Recollections of James T. Fields
IT would be ridiculous for me to say that in giving my recollections of James T. Fields I should preserve the tone of impartial criticism. That tone would make me in sympathy with the French physiologist, who said, “ I had a friend ;
I loved him ; he died ; and I dissected him.” Certainly that is not the feeling with which I write of a friend of more than forty years, who was at once the most helpful of friends and the most fascinating of companions.
My acquaintance with Fields began at the Boston Mercantile Library Association when we were boys of eighteen or nineteen. It happened that both of us were inflamed by a passionate love of literature and by a cordial admiration of men of letters; that we had read — of course superficially — most of the leading poets and prose writers of Great Britain, and had a tolerably correct idea of their chronological succession; that both of us could write verse in various measures, and each then thought that the ten-syllabled couplet of Dryden and Pope was the perfection of poetic form; and that Fields had made his reputation a few days before our acquaintance began as the first anniversary poet of the association. Before a large audience he had read an original poem which commanded general applause.
It was my fortune, or misfortune, to follow Fields in his brilliantly successful anniversary poem. Of what I wrote I can hardly remember a line. The whole thing has gone out of my memory as thoroughly as it has gone out of the memory of the public. But what I do remember is this, that Fields was anxious that I should succeed. Being under the age when a free American can vote, I naturally thought my couplets were quite bright. Fields did all he could to confirm me in my amiable illusion. He suggested new “ points ; ” worked with me as though he desired that my performance should eclipse his own ; and was the foremost among the lads who, after the agony of delivery was over, were pleased to congratulate me on what was called my “ success.” This disinterestedness made me at once a warm friend of Fields.
One of the most notable facts in the lives of clerks with literary tastes and moderate salaries is the mysterious way in which they contrive to collect books. Among the members of the Mercantile Library Association, Thomas R. Gould (now known as one of the most eminent of American sculptors), Fields, and myself had what we called “libraries” before we were twenty-one. Gould was a clerk in a dry-goods jobbing house, Fields in a book-store, I in a broker’s office. Fields’s collection much exceeded Gould’s and mine, for he had in his room two or three hundred volumes, — the nucleus of a library which eventually became one of the choicest private collections of books, manuscripts, and autographs in the city. The puzzle of the thing was that we could not decide how we had come into the possession of such treasures. We had begun to collect before we were in our teens, and as we had neither stolen nor begged we concluded that our “ libraries ” represented our sacrifices. In the evening, after the day’s hard work was over, Gould and I drifted by instinct to Fields’s boardinghouse ; and what glorious hilarity we always found in his room ! He was never dull, never morose, never desponding. Full of cheer himself, he radiated cheer into us. On one occasion Gould and I introduced the question of our salaries, and somewhat gloomily resented the fact that there was no prospect of their being increased. “ Look here, Tom and Ned,” Fields broke out, “ I have none of your fears in this matter. I was originally destined for Jupiter, but the earth caught hold of me, and hauled me in. Don’t you see, by thus impertinently interfering, the earth is bound to give me a good living?” This joyousness of mood lasted through his life.
The conversation of Fields had, even in his boyhood, the two charms of friendliness and inventiveness. The audacities of his humor spared neither solemn respectabilities nor accredited reputations ; yet in his intercourse with his friends his wildest freaks of satire never inflicted a wound. His sensitive regard for the feelings of those with whom he mingled was a marvel of that tact which is the offspring of good nature as well as of good sense. When he raised a laugh at the expense of one of his companions, the laugh was always heartily enjoyed and participated in by the object of his mirth ; for, indulging to the top of his bent in every variety of witty mischief, he had not in his disposition the least alloy of witty malice. When seemingly delivered over to the most unrestrained ecstasies of his jubilant moods, when his arrows flew with lightning-like rapidity, hitting this person and that on the exact weak point where their minds or characters were open to good-natured ridicule, there never was the least atom of poison on the shining edge of his shafts.
