by William Lyon Phelps
F. P. A., in his excellent Conning Tower in the New York World for the Ides of March, pays a fine tribute to E. W. Howe and his paragraphs long ago in the Atchison Globe. He says: "There were two paragraphs that appeared just about the time we began reading the Globe, which we are willing to bet were written by Ed himself. He was less oracular in those days. They were something like the following:
`We have been editing a newspaper for twenty-five years, and have learned that the only thing a newspaper can safely attack is the man-eating shark.
A boy thinks, "What a fine time a man has!" And a man thinks, "What a fine time a boy has!" And what a rotten time they both have!' "
There is a strange reluctance on the part of most people to admit that they enjoy life. Having the honour of a personal acquaintance with both F. P. A. and Ed Howe, it is my belief they both had a happy childhood and that they are now having a good time in this strangest of all possible worlds. No one can judge another's inner state of mind, but as these distinguished humorists are men of unusually high intelligence I think they find life immensely interesting; and to be constantly interested is to be happy.
I remember a magnificent reply made by F. P. A. to a remark of that hirsute Englishman, D. H. Lawrence; the latter, commenting in that tactless fashion so characteristic of foreign visitors to these shores, said, "It must be terrible to be funny every day." "No," said F. P. A., "not so terrible as never to be funny at all."
I spent an agreeable afternoon in Florida talking with Ed Howe, or rather in hearing him talk. He told a succession of anecdotes and stories, and it was clear that he not only enjoyed telling them, which he did with consummate art, but that he enjoyed having them in his mind.
Why is it so many people are afraid to admit they are happy? I have a large and intimate acquaintance with farmers; many of them are splendid men. But how cautious they are in their replies to casual questions! If everything is going as well as could possibly be expected and you ask them how they are, they say, "Can't complain."
If a man says, "I have had and am having a happy life," he is regarded by many as being a shallow and superficial thinker; but if he says, "My most earnest wish is that I had never been born," many believe that he has a profound mind.
With regard to the saying quoted from the Atchison Globe that a boy thinks a man has a fine time and a man thinks a boy has a fine time and in reality both have a rotten time-well, the statement, whoever said it, is shallow and untrue. When I was a boy I had lots of fun, and I deeply pitied old men of thirty-two because I supposed they had no fun at all. Then, when I became a man, I realised how enormously richer in happiness is manhood than boyhood.
The average American boy has a pretty good time. What fun, on emerging from school on Friday afternoon, to know that tomorrow is Saturday! What fun to play games, to go on exploring adventures in neighbouring woods, to have picnics and jollifications, to live a life of active uselessness! The mere physical health of boyhood makes one feel like a young dog released from a chain. "Mere living" is good.
I remember seeing a picture of an old man addressing a small boy. "How old are you?" "Well, if you go by what Mama says, I'm five. But if you go by the fun I've had, I'm most a hundred."
Joseph Conrad, who was a grave and serious man, said he was neither an optimist nor a pessimist. He did not think life was perfect, but pessimism, he said, was intellectual arrogance. He made the point that no matter what was one's religion or philosophy, this at all events is a spectacular universe.
To deny life, to show no appreciation of it, seems to me both ungrateful and stupid. If you showed a man the Himalaya Mountains, the ocean in a storm, sunrise in the desert, the Court of Honour in 1893, the Cathedral of Chartres, and he looked at them all with a lack-lustre eye, we should think him stupid. Well, the universe itself is tremendously spectacular, and the best shows in it are free. To go through life in rebellion, disgust or even in petulance, is the sign, not of a great, but of a dull mind.
How ridiculous it is for a boy to wish he were a man and how much more ridiculous for a man to wish he were a boy! It is as silly as crying for the moon. Instead of always longing for something beyond our reach, why not simply make the best of what we have? This would be a platitude if it were not that so very few people follow it.
There is certainly enough sorrow in the world, but I sometimes think we should enjoy life more if we had more of the divine gift of appreciation, if we were not so unappreciative. When Addison thanked God for the various pleasures of life, he thanked Him most of all for a cheerful heart.
More than two hundred years ago he wrote in the Spectator:
Ten thousand thousand precious gifts My daily thanks employ;
Nor is the least a cheerful heart That tastes these gifts with joy.