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LITERATURE CONSIDERED AS A PROFESSION.
A DISPUTE has of late arisen and been kept up by divers periodical journals respecting literary men, and literature considered as a profession, and, however lightly treated, the importance of the subject has been felt even amidst the more absorbing interests and questions of the time. It arose, as most of our readers are aware, from the circumstance of the pensions of 1001. per annum each being withdrawn from ten Associates of the Royal Society of Literature. When the public knew, that in the huge sum total of the Pension List, these poor 10001. formed almost the only pittance granted to letters, it felt that the pruning knife of economy might as well have been employed upon other branches. For our part we abstain from even the shadow of censure. Charity we consider as little amenable to the rule of criticism. And glad as we might be to see those pensions granted by the country to the invalided veterans of literature, we can by no means acknowledge either the justice or the honour of placing them in the dependence of the Privy Purse. Nor, when the Monarch is compelled to revise the items of his expenditure, are we surprised to find him make the rule of his retrenchment, not the wants or general merits of parties, but rather their relations and services towards him and towards the Royal office. In this respect, however more deserving must appear the claims of a Roscoe or a Coleridge in the esteem of the public than ex-chamberlains and exenvoys, nevertheless in the Royal eye the latter are servants en. titled to their superannuation allowance. The former have served but the public. Let the public look to them. And if here any reader have felt a qualm or experienced pain on learning the destitute condition of the national poet or historian, let the sting of remorse and shame not be turned against the Monarch, but be allowed to penetrate where it ought-home, to the breast of each.
Some wielders of the pen, however, assert that there is call for neither shame nor pity; that writers are like other operatives, earners, and that the poor-house is there for both. Others not quite so savage or so paradoxical, recognize the difference betwixt intellectual and bodily labour. These argue, however, there is the lawyer, the mediciner, the man of whatever profession you please. See, he can earn, and is contented. He does not ask for pensions. doubt,” answers the poor veteran of letters. « Place mine on an equality with those professions. Give us a monopoly, and literature will soon be in gains as lucrative, in science and effects as poor, as its brethren.” These gentlemen, who exclaim against all aid or care bestowed on intellectual produce, and who would apply to it their principle of free trade, forget, that throughout the whole range of society or of its productions there is not one class or object left uncared for, unregulated, or uncherished. What manufacture has flourished or existed without protection, without laws, without bounties? Has the woollen, has the cotton, has even that of corn? Is not the worker of the meanest handicraft protected from over-rivalry? And then the labourers in the field, when has the legislature ceased to direct towards them its parental attention? Shall literature alone,
then, in this most artificial state of society be left abandoned to a state of beggary and nature? If in answer to these and to the hundred still more strong and obvious pleas in behalf of letters it be replied, that the Copyright Act is protection sufficient; why then the main argument is given up. It is ceded, that literature and men of letters have need of protection. And it only remains to inquire, whether that granted is proportionate to the importance and merits of the object, or to that which others enjoy.
On the importance of a national literature it is needless to dilate. When it is observed, that our existing literature caters but to amusement, we rejoin that out of these works of amusement are formed very often, the morals, the ruling ideas, the principles and tendencies of hundreds of readers. And moreover, that if the productions of the day be merely of the light and amusing kind, they are so through the public fault, and through the want of that protection, which, be it remarked, other countries bestow. “We can do very well without literature," exclaimed an editor not long since. « We can do without a drama," wrote “ The Times," some weeks since, in a very shallow article, unworthy of such a journal. Now we beg to observe to both writers, that a literature and a drama a country like this must have, of some kind or character. Books will be printed, and plays acted. It might, perhaps, be better to do away with both, than to put up with bad. But the former alternative is impossible. We are reduced to choose betwixt the bad and the good. And to procure this last in preference, is worth, we think, some attention, some reflection and good faith in political critics, some interference on the part even of the legislature: for we cannot esteem a passible epic, or a new Hamlet, or a second Waverley—craving pardon of the critics above specified—as of inferior importance to a turnpike road.
