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An essay by George William Curtis

Cheapening His Name

Title:     Cheapening His Name
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

A distinguished public man once said to the Easy Chair that after an election in which he had taken part, and in which his party had succeeded, he always signed the recommendations of anybody who asked him for any office he wished. And when the Easy Chair remarked that he must have sadly cheapened his name with the appointing power, the excellent statesman answered, "Not at all; because I wrote by mail that no attention was to be paid to my request." Perhaps he thought that this was not cheapening his name. But what must the appointing power have secretly thought of a man who respected his own name so little? And an eminent public officer of long service told the Easy Chair that a recommendation was once delivered to him by an office-seeker from a President of the United States; and when the officer, delaying the applicant, asked the President if he really wished the person appointed, the President replied, "Not in the least; but I gave the letter to him to get rid of him."

Any Easy Chair must be often reminded of such incidents when it reads in the papers the cards and notices and invitations and petitions to which conspicuous names are attached. It discovers, for instance, that the most eminent ministers, merchants, lawyers, and capitalists are very anxious to hear Dr. Dunderhead upon the history of chaos. They compliment the learned doctor's erudition and eloquence, and beg him to name the evening when he will speak to them. The doctor replies in blushing rhetoric, and will yield to their desires on Thursday evening, the 32d. On that evening the Easy Chair, which has perused the correspondence with eager expectation, and which has a profound interest in chaos, repairs to the hall, finds a dozen surprised stragglers like itself, but not one of the conspicuous clergymen, lawyers, merchants, or capitalists, and goes home in bewilderment to read in the morning's paper an elaborate report of Dr. Dunderhead's lecture, delivered at the request of the following distinguished gentlemen--who are duly named; and it slowly dawns upon the Easy Chair that it has been assisting at an advertisement, that the invitation to Dr. Dunderhead was also written by Dr. Dunderhead, that the gentlemen signed because they were asked to do so, and that the whole proceeding is intended to impress the rural districts, and to procure the learned and erudite Dunderhead invitations to lecture in other places.

Have these gentlemen no respect for their names? They would not indorse the note of a stranger for a thousand dollars because somebody asked them to do it for good-nature. But it is just as dishonorable to indorse a man's learning and eloquence when you know nothing of it as to indorse a man's promise to pay of whose solvency you are equally ignorant. Indeed, in the one case you could supply the money if the maker of the note failed. But, dear sirs, can you supply the eloquence and erudition which you indorsed in Dr. Dunderhead, for which many Easy Chairs paid many dollars, and which Dunderhead failed to display? You cannot, indeed, be sued at the City Hall, but you are prosecuted at another, even loftier tribunal, and you are mulcted in damages. Your own good name pays the penalty, and is thereafter less respected. If a man does not respect his own name, who will? But if he publicly announces that his name is of no weight, how can he complain if it becomes a jest?

There are every day great public meetings at which a long list of familiar names appears as vice-presidents. Very often the gentlemen are notified that their names are to be used, and that if they are unwilling they may inform the managers. But very often, also, they know nothing of the complicity until they read their names in the report of the meeting. Upon this discovery most men shrug their shoulders, and wish impatiently that people wouldn't do so. But they have a feeling that the occasion is passed; that they will be derided as courting notoriety if they write to the papers stating that their names were used without authority; so they grumble and acquiesce. But they nevertheless connive at the abuse of their names. They embolden to further abuse, and they weaken both the power and the effect of disavowal. They condoned the abuse when they were made vice-presidents of the immense and enthusiastic meeting in favor of the annexation of Terra del Fuego; and why, sneers Mrs. Grundy and Mrs. Candour--why should they be too nice to assist at the grand demonstration of fraternity for the Philippine Islands? If the correspondents of Dr. Dunderhead would show that they respected their own names, they would soon find that other people would not trifle with them.

But neither must they cheapen them by constant use. There are well-known names that appear upon every occasion. They ask all the Dunderheads to lecture; they petition for and against all public objects; they recommend everything from a Correggio to a corn-plaster; they offer benefits to actors; they are honorary directors of institutions of which they are painfully ignorant; their names appear so universally and indiscriminately that they have no more effect upon public attention or confidence than the machines with which the Chinese bonzes grind out prayers can be supposed to have upon the Divine intelligence. The consequence is that all sensible men come to regard these signatures as those of men of straw. And why not, since they give straw bail for the appearance of that which does not appear, or for the excellence of that of which, if it be excellence, they know nothing?

And so, says the old story, after crying wolf so long that the shepherds no longer heeded him, one day the boy cried wolf lustily, for the wild beast had really come. But the louder he cried, the louder they sneered: "No, no; we've learned your tricks at last, you wicked boy, and you may shout until you are hoarse!" And while they laughed the wolf devoured the boy. Remember, then, dear Dunderhead correspondents, that, when Plato himself comes, and some foolish touter obtains your names, or even yourselves this time know that the truly seraphic doctor has arrived, whose golden wisdom would make the whole world richer, it will be in vain. You have invited discredit for your names; and we, who have been deluded, when we see that you earnestly invite us all to hear Plato, shall only smile incredulously--"Plato indeed! 'tis only Dunderhead Number Twenty."

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Cheapening His Name