One evening some literary men were dining together previous to going to a private house where a number of authors were to give readings from their books. At the table the talk turned on the carelessness with which the public reads books. Richard Harding Davis, one of the party, contended that the public read more carefully than the others believed. It was just at the time when Du Maurier’s Trilby was in every one’s hands.
“Don’t you believe it,” said one of the diners. “I’ll warrant you could take a portion of some well-known story tonight and palm it off on most of your listeners as new stuff.”
“Done,” said Davis. “Come along, and I’ll prove you wrong.”
The reading was to be at the house of John Kendrick Bangs at Yonkers. When Davis’s “turn” in the programme came, he announced that he would read a portion from an unpublished story written by himself. Immediately there was a flutter in the audience, particularly among the younger element.
Pulling a roll of manuscript out of his pocket, Davis began:
“It was a fine, sunny, showery day in April. The big studio window—”
He got no farther. Almost the entire audience broke into a shout of laughter and applause. Davis had read thirteen of the opening words of Trilby.
All publishing houses employ “readers” outside of those in their own offices for the reading of manuscripts on special subjects. One of these “outside readers” was given a manuscript for criticism. He took it home and began its reading. He had finished only a hundred pages or so when, by a curious coincidence, the card of the author of the manuscript was brought to the “reader.” The men were close friends.
Hastily gathering up the manuscript, the critic shoved the work into a drawer of his desk, and asked that his friend be shown in.
The evening was passed in conversation; as the visitor rose to leave, his host, rising also and seating himself on his desk, asked:
“What have you been doing lately? Haven’t seen much of you.”
“No,” said the friend. “It may interest you to know that I have been turning to literary work, and have just completed what I consider to be an important book.”
“Really?” commented the “reader.”
“Yes,” went on his friend. “I submitted it a few days ago to one of the big publishing houses. But, great Scott, you can never tell what these publishers will do with a thing of that sort. They give their manuscripts to all kinds of fools to read. I suppose, by this time, some idiot, who doesn’t know a thing of the subject about which I have written, is sitting on my manuscript.”
Mechanically, the “reader” looked at the desk upon which he was sitting, thought of the manuscript lying in the drawer directly under him, and said:
“Yes, that may be. Quite likely, in fact.”
Of no novel was the secret of the authorship ever so well kept as was that of The Breadwinners, which, published anonymously in 1883, was the talk of literary circles for a long time, and speculation as to its authorship was renewed in the newspapers for years afterward. Bok wanted very much to find out the author’s name so that he could announce it in his literary letter. He had his suspicions, but they were not well founded until an amusing little incident occurred which curiously revealed the secret to him.
Bok was waiting to see one of the members of a publishing firm when a well-known English publisher, visiting in America, was being escorted out of the office, the conversation continuing as the two gentlemen walked through the outer rooms. “My chief reason,” said the English publisher, as he stopped at the end of the outer office where Bok was sitting, “for hesitating at all about taking an English set of plates of the novel you speak of is because it is of anonymous authorship, a custom of writing which has grown out of all decent proportions in your country since the issue of that stupid book, The Breadwinners.”
As these last words were spoken, a man seated at a desk directly behind the speaker looked up, smiled, and resumed reading a document which he had dropped in to sign. A smile also spread over the countenance of the American publisher as he furtively glanced over the shoulder of the English visitor and caught the eye of the smiling man at the desk.
Bok saw the little comedy, realized at once that he had discovered the author of The Breadwinners, and stated to the publisher that he intended to use the incident in his literary letter. But it proved to be one of those heart-rending instances of a delicious morsel of news that must be withheld from the journalist’s use. The publisher acknowledged that Bok had happened upon the true authorship, but placed him upon his honor to make no use of the incident. And Bok learned again the vital journalistic lesson that there are a great many things in the world that the journalist knows and yet cannot write about. He would have been years in advance of the announcement finally made that John Hay wrote the novel.
At another time, while waiting, Bok had an experience which, while interesting, was saddening instead of amusing. He was sitting in Mark Twain’s sitting-room in his home in Hartford waiting for the humorist to return from a walk. Suddenly sounds of devotional singing came in through the open window from the direction of the outer conservatory. The singing was low, yet the sad tremor in the voice seemed to give it special carrying power.
“You have quite a devotional servant,” Bok said to a maid who was dusting the room.
“Oh, that is not a servant who is singing, sir,” was the answer. “You can step to this window and see for yourself.”
