Richard Henry Dana
NOTWITHSTANDING Professor Tyler’s investment of the colonial period of American literature with the fascination of romance, it is only the master of quaint materials who can make it interesting to the general reader. It was not until this century had been well begun that any piece of writing was produced which could be said to make its mark in imaginative literature. Nearly all the men who first gave tone and nationality to our literature were born in the last part of the last quarter of the last century, and had begun to make their mark before 1825. Salmagundi and Irving’s Knickerbocker led the way: the Monthly Anthology stood for New England culture; Buckminster’s discourses had made a wonderful impression; Moses Stuart had begun his Hebrew Grammar; Edward Robinson was thinking of his Biblical Researches; Buckingham and Stone were raising the standard of journalism; Silliman was investing scientific study with the charm of his discursive genius; Allston had just returned from Europe, fresh from English studios and from Coleridge’s home at Highgate; George Ticknor had given an impulse to letters by his lectures at Harvard College on modern literature; Timothy Dwight had shown what a man of universal acquirements could do as a college president; Edward Everett had begun his work at Cambridge and in the North American Review; Halleck had published his Fanny; Drake was musing airy nothings for the fantasy of The Culprit Fay; Cooper was initiating a new school of fiction; Channing was just entering upon his great controversy; James Hillhouse had produced The Judgment; Percival was writing fugitive poems in his happiest vein ; in England, Wordsworth and Coleridge were founding a new school of poetry and philosophy; Goethe and Schiller were making German literature famous by their writings; Dr. Marsh was introducing the study of Coleridge in this country; and in every branch of letters and of thought the lines were being laid by which what is distinctively American in literature, philosophy, politics, and theology has been developed. It was the day before Longfellow, Emerson, Holmes, and Whittier had begun their work; even Bryant had hardly entered upon his career, and Allston was best known by The Sylphs of the Seasons.
It was in this company that Richard Henry Dana grew up to leadership. It was the day of ventures the world over; with us it was the day of venturous beginnings. In 1821 Dana began the occasional publication of The Idle Man, as Percival, about the same time, began the occasional pamphlet called Clio; but even earlier than this he had made his mark with vigorous critical articles in the North American Review. Bryant and Allston assisted him with their poems, and an intimacy began between these three which may be called the most touching friendship yet known in American letters. It was the day when authors wrote because they must, and thought themselves well off if they were not obliged to pay the expenses of publication.
In Dana’s case it was the push of genius which impelled him to authorship. He was the first to discover the merit of the author of Thanatopsis, and no one saw more clearly than he the elements which were to control the higher departments of thought during the century. He welcomed Coleridge when only one beside himself among American scholars, President Marsh, of Vermont, had discovered his merits. He first stood up for Wordsworth in America; he shared with George Ticknor the merit of turning the tide of American literary life away from the artificial school of Pope, and made himself so unpopular in his efforts to break up the clannishness of the Cambridge culture of that day that when his cousin, Edward Tyrrel Channing, retired from the editorship of the North American he was too unpopular to succeed him in that position. But it was this very independence of contemporary opinion, so marked a feature of his prose writings, that enabled him to be true to himself. He had the prophetic instinct in letters. If, as has been thought, he is more of a critic than a poet, he is still a critic who interprets his author through a sympathetic, powerful imagination, and his prose is often the best kind of imaginative writing. The merit of Thanatopsis was so akin to his own intuitions of what is true in nature and experience that it bound him to Bryant for life, and the discovery of the same poetic and artistic instinct in Allston was the secret of their intimacy. Through half a century t the attraction of Dana’s work in poetry and in prose has brought to his home nearly every foreign or native author or eminent person who has visited Boston, and, much as he shrank from the visits of literary idlers, the persons who sought him with honest purpose never left the quiet home in Chestnut Street without feeling affection and reverence for the remarkable man who dwelt within it. Every one felt that he must see Dana if he were to trace American literature to its leading mind. It was seen and felt even by his own contemporaries that he held this place. Percival, shy and sensitive, found in the home of Dana not less than in that of Ticknor the appreciation which he craved; Charles Brockden Brown found him the true interpreter of his genius; he was the one man in America who saw what was in Edmund Kean; he introduced the criticism of Shakespeare which is now universal, and never grew tired of quoting and interpreting him; men old and gray to-day say that he discovered Shakespeare to them. One by one, the very people who once turned against him came to honor the man who had broadened American culture; and the things for which he stood firm fifty years ago — the return to nature, the spiritual philosophy of Coleridge, the sympathetic interpretation of life and thought, the masculine elements in English style, the breadth and truthfulness of culture—have now become the common property of the generation that has followed him to his grave. The career is unique; the position in American letters is secure; as time dwarfs the men of that age, he stands out more and more clearly as the prophet of the new day.
It is the simplest justice to his memory that his literary position should be understood at the start, but it is not easy to understand why he ceased to be an author without entering a little into his family and personal history. The Dana family draws its blood from the best stock in New England, and has been distinguished for over two centuries in our history. Richard Henry Dana’s father was the first minister to Russia, John Quincy Adams acting as his private secretary, and is well remembered as Chief-Justice Dana. He resided in Cambridge, and owned nearly the whole of the tract of land between the University grounds and the Charles River. In those days it was believed that the mouth of the Charles would be the port of Boston. In accordance with this conviction, immense sums of money were spent upon docks and wharves and other improvements to render the land more available for business purposes. The chiefjustice lived to inaugurate these plans, but they were for the most part developed by his children. The property involved is now valued at some fifty millions of dollars. When it was too late, it was discovered that commercial interests were taking a different direction, and the rapid depreciation of the estate, with the cost of improvements along the water-line, greatly impaired the family fortunes. It was believed in those virtuous days that if people failed they were not honorably discharged until they had returned dollar for dollar. This was the feeling with the children of the elder Dana. They surrendered their property; a brother returned from his studies abroad; horses and carriages were sold; valuable lands were turned into cash at forced sales; and every claim of honor and justice was fully met and satisfied. Although the property of the family was somewhat impaired, the brothers and sisters were still in good circumstances, as in fact they always were, and united their homes in one, which was entirely agreeable to the wonderful strength of their affection for one another. Richard Henry, however, was not satisfied to be without a profession, and chose the law, — a profession for which he found himself unfitted by his extreme sensitiveness and enfeebled constitution. Foreign travel was beyond him, and there was little to spare for the indulgence of his private tastes. He would have been graduated from Harvard University in 1808 had it not been that he was one of the insurgents in what is known as the Rotten Cabbage Rebellion, which resulted in the expulsion of all the members of his class who refused to say that they were properly fed at the college commons. Dana was not the youth to refuse to stand by his convictions, and never got his college diploma till within the last eight years of his life, when the university which had long ago honored itself by making him un LL. D. performed its tardy duty of conferring upon him his bachelor’s degree. He shrank from the law soon after he passed from its study to its practice, and virtually remained a private gentleman all his life; but his original mind found expression in prose and poetry, and before his fortieth year had passed he had written what Christopher North, in 1835, pronounced “by far the most powerful and original of American poetical compositions.” The Idle Man found few readers and fewer purchasers, and when his publisher came to him after the issue of the last number and asked for a hundred dollars to balance the accounts, Dana felt that he had no further right to indulge his literary tastes at the expense of the comfort of his family. He had symptoms of apoplexy in his thirtieth year which caused him to be careful of himself, and his health, never firm in earlier life, was greatly broken for many years. It was these causes combined which withdrew this remarkable man from both professional and literary life, and when he had once abandoned writing as a vocation and had no stimulant to use his pen for the pleasure of it, there was little to call out his very rare abilities in the more ambitious forms of literary production. When his poems and prose writings first appeared in 1833, his pen was no longer used for print. It is to this date, however, that his lectures on Shakespeare, said to contain the freshest criticism then known in America, and to have anticipated by at least a quarter of a century the best criticism of our own time, are to he referred.
