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Working Geniuses

( Originally Published 1884 )

Genius and Business.—Literature and Business.—The Great Men of Elizabeth's Reign.—The Great Italians.—Modern Literary Workers.—Workers in Leisure Hours.—Business Value of Culture.

" Blest work ! if ever thou wert curse of God,
What must fis blessing be!"-J. B. SELKIRK.

THE idea has been entertained by some that business habits are incompatible with genius. In the Life of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, it is observed of a Mr. Bicknell a respectable but ordinary man, of whom little is known but that he married Sabrina Sidney, the eleve of Thomas Day, author of " Sandford and Mer-ton" that " he had some of the too usual faults of a man of genius: he detested the drudgery of business." But there can not be a greater mistake. The greatest geniuses have, without exception, been the greatest workers, even to the extent of drudgery. They have not only worked harder than ordinary men; but brought to their work higher faculties and a more ardent spirit. Nothing great and durable was ever improvised. It is only by noble patience and noble labor that the master-pieces of genius have been achieved.

Power belongs only to the workers; the idlers are always powerless. It is the laborious and painstaking men who are the rulers of the world. There has not been a statesman of eminence but was a man of industry. " It is by toil," said even Louis XIV., " that kings govern." When Clarendon described Hampden,. he spoke of him as " of an industry and vigilance not to be tired out or wearied by the most laborious, and of parts not to be imposed on by the most subtile and sharp, and of a personal courage equal to his best parts." While in the midst of his laborious though self-imposed duties, Hampden, on one occasion, wrote to his mother: "My lyfe is nothing but toy-le, and hath been for many yeares, nowe to the Commonwealth, nowe to the Kinge Not so much tyme left as to doe my dutye to my deare parents, nor to sende to them." Indeed, all the statesmen of the Commonwealth were great toilers; and Clarendon himself, whether in office or out of it, was a man of indefatigable application and industry.

The same energetic vitality, as displayed in the power of working, has distinguished all the eminent men in our own as well as in past ,times. During the Anti-Corn-Law movement, Cobden, writing to a friend, described himself as "working like a horse, with not a moment. to spare." Lord Brougham was a remarkable instance of the indefatigably active and laborious man; and it might be said of Lord Palmerston, that he worked harder for success in his extreme old age than he had ever done in the prime of his manhood preserving his working faculty, his good humor and bonhomie, unimpaired to the end. He himself was accustomed to say that being in office, and consequently full of work, was good for his health. It rescued him from ennui. Helvetius even held that it is man's sense of ennui that is the chief cause of his superiority over the brute that it is the necessity which he feels for escaping from its intolerable suffering that forces him to employ himself actively, and is hence the greatest stimulus to human progress.

Indeed, this living principle of constant work, of abundant occupation, of practical contact with men in the affairs of life, has, in all times, been the best ripener of the energetic vitality of strong natures. Business habits, cultivated and disciplined, are found alike useful in every pursuit whether in politics, literature, science. or art. Thus, a great deal of the best literary work has been done by men systematically trained in business pursuits. The same industry, application, economy of time and labor, which have rendered them useful in the one sphere of employment, have been found equally available in the other.

Most of the early English writers were men of affairs, trained to business; for no literary class as yet existed, excepting it might be the priesthood. Chaucer, the father of English poetry, was first a soldier, and after-wards a comptroller of petty customs. The office was no sinecure either, for he had to write up all the records with his own hand; and when he had done his " reckonings" at the custom-house, he returned with delight to his favorite studies at home poring over his books until his eyes were " dazed " and dull.

The great writers in the reign of Elizabeth, during which there was such a development of robust life in England, were not literary men according to the modern acceptation of the word, but men of action trained in business. Spenser acted as secretary to . the Lord Deputy of Ireland; Raleigh was, by turns, a courtier, soldier, sailor, and discoverer; Sydney was a politician, diplomatist, and soldier; Bacon was a laborious lawyer before he became lord keeper and lord chancellor; Sir Thomas Browne was a physician in country practice at Norwich; Hooker was the hard-working pastor of a country parish; Shakspeare was the manager of a theatre, in which he was himself but an indifferent actor, and he seems to have been even more careful of his money investments than he was of his intellectual off-spring. Yet these, all men of active business habits, are among the greatest writers of any age; the period of Elizabeth and James I. standing out in the history of England as the era of its greatest literary activity and splendor.

In the reign of Charles I , Cowley held various offices of trust and confidence. He acted as private secretary to several of the royalist leaders, and was afterwards engaged as private secretary to the queen, in ciphering and deciphering the correspondence which passed between her and Charles I. the work occupying all his days, and often his nights, during several years. And while Cowley was thus employed in the royal cause, Milton was employed by the Commonwealth, of which he was the Latin secretary, and afterwards secretary to the lord protector. Yet, in the earlier part of his life, Milton was occupied in the humble vocation of a teacher. Dr. Johnson says, " that in his school, as in every thing else which he undertook, he labored with great diligence, there is no reason for doubting." It was after the Restoration, when his official employment ceased, that Milton entered upon the principal literary work of his life; but before he undertook the writing of his great epic, he deemed it indispensable that to " industrious and select reading" he should add " steady observation," and " insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs.

Locke held office in different reigns: first under Charles II. as secretary to the board of trade, and after-wards under William III. as commissioner of appeals and of trade and plantations. Many literary men of eminence held office in Queen Anne's reign. Thus Addison was secretary of state; Steele, commissioner of stamps; Prior, under-secretary of state, and afterwards ambassador to France; Tickell, under-secretary of state, and secretary to the lords justices of Ireland; Congreve, secretary to Jamaica; and Gay, secretary of legation at Hanover.

Indeed, habits of business, instead of unfitting a cultivated mind for scientific or literary pursuits, are often the best training for them. Voltaire insisted with truth that the real spirit of business and literature are the same; the perfection of each being the union of energy and thoughtfulness, of cultivated intelligence and practical wisdom, of the active and contemplative essence a union commended by Lord Bacon as the concentrated excellence of man's nature. It has been said that even the man of genius can write nothing worth reading in relation to human affairs, unless he has been in some way or other connected with the serious everyday business of life.

Hence it has happened that many of the best books extant have been written by men of business; with whom literature was a pastime rather than a profession. Gifford, the editor of the " Quarterly," who knew the drudgery of writing for a living, once observed that " a single hour of composition, won from the business of the day, is worth more than the whole day's toil of him who works at the trade of literature : in the one case the spirit comes joyfully to refresh itself; like a hart to the water-brooks; in the other, it pushes its miserable way, panting and jaded, with the dogs and hunger of necessity behind."

The first great men of letters in Italy were not mere men of letters; they were men of business merchants, statesmen, diplomatists, judges, and soldiers. Villani, the author of the best history of Florence, was a merchant; Dante, Petrarch, and Boccacio were all engaged in more or less important embassies; and Dante, before becoming a diplomatist, was for some time occupied as a chemist and druggist. Galileo, Galvani, and Farini were physicians: and Goldoni a lawyer. Ariosto's talent for affairs was as great as his genius for poetry. At the death of his father, he was called upon to manage the family estate for the benefit of his younger brothers and sisters, which he did with ability and integrity. His genius for business having been recognized, he was employed by the Duke of Ferrara on important missions to Rome and elsewhere. Having afterwards been appointed governor of a turbulent mountain district, he succeeded, by firm and just government, in reducing it to a condition of comparative good order and security, Even the bandits of the country respected him. Being arrested one day in the mountains by a body of outlaws, he mentioned his name, when they at once offered to escort him in safety wherever he chose.

It has been the same in other countries. Vattel, the author of the " Rights of Nations," was a practical diplomatist, and a first-rate man of business. Rabelais was a physician, and a successful practitioner; Schiller was a surgeon; Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Calderon, Camoens, Descartes, Maupertius, La Rochefoucauld, Lacepede, Lamark, were soldiers in the early part of their respective lives.

In our own country, many men now known by their writings earned their living by their trade. Lillo spent the greater part of his life as a working jeweler in the Poultry, occupying the intervals of his leisure in the production of dramatic works, some of them of acknowledged power and merit. Izaak Walton was a linen draper in Fleet Street, reading much in his leisure hours,. and storing his mind with facts for future use in his capacity of biographer. De Foe was by turns horse factor, brick and tile maker, shop-keeper, author, and political agent.

