I. A BACKWOODS BOYHOOD.
MY English ancestor, Thomas Trowbridge, of Taunton, came to this country about the year 1634. He was a grandson of that earlier Thomas who gave to the poor of Taunton the perpetual income from certain lands, to be dispensed by the wardens of St. Mary Magdalene and St. James, in which churches tablets commemorating the gift and the giver are conspicuously placed. Once a year, for now almost three hundred years, according to the terms of the will, “the Poorest, Oldest, most Honest and Impotent Poor ” are assembled to hear a sermon, receive each his dole, and be reminded to thank God and the donor for the benefaction. As they receive only a shilling each, it is to be hoped the homily is not long. Despite the degrading conditions, regularly on St. Thomas’s day the churches are thronged by applicants for the charity ; and one of the wardens assured a kinsman of mine, some years since, that it was “a blessing to the poor.” As a descendant of the well-meaning Thomas, I am thankful for the warden’s further assurance that the very old and infirm are excused from hearing the sermon, and get their gratuity without going to ask for it publicly.
The emigrant, Thomas, brought his wife and two sons to America; and a third son was born to him in Dorchester, Mass., where he first settled. He removed to New Haven in 1639, made voyages of traffic to Barbados, and finally went back to England, leaving his boys in New Haven, in the care of an unfaithful steward. The oldest of these sons, Thomas, is the ancestor of the New Haven family of Trowbridges. From the third son, James, I am descended.
James returned to Dorchester, where his father must have left some property to look after, and later settled in Cambridge Village (now Newton). He was the grandfather of Judge Edmund Trowbridge, the eminent jurist, and of Lydia Trowbridge, who married the rising young barrister, Richard Dana, and became the mother of an illustrious line. A brother of Edmund and Lydia was John Trowbridge, of Framingham, the father of Major John Trowbridge, who served in the Revolutionary War.
My father, Windsor Stone Trowbridge, grandson of Major John, was born in Framingham, where I found a sister of his still living, a gray-haired woman, when I first came to New England in 1848. She showed me the site of the home of their childhood, marked only by a ruined cellar overgrown with grass and weeds, a scene full of suggestiveness to an impressible youth, returning on such a pilgrimage, to seek some trace of his parent’s early years.
When still quite young my father was taken by his parents to Oneida County, in central New York, where, his mother dying, he was bound out to a Westmoreland farmer, John Townsend, with whom he lived until he was twenty-one, receiving, in return for his services, his board and clothing, a common school education, and, on attaining his majority, a yoke of oxen and a hundred dollars in money. The service could not have been unduly hard, for Mr. Townsend was a kind man, and he treated his ward in every respect as he did his own son, John, the boys being brought up together like two brothers. But there was a prejudice against such service, the hardships of which my father, in after years, sometimes endeavored to impress upon his own youngsters, when for our disobedience he would make the threat, “I ’ll bind you out if you don’t behave better ! ” with a prodigious frown, which, however, did not frighten us, knowing well, as we did, how much easier it was for him, with his irritable temper and kind heart, to make a threat than it was to execute it.
My father and the younger John Townsend never forgot their early attachment, but remained good friends long after my father left Westmoreland for the Genesee country, as it was then called, farther west. I was named for that companion of his boyhood, who made us at least one visit, in our backwoods home, — a visit impressed upon me by an interesting circumstance, although I was then but four years old. Mr. Townsend stood with his back to the fire, and taking from his pocket a silver half-dollar, gave it to me, as he remarked, “for my name.” It was probably the first half - dollar piece I had ever seen, and I did not see much of that. I don’t remember just how it disappeared, but I have a distinct recollection of my father’s saying he would give me a sheep for it, a proposition with which both the big and the little John Townsend were, I suppose, content. No doubt I thought it a fine thing to have a sheep all my own. There was, moreover, a condition attached to the transaction which I did not quite grasp at the time, but which was explained and well understood by me later. In that new country a farmer too poor to purchase sheep would sometimes take a small flock of a neighbor, with the obligation to return double the number at the end of four years. My father proposed to take my sheep on those terms; it was still to be mine, but he was to have its wool and its progeny, and give me that sheep and another, or, at any rate, two sheep, on my eighth birthday. From that time it was understood that I was part owner of the flock. When I was six, I was told that I owned a sheep and a half; and in watching the flock I used to wonder which whole sheep was mine, and which half of which other sheep I could properly claim. When I was eight, I was the proud proprietor of two sheep; when I was twelve, my father continuing to hire sheep of me, I had four; and I was then able to figure out the bewildering number I would have, at that rate, when I got to be as old as he. At sixteen I had eight sheep; at seventeen I was entitled to ten; but then I left the homestead and the undivided flock, — a source of ever multiplying and illimitable riches, if there were anybody to account to me for the hundreds of thousands of sheep that should now be mine by that simple rule of increase. It was always my fault that I did not look closely after my material and, for that matter, my more ethereal interests. I kept John Townsend’s worthy name, but his half - dollar, and the fortune founded upon it, vanished into air, into thin air, like so many of my early and late expectations.