Yet, if Dana’s active literary career ended half a century ago, he did not cease to have an important influence upon American literature and upon the men who have been most engaged in shaping its future. His intimacy with Bryant dated back to their early manhood, and letters between them, covering every interest, political, literary, social, passed to and fro for the last sixty years. He revered and loved Bryant, and nothing pleased him better than to repeat The Future Life and The Conqueror’s Grave and dwell upon the beauties of separate lines and particular words or images, as he walked up and down the wild coast of his sea-side home. If ever this correspondence is given to the public, it is truth to say that it will be the most interesting American literary correspondence of the century, a likeness of the correspondence between Goethe and Schiller, and yet as purely American as that is thoroughly German and national. Even more intimate, and longer by far in years, was his friendship with Washington Allston. It was Allston who was married to his sister; who had precious letters from Coleridge; who had heard the great transcendentalist tell ghost stories by the hour; who had actually seen Wordsworth, Lamb, Hazlitt, and others; whose words had sunk deepest into his soul; who was doing with his brush, and even with his pen, the work that Dana most loved. The sympathy between them was boundless, and when Allston died suddenly, in 1843, he felt that he had lost his dearest friend. He could never afterward pronounce his name without an accent of tenderness, and always liked to have his pictures near him. It was one of his strongly expressed wishes that those of Allston’s pictures now in the Art Museum, with other unfinished pictures like Belshazzar’s Feast and Jason and the Golden Fleece, might be placed in a room by themselves, so that artists might have the full benefit of all that Allston had done as a painter; and when Mr. Edward A. Brackett, then a young sculptor, cut in marble the bust of Allston, and Dana saw it for the first time, he was deeply moved. He took his seat before it, and, after a long and reverent gaze, said, with infinite tenderness of manner, “ Ah, he makes us all look down.” In the sculptor and in his brother, Mr. Walter M. Brackett, the portrait painter, as well as in other young artists, he took a kindly and personal interest.
For Dana to write the life of Allston was most natural. He collected the materials and began the manuscript, but his very love for his friend disabled him; the precious story was beyond his power to tell; he could not hope to realize to the world what Allston had been to him. Allston’s letters from Coleridge he was never tired of reading, and Allston’s life was ever after enfolded in the sacred memories of his own.
The interest in Dana’s later years centres about his home. While still a young man he was married to a woman of wonderful beauty, “ a bit of sunshine,” whose sweetness and charm still linger like remembered music in the traditions of the family. She was called away after she had borne to him three children,— Richard Henry, Ruth Charlotte, and Edmund Trowbridge. His sisters, with whom he had lived on terms of the closest intimacy, Martha Remington. Elizabeth Ellery, and Sarah, took their brother to their own home in Cambridge after the death of Mrs. Dana, and cared for his children with peculiar tenderness. No man more exemplified the words of Scripture, " I dwell among mine own people.”And this was not changed in all the generations through which he lived. I am told that when he decided to come into Boston, he could not bear to have his sisters away from him, and their affectionate intercourse was not broken until he found himself the sole survivor.
The affection for him in his own home controlled the servants, and extended even to animals. He made them love him. A waif among dogs which came to his door, and which the old man refused to have turned away, watched by his bedside in his last days, caressing him in the animal’s dumb way, and seeming to take in the whole meaning of the scene. The strength of this affection was its charm, and it reached, though he had few intimates, to those who knew him best beyond the family circle. These friends were always welcome at his home, and he could never see too much of them.
In the early period of his acquaintance with the Brackett brothers, when their studios were on the same floor, he found much pleasure in watching their work. One summer, before the home at Manchester was purchased, Dana and Bryant spent the season at Pigeon Cove. It was here that Edward A. Brackett modeled his bust of Bryant. Later, he made the bust of Dana in Boston, which is still in plaster, waiting to be cut in marble. Mr. Walter M. Brackett says of Dana’s conversations, “ I could no more keep his sayings than I could bottle up the perfumes of a flower.” He never courted the society of strangers, but off in the country, or at the sea-side among plain people, he was the most accessible of men. In the freedom of unconventional life, the painter speaks of him as “ the most simple man I ever saw.” He took in the character of people at once, and his immediate judgments generally proved to be correct.
