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Truthfulness
by [?]

Truthfulness is as essential in literature as it is in conduct, in fiction as it is in the report of an actual occurrence. Falsehood vitiates a poem, a painting, exactly as it does a life. Truthfulness is a quality like simplicity. Simplicity in literature is mainly a matter of clear vision and lucid expression, however complex the subject-matter may be; exactly as in life, simplicity does not so much depend upon external conditions as upon the spirit in which one lives. It may be more difficult to maintain simplicity of living with a great fortune than in poverty, but simplicity of spirit–that is, superiority of soul to circumstance–is possible in any condition. Unfortunately the common expression that a certain person has wealth is not so true as it would be to say that wealth has him. The life of one with great possessions and corresponding responsibilities may be full of complexity; the subject of literary art may be exceedingly complex; but we do not set complexity over against simplicity. For simplicity is a quality essential to true life as it is to literature of the first class; it is opposed to parade, to artificiality, to obscurity.

The quality of truthfulness is not so easily defined. It also is a matter of spirit and intuition. We have no difficulty in applying the rules of common morality to certain functions of writers for the public, for instance, the duties of the newspaper reporter, or the newspaper correspondent, or the narrator of any event in life the relation of which owes its value to its being absolutely true. The same may be said of hoaxes, literary or scientific, however clear they may be. The person indulging in them not only discredits his office in the eyes of the public, but he injures his own moral fibre, and he contracts such a habit of unveracity that he never can hope for genuine literary success. For there never was yet any genuine success in letters without integrity. The clever hoax is no better than the trick of imitation, that is, conscious imitation of another, which has unveracity to one’s self at the bottom of it. Burlesque is not the highest order of intellectual performance, but it is legitimate, and if cleverly done it may be both useful and amusing, but it is not to be confounded with forgery, that is, with a composition which the author attempts to pass off as the production of somebody else. The forgery may be amazingly smart, and be even popular, and get the author, when he is discovered, notoriety, but it is pretty certain that with his ingrained lack of integrity he will never accomplish any original work of value, and he will be always personally suspected. There is nothing so dangerous to a young writer as to begin with hoaxing; or to begin with the invention, either as reporter or correspondent, of statements put forward as facts, which are untrue. This sort of facility and smartness may get a writer employment, unfortunately for him and the public, but there is no satisfaction in it to one who desires an honorable career. It is easy to recall the names of brilliant men whose fine talents have been eaten away by this habit of unveracity. This habit is the greatest danger of the newspaper press of the United States.

It is easy to define this sort of untruthfulness, and to study the moral deterioration it works in personal character, and in the quality of literary work. It was illustrated in the forgeries of the marvelous boy Chatterton. The talent he expended in deception might have made him an enviable reputation,–the deception vitiated whatever good there was in his work. Fraud in literature is no better than fraud in archaeology, –Chatterton deserves no more credit than Shapiro who forged the Moabite pottery with its inscriptions. The reporter who invents an incident, or heightens the horror of a calamity by fictions is in the case of Shapiro. The habit of this sort of invention is certain to destroy the writer’s quality, and if he attempts a legitimate work of the imagination, he will carry the same unveracity into that. The quality of truthfulness cannot be juggled with. Akin to this is the trick which has put under proper suspicion some very clever writers of our day, and cost them all public confidence in whatever they do,–the trick of posing for what they are not. We do not mean only that the reader does not believe their stories of personal adventure, and regards them personally as “frauds,” but that this quality of deception vitiates all their work, as seen from a literary point of view. We mean that the writer who hoaxes the public, by inventions which he publishes as facts, or in regard to his own personality, not only will lose the confidence of the public but he will lose the power of doing genuine work, even in the field of fiction. Good work is always characterized by integrity.