Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Horace Greeley on literature as a vocation

Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune (est. 1841), was well known for his vehement opinions on everything from slavery and women's rights to unions, nativism and education. Here are his thoughts on books:

"It is a very common but a very mischievous notion, that the writing of a book is creditable per se. On the contrary, I hold it discreditable, and only to be justified by proof of lofty qualities and generous aims embodied therein. To write a book when you have nothing new to communicate, - nothing to say that has not been better said already, - that is to inflict a real injury on mankind. A new book is only to be justified by a new truth. If Jonas Potts, however illiterate and commonplace, has been shipwrecked on Hudson’s Bay, and has traveled thence overland to Detroit or Montreal by a route previously unknown, then he may give us a book – if he will attempt no more than to tell us as clearly as possible what he experienced and saw by the way, - which will have a genuine value, and which the world may well thank him for; and so of a man who, having manufactured charcoal all his days, should favor us with a treatise on burning charcoal, showing what was the relative value for that use of the various woods; how long they should be on the fire respectively; how much wood should be burned in one pit, and how the burning should be managed. Every contribution, however rude & humble, to our knowledge of nature, and of the means by which her products may most advantageously be made subservient to our needs, is beneficent, and worthy of our regard. But the fabrication of new poems, or novels, or essays, or histories, which really add nothing to our stock of facts, to our fund of ideas, but, so far as they have any significance, merely resay what has been more forcibly, intelligibly, happily, said already, - this is a work which does less than no good, - which ought to be decried and put down, under the general police duty of abating nuisances. I would have every writer of a book cited before a competent tribunal and made to answer the questions: “Sir, what proposition is this book intended to set forth & commend? What fact does it reveal? What is its drift, its purport?” If it embodies a new truth, or even a new suggestion, though it seem a very mistaken and absurd one, make way for it! and let it fight its own battle; but if it has really no other aim than to be readable, therefore salable, and thus to win gold for its author and his accomplices, the printer and the publisher, then let a bonfire be made of its manuscript sheets, so that the world may speedily obtain from it all the light it is capable of imparting."

I emphatically disagree with Greeley that all published books ought to be didactic: see the essays in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan on Hale and Bryant, and more definitively, Ayn Rand's Romantic Manifesto. Of course millions of books have been and will be published that offer neither practical advice nor inspiration, but better to let the workings of the capitalist system punish those who perpetrate such works than have authors face censorship.

The bibliography and out-takes for Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan Essay 7 offer several other substantial quotations from Greeley's Recollections of a Busy Life (1868), plus an anecdote by Mark Twain and a pithy comment by William Cullen Bryant (OMOM Essay 22).
The image at the beginning of this post is by Thomas Nast, famed 19th-c. caricaturist; see the end of the Greeley bibliography for details.

No comments: