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Recollections of an Atlantic Editorship
by William Dean Howells
In another place I have told how I came to be the assistant of Mr. Fields in the editorship of the Atlantic Monthly. That was in 1800, and in 1872 he gave up to me the control which he had held rather more in form than in fact from the time I joined him. He had left the reading of manuscripts to me, and almost always approved my choice in them, only reserving to himself the supreme right of accepting things I had not seen, and of inviting contributions. It was a suzerainty rather than a sovereignty which he exercised, and I might well have fancied myself independent under it. I never thought of questioning his easy over-lordship, and my assistant editorship ended with far more regret to me than my editorship, when in 1881 I resigned it to Mr. Aldrich.
I recall very distinctly the official parting with my kindly chief in his little room looking into the corner of the Common at 124 Tremont Street, for it was impressed upon us by something that had its pathos then, and has it now. In the emotion I felt at his willingness to give up his high place (it seemed to me one of the highest), I asked him why he wished to do it, with a wonder at which he smiled from his fifty-six years down upon my thirty-five. He answered, what I very well knew, that he was tired of it, and wanted time and a free mind to do some literary work of his own. "Besides," he added, with a cheerfulness that not only touched but dismayed me, "I think people generally have some foreknowledge of their going; I am past fifty, and I do not expect to live long." He did not cease smiling as he said this, and I cannot recall that in my amaze I answered with any of the usual protests we make against the expression of far less frank and open prescience, he lived much longer than he expected, after he had felt himself a stricken man; but still it was not many years before he died, when a relation marred by scarcely a moment of displeasure, and certainly without one unkindness from him, had altogether ceased.
The magazine was already established in its traditions when I came to it, and when I left it fifteen years later it seemed to me that if I had done any good it was little more than to fix it more firmly in them. During the nine years of its existence before my time it had the best that the greatest writers of New England could give it. First of these were, of course, Longfellow, Emerson, Hawthorne, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, Mrs. Stowe, and Bryant, and after them followed a long line of gifted people, whom but to number will recall many names of the second brilliancy, with some faded or fading beyond recall. I will not attempt a full list, but my memories of the Atlantic would be very faulty if they did not include the excellence in verse or prose of such favorites as Agassiz, Mrs. Paul Akers, Mr. Alden, Aldrich, Boker, Mr. Burroughs, Alice Cary, Caroline Chesebro', Lydia Maria Child, James Freeman Clarke, Conway, Rose Terry Cooke, Cranch, Curtis, J. W. De Forest, Mrs. Dias, Rebecca Harding Davis, Mrs. Fields, J.T. Fields, Henry Giles, Annie Douglas Greene, Dr. E. E. Hale, Lucretia Hale, Gail Hamilton, Colonel Higginson, G. S. Hillard, J. G, Holland, Mrs. Howe, Henry James, father and son, Lucy Larcom, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Donald G. Mitchell, Walter Mitchell. Fitz-James O'Brien, J. W. Palmer, Francis Parkman, T. W. Parsons, Norah Perry, Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Piatt, Buchanan Read, Epes Sargent. Mrs. Prescott Spofford, W. J. Stillman, R.H. Stoddard, Elisabeth Stoddard, W. W. Story, Bayard Taylor, Celia Thaxter, Thoreau, Mr. J. T. Trowbridge, Mrs. Stuart Phelps Ward, David A. Wasson, E.P. Whipple, Richard Grant White, Adeline D. T. Whitney, Forceythe Wilson, Theodore Winthrop.
The tale is very long, but it might be lengthened a third without naming other names which could accuse me of having forgotten many delightful authors remembered by my older readers, and in some instances known to my younger readers. In the alphabetical course there is here no intimation of the writers' respective order or degree, and their quantity is as little suggested. Many of them were frequent contributors of very even excellence; others wrote one thing, or one or two or three things, that caught the public fancy with as potent appeal as the best of the many things that others did. Some of those who were conspicuous in 1866 lost their foremost place, and others then of no wider celebrity grew in fame that would rank them with those greatest ones whom I have mentioned first.
Beginning myself to contribute to the magazine in its third year, I held all its contributors in a devout regard and did not presume to distinguish between the larger and lesser luminaries, though I knew very well which I liked best. I was one of four singularly favored youths beyond the Alleghanies suffered more than once in the company of those gods and half-gods and quarter-gods of New England; the other two lonely Westerners I met in those gleaming halls of morn being my room-mate in Columbus, A. T. Fullerton, and another, my friend and fellow-poet Pimitt in Louisville. Leonard Case dwelt in a lettered and moneyed seclusion (as we heard) at Cleveland, but Alice Cary had lived so long in the East that she was less an Ohioan than one of those few New Yorkers admitted with the overwhelming majority of New Englanders, whom I figured standing aloof from all its outsiders.
