SEVENTEEN years ago Willis was laid at rest in Mount Auburn. It would almost seem as if his books had been buried in the same grave with him. One small collection of his poems remains in circulation, and that is all. The present generation knows him not, or knows him vaguely. At the period of his death Willis had already outlived his best inspiration ; between him and his sparkling work the war had drawn that red line which had the effect of giving an air of obsoleteness to everything on the further side. New men and new literary fashions had sprung up : only the fittest of the old survived. It was natural that so delicate a talent as Willis’s should fall into neglect. I think that some of the neglect is undeserved, and is therefore temporary. There are many persons still living who have not quite outgrown a feeling of attachment for that bright personality which at one time did so much to influence our unformulated social and literary tastes. Certainly, Willis was too individual a figure in our literature, too peculiarly American in spite of all his foreign airs and acquaintanceship, and too richly endowed with that rare faculty of interesting and attaching readers to himself, to be permanently passed by. His very faults and foibles are engaging, and should not blind us to the real manliness beneath the surface. He has a distinctive literary quality, a tone and manner entirely his own. There is in all that he has written a rich personal flavor, which affects one as a charm, and makes the man a part of his most trivial production. The reader comes at last to feel as if he had known the writer, and been taken into his very confidence. He had a rare gift of communicating his individual standpoint of thought and feeling, and could invest even trifles with a living and familiar interest. This was more than the effect of his swift, light stroke, as it was also more than a mere literary trick. Rather, it was a native facility and inborn instinct of approach, which gave him ready entrance to the heart. He was always sure of a response,— too fatally sure, too cruelly favored by fortune in all his beginnings, to be equally certain of his best achievement. Nature might have done more for him if she had done less. Like Leigh Hunt, whom in some respects he resembled, he lacked the early discipline of rebuff and patient labor done in privacy. His flowering was premature, and the instant pressure of demand to which the undergraduate glory of Scripture Sketches subjected his powers put silent preparation out of the question.
Hence, at times, a certain extravagance and want of proportion in his work, a general lightness of tone that often amounts to deliberate injustice to himself and to his subject, Hence, too, an inability, which at last became constitutional, to undertake and carry on any systematic and sustained labor, together with a frankly confessed indifference to the peculiar consideration and rewards of such a course. His jaunty reply to the friends who begged him to concentrate his powers and write something for posterity but partially tells the story of Willis’s apparent insensibility to fame. Doubtless he was sincere when he said that he would be glad to do so if posterity would make up a purse for him, — as sincere, perhaps, as his English contemporary Praed, when he thus sings of himself to the same purpose : —
To laugh when hopes deceive him;
To grasp at every fleeting joy,
To jest at all that leave him;
To love a quirk and loathe a quarrel,
And never care a straw for laurel.”
But circumstances as well as temperament had conspired in his case to bring about the short-sighted result. As Willis himself clearly shows, there was peculiar temptation for a facile pen like his to devote itself to popular work, when as yet American publishing had made little or no headway against the deeply felt need of an international law of copyright, and American journalism was beginning to offer prices which well might seem to him “extravagant.” Naturally enough, to quote his own words, will “necessity plead much more potently than the ambition for an adult stature in literary fame;” nor does one wholly wonder at that “difficult submission to marketableness ” which led him to “ break up his statues at the joints, and furnish each fragment with head and legs to walk alone.”
But this method of spontaneity, which so well fitted his gifts in prose, became the fatal limitation of his poetry. With no lack of native equipment, Willis never got beyond the promise of his early successes in versification, although he continued to enjoy the reputation of a poet during his lifetime. The Scripture poems, published while he was yet a student at Yale, had an instant and cordial reception. Henceforth we find little advancement upon the standard thus fixed by this immature fruitage of his youth. The hasty touch could hardly be expected to suffice for the wider reputation and riper demand of middle life, and we seem to see in much of the poetical work which followed only another case of arrested development. An occasional happy effect in some of the minor pieces still keeps the tradition of his power alive, even while the more exacting tests of to-day have ruled out the larger share of his poetry. Neither Willis nor John Pierpont succeeded in justifying the attempt at a modern reproduction of Scripture narratives.
