BOOKS THAT I LOVED AS A BOY
"IT is one thing," said my Uncle Peter, "to be perfectly honest. But it is quite another thing to tell the truth."
"Are you honest in that remark," I asked, "or are you merely telling the truth?"
"Both," he answered, with twinkling eyes, "for that is an abstract remark, in which species of discourse truth-telling is comparatively easy. Abstract remarks are a great relief to the lazy honest man. They spare him the trouble of meticulous investigation of unimportant facts. But a concrete remark, touching upon a number of small details, is full of traps for the truth-teller."
"You agree, then," said I, "with what the Psalmist said in his haste: 'All men are liars'?"
"Not in the least," he replied, laying down the volume which he was apparently reading when he interrupted himself. "I have leisure enough to perceive at once the falsity of that observation which the honest Psalmist recorded for our amusement. The real liars, conscious, malicious, wilful falsifiers, must always be a minority in the world, because their habits tend to bring them to an early grave or a reformatory. It is the people who want to tell the truth, and try to, but do not quite succeed, who are in the majority. Just look at this virtuous little volume which I was reading when you broke in upon me. It is called 'Books that Have Influenced Me.' A number of authors, politicians, preachers, doctors, and rich men profess to give an account of the youthful reading which has been most powerful in the development of their manly minds and characters. To judge from what they have written here you would suppose that these men were as mature and discriminating at sixteen as they are at sixty. They tell of great books, serious books, famous books. But they say little or nothing of the small, amusing books, the books full of fighting and adventure, the books of good stuff poorly written, in which every honest boy, at some time in his life, finds what he wants. They are silent, too, about the books which as a matter of fact had a tremendous influence on them – the plain, dull school-books. For my part, if you asked me what books had influenced me, I should not be telling the truth if my answer left out Webster's Spelling-Book and Greenleaf's Arithmetic, though I did not adore them extravagantly.''
"That's just the point, Uncle Peter," said I, "these distinguished men were really trying to tell you about the books that delighted and inspired their youth, the books that they loved as boys."
"Well," said my Uncle Peter, "if it comes to love, and reminiscences of loving, that is precisely the region in which the exact truth is least frequently told. Maturity casts its prim and clear-cut shadow backwards upon the vague and glittering landscape of youth. Whether he speaks of books or of girls, the aged reminiscent attributes to himself a delicacy of taste, a singleness and constancy of affection, and a romantic fervour of devotion, which he might have had, but probably did not. He is not in the least to blame for drawing his fancy-picture of a young gentleman. He cannot help it. It is his involuntary tribute to the ideal. Youth dreams in the future tense; age, in the past participle.
"There is no kind of fiction more amiable and engaging than the droll legends of infancy and pious recollections of boyhood. Do you suppose that Wordsworth has given us a complete portrait of the boy that he was, in 'The Prelude'? He says not a word about the picture of his grandmother that he broke with his whip because the other children gave him a 'dare,' nor about the day when he went up into the attic with an old fencing-foil to commit suicide, nor about the girl with whom he fell in love while he was in France. Do you suppose that Stevenson's 'Memories and Portraits' represent the youthful R. L. S. with photographic accuracy and with all his frills? Not at all. Stevenson's essays are charming; and Wordsworth's poem is beautiful, – in streaks it is as fine as anything that he ever wrote: but both of these works belong to literature because they are packed full of omissions, – which Stevenson himself called 'a kind of negative exaggeration.' No, my dear boy, old Goethe found the right title for a book of reminiscences when he wrote 'Wahrheit und Dichtung.' Truth and poetry, – that is what it is bound to be. I don't know whether Goethe was as honest a man as Wordsworth and Stevenson, but I reckon he told about as much of the truth. Autobiography is usually a man's view of what his biography ought to be."
"This is rather a disquieting thought, my Uncle Peter," said I, "for it seems to leave us all adrift on a sea of illusions."
