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Henry Ward Beecher

Reading Books

I WANDERED out this morning under the trees (the good lady had gone to the village, and her daughter too; and I was quite free, and was shirking all work, and having a good time on the grass). That, you know, is a good way to write an article. It is bad to go out and look at things if you wish to write about them. You must let them look at you. You must show yourself to nature; walk about confidently and lovingly; gaze at just those things that have magnetism in them, or sympathy, or influence, or whatever you choose to call it. Then, after an hour or two, if you wish to write, go to your desk, and whatever has had a real hold upon you will then come vividly up like pictures, just as it does to me now; and I should give you a sparkling, glorious article now, were it not that at this very nick of time I am interrupted by the word that, if I send in time for this week, I must send this minute. Oh, what you have lost! It was very fine very the thing I was about to do!

Men who write Journals are usually men of certain marked traits they are idealists; they love solitude rather than society; they are self-conscious, and they love to write... their journals largely take the place of social converse. Amiel, Emerson, and Thoreau, for example, were lonely souls, lacking in social gifts, and seeking relief in the society of their own thoughts. Such men go to their Journals as other men go to their clubs. They love to be alone with themselves, and dread to be benumbed or drained of their mental force by uncongenial persons. To such a man his Journal becomes his duplicate self, and he says to it what he could not say to his nearest friend. It becomes both an altar and a confessional.

It is a good thing to let your MS. matter stand a while before publishing; much sediment and personal conceit that was stirred up and held in solution during the freshet which it caused in your soul will settle from it and precipitate itself to the bottom.

Every good book has a spirit, a living, moving spirit, underlying and animating all its thought. Here is where its power is. This gives it an influence in the world greater than that of Caesar or Alexander. This makes a book live. This brings Plato and Shakespeare down from age to age and makes them always new and inspiring. A poor book has not this spirit; it may have facts and truths, but, if they are not embedded in and animated by this spirit, it is but a mechanical contrivance and must soon sink to the bottom like all mud and sediment. But a live book, that is, one whose truths and principles float in spirit as a ship on the ocean, can never die. Some books have a great influence in the world that contain no very important facts. Such are spirit books, and they belong to what De Quincey terms the literature of power. Such are the writings of Milton, of Scott, of Shakespeare, and, in fact, all imaginative works. We read them, not to find facts of history, or science, or art, etc., but for the delicious spiritual power that flows into us from their pages. This beauty, or this real worth, cannot be shown by any craft of criticism; it eludes the most skillful analysis; it can be discerned only by tuning the soul to the same harmony. The same is true of a work of art, or a landscape.

Let me work all day in my garden, the next day ramble in the fields and woods, with a little reading, and the third day I can give myself to literary pursuits with a new freshness and vigor....

One of the secrets in writing, I find, is to choose a commanding position, a central stronghold, as it were, which easily commands long .ranges and vast tracts of thought. An eminence, a high point. Then what progress one makes! he can't help but write well. At other times, when he gets entangled in the byways, as it were, how hard it is!

Many writers show great spirit and activity, dart out first this way, then that, but never arrive at any results. They show special merit, but never give any grand effects. Most of the criticism of the time is of this character; it is aimless; it leads nowhere. Writers cast about them vigorously, cutting right and left, but one easily sees that they are in a corner, or ravine, as it were, and do not command the ground about and beyond them.

... Thoreau preaches and teaches always. I never preach or teach. I simply see and describe. I must have a pure result. I paint the bird for its own sake, and for the pleasure it affords me, and am annoyed at any lesson or moral twist. Even the scholar in me (a very poor one he is!) must not show his head when I am writing on natural themes. I would remind of books no more than the things themselves do.

Finished my Signs and Seasons [the essay, not the book] today, begun two weeks ago. Writing is like fishing: you do not know that there are fish in the hole till you have caught them. I did not know there was an article in me on this subject till I fished it out. I tried many times before I had a bite, and I did much better some days than others. Stormy days (either snow or rain, though snow is best) were my best days. I did not know I had that bank article in me till Gilder told me I had, and commanded me to write. The same is true of the Thoreau article, and, indeed, of nearly all my articles; they have been discoveries, and have surprised me.

As a writer, especially on literary themes, I suffer much from the want of a certain manly or masculine quality, the quality of self-assertion strength and firmness of outline, of individuality. I am not easy and steady in my shoes. The common and vulgar form of the quality I speak of is called `cheek.' But in the master writer it is firmness, dignity, composure a steady unconscious assertion of his own personality. When I try to assert myself I waver and am painfully self-conscious, and fall into curious delusions; I think I have a certain strength and positiveness of character, but lack egoism. It is a family weakness; all my brothers are weak as men; do not make themselves felt for good or bad in the community. But this weakness of the I in me is probably a great help to me as a writer upon Nature. I do not stand in my own light. I am pure spirit, pure feeling, and get very close to bird and beast. My thin skin lets the shy and delicate influences pass. I can surrender myself to Nature without effort. I am like her. That which hinders me with men, and makes me weak and ill at ease in their presence, makes me strong with impersonal Nature, and admits me to her influences. I lack the firm moral fibre of such men as Emerson and Carlyle. I am more tender and sympathetic than either, perhaps, but there is a plebeian streak in me, not in them. This again helps me with Nature, but hinders with men.

One important thing in writing is to divest yourself of any false or accidental mood, or view, or feeling, and get down to your real self, and speak as directly and sincerely as you do about your daily business and affairs, with as little affectation. One may write from the outside of his mind, as it were; write and write, learnedly and eloquently, and make no impression; but when he speaks from real insight and conviction of his own, men are always glad to hear him, whether they agree with him or not. Get down to your real self your better real self and let that speak. One's real self is always vital, and gives the impression of reality. So much writing and speaking is like machine-work. The Sunday sermon and the leading editorial are generally pieces of machine-work, as if you turned the crank and the discourse came out. It is not the man's real mind, his real experience. He does not know how to get at this; all is artificial, factitious; his garden is upon the housetop instead of upon the ground; his ideas have no root, no succulency, no flavor. He speaks from art, from culture, from faculty, and not from inspiration. How rare are real poems! poems that spring from real feeling, a real throb of emotion, and not from the mere itch of literary vanity!

Vital literature is not made by the study of literature, but by the study of things, of life.

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