A story is often cited in illustration of the different characteristics of three great nationalities which equally illustrates the different paths which may be followed in any intellectual undertaking. An Englishman, a Frenchman, and a German, competing for a prize offered for the best essay on the natural history of the camel, adopted each his own method of research upon the subject. The German, providing himself with a stock of tobacco, sought the quiet solitude of his study in order to evolve from the depths of his philosophic consciousness the primitive notion of a camel. The Frenchman repaired to the nearest library, and overhauled its contents in order to collect all that other men had written upon the subject. The Englishman packed his carpet-bag and set sail for the East, that he might study the habits of the animal in its original haunts.
The combination of these three methods is the perfection of study. The man who peruses a hundred books on a subject for the purpose of writing one bestows a real benefit upon society, in case he does his work well. But some excellent work has been composed without the necessity either of research or original investigation.
With some great writers, it has been customary to do a vast amount of antecedent work before writing their books. It is related of George Eliot or Mary Anne (Mary Ann, Marian) Evans (22 November 1819 – 22 December 1880) that she read one thousand books before she wrote "Daniel Deronda." For two or three years before she composed a work, she read up her subject in scores and scores of volumes. She was one of the masters, so called, of all learning, talking with scholars and men of science on terms of equality. Carlyle spent fifteen years on his "Frederick the Great." Alison perused two thousand books before he completed his celebrated history. It is said of another that he read twenty thousand volumes and wrote only two books. "For the statistics of the negro population of South America alone," says Robert Dale Owen, "I examined more than 150 volumes." David Livingstone said: "Those who have never carried a book through the press can form no idea of the amount of toil it involves.
It is said of one of Longfellow's poems that it was written in four weeks, but that he spent six months in correcting and cutting it down. Longfellow was a very careful writer. He wrote and rewrote, and laid his work by and later revised it. He often consulted his friends about his productions before they were given to the world. Thus he sent his work out as perfect as great care and a brilliant intellect could make it. The poet's pleasant surroundings must have acted as a stimulus upon his mind. His library was a long room in the northeastern corner of the lower floor in the so-called Craigie House, once the residence of General Washington. It was walled with handsome bookcases, rich in choice works. The poet's usual seat here was at a little high table by the north window, looking upon the garden. Some of his work was done while he was standing at this table, which reached then to his breast.
The historian Gibbon, in speaking of the manner in which he wrote his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," said: "Many experiments were made before I could hit the middle tone between a dull tone and a rhetorical declamation. Three times did I compose the first chapter, and twice the second and third, before I was tolerably satisfied with their effect." Gibbon spent twenty years on his immortal book.
Victor Hugo composed with wonderful rapidity. He wrote his "Cromwell" in three months, and his "Notre Dame de Paris" in four months and a half. But even these have been his longest periods of labor, and as he grew older he wrote faster. "Marion Delorme" was finished in twenty-four days, "Hernani" in twenty-six, and "Le Roi s'amuse" in twenty. Although the poet wrote very quickly, he often corrected laboriously. He rarely rewrote. Mme. Drouet, who was his literary secretary for thirty years, copied all his manuscripts. Otherwise the printers would have found him one of the most difficult authors to put into type. Mme. Drouet saved them much worry, and him or his publishers much expense in the way of composition. She also assisted in the correction of the proofs. He generally had several works in the stocks at the same time. Hugo considered a change of subject a recreation. He would go from poetry to fiction, from fiction to history, according to his mood. As a rule, he rose at six o'clock in the morning, took a cold bath, then took a raw egg and a cup of black coffee, and went to work. He never sat down to write, but stood at a high desk, and refreshed himself by an occasional turn across the room, and a sip of eau sucrée. He breakfasted at eleven. One of his recreations was riding on the top of an omnibus, a habit he contracted during a short visit to London, when he was advised that "the knife-board" was a good place from which to see the street life of the English metropolis. The "knife-board," indeed, was his favorite point of observation, whence he gathered inspiration from the passing crowds below. Many of his famous characters have been caught in his mind's eye while taking a three-sou drive from the Arc de Triomphe to the Bastile.
Emanuel Kant, the philosopher, lived the life of a student; in fact, his life may be taken as the type of that of a scholar. Kant, like Balzac, gave a daily dinner-party; but when his guests were gone he took a walk in the country instead of seeking broken slumbers in a state of hunger. He came home at twilight, and read from candle-light till bedtime at ten. He arose punctually at five, and, over one cup of tea and part of a pipe, laid out his plan of work for the day. At seven he lectured, and wrote till dinner-time at about one. The regularity of his life was automatic. He regulated his diet with the care of a physician. During the blind-man's holiday between his walk and candle-light he sat down to think in twilight fashion; and while thus engaged, he always placed himself so that his eyes might fall on a certain old tower. This old tower became so necessary to his thoughts that when some poplar trees grew up and hid it from his sight, he found himself unable to think at all, until, at his earnest request, the trees were cropped and the tower was brought into sight again.
The Austrian poet, Rudolph Baumbach, is partial to daylight, and never writes at night. He always makes an outline of his work before beginning in good earnest. When meditating on his poems he walks up and down the room, but gives the open air the preference. He likes much light; when the sun does not shine his work does not progress favorably. In the evening he lights up his room by a large number of candles. Literary labor is pleasure to him when the weather is fine, but it is extremely hard when clouds shut out the sunlight. The poet has no fixed rule as regards working-hours; sometimes he exerts himself a great deal for weeks, and then again he does not write at all for a long time.
