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An essay by John Burroughs

Before Genius

Title:     Before Genius
Author: John Burroughs [More Titles by Burroughs]

If there did not something else go to the making of literature besides mere literary parts, even the best of them, how long ago the old bards and the Biblical writers would have been superseded by the learned professors and the gentlemanly versifiers of later times! Is there to-day a popular poet, using the English language, who does not, in technical acquirements and in the artificial adjuncts of poetry,--rhyme, metre, melody, and especially sweet, dainty fancies,--surpass Europe's and Asia's loftiest and oldest? Indeed, so marked is the success of the latter-day poets in this respect, that any ordinary reader may well be puzzled, and ask, if the shaggy antique masters are poets, what are the refined and euphonious producers of our own day?

If we were to inquire what this something else is which is prerequisite to any deep and lasting success in literature, we should undoubtedly find that it is the man behind the book. It is the fashion of the day to attribute all splendid results to genius and culture. But genius and culture are not enough. "All other knowledge is hurtful to him who has not the science of honesty and goodness," says Montaigne. The quality of simple manhood, and the universal human traits which form the bond of union between man and man,--which form the basis of society, of the family, of government, of friendship,-- are quite overlooked; and the credit is given to some special facility, or to brilliant and lucky hit. Does any one doubt that the great poets and artists are made up mainly of the most common universal human and heroic characteristics?--that in them, though working to other ends, is all that construct the soldier, the sailor, the farmer, the discoverer, the bringer-to-pass in any field, and that their work is good and enduring in proportion as it is saturated and fertilized by the qualities of these? Good human stock is the main dependence. No great poet ever appeared except from a race of good fighters, good eaters, good sleepers, good breeders. Literature dies with the decay of the _un-_literary element. It is not in the spirit of something far away in the clouds or under the moon, something ethereal, visionary, and anti-mundane, that Angelo, Dante, and Shakespeare work, but in the spirit of common Nature and of the homeliest facts; through these, and not away from them, the path of the creator lies.

It is no doubt this tendency, always more or less marked in highly refined and cultivated times, to forget or overlook the primary basic qualities, and to parade and make much of verbal and technical acquirements, that led Huxley to speak with such bitter scorn of the "sensual caterwauling of the literary classes," for this is not the only country in which books are produced that are a mere skin of elegant words blown up by copious literary gas.

In imaginative works, especially, much depends upon the quality of mere weight. A stern, material inertia is indispensable. It is like the immobility and the power of resistance of a piece of ordnance, upon which the force and efficacy of the projectile finally depend. In the most daring flights of the master, there is still something which remains indifferent and uncommitted, and which acts as reserve power, making the man always superior to his work. He must always leave the impression that if he wanted to pull harder or to fly higher he could easily do so. In Homer there is much that is not directly available for Homer's purposes as poet. This is his personality,--the real Homer,--which lies deeper than his talents and skill, and which works through these by indirections. This gives the authority; this is the unseen backer, which makes every promise good.

What depths can a man sound but his own, or what heights explore? "We carry within us," says Sir Thomas Browne, "the wonders we seek without us."

Indeed, there is a strict moral or ethical dependence of the capacity to conceive or to project great things upon the capacity to be or to do them. It is as true as any law of hydraulics or of statics, that the workmanship of a man can never rise above the level of his character. He can never adequately say or do anything greater than he himself is. There is no such thing, for instance, as deep insight into the mystery of Creation, without integrity and simplicity of character.

In the highest mental results and conditions the whole being sympathizes. The perception of a certain range of truth, such as is indicated by Plato, Hegel, Swedenborg, and which is very far from what is called "religious" or "moral," I should regard as the best testimonial that could be offered of a man's probity and essential nobility of soul. Is it possible to imagine a fickle, inconstant, or a sly, vain, mean person reading and appreciating Emerson? Think of the real men of science, the great geologists and astronomers, one opening up time, the other space! Shall mere intellectual acumen be accredited with these immense results? What noble pride, self-reliance, and continuity of character underlie Newton's deductions!

Only those books are for the making of men into which a man has gone in the making. Mere professional skill and sleight of hand, of themselves, are to be apprized as lightly in letters as in war or in government, or in any kind of leadership. Strong native qualities only avail in the long run; and the more these dominate over the artificial endowments, sloughing or dropping the latter in the final result, the more we are refreshed and enlarged. Who has not, at some period of his life, been captivated by the rhetoric and fine style of nearly all the popular authors of a certain sort, but at last waked up to discover that behind these brilliant names was no strong, loving man, but only a refined taste, a fertile invention, or a special talent of one kind or another.

Think of the lather of the modern novel, and the fashion-plate men and women that figure in it! What noble person has Dickens sketched, or has any novelist since Scott? The utter poverty of almost every current novelist, in any grand universal human traits in his own character, is shown in nothing more clearly than in the _kind_ of interest the reader takes in his books. We are led along solely by the ingenuity of the plot, and a silly desire to see how the affair came out. What must be the effect, long continued, of this class of jugglers working upon the sympathies and the imagination of a nation of gestating women?

How the best modern novel collapses before the homely but immense human significance of Homer's celestial swineherd entertaining divine Ulysses, or even the solitary watchman in Aeschylus' "Agamemnon," crouched, like a night-dog, on the roofs of the Atreidae, waiting for the signal fires that should announce the fall of sacred Ilion!