Two Episcopal clergymen were intimate with him, Moses P. Stickney, formerly his pastor at the Church of the Advent, and the venerable Dr. C. S. Henry, of Stamford, Connecticut; and the Rev. H. N. Hudson was valued by him for his own sake and for what he had done to make people understand Shakespeare. Mr. Stickney administered the holy communion to him shortly before he died, and their intimacy in the religious life was close and strong. The late Dr. Harry Croswell, the first rector at the Church of the Advent, was also one who found the way to his heart. There were others who crossed his path now and then, at the shore or in town. At the tercentenary Shakespeare festival he was present, silent until called upon, and then wonderfully energetic in his expressions. Occasionally he was found ar Parker’s, dining with the Saturday Club, of which he was a member, but latterly hardly at all, and was never known to make a speech. To the world outside he was a silent, pensive man, who derived refreshment from the company of others, but was greatly reserved, and held his abilities somewhat in check.
Mr. James T. Fields relates an amusing story of the only time when Dana appeared in public after the lectures on Shakespeare had been laid upon the shelf. There was a private company of school-girls, called the Saturday morning Club, who greatly desired to hear one of these lectures, and Mr. Fields was asked to do their errand to the venerable poet. He consented to plead their case, and said to him, “ It is a great thing for these bright young girls to hear the man who has done so much years ago.”Dana replied, folding his hands one over the other, nervously, “ I can’t think of it. I am too old.” “ You are just as capable as you ever were.” Mr. Fields’s words touched him. He was beginning to yield. “ Do you mean the whole course? ” said he. “ Oh, no, only one, if you are willing to do that.” He consented; the day was named, and Mr. Fields called with a carriage at the appointed hour, nine A. M., to take Dana to the lecture-room. He found him dressed with the greatest care as for an evening party, but the poet pleaded a cold; he was not well; he could not speak; he was too nervous for such an effort. “ But,” said Mr. Fields, who understood the man he was dealing with, “ Mr. Dana, the carriage is here at the door, and surely you will not disappoint these young ladies who have counted so much on hearing you.”At the lecture-room the scene was an ovation. The cheerful, sympathetic faces contrasted strongly with the patriarchal beard and strong features of the poet. The lecture was on Hamlet. He read it sitting. His voice was exquisite, — the voice of youth; and when he came near the close, and applied in a voice of pathetic pleading the lesson of Hamlet to their young lives, the effect was such that at the end they crowded around him and gave him in flowers and words the fervent testimony of their joy. The old poet told Mr. Fields, as they drove home, that it was one of the most delightful experiences of his life.
His fondness for music was great and marked, and he had a profound sensibility to it.
His interest in Edmund Kean is one of the theatrical traditions of Boston, and his comments upon Kean’s acting have been pronounced the most perfect piece of dramatic criticism ever written in this country. Of his Othello, when Kean said to Iago so touchingly, “ Leave me, leave me, Iago,” and, turning from him, walked to the back of the stage, raising his hands and bringing them down upon his head with clasped fingers, and stood thus with his back to us, Dana often declared,”I have never seen such a picture of woe as the bent back of Kean’s body.” The acting of Kean was a subject he liked to talk of. He used to quote Coleridge’s saying, “ To see Kean act is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning,” and add that it was literally true. He also remembered Kean’s singing, in a beautiful, pathetic voice, Thomas Moore’s songs. From all the accounts we get from Coleridge, Dana, and Allston, it must be decided that David Garrick was not the greatest actor, and that Edmund Kean was his superior. This was the opinion of Samuel Rogers.
