The Open Polar Sea of Novels

With Highly Incendiary Advice to Boys and Some More Ancient History

By Young E. Allison.


After the first novel has been read, somewhere under the seasoned age of fourteen years, the beginner equipped with inherent genius for novel reading is afloat upon an open sea of literature, a master mariner of his own craft, having ports to make, to leave, to take, so splendid of variety and wonder as to make the voyages of Sinbad sing small by comparison. It may be proper and even a duty here to suggest to the young novel reader that the Ten Commandments and all governmental statutes authorize the instant killing, without pity or remorse, of any heavy-headed and intrusive person who presumes to map out for him a symmetrical and well-digested course of novel reading. The murder of such folks is universally excused as self-defense and secretly applauded as a public service. The born novel reader needs no guide, counselor or friend. He is his own “master.” He can with perfect safety and indescribable delight shut his eyes, reach out his hand, pull down any plum of a book and never make a mistake. Novel reading is the only one of the splendid occupations of life calling for no instruction or advice. All that is necessary is to bite the apple with the largest freedom possible to the intellectual and imaginative jaws, and let the taste of it squander itself all the way down from the front teeth until it is lost in the digestive joys of memory. There is no miserable quail limit to novels—you can read thirty novels in thirty days or 365 novels in 365 days for thirty years, and the last one will always have the delicious taste of the pies of childhood.

If any honest-minded boy chances to read these lines, let him charge his mind with full contempt for any misguided elders who have designs of “choosing only the best accepted novels” for his reading. There are no “best” novels except by the grace of the poor ones, and, if you don’t read the poor ones, the “best” will be as tasteless as unsalted rice. I say to boys that are worth growing up: don’t let anybody give you patronizing advice about novels. If your pastors and masters try oppression, there is the orchard, the creek bank, the attic room, the roof of the woodshed (under the peach tree), and a thousand other places where you may hide and maintain your natural independence. Don’t let elderly and officious persons explain novels to you. They can not honestly do so; so don’t waste time. Every boy of fourteen, with the genius to read ‘em, is just as good a judge of novels and can understand them quite as well as any gentleman of brains of any old age. Because novels mean entirely different things to every blessed reader.


* * * * *


The main thing at the beginning is to be in the neighborhood of a good “novel orchard” and to nibble and eat, and even “gormandize,” as your fancy leads you. Only—as you value your soul and your honor as a gentleman—bear in mind that what you read in every novel that pleases you is sacred truth. There are busy-bodies, pretenders to “culture,” and sticklers for the multiplication table and Euclid’s pestiferous theorem, who will tell you that novel reading is merely for entertainment and light accomplishment, and that the histories of fiction are purely imaginary and not to be taken seriously. That is pure falsehood. The truth of all humanity, as well as all its untruth, flows in a noble stream through the pages of fiction. Do not allow the elders to persuade you that pirate stories, battles, sieges, murders and sudden deaths, the road to transgression and the face of dishonesty are not good for you. They are 90 per cent. pure nutriment to a healthy boy’s mind, and any other sort of boy ought particularly to read them and so learn the shortest cut to the penitentiary for the good of the world. Whenever you get hold of a novel that preaches and preaches and preaches, and can’t give a poor ticket-of-leave man or the decentest sort of a villain credit for one good trait—Gee, Whizz! how tiresome they are—lose it, you young scamp, at once, if you respect yourself. If you are pushed you can say that Bill Jones took it away from you and threw it in the creek. The great Victor Hugo and the authors of that noble drama “The Two Orphans,” are my authorities for the statement that some fibs—not all fibs, but some proper fibs—are entered in heaven on both debit and credit sides of the book of fate.

