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Of the Assembling and Opening of the World Conference on the Mind of the Race

Boon, The Mind of the Race, The Wild Asses of the Devil, and The Last Trump by H. G. Wells, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. Of the Assembling and Opening of the World Conference on the Mind of the Race

Of the Assembling and Opening of the World Conference on the Mind of the Race

§ 1

It must be borne in mind that not even the opening chapter of this huge book, “The Mind of the Race,” was ever completely written. The discussion in the Garden by the Sea existed merely so far as the fragment of dialogue I have quoted took it. I do not know what Mr. Gosse contributed except that it was something bright, and that presently he again lost his temper and washed his hands of the whole affair and went off with Mr. Yeats to do a little Academy thing of their own round a corner,  and I do not know what became of the emissaries of Lord Northcliffe and Mr. Hearst. One conversation drops out of mind and another begins; it is like the battle of the Aisne passing slowly into the battle of the Yser. The idea develops into the holding of a definite congress upon the Mind of the Race at some central place. I don’t think Boon was ever very clear whether that place was Chautauqua, or Grindelwald, or Stratford, or Oxford during the Long Vacation, or the Exhibition grounds at San Francisco. It was, at any rate, some such place, and it was a place that was speedily placarded with all sorts of bills and notices and counsels, such as, “To the Central Hall,” or “Section B: Criticism and Reviewing,” or “Section M: Prose Style,” or “Authors’ Society (British) Solicitors’ Department,” or “Exhibit of the Reading Room of the British Museum.”

Manifestly the model of a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science dominated his mind more and more, until at last he began to concoct a presidential address. And he invented a man  called J. B. Pondlebury, very active and illiterate, but an excellent organizer, trained by Selfridge, that Marshal Field of London, who is very directive throughout. J. B. Pondlebury orders the special trains, contrives impossible excursions, organizes garden fêtes and water parties, keeps people together who would prefer to be separated, and breaks up people who have been getting together. Through all these things drifts Hallery, whose writings started the idea, and sometimes he is almost, as it were, leader and sometimes he is like a drowned body in the torrent below Niagara—Pondlebury being Niagara.

On the whole the atmosphere of the great conference was American, and yet I distinctly remember that it was the Special Train to Bâle of which he gave us an account one afternoon; it was a night journey of considerable eventfulness, with two adjacent carriages de luxe labelled respectively “Specially Reserved for Miss Marie Corelli,” and “Specially Reserved for Mr. and Mrs. George Bernard Shaw,” with conspicuous  reiterations. The other compartments were less exclusive, and contained curious minglings of greatness, activity, and reputation. Sir J. M. Barrie had an upper berth in a wagon-lit, where he remained sympathetically silent above a crowd of younger reputations, a crowd too numerous to permit the making of the lower berth and overflowing into the corridor. I remember Boon kept jamming new people into that congestion. The whole train, indeed, was to be fearfully overcrowded. That was part of the joke. James Joyce I recall as a novelist strange to me that Boon insisted was a “first-rater.” He represented him as being of immense size but extreme bashfulness. And he talked about D. H. Lawrence, St. John Ervine, Reginald Wright Kauffman, Leonard Merrick, Viola Meynell, Rose Macaulay, Katherine Mansfield, Mary Austin, Clutton Brock, Robert Lynd, James Stephens, Philip Guedalla, H. M. Tomlinson, Denis Garstin, Dixon Scott, Rupert Brooke, Geoffrey Young, F. S. Flint, Marmaduke Pickthall, Randolph S. Bourne, James Milne——

 “Through all the jam, I think we must have Ford Madox Hueffer, wandering to and fro up and down the corridor, with distraught blue eyes, laying his hands on heads and shoulders, the Only Uncle of the Gifted Young, talking in a languid, plangent tenor, now boasting about trivialities, and now making familiar criticisms (which are invariably ill-received), and occasionally quite absent-mindedly producing splendid poetry….”

