Monday, April 25, 2011

For Use Rather Than Ostentation

I ran across a fine quotation from Edward Gibbon in Bennett Cerf's book of anecdotes, Try and Stop Me, from 1944. (I had to handle the book carefully, because publishers used lighter-weight stock during World War II to conserve paper for the war effort.) The quotation, in Gibbon's elegant eighteenth century prose, reads:

"With the venerable proconsul [Gordian], his son was likewise declared emperor. His manners were less pure, but his character was equally amiable with that of his father. Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation."

Something about the last sentence struck me as familiar. Where had I seen a sequence of words like "designed for use rather than ostentation" before? After searching through six books of George Ade's comic fables, I discovered a very similar sequence of words in Ade's Forty Modern Fables [1901], in the fable entitled The Fable of Springfield's Fairest Flower and Lonesome Agnes Who Was Crafty.

Here is the first part of this comic fable:

"SPRINGFIELD had a Girl who was being Courted by a Syndicate. She was the Girl who took First Prize at the Business Men's Carnival. When the Sunday Paper ran a whole Page of Typical Belles she had the Place of Honor.

If a Stranger from some larger Town was there on a Visit and it became necessary to Knock his Eye out and prove to him that Springfield was strictly In It, they took him up to call on Mazie. Mazie never failed to Bowl him over, for she was a Dream of Loveliness when she got into her Glad Raiment. Mazie had large mesmeric Eyes and a Complexion that was like Chaste Marble kissed by the Rosy Flush of Dawn. She carried plenty of Brown Hair that she Built Up by putting Rats under it. When she sat very straight on the edge of the Chair, with the queenly Tilt of the Chin and the Shoulders set back Proudly and the Skirt sort of Whipped Under so as to help the General Outline, she was certainly a Pleasing Object to size up. She did not Fall Down at any Point.

Mazie had such a Rush of Men Callers that the S. R. O. Sign was out almost every Night, and when the Weather permitted she had Overflow Meetings on the Veranda. Right across the Street from Beautiful Mazie there lived a Girl named Agnes, who was Fair to Middling, although she could not Step it Off within twenty Seconds of Mazie's regular Gait. Sometimes when she happened to get the right Combination of Colors and wore a Veil and you did not get too Close, she was not Half Bad, but as soon as she got into the same Picture with Mazie, the Man Charmer, she was faded to a Gray Bleach.

All the plain, everyday XX Springfield Girls, designed for Family Use and not for Exhibition Purposes, used to wish that Mazie would go away somewhere and forget to come back."

Clearly, "designed for Family Use and not for Exhibition Purposes" is equivalent to "designed for use rather than ostentation."

This is the sort of literary connection that amuses me. It is a relatively harmless affliction.

I recommend Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I read it as a young man and look forward to rereading it. I also recommend George Ade's delightful fable collections, especially the earlier ones.

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