Sixty Years' Gleanings From Life's Harvest


A Genuine Autobiography. By JOHN BROWN, Proprietor of the University Billiard-Rooms, Cambridge. New York : Appleton & Company. 1859.

WE are all familiar with that John Brown whom the minstrel has immortalized as being the possessor of a diminutive youth of the aboriginal American race, who, in the course of the ditty, is multiplied from “ one little Injun ” into “ ten little Injuns,” and who, in a succeeding stanza, by an ingenious ampinsbænic process, is again reduced to the singular number. As far as we are aware, the author of this “ genuine autobiography ” claims no relationship with the famous owner of tender redskins. The multiplicity of adventures of which he has been the hero demands for him, however, the same notice that a multiplicity of “ Injuns ” has insured to his illustrious namesake.

We have always had a pet theory, that a plain and minute narrative of any ordinary man’s life, stated with simplicity and without any reference to dramatic effect or the elegances of composition, would possess an immediate interest for the public. We cannot know too much about men. No man’s life is so uneventful as to be incapable of amusing and instructing. The same event is never the same to more than one person; no two see it from the same point of view. And as we want to know more of men than of incidents, every one’s record of trifles is useful. A book written by a Cornish miner, whose life passes in subterranean monotony, sparing none of the petty and ever-recurring details that make up his routined existence, would, if set down in the baldest language, be a valuable contribution to literature. But we rarely, if ever, find a man sufficiently free from vanity and the demon of composition to tell us plainly what has happened to him. The moment the working-man gets a pen into his hand, he is, as it were, possessed. He is no longer himself. He has not the courage to come out naked and show himself in ail his grime and strength. The instant that he conceives the idea of putting himself on paper he borrows somebody else’s clothes, and, instead of a free, manly figure, we have a wretched scarecrow in a coat too small or too large for him,-generally the latter. For it is a curious fact, that the more uneducated a man is,-in which condition his ordinary language must of necessity be proportionately idiomatic,- the greater pains he takes, when he has formed the resolution of composing, to be splendid and expansive in his style. He racks his brains until he rummages out imperfect memories of the turgid paragraphs of cheap newspapers and novels which he has some time or other read, and forthwith struts off with all the finest feathers in the dictionary rustling about him.

Mr. John Brown, the hero of the Autobiography before us, is no exception to this unhappy rule. The sun of a butcher, he became in boyhood a sheep-driver, was then apprenticed to a shoemaker, got into trouble and a prison, enlisted as a soldier, deserted, turned strolling player, shipped on board a man-of-war, tried again to desert, was flogged at the gratings, beheld Napoleon on board the Bellerophon, was discharged from the navy, consorted with thieves and prize-fighters, appeared on the London stage with success, married and starved, became the pet of the Cambridge students, whom he assisted in amateur theatricals, started a stage-coach line to London and tailed, set up a billiard-room, got into innumerable street-fights and always came off conqueror, was elected town-councillor of Cambridge and made a fortune, which it is to be hoped he is now enjoying.

Here was material for a book. From the glimpses of his personnel which we occasionally catch through all Mr. Brown’s splendid writing, we should say that he was a man,of a strong, hearty nature, full of indomitable energy, and possessed with a truly Saxon predilection for the use of his fists. The number of physical contests in which he was chief actor renders his volume almost epical in character. Invulnerable as Achilles and quarrelsome as Hector, he strides over the bodies of innumerable foes. If some of his friends, the Seniors, at Cambridge, would only put his adventures into Greek verse, he might descend to posterity in sounding hexameters with the sons of Telamon and Thetis.

The plain narrative portions of Mr. Brown’s volume possess much real interest. His adventures with the strolling players, the insight he gives us into the life of a journeyman shoemaker, and his reminiscences of his friends, the Jew old-clothesmen, the pick-pockets, and the prize-fighters, are so many steaks cut warm from the living world, and are good, substantial food for thought. But he seldom forgets himself long, and is natural only by fits and starts. After he has been striding along for a short time with a free, manly gait, he suddenly bethinks himself that he is writing a book. The malign influences of Cambridge University begin to work upon him. The loose stride is contracted ; the swing of the vigorous shoulders is restrained, and, instead of an honest fellow tramping sturdily after his own fashion through the paths of literature, we are treated to an imitation of Dr. Johnson, done hv an illiterate butcher's son. We are afraid that the Cantabs have been at the bottom of John Brown’s fine writing. How valuable, for instance, are the following philosophical reflections upon Napoleon, which John Brown makes when he beholds the dethroned Emperor standing sadly upon the poop of the Bellerophon !

“ Here, then,” remarks John, “ had ended his dream of universal conquest ; here he lay prostrate at the foot of the altar," (we are informed a few lines before this that he had taken his stand on the poop,) “ on which he sacrificed, not hecatombs, but pyramids, of human victims.” (Beautiful antithesis!) “As his ambition was boundless, posterity will not weep at his fall. But that he insinuated himself into the hearts of a generous people is too true; they worshipped him as a demigod, until,” etc. Farther on, we learn the startling intelligence, that “for a time his adopted country was enriched by the spoils and plunder of other lands.” ( Did Alison know this ?) “ He formed the bulk

of the population into an organized banditti, and led them forth in martial pomp to do the unholy work of bloodshed and robbery. . . . All the independent states of Europe leagued together to put down this infamous system of national plunder.” (Russia among the rest of the independent states, we suppose.) ... “ Had he been desirous of establishing just principles on earth, and crushing despotism, the sympathies of the entire human race would have been enlisted on his side. " Certainly, John. Two and two make four, and things that are equal to the same are equal to each other.

After having in a street-fight pommelled an unhappy Cambridge student into jelly, and reduced him to a state which he picturesquely describes as resembling that of “a dog in a coal-box,” he picks him up and philosophically informs him that “ all the diflerent styles offence were invented and established for man’s protection, not for his destruction. Besides,” he adds, with much profundity, “ the laws thereto appertaining are based on certain strict principles of honor, which you have unquestionably violated in this case. Now, take my advice, never again engage in fight without having some just cause of quarrel. Thus, at least, you will always come off with credit, if not with victory.” And having delivered himself of this stupendous moral lesson, Dr. Samuel Johnson Mendoza John Brown puts on his hat (he surely ought to have had a full-bottomed wig under it) and walks off, leaving his opponent doubtless mure like a dog in a coalbox than ever. He sees Dr. Abernethy, and rises into this inspired strain : “ To me, who have ever held genius and talent in veneration, as being

'Olympus-high above all earthly things,’

the sight of this plain, unostentatious man afforded more pleasurable feelings than could all the gilded pomp beneath the sun.” One can fancy, if John had communicated this reflection to the Doctor, what would have been the reply of that suave practitioner. He goes to low dancehouses, and the interesting result of his reflections on what he beheld there is, “ that vice, however gilded over, is still a hideous monster; in which conviction, I resigned myself to that power that ‘ must delight in virtue.'" When he speaks of his billiard-pupils, he loftily denominates them “hundreds of the best gentlemen-players scattered over the earth's surface,” from which we draw the pleasing inference that none of John Brown’s scholars are addicted to subterranean billiards.

In spite of these rags of old college-gowns, in which John so funnily arrays himself on occasions, his book is worth reading. If it has not the muscular, unaffected morality of his namesake’s unsurpassable “ School-Days at Rugby,” it is at least the production of an honest, hearty Englishman, and teaches an excellent lesson on the value of pluck and perseverance.