Like most authors who have made their way to prominence and profit, Boon was keenly sympathetic with any new writer who promised to do interesting work, and very ready with his praise and recognition. That disposition in these writing, prolific times would alone have choked the corridor. And he liked young people even when their promises were not exactly convincing. He hated to see a good book neglected, and was for ever ramming “The Crystal Age” and “Said the Fisherman” and “Tony Drum” and “George’s Mother” and “A Hind Let Loose” and “Growing Pains”  down the throats of his visitors. But there were very human and definite limits to his appreciations. Conspicuous success, and particularly conspicuous respectable success, chilled his generosity. Conrad he could not endure. I do him no wrong in mentioning that; it is the way with most of us; and a score of flourishing contemporaries who might have liked tickets for the Conference special would have found great difficulty in getting them.

There is a fascination in passing judgements and drawing up class lists. For a time the high intention of the Mind of the Race was forgotten while we talked the narrow “shop” of London literary journalism, and discovered and weighed and log-rolled and—in the case of the more established—blamed and condemned. That Bâle train became less and less like a train and more and more like a descriptive catalogue.

For the best part of an afternoon we talked of the young and the new, and then we fell into a discussion about such  reputations as Pickthall’s and W. H. Hudson’s and the late Stephen Crane’s, reputations ridiculously less than they ought to be, so that these writers, who are certainly as securely classic as Beckford or Herrick, are still unknown to half the educated English reading public. Was it due to the haste of criticism or the illiteracy of publishers? That question led us so far away from the special Bâle train that we never returned to it. But I know that we decided that the real and significant writers were to be only a small portion of the crowd that congested the train; there were also to be endless impostors, imitators, editors, raiders of the world of print…. At every important station there was to be a frightful row about all these people’s tickets, and violent attempts to remove doubtful cases…. Then Mr. Clement K. Shorter was to come in to advise and help the conductor…. Ultimately this led to trouble about Mr. Shorter’s own credentials….

Some of Boon’s jokes about this train were, to say the best of them, obvious.  Mr. Compton Mackenzie was in trouble about his excess luggage, for example. Mr. Upton Sinclair, having carried out his ideal of an innocent frankness to a logical completeness in his travelling equipment, was forcibly wrapped in blankets by the train officials. Mr. Thomas Hardy had a first-class ticket but travelled by choice or mistake in a second-class compartment, his deserted place being subsequently occupied by that promising young novelist Mr. Hugh Walpole, provided with a beautiful fur rug, a fitted dressing-bag, a writing slope, a gold-nibbed fountain pen, innumerable introductions, and everything that a promising young novelist can need. The brothers Chesterton, Mr. Maurice Baring, and Mr. Belloc sat up all night in the wagon-restaurant consuming beer enormously and conversing upon immortality and whether it extends to Semitic and Oriental persons. At the end of the train, I remember, there was to have been a horse-van containing Mr. Maurice Hewlett’s charger—Mr. Hewlett himself, I believe, was left behind by accident at the  Gare de Lyons—Mr. Cunninghame Graham’s Arab steed, and a large, quiet sheep, the inseparable pet of Mr. Arthur Christopher Benson….

There was also, I remember, a description of the whole party running for early coffee, which gave Boon ample and regrettable opportunities for speculations upon the déshabille of his contemporaries. Much of the detail of that invention I prefer to forget, but I remember Mr. Shaw was fully prepared for the emerging with hand-painted pyjamas, over which he was wearing a saffron dressing-gown decorated in green and purple scrolls by one of the bolder artists associated with Mr. Roger Fry, and as these special train allusions are all that I can ever remember Boon saying about Shaw, and as the drawing does in itself amount to a criticism, I give it here….

How Mr. Shaw knocked them all on Bâle platform, and got right into the middle of the picture. Remark his earnest face. This surely is no mountebank.

 § 2

Boon was greatly exercised over the problem of a president.

“Why have a president?” Dodd helped.

