The Author of Quabbin

I PROPOSE to write some random recollections of a friend of many years, and of the early days of the magazine he was largely instrumental in establishing. I remember well the occasion of my first meeting with him, much better than I recall the month, or even the year, although I think it must have been late in the autumn of 1853. It was on a Monday morning, and he had been but an hour or two at the desk newly placed for him in the countingroom of Phillips, Sampson & Co., then the most active publishing house in Boston. As I entered on some errand (the firm was then issuing a series of small books for me), the strange face at the new desk looked up with a surprised, interested, penetrating expression, which kindled into cordial recognition as the urbane head of the firm approached and introduced us. From that moment Francis Henry Underwood and I were friends.

He was then in the flower of early manhood, not quite twenty-nine years old (born January 12, 1825), with a fine ruddy complexion, good nose, and handsome eyebrows, frank yet dignified manners, and an admirable aplomb which made him a noticeable man in any company. He had had his share of the varied experiences commonly attending the career of a typical self-made American. A native of Enfield, in the heart of western Massachusetts, reared in a rural community, and receiving the rudiments of his education in the ungraded district school of those days, — the best part of him developed and trained in the usual hard struggle of a poor but ambitious New England boy striving to better his condition, — he had managed somehow to prepare himself for entering Amherst, and had there made some advance in a collegiate course, which, however, a lack of means prevented him from completing. A good uncle offered to supply the means for that and a subsequent theological course, conditioned on his promise to devote himself to the ministry. This he at one time seriously contemplated doing ; but his mind awakening to doubts as to the doctrines he would be expected to preach, he took the only honest course open to him, announced his change of views, and forfeited the proffered advantages with his uncle’s favor. On quitting Amherst he went to Kentucky, where he taught school, studied law, and was admitted to the bar. He also found a wife there, an estimable woman, who was to become the mother of his four children.

Life in Kentucky, instead of lulling to rest some New England prejudices he entertained against the institution of slavery, only confirmed and strengthened them. He returned to Massachusetts in 1850, enlisted in the Free Soil movement, made friends among its leaders, and was elected clerk of the state Senate in the stirring “ coalition ” days of 1852, when stalwart Henry Wilson was president of that body, and Banks and Hoar and other notable members of the House were in training for the wider arena of national politics.

But Underwood’s aspirations were always more literary than political, and after a year’s service in the Senate he had found a more congenial position in the great publishing house, where his chief duties were to examine manuscripts offered for publication, and conduct correspondence with authors. I found him extremely companionable, warming quickly to a new acquaintance; and I envied in him the entire absence of that shyness which in me too often repressed the ardor of social impulses. He had many friends among all sorts of people, but principally among artists and writers. There was one, particularly, of whose intimacy he was justly proud, the brilliant wit and poet of Cambridge, 舒 “ my friend Mr. Lowell,” as he commonly spoke of him with undisguised satisfaction.

I saw him almost daily at his office, but our real intimacy began when first he invited me to his house. ” Come and dine with me on Sunday,” he said, “ and in the afternoon we will walk over to Elmwood.” It was a red-letter day for me, when I went out from Boston at the appointed time, found him in his modest home (he was living in Cambridge), and after dinner walked with him to the home of the Lowells.

I had never yet seen the author of the Biglow Papers and A Fable for Critics, then in the refulgent morning of his fame ; and the anticipation of meeting him sensitized my mind for sharp and enduring impressions. I retain a distinct picture of Elmwood as it looked that morning : a spacious, square, old-fashioned mansion, standing in the midst of snow-covered grounds, and surrounded by tall trees and clumps of ragged lilacs, all bare of foliage except the pines lifting their golden-green tops in the wintry sunshine. My guide entered like a familiar guest, and led the way up three flights of stairs to a large front room, which was the poet’s study. Mere words often convey to the mind impressions of form and color ; and I had conceived of Lowell — not that I am aware from anything he had written, but solely from the sound of the two syllables of his name — as a tall, dark, dignified person, with a thin face, ample forehead, and prominent nose. Very great, therefore, was my surprise when I was ushered into the presence of a compact little man in short velvet jacket, with wavy auburn hair parted in the middle over a full, fair forehead that appeared neither broad nor high, and a bright, genial face more expressive of the vigorous and humorous Hosea than of the exalted Sir Launfal.

