A Discovery by Christopher Morley

Story type: EssayWe are going to tell the truth. It has been on our mind for some time. We are going to tell it exactly, without any balancing or trimming or crimped edge …

Story type: Essay

We are going to tell the truth. It has been on our mind for some time. We are going to tell it exactly, without any balancing or trimming or crimped edges. We are weary of talking about trivialities and are going to come plump and plain to the adventures of our own mind. These are real adventures, just as real as the things we see. The green frog that took refuge on our porch last night was no more real. Perhaps frogs don’t care so much for wet as they are supposed to, for when that excellent thunderstorm came along and the ceiling of the night was sheeted with lilac brightness, through which ran quivering threads of naked fire (not just the soft, tame, flabby fire of the domestic hearth, but the real core and marrow of flame, its hungry, terrible, destroying self), our friend the frog came hopping up on the porch where we stood, apparently to take shelter. How brilliant was his black and silver eye when we picked him up! His direct and honourable regard somehow made us feel ashamed, we know not why. And yet we have plenty to be ashamed about–but how did he know? He was still on the porch this morning. Equally real was the catbird on the hedge as we came down toward the station. She–we call her so, for there was unmistakable ladyhood in her delicately tailored trimness–she bickered at us in a cheerful way, on top of those bushes which were so loaded with the night’s rainfall that they shone a blurred cobweb gray in the lifting light. Her eye was also dark and polished and lucid, like a bead of ink. It also had the same effect of tribulation on our spirit. Neither the catbird nor the frog, we said to ourself, would have tormented their souls trying to “invent” something to write about. They would have told what happened to them, and let it go at that. So, as we walked along under an arcade of maple trees, admiring the little green seed-biplanes brought down by the thrash of the rain–they look rather as though they would make good coathangers for fairies–we asked ourself why we could not be as straightforward as the bird and the frog, and talk about what was in our mind.

The most exciting thing that happened to us when we got to New York last February was finding a book in a yellow wrapper. Its title was “Old Junk,” which appealed to us. The name of the author was H. M. Tomlinson, which immediately became to us a name of honour and great meaning. All day and every day intelligent men find themselves surrounded by oceans of what is quaintly called “reading matter.” Most of it is turgid, lumpy, fuzzy in texture, squalid in intellect. The rewards of the literary world–that is, the tangible, potable, spendable rewards–go mostly to the cheapjack and the mountebank. And yet here was a man who in every paragraph spoke to the keenest intellectual sense–who, ten times a page, enchanted the reader with the surprising and delicious pang given by the critically chosen word. We sat up late at night reading that book, marvelling at our good fortune. We wanted to cry aloud (to such as cared to understand), “Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for here is born a man who knows how to write!” In our exuberance we seized a pen and wrote in the stern of our copy: “Here speaks the Lord God of prose; here is the clear eye, the ironic mind, the compassionate heart; the thrilling honesty and (apparent) simplicity of great work.” Then we set about making the book known to our friends. We propelled them into bookshops and made them buy it. We took our own copy down to William McFee on S.S. Turrialba and a glad heart was ours when he, too, said it was “the real thing.” This is a small matter, you say? When the discovery of an honest pen becomes a small matter life will lose something of its savour. Those who understand will understand; let the others spend their time in the smoker playing pinochle. Those who care about these things can get the book for themselves.

Of Mr. Tomlinson in person: he is a London newspaperman, we understand, and now on the staff of the London Nation. (Trust Mr. Massingham, the editor of that journal, to know an honest writer when he sees him.) Mr. Tomlinson says of himself:

My life is like my portrait. It won’t bear investigation. I am not conscious of having done anything that would interest either a policeman or the young lady of the kind who dotes on Daddy Long Legs; worse luck. It’s about time I got down to business and did something interesting either to one or the other. That is why it won’t bear investigation, this record of mine. I am about as entertaining as one of the crowd coming out of the factory gates with his full dinner pail. All my adventures have been no more than keeping that pail moderately full. I’ve been doing that since I was twelve, in all sorts of ways. I was an office boy and a clerk among London’s ships, in the last days of the clippers. And I am forced to recall some of the things–such as bookkeeping in a jam factory and stoking on a tramp steamer–I can understand why I and my fellows, without wanting to, drifted about in indecision till we drifted into war and drifted into peace. And of course, I’ve been a journalist. I am still; and so have seen much of Africa, America, and Europe, without knowing exactly why. I was in France in 1914–the August, too, of that year, and woke up from that nightmare in 1917, after the Vimy Ridge attack, when I returned to England to sit with my wife and children in a cellar whenever it was a fine night and listened to the guns and bombs. God, who knows all, might make something of this sort of inconsequential drift of one day into the next, but I give it up.