“There must be a Presidential Address,” said Boon, “and these things always do have a president.”

“Lord Rosebery,” suggested Wilkins.

“Lord Morley,” said Dodd.

“Lord Bryce.”

Then we looked at one another.

“For my own part,” said Boon, “if we are going in for that sort of thing, I favour Lord Reay.

“You see, Lord Reay has never done anything at all connected with literature. Morley and Bryce and Rosebery have at any rate written things—historical studies, addresses, things like that—but Reay has never written  anything, and he let Gollancz make him president of the British Academy without a murmur. This seems to mark him out for this further distinction. He is just the sort of man who would be made—and who would let himself be made—president of a British affair of this sort, and they would hoist him up and he would talk for two or three hours without a blush. Just like that other confounded peer—what was his name?—who bored and bored and bored at the Anatole France dinner…. In the natural course of things it would be one of these literary lords….”

“What would he say?” asked Dodd.

“Maunderings, of course. It will make the book rather dull. I doubt if I can report him at length…. He will speak upon contemporary letters, the lack of current achievement…. I doubt if a man like Lord Reay ever reads at all. One wonders sometimes what these British literary aristocrats do with all their time. Probably he left off reading somewhere in the eighties. He won’t have noted it, of course, and he will be under  the impression that nothing has been written for the past thirty years.”

“Good Lord!” said Wilkins.

“And he’ll say that. Slowly. Steadily. Endlessly. Then he will thank God for the English classics, ask where now is our Thackeray? where now our Burns? our Charlotte Brontë? our Tennyson? say a good word for our immortal bard, and sit down amidst the loud applause of thousands of speechlessly furious British and American writers….”

“I don’t see that this will help your book forward,” said Dodd.

“No, but it’s a proper way of beginning. Like Family Prayers.”

“I suppose,” said Wilkins, “if you told a man of that sort that there were more and better poets writing in English beautifully in 1914 than ever before he wouldn’t believe it. I suppose if you said that Ford Madox Hueffer, for example, had produced sweeter and deeper poetry than Alfred, Lord Tennyson, he’d have a fit.”

“He’d have nothing of the kind. You  could no more get such an idea into the head of one of these great vestiges of our Gladstonian days than you could get it into the seat of a Windsor chair…. And people don’t have fits unless something has got into them…. No, he’d reflect quite calmly that first of all he’d never heard of this Hueffer, then that probably he was a very young man. And, anyhow, one didn’t meet him in important places…. And after inquiry he would find out he was a journalist…. And then probably he’d cease to cerebrate upon the question….”

 § 3

“Besides,” said Boon, “we must have one of our literary peers because of America.”

“You’re unjust to America,” I said.

“No,” said Boon. “But Aunt Dove—I know her ways.”

That led to a long, rambling discussion about the American literary atmosphere. Nothing that I could say would make him relent from his emphatic assertion that it is a spinster atmosphere, an atmosphere in which you can’t say all sorts of things and where all sorts of things have to be specially phrased. “And she can’t stand young things and crude things——”

“America!” said Wilkins.

“The America I mean. The sort of America that ought to supply young new writers with caresses and—nourishment. …Instead of which you get the Nation…. That bleak acidity, that refined appeal to take the child away.”

“But they don’t produce new young writers!” said Wilkins.

“But they do!” said Boon. “And they strangle them!”

It was extraordinary what a power metaphors and fancies had upon Boon. Only those who knew him intimately can understand how necessary Miss Bathwick was to him. He would touch a metaphor and then return and sip it, and then sip and drink and swill until it had intoxicated him hopelessly.

“America,” said Boon, “can produce such a supreme writer as Stephen Crane—the best writer of English for the last half-century—or Mary Austin, who used to write—— What other woman could touch her? But America won’t own such children. It’s amazing. It’s a case of concealment of birth. She exposes them. Whether it’s Shame—or a Chinese trick…. She’ll sit never knowing she’s had a Stephen Crane,  adoring the European reputation, the florid mental gestures of a Conrad. You see, she can tell Conrad ‘writes.’ It shows. And she’ll let Mary Austin die of neglect, while she worships the ‘art’ of Mary Ward. It’s like turning from the feet of a goddess to a pair of goloshes. She firmly believes that old quack Bergson is a bigger man than her own unapproachable William James…. She’s incredible. I tell you it’s only conceivable on one supposition…. I’d never thought before about these disgraceful sidelights on Miss Dove’s career….

“We English do make foundlings of some of her little victims, anyhow…. But why hasn’t she any natural instinct in the matter?

“Now, if one represented that peculiar Bostonian intellectual gentility, the Nation kind of thing, as a very wicked, sour lady’s-maid with a tremendous influence over the Spinster’s conduct….”

His mind was running on.

“I begin to see a melodramatic strain in this great novel, ‘Miss Dove.’… ‘Miss  Dove’s Derelicts.’… Too broad, I am afraid. If one were to represent Sargent and Henry James as two children left out one cold night in a basket at a cottage in the village by a mysterious stranger, with nothing but a roll of dollars and a rough drawing of the Washington coat-of-arms to indicate their parentage….

“Then when they grow up they go back to the big house and she’s almost kind to them….

“Have you ever read the critical articles of Edgar Allan Poe? They’re very remarkable. He is always demanding an American Literature. It is like a deserted baby left to die in its cradle, weeping and wailing for its bottle…. What he wanted, of course, was honest and intelligent criticism.

“To this day America kills her Poes….”

“But confound it!” said Wilkins, “America does make discoveries for herself. Hasn’t she discovered Lowes Dickinson?”

“But that merely helps my case. Lowes Dickinson has just the qualities that take the  American judgement; he carries the shadow of King’s College Chapel about with him wherever he goes; he has an unobtrusive air of being doubly starred in Baedeker and not thinking anything of it. And also she took Noyes to her bosom. But when has American criticism ever had the intellectual pluck to proclaim an American?

“And so, you see,” he remarked, going off again at a tangent, “if we are going to bid for American adhesions there’s only one course open to us in the matter of this presidential address…. Lord Morley….”

“You’re a little difficult to follow at times,” said Wilkins.

“Because he’s the man who’s safest not to say anything about babies or—anything alive…. Obviously a literary congress in America must be a festival in honour of sterility.

“Aunt Dove demands it. Like celebrating the virginity of Queen Elizabeth….”

 § 4

I find among the fragments of my departed friend some notes that seem to me to be more or less relevant here. They are an incomplete report of the proceedings of a section S, devoted to Poiometry, apparently the scientific measurement of literary greatness. It seems to have been under the control of a special committee, including Mr. James Huneker, Mr. Slosson, Sir Thomas Seccombe, Mr. James Douglas, Mr. Clement K. Shorter, the acting editor of the Bookman, and the competition editress of the Westminster Gazette….

Apparently the notes refer to some paper read before the section. Its authorship is not stated, nor is there any account of its reception. But the title is “The Natural  History of Greatness, with especial reference to Literary Reputations.”

The opening was evidently one of those rapid historical sketches frequent in such papers.

“Persuasion that human beings are sometimes of disproportionate size appears first in the Egyptian and Syrian wall paintings…. Probably innate…. The discouragement of the young a social necessity in all early societies. In all societies?… Exaggerated stories about the departed…. Golden ages. Heroic ages. Ancestor worship…. Dead dogs better than living lions…. Abraham. Moses. The Homeric reputation, the first great literary cant. Resentment against Homer’s exaggerated claims on the part of intelligent people. Zoilus. Caricature of the Homerists in the Satyricon. Other instances of unorthodox ancient criticism…. Shakespeare as an intellectual nuisance…. Extreme suffering caused to contemporary writers by the Shakespeare legend….