It was with a sort of incredulous gasping that I realized myself in authority with these when it came to that, and I should not now be able to say how or why it came to that, without allowing merits in myself which I should be the last to assert. These things are always much better attributed to Fortune, or at the furthest to Providence. What I know is that it was wonderful to me to go through the editorial record (which with my want of method I presently disused) and find my own name among the Accepted and the Rejected. It was far oftenest among the rejected; but there was a keener pleasure in those rejections, which could not now be repeated, than in the acceptances which stretched indefinitely before me.
Otherwise the record, where the disappointments so heavily outnumbered the fruitions, had its pathos; and at first I could not return a manuscript without a pang. But in a surprisingly little time that melting mood congealed into an icy indifference, if it did not pass into the sort of inhuman complacency of the judge who sentences a series of proven offenders. We are so made that we quickly turn the enemies of those who give its trouble; the hunter feels himself the foe of the game that leads him a long and difficult chase; and in like manner the editor wreaks a sort of revenge in rejecting the contributor who has bothered him to read a manuscript quite through before it yields itself unfit for publication. Perhaps I am painting the case in rather blacker colors than the fact would justify, though there is truth in what I say. Yet, for the most part, the affair did not come to this. It was at first surprising, and when no longer surprising it was gratifying, to find that the vast mass of the contributions fixed their own fate, almost at a glance. They were of subjects treated before, or subjects not to be treated at all, or they were self-condemned their uncouth and slovenly style, or were written in a hand so crude and ignorant that it was at once apparent that they had not the root of literature in them. The hardest of all to manage were those which had some savor of acceptance in them which had promise, or which failed so near the point of success that it was a real grief to refuse them. Conscience then laid it upon me to write to the authors and give hopes, or reasons, or tender excuses, and not dismiss any of them with the printed circular that carried insult and despair in the smooth uncandor of its assurance that the contribution in question was not declined necessarily because of a want of merit in it.
The poor fellows, and still more the poor dears, were apt in the means by which they tried to find a royal road to the public through the magazine. Claims of acquaintance with friends of the editors, distressful domestic circumstances, adverse fortune, irresistible impulse to literature, mortal sickness in which the last hours of the writer would be brightened by seeing the poem or story in print, were the commonest of the appeals. These must have been much alike, or else I should remember more distinctive cases. One which I do remember was that of a woman in the West who sent the manuscript of a serial story with a letter, very simply and touchingly confiding that in her youth she had an ardent longing to be an author. She had married, instead, and now at fifty, with her large family of children grown up about her, prosperous and happy, she felt again the impulse of her girlhood. She enclosed a ten-dollar note to pay the editor for the trouble of reading her story, and she wished his true opinion of it. I should have been hard-hearted indeed if I had not answered this letter at length, with a carefully considered criticism which I sincerely grieved that I could not make favorable, and returned me the sum of my hire with every good wish. I could not feel it a bribe, and I could not quite believe that it was with the design of corrupting me, that a very unliterary author came one day with two dollars to pay me for noticing his book. He said he had been told that this was the way to get it noticed.
In those days, and for seven or eight years afterwards, I wrote nearly all the"Literary Notices" in the magazine. When I began to share the work with others, and at last to leave it almost wholly to them, they and I wrote so very much alike that I could not always be sure which notices I had done. That is a very common psychological event in journalism, when one prevalent will has fixed the tone, and I was willful, if not strong, in my direction after I came into full control. I never liked writing criticism, and never pleased myself in it; but I should probably have kept writing most of the Atlantic notices to the end, if my increasing occupation with fiction had not left me too few hours out of the twenty-four for them. The editorial salary I received covered the pity for my contributions, but I represented to the publishers that I could not write everything in the magazine, and they saw the reason of my delegating the notices. I had the help of the best young critics that I knew, and who abounded in Boston and Cambridge; and after I succeeded Mr. Fields, I enlarged the editorial departments at the end of the magazine so as to include comment on politics, art, and music, as well as literature. For a while, I think for a year, I indulged the fancy of printing each month a piece of original music, with original songs; but though both the music and the songs were good, or at least from our best younger composers and poets, the feature did not please, - I do not know why, - and it was presently omitted.
To the reviews of American and English books I added certain pages of notices of French and German literature, and in these I had the very efficient and singularly instructed help of Mr. Thomas Sergeant Perry, who knew not only more of current continental literature than any other American, but more than all the other Americans. He wrote cleverly and facilely, and I felt that his work had a unique value too little recognized by the public, and to which I should feel it a duty, if it were not so entirely a pleasure, to bear witness here. He was one of the many new contributors with whom I had the good fortune to work forward in the magazine. I could not exaggerate his rare qualifications for the work he undertook; his taste and his temperament, at once just and humane, were equal to his unrivaled knowledge. It is not too much to say that literally he read every important French and German book which appeared, not only in fiction, but in history, biography, criticism, and metaphysics, as well as those exact sciences which are nearest allied to the humanities.
