A Reverie Over a Book


GAIL HAMILTON 1 in her prime was, in the fullest sense of the term, a personage; a brilliant, original, delightful, unforgettable individual. She was all this, too, by virtue of a rare intrinsic quality; thanks to no adventitious aids, or academic or social advantages. She was a sport ; but she was a splendid one, the unapproachable prototype, as it seems to me to-day, of her who is now always with us, — the clever, high-spirited, self-sufficing, irreproachable, and not too womanly woman. It is entirely safe to say that those who knew Gail Hamilton best thought and cared least about her published writings, astonishingly witty though these often were. No doubt she possessed, as the pages of many an old Atlantic testify, the special gift of the light essayist, the genius of literary evolution, — the power to go on spinning indefinitely an iridescent thread out of her own mental substance. No other woman of recent years, if we except Mrs. Meynell and Miss Repplier, has had this charming endowment in the same degree. Yet the regular correspondents of Gail Hamilton’s brightest days thought her letters a great deal better than her essays, and her talk better than either. Many of these letters are addressed to persons of note, and some display a wonderful illogical acumen and gay agility of glancing thought, while a few impress one as having been fervently felt. Gail Hamilton’s pertinacious advocacy of woman’s alleged rights stands revealed in these pages as a whimsical and transparent pose. The frolic rebel against stale conventions, the audacious advocate of the most advanced form of feminism, was always under the influence and inspiration of some clever man or other. She was as dependent as the weakest of us upon her “ tyrant” correspondent for stimulus and suggestion, though answering with unfailing gallantry to the spur. The first, in time, of these tonic tutors of hers was Dr. Bailey, of Washington, D. C., in whose family she was governess, beside being a regular contributor to his famous anti-slavery journal, the National Era, during the tense last years before the Civil War. There she met those great apostles of abolition who precipitated the “irrepressible conflict ; ” there she quickly overcame her rustic shyness, and learned to know her own singular social power. It was there, too, and then, in her early twenties, that she developed that highly intelligent interest in national politics, and that familiarity — so unusual in an American woman — with the gear of what Mr. Lecky has taught us to consider the inevitable political machine, which always distinguished her.

The years between 1860 and 1870 were passed by Gail Hamilton very quietly, in the pretty but then exceedingly sleepy little Essex County town of Hamilton, the name of which was presently incorporated into her nom de guerre. During that period her reputation as a writer of sparkling magazine articles and a rapid maker of vigorous and amusing books was definitively won, and the kind of friends one may make by the pen began besieging her, in her solitude, with congratulation, solicitation, and varied flattery. That the best letters are always written from the dullest places is a notorious fact, and, accordingly, the best of Gail Hamilton’s which we have in the present collection belong to her recluse years.

A new and powerful influence entered her life about 1870, and remained paramount and all-absorbing throughout its entire latter half, — the influence of James G. Blaine. Mr. Blaine was a connection by marriage, and after he was elected to the United States Senate Gail Hamilton began regularly to pass the congressional season as a member of his family in Washington. She thus returned, in the full maturity of her powers and fame, to the city of her predilection, which she had left abruptly when little more than a girl, and always half regretted. It was indeed her fitting and most congenial sphere, and she soon became a conspicuous figure there. She never wrote anything very memorable after this time, for the simple reason that her lively genius found a more direct and natural outlet. She adopted Mr. Blaine’s views, defended his course, divined and shared his prophetic vision of American imperialism, and illustrated his brilliant if sometimes devious policy by the overflowing resources of her versatile talent. It was she almost more than Mrs. Blaine — though the trio were singularly unanimous — who helped to make their house a political rendezvous, the social centre of a great party.

Gail Hamilton lived to write her hero’s life, or rather his eulogy, though not as ably and convincingly as she would have done in better days. She fell fatally stricken when only the last finishing touch remained to be added to her labor of love. Yet she lingered for one more year upon the borders of this world, — a white and wistful shadow of her former self, most painfully depicted in the frontispiece to the second volume of the Life in Letters. During this fading season she was possessed by the curious hallucination that her soul had been actually sundered from her body at the time of her first seizure, and then unaccountably recalled ; and a pitiful fragment of autobiography which she began to dictate at this time begins with the startling words, “I died on the 10th of May, 1895.”

Looking back from this weird finis over the life story so voluminously and yet so imperfectly told, retrenching superfluities and supplying deficiencies as best one may who knew Gail Hamilton well during some six or seven of her most auspicious years, I find myself coming fully to a conclusion with which I have often dallied when thinking of her. We have had more weighty and more urbane writers among us than she was, but few more original and racy, and very few indeed so characteristically American. Her popularity was immense at one time ; her verve seemed inexhaustible ; her production was rapid and deservedly remunerative. And yet, as it now appears to me, her true vocation was not that of a writer, and her own shrewd instinct whispered as much when she was leaving Washington for the first time. It was plainly open to her to have remained there, in a woman’s natural place, as the mistress of a sufficiently affluent home, in the very centre of the affairs that she most relished. If she had done so, I think it certain that she would have been a yet nobler and more memorable social power than she afterward became. She must have had it in her — when young — to tenir salon as few of her countrywomen have done. Hers would have been a novel kind of salon, very unlike the Parisian or any other Old World model, free, informal, miscellaneous, democratic, but representative by the same token, teeming with life and potent in influence. She would have touched fewer minds, maybe, by her eloquent speech than she did by her colloquial books ; but she would have touched those few to finer and more lasting issues, and her own development would have been, I think, incomparably broader, more symmetrical, more serene and humane. She wavered at the parting of the ways.

“ Unless I am going to live here,” she writes to her sister, it is high time I was away. There is a fascination in society.... I ’ve really had some thoughts of giving myself up to it in earnest, and seeing what I could do. You may think me very foolish, and I am quite aware that I have not beauty or money ; yet without them, and without giving much thought to it, I can make a little stir, and if I should give my mind to it I think I could do something.” And again, after the die was cast: “ I wish I was the leader of society in Washington! I would put one or two tilings through, I warrant you, and opponents should bite the dust! ”

But she was in the very unusual position, at twenty-seven, of being beset by deferential publishers and flattering journalists, who wanted to exploit for their own profit her shining, taking talents ; and she succumbed to their blandishments. She may have seemed to others, and even to herself, to be choosing the more humble part, when she elected to bury herself in Hamilton, and write for the Atlantic and the Independent. In reality she was taking by far the more ambitious course. She succeeded ; and yet — she failed. To live by the labor of the pen is occasionally needful, — not so often practicable, never really desirable, either for man or woman.

  1. Life in Letters. By GALL HAMILTON. In two volumes. Boston : Lee & Shepard. 1901.