Autobiography of W. J. Stillman
GIVEN a disposition to enter into controversies on art questions, provoked by the general incompetence of the newspaper critics, and the fact that there was at that time no publication devoted to the interests of art, it happened naturally that I was drawn into correspondence with the journals on art questions, and easily made for myself a certain reputation in this field. I obtained the position of fine-art editor of the New York Evening Post, then edited by William Cullen Bryant, — a position which did not interfere with my work in the studio.
The Post was of all the New York journals that which paid the most attention to matters of art and had the greatest critical weight. The work I had to do for it was light and of slight importance, but my relations with Bryant were intellectually profitable. He enjoyed the highest consideration among contemporary journalists, for his inflexible integrity in politics as well as in business affairs. The managing editor was John Bigelow, a worthy second to such a chief. Bryant was held to be a cold man, not only in his poetry, but in his personal relations, but I think that, so far as his personality was concerned, this was a mistake. He impresses me still as a man of strong feelings, who had cultivated a restraint of expression which became the habit of his life. The character of his poetry, much of it remote from human interest and given to the worship of nature, confirmed the impression of coldness which his manner suggested, because it never admitted the refraction of passion to disturb the serenity of his emotions. I never saw him in anger, but I felt that the barrier which held him in was too slight to make it safe for any one to venture to touch it. A supreme sense of justice went with a somewhat narrow personal horizon, — a combination which, while it enabled him to hold the balance of judgment level, in respect to the large world of politics, made him often too bitter in his controversies touching political questions ; but the American political daily paper, which in my judgment saw in his day its highest attainment, has never had a nobler type than the Evening Post under Bryant. Demonstrative he never was, even with his intimates, but to the constancy and firmness of his friendship all who knew him well could testify; and as long as he lived our relations were unchanged, though my wandering ways seldom brought me near him in later years.
About this time my friends came to the conclusion that it would be a good and useful thing if I should start an art journal. I had read with enthusiasm Modern Painters, absorbing the views of Ruskin in large draughts, and I had enjoyed intercourse with European masters, and with Americans like William Page, H. K. Brown, S. W. Rowse, and H. P. Gray, all thinkers and artists of distinct eminence. In this school I had acquired certain views of the nature of art which I burned to disseminate. They were crude rather than incorrect, but they were largely responded to by our public ; they were destructive of the old rather than informing of the new, and they leaned on nature rather than on art. The whole country was full of Ruskinian enthusiasm, and what strength I had shown was in that vein. The overweening selfconfidence which always carried me into dangers and difficulties which a little wisdom would have taught me to avoid, made me too ready to enter into a scheme which required far more ability and knowledge of business than I possessed. All my artist friends promised me their support, and I found in John Durand, the son of the president of the National Academy of Design, a partner with a seconding enthusiasm and the necessary aid in raising the capital. This amounted to five thousand dollars, for the half of which my brother became security. We doubted not that the undertaking would be lucrative, and one of the principal motives which was urged on me by my artistic friends and promised supporters was that it would furnish me with a sufficient income to enable me to follow my painting without anxiety as to my means of living. We started a weekly, called The Crayon, and in the outset I was able to promise the assistance of most of our best writers residing in New York.
In order to secure the support of the Bostonians, I went to that city and to Cambridge, where I met with a cordial response to my enthusiasm, Lowell becoming my sponsor to the circle of which he was then, and for many years, the most brilliant ornament. To him and his friendship in after years I owe to a very large degree the shaping of my later life, as well as the better part of the success of The Crayon. He was then in a condition of profound melancholy, from the recent death of his wife. He lived in retirement, seeing only his most intimate friends, and why he should have made an exception in my case I do not quite understand. It may be that I had a card of introduction from his great friend, William Page, or from C. T. Briggs (in the literary world “ Harry Franco ”) ; but if so, it would have been merely a formal introduction, as my acquaintance with either of those gentlemen was very slight, — so slight, indeed, that I do not remember an introduction at all, and my impression is that I introduced myself. But I was an enthusiast, fired with the idea of an apostolate of art, largely vicarious and due to Ruskin, who was then my prophet, and whose religion, as mine, was nature. In fact, I was still so much under the influence of the Modern Painters that, like Ruskin, I accepted art as something in the peculiar vision of the artist, not yet recognizing that it is the brain that sees, and not the eye. But there is this which makes the nature worshiper’s creed a more exalting one than that of the art lover, that it is impersonal, and compels the forgetting of one’s self, which for an apostolate is an essential. It was probably this characteristic of my condition which enlisted the sympathy of Lowell, who, even in his desolation, had a heart for any form of devotion. With the love of nature which was one of his own most marked traits, he had a side to which my enthusiasm appealed directly. The mere artist is, unless his nature is a radically religious one, an egotist, and his art necessarily centres on himself, nature only furnishing him with material. I was dreaming of other things than myself, or that which was personal in my enterprise, and Lowell felt the glow of my inspiration. He introduced me to Longfellow, Charles Eliot Norton, R. H. Dana, and others of his friends at Cambridge, and, at a later visit, to Agassiz, Emerson, Thomas G. Appleton (Longfellow’s brother-in-law), Whittier, E. P. Whipple, Charles Sumner, and Samuel G. Ward, a banker and a lover of art of high intelligence, the friend of poets and painters, and to me, in later years, one of the kindest and wisest of advisers and friends.
