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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Literary Aspirants

Title:     Literary Aspirants
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

The brilliant Lady Ashburton used to say of herself that she had never written a book, and knew nobody whose books she would like to have written. This does not seem to be the ordinary state of mind among those who write letters of inquiry to authors. If I may judge from these letters, the yearning for a literary career is now almost greater among women than among men. Perhaps this is because of some literary successes lately achieved by women. Perhaps it is because they have fewer outlets for their energies. Perhaps they find more obstacles in literature than young men find, and have, therefore, more need to write letters of inquiry about it. It is certain that they write such letters quite often; and ask questions that test severely the supposed omniscience of the author's brain,--questions bearing on logic, rhetoric, grammar, and orthography; where to find a publisher, and how to obtain a well-disciplined mind.

These letters may sometimes be too long or come too often for convenience, nor is the consoling postage-stamp always remembered. But they are of great value as giving real glimpses of American social life, and of the present tendencies of American women. They sometimes reveal such intellectual ardor and imagination, such modesty, and such patience under difficulties, as to do good to the reader, whatever they may do to the writer. They certainly suggest a few thoughts, which may as well be expressed, once for all, in print.

Behind almost all these letters there lies a laudable desire to achieve success. "Would you have the goodness to tell us how success can be obtained?" How can this be answered, my dear young lady, when you leave it to the reader to guess what your definition of success may be? For instance, here is Mr. Mansfield Tracy Walworth, who was murdered the other day in New York. He was at once mentioned in the newspapers as a "celebrated author."

Never in my life having heard of him, I looked in a "Manual of American Literature," and there found that Mr. Walworth's novel of "Warwick" had a sale of seventy-five thousand copies, and his "Delaplaine" of forty-five thousand. Is it a success to have secured a sale like that for your books, and then to die, and have your brother penmen ask, "Who was he?" Yet, certainly, a sale of seventy-five thousand copies is not to be despised; and I fear I know many youths and maidens who would willingly write novels much poorer than "Warwick" for the sake of a circulation like that. I do not think that Hawthorne, however, would have accepted these conditions; and he certainly did not have this style of success.

Nor do I think he had any right to expect it. He had made his choice, and had reason to be satisfied. The very first essential for literary success is to decide what success means. If a young girl pines after the success of Marion Harland and Mrs. Southworth, let her seek it. It is possible that she may obtain it, or surpass it; and though she might do better, she might do far worse. It is, at any rate, a laudable aim to be popular: popularity may be a very creditable thing, unless you pay too high a price for it. It is a pleasant thing, and has many contingent advantages,--balanced by this great danger, that one is apt to mistake it for real success.

"Learning hath made the most," said old Fuller, "by those books on which the booksellers have lost." If this be true of learning, it is quite as true of genius and originality. A book may be immediately popular and also immortal, but the chances are the other way. It is more often the case that a great writer gradually creates the taste by which he is enjoyed. Wordsworth in England and Emerson in America were striking instances of this; and authors of far less fame have yet the same choice which they had. You can take the standard which the book market offers, and train yourself for that. This will, in the present age, be sure to educate certain qualities in you,--directness, vividness, animation, dash,--even if it leaves other qualities untrained. Or you can make a standard of your own, and aim at that, taking your chance of seeing the public agree with you. Very likely you may fail; perhaps you may be wrong in your fancy, after all, and the public may be right: if you fail, you may find it hard to bear; but, on the other hand, you may have the inward "glory and joy" which nothing but fidelity to an ideal standard can give. All this applies to all forms of work, but it applies conspicuously to literature.

Instead, therefore, of offering to young writers the usual comforting assurance, that, if they produce anything of real merit, it will be sure to succeed, I should caution them first to make their own definition of success, and then act accordingly. Hawthorne succeeded in his way, and Mr. M.T. Walworth in his way; and each of these would have been very unreasonable if he had expected to succeed in both ways. There is always an opening for careful and conscientious literary work; and by such work many persons obtain a modest support. There are also some great prizes to be won; but these are commonly, though not always, won by work of a more temporary and sensational kind. Make your choice; and, when you have got precisely what you asked for, do not complain because you have missed what you would not take.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Literary Aspirants