The young man in straitened circumstances who comes to New York City
to enter literature has but one thing to do, provided he has studied
carefully his field in advance. He must go straight to Madison
Square, write an article about the sparrows there, and sell it to the
~Sun~ for $15.
I cannot recall either a novel or a story dealing with the popular
theme of the young writer from the provinces who comes to the
metropolis to win fame and fortune with his pen in which the hero
does not get his start that way. It does seem strange that some
author, in casting about for startlingly original plots, has not hit
upon the idea of having his hero write about the bluebirds in Union
Square and sell it to the ~Herald~. But a search through the files
of metropolitan fiction counts up overwhelmingly for the sparrows
and the old Garden Square, and the ~Sun~ always writes the check.
Of course it is easy to understand why this first city venture of the
budding author is always successful. He is primed by necessity to a
superlative effort; mid the iron and stone and marble of the roaring
city he has found this spot of singing birds and green grass and
trees; every tender sentiment in his nature is baffling with the sweet
pain of homesickness; his genius is aroused as it never may be again;
the birds chirp, the tree branches sway, the noise of wheels is
forgotten; he writes with his soul in his pen--and he sells it to the
~Sun~ for $15.
I had read of this custom during many years before I came to New York.
When my friends were using their strongest arguments to dissuade me
from coming, I only smiled serenely. They did not know of that
sparrow graft I had up my sleeve.
When I arrived in New York, and the car took me straight from the
ferry up Twenty-third Street to Madison Square, I could hear that
$15 check rustling in my inside pocket.
I obtained lodging at an unhyphenated hostelry, and the next morning
I was on a bench in Madison Square almost by the time the sparrows
were awake. Their melodious chirping, the benignant spring foliage of
the noble trees and the clean, fragrant grass reminded me so potently
of the old farm I had left that tears almost came into my eyes.
Then, all in a moment, I felt my inspiration. The brave, piercing
notes of those cheerful small birds formed a keynote to a wonderful,
light, fanciful song of hope and joy and altruism. Like myself, they
were creatures with hearts pitched to the tune of woods and fields;
as I was, so were they captives by circumstance in the discordant,
dull city--yet with how much grace and glee they bore the restraint!
And then the early morning people began to pass through the square to
their work--sullen people, with sidelong glances and glum faces,
hurrying, hurrying, hurrying. And I got my theme cut out clear from
the bird notes, and wrought it into a lesson, and a poem, and a
carnival dance, and a lullaby; and then translated it all into prose
and began to write.
For two hours my pencil traveled over my pad with scarcely a rest.
Then I went to the little room I had rented for two days, and there
I cut it to half, and then mailed it, white-hot, to the ~Sun~.
The next morning I was up by daylight and spent two cents of my
capital for a paper. If the word "sparrow" was in it I was unable to
find it. I took it up to my room and spread it out on the bed and
went over it, column by column. Something was wrong.
Three hours afterward the postman brought me a large envelope
containing my MS. and a piece of inexpensive paper, about 3 inches by
4--I suppose some of you have seen them--upon which was written in
violet ink, "With the ~Sun's~ thanks."
I went over to the square and sat upon a bench. No; I did not think
it necessary to eat any breakfast that morning. The confounded pests
of sparrows were making the square hideous with their idiotic "cheep,
cheep." I never saw birds so persistently noisy, impudent, and
disagreeable in all my life.
By this time, according to all traditions, I should have been standing
in the office of the editor of the ~Sun~. That personage--a tall,
grave, white-haired man--would strike a silver bell as he grasped my
hand and wiped a suspicious moisture from his glasses.
"Mr. McChesney," he would be saying when a subordinate appeared, "this
is Mr. Henry, the young man who sent in that exquisite gem about the
sparrows in Madison Square. You may give him a desk at once. Your
salary, sir, will be $80 a week, to begin with."
This was what I had been led to expect by all writers who have evolved
romances of literary New York.
Something was decidedly wrong with tradition. I could not assume the
blame, so I fixed it upon the sparrows. I began to hate them with
intensity and heat.
At that moment an individual wearing an excess of whiskers, two hats,
and a pestilential air slid into the seat beside me.
"Say, Willie," he muttered cajolingly, "could you cough up a dime out
of your coffers for a cup of coffee this morning?"
"I'm lung-weary, my friend," said I. "The best I can do is three
"And you look like a gentleman, too," said he. "What brung you
"Birds," I said fiercely. "The brown-throated songsters carolling
songs of hope and cheer to weary man toiling amid the city's dust
and din. The little feathered couriers from the meadows and woods
chirping sweetly to us of blue skies and flowering fields. The
confounded little squint-eyed nuisances yawping like a flock of steam
pianos, and stuffing themselves like aldermen with grass seeds and
bugs, while a man sits on a bench and goes without his breakfast.
Yes, sir, birds! look at them!"
As I spoke I picked up a dead tree branch that lay by the bench, and
hurled it with all my force into a close congregation of the sparrows
on the grass. The flock flew to the trees with a babel of shrill
cries; but two of them remained prostrate upon the turf.
In a moment my unsavory friend had leaped over the row of benches and
secured the fluttering victims, which he thrust hurriedly into his
pockets. Then he beckoned me with a dirty forefinger.
"Come on, cully," he said hoarsely. "You're in on the feed."
Thank you very much!
Weakly I followed my dingy acquaintance. He led me away from the park
down a side street and through a crack in a fence into a vacant lot
where some excavating had been going on. Behind a pile of old stones
and lumber he paused, and took out his birds.
"I got matches," said he. "You got any paper to start a fire with?"
I drew forth my manuscript story of the sparrows, and offered it for
burnt sacrifice. There were old planks, splinters, and chips for our
fire. My frowsy friend produced from some interior of his frayed
clothing half a loaf of bread, pepper, and salt.
In ten minutes each of us was holding a sparrow spitted upon a stick
over the leaping flames.
"Say," said my fellow bivouacker, "this ain't so bad when a fellow's
hungry. It reminds me of when I struck New York first--about fifteen
years ago. I come in from the West to see if I could get a job on a
newspaper. I hit the Madison Square Park the first mornin' after, and
was sitting around on the benches. I noticed the sparrows chirpin',
and the grass and trees so nice and green that I thought I was back in
the country again. Then I got some papers out of my pocket, and--"
"I know," I interrupted. "You sent it to the ~Sun~ and got $15."
"Say," said my friend, suspiciously, "you seem to know a good deal.
Where was you? I went to sleep on the bench there, in the sun, and
somebody touched me for every cent I had--$15."