A Mortal Antipathy: First Opening of the New Portfolio

Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

X a New Arrival.

There was a recent accession to the transient population of the village which gave rise to some speculation. The new-comer was a young fellow, rather careless in his exterior, but apparently as much at home as if he owned Arrowhead Village and everything in it. He commonly had a cigar in his mouth, carried a pocket pistol, of the non-explosive sort, and a stick with a bulldog’s bead for its knob; wore a soft bat, a coarse check suit, a little baggy, and gaiterboots which had been half-soled,—a Bohemian-looking personage, altogether.

This individual began making explorations in every direction. He was very curious about the place and all the people in it. He was especially interested in the Pansophian Society, concerning which he made all sorts of inquiries. This led him to form a summer acquaintance with the Secretary, who was pleased to give him whatever information he asked for; being proud of the Society, as she had a right to be, and knowing more about it than anybody else.

The visitor could not have been long in the village without hearing something of Maurice Kirkwood, and the stories, true and false, connected with his name. He questioned everybody who could tell him anything about Maurice, and set down the answers in a little notebook he always had with him.

All this naturally excited the curiosity of the village about this new visitor. Among the rest, Miss Vincent, not wanting in an attribute thought to belong more especially to her sex, became somewhat interested to know more exactly who this inquiring, notetaking personage, who seemed to be everywhere and to know everybody, might himself be. Meeting him at the Public Library at a fortunate moment, when there was nobody but the old Librarian, who was hard of hearing, to interfere with their conversation, the little Secretary had a chance to try to find out something about him.

"This is a very remarkable library for a small village to possess," he remarked to Miss Lurida.

"It is, indeed," she said. "Have you found it well furnished with the books you most want?"

"Oh, yes,—books enough. I don’t care so much for the books as I do for the Newspapers. I like a Review well enough,—it tells you all there is in a book; but a good abstract of the Review in a Newspaper saves a fellow the trouble of reading it."

"You find the papers you want, here, I hope," said the young lady.

"Oh, I get along pretty well. It’s my off-time, and I don’t do much reading or writing. Who is the city correspondent of this place?"

"I don’t think we have any one who writes regularly. Now and then, there is a letter, with the gossip of the place in it, or an account of some of the doings at our Society. The city papers are always glad to get the reports of our meetings, and to know what is going on in the village."

"I suppose you write about the Society to the papers, as you are the Secretary."

This was a point-blank shot. She meant to question the young man about his business, and here she was on the witness-stand. She ducked her head, and let the question go over her.

"Oh, there are plenty of members who are willing enough to write,— especially to give an account of their own papers. I think they like to have me put in the applause, when they get any. I do that sometimes." (How much more, she did not say.)

"I have seen some very well written articles, which, from what they tell me of the Secretary, I should have thought she might have written herself."

He looked her straight in the eyes.

"I have transmitted some good papers," she said, without winking, or swallowing, or changing color, precious little color she had to change; her brain wanted all the blood it could borrow or steal, and more too. "You spoke of Newspapers," she said, without any change of tone or manner: "do you not frequently write for them yourself?"

"I should think I did," answered the young man. "I am a regular correspondent of ’The People’s Perennial and Household Inquisitor.’"

"The regular correspondent from where?"

"Where! Oh, anywhere,—the place does not make much difference. I have been writing chiefly from Naples and St. Petersburg, and now and then from Constantinople."

"How long since your return to this country, may I ask?"

"My return? I have never been out of this country. I travel with a gazetteer and some guide-books. It is the cheapest way, and you can get the facts much better from them than by trusting your own observation. I have made the tour of Europe by the help of them and the newspapers. But of late I have taken to interviewing. I find that a very pleasant specialty. It is about as good sport as trouttickling, and much the same kind of business. I should like to send the Society an account of one of my interviews. Don’t you think they would like to hear it?"