But now we pass to the phase of the matter that puzzles us. How is it that there are some books which can never have abiding life until they perish and are born again? We have noticed it so often. There is a book of a certain sort to which this process seems inevitable. One need only mention Leonard Merrick or Samuel Butler as examples. The book, we will suppose, has some peculiar subtlety or flavour of appeal. (We are thinking at the moment of William McFee’s “Letters From an Ocean Tramp.”) It is published and falls dead. Later on–usually about ten years later–it is taken up with vigour by some other publisher, the stone is rolled away from the sepulchre, and it begins to move among its destined lovers.

This remark is caused by our delighted discovery of a previous book by the author of “Old Junk.” “The Sea and the Jungle” is the title of it, the tale of a voyage on the tramp steamer Capella, from Swansea to Para in the Brazils, and thence 2,000 miles along the forests of the Amazon and Madeira rivers. It is the kind of book whose readers will never forget it; the kind of book that happens to some happy writers once in a lifetime (and to many never at all) when the moving hand seems gloriously in gear with the tremulous and busy mind, and all the spinning earth stands hearkeningly still waiting for the perfect expression of the thought. It is the work of a hand trained in laborious task-work and then set magnificently free, for a few blessed months, under no burden save that of putting its captaining spirit truthfully on paper. And this book–in which there is a sea passage that not even Mr. Conrad has ever bettered–this book, which makes the utmost self-satisfied heroics of the Prominent Writers of our market place shrivel uncomfortably in remembrance–this book, we repeat, though published in this country in 1913, has been long out of print; and the copy which we were lucky enough to lay hand on through the courtesy of the State Librarian of Pennsylvania had not previously been borrowed since November 18, 1913. Someone asks us if this man can really write. Let us choose a paragraph for example. This deals with the first day at sea of the tramp steamer Capella:

It was December, but by luck we found a halcyon morning which had got lost in the year’s procession. It was a Sunday morning, and it had not been ashore. It was still virgin, bearing a vestal light. It had not been soiled yet by any suspicion of this trampled planet, this muddy star, which its innocent and tenuous rays had discovered in the region of night. I thought it still was regarding us as a lucky find there. Its light was tremulous, as if with joy and eagerness. I met this discovering morning as your ambassador while you still slept, and betrayed not, I hope, any grayness and bleared satiety of ours to its pure, frail, and lucid regard. That was the last good service I did before leaving you quite. I was glad to see how well your old earth did meet such a light, as though it had no difficulty in looking day in the face. The world was miraculously renewed. It rose, and received the newborn of Aurora in its arms. There were clouds of pearl above hills of chrysoprase. The sea ran in volatile flames. The shadows on the bright deck shot to and fro as we rolled. The breakfast bell rang not too soon. This was a right beginning.

The above is a paragraph that we have chosen from Mr. Tomlinson’s book almost at random. We could spend the whole afternoon (and a happy afternoon it would be for us) copying out for you passages from “The Sea and the Jungle” that would give you the extremity of pleasure, O high-spirited reader! It is an odd thing, it is a quaint thing, it is a thing that would seem inconceivable (were we not tolerably acquainted with the vagaries of the reading public) that a book of this sort should lie perdu on the shelves of a few libraries. Yet one must not leap too heartily to the wrong conclusion. The reading public is avid of good books, but it does not hear about them. Now we would venture to say that we know fifty people–nay, two hundred and fifty–who would never have done thanking us if we could lay a copy of a book of this sort in their hand. They would think it the greatest favour we could do them if we could tell them where they could go and lay down honest money and buy it. And we have to retort that it is out of print, not procurable. Is it the fault of publishers? We do not think so–or not very often. For every publisher has experience of this sort of thing–books that he knows to be of extraordinary quality and fascination which simply lie like lead in his stockroom, and people will not listen to what he says about them. Whose fault is it, then? Heaven knows.

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