The Life and Letters of James Gates Percival
By Ticknor and Fields.. Boston :
WE have found few books so depressing as this. The spectacle of any sort of helplessness is melancholy ; but a life-long helplessness of the kind which does not admit of relief from benevolence and friendship, is intolerable to dwell upon. It paralyzes even pity ; the gods are against it.
Percival’s seems to have been a life spoiled by excessive indulgence in unripe opportunities. His impatience destroyed in every way his chances of prosperity and greatness. He was born richly gifted, but nothing came to maturity in him. The critic must see that his poetry, however deeply imbued with genius, is wanting in the finest quality, and lacking, not only in the ultimate, but the antepenultimate touches of art. It was often published prematurely for itself and for its author, who would have forced his fame, and even his era. Perhaps no man of æsthetic purposes in all the world docs the work he wants to ; and almost certainly no such man in America does. The painter paints portraits and landscapes, the sculptor makes busts, the architect builds French-roofed country-houses, and marble-fronted, brick-backed palaces for retailing merchandise, the poet writes prose for the magazines and newspapers, and we suspect that several mute, inglorious Miltons are now contributing to the metropolitan press, of which the style is unquestionably inarticulate and obscure. Yet more than thirty years ago Percival sought to live by literature proper in a small town in a country still quite provincial. His execution of this plan was as remarkable as its conception. His sensitiveness was, if we may so speak, aggressive to such a degree that it wounded as often as it received hurt. He suspected all who had business transactions with him, and tried to break nearly every contract favorable to himself, while he clung with fatal fidelity to his bad bargains. The efforts of friends to help him were of scarcely better effect than his own ; indeed, his pride, his obstinacy and fickleness, must have made it very hard to befriend him, and very thankless. Something of his early insanity, doubtless, always lurked in him, perverting a sweet and grateful nature, He shunned society, and thought himself neglected ; he ran away from the presence of women, and expected the astonished fair he fell in Love with to marry him without a hint of courtship preceding his ofter. From his own purposes and his own conduct, nothing could flow but disappointment, mortification, and failure. He must live as he did live, in poverty and solitude ; and, dying, he must leave, as he has left, his fame to perish with his contemporaries ; for what young man reads Percival? Beds of roses, once so much in use in this world, seem to have gone out with the Sybarites ; but there are still honest husk-mattresses, and if we lie upon burrs and thistles, we fear that it is either from our choice or our aberration.
In things that did not concern himself immediately, Percival was wise enough ; and there is great value in some of his fierce, pungent criticisms of writers apparently great in his day, but known in this to have been stuffed out with straw. He was, indeed, a man of singular honesty in all things, and a natural hater of shams. If he had had humor, he could have been more useful to himself and to literature ; for a due perception of the absurd would have saved him from many errors of his own, and would probably have led him to some connected criticism of others. But he had no humor, and his attempts at fun were very melancholy : he never made any joke above the Wordsworthian standard. His life was as pure and blameless as a child' s; and if our sympathy cannot follow all his eccentricities, our respect is due to his selfdevotion and high aspirations.
The character of the man is suffered to appear in perfect relief by Mr. Ward, to whom we owe one of the most interesting of American biographies. The story tells itself in great part in Percival’s own letters and correspondence, and is further developed in the reminiscences of his acquaintance. These Mr. Ward has presented in the language of the writers, and the effect is that of great freshness and variety. Wherever the biographer takes up the narrative himself, he handles it with spirit and good sense, and as discreetly as his merely editorial work. There is nowhere an efiort to force Percival upon either compassion or admiration. The facts of his life are simply, fully, and impartially rehearsed, and we behold him as we believe he was, — a man of whom the world took some advantages, but whom it also intended good that he could not receive.