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for stated periods, that certain students, as, for instance, the historian or biographer, should be exempt from other duties, it will be found that in the mass, and in the long run, literature itself degenerates when its professors avail themselves permanently of any such immunity. “Can there be any greater reproach," says Thoreau, "than an idle learning ? Learn to split wood at least. Steady labour with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, is unquestionably the best method of removing palaver and sentimentality out of one's style, both of speaking and writing.”
Still more difficult would it be, let us hope, for a special class of professional critics to exist under a Socialist régime; it is hardly conceivable that such a class would care to exist in a society where any amount of healthy, useful work was to be had for the asking. That there will be abundance of free and fearless criticism when every work can be judged on its own merits, and there are no "prudential considerations” to make cowards of us all, is not to be doubted; but it seems improbable in the highest degree that individual men of letters will then be so infatuated as to suppose that their personal judgment can be worth giving to the world systematically and periodically, on any and every literary topic.
But here it will be objected that "pure literature," being the very flower and consummate expression of thought, must not be thus lightly subjected to the risks consequent on a rough equalisation of civic duties, but must rather be fostered and safeguarded with all possible care; the condition of the people is no doubt the most momentous subject for politician and sociologist, but the interests of “pure literature” are of a still higher and more lasting importance. To which it may fairly be answered that to neglect the material well-being of society, out of a sentimental reverence for an art which is ultimately dependent on that well-being, is to repeat the error of the old woman in the fable, who killed the goose that laid the golden eggs.
Pure literature, invaluable treasure though it is, becomes a mockery and a sham, if once men recognise that it is the voice of class supremacy and not of a nation's life, even as at the present time we are more and more recognising that much of our so-called “culture” is based on a hideous substructure of degradation and suffering. A refinement which can ignore the misery
around it, or even batten on that misery, is no refinement at all. Our literæ humaniores are not humane, and not being humane they are soon found to be illiterate ; so that there is real truth in the caustic remark of the satirist Peacock, that “great indeed must be the zeal for improvement, which an academical education cannot extinguish.” Learned professors and busy scientists may shut their eyes to the facts which have made Socialism a necessity, and may elect to play the part of accomplished ostriches in a barren literary wilderness ; but the facts are none the less obvious to those who face them. If literature in the future is to be something more than a sickly hothouse exotic, it must draw its sustenance from the subsoil of a just and humanely organised community—which is Socialism.
Equally striking is the contrast between the actual and the possible state of letters when regarded from a purely economic standpoint. At present there is an immense competitive system of production for private interests ; books are largely written, printed, and published, not because they contain matter of rcal value, but because a profit is expected to result from them, which profit usually goes to parties whose share in the work is not literary but commercial. In each grade of the process the same sordid conditions are observable. The publisher too osten sweats the author ; the author sweats the copyist or literary hack ; the printer sweats the printer's devil : then, in many cases, a false market is manufactured by log-rolling, puffing advertisements, and the various devices of the middleman-and lo! another worthless book has been foisted on the reading public, who, in the confusion thus generated, are naturally rendered more and more incapable of forming a sound and reliable judgment. Thus it is that the whole canon of taste is in great measure distorted, and productions of monumental dulness arc artificially exalted into “standard works.” “ It is among the standing hypocrisies of the world,” says De Quincey, in reference to an instance of the kind, “that most people affect a reverence for this book, which nobody reads."
It is pitiable to think of the amount of human labour, mental and physical, that is thus wasted in the production of worthless volumes. An author who has no manner of business to be an
author at all writes, let us say, a bad novel, and forthwith gives employment (perhaps with a proud consciousness of stimulating trade) to a number of other persons, publishers, printers, reviewers, and others, who, like himself, would be quite capable, in a rationally ordered society, of performing some useful part. Obviously, under a Socialist system all this would be amended, there would be no unworthy inducements to do bad work in one direction when one could do good work in another, and private extravagance would give way to considerations of public economy. Editions de luxe would no longer be issued to mark the crowning degradation of letters ; for who would care to waste his substance upon nonsense bound in vellum, when he could buy good literature in cheap and serviceable form ? And, finally, the State, which at present spends so much on military armaments that it is compelled to plead its poverty whenever literature asks for a share, would be able, out of its abundant treasury, to endow a handsome library in every town and village, and to do more for the encouragement of national culture in a single year than can be done in half a century of our haphazard, suicidal individualism.
