The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 107/A Distinguished Character
A DISTINGUISHED CHARACTER.
In order to prevent conjectures which might not be entirely pleasant to one or two persons whom I have in my mind, I prefer to state, at once and frankly, that I, Dionysius Green, am the author of this article. It requires some courage to make this avowal, I am well aware; and I am prepared to experience a rapid diminution of my present rather extensive popularity. One result I certainly foresee, namely, a great falling-off in the number of applications for autographs ("accompanied with a sentiment"), which I daily receive; possibly, also, fewer invitations to lecture before literary societies next winter. Fortunately, my recent marriage enables me to dispense with a large portion of my popularity, without great inconvenience; or, rather, I am relieved from the very laborious necessity of maintaining it in the face of so many aggressive rivalries.
The day may arrive, therefore, when I shall cease to be a Distinguished Character. Since I have admitted this much, I may as well confess that my reputation—enviable as it may be considered by the public—is of that kind which seems to be meant to run for a certain length of time, at the expiration whereof it must be wound up again. I was fortunate enough to discover this secret betimes, and I have since then known several amiable and worthy persons to slip out of sight, from the lack of it. There was Mr. ———, for example, whose comic articles shook the fat sides of the nation for one summer, and whose pseudonyme was in everybody's mouth. Alas! what he took for perpetual motion was but an eight-day clock, and I need not call your attention to the present dead and leaden stillness of its pendulum.
Although my earliest notoriety was achieved in very much the same way,—that is, by a series of comic sketches, as many of my admirers no doubt remember,—I soon perceived the unstable character of my reputation. I was at the mercy of the next man who should succeed in inventing a new slang, or a funnier way of spelling. These things, in literature, are like "fancy drinks" among the profane. They tickle the palates of the multitude for a while, but they don't wear like the plain old beverages. I saw very plainly, that much more was to be gained, in the long run, by planting myself—not with a sudden and startling jump, but by a graceful, cautious pirouette—upon a basis of the Moral and the Didactic. I should thus reach a class of slow, but very tough stomachs, which would require ample time to assimilate the food I intended to offer. If this were somewhat crude, that would be no objection whatever: they always mistake their mental gripings for the process of digestion. Why, bless your souls! I have known Tupper's "Proverbial Philosophy" to fill one of them to repletion, for the space of ten years!
I owe this resolution to my natural acuteness of perception, but my success in carrying it into execution was partly the result of luck. The field, now occupied by such a crowd, (I name no names,) was at that time nearly clear; and I managed to shift my costume before the public fairly knew what I was about. I found, indeed, that a combination of the two styles enabled me to retain much of my old audience while acquiring the new. It was like singing a hymn of serious admonition to a lively, rattling tune. One is diverted: there is a present sense of fun, while a gentle feeling of the grave truths inculcated lingers in one's mind afterwards. The pious can find no fault with the matter, nor the profane with the manner. Instead of approaching the moral consciousness of one's readers with stern, lugubrious countenance, and ponderous or lamentable voice, you make your appearance with a smile and a joke, punch the reader playfully in the ribs, and say, as it were, "Ha! ha! I've a good thing to tell you!" Although I have many imitators, some of whom have attained an excellence in the art which may be considered classic, yet I may fairly claim to have originated this branch of literature, and, while it retains its present unbounded popularity, my name cannot wholly perish.
Nevertheless, greatness has its drawbacks. I appeal to all distinguished authors, from Tupper to Weenie Willows, to confirm the truth of this assertion. I have sometimes, especially of late, doubted seriously whether it is a good thing to be distinguished. Alas! my dear young gentleman and lady, whose albums would be so dismally incomplete without my autograph ("accompanied with a sentiment"), would that you could taste the bitter with the sweet,—the honey and aloes of an American author's life! At first, it is exceedingly pleasant. You are like a newly-hatched chicken, or a pup at the end of his nine-days' blindness. You are petted, and stroked, and called sweet names, and fed with dainties, and carried in the arms of the gentlemen, and cuddled in the laps of the ladies. But when you get to be a big dog or a full-grown game-cock, take care! If people would but fancy that you still wore your down or silken skin, they might continue to be delighted with every gambol of your fancy. But they suspect pin-feathers and bristles, whether the latter grow or not; and, after doing their best to spoil you, they suddenly demand the utmost propriety of behavior. However, let me not anticipate. I can still call myself, without the charge of self-flattery, a Distinguished Character; at least I am told so, every day, each person who makes the remark supposing that it is an entirely original and most acceptable compliment. While this distinction lasts, (for I find that I lose it in proportion as I gain in sound knowledge and independent common-sense,) I should like to describe, for the contemplation of future ages, some of the penalties attached to popularity at present.
