Literary Life, by Washington Irving

Tales of a Traveller

Among the great variety of characters which fall in a traveller's way, I became acquainted during my sojourn in London, with an eccentric personage of the name of Buckthorne. He was a literary man, had lived much in the metropolis, and had acquired a great deal of curious, though unprofitable knowledge concerning it. He was a great observer of character, and could give the natural history of every odd animal that presented itself in this great wilderness of men. Finding me very curious about literary life and literary characters, he took much pains to gratify my curiosity.

"The literary world of England," said he to me one day, "is made up of a number of little fraternities, each existing merely for itself, and thinking the rest of the world created only to look on and admire. It may be resembled to the firmament, consisting of a number of systems, each composed of its own central sun with its revolving train of moons and satellites, all acting in the most harmonious concord; but the comparison fails in part, inasmuch as the literary world has no general concord. Each system acts independently of the rest, and indeed considers all other stars as mere exhalations and transient meteors, beaming for awhile with false fires, but doomed soon to fall and be forgotten; while its own luminaries are the lights of the universe, destined to increase in splendor and to shine steadily on to immortality."

"And pray," said I, "how is a man to get a peep into one of these systems you talk of? I presume an intercourse with authors is a kind of intellectual exchange, where one must bring his commodities to barter, and always give a quid pro quo."

"Pooh, pooh—how you mistake," said Buckthorne, smiling; "you must never think to become popular among wits by shining. They go into society to shine themselves, not to admire the brilliancy of others. I thought as you do when I first cultivated the society of men of letters, and never went to a blue-stocking coterie without studying my part beforehand as diligently as an actor. The consequence was, I soon got the name of an intolerable proser, and should in a little while have been completely excommunicated had I not changed my plan of operations. From thenceforth I became a most assiduous listener, or if ever I were eloquent, it was tęte-a-tęte with an author in praise of his own works, or what is nearly as acceptable, in disparagement of the works of his contemporaries. If ever he spoke favorably of the productions of some particular friend, I ventured boldly to dissent from him, and to prove that his friend was a blockhead; and much as people say of the pertinacity and irritability of authors, I never found one to take offence at my contradictions. No, no, sir, authors are particularly candid in admitting the faults of their friends.

"Indeed, I was extremely sparing of my remarks on all modern works, excepting to make sarcastic observations on the most distinguished writers of the day. I never ventured to praise an author that had not been dead at least half a century; and even then I was rather cautious; for you must know that many old writers have been enlisted under the banners of different sects, and their merits have become as complete topics of party prejudice and dispute, as the merits of living statesmen and politicians. Nay, there have been whole periods of literature absolutely taboo'd, to use a South Sea phrase. It is, for example, as much as a man's reputation is worth, in some circles, to say a word in praise of any writers of the reign of Charles the Second, or even of Queen Anne; they being all declared to be Frenchmen in disguise."

"And pray, then," said I, "when am I to know that I am on safe grounds; being totally unacquainted with the literary landmarks and the boundary lines of fashionable taste?"

"Oh," replied he, there is fortunately one tract of literature that forms a kind of neutral ground, on which all the literary world meet amicably; lay down their weapons and even run riot in their excess of good humor, and this is, the reigns of Elizabeth and James. Here you may praise away at a venture; here it is 'cut and come again,' and the more obscure the author, and the more quaint and crabbed his style, the more your admiration will smack of the real relish of the connoisseur; whose taste, like that of an epicure, is always for game that has an antiquated flavor.

"But," continued he, "as you seem anxious to know something of literary society I will take an opportunity to introduce you to some coterie, where the talents of the day are assembled. I cannot promise you, however, that they will be of the first order. Somehow or other, our great geniuses are not gregarious, they do not go in flocks, but fly singly in general society. They prefer mingling, like common men, with the multitude; and are apt to carry nothing of the author about them but the reputation. It is only the inferior orders that herd together, acquire strength and importance by their confederacies, and bear all the distinctive characteristics of their species."