John Fiske

IN the death of John Fiske the Atlantic loses one of the most brilliant and honored names in the long roll of its contributors. His first contribution to the magazine, an unsigned review of Edward L. Youmans’s Class-Book of Chemistry, appeared in August, 1864. Mr. Fiske was then twenty-two, and a member of the Harvard Law School, having received his A. B. degree from Harvard College the year before. Almost every quality that was to confer distinction upon his lifelong service to the magazine is apparent in this first article. It begins with a graphic illustration of the truth that Science is only a highly developed form of ordinary knowledge. It discusses the technical questions then under dispute among chemists with full comprehension of their relation to the general progress of scientific research. Generous in praise, courteous in criticism, simply phrased, yet never lacking in precision, giving evidence of wide reading in many fields, this review is in nothing more characteristic of its author than in the reverent enthusiasm with which it quotes that wonderful description of the world process in the song of the Earth Spirit in Faust. This large way of looking at things Was what every one came later to expect from John Fiske, and it is as evident in the brief book review of 1864 as in his final contribution to the Atlantic, the Reminiscences of Huxley, which appeared in February last.

Among the more striking of these early papers, all of them unsigned, as was then the custom of the magazine, was his Considerations on University Reform, published in April, 1867, two years after Mr. Fiske’s appointment as university lecturer on philosophy at Harvard. It contains an admirable plea for the preservation of humanistic and classical studies. His papers on Origins of Folk-Lore and The Descent of Fire — the latter being the first Atlantic article to bear his signature — appeared in 1871. For two years thereafter he had charge of the monthly review of scientific progress, which was then one of the departments of the magazine. He was already at work upon his Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, which, when published in 1874, commanded marked attention both in Europe and in America. During his service as assistant librarian at Harvard, from 1872 to 1879, he continued to contribute to the Atlantic ; his best remembered articles of this period being on Athenian and American Life, The Unseen World, and A Librarian’s Work.

The writing of American history, to which Mr. Fiske began to devote himself early in the eighties, made it natural for him to alter somewhat the general character of his Atlantic papers, and more frequently to choose historical subjects. But essays like his estimate of Charles Darwin, at the time of the latter’s death, in 1882, and his Idea of God, printed in 1885, are evidence of his constant interest in science and philosophy, and of his endeavor to state, in terms comprehensible by the layman, the bearing of the doctrine of evolution upon the faith and practice of the modern man. Among his later contributions, the readers of the magazine will recall his essays upon The Elizabethan Sea-Kings, The Arbitration Treaty, Forty Years of Bacon-Shakespeare Folly, The Mystery of Evil, and the charming Story of a New England Town, which appeared in December, 1900. His final paper, as we have said, was the Reminiscences of Huxley, in February, 1901, although he had promised the Atlantic the pleasure of printing the address on King Alfred which he was about to prepare for the millennial celebration at Winchester this summer.

Such a rapid summary of John Fiske’s activity in a single direction conveys, of course, but a scanty impression of his extraordinary gifts. The tale of his boyish precocity rivals that of Macaulay or of John Stuart Mill: at seven he was reading Csesar and Josephus ; at nine he had read the greater English authors, at thirteen all the greater Latin ones; then he proceeded to master Greek, German, and the Romance languages; at seventeen and eighteen he began Hebrew and Sanskrit, and in college he added a half dozen other languages to his list. In science, philosophy, and history he made astonishing acquisitions during youth and early manhood. He was a very glutton for facts, and managed somehow to turn most of his information to account. His stores were not only immense, but well ordered. There was nothing pedantic or mechanical about the operations of his mind ; a glow of enthusiasm rested upon everything that he touched. In writing American history, for example, he often seemed to choose his immediate topic because of a sudden interest which he had conceived for that particular epoch or phase of development, but he never wholly lost sight of the larger outlines of his general plan for treating the evolution of our institutions and government. To this faculty for seeing a subject in the light of all its relations is due much of his unfailing suggestiveness as an author.

Mr. Fiske once remarked, with the absolute modesty that characterized his comments upon his own work: “ I don’t see how some men imagine things. All I can do is to state things.” In saying this, he underrated, no doubt, that power of seeing things “ steadily” and “whole” which is one of the truest functions of the imagination, and which he himself possessed to a singular degree. But there was never any question of his ability to state things. " I never in my life read so lucid an expositor (and therefore thinker) as you are,” wrote Darwin, upon finishing the Cosmic Philosophy. A luminous mind, expressing itself through perfectly transparent language, — that was the gift which made John Fiske such a rare magazinist and lecturer, which equipped him for the congenial task of transmitting to the great public the facts and theories that had hitherto been the property of the specialists.

For it was as an “ expositor,” to use Darwin’s word, that Mr. Fiske served his generation most truly. He loved to communicate ; and he gave the people of his best. In his historical writings he went back, indeed, to original sources, just as in his scientific books he was constantly dealing with first - hand knowledge ; but, after all, what remains with his reader is rather a sense of what Fiske has taught him than a feeling that Fiske was himself a discoverer and pioneer. His usefulness as an historian lay largely in his ability to bring home to the average American a conviction of the continuity of the national life, and the significance of the crises that attended the various stages of its development. It was a triumph of teaching, of undogmatic and very brilliant pedagogy. In science and philosophy, in spite of some genuine contributions to theory, such as his detection of the part played by the lengthening of infancy in the genesis of the human race, he is best known as a mediator of those far-reaching ideas associated with the names of Darwin, Huxley, and Mr. Herbert Spencer. He had, it is true, his own interpretation of the “ cosmic process,” and no deeper debt of gratitude could be paid to him than came from the multitude of readers of his Destiny of Man, Idea of God, and Through Nature to God. In these great little books he defended theistic evolution in chapters so winning, so reasonable and reverent, that few writers of our day have performed a higher service in persuading men of the reality of the spiritual life. But this is not the place to attempt an estimate of John Fiske’s claim to “ that lasting fame and perpetuity of praise which God and good men have consented shall be the reward of those whose published labors advance the good of mankind.” We are expressing merely the loss sustained by the magazine which he did so much to adorn. He can ill be spared. A friendly, very human man, fond of his home, his books, and his music, his life was that of the true scholar, and it must be measured by his high aims and tireless industry. Endowed with greater powers than most of his contemporaries, he toiled but the more diligently to accomplish the gigantic tasks which he had set for himself. To those who knew how precarious was his health, there was a pathos in that Latin motto carved above the fireplace in his library, which exhorted him to live as if he were to die to-morrow, and to learn as if he were to live for evermore. Life and learning have now been cut short all too soon, both for his friends and for the world of letters.