There is one book, the Book of Books, swelling rich and full with the wisdom and beauty and joy and sorrow of humanity—a book that set humility like a diamond in the forehead of virtue; that found mercy and charity outcasts among the minds of men and left them radiant queens in the world’s heart; that stickled not to describe the gorgeous esotery of corroding passion and shamed it with the purity of Mary Magdalene; that dragged from the despair of old Job the uttermost poison-drop of doubt and answered it with the noble problem of organized existence; that teems with murder and mistake and glows with all goodness and honest aspiration—that is the Book of Books. There hasn’t been one written since that has crossed the boundary of its scope. What would that book be after some goody-goody had expurgated it of evil and left it sterilized in butter and sugar? Let no ignorant paternal Czar, ruling over cottage or mansion, presume to keep from the mind and heart of youth the vigorous knowledge and observation of evil and good, crime and virtue together. No chaff, no wheat; no dross, no gold; no human faults and weaknesses, no heavenly hope. And if any gentleman does not like the sentiment, he can find me at my usual place of residence, unless he intends violence—and be hanged, also, to him!


* * * * *


A novel is a novel, and there are no bad ones in the world, except those you do not happen to like. Suppose a boy started with Robinson Crusoe and was scientifically and criminally steered by the hand of misguided “culture” to Scott and Dickens and Cooper and Hawthorne—all the classics, in fact, so that he would escape the vulgar thousands? Answer a straight question, ye old rooters between a thousand miles of muslin lids—would you have been willing to miss “The Gunmaker of Moscow” back yonder in the green days of say forty years ago? What do you think of Prof. William Henry Peck’s “Cryptogram?” Were not Sylvanus Cobb, Jr., and Emerson Bennett authors of renown—honor to their dust, wherever it lies! Didn’t you read Mrs. Southworth’s “Capitola” or the “Hidden Hand” long before “Vashti” was dreamed of? Don’t you remember that No. 52 of Beadle’s Dime Library (light yellowish red paper covers) was “Silverheels, the Delaware,” and that No. 77 was “Schinderhannes, the Outlaw of the Black Forest?” I yield to no man in affection and reverence for M. Dumas, Mr. Thackeray and others of the higher circles, but what’s the matter with Ned Buntline, honest, breezy, vigorous, swinging old Ned? Put the “Three Guardsmen” where you will, but there is also room for “Buffalo Bill, the Scout.” When I first saw Col. Cody, an ornament to the theatre and a painful trial to the drama, and realized that he was Buffalo Bill in the flesh—why, I was glad I had also read “Buffalo Bill’s Last Shot”--(may he never shoot it). The day has passed forever, probably, when Buffalo Bill shall shout to his other scouts, “You set fire to the girl while I take care of the house!” or vice versa, and so saying, bear the fainting heroine triumphantly off from the treacherous redskins. But the story has lived.


* * * * *


It was a happy and honored custom in the old days for subscribers to the New York Ledger and the New York Weekly to unite in requests for the serial republication of favorite stories in those great fireside luminaries. They were the old-fashioned, broadside sheets and, of course, there were insuperable difficulties against preserving the numbers. After a year or two, therefore, there would awaken a general hunger among the loyal hosts to “read the story over,” and when the demand was sufficiently strong the publishers would repeat it, cuts, divisions, and all, just as at first. How many times the “Gunmaker of Moscow” was repeated in the Ledger, heaven knows. I remember I petitioned repeatedly for “Buffalo Bill” in the Weekly, and we got it, too, and waded through it again. By wading, I don’t mean pushing laboriously and tediously through, but, by George! half immersion in the joy. It was a week between numbers, and a studious and appreciative boy made no bones of reading the current weekly chapters half a dozen times over while waiting for the next.

