Tom Brown's School Days (6th ed)/Introduction
INTRODUCTION BY W. D. HOWELLS
IT is not often that in later years one finds any book as good as one remembers it from one's youth; but it has been my interesting experience to find the story of Tom Brown's School Days even better than I once thought it, say, fifty years ago; not only better, but more charming, more kindly, manlier, truer, realler. So far as I have been able to note there is not a moment of snobbishness in it, or meanness of whatever sort. Of course it is of its period, the period which people call Middle Victorian because the great Queen was then nearly at the end of the first half of her long reign, and not because she personally characterized the mood of arts, of letters, of morals then prevalent.
The author openly preaches and praises himself for preaching; he does not hesitate to slip into the drama and deliver a sermon; he talks the story out with many self-interruptions and excursions; he knows nothing of the modern method of letting it walk along on its own legs, but is always putting his hands under its arms and helping it, or his arm across its shoulder and caressing it. In all this, which I think wrong, he is probably doing quite right for the boys who formed and will always form the greatest number of his readers; boys like to have things fully explained and commentated, whether they are grown up or not. In much else, in what I will not say are not the great matters, he is altogether right. By precept and by example he teaches boys to be good, that is, to be true, honest, clean-minded and clean-mouthed, kind and thoughtful. He forgives them the follies of their youth, but makes them see that they are follies.
I suppose that American boys' schools are fashioned largely on what the English call their public schools; and so far as they emulate the democratic spirit of the English schools, with their sense of equality and their honor of personal worth, the American schools cannot be too like them. I have heard that some of our schools are cultures of unrepublican feeling, and that the meaner little souls in them make their account of what families it will be well to know after they leave school and restrict their school friendships accordingly; but I am not certain this is true. What I am certain of is that our school-boys can learn nothing of such baseness from the warm-hearted and large-minded man who wrote Tom Brown's School Days. He was one of our best friends in the Civil War, when we sorely needed friends in England, and it was his magnanimous admiration which made our great patriotic poet known to a public which had scarcely heard of James Russell Lowell before.
But the manners and customs painted in this book are the manners and customs of the middle eighteen-fifties. It appears from its witness that English school-boys then freely drank beer and ale, and fought out their quarrels like prize-fighters with their naked fists, though the beer was allowed and the fighting disallowed by the school. Now, however, even the ruffians of the ring put on gloves, and probably the quarrels of our own school-boys are not fought out even with gloves. Beer and ale must always have been as clandestine vices in our schools as pitched battles with fists in English schools; water was the rule, but probably if an American boy now went to an English school he would not have to teach by his singular example that water was a better drink for boys than beer.
Our author had apparently no misgiving as to the beer; he does not blink it or defend it; beer was too merely a matter of course; but he makes a set argument for fighting, based upon the good old safe ground that there always had been fighting. Even in the heyday of muscular Christianity it seems that there must have been some question of fighting and it was necessary to defend it on the large and little scale, and his argument as to fisticuffs defeats itself. Concerning war, which we are now hoping that we see the beginning of the end of, he need only have looked into The Biglow Papers to find his idolized Lowell saying:
"Ez fur war I call it murder;
There ye hev it plain an' flat;
An' I don't want to go no furder
Then my Testament fur that."
I feel it laid upon me in commending this book to a new generation of readers, to guard them, so far as I may, against such errors of it. Possibly it might have been cleansed of them by editing, but that would have taken much of the life out of it, and would have been a grievous wrong to the author. They must remain a part of literature as many other regrettable things remain. They are a part of history, a color of the contemporary manners, and an excellently honest piece of self-portraiture. They are as the wart on Cromwell's face, and are essentially an element of a most Cromwellian genius. It was Puritanism, Macaulay says, that stamped with its ideal the modern English gentleman in dress and manner, and Puritanism has stamped the modern Englishman, the liberal, the radical, in morals. The author of Tom Brown was strongly of the English Church and the English State, but of the broad church and of the broad state. He was not only the best sort of Englishman, but he was the making of the best sort of American; and the American father can trust the American boy with his book, and fear no hurt to his republicanism, still less his democracy.
It is full of the delight in nature and human nature, unpatronized and unsentimentalized. From his earliest boyhood up Tom Brown is the free and equal comrade of other decent boys of whatever station, and he ranges the woods, the fields, the streams with the joy in the sylvan life which is the birthright of all the boys born within reach of them. The American school-boy of this generation will as freshly taste the pleasure of the school life at Rugby as the American school-boys of the two generations past, and he can hardly fail to rise from it with the noble intentions, the magnanimous ambitions which only good books can inspire.
W. D. Howells.