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An Ambitious Man
Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Ella Wheeler Wilcox - A Famous Authoress Tells Literary Aspirants The Story Of Her Struggle For Recognition.
How Her Best Poems Were Written.
She Is A Pronounced Optimist.
Do Not Fear Criticism.
Merit Is Not Always Discovered Quickly.
Editors Are Anxious For Good Articles.
Perseverance Counts In Authorship.
An Ambitious Man
An Ambitious Man, E. W. Wilcox
Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck
86450 Altenmünster, Germany
BORN and reared in Wisconsin, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, although a resident of New York, is still faithful to the ideals and aspirations of the young and vigorous western state in which she first saw the light. She began writing at an early age, and still has in her possession childish verses, composed when she was only eight years old.
She was, however, far from any literary center; she had no one upon whom she might rely for advice as to her methods, and she had no influential friends, for her family was not a wealthy one. The usual difficulties, so familiar to all beginners, met her at every step; discouragements were endured day after day, and year after year. After a while, she began writing for various periodicals. Her first poems appeared in the New York Mercury, the Waverly Magazine, and Leslie's publications. It was from the publishing house of Frank Leslie she received her first check. Her income from literary work was very small and recognition came quite slowly. But courage, and patience, and fortitude, finally won the day.
One of her most famous poems, beginning, "Laugh and the World Laughs with You," was written about February, 1883, at Madison, Wisconsin. She had talked with a friend who had been bereaved by death in her household; later, while dressing for an inaugural ball, given in honor of the governor of Wisconsin, she was startled to think how soon the mind turns from stories of sorrow to scenes of gayety. Thus she formed the idea of this famous poem. It originally appeared in the New York Sun, and the author received five dollars for it. Subsequently, an attempt was made to pirate the verses as the composition of another; but the effort was, happily, a complete failure. The poem embodying the idea,
"A question is never settled
Until it is settled right,"
with which W. J. Bryan concludes his book, was written by her after hearing a gentleman make a remark in those words at the conclusion of a heated argument, on the single-tax question. The gentleman was afterward told that Lincoln had made use of this exact expression, years ago. But neither the gentleman in question, nor Mrs. Wilcox herself, had ever heard the expression before.
"The Two Glasses," one of her brightest poems, was written at the age of eighteen. Although this was a "temperance poem," she had never, up to that time, seen a glass of beer or wine. This poem, too, was pirated by one who pretended to be the author.
"The Birth of the Opal" was suggested by Herman Marcus, the Broadway jeweler, who advanced the idea of the opal being the child of the sunlight and moonlight.
"Wherever You Are," originally appeared in Leslie's Popular Monthly. A young man who had served a term in Auburn Prison read this poem, and it became the means of his reformation. Mrs. Wilcox lent him a helping hand, and he is to-day a hard-working, honest, worthy man.
She regards the poems, "High Noon," "To An Astrologer," and "The Creed," as probably her best efforts. It will thus be noted that she does not prefer the more fervid poems of passion, written in her early youth.
Whoever was begotten by pure love,
And came desired and welcomed into life,
Is of immaculate conception.
He Whose heart is full of tenderness and truth,
Who loves mankind more than he loves himself,
And cannot find room in his heart for hate,
May be another Christ.
We all may be The Saviors of the world, if we believe
In the Divinity which dwells in us,
And worship it, and nail our grosser selves,
Our tempers, greeds, and our unworthy aims
Upon the cross. Who giveth love to all,
Pays kindness for unkindness, smiles for frowns,
And lends new courage to each fainting heart,
And strengthens hope and scatters joy abroad,
He, too, is a Reedemer, Son of God.
Mrs. Wilcox lives in New York City from November to May, and in her cottage at Short Beach, Connecticut, during the rest of the year. Her husband, R. M. Wilcox, is a clear-headed business man, of polished manners, kind and considerate to all whom he meets, one who, in short, is deservedly popular with all the friends of the happy couple. The summer house at Short Beach is especially charming. It is in full view of the Long Island Sound, with a fine beach in front, and a splendid sweep of country at the rear.
