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.

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.

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