Those who knew Fields in his youth as well as in his manhood must have noted that he was two widely different persons, according as he talked with intimate friends or chance acquaintances. He never was his real self except in the company of the former, for with them he had to put no rein on his impulsive feeling or his quick intelligence ; but the latter utterly failed to comprehend him as he was in himself. To them, indeed, he appeared as an eminently polite person, irreproachably dressed, irreproachably decorous, guarded in his conversation, pleasing in his manners, relying for his modest position in literature on what he had privately printed for distribution among his friends, and never presuming to be anything more than a publisher, who not only sympathized with literary genius, but had a singularly swift power to discern it. To us who were in his confidence he was ever the maddest of mad wits, of inexhaustible inventiveness and unconventional audacity; daily surprising us with novel freaks of his daring fancy, and satirizing, with delicious extravagances of humor, those who, viewing him from the outside, considered him as a very respectable young man, who was worthy to be brought under their august protection, and invited to their parties and dinner-tables. But nobody ever “ condescended ” to Fields, whether as boy or man, who did not suffer from his caricature of their selfimportance. Gould and I were often convulsed with laughter, while listening to his impish descriptions of magnates who imagined they were gaining his eternal gratitude by honoring him with their notice. Sometimes his apparent innocence deceived even bright people into the idea that they had got the laugh on him. Again and again persons have come to me and declared that they had convicted Fields of the grossest ignorance or the most preposterous vanity, when I knew that he had been all the while entrapping them into disclosures of character which would form the subject of our mutual mirth when we should meet. As I was in the secret of many of his pranks, our enjoyment of the self-delusion of his critics was naturally intense. The idea that we were fooling persons who thought they were fooling us was delightful beyond expression. It is always rash to affirm a universal proposition ; but still I have never known a case in which Fields was not the real victor in any attempt to make him the victim of a practical joke. He could assume so many characters, and he had such a miraculous readiness of perception of the purpose of every man who pitted himself against him, that he was never caught at a disadvantage.
I cannot help lingering on these early days of our friendship, for his forth-rushing ebulliency of nature was never more delightful than at that period, though his capacity of self-command was even then as remarkable as his spontaneity. He was popular among his fellow-clerks in the Mercantile Library Association, but still there were some members who girded at him on account of the scrupulous nicety of his apparel. He was acknowledged to be the best dressed fellow in our whole body, and, in the opinion of some rough lads, was guilty of the inexpiable sin of imitating Lord Byron in the only sensible thing that Byron ever did, — that is, of wearing his collar turned down, and thus avoiding the semi-strangulation which notoriously afflicts all those who wear their collars turned up. “ Tom ” Allen never tired of rehearsing a conversation between two young gentlemen which he overheard in the pit of the Tremont Theatre. “ Who is that fellar up there in the third box ? ” said one of the future “ merchant princes ” of Boston to his acquaintance. “ Oh, that’s Jim Fields! He’s a clerk in Jordan’s periodical shop. Wears his collar turned down, like Lord Byron, and thinks a cursed deal of himself.”
Nobody was more amused at this description than Fields himself. At last, on the occasion of one of the annual suppers of the association, after the election of officers for the ensuing year, a member celebrated for the savageness with which his strength of nature asserted itself, both in his dress and manners, undertook the task of bantering Fields for a certain effeminacy in his relations to the tailor and the washerwoman. His speech was a fair specimen of that good-natured but rather coarse-natured scurrility which rude lads are apt to indulge in when they meet at the “festive board.” Fields listened with an impassive countenance, as if the speech were a mere interlude in the fast and furious fun which characterized the jollities of such meetings ; but I saw that all the while he was cogitating a reply which would not only crush his immediate antagonist, but render the recurrence of a similar assault utterly impossible. He rose with perfect calmness from his seat, and then poured forth on his adversary such a torrent of ingenious and laughter-provoking abuse that his unlucky opponent, completely worsted in his own selected style of rhetoric, was stunned into a silence which left him no possibility of making any retort. Fields sat down with the reputation of being an exceedingly rough customer, when the elegance of his manners, the fit of his coat, and the cleanliness of his linen were made the subjects of sarcastic remark.