As to "literary methods," Mrs. Wilcox has few suggestions to make, except to recommend hard work, conscientiously performed. She is untiring in her own efforts at rewriting, revising and polishing her productions, and cannot rest until every appearance of crudeness and carelessness is effaced. Her manuscripts are always neat, always carefully considered, and never prepared in undue haste. She believes that no writer can succeed who is a pessimist. She is, therefore, an optimist of the most pronounced type, and believes that all poems should be helpful not hurtful; full of hope, and not of despair; bright with faith, and not clouded by doubt.
"What is your view of the first duties of a young author?" she was asked, and replied:
"The first thing necessary for you to do is to find out your own motive in choosing a literary career. If you write as the young bird sings, you need no advice from me, for your thoughts will find their way out, as natural springs force their way through rocks, and nothing can hinder you. But if you have merely a well-defined literary ability and taste, you should consider carefully before undertaking the difficult task of authorship.
"An author should be able to instruct, entertain, guide or amuse his readers. Otherwise, he has no right to expect their attention, time or money. If it is merely a question of money, you would be wise to wait until you have a comfortable income, sufficient to maintain life during the first ten years of literary pursuits. Save in rare cases of remarkable genius, literature requires ten years of apprenticeship, at least, before yielding support to its followers. But be sure that you help, not harm, humanity. To the author, of all men, belongs the motto, 'Noblesse oblige.' "
"Unless you are so absorbed in your work that you utterly forget the existence of critics or reviewers, you have no right to call yourself a genius. Talent thinks with fear and fawning of critics; genius does not remember that they exist. One bows at the shrine of existing public opinion, which is narrow with prejudice. The other bows at the shrine of art, which is as broad as the universe."
"How do you think a young author should proceed to obtain recognition?"
"In regard to the practical method of getting one's work before the public, I would beg that you would not send it to any well-known author, asking him or her to 'read, criticize, correct, and find a publisher for you.' If such a thought has entered your head, remember that it has entered the heads of five hundred other amateurs, and the poor author is crushed under an avalanche of badly-written manuscripts, not one of which he has time to read. No editor will accept what he does not want, through the advice of any author, however famous.
"Do not attempt to adopt the style of anyone else. Unless you feel that you can be yourself, do not try to be anybody. A poor original is better than a good imitation, in literature, if not in other things.
"Expect no aid from influential friends in any way. The more wholly you depend upon yourself, the sooner will you succeed.
"It is absolute nonsense to talk about 'influence' with editors or publishers. No one ever achieved even passing fame or success in literature through influence or 'friends at court.' An editor might be influenced to accept one article, but he would never give permanent patronage through any influence, however strong.
"As I receive so many hundreds of letters asking how I found my way into print, and through what influences, it may be pardonable for me to say a few words regarding my own experiences. In the first place, I never sent a manuscript to any human being in my life, to ask for an opinion or influence. I always send directly to the editors, and I am not aware that any influence was ever used in my behalf. I have often had an article refused by six editors and accepted by the seventh. An especially unfortunate manuscript of mine was once rejected by eight periodicals, and I was about to consign it to oblivion, when, at a last venture, I sent it to the ninth. A check of seventy-five dollars came to me by return mail, with an extremely complimentary letter from the editor, requesting more articles of a similar kind."
"Very few authors have lived to attain any degree of fame without receiving back their cherished yet unwelcome manuscripts from the hands of one or more unappreciative editors before they met the public eye.
"It is reported of 'David Harum' that six publishers rejected it previous to its final publication.
"Archibald Gunter's book, 'Mr. Barnes of New York,' went the rounds of the various publishing houses, only to be rejected by all. Then Mr. Gunter rose to the occasion, published it himself, and reaped a small fortune from its sales.
"Many a successful short story and poem passes through the 'reading' department of a half-dozen magazines and weeklies without having its merit discovered until a seventh editor accepts it.
