William Makepeace Thackeray and James T. Fields

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Illustration by Edward Sorel

An ocean lay between them, spanned by the magnetism of similar minds. Without Fields's urging, Thackeray might never have ventured so far as America—and not once but twice. When Fields's duties as the junior partner (and later the head) of the publishers Ticknor & Fields took him to London, the two were nearly inseparable. The gentle New Englander found Thackeray irrepressible: "Down on your knees, you rogue, for here Vanity Fair was penned!" the novelist ordered, striking a pose outside his Kensington abode. And on a Boston stroll his natural exuberance—a shout of joy here, a happy shuffle there—evoked stares.

Dinners marked by hilarity and good fellowship were the hallmark of Thackeray's visits, so it was not without apprehension that Fields invited Thackeray during his second Boston visit to a meeting of a scientific club. He knew that a prosy presentation on a dull topic was all too possible, and in fact that was exactly what occurred. Thackeray was instantly bored. His own speeches, which commanded high fees, seldom went beyond a few paragraphs delivered with verve and charm. Now he rose quite deliberately from his prominent position and escaped into a small, dimly lit anteroom. Once there, visible to few except Fields, he became an exultant schoolboy just released from his lessons, inventing a pantomime of retaliation at his friend. With exaggerated gestures he threw an imaginary Fields to the floor and stabbed him repeatedly. Then, feigning doubt that his victim had expired, he drew an imaginary revolver and fired several times at his friend's supposed head. As the speaker droned on, Thackeray climaxed his drama by seizing a small vial lying on a mantelpiece and miming the scene from Hamlet in which one of the players, intending to represent Claudius, kills the king by pouring poison into his ear.

A few years later, as the editors of Cornhill Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly, respectively, Thackeray and Fields attended a festive dinner in London. Afterward Thackeray drove his friend home. In spite of the piercing cold, he escorted Fields to the door, sang a little verse that he knew Fields was fond of, and gave him "a gigantic embrace." Fields never saw him again.

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