Otto von Leixner, German historian, poet, novelist, and essayist, composes prose, which requires logical thinking, in the daytime, but does poetical work, which taxes principally the imagination, in the evening. He makes a skeleton of all critical and scientific compositions, indeed of all essays, and then writes out the "copy" for the press, seldom making alterations. But he files away at poems from time to time until he thinks them fit for publication. He is a smoker, but does not smoke when at work. Whether promenading the shady walks of a wood or perambulating the dusty streets of the city, Leixner constantly thinks about the works he has in hand. Literary work has no difficulties for this author; he penned one of his poems, "The Vision," consisting of five hundred and eighty lines, in three hours and a half and sent it to the printer as it was originally written; and he composed the novel "Adja," thirty-nine and one-half octavo pages in print, in nine hours. But he often meditates over the topics which go to make up his novels, etc., for years and years until he has considered them from every standpoint. After composition he often locks up his manuscript in his desk for half a year, until it is almost forgotten, when he takes it from its place of concealment and examines it carefully to detect possible errors. If at such an examination the work does not prove satisfactory to him, he throws it into the stove. Being the editor of a journal of fiction, he is often compelled to work whether he wants to or not. From 1869 to 1870 he worked sixteen hours a day; from 1877 till 1882 about thirteen hours, even Sundays.
Rousseau tells us that he never could compose pen in hand, seated at a table, and duly supplied with paper and ink; it was in his promenades,—the promenades d'un solitaire,—amid rocks and woods, and at night, in bed, when he was lying awake, that he wrote in his brain; to use his own phrase, "J'écris dans mon cerveau." Some of his periods he turned and re-turned half a dozen nights in bed before he deemed them fit to be put down on paper. On moving to the Hermitage of Montmorency, he adopted the same plan as in Paris,—devoting, as always, his mornings to the pen-work de la copie, and his afternoons to la promenade, blank paper, book, and pencil in hand; for, says he, "having never been able to write and think at my ease except in the open air, sule dio, I was not tempted to change my method, and I reckoned not a little on the forest of Montmorency becoming—for it was close to my door—my cabinet de travail." In another place he affirms his sheer incapacity for meditation by day, except in the act of walking; the moment he stopped walking, he stopped thinking, too, for his head worked with, and only with, his feet. "De jour je ne puis méditer qu'en marchant; sitôt que je m'arrête je ne pense plus, et ma tête ne va qu'avec mes pieds." Salvitur ambulando, whatever intellectual problem is
solved by Jean Jacques. His strength was not to sit still. His Réveries, by the way, were written on scraps of paper of all sorts and sizes, on covers of old letters, and on playing cards—all covered with a small, neat handwriting.
Edward P. Roe, who, if we may rate success by the wide circulation of an author's books, was our most successful novelist, preferred the daytime for literary work, and rarely accomplished much in the evening beyond writing letters, reading, etc. When pressed with work he put in long hours at night. In the preface to "Without a Home," Mr. Roe presents some extremely interesting matter in regard to the causes which led to his authorship, and the methods of work by which he turned out so many well-constructed stories in so short a time. "Ten years ago," he says, "I had never written a line of a story, and had scarcely entertained the thought of constructing one. The burning of Chicago impressed me powerfully, and, obedient to an impulse, I spent several days among its smoking ruins. As a result, my first novel, 'Barriers Burned Away,' gradually took possession of my mind. I did not manufacture the story at all, for it grew as naturally as do the plants—weeds, some may suggest—on my farm. In the intervals of a busy and practical life, and also when I ought to have been sleeping, my imagination, unspurred and almost undirected, spun the warp and woof of the tale and wove them together.... I merely let the characters do as they pleased, and work out their own destiny. I had no preparation for the work beyond a careful study of the topography of Chicago and the incidents of the fire. For nearly a year my chief recreation was to dwell apart among the shadows created by my fancy, and I wrote when and where I could—on steamboats and railroad cars, as well as in my study.... When the book appeared I suppose I looked upon it much as a young father looks upon his first child. His interest in it is intense, but he knows well that its future is very doubtful." Mr. Roe always wrote from a feeling that he had something to say; and never "manufactured" a novel in his life. While writing he was absorbed in his work; and made elaborate studies for his novels. "I have visited," said he, in reference to "Without a Home," "scores of typical tenements. I have sat day after day on the bench with the police judges, and have visited the station-houses repeatedly. There are few large retail shops that I have not entered many times, and I have conversed with both employers and employees." Mr. Roe did not make "outlines" or "skeletons" to any great extent, and when he did so, he did not follow them closely. Indeed, he often reversed his plan, satisfied that following an arbitrary outline makes both story and characters wooden. He held that the characters should control the author, not he them. He usually received the suggestion of a story unexpectedly, and let it take form in his mind and grow naturally, like a plant, for months, more often for years, before he began to write. He averred that after his characters were introduced he became merely the reporter of what they do, say, and think. He imagined that it was this spontaneity which, chiefly, made his books popular, and said that to reach intelligent people through fiction, the life portrayed must seem to them real and natural, and that this can scarcely be true of his characters if the author is forever imposing his arbitrary will upon them. Mr. Roe wrote in bound blank-books, using but one side of a sheet. This allowed ample space for changes and corrections, and the manuscript was kept in place and order.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Methods of Authors, by Hugo Erichsen)