AT last it is over, thank heaven. Thursday was a day of suppressed excitement. Every man you met looked as though he were going to be married the next hour—until the first telegrams came, and then some of them looked like they had recently been made widowers. Everyone talked about the fight, and everyone hung around the telegraph offices, everyone except the ministers and they kept the telephones redhot all day, firing in questions on the city editors. Nothing but a prize fight or a presidential election could have aroused such interest. If Gladstone and Bismarck had been having a joint debate in Jacksonville, no one would have waited for the telegrams. If all the great poets and painters in the world had assembled there to vie with each other in great creation, the milkman would not have driven a bit faster to get an evening paper. Young men of talent, the arts don't pay. If you want to be beloved by your countrymen, if you want to draw near to the hearts of the people, be cherished with their household gods, remembered in their prayers, if you want to be truly great, there are but two careers open to you—politics and the prize ring. It has been so ever since men were men. The old sports of Athens were much more interested in the victorious athlatai than the bards who meandered about with the laurels on their heads. People come to the state fair to see the horse racing, not to gaze upon Mrs. So-and-So's crayon work or silk crazy quilt.
The struggle of brawn with brawn seems to appeal more strongly than anything else to the great mass of the people, and it seems that all the primitive instincts have not died out of the world. Civilization is a very large boast. Like Eli Perkins , it has a greater reputation than it can live up to.
"A man's a man for all 'o that" and and will be for some years to come. Civilization has not destroyed the needs or passions of men's lives; the former it has only exaggerated and multiplied, the latter it has alternately whetted and drugged and drained into a thousand aimless, frivolous channels which nature knows naught of.
If it took Ruskin six months to interpret Turner's "Garden of the Hesperides," surely a person who is totally ignorant of the technical laws of art may be allowed several weeks to struggle with the Lansing drop curtain. I have been suffering acutely from that curtain for two long years, and sometimes I have longed for artistic knowledge, that I might understand and appreciate it better, but recently an artist told me that I was enviable because of my ignorance, that art could not help one with that curtain, for the more one knew of other pictures the less they knew of that. I begin to believe his statement, for I have found art books as powerless to help me with the anatomy as classical lexicons are to throw light upon that abominable Latin. "Somnium Fons Vitales." I wonder how many people have been able to translate it? Lincoln is full of colleges and ought to contain a good deal of classical learning, but the lore of this generation has not got as far as "Vitales." Most freshmen try to construe that Latin. The world looks very bright to a freshman and he has the fond complacency to try anything from discovering a new element to translating the Iliad in blank verse. He goes to the theater saturated with Horace and he gazes on that mystic sentence and tries to read it. When he fails he is chagrined. He swears that when he is a senior he will translate those words. But when he is a senior he does not look at it any more. By that time he has learned the lesson of his own littleness and his own helplessness. He knows then that genius is something more than eternal patience after all, and that even were he the proverbial patience on a monument he would never write a Hamlet nor discover a new planet nor construe the Latin of the Lansing drop curtain. He goes out into the world to live his life and leaves the task to mightier men than he.
After all the sad, sad thing about that curtain is that it should be such a contrast to the rest of the house, which is really in very good taste. The drapings of the boxes, the color of the seats, the frescoing, the woodwork, are all very artistic and the harmony of colors is perfect. Very few theatres in the west can boast of such elegant interiors. It seems like those gauzy women in front had got in the wrong place some way. Perhaps, after all, there is method in the manager's madness, and the curtain is there to make us more keenly conscious of the artistic settings of the house itself. We should be sorry to interfere with any deep laid scheme like this, but aren't the managers bearing down a little hard on us? Wouldn't a fifteen minute exhibition of that curtain every night do? We would all promise to look and suffer and get it over with. Then they might cover it up in some way and let us enjoy ourselves for the rest of the evening.