Ere, however, we proceed to crave indulgence or favour for letters and its professors, let us consider what may in justice be due to them. How doth the law deal with them? Why the law, which protects the manufacturer, gives a bounty upon that and erects most sciences into monopolies, merely interferes to secure the man of letters the enjoyment of his property, the sale of his produce. But this, which it secures to all others for ever, is merely given to the man of letters for life. The owner of land hath his land in perpetuity, the manufacturer his manufactures : the author is allowed to enjoy his but for life, or for thirty years. The framer of a bronze statue may keep or sell the immortality of his work. Not so the poet: he hath but a life interest; he is but the lessee, not even the proprietor of the work of his own brain. Here is a flagrant injustice, arising indeed out of the difficult and complicate way, in which the author must give amusement or instruction for a price. Would we then extend the Copyright Act? Perhaps not. But we would have it taken into consideration that an author's property in his works being confiscated after death, ay, confiscated for the benefit of the public, gives him some claim, whilst living, on the justice as well as the charity of the public. Roscoe's historical works are now public property. They instruct and delight the English nation, whilst they cease to bring one penny to his family. This considered, was a poor annuity of 1001. a year granted to Roscoe out of the public money,
an act of generosity or of niggardly justice ? Go to, Sir Economists, and blush!
Justice then, as well as generosity demands, that some provision be made for the invalid of literature, for those at least whom all acknowledge to have conferred a benefit upon their country. The French do this by means of their Institute, which bestows 1001. a year on each of its Members, including any name distinguished in either science or letters, the principle of election taking away the abuse and disgrace of the favour degenerating into patronage. Need we say, how much the prospect of such a distinction, to be earned by probity and good conduct as well as by honest exertion, would add to the respectability and worth of men of letters, whilst it presented a haven to their ever shipwrecked fortunes ?
But why cannot authors be prudent, and economize, and manage their affairs like other men? Alas! we fear it would be difficult to make the too valid excuses intelligent to whoever asks this question. Let him ask his physician, why excitement leads to dissipation. Why an alternation of elation and despondency, inspiration and dulness, makes a poor devil of an author two very inconsistent beings, instead of one consistent being; the juste milieu of common sense and common prudence being for ever lost in the eternal bound and rebound. But why, then, choose so pestiferous a profession, so suicidal a calling? Again, alas ! the same cause, which compelled the audience of Peter the Hermit to put the cross upon their rags, and march to Palestine, exclaiming “ 'tis the will of God!" What stronger excuse can man plead for folly than this—of powerful fatuity? But mark, Sir Wise, out of these fatuous expeditions to subdue the East, and “pluck bright honours from the pale-faced moon"- expeditions which failed lamentably in their avowed aims—there arose, amidst the ruin of the chivalrous undertakers, vast and incalculable benefits to civilization and to Europe. Science and commerce were brought to new life by this folly :-to the stock acquired of glory, of chivalrous honour, and brilliant poesy, we shall not allude. These three absurd crusades brought wealth and impost to the middle classes. Liberty came of them, and the downfall of feudal tyranny. Now letters form a similar crusade for whoever embarks in their cause. Their knight-errant, like his prototype, reaps his hard blows and harder pillow, meagre fare, gaunt, worn aspect, and the eternal derision of the Pagans who surround him, and deride a zeal which they cannot comprehend. Homage indeed may be his, empty homage, such as the sane pay to the frenetic. But the homage is not that which heals a wound or fills an empty scrip. The profit accrues to his country, whilst even the very glory remains hovering over the living, nor settles on a head till it be in the tomb !
We feel that any attempt to awake the feelings of the nation or its government in the cause of literature would be idle ; both are, no doubt, sufficiently prompt and inclined to rise to its aid, were a plan pointed out—and this is difficult. Literature, as a profession, forms such an anomaly, that one cannot be guided with respect to it by the laws or the state of other professions. Its chief peculiarity is the necessity of some link or medium betwixt author and public, such as an artist, for example, may do without. The process of printing and publishing renders it indispensable that there should be such men as booksellers; and as booksellers must keep a very large capital afloat, with perhaps greater risks than any other men in trade, their profit must be proportionate; and thus the natural gains of the writer are at first sight inevitably diminished in a huge degree. It has been the fashion of authors to rail at booksellers on this account, and the fashion is revived. We believe that the fortunes of the great publishing houses of England within the last score of years will prove the best answer. They are not colossal, and such as they are, have done more for men of letters than ever was effected by direct patronage. If these merchants, who employ intellect and distribute its produce to the public, could be done away with, there is no doubt that their share of the price collected would not go into the pockets of the author, but merely rest in those of the public. We have really then no cause, in a pecuniary point of view, to complain of what Mr. Brougham calls “ these ministers of the public taste." *
Where, then, are we to look for the amelioration of the condition of men of letters ? The public is too vast a body, too much the legion, and with too little union, to be applied to on the subject. The many will not modify their taste to benefit a few individuals, however interesting. It is to men in power first, who may do something, and then to themselves, who may do much, that the sons of literature have alone to look. To both we would address a word of advice, nor is it intended for one more than the other.