"Not if you look at it in the right way," he answered, placidly. "We can always get at a few more facts than the man himself gives us, from letters and from the dispassionate recollections of his friends. Besides, a man's view of what his life ought to have been is almost as interesting, and quite as instructive, as a mere chronicle of what it actually was. The truth is, there are two kinds of truth: one kind is – "
Crash! went the fire-irons, tumbling in brazen confusion on the red-brick hearth. When my Uncle Peter has mounted his favourite metaphysical theory, I know that nothing can make him dismount but physical violence. I apologized for the poker and the shovel and the tongs (practising a Stevensonian omission in regard to my own share in the catastrophe), arranged the offending members in their proper station oil the left of the fire-place, and took the bellows to encourage the dull fire into a more concrete flame.
"I know enough about the different kinds of truth," said I, working away at the bellows. "Haven't I just been reading Professor Jacobus on 'Varieties of Religious Experience'? What I want now is something concrete; and I wish you would try to give it to me, whatever perils it may involve. Tell me something about the books that you loved as a boy. Never mind your veracity, Uncle Peter, just be honest, that will be enough."
"My veracity!" he grunted, "Humph! Impudent academic mocker, university life has destroyed your last rag of reverence. You have become a mere pivot for turning another fellow's remarks against himself. However, if you will just allow me to talk, and promise to let those fire-irons alone, I will tell you about some of the literary loves of my boyhood."
"I promise not. to stir hand or tongue or foot," said I, "unless I see you sliding towards a metaphysical precipice."
"Very well," said my Uncle Peter, "I will do my best to give you the facts. And the first is this: there never was a day in my boyhood when I would not rather go a-fishing than read the best book in the world. If the choice had been given me, I never would have hesitated between climbing a mountain or paddling a canoe, and spending hours in a library. I would have liked also to hunt grizzly bears and to fight Indians, – but these were purely Platonic passions, detached from physical experience. I never realized them in hot blood.
"My native preferences were trimmed and pruned by the fortune that fixed my abode, during nine months of every year, in the city of Brooklyn, where there were no mountains to climb, no rivers to canoe, and no bears to hunt. The winter of my discontent, however, was somewhat cheered by games of football and baseball in the vacant lots on the heights above Wall Street Ferry, and by fierce battles and single combats with the tribes of 'Micks' who inhabited the regions of Furman Street and Atlantic Avenue. There was no High Court of Arbitration to suggest a peaceful solution of the difficulties out of which these conflicts arose. In fact, so far as I can remember, there was seldom a casus belli which could be defined and discussed. The warfare simply effervesced, like gas from a mineral spring. It was chronic, geographical, temperamental, and its everlasting continuance was suggested in the threat with which the combatants usually parted: 'wait till we ketch you alone, down our street!'
"There was also a school which claimed some hours of my attention on five days of the week. On holidays my father used to take me on the most delightful fishing excursions to the then unpolluted waters of Coney Island Creek and Sheepshead Bay; and on Monday afternoons in midwinter it was a regular thing that I should go with him to New York to ramble among the old book-shops in Nassau Street and eat oysters at Dorlon's stall, with wooden tables and sawdust-sprinkled floor, in Fulton Market. Say what you please about the friendship of books: it was worth a thousand times more to have the friendship of such a father.
"But there was still a good deal of unoccupied time on my hands between the first of October and the first of May, and having learned to read (in the old-fashioned way, by wrestling with the alphabet and plain spelling), at the age of about five years, I was willing enough to give some of my juvenile leisure to books and try to find out what they had to say about various things which interested me. I did not go to school until my tenth year, and so there was quite a long period left free for general reading, beginning with the delightful old-fashioned books of fairy tales without a moral, and closing with "Robinson Crusoe," "Don Quixote," and Plutarch's "Lives of Illustrious Men." In the last two books I took a real and vivid interest, though I now suspect that it was strictly limited in range. They seemed to open a new world to me, the world of the past, in which I could see men moving about and doing the most remarkable things. Both of these books appeared to me equally historical; I neither doubted the truth of their narratives nor attended to the philosophical reflections with which they were padded. The meaning of the long words I guessed at.