That part of the Genesee country to which my father emigrated was the township of Ogden, in Monroe County, a few miles west of the river that gave the region its name. Soon after attaining his freedom he had married a Westmoreland farmer’s daughter, Rebecca Willey (granddaughter of Captain John Willey, of East Haddam, Conn., a veteran of the Revolution), when she was eighteen and he twenty-one. They kept house about a year and a half in Westmoreland. Then, in the depth of winter, namely, in February, 1812, he yoked his oxen to a sleigh, on which were loaded a few farming and kitchen utensils and household goods, — all it could safely carry in the condition of the road, if road it could be called, a mere wagon track cut through the primeval woods, — and set out with her upon their rough journey of over a hundred miles and I know not how many days. What is now Syracuse was then a frontier settlement; beyond that their way lay for the most part through the unbroken solitudes of the forest. There was no bridge over the Genesee, and but one house at the Falls, where the city of Rochester now stands. The emigrants expected to cross by a ferry at the mouth of the river, but they found the river frozen over, and the ferryboat blocked. They put up at a log tavern, and crossing the next morning on the ice, pushed on into the vast and shadowy wilderness, my father walking by the horns of the oxen to navigate the sleigh among the projecting roots and through the snow-filled hollows; the bars of sunshine slanting along the arches of great trunks and limbs, and the tinkling icecrust dropping from the boughs overhead. They reached their destination that afternoon.
It was in the midst of dense woods, where a Westmoreland acquaintance had already made a small clearing and built a cabin. He took in the newcomers, and helped my father “roll up a house, ” — a mere hut, built of logs not too large for two men to roll up on inclined poles, and place one upon another. The “ puncheon ” floor was of split chestnut logs, the sleigh - boards serving as the floor of the loft. Not a nail was used in the construction; nails were expensive; wooden pegs took their place. No stones could be gathered on account of the deep snow, and my mother’s kettles would sink down into the soft ground which formed the hearth. The snow stayed until April. When it was gone, and she went out and found some “good, nice stones ” to set her kettles on in the fireplace, she “felt rich,” as she used smilingly to tell us children in later years.
So my parents set up their simple housekeeping, and passed, I have no doubt, their happiest days, — days as happy, very likely, as any their children, or numerous grandchildren or great - grandchildren, have enjoyed in the stress of a more complex civilization. She sang at her work; his axe resounded in the forest. He made a clearing, and planted corn and beans and potatoes among the stumps. Their first child was born in that hut. The clearing grew, and before long a larger, well-built house replaced the primitive cabin.
This more substantial house had one large room on the ground floor, about twenty feet square, a low-roofed chamber, to which access was had by a ladder, and in the course of time a “linter ” (lean - to) addition. The linter was framed, but the main part was built of logs. These were hewed on the inside, and the cracks between them filled with a plaster made of clay. The filling was liable to crack, and it was necessary to patch the broken places every fall. This was called “chinking up the house, ” and it made a happy time for the older children, there being always some of the moist clay left over, which they could use in making cups and saucers and other ornaments for their playhouses. The floor was of dressed chestnut planks, the beautiful grain kept scrupulously clean and smoothly polished. At one end of the room was a huge stone fireplace, with great andirons, and heavy shovel and tongs in the corners. In the linter were the spare bed with its white counterpane, a tall brasshandled bureau, and our father’s large oaken chest, with its complicated tills, always a marvel to the younger children, who would run and peep wonderingly whenever he went to open it.
