Vanishing Roads and Other Essays eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 267 pages of information about Vanishing Roads and Other Essays.

There is no necessity to discuss the justice of the dictum.  Probably, if ever there was a man behind a pen, it was Ibsen; but Ibsen’s manhood concentrated itself entirely behind his pen, whereas Bjoernson’s employed other weapons also, such as his gift of oratory, and was generally more dramatically in evidence.  Bjoernson and Ibsen, as we know, did not agree on a number of things.  Thus Bjoernson, like a human being, was unjust.  But his phrase was a useful one, and I am using it.  It was misapplied to Ibsen; but, put in the form of a question, I know of no better single test to apply to writers, dead or alive, than—­

“Is this a man?  Or is it only a pen?”

Said Walt Whitman, in his familiar “So Long” to Leaves of Grass

          Camerado, this is no book;
          Who touches this touches a man.

And, of course, Walt was right about his own book, whether you like the man behind Leaves of Grass or not; but also that assertion of his might be chalked as a sort of customs “O.K.” on all literary baggage whatsoever that has passed free into immortality.  There is positively no writer that has withstood the searching examination of time, on whose book that final stamp of literary reality may not be placed.  On every classic, Time has scrawled ineffaceably: 

          This is no book;
          Who touches this touches a man.

I raise the question of reality in literature in no merely academic spirit.  For those who not only love books, but care for literature as a living thing, the question is a particularly live issue at the present time, when not only the quantity of writing is so enormous, but the average quality of it is so astonishingly good, when technique that would almost humble the masters, and would certainly dazzle them, is an accomplishment all but commonplace.  At any rate, it is so usual as to create no special surprise.  If people write at all, it is taken for granted, nowadays, that they write well.  And the number of people at the present time writing not only well, but wonderfully well, is little short of appalling.

In this, for those who ponder the phenomena of literature, there is less matter for congratulation than would seem likely at first sight.  There is, indeed, no little bewilderment, and some disquietude.  Confronted with short stories—­and novels also, for that matter—­told with a skill which makes the old masters of fiction look like clumsy amateurs; confronted, too, with a thousand poets—­the number is scarcely an exaggeration—­with accomplishments of metre and style that make some famous singers seem like clodhoppers of the muse, one is obliged to ask oneself: 

“Are these brilliant writers really greater than those that went before?”

If for some reason, felt at first rather than defined, we answer “no,” we are forced to the conclusion that, after all, literature must be something more than a mere matter of writing.  If so, we are constrained to ask ourselves, what is it?

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Vanishing Roads and Other Essays from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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