My Own Adventure in Common Sense
( Originally Published 1916 )
IN 1909 I was pastor of the Union Congregational Church at Worcester, Massachusetts.
It was a strong Church. My relations with the people were delightful. My salary was good, as preachers' salaries go. I was practically settled for life, as a New England Church rarely dismisses its pastor.
In the midst of this comfortable career I suddenly resigned. For these reasons :
My position was too secure. It was not precarious enough. Unless one is a bit uncertain where his daily bread is coming from he lacks the atmosphere of hazard necessary if one is to keep young. I was drifting into the horrible stagnation of the endowed class. I was forty-eight. I wanted to get out into the arena and wrestle with men, else I felt that my mental and spiritual muscles would stiffen. I longed to hunt for work, and was tired of having employment assured me.
In other words I wanted Adventure. I wanted the Open Road, and was tired of the House.
There was no friction with my people. I loved them and they gave every indication of liking me.
I had no theological or credal difficulties. My church allowed me entire intellectual freedom; in fact, they were as progressive and independent in thought as I.
And there was a deeper reason for my stepping out of a regular pulpit. No matter how excellent a congregation may be, it is limited; the very word "Church" means "called out," and implies exclusiveness. But in me there had grown a passion for the multitude. I realized that my Maker had intended me for an Outsider. All the while that I sat in my study or stood in my pulpit I was yearning for the great, unherded mass of men and women who never came to my Church, many of them to no Church at all. Those were my people. My message was to them, not to the elect.
I do not want to be taken as criticizing the Church. I am persuaded it is the best place for most preachers to work. All I say is that my feeling forced me out into the highway and market.
It took me forty-eight years to come to myself, but finally I found out where I belonged.
So I said to my wife : "I want to quit. I want to get out and play with the boys in the alley. Above all I want to write for the Newspapers. Of course, preaching is all I know, but I believe the best place to preach is in the columns of the daily press. Jesus was not in the Temple; He was by the roadside ; He went down to where humanity was and talked there. I want to try that once before I die.
"Our children are now grown up and through school. We are foot-loose. Let us take to the open, and see what happens."
The idea appealed to her. I resigned. I had no money. Preachers rarely save money. So I borrowed $1,600 on my life insurance, and we began our wanderings by going by water to Chicago, up the Hudson, down the St. Lawrence, and through the Great Lakes.
I began to infest the Chicago Newspapers. I found out that while I desired to write for the newspapers I was quite alone in my desire. The editors laughed at me. "Why," they said, "'we can get preaching stuff by the yard—for nothing. Nobody reads it. We want news."
I argued with them. "You are mistaken, Hu-man nature is the same as it has, always been, and people have always liked to be preached to. The only trouble is that nobody has offered preaching of the right kind to the newspapers. Mine is the right kind. Try it."
At last Leigh Reilly, then editor of the Chicago Evening Post, fell. He accepted my proposal to run a stickful or two on his editorial page, under the title, "The Philosopher's Corner." For this I received one dollar a day, but that was nothing compared to the immense bliss and rapture I received from seeing my pet notion exploited at last. I never expect to be as happy again as I was at seeing my name in the Post.
It is pleasant to feel the response of an audience to the spoken word, and this is the spiritual reward of the public speaker. But I now tasted the delight of seeing my writing in print, and the joy of it was more than that of the orator.
About six months I lasted on the Post, at that time the high-brow paper of Chicago. Then the owner fired me, fearing probably that there must be something shady about any man that had quit preaching. An ex-preacher is a suspicious character, I discovered. The average mind reasons: "There must have been something wrong or he would not have left the pulpit." If he left a good salary also, the suspicion hardens to a certainty. I suppose that the proprietor feared that if I should suddenly get drunk, or run off with my neighbor's wife, or do some other ex-ministerial high-jinks, the elegant and refined readers of the Post would be down on him for carrying my name on his pages.
Anyway, I was gently dismissed, though Reilly assured me that he, and all the boys around the office, liked the stuff.
Meanwhile, however, I had received a letter from Edward Bok, of the Ladies' Home Journal, enclosing a clipping from my Philosopher's Corner in the Post, and asking me whether I did that just once, by accident, or whether I could do it again, and regularly. I sat down and wrote him twenty little articles of the kind he had noticed, and sent them to him and said that the best way to answer his question was to submit specimens.