I was weak enough, I admit, to be immensely delighted with the first which I experienced,—not foreseeing whitherward they led. The timid, enthusiastic notes of girls of fifteen, with the words "sweet" and "exquisite," duly underscored, the letters of aspiring boys, enclosing specimens of their composition, and the touching pleas of individuals of both sexes, in reduced circumstances, were so many evidences of success, which I hugged to my bosom. Reducing the matter to statistics, I have since ascertained that about one in ten of these letters is dictated either by honest sympathy, the warm, uncritical recognition of youth (which I don't suppose any author would diminish, if he could), or the craving for encouragement, under unpropitious circumstances of growth. But how was I, in the beginning, to guess at the motives of the writers? They offered sugar-plums, which I swallowed without a suspicion of the drastic ingredients so many of them contained. Good Mrs. Sigourney kept a journal of her experiences in this line. I wish I had done the same.
The young lady correspondent, I find, in most cases replies to your reply, proposing a permanent correspondence. The young gentleman, who desires, above all things, your "candid opinion of the poems enclosed,—be sure and point out the faults, and how they can be improved"—is highly indignant when you take him at his word, and do so. You receive a letter of defence and explanation, showing that what you consider to be faults are not such. Moreover, his friends have assured him that the poem which you advise him to omit is one of his finest things! The distressed aspirant for literary fame, who only requests that you shall read and correct his or her manuscript, procure a publisher, and prefix a commendatory notice, signed with your name, to the work, writes that he or she is at last undeceived in regard to the character of authors. "I thank you, Mr. Green, for the lesson! The remembrance of your former struggles is happily effaced in your present success. It is hard for a heart throbbing with warmth to be chilled, and a guileless confidence in human brotherhood to be crushed forever! I will strive to bury my disappointed hopes in my own darkened bosom; and that you may be saved from the experience which you have prepared for another, is the wish of, Sir, yours, ———."
For a day or two I went about with a horrible feeling of dread and remorse. I opened the morning paper with trembling hands, and only breathed freely when I found no item headed "Suicide" in the columns. A year afterwards, chance threw me in the way of my broken-hearted victim. I declare to you I never saw a better specimen of gross animal health. She—no, he (on second thoughts, I won't say which)—was at an evening party, laughing boisterously, with a plate of chicken-salad in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other.
One of my first admirers was a gentleman of sixty, who called upon me with a large roll of manuscript. He had retired from business two years before, so he informed me, and, having always been a great lover of poetry, he determined to fill up the tedium of his life of ease by writing some for himself. Now everybody knows that I am not a poet,—the few patriotic verses which I wrote during the war having simply been the result of excitement,—and why should he apply to me? O, there was a great deal of poetry in my prose, he said. My didactic paper called "Wait for the Wagon!" showed such a knowledge of metaphor! I looked over the innumerable leaves, here and there venturing the remark that "rain" and "shame" were not good rhymes, and that my friend's blank verse had now and then lines of four and six feet. "Poetic license, sir!" was the reply. "I thought you were aware that poets are bound to no rules!"
What could I do with such a man? What, indeed, but to return him the manuscript with that combined gentleness and grace which I have endeavored to cultivate in my demeanor, and to suggest, in the tenderest way, that he should be content to write, and not publish? He got up, stiffened his backbone, placed his conventional hat hard upon his head, gave a look of mingled mortification and wrath, and hurried away without saying a word. That man, I assure you, will be my secret enemy to the day of his death. He is no doubt a literary authority in a small circle of equal calibre. When my name is mentioned, he will sneer down my rising fame, and his sneer will control the sale of half a dozen copies of my last volume.
This is a business view of the subject, I grant; but then I have always followed literature with an eye to business. The position of a popular writer is much more independent than that of a teacher or a clergyman, for which reason I prefer it. The same amount of intellect, made available in a different way, will produce material results just as satisfactory. Compensation, however, is the law of the world; hence I must pay for my independence; and this adventure with the old gentleman is one of the many forms in which the payment is made.
When the applications for autographs first began to pour in upon me, I gladly took a sheet of Delarue's creamiest note-paper and wrote thereon an oracular sentence from one of my most popular papers. After a while my replies degenerated to "Sincerely, Your Friend, Dionysius Green," and finally, (daily blessings come at last to be disregarded,) no application was favored, which did not enclose a postage-stamp. When some school-boy requested an autograph, "accompanied with a sentiment," and forwarded slips of paper on behalf of "two other boys," I sometimes lost my patience, and left the letters unanswered for a month at a time. There was a man in Tennessee, just before the war, who had a printed circular, with a blank for the author's name; and I know of one author who replied to him with a printed note, and a printed address on the envelope, not a word of manuscript about it!