"I have no doubt they would. Send it to me, and I will look it over; and if the Committee approve it, we will have it at the next meeting. You know everything has to be examined and voted on by the Committee," said the cautious Secretary.

"Very well,—I will risk it. After it is read, if it is read, please send it back to me, as I want to sell it to ’The Sifter,’ or ’The Second Best,’ or some of the paying magazines."

This is the paper, which was read at the next meeting of the Pansophian Society.

"I was ordered by the editor of the newspaper to which I am attached, ’The People’s Perennial and Household Inquisitor,’ to make a visit to a certain well-known writer, and obtain all the particulars I could concerning him and all that related to him. I have interviewed a good many politicians, who I thought rather liked the process; but I had never tried any of these literary people, and I was not quite sure how this one would feel about it. I said as much to the chief, but he pooh-poohed my scruples. ’It is n’t our business whether they like it or not,’ said he; ’the public wants it, and what the public wants it’s bound to have, and we are bound to furnish it. Don’t be afraid of your man; he ’s used to it,—he’s been pumped often enough to take it easy, and what you’ve got to do is to pump him dry. You need n’t be modest,—ask him what you like; he is n’t bound to answer, you know.’

As he lived in a rather nice quarter of the town, I smarted myself up a little, put on a fresh collar and cuffs, and got a five-cent shine on my best high-lows. I said to myself, as I was walking towards the house where he lived, that I would keep very shady for a while and pass for a visitor from a distance; one of those ’admiring strangers’ who call in to pay their respects, to get an autograph, and go home and say that they have met the distinguished So and So, which gives them a certain distinction in the village circle to which they belong.

"My man, the celebrated writer, received me in what was evidently his reception-room. I observed that he managed to get the light full on my face, while his own was in the shade. I had meant to have his face in the light, but he knew the localities, and had arranged things so as to give him that advantage. It was like two frigates manoeuvring,—each trying to get to windward of the other. I never take out my note-book until I and my man have got engaged in artless and earnest conversation,—always about himself and his works, of course, if he is an author.

"I began by saying that he must receive a good many callers. Those who had read his books were naturally curious to see the writer of them.

"He assented, emphatically, to this statement. He had, he said, a great many callers.

"I remarked that there was a quality in his books which made his readers feel as if they knew him personally, and caused them to cherish a certain attachment to him.

"He smiled, as if pleased. He was himself disposed to think so, he said. In fact, a great many persons, strangers writing to him, had told him so.

"My dear sir, I said, there is nothing wonderful in the fact you mention. You reach a responsive chord in many human breasts.

’One touch of Nature makes the whole world kin.’

Everybody feels as if he, and especially she (his eyes sparkled), were your blood relation. Do they not name their children after you very frequently?

"He blushed perceptibly. ’Sometimes,’ he answered. ’I hope they will all turn out well.’

"I am afraid I am taking up too much of your time, I said.

"No, not at all,’ he replied. ’Come up into my library; it is warmer and pleasanter there.’

"I felt confident that I had him by the right handle then; for an author’s library, which is commonly his working-room, is, like a lady’s boudoir, a sacred apartment.

"So we went upstairs, and again he got me with the daylight on my face, when I wanted it on has.

"You have a fine library, I remarked. There were books all round the room, and one of those whirligig square book-cases. I saw in front a Bible and a Concordance, Shakespeare and Mrs. Cowden Clarke’s book, and other classical works and books of grave aspect. I contrived to give it a turn, and on the side next the wall I got a glimpse of Barnum’s Rhyming Dictionary, and several Dictionaries of Quotations and cheap compends of knowledge. Always twirl one of those revolving book-cases when you visit a scholar’s library. That is the way to find out what books he does n’t want you to see, which of course are the ones you particularly wish to see.

"Some may call all this impertinent and inquisitive. What do you suppose is an interviewer’s business? Did you ever see an oyster opened? Yes? Well, an interviewer’s business is the same thing. His man is his oyster, which he, not with sword, but with pencil and note-book, must open. Mark how the oysterman’s thin blade insinuates itself,—how gently at first, how strenuously when once fairly between the shells!

