Excellent Parson Adams, in “Joseph Andrews,” is not the only literary man who has lamented the difficulty of ransoming a manuscript for immediate cash. It will be remembered that Mr. Adams had in his saddlebag nine volumes of sermons in manuscript, “as well worth a hundred pounds as a shilling was worth twelve pence.” Offering one of these as a pledge, Parson Adams besought Mr. Tow-Wouse, the innkeeper, to lend him three guineas but the latter had so little stomach for a transaction of this sort that “he cried out, ‘Coming, sir,’ though nobody called; and ran downstairs without any fear of breaking his neck.”
As a whimsical essayist (with whom I have talked over these matters) puts it, the business of literature is imperfectly coordinated with life.
Almost any other kind of property is hockable for ready cash. A watch, a ring, an outworn suit of clothes, a chair, a set of books, all these will find willing purchasers. But a manuscript which happens not to meet the fancy of the editors must perforce lie idle in your drawer though it sparkle with the brilliants of wit, and five or ten years hence collectors may list it in their catalogues. No mount of piety along Sixth Avenue will accept it in pawn, no Hartford Lunch will exchange it for corned beef hash and dropped egg. This is a dismal thing.
This means that there is an amusing and a competent living to be gained by a literary agent of a new kind. Think how many of the most famous writers have trod the streets ragged and hungry in their early days. There were times when they would have sold their epics, their novels, their essays, for the price of a square meal. Think of the booty that would accumulate in the shop of a literary pawnbroker. The early work of famous men would fill his safe to bursting. Later on he might sell it for a thousand times what he gave. There is nothing that grows to such fictitious value as manuscript.
Think of Francis Thompson, when he was a bootmaker’s assistant in Leicester Square. He was even too poor to buy writing materials. His early poems were scribbled on scraps of old account books and wrapping paper. How readily he would have sold them for a few shillings. Or Edgar Poe in the despairing days of his wife’s illness. Or R.L.S. in the fits of depression caused by his helpless dependence upon his father for funds. What a splendid opportunity these crises in writers’ lives would offer to the enterprising buyer of manuscripts!
Be it understood, of course, that the pawnbroker must be himself an appreciator of good things. No reason why he should buy poor stuff, even though the author of it be starving. Richard Le Gallienne has spoken somewhere of the bookstores which sell “books that should never have been written to the customers who should never have been born.” Our pawnbroker must guard himself against buying this kind of stuff. He will be besieged with it. Very likely Mr. Le Gallienne himself will be the first to offer him some. But his task will be to discover new and true talent beneath its rags, and stake it to a ham sandwich when that homely bite will mean more than a dinner at the Ritz ten years later.
The idea of the literary pawnbroker comes to me from the (unpublished) letters of John Mistletoe, author of the “Dictionary of Deplorable Facts,” that wayward and perverse genius who wandered the Third Avenue saloons when he might have been feted by the Authors’ League had he lived a few years longer. Some day, I hope, the full story of that tragic life may be told, and the manuscripts still cherished by his executor made public. In the meantime, this letter, which he wrote in 1908, gives a sad and vivid little picture of the straits of unadmitted genius: