Lowell, Brooks, and Gray in Their Letters

OF all devices for trapping personality, perhaps the private letter is the most effective. Men have been known to box themselves up in a sonnet, and an autobiography, if long enough, may have a corner in which the person is at last discovered ; but letters, whether they tell what the writer knows or what he does, are often fairly indicative of what he is. There is just enough of form about them to distinguish them from the amorphism of talk; not so much as to drive out the spontaneity which betrays the secret of self. And if, when we read letters, we know enough of the writer otherwise to apply the necessary correctives and explanations, the letters are often singularly interpretative, and especially valuable for giving just that comprehensive look at a person which almost justifies us in saying that we know him.

The season has brought us an unusual gift in three books which contain, with a minimum of editorial intrusion, portraits thus self-drawn of three notable Americans of our generation, a great humanist, a great preacher, and a great savan. It is possible in each case to approach the subject with a tolerably full knowledge of the deliberate contribution each has made toward the advancement of learning or the enrichment of the spirit. Lowell’s writings were gathered and revised by their author shortly before his death ; the six volumes of Brooks’s sermons, his lectures on preaching, and his noble tract on toleration form no mean precipitate of a life which ran eloquence ; and the library of Gray’s work in botanical science is well represented by the volumes which he published, and those collected after his death from his scattered writings. Yet, though one may have had this previous acquaintance, rather because he has had it, he will discover in these several groups of letters new and delightful modes of access to the men themselves.

In a letter to Mr. Fields, who had apparently been waving his wand over him to conjure a novel, Lowell makes the confession : “ As for the novel, in the first place I can’t write one, nor conceive how any one else can ; and in the next — I would sooner be hanged than begin to print anything before I had wholly finished it. . . . The truth is, my brain requires a long brooding time ere it can hatch anything. As soon as the life comes into the thing it is quick enough in chipping the shell.” In these two sentences Lowell hits off well the limitations and the familiar working of his mind, and the letters which fill two delightful volumes 1 are expansions of the theme. There is scarcely a trace of any dramatic narrative, or characterization of persons other than by a witty phrase now and then, and little to indicate that he had any constructive power ; but he was a student of his own personality, a generous lover of his friends, a wholesome recipient of the best the world could give ; and when it came to expression, so free and spontaneous that it almost seems as if it made little matter to whom he was writing, he needed only an occasion, an invitation. Of course the critic cannot know what omissions the discreet editor may have made, but since he has been willing to print many agreeable words which Lowell used toward his correspondents concerning their work and his affection for them, it is not easy to account for the almost entire absence of comment by Lowell on his contemporaries, except on the ground that he was not given to such comment. “You will divine,舡 he says in one of his latest letters, “ by what I say about gossip, that I am growing old. I used to be as stern about it as Wordsworth. You remember his ‘ I am not one,’ etc. ? ’T is senescence or London, I know not which ; perhaps a mixture of both.” Thus, though Lowell, both in his Cambridge home and in his contact with the world of Madrid or London, knew many famous men and women, was indeed eagerly sought as a companion, the reader of these volumes is rarely reminded of the fact; and though Lowell, in his friendliness, himself sought and invited companionship, these frank, affectionate letters disclose the delightful fact that he had more than most men of genius a sense of the sanctity of friendship, and that the men and women about him were not subjects for his speculation. Rather, if he must needs amuse himself with the drama of life, his birds or the mice in the wainscot provided him with dramatis personæ.

On the other hand, if there was an absence of dramatic faculty, a failure to assume the personality of other men, so that he had no inclination to write novels, and a simple amazement at the power of others to write them ; no interest, apparently, in historic narrative, so that among his ventures none seemed to take the direction of historic composition, there was in Lowell a deep and firm sense of his own nature, and through its remarkable sympathy a faculty, intuitive almost in action, of criticism, of penetration, of broad sagacity in judging movements among men. Neither dramatist, novelist, nor historian, he was, instead, poet, seer, prophet.

It is interesting to observe this selfcentred nature in its early struggle after equipoise. So far as any revelation of the man is concerned, no letters in these two volumes surpass in value those contained in the first chapter. His vacillation of mind regarding his vocation, his apparent fickleness of purpose, the conflict going on between his nature craving expression and the world with its imperious demands, the stirring within him of large designs, and the happy contentment in the pleasures of the day, all seek outlet in his natural yet uneasy letters, He was finding himself in these early days, as many another young man, and there are glimpses all through Lowell’s letters of this restlessness, this subtle sense of one’s self which in weaker natures hardens into self - consciousness. Now and then he turns upon himself in a sort of mingled pride and shame, as if at once aware of his power and angry that he has it not wholly at his beck. But for the most part one is aware of a nature singularly at one with life, and finding its greatest satisfaction in getting at the world through the reflection of the world in literature. No one would deny that Lowell was eminently a man of books, but it would be a wholly inadequate phrase which described him as a bookish man. That he was at home in his library these letters frequently show, but they show also how, even in his early years, he read through his books into life, and interpreted history and literature by means of an innate spiritual faculty which was independent of intellectual authority. How significant it is to find him, in his twenty-first year, before Carlyle or Kingsley had given the word, writing to his friend Loring : “ Those old Roundheads have never had justice done them. They have only been held up as canting, psalm-singing, hypocritical rascals; as a sort of foil for the open-hearted Cavalier. But it were a strange thing indeed if there were not somewhat in such men as Milton, Sidney, Hampden, Selden, and Pym. It always struck me that there was more true poetry in those old fiery-eyed, buffbelted warriors, with their deep, holy enthusiasm for liberty and democracy, political and religious, with their glorious trust in the arm of the Lord in battle, than in the dashing, ranting Cavaliers, who wished to restore their king that they might give vent to their passions, and go to sleep again in the laps of their mistresses, deaf to the cries of the poor and the oppressed.”

It is this criticism at first hand, this swift, direct penetration of the reality, which marks emphatically what we have characterized as Lowell’s self-centred nature. He tells us that his brain requires a long brooding time ere it can hatch anything. He is speaking, of course, of the matter of expression ; but the phrase is a fit one for his habitual temper. The superficial charge of indolence could apply only to his apparent disregard of bustling activity. His nature was of the sort that knows the power of stillness, and though he upbraids himself in his letters for his unproductiveness at times, he had plainly the instinct which waits on opportunity. His faculty of absorption was very strong, but it was no stronger than his power of assimilation ; and thus it was that when opportunity came he had not hurriedly to adjust himself to the situation. What specific preparation had this poet and professor for the work which he was called on to do at Madrid and London ? He passed an examination for the bar in his youth, and then fell to writing verses ; he edited a literary magazine for four years, — there was no special preparation for a publicist in that ; he read Old French, and taught the Romance languages, and lectured on Dante, on Chaucer, on Dryden ; he published literary criticism, and wrote some keen political satires and acute judgments on domestic politics ; his sole participation in practical politics, as the term is, was to attend a national convention once as delegate, and to have his name used as a presidential elector. He had no special preparation, but he had what was more fundamental, a large nature enriched by a familiar intercourse with great minds, and so sane, so sound in its judgment, that whether he was engaged in determining a reading in an Elizabethan dramatist or in deciding to which country an Irish colossus belonged, he was bringing his whole nature to the bench. No one can read Lowell’s dispatches from Madrid and London, which we hope may some day be published, without being struck with his sagacity, his readiness in emergencies, his interest in and quick perception of the political situation in the country where he was resident, and his unerring knowledge as a man of the world.

The Letters bring out this ease of greatness, and add thus to the knowledge of the man in his relation to other men. But they intimate even more , for these qualities of mind which suppose a generous intellectual appointment, though they seem almost to require that sense of humor which was the governor in Lowell’s mental engine, do not necessarily include the unselfish spirit, the fine conscience, the moral sensitiveness, and the hearty affection which abound in expression in these Letters. Goethe, for example, had somewhat the same sort of intellectual equipment as Lowell, but was terribly deficient on this side. From the first page to the last of these two volumes the reader will find a spontaneity which forbids any notion that when Lowell wrote a letter he thought posterity was looking over his shoulder ; and as he gives himself up to the enjoyment of a friendship with a book, such as is rarely to be had, he will find, as he closes it, that he has come into close contact with a nature as lovable as it was quick with intellectual power.

The title of the volume of Bishop Brooks’s letters 2 intimates the limitation of the selection. The authoritative Life to be published will doubtless take account of the several transoceanic journeys as a characteristic part of the preacher’s career, and will, let us hope, contain letters written from Philadelphia and Boston as well; in this volume we have to content ourselves with such glimpses of the man as we can get when he was on his vacation. Indeed, it is a little unfortunate, in one aspect, that the first interior view which the public is permitted is so exclusively private and familiar. These letters, with but two exceptions, are addressed to the immediate family circle, and a number of them are written to the children of the household. There can be no question that the book is thus singularly emphatic in outlining the domestic nature of the man ; but to turn so strong a calcium light upon the most familiar and informal relations of his life is to throw that particular aspect of the person into exaggerated prominence. One cannot help feeling that if these letters had been

saved for the Life, and then used judiciously to illustrate and give symmetry to the figure, they would have had greater value than when presented, as here, in a volume by themselves. It is true, Phillips Brooks was so conspicuous a man, and held so large a place as a public character, that the reader who approaches this book may be said already to have known that which the Life will tell, and needs such a disclosure as these family letters make to correct a too partial view. But when one considers that Brooks had large reserves, and especially was sensitive in all matters of personality, as one can see by his extreme reluctance to having his portrait published, one is disposed on his account to be hypercritical even over such a publication as this.

For what, after all, does the book reveal of the man himself ? As we open it with avidity, and read page after page, we begin to ask, What does it even reveal of the man’s doings ? Here are travels in England, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and beyond, Egypt, Palestine, India, and Japan, and yet not until the reader reaches the Holy Land does he find much more than a rapid itinerary with the hurried mention of persons and places. There is more detail in the account of his life in Syria and India, but for the most part one gets little more than free, animated narrative of travel, such as a facile writer would send home to his friends. This is not to say that the narrative is indifferent. Its freedom, its good humor, its very carelessness of detail, give it a charm, and something of the largeness of the man comes out in the rapid strokes. But seldom does he linger over a scene or spend much thought in characterizing men. In one instance he appears to bethink himself, and for the pleasure of his correspondent takes some pains with a portrait of Tennyson ; but as he passes from one renowned person to another in a recital of his social pleasures, he scarcely stops to give an inkling of his impressions.

In a negative way all this is interesting. We come to think of him, not as blind, but as living so heartily, so naturally, in the present that he contents himself with the lightest possible record. Moreover, we catch a notion of what is behind the written record when we come frequently upon the phrase “ Some day I will tell you all about it.” He had an enormous faculty for absorbing everything that came in his way, not for immediate expression, but for future use, when, in the leisure of talk or the excitement of speech, the window of memory would fly open, and out would come troops of figures.

But with the fluent narrative of sights and events there are mingled strains which positively reveal the nature of the writer. It would seem that no sooner had he cut loose from home than he was eager to be back again. There is no morbid homesickness about the letters, but there is a healthy, ardent attachment to home and the home circle which appears almost to be the uppermost feeling of the man. It breaks out in the most unexpected fashion ; it lays hold of places, it hungers for response. Wherever he goes, the image of the fireside, of the North Andover home, is forever rising to view. A niece is ill in one of his absences ; he is ready to break off all his plans and come home to her, if it can help. There is an impetuous rush of this feeling at times which makes one almost hold his breath ; and again there is almost a cry for rest, for green fields and freedom from care, which betrays the repressed nature of the man. These passages largely account for the very fact of the journeying. Reading them, one can understand better the need which he had to escape, not from himself, but from that projection of himself into the life of the community which became at times like a huge shadow cast on the world. Out of it all he rushed into the activity which he must have, but an activity unincumbered by immediate responsibility ; and once away from the hurly-burly of his crowded days, his affectionate nature flew back to those he held dear; he lavished on them his tenderness, and in the remoteness from home began to dream again of a world where he should be simply his humble self. Perhaps because of all this revelation of a fine nature we may look more leniently upon the editor of this genuine book.

If the letters of Bishop Brooks show him during vacation, those of Dr. Asa Gray 3 show him chiefly during his working hours; for although the correspondence covers a period which included seven journeys to Europe and more than one extensive trip in his own country, it is for very few pages at a time that Dr. Gray gets away from the intimation of hard work at his calling. It is not often that the activity of a scientific scholar is set forth so fully in his letters, or that one receives so distinct an impression of intellectual rush and unceasing industry. In an appendix to this work there is a partial list of his writings distributed among textbooks and independent volumes, contributions to publications of societies, papers in reports of United States surveys, and articles in periodicals. Many of these separate writings are brief, to be sure ; but when, after citing the titles of forty articles contributed to Silliman’s Journal, the editor adds that besides these Dr. Gray “ printed in its pages 380 communications, devoted chiefly to critical reviews of works on botany and kindred subjects and to biographical sketches of botanists,” and mentions the full bibliography of Dr. Gray’s writings covering forty-two pages octavo, the reader who has already finished reading a mere selection from the great mass ot Dr. Gray’s letters and journals lays down the two volumes with a faint notion of the extraordinary labors of this man of science.

Yet no numerical computation of Dr. Gray’s letters and writings can convey such an impression of his eager earnestness as results from a familiarity with the letters themselves. An autobiographic fragment, copiously and effectively annotated, covers the early years, and leaves Dr. Gray started on his career as a botanical student. This fragment hints at the impetuosity of the man when, in his twenty-eighth year, he made his first journey in Europe, and laid the foundation of his acquaintance with many men of science. In five pages he summarizes his excursions and investigations ; in two hundred pages, nearly, the same experience is narrated in his detailed journal and letters ; and both in the condensed statement and in the full record there is an almost headlong pace which is exhilarating to the reader, and expressive of the exuberance of Dr. Gray’s spirits.

The conditions of botanical science in America, largely modified as they were by Dr. Gray’s untiring zeal, determined much of his correspondence. Through his influence and that of a few others in sympathy with him, collectors accompanied government expeditions, or led solitary lives on the frontier and in the Spanish-American states. To them Dr. Gray wrote, sending encouragement and giving direction to their labor. But his chief scientific correspondence was with Torrey, the Hookers, father and son, Bentham. De Candolle, Engelmann, and Charles Darwin. His journeys to Europe gave him personal acquaintance with men of science there, and his comparative isolation in Cambridge led him into the constant association by letter with those whose pursuits were akin to his own. The result of his industry and the contribution under which he laid his contemporaries finds a graphic witness in the two views given in the two volumes, the first of the Botanic Garden House in 1852, the second of the present range of buildings in the Botanic Garden. When one considers the library and collections housed here, and follows the correspondence of Dr. Gray, he can form some little notion of the man who stood at his post for forty-five years, and with no great fund at his command, by personal solicitation, by keeping close connection with collectors and correspondents, by giving as well as taking, by unwearying attention to minutest details, gradually built up this splendid memorial. His single-hearted devotion to his work and his cheerful neglect of personal ends are conspicuous in all this correspondence. There were times when his labors weighed so heavily that he must needs run away to Europe, only to plunge into fresh labors at Kew or the Jardin des Plantes. “ I am half dead with drudgery, — half of it, at least, for other people,” he writes to Darwin ; “see no relief but to break up, and run over with wife, who needs a change, to your side of the water for a good long while.”

It would be a mistake to suppose that Dr. Gray’s letters to his scientific associates were crowded with technical details. No doubt the marks of omission indicate judicious suppression of such details ; but inasmuch as Dr. Gray was in science a student of life, and not of mechanism, he wrote of what concerned him most deeply, and his letters to Darwin especially are quick with interest in the great questions which underlay the disclosures which Darwin’s own investigations made. The alacrity with which he pounced on significant facts, the vividness with which he saw the relations of the new discoveries to fundamental law, the openness of mind and the steady judgment which made him so ready a sympathizer and so independent a critic, are delightfully illustrated in his letters.

It would be an interesting parallel which could be drawn between Gray, abounding in life, impetuous, observant, throwing out interests in every direction, physically exuberant, and springing at every fresh exhibition of nature, and Darwin, profoundly immersed in his deep penetration of the secrets of nature, courageously rising above the downward pull of exhausted vitality, and wresting victory from defeat. But the most significant contrast would be drawn from a comparison of Darwin, so husbanding and concentrating his strength that the precious dower of his life was secured only by the atrophy of other parts of his nature, with Gray, feeding his life by contact with men of many kinds, and letting his interest and sympathy flow into most diverse channels. The letters recording his travel experience show him enthusiastic over both art and nature in landscape ; the delightful letters to Dean Church intimate his thoroughgoing interest in English politics and ecclesiastical affairs ; and the letters during the war for the Union are stirring with their flashes of uncompromising patriotism. It is the generosity, the catholicity, of the man. as well as his enthusiastic eagerness and his happy devotion to science, that these letters reveal, and we count this memorial as one of exceeding value to students of life, since it displays in such full measure the proportions of a great scientist. and discloses the symmetry of nature which is possible in one whose absorbing interest seemed at first glance to be in a single field of scientific research.

In various degrees, the three works which we have considered all direct one’s admiration to the nobility of genius unimpoverished by specialization of force.

  1. Letters of James Russell Lowell. Edited by CHARLES ELIOT NORTON. In two volumes. New York : Harper & Brothers. 1894.
  2. Letters of Travel. By PHILLIPS BROOKS, late Bishop of Massachusetts. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. 1893.
  3. Letters of Asa Gray. Edited by JANE LORING GRAY. In two volumes. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1893.