|Again the Literary Aspirant|
By Jack London
The literary aspirant these days, or rather the literary artist-aspirant, or rather the literary artist-aspirant with active belly and empty purse, finds himself face to face with a howling paradox. Being an aspirant, he is conclusively a man who has not arrived, and a man who has not arrived has no pull on popularity. Being a man, and empty-pursed, he must eat. Being an artist, possessing the true artist-soul, his delight is to pour out in printed speech the joy of his heart. And this is the paradox he faces and must compass: How and in what fashion must he sing the joy of his heart that the printed speech thereof may bring him bread?
This does not appear a paradox. At least, it does not appear a paradox to the merely literary aspirant; nor does it so appear to the man with the artist-soul and the full purse. The one, unwitting of artistry, finds it simple enough to supply public demand. The other, unwitting of sordid necessity, is satisfied to wait till he has created public demand. As for the man who has arrived, he does not count. He has compassed the paradox. But the man dreaming greatly and pressed by sordid necessity, he is the man who must confront the absolute contradiction. He is the man who cannot pour his artist-soul into his work and exchange that work for bread and meat. The world is strangely and coldly averse to his exchanging the joy of his heart for the solace of his stomach. And to him is it given to discover that what the world prizes most it demands least, and that what it clamors the loudest after it does not prize at all.
It is a way the world has, and it is especially the way of the twentieth century, at least so far as printed speech is concerned. The streak of yellow which is condemned in journalism crops out in the magazines. Popularity is the key-note. The advertisements bring the cash; the circulation brings the advertisements; the magazine brings the circulation; problem: what must be printed in the magazine so that it may bring the circulation that brings the advertisements that bring the cash? Wherefore the editor is dominated by the business manager, who keeps his eye on the circulation, or else the editor is sufficiently capable of keeping his own eye on the circulation. And the circulation must be large, in order that the advertisements be many, in order that the cash be much. So the editor prints in the pages of his magazine that which a large number of people want to read. He does not print what they ought to read, for his function is to pander, not to propagandize.
This is frankly commercial. And why should it not be frankly commercial in a commercial age? The deepest values of life are to-day expressed in terms of cash. That which is most significant of an age must be the speech of that age. That which is most significant to-day is the making of money. When our late chief magistrate was laid to rest, the deepest respect New York City could show was to stop its railways for five minutes, to stop the sending of its telegraph messages for half a minute—to stop, respectively, making money for five minutes and for half a minute. And New York City was sincere. The depth of her grief can be plumbed only by the length of her act. So vital, so significant, was the making of money to her, that to cease making money for five minutes and for half a minute was the profoundest possible expression of her sympathy and sorrow—vastly profounder than fifty-two weeks of resolution and fast. It was the undiminished essence of the spirit of sacrifice which lurks in the well-springs of being, which impelled the shepherd of a pastoral age to offer up the fat firstlings of his flock; which impelled Abraham in the land of Moriah to offer up Isaac, the son of hisloins, as a burnt offering of his fealty to God; which impelled New York City to cease making money for five minutes and for half a minute.
This being so,—the making of money the most vital fact in life to-day,—it is only fair that literature be expressed in terms of cash. And it is not only fair but it is good business sense for an editor to print in the pages of his magazine that which a large number of people want to read. This comes of admitting the mass into living, or of being force to admit the mass into living (which is the same thing); of giving the mass good houses, good clothes, free public schools, and civil and religious liberty. It is the penalty of democracy. Poise of power cannot be expected of the newly manumitted, of the newly made powerful. The uncultured mass cannot become cultured in a twinkling of an eye. The mass, totally without art-concepts, cannot, in the instant of achieving freedom, achieve the loftiest of art-concepts. And wherever the mass is admitted into living, wherever the common men for the first time grip hold of life, there must follow a falling away from all that is fine of tone and usage, a diminishing, a descending to something which is average, which is humanly average.
The Athenians of two thousand years ago present the remarkable spectacle of cultured people. But in contemplating this spectacle we are prone to forget that each Athenian stood on the heads and shoulders of ten slaves. We are prone to forget that, had every slave been given equal voice and vote in Athenian affairs, the culture of the Athenians would have presented quite another and unremarkable spectacle. And to-day we are likewise prone to forget that we have but yesterday admitted to equal voice and vote our own peasants and serfs, our villains and clouts and clowns. For as surely as a clout or clown is made into a free man, taught to read and write and to think somewhat dimly, and given three dollars a day for the labor of his head and hand, just so surely will that clout or clown, with ten cents in his hand and a desire for a magazine in his heart, become a power in the land. His free and equal voice will be heard, and the editor will listen to it; for of a majority of such is a large number of people composed.
And because a large number of people have ten cents in their hands,—or twenty-five cents, the sum matters not,—the editor must express literature, not merely in terms of cash, but in terms of the cash of the large number of people. In other words, the immediate appraisement of literature is made by the large number of people. The newly manumitted and artless determine what manner of speech the business manager may permit the editor to print on the pages of his magazine. The editor becomes the mouthpiece of the newly manumitted and artless. What they want, he wants. He is the purveyor, the middleman, the purchaser of goods for a large number of people who have not the time and training to dicker and bicker for themselves. And he goes into the highways and byways, where men hawk the wares of their brain, and selects his stock in trade. And, as the editor receives his bread from the hands of the large number of people, so, through the editor, the writers hawking their wares receive their bread. The large number of people feed them, and whosoever feeds a man is that man's master. And as masters, making the immediate appraisement of literature, the large number of people demand literature that is immediate.
