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PREFACE is an invention to enable an author to argue with his critics without
disturbing the general reader, who is expected to skip the preface. The remarks in this preface are addressed to a very small number of persons; but they are the persons whose voices are most likely to be heard, while the multitude (if by any chance this volume should have a multitude) of common readers will remain profoundly quiet.
I wish to answer several questions which I as a critic have put to myself as an editor of essays: Are selections a cheap substitute for complete works? or are they better than complete works? or should they not be attempted at all?
My answer as an editor to that threefold question is, that for the common reader, whose time is limited, the complete works of an author are almost useless because of their bulk and the time necessary to get through them. As a result, complete works are put on library shelves, there to remain unread. Any man who can help his fellows to read more successfully is a public bene
factor. If an editor can separate the work which the common reader will care to read from that which he will not care to read, so that with the limited time at the reader's disposal and limited mental energy remaining after the drudgery of life has had its share, some parts of a great author will actually get read, that editor is performing a public service by selection, and a service that no man can perform in any other possible way.
Now how can this selection be made so that it will have the desired effect?
Many competent judges have asserted that selections are a snare and a delusion.” I know very well what they mean, and agree with them. They refer to the scrappy “specimens” of authors' libraries that make no other pretension than to be cheap substitutes for vastly larger collections of complete works. It kills a literary work to mutilate it. But selection of complete portions even of longer works need not be mutilation.
We have no special difficulty in selecting novels, since each novel constitutes a volume, and we can buy and read the volume we wish. It is not necessary to place Dickens's complete works along five feet of our library shelves in order to get “David Copperfield.” A short story or an essay, however, cannot conveniently or economically be printed in a separate volume. Yet it is just as separate and distinct a work of literary art as a novel is. Each essay and each short story ought to stand on its own feet, and be judged quite by itself, just as each poem or oration ought to be judged. No greater service can be performed for such a short masterpiece than taking it away from its fellows and setting it by itself. It is like removing a shapely maple from the heart of the forest, where it is surrounded on all sides by great pines that overshadow it, and planting it beside the town pump, where every passerby may look up with admiration at its beautiful proportions and feel gratitude in his heart for the friendly shade. This is very different from chopping that tree up into fence-posts and using them to form an ugly barrier around, let us say, a moss-covered tombstone.
The only unity that can usually be found connecting several essays is the style of the author; but that forms a practical reason for placing several distinct and complete works of art, such as complete 1 essays are, side by side in one volume. In the present undertaking, the ideal would be to print the work chosen from each author in a separate volume. Each has been treated with his own separate introduction, so that this could easily be done if it were mechanically desirable. For the sake of economy and convenience to the
1 It is to be noted that the division of their work made by authors is not the only sign of completeness. Macaulay's description of the Puritans in the Essay on Milton is complete in itself, and so is the study of sea-painting selected from Ruskin's “Modern Painters” for this volume, though the brief description of Turner's “Slave Ship” at the end would be but a fragment, since it is not intelligible except as an illustration of Ruskin's argument.
reader, all are printed in one volume, but in suc a way that the reader is invited to read and cor sider only one author at a time in precisely th same way that he would if he had a set of tend a dozen little volumes on his library shelves, on of which he would take down and read to-da and another to-morrow. Each group contain all that any person should think of trying t digest at one time. If more were to be swallowe it would result in mental dyspepsia.
One more question remains for brief consider ation. The critic in me asks the editor, Wh do you undertake to write on "prose style," afte De Quincey and Pater and all the ten thousan others? and how will it help to promote a publi habit of reading essays?
I reply that I have not undertaken a discussio of style for the purpose of exploiting any specia critical or philosophic ideas, but only for a purel practical object. I believe that no man thinks we unless he can express himself well, and that it i the duty of every man and woman of intelligenc and culture to set systematically about acquirin a greater command of expression through hi native language. Self-expression is a simpl means of testing one's thoughts, even if the ex pression goes no farther than one's own closet But conversation and written letters affori ai invaluable means of testing one's ideas by th ideas of others, if one has command of the me dium of expression. Command of that medium
and the habit and practice of using it, I hold to be indispensable to any adequate culture.
Now essays have two especial uses: They give a certain intellectual pleasure that is denied to the novel or drama, with their rapid movement and their appeal to the universal emotions of the human heart, and that is likewise denied to the poem, with its lofty atmosphere and highly artificial structure, so far removed from the plain level of everyday prose (best typified in the prose essay). The other special use of the masterpieces of the great essayists is in affording to every one models of style, or ways of using words, exactly suited to everyday conversation and business and social letter-writing. Therefore while we are reading essays for the intellectual pleasure that they give, we ought at the same time to be studying the method of each writer in using words, with a practical eye to our own needs in the direction of a better command of words. No one who would take any intellectual pleasure in reading essays ought to ignore the other element of style.1
“Self-Reliance," by Emerson, is used by special arrangement with and permission of Houghton, Mifflin & Co., the authorized publishers of Emerson's works.
1 Another reason for the study of " style" in connection with essays will be found in the General Introduction.