I grouped the books according to their kinds, in the critical department, but eventually I broke from the departmental forum altogether, and began to print the different groups and the longer reviews as separate articles. It was a way of adding to the apparent as well as real variety of the table of contents which has approved itself to succeeding editors.
In the course of time, but a very long time, the magazine felt the need of a more informal expression than it found in the stated articles, and the Contributors' Club took the place of all the different departments, those of politics, music, and art having been dropped before that of literature. The new idea was talked over with the late George Parsons Lathrop, who had become my assistant, and we found no way to realize it but by writing the first paragraphs ourselves, and so tempting others to write for the Club. In the course of a very few months we had more than help enough, and could easily drop out of the cooperation.
Except for the brief period of a year or eighteen months, I had no assistance during my editorship. During the greater part of time I had clerkly help, most efficient, most intelligent; but I read all the manuscripts which claimed critical attention; I wrote to contributors who merited more than a printed circular; I revised all the proofs, verifying every quotation and foreign word, and correcting slovenly style and syntax, and then I revised the author's and my own corrections. Meantime I was writing not only criticisms, but sketches, stories, and poems for the body of the magazine, and in the course of time, a novel each year. It seems like rather full work, but I had always leisure, and I made a long summer away from Cambridge in the country. The secret, if there was any secret, lay in my doing every day two or three hours' work, and letting no day pass idly. The work of reading manuscripts and writing letters could be pushed into a corner, and taken out for some interval of larger leisure; and this happened oftener and oftener as I grew more and more a novelist, and needed every morning for fiction. The proof-reading, which was seldom other than a pleasure, with its tasks of revision and research, I kept for the later afternoons and evenings; though sometimes it well-nigh took the character of original work, in that liberal Atlantic tradition of bettering the authors by editorial transposition and paraphrase, either in the form of suggestion or of absolute correction. This proof-reading was a school of verbal exactness and rhetorical simplicity and clearness, and in it I had succeeded others, my superiors, who were without their equals. It is still my belief that the best proofreading in the world is done in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it is probably none the worse for my having a part in it no longer.
As I have intimated, I found it by no means drudgery; though as for drudgery, I think that this is for the most part in the doer of it, and it is always a very wholesome filing, even when it is real, objective drudgery. It would be a much decenter, honester, and juster world if we each took his share of it, and I base my best hopes of the future in some
such eventuality. Not only the proofs were a pleasing and profitable drudgery, but the poor manuscripts, except in the most forbidding and hopeless instances, yielded their little crumbs of comfort: they supported while they fatigued. Very often they startled the drooping intelli-gence with something good and new amidst their impossibility; very often, when they treated of some serious matter, some strange theme, some unvisited country, some question of unimagined import, they instructed and delighted the judge who knew himself inexorably averse to their acceptance, for editorial reasons; they, condemned to darkness and oblivion, enlightened and edified him with some indelible thought, some fresh, or some freshly related, fact. My information is not of so great density yet but I can still distinguish points in its nebulous mass, from time to time, which I cannot follow to their luminous source in the chapter or verse of any book I have read. These, I suspect, derive from some far-forgotten source in the thousands of manuscripts which in my fifteen editorial years I read and rejected.
The rejection of a manuscript often left a pang, but the acceptable manuscript, especially from an unknown hand, brought a glow of joy which richly compensated me for all I suffered from the others. To feel the touch never felt before, to be the first to fund the planet unimagined in the illimitable heaven of art, to be in at the dawn of a new talent, with the light that seems to mantle the written page: who would not be an editor, for such a privilege? I do not know how it is with other editors who are also authors, but I can truly say for myself that nothing of my own which I thought fresh and true ever gave me more pleasure than that I got from the like qualities in the work of some young writer revealing his power.
It was quite as often her power, for in our beloved republic of letters the citizenship is not reserved solely to males of twenty-one and over. I have not counted up the writers who came forward in these pages during my time, and I do not know which sex prevails in their number, but if any one were to prove that there were more women than men, I should not be surprised. I do not remember any man who feigned himself a woman, but now and then a woman liked to masquerade as a man, though the disguise never deceived the editor, even when it deceived the reader, except in the very signal and very noted instance of Miss Mary N. Murfree, whom, till I met her face to face, I never suspected for any but Charles Egbert Craddock. The severely simple, the robust, the athletic, hand which she wrote would have sufficed to carry conviction of her manhood against any doubt. But I had no doubts. I believe I took the first story she sent, and for three or four years I addressed my letters of acceptance, or criticism, to Charles Egbert Craddock, Murfeesboro', Tennessee, without the slightest misgiving. Then she came to Boston, and Aldrich, who had succeeded me, and who had already suffered the disillusion awaiting me, asked me to meet Craddock at dinner. He had asked Dr. Holmes and Lawrence Barrett, too; and I should not attempt to say whose astonishment he enjoyed most. But I wish I could recall word for word the exquisite terms in which Dr. Holmes turned his discomfiture into triumph in that most delicately feminine presence.
