7 DECEMBER 1889, Page 27


THE secret of Mr. Tupper's success in selling his only very successful work was, we believe, only this,—that the less educated middle class is far less thoughtful than it appears to be. A contributor, whom we know to have an unusually extensive and practical experience of the subject, recently explained in our columns one of the literary needs of shop-girls, factory-girls, and other young women in their mental condition. A book to attract them must be what critics would call a poor book,—that is, a book full of well- worn thoughts, strung together in the most ordinary manner, with commonplace incidents, and reflections of the regular copy-book kind. Anything which is not simple puzzles and slightly worries them ; anything allusive is unintelligible to them ; while anything original creates in them the faint irrita- tion with which a certain class of mind receives a joke, and especially a joke implying something of a jeer. They resent surprise as we should resent a new taste in the loaf. Fifty years ago, minds in the condition of these shop-girls were in the majority among the middle class, and even now they are more numerous than is suspected, no modern art having been so successfully and generally acquired as that of concealing your mental backwardness ; and it was their possessors who bought, and who, when they happen not to be aware that their betters ridicule the book, still buy "Proverbial Philosophy." Scores of thousands, for example, of American farmers' wives bought it, and so did the uncultivated but fairly prosperous wives of the well-to-do tradesmen in English country towns, people with many duties, usually strictly performed, much observation of a kind upon the facts of life, but no power of independent thinking or desire for it. One of the most successful business men we have known kept the book in his desk, and whenever work was slack read it, as he said, to recover his mind. Such people genuinely admire the book, and until the storm of con- temptuous criticism grew as unbearable as the ridicule of the clergyman is to superstitious country-folk, they ex- pressed their admiration aloud. There is a theory now prevalent that this admiration was never genuine, that the book was, by pure accident, accepted as a proper and harmless book, and that it was only purchased to be given away to growing girls ; but we cannot accept that theory. The present writer saw it forty years ago on too many tables, and heard too many angry declarations that it was an admirable book, to believe that explanation, even if it were not contradicted by two admitted facts. The American farmers, who give nothing away, were its largest purchasers, and its reception modified, though perhaps only in the sense

of exaggeration, the whole character of its author. He was probably by nature a vain man, or rather, one full of the simple confidence in himself which the book itself reveals; but from the date of its success, he became immovably convinced that he was a great author. He was by no means a fool, and he did not deduce this judgment from its sale merely— as a still more illustrious and successful author is said to do—but from the reams of letters, all laudatory and some worshipping, which reached him from all parts of the English-speaking world, and from men as well as women. His correspondents were neither joking nor seek- ing to curry favour : they genuinely and heartily enjoyed his work, and it is not difficult to perceive why they did so. The book is, if viewed through a proper medium, a great deal better than critics who hunt in books for force or originality, or instruction of some sort, can bring themselves to allow. There is no poetry in it, or depth, or height, or strength of any kind. But then, there are plenty of ordinary thoughts, usually true thoughts, platitudes in fact, expressed in the most intelligible English, with words so arranged that if you adopt the sing-song in which the half-educated usually read aloud, the sentences acquire a certain slow and mono-

tonous cadence, which must be pleasant to many ears, or all parish clerks of the elder kind—passed now, Heaven be thanked ! into the Ewigkeit—and many country clergymen would not have read the Psalms as they used to do. We take this half-page, for example, absolutely at random, as the

one at which a new copy opened :-

" For all things leave their track in the mind ; and the glass of

the mind is faithful.

Seest thou much mirth upon the cheek ? there is then little exercise of virtue ; For he that looketh on the world, cannot be glad and good : Seest thou much gravity in the eye? be not assured of finding wisdom ; For she hath too great praise, not to get many mimics.

There is a grave-faced folly ; and verily, a laughter-loving wisdom ; And what, if surface-judges account it vain frivolity ?

There is indeed an evil in excess, and a field may lie fallow too long ; Yet merriment is often as a froth, that mantleth on the strong mind : And note thou this for a verity,—the subtlest thinker when alone, From ease of thoughts unbent, will laugh the loudest with his fellows : And well is the loveliness of wisdom mirrored in a cheerful countenance, Justly the deepest pools are proved by dimpling eddies ; For that, a true philosophy commandeth an innocent life, And the unguilty spirit is lighter than a linnet's heart : Yea, there is no cosmetic like a holy conscience ; The eye is bright with trust, the cheek bloomed over with affection, The brow unwrinkled by a care, and the lip triumphant in its gladness." .

