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From Brentano’s Book Chat 4 (1), January-February 1925:42-46.
Copyright © 1999 T. N. R. Rogers. All rights reserved. Last revised 20 oct 99.
The sketch below is first of a contemplated series surveying men who have made books. If there is any purpose, it is to acquire understanding of what stuff are books -- what relation the man bears to the word said. If there is no purpose, I have served my own amusement.
Other authoring personalities perhaps to follow are Sam Ornitz, who wrote “Haunch, Paunch, and Jowl;” Harry Kemp, so-called “Tramp Poet;” Edgar Lee Masters; Larry Barretto, who wrote “A Conqueror Passes;” Lawton Mackall; and more whose names may or may not be known to you. Personalities of diverse textures and unrelated patterns. For some reason or another I have found them interesting.
Strong and enduring books at their cleverest can portray men only with dim shadowing and malforming caricature. Trivial books -- the daily published spawn which will be forgotten tomorrow as a thing which has never been -- do not show men at all. We all like to believe we know men. We’re all a little smarter than the average. We can’t be fooled. We can tell a hawk from a handshake, and a serpent from the glittering of his eye. We can read faces.
Ability to read books is compulsory by statute in most states. It is a grammar school accomplishment. There is no grammar school, nor university either, to teach the ideograms by which men are read. Often it is probable the more book learning we amass the less legible becomes humanity. We are blinded from clear seeing by memories of many false printed words.
A writing person is more or less under compulsion to study the mysterious hieroglyphs of men. He may see German prose in what is really Sanscrit verse. But he must make the effort to see and understand. I admit no ability, intuitive or rational, to read men. Here are some makers of books whom I have puzzled over, as I puzzle over all men met. The puzzling has been for my own amusement. I set down words also for my own amusement.
Here at my office desk behind a wall of bright new books I crouch, devouring images and thoughts with the calm digestion of a plump grey spider. The door opens, and a man comes in. That door is always unlatched, so books and men may come in. Best take in this fashion the luck of the day. If the books or men are rich in vitality and wit, they will nourish the spider. If they are fusty tasteless morsels, the spider can always crawl farther into his tunnel of reflections, revolving some Virgilian bon mot like “dabit Deus his quoque finem” or pondering on the nature of extra-dimensional space. Spiderhood has compensations not known to gypsy moths.
A man has come in through the open door. A tall man, brown as a panther, with marvelously intent eyes. His large hands fumble in a curious shyness, which is belied by every bellicose line of face and carriage. His shoulders thrust forward; his jaw is clamped invincibly; he strikes a riding crop against his thigh. It is his glance which holds me. In his dark brown eyes is an intensity of living, a passion to know and suffer and understand all things, such as I have seen in no man before.
A man unknown. In this world of solitary souls all men are to each other unknown -- far stars scattered in a vast waste, their orbits never tangent. Yet as I see this man whom I have never seen before, and as I arise from my chair, I feel a tremendous surge of exaltation. A vertigo of delight, as though I read again a great epic which once had stirred me to an ecstasy, but which to my shame I had forgotten. Here we are standing, two men face to face; and I feel like shouting. I want to grip one of those clumsy, fumbling hands and cry, “In the name of God, tell me who you are! What have you done? What are your dreams? It is a wonderful world, my friend. Let us tell each other what we think of it!”
The seconds swim away. The moment is overpast. We are two civilized men in a decorous office room. Affairs of business are conducted here, buying, and selling, and the casting of accounts. The word to be said cannot be said. It is not done in New York. Between us two are the empty spaces which separate the stars. I motion to a chair. We sit down.
This man is perhaps in his early fifties. I learn later he is topping the turn of the sixties. He sits on the edge of his chair, nervously moving his hands, looking at me with those terrific honest eyes as though at a scowl he’d be up and away. I stare at him, and a thousand words are unspoken, for I feel that here before me sits Odysseus. Odysseus still on his voyagings toward the termination of the sun.
He tells me his name -- Chase Osborn. I think I have heard it before; but there are many books, and each book has an author, each author a name. He talks rapidly, confused by a slight stammer, even the trace of a lisp. Now he has come in to tell me about a young author -- wonders if I will read this chap’s books and say a helping word. He has heard this author is a fine young man, though he has never met him. “Fine, fine!” he stammers earnestly, his straight eyes shining. I feel that all men are fine men to those eyes. Men are good.
Yet it is a curiously liberal extravagance to scatter time in an unknown writer’s behalf. Each man’s hours come to him from a narrow box, which is not replenished. We should lend our time to the highest usury. It is enough to wish men well, without tramping hot city streets to help them. Later I shall see Chase Osborn with other men and women, old or young, white, yellow and black; and I shall come to understand that to him most directly the good of other men is his good and their pain is an agony to him. He will be applauding a paralyzed woman’s brave efforts to walk, with a heart which feels as keen as hers each anguish and each summoning of courage. He will be telling a little American-born Japanese girl, soon to be married in her ancestral land, the social impositions she will have to endure; so that for the hour his heart is that of a little American-educated girl journeying to a strange life in unknown Japan. He will be enduring the loneliness of a young editor whose promising career has been cut short by tuberculosis; or rejoicing with a black waitress in her pride of education and race.
