What paul bourget thinks of us




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A LITTLE NOTE TO M. PAUL BOURGET



[The preceding squib was assailed in the North American Review

in an article entitled "Mark Twain and Paul Bourget," by Max

O'Rell. The following little note is a Rejoinder to that

article. It is possible that the position assumed here--that

M. Bourget dictated the O'Rell article himself--is untenable.]
You have every right, my dear M. Bourget, to retort upon me by dictation, if you prefer that method to writing at me with your pen; but if I may say it without hurt--and certainly I mean no offence--I believe you would have acquitted yourself better with the pen. With the pen you are at home; it is your natural weapon; you use it with grace, eloquence, charm, persuasiveness, when men are to be convinced, and with formidable effect when they have earned a castigation. But I am sure I see signs in the above article that you are either unaccustomed to dictating or are out of practice. If you will re-read it you will notice, yourself, that it lacks definiteness; that it lacks purpose; that it lacks coherence; that it lacks a subject to talk about; that it is loose and wabbly; that it wanders around; that it loses itself early and does not find itself any more. There are some other defects, as you will notice, but I think I have named the main ones. I feel sure that they are all due to your lack of practice in dictating.
Inasmuch as you had not signed it I had the impression at first that you had not dictated it. But only for a moment. Certain quite simple and definite facts reminded me that the article had to come from you, for the reason that it could not come from any one else without a specific invitation from you or from me. I mean, it could not except as an intrusion, a transgression of the law which forbids strangers to mix into a private dispute between friends, unasked.
Those simple and definite facts were these: I had published an article in this magazine, with you for my subject; just you yourself; I stuck strictly to that one subject, and did not interlard any other. No one, of course, could call me to account but you alone, or your authorized representative. I asked some questions--asked them of myself. I answered them myself. My article was thirteen pages long, and all devoted to you; devoted to you, and divided up in this way: one page of guesses as to what subjects you would instruct us in, as teacher; one page of doubts as to the effectiveness of your method of examining us and our ways; two or three pages of criticism of your method, and of certain results which it furnished you; two or three pages of attempts to show the justness of these same criticisms; half a dozen pages made up of slight fault-findings with certain minor details of your literary workmanship, of extracts from your 'Outre-Mer' and comments upon them; then I closed with an anecdote. I repeat--for certain reasons--that I closed with an anecdote.
When I was asked by this magazine if I wished to "answer" a "reply" to that article of mine, I said "yes," and waited in Paris for the proof-sheets of the "reply" to come. I already knew, by the cablegram, that the "reply" would not be signed by you, but upon reflection I knew it would be dictated by you, because no volunteer would feel himself at liberty to assume your championship in a private dispute, unasked, in view of the fact that you are quite well able to take care of your matters of that sort yourself and are not in need of any one's help. No, a volunteer could not make such a venture. It would be too immodest. Also too gratuitously generous. And a shade too self-sufficient. No, he could not venture it. It would look too much like anxiety to get in at a feast where no plate had been provided for him. In fact he could not get in at all, except by the back way, and with a false key; that is to say, a pretext--a pretext invented for the occasion by putting into my mouth words which I did not use, and by wresting sayings of mine from their plain and true meaning. Would he resort to methods like those to get in? No; there are no people of that kind. So then I knew for a certainty that you dictated the Reply yourself. I knew you did it to save yourself manual labor.
And you had the right, as I have already said and I am content--perfectly content.
