“Authorcraft” (from Littell’s Living Age, 6 June 1846; pp. 487-488; reprinted from Chambers’ Journal)
Sir Lytton Bulwer thus speaks of authors by profession, in his generous biography of Laman Blanchard, lately published:—“For the author there is nothing but his pen, till that and life are worn to the stump; and then, with good fortune, perhaps on his death-bed he receives a pension—and equals, it may be, for a few months, the income of a retired butler! And so, on the sudden loss of the situation in which he had frittered away his higher and more delicate genius, in all the drudgery that a party exacts from its defender of the press, Laman Blanchard was thrown again upon the world, to shift as he might, and subsist as he could. His practice in periodical writing was now considerable; his versatility was extreme. He was marked by publishers and editors as a useful contributor, and so his livelihood was secure. From a variety of sources thus he contrived, by constant waste of intellect and strength, to eke out his income, and insinuate rather than force his place amongst his contemporary penmen. And uncomplainingly, and with patient industry, he toiled on, seeming farther and farther off from the happy leisure in which ‘the something to verify promise was to be completed.’ No time had he for profound reading, for lengthened works, for the mature development of the conceptions of a charming fancy. He had given hostages to fortune. He had a wife and four children, and no income but that which he made from week to week. The grist must be ground, and the wheel revolve. All the struggle, all the toils, all the weariness of brain, nerve, and head, which a man undergoes in this career, are imperceptible even to his friends—almost to himself: he has no time to be ill, to be fatigued; his spirit has no holiday; it is all school- work. And thus, generally, we find in such men that the break-up of the constitution seems sudden and unlooked-for. The causes of disease and decay have been long laid; but they are smothered beneath the lively appearances of constrained industry and forced excitement.”
We believe this to be, in the main, a true picture of the life of one who makes literature his profession in London, a few brilliant cases excepted. It is nevertheless true that successful authorship is a recognized means of advancing men in the world, and that there really is a considerable number of persons who, by their pens, and what their pens have done for them in political and social life, occupy enviable positions. While such is the case, there always will be many toiling with little success, as there are in other professions. It is also true that the profession of literature shows us many who have come into it on account of narrow circumstances, and who would be poor although they had never become men of letters at all. We thoroughly believe, however, that the great cause of the personal disasters which we hear of in connexion with the names of literary men, is their being contented to live in the manner of the great bulk of the industrious classes-making the daily effort supply the daily bread, and never providing against the contingencies which embarrass, impoverish, and lead to misery. In a struggling world like this, they have no chance, unless they can make themselves in some measure propertied men. Could they but retain one productive copyright, or keep a little reserve-fund at the banker’s, their independence would be comparatively secured. They could choose their task and their task-masters. They might even come to be the employers of publishers—their natural position—instead of the slaves of that trade, which is the prevalent and, as we hold, the false one. Were this the case, we should hear but little of the woes attendant on authorcraft.
“It is impossible,” cries some one; “authors begin poor, and never can they emancipate themselves from that state.” We deny the impossibility. Means have been reserved and stored in far less favorable circumstances; and were there a true will, there would soon be a way. We fear that here lies the real evil. Literary men appear to hug their poverty as a kind of honorable badge of the spirituality of their trade. The common tone amongst them is contemptuous towards the prudential virtues which other men see to be the sure basis of so many others. The very supposition that poverty and literature are necessarily connected, must tend to establish the connexion, and make it indissoluble. We can imagine nothing more contemptible than a whining submission to such an adage.
One example, however, of respectable authorship rising above poverty, is worth pages of discourse upon the subject; and we therefore conclude with a notice which lately appeared in the Sun newspaper respecting the celebrated Peter Parley:—
“Fancy a pretty and picturesque suburb of a large city, and that in this village there is one of the most charming cottages in the world, shadowed by graceful American elms, and surrounded by ælanthus, chestnut, and dogwood trees. Enter the door, around the trellis-work of whose portico luxuriant creepers twine, and you will find yourselves, after passing through an entrace-hall, in an apartment, every article of furniture in which, whether for use or ornament, displays the perfect taste of its owner. Pictures by the best English, European, and American masters, adorn the walls, and articles of vertu are scattered about in various parts of the room. From the windows we have a charming view of the surrounding country. Away to the right rises the capitol-crowned city of Boston. A hot summer day, even so far north as Boston, is no joke; and that it is unusually warm, is proved by a green and golden humming-bird, which (a rare thing in the neighborhood) is busy in the bell of a trumpet-vine just outside of the window.