“Another form of opposition to these  obsessions is the creation of countervailing reputations. Certain people in certain ages have resolved to set up Great Men of their own to put beside these Brocken spectres from the past. This marks a certain stage of social development, the beginning of self-consciousness in a civilized community. Self-criticism always begins in self-flattery. Virgil as an early instance of a Great Man of set intentions; deliberately put up as the Latin Homer….

“Evolution of the greatness of Aristotle during the Middle Ages.

“Little sense of contemporary Greatness among the Elizabethans.

“Comparison with the past the prelude to Great-Man-Making, begins with such a work as Swift’s ‘Battle of the Books.’ Concurrently the decline in religious feeling robs the past of its half-mystical prestige. The Western world ripe for Great Men in the early nineteenth century. The Germans as a highly competitive and envious people take the lead. The inflation of Schiller. The greatness of Goethe. Incredible dullness of  “Elective Affinities,” of “Werther,” of “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.” The second part of “Faust” a tiresome muddle. Large pretentiousness of the man’s career. Resolve of the Germans to have a Great Fleet, a Great Empire, a Great Man. Difficulty in finding a suitable German for Greatening. Expansion of the Goethe legend. German efficiency brought to bear on the task. Lectures. Professors. Goethe compared to Shakespeare. Compared to Homer. Compared to Christ. Compared to God. Discovered to be incomparable….

“Stimulation of Scotch activities. The Scotch also passionately and aggressively patriotic. Fortunate smallness of Scotland and lack of adjacent docile Germans has alone saved the world from another Prussia. Desperation of the search for a real Scotch First Rater. The discovery that Burns was as great as Shakespeare. Greater. The booming of Sir Walter Scott. Wake up, England! The production of Dickens. The slow but enormous discovery of Wordsworth. Victorian age sets up as a rival to the Augustine.  Selection of Great Men in every department. The Great Victorian painters. Sir Frederick Leighton, compared with Titian and Michael Angelo. Tennyson as Virgil. Lord Tennyson at the crest of the Victorian Greatness wave. His hair. His cloak. His noble bearing. His aloofness. His Great Pipe. His price per word. His intellectual familiarities with Queen Victoria….

“Longfellow essentially an American repartee….

“Ingratitude of British Royal Family to those who contributed to the Victorian Greatness period, shown in the absence of representative Great Men from the Buckingham Palace Monument. Victoria did not do it all. Compare the Albert Memorial….

“Interesting task to plan an alternative pedestal. Proposal to make designs for a monument to our own times. Symbolic corner groups by Will Dyson. Frieze of representative men by Max. Canopy by Wyndham Lewis. Lost opportunity for much bright discussion….

“Analysis of literary greatness. Is any  literary achievement essential to greatness? Probably a minute minimum indispensable. Burns. Fitzgerald. But compare Lord Acton and Lord Reay. Necessity of a marked personality. Weaknesses, but no unpopular vices. Greatness blighted by want of dignity. Laurence Sterne. Reciprocal duty of those made Great not to distress their Public. But imperfectly established scandal or complexity of relationship may give scope for vindications and research. Or a certain irregularity of life may create a loyal and devoted following of sympathizers. Shelley…. Then capable advocacy is needed and a critical world large enough to be effective but small enough to be unanimous. Part an able publisher may play in establishing and developing a Great Man…. Quiet Push, not Noisy Push. Injury done by tactless advertisement…. The element of luck….

“These are the seeds of greatness, but the growth depends upon the soil. The best soil is a large uncritical public newly come to reading, a little suspicious of the propriety  of the practice and in a state of intellectual snobbishness. It must also be fairly uniform and on some common basis of ideas. Ideally represented by the reading publics of Germany, Britain, the United States, and France in the middle nineteenth century….

