Story type: Essay
His pen is rust, his bones are dust (or soon will be), his soul is with the saints, we trust.
Ruskin is to be buried in Westminster Abbey. It is a fine home for a dead man, with Chatham and his great son Pitt in one tomb, and the other great skeletons of a great race mouldering side by side so neighborly.
The death of a wolf means a meal for the other wolves. The death of a great man means a meal–mental instead of physical–for those left behind. Wolves feed their STOMACHS–we feed our BRAINS–on the dead.
There is many a meal for the hungry brain in Ruskin’s remains. We offer now a light breakfast to that galaxy of American talent called “editorial writers.”
Editorial writing may be defined in general as “the art of saying in a commonplace and inoffensive way what everybody knew long ago.” There are a great many competent editorial writers, and the bittern carrying on his trade by the side of some swamp is about as influential as ten ordinary editorial writers rolled into one.
Why is it that we are so worthless, O editorial writers? Why do we produce such feeble results? Why do we talk daily through our newspapers to ten millions of people and yet have not influence to elect a dog catcher?
Simply because we want to sound wise, when that is impossible. Simply because we are foolish enough to think that commonplaces passed through our commonplace minds acquire some new value. We start off with a wrong notion. We think that we are going to lead, that we are going to remedy, that we are going to DO THE PUBLIC THINKING FOR THE PUBLIC.
Sad nonsense. The best that the best editorial writer can achieve is to make the reader think for himself. At this point we ask our fellow editorial men–our superiors, of course–to adopt Ruskin’s idea of a useful writer.
In a letter to Mrs. Carlyle, written when he was a young man, he outlined the purpose which he carried out, and which explains his usefulness to his fellow-men:
“I have a great hope of disturbing the public peace in various directions.”
This was his way of saying that he hoped to stir up dissatisfaction, to provoke irritation, impatience and a determination to do better among the unfortunate. He did good, because he awoke thought in thousands of others, in millions of others.
Editorial writers, don’t you know that stirring up dissatisfaction is the greatest work you can do?
Tell the poor man ten thousand times:
“There is no reason why you should be overworked. There is no reason why your children should be half-fed and half-educated. There is no reason why you should sweat to fatten others.”
Tell them this often enough, stir up their determination sufficiently–they will find their own remedies.
If you want to drive out the handful of organized rogues that control politics and traffic in votes, don’t talk smooth platitudes. Tell the people over and over again that the thieves ARE thieves, that they should be in jail, that honest government would mean happier citizens, that the INDIVIDUAL CITIZEN is responsible. Keep at it, and the country will be made better by those who alone can make it better–the people. —-
On the front platform a fat policeman said, after deep thought:
“Well, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good.”
The driver, this writer and an Italian workman looked at the policeman in deep admiration. It was so evident that he had the making in him of an expensive editorial writer. He could say so solemnly and authoritatively what every living man knew by heart.
Suppose you stop spouting platitudes, editorial gentlemen, and try your hand at stirring up plain, everyday antagonism to existing false conditions. “Disturb the public peace,” as Ruskin put it. You must know that you can’t win the fights individually, so be like the Norse maidens that stirred up the real fighters to do their duty. Keep singing to the public that it is their duty to fight. They will fight and win, and thank you for the suggestion.