Story type: Essay
We were giving a young English poet a taste of Philadelphia, trying to show him one or two of the simple beauties that make life agreeable to us. Having just been photographed, he was in high good humor.
“What a pity,” he said, “that you in America have no literature that reflects the amazing energy, the humor, the raciness of your life! I woke up last night at the hotel and heard a motor fire engine thunder by. There’s a symbol of the extraordinary vitality of America! My, if I could only live over here a couple of years, how I’d like to try my hand at it. It’s a pity that no one over here is putting down the humor of your life.”
“Have you read O. Henry?” we suggested.
“Extraordinary country,” he went on. “Somebody turned me loose on Mr. Morgan’s library in New York. There was a librarian there, but I didn’t let her bother me. I wanted to see that manuscript of ‘Endymion’ they have there. I supposed they would take me up to a glass case and let me gaze at it. Not at all. They put it right in my hands and I spent three quarters of an hour over it. Wonderful stuff. You know, the first edition of my book is selling at a double premium in London. It’s been out only eighteen months.”
“How do you fellows get away with it?” we asked humbly.
“I hope Pond isn’t going to book me up for too many lectures,” he said. “I’ve got to get back to England in the spring. There’s a painter over there waiting to do my portrait. But there are so many places I’ve got to lecture–everybody seems to want to hear about the young English poets.”
“I hear Philip Gibbs is just arriving in New York,” we said.
“Is that so? Dear me, he’ll quite take the wind out of my sails, won’t he? Nice chap, Gibbs. He sent me an awfully cheery note when I went out to the front as a war correspondent. Said he liked my stuff about the sodgers. He’ll make a pot of money over here, won’t he?”
We skipped across City Hall Square abreast of some trolley cars.
“I say, these trams keep one moving, don’t they?” he said. “You know, I was tremendously bucked by that department store you took me to see. That’s the sort of place one has to go to see the real art of America. Those paintings in there, by the elevators, they were done by a young English girl. Friend of mine–in fact, she did the pictures for my first book. Pity you have so few poets over here. You mustn’t make me lose my train; I’ve got a date with Vachel Lindsay and Edgar Lee Masters in New York to-night. Vachel’s an amusing bird. I must get him over to England and get him started. I’ve written to Edmund Gosse about him, and I’m going to write again. What a pity Irvin Cobb doesn’t write poetry! He’s a great writer. What vivacity, what a rich vocabulary!”
“Have you read Mark Twain?” we quavered.
“Oh, Mark’s grand when he’s serious; but when he tries to be funny, you know, it’s too obvious. I can always see him feeling for the joke. No, it doesn’t come off. You know an artist simply doesn’t exist for me unless he has something to say. That’s what makes me so annoyed with R.L.S. In ‘Weir of Hermiston’ and the ‘New Arabian Nights’ he really had something to say; the rest of the time he was playing the fool on some one else’s instrument. You know style isn’t something you can borrow from some one else; it’s the unconscious revelation of a man’s own personality.”
“I wonder if there aren’t some clubs around here that would like to hear me talk?” he said. “You know, I’d like to come back to Philadelphia if I could get some dates of that sort. Just put me wise, old man, if you hear of anything. I was telling some of your poets in New York about the lectures I’ve been giving. Those chaps are fearfully rough with one. You know, they’ll just ride over one roughshod if you give them a chance. They hate to see a fellow a success. Awful tripe some of them are writing. They don’t seem to be expressing the spirit, the fine exhilaration, of American life at all. If I had my way, I’d make every one in America read Rabelais and Madame Bovary. Then they ought to study some of the old English poets, like Marvell, to give them precision. It’s lots of fun telling them these things. They respond famously. Now over in my country we poets are all so reserved, so shy, so taciturn.
“You know Pond, the lecture man in New York, was telling me a quaint story about Masefield. Great friend of mine, old Jan Masefield. He turned up in New York to talk at some show Pond was running. Had on some horrible old trench boots. There was only about twenty minutes before the show began. ‘Well,’ says Pond, hoping Jan was going to change his clothes, ‘are you all ready?’ ‘Oh, yes,’ says Jan. Pond was graveled; didn’t know just what to do. So he says, hoping to give Jan a hint, ‘Well, I’ve just got to get my boots polished.’ Of course, they didn’t need it–Americans’ boots never do–but Pond sits down on a boot-polishing stand and the boy begins to polish for dear life. Jan sits down by him, deep in some little book or other, paying no attention. Pond whispers to the boy, ‘Quick, polish his boots while he’s reading.’ Jan was deep in his book, never knew what was going on. Then they went off to the lecture, Jan in his jolly old sack suit.”
We went up to a private gallery on Walnut Street, where some of the most remarkable literary treasures in the world are stored, such as the original copy of Elia given by Charles Lamb to the lady he wanted to marry, Fanny Kelly. There we also saw some remarkable first editions of Shelley.
“You know,” he said, “Mrs. L—- in New York–I had an introduction to her from Jan–wanted to give me a first edition of Shelley, but I wouldn’t let her.”
“How do you fellows get away with it?” we said again humbly.
“Well, old man,” he said, “I must be going. Mustn’t keep Vachel waiting. Is this where I train? What a ripping station! Some day I must write a poem about all this. What a pity you have so few poets …”
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