"My taste at this time was most indiscriminate. I could find some kind of enjoyment in almost anything that called itself a book – even a Sunday-school story, or a child's history of the world – provided only it gave something concrete for imagination to work upon. The mere process of reading, with the play of fancy that it quickened, became an agreeable pastime. I got a great deal of pleasure, and possibly some good, out of Bunyan's 'Holy War' (which I perversely preferred to 'The Pilgrim's Progress') and Livingstone's 'Missionary Journals and Researches,' and a book about the Scotch Covenanters. These volumes shortened many a Sunday. I also liked parts of 'The Compleat Angler,' but the best parts I skipped.
"With the coming of school days the time for reading was reduced, and it became necessary to make a choice among books. The natural instincts of youth asserted themselves, and I became a devotee of Captain Mayne Reid and R. M. Ballantyne, whose simple narratives of wild adventure offered a refuge from the monotony of academic life. It gave me no concern that the names of these authors were not included in the encyclopaedias of literature nor commented upon in the critical reviews. I had no use for the encyclopaedias or reviews; but ' The Young Voyageurs,' 'The White Chief,' 'Osceola the Seminole,' 'The Bush Boys,' 'The Coral Island,' 'Red Eric,' 'Ungava,' and 'The Gorilla Hunters' gave me unaffected delight.
"After about two years of this innocent dissipation I began to feel the desire for a better life, and turned, by my father's advice, to Sir Walter Scott. 'Ivanhoe' and 'The Pirate' pleased me immensely; 'Waverley' and 'The Heart of Midlothian' I accepted with qualifications; but the two of Scott's novels that gave me the most pleasure, I regret to state, were 'Quentin Durward' and 'Count Robert of Paris.' Then Dickens claimed me, and I yielded to the spell of 'Oliver Twist,' 'David Copperfield,' and 'Pickwick Papers.'
"By this time it had begun to dawn upon me that there was a difference among books, not only in regard to the things told, but also in regard to the way of the telling. Unconsciously ! became sensitive to the magic of style, and, wandering freely through the library, was drawn to the writers whose manner and accent had a charm for me. Emerson and Carlyle I liked no better than I liked caviar; but Lamb's Essays and Irving's Sketches were fascinating. For histories of literature, thank Heaven, I never had any appetite. I preferred real books to books about books. My only idea of literature was a vivid reflection of life in the world of fancy or in the world of fact.
"In poetry, Milton's 'Comus' was about the first thing that took hold of me; I cannot tell why – perhaps it was because I liked my father's reading of it. But even he could not persuade me to anything more than a dim respect for 'Paradise Lost.' Some of Shakespeare's plays entranced me; particularly 'The Tempest,' 'Romeo and Juliet,' and 'As You Like It;' but there were others which made no real impression upon my wayward mind. Dryden and Pope and Cowper I tried in vain to appreciate; the best that I could attain to was a respectful admiration. 'The Lady of the Lake' and 'The Ancient Mariner,' on the contrary, were read without an effort and with sincere joy.' The first book of poetry that I bought for myself was Tennyson's 'Enoch Arden,' and I never regretted the purchase, for it led me on, somehow or other, into the poetic studies and the real intimacy with books which enabled me to go through college without serious damage.
"I cannot remember just when I first read 'Henry Esmond;' perhaps it was about the beginning of sophomore year. But, at all events, it was then that I ceased to love books as a boy and began to love them as a man."
"And do you still love Henry Esmond'?" I asked.
"I do indeed," said my Uncle Peter, "and I call it the greatest of English novels. But very close to it I put 'Lorna Doone,' and 'The Heart of Midlothian,' and 'The Cloister and the Hearth,' and 'The Ordeal of Richard Feverel,' and 'John Inglesant.'"
"If you love 'John Inglesant,'" said I, "you must be getting old, Uncle Peter."
"Oh, no," he answered, comfortably lighting his pipe with a live coal of wood from the hearth, "I am only growing up."