Men Of Mind
( Originally Published 1913 )
IN the companion volume of this series, " Men of Action," the attempt was made to give the essential facts of American history by sketching in broad outline the men who made that history discoverers, pioneers, presidents, statesmen, soldiers, and sailors—and describing the part which each of them played.
It was almost like watching a great building grow under the hands of the workmen, this one adding a stone and that one adding another; but there was one great difference. For a building, the plans are made carefully beforehand, worked out to the small-est detail, and followed to the letter, so that every stone goes exactly where it belongs, and the work of all the men fits together into a complete and perfect whole. But when America was started, no one had more than the vaguest idea of what the finished result was to be; indeed, many questioned whether any enduring structure could be reared on a foundation such as ours. So there was much useless labor, one workman tearing down what another had built, and only a few of them working with any clear vision of the future.
The convention which adopted the Constitution of the United States may fairly be said to have furnished the first plan, and George Washington was the master-builder who laid the foundations in accordance with it. He did more than that, for the plan was only a mere outline; so Washington added such. details as he found necessary, taking care always that they accorded with the plan of the founders. He lived long enough to see the building complete in all essential details, and to be assured that the foundation was a firm one and that the structure, which is called a Republic, would endure.
All that has been done since his time has been to build on an addition now and then, as need arose, and to change the ornamentation to suit the taste of the clay. At one time, it seemed that the whole structure might be rent asunder and topple into ruins; but again there came a master-builder named Abraham Lincoln, and with the aid of a million devoted workmen who rallied to his call, he saved it.
There have been men, and there are men today, who would attack the foundation were they permitted; but never yet have they got within effective striking distance. Others there are who have marred the simple and classic beauty of the building with strange excrescences. But these are only temporary, and the hand of time will sweep them all away. For the work of tearing down and building up is going forward to-day just as it has always done; and the changes are sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse; but, on the whole, the building grows more stately and more beautiful as the generations pass.
It was the work of the principal laborers on this mighty edifice which we attempted to judge in"Men of Action," and this was a comparatively easy task, because the work stands out concretely for all to see,. And, as far as essentials go, at least, we are all agreed as to what is good work and what is bad. But the task which is attempted in the present volume is a much more difficult one, for here we are called upon to judge not deeds but thoughts-thoughts, that is, as translated into a novel, or a poem, or a statue, or a painting, or a theory of the universe.
Nobody has ever yet been able to devise a universal scale by which thoughts may be measured, nor any acid test to distinguish gold from dross in art and literature. So each person has to devise a scale of his own and do his measuring for himself; he has to apply to the things he sees and reads the acid test of his own intellect. And however imperfect this measuring and testing may be, it is the only sort which has any value for that particular person. In other words, unless you yourself find a poem or a painting great, it isn't great for you, however critics may extol it. So all the books about art and literature and music are of value only as they improve the scale and perfect the acid test of the individual, so that the former measures more and more correctly, and the latter bites more and more surely through the glittering veneer which seeks to disguise the dross beneath.
It follows from all this that, since there are nearly as many scales as there are individuals, very few of them will agree exactly. Time, however, has a wonderful way of testing thoughts, of preserving those that are worthy, and of discarding those that are unworthy. Just how this is done nobody has ever been able to explain; but the fact remains that, somehow, a really great poem or painting or statue or theory lives on from age to age, long after the other products of its time have been forgotten. And if it is really great, the older it grows, the greater it seems. Shakespeare, to his contemporaries, was merely an actor and playwright like any one of a score of others; but, with the passing of years, he has become the most wonderful figure in the world's literature. Rembrandt could scarcely make a living with his brush, industriously as he used it, and passed his days in misery, haunted by his creditors and neglected by the public; today we recognize in him one of the greatest artists who ever lived. Such instances are common enough, for genius often goes unrecognized until its possessor is dead; just as many men are hailed as geniuses by their contemporaries, and promptly forgotten by the succeeding generation. The touchstone of time infallibly separates the false and the true.
Unfortunately, to American literature and art no such test can be applied, for they are less than a century old—scarcely out of swaddling clothes. The greater portion of the product of our early years has long since been forgotten; but whether any of that which remains is really immortal will take another century or two to determine. So the only tests we can apply at present are those of taste and judgment, and these are anything but infallible.