As years rolled on, and Fields became a partner in the house which he had served as a clerk, the proofs multiplied that he was, among American publishers, one of the most sagacious judges of the intrinsic and money value of works of literature. He had induced Mr. Ticknor to reprint such books as De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater long before he became a partner in the firm. He had early formed a complete scheme of publishing a class of books the characteristic of which was that they addressed tastes which clearly existed in his own mind, and which he supposed must exist in thousands of persons who had enjoyed opportunities of culture superior to his own. He very sagely argued that if he found a particular delight in works which primarily appealed to the aesthetic sense,— the sense of beauty and the sense of form, — there must somewhere be a public, hitherto imperfectly addressed by American publishers, which would cordially respond to an enterprise which had such a possible public directly in view. He began timidly, publishing at first nothing which would not pay the expense of printing and binding, By the terms of his copartnership with Mr. Tieknor, the amount which each should yearly withdraw from the firm for private expenses was reduced to the smallest sum which a rigid economy could dictate. My impression is that Fields restricted himself, for a considerable period, to six hundred dollars, a year. The gains of the firm steadily increased year after year, and being used as so much additional capital the house passed through a succession of financial panics without having one of their notes go to protest. The gradual growth of their business may he illustrated by one striking fact: the present successors of Tieknor & Fields have issued, in an octavo volume, a mere catalogue of the works they publish, which occupies more pages, and is printed in a more expensive form, than any one of the early volumes on which Fields thought it safe to venture the credit and capital of the firm.
As I happened to witness the gradual growth of what became one of the leading publishing houses of the country, and as I know that its germinating root was
in the brain of Fields, I may he able to give some testimony as to its rise and progress. Fields from the start had deliberately formed in his mind an ideal of a publisher who might profit by men of letters, and at the same time make men of letters profit by him. He thoroughly understood both the business and literary side of his occupation. Some of the first publications of the house belonged to a light order of literature, but they still had in them that indefinable something which distinguishes the work of literary artists from the work of literary artisans. Then came the idea of domesticating a poet like Tennyson in this country, some time before Tennyson had won for himself an unquestioned position in his own land. Fields early detected that he was a man of genius, reprinted his poems, and paid him a royalty on them, in the days when a mere clever versifier, like Bulwer, could, in The New Timon, ridicule Tennyson as a puling sentimentalist, and do it with the assurance that the largest portion of the English-reading public would welcome his satire. The best poems of Browning, the other great British poet of our generation, were warmly appreciated here through the early reprints of Tieknor & Fields, some four or five years before the British reviews were alive to their merits. The number of less gifted English poets and men of letters whose writings, bearing the imprint of Tieknor & Fields, were circulated in the United States may be counted by scores. Indeed, it is not extravagant to affirm that many English reputations, now somewhat celebrated, were first made in this country. From a business point of view, the profits on these reprints were small, when compared with the gains of some other American publishers, who reprinted sensational books of a lower intellectual grade ; but Fields succeeded in his main object, which was to give to the publications of his firm a certain character of literary distinction.
By persistently carrying out this plan, and by a judicious liberality in his dealings with authors, Fields gradually drew to his firm most of the prominent Amer ican writers of the time. Longfellow, Emerson and Hawthorne, Holmes, Lowell. Whittier, and eventually even Bryant, recognized in the pleasant gentleman who presided at the “ Old Corner Bookstore ” not only a business man of the first class of ability, but a genuine admirer of genius, with the taste fully to appreciate the melody of a line or the felicity of an epithet. All these authors, and many more, became intimate friends of their publisher.