The large room in the main part was kitchen, parlor, and bedroom all in one. Curtained off in one corner was the parents’ bed, covered by a handsome pieced quilt, and pillow-slips of fine home-made linen, with our mother’s maiden initials fancifully stitched upon them in blue letters. The curtains and pillow-slips were a part of her wedding outfit, and had been woven for her by our Grandmother Willey. Under the bed was a trundle-bed, drawn out at night for the youngest children to sleep in, and pushed back by day, when all would be concealed from view by the drawn curtains. Each child passed from the mother’s arms to that trundle-bed, which generally held two or three at a time; the older ones, as their successors came, being allowed — and it was accounted a proud privilege — to go “up chamber ” to sleep. There was no pantry, cupboards serving instead. Outside the house was a large brick oven, where the family baking was done. It was under a shed, which was some protection to our mother when she had “a bad day for baking. ”
In this log house all the nine children were born except the first and the last. I was the eighth, and in it I first saw the light (that of a tallow candle) in September, 1827, after our parents had been fifteen years in their backwoods home.
The event, of so much more importance to me than to any one else, took place so nearly on the stroke of midnight that it was uncertain whether the 17th or 18th of the month should, in strict accordance with the fact, be set down as my birthday. In my childhood, some freedom of choice being left to me in the matter, — strange as it may seem that a boy should be able to choose his own birthday, — I stoutly maintained that the 17th was the anniversary, since it added the dignity of one day to my youthful years, and brought the presents, if there chanced to be any, one day earlier. But later in life, for a sadder reason, I fixed upon the date that made me a day younger. Then there was the satisfaction of feeling that I was a child of the morning. I had, however, cause to regret, even in my boyhood, that I did not put off my entrance upon the stage a few weeks longer, for then I could have enjoyed the distinction of being born in a new framed house, which the family moved into while I was yet in the cradle. But as it made not the slightest difference to me at the time, so now I am as well content as if my eyes had first blinked and my infant lungs piped in a palace.
The house in which my boyhood was passed, a two-story farmhouse painted white, with green blinds, stood, and I believe yet stands, on the north side of a road running east and west, a mile or more from “the Basin,” as we used to call it, — Spencer’s Basin, now Spencerport, on the Erie Canal. This was the nearest village. It was a small village then, but it prides itself on being so much of a village now that friends of mine, living there, express surprise that I do not claim it as my birthplace, it is so much more distinctive! But I was not born in a village. Ogden includes Spencerport, and is distinctive enough for one so obscurely born and bred.
Behind the house was the well, with its iron-bound bucket; and not far beyond that was the fine orchard of apple and peach trees, which my father’s hand had planted, and which were in their thrifty prime in the days of my childhood.
Beyond the barn and orchard were the rolling pastures, the grainfields where I hoed corn and pulled redroot, and the wood-lot, which had been spared when the forest was driven back to make space for farm land. Beyond the wood-lot was the canal, with its passing boats; and north of that was Lake Ontario, not many miles away, but veiled from view by a skirt of the ancient wilderness. When I revisited the farm in later years, the distant woods had disappeared, and the lake was visible from the high pasture land over which I had driven the cows hundreds of times in the summers long gone by. As I recalled those summers on the pleasant hills, the feeling of glad surprise with which I looked off on the blue expanse was pierced by a pang of regret that that “thing of beauty ” could not have been “a joy ” of my barefoot boyhood.
Jessamine vines and morning-glories grew before the front windows, and in beds near by were all the old-fashioned flowers, of which the pink and the flower-de-luce were always my favorites. Roses I admired, and other flowers had their special charms, but I loved the pink, and something in the exquisite tint and velvety softness of the bosom of the flower-de-luce awakened in me a yearning no words could ever express. I remember when my sisters introduced into their garden a novelty known as the “ love apple, ” prized for its beauty only, until it was popularized as the tomato, and banished to the vegetable garden.
