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.

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.

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