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An essay by Israel Zangwill

The Penalties Of Fame

Title:     The Penalties Of Fame
Author: Israel Zangwill [More Titles by Zangwill]

There is one form of persecution to which celebrity or notoriety is subject, which Ouida has omitted in her impassioned protest. It is interviewing carried one step further--from the ridiculous to the sublime of audacity. The auto-interview, one might christen it, if the officiating purist would pass the hybrid name. Yon are asked to supply information about yourself by post, prepaid. The ordinary interview, whatever may be said against it, is at least painless; and, annoying as it is to after-reflection to have had your brain picked of its ideas by a stranger who gets paid for them, still the mechanical vexations of literature are entirely taken over by the journalist who hangs on your lips; though, if I may betray the secrets of the prison-house, he often expects you to supply the questions as well as the answers. But when you are asked to write your life for a biographical dictionary, or to communicate particulars about yourself to a newspaper, it is difficult, however equable your temperament, not to feel a modicum of irritation. It is not only the labour of writing and the cost of stamps that anger you. Your innate modesty is outraged. How is it possible for you to say all those nice things about yourself which you know to be your due, and which a third person might even exaggerate? What business have editors to expose you to such inner conflict? A scholar I knew suffered agonies from this source. He was constantly making learned discoveries which nobody understood but himself, and so editors were always pestering him to write leaderettes about them. He got over the difficulty by leaving blanks for the eulogistic adjectives, which the editors had to fill in. As thus: "Mr. Theophilus Rogers, the ---- savant, has unearthed another papyrus in Asia Minor which throws a flood of light on the primitive seismology of Syria." Once a careless editor forgot to fill in the lacuna, and the paper lost a lot of subscribers by reason of its improper language, whilst the friends of Theophilus wanted him to bring an action for libel, unconscious that it would lie against himself.

But perhaps the climax of irritation is reached when, having troubled to write down autobiographical details, having wrestled with your modesty and overthrown it, having posted your letter and prepaid it, the ---- editor rejects your contribution without thanks. This hard fate overtook me--_moi qui vous parle_--not very long ago. The conductor of a penny journal, not unconnected with literary tit-bits, honoured me with a triple interrogatory. This professional Rosa Dartle wanted to know--

(1) The conditions under which you write your novels.

(2) How you get your plots and characters.

(3) How you find your titles.

I was very busy. I was very modest. But the accompanying assurance that an anxious world was on the _qui vive_ for the information appealed to my higher self, and I took up my pen and wrote:--

(1) The conditions under which I write my novels can be better imagined than described.

(2) My plots and characters I get from the MSS, submitted to me by young authors, whose clever but crude ideas I hate to see wasted. I always read everything sent to me, and would advise young authors to encourage younger authors to send them their efforts.

(3) As for my titles, they are the only things I work out myself, and you will therefore excuse me if I preserve a measure of reticence as to the method by which I get them.

"What is being interviewed like?" a young lady once asked me, unconscious she was subjecting me to the process. "It is being asked what you drink--and not getting it," I explained to her. The curiosity of the interviewer is indeed boundless. He even asks which is your favourite author, so that you are forced to advertise some other fellow. And yet there is another side to the question, which Ouida ignores. There are two periods in the life of successful persons--the first when they are anxious to be interviewed, the second when people are anxious to interview them. With some there thus arrives a third period, in which they are anxious not to be interviewed, but this is rare. Doubtless there are superior persons who never craved for fame even in their callow youth, and possibly Ouida herself may have taken to authorship as an elaborate means of diverting attention from herself. But the majority of mortals, being fools by edict of Puck and Carlyle, are pleased to fly through the lips of men. Even Tennyson, whose horror of the interviewer almost reached insanity, whose later life was one long "We are observed: let us dissemble," is said to have been disappointed when the casual pedestrian took no notice of him at all. A lady in the Isle of Wight told me that the great poet was wont to put his handkerchief over his face if he met anybody. Naturally this would make the most illiterate person stop and gaze and wonder who this merry-andrew might be. Assuredly this is not the fine simplicity of manners one expects from a great man. "Earl, do you wear one of these?" asked an American democrat of an English peer at his table, as he produced a coronet from a cupboard and stuck the pudding-dish upon the inverted spikes. Tennyson seemed to be always conscious of his laurel crown. The nobler course had been to deck his puddings with the sprigs.