"Poems of my own, which have later met much favor from the public, I have seen return with a dejected and dog-eared air, from eight or nine offices, whither they had gone forth, like Noah's dove, seeking for a resting place. A charming bit of verse, written by a friend of mine, took twenty-one journeys from the maternal hand to the editor's table before it found an appreciative purchaser.
"If the young writer will stop and consider that each editor has his own individual ideas of what he wants, both in verse and prose, and that, just as no two faces are alike, no two minds run in the same groove, he may be hopeful for the ultimate acceptance of the darling of his brain, if he will persevere. Of course, this refers to a writer who possesses actual talent."
"No more absurd idea ever existed than that of the efficacy of 'influence' in literature. An editor will buy what he thinks his readers will appreciate. He will not buy anything which he feels will fall dead on his audience. He may purchase one possibly two, manuscripts, to oblige a friend, but it will end there; and one or two manuscripts, so purchased, can never make name or fame for their author.
"It would be just as reasonable to talk about 'influence with a dry-goods merchant, and to expect to make him purchase undesired goods from a manufacturer for friendship's sake, as to think an editor can be influenced by a friend at court.
"Editors are employed by the owners of periodicals to select and publish material which will render the periodical a paying concern. The editor who does not do this may lose his position and his salary.
"He is on the watch for attractive matter and desires to find new material. He is delighted when he discovers a new poet or author. Being mortal, and having but one mind, he can judge of the poems and stories sent to him only from an individual standpoint.
"He not infrequently lets genius slip through his hands, and accepts paste imitations. But he does it ignorantly, or carelessly, not willfully; or he may have in his collection of accepted manuscripts something similar, which would prevent his use of a poem or sketch at that particular juncture.
"The reasons why an editor declines a good manuscript are innumerable. It is impossible for him to explain them to each applicant for his favor. Nothing indicates the crudity of an author more than a request to criticize a manuscript and point out its defects; for frequently the very first verse or the very first page of a poem or romance decides its fate, and the editor returns it without reading further. Sometimes its length prevents any possibility of its being used in that particular periodical, while it might be just what another magazine would desire."
"The young writer who decides absolutely upon a literary career, and is confident of his mental equipment for his profession, should read all the current periodicals, magazines, and weeklies, American and English, and observe what style of literature they publish. Then he should make a list of them, and send his poem or his narrative first to the magazine which he feels it is best suited for; if it returns, let him proceed to speed it forth again, after giving it another reading; and so on, until it has finished the circuit of, perhaps, fifty periodicals. This habit of perseverance will be worth something, even if he never sells that manuscript.
"If he is still confident of his powers, let him write in another vein, and proceed in the same manner. This persistency, backed by talent, must win in the long run.
"If he feels he wants criticism, let him apply to some of the literary bureaus which make a business of criticism and revision.
"Very few authors have time to give to this work, nor are they, as a rule, the best judges of the merit of another writer's productions. After all, the secret of a writer's success lies within him. If he is well equipped, he will win, but not otherwise."
There is no chance, no destiny, no fate,
Can circumvent, or hinder, or control
The firm resolve of a determined soul.
Gift counts for little; will alone is great;
All things give way before it, soon or late.
What obstacle can stay the mighty force
Of the sea-seeking river in its course,
Or cause the ascending orb of day to wait?
Each well-born soul must win what it deserves,
Let the fool prate of Luck! The fortunate
Is he whose earnest purpose never swerves,
Whose slightest action or inaction serves
The one great aim.
Why, even death stands still
And waits, an hour, sometimes, for such a will!
Preston Cheney turned as he ran down the steps of a handsome house on “The Boulevard,” waving a second adieu to a young woman framed between the lace curtains of the window. Then he hurried down the street and out of view. The young woman watched him with a gleam of satisfaction in her pale blue eyes. A fine-looking young fellow, whose Roman nose and strong jaw belied the softly curved mouth with its sensitive darts at the corners; it was strange that something warmer than satisfaction did not shine upon the face of the woman whom he had just asked to be his wife.
