Elisha Mulford

IT is a pity that some painter of insight and with skill of interpretation had not given us a portrait of Elisha Mulford, when he was in his full strength. It is an idle wish that art might find some means of perpetuating for us that most delicate organ of personality, the human voice. The painter, if he be given the precious power of seeing, can repair the waste of memory, and long after eyes have closed in death their power of appeal may dwell in some counterfeit presentment of art; but the lips have no language, and what musician has yet been able to recover for us the sound of a voice that is still ? There is not a more lasting note of recognition between persons than the voice, which betrays the forgotten friend when the eye scans the face in vain for any trace of remembered lineaments. It is the last, finest expression of the person, the most impossible to evade or simulate, the absolutely unconveyable. It was the misery of the poor old blind Isaac that he allowed himself to trust his sense of touch rather than his more unerring sense of hearing.

There are some natures that reveal themselves with peculiar clearness through the voice, and Mulford was one of these. I cannot take up his books or one of his friendly letters without hearing that singularly rhythmical, harmonious utterance. In the pulpit, where he was rarely heard of late years, it fell into a somewhat monotonous series of cadences, due, very likely, to the physical exertion of a speaker who suffered from defective hearing; but in conversation. his voice, low and even, swung in periods which were full of an incommunicable beauty. When he read aloud some favorite passage, one seemed to be listening to a sort of holy chant, and there are passages in The Republic of God which sound in the ear like felicitous renderings of some ancient Latin hymn of the church. It chanced to me to read this book on shipboard, and I found myself reading page after page in apparently perfect agreement with the great metronome of the deep sea swell.

It is the rarity of Mulford’s nature, finding an outlet in his voice and radiating from his person, which immediately addresses one who attempts to record impressions of a man of such singular fascination. The reason for this personal power lay deep. Back of voice and personal presence, one felt the existence of a remarkable harmony of life. Mulford never seemed to require any adjustment of himself. That profound consciousness of enduring relations which lies at the core of his writings was not a philosophic attainment with him, but an endowment of nature, and it exhibited itself in trivial circumstances. I suspect that deafness was something of a reinforcement to a temperament like his. He heard everything that he needed to hear, but was conveniently rid of a multitude of distracting or discordant sounds; and so he kept on his way, a curious spectator of life, wonderfully interested in all the details of politics, of business, and of literature, yet somehow making all these details subservient to certain great currents of thought upon which his mind was always sailing.

This largeness of nature disclosed itself in his habitual treatment of philosophical or political questions. A man of science would say that he had a scientific mind, which was capable of considering a subject, no matter what might be its personal bearings, in an abstracted, impersonal light; and I have heard such a man express his surprise that one with a theological training could so approach subjects which involved theological positions. It was this freedom from polemic considerations which made his discourse on all themes agreeable. He did not like a dispute; he had no disposition to drag his wits into any boxing-match with other people’s wits ; and thus he was often silent and apparently in polite conformity with his neighbor, when his real thought was quite remote. Indeed, he carried this so far that he sometimes felt his way with his friends, and waited to be assured of their general agreement before he would give them his thought.

Under the simple condition of general sympathy, his gift of thought was most generous. He published but two books and a few magazine or newspaper articles, and he delivered but one or two courses of lectures in theology. Yet he gave not merely to his friends, but to any appreciative listener, with unstinting freedom, the product of his thought on a wide range of subjects. If any one has kept a record of Mulford’s monologues, and has faithfully reported his speech, he ought to give it to the public. I call them monologues, for briefness’ sake, but there was in Mulford’s talk none of that vain love of intellectual display which is apt to affect monologue. It was a pleasure to him to talk, but he liked to take the cue from his friend. His deafness stood somewhat in the way of free conversation, but there must have been few of his friends who would not rather listen than do more than just keep him supplied with topics. Indeed, he had a little trick of which he seemed only partially aware. If very much absorbed in what he was saying, he would idly push his ear-trumpet almost out of reach ; it was a signal to his neighbor not to interrupt him. Then, when he had had his say, he would secure the trumpet again, hold it up, and intimate his readiness to hear what was to be said to that. Shut out largely from general intercourse with people, he made much of his friends in the way of familiar visits. At the end of an evening, when one was laying aside books and papers, a ring at the bell would announce a caller. Enter Mulford, very doubtful about putting aside his hat and coat: he had come in merely for a moment; he could not stay. Then one put more wood on the fire, and settled one’s self to that three or four hours’ talk which was sure to follow, with good-byes at last under the stars at midnight, that seemed nearer than before.

