Imaginary Interviews – William Dean Howells
Mr. Howells’s philosophy in these Easy Chair essays is distinctly of the inclusive order, and the wide range of subjects treated is indicated by the following titles from the thirty-odd that make up the volume: ” The Practices and Precepts of Vaudeville,” “The Superiority of Inferiors,” ” Unimportance of Women in Republics,” “The Quality of Boston and the Quantity of New York.” Surely Mr. Howells has taken the earth for his possession; but has he not gone up and down in it for seventy-odd years? It is his right to speak and our privilege to listen.
Excerpt from the text:
I. THE RESTORATION OF THE EASY CHAIR BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION
It is not generally known that after forty-two years of constant use the aged and honored movable which now again finds itself put back in its old place in the rear of Harper’s Magazine was stored in the warehouse of a certain safety-deposit company, in the winter of 1892. The event which had then vacated the chair is still so near as to be full of a pathos tenderly personal to all readers of that magazine, and may not be lightly mentioned in any travesty of the facts by one who was thought of for the empty place. He, before putting on the mask and mimic editorial robes—for it was never the real editor who sat in the Easy Chair, except for that brief hour when he took it to pay his deep-thought and deep-felt tribute to its last occupant—stood with bowed face and uncovered head in that bravest and gentlest presence which, while it abode with us here, men knew as George William Curtis.
It was, of course, in one of the best of the fireproof warehouses that the real editor had the Easy Chair stored, and when the unreal editor went to take it out of storage he found it without trouble in one of those vast rooms where the more valuable furniture and bric-à-brac are guarded in a special tutelage. If instinct had not taught him, he would have known it by its homely fashion, which the first unreal editor had suggested when he described it as an “old red-backed Easy Chair that has long been an ornament of our dingy office.” That unreality was Mr. Donald G. Mitchell, the graceful and gracious Ik Marvel, dear to the old hearts that are still young for his Dream Life and his Reveries of a Bachelor, and never unreal in anything but his pretence of being the real editor of the magazine. In this disguise he feigned that he had “a way of throwing” himself back in the Easy Chair, “and indulging in an easy and careless overlook of the gossiping papers of the day, and in such chit-chat with chance visitors as kept him informed of the drift of the town talk, while it relieved greatly the monotony of his office hours.” Not “bent on choosing mere gossip,” he promised to be “on the watch for such topics or incidents as” seemed really important and suggestive, and to set them “down with all that gloss, and that happy lack of sequence, which make every-day talk so much better than every-day writing.”
While the actual unreality stood thinking how perfectly the theory and practice of the Easy Chair for hard upon fifty years had been forecast in these words, and while the warehouse agent stood waiting his pleasure, the Easy Chair fetched a long, deep sigh. Sigh one must call the sound, but it was rather like that soft complaint of the woody fibres in a table which disembodied spirits are about to visit, and which continues to exhale from it till their peculiar vocabulary utters itself in a staccato of muffled taps. No one who has heard that sound can mistake it for another, and the unreal editor knew at once that he confronted in the Easy Chair an animate presence.
“How long have I been here?” it asked, like one wakened from a deep sleep.
“About eight years,” said the unreal editor.
“Ah, I remember,” the Easy Chair murmured, and, as the unreal editor bent forward to pluck away certain sprays of foliage that clung to its old red back, it demanded, “What is that?”
“Some bits of holly and mistletoe.”
“Yes,” the Easy Chair softly murmured again. “The last essay he wrote in me was about Christmas. I have not forgotten one word of it all: how it began, how it went on, and how it ended! ‘In the very promise of the year appears the hectic of its decay…. The question that we have to ask, forecasting in these summer days the coming of Christmas which already shines afar off, is this: whether while we praise Christmas as a day of general joy we take care to keep it so…. Thackeray describes a little dinner at the Timminses’. A modest couple make themselves miserable and spend all their little earnings in order to give a dinner to people for whom they do not care, and who do not care for them…. Christmas is made miserable to the Timminses because they feel that they must spend lavishly and buy gifts like their richer neighbors…. You cannot buy Christmas at the shops, and a sign of friendly sympathy costs little…. Should not the extravagance of Christmas cause every honest man and woman practically to protest by refusing to yield to the extravagance?’ There!” the Easy Chair broke off from quoting, “that was Curtis! The kind and reasonable mood, the righteous conscience incarnate in the studied art, the charming literary allusion for the sake of the unliterary lesson, the genial philosophy—
‘not too good
For human nature’s daily food’—
the wisdom alike of the closet and the public square, the large patience and the undying hopefulness! Do you think,” the Easy Chair said, with a searching severity one would not have expected of it, “that you are fit to take his place?”
In evasion of this hard question the unreal editor temporized with the effect of not having heard it. “I believe that he and Mr. Mitchell were the only writers of your papers till Mr. Alden wrote the last?”
