"Stepping Stones to Correct Taste"
by A.B Noble
DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH, IOWA STATE COLLEGE, AMES, IOWA
* Noble, A.B. 1921. Stepping Stones to Correct Taste. National Education Association of the United States Addresses and Proceedings. 59: 496-501 (Addresses and Proceedings of the 59th Annual Meeting, Des Moines, IA, July 3-8, 1921)
Helping pupils to distinguish a good book from a poor book is an important service -- one that comes directly to librarians and teachers of English. If pupils are interested in trash, how can we lead them to appreciate something better? What test have we for determining what is better?
The test I propose is the classification made by Professor Brander Matthews,(1) who has pointed out four types of events in the chronological development of fiction: first, the impossible, as in The Arabian Nights; second, the improbable, as in Cooper and Dumas; third, the probable, as in Balzac and Thackeray, and fourth, the inevitable, as in Hawthorne and George Eliot. This classification is based on a single fundamental principle -- truth. For our immediate purpose this division is very suggestive and helpful. Dr. Holmes(2) said that while the child is at first attracted to the lie; he soon learns to prefer the truth. Few lessons are more important; the future of the youth depends in large measure upon his ability to perceive truth and to use it. On a perception and knowledge of the truth he must base his future success; without a knowledge of truth, there is no enduring progress for the individual or for a nation. We shall serve our pupils whenever we help them to distinguish between falsehood and truth. The fundamental objection to most trashy fiction is that it is untrue.
To be specific, let us consider one recent book, very popular with young people -- Tarzan of the Apes. Published in 1914, it was continued by another Tarzan book each year for five years. On these books have been based three motion pictures, each a "thriller." This paper concerns the first book only.
Tarzan was born of English parents in a jungle of West Africa. After the death of his parents the day he was a year old, he was suckled and reared by a chimpanzee. With a devoted ape for a foster mother, Tarzan of course developed into a superman, "fully as strong as the average man of thirty, and far more agile than the most practiced athlete ever becomes. And day by day his strength was increasing... He could spring twenty feet across space at the dizzy heights of the forest top and grasp with unerring precision and without apparent jar a limb waving wildly in the path of an approaching tornado." Can anybody who stops to think believe such bosh? With a rope which he taught himself how to weave out of jungle grass, and which he taught himself how to cast as a lasso (what a genius he was!) he caught wild boars, panthers, lions, chimpanzees, black men, hung them from the limb of a tree, and with his father's knife, stabbed his defenseless victims to the heart. Imagine him stealing through the tree tops, dropping a noose over the head of an unsuspecting lion, standing on the precarious footing of a limb, and pulling a lion weighing from three to four hundred pounds into mid-air, tying one end of the rope about the trunk of the tree, and descending leisurely to the ground, to finish the poor beast with a single stab of a knife left by his father. Is it permitted to wonder what the lion was doing after the noose settled about his neck -- the lion with four feet on the ground and Tarzan bracing himself for this unique pulling contest on the limb of a tree? If the king of beasts should be strong enough to jerk the limb when he tugged on the rope, what would probably happen to Tarzan? But as excited readers are supposed to gulp the whole tale down without stopping to think or daring to ask a question, probability may of course be utterly disregarded. Once when a fierce lion was pushing in through the window of the hut built by Tarzan's father, and just about to seize a beautiful young woman, Tarzan, having neither lasso nor knife at hand, grabbed the huge beast by the tail, pulled him back through the window, jumped on his back, and -- necessity being in Africa, also, the mother of invention -- passed his arms under the forelegs of the lion, clasped his hands on the back of the lion's neck, and so marvelous was Tarzan's strength or so weak the lion's neck, slowly bent the head forward and broke the poor beast's neck. How fortunate that Tarzan discovered the wrestler's "full Nelson" just in the nick of time! Would that impertinent fellow from Missouri dare to ask what the fool lion was doing all this time?
Once, on a wager, Tarzan went, naked and alone at night, into an unfamiliar jungle, stalked his lion, lassoed and killed him, threw him on his shoulder, climbed the nearest tree, raced through the treetops with the lion on his back -- lions are probably very light when one gets them into treetops -- and won the wager, all in an hour. If Tarzan is to be left at large in Africa, the lions had better apply for cages in Ringling's menagerie. No safety for a lion in a jungle when Tarzan is on the job!
For librarians and teachers of English it is easy to see that Tarzan is utterly preposterous, mere bosh. But how can we make our pupils see this? Simply by asking them to think as they read. Suppose we ask them to analyze it according to the classification made by Brander Matthews. What intelligent youngster could fail to see that it consists almost solely of the improbable and the impossible? We are poor teachers if we cannot lead our pupils to see how utterly impossible are the events, and how unreal the hero.
We might ask our pupils to consider the descriptive details, and report whether they are clear or vague, definite or indefinite. Kipling's rhyme might help:
I keep six honest serving men
(They taught me all I knew):
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
Consider a few examples: "He could drop twenty feet at a stretch from limb to limb in rapid descent to the ground, or he could gain the utmost pinnacle of the loftiest tropical giant with the ease and swiftness of a squirrel." But how? Being a man he does not have the feet of a squirrel or of a monkey? Having dropped twenty feet -- twenty feet! -- how does he secure himself on the new limb before he drops again to the next? Do jungle trees have limbs conveniently arranged in perpendicular succession, like the rungs of a ladder? Are there no intervening limbs, no gaps of more than twenty feet, which even Tarzan dare not attempt?
When Kipling tells us about Rikki-Tikki-Tavi's attacking Nag, the big black cobra, he describes just how Nag was lying, just where Rikki struck him, and why he struck him there, and then what a furious shaking and battering Rikki received, how doggedly he held on, and how dizzy, aching, and shaken-to-pieces he felt when it was all over. From that single short story in the Second Jungle Book students may get more real information about jungle animals than in all of Tarzan. Although in Kipling's stories there is a large imaginative element, the basis is truth, fidelity to actual traits in the various animals, and the pictures are definite, distinct, and clear. Again, we are poor teachers of English if we cannot make our pupils see how vastly superior is Kipling. If we can get them to read the Jungle Books and other animal stories by Kipling, such as Mobi Guj -- Mutineer and Plain Tales and Mine Own People, there is little danger that they will ever again care for Tarzan or any other book of that type.
As a composition exercise we might ask them after reading Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses to satirize something in Tarzan after the same fashion. Bright youngsters with a gleam of humor would relish such an exercise. One could hardly find better opportunities for satire. Roosevelt's African Game Trails will furnish details about the actual killing of lions. Let them read that and then whet their satirical dagger for Tarzan. The youngster that would not enjoy such an exercise has either no imagination or no sense of humor. Even the dullards ought to succeed at this task. Perhaps African Game Trails might lead on to Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and The Winning of the West. If so, a taste that began with Tarzan would end in something worth while.
Probably, however, the attraction of Tarzan is not so much in jungle conditions or in animal life, as in action, stirring events. If so, it may be compared with any one of many novels and romances that abound in action. Every teacher in English knows dozens of such books, the poorest of which is doubtless far superior to Tarzan. It would be idle to attempt to make a list. But let me name one which I happen to have read recently -- The Patrol of the Sun Dance Trail by Ralph Connor. This book has stirring action, thrills, heroism, idealism. It also has suspense and climax, which Tarzan lacks. Its background is historical. The events are clearly possible, even probable, and the characters are consistent and natural. Such a book is instructive, and its influence elevating. As soon as pupils come to know such books, Tarzan and books like it will cease to be attractive.
In the last analysis books of the Tarzan type are simply literary dramshops, intoxicating their readers while they linger there, and weakening their power to reflect and to reason. To accept as truth such bosh as Tarzan is to cease to think; and to cease to think is to cease to grow. One who indulges frequently in such literary intoxicants is likely to consider the daily routine dull and uninteresting, likely to neglect daily tasks and duties, likely to seek pleasure not in the actual world about him, but rather in an imagined impossible world of thrills and marvels. Let no one consider that books like Tarzan are harmless. They tend to make their admirers incapable of continuous mental effort.
