Recollections of an Atlantic Editorship

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.

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.

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