Introductory Note to Volume 39 of the Harvard Classics by William Allan Neilson
NO PART of a book is so intimate as the Preface. Here, after the long labor of the work is over, the author descends from his platform, and speaks with his reader as man to man, disclosing his hopes and fears, seeking sympathy for his difficulties, offering defence or defiance, according to his temper, against the criticisms which he anticipates. It thus happens that a personality which has been veiled by a formal method throughout many chapters, is suddenly seen face to face in the Preface; and this alone, if there were no other reason, would justify a volume of Prefaces.
But there are other reasons why a Preface may be presented apart from its parent work, and may, indeed, be expected sometimes to survive it. The Prologues and Epilogues of Caxton were chiefly prefixed to translations which have long been superseded; but the comments of this frank and enthusiastic pioneer of the art of printing in England not only tell us of his personal tastes, but are in a high degree illuminative of the literary habits and standards of western Europe in the fifteenth century. Again, modern research has long ago put Raleigh’s “History of the World” out of date; but his eloquent Preface still gives us a rare picture of the attitude of an intelligent Elizabethan, of the generation which colonized America, toward the past, the present, and the future worlds. Bacon’s “Great Restoration” is no longer a guide to scientific method; but his prefatory statements as to his objects and hopes still offer a lofty inspiration.
And so with the documents here drawn from the folios of Copernicus and Calvin, with the criticism of Dryden and Wordsworth and Hugo, with Dr. Johnson’s Preface to his great Dictionary, with the astounding manifesto of a new poetry from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”—each of them has a value and significance independent now of the work which it originally introduced, and each of them presents to us a man.