Story type: Essay
The first obligation of one who lives by writing is to write what editors will buy. In so doing, how often one laments that one cannot write exactly what happens. Suppose I were to try it–for once!
I have been lying on the bed–where the landlady has put a dark blue spread, instead of the white one, because I drop my tobacco ashes–smoking, and thinking about a new friend I met today. His name is Kenko, a Japanese bachelor of the fourteenth century, who wrote a little book of musings which has been translated under the title “The Miscellany of a Japanese Priest.” His candid reflections are those of a shrewd, learned, humane and somewhat misogynist mind. I have been lying on the bed because his book, like all books that make one ponder deeply on human destiny, causes that feeling of mind-sickness, that swimming pain of the mental faculties–or is it caused by too much strong tobacco?
My acquaintance with Kenko began only last night, when I sat in bed reading Mr. Raymond Weaver’s very pleasant article about him in a recent Bookman. My last act before turning out the light was to lay the magazine on the table, open at Mr. Weaver’s essay, to remind me to get a copy of Kenko the first thing this morning. Happily to-day was Saturday. I don’t know what I should have done if it had been Sunday. I felt that I could not wait another day without owning that book. I suspected it was a good deal in the mood of another bachelor, an Anglo-American Caleb of to-day–Mr. Logan Pearsall Smith, whose whimsical “Trivia” belongs on the same shelf.
This morning I tried to argue myself out of the decision. It may be a very expensive book, I thought; it may cost two or three dollars; I have been spending a lot of money lately, and I certainly ought to buy some new undershirts. Moreover, this has been a bad week; I have never written those paragraphs I promised a certain editor, and I haven’t paid the rent yet. Why not try to find the book at a library? But I knew the only library where I would have any chance of finding Kenko would be the big pile at Fifth avenue and Forty-second street, and I could not bear the thought of having to read that book without smoking. I felt instinctively (from what Mr. Weaver had written) that it was the kind of book that requires a pipe.
Well, I thought, I won’t decide this too hastily; I’ll walk down to the post office (four blocks) and make up my mind on the way. I knew already, however, that if I didn’t go downtown for that book it would bother me all day and ruin my work.
I walked down to the post office (to mail to an editor a sonnet I thought fairly well of) saying to myself: That book is imported from England, it may be a big book, it may even cost four dollars. How much better to exhibit the stoic tenacity of all great men, go back to my hall bedroom (which I was temporarily occupying) and concentrate on matters in hand. What right, I said, has a Buddhist recluse, born either in 1281 or 1283, to harass me so? But I knew in my heart that the matter was already decided. I walked back to the corner of Hallbedroom street, and stood vacillating at the newsstand, pretending to glance over the papers. But across six centuries the insistent ghost of Kenko had me in its grip. Annoyed, and with a sense of chagrin, I hurried to the subway.
In the dimly lit vestibule of the subway car, a boy of sixteen or so sat on an up-ended suitcase, plunged in a book. I can never resist the temptation to try to see what books other people are reading. This innocent curiosity has led me into many rudenesses, for I am short-sighted and have to stare very close to make out the titles. And usually the people who read books on trolleys, subways and ferries are women. How often I have stalked them warily, trying to identify the volume without seeming too intrusive. That weakness deserves an essay in itself. It has led me into surprising adventures. But in this case my quarry was easy. The lad–I judged him a boarding school boy going back to school after the holidays–was so absorbed in his reading that it was easy to thrust my face over his shoulder and see the running head on the page–“The Light That Failed.”
I left the subway at Pennsylvania Station. Just to appease my conscience, I stopped in at the agreeable Cadmus bookshop on Thirty-third street to see if by any chance they might have a second-hand copy of Kenko. But I know they wouldn’t; it is not the kind of book at all likely to be found second-hand. I tarried here long enough to smoke one cigarette and pay my devoirs to the noble profession of second-hand bookselling. I even thought, a little wildly, of buying a copy of “The Monk” by M.G. Lewis, which I saw there. So does the frenzy rage when once you unleash it. But I decided to be content with paying my devoirs to the proprietor, a friend of mine, and not go on (as the soldier does in Hood’s lovely pun) to devour my pay. I hurried off to the office of the Oxford University Press, Kenko’s publishers.
It should be stated, however, that owing to some confusion of doors I got by mistake into the reception room of the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Billiard Table Company, which is on the same corridor as the salesroom of the Oxford Press. It was a pleasant reception room, not very bookish in aspect, but in my agitation I was too eager to feel surprised by the large billiard table in the offing. I somewhat startled a young man at an adding machine by demanding, in a husky voice, a copy of “The Miscellanies of a Japanese Priest.” I was rather nervous by this time, lest for some reason I should not be able to buy a copy of Kenko. I feared the publishers might be angry with me for not having made a round of the bookstores first. The young man saw that I was chalking the wrong cue, and forwarded me.