Lowell invited me to the dinner of the Saturday Club, a monthly gathering of whatever in the sphere of New England thought was most eminent and brilliant, and here for the first time I came in contact with the true New England. It may be supposed that I returned to New York a more complete devotee than ever of that Yankeeland to which I owed everything that was best in me. In my immediate mission, the quest of support for The Crayon, I had abundant response in contributions, and Lowell himself, Norton, and “ Tom ” Appleton, as he was called familiarly by all the world, continued to be among my most faithful and generous contributors so long as I remained the editor. Longfellow alone, of all that literary world, though promising to contribute, never did send me a word for my columns, —not, I am persuaded, from indifference or want of generosity, but because he was diffident of himself, and in the scrutiny of his work, for which of course the demand from the publishers was always urgent, he did not find anything which seemed to him particularly fit for an art journal. Nor would any of those contributors ever accept the slightest compensation for the poems or articles they sent, though The Crayon paid the market price for everything it printed, to those who would receive it.
The first number of The Crayon made a good impression in all quarters praise from which was most weighty and most desired by its proprietors. Bryant and Lowell had sent poems for it ; but I had to economize my wealth, and could print only one important poem in each number, to which I gave a page, so that I had to choose between the two. Bryant’s poem was without a title, and when I asked him to give it one he replied, " I give you a poem ; give me a name ; ” and I called it A Rain Dream, which name it bears still in the collected edition of his works. Lowell sent me the first part of Pictures from Appledore, one of a series of fragments of a projected poem, like so many of his projects, never carried to completion. The poem was intended to consist of a series of stories told in The Nooning, in which a party of persons, of various orders and experience of life, meeting under a pollard willow, — one of those which stood, and of which some still stand, by the river Charles, — were to tell stories of personal adventure or characteristic of the sections of New England from which they came. Bryant’s greater reputation at that time made his contribution more valuable from a publishing point of view, especially in New York, where Lowell had as yet little following, while Bryant was recognized by many as the first of living American poets. But my personal feeling insisted on giving Lowell the place at the launch, and to reconcile the claim of seniority of Bryant with my preference of Lowell puzzled me a little, the more that Lowell urged strongly my putting Bryant in the forefront as a matter of business. I determined to leave the decision to Bryant, whose business tact was very fine, and who had as little personal vanity as is possible to a man of the world, which in the best sense he Avas. But I prepared the ground by writing a series of articles on The Landscape Element in American Poetry, the first of which was devoted to Bryant; and then taking to him the poem of Lowell and the article on himself, I asked his advice, saying that I could print only his poem or Lowell’s, but that I desired to take in as wide a range of interest as possible. He decided at once in favor of the poem of Lowell and the Bryant article in the landscape series.
The success of The Crayon was immediate, though, from a large journalistic point of view, its contents were no doubt somewhat crude and puerile. It had a considerable public sympathetic to its sentimental vein,— readers of Ruskin and lovers of pure nature, — a circle the larger perhaps for the incomplete state of art education in our community. That two young men, with no experience in journalism, and little in literature, should have secured the success for this enterprise which The Crayon indisputably did reach, was a surprise to the public, and, looking at it now, with my eyes cooled by the distance of more than forty years, I am myself surprised. That The Crayon had a real vitality, in spite of its relative juvenility, was shown by the warm commendation it received from Lowell, Bryant, and other American men of letters, and from Ruskin, who wrote us occasional notes in reply to questions put by the readers, and warmly applauded its tone. Mantz was our French correspondent, and William Rossetti our English, and a few of the artists sent us communications which had the value of the personal artistic tone. But I learned the meaning of the fable of The Lark and her Young, for the general assistance in the matter of contributions, promised me by the friends who had originally urged me to the undertaking, was very slow in coming, and for the first numbers I wrote nearly the whole of the original matter, and for some time more than half of it. I wrote not only the editorial articles and the criticisms, but essays, correspondence, poetry, book notices (really reading every book I noticed), and a page or two of Sketchings, in which were notes from nature, extracts from letters, and replies to queries of the readers. I remained in the city all the burning summer, taking a ten days’ run in the Adirondacks in September. I kept office all day, received whoever came to talk on art or business, and did most of my writing at night, —not a régime to keep up one’s working powers. Durand did some excellent translations from the French, and the late Justin Winsor sent us many translations, both of verse and prose, from the German, as well as original poetry. Aldrich was a generous contributor. Whittier, Bayard Taylor, and others of the lyric race sent occasional contributions ; and among the women, who were, as a rule, our most enthusiastic supporters, were Mrs. Sigourney and, not the least, Lucy Larcom, the truest poetess of that day in America, who gave us some of her most charming poems. She was a teacher in a girls’ school somewhere in Massachusetts, and I went to see her in one of my editorial trips. We went out for a walk in the fields, she and her class and myself, and they looked up to me as if I were Apollo, and they the Muses. Henry James, the father of the novelist, was also a not infrequent contributor, and among the artists, Huntington, President Durand (the father of my associate), Horatio Greenough, and William Page appeared in our pages, with many more whose names a file of The Crayon would recall.
During the year Lowell received the appointment of Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard. Just before he sailed from New York we gave him a dinner, to which, besides some of his old friends, such as E. P. Whipple and Sumner, I invited Bryant and Bayard Taylor. I knew that Bryant held a little bitterness against Lowell for the passage in the Fable for Critics, in which he said, —
Like being stirred up with the very North Pole ; ”
and I told Lowell how the dear old poet felt, and put them together at the dinner. Lowell laid himself out to captivate Bryant, and did so completely, for his tact was such that in society no one whom he desired to interest could resist him ; and our dinner was a splendid success. Of all present at it only Durand and myself are now living.