The proof of identity, if any were needed, came with the rich, full pipe of a voice in which she answered our words and gasps of amaze. In literary history I fancy there has been no such perfect masquerade; but masquerade was the least part of Miss Murfree's success. There seems in the dust and smoke of the recent literary explosions an eclipse of that fine talent, as strong as it is fine, and as native its it is rare; but I hope that when the vaporous reputations blow away, her clear light will show the stronger for its momentary obscuration. She was the first to express a true Southern quality in fiction, and it was not the less Southern because it rendered the strange, rude, wild life of a small section of the greater section which still unhappily remains a section. One might have said, looking back from the acknowledged fact of her personality, that a woman of the Rosa Bonheur type could well have caught the look of that half-savagery in her men; but that only a man could have touched in the wilding, flower-like, pathetic loveliness of the sort of heroine she gave to art.
She was far from the first, and by no means the last of those women, not less dear than great, whose work carried forward the early traditions of studied beauty in the magazine with something newer and racier in the flavor and fragrance of their fiction. I must name at the head of these that immediate classic Miss Sarah Orne Jewett, whose incomparable sketches of New England character began to appear well within my assistant-editorship, with whatever credit to me I may not rob my chief of. The truth is, probably, that he liked them as well as I, and it was merely my good luck to be the means of encouraging them in the free movement, unfettered by the limits of plot, and keeping only to the reality, which no other eye than hers has seen so subtly, so humorously, so touchingly. It is the foible of editors, if it is not rather their forte, to flatter themselves that though they may not have invented their contributions, they have at least invented their contributors; and if any long-memoried reader chooses to hail me an inspired genius because of my instant and constant appreciation of Miss Jewett's writing, I shall be the last to snub him down.
Without greatly fearing my frown, he may attribute a like merit to me for having so promptly and unremittingly recognized the unique artistry and beauty of Mr. Henry James's work. My desert in valuing him is so great that I can freely confess the fact that two of his stories and one of his criticisms appeared in the magazine some years before my time, though perhaps not with the band of music with which I welcomed every one afterwards. I do not know whether it was to try me on the story, or the story on me, that my dear chief (who was capable of either subtlety) gave me the fourth of Mr. James's contributions to read in the manuscript; but I was equal to either test, and returned it with the jubilant verdict, "Yes, and as many more as you can get from the author." He was then writing also for other magazines; after that I did my best to keep him for the Atlantic, and there was but one of his many and many contributions about which we differed. This was promptly printed elsewhere; but though I remember it very well, I will not name it, for we might differ about it still, and I would not make the render privy to a quarrel where all should be peace.
I feel a danger to the general peace in mentioning certain favorite contributors without mentioning others who have an equal right; but if it is understood that some are mentioned with a bad conscience for those passed in silence (I was not asked to write this whole number of the magazine) I hope I shall be forgiven. There was now and then a single contribution, or two contributions, which gave me high hopes of the author, but which were followed by no others, or no others so acceptable. Among such was "Captain Ben's Choice," a sketch of New England shore-character by Mrs. Frances L. Pratt, done with an authentic touch, and as finely and firmly as something of Miss Jewett's or Mrs. Wilkins Freemans. There were two stories, the only ones sent me, by Mrs. Sarah Butler Wister, which hind a distinction in the handling, and a penetrating quality in the imagining, far beyond that of most of the stories I was editorially proud of. Other contributors who began in Atlantic air were acclimated in another. In one volume I printed four good recollections of poems, which I thought and still think admirable, by Miss Edith Jones, who needs only to be named as Mrs. Edith Wharton to testify to that prophetic instinct in me which every editor likes to think himself endowed with; it does not matter if the prophecy fulfills itself a little circuitously.
My liking for Dr. Weir Mitchell and his work was a taste likewise inherited from my chief, though, strictly speaking, we began contributor and assistant editor together. From the first there was something equally attractive to me in his mystic, his realistic, and his scientific things, perhaps because they were all alike scientific. "The Case of George Dedlock" and "Was He Dead" gave us a scarcely different delight from that I took in "The Autobiography of a Quack." I have since followed the writer far in other fields, especially where he made his poetic ventures, but l keep is steadfast preference for those earlier things of his; I do not pretend it is a reasoned preference.
In another place (there are now so many other places!) I have told of my pleasure in the acquaintance, which instantly because friendship, with Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen and his poetry; whether he wrote it in verse or prose, it was always poetry. I need not dwell here upon that pleasure which his too early death has tinged with is lasting grief; but surely the reader who shared the first joy of his "Gunnar" with me would not like me to leave it unnamed among these memories. That romance was front the rapture of his own Norse youth and the youth of the Norse literature then so richly and fully adolescent in Bjornson and Lie, and Kielland, and hardening to its somber senescence in Ibsen. Boyesen never surpassed "Gunnar" in the idyllic charm which in him was never at odds with reality; but he went forward from it, irregularly enough, as a novelist and critic and poet, till he arrived at his farthest reach in "The Mammon of Unrighteousness," a great picture of the American life which he painted with a mastery few born to it have equaled an fewer yet surpassed.
There was long a superstition, which each of the editors before me had tried to enlighten, that the Atlantic was unfriendly to all literature outside of Boston or New England, or at the furthest, New York or Philadelphia. The fact was that there was elsewhere little writing worth printing in it; but that little it had cordially welcomed. When the little became a good deal the welcome was not more cordial, for it could not have been; and in seeking a further expansion, I was only following the tradition of the magazine. I cannot claim that there was anything original in my passion for the coalition, for "the familiar and the low," which Emerson held the strange and high. Lowell had the same passion for it in the intervals of his "toryism of the nerves," and nobody could have tasted its raciness with a keener gusto than my chief. But perhaps it was my sense not only of the quaint, the comic, but of the ever-poetic in the common, that made it dear to me. It was with a tingling delight that I hailed any verification of my faith in it, and among the confirmations which I received there was none stronger than that in the "Adirondack Sketches " of Mr. Philip Dealing. They were, whether instinctively or consciously, in the right manner, and of a simplicity in motive, material, and imagination as fine as something Norse, or Slavic, or Italian, or Spanish. No doubt, "Lida Ann," "Lost," " John's Trial," and "Willie" are distinguishable among the multitude of ghosts that haunt the memory of elder readers, but would only come to trouble joy in the younger sort, who delight in the human-nature fakirs of our latter-day fiction. Surely, in some brighter and clearer future, such dear, and true, and rare creatures of the sympathetic mind must have their welcome palingenesis for all.
Mr. Deming was only of the West which is as near Boston as Albany, but as I have said, there were four trans-Alleghanian poets who had penetrated to the mournful and misty Atlantic (as they had feared it) from their native lakes and rivers. Even in the sixth year of the magazine, Bret Harte of California had appeared in it; and others of the San Francisco school, notably Charles Warren Stoddard, had won an easy entrance after him. Where, indeed, would Mr. Stoddard have been denied, if he had come with something so utterly fresh and delicious as "A Prodigal in Tahiti"? Branches he bore of that and any another enchanted stem, which won his literature my love, and keep it to this day, so that a tender indignation rises in my heart when I find it is not known to every one. John Hay, so great in such different kinds, came also with verse and fiction, studies of the West, and studies of the lingering East in Spain as he had found it in his "Castilian Days." Later came Mark Twain, originally of Missouri, but then provisionally of Hartford, and now ultimately of the Solar System, not to say the Universe. He came first with "A True Story," one of those noble pieces of humanity with which the South has atoned chiefly if not solely through him for all its despite to the negro. Then he came with other things, but preeminently with " Old Times on the Mississippi," which I hope I am not too fondly mistaken in thinking I suggested his writing for the magazine. "A True Story" was but three pages long, and I remember the anxiety with which the business side of the magazine tried to compute its pecuniary value. It was finally decided to give the author twenty dollars a page, a rate unexampled in our modest history. I believe Mr. Clemens has since been offered a thousand dollars a thousand words, but I have never regretted that we paid him so handsomely for his first contribution. I myself felt that we were throwing in the highest recognition of his writing as literature, along with a sum we could ill afford; but the late Mr. Houghton, who had then become owner and paymaster, had no such reflection to please him in the headlong outlay. He had always believed that Mark Twain was literature, and it was his zeal and courage which justified me in asking for more and more contributions from him, though at a lower rate. We counted largely on his popularity to increase our circulation when we began to print the piloting papers; but with one leading journal in New York republishing them as quickly as they appeared, and another in St. Louis supplying the demand of the Mississippi Valley, and another off in San Francisco offering them to his old public on the Pacific slope, the sales of the Atlantic Monthly were not advanced a single copy, so far as we could make out. Those were the simple days when the magazines dlid not guard their copyright as they do now; advance copies were sent to the great newspapers, which helped their readers to the plums, poetic and prosaic, before the magazine could reach the news-stands, and so relieved them of the necessity of buying it.
Among other contributors to whom we looked for prosperity and by whom we were disappointed of it, was Charles Reade, whose star has now declined so far that it is hard to believe that at the time we printed his "Griffith Gaunt" it outshone or presently outflashed any other light of English fiction. We had also a short serial story from Charles Dickens, eked out into three numbers, for which we paid (I remember gasping at the monstrous sum) a thousand dollars; and one poem by Tennyson, and several by Browning, without sensible pecuniary advantage. But this was in the earlier rather than the latter part of my term, that the transatlantic muse was more invited; I thought either she did not give us of her best, or that she had not anything so acceptable to give us as our own muse.
The fact is we were growing, whether we liked it or not, more and more American. Without ceasing to be New England, without ceasing to be Bostonian, at heart, we had become southern, mid-western, and far-western in our sympathies. It seemed to me that the new good things were coming from those regions rather than from our own coasts and hills, but it may have been that the things were newer oftener than better. A careful count of heads might still show that a majority of the good heads in the magazine were New England heads. In my time, when I began to have it quite to myself, our greatest writers continued to contribute, with the seconding which was scarcely to be distinguished in quality. As if from the grave, Hawthorne rose in the first number I made up with "Septimius Felton" in his wizard hand, amidst a company of his living contemporaries who are mostly now his fellow-ghosts. Dr. Holmes printed "The Poet at the Breakfast-Table" in my earliest volumes, and thereafter with touching fealty to the magazine responded to every appeal of the young editor. Longfellow was constant, as before; Lowell was even hurt when once, to spare him the tiresome repetition, I had not put his name in the prospectus; Emerson sent some of his most Emersonian poems; Whittier was forgivingly true to the flag, after its mistaken bearer had once refined his following. Among the younger poets (I will call none of them minor) Aldrich was as constant as Holmes, and Stedman as responsive as Longfellow; Bayard Taylor was generous of his best, as he had always been. Mrs. Stuart Phelps. Mrs. Thaxter, Mrs. Prescott Spofford, Mrs. L. C. Moulton, Mrs. Fields, Lucy Larcomn. Mr. Trowbridge, wrote characteristic verse which I cannot believe any one more valued than the new host who welcomed it.
If he welcomed from Indiana the note of Maurice Thompson with a glad sense of its freshness, he accepted every one of the twelve pieces offered him by Hiram Rich of Gloucester, Massachusetts, with as deep a pleasure in their new touch; and he printed as eagerly the richly fancied, richly pictorial poems of that sadly unvalued true poet, Edgar Fawcett. Helen Hunt Jackson of Massachusetts and Paul H. Hayne of South Carolina had always the same hospitality if not always the same esteem. They were poets both, though one is scarcely more remembered than the other. Constance Fenimore Woolson of Cleveland sent stories and studies of life in the Great Lake hands; and Mr. William Henry Bishop of Milwaukee contributed a romance which those who have not forgotten "Detmold" must remember for the restraint and delicacy with which a new motive in fiction was managed, and the truth with which the daring situation was imagined. George Parsons Lathrop, Hawaiian-born and German-bred, came to my help in the editorship about the time that the most American of Scotchmen, Robert Dale Owen, was writing his charming autobiography in separable chapters, after the fashion adopted by that most American of Englishmen, James Parton, in printing his biography of Jefferson. John Fiske, one of the most autochthonic of New Englanders, pursued at my suggestion the same method with the papers forming his "Myths and Myth-Makers," and began with them his long line of popular contributions to the magazine, though some minor articles had preceded them. Another New Englander, quite as autochtonic, began contributor with a series of brilliant sketches, and ended with a series of papers on "Sanitary Drainage" which were equally characteristic of his various talent. This was George E. Waring, who had been the soldier he always looked, and who had afterwards the boldness to dream of cleaning New York, and when he had realized his dream, went to Cuba and died a hero of humanity in the cause of sanitary science. Yet another New Englander of an almost equal date, all absolutely New England in his difference from the others as either, was that gentle and fine and quaint Charles Dudley Warner; his studies of travel shed a light on these pages as from a clear lamp of knowledge, which every now and then emitted a flash of the tricksy gayety, the will-o'-the-wisp humor, pervading his playful essays.
It is in vain that I try to separate my editorial achievements from those of my immediate predecessor. I had certainly the indisputable credit of suggesting, if not instigating, the publication of Mrs. Frances Kemble's autobiography by asking why she did not write it, when I already knew she was writing it, and so perhaps taking her fancy. But shall I claim the honor of being Aldrich's editor, because I published all his romances and many of his best poems. Many others yet of his best had appeared in the Atlantic during my own literary nonage, when I classed him with Longfellow and Lowell in his precocious majority; and the reader may be sure there were none of his pieces in that halt-barrel of accepted manuscripts which came down to me from the first as well as the second editor of the magazine.
I say half-barrel, but if that seems too much I will compromise on a bushel, on condition that it shall be full measure, pressed down and running over. From the beginning up to my time and all through it, the custom of the magazine had been to pay for contributions on publication, and such inhibition as fear of the publisher's chock had not been laid upon Lowell's literary tenderness or Fields's generous hopefulness when it came to the question of keeping some passable sketch, or article, or story, or lion. These were now there, in all their sail variety, in that half-barrel, or call it bushel, which loomed a hogshead in my view, when my chief left it to file. But I was young and strong, and comparatively bold, and I grappled with these manuscripts at once. I will not pretend that I read them; for me the fact that they were accepted was enough, if they still had any life in them. The test was very simple. If the author was still living, then his contribution was alive; if he was dead, then it was dead too; and I will never confess with what ghoulish glee I exulted in finding a manuscript exanimate. With the living I struggled through a long half-score of years, printing them as I could, and if any author dropped by the way, laying his unpublished manuscript like a laurel crown upon his tomb. When Aldrich came to any relief, I placed a pathetic remnant of the bushel, say a half-peck, in his hands, and it was with a shock that I learned later of his acting upon a wholly different conception of his duty to these heirlooms; he sent them all back, dead or alive, and so made an end of an intolerable burden.
I do not blame him for this short and easy method with them; I am not sure but it would be well for mankind if we could use some such method with all the heirlooms of the past. But now that I am no longer an editor, and am without the reasonable hope of ever being one again, I am going to free my mind with regard to the sin I once shared. I think an editor has no right to accept a contribution unless he has some clear expectation of printing it within a reasonable time. His obligation toward the author is not discharged when he pays him; he is still bound to him in the debt of that publicity which the author was seeking from him and to which he has a right, as forming by far, especially if he is young and unknown, the greater part of his reward. In my time I was guilty of wrong in this sort to so many authors that if there is really going to be a Last Day I shall not know where to hide myself from them. In vain shall I plead a misplaced tenderness for their feelings; in vain a love for their work. I ought to have shielded them from both, and given them their contributions back with tears of praise, and hopes for them with other editors able to publish them soon, mingling with any fond regrets. Instead of that, I often kept them waiting a year, two years, three, five, when I had already kept them waiting months for a reading. The image of my desk is before me as I write, with unread manuscripts cumbering a corner of it, and I busy with my fictioning and pretending that I was only seeking to get the mood and the moment together for reading them. These were selected manuscripts which I had dug out of darkling drawers where I had thrown them indiscriminately, good, bad, and indifferent, as they came, and now and then visited them, to satisfy my bad conscience, and pluck forth a possibility or two , and add it to the heap at the corner of my desk. There, if I had been as honest with myself as I am now trying to be with the reader, I should not have let them lie so long, how long! Before I got the mood and moment together for them. That was a favourite phrase of mine, in those days; I remember using it with many contributors whom I cannot remember.
They are a patient tribe, these poor contributors, and they seldom turned upon me. Now and then they did, though, and wreaked a just resentment. This I took meekly when I had some excuse; when I had none, I returned it with a high professional scorn, tacit or explicit, which I am afraid editors still practice toward injured contributors; for if I, a very good man, as editors go, could carry myself so to their indignation, what must be the behavior of the average wicked editor of this degenerate day? I hate still to think of their vengeance, but how much more of their pardon, patient, silent, saintly?
But it was not to indulge these fond pleasures of autobiography that I began by speaking of the essential unity of the editorial tradition. Fields had continued Lowell, and perforce I infrangibly continued Fields, coloring the web a little, it seems a very little, from my own tastes and opinions. Certain writers besides those I have already named wrote on from him to me. Prime among these was Harriet Beecher Stowe, and next her was our honored and revered Dr. Hale, whose charmingly ingenious work came to me first in "My Visit to Sybaris," and last in "Life in the Brick Moon:" work not only charming and ingenious, but of a penetration, a presage, not yet fully realized through the play of humor and fancy. His peer and contemporary, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who had written so much, and always in the interest of art and humanity, honored my page as he had that of my predecessors; but I came to my place too late to welcome a contemporary of both, the friend whom I cannot trust myself to praise except in naming him, Charles Eliot Norton. His scholarship, his taste, his skill were already dedicated to other tasks; he was, with Lowell, editor of the North American Review; and I never edited anything of his except one brief critical notice, though the tale of his earlier contributions to the magazine continued from the first number, in criticisms and essays, to the last number of Mr. Lowell's time. I was proud to edit the brilliant chapter which Francis Parkman continued to give the magazine from the forthcoming volumes of history, ranking him at the head of American historians, and with the great historians of our time. The natural-historian, Mr. John Burroughs, who lives to instruct our day in the modest and beautiful truth of the life so near and yet so far from ours, was a guest of Field's long before he was mine; and Clarence King, worthy to be names with him for the charm of his science, came distinctly within the time of my suzerain. I read his proofs, though, and acclaimed the literature which King was always humorously ready to disclaim. Among the first serials which I printed was that story of Caroline Chesebro's, "the Foe in the Household, which I still think of a singular excellence. Later, quite within my time, were a novel and several short stories by William M. Baker, so racy of the South, and so good of their kind, that I remember them yet with satisfaction. Of the South, racy and excellent too, were the "Rebel's Recollections" of Mr. George Cary Eggleston, which it is pleasant to think that I asked him to set down for the magazine. I have often testified my esteem for the novels of J. W. De Forest, which I was so willing to print, and I need not repeat the witness here. But I should wrong myself if I did not record my strong belief that I was among the first editors to recognize the admirable talent of Octave Thanet.
