My Literary Passions, by William Dean Howells

II. Goldsmith

When I began to have literary likings of my own, and to love certain books above others, the first authors of my heart were Goldsmith, Cervantes, and Irving. In the sharply foreshortened perspective of the past I seem to have read them all at once, but I am aware of an order of time in the pleasure they gave me, and I know that Goldsmith came first. He came so early that I cannot tell when or how I began to read him, but it must have been before I was ten years old. I read other books about that time, notably a small book on Grecian and Roman mythology, which I perused with such a passion for those pagan gods and goddesses that, if it had ever been a question of sacrificing to Diana, I do not really know whether I should have been able to refuse. I adored indiscriminately all the tribes of nymphs and naiads, demigods and heroes, as well as the high ones of Olympus; and I am afraid that by day I dwelt in a world peopled and ruled by them, though I faithfully said my prayers at night, and fell asleep in sorrow for my sins. I do not know in the least how Goldsmith’s Greece came into my hands, though I fancy it must have been procured for me because of a taste which I showed for that kind of reading, and I can imagine no greater luck for a small boy in a small town of Southwestern Ohio well-nigh fifty years ago. I have the books yet; two little, stout volumes in fine print, with the marks of wear on them, but without those dishonorable blots, or those other injuries which boys inflict upon books in resentment of their dulness, or out of mere wantonness. I was always sensitive to the maltreatment of books; I could not bear to see a book faced down or dogs-eared or broken-backed. It was like a hurt or an insult to a thing that could feel.

Goldsmith’s History of Rome came to me much later, but quite as immemorably, and after I had formed a preference for the Greek Republics, which I dare say was not mistaken. Of course I liked Athens best, and yet there was something in the fine behavior of the Spartans in battle, which won a heart formed for hero-worship. I mastered the notion of their communism, and approved of their iron money, with the poverty it obliged them to, yet somehow their cruel treatment of the Helots failed to shock me; perhaps I forgave it to their patriotism, as I had to forgive many ugly facts in the history of the Romans to theirs. There was hardly any sort of bloodshed which I would not pardon in those days to the slayers of tyrants; and the swagger form of such as despatched a despot with a fine speech was so much to my liking that I could only grieve that I was born too late to do and to say those things.

I do not think I yet felt the beauty of the literature which made them all live in my fancy, that I conceived of Goldsmith as an artist using for my rapture the finest of the arts; and yet I had been taught to see the loveliness of poetry, and was already trying to make it on my own poor account. I tried to make verses like those I listened to when my father read Moore and Scott to my mother, but I heard them with no such happiness as I read my beloved histories, though I never thought then of attempting to write like Goldsmith. I accepted his beautiful work as ignorantly as I did my other blessings. I was concerned in getting at the Greeks and Romans, and I did not know through what nimble air and by what lovely ways I was led to them. Some retrospective perception of this came long afterward when I read his essays, and after I knew all of his poetry, and later yet when I read the ‘Vicar of Wakefield’; but for the present my eyes were holden, as the eyes of a boy mostly are in the world of art. What I wanted with my Greeks and Romans after I got at them was to be like them, or at least to turn them to account in verse, and in dramatic verse at that. The Romans were less civilized than the Greeks, and so were more like boys, and more to a boy’s purpose. I did not make literature of the Greeks, but I got a whole tragedy out of the Romans; it was a rhymed tragedy, and in octosyllabic verse, like the “Lady of the Lake.” I meant it to be acted by my schoolmates, but I am not sure that I ever made it known to them. Still, they were not ignorant of my reading, and I remember how proud I was when a certain boy, who had always whipped me when we fought together, and so outranked me in that little boys’ world, once sent to ask me the name of the Roman emperor who lamented at nightfall, when he had done nothing worthy, that he had lost a day. The boy was going to use the story, in a composition, as we called the school themes then, and I told him the emperor’s name; I could not tell him now without turning to the book.

My reading gave me no standing among the boys, and I did not expect it to rank me with boys who were more valiant in fight or in play; and I have since found that literature gives one no more certain station in the world of men’s activities, either idle or useful. We literary folk try to believe that it does, but that is all nonsense. At every period of life, among boys or men, we are accepted when they are at leisure, and want to be amused, and at best we are tolerated rather than accepted. I must have told the boys stories out of my Goldsmith’s Greece and Rome, or it would not have been known that I had read them, but I have no recollection now of doing so, while I distinctly remember rehearsing the allegories and fables of the ‘Gesta Romanorum’, a book which seems to have been in my hands about the same time or a little later. I had a delight in that stupid collection of monkish legends which I cannot account for now, and which persisted in spite of the nightmare confusion it made of my ancient Greeks and Romans. They were not at all the ancient Greeks and Romans of Goldsmith’s histories.