Unevenness of workmanship and want of painstaking toil to supplement his undoubted aptness also kept Willis from the rank he might otherwise have reached among the acknowledged masters of English society verse. Willis never attained that airy firmness of touch so native to Praed, Locker, Dobson, and our own Holmes, which fairly imprisons a thought or fancy without effort or apparent intention. Nowhere is shown more consummate tact and skill than in the cutting of these exquisite jeweled bits called vers de société, which reflect, without a line too much or too little, the fleeting lights and shadows of graceful sentiment. Even in his more serious flights of fancy Willis too often skirts the dangerous line that divides sentiment from sentimentality. His Dedication Hymn and the Death of Harrison will live, and there is still a pathetic power in the Reverie at Gleumary and that Invocation he addresses to his mother on bringing home his English bride. But we are after all forced to look beyond his poetic achievement for the secret of Willis’s undoubted capacity for holding the popular heart.
Willis himself had none of the common affectation of authorship, and took no pains to create an atmosphere of reserve or secrecy as to the sources of his power. He was the frankest of littérateurs, and barely escaped being a hack by the independence of his pen. He disarmed criticism at the outset by the unblushing confession that the readiness of the public to read and reward him for his work constituted his best excuse for writing at all. And somehow, in reading Willis, one never thinks of abusing so flattering a mark of confidence on his part.
This power of making others feel with him, this free, fresh charm of engaging familiarity, is nowhere better shown than in the little sketch To the Julia of Some Years Ago, supposed to have been written from Saratoga. The thing is perfect and quite inimitable in its way. I can call it nothing but sympathetic, so swift and sure is it to enlist the feeling of the reader. And then the little undercurrent of pathos that flows so gently beneath the sparkle and apparent trifling of his manner! It all makes one think what a Thackerayan mastery of the sadder sides of sentiment our author might have had, with something more of constructive skill and genius for labor.
Whatever else he was, Willis was first of all a journalist, with a trained and instinctive equipment in some respects second to none this country has ever produced. With no taste for Franklin’s thrift, and none of that genius for political leadership which has marked the other great masters of the art in this country, Willis always had the feeling of a correspondent and the judgment of an editor. His knowledge of the public taste was unerring, and his faculty of instant adjustment to its demands something phenomenal. Indeed, it almost amounted to another sense, this instinctive adaptation to just the degree of the solid and soluble it is well to mingle in pabulum designed for the multitude. For he never sacrificed to any audience his moment of serious aside, nor the classical allusion of which he was so fond, while at the same time no one could more gracefully beat a retreat from the threatening danger of things abstruse or profound. With his sensitive appreciation of the public appetite, he could tell precisely how far to go,—could make a spurt or a dash, and appear to have exhausted a subject which he had in reality hardly more than touched in passing.
There was a strong inherited journalistic flavor in Willis’s blood. At the time of his birth, in Portland, January 20, 1806, his father, Nathaniel Willis, was editing the Eastern Argus; and ten years later we find him in Boston, — where he died May 26, 1870, at the ripe age of ninety, — continuing the work which was to link his name with the early history of journalism in this country. To him will always belong the credit of establishing, in 1816, our first religious newspaper, the Boston Recorder; as well as of founding, in 1827, the Youth’s Companion, that first of the many periodicals since devoted to the interests of the young. Before the son had fairly finished his course at Yale, in the year last mentioned, the availability of the rising collegian had been marked by the versatile Peter Parley, and his path made easy from the university benches to an editorial chair. Immediately upon graduation, Willis assumed the charge of the Token and Legendary, which inaugurate that long list of journalistic ventures which have been connected with his name, beginning with the American Monthly Magazine, afterward merged in General George P. Morris’s New York Mirror, and ending with the Home Journal. Here was the familiar rôle of pioneer newspaper work in which his father before him had been so conspicuous, only in his case it was enlarged and individualized by a keener insight, a broader culture, and a readier literary gift. Always reaching out for something novel and attractive, Willis had finally added to instinct an experience which made him easy master in this by no means easy field of writing.