No roof has ever served to shut out quite so much aspiring egotism from the stars as the inoffensive one which Mr. Stout saw fit to place upon the capitol building. It is a strange and amusing fact that every one of the state officers and every one of their employes regard the state house as their especial manor and place of abode. If you ask a stenographer who works there, where his office is and what he does, his lips may tell you various things, but his eyes always say, "The state house is my office, and my business is running the state." The state house individual is always carefully guarding state secrets which as a rule could be published to the world without hurting anything—if they haven't been published already. He is always finding out some dark political conspiracy which would turn the wheels of civilization back a century or two if the vigilant state officer did not expose it at the imminent risk of his re-election. The greatest part of his time is taken up with keeping his honor clean. The state officer has a very great opinion of his honor; no one admires it and respects it more than he. He keeps it always by him and spends most of his leisure polishing it up. He is most tiresome when he reaches the martyr stage, where he drags himself to work when he is sick and burns the midnight gas—which the state furnishes. He then conceives that he is there on a mission of mercy, that he is a philanthropist, not a politician, and that he is doing it all for the good of his fellowmen. Now, the truth is, my friend, you find it a fairly profitable martyrdom; you are not there for your own health or your eternal brother, man; you are there for just so many hundred dred dollars a year, and just so many chances of political preferment, and you know it. Of course you can be a martyr if you choose, but you should at least be a merry martyr, for you get a fairly comfortable salary out of it, besides all the wealth you are supposed to be laying up where moths do not corrupt, neither thieves break in and steal.
It is strange, but there seems to be something in the air of that state house which causes an inevitable enlargement of the head. The very janitor who mops the floor—sometimes he really does mop it—imagines that if he should lay off a day the reign of chaos and old night would begin immediately. There is a whole state house full of people, officers, clerks, stenographers and janitors, each of whom murmers daily to himself, "I am the state." The fact is, my friends, you are not the state, you are not even a very large part of it. You might all be impeached tonight and yet tomorrow the sun would rise upon the world just as it has done for some centuries. You might all be swept out into space, and still the street cars would run, the musee band play, and the town clock lose time steadily and strike in its usual erratic manner. You are just about as much a vital force in the state as the statue of Lincoln who airs himself continually on the court house tower. You are a figure-head, you stand for a great tradition.
"Heaven is not reached by a single bound," no, nor THE JOURNAL editorial rooms. You get there by means of stairs; a man might write a new gradatum on those stairs. They are long and steep and narrow and dark; some people say there is an end to them somewhere, but they are dauntless climbers who have more courage and wind than the average explorer. It is strange that mounting those stairs doesn't drive the editors to alcoholic stimulants; it is hard to see how the normal strength of any man can hold out farther than the first platform. If you have never been up there just recall your first ascent of the capitol dome and multiply it indefinitely and you will be somewhere near conceiving those stairs. Many a youth with his first sonnet hugged close in his breast pocket has been found unconscious somewhere on the way up. Oh, ye of youthful, blue-ribboned manuscript so carefully written on both sides, great is glory but it is not worth that struggle. Do not chase fame up THE JOURNAL stairs, there are more advantageous grounds in which to pursue her. Long, long ere you reach the top you will decide that it is not your vocation to be a litterateur, and probably before you reach the bottom again your decision will be still more firm. The awful distance of the editorial rooms from the ground has killed more ambition and saved the world more bad poetry than we can ever know. One's aspirations may be high, but THE JOURNAL stairs are higher. It is a long way up to the place where the poet communes with the muses, and common mortals may not attain unto it. If the "youth who bore 'mid snow and ice" had been trained awhile on THE JOURNAL stairs, the Alps would never have fazed him, they would not even have disturbed his composure.
Prize fight: On January 25, 1894, American boxer James "Gentleman Jim" Corbett (1866-1933) made his first defense of his world heavyweight boxing title against Charles Mitchell, the English champion, for a purse of $20,000. The fight, in Jacksonville, Florida, was billed as a "scientific glove contest" under the relatively new Marquess of Queensbury rules (1884). Corbett knocked out Mitchell in three rounds.
Gladstone: William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) was then serving in the last of his four terms as prime minister of Great Britain. He was widely respected for his probity. One of the bulls owned by Willa Cather's father, Charles, was named Gladstone, and Cather gives the name to Josiah Burden's bull in My Ántonia.
Bismarck: Prince Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) was the prime minister of Prussia and first chancellor (1871-1890) of the German Empire, which he had helped found. He was one of the most important political forces in Europe.
Jacksonville: The city of Jacksonville is in the northeastern corner of Florida.
athlatai: Plural form of the Greek word for "athlete." Literally, it means one who strives to win a contest or prize.