It must have been ten years later that I felt a thrill at the coming of Buffalo Bill himself in his first play. I had risen to the dignity of dramatic critic upon a journal of limited civilization and boundless politics, and was privileged to go behind the scenes at the theatre and actually speak to the actors. (I interviewed Mary Anderson during her first season, in the parlor of the local hotel, where honest George Bristow—who kept the cigar stand and could not keep a healthy appetite—always gave a Thanksgiving order for “two-whole-roast turkeys and a piece of breast,” and they were served, too, the whole ones going to some near-by hospital, and the piece of breast to George’s honest stomach—good, kind soul that he was. And Miss Anderson chewed gum during the whole period of the interview to the intense amusement of my elder and brother dramatic critic, who has since become the honored governor of his adopted state, and toward whom I beg to look with affectionate memory of those days.) Now, when a man has known novels intimately, has been dramatic critic, and has traveled with a circus, it seems to me in all reason he can not fairly have any other earthly joys to desire. At fifteen I was walking on tip-toe about the house on Sundays, and going off to the end of the garden to softly whistle “weekday” tunes, and at twenty I stood off the wings L. U. E., and had twenty “Black Crook” coryphees in silk tights and tarletan squeeze past in line, and nod and say, “Is it going all right in front?” They—knew—I—was—the—Critic! When you can do that you can laugh at Byron, roosting around upon inaccessible mountain crags and formulating solitude and indigestion into poetry!

I waited for Buffalo Bill’s coming with feelings that can not be described. It was impossible to expect to meet Sir William Wallace in the flesh, or Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, or Capt. D’Artagnan, or Umslopogaas, or any one of a thousand great fighting heroes; but here was Buffalo Bill, just as great and glorious and dashing and handsome as any of them, and my right hand tingled to be grasped in that of the Bayard of the Prairies. And that hand’s desire was attained. In his dressing-room between acts I sat nervously on a chair while the splendid Apollo of frontiersmen, in buckskin and beads, sat on his trunk, with his long, shapely legs sprawled gracefully out, his head thrown back so that the mane of brown hair should hang behind. It was glistening with oil and redolent of barber’s perfume. And we talked there as one man to another, each apparently without fear. I was certainly nervous and timid, but he did not notice it, and I am frank to say he did not appear to feel the slightest personal fear of me. Thus, face to face, I saw the man with whom I had trod Ned Buntline’s boundless plains and had seen and encountered a thousand perils and redskins. When the act call came, and I rose to go, a man stopped at the door and said to him:

“What shall it be to-night, Colonel?”

“A big beef-steak and a bottle of Bass!” answered Buffalo Bill heartily, “and tell ‘ern to have it hot and ready at 11:15.”


The beef-steak and Bass’ ale were the watchwords of true heroism. The real hero requires substantial filling. He must have a head and a heart—but no less a good, healthy and impatient stomach.

In the daily paper the morning I write this I see the announcement of Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show” coming two week’s hence. Good luck to him! He can’t charge prices too steep for me, and there are six seats necessary—the best in the amphitheater. And I wish I could be sure the vigorous spirit of Ned Buntline would be looking down from the blue sky overhead to see his hero charge the hill of San Juan at the head of the Rough Riders.


* * * * *


This digression may be wide of the subject of novel reading, but the real novel reader is at home anywhere. He has thoughts, dreams, reveries, fancies. All the world is his novel and all actions are stories and all the actors are characters. When Lucile Western, the excellent American actress, was at the height of her powers, not long before her last appearances, she had as her leading man a big, slouchy and careless person, who was advertised as “the talented young English actor, William Whally.” In the intimacies of private association he was known as Bill Whally, and his descent was straight down from “Mount Sinai’s awful height.” He was a Hebrew and no better or more uneven and reckless actor ever played melodramatic “heavies.” He had a love for Shakespeare, but could not play him; he had a love of drink and could gratify it. His vigorous talents purchased for him much forbearance. I’ve seen Mr. Whally play the fastidious and elegant “Sir Archibald Levison” in shiny black doe-skin trousers and old-fashioned cloth gaiters, because his condition rendered the problem of dressing somewhat doubtful, though it could not obscure his acting. He was the only walking embodiment of “Bill Sykes” I ever saw, and I contracted the habit of going to see him kill Miss Western as “Nancy” because he butchered that young woman with a broken chair more satisfactorily than anybody else I ever saw. There was a murderer for you—Bill Sykes! Bad as he was in most things, let us not forget that—he—killed—Nancy— and—killed—her—well and—thoroughly. If that young woman didn’t snivel herself under a just sentence of death, I’m no fit householder to serve on a jury. Every time Miss Western came around it was my custom to read up fresh on “Oliver Twist” and hurry around and enjoy Bill Whally’s happy application of retribution with the aid of the old property chair. There were six other persons whom I succeeded in persuading to applaud the scene with me every time it was acted.