For the benefit of struggling young authors, seeking for the key to success, I may state a curious element of this correspondence. Each of my twenty articles was on a separate sheet. Some of the sheets were pink and some white. Mr. Bok accepted all those that were pink. This ranks about on a par with most hints to aspiring authors.
Mr. Bok ran a page of my matter for several months. I had also broken into the Chicago Tribune, and George Matthew Adams was using a daily brief article in his syndicate. The Hearst papers were buying some at my counter.
I was now feeling so rich that I went to Europe and spent a year or so living in Rome, Paris and London, talking with common folks and learning their philosophy.
The syndicate of The Associated Newspapers was formed about this time, consisting of some forty newspapers throughout the United States and Canada, and I became a writer for them, a position I yet hold.
My experiment has succeeded. I will tell why.
At first I asked a literary friend to write this introduction. He replied, "I will do so with pleasure. But why. don't you do it yourself? What I would write would be only the usual appreciation of one author by another, and would interest readers but slightly. Tell your story yourself and people will read it. You know more about yourself than any one else knows."
Hence this blurb.
Why have I succeeded in getting people to read my articles and inducing newspapers to pay for them?
My opinion has changed. It now seems to me that it is not so much the Sermon people want, as it is the Essay.
The Essay had finally achieved the distinction of being praised by all and read by none. It had become a highly developed literary ornament. A few persons in Boston, and a few Brahmans elsewhere, read Essays. The vast commons, never.
The first thing I did to the Essay was to make it short. I perceived that the average intelligence wanted one point, not a dozen. A man will seize one idea and devour it with relish; overload his plate and you kill his appetite.
People like ideas, but they like them à la carte and not table d'hôte.
The old-fashioned Essay was a conglomerate of many ideas. Wer zu viel will geht oft leer aus.
I took one point, sharpened it and drove it home. I resisted the ecclesiastical temptation to firstly and tenthly. As a result, the reader, first seeing that it wasn't very long, tackled it. He remembered it. He was tempted to cut it out and carry it in his pocketbook.
Second, I realized that the most interesting things in the world are the old things and the common things. Hence I did not strain after the outlandish and the unusual, in the selection of themes, but went into the living-room, bed-room and kitchen of the human heart, and spoke of what I saw there. I tried to tell the housewife what a wonderful thing her work-basket is, and how it is related to the spheres and to her ever-lasting soul; to show the cook the divine relation of dishwashing to life; to make the business man see the River of God running through his office; and to reveal to the shop girl that her tears and laughter are just as real and as rich in human quality as the emotions of duchesses and famous actresses.
I found among the undistinguished and the unelect a mine of human gold.
Furthermore I did not take my wares to the kings and nobles of literature, to the stately Quarterlies and other magazines that give tone to the library table but lie uncut and unread. Having stuff for the millions I went with it to the news-papers, which the millions read. Having a passion for democracy I took the greatest of all democratic vehicles, the newspaper, which is read by millionaire and hobo, fat and rich gentlemen and lean and hungry, fine ladies and servant girls, read by the President and by the peddler.
I found that the same ideas that are preached from pulpits to the chosen few, and lectured on by professors to select classes, and favored by intellectuals generally, are equally welcomed by common folks, only they want it unaffected and disinfected. They, too, love problems of conscience and conduct, of God and destiny, of love and mystery. They do not, however, care for literary posing, for the antics of conventional culture, nor for the conceit of technical phraseology.
Hence I once for all renounced all ambition toward fine writing. I tried to say my say in the clearest, fewest words possible. I went straight at my point and quit when I had got done.
I found out that when one writes simply and only to be understood, in entire disregard of rules of art, without stumbling over his medium, one writes entertainingly.
I have taken the dead Essay and made it a living thing. I have taken the Essay out of its glass coffin in the library and put it on the office desk, on the woman's work-table, and in the laborer's pocket.
This I have done without using the ready-made platform of the preacher, the prestige of a famous name, the antics of the mountebank or the salacity of the border-bands of literature..
My name meant nothing to readers. What I said was read for its own sake.
To sum up, my conviction was and is that the Short Idea, or Essay, can be made as interesting as the Short Story. This I did, because I believed it; this I believe, because I did it.
I do not know whether these Essays are good literature or not. Only to-day they are asked for, paid for and read. To-morrow the critics will tell you why. Also they will tell you why they should not have succeeded.
All I do here is to tell you why and how they were written. I ought to know, for I wrote them myself.
At any rate, here is a bookful of them, and the gentle reader may judge for himself.