In the office of the Oxford Press I met a very genial reception. I had been, as I say, apprehensive lest they should refuse to sell me the book; or perhaps they might not have a copy. I wondered what credentials I could offer to override their scruples. I had made up my mind to tell them, if they demurred, that I had once published an essay to prove that the best book for reading in bed is the General Catalogue of the Oxford University Press. This is quite true. It is a delightful compilation of several thousand pages, on India paper. But to my pleasant surprise the Oxonians seemed not at all surprised at the sudden appearance of one asking, in a voice a little shaken with emotion, for a copy of the “Miscellanies.” Mr. Campion and Mr. Krause, who greeted me, were kindness itself.
“Oh, yes,” they said, “we have a copy.” And in a minute it lay before me. One of those little green and gold volumes in the Oxford Library of Prose and Poetry. “How much?” I said. “A dollar forty.” I paid it joyfully. It is a good price for a book. Once I wrote a book myself that sells (when it does sell) at that figure. When I was at Oxford I used to buy the O.L.P.P. books for (I think) half a crown. In 1917 they were listed at a dollar. Now $1.40. But I fear Kenko’s estate doesn’t get the advantage of increased royalties.
The first thing to do was to find a place to read the book. My club was fifteen blocks away. The smoking room of the Pennsylvania Station, where I have done much reading, was three long blocks. But I must dip into Kenko immediately. Down in the hallway I found a shoe-shining stand, with a bowl of indirect light above it. The artist was busy in the barber shop near-by. Admirable opportunity. I mounted the throne and fell to. The first thing I saw was a quaint Japanese woodcut of a buxom maiden washing garments in a rapidly purling stream. She was treading out a petticoat with her bare feet, presumably on a flat stone. In a black storm-cloud above a willow tree a bearded supernatural being, with hands spread in humorous deprecation, gazes down half pleased, half horrified. And the caption is, “Did not the fairy Kume lose his supernatural powers when he saw the white legs of a girl washing clothes?” Yet be not dismayed. Kenko is no George Moore.
By and bye the shoeshiner came out and found me reading. He was apologetic. “I didn’t know you were here,” he said. “Sorry to keep you waiting.” Fortunately my shoes needed shining, as they generally do. He shined them, and I still sat reading. He was puzzled, and tried to make out the title of the book. At that moment I was reading:
One morning after a beautiful snowfall I sent a letter to a friend’s house about something I wished to say, but said nothing at all about the snow. And in his reply he wrote: “How can I listen to a man so base that his pen in writing did not make the least reference to the snow! Your honorable way of expressing yourself I exceedingly regret.” How amusing was this answer!
The shoeshiner was now asking me whether anything was wrong with the polish he had put on my boots, so I thought it best to leave.
In the earlier pages of Kenko’s book there are a number of allusions to the agreeableness of intercourse with friends, so I went into a nearby restaurant to telephone to a man whom I wished to know better. He said that he would be happy to meet me at ten minutes after twelve. That left over half an hour. I felt an immediate necessity to tell some one about Kenko, so I made my way to Mr. Nichols’s delightful bookshop (which has an open fire) on Thirty-third Street. I showed the book to Mr. Nichols, and we had a pleasant talk, in the course of which she showed me the five facsimile volumes of Dickens’s Christmas books, which he had issued. In particular, he read aloud to me the magnificent description of the boiling kettle in the first “Chirp” of “The Cricket on the Hearth,” and pointed out to me how Dickens fell into rhyme in describing the song of the kettle. This passage Mr. Nichols read to me, standing in front of his fire, in a very musical and sympathetic tone of voice which pleased me exceedingly. I was strongly tempted to buy the five little books, and wished I had known of them before Christmas. With a brutal effort at last I pulled out my watch, and found it was a quarter after twelve.
I met my friend at his office, and we walked up Fourth Avenue in a flush of sunshine. From Twenty-fourth to Forty-second Street we discussed the habits of English poets visiting this country. At the club we got onto Bolshevism, and he told me how a bookseller on Lexington Avenue, whose shop is frequented by very outspoken radicals, had told him that one of these had said, “The time is coming, and not far away, when the gutters in front of your shop will run with blood as they did in Petrograd.” I thought of some recent bomb outrages in Philadelphia and did not laugh. With such current problems before us, I felt a little embarrassed about turning the talk back to so many centuries to Kenko, but finally I got it there. My friend ate chicken hash and tea; I had kidneys and bacon, and cocoa with whipped cream. We both had a coffee eclair. We parted with mutual regret, and I went back to the Hallbedroom street, intending to do some work.