Samuel Richardson successfully combined literature with business writing his novels in his back shop in Salisbury Court, Fleet Street, and selling them over the counter in his front shop. William Hutton, of Birmingham, also successfully combined the occupations of book-selling and authorship. He says, in his Autobiography,. that a man may live halt a century and not be acquainted with his own character. He did not know that he was an antiquary until the world informed him of it, from having read his " History of Birmingham," and then, he said, he could see it himself. Benjamin Franklin was alike eminent as a printer and bookseller an author, a philosopher, and a statesman.

Coming down to our own time, we find Ebenezer Elliott successfully carrying on the business of a bar-iron merchant in Sheffield, during which time he wrote and published the greater number of his poems; and his success in business was such as to enable him to retire into the country and build a house of his own, in which he spent the remainder of his days. Isaac Taylor, the author of the " Natural History of Enthusiasm," was an engraver of patterns for Manchester calico-printers; and other members of this gifted family were followers of the same branch of art.

The principal early works of John Stuart Mill were written in the intervals of official work, while he held the office of principal examiner in the East India House —in which Charles Lamb, Peacock, the author of " Headlong Hall," and Edwin Norris, the philologist, were also clerks. Macaulay wrote his "Lays of Ancient Rome " in the war office, while holding the post of secretary of war. It is well known that the thoughtful writings of Mr. Helps are literally " Essays written in the Intervals of Business." Many of our best living authors are men holding important public offices such as Sir Henry Taylor, Sir John Kaye, Anthony Trollope, Tom Taylor, Matthew Arnold, and Samuel Warren.

Mr. Proctor the poet, better known as " Barry Cornwall," was a barrister and commissioner in lunacy. Most probably he assumed the pseudonym for the same reason that Dr. Paris published his " Philosophy in Sport made Science in Earnest" anonymously-because he apprehended that, if known, it might compromise his professional position. For it is by no means an uncommon prejudice, still prevalent among City men, that a person who has written a book, and still more one who has written a poem, is good for nothing in the way of business. Yet Sharon Turner, though an excellent historian, was no worse a solicitor on that account; while the brothers Horace and James Smith, authors of " The Rejected Addresses," were men of such eminence in their profession, that they were selected. to fill the important and lucrative post of solicitors to the Admiralty, and they filled it admirably.

It was while the late Mr. Broderip, the barrister, was acting as a London police magistrate, that he was attracted to the study of natural history, in which he occupied the greater part of his leisure. He wrote the principal articles on the subject for the " Penny Cyclopaedia," besides several separate works of great merit, more particularly the " Zoological Recreations," and " Leaves from the Note-Book of a Naturalist." It is recorded of him that, though he devoted so much of his time to the production of his works, as well as to the Zoological Society and their admirable establishment in Regent's Park, of which he was one of the founders, his studies never interfered with the real business of his life, nor is it known that a single question was ever raised upon his conduct or his decisions. And while Mr. Broderip devoted himself to natural history, the late Lord Chief Baron Pollock devoted his leisure to natural science, recreating himself in the practice of photography and the study of mathematics, in both of which he was thoroughly proficient.

Among literary bankers we find the names of Rogers, the poet; Roscoe, of Liverpool, the biographer of Lorenzo de Medici; Ricardo, the author of " Political Economy and Taxation;" Grote, the author of the " History of Greece;" Sir John Lubbock, the scientific antiquarian; and Samuel Bailey, of Sheffield, the author of " Essays on the Formation and Publication of Opinions," besides various important works on ethics, political economy, and philosophy.

Nor, on the other hand, have thoroughly-trained men of science and learning proved themselves inefficient as first-rate men of business. Culture of the best sort trains the habit of application and industry, disciplines the mind, supplies it with resources, and gives it freedom and vigor of action all of which are equally requisite in the successful conduct of business. Thus, in young men, education and scholarship usually indicate steadiness of character, for they imply continuous attention, diligence, and the ability and energy necessary to master knowledge; and such persons will also usually be found possessed of more than average promptitude, address, resource, and dexterity.

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