“Decline in the output of Greatness towards the end of the Victorian time. Probably due in all cases to an enlargement of the reading public to unmanageable dimensions. No reputation sufficiently elastic to cover it. The growth of Chicago, New York, and the West destroyed the preponderance of Boston in America, and the Civil War broke the succession of American Great Men. Rarity of new American-born Greatnesses after the war. Dumping of established greatnesses from England gave no chance to the native market. No Protection for America in this respect. In Great Britain the board schools create big masses of intelligent people inaccessible to the existing machinery by which Greatness is imposed. The Greatness output in Britain declines also in consequence.  Mrs. Humphry Ward, the last of the British Victorian Great. Expressed admiration of Mr. Gladstone for her work. Support of the Spectator. Profound respect of the American people. Rumour that she is represented as a sea goddess at the base of the Queen Victoria Memorial unfounded. Nobody is represented on the Queen Victoria Memorial except Queen Victoria…. Necessity after the epoch of Mrs. Ward of more and more flagrant advertisement to reach the enlarged public, so that at last touch is lost with the critical centres. Great Men beyond the Limit. Self-exploded candidates for Greatness. Boomsters. Best Sellers. Mr. Hall Caine as the shocking example….

“Other causes contributing to the decay of Greatness among literary men. Competition of politicians, princes, personages generally for the prestige of the literary man. Superior initial advantage in conspicuousness. The genuine writer handicapped. The process already beginning at the crest of the period. Queen Victoria’s ‘Leaves from a Highland Diary.’ Mr. Gladstone and the higher  windiness. Later developments. The Kaiser as a man of letters. Mr. Roosevelt as writer and critic. The Essays of President Wilson. The case of Lord Rosebery. Mr. Haldane as a philosopher. As a critic. His opinion of Goethe. Compare the royal and noble authors of Byzantium. Compare the Roman Emperor becoming Pontifex Maximus. Compare the cannibal chief in a general’s hat….

“Return of the literary men as such to a decent obscurity. From which they are unlikely to emerge again. This an unmixed blessing. So long as good writing and sound thinking are still appreciated the less we hear about authors the better. Never so little recognized Greatness and never so much wise, subtle, sweet, and boldly conceived literary work as now. This will probably continue. [He was writing before the war.] The English-reading literary world too large now for the operations of Greatening. Doubtful case of Rabindranath Tagore. Discuss this. Special suitability of India as a basis for Greatness.  India probably on the verge of a Greatness period….

“Disrespect a natural disposition in the young. Checked and subdued in small societies, but now happily rampant in the uncontrollable English-speaking communities. The new (undignified) criticism. The English Review. Mr. Austin Harrison and the street-boy style. The literature of the chalked fence. The New Age. Literary carbolic acid—with an occasional substitution of vitriol…. Insurrection of the feminine mind against worship. Miss Rebecca West as the last birth of time. A virile-minded generation of young women indicated. Mrs. Humphry Ward blushes publicly for the Freewoman in the Times. Hitherto Greatness has demanded the applause of youth and feminine worship as necessary conditions. As necessary to its early stages as down to an eider chick. Impossible to imagine Incipient Greatness nestling comfortably upon Orage, Austin Harrison, and Rebecca West. Dearth of young Sidney Colvins…. Unhappy position  of various derelict and still imperfectly developed Great surviving from the old times. Arnold Bennett as an aborted Great Man. Would have made a Great Victorian and had a crowd of satellite helpers. Now no one will ever treasure his old hats and pipes….

“Idea of an experimental resurrection of those who still live in our hearts. If Goethe had a second time on earth——? Could he do it now? Would Lord Haldane perceive him? Imaginary description of Lord Haldane’s recognition of a youthful Goethe. They meet by accident during a walking tour in Germany. Amiable aloofness of Lord Haldane. His gradual discovery of an intellectual superior in his modest companion. Public proclamation of his find…. Doubts….

“Peroration. Will the world be happy without Literary Greatnesses? Improvise and take a cheerful line upon this question.”

Miss Rebecca West, pensive, after writing her well-known opinion of that Great Good Woman-Soul, Miss Ellen Key.