"And here, I said, you write your books,—those books which have carried your name to all parts of the world, and will convey it down to posterity! Is this the desk at which you write? And is this the pen you write with?

"’It is the desk and the very pen,’ he replied.

"He was pleased with my questions and my way of putting them. I took up the pen as reverentially as if it had been made of the feather which the angel I used to read about in Young’s "Night Thoughts" ought to have dropped, and did n’t.

"Would you kindly write your autograph in my note-book, with that pen? I asked him. Yes, he would, with great pleasure.

"So I got out my note-book.

"It was a spick and span new one, bought on purpose for this interview. I admire your bookcases, said I. Can you tell me just how high they are?

"’They are about eight feet, with the cornice.’

"I should like to have some like those, if I ever get rich enough, said I. Eight feet,—eight feet, with the cornice. I must put that down.

"So I got out my pencil.

"I sat there with my pencil and note-book in my hand, all ready, but not using them as yet.

"I have heard it said, I observed, that you began writing poems at a very early age. Is it taking too great a liberty to ask how early you began to write in verse?

"He was getting interested, as people are apt to be when they are themselves the subjects of conversation.

"’Very early,—I hardly know how early. I can say truly, as Louise Colet said,

’Je fis mes premiers vers sans savoir les ecrire.’"

"I am not a very good French scholar, said I; perhaps you will be kind enough to translate that line for me.

"’Certainly. With pleasure. I made my first verses without knowing how to write them.’

"How interesting! But I never heard of Louise Colet. Who was she?

"My man was pleased to gi-ve me a piece of literary information.

"’Louise the lioness! Never heard of her? You have heard of Alphonse Karr?’

"Why,—yes,—more or less. To tell the truth, I am not very well up in French literature. What had he to do with your lioness?

"’A good deal. He satirized her, and she waited at his door with a case-knife in her hand, intending to stick him with it. By and by he came down, smoking a cigarette, and was met by this woman flourishing her case-knife. He took it from her, after getting a cut in his dressing-gown, put it in his pocket, and went on with his cigarette. He keeps it with an inscription :

Donne a Alphonse Karr
Par Madame Louise Colet....
Dans le dos.

Lively little female!’

"I could n’t help thinking that I should n’t have cared to interview the lively little female. He was evidently tickled with the interest I appeared to take in the story he told me. That made him feel amiably disposed toward me.

"I began with very general questions, but by degrees I got at everything about his family history and the small events of his boyhood. Some of the points touched upon were delicate, but I put a good bold face on my most audacious questions, and so I wormed out a great deal that was new concerning my subject. He had been written about considerably, and the public wouldn’t have been satisfied without some new facts; and these I meant to have, and I got. No matter about many of them now, but here are some questions and answers that may be thought worth reading or listening to:

"How do you enjoy being what they call ’a celebrity,’ or a celebrated man?

"’So far as one’s vanity is concerned it is well enough. But selflove is a cup without any bottom, and you might pour the Great Lakes all through it, and never fill it up. It breeds an appetite for more of the same kind. It tends to make the celebrity a mere lump of egotism. It generates a craving for high-seasoned personalities which is in danger of becoming slavery, like that following the abuse of alcohol, or opium, or tobacco. Think of a man’s having every day, by every post, letters that tell him he is this and that and the other, with epithets and endearments, one tenth part of which would have made him blush red hot before he began to be what you call a celebrity!’

"Are there not some special inconveniences connected with what is called celebrity?