From whatever point of view one looks at this question, it is difficult to resist the conviction that the true lover of literature has nothing to fear, but, on the contrary, everything to hope, from Socialism. The author of Looking Backward is of opinion that the adoption of a Socialist system would be followed by a revival of letters even greater than the Renaissance—"an era of mechanical invention, scientific discovery, art, musical and literary productiveness, to which no previous age of the world offers anything comparable." Whether this be probable or not, we may at least feel assured that it will be an age of genuine, and not artificially stimulated, production ; that there will be an immense improvement in the quality of the books produced, in proportion to their quantity ; that there will be no Grub-street to send out bad work on the one side, and no Belgravia on the other; and that the whole of our literature will be informed by a hopeful and helpful spirit of belief in human comradeship, in place of the present pessimistic tone of cynical dilettanteism.
Nor is there any reason to doubt, in view of the impending social
struggle, that the sympathies of the literary class, even as now constituted, will be in the main with the workers; for, as has been well remarked, “ literary men in all ages have been the organs of the sapienza volgare or general sentiment of the people."* The literary man is the client of Dives, and an excessive consideration for his patron's susceptibilities, and sometimes for his own comfort, has enfeebled the vigour of his thought and dulled the incisiveness of his pen; but he, too, has not seldom known what it is to suffer, and his heart has all along been with his brother Lazarus at the gate. It is now over a century since literature emancipated itself from the thraldom of the individual aristocrat-is it not time that it were also rid of the plutocratic ascendency? Socialism, while removing the raison d'être for a special class of authors, will simultaneously remove the cause of their economic subscrvience; they will doff their livery as a sect to find their true distinction as a power. Is not this a benefit which should conciliate the literary man? Or is he so enamoured of the present status of his profession as to be inflexibly bent on the perpetuation of the same system for his successors, like Sydney Smith's country gentleman, who, having wasted his own youth in fruitless classical instruction, is resolved that he shall not be the last of a long line of victims ?—“Aye, aye, it's all mighty well—but I went through this myself, and I am determined my children shall do the same."
Unless the signs of the times are wholly deceptive, literature, like every other expression of thought, is now approaching a new and critical phase of its development. The existing forms of literary workmanship have been carried, in the hands of a few great masters, to the ne plus ultra of technical excellence, and it seems improbable that any further progress will be made on the old lines: a fresh impetus is needed, and this can only be supplied by a new ideal. Whence will this new ideal be forthcoming? Assuredly not from that withered, wrinkled, unlovely creed of pitiless competition which has long made a national literature as impossible as a national art. Not from that so-called “individualism ” which has stultified itself by banishing true individuality from the monotonous
* North British Review, February, 1851.
death-in-life of the masses. Not from that precious "freedom of contract " which is so mysteriously allied with the worst form of class-slavery. Not from the "gentility” which abnegates gentleness; nor the “independence” which lives on sweated labour; nor the " respectability” which is everywhere ceasing to be respected; nor the beauty-worship which ignores the hideous moral deformities of modern life. There is but one source from which there is the slightest possibility of the new ideal uprising, and that is the growing sense of the universal brotherhood and equality of man. This equality, I need scarcely state, is not the uppish, priggish attempt to be level with one's intellectual superiors, which is periodically deprecated by certain learned professors, who are so steeped in the atmosphere of competition that even their concept of equality is tinged by it; but simply the recognition of the fact that all human beings hold their lives by the same tenure, and that no individual can find truc happiness who in his inmost heart can conceive of himself as better or more deserving than the meanest of his fellows. This is the equality that has been the theme and the inspiration of the true prophets of English democracy-of Burns, Shelley, William Morris, Walt Whitman, and Edward Carpenter. "If I am not level with the lowest,” says the last named writer, " I am nothing; and if I did not know for a certainty that the craziest sot in the village is my equal, and were not proud to have him walk with me as my friend, I would not write another word—for in this is my strength."
If anything can put new life into the culture which at present saints and flags under its half-consciousness of the inhuman and sordid conditions of its social environment, it will be this ideal of cquality. The literature that will result from the cheering sense of world-wide solidarity and fellowship will be tenfold saner than that which is now supported (I will not say inspired) by the craving for personal distinction or the necessity of somehow earning a living among a host of hungry competitors; furthermore, it will be based on the rock of actuality and self-knowledge, instead of on the shifting sands of a fastidious and sentimental "refinement.” Concurrently with this progress, the general conception of the duties and privileges of authorship will be ennobled and elevated. “The