Record of an Obscure Man. Tragedy of Errors


Parts I. and II. Boston : Ticknor and Fields. 1861, 1862.
AMONG the marked literary productions long to he associated with our present struggle — among them, yet not of them — are the volumes whose titles we have quoted. They differ from the recent electric messages of Holmes, Whittier, and Mrs. Howe, in not being obvious results of vivid events. “Bread and the Newspaper,” “ The Song of the Negro Boatmen,” and “ Our Orders ” will reproduce for another generation the fervid feelings of to-day. But the pathetic warnings exquisitely breathed in the writings before us will then come to their place as a deep and tender prelude to the voices heard in this passing tragedy.
The “ Record of art Obscure Man ” is the modest introduction to a dramatic poem of singular pathos and beauty. A NewEnglander of culture and sensibility, naturalized at the South, is supposed to communicate the results of his study and observation of that outcast race which has been the easy contempt of ignorance in both sections of the country. Our instructor has not only a clear judgment of the value of dificrent testimonies, and the scholarly instinct of arrangement and classification, but also that divine gift of sympathy, which alone, in this world given for our observation, can tell us what to observe. The illustrations of the negro’s character, and the answers to vulgar depreciation of his tendencies and capacities, are given with the simple directness of real comprehension. It is the privilege of one acquainted in no common degree with languages and their history to expose that dreary joke of the dialect of the oppressed, which superficial people have so long found funny or contemptible. The simplicity and earnestness which give dignity to any phraseology come from the humanity behind it. We are well reminded that divergences from the common use of language, never held to degrade the meaning in Milton or Shakspeare, need not render thought despicable when the negro uses identical forms. If he calls a leopard a “libbard,” he only imitates the most sublime of English poets ; and the first word of his petition, “Gib us tins day our daily bread,” is pronounced as it rose from the lips of Luther. The highest truths the faith of man may reach are symbolized more definitely, and often more picturesquely, by the warm imagination of tlie African than by tlie cultivated genius of the Caucasian. Also it is shown how the laziness and ferocity with which the negro is sometimes charged may be more than matched in the history of his assumed superior. Yet, while acknowledging how well-considered is the matter of this introductory volume, we regret what seems to he an imperfection in the form in which it is presented. There is too much story, or too little, — too little to command the assistance of fiction, too much to prevent a feeling of disappointment that romance is attempted at all. The concluding autobiography of the friend of Colvil is hardly consistent with his character as previously suggested ; it seems unnecessary to the author’s purpose, and is not drawn with the minuteness or power which might justify its introduction. We notice this circumstance as explaining why this Introduction may possibly fail of a popularity more extended than that which its tenderness of thought and style at once claimed from the best readers.
The “ Tragedy of Errors ” presents, with tlie vivid idealization of art, some of the results of American Slavery. Travellers, novelists, ethnologists have spoken with various ability of the laborers of the South: and now the poet breaks through the hard monotony of their external lives, and lends the plasticity of a cultivated mind to take impress of feeling to which the gift of utterance is denied. And it is often only through the imagination of another that the human bosom can be delivered “of that perilous stuif which weighs upon the heart.” For it is a very common error to estimate mental activity by a command of the arts of expression; whereas, at its best estate, speech is an imperfect sign of perception, and one which without special cultivation must be wholly inadequate. Thus it will be seen that an employment of the dialect and limited vocabulary of the negro would be obviously unsuitable to the purpose of the poem ; and these have been wisely discarded. In doing this, however, the common license of dramatists is not exceeded ; and the critical censure we have read about “ the extravagant idealization of the negro ” merely amounts to saying that the writer has been bold enough to stem the current of traditional opinion, and find a poetic view of humanity at the present time and in its most despised portion. The end of dramatic writing is not to reproduce Nature, but to idealize it; a literal copying of the same, as everybody knows, is the merit of the photographer, not of the artist. .Again, it should be remembered that the highly wrought characters among the slaves are whites, or whites slightly tinged with African blood. With the commonest allowance for the exigencies of poetic presentation, we find no individual character unnatural or improbable; though the particular grouping of these characters is necessarily improbable. For grace of position and arrangement every dramatist must claim. If the poet will but take observations from real persons, however widely scattered, discretion may be exercised in the conjunction of those persons, and in the sequence of incidents by which they are affected. An æsthetic invention may he as natural as a mechanical one, although the materials for each are collected from a wide surface, and placed in new relations. Thus much we say as expressing dissent from objections which have been hastily made to this poem.