"’I should think so! Suppose you were obliged every day of your life to stand and shake hands, as the President of the United States has to after his inauguration: how do you think your hand would feel after a few months’ practice of that exercise? Suppose you had given you thirty-five millions of money a year, in hundred-dollar coupons, on condition that you cut them all off yourself in the usual manner: how do you think you should like the look of a pair of scissors at the end of a year, in which you had worked ten hours a day every day but Sunday, cutting off a hundred coupons an hour, and found you had not finished your task, after all? Yon have addressed me as what you are pleased to call "a literary celebrity." I won’t dispute with you as to whether or not I deserve that title. I will take it for granted I am what you call me, and give you some few hints on my experience.

"’You know there was formed a while ago an Association of Authors for Self-Protection. It meant well, and it was hoped that something would come of it in the way of relieving that oppressed class, but I am sorry to say that it has not effected its purpose.’

"I suspected he had a hand in drawing up the Constitution and Laws of that Association. Yes, I said, an admirable Association it was, and as much needed as the one for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I am sorry to hear that it has not proved effectual in putting a stop to the abuse of a deserving class of men. It ought to have done it; it was well conceived, and its public manifesto was a masterpiece. (I saw by his expression that he was its author.)

"’I see I can trust you,’ he said. ’I will unbosom myself freely of some of the grievances attaching to the position of the individual to whom you have applied the term "Literary Celebrity."

"’He is supposed to be a millionaire, in virtue of the immense sales of his books, all the money from which, it is taken for granted, goes into his pocket. Consequently, all subscription papers are handed to him for his signature, and every needy stranger who has heard his name comes to him for assistance.

"’He is expected to subscribe for all periodicals, and is goaded by receiving blank formulae, which, with their promises to pay, he is expected to fill up.

"’He receives two or three books daily, with requests to read and give his opinion about each of them, which opinion, if it has a word which can be used as an advertisement, he will find quoted in all the newspapers.

"’He receives thick masses of manuscript, prose and verse, which he is called upon to examine and pronounce on their merits; these manuscripts having almost invariably been rejected by the editors to whom they have been sent, and having as a rule no literary value whatever.

"’He is expected to sign petitions, to contribute to journals, to write for fairs, to attend celebrations, to make after-dinner speeches, to send money for objects he does not believe in to places he never heard of.

"’He is called on to keep up correspondences with unknown admirers, who begin by saying they have no claim upon his time, and then appropriate it by writing page after page, if of the male sex; and sheet after sheet, if of the other.

"’If a poet, it is taken for granted that he can sit down at any moment and spin off any number of verses on any subject which may be suggested to him; such as congratulations to the writer’s greatgrandmother on her reaching her hundredth year, an elegy on an infant aged six weeks, an ode for the Fourth of July in a Western township not to be found in Lippincott’s last edition, perhaps a valentine for some bucolic lover who believes that wooing in rhyme is the way to win the object of his affections.’

"Is n’t it so? I asked the Celebrity.

"’I would bet on the prose lover. She will show the verses to him, and they will both have a good laugh over them.’

"I have only reported a small part of the conversation I had with the Literary Celebrity. He was so much taken up with his pleasing selfcontemplation, while I made him air his opinions and feelings and spread his characteristics as his laundress spreads and airs his linen on the clothes-line, that I don’t believe it ever occurred to him that he had been in the hands of an interviewer until he found himself exposed to the wind and sunshine in full dimensions in the columns of The People’s Perennial and Household Inquisitor.’"

After the reading of this paper, much curiosity was shown as to who the person spoken of as the "Literary Celebrity" might be. Among the various suppositions the startling idea was suggested that he was neither more nor less than the unexplained personage known in the village as Maurice Kirkwood. Why should that be his real name? Why should not he be the Celebrity, who had taken this name and fled to this retreat to escape from the persecutions of kind friends, who were pricking him and stabbing him nigh to death with their daggers of sugar candy?

The Secretary of the Pansophian Society determined to question the Interviewer the next time she met him at the Library, which happened soon after the meeting when his paper was read.