Kind hearts are more than laurel crowns,
And simple mien than Saxon song.

Ouida does a public service by insisting that it is presumptuous of the crowd to judge the conduct of men of genius, whose life is pitched in quite a different key, and runs very frequently in the melancholy minor mode. The travail of soul, the workings of the mind, the agonies and the raptures of genius must be so remote from the common ken, that it is unjust to apply to it the vulgar meteyard; and so, far be it from me to blame the inspired singer of "Crossing the Bar," or to imagine that he could have been other than he was! All the same, it is permissible to regret that he should have throughout his life pandered to the popular conception of a poet. There was something of a robuster quality in Browning, who managed to be a seer and a mystic in despite of afternoon teas. Ouida beats the tom-tom far too loudly. From one point of view the post-mortem revelations of great men's friends, which kindle her ire, perform a public good, even if at the expense of a private wrong. The attempt to apotheosise human nature, to invest our kindred clay with theatrical glamour and to drape it from the property-room, this mythical creation of "a magnified non-natural man," what is it all but the perpetuation of the false psychology of the past? There is no durable good in this childish "make-believe." It is time for humanity to outgrow this puerile self-deception about its powers and characteristics and limitations. A great man is a man as well as great, and he may be all the wonderful things that Carlyle claimed without ceasing to be human and therefore erring. And if he would go about simply and naturally, without developing a self-consciousness as vast and unhealthy as the liver of a goose intended for _pate_, he would be happier and wiser, and secure the inattention he yearns for. Moreover, while Ouida is rightly intolerant of the abuse of genius by the bourgeois, the dictionary scarcely affords her own genius sufficient vituperation for the bourgeois. I am at a loss to understand by what logic genius gains the right to hate the bourgeois. It has not the excuse of the bourgeois--stupidity. That the crowd hates superiority and is venomously anxious to degrade it to its own level, is one of Ouida's many delusions about life. Discounting vulgar curiosity, a good deal of the crowd's interest in genius, however annoying and ridiculous the shapes it takes, springs at bottom from a sense of reverence and admiration; and surely it is sheer priggishness, if it be not rank midsummer madness, on the part of genius to regard itself as persecuted by foolish and malicious persons. Methinks the lady doth protest too much. Still it would be unjust to deny her perfect seclusion from the world, if she feels she needs it.

Perhaps the mildest form of persecution is that of the autographomaniacs. "They send me my own books," one of the most popular authors in England complained to me pathetically the other day, "and they ask me to write in them. But to write in them is all that you can do for the books of your friends. If you do this for strangers, what is there left for your friends?" Although far less beloved of the book-buyer than the illustrious novelist, I could yet offer him the sympathy of a minor fellow-sufferer. It is the American reader who is the main persecutor. He is not "gentle," forsooth--a very bully, rather. But why do I say "he," when it is generally "she"? "You have eluded all my wiles hitherto," she wrote me the other day: "now I ask you straight out for your autograph." This honesty would have softened me had I not just had to pay fivepence on the letter--and for the second time that day! Of course her request was not accompanied by a stamped envelope either, though, if it had been, the stamp would have been an American; invalid, a pictorial irony. She has a trick, moreover, of addressing you--most economically--care of your American publishers, who expedite the letter with vengeful _empressement_, so that you pay double at your end of the Atlantic. And when everything else is in order, her epistle is insufficiently stamped, and your income is frittered away in futile fivepences. It is too much. The cup is full. We must no longer bow our necks beneath the oppressor's yoke, no longer tremble at the postman's knock. _We_ must strike, instead--we other men of letters. For authors, too, are human: manual labourers, overworked and underpaid, with no hope of an eight hours' day. Their pay must not be still further reduced by this monstrous stamp-tax. Will not some Burns--more poetical than John--raise the banner of revolt? Perhaps William Morris may reconcile his hitherto contradictory _roles_ by placing himself at the head of the movement. Henceforward no author is to despatch his autograph to an admirer, charm she never so cunningly. Beshrew these admirers! a man's personality is in his books, not in his scrawl. Whosoever violates this prescription shall be accounted a blackleg. On one condition only shall autographs be sent--to wit, that they be paid for.