The most charming way to sec Dana was on his own coast, on the rocks, under a gray sky, as the small black figure moved slowly up and down the beach, with the face to the sea. He was the first person to build a summer home on the delightful stretch of shore between Salem and Newburyport, and wisely left his home, when the house was built and the necessary paths were made, in its original wildness. He said that the easterly winds were like champagne to him, and even in Boston he welcomed an east wind as others welcome the sunshine. He was more fond of the sea than of the land, and never tired of the marvelous sunsets to the northwest, or of the glimmering lights on Baker’s Island and along the coast, He liked the roar of the surf along his coast, and could look out upon the sea from his window when the storms were too wild for him to venture out. The Buccaneer and The Little Beach Bird express the spirit of his sea-side reveries, and the former is said to have been inspired by the scenery off Newport, where he used to spend his summers before Manchester was discovered. The Manchester home stands upon a cliff some sixty feet above the beach, which forms a semicircle below. The beach itself is isolated on one side by a projecting ledge called Eagle Head, and on the other by the steep base of a cliff known by the name of Shark’s Mouth. A wild growth of bushes and low trees fringes the edge of the bluff in front of the house, before it descends to the beach. The estate contains a hundred acres of such land as may be called a poet’s paradise; everything about it was in keeping with the strong melancholy and wonderful intuitions of Dana’s vigorous mind.
He was not a collector of books. He was too near the libraries to need them. He was a diligent if not discursive reader. The family often read to him in his later years, but he stopped the perusal of many a volume because he could not endure its barbarous style. He deeply admired the genius of Hawthorne. The story of Iris, in the Professor at the Breakfast-Table, greatly pleased him. He never tired of Sir Kenelm Digby’s Broad Stone of Honor. He was eager to read everything from the pen of Mr. Gladstone. The poems of Crashaw and Southwell, also of Crabbe and Cowper, were often in his hands. He fed upon the works of the old dramatists.
The writings of Principal Shairp excited his warmest admiration, and his article in a late number of the Princeton Review on The Aim of Poetry, lent him by a city pastor, was thoroughly enjoyed, and returned with the message, “ It will do your sermons good to read it.” Mallock’s New Republic furnished him very keen enjoyment. He read the book through twice, and the same author’s recent magazine articles on points in religious inquiry were read to him not more than a fortnight before his decease. He was particularly pleased with the article on Faith and Verification. When something in a book had pleased him, it was refreshing to hear him talk. His conversation was always in good, strong English, without any brushwood in it. I shall never forget a talk i had with him in the spring of 1875, when John Morley’s celebrated readjustment of Macaulay’s fame (he was a diligent reader of English and American magazines) was the universal topic in literary circles; he indorsed Morley’s positions, and went into their justification as if he had given special attention to the subject.
He sat beneath his portrait, the work of Willhiam M. Hunt, and as I cast my eyes at the portrait the thought came that this was an octogenarian, but as he drew me into conversation upon current literatures I could not but feel that I was talking with a man of my own age. To one who was specially intimate with him he recently said, “I never remember I am old. I feel young.” In fact, he never grew old. His beard grew to be silver gray, but he never used glasses, and even the print of the London Guardian was not too close for him to read by gas-light only a few days before his death. And so I found him the youngest old man I have ever met. His conversation was as fresh as salt-sea spray; it was racy; it sparkled. I never met a man who put more meaning into words.
It was his occasional lament, as the years drew nigh when he knew that he must go away, that he had not done more with himself. The assurances from persons as wide apart as William Henry Channing and Bayard Taylor that his life was already in many another man comforted him.
His religious life, if less prominent than his literary life, was what was chief and best in him. He took the conservative side in the famous controversy in which his cousin, Dr. Channing, led the liberal side. His opinions were broad and strong; they were his own. He was not satisfied with the Calvinism of his day, and finally found his home in the Episcopal church, in which communion he henceforth lived and in which he died. He was one of the original founders of the Church of the Advent, and as long as it kept to its old position was warmly attached to it, and worshiped there to the last. Though a very staunch churchman, however, and holding his opinions with great tenacity, he was a man of too much breadth and strength to look at truth otherwise than with his own eyes. The underlying purpose of his published writings is religious; they have the sombre tinge of the puritanism in which he was bred, but his religious temper mellowed as he ripened in years. He felt that practical goodness was of move importance than mere rightness of opinion. He had crosses, but bore them in silence, and went down to his grave with intellect unclouded and with faith undimmed.
During the autumn he had been failing so rapidly that he remarked to one of the family that he could not stay much longer with them. It was the loosening of the silver cord. His day had come, and at ten o’clock on Sunday morning, February 2d, he began his sleep until the dawning of the new day.
Julius H. Ward.