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Matthews, Brander, ed. (1852–1929). The Oxford Book of American Essays. 1914.

Samuel McChord Crothers (1857– )

XXIX Free Trade vs. Protection in Literature

IN the old-fashioned text-book we used to be told that the branch of learning that was treated was at once an art and a science. Literature is much more than that. It is an art, a science, a profession, a trade, and an accident. The literature that is of lasting value is an accident. It is something that happens. After it has happened, the historical critics busy themselves in explaining it. But they are not able to predict the next stroke of genius.

Shelley defines poetry as the record of “the best and happiest moments of the best and happiest minds.” When we are fortunate enough to happen in upon an author at one of these happy moments, then, as the country newspaper would say, “a very enjoyable time was had.” After we have said all that can be said about art and craftsmanship, we put our hopes upon a happy chance. Literature cannot be standardized. We never know how the most painstaking work may turn out. The most that can be said of the literary life is what Sancho Panza said of the profession of knight-errantry: “There is something delightful in going about in expectation of accidents.”

After a meeting in behalf of Social Justice, an eager, distraught young man met me, in the streets of Boston, and asked:

“You believe in the principle of equality?”


“Don’t I then have just as much right to be a genius as Shakespeare had?”


“Then why ain’t I?”

I had to confess that I didn’t know.

It is with this chastened sense of our limitations that we meet for any organized attempt at the encouragement of literary productivity. Matthew Arnold’s favorite bit of irreverence in which he seemed to find endless enjoyment was in twitting the unfortunate Bishop who had said that “something ought to be done” for the Holy Trinity. It was a business-like proposition that involved a spiritual incongruity.

A confusion of values is likely to take place when we try to “do something” for American Literature. It is an object that appeals to the uplifter who is anxious to “get results.” But the difficulty is that if a piece of writing is literature, it does not need to be uplifted. If it is not literature, it is likely to be so heavy that you can’t lift it. We have been told that a man by taking thought cannot add a cubit to his stature. It is certainly true that we cannot add many cubits to our literary stature. If we could we should all be giants.

When literary men discourse with one another about their art, they often seem to labor under a weight of responsibility which a friendly outsider would seek to lighten. They are under the impression that they have left undone many things which they ought to have done, and that the Public blames them for their manifold transgressions.

That Great American Novel ought to have been written long ago. There ought to be more local color and less imitation of European models. There ought to have been more plain speaking to demonstrate that we are not squeamish and are not tied to the apron strings of Mrs. Grundy. There ought to be a literary center and those who are at it ought to live up to it.

In all this it is assumed that contemporary writers can control the literary situation.

Let me comfort the over-strained consciences of the members of the writing fraternity. Your responsibility is not nearly so great as you imagine.

Literature differs from the other arts in the relation in which the producer stands to the consumer. Literature can never be made one of the protected industries. In the Drama the living actor has a complete monopoly. One might express a preference for Garrick or Booth, but if he goes to the theater he must take what is set before him. The monopoly of the singer is not quite so complete as it once was. But until canned music is improved, most people will prefer to get theirs fresh. In painting and in sculpture there is more or less competition with the work of other ages. Yet even here there is a measure of natural protection. The old masters may be admired, but they are expensive. The living artist can control a certain market of his own.

There is also a great opportunity for the artist and his friends to exert pressure. When you go to an exhibition of new paintings, you are not a free agent. You are aware that the artist or his friends may be in the vicinity to observe how First Citizen and Second Citizen enjoy the masterpiece. Conscious of this espionage, you endeavor to look pleased. You observe a picture which outrages your ideas of the possible. You mildly remark to a bystander that you have never seen anything like that before.

“Probably not,” he replies, “it is not a picture of any outward scene, it represents the artist’s state of mind.”

“O,” you reply, “I understand. He is making an exhibition of himself.”

It is all so personal that you do not feel like carrying the investigation further. You take what is set before you and ask no questions.

But with a book the relation to the producer is altogether different. You go into your library and shut the door, and you have the same sense of intellectual freedom that you have when you go into the polling booth and mark your Australian ballot. You are a sovereign citizen. Nobody can know what you are reading unless you choose to tell. You snap your fingers at the critics. In the “tumultuous privacy” of print you enjoy what you find enjoyable, and let the rest go.

Your mind is a free port. There are no customs house officers to examine the cargoes that are unladen. The book which has just come from the press has no advantage over the book that is a century old. In the matter of legibility the old volume may be preferable, and its price is less. Whatever choice you make is in the face of the free competition of all the ages. Literature is the timeless art.

Clever writers who start fashions in the literary world should take account of this secrecy of the reader’s position. It is easy enough to start a fashion, the difficulty is to get people to follow it. Few people will follow a fashion except when other people are looking at them. When they are alone they relapse into something which they enjoy and which they find comfortable.

The ultimate consumer of literature is therefore inclined to take a philosophical view of the contentions among literary people, about what seem to them the violent fluctuations of taste. These fashions come and go, but the quiet reader is undisturbed. There are enough good books already printed to last his life-time. Aware of this, he is not alarmed by the cries of the “calamity howlers” who predict a famine.

From a purely commercial viewpoint, this competition with writers of all generations is disconcerting. But I do not see that anything can be done to prevent it. The principle of protection fails. Trades-unionism offers no remedy. What if all the living authors should join in a general strike! We tremble to think of the army of strike-breakers that would rush in from all centuries.

From the literary viewpoint, however, this free competition is very stimulating and even exciting. To hold our own under free trade conditions, we must not put all our thought on increasing the output. In order to meet the free competition to which we are exposed, we must improve the quality of our work. Perhaps that may be good for us.