The Easy Chair responded, dryly, “You forget Aldrich.”
“If I do, I am the only pebble on the shore of time that does or will,” retorted the unreal editor. “But he wrote you for only two months. I well remember what a pleasure he had in it. And he knew how to make his readers share his pleasure! Still, it was Mr. Mitchell who invented you, and it was Curtis who characterized you beyond all the rest.”
“For a while,” said the Easy Chair, with autobiographical relish, “they wrote me together, but it was not long before Mr. Mitchell left off, and Curtis kept on alone, and, as you say, he incomparably characterized me. He had his millennial hopes as well as you. In his youth he trusted in a time
‘When the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law,’
and he never lost that faith. As he wrote in one of my best papers, the famous paper on Brook Farm, ‘Bound fast by the brazen age, we can see that the way back to the age of gold lies through justice, which will substitute co-operation for competition.’ He expected the world to be made over in the image of heaven some time, but meanwhile he was glad to help make it even a little better and pleasanter than he found it. He was ready to tighten a loose screw here and there, to pour a drop of oil on the rusty machinery, to mend a broken wheel. He was not above putting a patch on a rift where a whiff of infernal air came up from the Bottomless Pit—”
“And I also believe in alleviations,” the unreal editor interrupted. “I love justice, but charity is far better than nothing; and it would be abominable not to do all we can because we cannot at once do everything. Let us have the expedients, the ameliorations, even the compromises, en attendant the millennium. Let us accept the provisional, the makeshift. He who came on Christmas Day, and whose mission, as every Christmas Day comes to remind us, was the brotherhood, the freedom, the equality of men, did not He warn us against hastily putting new wine into old bottles? To get the new bottles ready is slow work: that kind of bottle must grow; it cannot be made; and in the mean time let us keep our latest vintages in the vat till we have some vessel proof against their fermentation. I know that the hope of any such vessel is usually mocked as mere optimism, but I think optimism is as wise and true as pessimism, or is at least as well founded; and since the one can no more establish itself as final truth than the other, it is better to have optimism. That was always the philosophy of the Easy Chair, and I do not know why that should be changed. The conditions are not changed.”
There was a silence which neither the Easy Chair nor the unreal editor broke for a while. Then the Chair suggested, “I suppose that there is not much change in Christmas, at any rate?”
“No,” said the unreal editor; “it goes on pretty much as it used. The Timminses, who give tiresome little dinners which they cannot afford to dull people who don’t want them, are still alive and miserably bent on heaping reluctant beneficiaries with undesired favors, and spoiling the simple ‘pleasure of the time’ with the activities of their fatuous vanity. Or perhaps you think I ought to bring a hopeful mind even to the Timminses?”
“I don’t see why not,” said the Easy Chair. “They are not the architects of their own personalities.”
“Ah, take care, take care!” cried the unreal editor. “You will be saying next that we are the creatures of our environment; that the Timminses would be wiser and better if the conditions were not idiotic and pernicious; and you know what that comes to!”
“No, I am in no danger of that,” the Easy Chair retorted. “The Timminses are no such victims of the conditions. They are of that vast moderately moneyed class who can perfectly well behave with sense if they will. Nobody above them or below them asks them to be foolish and wasteful.”
“And just now you were making excuses for them!”
“I said they were not the architects of their own personalities; but, nevertheless, they are masters of themselves. They are really free to leave off giving little dinners any day they think so. It should be the moralist’s business to teach them to think so.”
“And that was what Curtis gladly made his business,” the unreal editor somewhat sadly confessed, with an unspoken regret for his own difference. More than once it had seemed to him in considering that rare nature that he differed from most reformers chiefly in loving the right rather than in hating the wrong; in fact, in not hating at all, but in pitying and accounting for the wrong as an ancient use corrupted into an abuse. Involuntarily the words of the real editor in that beautiful tribute to the high soul they were praising came to the unreal editor’s lips, and he quoted aloud to the Easy Chair: “‘His love of goodness was a passion. He would fain have seen all that was fair and good, and he strove to find it so; and, finding it otherwise, he strove to make it so…. With no heart for satire, the discord that fell upon his sensitive ear made itself felt in his dauntless comment upon social shams and falsehoods…. But he was a lover of peace, and, … as he was the ideal gentleman, the ideal citizen, he was also the ideal reformer, without eccentricity or exaggeration. However high his ideal, it never parted company with good sense. He never wanted better bread than could be made of wheat, but the wheat must be kept good and sound,’ and I may add,” the unreal editor broke off, “that he did not hurry the unripe grain to the hopper. He would not have sent all the horses at once to the abattoir because they made the city noisy and noisome, but would first have waited till there were automobiles enough to supply their place.”
The Easy Chair caught at the word. “Automobiles?” it echoed.