But Mabel Lawrence was one of those women who are never swayed by any passion stronger than worldly ambition, never burned by any fires other than those of jealousy or anger. Her meagre nature was truly depicted in her meagre face. Nature is ofttimes a great lair and a cruel jester, giving to the cold and vapid woman the face and form of a sensuous siren, and concealing a heart of volcanic fires, or the soul of a Phryne, under the exterior of a spinster. But the old dame had been wholly frank in forming Miss Lawrence. The thin, flat chest and narrow shoulders, the angular elbows and prominent shoulder-blades, the sallow skin and sharp features, the deeply set, pale blue eyes, and the lustreless, ashen hair, were all truthful exponents of the unfurnished rooms in her vacant heart and soul places.
Miss Lawrence turned from the window, and trailed her long silken train across the rich carpet, seating herself before the open fireplace. It was an appropriate time and situation for a maiden’s tender dreams; only a few hours had passed since the handsomest and most brilliant young man in that thriving eastern town had asked her to be his wife, and placed the kiss of betrothal upon her virgin lips. Yet it was with a sense of triumph and relief, rather than with tenderness and rapture, that the young woman meditated upon the situation—triumph over other women who had shown a decided interest in Mr Cheney, since his arrival in the place more than eighteen months ago, and relief that the dreaded rôle of spinster was not to be her part in life’s drama.
Miss Lawrence was twenty-six—one year older than her fiancé; and she had never received a proposal of marriage or listened to a word of love in her life before. Let me transpose that phrase—she had never before received a proposal of marriage, and had never in her life listened to a word of love; for Preston had not spoken of love. She knew that he did not love her. She knew that he had sought her hand wholly from ambitious motives. She was the daughter of the Hon. Sylvester Lawrence, lawyer, judge, state senator, and proposed candidate for lieutenant-governor in the coming campaign. She was the only heir to his large fortune.
Preston Cheney was a penniless young man from the West. A self-made youth, with an unusual brain and an overwhelming ambition, he had risen from chore boy on a western farm to printer’s apprentice in a small town, thence to reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent, and after two or three years of travel gained in this manner he had come to Beryngford and bought out a struggling morning paper, which was making a mad effort to keep alive, changed its political tendencies, infused it with western activity and filled it with cosmopolitan news, and now, after eighteen months, the young man found himself coming abreast of his two long established rivals in the editorial field. This success was but an incentive to his overwhelming ambition for place, power and riches. He had seen just enough of life and of the world to estimate these things at double their value; and he was, beside, looking at life through the magnifying glass of youth. The Creator intended us to gaze on worldly possessions and selfish ambitions through the small end of the lorgnette, but youth invariably inverts the glass.
To the young editor, the brief years behind him seemed like a long hard pull up a steep and rocky cliff. From the point to which he had attained, the summit of his desires looked very far away, much farther than the level from which he had arisen. To rise to that summit single-handed and alone would require unremitting effort through the very best years of his manhood. His brain, his strength, his ability, his ambitions, what were they all in the strife after place and power, compared to the money of some commonplace adversary? Preston Cheney, the native-born American directly descended from a Revolutionary soldier, would be handicapped in the race with some Michael Murphy whose father had made a fortune in the saloon business, or who had himself acquired a competency as a police officer.
America was not the same country which gave men like Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and Horace Greeley a chance to rise from the lower ranks to the highest places before they reached middle life. It was no longer a land where merit strove with merit, and the prize fell to the most earnest and the most gifted. The tremendous influx of foreign population since the war of the Rebellion and the right of franchise given unreservedly to the illiterate and the vicious rendered the ambitious American youth now a toy in the hands of aliens, and position a thing to be bought at the price set by un-American masses.