Of the plot of the “ Tragedy of Errors ” we have only space to say that the writer has cut a channel for very delicate verses through the heart of a Southern plantation. Here, at length, seems to he one of those thoroughly national subjects for which critics have long been clamorous. The deepest passion is expressed without touching the tawdry properties of the “ intense ” school of poetry. The language passes from the ease of perfect simplicity to the conciseness of power, while the relation of emotion to character is admirably preserved. The moral —which, let us observe in passing, is decently covered with artistic beauty — relates, not to the most obvious, but to the most dangerous mischiefs of Slavery. Indeed, the story is only saved from being too painful by a fine appreciation of the medicinal quality of all wretchedness that the writer everywhere displays, In the First Part, the nice intelligence shown in the rough contrast between Hermann and Stanley, and in the finished contrast between Alice and Helen, will claim the reader’s attention. The sketches of American life and tendencies, both Northern and Southern, are given with discrimination and truth. The dying scene, which closes the First Part, seems to us nobly wrought. The “ death-bed hymn” of the slaves sounds a pathetic wail over an abortive life shivering on the brink of the Unknown. In the Second Part we find less of the color and music of a poem, and more of the rapid movement of a drama. The doom of Slavery upon the master now comes into full relief. The characters of Herbert and his father are favorable specimens of well-meaning, even honorable, Southern gentlemen, — only not endowed with such exceptional moral heroism as to offer the pride of life to he crushed, before hideous laws. The connection between lyric and tragic power is shown in the “ Tragedy of Errors.” The songs and chants of the slaves mingle with the higher dialogue like the chorus of the Greek stage ; they mediate with gentle authority between the worlds of natural feeling and barbarous usage. Let us also say that the sentiment throughout this drama is sound and sweet; for it is that mature sentiment, born again of discipline, which is the pledge of fidelity to the highest business of life.
Before concluding, we take the liberty to remove a mask, not impenetrable to the careful reader, by saying that the writer is a woman. And let us be thankful that a woman so representative of the best eulture and instinct of New England cannot wholly conceal herself by the modesty of a pseudonyme. In no way has the Northern spirit roused to oppose the usurpations of Slavery more truly vindicated its high quality than by giving development to that feminine element which has mingled with our national life an influence of genuine power. And to-day there are few men justly claiming the much-abused title of thinkers who do not perceive that the opportunity of our regenerated republic cannot be fully realized, until we cease to press into factitious conformity the faculties, tastes, and — let us not shrink front the odious word — missions of women. The merely literary privilege accorded a generation or two ago is in itself of slight value. Since the success of “ Evelina,” women have been freely permitted to jingle pretty verses for family newspapers, and to novelize morbid sentiments of the feebler sort. And we see one legitimate result in that flightiness of the feminine mind which, in a lower stratum of current literature, displays inaccurate opinions, feeble prejudices, and finally blossoms into pert vulgarity. But instances of perverted license increase our obligation to Mrs. Child, Mrs. Stowe, and to others whose eloquence is only in deeds. Of such as these, and of her whom we may now associate with them, it is not impossible some unborn historian may write, that in certain great perils of American liberty, when the best men could only offer rhetoric, women came forward with demonstration. Yet, after all, our deepest indebtedness to the present series of volumes seems to be this : they' bear gentle testimony to what the wise ever believed, that the delicacy of spirit we love to characterize by the dear word “ womanly ” is not inconsistent with varied and exact information, independent opinion, and the insights of genius.
Finally, we venture to mention, what has been in the minds of many New-England readers, that these books are indissolubly associated with a young life offered in the nation’s great necessity. At the time when the first Of the series was made public, a shudder ran through our homes, as a regiment, rich in historic names, stood face to face with death. Among the fallen was the only son of her whose writings have been given us. Let us think without bitterness of the sacrifice of one influenced and formed by the rare nature we find in these poems. What better result of culture than to dissipate intellectual mists and uncertainties, and to fix the grasp firmly upon some great practical good ? There is nothing wasted in one who lived long enough to show that the refinement acquired and inherited was of the noble kind which could prefer the roughest action for humanity to elegant allurements of gratified taste. The best gift of scholarship is the power It gives a man to descend with all the force of his acquired position, and Come into effective union with the world of facts. For it is the crucial test of brave qualities that they are truer and more practical for being filtered through libraries. In reading the “ Theages” of Plato we feel a certain respect for the young seeker of wisdom whose only wish is to associate with Socrates; and there is a certain admiration for the father, Demodocus, who joyfully resigns his son, if the teacher will admit him to his friendship and impart all that he can. But it is a higher result of a higher order of society, when a young man with aptitude to follow science and assimilate knowledge sees in the most perilous service of civilization a rarer illumination of mind and heart. In the great scheme of things, where all grades of human worthiness are shown for the benefit of man, this costly instruction shall not fail of fruit. And so the deepest moral that comes to us from the “ Tragedy of Errors ” seems a prophetic memorial of the soldier for constitutional liberty with whom it will be long connected. The wealth of life—so we read the final meaning of these verses — is in its discipline ; and the graceful dreams of the poet, and the quickened intellect of the scholar, are but humble instruments for the helping of mankind.