I do not, indeed, propose that the author shall pocket the money, though I see no shame in the deed: everything is worth what it can fetch, and if an adventitious value comes to attach to a signature, the author were amply justified in pocketing this legitimate supplement to the scanty rewards of his travail of soul and body--just as he were justified, should locks of his hair come into demand, in alternating the scissors and the hair-restorer. But as a suspicion still prevails that authors live on ambrosia and nectar (carriage paid), that the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker tumble over one another in their eagerness to offer their goods at the shrine of genius, it may be unwise to shock one's admirers too much by pocketing their oboli; and I would suggest--in all seriousness--that a charge be made in the future for all autographs: each celebrity could fix it according to the special demand, and the returns should go for charitable purposes. An "Autograph Fund" should be founded in every profession admitting of notoriety. Among actors the fund could be devoted to that excellent charity the Dramatic and Musical Benevolent Fund; among writers, to the support of decayed critics and neglected novelists. Why not? In days when men cannot bear to see even Niagara wasting its energies in misdirected roars, why should so prolific a source of profit as autographomania be neglected? The authors' strike must be initiated at once: the Autograph Fund demands an instant Treasurer. I don't mind contributing ten signatures to start it, if twelve other writers, of equal eminence and illegibility, will guarantee a like amount.

What profits it to woo the thankless Muse, or to appeal to the autograph-huntress? In a foolish moment of unpardonable sentimentality, I suggested that she should pay for her treasure by a charity contribution; at the very least let her refrain, I prayed, from American stamps. But she does not read me, alas! though my writings are the sole solace of her days and nights; there is no way of attracting her attention. Still, still her stamps flow in. I cry _Oyez, Oyez_, but she is bent over "Trilby," and I am but the shadow of a name--of a name that is interesting enough tacked on to my favourite motto or a brief autobiography, and may serve to round off her autographic alphabet. Will not Mr. Du Maurier cry aloud to her on behalf of his brother-authors, he whose housetop is the sun, whose voice reaches from the summits of the Rockies to the pampas of La Plata, and echoes from the ice-floes of Labrador to the cliffs of Cape Horn? Will he not tell her that even as "the crimes of Clapham" are "chaste in Martaban," so the stamps of the States are the waste-paper of the London mails. Mr. Kipling, whom I have just quoted, is more fortunate. Breathing the air of Brattleboro', Vermont, he is supplied with native stamps to carry on his correspondence withal. For Mr. Kipling--so he has confided to me in an amusing narrative of his autograph experiences, designed for the warning of fellow-craftsmen to whom my project may have sounded seductive--had actually anticipated my plan: he had sent out two hundred circulars to the admiring crew who ranked him before Shakespeare, proposing that they should send him a donation for a charity in return for his signature. Then the flood-gates--not of heaven--were opened. For weeks abuse rained in upon him, and "thief" seems to have been the mildest rebuke he received. To be asked for an autograph was an honour (even with the stamps omitted). He bowed his head beneath the deluge, praying perhaps--

Of the two hundred grant but two
To take a charitable view.

But no, as one man and one woman they cast him out of grace.