Next in frequency are the applications for private literary contributions,—such as epithalamia, obituaries, addresses for lovers, and the like. One mourning father wished me to write an article about the death of his little girl, aged four months, assuring me that "her intellect was the astonishment of all who knew her." A young lady wished for something that would "overwhelm with remorse the heart of a gentleman who had broken off an engagement without any cause." A young gentleman, about to graduate, offered five dollars for an oration on "The Past and Probable Future History of the Human Race," long enough to occupy twenty minutes in speaking, and "to be made very fine and flowery." (I had a mind to punish this youth by complying with his request, to the very letter!) It is difficult to say what people won't write about, when they write to a Distinguished Character.
There is a third class of correspondents, whose requests used to astonish me profoundly, until I surmised that their object was to procure an autograph in a roundabout way. One wants to know who is the publisher of your book; one, whether you can give the post-office address of Gordon Cumming or Thomas Carlyle; one, which is the best Latin Grammar; one, whether you know the author of that exquisite poem, "The Isle of Tears"; and one, perhaps, whether Fanny Forrester was the grandmother of Fanny Fern. And when you consider that what letters I get are not a tithe of what older and more widely known authors receive, you may form some idea of the immense number of persons engaged in this sort of correspondence.
But I have not yet come to the worst. So long as you live at home, whether it's in the city or country, (the city would be preferable, if you could keep your name out of the Directory,) the number of applicants in person is limited; and as for the letters, we know that the post-office department is very badly managed, and a great many epistles never reach their destination. Besides, it's astonishing how soon and how easily an author acquires the reputation of being unapproachable. If he don't pour out his heart, in unlimited torrents and cascades of feeling, to a curious stranger, the latter goes away with the report that the author, personally, is "icy, reserved, uncommunicative; in the man, one sees nothing of his works; it is difficult to believe that that cold, forbidding brow conceived, those rigid, unsmiling lips uttered, and that dry, bloodless hand wrote, the fervid passion of"—such or such a book. When I read a description of myself, written in that style, I was furious; but I afterwards noticed that the number of my visitors fell off very rapidly.
Most of us American authors, however, now go to the people, instead of waiting for them to come to us. And this is what I mean by coming to the worst. Four or five years ago, I determined to talk as well as write. Everybody was doing it, and well paid; nothing seemed to be requisite except a little distinction, which I had already acquired by my comic and didactic writings. There was Mr. E——— declaiming philosophy; Drs. B——— and C——— occupying secular pulpits; Mr. C——— inculcating loftier politics; Mr. T——— talking about all sorts of countries and people; Mr. W——— reading his essays in public; and a great many more, whom you all know. Why should I not also "pursue the triumph and partake the gale"? I found that the lecture was in most cases an essay, written in short, pointed sentences, and pleasantly delivered. The audience must laugh occasionally, and yet receive an impression strong enough to last until next morning. The style which, as I said before, I claim to have invented, was the very thing! I noticed, further, that there was a great deal in the title of the lecture. It must be alliterative, antithetical, or, still better, paradoxical. There was profound skill in Artemus Ward's "Babes in the Wood." Such titles as "Doubts and Duties," "Mystery and Muffins," "Here, There, and Nowhere," "The Elegance of Evil," "Sunshine and Shrapnel," "The Coming Cloud," "The Averted Agony," and "Peeps at Peccadillos," will explain my meaning. The latter, in fact, was the actual title of my first lecture, which I gave with such signal success,—eighty-five times in one winter.
The crowds that everywhere thronged to hear me gave me a new and delicious experience of popularity. How grand it was to be escorted by the president of the society down the central aisle, amid the rustling sound of turning heads, and audible whispers of "There he is! there he is!" And always, when the name of Dionysius Green was announced, the applause which followed! Then the hush of expectation, the faint smile and murmur coming with my first unexpected flash of humor (unexpectedness is one of my strong points), the broad laugh breaking out just where I intended it, and finally the solemn peroration, which showed that I possessed depth and earnestness as well as brilliancy! Well, I must say that the applauses and the fees were honestly earned. I did my best, and the audiences must have been satisfied, or the societies wouldn't have invited me over and over again to the same place.
If my literary style was so admirably adapted to this new vocation, it was, on the other hand, a source of great annoyance. Only a small class was sufficiently enlightened to comprehend my true aim in inculcating moral lessons under a partly humorous guise. All the rest, unfortunately, took me to be either one thing or the other. While some invited me to family prayer-meetings, as the most cheering and welcome relief after the fatigue of speaking, the rougher characters of the place would claim me (on the strength of my earlier writings) as one of themselves, would slap me on the back, call me familiarly "Dionysius," and insist on my drinking with them. Others, again, occupied a middle or doubtful ground; they did not consider that my personal views were strictly defined, and wanted to be enlightened on this or that point of faith. They gave me a deal of trouble. Singularly enough, all these classes began their attacks with the same phrase, "O, we have a right to ask it of you: you're a Distinguished Character, you know!"
It is hardly necessary to say that I am of rather a frail constitution: so many persons have seen me, that the public is generally aware of the fact. A lecture of an hour and a quarter quite exhausts my nervous energy. Moreover, it gives me a vigorous appetite, and my two overpowering desires, after speaking, are, first to eat, and then to sleep. But it frequently happens that I am carried, perforce, to the house of some good but ascetic gentleman, who gives me a glass of cold water, talks until midnight, and then delivers me, more dead than alive, to my bed. I am so sensitive in regard to the relation of guest and host that I can do naught but submit. Astræa, I am told, always asks for what she wants, and does what she feels inclined to do,—indeed, why shouldn't she?—but I am cast in a more timid mould.
There are some small country places which I visit where I have other sufferings to undergo. Being a Distinguished Character, it would be a neglect and a slight if I were left alone for two minutes. And the people seem to think that the most delightful topic of conversation which they can select is—myself. How weary of myself I become! I have wished, a thousand times, that my popular work, "The Tin Trumpet," had never been written. I cannot blame the people, because there are ——— and ———, who like nothing better than to be talked about to their faces, and to take the principal part in the conversation. Of course the people think, in regard to lecturers, 'ex uno disce omnes.
In travelling by rail, the same thing happens over and over. When I leave a town in the morning, some one is sure to enter the car and greet me in a loud voice: "How are you, Mr. Green? What a fine lecture you gave us last night!" Then the other travellers turn and look at me, listen to catch my words, and tell the new-comers at every station, until I'm afraid to take a nap for fear of snoring, afraid to read lest somebody should be scandalized at my novel, or to lunch lest I should be reported as a drunkard for taking a sip of sherry (the physician prescribes it) from a pocket-flask. At such times I envy the fellow in homespun on the seat in front of me, who loafs, yawns, eats, and drinks as he pleases, and nobody gives him a second glance.
When I am not recognized, I sometimes meet with another experience, which was a little annoying until I became accustomed to it. I am the subject of very unembarrassed conversation, and hear things said of me that sometimes flatter and sometimes sting. It is true that I have learned many curious and unsuspected facts concerning my birth, parentage, history, and opinions; but, on the other hand, I am humiliated by the knowledge of what texture a great deal of my reputation is made. Sometimes I am even confounded with Graves, whom, as an author, I detest; my "Tin Trumpet" being ascribed to him, and his "Drippings from the Living Rock" being admired as mine! At such times, it is very difficult to preserve my incognito. I have wondered that nobody ever reads the truth in my indignant face.
As a consequence of all these trials, I sometimes become impatient, inaccessible to compliment, and—since the truth must be told—a little ill-tempered. My temperament, as my family and friends know, is of an unusually genial and amiable quality, and I never snub an innocent but indiscreet admirer without afterwards repenting of my rudeness. I have often, indeed, a double motive for repentance; for those snubs carry their operation far beyond their recipients, and come back to me sometimes, after months or even years, in "Book Notices," or other newspaper articles. Thus the serene path of literature, which the aspiring youth imagines to be so fair and sunny, overspread with the mellowest ideal tints, becomes rough and cloudy. No doubt I am to blame: possibly I am rightly treated: I "belong to the public," I am told with endless congratulatory iteration, and therefore I ought not to feel the difference between the public's original humoring of my moods, and my present enforced humoring of its moods. But I do feel it, somehow. I have of late entertained the suspicion, that I am not wholly the creation of popular favor. "The public," I am sure, never furnished me with my comic or my lively-serious vein of writing. If either of those veins had not been found good, they would not have encouraged me to work them. I declare, boldly, that I give an ample return for what I get, and when I satisfy curiosity or yield to unreasonable demands upon my patience and good-humor, it is "to boot."
Nevertheless, it is a generous public, on the whole, and gives trouble only through thoughtlessness, not malice. It delights in its favorites, because imagining that they so intensely enjoy its favor. And don't we, after all? (I say we purposely, and my publisher will tell you why.) Now that I have written away my vexation, I recognize very clearly that my object in writing this article is apology rather than complaint. All whom I have ever rudely treated will now comprehend the unfortunate circumstances under which the act occurred. If some one should visit me to-morrow, I have no doubt he will write: "Mr. Dionysius Green is all, and more than all, one would anticipate from reading his charming works. Benevolence beams from his brow, fancy sparkles from his eyes, and genial sympathy with all mankind sits enthroned upon his lips. It was a rare pleasure to me to listen to his conversation, and I could but wish that the many thousands of his admirers might enjoy the privilege of an interview with so Distinguished a Character!"