“ ‘Will you walk into the library, sir?’ says a servant; and, following her, we were ushered into a small room, adorned with
‘Statues, books, and pictures fair;’
And a gentleman cordially welcomes us. It is Peter Parley himself—the beloved of boys, and the glory of girls. He is tall, and rather slightly made: for a moment he has laid aside a large pair of smoked-glass spectacles, and we observe that he has a pair of very bright, small, intellectual eyes, and soft and kindly in their expression. I had imagined
him an elderly, bald-headed, venerable-looking man: he was quite the reverse of the picture of him which I had hung up in my own private and particular image-chamber. Over a beautifully-shaped head grew short, crisp, curly, dark hair, and his features were rather more youthful in cast than might be supposed in those belonging to a man of some half-a-century old—for that I take to be about his age. He was about the best-dressed man I had met in America; and the whole appearance and bearing of Peter Parley was that of the perfect and high-bred gentleman. Of his mental qualifications, which are not, as they ought to be, appreciated in this country, I shall speak presently.
“Peter Parley’s real name is Samuel Griswold Goodrich. He is the son of a clergyman of Connecticut—a state which has sent forth more literary men than any other in America. Mr. Goodrich was educated in the common school of his native home; and soon after attaining the age of twenty-one, he became engaged in the business of publishing at Hartford, where he resided for several years. In the year 1824, he was compelled by ill health to travel, and he visited Europe, and travelled over England, France, Germany, and Holland, devoting his attention particularly to the institutions for education; and on his return, having determined to attempt an improvement in books for the young, established himself in Boston, and commenced the trade, or profession, as it is more genteelly called, of authorship. Since that time he has produced some thirty and odd volumes under the signature of ‘Peter Parley,’ which have passed through a great number of editions in America and in this country, and many of them have been translated into foreign languages. Mr. Goodrich informed me that a friend of his had actually met with one of his books ‘done’ into Persian; and I have seen a Constantinople edition of one of the earliest of the ‘Parley’ series.
“Of some of these works, more than 50,000 copies are circulated annually. In 1824 Mr. Goodrich published ‘The Token,’ the first annual which ever appeared in America; and for fourteen years he continued to edit it, during which time he contributed most of the poems of which he is known to be the author. His ‘Fireside Education’ was composed in sixty days, whilst he was discharging his duties as a member of the Massachusetts senate, and superintending his publishing establishment.
“He told me, in the course of a conversation, that he had adopted the name of ‘Peter Parley,’ as he wished the tales he told children to be related by a gossiping old gentleman, who could talk and ‘parley’ with them. ‘When I first used it, I little thought,’ said he, ‘that before long it would be better known than my own.’
“During the disastrous panic which occurred some years ago in the American money-market, Mr. Goodrich, in common with hundreds of others, was a sufferer to a very serious extent. Previously to the calamity he had built himself a beautiful mansion at Roxbury, near Boston, and near it a lodge of very elegant design. Here he had fondly hoped to spend the evening of his days in the enjoyment of competence, and even of affluence. But the crash came; and one dreary day Peter Parley, after all his hard work, found himself stripped of every dollar; and, instead of being independent in circumstances, ten thousand dollars in debt. But he was not the man to despair; and, acting upon the principles of perseverance and industry he had so often inculcated, he ‘never gave up,’ but set his shoulders once more to the wheel, and, with a willing heart and cheerful hope, commenced life anew. He was not so young as when he first wrote books; but the mine was yet inexhausted; his arm was still vigorous, and he recommenced working in the veins of knowledge. He was a prudent man, and so he sold his large house, and, with his accomplished wife and young family, removed to the lodge, which his taste soon converted into a charming home; ‘and,’ said Mrs. Goodrich to me, when I visited them a few months ago, ‘we are just as happy as we were there.’ Day and night toiled Peter Parley, flinging off book after book with unexampled rapidity, until fortune smiled on her patient wooer, and partially restored him that of which chance had deprived him. Still he is toiling for the children, and, I am happy to say, not without earning his just wages.
“Mr. Goodrich’s eyesight obliges him to seek the aid of his wife’s pen; and it is not impossible that a certain indescribable charm which pervades Peter’s later works may be ascribed to this circumstance.”
Talk with interest of a literary life spent in garrets and prisons! How infinitely more interesting this picture of prudential authorship, practised amidst the unostentatious comforts which make a rational man’s sufficiency!