Especially is this true of literature. Somebody announced, not long ago, that "the foremost poet of a nation is that poet most widely read and truly loved by it," and added that, in this respect, Longfellow was easily first in America. No doubt many people will agree with this dictum; and, indeed, the test of popularity is difficult to disregard. But it is not at all a true test, as we can see easily enough if we attempt to apply it to art, or to music, or to public affairs. Popularity is no more a test of genius in a poet than in a statesman, and when we remember how far astray the popular will has sometimes led us in regard to polities, we may be inclined to regard with suspicion its judgments in regard to literature.
The test of merit in literature is not so much wide appeal as intelligent appeal; the literature which satisfies the taste and judgment of cultured people is pretty certain to rank higher than that which is current among the uncultured. And so with art. Consequently, for want of something better, the general verdict of cultured people upon our literature and art has been followed in these pages.
Two or three other classes of achievers have been grouped, for convenience, in this volume—scientists and educators, philanthropists and reformers, men of affairs, actors and inventors—and it may be truly argued concerning some of them that they were more "men of action," and less "men of mind" than many who were included in the former volume. But all distinctions and divisions and classifications are more or less arbitrary; and there is no intention, in this one, to intimate that the " men of action " were not also "men of mind," or vice versa. The division has been made simply for convenience.
These thumb-nail sketches are in no sense the result of original research. The material needed has been gathered from such sources as are avail-able in any well-equipped public library. An at-tempt has been made, however, to color the narrative with human interest, and to give it consecutiveness, though this has sometimes been very hard to do. But, even at the best, this is only a first book in the study of American art and letters, and is designed to serve only as a stepping-stone to more elaborate and comprehensive ones.
There, are several short histories of American literature which will prove profitable and pleasant reading. Mr. W. IF. Trent's is written with a refreshing humor and insight. The " American Men of Letters " series gives carefully written biographies of about twenty-five of our most famous authors—all that anyone need know about in detail. There is a great mass of other material on the shelves of every public library, which will take one as far as one may care to go.
But the important thing in literature is to know the man's work rather than his life. If his work la sound and helpful and inspiring, his life needn't bother us, however hopeless it may have been. The striking example of this, in American literature, is Edgar Allan Poe, whose fame, in this country, is, just emerging from the cloud which his unfortunate career cast over it. The life of the man is of Importance only as it helps you to understand his work. Most important of all is to create within yourself a liking for good books and a power of telling good from bad. This is one of the most important things in life, indeed; and Mr. John Macy points the way to it in his " Child's Guide to Reading."
Only second to the power to appreciate good literature is the power to appreciate good art. For the material in this volume the author is indebted largely to the excellent monographs by Mr. Samuel Isham and Mr. Lorado Taft on " American Painting," and " American Sculpture." There are many guides to the study of art, among the best of them being Mr. Charles C. Caffin's " Child's Guide to Pictures," " American Masters of Painting," " American Masters of Sculpture," and "How to Study Pictures "; Mr. John C. VanDyke's " How to Judge of a Picture," and " The Meaning of Pictures," and Mr. John LaFarge's " Great Masters." In the study, of art, as of literature, you will soon find that America's place is as yet comparatively unimportant.
For the chapter on "The Stage," Mr. William Winter's various volumes of biography and criticism have been drawn upon, more especially with reference to the actors of the " old school," which Mr. Winter admires so deeply. There are a number of books, besides these, which make capital reading—Clara Morris's "Life on the Stage," Joseph Jefferson's autobiography, Stoddart's "Recollections of a Player," and Henry Austin Clapp's "Reminiscences of a Dramatic Critic," among them.
The material for the other chapters has been gathered from many sources, none of which is important enough to be mentioned here. Appleton's " Cyclopedia of American Biography " is a mine from which most of the facts concerning any American, prominent twenty years or more ago, may be dug; but it gives only the dry bones, so to speak. For more than that you must go to the individual biographies in your public library.
If you live in a small town, the librarian will very probably be glad to permit you to look over the shelves yourself, as well as to give you such advice and direction as you may need. In the larger cities, -this is, of course, impossible, to say nothing of the fact that you would be lost among the thousands of books on the shelves. But you will find a children's librarian whose business and pleasure it is to help children to the right books. If this book helps you to form the library habit, and gives you an incentive to the further study of art and literature, it will more than fulfill its mission.