The subscription list of our paper rose in the first month to above twelve hundred names, and the promise for the future seemed brilliant. But, unfortunately, neither of us understood the business part of journalism, or perceived that a paper does not live by its circulation, but by advertisements, and that our advertisements, owing to the special character of our journal, must be canvassed for vigorously. We did not canvass. Cunning publishers advised us that it would be well to take their advertisements for nothing, so as to persuade the others that we had a good advertising list. But the bait never took, and we never got the paying list, while the printer, being interested in our expenditure, never helped us to economize, but played the Wicked Uncle to our Babes in the Wood, and so we wasted our substance. It was perhaps fortunate that the funds ran short as they did, for our five thousand dollars could not go far when the subscriptions were all paid in and spent, and the overwork began to tell on me, and with the conclusion of the third volume I broke down.
When I got out of harness, and had no longer the stimulus of the daily demand and habit of work, the collapse was such that I thought I was dying. I gave my share of the paper to Durand, to do with as he pleased, and went off to North Conway in the mountains of New Hampshire, to paint one more picture before I died. I chose a brook scene, and Huntington and Hubbard, two of our leading painters, and Post, a painter educated at Düsseklorf, sat down with me to paint it. I gave six weeks’ hard work to a canvas twelve by eighteen inches, and my competitors cordially admitted my victory. Autumn fell on my work with still something to do to it, and it was never finished to my entire satisfaction, but it was one of the successes of the year at the Academy exhibition.
I stayed late among the mountains, thinking only of dying, but nature brought me round. There came toward the end of the season a newly married couple from Boston, destined in later years to become a large part of my life, Dr. and Mrs. Amos Binney. Mrs. Binney was one of the earliest women graduates in medicine in America, an excellent, true woman, whose ministrations to me, in body and mind, in those months of dying hopes, flying leaves and early snowfalls, were full of healing. I had had a skirmish with Cupid that summer, my first real passion, reciprocated by the subject of it, one of the ardent readers of The Crayon, an enthusiast in art, and, like me, for Ruskin, — an affair which ended in a double defeat under the merciless veto of the mother of my flame.
In this trouble Mrs. Binney’s tact and knowledge of human nature befriended me profoundly, and were the origin of a cordial intimacy which had on my subsequent life a great influence. Dr. Binney gave me a commission for two pictures, and invited me to come to his home, near Boston, to paint them. I gave up my studio in New York and went to Boston, whence, my commissions executed, I moved to Cambridge, where for some time I made my home, going thenceforward to the Adirondacks in the late summer and autumn of every year while I remained in America. The springtime following my stay in New Hampshire I spent in making studies in the neighborhood of Cambridge, especially in a favorite haunt of Lowell’s, the Waverley Oaks. They were beautiful trees and greatly beloved by Lowell, for whom I painted the principal group, and also Beaver Brook, another of his favorite resorts, he lying by its bank, in the foreground, — a little full-length portrait, not so long as my finger. I painted also a similar portrait of Longfellow under the most beautiful of the oaks, on an eight-by-ten-inch canvas. It was a faithful portrait, but Lowell deterred me from finishing it as I wished, saying that if I worked further on it I should destroy the likeness. I am half inclined to think, however, that his insistence was largely for the sake of relieving Longfellow, whom I conducted every day to the Oaks, to insure Pre-Raphaelite fidelity, making him sit on a huge boulder under the tree, and even forgetting to carry a cushion for him ; so that he sat on the bare stone until at last the discomfort struck even me, when I folded my coat for his seat. So kindly was his nature that he submitted to this trial with the patience and delicacy of a child, and did not permit me to see that it caused him inconvenience.
This absolute unselfishness and his extreme consideration for others were characteristic of the man. I saw much of him in the years following, and found in him the most exquisitely refined and gentle nature I have ever known, — one to which a brutal or inconsiderate act was positive pain, and any aggression on the least creature cause of intense indignation. My recollection of his condescension to my demands on his time and physical comfort remains in my memory as a high expression of his social beneficence ; for I, a young man, active, strong on foot, and enduring of fatigue, used to make him walk with me from Cambridge, and pose for hours on an uncushioned boulder till I was tired, and he never showed a sign of rebellion at the imposition. Longfellow was not expansive, nor do I remember his ever becoming enthusiastic over anything or anybody ; one who knew nothing of his domestic life might have fancied that he was cold, and certainly he did not possess that social magnetism which made Lowell the loadstone of so many hearts, while the exercise of that attraction was necessary to his own enjoyment of existence. Longfellow adored his wife and children, but beyond that circle it seemed to me he had no imperious longing to know or be known. He had likes and dislikes, but, so far as I understood him, no strong antipathies or ardentffriendships ; he had warm friendships for Lowell, the Nortons, and Agassiz, for example. I never saw him angry but once, and that was at his next-door neighbor for shooting at a robin in a cherry tree that stood near the boundary between the two gardens. The shot carried over, and rattled harmlessly enough about us where we sat on the veranda of the old Washington house, and Longfellow went off at once to protest against the barbarity. His adoration of his wife was fully justified, for rarely have I seen a woman in whom a Juno-like dignity and serenity were so wedded as in her to personal beauty, and to the fine culture of brain and heart which commanded reverence from the most ordinary acquaintance. No one who had seen her at home could ever forget the splendid vision, and the last time I ever saw her, so far as I remember, was in summer time, when, with her two daughters, all in white muslin, evanescent, translucent, they stood in the doorway to say good-by to me.
One of the most notable personages of that little world, and whom I knew in connection with Longfellow, was his brother-in-law, Thomas G. Appleton, whom I have already mentioned, a distinguished amateur of art, a subtle if sometimes vagarious critic, poet and thinker, the wit to whom most of the clever things said in Boston came naturally in time to be attributed. The famous saying “ Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris,” is generally supposed to be his, though Oliver Wendell Holmes told me, one day, that it was really his; but if a keen witticism was floating about fatherless in the Boston circles, it drifted to Tom Appleton as putative parent. He was of a kindly nature, and many a rising artist found his way to a larger recognition by Appleton’s unobtrusive aid. He, like Longfellow, was a sincere spiritualist. Another remarkable member of this group of men was Professor Peirce, mathematician, of whose flights into the higher regions of the science of numbers and quantities many interesting things were told. He had an extraordinary power of making his abstruse results clear to the ordinary intellect, and this was added to other brilliant gifts in conversation.
My Adirondack experiences and studies having excited the desire on the part of several of the Cambridge friends to visit the Wilderness, I made up a party, which comprised Lowell and his two nephews, Charles and James Lowell (two splendid young New Englanders, afterward killed in the civil war) ; Dr. Estes Howe, Lowell’s brother-in-law; and John Holmes, the brother of Oliver Wendell, considered by many of the Cambridge set not less witty and wise than he, but who, being extremely averse to publicity, was never known in literature. We made a flying journey of inspection through the Saranac Lakes and down the Raquette River to Tupper’s Lake, then across a wild and, at that day, a little explored section to the head of Raquette Lake, and then back to the Saranacs. The party returning home, I went to the head waters of the Raquette to spend the summer in painting.
The next summer another party was formed which led to the foundation of the Adirondack Club,1 and the excursion it made is commemorated by Emerson in his poem The Adirondacs. The company included Emerson, Agassiz, Lowell, Dr. Howe, Professor Jeffries Wyman, John Holmes (who became as fond as I was of this wild life), Judge Hoar (later Attorney General in the Cabinet of President Grant), Horatio Woodman, Dr. Binney, and myself. Of this company, as I write, I am the only survivor. I did my best to enroll Longfellow in the party, but, though he was for a moment hesitating, I think the fact that Emerson was going with a gun settled him in the determination to decline. " Is it true that Emerson is to take a gun ? ” he asked me; and when I said that he had finally decided to do so, Longfellow ejaculated, “ Then somebody will be shot ! ” and would talk no more of going.
We tried also to get Dr. Holmes to join us ; but the doctor was devoted to Boston, and with the woods and savagery he had no sympathy. He loved his Cambridge friends, Lowell, Agassiz, and Wyman, I think, above others, but he enjoyed himself most of all, and Boston more than any other place on earth. He was lifted above ennui and discontent by a most happy satisfaction with the rounded world of his own individuality and belongings. Of the three men whom I have personally known who seemed most satisfied with what fate and fortune had made them, — namely, Gladstone, Freeman, and Holmes, — I think Holmes enjoyed himself the most, and this in so delightful a way that one accepted him at once on his own terms. The doctor stood for Boston as Lowell for Cambridge, the archetype of the Hub. Nobody represented it as he did. Tom Appleton was nearest him in this respect, but Tom loved Paris better, and was a “ globe trotter,” as often in Europe as in Massachusetts, while the doctor hardly left the Hub even for a vacation ; there was nothing beyond its spokes that was of great import to him. He was the sublimation of Yankee wit, as Lowell was of Yankee humor and human nature, and he made of witticism a study; polished, refined, and prepared his bons mots, and, at the best moment, led the conversation round to the point at which it was opportune to fire them off. He had a large medical knowledge of human nature and intellectual pathology, but I could never realize that he was a physician. Like Longfellow, his family affections were absorbing, and his love for his son, the present Mr. Justice Holmes, and his pride in him were very pleasant to see, and they ran on the surface of his nature like his love for Boston ; but I could never see that his feeling for his outside friends was more than a mild, sunny glow of kindliness and vivid intellectual sympathy. Of course I judge him from a difficult standard, that of the Cambridge circle, in which the personal relations were very warm, and especially comparing him with Lowell and the Nortons, with whom friendship was a religion.
Holmes and Lowell were the antitheses of the New England intellect, and this more in the personality than in their writing. If Lowell could have acquired Holmes’s respect for his own work, he would have left a larger image in the American Walhalla; but he never gave care to the perfection of what he wrote, for his mind so teemed with material that the time to polish and review never came. Holmes, like a true artist, loved the limœ labor ; he was satisfied, it seemed to me, to do the work of one lifetime, and then rest, while Lowell looked forward to a succession of lifetimes, all full of work, and one can hardly conceive him as ever resting or caring to stop work. Lowell’s was a generous, widely sympathizing nature, from which radiated love for humanity, and the broadest and most catholic helpfulness for every one who asked for his help, with a special fund for his friends ; Holmes drew a line around him, within which he shone like a winter sun, and outside of which his care did not extend. The one was best in what he did, the other in what he was. Both were admired by those around them, and the admiration kindled Holmes to a warmer reflection to the adorers ; Lowell felt it as the earth feels sunshine, which sinks into the fertile soil, and bears its fruit in a richer harvest.
Excepting Holmes and Longfellow our company included what was most distinguished in the world in which we lived, with some who were only eminent in their social relations, and who neither cared to be nor ever became of interest to the general world.
The care of arranging the details of the excursion was left to me, and I had, therefore, to precede the company to the Wilderness, and so missed what must have been to the others a very amusing experience. The rumor of the advent of the party spread through the country around Saranac, and at the frontier town, where they would begin the journey into the woods, the whole community was on the qui vive to see, not Emerson or Lowell, of whom they knew nothing, but Agassiz, who had become famous in the commonplace world through having refused, not long before, an offer from the Emperor of the French of the keepership of the Jardin des Plantes and a senatorship, if he would come to Paris and live. Such an incredible and disinterested love for America and science in our hemisphere had lifted Agassiz into an elevation of popularity which was beyond all scientific or political reputation, and the selectmen of the town appointed a deputation to welcome him and his friends to the region. A reception was accorded, and the officials came, having taken care to provide themselves with an engraved portrait of the scientist, to guard against a mistake and waste of their respects. The head of the deputation, after having carefully compared Agassiz to the engraving, turned gravely to his followers and said, “ Yes, it’s him,” and they proceeded with the same gravity to shake hands with him, ignoring all the other luminaries.
I had in the meantime been into the Wilderness, and selected a site for the camp on one of the most secluded lakes, out of the line of travel of the hunters and fisherfolk, a deep cul de sac of lake on a stream that led nowhere, known as Follansbee Pond. There I and some hired guides built a bark camp, prepared a landing place, and then returned to Saranac, in time to meet the arriving guests. Unfortunately I was prevented from accompanying them up the lakes the next morning, because a boat I had been building for the occasion was not ready for the water, and so I missed what was to me of the greatest interest, Emerson’s first impressions of the Wilderness, absolute nature. I joined them at night of the first day’s journey, in a rainstorm such as our summer rarely gives in the mountains, and we made the unique and fascinating journey down the Raquette River together, — Agassiz taking his place in my boat, the other members of the party each having his own guide and boat.
The scene, like the company, exists no longer. There is a river, which still flows where the other flowed, but, like the water that has passed its rapids, and the guests that have gone the way of all those who have lived, it is something different. Then it was a deep, mysterious stream, meandering through unbroken forests, walled up on either side in green shade, the trees of centuries leaning over to welcome and shelter the voyager, flowing silently in great sweeps of dark water, with, at long intervals, a lagoon setting back into the wider forest around, enameled with pond lilies and sagittaria, and the undisturbed refuge of waterfowl and browsing deer. Our lake lay at the head of such a lagoon, a devious outlet of the basin, of which the lake occupied the principal expanse, three miles of no-man’s route, framed in green hills, forest-clad up to their summits. The camp was a shelter of spruce bark, open wide in front and closed at the ends, drawn on three sides of an octohedron facing the fireplace. The beds were made of layers of spruce and other fir branches spread on the ground, and covered with the fragrant twigs of the arbor vitæ. Two huge maples overhung the camp, and at a distance of twenty feet from our lodge we entered the trackless primeval forest. The hills around furnished us with venison and the lake with trout, and there we passed the weeks of the summer heats. We were ten, with eight guides. While we were camping there, we received the news that the first Atlantic cable had been laid, and the first message sent under the sea from one hemisphere to the other, — an event which Emerson did not forget to record in noble lines.
In the main, our occupations were those of a vacation, to kill time and escape from the daily groove. After breakfast there was firing at a mark, a few rounds each for those who were riflemen ; one boat went to overhaul the set lines baited the evening before for the lake trout; then, if venison was needed, we put the dog out on the hills; and when the hunt was over, some of us went out to paddle on the lake, while Agassiz and Wyman were left to dredge or botanize or dissect the animals caught or killed, those of us who had interest in natural history watching the naturalists, the others searching the nooks and corners of the pretty sheet of water, with its inlet brooks and its bays and recesses, or bathing from the rocks. Lunch was at midday, and then long talks, discussions de omnibus rebus et quibusdam ahis. Emerson has told the daily life in verse in The Adirondacs, adding his own impressions of the place and time. It is not generally considered among the most interesting of his poems, as it is a narrative with reflections, and such a subject could hardly rise above the interest of the subject of the narration, which was only a vacation study ; but there are in it some passages which show the character of Emerson’s intellect at least as well as anything he has written. His insight into nature, like that of the primitive mind, the instinctive investment of the great mother with the presence and attribute of personality, the re-creation from his own resources of Pan and the nature powers, the groping about in the darkness of the primeval forest for the spiritual causes of the things he felt, — all this is to me evident in the poem, and it is the sufficient demonstration of the antique mould of his intellect, serene, openeyed to natural phenomena, always questioning, and with no theories to limit his thought or bend it to preconceived conclusions. Knowing that all he saw in this undefiled natural world, this virgin mother of all life (for on, Follansbee Pond, at the time we went there, was the primeval woodland, where the lumberer had not yet penetrated, and the grove kept still the immaculacy of the most ancient days), that all this was the mask of things, he was on the watch for hints of the secret behind the mask — secret never to be discovered, and therefore more passionately sought. To me the study of the great student was the dominant interest of the occasion. I was Agassiz’s boatman on demand, for while all the others had their personal guides and attendants I was his; but often when Emerson wanted a boat, I managed to provide for Agassiz with one of the unoccupied guides. Thus Emerson and I had many hours alone on the lake and in the wood. He seemed to be a living question, perpetually interrogating his impressions of all that there was to be seen. The rest of us were always at the surface of things; even the naturalists were engaged with their anatomy ; but Emerson in the forest, or looking at the sunset from the lake, was looking through the phenomena, studying them by their reflections on an inner speculum.
In such a great solitude, where social conventions disappear and men are seen as they are, mind seems opened to mind as it is quite impossible for them to be in society, even the most informal. Agassiz remarked, one day, when a little personal question had shown the limitations of character of one of the company, that he had always noticed in his Alpine experiences, when the company were living on terms of compulsory intimacy, that men found each other out quickly. And so it was in the Adirondacks. One learned the real characters of his comrades as it was impossible to learn them in society. I think I gathered in two or three weeks more insight into the character of my companions in our greener Arden than all our lives in the city could have given me.
Of all the mental experiences of my past life, nothing else survives with the vividness of my summers in the Adirondacks with Emerson. The crystalline limpidity of his character, free from all conventions, prejudices, or personal color, gave a facility for the study of the man, limited only by the range of vision of the student. How far my vision was competent for this study is not for me to decide ; so far as it went I profited, and so far as my experience of men goes he is unique, not so much because of intellectual power, but because of this absolute transparency of intellect, perfect receptivity, and pure devotion to the truth. In the days of persecution and martyrdom, Emerson would have gone to the stake smiling and undismayed, but questioning all the time, even as to the nature of his own emotions.
As I look back to the days when we questioned together, from the distance of years, he rises above all his contemporaries as Mont Blanc does above the intervening peaks when seen from afar, not the largest in mass, but loftiest in climb, soaring higher than his companions. Emerson was the best listener I ever knew, and at the other meeting place where I saw him occasionally, the Saturday Club, his attention to what others were saying was far more notable than his disposition to enter into discussions. Now and then he flashed out with a comment which lit up the subject as an electric spark, but in general he shone unconsciously. I remember that one day when, at the club, we were discussing the nature of genius, some one turned to Emerson and asked him for a definition of the thing, and he instantly replied, “ The faculty of generalizing from a single example ; ” and nobody at the table could give so good and concise a definition. There is a portrait of him by Rowse, who knew and loved him well, which renders this side of Emerson in a way which makes it the most remarkable piece of portraiture I know, the listening Emerson.
More than a generation has passed since our Adirondack days ; twenty-five years afterward I went back to the site of our camp. Except myself the whole company are dead, and the very scene of our acting and thinking has disappeared down to its geological basis, pillaged, burnt, and become a horror to see; but among the memories which are the only realities left of it, this image of Emerson claiming kinship with the forest stands out alone, and I feel as if I had stood for a moment on a mount of transfiguration, and seen as if in a vision the typical American, the noblest in the idealization of the American, of all the race. Lowell was of a more cosmopolitan type, of a wider range of sympathies and affections, accepted and bestowed, and to me a friend loved as Jonathan loved David ; but as a unique, idealized individuality Emerson looms up in that Arcadian dream more and more the dominant personality. It is as character, and not as accomplishment or education, that he holds his own in all comparisons with his contemporaries, — the fine, crystallized mind, the keen, clear-faceted thinker and seer. I loved Agassiz and Lowell more, but we may have many a Lowell and Agassiz before we see Emerson’s like again. Attainments will be greater, and discovery and accomplishments will surpass themselves, as we go on, but to be, as Emerson was, is absolute and complete existence.
Agassiz was, of all our company, the acknowledged Master, loved by all, even to the unlettered woodsmen who ran to meet his service. He was the largest in personality and in universality of knowledge of all the men I have ever known. No one who did not know him personally can conceive the hold he had on those who came into relations with him. His vast knowledge of scientific facts, and his ready command of them for all educational purposes, his enthusiasm for science and the diffusion of it, even his fascinating way of imparting it to others, had even less to do with his popularity than the magnetism of his presence, and the sympathetic faculty which enabled him to find at once the plane on which he should meet every one with whom he had to deal. Of his scientific position I cannot speak, though I can see that his was the most powerful of the scientific influences of that epoch in America. When we were traveling it was always in my boat, and we moved as his investigations prompted, wherever there seemed to be a promise of some addition to his collections. We dredged and netted water and air wherever we went; and of course there arose a certain kind of intimacy, which was partly that of a camaraderie in which we were approximately equals, that of the backwood life in which I was, if a comparison were to be made, the superior, and partly that of teacher and pupil; for, with trifling attainments, I had the passion of scientific acquisition, and all that Agassiz needed to open the store of his knowledge was the willingness of another to learn.
The career of Professor Jeffries Wyman, the associate of Agassiz in the university, and one of the doctors of our company, was cut short by his premature death. The loss to American science can never be estimated ; for his mind was of that subtle and inductive nature which is needed for such a study, fine to poetic delicacy, penetrating with all the acumen of a true scientific imagination, but modest to excess, and personally so attached to Agassiz that he would with reluctance give expression to a difference from him ; but that he did differ was no occasion for abatement of their mutual regard. Wyman’s was the poetry of scientific research, Agassiz’s its prose, and they offered a remarkable example of the mental antithesis from which, had Wyman lived, so much might have been expected through their association in study. Wyman had all the delicacy of a fine feminine organization, wedded, unfortunately, to a fragile constitution, but the friendship he held for the robust and dominating character of the great Switzer was to the utmost reciprocated. And Agassiz’s disposition was as generous as large. The rancor which was shown him by some of his opponents never disturbed his serenity an instant, for of the world’s opinion of him and his ideas, even when the “ world ” was scientific, he never took account other than to regret that science was the loser by running off on what he considered side issues. We had much conversation on the question of evolution and allied topics, in which my part was naturally that of listener and only occasional questioner, and I remember the warm appreciation he always expressed for Darwin and his researches, for his fineness of observation and scientific honesty. He regarded the widespread acceptance of the theory of natural selection as one of the epidemics which have swept the scientific world from time to time, and looked with absolute serenity to the return of science one day to the conception of creation by design.
I am neither qualified nor disposed to pass judgment on Agassiz as a scientist, or to institute any kind of comparison of his relative authority, and probably the time is far away at which his comparative eminence can be estimated impartially. I have only to do with his personality as it appeared to me in our relations, and to put on record my impression of the great, lovable, magnanimous man. Of his unbounded generosity and indifference to personal advantage everybody who came in contact with him was witness. He refused all offers of personal emolument, and spent his surplus earnings for the aggrandizement of the great natural history museum he founded at Cambridge. The propositions of the Emperor Napoleon III. he had declined with thanks and without a regret; he had come to America to study natural history, and did not propose to be diverted from this purpose. To a lecture agent who offered him a very large sum to deliver a course of lectures in the principal cities of the Union, he replied that he had no time to make money; and he died of overwork, insatiate in the pursuit of the completion of his museum and the classification of his observations.
One of the personal traits which most impressed me in him, at the time when he was being shamefully attacked by the small dogs of the antagonistic party, was that he never exhibited the slightest disposition to belittle those who differed from him, or to disparage the merits of another scientist. Theological controversies never reached him ; I have heard him say that he thought the first chapter of Genesis a true record of the order of creation, but as to all the Scripture that followed he was indifferent. He spoke with pain of the animosity shown him by a Swiss associate in his glacial investigations and who had once been his warm advocate, but there was no bitterness in his manner. I am convinced that there was no bitterness in him, and that all personal feeling was overpowered and minimized by his absolute devotion to scientific truth. His influence even on the business men of the city of Boston and the legislature of the state of Massachusetts was the most remarkable phenomenon of the kind ever witnessed in that frugal and matter-of-fact community ; for he had only to announce that he wanted for his museum or department in the university a donation or an appropriation, to obtain either, so absolutely recognized was his unselfish devotion to science by all classes. Even men who had no interest in physical science took it into consideration on account of him, carried away by his enthusiastic advocacy of its advancement. The religious world forgot its indignation at his repudiation of Adam in the refuge it found in his affirmation of a Supreme Intelligence as Creator of all things. A sudden shadow fell on our community at his unexpected death, and the general grief told of the hold he had on the entire nation. The mourning extended far beyond the circle of personal acquaintance with Agassiz.
The third magnate of our club was Lowell, with whose personality the world at large is already well acquainted. In his own day and presence, it was impossible to form a satisfactory personal judgment of him, and even now, through the perspective of the years since he died, it is out of the question for me to pronounce a dispassionate judgment. Of all that New England world, so hospitable, so brotherly to me that if I had been born in Cambridge it could hardly have been so kind, Lowell and Norton were those who most made my welcome free from any embarrassment to myself. Norton, almost exactly my contemporary, is still living, and which of us two shall say the last word for the other is on the lap of the gods, but in the Adirondack Club life he does not appear. No kinder or wiser friend have I ever had. Himself the son of one of the most distinguished of the great Unitarian leaders of liberal New England, his broad common-sense views of sectarian questions first widened my religious horizon, emancipated me from the tithes of mint and cummin, and helped me to see the value of observances; and his hand was always held out to me in those straitened moments in which my impulsive and illregulated manner of life continually landed me. I shall not disturb the serenity of his old age by the indiscreet garrulity of mine. But the brotherhood between him and Lowell brought our lives together, and Lowell was the pole to which both our needles swung. Norton’s delicate health made it impossible for him to take part in the excursions made by the club, though he was enrolled as a member.
Of Lowell much has been said by many people, some of whom were less, and others, perhaps, better acquainted with him than I was; but I at least can speak of him without restraint other than that which love and gratitude impose. And to-day, more than forty years since I found his friendship what it ever remained, the judgment I formed of him at first acquaintance comes up again in one point dominant. He seemed to me a man whom good fortune, and especially the favor of society, had prevented from filling the role that fate had intended for him. There was in not a few of his poems the promise of reaching a height only attainable by a man who climbs light. There was in him the possible making of a great reformer, an evangelist. All through his early poems runs the thread of a fine morality, the perception of the highest obligations of religion and philanthropy, the defense of the weak and oppressed, the succor of the poor, — in fine, the creed of a practical religion which would seem to require its adherent to go into the slums and out on the highways to carry out his convictions in acts. In the warfare he waged on slavery, when the anti-slavery cause was very unpopular, and in the case of Garrison and others brought on its advocates continual danger and occasional violence, Lowell was unsparing in the denunciation of the national sin ; but whether because the anti-abolition public which ruled Boston thought denunciation in form of verse had no practical force, or because the personal fascination the man always exercised was such as to disarm hostility, it happened that he was never made the subject of aggression.
There was a gracious indolence in him, an imperturbable serenity which made proclamation in advance of a truce to all forms of brute collision. No doubt if they had hunted him out for a victim of the political animosity which led to so many tragedies in the early days of our anti-slavery agitations, he would have stood up to the stake as readily as one of the martyrs of old ; but the man’s nature was repugnant to discords, and shrank from combats ruder than those of the printing press. All through his career, the religion of humanity is put forward with point and persistence, and the finest of distinctions in morality are maintained, — the so constantly ignored vital difference between the deed and its motive, as in Sir Launfal: —
In whatso we share with another’s need;
Not what we give, but what we share, —
For the gift without the giver is bare ;
Who gives himself with his alms feeds three, —
Himself, his hungering neighbor, and Me ; ”
so that one might have expected from him the life of a social reformer, so keenly does he feel the outrages of civilization. But, possibly from the fact that in those days human slavery in our country summed up all villainies and crimes, and in the war against that he threw all his surplus energy, he never took part in the crusade then beginning against the more familiar iniquities nearer home. But in his constitution there was, I think, another reason why the author of Sir Launfal, Hunger and Cold, The Landlord, and The Search should not have emulated Howard or Mrs. Fry, and have gone into the realms of destitution to relieve its wrongs. He was extremely fastidious, and anything that offended his taste by vulgarity or crudeness repelled him with such force that the work of practical philanthropy would have been impossible to his temperament. The indolence I have above spoken of — and which must not be confounded with slothfulness, but is, as the true meaning of the word indicates, the following the dictates of the temperament, whether in activity or rest — led him to contemplation rather than to action. The finest and most exalted passages of his work were not so fine and exalted as his personality, — he was better than anything he ever wrote ; and what he wrote was only the overflow of a mind which never needed a stimulus to divine cogitation. The fascination, the subtle personal glamour he unconsciously threw over those who came in true contact with him, made them always expect more than he accomplished, for in that there was not even the stimulus of ambition. What he did was done with the spontaneousness of the wind or the sunshine. If he had a vanity, it was to be in all points accoutred for his place in society ; but even this was so lightly held that few knew him well enough to see it, and it was never a motive power in him.
I have always felt that if he had been a poor man, compelled to work for his daily bread, he would have occupied a larger place in the world of letters. I have elsewhere alluded to his going to Europe to complete the preparations to enter upon his professorship, and when he came back from this voyage he said to me, “ I must study yet a good deal before I attempt to produce anything more.” In the succeeding years he labored very hard in his professorial work, which was perhaps not favorable to his advancement as an author, though it certainly gave more solidity in the production of those years which intervened between his simpler life and his diplomatic career. His lectures before the students and the public — for the popularity of Lowell as a lecturer was immense — solidified an education which, as he himself humorously avowed, was often broken by freaks of irrepressible youthful spirit. The saddening and indelible effects of the war had so modified his character for the graver and more profound that I agree with those of his friends who consider his entry into the diplomatic career as a misfortune for American letters, and that his mind flowed to waste in those later years. Nor was he at home in diplomacy, — it was a reversal of all the conditions of his habitual existence ; but it flattered his amour propre that the country should recognize the part he had taken in the cultivation of the antislavery sentiment of the nation. His social gifts were very great, and his patriotic pride intensified the pleasure of his successes in a line of life which was really secondary in his nature. In those years of his diplomatic life we saw little of each other. Our intimate intercourse was suspended by my going to Europe in 1859. We were nearest each other in our Adirondack life, in which he had all the zest of a boy. He was the soul of the merriment of the company, fullest of witticisms, keenest in appreciation of the liberty of the occasion and the genius loci. One sees through all his nature-poetry the traces of the heredity of the first settler, the keen enjoyment of the New England farmhouse and the brightness and newness of the villages, so crude to the tastes founded in the picturesqueness of the Old World. Not even Emerson, with all his indifference to the mere form of things, took to unimproved and uncivilized nature as Lowell did, and his free delight in the Wilderness was a thing to remember, and perhaps by none so fully appreciated as by me, to whom it was a satisfactory motive for living.
Of the rest of our company in that famous old camp by “ Follansbee Water,” there is little more to be said which will interest others or recall names known to the world. I painted a study of the camp and its inhabitants, with the intention of making from it, at a future time, a picture which should commemorate the meeting; but owing to changes in my plans it remained a study, and was purchased by Judge Hoar, the most eminent of my companions still to be described. He had been a justice of the Superior Court of Massachusetts, a man as well known for his intellectual fibre and sympathy with letters as for his judicial abilities. He was one of the most brilliant members of the Saturday Club, of which ours might be considered the offspring and succursal. He had a most spontaneous and electric wit, whose sallies burst in the merriment of our al fresco camp dinners with the flash and surprise of rockets, and sometimes left behind them the perfume of erudition as those of no other in the company, save perhaps Lowell. In my study the party is divided in the habit of the morning occupations: Lowell, Hoar, Binney, Woodman, and myself are engaged in firing at the target: Agassiz and Wyman are dissecting a trout on a tree stump, while Holmes and Dr. Howe watch the operation ; but Emerson, recognizing himself as neither a marksman nor a scientist, is in a position between the two groups, and, pilgrim staff in hand, watches the marksmen, with a slight preference of them to the others. My own figure I painted from a photograph, the company insisting on my putting myself in ; but it was ill done, for I could never paint from a photograph.
When the company left me I returned to my painting, and remained in camp as long as the weather permitted. On my return to Cambridge I became affianced to Miss Mack, the eldest daughter of Dr. Mack, with whom I had boarded while I was occupied painting the various pictures of the oaks at Waverley.
The meeting of the Adirondack Club the following year was a most successful one, and when it was over, and I was left alone to my painting, I selected a subject in which, for the first time, I introduced a dramatic element. I supposed that a hunter and a buck had had a hand-to-horn fight, and during it had fallen together over a ledge of rocks, at the bottom of which both lay dead. A perpendicular ledge of granite, about twenty feet high, mosses and ferns clinging in its crevices, overhanging a level space covered with a heavy growth of luxuriant fern, furnished the background. There I laid the first large buck I killed, and painted him with extreme care, and then painted my guide, with his arms locked in the antlers of the deer. The hour was the late afternoon, when the red sunlight slanted through the trees and fell in broken masses on the face of the cliff, catching the leaves here and there in its path. All this and as much of the details of the forest as the time permitted were painted carefully from the scene. I worked on the picture for about two months, my canvas being twenty-five by thirty inches, till the lake began to freeze and the snow fell. The thermometer was about zero Fahrenheit before I broke off, in November. I never enjoyed so entirely the forest life as that autumn. I had laid a line of sable traps for miles through the woods, and caught several prime sable which I intended as a present to my fiancée, and the long walks in the absolute silence of the great forest, the snowfall, and the gorgeous autumn were more fascinating than ever before. It was with the greatest reluctance that I obeyed the necessity to return to the state of civilization, and took leave of that most charming retreat of the natural man from the artificial life.
That was my last serious experience of woodland life. The uneasy and thriftless spirit which drove me out, like the possessed of the Scripture, to wander in strange places at times, again drove me, that winter, to England, putting, as it happened, against my intention or prevision, an end to the American period of my life.
William James Stillman.
- Already recorded by Mr. Stillman in The Philosophers’ Camp, Century Magazine, vol. xxiv. p. 598. — EDITORIAL NOTE.↩