Yet it would have been little trouble to you, and a great kindness to me, if you had written your Reply all out with your own capable hand.
Because then it would have replied--and that is really what a Reply is for. Broadly speaking, its function is to refute--as you will easily concede. That leaves something for the other person to take hold of: he has a chance to reply to the Reply, he has a chance to refute the refutation. This would have happened if you had written it out instead of dictating. Dictating is nearly sure to unconcentrate the dictator's mind, when he is out of practice, confuse him, and betray him into using one set of literary rules when he ought to use a quite different set. Often it betrays him into employing the RULES FOR CONVERSATION BETWEEN A SHOUTER AND A DEAF PERSON--as in the present case--when he ought to employ the RULES FOR CONDUCTING DISCUSSION WITH A FAULT-FINDER. The great foundation-rule and basic principle of discussion with a fault-finder is relevancy and concentration upon the subject; whereas the great foundation-rule and basic principle governing conversation between a shouter and a deaf person is irrelevancy and persistent desertion of the topic in hand. If I may be allowed to illustrate by quoting example IV., section from chapter ix. of "Revised Rules for Conducting Conversation between a Shouter and a Deaf Person," it will assist us in getting a clear idea of the difference between the two sets of rules:
Shouter. Did you say his name is WETHERBY?
Deaf Person. Change? Yes, I think it will. Though if it should clear off I--
Shouter. It's his NAME I want--his NAME.
Deaf Person. Maybe so, maybe so; but it will only be a shower, I think.
Shouter. No, no, no!--you have quite misunderSTOOD me. If--
Deaf Person. Ah! GOOD morning; I am sorry you must go. But call again, and let me continue to be of assistance to you in every way I can.
You see it is a perfect kodak of the article you have dictated. It is really curious and interesting when you come to compare it with yours; in detail, with my former article to which it is a Reply in your hand. I talk twelve pages about your American instruction projects, and your doubtful scientific system, and your painstaking classification of nonexistent things, and your diligence and zeal and sincerity, and your disloyal attitude towards anecdotes, and your undue reverence for unsafe statistics and far facts that lack a pedigree; and you turn around and come back at me with eight pages of weather.
I do not see how a person can act so. It is good of you to repeat, with change of language, in the bulk of your rejoinder, so much of my own article, and adopt my sentiments, and make them over, and put new buttons on; and I like the compliment, and am frank to say so; but agreeing with a person cripples controversy and ought not to be allowed. It is weather; and of almost the worst sort. It pleases me greatly to hear you discourse with such approval and expansiveness upon my text:
"A foreigner can photograph the exteriors of a nation, but I think that is as far as he can get. I think that no foreigner can report its interior;"--[And you say: "A man of average intelligence, who has passed six months among a people, cannot express opinions that are worth jotting down, but he can form impressions that are worth repeating. For my part, I think that foreigners' impressions are more interesting than native opinions. After all, such impressions merely mean 'how the country struck the foreigner.'"]--which is a quite clear way of saying that a foreigner's report is only valuable when it restricts itself to impressions. It pleases me to have you follow my lead in that glowing way, but it leaves me nothing to combat. You should give me something to deny and refute; I would do as much for you.
It pleases me to have you playfully warn the public against taking one of your books seriously.--[When I published Jonathan and his Continent, I wrote in a preface addressed to Jonathan: "If ever you should insist in seeing in this little volume a serious study of your country and of your countrymen, I warn you that your world-wide fame for humor will be exploded."]--Because I used to do that cunning thing myself in earlier days. I did it in a prefatory note to a book of mine called Tom Sawyer.
NOTICE.
Persons attempting to find a motive in

this narrative will be prosecuted;

persons attempting to find a moral in it

will be banished; persons attempting to

find a plot in it will be shot.

BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR

PER G. G., CHIEF OF ORDNANCE.
The kernel is the same in both prefaces, you see--the public must not take us too seriously. If we remove that kernel we remove the life-principle, and the preface is a corpse. Yes, it pleases me to have you use that idea, for it is a high compliment. But is leaves me nothing to combat; and that is damage to me.
Am I seeming to say that your Reply is not a reply at all, M. Bourget? If so, I must modify that; it is too sweeping. For you have furnished a general answer to my inquiry as to what France through you--can teach us. --["What could France teach America!" exclaims Mark Twain. France can teach America all the higher pursuits of life, and there is more artistic feeling and refinement in a street of French workingmen than in many avenues inhabited by American millionaires. She can teach her, not perhaps how to work, but how to rest, how to live, how to be happy. She can teach her that the aim of life is not money-making, but that money-making is only a means to obtain an end. She can teach her that wives are not expensive toys, but useful partners, friends, and confidants, who should always keep men under their wholesome influence by their diplomacy, their tact, their common-sense, without bumptiousness. These qualities, added to the highest standard of morality (not angular and morose, but cheerful morality), are conceded to Frenchwomen by whoever knows something of French life outside of the Paris boulevards, and Mark Twain's ill-natured sneer cannot even so much as stain them.
I might tell Mark Twain that in France a man who was seen tipsy in his club would immediately see his name canceled from membership. A man who had settled his fortune on his wife to avoid meeting his creditors would be refused admission into any decent society. Many a Frenchman has blown his brains out rather than declare himself a bankrupt. Now would Mark Twain remark to this: 'An American is not such a fool: when a creditor stands in his way he closes his doors, and reopens them the following day. When he has been a bankrupt three times he can retire from business?']--It is a good answer.
It relates to manners, customs, and morals--three things concerning which we can never have exhaustive and determinate statistics, and so the verdicts delivered upon them must always lack conclusiveness and be subject to revision; but you have stated the truth, possibly, as nearly as any one could do it, in the circumstances. But why did you choose a detail of my question which could be answered only with vague hearsay evidence, and go right by one which could have been answered with deadly facts?--facts in everybody's reach, facts which none can dispute. I asked what France could teach us about government. I laid myself pretty wide open, there; and I thought I was handsomely generous, too, when I did it. France can teach us how to levy village and city taxes which distribute the burden with a nearer approach to perfect fairness than is the case in any other land; and she can teach us the wisest and surest system of collecting them that exists. She can teach us how to elect a President in a sane way; and also how to do it without throwing the country into earthquakes and convulsions that cripple and embarrass business, stir up party hatred in the hearts of men, and make peaceful people wish the term extended to thirty years. France can teach us--but enough of that part of the question. And what else can France teach us? She can teach us all the fine arts--and does. She throws open her hospitable art academies, and says to us, "Come"--and we come, troops and troops of our young and gifted; and she sets over us the ablest masters in the world and bearing the greatest names; and she, teaches us all that we are capable of learning, and persuades us and encourages us with prizes and honors, much as if we were somehow children of her own; and when this noble education is finished and we are ready to carry it home and spread its gracious ministries abroad over our nation, and we come with homage and gratitude and ask France for the bill--there is nothing to pay. And in return for this imperial generosity, what does America do? She charges a duty on French works of art!
I wish I had your end of this dispute; I should have something worth talking about. If you would only furnish me something to argue, something to refute--but you persistently won't. You leave good chances unutilized and spend your strength in proving and establishing unimportant things. For instance, you have proven and established these eight facts here following--a good score as to number, but not worth while:
Mark Twain is--
1. "Insulting."
2. (Sarcastically speaking) "This refined humor, 1st."
3. Prefers the manure-pile to the violets.
4. Has uttered "an ill-natured sneer."
5. Is "nasty."
6. Needs a "lesson in politeness and good manners."
7. Has published a "nasty article."
8. Has made remarks "unworthy of a gentleman."--["It is more funny than his" (Mark Twain's) "anecdote, and would have been less insulting."]
A quoted remark of mine "is a gross insult to a nation friendly to America."
"He has read La Terre, this refined humorist."
"When Mark Twain visits a garden . . . he goes in the far-away corner where the soil is prepared."
"Mark Twain's ill-natured sneer cannot so much as stain them" (the Frenchwomen).
"When he" (Mark Twain) "takes his revenge he is unkind, unfair, bitter, nasty."
"But not even your nasty article on my country, Mark," etc.
"Mark might certainly have derived from it" (M. Bourget's book) "a lesson in politeness and good manners."
A quoted remark of mine is "unworthy of a gentleman."--