Thoughts like these had more and more with each year filled the mind of Preston Cheney, until, like the falling of stones and earth into a river bed, they changed the naturally direct current of his impulses into another channel. Why not further his life purpose by an ambitious marriage? The first time the thought entered his mind he had cast it out as something unclean and unworthy of his manhood. Marriage was a holy estate, he said to himself, a sacrament to be entered into with reverence, and sanctified by love. He must love the woman who was to be the companion of his life, the mother of his children.
Then he looked about among his early friends who had married, as nearly all the young men of the middle classes in America do marry, for love, or what they believed to be love. There was Tom Somers—a splendid lad, full of life, hope and ambition when he married Carrie Towne, the prettiest girl in Vandalia. Well, what was he now, after seven years? A broken-spirited man, with a sickly, complaining wife and a brood of ill-clad children. Harry Walters, the most infatuated lover he had ever seen, was divorced after five years of discordant marriage.
Charlie St Clair was flagrantly unfaithful to the girl he had pursued three years with his ardent wooings before she yielded to his suit. Certainly none of these love marriages were examples for him to follow. And in the midst of these reveries and reflections, Preston Cheney came to Beryngford, and met Sylvester Lawrence and his daughter Mabel. He met also Berene Dumont. Had he not met the latter woman he would not have succumbed—so soon at least—to the temptation held out by the former to advance his ambitious aims.
He would have hesitated, considered, and reconsidered, and without doubt his better nature and his good taste would have prevailed. But when fate threw Berene Dumont in his way, and circumstances brought about his close associations with her for many months, there seemed but one way of escape from the Scylla of his desires, and that was to the Charybdis of a marriage with Miss Lawrence.
Miss Lawrence was not aware of the part Berene Dumont had played in her engagement, but she knew perfectly the part her father’s influence and wealth had played; but she was quite content with affairs as they were, and it mattered little to her what had brought them about. To be married, rather than to be loved, had been her ambition since she left school; being incapable of loving, she was incapable of appreciating the passion in any of its phases. It had always seemed to her that a great deal of nonsense was written and talked about love. She thought demonstrative people very vulgar, and believed kissing a means of conveying germs of disease.
But to be a married woman, with an establishment of her own, and a husband to exhibit to her friends, was necessary to the maintenance of her pride.
When Miss Lawrence’s mother, a nervous invalid, was informed of her daughter’s engagement, she burst into tears, as over a lamb offered on the altar of sacrifice; and Judge Lawrence pressed a kiss on the lobe of Mabel’s left ear which she offered him, and told her she had won a prize in the market. But as he sat alone over his cigar that night, he sighed heavily, and said to himself, “Poor fellow, I wish Mabel were not so much like her mother.”
“Baroness Brown” was a distinctive figure in Beryngford. She came to the place from foreign parts some three years before the arrival of Preston Cheney, and brought servants, carriages and horses, and established herself in a very handsome house which she rented for a term of years. Her arrival in this quiet village town was of course the sensation of the hour, or rather of the year. She was known as Baroness Le Fevre—an American widow of a French baron. Large, voluptuous, blonde, and handsome according to the popular idea of beauty, distinctly amiable, affable and very charitable, she became at once the fashion.
Invitations to her house were eagerly sought after, and her entertainments were described in column articles by the press.
This state of things continued only six months, however. Then it began to be whispered about that the Baroness was in arrears for her rent. Several of her servants had gone away in a high state of temper at the titled mistress who had failed to pay them a cent of wages since they came to the country with her; and one day the neighbours saw her fine carriage horses led away by the sheriff.
A week later society was electrified by the announcement of the marriage of Baroness Le Fevre to Mr Brown, a wealthy widower who owned the best shoe store in Beryngford.
Mr Brown owned ten children also, but the youngest was a boy of sixteen, absent in college. The other nine were married and settled in comfortable homes.
Mr Brown died at the expiration of a year. This one year had taught him more of womankind than he had learned in all his sixty and nine years before; and, feeling that it is never too late to profit by learning, Mr Brown discreetly made his will, leaving all his property save the widow’s “thirds” equally divided among his ten children.