The miracle which he worked in his conversation with friends was the multiplication of their thoughts. One brought to him one’s latest idea or scheme, — it was always easy to do that, — and Mulford took it, reflected a moment, and gave it back enlarged, enriched, set in wide relations, and illuminated by a sudden glory. That positiveness which rules in his writings was a delightful quality in his personal judgments. He spoke as one having authority, not as a special pleader; for the results which he announced were reached not by a careful weighing of evidence, but by a clear, direct perception which went at once to the bottom of the matter. There was a deliberation in his manner which added weight to what he said, and gave a convincing tone which seemed at the time to go further than an argument. A friend who was about to deliver a course of lectures allowed himself to speak with misgivings of his undertaking. Mulford thought a moment, turned aside his head in his sage way, and presently declared himself somewhat as follows: —

“ Now, there is no one within sight or sound of Boston who knows as much upon this subject as you do. Therefore you should give your lectures without fear or favor. You have no apology to make. You must speak with authority.”

He evidently thought his friend needed a little bracing, but his manner of reinforcing him was his own. For Mulford was lavish in his endowment of his friends. Many a person has acquired new confidence in himself because Mulford believed in him so thoroughly. His imagination was busy over those whom he loved. He sometimes made them over, clothing them with all the attributes they ought to have, but in such cases he wrought upon qualities which he recognized ; seizing upon some lurking excellence, he amplified it until it seemed the one characteristic of the man. It was this large charity of judgment which made his estimates of men always worth listening to.

Indeed, there was something humorously enjoyable in his way of regarding persons and places that had won his affection. He was most loyal to his own. He thought Pennsylvania unquestionably the foremost State in the Union, Susquehanna County the fairest of its divisions, and the district which took in Montrose and Friendsville the heart of the county. Then his friends in their several professions were incontestably in the front ranks, and their opinions on various subjects were well worth attention. He did not make swans of geese, by any means, but his swans were all of the best strain. There was a glamour, which never suggested the slightest insincerity, in all his regard for the men who attracted him. He was sturdily theirs, and it did one good to find so honest a lover of men.

It is also true that his friends showed themselves at their best to him. Possibly, again, his deafness helped them. It was such an effort to speak to him at any length that it was hardly worth while to give him anything but one’s best thought. But this was not all. He was so eager to hear and was beforehand so sure one had something worth telling, that he quickened the wits of his friends. Besides, like begets like, and Mulford, with his generous way of looking at things, made one wish to think like him ; not necessarily with the same conclusions, but with the same breadth and comprehensiveness. Those who were most with him fell into his little mannerisms ; they caught themselves using his favorite expressions ; they had an odd sensation of echoing his style of thought. His correspondents were apt to feel his presence when they wrote to him, and to give a turn to their sentences which made them sound like Mulford’s own.

He had a half-humorous fondness for his own phrases. Those sounding forms which make The Nation a puzzle to some readers, a revelation to others, were very apt to recur in his conversation, and to afford stepping-stones when one was crossing some stream of his thought. I remember how greatly he was pleased as well as amused by a tribute once paid to him by a Union soldier, who had fought bravely through the war, and when it was all over, and he had settled down into civil life, read The Nation. “ I did not know before why I fought!” exclaimed the enthusiastic reader. “ I know now. It was because the Nation was a Moral Organism ! ”

No one could have believed more devoutly in the thought which underlies this book than Mulford himself. It was no pretty piece of rhetoric to him, no well-fitting theory of political life. Nothing would have disturbed him more than to hear his belief called a theory. He wrought at the conception of his work in profound silence. He was living on the broad acres of a Pennsylvania farm, remote from men, from steam, from the confusion of cities. He walked afield with his thoughts for companions, and came back to his fireside to write in labored, compact sentences the result of his pondering. For months he shunned all but the nearest companionship, wrote no letters, but read, and kindled as he read, in the newspapers of the day; for he interpreted the common news by the thought of national life over which he was brooding. In May, 1867, he wrote, with a sigh of relief from the long tension: “ I have had this incessant and imperative work, of which I have just turned the last page, and it has precluded all other work or thought, and scarcely allowed rest.”

To turn the last page is with most men to be through with the work, except for some slight revision, but with Mulford it meant only that the book had its thought consecutively presented. He could now look at it as a piece of literature, and see what was to be done. A year later, in May, 1868, he wrote: “ I can send the whole manuscript to you before the close of the month, excepting the close of the last chapter, which I would like to keep for a few days longer.” He had spent the year in putting his book in order. Six weeks later he wrote : “ I cannot justify, and only regret, the entire neglect in not answering your note earlier. If I could look upon myself apart from self, I might find some cause for it in the indifference which follows the close of so long a period as these three years of almost incessant work, but I do not like this study of these ‘ phenomenal phases ’ of action. The fact is that I have been adrift and at sea with two or three of my critics. One whose judgment I hold most highly has insisted that the style and manner of my book is not equal to its substance and thought. The estimate which they have given of the latter is so high that I will not repeat it, at least in this writing, and they claim for the book an influence and a place which is very far beyond any immediate result that I should have anticipated, if I had allowed myself to think upon it. At last, if I can do so, with no infraction of my arrangements with you,1 I have determined to rewrite the whole book, as faithfully and carefully as I can, and then I shall have the satisfaction, in any result, of having given to it my utmost endeavor. The revision will affect only the style, the illustration and presentation of the thought of the book, and it will not materially change the size or scope of it. I shall care rather to avoid anything like the fatigue and toil of conception which I knew was apparent in my manuscript. ... I know the work I have imposed upon myself, and I have no doubt still how much my book may gain from it, but I have been afraid that this conclusion might impair my engagements with you. With this rewriting, I could scarcely finish my work before the close of October or the early part of November, but then, and at no later day, I could place my manuscript finally in your hands.”

November came and went, and December, with promises of the book in a few weeks, in a few days, and then early in January, 1869, came a letter beginning, " I write so reluctantly in my conclusion that it may be allowed me to write abruptly. The conclusion is that I am reluctant to let my manuscript pass under your eye until I have toiled yet longer on it; that I think the work of the remaining months of the winter will be all it will require, and then I shall have at least the satisfaction of having been faithful to it. The thought has not changed, and since last spring the book has not added a cubit to its stature, and yet I know how necessary the toil which art has demanded. . . . Then my friend Mr.—, of whose critical judgment I have the highest regard, has offered and insisted that at the outset I should read it to him. That requires my going to Chicago, but I have determined to go.”

It was not till the fall of 1869 that Mulford came on with his book, to be near the press when it was being set up. The manuscript was all ready, but he wished to ask two or three friends to go over the proofs with him. Those who shared in this work will remember the looks of the proof-sheets after they finally left the author’s hands; scarcely a sentence was left unamended, and it was almost a surprise to see the volume finally in April, looking as innocent of error as most printed books. Seven times, Mulford told me, had he written the book over, and he certainly wrote it once more when he corrected his proofs. It was an expression of his faith in the doctrine of his book that when it was off his hands he grudged the delay in putting it upon the market, since he was impressed with the conviction that it was needed for the fall elections! That was Mulford’s way of expressing also his belief in the high range of common political thinking. I never heard of The Nation as a campaign document, but I have read many books and political papers and speeches since that day in which I could read The Nation writ over again, small and large.

I have given this little history of a remarkable book because it illustrates somewhat the intellectual habit of the author. He brooded long over his thought in fundamental matters, and was extremely critical of the final form. It was ten years before he appeared with his second book, The Republic of God, but the underlying thought of both books had been familiar to him in its main outline long before. They were two parts of an undivided conception of human society in its divine relations, and his mind dwelt for years in a region of thought so comprehensive that his real difficulty was in limiting and formulating his expression. He had done this twice, the second time with much more ease than the first; and I am confident that, had he lived, he would have produced books with increasing rapidity, and that he would have taken a wide range in the discussion of sociological, literary, scientific, and psychological questions. These books would all have borne the same stamp ; they would have been applications to current themes of the philosophical faith which he held. Some one once said, “ What a narrow man Mulford is !—but then he is narrow on great lines.” I can understand how the speaker could have said this : he had heard Mulford talk a few times, and had noted the recurrence to his favorite generalizations. But it would be by an extraordinary stretch of meaning that one would ever think of using the word " narrow ” in connection with Mulford. He was narrow as a cañon is narrow, when the depth apparently contracts the sides.

What I have said may in part explain the conviction which those had who were nearest to him, that the man always impressed them as greater than his books. His books suffered from the restraint of his thought, and because their very completeness and finality of statement conspired to shut up the thought in them within certain definite limits. But in the freedom of conversation these limits were not suggested. When he first began to lecture before his students in theology he was embarrassed by his notes. He had written out what he had to say, and he read the draft with painful care, but when he was through with it the hour was not gone. The young men still sat attentive, but his formal lecture was over. He was uneasy a moment, then he repeated a phrase ; it opened the gates, the stream of talk began to flow, his embarrassment was at an end, and the students were delighted with the freshness, the life, the stimulating fullness, of his thought. It was so always. Let him get rid of the restrictions of a hard and fast systematic presentation, and he was himself again. The curious part of it was that his extemporaneous speech, his unpremeditated discourse, was singularly fine in form. It was not that he was now vague where before he had been precise ; he was free where before he had been fettered. He once asked me about a certain person, and I said that I did not find conversation with him a great pleasure ; that while he regarded conversation as a fine art, he was too much occupied with the best form of his sentences when he was talking. “ Yes,” said Mulford, “ it is not hay that we want in conversation, but growing grass.” That was the charm of his speech. It sprang freely from his mind, and one seemed to see thought growing as the grass grows.

There was one characteristic of his conversation which he shared with other good talkers, but had in a high degree of development. He could recall conversations he had had with interesting persons, and could repeat them with great vivacity. He remembered minute details in personal history, and had that liking for gossip, where it dealt with characteristic expressions of men and women worth knowing, which is so humane and so free from pettiness. Yet he had an impatience of books of gossip. Such a book, for example, as the Journals of J. C. Young had no charm for him, but he would read with avidity a memoir which laid bare the thought of a strong man. He used to speak of Mark Pattison’s Isaac Casaubon as a model of what a biography should be.

He was a wide reader, but I sometimes think he read most diligently at the two ends of literature, for he was a devourer of newspapers and a constant reader of Shakespeare. His friends, who knew his tastes, kept him supplied with a great variety of public prints, and he had an instinct for the editorial article which speaks something more than the casual opinion of some hasty writer. He thought the newspapers went deeper than the pulpit in their tone during the summer of Garfield’s sickness, and he listened eagerly to the roar of the great city which he heard as he scanned the columns of the city papers. And Shakespeare! He never tired of studying human thought as it was presented in the men and women of Shakespeare’s drama. His fine literary sense and his insight of character found here their fullest intellectual enjoyment. He liked to read his Shakespeare in an edition which was a fac-simile of the first folio ; his imagination thus brought him more directly into Shakespeare’s presence. That world of life shut up within the covers of a book was a city which he visited often ; he knew it by heart in the best sense, and no actor could present Shakespeare but Mulford brought to bear a criticism which was far beyond any mere judgment of fidelity to text, or even to accepted versions of character. It was a penetrating and illuminating judgment of the Shakespearean person who was under representation. The reader of The Nation will have been struck by the frequent felicitous citations from Shakespeare. Mulford’s regard for Shakespeare as a political thinker was very great, and he was constantly bearing testimony to this effect. He regarded him also as a great humanizer, and used to express the wish that the missionaries might translate Shakespeare into the Chinese tongue; he thought the people of China needed nothing so much.

There are some men whose speculations are of such a nature that one feels a wistful desire to know what new disclosures of truth await them after their sudden transfer from this scene of mental activity. One can hardly have that feeling with regard to Mulford. The field of his thought was in this world. He held that large conception of eternity which was so vital a part of Maurice’s teaching, — a conception which disregarded almost willfully any aid from the future; his thought of prophecy left the predictive element quite out of view. He did not reason concerning this world and the next, but rather of this world as seen in its universal relations, and the central truth of his theology gave a sublimity to human nature which cast its glow over everything which man cares for. It is hard, as the saying is, to make him dead. He does not belong among the dead. His luminous nature lives on, but it is the sorrowful fortune of his friends that they live in the penumbra of his memory, not in the glow of his presence.

H. E. Scudder.

  1. 2 I had been acting as his intermediary with the publishing house which finally issued the book.