The Sunday Herald
21 Jan 1917
section C, page 2
Some of 'Joe' Lincoln's Notions
The Author, Who Is Not Only of Cape Cod But of Hackensack Also, Chats of His Craft
By Joyce Kilmer
In spite of its proximity to the humorous body of water called the Hackensack river there is nothing especially nautical about the home of Joseph Crosby Lincoln. One does not expect to find Cap'n Eri lounging on the porch of this pleasant suburban residence, nor Cap'n Warren and Cap'n Dan caulking the seams of a rowbout on the broad lawn.
There is nothing nautical about the house; that is, except the owner. Mr Lincoln could not, if he would, disclaim the title of Cape Codder. He is thick-set and broad-shouldered, a good build for pushing a whaleboat through the breakers, and his skin has been bronzed and his flesh hardened by winds laden with salt spray.
Mr. Lincoln is almost unique among contemporary fiction writers in having written from the first about the things he likes best to write about. He has no tale of woe to tell about relentless editors who have forced him to continue the annals of Cape Cod fishermen when he wanted to write about Parisian sculptures or London flower-girls, or something of the sort.
"I am a Cape Codder."
"I am a Cape Codder," he said, as he sat with a Herald reporter before a large open fire, which, strange to say, was not made of driftwood. "My people have been Cape Codders for many generations. They have lived at Cape Cod when they were at home, but most of the time, of course, they were out at sea. I was born at Cape Cod and spend my summers there. I cannot imagine myself tiring of Cape Cod."
Joseph Crosby Lincoln
"I didn't deliberately set to work writing about Cape Cod. I wrote about because it was the place I know best, the place in which I was interested. My first book was a book of poems—Cape cod Ballads. My second book was 'Cap'n Eri,' a novel about Cape Cod people.
"It has been said," the reporter suggested, "that most of the people who are writing series do so because they are forced to by the editors. It has been said that the magazines commercialize literature and force writers who one thing well to do that thing all the time. What do you think about this?
"Well," said Mr. Lincoln, "I don't think there's much in it. I think that a lot of nonsense is written and spoken about the commercialization of genius. I don't think that a writer can prostitute his talent successfully.
"There is very little real commercialization of genius, and the reason is that the commercialization of genius doesn't pay. A man who is successful believes in what he is doing when he is doing it. You hear people say: 'What dreadful stuff So-and-So is turning out, and what amazing success it is having! I could write stuff like that with one hand tied behind my back!'
Writers Must Believe in Their Work"But So-and-So's critics couldn't write successfully what he is writing. They couldn't do it because they couldn't believe in it—and if a writer doesn't believe in his work the public won't believe in it, won't read it and won't buy it."
"Then you don't think," Mr. Lincoln was asked, "that the magazines have harmed literature?"
"Not at all," said Mr. Lincoln; "they pay the writers more money than has ever before been paid them, but I can't see that that does any harm. I don't see how some people figure out that writing for money harms an author's work. It seems to me that the spur of the necessity of making a living is a fine thing for a writer's creative powers. Writers who were subsidized, who were paid a regular salary irrespective of the amount of work they turned out, would certainly not write as much as people who were writing for a living, and I am inclined to doubt that the quality of their work would be as high.
"Robert Louis Stevenson said that every good thing that was done was done either directly or indirectly for money. And certainly the greatest example of the man writing for money was Shakespeare. He wrote to make a living, and he had no hesitation in writing to order. When Queen Elizabeth liked 'Henry the Fourth' she said to its author: 'Let me see that fat knight in love.' And Shakespeare didn't draw himself up and say: 'I will not commercialize my genius!' Instead, he hurried home and wrote 'The Merry Wives of Windsor.'
"And coming a little closer to our own time than Shakespeare, what about O. Henry? Surely, if any man ever wrote for money, he did. He told me a story once that illuminates that beautifully. It was in the days when he was living in Irving place and writing a weekly story of the world. It wasn't ready yet, but he promised to have it in on time. Then the editor asked him about the plot—he wanted to get his art department at work on an illustration for it.
"'Well.' said O. Henry, 'you might have a good-looking young girl sitting on—well, on the corner of a table. And you might have a good-looking young man standing beside her. And the setting might be the living room of a cheap apartment.'
"And then, O. Henry told me, he hung up the receiver and hurried to his desk to jot down a memorandum of what he had just told the editor. For until he was asked about it he had not given the story a thought. And the story he wrote to fit the drawing he had prescribed was 'The Gifts of the Magi'—the wonderful story of the young woman who sold her hair to buy her husband an expensive watch fob which he had long wanted, while the husband had sold his watch to buy her a jeweled comb. This is one of the best of O. Henry's short stories, and certainly it was written for money and to order.
"Perhaps you already know the O. Henry piano story. One day O. Henry got a letter from his daughter, who was studying music in Pittsburgh. In it she said that she needed a piano. The same mail brought him a check for $600 or $700 for a story he had written about a piano. He sent her the check—making a story about a piano pay for a piano."