"I do not know," she said, in the course of a conversation in which she had spoken warmly of his contribution to the literary entertainment of the Society, "that you mentioned the name of the Literary Celebrity whom you interviewed so successfully."

"I did not mention him, Miss Vincent," he answered, "nor do I think it worth while to name him. He might not care to have the whole story told of how he was handled so as to make him communicative. Besides, if I did, it would bring him a new batch of sympathetic letters, regretting that he was bothered by those horrid correspondents, full of indignation at the bores who presumed to intrude upon him with their pages of trash, all the writers of which would expect answers to their letters of condolence."

The Secretary asked the Interviewer if he knew the young gentleman who called himself Maurice Kirkwood.

"What," he answered, "the man that paddles a birch canoe, and rides all the wild horses of the neighborhood? No, I don’t know him, but I have met him once or twice, out walking. A mighty shy fellow, they tell me. Do you know anything particular about him?"

"Not much. None of us do, but we should like to. The story is that be has a queer antipathy to something or to somebody, nobody knows what or whom."

"To newspaper correspondents, perhaps," said the interviewer. "What made you ask me about him? You did n’t think he was my ’Literary Celebrity,’ did you?"

"I did not know. I thought he might be. Why don’t you interview this mysterious personage? He would make a good sensation for your paper, I should think."

"Why, what is there to be interviewed in him? Is there any story of crime, or anything else to spice a column or so, or even a few paragraphs, with? If there is, I am willing to handle him professionally."

"I told you he has what they call an antipathy. I don’t know how much wiser you are for that piece of information."

"An antipathy! Why, so have I an antipathy. I hate a spider, and as for a naked caterpillar,—I believe I should go into a fit if I had to touch one. I know I turn pale at the sight of some of those great green caterpillars that come down from the elm-trees in August and early autumn."

"Afraid of them?" asked the young lady.

"Afraid? What should I be afraid of? They can’t bite or sting. I can’t give any reason. All I know is that when I come across one of these creatures in my path I jump to one side, and cry out,— sometimes using very improper words. The fact is, they make me crazy for the moment."

"I understand what you mean," said Miss Vincent. "I used to have the same feeling about spiders, but I was ashamed of it, and kept a little menagerie of spiders until I had got over the feeling; that is, pretty much got over it, for I don’t love the creatures very dearly, though I don’t scream when I see one."

"What did you tell me, Miss Vincent, was this fellow’s particular antipathy?"

That is just the question. I told you that we don’t know and we can’t guess what it is. The people here are tired out with trying to discover some good reason for the young man’s keeping out of the way of everybody, as he does. They say he is odd or crazy, and they don’t seem to be able to tell which. It would make the old ladies of the village sleep a great deal sounder,—yes, and some of the young ladies, too,—if they could find out what this Mr. Kirkwood has got into his head, that he never comes near any of the people here."

"I think I can find out," said the Interviewer, whose professional ambition was beginning to be excited. "I never came across anybody yet that I could n’t get something out of. I am going to stay here a week or two, and before I go I will find out the secret, if there is any, of this Mr. Maurice Kirkwood."

We must leave the Interviewer to his contrivances until they present us with some kind of result, either in the shape of success or failure.


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Chicago: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., "X a New Arrival.," A Mortal Antipathy: First Opening of the New Portfolio, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in A Mortal Antipathy: First Opening of the New Portfolio (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909), Original Sources, accessed November 28, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4T9PVL2TFC1QHR3.

MLA: Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Sr. "X a New Arrival." A Mortal Antipathy: First Opening of the New Portfolio, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in A Mortal Antipathy: First Opening of the New Portfolio, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909, Original Sources. 28 Nov. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4T9PVL2TFC1QHR3.

Harvard: Holmes, OW, 'X a New Arrival.' in A Mortal Antipathy: First Opening of the New Portfolio, ed. . cited in 1909, A Mortal Antipathy: First Opening of the New Portfolio, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 28 November 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4T9PVL2TFC1QHR3.