The Bookman, January 1920
BY P. G. WODEHOUSE
IN a second-hand bookshop the other day I came across a volume of articles and essays written by Israel Zangwill and published in the year 1896. The contents dealt with a variety of subjects, but treated chiefly of life as it strikes an author: and one of the essays was entitled “The Penalties of Fame”. It began as follows:
There is one form of persecution to which celebrity or notoriety is subject, which Ouida has omitted in her impassioned protest. (Apparently Ouida had been kicking about something.) It is interviewing carried one step further. The auto-interview, one might christen it, if the officiating purist would pass the hybrid name. You are asked to supply information about yourself by post. The ordinary interview, whatever may be said against it, is at least painless; and, annoying as it is to after-reflection to have had your brain picked of its ideas by a stranger who gets paid for them, still the mechanical vexations of literature are entirely taken over by the journalist who hangs on your lips. But when you are asked to contribute particulars about yourself to a newspaper, it is difficult, however equable your temperament, not to feel a modicum of irritation.
The emotion I, personally, feel in such circumstances is not irritation, but a sort of dazed helplessness. As far as any temptation to irritation goes, that is overcome by the implied compliment. To a retiring individual it is not unpleasant to be given the impression that a vast public is waiting eagerly for information about himself, his life story, and his personality. It is, at any rate, evidence that a certain number of people read his stuff. No, I am not annoyed, but I certainly do feel embarrassed and rattled, as if I had been asked to recite “Gunga Din” at the church sociable and had forgotten how it began. Or as if, in response to calls of “Author!” on the night of the opening performance of a play, I had come before the curtain and when it was too late to withdraw, had found that I was expected to make a speech.
Two recent events, happening almost simultaneously, have given me this embarrassed and helpless feeling. I have just been interviewed, and the Strenuous Life Publishing Company of a certain western city has made a request for some picturesque personal details about me. This practically amounts to a Boom. Wodehouse stock is shooting up. Pelham is going to par. In a word, Great Neck’s favorite son has begun to make his presence felt.
All this is splendid. It makes me glow. I sing in my bath. But there is always a catch in these good things, and in my case it is the fact that, until this happened, it had never even crossed my mind that I was about the dullest chunk of dough that ever went through life without doing a thing except eat and sleep and tremble at the sight of a job of work. These calls upon me to stand and deliver something personal and picturesque in my past, have revealed me to myself for what I am. Previously, I had always gone about under the impression that I was a pretty likely sort of individual, removed by many parasangs from the common herd or bourgeoisie. Even now I hate to believe that I am really as dull as I seem, and yet what other explanation is there of the fact that I have lived all these years without doing anything of the slightest interest to anybody?
The interview was the worst. The man got out his note-book and sharpened his pencil and moistened the point and looked at me with a bright, trusting look in his eyes. “This”, he seemed to say, “is going to be good. This will be something to tell the boys at the corner drug-store.” And he asked me about my career.
I let my mind wander back over the past. It was like taking a stroll through the Mojave desert.
“I came to America from England”, I said at last, “in 1904.”
“Yes?” he said excitedly. “And then?”
“Oh, then I went back again.”
“And when did you return to America?”
“And what happened then?”
“I stayed there.”
And that was all. There were other questions and other answers, but the answers were all just as startling as the above, no more, no less. My interviewer went away with rather a wan expression on his face, murmuring something about writing it all up as a personal feature story. Well, unless he puts a bit of jazz into it on his own account, it will read like a personal feature story of the wart-hog at the Bronx zoo. It looks to me as if the only man who could handle my life story right would be the author in George Ade’s fable who wrote “The Simple Annals of John Gardensass”, in which the outstanding events were when John sold the cow and, later, sat on the fence and whittled.
Other authors are not like that. I know at least three who contributed their first story to a magazine from prison. The average author, as far as I can make out, is a fellow who ran away from home at the age of ten, sailed seven times round the world on a sailing-ship, did a bit of pearl-poaching, was a prominent figure in the Homestead Riots and the Spanish War, went on the stage, tramped for a few years, and then, when he was good and ready, took his pen in hand and started to turn out wholesome fiction for the young girl. There is something to a man like that. He stands out. You feel he has established his right to live. But as for me—well, the only interesting thing that ever happened to me was when I drank the liniment in the dark by mistake for the sherry.
There is nothing to catch hold of even in my methods of writing. Hobbes, who wrote “The Leviathan”, “mused as he walked; and he had in the head of his cane a pen and ink-horn”. That would make a paragraph in any Sunday paper. Thackeray, when he got a good idea, would jump out of bed and run round and round his room, shouting. Balzac used to wander through the streets bareheaded, clad in a dressing-gown and slippers. I just curse a bit and sit down at the typewriter.