"I think," said Mr. Lincoln, "that a man can write a novel more easily if it has been ordered beforehand than if it has not. Once a famous publisher in New York asked me what work I was doing. I told him I was busy with a novel. 'Have you thought about a publisher yet,' he asked. I told him that this was all attended to and the contract signed. 'I don't see how you can write to order in that way,' he said. I explained to him that the contract specified nothing about the plot or style of the novel, and that I could write it much more comfortably if I didn't have to worry about finding a publisher for it. But I don't think that I put his mind at rest.
"There may be a little truth in the theory that magazines harm literature, but there is a great deal of nonsense in it. And of this I am sure, that no literary career has ever been ruined by the magazines. You may be sure that the man who is writing successfully for the magazines believes in what he is writing, and is doing the very best work he can.
"Some publishers tell us, however, that the magazines harm literature in this respect—a novel that has been serialized in a widely circulated magazine does not sell well when it is published as a book. But other publishers say that serialization helps the sale of a book by advertising it. One publisher told me that the ideal plan was for a writer to serialize his first two novels, thus advertising himself and his work, and getting paid for the advertisement, and then stop serializing, bringing out his subsequent novels in book form without giving them magazine publication.
"What about the fiction of our day?" Mr. Lincoln was asked. "Is it any better than it was 25 years ago?"
"It's just as good, anyway," he replied. "There are more short stories and they are better paid for than they used to be. The writers are getting a square deal than they ever got before. If a writer has a really good story to tell he will find no difficulty in getting it before the public. The editors are more eager than ever to discover and encourage young writers.
"Much of the talk about the lofty mission of the writer is nonsense. A writer's mission is simply to as good work as he can, and that's all there is to it.
"As to those editors who are blamed for insisting that author's continue to write a certain kind of story—well, we must remember that the editor is merely the interpreter of the public. He knows what the public wants, and the public wants what they know to be the author's best work. Editors ask me for Cape Cod stories, but I get many more requests for Cape Cod stories from the public. People write to me almost every day telling me to stick to Cape Cod. So I can't blame the editors."
Joe Lincoln's CareerMr. Lincoln was an editor before he was an author. The story of his literary beginnings recalls some interesting phases of journalistic life that have vanished in a score of years.
"From 1896 to 1899," he said, "I was one of the associate editors of the League of American Wheelmen Bulletin. That was in the time of the cycling craze, when every other man or woman owned a wheel. The Bulletin had four editors, including Nixon Waterman and myself. The circulation was 125,000. I did drawings for the Bulletin, and very bad drawings they were. I had had a little training in drawing, having studied with Howard Reynolds under Henry Sandham, who at that time was president of the Boston Art Club.
"Meanwhile, I was writing jokes and jingles for the magazines—I sold my first verses to Puck when Harry Leon Wilson was editing it. At first I sent around drawings with jingles to go with them, but after a while I sent only the jingles.
"When people stopped riding bicycles, the League of American Wheelmen Bulletin dropped its editors one by one. Shortly before I lost my position I got married. With my wife I came to New York. I sold a story to the Saturday Evening Post, and I wrote rather regularly for Ainslee's— O. Henry, Brand Whitlock, and Eugene Wood were writing for it at that time. For a year I free-lanced, and then got another editorial position. I had been an editor of the League of American Wheelmen Bulletin and had never ridden a bicycle. I had never been in a bank, and now I became editor of a banking magazine.
"While I was working in the bank I wrote 'Cap'n Eri,' giving my evenings and Sundays to it. After it was published I gradually gave up editorial work, going to the office at first three days a week, then two days a week, then not at all. Since that time I have devoted all my time to writing. Now I write novels instead of short stories most of the time—I have written only two short stories in a year and a half."
Mr. Lincoln mentioned with amazement the industry of one of the most popular and highly-paid of modern writers, who sometimes writes for 15 hours a day. "When I have worked four or five hours, ' he said, "I think that I have done a good day's work."
"What do you think," he was asked, "of the custom of dictating fiction?"
"I tried it," he said, but I had to give it up. I like to write with a pencil. I correct as I go along. I change a sentence perhaps a dozen times, and then I let it stand—I do not revise the complete story. And that is a hard thing to do in dictating. But I know there are writers who get the best results by dictating their work. James did this—he dictated, whether or not he got the best results that way—and Thackeray dictated most of 'Esmond.'"
Before the reporter left Mr. Lincoln returned to the subject of writing for money. In reply to the question as to whether or not a writer should have some other means of livelihood than his literary work, he said:
"I know that I write more easily when now than when I was busy all day in my editorial office. And I think I do better work. It would seem that a man does better work when he can take his time to satisfy himself with what he is doing.
"As for whether or not a man who is writing for a living can always write just what he wants to write—well, perhaps what he wants to write is not what he should write. It's the old problem of the successful comedian who longs to play 'Hamlet.' Perhaps he could play 'Hamlet' admirably. But in all probability he couldn't and shouldn't try to play it."
The first source for this piece was a tattered set of clippings from the Boston Herald morgue at the Beebe Communications Library, Boston University. Corrections were made from the microfilmed Herald at Brandeis Univeristy.
posted February 2004, corrected June 2004, at capecodhistory.us