There was a time when a college preparation for the writing career seemed to me if not superfluous relatively unimportant. Life I considered the chief training ground, and actual experience with publisher and public the only practical test.
This remains true. Perhaps the majority of those who "make good" in the writing profession in America are men and women without academic advantages. In a measure our literature shows it. It lacks the quality for which we have no English term, perhaps because we have so little conception of the thing, but which the French know as "school." Most of our writing is rough-and-ready. It has the vigor of the man in the street, but not much of any other kind. The man in the street is good as far as he goes; but he doesn't cover the whole ground.
University Man Has Better Start
After some twenty years of professional writing I have come to believe that the man who enters on the career of letters with a university degree behind him has the better start.
In the first place, he has in his possession a convenient symbol for a certain work done, a certain experience achieved. "The Harvard man," "the Yale man," "the Princeton man," the university man of any kind, by the mere fact that he can call himself so, sums up whatever these institutions stand for. He does this not by his own qualities or acquirements, but in virtue of bearing a recognized stamp. He is minted gold, to be known at a glance, rather than the ingot in the lump.
To that degree he commands attention. Brain and pen may not in the end justify the attention he commands, but he gets it to begin with, which is so much to the good. Even though the metal prove base, the mint-mark, at the least, helps to an introduction.
I speak of qualities and acquirements because in many ways their value compares with that of more definite education. By qualities I mean that which a man naturally possesses but which the university brings out; by acquirements that which he has got wholly from the university. A developed taste would be an example of the one; a knowledge of men, a "savoir faire," an illustration of the other. On neither can we place too high an estimate as part of the writing equipment.
College Develops Natural Taste
College develops taste because a man has his best chance there of mingling with those of high cultural standards. By this is implied nothing artificial or poseur, but a natural, easy habit of seeing the best things in their best lights, and through an atmosphere of ideas. After college these opportunities come rarely to the American. Community life not being, as a rule, culturally bracing, the influences which from taste are few. If a man doesn't meet them in college he seldom meets them anywhere. With a foundation for the principles of taste no small part of the art of letters has been mastered.
A knowledge of men can of course, be gained otherwise than in college, but not so basically. A house can be built without being cellared in cement but when it is cellared in cement it stands the more solidly. So the savior faire which grows out of the associations peculiar to the university has a breadth and depth and stability such as the more haphazard contacts of the outside world never yield. The round of human nature being to so large a degree the writer's habitat the college man enters it by the door instead of through the window or down the chimney.
Not that the cultivation of taste or the forming of a varied circle of acquaintances can take the place of what we more technically know as education of course not. The writer's chief stock in trade must be his facility in ideas. Imagination helps; correctness of expression helps; but without fertility in ideas imagination is no more than a sounding brass or expression than a tinkling cymbal. Ideas come by thinking; thinking comes by the training of the mind; and the training of the mind is the university's specialty. True, there are men of great readiness in ideas who have never had the benefit of this specialty; but I am inclined to think that as a rule they write themselves out more quickly. A few years ago I had the pleasure of conducting over Harvard a well known English author who, to my astonishment, told me that it was the first university of which he had ever been inside the walls. He was then in the heyday of prominence; but I notice already that he appears less often in print and his name is less currently on the lips. The unschooled mind is likely to lack staying power. It can be clever, brilliant, up like a rocket; but if it doesn't always come down like a stick it is likely, still like a rocket, to have its stars go out unexpectedly.
The writing mind with the surest and steadiest quality is, I venture to believe, that which ripens slowly in the wind and air and sunshine which naturally comes its way. It does not admit impatiences, or rebellion to discipline, or too fierce a love for the purple patches of life and nothing else. To write well, to write abundantly, to write long, so that having embarked on profession we do not have to face the prospect of being stranded high and dry in it, we need "school." Of "school" the American temperament is of all temperaments the most defiant; and yet the man who submits to it is in the end the winner out.