And yet he seems to persevere--for 't is indeed an excellent way of circumventing the wily. In the Chicago _Record_ I read that he wrote to an autograph-beggar that he would send his autograph on receiving proof that the autograph-hunter had deposited two and a half dollars in a certain New York fresh air fund. This is an ingenious variation of the original scheme, for it puts aside the possibility of personal peculation; but I doubt whether it answers. Each celebrity must solve for himself this harassing problem: there be those who simply stick to the stamps ... great free spirits, these, the Napoleons of the pen, _Jenseits von Gut und Boese_, whose names it is not for me to bewray. Others, like myself, stricken with the paralysis of a Puritan conscience, waver and vex themselves. One ought not to encourage this craze for the external accidents of greatness--the appeal may be fraudulent--and yet what right have you to the stamps?--and after all 't is flattering to be adored from Terra del Fuego; it argues taste--and taste should not go unrecognized in a Philistine world. _Eureka!_ I have found the solution. Don't stick to the stamps, but send _them_ to the funds of a charity.

These views of mine on autographs have greatly distressed the unfair sex. The ladies--God bless them--resent a severely logical view of anything, and to disturb their small sentimentalities is to be cold-blooded and cynical. Once, when I wasj imprudent enough to wonder if the "young person" with the well-known cheek, to which blushes were brought, existed any longer in this age of neurotic novels written by ladies for gentlemen, I received a delicious communication from an Australian damsel informing me that she had been in love with me up till the fatal day on which she read my cynical conception of her sex,--which reminds me of another well-meaning young lady who wrote me the other day from America that her epistle was prompted "neither by love nor admiration." If I hint that popular lady novelists do not invariably produce masterpieces of style and syntax, I am accused of inflicting the "tarantulous bites of envious detractors." I am driven--most reluctantly--to a suspicion that has long been faintly glimmering in my bosom, a suspicion that ladies have no sense of humour. It is gravely pointed out to me by incensed writers of incense-laden letters that the demand for a writer's autograph is a mark of veneration; that his letter is reverentially handed about on special occasions quite without a thought of its possible commercial value and that often--though here the argument itself becomes cunningly commercial--it becomes the focus of a local hero-worship that expresses itself outwardly in increased purchases of the author's books. Now, of course every author is only too aware that requests for his autographs are manifestations of reverence, and is only too apt to disregard the supposition of crude curiosity. He knows that it is only natural that people, forewarned by the scarcity of autographs of Shakespeare, should be anxious to safeguard posterity against a similar calamity. But that any author should have humour enough to see the absurdity of the autograph mania, this is what his fair _clientele_ has not humour enough to understand. Anthony Hope--who, by the way, told me he had received a letter from an unknown lady, the object of which was to abuse _me_ for my heresy on this heart-burning question--says that if to write his name on slips of paper adds to the sum of the world's pleasure, he is ready to do it. This is a noble attitude; but the good people do not always do the most good. Ought one to pamper this interest in mere externals? Here are the man's books, pictures, symphonies: if these have profited you, be content--you have had enough. He has shown you his soul,--why should he show you his hand? One knows into what this sort of thing degenerates--into the exploitation of celebrities by smart American journalists, to whom genius and notoriety are equally alike mere possibilities of sensational copy with screaming head-lines. A. Z. has written the opera of the century: the public is dying to know the cut of his trousers and the proportion of milk in his _cafe au lait_. X. Y. has murdered his uncle and vivisected his grandmother: how interesting to ascertain his favourite novel, and whether he approves of the bicycle for ladies! For one person who knows anything of the artistic output of the day there are ten who know all about the producers and how much money they are making. Even when our interest in artistic work is intellectual, we are more likely to read criticisms of it than to place ourselves _vis-a-vis_ with the work. Not the truest criticism, not the subtlest misinterpretation, can give us anything like the sensation or the stimulus that results from direct contact with the work itself. As well enjoy the "Moonlight Sonata" through a technical analysis of its form. But this is a venial vice compared with taking your Sonata through the medium of a paragraph about Beethoven's shoe-buckles.