That will seem to the educated almost childish, but it is quite intelligible—with a reserve about the false use of the word " cosmetic "—it is perfectly true, and the idea it conveys is one greatly to be commended. These were the very qualities the buyers of " Proverbial Philosophy " wished for, it may be from ignorance and vacancy of mind, as our contributor believes of the shop-girls ; or it may be, as we should be inclined to think, from these and from a certain lazy-minded- ness such as tempts the educated on a holiday to read over again stories and books of reflection which they know already by heart. The buyers wished for commonplaceness, if only to see that an author, a man who could get his words into print, thought just the same thoughts as they did, and expressed them in just the same didactic, not to say pompous, way. They were quite proud to understand him so well—and certainly Tupper has the merit of intelligibility—and to agree with him so often ; and till they were shamed out of it, they quoted him, as all Asiatics and most English agricultural labourers

to this day quote proverbs. We think it is Mr. Hardy who describes the delight with which a rural postman or carrier, or some such person, hears the sentence : " More people know Tom. Fool than Tom Fool knows." The postman had never heard it before; it was perfectly intelligible to him ; he had thought the same thing often by himself, and he repeated the

aphorism all day, and for weeks afterwards, with a chuckle of what was genuine literary delight. He felt like a member of a suburban "Parliament " when he finds his last opinion in the

Times. That was the precise mental position of the devotees of Mr. Tupper, and though their standpoint has since been

elevated, that will be their position when the next book arrives which shall " fetch " them, but seem to critics, whose standpoint has also risen, almost too inferior for comment. Fortunately, such books must always be rare, because they require too many combined conditions,—an author who can write such a one in confident simplicity and without writing down to his audience, a publisher who is in the mental position of the ordinary buyer of such a book—now becoming a rarity, except perhaps in the religious-book world, and we feel no certainty even of that—and an accidental failure of all true critics to catch the ear of the critics who are near enough to the multitude to be rapidly effective. The author, we must add, must be as good as well as as goody as Nr. Tupper, who never wrote an injurious sentence in his life. He may perhaps be a little more worldly-wise, shrewdness being the quality first developed in cities, where more than half our people now live ; but he must not be cynical, must on no account be witty, and must heartily agree with the kind of creed—a com- pound of genuine Christianity and rampant respectability —which the mass of Englishmen and Americans still in their hearts think the only safe guide for human life. It is an excellent guide in the absence of a better, and it is not unpleasant to think that the author who disregards it, still more the author who derides it, will not have the success of Mr. Tupper in reaching the stratum of society to which alone be—of course quite involuntarily, for he wanted to enlighten all mankind—succeeded in appealing.

We wonder if there is any book which is to the educated what " Proverbial Philosophy " was to the half-educated of forty years ago. The question, of course, can never be answered, because to be in the position of an admirer of Mr. Tupper, one must be too incapable of criticism to give or even to think of an accurate reply. It requires, too, a little more audacity than the majority of reflective men possess, or, at any rate, will acknowledge. If we had such audacity, we would make clear our dim suspicion that there does exist in the higher regions of thought a philosopher whose position bears a close analogy to that of the deceased maker of aphorisms, who, in fact, instructs the educated as Mr. Tupper instructed the ignorant, and who will share his literary fate ; but plain- ness on such a subject cannot be required of any man. We may, however, as he has joined the majority, be permitted to remark that Emerson in his flatter bits does sometimes suggest Tupper, and that men who now seem to us all very wise, but whom an advancing criticism will reject, must exist, and, indeed, must be common enough. If not, why do so many popular books of wisdom die ? If the law of progress extends to the intellect, and "the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns," much of the literature we now think great will seem to succeeding generations either inexpres- sibly commonplace or simply silly. We cannot fully prove that argument from 'books, because the books rejected retreat into holes and corners, and are gradually forgotten —the only one we can think of as sure to be familiar to our readers is the astonishing collection of pompous rubbish known as " Blair's Sermons "—but just let any critic who doubts our proposition turn to the old files of any newspaper which has stood the storms of two or three generations. and see what he thinks of the wit and wisdom of its early articles. He will often find himself unable even to comprehend the mental position of their writers, and compelled to doubt, in a fashion which is quite unreasonable, whether they ever did attract or guide the men of their generation. They did, nevertheless ; it is only the standpoint which has altered ; and we may all learn from them a little humility, and a little tolerance, too, for the people, so curious and unintelligible to us, who honestly believed that Mr. Tupper had quite beaten Solomon, and had added perceptibly to the world's store of wisdom and experience. He had perhaps added nothing, certainly we can point to no such addition ; but he had done it no harm, and that, as the shoals of books increase, will be by and by much to say.