Now, what I am driving at is this. Unless something is done about it eftsoones or right speedily, my biography is going to be a washout of the worst description. And, of course, there will be a biography. Everybody has one nowadays. Every day, when you open the literary supplement of your paper, you see among Books Received the announcement of the publication of “The Life and Letters of George W. Gubbs”, or “The Real Otis Boole”, or “Elmer Quackenboss Phipps as I Knew Him”. Nobody has ever heard of these people before, and nobody wants to hear about them now, but the biographer has gone grimly about his work just the same. And the chances are that, if you go to the length of reading one of these volumes, you will find that all Otis or George or Elmer did was to graduate at the Lemuel Sigsbee Technical University of Southern Carolina and, in after years, to contribute to the papers of the Schenectady Mutual Improvement Association a pamphlet on “Some Vagaries in the Fin Development of the Common Sardine”.
So that one may be certain that, since these modest comforts are within the reach of all, I shall have my biography all right: and the thought makes me sorry for my biographer. He will begin, no doubt, by looking through such diaries as I have kept. For the chapter on “Early Days” he will consult the one I started as a boy, and will build up his chapter on such entries as the following:
Jan. 1. Have resolved to keep a diary and to set down every day all the important and interesting events which happen to myself and my friends. In this way I shall have a complete record of my life. It will be interesting to read in after years and Uncle John says it will form a useful mental discipline. Wet day today. Nothing happened.
Jan. 2 Wet day. Nothing happened.
Jan. 3 Still cloudy. Nothing happened.
Jan. 4 Fine. Nothing happened.
Aug. 9 Nothing happened.
Nov. 8 Nothing happened.
That, except for an entry on December 4—“Met J. B. Asked him about T. It isn’t true about D. W.”,— is all he will have to go upon when writing up my life to the age of twenty-seven.
He will not even be able to pad the thing out with anecdotes. Most biographers, when their material runs thin, are able to carry on for a page or so with stories about the celebrities whom their hero met and the good things they said. We read, for instance, that “Blank never wearied of telling the story of the Bishop of Toledo, under whose influence he came at this period and whose powerful personality exercised so marked an effect on his character at the most plastic stage of his life. The Bishop, it seems,—then a young and nervous clergyman,—was invited to breakfast by a high dignitary of the church. ‘I am afraid’, said his host, as the meal progressed, ‘that your egg is bad.’ ‘Oh, no, my lord’, replied the future bishop with the ingratiating smile that was to win him so many converts in his missionary work in the Far East, ‘parts of it are excellent!’ This was always one of Blank’s favorite stories.”
You can spin this sort of thing out for pages—but not in my biography. None of the celebrities I have met have ever said a good thing. As a matter of fact, celebrities have rather kept out of my way—I don’t know why. I am perfectly ready to meet them, but there seems to be no enthusiasm at their end.
Not only does nothing ever happen to me: it does not even happen to my animals. The cat that rouses the household during a fire in the night and saves nine, is never my cat. The hen that kills garter-snakes in defense of its young is never part of the personnel of my poultry yard. Even the dog that goes mad and has to be shot by a policeman has had its license paid by someone else. I seem to shed a miasma of dulness around me, which afflicts even the animal kingdom.
I don’t want to seem to be complaining. After all, it is nobody’s fault but my own. It was perfectly open to me to run away to sea if I had wanted to, and every state in the union maintains a police force that would have been charmed to insert me in the cooler had I shown any signs of meeting them half-way. I am not grumbling. I have set forth these personal defects of mine simply because I see a way of remedying them. I am merely leading up to the suggestion that it would be an excellent thing for myself and others in my position if someone were to start a bureau for supplying incidents to uneventful lives. Chesterton had the right idea in his Club of Queer Trades. One of his stories, if you remember, dealt with the strange adventures of a certain Major Brown. The major, looking over his wall one day into the next garden, saw a man planting pansies to form the words “Death to Major Brown!” Later, just outside his door, a manhole opened, a head emerged, and a sinister voice cried, “Major Brown, how did the jackal die?” Still later, in his own cellar, a massive brute grappled with him and nearly strangled him. Inquiries revealed the fact that the innocent major had been supplied with the adventures ordered by another man of the same name from a firm that supplied serial stories in real life to their clients.
There is surely an opening for such a firm outside fiction. Nobody wants his existence to be one long movie-serial, but still a touch of the stuff that made Pauline famous would help a lot. I don’t want actually to be sitting in a room under which somebody has stored dynamite at the moment when the stuff is touched off, but I do feel it would give my biographer a better chance if someone would arrange that an explosion should happen just after I had gone out. Nothing could be simpler for a properly organized firm than to supply material of this kind: and the moment has arrived for such a firm to come into being. Biographers need it.
The incident-supplying firm would, of course, have to run an anecdotal department as a side-line, with which would be incorporated a department for supplying biographers with letters. The public that reads biographies insists upon plenty of letters, and the average letter is so dull. You cannot hold your reader in these days of rush and hurry with a lot of letters like the strong one you wrote to the grocer about the bacon, or the one in which you accepted the Joneses’ invitation to dinner and progressive whist.
Photographs, again. If there is one thing that is always demanded by people who want to write stuff about you, it is a photograph: and the trouble about most authors is that nature never really intended them to be photographed. I am no Adonis myself, but you should see some of the others. During the recent actors’ strike, I attended meetings of playwrights, and was enabled to see these men of brain in the mass. An appalling sight! And yet every one of them was doubtless called upon to supply his photograph to the papers several times a year. It is not fair to the writer or to the public. One of the principal departments of the bureau which I should like to see come into existence would be the one which looked after authors’ photographs. There would be on the staff a number of young and handsome men whose duty it would be to be photographed instead of their clients. When some human gargoyle with a large head but an ingrowing face had put over a best seller, and the papers were clamoring for pictures of him, he would simply call up the bureau and put the matter in their hands. The consequences would be that, instead of wondering how on earth the picture of Amos, the educated ape from the Hippodrome, had managed to get itself onto the Books and Readers page, you would see something that really looked like something.
The more I think of this bureau, the more clearly do I see that it must be founded, and founded quick. I need it in my business. In a day or two those Strenuous Life people will be growing impatient for the personal details of a picturesque nature, which they requested in such an optimistic spirit. I want about three good, snappy adventures for my early manhood, a couple of straight comic anecdotes, and something really interesting about what the Kaiser said to me in 1912.
The punctuation of this transcription is reproduced exactly from the original source; it is a rare example of the modern British style of punctuation used in an American magazine of 1920, with some periods and commas falling outside quotation marks when they did not belong to the quoted material. At this time, even most British publishers were using the traditional rule, still generally observed in America, of putting all commas and periods inside quotation marks.
Israel Zangwill (1864–1926), British author, a prominent literary advocate of Zionism, feminism, and pacificism, best remembered today for his 1892 novel Children of the Ghetto and his 1909 play The Melting Pot, which praised America for its goals to accommodate members of all ethnicities into a single nation. The quoted essay is from his 1896 collection Without Prejudice. Wodehouse slightly and silently edits the quotation from Zangwill’s essay.
Ouida was the pen name of English novelist Maria Louise Ramé (1839–1908), a prolific author of romantic adventure stories, stories for young readers, and essays on humanitarian and social topics. One of the characters in her 1878 novel Friendship complains that “Fame nowadays is little else but notoriety, and it is dearly bought, perhaps too dearly, by the sacrifice of the serenity of obscurity, the loss of the peace of private life. Art is great and precious, but the pursuit of it is sadly embittered when we have become so the plaything of the public, through it, that the simplest actions of our lives are chronicled and misconstrued.”
The Strenuous Life Publishing Company was incorporated in Geneseo, New York, in 1907, and moved to Buffalo soon thereafter, to publish a magazine of that title, named after Theodore Roosevelt’s catch-phrase of encouragement to an active and socially-relevant existence, originally the title of his 1899 speech which also gave its title to Roosevelt’s 1900 book collection of essays and speeches.
Pelham: Wodehouse’s first name, most often abbreviated to the initial “P.” and familiarized as “Plum” among family and friends.
par: trading at face value on the stock market
Great Neck: a community on the north shore of Long Island, New York, which was transformed in the late 19th century from a farm village to a fashionable commuter town at the eastern end of the New York and Flushing Railroad. Wodehouse bought a home there in 1918, near his writing partner Guy Bolton and many actors and authors, including F. Scott Fitzgerald (who fictionalized Great Neck as West Egg in The Great Gatsby), Ed Wynn, and Groucho Marx.
George Ade’s fable: “The Fable of the Man Who Didn’t Care for Storybooks” in Fables in Slang (1899). George Ade also covered the Homestead Strike of 1892 as a journalist and may be the inspiration for the mention of the Homestead Riots in the next paragraph. [Thanks to Karen Shotting for this information.]
Chesterton … Club of Queer Trades … Major Brown: The story is online at Google Books.
Pauline: title character of the 1914 movie serial The Perils of Pauline, starring Pearl White in twenty melodramatic episodes originally shown at weekly intervals in theatres.