The present is, perhaps, one of the most important and critical moments of our history-it is that of the complete triumph and enthronement of public opinion. Heretofore, we were ruled by a constitution, by prejudices, by castes, by an aristocracy; henceforth, all-powerful opinion, that of the majority, will rule: that this opinion will be temperate, religious, just, the enemy of all excess, we believe. But it is nevertheless true that the voice of the many, not of the few-of reason, not of prejudice—of public interest and honour, not narrow and party views thereof, will henceforth prove the arbiters of England's conduct and destiny. In this new state of things, which changes so much the relative position and influence of all classes, the most important change is effected for the man of learning and of talent. But a year since, he was condemned, if he would toil to eminence, to be the client of the aristocracy. This year has given him another patron—the public; and every career and goal of ambition is at once opened to him.
It has been proposed to set on foot a society for publishing works of merit. Let us consider its effect upon men of letters. These, if now under a momentary state of depression, owe it in a great measure to the influx of amateurs; to the number of men of wealth and polite life, who have taken up the pen and carried away the public favour from the professional man of letters, and from his style of writing. The new society goes to aggravate this, as it calls and invites to the trade and gain of letters every candidate at all capable of so exerting his powers. As it pays no price, advances no sum, but merely proceeds on a plan of sharing profits, it attracts merely the beginner, who is glad to get into print at any rate. To the known man of letters it brings no advantage; for he can himself do precisely what the society proposes, viz. give the work to a publisher to retail at no risk, and consequently at the legal rate of profit. Such gentlemen have no right to complain at having lost by the present system. "The mode of publishing proposed by the society is, and has ever been, feasible and open to whoever would make use of it.
Men in authority, nobles, statesmen, consider well, and ponder on this change. Recollect what mainly precipitated the first revolution of our neighbours the French, was, that men of letters found their interest, their sacred interest the freedom of thought--their own just feelings of respect and pride, at variance with the existing state of things; and that their breath was sufficient to shake its foundations. Certainly, in England, there is no such cause of complaint; but there may be equal temptations to destroy. Regard the present state of France. There, the extinction of the aristocracy, the weakness of the crown, has left to intellect the first place. Now, talent is no less selfish than its brethren--than any other principle of power. It seeks place, and ascendancy, and profit, as blindly as ever did the high-born. And the ranks of the moderate party being soon filled by sufficient capacities, the remainder fling themselves into opposition, and appeal to the wildest and worst passions of the people. Yet the French Government hath a tie, a hold, a bribe to offer, without which, indeed, we believe, it could not exist. It has hundreds of places, not sinecures, but small and honourable functions. It has its hundred professorships, its hundred prefectives and sub-prefectives, to content, and win, and silence these men. No Government, since July 1830, could have held but for this.
Now mark the different situation of England. Its Ministry has huge places of profit to give, retaining fees fit for peers; but for the humble many of talent, scarcely one.
Local jurisdiction and patronage fill many of these--but the Church fills most. Now this last is a serious, and very serious point. The Church and letters were once synonymous, the term clert bears witness; and immense revenues were bestowed on her, as much to protect learning as to pay and support orthodoxy. But literature has long left her wing; and all those seats of comfort, where the veteran of letters might so justly hope and expect to repose--librarianships, professorships-such are shut for ever against the unmatriculated laic. Turned away from the Church-threshold, talent, during the last century, paid its court to the aristocracy, and sate down at lords' tables. Here, indeed, few were received, but they fared sumptuously. Burke's, and divers names, are there to quote. In this century, the Tory system of raising dullness to high places, and supporting it by impudence, has prevailed, and fortunately, since it finds not one master-mind nor voice in its behalf, now is the hour of its overthrow and final dissolution. As to talent, I fear, that it sharpens its pen against the Church, and begins to hold high, even in salutation, the head that once bowed to the knee before a noble aspect. Now much of this is wrong, much of it is selfish, and therefore mean; but it is human nature, a thing for which we should always be prepared. The conclusion we draw is this that it behoves, and seriously behoves, those in power to take every step to make it the interest of men of talent and letters, as it is already the interest of other classes, to be the friends of order, of our institutions, and our religion. If it be their interest to hate, and vilipend, and destroy these, they will do so. Through all the emptiness of honourable professions, men, whatever be their rank and title, do no more.