But one need not look long, even in contemporary British literature, to find a man. In the author of "Characteristics" and "Sartor Resartus" we surely encounter one of the true heroic cast. We are made aware that here is something more than a _litterateur,_ something more than genius. Here is veracity, homely directness and sincerity, and strong primary idiosyncrasies. Here the man enters into the estimate of the author. There is no separating them, as there never is in great examples. A curious perversity runs through all, but in no way vitiates the result. In both his moral and intellectual nature, Carlyle seems made with a sort of stub and twist, like the best gun-barrels. The knotty and corrugated character of his sentences suits well the peculiar and intense activity of his mind. What a transition from his terse and sharply articulated pages, brimming with character and life, and a strange mixture of rage, humor, tenderness, poetry, philosophy, to the cold disbelief and municipal splendor of Macaulay! Nothing in Carlyle's contributions seems fortuitous. It all flows from a good and sufficient cause in the character of the man.

Every great man is, in a certain way, an Atlas, with the weight of the world upon him. And if one is to criticise at all, he may say that, if Carlyle had not been quite so conscious of this weight, his work would have been better done. Yet to whom do we owe more, even as Americans? Anti-democratic in his opinions, he surely is not so in spirit, or in the quality of his make. The nobility of labor and the essential nobility of man were never so effectively preached before. The deadliest enemy of democracy is not the warning or dissenting voice, but it is the spirit, rife among us, which would engraft upon our hardy Western stock the sickly and decayed standards of the expiring feudal world.

With two or three exceptions, there is little as yet in American literature that shows much advance beyond the merely conventional and scholastic,--little, I mean, in which one gets a whiff of the strong, unbreathed air of mountain or prairie, or a taste of rude, new power that is like the tonic of the sea. Thoreau occupies a niche by himself. Thoreau was not a great personality, yet his writings have a strong characteristic flavor. He is anti-scorbutic, like leeks and onions. He has reference, also, to the highest truths.

It is very likely true that our most native and original characters do not yet take to literature. It is, perhaps, too early in the day. Iron and lime have to pass through the vegetable before they can reach the higher organization of the animal, and maybe this Western nerve and heartiness will yet emerge on the intellectual plane. Let us hope that it will indeed be Western nerve and heartiness when it gets there, and not Eastern wit and epigram!

In Abraham Lincoln we had a character of very marked and lofty type, the most suggestive study or sketch of the future American man that has yet appeared in our history. How broad, unconventional, and humane! How democratic! how adhesive! No fine arabesque carvings, but strong, unhewn, native traits, and deep lines of care, toil, and human sympathy. Lincoln's Gettysburg speech is one of the most genuine and characteristic utterances in our annals. It has the true antique simplicity and impressiveness. It came straight from the man, and is as sure an index of character as the living voice, or the physiognomy, or the personal presence. Indeed, it may be said of Mr. Lincoln's entire course while at the head of the nation, that no President, since the first, ever in his public acts allowed the man so fully to appear, or showed so little disposition to retreat behind the featureless political mask which seems to adhere to the idea of gubernatorial dignity.

It would be hardly fair to cite Everett's speech on the same occasion as a specimen of the opposite style, wherein ornate scholarship and the pride of talents dominate. Yet a stern critic would be obliged to say that, as an author, Everett allowed, for the most part, only the expurgated, complimenting, drawing-room man to speak; and that, considering the need of America to be kept virile and broad at all hazards, his contribution, both as man and writer, falls immeasurably short of Abraham Lincoln's.

What a noble specimen of its kind, and how free from any verbal tricks or admixture of literary sauce, is Thoreau's "Maine Woods"! And what a marked specimen of the opposite style is a certain other book I could mention in which these wild and grand scenes serve but as a medium to advertise the author's fund of classic lore!

Can there be any doubt about the traits and outward signs of a noble character, and is not the style of an author the manners of his soul?

Is there a lyceum lecturer in the country who is above manoeuvring for the applause of his audience? or a writer who is willing to make himself of no account for the sake of what he has to say? Even in the best there is something of the air and manners of a performer on exhibition. The newspaper, or magazine, or book is a sort of raised platform upon which the advertiser advances before a gaping and expectant crowd. Truly, how well he _handles_ his subject! He turns it over, and around, and inside out, and top-side down. He tosses it about; he twirls it; he takes it apart and puts it together again, and knows well beforehand where the applause will come in. Any reader, in taking up the antique authors, must be struck by the contrast.

"In Aeschylus," says Landor, "there is no trickery, no trifling, no delay, no exposition, no garrulity, no dogmatism, no declamation, no prosing, . . . but the loud, clear challenge, the firm, unstealthy step, of an erect, broad-breasted soldier."

On the whole, the old authors are better than the new. The real question of literature is not simplified by culture or a multiplication of books, as the conditions of life are always the same, and are not made one whit easier by all the myriads of men and women who have lived upon the globe. The standing want is never for more skill, but for newer, fresher power,--a more plentiful supply of arterial blood. The discoverer, or the historian, or the man of science, may begin where his predecessor left off, but the poet or any artist must go back for a fresh start. With him it is always the first day of creation, and he must begin at the stump or nowhere.

[The end]
John Burroughs's essay: Before Genius