 § 5

Ultimately, against every possibility of the case, Boon decided that the President of his conference must be Hallery. And he wrote his presidential address. But he never read that address to us. Some shyness I think restrained him. I dig it out here now for the first time, a little astonished at it, disposed to admire something in its spirit…. But yet one has to admit that it shows an extraordinary lapse from Boon’s accustomed mocking humour.

Here is the opening.

“Hallery then advanced to the edge of the platform and fumbled with his manuscript. His face was very white and his expression bitterly earnest. With an appearance of effort he began, omitting in his nervousness any form of address to his audience—

 “‘For the most part, the life of human communities has been as unconscious as the life of animals. They have been born as unknowingly as the beasts; they have followed unforeseen and unheeded destinies, and destruction has come to them from forces scarcely anticipated and not understood. Tribes, nations beyond counting, have come and passed, with scarcely a mental activity beyond a few legends, a priestly guess at cosmogony, a few rumours and traditions, a list of kings as bare as a schoolboy’s diary, a war or so, a triumph or so…. We are still only in the beginning of history—in the development, that is, of a racial memory; we have as yet hardly begun to inquire into our racial origins, our racial conditions, our racial future…. Philosophy, which is the discussion of the relation of the general to the particular, of the whole to the part, of the great and yet vague life of the race to the intense yet manifestly incomplete life of the individual, is still not three thousand years old. Man has lived consciously as man it may be for hundreds of thousands of years,  he has learnt of himself by talking to his fellows, he has expressed personal love and many personal feelings with a truth and beauty that are well nigh final, but the race does but begin to live as a conscious being. It begins to live as a conscious being, and as it does so, the individual too begins to live in a new way, a greater, more understanding, and more satisfying way. His thoughts apprehend interests beyond himself and beyond his particular life….’

“At this point Hallery became so acutely aware of his audience that for some seconds he could not go on reading. A number of people in various parts of the hall had suddenly given way to their coughs, a bald-headed gentleman about the middle of the assembly had discovered a draught, and was silently but conspicuously negotiating for the closing of a window by an attendant, and at the back a cultivated-looking young gentleman was stealing out on tiptoe.

The first departure.

“For a moment Hallery was distressed by the thought that perhaps he might have taken a more amusing line than the one he had chosen, and then, realizing how vain were such regrets and rather quickening his pace, he resumed the reading of his address—

“‘You see that I am beginning upon a very comprehensive scale, for I propose to bring within the scope of this conference all that arises out of these two things, out of the realization of the incompleteness of man’s  individual life on the one hand and out of the realization of a greater being in which man lives, of a larger racial life and ampler references upon the other. All this much—and with a full awareness of just how much it is—I am going to claim as literature and our province. Religion, I hold, every religion so far as it establishes and carries ideas, is literature, philosophy is literature, science is literature; a pamphlet or a leading article. I put all these things together——’

“At this point there was a second departure.

The second departure.

 Almost immediately followed by a third.

The third departure.

“Hallery halted for a second time and then gripped the reading-desk with both hands, and, reading now with a steadily accelerated velocity, heeded his audience no more—

“‘I put all these things together because, indeed, it is only associations of antiquity and prescription and prestige can separate them. Altogether they constitute the great vague body of man’s super-personal mental  life, his unselfish life, his growing life, as a premeditating, self-conscious race and destiny. Here in growing volume, in this comprehensive literature of ours, preserved, selected, criticized, re-stated, continually rather more fined, continually rather more clarified, we have the mind, not of a mortal but of an immortal adventurer. Whom for the moment, fractionally, infinitesimally, whenever we can forget ourselves in pure feeling, in service, in creative effort or disinterested thought, we are privileged in that measure to become. This wonder that we celebrate, this literature, is the dawn of human divinity. . . . . . . . . . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ’”

