« PreviousContinue »
LITERATURE OF THE DAY:
THE NEW MAGAZINE.
“ Puis donc qu'il suffisoit, en ce temps là, d'avoir la figure humaine, pour se mêler d'écrire,”
Note on RABELAIS, The literature of the nineteenth century is overladen with books and with authors to a singular excess. The difficulty is to go into any mixed company of ten or twelve persons, and not encounter at least one of the craft. On this account we boast of the age in which we live, and twaddle about “ the march of intellect :" yet the motto which is placed at the head of the page, as a finger-post to guide the reader on his journey through the volume, indicates that even in the old times folks knew a thing or two; and that the itch of writing is not a new disease in the intellectual nosology. The old curate of Meudon himself entertained the same flattering notion of the advances of his own age; and though he had not the ready-made technical at hand to express the quick-step of mind, he seems to have thought the rising generation of his latter days in possession of the thing.“ Je
," he says, “ les briguants, les bourreaux, les palefreniers de maintenant, plus doctes que les docteurs et prescheurs de mon temps.” But, after all, may there not have been more of the jealousy of the craft in such complaints, than of real foundation ? A limited market is more likely to be overstocked than a large one; and we know that the classic writers who have escaped the ravages of time, bear a very small proportion to those who have utterly perished. It is not then very unlikely that even before the age of newspaper puffs, the first authors were incommoded by the press of their cotemporaries; and that they regarded with dislike every new candidate for fame or bread, as an interloper at Nature's feast, for whom no cover had been provided. In all ages man has loved monopoly; and it is far from improbable that the outcry of a surplus of intellectual labor has been raised, rather to favor the pretensions of a few, than from any great regard for the interests of the many. A learned judge, not long deceased, a considerable admirer of port and sherry, used to rebuke the petulance of the junior bar in complaining of bad wine on circuit. “ All wine,” he was wont to say, “ is good : some wine may be better than others, but it is all good.” The same may, with more truth, be asserted of books; for however inferior a literary production may be, there is none, it has been said, so bad, as to be without something that repays the trouble of perusal. The characteristic of the literature of our times may be the quantity, rather than the quality of its samples; but this only shows that the readers of the day are more numerous than select; and for the rest, the evil, if evil it be, is altogether an affair of the booksellers.
To define the qualifications of authorship, and to determine what does, or does not, entitle a man to appear in print, is no easy matter. From Milton to the manufacturer of Warren's poetical puffs the distance is immense; and the terms must be large that will embrace them both. But why the learned commentator on Rabelais should bave adopied the possession of the human face divine, as a necessary ingredient in the complex we call an author, I know not; unless it
May, 1831.-VOL. I. NO. I.
be that every scribbler endeavours to put the best face he can on the matter, while the great end of reviews and newspaper critiques is evidently to throw the poor man out of countenance. Certain it is that there are books, and those too having their share of popularity, which have so much of mere animality about them, that, for
any thing that appears on their surface, they might as well have been written by a dog or a baboon, as by one of the lords of the creation; and the judicious reader at every page is tempted to exclaim, " What beast has done this?” There are indeed particular classes of works, which are invested with strong marks of the peculiar propensities of some distinct species of animal, and powerfully suggest the idea that they could only have been written by one who participated largely in its nature ; in so much that it might be no bad scheme of classification to arrange libraries and catalogues according to the methods of Linnæus or Cuvier ; and to assign each book to the animal by whom it might have naturally been composed. Works of sterling merit might be distributed among the noble and generous species, encyclopedias might be given to the elephant; reviews to the hyena; party pamphlets to the jackal; occasional verses to the butterfly; and grossly personal and indecent libels to the hippopotamus, which, according to Plutarch, was, among the Egyptians, the adopted symbol of all impurity.
But enough of this conceit.—There is no fault so frequently objected against the literature of the present day as its lightness; or, to use a severer term, its flimsiness. There may be more or less of justice in the assignment of such a quality to the works of our cotemporaries; but the propriety of considering it as a fault is altogether questionable. It is with modern literature, as with modern architecture; and books and houses are alike constructed with a view to the short term of their leases. The ancient folios, like the old Gothic edifices, are built for long duration; and both have in many instances outlived their original purpose, and are suffered to fall into neglect and ruin. But the lath-and-plaster volumes of our times are scarcely proof against the elements, and have little more than an ephemeral existence. This however is any thing but an evil; for so prolific has the press become, that if the tithe of a tithe of its productions outlived a year, no libraries would be vast enough to contain them; nor the days of Nestor, or Methuselah, be sufficiently long for acquiring the very elements of learning. New books, moreover, like new buildings, , receive the progressive improvements of the age; and the one contributes to the health and cleanliness of the mind, as the other does to that of the body: neither have lumber-holes for dust, rubbish, and cobwebs; and prejudices, like the rats and mice, get a notice to quit on each new re-edification. The older structures, both literary and architectural, might have possessed more grandeur, magnificence, and elaboration of detail ; but the modern are lighter, more commodious, and are better adapted to the wants and habits of the consumer.
One signal advantage which literature has gained by the modern state of things, is to be found in the downfal of authority. The hotbed growth and rapid succession of authors allow no time for any one of them to be erected into an infallible standard, to which his successors in all future generations shall be obliged to conform. Had
Aristotle written for Messrs. Longman, or Murray, there would have been no danger of his ruling philosophy despotically for fourteen hundred years ; and it may be more than doubted whether Homer himself, so circumstanced, would have set a fashion in Epics, and compelled all future spinners of cantos to dedicate their second book, in imitation of his catalogue of ships, to an enumeration of the materiel of their subsequent campaign. We, of the present day," come like shadows, so depart;" and this bull-in-a-china-shop sort of influence is not within our reach. There will be no more conning of Cicero, nor giving of days and nights to Addison, to form a style. Each age, hereafter, will choose its own manner of writing, as it will the fashion of its clothes, or the cut of its political constitutions. As the monotony of Grecian architecture has yielded to the pleasing, though capricious, fancies of the emancipated Mr. Nash, so the quaker-like simplicity of Homer has given place to the arabesque originality of certain living liberators of the English Parnassus. The competition, which has arisen between the authors of modern times, has had the further advantage of quickening all their movements. Compare the cumbrous periods and floundering verbiage of the very best writers of King James's day, with the snip-snap epigram style of newspaper penny-a-line men. It is the difference between a broad-wheel waggon and a railway steam-carriage. business of a modern author is to seize his opportunity. He knows that the world will neither await his leisure, nor suffer him to “bestow all his tediousness” upon his readers. The age of things is arrived, and we have no longer time to throw away upon words. Formerly, when books were scarce, and a well-locked glass case contained the whole floating capital of a nation's literary amusement, a voluminous proser was a public benefactor; for he helped to pass away the long winter's nights, that too frequently hung heavily on hand. Burton's folio on Melancholy was an inexhaustible mine of cheerfulness; and a ponderous romance that took a year in perusal prevented more suicide than the stomach-pump. But now, a man who is beforehand in his literature must be a hard reader; and a literary proser is as sedulously avoided, as a button-holding monopolist in conversation. He who does not condense his subject within the smallest possible space, has no more chance of the public ear, than a country put, amidst the epidemic coughing of the House of Com
That this rapidity is generally unfavorable to the interests of literature, is an old woman's prejudice. Brevity is not only the soul of wit, but of perspicuity. That which cannot be well expressed in a few words, rarely becomes more intelligible by being wrapt up, in many. It is in vain that objection may be taken to the want of clearness in brevity, or to the example of Tacitus, whose obscurity is at least as conspicuous as his terseness. Exceptions only prove the rule ; and it may be questioned whether the enigmatical puzzles of Tacitus do not reside more in the quaintness of his conceits, and a purposed implica
« nous ne nous
1 " Tant que nous aurons des livres,” says Mad. de Sevigné, pendrons pas."
tion of ideas, rendered necessary by the times in which he wrote, than in the mere shortness of his affected sentences. How many verbose definitions are less expressive, than the simple term to be defined ? What speaking can be plainer, and at the same time more brief, than the energetic style of the orators of Billingsgate ? Lawyers have attempted to make things clear by tautologies and cireumlocutions; and instead of arriving at the unequivocal communication of a vender of haddocks and flounders, they have deluged the world with fraud, sophistry, and injustice.
We read books now like music, at sight; and a cramped passage that requires study to comprehend, is a sentence of condemnation against its author. Whatever may be thought of this result, its attainment is not to be insured without labor; and it is some proof of the merit of those authors, in whom it is the most conspicuous. Questo facile, says an Italian, quanto è difficile. With eight hundred folio
pages to turn in, a man must be a blunderer indeed, who cannot tell his story; and it may be questioned whether there is any meaning at all in that head, which does not contrive to convey its ideas to the reader, before he arrives at so remote a “finis :" but to condense an entire science within two pamphlets of Useful Knowledge, or to bring the history of an empire into as many volumes of a Family Library, requires that the subject should be well digested by the author before he puts pen to paper.
If it be true that modern book-makers take less pains than their predecessors, it must follow that they come better prepared for their task; and let critics say what they will of an indolent recourse to dictionaries, abridgments, and indexes, a man is not less meritorious for availing himself of these improvements of his age, than he is less a traveller for having circumnavigated the world in a steam-boat.
That this rapidity is purchased by a deterioration of quality, is nothing to the argument. It is true, there are more flimsy, paltry, common-place productions than formerly, because there are more printed books of all sorts ; but then the very worst of them are richer in ideas than the same class of older date, simply because the common stock of knowledge among the people is greater; and the very country ladies and boarding-school misses require their reading to be of a higher level than that which contented their ancestors. The prevalence of a contrary opinion is very much to be attributed to the fact, that the sciolists of the old times were a graver cast of personages, and wrapped up their fooleries more neatly in form and syllogism. There may be as much downright nonsense (be it said without irreverence) in a sermon or a polemical quarto, as in a Minerva-press romance, or an apology for the life of a celebrated impure : but it wears such a solemn face of wisdom, that few have the grace to find it out. There is as much sheer gossip, bulk for bulk, in the Deipnosophists and Athenæus, as in the “ Memoirs of a Lady of Quality :" but then it is gossip in Greek type, and amusés the idleness of heads of colleges ; and where is the shameless critic, who dares make it the unhallowed subject of his caustic pleasantry? A certain degree of deterioration, however, does accompany those changes in all manufactures which render them cheaper, and therefore commoner. The calicoes and muslins, the knives and razors, which Glasgow and Birmingham distribute through all the shops from Whitechapel to Peru and Calcutta, are not as generally good as those which formerly had exclusive possession of the market; but the best are still to be had by those who have the taste to select, and the means of paying a proportionate price. The only peculiarity in the case of books is, that the worst are not usually the cheapest. The articles are made up to suit the customers; and it is by no means unnatural, that they, whose purses are full and their heads empty, should think more of the form than the substance; and should be more lavish in their desires concerning the margin, than in what regards the text.
If the natural term of life of modern books is shorter than formerly, it is a necessary corollary that the span of periodicals should be yet more brief. Even an almanack lasts out its year, but the most Parr-like longevity of a magazine is closely contined to one calendar month;” and every thing about it should be calculated on this datum. There is also another sense in which the duration of a periodical is especially circumscribed. There is no longer a possibility of protracting a work of this description, like the Gentleman's Magazine of other days, through an hundred volumes. It is to little
that an editor in search of preternatural longevity, changes his hands, and tries to refresh the worn-out constitution of his journal by a transfusion of new blood into its veins. In such a work,
“ Nature's copy's not eterne.” The round of popular topics is not infinite; and when a magazine has said its say upon all debateable subjects, its time is come: its superannuated vivacity is but the frisking of an elderly courtier, and it must leave the ground to new competitors, whose capers are not only more becoming but more vendible. A change of plan, or the commencement of a new series, is like the false hair and teeth of an antiquated beau, or like the painting and white-washing of a delapidated mansion,-a deceitful exterior which covers, but does not prevent inevitable ruin. The best of beer is not for ever saleable under the same sign; and as the King of Prussia is changed for William the Fourth, and Nelson yields the honors of the sign-post to the Duke of Wellington, so must the favorite titles of periodicals find their assigned term, and give place to newer and more fashionable rubrics. Identity thus residing in a name, it may yet seem strange that this name should be so important; but the fact is so.
There is a freshness and spring in the youth of a journal, which all the bountiful harvest of its autumn cannot supply. The fruit is indeed ripe, but the sap no longer rises in the plant, and a leafless winter is at hand. It is with great pleasure therefore that we contributors find ourselves with a new house over our heads, with its thousand untenanted corners to explore, and ample scope in their decoration, for the display of whatever taste, nature and cultivation may have bestowed on us. A new magazine is to a writer like a new lease of life,-it is a mill for grinding the old young; and if, perchance, we do not profit by the operation, we have still a chance of our readers yielding to the illusion, and giving us credit for the same novelty which is found in the title-page. The present conjuncture too is favorable to a new undertaking, because every thing in life and literature is undergoing a revolution. New ideas are abroad, and new wants are springing up, which the dog-trot of experience is insufficient to supply.' To please the times, we must