State Fair: The Nebraska State Fair was primarily a setting for agricultural exhibits and competitions, but the women's department exhibited domestic items, including art work by women in the state.
crayon work: Pictures in artists' crayons.
silk crazy quilt: The popularity of crazy quilts—quilts made of irregularly shaped pieces joined together over a foundation fabric—began in the 1870s. Most crazy quilts in the 1880s were parlor throws of silk, lavishly embellished with embroidery and other handwork, such as painting and lace, to show off the maker's needlework skills. Less affluent women in the 1890s made crazy quilts of wool and they gradually became more utilitarian bedcovers.
Eli Perkins: Pseudonym of humorist and lecturer Melville D. Landon (1839-1910). His compendiums of humor and anecdotes, such as Eli Perkins' Wit, Humor and Pathos or Thirty Years of Wit and Reminiscences of Witty, Wise and Eloquent Men were often reprinted in the 1890s.
A man's a man for o' that: Robert Burns (1759-1796), the great Scots poet, wrote the poem "A Man's a Man for a' That" in 1795. It has been set to music and is a favorite Scots song. The first verse reads: Is there for honest povertyThat hings his head, an' a' that;The coward slave, we pass him byWe dare be poor for a' that!For a' that, an' a' that.Our toil's obscure and a' that,The rank is but the guinea's stamp,The man's the gowd for a' that.
Ruskin: John Ruskin (1819-1900) was the foremost Victorian critic of the arts and by extension, Victorian society. He was one of the early defenders of painter J. M. W. Turner and the new painting of the nineteenth century; his five-volume Modern Painters was published between 1843 and 1860. He was a friend of the Pre-Raphaelites. In an age when access to works of art was limited, his writing sought to convey the visual and emotional qualities of the works he discussed.
six months to interpret: In volume five of Modern Painters (1860), Ruskin draws a detailed allegorical interpretation of the painting, seeing it as an expression of the state of contemporary England, with the dragon representing covetousness and the destructive powers of the worship of money.
Turner: John Mallory William Turner (1775-1851) was one of the greatest English landscape painters. He won success at an early age, becoming a member of the Royal Academy in 1802. His paintings became increasingly atmospheric and abstract visually, anticipating the Impressionists, though his paintings retained literary and historical content as well.
Turner's "Garden of the Hesperides": Turner's 1806 painting depicts four of the Hesperides, one of whom offers apples to the goddess of Discord while the dragon watches, all in a subdued yellow light.
Lansing Theatre: The Lansing Theater, on the southwest corner of 13th and P Streets, was built in 1891, displacing the Funke Opera House as the largest and finest theater in Lincoln. The owners were J.F. Lansing (b. 1842), a Lincoln real estate man, and his brother-in-law Henry Oliver (b. 1857); Edward A. Church was the manager. According to the program of the opening week (November 23-28, 1891) the auditorium consisted of the orchestra and parquet seating on the main level, with dress circle at the rear and sides; three tiers of five boxes each and six loges were at the sides. Above were the balcony and the gallery. With standing room, about 2500 people could be present.
The building also housed offices, including that of Cather's friend and fellow reviewer, Dr. Julius H. Tyndale. It was renamed the Oliver Theater in 1898.
"Sonmium Fons Vitales": "Somnium" means a dream or fancy; "fons" means a fountain or spring; "vitales" means vital or living.
discovering a new element: Dmitri Mendelev proposed the first version of the periodic table in 1869. The classification and arrangement of the known elements enabled researchers to predict the properties of previously unknown elements, making it easier to look for them. Gallium (1875), scandium (1879), and germanium (1886) were predicted and found using the periodic table; the noble gasses were discovered beginning in 1894.
Iliad: Many scholars and poets have attempted to translate Homer's eighth-century epic of the fall of Troy. Alexander Pope's translation was in heroic couplets; blank verse (unrhymed lines in iambic pentameter) was a favorite for serious historic and dramatic verse.
Horace: Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65-8 BC) was the great lyric poet and satirist of the Augustan age of Rome. The son of a freedman, he rose to become a tribune; he succeeded to the command of a legion under Brutus and Cassius, fighting against Octavian (later Augustus Caesar). When peace was restored, through the influence of Horace's patron, Maecenas, and his own wit and poetry, he became a favorite of Augustus, and began to write. His Odes, Satires, and Epistles are among the greatest works in Latin literature.
genius . . . eternal patience: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), Florentine painter, sculptor, architect and true genius, is credited with saying "Genius is eternal patience."
