Great Men as Commercial Assets

CHAMBERS’S JOURNAL February 1 1907

Great Men as Commercial Assets

CHAMBERS’S JOURNAL February 1 1907

Great Men as Commercial Assets



In this snort article the writer makes some reflections on the value to communities of celebrities, who are the occasion of drawing crowds of touri.>ts to view their shrines and other relied. He refers to Shakespeare as an outstanding example.

GREAT men are an extremely close corporation, and their commercial value to the country appears at first sight to be so microscopic as to be quite overshadowed by their literary or scientific value, But if the body of ‘great men’ in its widest sense is comparatively small, the subject is inexhaustible; and the more it is considered the more clearly it appears that there is a distant commercial value in that long roll of honored names of which we are apt to say, with the pride of safe mediocrity, “He was too clever to make money.” We associate money-making with anxious plodding, with a level-headed directness of outlook, with an office stool and a monotonous daily routine ; not with poet’s dreams or scientific speculation, not even with accomplished work outside the daily mill! These have their reward in honor, not money ; but in this estimate so many side-issues crop up that it is worth while pausing for a moment to consider them. And in regard to literary men at least, it is certainly true that during their lifetime their monetary value is very generally a negligible quantity, and it is onty succeeding generations wTho realize that they are in any Way a commercial asset.

We wrho have grown accustomed to the thousands of visitors who make their yearly pilgrimage to Stratfordon-Avon—not because of its intrinsic beauty or for its Elizabethan buildings, but because Shakespeare was born there, and w7ent “unwill-

ingly” along its streets to the old school, and made the cottage at Sliottery immortal—can hardly realize what the demure little country town would be like if all remembrance of him could be swept aw7ay; or, to go a step farther, what a national loss it would be, not only of fame but of money, if the names of all our great men could suddenly be blotted out, with the places that they had rendered famous! How the towns and villages would sink back into unimportance, and the tide of travel be dried up at its source! Except for natural beauty, there would be nothing to mark out Stratfordon-Avon from Ealing or Matoppo from Portobello, and no one would dream that either one or the other could be made a paying investment, except by the prosaic growth of fiats and villas. Shakespeare himself would be probably quite as bewildered as any one else if be could realize that he had dowered his country with an ever-increasing commercial value, if he could see the careful treasuring of the relics of his simple hie in the town that is sacred to his name. Great literature does not always pay those wdio create it, but it always pays its heirs. Many painters of great pictures have lived unrewarded; the writers of great poems have sold their copyright for a bare subsistence, and been thankful to get it; and we can often only measure their commercial value by contrasting the places that produced them as we

know them with what they would have been without them.

So the value of Scott as a commercial asset has risen enormously since his death, and is steadily increasing, until the hordes of visitors who follow in his wake seem fairly to rival the standing population. The sentiment that clings to Abbotsford has spread through the length and breadth of Scotland, and at the touch of that magic pen the Sleeping Beauty has been stirred to life and has become a living, breathing soul. The Wizard’s rod made of dead places a great and haunting reality—Melrose and the Trossachs, Abbotsford and Edinburgh have felt that powerful influence ; and now the Wizard himself, after the awful slavery of his later life, lies sleeping peacefully enough in Dryburgh Abbey. To the Scotch were committed those ten talents of his genius, and, like the thrifty men that they are, they made of them yet ten other talents, not hidden in the ground, but bearing interest a hundredfold ; but so great to them appears Scott’s literary value that perhaps they do not fully realize how enormously he counts in coin of the realm.

The royal road to Edinburgh is a pilgrims’ way trampled by the jealous footsteps of the lovers of Scott; and though ms value to literature may perhaps be tested by the great company of his readers, his commercial Amine is altogether incalculable. Posterity Avould have paid the claims of his creditors in a very short time by the profit from his books and the gate-money of Abbotsford alone ; but most of those who knew him in those days of poverty and hopelessness and failing health were not far-seeing enough to


prophesy it. He was bankrupt, and it is common knowledge that literature Aloes not pay.’ Time has proven the fallacy. He outstripped his compeers and won the race; like Saul, he stood head and shoulders above his fellows, and it may fairly be claimed for him that he has outreached all other writers since Shakespeare. He vitalised the characters he created, ^nd made them living beings more real than the men and women we meet and pass on the road of everyday life. He wrote in pain and trouble, sometimes with the haste of an impressionist, haunted by dreams of his creditors, and very likely he gauged his own success, as others gauged it, by the sums paid to him for his noA^els; but long after that Aomance in stone’ had ceased to keep open ites hospitable doors, long after he had reached the limits of his endurance and lain down to rest, the pilgrims of his genius trod, and are still treading, the rvay he went.

What is there to mark out from the ordinary laborers’ cottage that small house near Ayr where Burns was born ? If lie had not written immortal Averse, would one person in a hundred liaA^e turned aside to visit the Auflage or the Kirk o’ Alloway, which still echoes to the hoof-beats of Tam o’ Shanter’s mare ? Perhaps the monetary value of his association Avith Ayr is hardly appreciated, so great is his literary value. He was a genius and a Scotchman. Could Scotland ask more of him than that ? though farmh did not ijav him particularly well, and though in the Excise his salary neArer rose to more than seventy pounds a year, still literature does not ‘pay,’ and it was only what his worshippers expected. They Avere proud of his poems, of his genius, of his poverty;

and yet now7, by the mere magic of his name, he has directed into the small community in which he was born and labored, a tide of travel that is a direct and enormous gain to his country.

So, also, the ‘cult of the Brontes/ which is Haworth has taken to itself some of the mystery and the strength of the mysterious moorland on which the sisters lived and died, gives thousands of worshippers to that shrine on which their genius conferred not only immortality, but also a definite monetary value which increases year by year.

And so the living streams swell into a river, and pour their tributary waters into that ocean of accomplished work, the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. There great statesmen, great divines, great poets, all that we include in the idea of great men, jostle in sculptured marble and in enduring brass; and, amongst the thousands who visit ilie place, very few* are attracted by its architectural beauty or its artistic expression. They go to stand bareheaded amongst that vast company of the great whom England has delighted to honor. It has a value quite its own, of which dry statistics give ample proof, equal to the literary and scientific value of that tremendous roll of honor which includes all great lives, great thoughts, great heroisms.

Beyond and above the great men of literature and of art there are, of course, great men of science and practical great men, about wdiose monetary value there has never been any doubt, who pay .dirhctly into the Exchequer of their country money forged with their brains and stamped with the superscription of genius. The man, for instance, w*ho

made three blades of wheat to grow where one grew before not only deserved well of his country, but paid bei* well. The man who affirms that in the near future lie is going to prove that the old, clumsy method of farming by means of a rotation of crops is absurd and obsolete, who by a bacteriological injection into the roots of cereals will introduce nitrogen direct into the soil instead of by the system of leguminous crops, where the land lies fallow, with a w7aste of one year in three— that man is going to be a far-reaching commercial asset.

The thinkers jpf great thoughts, the writers of great books, and again the books about books, the biographies, the lectures, the cheap reprints, the reproductions of splendid pictures, ail express the monetary value of great men, and are part of the fortune they have bequeathed to their country.

And so, to sum up, it appears that life and death—the birthplaces and the tombs of the great—form their principal asset from the commercial point of view7. Great men may starve in Grub Street, or in its modern equivalent ; they may struggle against disease or live in bad climates through a weary lifetime, wresting the jealously guarded secrets of Nature from her Unwilling hold: but whatever life may have meant to them, death will set things square. Great literature w*ill become classic, and time will only increase its value.

Sometimes this does not appear to be the case. We see the apparent failure of great hopes, great powers', premature death, and obscure graves which hide the tragedies of genius; but each fleeting dream may have meant a nearer approach to an ideal that will be realized by-and-by: the indirect influence on others of some

suggestion, traced perhaps to a forgotten book that never even paid for its printing; the first impulse towards some great discovery, obscure fancies ; all the trivial, unremembered, unrequited labor which helps to-

wards the finished building—these are all impulses towards the stream of accomplished work which, though it does not always pay the workers, pays such immense returns to other people.