I cannot say at what times I read these books, but they must have been odd times, for life was very full of play then, and was already beginning to be troubled with work. As I have said, I was to and fro between the schoolhouse and the printing-office so much that when I tired of the one I must have been very promptly given my choice of the other. The reading, however, somehow went on pretty constantly, and no doubt my love for it won me a chance for it. There were some famous cherry-trees in our yard, which, as I look back at them, seem to have been in flower or fruit the year round; and in one of them there was a level branch where a boy could sit with a book till his dangling legs went to sleep, or till some idler or busier boy came to the gate and called him down to play marbles or go swimming. When this happened the ancient world was rolled up like a scroll, and put away until the next day, with all its orators and conspirators, its nymphs and satyrs, gods and demigods; though sometimes they escaped at night and got into the boy’s dreams.

I do not think I cared as much as some of the other boys for the ‘Arabian Nights’ or ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ but when it came to the ‘Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha,’ I was not only first, I was sole.

Before I speak, however, of the beneficent humorist who next had my boyish heart after Goldsmith, let me acquit myself in full of my debt to that not unequal or unkindred spirit. I have said it was long after I had read those histories, full of his inalienable charm, mere pot-boilers as they were, and far beneath his more willing efforts, that I came to know his poetry. My father must have read the “Deserted Village” to us, and told us something of the author’s pathetic life, for I cannot remember when I first knew of “sweet Auburn,” or had the light of the poet’s own troubled day upon the “loveliest village of the plain.” The ‘Vicar of Wakefield’ must have come into my life after that poem and before ‘The Traveler’. It was when I would have said that I knew all Goldsmith; we often give ourselves credit for knowledge in this way without having any tangible assets; and my reading has always been very desultory. I should like to say here that the reading of any one who reads to much purpose is always very desultory, though perhaps I had better not say so, but merely state the fact in my case, and own that I never read any one author quite through without wandering from him to others. When I first read the ‘Vicar of Wakefield’ (for I have since read it several times, and hope yet to read it many times), I found its persons and incidents familiar, and so I suppose I must have heard it read. It is still for me one of the most modern novels: that is to say, one of the best. It is unmistakably good up to a certain point, and then unmistakably bad, but with always good enough in it to be forever imperishable. Kindness and gentleness are never out of fashion; it is these in Goldsmith which make him our contemporary, and it is worth the while of any young person presently intending deathless renown to take a little thought of them. They are the source of all refinement, and I do not believe that the best art in any kind exists without them. The style is the man, and he cannot hide himself in any garb of words so that we shall not know somehow what manner of man he is within it; his speech betrayeth him, not only as to his country and his race, but more subtly yet as to his heart, and the loves and hates of his heart. As to Goldsmith, I do not think that a man of harsh and arrogant nature, of worldly and selfish soul, could ever have written his style, and I do not think that, in far greater measure than criticism has recognized, his spiritual quality, his essential friendliness, expressed itself in the literary beauty that wins the heart as well as takes the fancy in his work.

I should have my reservations and my animadversions if it came to close criticism of his work, but I am glad that he was the first author I loved, and that even before I knew I loved him I was his devoted reader. I was not consciously his admirer till I began to read, when I was fourteen, a little volume of his essays, made up, I dare say, from the ‘Citizen of the World’ and other unsuccessful ventures of his. It contained the papers on Beau Tibbs, among others, and I tried to write sketches and studies of life in their manner. But this attempt at Goldsmith’s manner followed a long time after I tried to write in the style of Edgar A. Poe, as I knew it from his ‘Tales of the Grotesque erred Arabesque.’ I suppose the very poorest of these was the “Devil in the Belfry,” but such as it was I followed it as closely as I could in the “Devil in the Smoke–Pipes”; I meant tobacco-pipes. The resemblance was noted by those to whom I read my story; I alone could not see it or would not own it, and I really felt it a hardship that I should be found to have produced an imitation.

It was the first time I had imitated a prose writer, though I had imitated several poets like Moore, Campbell, and Goldsmith himself. I have never greatly loved an author without wishing to write like him. I have now no reluctance to confess that, and I do not see why I should not say that it was a long time before I found it best to be as like myself as I could, even when I did not think so well of myself as of some others. I hope I shall always be able and willing to learn something from the masters of literature and still be myself, but for the young writer this seems impossible. He must form himself from time to time upon the different authors he is in love with, but when he has done this he must wish it not to be known, for that is natural too. The lover always desires to ignore the object of his passion, and the adoration which a young writer has for a great one is truly a passion passing the love of women. I think it hardly less fortunate that Cervantes was one of my early passions, though I sat at his feet with no more sense of his mastery than I had of Goldsmith’s.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38