In his dealings with writers, Fields was always genial and full of hope for the success of their books, when they themselves might be despondent. At the time Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter was passing through the press I was permitted to read the proof sheets. The circumstances under which the work was published were very depressing to its author. He had been dismissed, as a democrat, from his position in the Salem custom-house after the election of General Taylor to the presidency. To a prominent whig politician Fields addressed an earnest remonstrance against the cruelty of the act, and adjured him to have Hawthorne replaced. “ Why, the fact is, Mr. Fields,” was the answer, “ your literary man, that you make such a noise about, is, I understand, one of these ’ere visionists.” Fields quoted the remark to me, and then laughingly proposed that we should run down to Salem to visit the visiouist.” It was a characteristic of Hawthorne that when he had finished a work he was skeptical as to its success. He had failed so often in obtaining any large popular recognition of his peculiar powers that he believed The Scarlet Letter would share the fate of the Twice-Told Tales. It was therefore well that two young men, who were enthusiastic admirers of his genius, and whose minds were specially stirred by its latest expression, should break in upon his solitude that summer afternoon, and rouse him from his despondency. Mrs. Hawthorne, the very impersonation of hope and cheer, — the Phæbe, as I always thought, of The House of the Seven Gables,—joined us heartily in the attempt to make the great romancer feel that he had produced a work which would not only make a deep and immediate impression on the public mind, but live as long as American literature existed. His grand face and brow gradually lighted up, as be caught a little of the contagion of our enthusiasm, and we left him somewhat cheered as to the prospects of his book. Of literary vanity he was entirely destitute. Indeed, he liked Anthony Trollope’s novels better than his own. It has been said that Fields, with all his enthusiasm for The Scarlet Letter, published at first an edition of only three thousand copies. This statement overlooks the fact that an edition of three thousand copies was at that period equivalent to ten or fifteen thousand copies now. An edition of a thousand copies of the Twice-Told Tales, printed some years before, still sufficed to meet the public demand for the book.
One thing always puzzled me in reference to Fields, and that was how he contrived to get time to attend to his own affairs. His place of business always seemed thronged with visitors. Some dropped in to have a chat with him, and they dropped in every day ; others had letters of introduction, and were to be received with particular attention ; others were merciless bores, who severely tested his patience and good-nature. On some forenoons he could hardly have had half an hour to himself. Then he was continually doing kindly acts which required the expenditure of a good deal of time. In spite of all these distractions, he was a singularly orderly and methodical business man. He made up for the hours he lost, or was robbed of, by accustoming himself to think swiftly and decide quickly on business matters. At any rate, there never was a time when he did not seem to have leisure enough for a little fun. Thus, I remember that a common acquaintance of ours, calling upon him one day at his office, was immediately accosted with the remark, “ That was rather hard on Whipple, was n’t it ? ” “ What ? ” “ Oh ! I
thought you must have heard of it. He was invited to Wellfleet to lecture, — down on Cape Cod, you know. He went in a fishing-smack, was tossed about in the bay four days in a snow-storm, horribly sea-sick all the voyage, but arrived in time to lecture. Wellfleet ordinarily pays its lecturers ten dollars ; he was paid five — in a counterfeit bill.” One morning I received a letter which purported to come from Edward Everett, and which was written in that style of plaintive dignity which it might be supposed that distinguished man would assume if be were soliciting contributions to a deserving charity. I learned from this epistle that Mr. Everett, understanding that I had once written an article on Mr. Macaulay, supposed that I might be interested in bearing of the condition of wretched poverty in which that eminent essayist was now placed. It seemed that Mr. Macaulay, though he still continued to write brilliant papers for the Edinburgh Review, was not paid for them a sum sufficient to support his suffering family, which consisted of a wife and six children. Mr. Everett proceeded to say that he had received letters from numerous friends in London to the effect that a subscription had been started in the United Kingdom to relieve Mr. Macaulay’s most pressing necessities, but that it was insufficient to effect: that desirable end ; and an appeal was therefore to be made, through Mr. Everett, to the admirers of Mr. Macaulay in the United States. Money it was hardly expected that authors could give ; but if I had any old clothes to spare, they would he very acceptable, as Mrs. Macaulay had the reputation of being an expert with the needle, and could easily adapt the worn garments of grown men to the shivering limbs of her destitute children. In addressing a man of letters, Mr. Everett acknowledged he felt a certain delicacy in indicating the degree of age which it was not permissible to transcend in selecting articles from my wardrobe. He had found that writers, as a general thing, considered as new many articles of apparel which statesmen and diplomatists, accustomed to courts, would pronounce very old indeed. Still, if among my old clothes there were some which stopped this side of utter raggedness, he thought he had sufficient interest with his successor at the Court of St. James to have the parcels containing them franked by the American government to Mr. Macaulay without any expense. Mr. Everett concluded his interesting communication by assuring me that this was an occasion which offered a new opportunity to bind the two great branches of the English race together in a peaceful union, and show to Great Britain that the thinkers of America were proud of their descent from the countrymen of Milton, Newton, and Locke. There could of course be no doubt in my mind from whose pen this precious epistle came.