A heart which delights in all men’s joys, which is wounded by their pain. Solitarily to himself he keeps, no doubt, his pride that he is Osborn, white, Nordic, and American. He has with it the myriad prides of all races, the infinite compassions of men who have been born to many contrary fates. He has bridged the vasty isolation of individuality, if that be possible, till he may project himself on others as an incarnation of their nobler ambitions, as a partaker of their desolations and regrets. Likely the first sight of him so startled me as with memory of a man known because he was the very man I should like to have been. It is a strange occurrence, and may cause a touch of shame, to see one’s better self coming in the door.
Osborn advances the theory that all the spirituality of the universe -- the thoughts, the memories, imaginings, sensations, all which exists invisible and intangible beyond the noumena of matter -- constitutes a single “phenosphere.” From this, men’s spirits draw their breath of life, as their bodies from the atmosphere; so that the man with the wisest head is no greater in himself than the man with the largest lungs. Tree and man are sharers of the same spirit, as of the same air. If so, Osborn has breathed deep. This theory is to him, I think, no more than a theory. In the heart which abides with him, even while discussing geological and biological evolution, or propounding a philosophic agnosticism, he remains fundamental Presbyterian. Well, it is sure that the teachings of Jesus, truly followed, indicate as noble altruism as any other belief. Men can still be known by their works. On the rock of Presbyterianism, or the rock of pantheistic mysticism, Chase Osborn stands to tell men they are brothers.
Thinking of him, and with many words unspoken, I remembered somewhat where I had seen his name before. In 1912, as Michigan governor he called the council of “seven little governors” which summoned Roosevelt to the presidency; he made Wilson, as Wilson knew. After the war he opposed Newberry, and in the end defeated him. Osborn’s forward thrust of chin and shoulder is hardened by many battle against the old strong. An instinctive crusader his, [sic] very life has many times been in the grip of disastrous powers.
Osborn’s The Iron Hunter, published some four years ago, tells in part the story of his career. Written with a bang from the beginning, it has been named by critics as one of the two or three great American autobiographies. Osborn, a young journalist of twenty, organizing vigilantes against the obscene iniquities of the Wisconsin wilderness, while scalawags with rifles hounded the forests to kill him. Osborn the newspaper owner, the wanderer over all continents of earth, the iorn hunter, staking millions on a toss and go of luck. Osborn the governor. Osborn looking at things, living and learning and mellowing in understanding. Osborn searching for God.
A remarkable book. It carries on with quick intensity, turning to what idea comes uppermost. Yet reading it after knowing the man, I found it inadequate. He is his own epic, an Odysseus, and no Homer. He cannot be put into words -- well enough I understand the clumsiness of this sketch -- least of all by himself. The strongest fist can’t sculpture itself, nor the smartest brain weigh itself. The sculpture awaits the abstract artist, the weighing awaits the scientist who comes after one is dead.
Osborn’s Madagascar, The Land of the Man-Eating Tree (Republic, $5) is the first book venture of the publishers of the New Republic, out this month. It gives account of a recent visit to the great island empire, including the history, the mythology, the biology, and the present social life of Madagascar, the first American book of any kind dealing with the island. Journalistic, anecdotal, sharp and vigorous, like The Iron Hunter it begins with a dramatic episode -- here the myth of the Man-Eating Tree to which living men are sacrificed. The fictional touch. One carries through. Again there is the brilliant adventuring into a thousand divergent ideas. At the best the book is Osborn. At the worst it is scholarship. By that I mean too much attention is given to the records of earlier travelers, too much to the history of tribal kings, of Yankee pirates and French conquerors. Tremendous reading, all of that, yet I felt that in assembling his material Osborn had bowed to the universities. To the historians who say that the recorded myth is better than the visible fact. To the gentlemen who say, cite references. Now, that is not at all a valid criticism of a book; in fact, it should be a point of admiration. But this is the study of a man whom I have found more interesting than most books. Chase Osborn has the instinct to understand, though he is not confident of his understanding, that intelligence is a lightning which may be used as profitably to galvanize life as to heat a flatiron. But the universities demand research -- and he remembers himself a regent of Michigan university.
The joy of Madagascar is Osborn. Osborn eating crocodile eggs cooked at the turn of hatching. Osborn hunting big game, looking at living things, getting a taste of it all. Osborn surveying the native moral codes, and finding that perhaps the French would have been more profited by a reversal of the civilizing process. Osborn fraternizing at table with black men, a man with them, and nothing more. And nothing less. An equal of white kings and black hinds. They all partake of the common life. All men are his brothers.
Osborn still searching God.
Here he stands, Chase Osborn, published in Indiana, 1860. A unique printing. Travel, biography, politics and philosophy. More than any man I know the Great American Novel. An Odyssey of vast adventurings. An apocryphal gospel.
It is easy enough to play the critic of books. Any fool can do it with a cap and bells. I jingle the bells as giddily as anyone, saying smart things about better books that [sic] I can write. It is not so easy to talk smartly about better men than I can be.
I wish the great Publisher would get out the type, and run off a few hundred thousand of that single impression made in Indiana in 1860. There’d be less need of socialists then, of policemen, politicians, critics, or of books.
Joel Townsley Rogers--writings
Joel Townsley Rogers--an unannotated bibliography
Copyright © 1999 T. N. R. Rogers. All rights reserved. Last revised 20 oct 99.