The autograph craze is, I maintain, only another aspect of this modern mania for irrelevant gossip; just as the tit-bits breed of papers is but the outer manifestation of an inner disgrace. We no longer tackle great works and ordered trains of thought: everything must be snappy and spicy; and we open our books and papers, awaiting, like the criminal in "The Mikado," "the sensation of a short sharp shock." To possess a man's autograph may as easily become a substitute for studying his work as an incentive to purchasing it. The critique displaces the book itself: the autograph may displace even the critique. All this without reference to the trouble and expense entailed by an aggregation of the trivial taskwork of signing one's name, addressing envelopes, sticking on stamps, and occasionally paying for them, and not infrequently defraying the extra postage on insufficiently stamped admiration. Henry James, in his latest story in "The Yellow Book," says deliciously: "Lambert's novels appeared to have brought him no money: they had only brought him, so far as I could make out, tributes that took up his time." The earnings of the most popular authors are, I fear me, sadly exaggerated, and their own anticipations seldom realised. As the other American novelist--Mr. Howells--humourously puts it: "I never get a cheque from my publisher without feeling distinctly poorer." The average author is indeed very much in the position of a cabman surveying a shilling. And the even less substantial "tributes," be it noted, are not limited to aspirations after autographs. That would be little to grumble at. But everybody knows that the demands made upon a celebrity--and especially upon an author--are "peculiar and extensive." He is expected to be not only an author--and even, according to the more high-minded among the unsuccessful critics, to be that without fee or reward--but also to officiate gratuitously as publisher's reader to the universe at large--unprinted; as author's agent, hawking unknown MSS. about among his friends the publishers, and placing unknown young men on the staff of the leading journals; as dramatic agent, introducing plays and players to his friends the managers--who will not produce his own works; and, in fine, to act as general adviser to aspirants of every species. Nay, was not Hall Caine recently asked by a lady admirer in poor health, about to visit the Isle of Man, to find lodgings for her? Heavens! who knows what scandal might have arisen had the author of "The Manxman" inconsiderately turned himself into a house-agent! The famous tale of the Nova Scotian sheep in "The School for Scandal" might have been eclipsed by the sequel. Now, the poor lady meant well enough: she may even have thought to show how deep her faith in the novelist's domestic genius and financial impeccability! It simply did not occur to her that she was not the only call upon Mr. Caine's time; and she may have felt as resentful at his reluctance as the beggar who stigmatises Rothschild as niggard because he cannot wheedle a share in his bounty. It may be that I am incapable of envisaging this whole matter fairly, because--to make a clean breast of it--I am one of those Philistine persons who shock Americans by never having been to Stratford-on-Avon. It is true that I have read Shakespeare--and even his commentators, which gives me the pull over Shakespeare himself; it is true that I agree with the persons who haven't read him that he is the greatest poet the world has ever seen or is likely to see; it is true that Shakespeare is part of my life and thought; but somehow my interest in him does not extend to his second-best bed, and I do not greatly yearn to see the room in which Bacon was not born. I do not even care whether Shakespeare was written by Shakespeare or "by another man of the same name." Do you remember that poem of Amy Levy's, telling of how she sat listening to people chattering about a dead, poet they had known, his looks and ways, and thinking to herself--

I, who had never seen your face,
Perhaps I knew you best.

It is this flaw in an otherwise well regulated mind, this "blind spot" in my spiritual eye, that perhaps makes me attach undue unimportance to the attraction of autographs. There is an eminent actress who invariably refuses to send her autograph; but the eminent actor who is her husband invariably sends a letter of apology to the disappointed correspondent. Since I am in the mood for confessions, let me candidly admit that my own attitude has a somewhat similar duality. Though I curse in these pages, I bless like Balaam when it comes to the point. Never have I omitted to return a sufficiently stamped, envelope with the coveted sign-manual--never twice alike. Never have I failed to put my name in a birthday book under a specific date--never twice alike. And though I hate to answer applications for autographs, I should be still more annoyed not to receive them. And as for sneering at the ladies, they have, I vow, no more constant admirer. I could, indeed, desire that when they are next angry with me they would read me before they criticise me; that they would base their denunciations on my text, and my whole text, rather than on some paper's mistaken comment upon another paper's inaccurate extract. But nothing that they can say of me, however harsh, shall, I protest, abate a jot of my respect for them or myself.

[The end]
Israel Zangwill's essay: Penalties Of Fame