medea tried on the old goat, when she wanted to make him over:--
Cut It To Pieces.
What shall I take for illustration? You will be more interested in one of
these school-girls' themes than in an old Congress speech I have here
marked for copying. Here is the first draft of Laura Walter's composition,
which happens to be tied up in the same red ribbon with the finished
exercises. I will copy a piece of that, and then you shall see, from the
corrected "composition," what came of it, when she cut it to pieces, and
applied the other rules which we have been studying.
Laura's First Draft.
"_Duty performed is a Rainbow in the Soul_.
"I cannot conceive, and therefore I cannot attempt adequately to consider,
the full probable meaning of the metaphorical expression with which the
present 'subject' concludes,--nor do I suppose it is absolutely necessary
that I should do so, for expressing the various impressions which I have
formed on the subject taken as a whole, which have occurred to me in such
careful meditation as I have been able to give to it,--in natural
connection with an affecting little incident, which I will now, so far as
my limited space will permit, proceed, however inadequately, to describe.
"My dear little brother Frankie--as sweet a little fellow as ever plagued
his sister's life out, or troubled the kindest of mothers in her daily
duties--was one day returning from school, when he met my father hurrying
from his office, and was directed by him to proceed as quickly as was
possible to the post-office, and make inquiry there for a letter of a good
deal of importance which he had reason to expect, or at the least to hope
for, by the New York mail."
Laura had come as far as this early in the week, when bedtime came. The
next day she read it all, and saw it was sad stuff, and she frankly asked
herself why. The answer was, that she had really been trying to spin out
three pages. "Now," said Laura to herself, "that is not fair." And she
finished the piece in a very different way, as you shall see. Then she
went back over this introduction, and struck out the fine passages. Then
she struck out the long words, and put in short ones. Then she saw she
could do better yet,--and she cut that long introductory sentence to
pieces. Then she saw that none of it was strictly necessary, if she only
explained why she gave up the rainbow part. And, after all these
reductions, the first part of the essay which I have copied was cut down
and changed so that it read thus:--
"_Duty performed is a Rainbow in the Soul_.
"I do not know what is meant by a Rainbow in the Soul."
Then Laura went on thus:--
"I will try to tell a story of duty performed. My brother Frank was sent
to the post-office for a letter. When he came there, the poor child found
a big dog at the door of the office, and was afraid to go in. It was just
the dead part of the day in a country village, when even the shops are
locked up for an hour, and Frank, who is very shy, saw no one whom he
could call upon. He tried to make Miss Evarts, the post-office clerk,
hear; but she was in the back of the office. Frank was frightened, but he
meant to do his duty. So he crossed the bridge, walked up to the butcher's
shop in the other village,--which he knew was open,--spent two pennies for
a bit of meat, and carried it back to tempt his enemy. He waved it in the
air, called the dog, and threw it into the street. The dog was much more
willing to eat the meat than to eat Frankie. He left his post. Frank went
in and tapped on the glass, and Miss Evarts came and gave him the letter.
Frank came home in triumph, and papa said it was a finer piece of duty
performed than the celebrated sacrifice of Casabianca's would have been,
had it happened that Casabianca ever made it."
That is the shortest of these "compositions." It is much the best. Miss
Winstanley took the occasion to tell the girls, that, other things being
equal, a short "composition" is better than a long one. A short
"composition" which shows thought and care, is much better than a long one
which "writes itself."
I dislike the word "composition," but I use it, because it is familiar. I
think "essay" or "piece" or even "theme" a better word.
Will you go over Laura's story and see where it could be shortened, and
what Latin words could be changed for better Saxon ones?
Will you take care, in writing yourself, never to say "commence" or
In the next chapter we will ask each other
HOW TO READ.
How To Read.
I.--_The Choice of Books_.
You are not to expect any stories this time. There will be very few words
about Stephen, or Sybil, or Sarah. My business now is rather to answer, as
well as I can, such questions as young people ask who are beginning to
have their time at their own command, and can make their own selection of
the books they are to read. I have before me, as I write, a handful of
letters which have been written to the office of "The Young Folks," asking
such questions. And all my intelligent young friends are asking each other
such questions, and so ask them of me every day. I shall answer these
questions by laying down some general rules, just as I have done before
but I shall try to put you into the way of choosing your own books, rather
than choosing for you a long, defined list of them.
I believe very thoroughly in courses of reading, because I believe in
having one book lead to another. But, after the beginning, these courses
for different persons will vary very much from each other. You all go out
to a great picnic, and meet together in some pleasant place in the woods,
and you put down the baskets there, and leave the pail with the ice in the
shadiest place you can find, and cover it up with the blanket. Then you
all set out in this great forest, which we call Literature. But it is only
a few of the party, who choose to start hand in hand along a gravel-path
there is, which leads straight to the Burgesses' well, and probably those
few enjoy less and gain less from the day's excursion than any of the
rest. The rest break up into different knots, and go some here and some
there, as their occasion and their genius call them. Some go after
flowers, some after berries, some after butterflies; some knock the rocks
to pieces, some get up where there is a fine view, some sit down and copy
the stumps, some go into water, some make a fire, some find a camp of
Indians and learn how to make baskets. Then they all come back to the
picnic in good spirits and with good appetites, each eager to tell the
others what he has seen and heard, each having satisfied his own taste and
genius, and each and all having made vastly more out of the day than if
they had all held to the gravel-path and walked in column to the
Burgesses' well and back again.