The easy cordiality of his greeting put me at once at my ease, and prepared me for the enjoyment of a delightful occasion. He was accustomed to receive, at that hour on Sunday afternoons, a small circle of friends, among whom he was the shining central figure. Soon after our arrival Robert Carter came in, a short, sturdy man, with a big head spanned by a pair of gold-bowed spectacles, a walking cyclopædia of information. Dr. Estes Howe, Lowell’s brotherin-law, and two or three others made up the company, and a quiet, desultory conversation ensued ; not at all that of gods discoursing “ from peak to peak all about Olympus,” but very much like the talk of men of sense and culture anywhere. Some good stories were told, there was now and then a meteoric pun, or a wise observation illumined a subject like the sudden flash of a search-light; but what interested me most was the reading by Lowell of some verses which I do not remember ever to have seen in print. The talk turning upon French poetry, he took from a shelf of ponderous volumes a work of Voltaire’s, from which he first read us a part of Hamlet’s soliloquy in the great Frenchman’s attenuated and flexible alexandrines; a version as much like the original as some luxuriant vine is like a rugged trunk it climbs and hides. This paraphrase Lowell had retranslated into English quite faithfully, giving it, however, some sly turns to bring out with ludicrous effect its graceful feebleness in contrast with the sententious Shakespearean lines.

It was late in the afternoon when the company separated, and I went home to tea with Underwood. Seeing a friend for the first time in the society of his familiars is like placing him in a room full of mirrors that reflect his different sides; and to know him in his home is still a different revelation. As I walked back to Boston in the evening, and Stopped on the bridge — one of “ the caterpillar bridges crawling with innumerable legs across the Charles”— to watch the stars mistily wavering in the dark, full river, and to think over the events of the afternoon, I felt that I had come to know Frank Underwood better in those few hours than in all the previous weeks of our acquaintance.

Besides these Sunday afternoons at Lowell’s there were Friday evening gatherings, — “ ostensibly for whist, at the house of each of the party in turn,” as Underwood tells us in The Poet and the Man. The whist club included Lowell, Carter, John Bartlett, John Holmes, and other friends and neighbors of Underwood. Then there were very informal dinners in Boston, nearly always attended by him and Lowell, and often by Edmund Quincy, Francis Parkman, and Dr. Holmes. Such were some of his associates, and all who knew him will attest how generous he was in sharing old friendships with new friends. If never any false pride deterred him from making his friends useful to him, he had the right of one who was equally ready to serve them or to make them useful to one another. One especial favor which he would have done me I recall with mingled gratitude and regret. Hearing that I was intending to go abroad in the spring of 1855, he interested himself in my plans, and one morning met me with a significantly uplifted finger, and the startling announcement, “ It is all arranged ; you are going with Mr. Lowell !”

Startling indeed, for although I knew that Mr. Lowell, lately appointed professor of modern languages in Harvard University, to succeed Mr. Longfellow, was to have a year of study in Europe before assuming the duties of that position, I had not conceived the possibility of having him for a fellow-passenger.

“ I have talked it over with him. He is going in a sailing-vessel, and you two will probably be the only passengers. Don’t say a word against it! ” Underwood went on, as I murmured something about different arrangements. “Take my advice, — cancel them ; give up everything else for this rare chance.”

Alas, those different arrangements! A very close friend of mine was going abroad with three Spanish - American youths to superintend their education in Paris, and I had engaged to accompany them. Neither he nor they could speak French, and my small familiarity with that language was depended upon to aid in establishing them in the great foreign metropolis. Time was more important to them than it was to me, and they were to make the voyage in a steamer. I should myself have preferred the more leisurely and less expensive passage ; and I knew how delightful as well as profitable to me, with my imperfect education and unsettled literary aims, would be a month’s daily intercourse with a finished man like Lowell, in the vast and unbroken seclusion of the ocean. But I could not well change my plans. Underwood called me an idiot, as perhaps I was. But he did not weary of serving me; and I cannot forbear the pleasure of recording another instance of his active friendship. When I came home, a year later, with the manuscript of Neighbor Jackwood in my trunk, he took a lively interest in putting it through the press ; and it was afterwards through his mediation that I was engaged to make a dramatic version of it for the Boston Museum stage.

Boston had as yet no magazine that could command the united support of the best writers and of an appreciative public. The Dial, started in 1810, with such contributors as Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Margaret Fuller, was designed as a vent to the new wine of Transcendentalism, and commended itself chiefly to the few who had felt the fine intoxication of that ferment. It was near its last days when, in 1843, Lowell and his friend Robert Carter started The Pioneer, with Poe and Hawthorne in its list of contributors ; which also failed for the lack of something behind it more substantial than enthusiasm and genius. Up to the time I write of there had been no other noteworthy venture of the sort. There was, indeed, the scholarly and exclusive North American Review, an able quarterly, which had not yet metamorphosed itself to a monthly and emigrated. Philadelphia had its three graces, Graham’s, Godey’s, and Sartain’s, and New York its old Knickerbocker, new Harper’s, and Putnam’s ; why then should not Boston be represented by a monthly of her own, worthy of her literary reputation, and of the authors who stood ready to contribute to its pages ? This was a question one often heard discussed ; the idea was in the air, as they say, like so many ideas that wait for the right hour and the right man for their materialization.

The man in this case was Underwood, whose position made him a connecting link between a circle of brilliant writers and a publishing firm of enterprise and reputation. He was ardently in favor of such a publication: he talked it over with his literary friends, on the one hand, particularly with Professor Lowell; and with Phillips, Sampson & Co., on the other, particularly with the “ Co.” Mr. Sampson was then in feeble health and practically out of the business. Mr. Phillips, affable but dignified, had a glacial atmosphere when urged to consider propositions which his judgment failed to approve, and Underwood found his cold side when he talked to him of the magazine. The “ Co.” in these days was Mr. William Lee, then a young man, now the veteran publisher of the firm of Lee & Shepard. He and Underwood were on intimate terms; and when Underwood came in, charged, from conferences with his Cambridge friends, he found Lee a good conductor. The two partners were in the habit of going out to lunch together ; and in that hour of relaxation the junior would sometimes bring up the subject of the proposed magazine, arguing that they ought not to miss so magnificent an opportunity. The coöperation of Lowell, Longfellow, Whittier, Emerson, Hawthorne, Holmes, — a dazzling array of names, — was assured ; and no doubt that of the then most popular writer in the world, a woman, could be obtained. Warming by degrees, the senior at last said he would consult Mrs. Stowe.

Four or five years before, the manuscript of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or rather the scrapbook containing the newspaper chapters clipped from the National Era, had been offered to Messrs. Phillips, Sampson & Co. for publication in book form. The firm had at that time a large Southern trade, which they feared would be imperiled by the appearance of their imprint on the title-page of that flaming anti-slavery tract in the guise of fiction. Nobody could have foreseen that Uncle Tom was to create for itself a book trade of more value in a single year than the ordinary trade of any house for a decade ; so that we need not marvel at the seeming short-sightedness of Mr. Phillips when, after a brief consultation with his partners, he declined the proffered book with his customary courtesy and with thanks.” It went to an obscure Boston bookseller, who had little to risk by the undertaking, and, as it proved, fortune and immense publicity to gain. Its success not only revolutionized public sentiment on the subject of slavery ; it also converted booksellers from their conservative views of the relative value of a Southern trade. Mrs. Stowe could well afford to forgive the slight put upon a performance that had vindicated itself so triumphantly ; and receiving an intimation that Mr. Phillips would not decline a second work of hers, she had, in 1854, given the firm her Sunny Memories, following it in 1856 with the great antislavery novel Deed.

The publisher and the authoress were on exceedingly friendly terms, and Mrs. Stowe rarely came to town without calling upon Mr. Phillips. It was noticeable that while she gave some of the humble frequenters of the Winter Street store one or two careless fingers, the whole of the little hand that had written the most famous book of modern times went out very graciously to him. When he mentioned to her the project of the new magazine, she received it with instant and cordial approval, and promised it her earnest support. The publisher hesitated no longer; a chain of agencies had accomplished what might never have come to pass had either one of them been absent. I well remember Underwood’s radiant countenance when, one morning, he announced to me in strictest confidence that the proposed publication was finally decided upon; that Lowell was to be editor in chief, and that he was to be Lowell’s assistant. I dare say my own face grew radiant, too, when he went on to say that a contribution from me would be expected for the first number.

The new venture was not yet named, and while all of us who were in the secret were ransacking our wits for a good title, Dr. Holmes, who seemed ever ready with the right thing at the right moment, christened it The Atlantic Monthly.

Early in June, 1857, Underwood went abroad in the interest of the forthcoming magazine, taking letters to the foremost British from the best known American writers. Emerson alone, in a characteristic note, declined to furnish the desired introductions. “ Since my foreign correspondents have ceased sending their friends to me, it seems hardly fair,” he wrote, “ that I should accredit any of mine to them.” It was Underwood’s first trip to Europe, and the mission was very greatly to his mind.

It was the intention to issue the initial number a month or two before it actually appeared, and it was to open with the first chapters of a serial story by Mrs. Stowe. This she was unable to furnish, hindered, I think, by some domestic calamity. Then came the financial panic of that year, and it was feared the publication might have to go over to the next year, or be postponed indefinitely, — a peculiarly dismal prospect to writers whose contributions had been accepted. Few people were aware how narrowly the great publishing house escaped collapse in that tempestuous time. It was October when the delayed first number appeared, bearing date November, 1857.

In this age of magazines, great and small, when nobody is surprised to hear of new ones starting up every few months, it is difficult to conceive of the wide interest excited by the advent of the long-expected Atlantic. The articles were unsigned, which Mr. Phillips himself thought a mistaken policy, with so resplendent a group of names that might have served to emblazon the announcements. The publishers’ self-denial found compensation, however, in the interest of the riddles of authorship which the public was each month invited to solve. That of some of the principal articles was generally an open secret, while the guesses as to others were often amusing enough ; as when a poem by a little known writer was copied and went the rounds of the press attributed to Longfellow or Emerson,— an incident not calculated to please either him who was thus deprived of his due credit, or the other who had a doubtful honor thrust upon him.

In place of the hoped-for chapters of a serial, Mrs. Stowe had in the first number only a short story, The Mourning Veil, which was disappointing. When asked why so slight a sketch had been admitted, Underwood replied, “ When a boy goes a-fishing and catches a small fish, he puts it into his basket for luck, hoping to catch a big one by and by.” The magazine caught a big one indeed when, a few months later, The Minister’s Wooing began to appear in its pages.

To that first number Emerson contributed, besides an essay, four short poems, one of them the mystical Brahma, which was to be more talked about and puzzled over and parodied than any other poem of sixteen lines published within my recollection. “ What does it mean ? ” was the question readers everywhere asked ; and if one had the reputation of seeing a little way into the Concord philosophy, he was liable at any time to be stopped on the street by some perplexed inquirer, who would draw him into the nearest doorway, produce a crumpled newspaper clipping from the recesses of a waistcoat pocket, and, with knitted brows, exclaim, “ Here ! you think you understand Emerson ; now tell me what all this is about, — 'If the red slayer think he slays’” and so forth.

Longfellow contributed his beautiful tribute to Florence Nightingale, Santa Filomena ; Lowell had a versified fable and a sonnet; and there was a paper by Motley, whose early novels of Morton’s Hope and Merry Mount had been forgotten, while his Rise of the Dutch Republic had suddenly placed him in the front rank of living historians. But the great surprise of the number was a contribution which, if not by a new hand, showed that a new force had entered into our literature ; the first of a series of papers of inimitable wit and brilliancy, by a hand that never seemed to grow old nor to lose its wonderful facility, until it was laid to rest the other day in Mount Auburn, — the hand of the kindly and beloved Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table.

The writer of this present article was the youngest of the contributors, and, with the exception of Mrs. Stowe and Mr. Charles Eliot Norton, he is now the sole survivor.

Underwood enjoyed greatly his position on the magazine. Every article offered passed through his hands, but though he possessed unlimited power of rejection, the power of final acceptance rested solely with Lowell. Yet Underwood was not merely the coarse sieve this might imply. He often made up the numbers, subject, however, to Lowell’s approval; he conferred with authors, and he was himself also a contributor. He had done a useful work in uniting the forces that combined to originate the magazine, but the character of it was entirely the creation of Lowell.

The death of Mr. Phillips and the subsequent breaking up of the firm in 1859 resulted in the conveyance of the magazine to Messrs. Ticknor & Fields, and the severance of Underwood’s connection with it. This was a grief to him for reasons quite other than pecuniary ones. At his years, with his prepossessing personality and his many friends, there was no doubt of his being easily able to make good any loss of that nature. He soon found a sufficiently lucrative position as clerk of the Superior Court in Boston, the fees of which often bulged his pocket in a most satisfactory fashion as he carried them home at night. He was then living in South Boston, the office he held having necessitated his residence within the city limits, and his removal from the delightful neighborhood in Cambridge where the seven best years of his life had been passed. This position he retained eleven years, after which he unfortunately invested his savings in an established business that promised to pay him dividends on his stock and a salary as secretary. The salary was paid for a while, but no returns from his investment did he ever see, either as dividends or principal, and he at last retired from the concern altogether. Meanwhile his literary activity continued, and in 1871 and 1872 he published his two Handbooks of British and American Authors, to which he had given an immense amount of conscientious labor. He also published two or three works of fiction ; and to show how full a life he must have lived, it should be added that he was an active member of literary and musical clubs, and for many years a member of the Boston school board.

Mrs. Underwood dying in 1882, the South Boston home was broken up not long afterwards. In 1885 Underwood was given a consulship at Glasgow, the duties of which he must have performed satisfactorily, since he was reappointed consul by the second administration of President Cleveland, this time at Edinburgh, in 1893. But of far deeper interest to us than the conduct of his office is the life he lived abroad as a representative American and man of letters. His fine presence, his public addresses and afterdinner speeches, and more particularly his lectures on American Men of Letters made him a prominent figure in society ; and the University of Glasgow recognized his distinction by conferring upon him the degree of LL. D. His reputation had prepared for him a warm reception in Edinburgh. He was comfortably settled there with the young Scotch wife he had brought with him to America, and taken back with him to her native land ; and his friends here had received barely an intimation of his breaking health, when a brief cabled dispatch announced his death, which took place on the 8th of August last, in his seventieth year.

He had had a varied, an interesting, and on the whole an enviable career. It was not without its disappointments, which he was latterly too much inclined to dwell upon, forgetting that they are the common lot of all. He desired fortune for the generous uses to which he would have devoted it; but in the full flood of his prosperous years he failed to attain independence, and the ebbing tide found him still pulling the oar of an unflagging industry. He had literally troops of friends, — no man had more, — as was enthusiastically shown at the farewell banquet tendered him on the occasion of his first departure for Scotland; yet on returning to Boston, after a brief interval of years, he felt himself forgotten and neglected. Without seeming to overrate his own talents, well aware that he lacked the creative gift of genius, he was ambitious of attaining a permanent place in his country’s literature; yet while his books had always a certain success, and were commended by the judicious, they did not secure the general recognition he felt they deserved. His sense of these discouragements was not, however, so bitter as might be inferred from letters of his written when he was poor and ill and old, strictly confidential communications, which were hurried into print at the time of his death. Beneath some superficial inconsistencies he had a simple, sound, and cheerful philosophy, which taught him to do with all his skill his daily task, and make the best of life as it sped. He found unfailing enjoyment in literature, music, and art, in friendship and in congenial labor ; and his love of nature remained fresh and vigorous to the last, as evinced by his letters to a few friends, and by the loving, lingering touches of description in the pages of Quabbin.

He wrote popular biographical sketches of Longfellow, Whittier, and Lowell; and his later work on Lowell, The Poet and the Man, has the interest and value of personal recollections. His Handbooks are characterized by critical acumen and conciseness in the brief prefatory sketches of the authors illustrated, and by excellent judgment in the selections made from their works. He was not a born storywriter, yet his fiction was always readable, and one of his novels, Lord of Himself, has merits of a high order. Undoubtedly, his representative work, the work by which Dr. Underwood will be best remembered, is Quabbin, the Story of a Small Town, his own native Enfield, written in Glasgow in an interval of leisure between his two consulships. To this home of his hopeful boyhood the memory of the much-tried man went back across a thousand leagues of sea and a wider gulf of years, and solaced itself amid scenes which are here recalled with tender affectionateness and absolute fidelity. A genuine labor of love, he brought to it all the resources of his ripened mind. It cannot be classed as fiction, although there are stories within the story which have the form of fiction, sketches of characters and manners touched with pathos, humor, and a realism softened by sympathetic art. It is a study of the interior life, outward aspects, and social evolution of a New England town ; a work altogether unique in its plan, showing unusual powers of observation, and a painstaking accuracy in portraying the customs and costumes, sayings and doings and individual traits of a community typifying a phase of rural life which is swiftly passing away, or has already passed. Our chief concern with it here is the revelation it gives of the man; and passing over quaint or curious or beautiful things in every part, we shall content ourselves with a single quotation. It is from the concluding chapter, which describes the Return of the Native, an old man, to the haunts of his youth : —

“ In the cool evening, by the margin of the wood, he hears the plaintive whippoorwill ; and it seems that it must be the same bird that he listened to with strange pleasure when a boy. Night comes with the train of ancient stars which know no change. What unutterable thoughts come as he looks up at the shining host! In the morning he is awakened by the sun peering over the eastern hill and touching the vane of the steeple. There is a new day, and the world begins its toil. And so it will be when he does not rise at the call, and the grass is beginning to grow over him.”

In the work on which he was engaged at the time of his death, The Builders of American Literature, only one volume of which was completed and published, occur these words regarding an earlier man of letters : “ The literary world has need of such accomplished and industrious writers, and could often spare more brilliant men,” — words that will apply with equal justice to Francis Henry Underwood himself.

J. T. Trowbridge.