I should like to speak of them all, those contemporaries and contributors of mine, whom naming a few of brings me my old joy in, with a grief for leaving any unnamed. Their successes could not have been dearer to them than they were to me. As each new talent revealed itself to me I exulted in it with a trans-port which I was sure the public would share with me, and which, whether it fell out so or not, it was an unselfish and unalloyed delight to edit, such as few things in life can give. It was all very, very intimate, that relation of editor and contributor. I do not mean as to personal acquaintance, for in the vast, the overwhelming majority of cases, it never came to that; but I mean the sort of metempsychosis by which I was put so entirely in their place, became so more than one with them, that any slight or wrong done to them hurt me more than if it were done to me. Each number of the magazine was an ever new and ever dear surprise for me, at every advance of its being, from the time I put it together in manuscript and gave the copy to the printers until it came into my hands a finished product from the bindery, smelling so intoxicatingly of the ink and paper. At the end of the editor's month, which was a full month before the reader's, there was a struggle with the physical limitations of the magazine which tasked all my powers. I went to have it out, first to the University Press, and then to the Riverside Press; and there I cut and hewed and pared at the quivering members of the closing pages till they cattle into bounds and the new number was ready to orb about in the space that was perhaps finally too large for it. For the publishers, the corrections, especially the excisions, were expensive pangs, like those of all surgery; but often I wished to avoid them by the yet more expensive enlargement of the magazine, entreating the publishers for eight pages more, or even for four, though I knew they must lose money by it.
There go with these more material memories flitting remembrances, psychical to ineffability, of winter days, and laborious trudges to the printers' through the deep Cambridge snow, when the overwrought horse-car faltered in its track; and of Cambridge summer nights spent far toward their starry noons over obdurate proofs, while the crickets and the grasshoppers rasped together under the open window, and the mad moth beat against the chimney of the lamp. What sounds bug silent, what scents fallen odorless, renew themselves in the content of these records! They are parts of the universal death, which, unless we call it the universal life, we are forever dying into. They who equally with myself composed the Atlantic, the beloved, the admired contributors, outdied me, so many of them, years and years ago. The great Agassiz, who wept to think he should not finish his book, stayed to give the magazine only a few first chapters. It was but the other year that the wise, the good Shaler, whose writing in it began almost with mimic, ceased from it; and now Aldrich, my time-mate, my work-mite, my play-mate, is gone, he who should have died hereafter, how long hereafter! For the greater great, they who were still living presences when the enterprise which their genius had stamped with ineffaceable beauty and dignity was safe in its strong maturity, the tears were dried years ago. If one outlives, one loses, one sorrows and ceases to sorrow. That is the law. I cannot wish that these intimates in the ideal and the real had outlived the least of their friends, but I wish they had not died till the work which they, far more than any editor, or all the editors, created, was crowned with the end of its half-hundredth year.
I did not well know how to begin these wandering lucubrations - I believe I never used the word before, but it is not too late - and I do not know better how to end them. But the reader may care to learn how it was with one when he parted with the task which had so intensely occupied him for fifteen years. When the burden dropped from me, it was instantly as if I had never felt it. I did not think of it enough to miss it, to rejoice that it was gone. After another fifteen years I began to dream of resuming it. I would dream that I was on the train from New York to Boston, going back to be editor of the Atlantic again. The dream went on, fitfully or frequently, for five or six years. Then at last I found myself on the train with one of my successors, not the least of my friends, and I said, "Well, Scudder, I have often dreamed of going back to be editor of the Atlantic, and here, now, I am really going." But that was a dream, too.
Volume 100, No. 5; p. 594–606