Hamlet: Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (written 1599-1601), a five act tragedy, is widely considered the greatest play in English. It was apparently based on a 12th century history, or on a preceding play on the same subject, possibly by Thomas Kyd. The play deals with murder, revenge, madness, and man's will. It contains some of the most famous lines in English, especially Hamlet's soliloquy, "To be or not to be" as well as such famous scenes as Ophelia's mad scene, and Hamlet with Yorkick's skull.
discover a new planet: Prior to 1781, the number of planets had been fixed at the six visible to the naked eye. The discovery of Uranus by Sir William Herschel in that year set astronomers searching for more. Neptune was found in 1846; the discovery is credited to John Couch-Adams of Great Britain and Urbain Jean-Joseph Le Verrier of France; German scientists found the planet at about the same time. The ninth planet, Pluto, was theorized but not verified until 1930.
Mr. Stout: Probably Oscar Van Pelt Stout, who was appointed associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Nebraska in 1891. He was later (1912-1919) dean of the College of Engineering and became a leading exponent of agricultural engineering.
Capitol building: In 1881 work began on the second Nebraska state capitol building, replacing the crumbling 1867 capitol. It stood on the same site as the present capitol (1922-32) on the block bounded by 14th and 16th streets, and H and K streets. The second capitol was finished in 1888, and was classical in style, modeled, like many other state capitols, on the national capitol in Washington, D.C. The Lancaster County section of the 1890-91 Nebraska State Gazetteer described the new building as: "a grand structure of pure Grecian architecture, with a central building, surmounted by an imposing dome, and two wings, each three stories in height, the walls being of brick with beautiful facing of oolitic limestone. The interior is tastefully finished in a style to correspond with the magnificence of the building. It cost $600,000."
where moths do not corrupt . . . steal: In Matthew 6.20, Jesus advises his followers: "But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal."
The reign of chaos and old night: John Milton (1608-1674) wrote in Book I of Paradise Lost of the struggle against the rebellious angels: Sonorous metal blowing martial sounds:At which the universal host up sentA shout that tore hell's concave, and beyondFrighted the reign of Chaos and old Night.(l.547-40)
I am the state: Louis XIV of France (1638-1715) declared his concept of absolute monarchy in the dictum, "L'état, c'est moi" (I am the state).
musee band: The Wonderland Musee, 213-215 South 10th Street, was an amusement arcade and dance hall in Lincoln for many years. Cather commented several times in her early columns upon the execrable playing of the band at the Wonderland Musee in Lincoln.
Town clock: An engraving of the Lancaster County courthouse in the 1890 Lincoln city directory shows a clock facing east on the dome of the building.
statue of Lincoln: The statue of President Abraham Lincoln (1812-1865), for whom the city of Lincoln was named, stood atop the dome of the county courthouse.
Court house: The Lancaster County court house in Lincoln, between 9th and 10th Streets, faced on to L Street; Cather lived close by at 1029 L Street from 1892-95.
Heaven is not reached by a single bound: A popular poem by Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881), journalist and poet, contains the lines: Heaven is not reached at a single bound;But we build the ladder on which we riseFrom the lowly earth to the lofty skiesAnd mount to the summit round by round.
gradatum: from the Latin gradates, furnished with steps.
Capitol dome: The Nebraska State capitol building at the time Cather was writing had been completed in 1889 and was, like many other state capitols, built on the model of the United States capitol, in a classical style with a central dome. It stood on the same site as the present capitol (1922-32) on the block bounded by 14th and 16th streets, and H and K streets.
Place where the poet communes with the muses: The allusion is probably to Mt. Helicon, part of the Parnassus range, in Boeotia, Greece, the center of the cult of the muses, a group of sister goddesses (usually nine) associated with poetry and other related arts.
Youth who bore 'mid snow and ice: The popular 1841 poem "Excelsior," by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), begins The shades of night were falling fast.As through an Alpine village passedA youth who bore, mid snow and ice,A banner with the strange device, "Excelsior!"