“ It is a voyage,” he says, in speaking of the launching of a new periodical, “ that requires plentiful stores, much experience of the deeps and shallows of the literary seas, and a hand at every halyard. . . . No one who has not tried this vocation can have any idea of the difficulty of procuring the light yet condensed, the fragmented yet finished, the good-tempered and gentlemanly yet highly seasoned and dashing, papers necessary to a periodical.” It is also interesting to us now to note that he thinks Edward Everett “ the best magazine writer living,” and considers Crittenden and Calhoun of the Senate capable of brilliant results in this direction ; while he goes on to say that there is “ a younger class of writers, — among them Felton and Longfellow, both professors at Cambridge, and Sumner and Henry Cleaveland, lawyers of Boston, — who sometimes don the cumbrous armor of the North American Review, but who would show to more advantage in the lighter livery of the monthlies.”
Willis was himself a consummate illustration of this art, a born magazinist, and able to live up to its most exacting demands. What a fine little specimen of what he calls his “ babble ” is this! “ I was sitting last night by the lady with the horn and the glass umbrella at the Alhambra, — I drinking a julep, she (my companion) eating an ice. The water dribbled, and the moon looked through the slits in the awning, and we chatted about Saratoga. My companion has a generalizing mind, situated just in the rear of a very particularly fine pair of black velvet eyes, and her opinions usually come out by a little ivory gate with a pink portico, — charming gate, charming portico, charming opinions ! I must say, I think more of intellect when it is well lodged.”
Willis was often called upon to defend this choice of the lighter tone, about which, he maintained, there was no real choice in the then condition of American literature. His reply to the remonstrance against his “ wasting time upon trifles” is still very good reading; and many will agree with him that, in the abundance of encyclopædias and books of reference, few things are easier or more stupid than to be wise — on paper.” One can readily see that it would indeed be less difficult, to quote his own words - again and apply them in his own case, “ to go to the ship chandler for a cable than to find a new cobweb in a muchswept upper story.” Then that little clincher by way by close, that “ Parthian fling” from Addison, which he so gayly “ tosses under the nose ” of his critics : “ Notwithstanding pedants of a pretended depth and solidity are apt to decry the writings of a polite author as flash and froth, they all of them show upon occasion that they would spare no pains to arrive at the character of those whom they seem to despise.”
Willis was the first in this country to work that vein of society-writing which affects the present literary tone, and was already in vogue in England under the fitting appellation of “ polite literature.”
But with all his easy deference, however, Willis was never blind to the weaknesses and follies of fashion. Society never seemed so dear to him as when he could get away from it and enjoy or criticise it at a distance. See how, upon the first page of his Inklings of Adventure, he could prick the puffball of American aristocracy with the feathery point of his sarcasm ! Nor can any one accuse him, with all his social currency of sympathy, with shoddyism or snobbery in any of its forms. His taste here was as fine as his imagination ; and however he may sometimes fail in absolute truthfulness to nature, his divergence never endangers a principle.
This one may admit without forgetting the comment rife in Willis’s lifetime, and even while confessing a certain sympathy with it so far as many of the personal passages in Pencillings by the Way are concerned. But so many distinguished travelers before and since have been guilty of a similar violation of taste that familiarity has somewhat dulled our sensitiveness ; while the rapid development of this general tendency in our later journalism has made it sometimes rather difficult for us to understand the storm of indignation Willis’s letters encountered in England. The personal element seems almost to have usurped the place of honor in current writing. It is a time of undress, with a constant emphasis upon the confidential and familiar attitude. The gossip of the great, the unblushing chronicle of passing speech, appearance, and opinion, is so far tolerated in almost any literary company as to pass for the most part without either challenge or apology. Where once Willis accorded a hostile meeting to Captain Marryat, in justification of his course in this direction, the luckless correspondent of to-day has only to answer the more prosaic summons of the court. This drawing aside the veil that protects private sanctity has made personal detail the most readily negotiable of all literary wares ; and certainly those who indulge and defend the right to this plain speaking can find no better answer to their critics than the sparkling prefaces which Willis put at the beginning of his books. He, at least, was shrewd enough to see that the point at issue was a temporary one, while every year of distance which intervened between the reader and the personages of whom he wrote would necessarily add to the value of the delineation. We can now afford the frank confession that nowhere else is it possible for one to gain so graphic a picture of the writers of his day as from Willis’s Pencillings by the Way and Ephemera. Both author and subjects being now dead, no question of taste, happily for us, comes into controversy. With unmixed delight we can give ourselves up to those vivid sittings in Gore House, where Lady Blessington gathered the wits and intellectual wonders of London.
Willis was the first literary American ever lionized in England, and, however we may criticise the use he made of his opportunities for distinguished intercourse, they were certainly great. His exceptionally fine address and the fact that he was so thoroughly imbued with the literary spirit made it naturally follow that his pages should become a sort of magic mirror for reflecting the faces of many the world would not willingly forget. The pictures are done to the life ; perhaps colored a little too highly now and then with individual prepossession, but still so spirited and distinct as to affect the mind with an almost atmospheric power. One enters sensitively into the author’s mood, and feels the flutter of trembling expectancy with which he crosses the threshold, and stands at last in the presence of those so long “ worshiped from afar.” It is well to have his introduction and the stimulation of a nature so readily responsive. One almost comes to fancy at last that it is himself instead of Willis who is following in the footsteps of Irving and Cooper, that earliest brace of literary favorites which America sent across to stir the curiosity of Europe. He hears their movements reported on the Continent, but everywhere misses them, all the time that his heart is thrilling with that first sweet praise which the Old World is according to our literature. He goes in and out with Bulwer, Barry Cornwall, Disraeli, and Tom Moore ; grows confidential with Rogers, Lamb, Lord Jeffrey, and Joanna Baillie; dines with Jane Porter, or breakfasts with Landor or Kit North,— catching now and then a glimpse of that shadowy genius Count D’Orsay, half painter and half dandy, whose elegant person was not visible to the general public except in that interval between twelve o’clock Saturday night and the same hour on Sunday, when the debtor’s law was not in force. Surely, in Willis’s own language, these sketches may be pardoned “ their lack of what an English critic cleverly calls the ‘ ponderous goodness of a didactic purpose,’ ” in consideration of that which he has in view, their “ truthfulness to life.” Rather than trust ourselves to the daily mercies of a moralizer, most of us would prefer to go traveling with one who, when he finds himself in the same room with the hero of Waterloo, can “feel his blood creep as if he had seen Cromwell or Marlborough,” even while he asserts that if Cornelius Agrippa were redivivus, and would show him his magic mirror, he would “ as soon call up Moore as Dryden, Wordsworth or Wilson as soon as Pope or Crichton.”
This we may say of Willis without assuming any undue subserviency to English models and canons of taste, such as was at one time falsely charged upon him. We are now at a safe distance from which to estimate the quality of his appreciation of foreign culture and refinement. Having been subjected to so much grosser forms of Anglomania, we go back to Willis to be impressed with his Americanism at every point. In one of his Letters from under a Bridge he unbosoms himself to the epistolary “Doctor” — whom he makes the target of so many happy fancies and allusions— on this danger of our depending upon English standards and English approval. “Where then shall be our nationality ? ” he asks, reflecting upon the possible result of the triumph of steam navigation that it shall turn London into a centre of American literature. Yet he was himself the first to see the temporary advantage, as well as the dangers, of the transatlantic standpoint. A large share of his own immediate popularity had come from this accident of an international ground of observation, at the same time that it was the native flavor which gave his reproductions of European scenes and manners their distinctive charm. The touch and tone were of the New World ; the canvas and colors of the Old. The photographic vividness was his own, and the spirit throughout that of a pleased observer. But despite his cosmopolitanism, Europe in reality serves him only as a background and illustration, and he always returns to what is native with the taste and feeling of the true American.
Indeed, Willis seems to me always charming when he deals with our own scenery and life. I know of no one so enthusiastically in love with what is national in our landscape as he, and no one so capable of communicating his enthusiasm to others. It was all newer and more inaccessible fifty years ago than it is now, but no difficulties of travel could daunt one with so genuine a delight as his in objects of natural wonder and beauty.