This, you see, is a long parable for the purpose of making you remember
that there are but few books which it is necessary for every intelligent
boy and girl, man and woman, to have read. Of those few, I had as lief
give the list here.
First is the Bible, of which not only is an intelligent knowledge
necessary for your healthy growth in religious life, but--which is of less
consequence, indeed--it is as necessary for your tolerable understanding
of the literature, or even science, of a world which for eighteen
centuries has been under the steady influence of the Bible. Around the
English version of it, as Mr. Marsh shows so well, the English language
of the last three centuries has revolved, as the earth revolves around the
sun. He means, that although the language of one time differs from that of
another, it is always at about the same distance from the language of King
[Footnote: Marsh's Lectures on the English Language: very
Second, every one ought to be quite well informed as to the history of the
country in which he lives. All of you should know the general history of
the United States well. You should know the history of your own State in
more detail, and of your own town in the most detail of all.
Third, an American needs to have a clear knowledge of the general features
of the history of England.
Now it does not make so much difference how you compass this general
historical knowledge, if, in its main features, you do compass it. When
Mr. Lincoln went down to Norfolk to see the rebel commissioners, Mr.
Hunter, on their side, cited, as a precedent for the action which he
wanted the President to pursue, the negotiations between Charles the
First and his Parliament. Mr. Lincoln's eyes twinkled, and he said, "Upon
questions of history I must refer you to Mr. Seward, for he is posted upon
such things, and I do not profess to be. My only distinct recollection of
the matter is, that Charles lost his head." Now you see it is of no sort
of consequence how Mr. Lincoln got his thoroughly sound knowledge of the
history of England,--in which, by the way, he was entirely at home,--and
he had a perfect right to pay the compliment he did to Mr. Seward; but it
was of great importance to him that he should not be haunted with the fear
that the other man did know, really, of some important piece of
negotiation of which he was ignorant. It was important to him to know
that, so that he might be sure that his joke was--as it was--exactly the
Fourth, it is necessary that every intelligent American or Englishman
should have read carefully most of Shakespeare's plays. Most people would
have named them before the history, but I do not. I do not care, however,
how early you read them in life, and, as we shall see, they will be among
your best guides for the history of England.
Lastly, it is a disgrace to read even the newspaper, without knowing
where the places are which are spoken of. You need, therefore, the very
best atlas you can provide yourself with. The atlas you had when you
studied geography at school is better than none. But if you can compass
any more precise and full, so much the better. Colton's American Atlas is
good. The large cheap maps, published two on one roller by Lloyd, are
good; if you can give but five dollars for your maps, perhaps this is the
best investment. Mr. Fay's beautiful atlas costs but three and a half
dollars. For the other hemisphere, Black's Atlas is good. Rogers's,
published in Edinburgh, is very complete in its American maps. Stieler's
is cheap and reliable.
When people talk of the "books which no gentleman's library should be
without," the list may be boiled down, I think--if in any stress we should
be reduced to the bread-and-water diet--to such books as will cover these
five fundamental necessities. If you cannot buy the Bible, the agent of
the County Bible Society will give you one. You can buy the whole of
Shakespeare for fifty cents in Dicks's edition. And, within two miles of
the place where you live, there are books enough for all the historical
study I have prescribed. So, in what I now go on to say, I shall take it
for granted that we have all of us made thus much preparation, or can make
it. These are the central stores of the picnic, which we can fall back
upon, after our explorations in our various lines of literature.
Now for our several courses of reading. How am I to know what are your
several tastes, or the several lines of your genius? Here are, as I learn
from Mr. Osgood, some seventy-six thousand five hundred and forty-three
Young Folks, be the same more or less, who are reading this paper. How am
I to tell what are their seventy-six thousand five hundred and forty-three
tastes, dispositions, or lines of genius? I cannot tell. Perhaps they
could not tell themselves, not being skilled in self-analysis; and it is
by no means necessary that they should be able to tell. Perhaps we can set
down on paper what will be much better, the rules or the system by which
each of them may read well in the line of his own genius, and so find out,
before he has done with this life, what the line of that genius is, as far
as there is any occasion.
Do Not Try To Read Everything.
That is the first rule. Do not think you must be a Universal Genius. Do
not "read all Reviews," as an old code I had bade young men do. And give
up, as early as you can, the passion, with which all young people
naturally begin, of "keeping up with the literature of the time." As for
the literature of the time, if one were to adopt any extreme rule, Mr.