Bok did so, and there, sitting alone on one of the rustic benches in the flower-house, was a small, elderly woman. Keeping time with the first finger of her right hand, as if with a baton, she was slightly swaying her frail body as she sang, softly yet sweetly, Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” and Sarah Flower Adams’s “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
But the singer was not a servant. It was Harriet Beecher Stowe!
On another visit to Hartford, shortly afterward, Bok was just turning into Forrest Street when a little old woman came shambling along toward him, unconscious, apparently, of people or surroundings. In her hand she carried a small tree-switch. Bok did not notice her until just as he had passed her he heard her calling to him: “Young man, young man.” Bok retraced his steps, and then the old lady said: “Young man, you have been leaning against something white,” and taking her tree-switch she whipped some wall dust from the sleeve of Bok’s coat. It was not until that moment that Bok recognized in his self-appointed “brush” no less a personage than Harriet Beecher Stowe.
“This is Mrs. Stowe, is it not?” he asked, after tendering his thanks to her.
Those blue eyes looked strangely into his as she answered:
“That is my name, young man. I live on this street. Are you going to have me arrested for stopping you?” with which she gathered up her skirts and quickly ran away, looking furtively over her shoulder at the amazed young man, sorrowfully watching the running figure!
Speaking of Mrs. Stowe brings to mind an unscrupulous and yet ingenious trick just about this time played by a young man attached to one of the New York publishing houses. One evening at dinner this chap happened to be in a bookish company when the talk turned to the enthusiasm of the Southern negro for an illustrated Bible. The young publishing clerk listened intently, and next day he went to a Bible publishing house in New York which issued a Bible gorgeous with pictures and entered into an arrangement with the proprietors whereby he should have the Southern territory. He resigned his position, and within a week he was in the South. He made arrangements with an artist friend to make a change in each copy of the Bible which he contracted for. The angels pictured therein were white in color. He had these made black, so he could show that there were black angels as well as white ones. The Bibles cost him just eighty cents apiece. He went about the South and offered the Bibles to the astonished and open-mouthed negroes for eight dollars each, two dollars and a half down and the rest in monthly payments. His sales were enormous. Then he went his rounds all over again and offered to close out the remaining five dollars and a half due him by a final payment of two dollars and a half each. In nearly every case the bait was swallowed, and on each Bible he thus cleared four dollars and twenty cents net!
Running the elevator in the building where a prominent publishing firm had its office was a negro of more than ordinary intelligence. The firm had just published a subscription book on mechanical engineering, a chapter of which was devoted to the construction and operation of passenger elevators. One of the agents selling the book thought he might find a customer in Washington.
“Wash,” said the book-agent, “you ought to buy a copy of this book, do you know it?”
“No, boss, don’t want no books. Don’t git no time fo’ readin’ books,” drawled Wash. “It teks all mah time to run dis elevator.”
“But this book will help you to run your elevator. See here: there’s a whole chapter here on elevators,” persisted the canvasser.
“Don’t want no help to run dis elevator,” said the darky. “Dis elevator runs all right now.”
“But,” said the canvasser, “this will help you to run it better. You will know twice as much when you get through.”
“No, boss, no, dat’s just it,” returned Wash. “Don’t want to learn nothing, boss,” he said. “Why, boss, I know more now than I git paid for.”
There was one New York newspaper that prided itself on its huge circulation, and its advertising canvassers were particularly insistent in securing the advertisements of publishers. Of course, the real purpose of the paper was to secure a certain standing for itself, which it lacked, rather than to be of any service to the publishers.
By dint of perseverance, its agents finally secured from one of the ten-cent magazines, then so numerous, a large advertisement of a special number, and in order to test the drawing power of the newspaper as a medium, there was inserted a line in large black type:
“SEND TEN CENTS FOR A NUMBER.”
But the compositor felt that magazine literature should be even cheaper than it was, and to that thought in his mind his fingers responded, so that when the advertisement appeared, this particular bold-type line read:
“SEND TEN CENTS FOR A YEAR.”
This wonderful offer appealed with singular force to the class of readers of this particular paper, and they decided to take advantage of it. The advertisement appeared on Sunday, and Monday’s first mail brought the magazine over eight hundred letters with ten cents enclosed “for a year’s subscription as per your advertisement in yesterday’s —.” The magazine management consulted its lawyer, who advised the publisher to make the newspaper pay the extra ninety cents on each subscription, and, although this demand was at first refused, the proprietors of the daily finally yielded. At the end of the first week eight thousand and fifty-five letters with ten cents enclosed had reached the magazine, and finally the total was a few over twelve thousand!
Did you happen to miss the previous chapter? Read Chapter 12