But though Hallery went on, I do not, on reflection, think that I will. I doubt if Boon ever decided to incorporate this extraordinary Presidential Address in our book; I think perhaps he meant to revise it or substitute something else. He wanted to state a case for the extreme importance of literature, and to my mind he carried his statement into regions mystical, to say  the least of it, and likely to be considered blasphemous by many quite right-minded people. For instance, he made Hallery speak of the Word that links men’s minds. He brings our poor, mortal, mental activities into the most extraordinary relationship with those greater things outside our lives which it is our duty to revere as much as possible and to think about as little as possible; he draws no line between them…. He never, I say, read the paper to us…. I cannot guess whether he did not read it to us because he doubted himself or because he doubted us, and I do not even care to examine my own mind to know whether I do or do not believe in the thesis he sets so unhesitatingly down. In a sense it is no doubt true that literature is a kind of over-mind of the race, and in a sense, no doubt, the Bible and the Koran, the Talmud and the Prayer Book are literature. In a sense Mr. Upton Sinclair’s “Bible” for Socialists of bits from ancient and modern writings is literature. In a sense, too, literature does go on rather like a continuous  mind thinking…. But I feel that all this is just in a sense…. I don’t really believe it. I am not quite sure what I do really believe, but I certainly recoil from anything so crudely positive as Hallery’s wild assertions…. It would mean worshipping literature. Or at least worshipping the truth in literature….

Of course, one knows that real literature is something that has to do with leisure and cultivated people and books and shaded lamps and all that sort of thing. But Hallery wants to drag in not only cathedrals and sanctuaries, but sky-signs and hoardings…. He wants literature to embrace whatever is in or whatever changes the mind of the race, except purely personal particulars. And I think Boon was going to make Hallery claim this, just in order to show up against these tremendous significances the pettiness of the contemporary literary life, the poverty and levity of criticism, the mean business side of modern book-making and book-selling….

Turning over the pages of this rejected  address, which I am sure the reader would not thank me for printing, I do come upon this presentable passage, which illustrates what I am saying—

“So that every man who writes to express or change or criticize an idea, every man who observes and records a fact in the making of a research, every man who hazards or tests a theory, every artist of any sort who really expresses, does thereby, in that very act, participate, share in, become for just that instant when he is novel and authentically true, the Mind of the Race, the thinking divinity. Do you not see, then, what an arrogant worship, what a sacramental thing it is to lift up brain and hand and say, ‘I too will add’? We bring our little thoughts as the priest brings a piece of common bread to consecration, and though we have produced but a couplet or a dozen lines of prose, we have nevertheless done the parallel miracle. And all reading that is reading with the mind, all conscious subjugation of our attention to expressed beauty, or expressed truth, is sacramental, is communion  with the immortal being. We lift up our thoughts out of the little festering pit of desire and vanity which is one’s individual self into that greater self….”

So he talks, and again presently of “that world-wide immortal communion incessant as the march of sun and planets amidst the stars….”

And then, going on with his vast comparison, for I cannot believe this is more than a fantastic parallelism: “And if the mind that does, as we say, create is like the wafer that has become miraculously divine, then though you may not like to think of it, all you who give out books, who print books and collect books, and sell books and lend them, who bring pictures to people’s eyes, set things forth in theatres, hand out thought in any way from the thinking to the attentive mind, all you are priests, you do a priestly office, and every bookstall and hoarding is a wayside shrine, offering consolation and release to men and women from the intolerable prison of their narrow selves….”

 § 6

That, I think, is what Boon really at the bottom of his heart felt and believed about literature.

And yet in some way he could also not believe it; he could recognize something about it that made him fill the margin of the manuscript of this address with grotesque figures of an imaginary audience going out. They were, I know, as necessary to his whole conception as his swinging reference to the stars; both were as much part of his profound belief as the gargoyle on the spire and the high altar are necessary parts of a Gothic cathedral. And among other figures I am amused rather than hurt to find near the end this of myself—

Too high-pitched even for Reginald.

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This book is part of the public domain. H. G. Wells (2022). Boon, The Mind of the Race, The Wild Asses of the Devil, and The Last Trump. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022, from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/34962/34962-h/34962-h.htm

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