It is in his little journeys that Willis shows at his best; he is so much at home in the world, so confident in his bearing and so irresistibly happy. He is the very prince of travelers, — one of those privileged souls who find the ideal and the romantic in ordinary places and prosaic experience. To be sure, he will be likely to spice the splendor of every scene with a flavor of social attractions. One must not be surprised to find him spellbound before the wild beauty of forest, river, or falls, with a lady upon his arm ; for he will assert that one kind of sentiment flows naturally and without detriment into another. This is partly genuine and partly an impulse of art, suggested by the fact, to which he is keenly alive, that appreciation of natural beauty had as yet only imperfectly awakened in this country. He knows the added value in a sketch which a distinctively human element lends to the more general qualities of description. Lover of landscape as he is, he yet never omits the living figure from his picture. But take him off his guard, when the professional harness no longer binds his humor, and nothing could be more simple, more unaffected, than his characterizations of natural scenery. One hesitates to call them descriptions, for they are more than that, — actual, living embodiments of a delight in nature which, unfortunately, few are fresh enough to carry into maturer years.
No one who was not at heart native to the soil could have done those con amore sketches of life along the Susquehanna, entering as Willis did into the wild, adventurous experience of the lumbermen, who often risked their lives upon its waters. Then how vividly he makes one see his raftsman of the Delaware, who outdid even his rival of the Susquehanna in abandon and general untamableness, whirling down the swollen river with the first March thaw in huge arks, built of trees felled the previous winter, and dodging the low branches of the forest as he steers his ungainly craft between the shores and eddies! Of all natural objects Willis most affects a river, and among his happiest efforts are his pictures of wellknown American streams. The strain of his description catches their very movement, and blends at last with the ever-varying hue of their scenery.
One wonders if the original builder of the bridge from under which he wrote those famous letters ever dreamed of the flow of thought and fancy it was destined to span in those still, bright summer days he so happily describes. That gentle current of his discourse, now dallying with the delights of nature, now faintly stirred by that echo of the world’s affairs which finds him out in his retirement, moves on as gentle and unbroken as the stream beneath. It almost seems as if one might hear the exclamation of the idle rustic who hangs upon the fence, “ How you do spin it off ! ” or again that wondering query as to whether he could he writing to the “ folks at hum,” or only making out a lease. Certain it is that the facile pen found nowhere freer and more graceful movement than among these simple surroundings of native rural life.
We come with something of surprise upon this unlooked-for independence in a man of such easy and conspicuous citizenship. It is as if we had not suspected him of these rugged resources, and like him none the less for this ability to dwell apart without any loss of his customary poise. To be sure, Willis as a farmer seems incredible, yet the fact remains that so he was happiest and most truly himself. He confesses that the life at Glenmary suits his disposition and better nature, and as a writer we nowhere find him at greater advantage than here. Writing has become a pure labor of love, and this spontaneous and outspoken quality of address has all the charm of an impulsive confidence. The pressure of compulsory toil has been laid aside, and now he communes with his readers in as happy specimens of literary good-fellowship as one can readily find. Clearly he is no mere drawingroom moth, no mere diner-out and setter of metropolitan fashions, but a man of native resources, whose ultimate capacity far transcends the common measurement of the street, He can laugh with Broadway, or at it, but is best contented away from it altogether. None better typify the great city’s taste and refinement than he ; none more positively insist upon its most exacting standards of etiquette. Nevertheless, one always has this relief of stumbling upon him in all the gay abandon of the Bridge, and of forgetting at will this part of bon vivant he has so successfully played.
It is not every one who is privileged to find the poetic side of farming, and when Willis is forced to return to the city one’s sympathies are keenly touched at the loss of so much bucolic blessedness. In Letter XVIII. from under a Bridge — by the way, an admirable specimen of the general letter; ripe, readable, with a substance of its own, and yet as light and warm and breezy as that perfect day upon which it was penned—one sees how sportively it was possible for him to trifle with this outdoor life of toil. Surely rural insouciance never had a better chronicler. I have sold some of my crops for the oddity of the sensation,” he writes ; “ and I assure you it is very much like being paid for dancing when the ball is over. The barrel of buckwheat not only cost me nothing, but I have had my uses of it in the raising, and can no more look upon it as value than upon a flower which I pluck to smell, and give away when it is faded. Why, consider the offices this very buckwheat has performed ! There was the trust in Providence in the purchase of the seed, — a sermon. There was the exercise and health in plowing, harrowing, and sowing,—prescription and pill. There was the performance of the grain, its sprouting, its flowering, its earing, and its ripening, — a great deal more amusing than a play. Then there was the harvesting, threshing, fanning, and grinding, — a sort of pastoral collection, publication, and purgation by criticism. Now, suppose your clergyman, your physician, your favorite theatrical corps, your publisher, printer, and critic, threshed and sold in bags for six shillings a bushel ! I assure you the cases are similar, except that the buckwheat makes probably the more savory cake.”
His narration of his neighbor’s method of keeping hogs out of his corn is inimitable. What could be finer than that last letter of them all, flung bravely out from the great pain of his parting with this haven of refuge from the world? — To the Unknown Purchaser and Next Occupant of Glenmary. With a touch of pathos, easily perceptible, though veiled beneath the terse English of as perfect a piece of persiflage as ever was written, Willis begs the privilege of making his will, and entrusting the trees and birds and squirrels he has watched and loved so long to the one who should own them in his stead. “ Sir,” he writes, “ in selling you the dew and sunshine ordained to fall hereafter on this bright spot of earth, the waters on their way to this sparkling brook, the tints mixed for the flowers of that enameled meadow, and the songs bidden to be sung in coming summers by the feathery builders in Glenmary, I know not whether to wonder more at the omnipotence of money, or at my own impertinent audacity toward nature. How you can buy the right to exclude at will every other creature made in God’s image from sitting by this brook, treading on that carpet of flowers, or lying listening to the birds in the shade of these glorious trees, — how I can sell it you, — is a mystery not understood by the Indian, and dark, I must say, to me. ‘ Lord of the Soil ’ is a title which conveys your privileges but poorly. You are master of waters flowing at this moment, perhaps, in a river of Judea, or floating in clouds over some spicy island of the tropics, bound hither after many changes. There are lilies and violets ordered for you in millions, acres of sunshine in daily installments, and dew nightly in proportion. There are throats to be tuned with song, and wings to be painted with red and gold, blue and yellow ; thousands of them, and all tributaries to you. Your corn is ordered to be sheathed in silk, and lifted high to the sun. Your grain is to be duly bearded and stemmed. There is perfume distilling for your clover, and juices for your grasses and fruits. Ice will be here for your wine, shade for your refreshment at noon, breezes and showers and snowflakes, —all in their season, and all ‘ deeded to you for forty dollars an acre ! Gods ! what a copyhold of property for a fallen world ! ’ ”
Happily for that dream, so rudely shattered, the step from Glenmary to Idlewild was natural and easy, and again the household gods were gathered about an altar of rural peace. Willis was to have his wish at last, and die amidst the stillness of green fields, although without Glenmary and her presence for whom the earlier estate had been named.
All in all, Willis must remain a not insignificant figure among the earlier influences of American literature. His work was largely formative, and many traces of his stimulating presence may still be marked in the later and more perfected tendencies of our time. The literary period upon which he had entered was one of reaction from the stilted and self-conscious models of the past, He was in sympathy with this tendency, and fitted to welcome — a by no means unimportant service at that time — the new and unbefriended names of those then struggling up to the places of power they were to create as well as to fill. Entering generously, as he did, into the plans and prospects of every budding genius that came in his way, the prominence of his own position made it possible for him to bring out in others, as well as to exemplify in himself, the newer literary forces that were beginning to make themselves felt. Certain it is that Willis enjoys the credit of having done more than any other author for the introduction of well-known literary names. One does not willingly forget his encouragement of the obscure apprentice, Bayard Taylor, whom Willis and his partner, General Morris, afterward helped to start upon his travels, and who from the first profited by the former’s frank, outspoken words of praise. Besides his patronage of a number of minor writers, like J. G. Holland, Fanny Forrester, and Grace Greenwood, his advance notices of such men as Whipple and Lowell display prophetic insight and professional unconsciousness. “His mind,” he writes of Whipple, then a young business man of Boston, whose lecture on the habits and characteristics of literary men had begun to attract attention for its force and its freshness of view, “ is of the cast and calibre of the writers for the English magazines of ten years ago, and I consider him a mine to be worked with great profit by the proprietors of the reviews. His kind is rare.” Long before praise of Lowell had become the fashion, Willis fully recognized his genius and attempted an estimate of his poetic gift. He complains somewhere of being “ tied to the tail ” of Landor’s immortality by the unfortunate complication of his name in the projected American edition of that author’s works, and it seems as if his generosity toward literary contemporaries might tie him to the tail of many other well-known reputations. If sometimes, as would naturally be the case, the ardor of his welcome and approval fails of later vindication, we need not forget the spirit which prompted it, nor the still more frequent accuracy of his insight.
It is, in fact, out of this very freshness of interest in public persons and events, this keenness of sympathy and zest of life, that much of his best work has come. Without intending it, he is all the time writing history. With the simple aim of amusing his readers, he unconsciously transcribes the social economy of his time. His notes and sketches are a revelation of the life, the men and the manners, of half a century ago. With a large, swift movement which we can call nothing but panoramic, he sweeps the trifles of the day into organic living relationships, letting us into the by-play of his neighbors’ hopes, fears, illusions, in a surprisingly effective manner. He first introduces us into the social life of a New England college town like New Haven, in the days when the hot, impulsive blood of the South was striving to mingle with the cooler currents of Northern thought and feeling. We have then a passing flavor of elegant country leisure in a Knickerbocker mansion ; or a dash at Niagara or Trenton, with a spice of the Thousand Islands or Nahant thrown in. But it is the Springs that Willis most lovingly describes, in the days when Lebanon and Ballston divided the honors with Saratoga, and shared with it a native population of only fourteen millions. Whatever the reality we are wont to find, his experience at the Spa is always fascinating. We heartily enter upon the journey, with all its plans and appointments of travel. The lumbering conveyances of that time, the long, tedious hours of forced companionship with strangers, enlivened by the chance acquaintance of beautiful women and men of eccentric genius, made possible a fund of adventure denied to our swifter modern methods of roaming. So slow, indeed, is our progress that we catch the tone of public sentiment as we pass. We feel the stirrings of that spirit of enterprise and improvement with which we have since become so familiar, and note the signs of local interest in the great centres of life from which we have come. We hear the name of some noted singer or actress whispered along the road, and share in the curiosity once felt in a now almost forgotten career. Then we have that racy summing up of the great city’s life in Ephemera, that bird’s-eye view of the time, which will richly repay the study of some future historian. Without purporting to be deliberate work, it yet seems to blend unconsciously the fashion and amusements of the hour with thoughtful comment and serious discussion.
With all his genius for good living and easy access to the entertaining side of life, Willis never quite received due credit for earnestness. There is always a faint suspicion of the didactic about his dilettanteism. His practice of the virtues is homœopathic, his moral is always sugar-coated. Nevertheless, he cannot altogether escape the shadows that mingle even in metropolitan gayety, nor refrain from slight occasional lapses into preachment. But his seriousness seldom oppresses, and for the most part speedily passes into that jaunty Horatian manner of the man-about-town which he has made so famous. With equal unconsciousness he can sparkle in table repartee, or seize just that fine shade of after-dinner sadness which so naturally follows the contemplation of burnt-out ashes and empty shells. Whatever he touched shone. And if he sometimes forgot old - fashioned distinctions between glitter and steady gleaming, we must still gladly accept the degree of illumination that comes in our way. His abundant vitality dulls the edge of much of our possible criticism. When all has been said, the surface of life is too proverbially still not to be gratefully affected by so breezy and stirring a presence. He will long remain the most picturesque figure in our literature, with a gift second to none in the arts which gently stimulate, adorn, and please.
Edward F. Hayward.