Emerson's would be the better of the two possible extremes. He says it is
wise to read no book till it has been printed a year; that, before the
year is well over, many of those books drift out of sight, which just now
all the newspapers are telling you to read. But then, seriously, I do not
suppose he acts on that rule himself. Nor need you and I. Only, we will
not try to read them all.
Here I must warn my young friend Jamie not to go on talking about
renouncing "nineteenth century trash."
It will not do to use such words about a century in which have written
Goethe, Fichte, Cuvier, Schleiermacher, Martineau, Scott, Tennyson,
Thackeray, Browning, and Dickens, not to mention a hundred others whom
Jamie likes to read as much as I do.
No. We will trust to conversation with the others, who have had their
different paths in this picnic party of ours, to learn from them just the
brightest and best things that they have seen and heard. And we will try
to be able to tell them, simply and truly, the best things we find on our
own paths. Now, for selecting the path, what shall we do,--since one
cannot in one little life attempt them all?
You can select for yourself, if you will only keep a cool head, and have
your eyes open. First of all, remember that what you want from books is
the information in them, and the stimulus they give to you, and the
amusement for your recreation. You do not read for the poor pleasure of
saying you have read them. You are reading for the subject, much more than
for the particular book, and if you find that you have exhausted all the
book has on your subject, then you are to leave that book, whether you
have read it through or not. In some cases you read because the author's
own mind is worth knowing; and then the more you read the better you know
him. But these cases do not affect the rule. You read for what is in the
books, not that you may mark such a book off from a "course of reading,"
or say at the next meeting of the "Philogabblian Society" that you "have
just been reading Kant" or "Godwin." What is the subject, then, which you
want to read upon?
Half the boys and girls who read this have been so well trained that they
know. They know what they want to know. One is sure that she wants to know
more about Mary Queen of Scots; another, that he wants to know more about
fly-fishing; another, that she wants to know more about the Egyptian
hieroglyphics; another, that he wants to know more about propagating new
varieties of pansies; another, that she wants to know more about "The Ring
and the Book"; another, that he wants to know more about the "Tenure of
Office bill" Happy is this half. To know your ignorance is the great first
step to its relief. To confess it, as has been said before, is the second.
In a minute I will be ready to say what I can to this happy half; but one
minute first for the less happy half, who know they want to read something
because it is so nice to read a pleasant book, but who do not know what
that something is. They come to us, as their ancestors came to a relative
of mine who was librarian of a town library sixty years ago: "Please, sir,
mother wants a sermon book, and another book."
To these undecided ones I simply say, now has the time come for decision.
Your school studies have undoubtedly opened up so many subjects to you
that you very naturally find it hard to select between them. Shall you
keep up your drawing, or your music, or your history, or your botany, or
your chemistry? Very well in the schools, my dear Alice, to have started
you in these things, but now you are coming to be a woman, it is for you
to decide which shall go forward; it is not for Miss Winstanley, far less
for me, who never saw your face, and know nothing of what you can or
Now you can decide in this way. Tell me, or tell yourself, what is the
passage in your reading or in your life for the last week which rests on
your memory. Let us see if we thoroughly understand that passage. If we do
not, we will see if we cannot learn to. That will give us a "course of
reading" for the next twelve months, or if we choose, for the rest of our
lives. There is no end, you will see, to a true course of reading; and, on
the other hand, you may about as well begin at one place as another.
Remember that you have infinite lives before you, so you need not hurry in
the details for fear the work should be never done.
Now I must show you how to go to work, by supposing you have been
interested in some particular passage. Let us take a passage from
Macaulay, which I marked in the Edinburgh Review for Sydney to speak,
twenty-nine years ago,--I think before I had ever heard Macaulay's name. A
great many of you boys have spoken it at school since then, and many of
you girls have heard scraps from it. It is a brilliant passage, rather too
ornate for daily food, but not amiss for a luxury, more than candied
orange is after a state dinner. He is speaking of the worldly wisdom and
skilful human policy of the method of organization of the Roman Catholic
Church. He says:--
"The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human
civilization. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind
back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, when
camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest
royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the
Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the
Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century, to the Pope who
crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august
dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The Republic of
Venice came next in antiquity. But the Republic of Venice was modern when
compared to the Papacy; and the Republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy
remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of
life and youthful vigor. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the
farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in
Kent with Augustine; and still confronting hostile kings with the same
spirit with which she confronted Attila....
"She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain,
before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still
flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of
Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigor, when some traveller
from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand
on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's."
I. We will not begin by considering the wisdom or the mistake of the
general opinion here laid down. We will begin by trying to make out what
is the real meaning of the leading words employed. Look carefully along
the sentence, and see if you are quite sure of what is meant by such terms
as "The Roman Catholic Church," "the Pantheon," "the Flavian
amphitheatre," "the Supreme Pontiffs," "the Pope who crowned Napoleon,"
"the Pope who crowned Pepin," "the Republic of Venice," "the missionaries
who landed in Kent," "Augustine," "the Saxon had set foot in Britain,"
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