It has long been my conviction that the most graceful function of authorship is the writing of prefaces. What is more pleasant than dashing off those few pages of genial introduction after all the dreary months of spading at the text? A paragraph or two as to the intentions of the book; allusions to the unexpected difficulties encountered during composition; neatly phrased gratitude to eminent friends who have given gracious assistance; and a touching allusion to the Critic on the Hearth who has done the indexing–one of the trials of the wives of literary men not mentioned by Mrs. Andrew Lang in her pleasant essay on that topic. A pious wish to receive criticisms “in case a second edition should be called for”; your address, and the date, add a homely touch at the end.
How delightful this bit of pleasant intimacy after the real toil is over! It is like paterfamilias coming out of his house at dusk, after the hard day’s work, to read his newspaper on the doorstep. Or it may be a bit of superb gesturing. No book is complete without a preface. Better a preface without a book….
Many men have written books without prefaces. But not many have written prefaces without books. And yet I am convinced it is one of the subtlest pleasures. I have planned several books, not yet written; but the prefaces are all ready this many a day. Let me show you the sort of thing I mean.
PREFACE TO “THE LETTERS OF ANDREW MCGILL”
How well I remember the last time I saw Andrew McGill! It was in the dear old days at Rutgers, my last term. I was sitting over a book one brilliant May afternoon, rather despondent–there came a rush up the stairs and a thunder at the door. I knew his voice, and hurried to open. Poor, dear fellow, he was just back from tennis; I never saw him look so glorious. Tall and thin–he was always very thin, see p. 219 and passim–with his long, brown face and sparkling black eyes–I can see him still rambling about the room in his flannels, his curly hair damp on his forehead. “Buzzard,” he said–he always called me Buzzard–“guess what’s happened?”
“In love again?” I asked.
He laughed. A bright, golden laugh–I can hear it still. His laughter was always infectious.
“No,” he said. “Dear silly old Buzzard, what do you think? I’ve won the Sylvanus Stall fellowship.”
I shall never forget that moment. It was very still, and in the college garden, just under my window, I could hear a party of Canadian girls deliciously admiring things. It was a cruel instant for me. I, too, in my plodding way, had sent in an essay for the prize, but without telling him. Must I confess it? I had never dared mention the subject for fear he, too, would compete. I knew that if he did he was sure to win. O petty jealousies, that seem so bitter now!
“Rude old Buzzard,” he said in his bantering way, “you haven’t congratulated!”
I pulled myself together.
“Brindle,” I said–I always called him Brindle; how sad the nickname sounds now–“you took my breath away. Dear lad, I’m overjoyed.”
It is four and twenty years since that May afternoon. I never saw him again. Never even heard him read the brilliant poem “Sunset from the Mons Veneris” that was the beginning of his career, for the week before commencement I was taken ill and sent abroad for my health. I never came back to New York; and he remained there. But I followed his career with the closest attention. Every newspaper cutting, every magazine article in which his name was mentioned, went into my scrapbook. And almost every week for twenty years he wrote to me–those long, radiant letters, so full of verve and elan and ringing, ruthless wit. There was always something very Gallic about his saltiness. “Oh, to be born a Frenchman!” he writes. “Why wasn’t I born a Frenchman instead of a dour, dingy Scotsman? Oh, for the birthright of Montmartre! Stead of which I have the mess of pottage–stodgy, porridgy Scots pottage” (see p. 189).