The Magazine

Literary Minority

The quest for a modest immortality may be genetic.

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By BARTON SWAIM
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Every writer, when young, expects to achieve greatness and notoriety. We hear our names taught in undergraduate classrooms and see our works--even before we've written them--bound in "classic" editions long after we're gone. The melancholy fact that success in writing is rarer than success in professional sports, itself almost a statistical impossibility, is hard to face for a young writer--especially one reared on the corrosive trumpery that you can be anything you want to be.

For my own part, I've long since lowered my sights. I come from a family of minor writers and intend to join that class in due course. By "minor" I mean something like third-tier--not third-rate, now. What characterizes a third-rate writer is that he can't write. Not that I would object to being a third-rater myself; many third-raters become fabulously rich, and in any case there's something to be said for a man who can make millions by doing something he's no good at.

The minor writer never gets rich, never achieves anything more than momentary fame, and nobody would call his works important. He has admirers, and he may write a highly regarded book now and again, but he is destined to be remembered, if at all, in the footnotes of monographs nobody reads.

What makes the minor writer worth remembering is that his writings achieve some modest, honorable goal. "[It is] not necessary," writes Samuel Johnson,

that a man should forbear to write, till he has discovered some truth unknown before; he may be sufficiently useful, by only diversifying the surface of knowledge, and luring the mind by a new appearance to a second view of those beauties which it had passed over inattentively before. .  .  . and, perhaps, truth is often more successfully propagated by men of moderate abilities, who, adopting the opinions of others, have no care but to explain them clearly.

Literary minority, as I say, runs in my family. My great-great grandfather Joseph Swaim was the first cousin of Mary Jane Virginia Swaim, who married Algernon Sidney Porter. Their son was William Sydney Porter. O. Henry--as he is better known--is just the sort of writer I mean: clever, wise, unpretentious, and unimportant.

My maternal grandmother was a Sewell. Her grandmother was the cousin of Anna Sewell, author of one book, Black Beauty. It is a delightful work--a little predictable and, of course, unsubtle in its intentions, but not at all forgettable.

I discovered another minor writer firmly within my lineage not long ago when a book was passed on to me after the death of an elderly aunt. It's titled William Swaim, Fighting Editor, published in Greensboro in 1963. William Swaim, proprietor and editor of the Greensborough Patriot, was Mary Jane Virginia's father, and so O. Henry's grandfather.

Actually to call William a minor writer is a bit of a stretch: He is completely unknown, without so much as a Wikipedia entry. And yet, in a sense, what he did with his pen was greater than what Hemingway and Sartre did with theirs. William Swaim was born in Guilford County, North Carolina, in 1802. He was raised on a farm and received only a few intermittent months of schooling, between the ages of 12 and 16. At 17, William's father took his boy to the Guilford County Courthouse in Greensborogh (as it was then spelled), and as William watched the proceedings of the courtroom, with all its displays of eloquence, he realized that he wanted to make his way in the world by means of his mind. Yet when he returned home he was dismayed to find that he could barely read, and couldn't write at all.

My first essay was to cuff the dust off an old Webster's Spelling Book and commence in some of its easiest lessons. 'Twas a mortifying thought, that four years ago, I was able to read the Bible and, now, scarcely qualified to spell in three letters! My resolution formed, every moment of leisure I could gain from the labor assigned me by my father, was spent poring over my book.

The only other book in his father's house was the Bible, and William read it through. He approached a bookish neighbor, a Quaker named Nathan Dick, who let the young man borrow from his collection. The first work William brought home was Richard Blackmore's seven-volume poem Creation (1712), which he read from beginning to end. (Johnson, in his Life of Blackmore, says that if "he had written nothing else, would have transmitted him to posterity among the first favourites of the English muse.")