Of course you know that I didn’t do it. I lit the gas stove, and sat down to read Kenko. I wished I were a recluse, living somewhere near a plum tree and a clear running water, leisurely penning maxims for posterity. I read about his frugality, his love of the moon and a little music, his somewhat embittered complaints against the folly of men who spend their lives in rushing about swamped in petty affairs, and the sad story of the old priest who was attacked by a goblin-cat when he came home late at night from a pleasant evening spent in capping verses. I read with special pleasure his seven Self-Congratulations, in which he records seven occasions when he felt that he had really done himself justice. The first of these was when he watched a man riding horseback in a reckless fashion; he predicted that the man would come a cropper, and he did so. The next four self-congratulations refer to times when his knowledge of literary and artistic matters enabled him to place an unfamiliar quotation or assign a painted tablet to the right artist. One tells how he was able to find a man in a crowd when everyone else had failed. And the last and most amusing is an anecdote of a court lady who tried to inveigle him into a flirtation with her maid by sending the latter, richly dressed and perfumed, to sit very close to him when he was at the temple. Kenko congratulates himself on having been adamant. He was no Pepys.
I thought of trying to set down a similar list of self-congratulations for myself. Alas, the only two I could think of were having remembered a telephone number, the memorandum of which I had lost; and having persuaded a publisher to issue a novel which was a great success. (Not written by me, let me add.)
I found my friend Kenko a rather disturbing companion. His condemnation of our busy, racketing life is so damned conclusive! Having recently added to my family, I was distressed by his section “Against Leaving Any Descendants.” He seems to be devoid of the sentiment of ancestor worship and sacredness of family continuity which we have been taught to associate with the Oriental. And yet there is always a current of suspicion in one’s mind that he is not really revealing his inmost heart. When a bachelor in his late fifties tells us how glad he is never to have had a son, we begin to taste sour grapes.
I went out about six o’clock, and was thrilled by a shaving of shining new moon in the cold blue winter sky–“the sky with its terribly cold clear moon, which none care to watch, is simply heart-breaking,” says Kenko. As I walked up Broadway I turned back for another look at the moon, and found it hidden by the vast bulk of a hotel. Kenko would have had some caustic remark for that. I went into the Milwaukee Lunch for supper. They had just baked some of their delicious fresh bran muffins, still hot from the oven. I had two of them, sliced and buttered, with a pot of tea. Kenko lay on the table, and the red-headed philosopher who runs the lunchroom spotted him. I have always noticed that “plain men” are vastly curious about books. They seem to suspect that there is some occult power in them, some mystery that they would like to grasp. My friend, who has the bearing of a prizefighter, but the heart of an amiable child, came over and picked up the book. He sat down at the table with me and looked at it. I was a little doubtful how to explain matters, for I felt that it was the kind of book he would not be likely to care for. He began spelling it out loud, rather laboriously–
Section 1. Well! Being born into this world
there are, I suppose, many aims which we may
strive to attain.
To my surprise he showed the greatest enthusiasm. So much so that I ordered another pair of bran muffins, which I did not really want, so that he might have more time for reading Kenko.
“Who was this fellow?” he asked.
“He was a Jap,” I said, “lived a long time ago. He was mighty thick with the Emperor, and after the Emperor died he went to live by himself in the country, and became a priest, and wrote down his thoughts.”
“I see,” said my friend. “Just put down whatever came into his head, eh?”
“That’s it. All his ideas about the queer things a fellow runs into in life, you know, little bits of philosophy.”
I was a little afraid of using that word “philosophy,” but I couldn’t think of anything else to say. It struck my friend very pleasantly.
“That’s it,” he said, “philosophy. Just as you say, now, he went off by himself and put things down the way they come to him. Philosophy. Sure. Say, that’s a good kind of book. I like that kind of thing. I have a lot of books at home, you know. I get home about nine o’clock, and I most always read a bit before I go to bed.”
How I yearned to know what books they were, but it seemed rude to question him.
He dipped into Kenko again, and I wondered whether courtesy demanded that I should order another pot of tea.
“Say, would you like to do me a favor?”
“Sure thing,” I said.
“When you get through with that book, pass it over, will you? That’s the kind of thing I’ve been wanting. Just some little thoughts, you know, something short. I’ve got a lot of books at home.”
His big florid face gleamed with friendly earnestness.
“Sure thing,” I said. “Just as soon as I’ve finished it you shall have it.” I wanted to ask whether he would reciprocate by lending me one of his own books, which would give me some clue to his tastes; but again I felt obscurely that he would not understand my curiosity.
As I went out he called to me again from where he stood by the shining coffee boiler. “Don’t forget, will you?” he said. “When you’re through, just pass it over.”
I promised faithfully, and tomorrow evening I shall take the book in to him. I honestly hope he’ll enjoy it. I walked up the bright wintry street, and wondered what Kenko would have said to the endless flow of taxicabs, the elevators and subways, the telephones, and telegraph offices, the newsstands and especially the plate-glass windows of florists. He would have had some urbane, cynical and delightfully disillusioning remarks to offer. And, as Mr. Weaver so shrewdly says, how he would enjoy “The Way of All Flesh!”
I came back to Hallbedroom street, and set down these few meditations. There is much more I would like to say, but the partitions in hall bedrooms are thin, and the lady in the next room thumps on the wall if I keep the typewriter going after ten o’clock.
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