All life is developed from within. "Out of the heart are the issues of life." Character grows from ideals; or, as some one has put it, "Character is caught by contagion." One may catch this contagion from a friend; one may also catch it from a book -- a biography, a drama, a poem, a novel. A novel true to life may easily convey this contagion of fine character and high ideals. To imbibe high ideals from books is therefore to prepare one's self for right conduct. If it be true that conduct is three-fourths of life, then books that nurture high ideals and prepare for right, conduct are among our priceless possessions. But no such benefit comes to any reader except as he thinks and discriminates. If he loves Tarzan and dreams of Tarzan his fate is sealed.
We are nourished, not by marvels and lies, which lead us nowhere, but by realities -- the things that surround us daily, and which, if we are to succeed, we must understand. In the daily round of things commonplace the thinker, the genius, develops his power, Darius Green's dream of a flying machine, because it had no basis in physical laws, ended in disillusionment and broken shins; the Wright Brothers, by mastering certain laws of physics, developed a machine that really flies, and the world is benefited by their thinking.
After years of incessant effort and such sacrifice by strong, devoted men and women who understood better than did others the truth about intoxicating liquor, the world seems about to be freed from this evil. Are we librarians and teachers of English, who probably understand better than do others the truth about intoxicating books, nerved to wage unceasing warfare against the literary dramshops of today?
When we have led our pupils to prize truth, we may then lead them on to works of constructive imagination and beauty. Tarzan has imagination without truth, and hence leads to nothing. The fantastic career of Peer Gynt resulted from an overdeveloped imagination and an unwillingness to face facts. Although Peer realized at times that his imaginings were mere lies, he had played with them so long that he could not shake them off. In contrast with Peer's wild, freakish imagination we might ask our pupils to consider a constructive imagination, anticipating and pointing the way to a real achievement. For example, in the field of scientific invention, Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, once denounced as impossible, but now realized in the submarine. In the realm of social welfare, Sir Walter Besant's All Sorts and Conditions of Men, a dream which Arnold Toynbee declared to be too good not to be true, and which he set to work to realize in the People's Palace of Pleasure, erected in the slums of London to serve the end imaginatively described by the novelist. From this first People's Palace have come social settlements in all the great cities of Western Europe and America, and also in many smaller cities, such as Des Moines. Such imaginings as Verne's and Besant's are constructive and prophetic because they are based on truth.
Forerunning every great accomplishment is a vision: a vision, then a bridge, a steam engine, a telephone, a wireless telegraph; a vision of something better in government, then the Constitution of the United States, preparing the way for a great nation. But if a vision is ever to be realized it must have a solid foundation in truth and it must be worked out with mastery of detail.
If the pupils now under our guidance are to help solve the problems of the coming day they must be able not only to observe, to discriminate, to compare and classify, but also to construct -- to construct visions of better machines, better schools, better churches, better social and industrial methods, better systems of government, better world-relations. To this end the books that they read should be based on truth, and should develop the imagination and direct it along constructive lines. Literature contains many books of this character. As teachers we shall not have rendered the service we ought to render until we have trained our pupils to appreciate not Tarzan of the Apes, but books of truth and of rich, imaginative power, such as those of Hawthorne, George Eliot, and Shakespeare.
When we have helped our pupils to plant their feet firmly, first on the stepping-stone of truth, and then on the stepping-stone of imagination, they will find it easy to reach the stepping-stone of beauty; for insensibly a passion for truth and quick, constructive imagination lead on to beauty. And the trinity of truth, imagination, and beauty will conduct them to the goal of correct taste, even though they started at Tarzanville.
(1) On Pleasing the Taste of the Public, in Aspects of Fiction, pp. 63-64.
(2) The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, p. 116.
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