These are all true, but really they are not valuable; no one cares much for such finds. In our American magazines we recognize this and suppress them. We avoid naming them. American writers never allow themselves to name them. It would look as if they were in a temper, and we hold that exhibitions of temper in public are not good form except in the very young and inexperienced. And even if we had the disposition to name them, in order to fill up a gap when we were short of ideas and arguments, our magazines would not allow us to do it, because they think that such words sully their pages. This present magazine is particularly strenuous about it. Its note to me announcing the forwarding of your proof-sheets to France closed thus--for your protection:
"It is needless to ask you to avoid anything that he might consider as personal."
It was well enough, as a measure of precaution, but really it was not needed. You can trust me implicitly, M. Bourget; I shall never call you any names in print which I should be ashamed to call you with your unoffending and dearest ones present.
Indeed, we are reserved, and particular in America to a degree which you would consider exaggerated. For instance, we should not write notes like that one of yours to a lady for a small fault--or a large one.--[When M. Paul Bourget indulges in a little chaffing at the expense of the Americans, "who can always get away with a few years' trying to find out who their grandfathers were,"] he merely makes an allusion to an American foible; but, forsooth, what a kind man, what a humorist Mark Twain is when he retorts by calling France a nation of bastards! How the Americans of culture and refinement will admire him for thus speaking in their name!
Snobbery . . . . I could give Mark Twain an example of the American specimen. It is a piquant story. I never published it because I feared my readers might think that I was giving them a typical illustration of American character instead of a rare exception.
I was once booked by my manager to give a causerie in the drawing-room of a New York millionaire. I accepted with reluctance. I do not like private engagements. At five o'clock on the day the causerie was to be given, the lady sent to my manager to say that she would expect me to arrive at nine o'clock and to speak for about an hour. Then she wrote a postscript. Many women are unfortunate there. Their minds are full of after-thoughts, and the most important part of their letters is generally to be found after their signature. This lady's P. S. ran thus: "I suppose he will not expect to be entertained after the lecture."
I fairly shorted, as Mark Twain would say, and then, indulging myself in a bit of snobbishness, I was back at her as quick as a flash:
"Dear Madam: As a literary man of some reputation, I have many times had the pleasure of being entertained by the members of the old aristocracy of France. I have also many times had the pleasure of being entertained by the members of the old aristocracy of England. If it may interest you, I can even tell you that I have several times had the honor of being entertained by royalty; but my ambition has never been so wild as to expect that one day I might be entertained by the aristocracy of New York. No, I do not expect to be entertained by you, nor do I want you to expect me to entertain you and your friends to-night, for I decline to keep the engagement."
Now, I could fill a book on America with reminiscences of this sort, adding a few chapters on bosses and boodlers, on New York 'chronique scandaleuse', on the tenement houses of the large cities, on the gambling-hells of Denver, and the dens of San Francisco, and what not! [But not even your nasty article on my country, Mark, will make me do it.]--We should not think it kind. No matter how much we might have associated with kings and nobilities, we should not think it right to crush her with it and make her ashamed of her lowlier walk in life; for we have a saying, "Who humiliates my mother includes his own."
Do I seriously imagine you to be the author of that strange letter, M. Bourget? Indeed I do not. I believe it to have been surreptitiously inserted by your amanuensis when your back was turned. I think he did it with a good motive, expecting it to add force and piquancy to your article, but it does not reflect your nature, and I know it will grieve you when you see it. I also think he interlarded many other things which you will disapprove of when you see them. I am certain that all the harsh names discharged at me come from him, not you. No doubt you could have proved me entitled to them with as little trouble as it has cost him to do it, but it would have been your disposition to hunt game of a higher quality.
Why, I even doubt if it is you who furnish me all that excellent information about Balzac and those others.--["Now the style of M. Bourget and many other French writers is apparently a closed letter to Mark Twain; but let us leave that alone. Has he read Erckmann-Chatrian, Victor Hugo, Lamartine, Edmond About, Cherbuliez, Renan? Has he read Gustave Droz's 'Monsieur, Madame, et Bebe', and those books which leave for a long time a perfume about you? Has he read the novels of Alexandre Dumas, Eugene Sue, George Sand, and Balzac? Has he read Victor Hugo's 'Les Miserables' and 'Notre Dame de Paris'? Has he read or heard the plays of Sandeau, Augier, Dumas, and Sardou, the works of those Titans of modern literature, whose names will be household words all over the world for hundreds of years to come? He has read La Terre--this kind-hearted, refined humorist! When Mark Twain visits a garden does he smell the violets, the roses, the jasmine, or the honeysuckle? No, he goes in the far-away corner where the soil is prepared. Hear what he says: 'I wish M. Paul Bourget had read more of our novels before he came. It is the only way to thoroughly understand a people. When I found I was coming to Paris I read La Terre.'"]--All this in simple justice to you--and to me; for, to gravely accept those interlardings as yours would be to wrong your head and heart, and at the same time convict myself of being equipped with a vacancy where my penetration ought to be lodged.
And now finally I must uncover the secret pain, the wee sore from which the Reply grew--the anecdote which closed my recent article--and consider how it is that this pimple has spread to these cancerous dimensions. If any but you had dictated the Reply, M. Bourget, I would know that that anecdote was twisted around and its intention magnified some hundreds of times, in order that it might be used as a pretext to creep in the back way. But I accuse you of nothing--nothing but error. When you say that I "retort by calling France a nation of bastards," it is an error. And not a small one, but a large one. I made no such remark, nor anything resembling it. Moreover, the magazine would not have allowed me to use so gross a word as that.
You told an anecdote. A funny one--I admit that. It hit a foible of our American aristocracy, and it stung me--I admit that; it stung me sharply. It was like this: You found some ancient portraits of French kings in the gallery of one of our aristocracy, and you said:
"He has the Grand Monarch, but where is the portrait of his grandfather?" That is, the American aristocrat's grandfather.
Now that hits only a few of us, I grant--just the upper crust only--but it hits exceedingly hard.
I wondered if there was any way of getting back at you. In one of your chapters I found this chance:
"In our high Parisian existence, for instance, we find applied to arts and luxury, and to debauchery, all the powers and all the weaknesses of the French soul."
You see? Your "higher Parisian" class--not everybody, not the nation, but only the top crust of the Ovation--applies to debauchery all the powers of its soul.
I argued to myself that that energy must produce results. So I built an anecdote out of your remark. In it I make Napoleon Bonaparte say to me --but see for yourself the anecdote (ingeniously clipped and curtailed) in paragraph eleven of your Reply.--[So, I repeat, Mark Twain does not like M. Paul Bourget's book. So long as he makes light fun of the great French writer he is at home, he is pleasant, he is the American humorist we know. When he takes his revenge (and where is the reason for taking a revenge?) he is unkind, unfair, bitter, nasty.]
For example: See his answer to a Frenchman who jokingly remarks to him:
"I suppose life can never get entirely dull to an American, because whenever he can't strike up any other way to put in his time, he can always get away with a few years trying to find out who his grandfather was."
Hear the answer:
"I reckon a Frenchman's got his little standby for a dull time, too; because when all other interests fail, he can turn in and see if he can't find out who his father was."
The first remark is a good-humored bit of chaffing on American snobbery. I may be utterly destitute of humor, but I call the second remark a gratuitous charge of immorality hurled at the French women--a remark unworthy of a man who has the ear of the public, unworthy of a gentleman, a gross insult to a nation friendly to America, a nation that helped Mark Twain's ancestors in their struggle for liberty, a nation where to-day it is enough to say that you are American to see every door open wide to you.
If Mark Twain was hard up in search of, a French "chestnut," I might have told him the following little anecdote. It is more funny than his, and would have been less insulting: Two little street boys are abusing each other. "Ah, hold your tongue," says one, "you ain't got no father."
"Ain't got no father!" replies the other; "I've got more fathers than you."
Now, then, your anecdote about the grandfathers hurt me. Why? Because it had a point. It wouldn't have hurt me if it hadn't had point. You wouldn't have wasted space on it if it hadn't had point.
My anecdote has hurt you. Why? Because it had point, I suppose. It wouldn't have hurt you if it hadn't had point. I judged from your remark about the diligence and industry of the high Parisian upper crust that it would have some point, but really I had no idea what a gold-mine I had struck. I never suspected that the point was going to stick into the entire nation; but of course you know your nation better than I do, and if you think it punctures them all, I have to yield to your judgment. But you are to blame, your own self. Your remark misled me. I supposed the industry was confined to that little unnumerous upper layer.
Well, now that the unfortunate thing has been done, let us do what we can to undo it. There must be a way, M. Bourget, and I am willing to do anything that will help; for I am as sorry as you can be yourself.
I will tell you what I think will be the very thing.
We will swap anecdotes. I will take your anecdote and you take mine. I will say to the dukes and counts and princes of the ancient nobility of France:
"Ha, ha! You must have a pretty hard time trying to find out who your grandfathers were?"
They will merely smile indifferently and not feel hurt, because they can trace their lineage back through centuries.
And you will hurl mine at every individual in the American nation, saying:
"And you must have a pretty hard time trying to find out who your fathers were." They will merely smile indifferently, and not feel hurt, because they haven't any difficulty in finding their fathers.
Do you get the idea? The whole harm in the anecdotes is in the point, you see; and when we swap them around that way, they haven't any.
That settles it perfectly and beautifully, and I am glad I thought of it. I am very glad indeed, M. Bourget; for it was just that little wee thing that caused the whole difficulty and made you dictate the Reply, and your amanuensis call me all those hard names which the magazines dislike so. And I did it all in fun, too, trying to cap your funny anecdote with another one--on the give-and-take principle, you know--which is American. I didn't know that with the French it was all give and no take, and you didn't tell me. But now that I have made everything comfortable again, and fixed both anecdotes so they can never have any point any more, I know you will forgive me.

THE END
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