In his journeys abroad Fields made the acquaintance of most of the English writers of the time, and his correspondence and conversation regarding them showed a keen perception of their individual peculiarities. He met Walter Savage Landor in Italy ; and in one of his letters he quoted a saying of Landor’s, in which the barbaric element in his large nature burst forth in its bluntest expression. The conversation had turned on a London lady to whom Fields had been introduced. “She!” Landor savagely exclaimed. “ Why, she’s the worst woman I ever knew — except my wife ! ” In London, more than twenty years ago, he met Carlyle at Procter’s dinner-table, and sat next to him. “ Ah,” said Carlyle, “you are from the Great Country, I hear. Do you still believe there in George ? ” “ If you mean Washington,” replied Fields, “ I can assure you we do.” “ That’s your great blunder. He was a thin man, sir ; nothing of the hero in him. George was a good surveyor, but he had no faith, no religion ! A commonplace man, sir ! You will never he a great nation as long as you look up to such a guide as that.” “ But, Mr. Carlyle,” said Fields, who saw at once that the great man was chaffing him, “ why don’t you cross the water, and see the Great Country for yourself? You will find hundreds of admirers who will welcome you.” “ Yes, there it is. They will come down to the wharf, and cry, Lo, here! and Lo, there ! The great prophet has come! And do you suppose, sir, that I am such a sham and humbug as to expose myself to such drivel as that?” “ Still,” retorted Fields, “you will find some Yankees there who have no great love for ‘Britishers,’ prophets or not. Did you ever hear of the experience of the Englishman who went to Cape Cod, the place where our revolutionary patriotism still burns at white heat?” “No. Tell me about him.” “ With pleasure. As soon as the leading inhabitants of the town learned that a full-blown Britisher was at the tavern, they went in force to give him a piece of their mind. The talking man of the place stepped forward from the crowd, and said, ‘ An Englishman, I understand.’ ‘ Yes,’ was the proud reply,
‘ I am an Englishman.’ ‘ Well, naow, it’s strange that you should own up so lively as that. You must know that yours is about the meanest country going. We always have licked you, and always will lick you. Why, when we were a small lot of only three millions we licked you all to pieces. There’s Sar-a-togue, and Ticonder-ogue, and Bunker Hill; to be sure, our powder gin out at Bunker Hill, or we’d licked you there, and you know it.’ ‘ But,’ exclaimed the Englishman, ‘ what do you say of White Plains, sir ? White Plains, I repeat! ’ But my countryman’s face expressed not the slightest surprise. ‘White Plains?’ he drawled out. ‘It seems to me I do recollect something about that fight. The fact is, as far as I can understand it, our folks did n’t seem to take no sort of interest in that battle.’ ” The story is familiar enough on this side of the Atlantic, but Carlyle had never heard it before, and he passed from one roar of laughter into another, warmly protesting that the Cape Cod patriot was the most genuine man that America had produced, and outvalued scores of George Washingtons. “ Stop, Procter! stop, Browning! ” he bawled out once or twice during the evening, as the two poets were eagerly conversing. “ Listen to what Mr. Fields has to tell you about that countryman of his who did n’t take no sort of interest in the battle of White Plains ! ”
One might have predicted that such a story as this would touch Carlyle’s sense of humor irresistibly ; and as Fields vividly reproduced the scene, imitating the Yankee twang as happily as he imitated Carlyle’s broad Scotch accent, those who listened could not fail to obtain a clear impression of what Carlyle was in his moments of uproarious merriment.
But these Recollections would be drawn out to an endless length if I should attempt to record all the illustrations of Fields’s mind and character which crowd into my memory as I write. I have done small justice to my own conception of the brilliancy of his wit, the alertness of his intelligence, the variety of his information, and the kindness of his heart ; and I shall have to take some other opportunity to speak of his numerous writings, and of his career as a lecturer on literature.
Edwin P Whipple.