Now the ultimate appraisement of literature is none of their business. They, with their dimes and quarters in their hands, and their free and equal thumbs turned up or down, determine what shall live for to-day and for this month; and, consequently, with their dimes and quarters (which are bread and meat), they determine what writers are to live for this day and month. Ninety per cent. of what lives to-day and this month dies to-morrow and next month. And ninety per cent of the men who write it . . . ah, no! Theirs is the gift of perennial life; they live from day to day and from month to month, their wake cluttered by the dead things of their brain which fail of ultimate appraisement. The men who die are the artist-aspirants of active belly and empty purse, who, failing to live to-day and this month, are unbenefited by any possible resurrection of to-morrow and next month.
But while the large number of people are the masters so far as immediate appraisement is concerned, a different and small number of people make the ultimate appraisement. These men, figuratively, stand upon the heads and the shoulders of the others. These final arbiters, using the word in its largest sense, may be called the "critics." They are not to be confounded with the men who review books, so many a week, for publications in the advertising pages of which the same books appear. Nor are they necessarily the men who speak professionally, nor need they speak through print at all. But they are the men, 'spite of deaf ears, who say the good word for the worthy thing and damn balderdash, and who continue to say the good word and to damn balderdash until they attract a crowd. They may be likened to the schoolmaster in the average classroom. The boys may find greater delight in buzzing bottlefly than in cube root; but the schoolmaster hammers, hammers, hammers, until he has painfully hammered cube root into their heads. Theirs is the immediate appraisement of knowledge, his the ultimate. And so with the large number of people and the critics. The critic hammers, hammers, hammers, praising and blaming, interpreting, explaining, making clear and plain, on his own responsibility guerdoning the artist and forcing the large number of people finally to guerdon him.
But the critics, who may be called the discerning, are the small number of people; and though they, too, hold dimes and quarters in their hands, the dimes and quarters are not many, and the editor, busily expressing literature in terms of cash, can give them little heed. Not that the editor does not slip in a worthy thing now and again. But he does it sometimes through mistake, and ofttimes without mistake and in fear and trembling, tentatively, anxiously, with a flutter of many doubts.
Comes now the artist-aspirant to spill his unsung song on the type-written page, to exchange the joy of his heart for the solace of his stomach, to make stuff that shall live and at the same time to live himself. Unless he be an extremely fortunate artist-aspirant, he quickly finds that singing into a typewriter and singing out of a magazine are quite unrelated performances; that soul's delights and heart's desires, pressed into enduring art-forms, are not necessarily immediate literature; in short, that the master he seeks to serve for bread and glory will have none of him. And while he sits down to catch his breath he sees the merely literary aspirants forging past him, droves of them, content to take the bread and let the glory go. People in general differentiate into the large number of people and the small number of people; bread and glory are divorced; and where he dreamed of serving one master he finds two masters. The one master he must serve that he may live, the other that his work may live, and what the one demands most of all the other has little or no use for.
Go ahead," say the discerning, patting him on the shoulder. "We're with you. Turn out your masterpieces and we'll write your name high in the temple of fame." But they are the small number of people, their dimes and quarters few, and the editor does not listen to them. "I don't want masterpieces," says the editor. "I cater to a large number of people of a certain calibre. Give me something, anything, never mind what it is so long as it fits that calibre, and I'll write the figures high for you on the national bank."
Truth alone endures," whisper the discerning. "Be a far-visioner and we shall remember you, and our children and our children's children shall remember you." And the artist-aspirant sits him down and gives form and substance to eternal and beautiful truth. "Too strong," says the editor. "Which is another way of saying 'Too true,'" the artist-aspirant objects. "Quite true," the editor replies. "It would cost me a thousand subscribers. Learn, O bright-browed youth, that I want no far-visioning; my subscribers are loth to part with their honest money for far-visioning." "You . . . don't . . . want . . . truth . . .?" the artist-aspirant quavers. "Not so," says the editor, "but it were well to learn that there be truth and truth and yet again truth. We do want truth, but it must be truth toned down, truth diluted, truth insipid, harmless truth, conventionalized truth, trimmed truth. There you have it! Trim your truth, young man. Get out your shears and clip, and I'll do business with you." "But I clip my immortality," cries the artist-aspirant. "You have made a mistake," says the editor finally and firmly; "I do not run an immortality market. Good-day."
And so the artist-aspirant sits down to generalize afresh upon his unsung songs and his sordid necessities. How and in what fashion must he sing the joy of his heart that the printed speech thereof may bring him bread? And he is puzzled at the men who have arrived, who (within limits), month after month, are running the truth that is in them in the magazines. And he is more puzzled when he realizes that they have compassed the paradox which confronts him. There's the sketch by Jones, the GREAT JONES, and the study by the IMMORTAL JENKINS; and yet the editor distinctly told him that such sketches and studies were not at all in demand. And there's another somewhat daring bit of verse by Mrs. Maybelle, the ONLY MRS. MAYBELLE. He struck the same note in fresher and more vigorous song, yet the same editor sent it back.
My dear sir," says the editor in answer to his plaint, "these noted writers you mention speak with authority. They have reputations. The large number of people will always listen to the one who speaks with authority, even though they do not understand him. Go and get a reputation and I'll publish anything you write, that is—er—almost anything, and at least all the rot. I'll even go so far as to publish some of the very things I am now refusing." "But if you refuse to publish them now," demands the artist-aspirant, "how under the sun am I ever to get a reputation?" "That," says the editor, "is your business, not mine."
And the artist-aspirant either subsides, taking the bread and letting the glory go, or, without dying, he compasses the paradox, even as Jones, Jenkins, and Maybelle compassed it. As to how he compasses it? That, dear reader, as the editor told him, is his business. Yours to be grateful that he does compass it.
|Home | Short Biography | Beauty Ranch | Cottage | Wolf House | Museum|