But there’s a separate chapter for villains.


* * * * *


Let us return to the old novels. What curious pranks time plays with tastes and vogues. Forty years ago N. P. Willis was just faded. Yet he was long a great comet of literary glitter and obscured many men of much greater ability. Everybody read him; the annuals hung upon his name; the ladies regarded him as a finer and more dashing Byron than Byron. The place he filled was much like that of Congreve, before whom Shakespeare’s great nose was out of joint for a long time; Congreve, who was the margarita aluminata major of English poesy and drama and public life, and is now found in junk stores and in the back line on book shelves and whom nobody reads now. Willis had his languid affectations, his superficial cynicism and added to them ostentatious sentimentality.

Does anybody read William Gilmore Simm’s elaborate rhetoric disguised as novels? He must have written two dozen of them, the Richardson of the United States. Lovers of delicious wit and intellectual humor still read Dr. Holmes’ essays, but it would probably take a physician’s prescription to make them swallow the novels. In what dark corners of the library are Bayard Taylor’s novels and travels hidden? Will you come into the garden, Maud, and read Chancellor Walworth’s mighty tragedies and Miss Mulock’s Swiss-toy historical novels, or will you beg off, like the honest girl you are, and take a nap? Your sleepiness, dear Miss Maud, does you credit. By the way, what the deuce is the name of anyone of these novels? I can recall “Elsie Vernier,” by Dr. Holmes and then there is a blank.

But what classics they were—then! In the thick of them had appeared a newspaper story that struggled through and was printed in book form. Old friends have told me how they waited at the country post-offices to get a copy, delayed for weeks. It was a scandal to read it in some localities. It was fiercely attacked as an outrageous exaggeration produced by temporary excitement and hostile feeling, or praised as a new gospel. It has been translated into every tongue having a printing press, and has sold by millions of copies. It was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It was not a classic, but what a vigorous immortal mongrel of human sentiment it was! What a row was kicked up over Miss Braddon’s “Octoroon,” and what an impossible yellowback it was! The toughest piece of fiction I met with as a boy was “Sanford and Merton,” and I’ve been aching to say so for four pages. If this world were full of Sanfords and Mertons, then give me Jupiter or some other comfortable planet at a secure sanitary distance removed.

I can’t even remember the writers who were grammatically and rhetorically perfect forty years ago, and also very dull with it all. Is there a bookshelf that holds “Leni Leoti, or The Flower of the Prairies?” There are “Jane Eyre,” “Lady Audley’s Secret,” and “John Halifax, Gentleman,” which will go with many and are all well worth the reading, too. Are Mrs. Eliza A. Dupuy, Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth, Mrs. Caroline Lee Hentz and Augusta J. Evans dead? Their novels still live—look at the book stores. “Linda, or the Young Pilot of the Belle Creole,” “India, the Pearl of Pearl River,” “The Planter’s Northern Bride,” “St. Elmo”—they were fiction for you! A boy old enough to have a first sweetheart could swallow them by the mile.

You remember, when we were boys, the circus acrobats always—always, remember—rubbed young children with snake-oil and walloped them with a rawhide to educate them in tumbling and contortion? Well, if I could get the snake-oil for the joints and a curly young wig, I’d like to get back at five hundred of those books and devour them again— “as of yore!”


This is taken from Reading: The Delicious Vice.





Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved