Charles Dudley Warner
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB.
THE death of Charles Dudley Warner closes a life marked by stainless integrity and honorable service to literature. As he passed threescore years and ten, “the things which should accompany old age” were not lacking to him, and friends least of all. He had no more loyal following than among the readers of The Atlantic, where many of his most delightful papers first appeared. Their sense of loss in the death of such a charming writer and richly developed man is perhaps too personal a feeling to find fit expression even in the anonymous columns of the Club. The public career of Charles Dudley Warner, however, is full of significance to those who believe in the reality of the influence of the man of letters upon contemporary American life.
“ He never had a home,” remarked Mr. Warner, a few days before his death, in commenting shrewdly though kindly upon the shifting opinions and transient enthusiasms of a distinguished writer. Mr. Warner himself had a home; he could be placed; his roots were deep down in the western Massachusetts farm and the normal life of the inland Connecticut city. The cosmopolitanism of his later years became him, because it was the natural flowering of the New England stock under the sunny, genial conditions afforded by a wider experience.
With true Yankee versatility, Mr. Warner tried his hand at many things before he was finally drawn to the vocation of a journalist. His first book, My Summer in a Garden, was published when he was more than forty, and he first turned fiction writer at sixty. He traveled widely in this country and abroad. He threw himself vigorously into many movements for social and political reform. Notable as was his range of interest in literature, he was a better lover of men than of books. The human spectacle delighted him with its splendor, and evoked his delicate humor by its variety. He liked the company of beautiful women and high-minded men. In his essays and novels he touched human weaknesses, but always deftly and for the good of his readers. The novels glow with indignation against the triumph of vulgar material tests of success, but his voice never rises to a shriek or sinks into a wail. He saw that the flooding tide of luxury in this country endangers some of the fine instincts that have been developed by ascetic living, yet he never ignored the charm that so often accompanies luxury, or taught that fine linen and sumptuous fare prevent kindly thoughts and strenuous effort for the betterment of mankind. In his judgment of public questions he showed the same steadiness and candor. Like William L. Wilson, whom in certain traits he much resembled, and whose death so closely preceded his own, he never lost in the stress of affairs the poise and clear-sightedness of the scholar.
It was this manly urbanity of Mr. Warner — the expression in spoken and written words of the inner ripeness of his nature — that gave him such an extended influence over his countrymen. His pulpit was always a modest one : at first the farmer’s column of a newspaper ; then a little book of essays or travel sketches, a few department pages at the back of a magazine, a serial story, or a chairman’s desk at some public gathering. But he had such sensible and delightful things to say ! He was so ready to communicate ! He had the genuine social instinct that has marked most of our notable men of letters, except Hawthorne and Poe. Mr. Warner cared for people, and people cared for him.
It is difficult to assess precisely the service of such a man to our American democracy. Nor is it necessary. The personality of men like Charles Dudley Warner does somehow leaven the whole lump. Provinciality and partisanship fled from his tolerant smile. Selfishness and dullness were afraid of him. He broadened the minds of his readers and his friends, because he led them into the ample society of noble aims and disinterested endeavor. In the midst of the confusing conditions that have prevailed in the American newspaper and magazine world during the last decade, he constantly enriched his talent instead of dissipating it. He never lost sight of ideal standards, and he made other men ashamed of standards less worthy than his own.
He lived long enough, it is true, to watch the slackening of some of the humanitarian impulses that early enlisted his support. One and another of the specific social reforms to which he gave his energy have lost their hold, at least temporarily, upon the younger generation. His latest utterance upon the subject of negro education disappointed many of his old friends, who thought it pessimistic and reactionary and strangely unlike him. But their very disappointment, whether justifiable or not, was a proof of Mr. Warner’s reputation for fidelity to every forward movement in American life. One is always tempted to believe that with the passing of such a figure a fine type disappears. But by the very admiration which it elicits such a type perpetuates itself. The “ gentleman of the old school,” whose decay has been mourned by every generation of writers since Addison, is more abundantly alive in America to-day than ever before, because quiet people throughout the country are trying to emulate his qualities. The type of American man of letters which Charles Dudley Warner exemplified will never disappear until our writers lose faith in liberal education and kindly manners and generous contact with the world.