In front of the house the ground fell in a gentle green slope to the road, on the other side of which, not many rods off, was an immense gloomy swamp, shaded by lofty elms that shut out the sun, and full of fallen trunks, rotten logs covered with moss as with coats of thick fur, and black, silent pools that to my childish imagination had a mysterious depth. Awe and wonder peopled for me those profound solitudes. By night raccoons whinnied and owls hooted in them, and at times clouds of mosquitoes came out of them. The roaring wind in the tossing sea of tops, the creaking of dry limbs, the fireflies fitfully embroidering, as with stars and threads of gold, the dark skirts of the swamp, and the bears and panthers and phantoms which I fancied inhabiting it, filled my childish soul with wonder and joy. There frogs held their concerts; and often, after a shower, when the wind was southerly, sulphurous odors were wafted to us from the troubled pools.
One would think our farmhouse must have been in an unhealthy place, but it was not so. We had no ague in our neighborhood, and there were probably no malarial mosquitoes in the swamp. The house stood on high ground, and our only protection against mosquitoes was a smudge-fire on summer nights.
There was a tradition among the boys that this swamp was impassable, and I think I must have been nine or ten years old before I ventured to penetrate its dim recesses very far. Then, taking advantage of an unusually dry season, and marking the trees so I could find my way back, I tramped and scrambled through it, and found to my surprise that it was only a belt of woods, with high and dry farm lands on the other side. I lost my awe of it from that day, and almost wished I had left it unexplored. I have since found many such dark and mysterious places in life, filled with shadowy terrors until, with a little resolution, they have been passed through. When last I visited the old homestead, there was no black and dismal swamp in front of it, but a welldrained broad green meadow basking in the summer sun.
The new house also had its great fireplace, and one of the pleasant recollections of my boyhood is the generous fire that on winter nights filled the room with its glow. The building of this fire was a somewhat elaborate affair. After the evening chores were done, my father would appear in the doorway with the big back-log coated with snow, often of ampler girth than himself, and fully breast high to him as he held it upright, canting it one way and another, and “walking ” it before him on its wedgeshaped end. He would perhaps stand it against the chimney while he took a breathing spell and planned his campaign. Then, the andirons hauled forward on the hearth, and the bed of half-burnt brands and live coals raked open, the icy log was got into the fireplace, where a skillful turn would lay it over, hissing and steaming, in its lair of hot embers. It seemed a thing alive, and its vehement sputtering and protesting made a dramatic moment for at least one small spectator. The stout shovel and tongs, or perhaps a piece of firewood used as a lever, would force it against the chimney back; then a goodsized stick, called a “back-stick,” was laid on top of it, and the andirons were set in place. Across the andirons another good-sized stick was laid, called a “fore-stick,” and in the interspace smaller sticks were crossed and thrust and piled, all quickly kindled by the live coals and brands.
In very cold weather a fire was kept burning all night, our father getting up once or twice to replenish it. Even in summer the coals rarely became extinct. A good heap of them, covered with embers at bedtime, would be found alive when raked open in the morning. This was a needful precaution before locofoco matches came into use. Every house had its tinderbox, but starting a flame with flint and steel was a tedious process at the best, and “borrowing fire” was usual among neighbors when one had the mischance to lose his over night. I am unable to say how long this custom continued, but I must have been seven or eight years old when a vagabondish neighbor came to our house one morning with his wife’s foot-stove to get some coals. He was a reckless liar, of whom it was proverbially said that he would “lie for the fun of it ” when the truth would have been more to his advantage. As we had had our breakfast, my mother said to him, “Your folks must have slept late this morning.” “Bless you, no! ” he replied; “we were up at daylight, and my wife has done a large ironing.” I remember with what goodnatured effrontery he joined in the laugh against him when my mother said she would like their receipt for doing an ironing without fire.
The foot-stove was a sheet-iron box in a wooden frame, and with a perforated cover, made for holding live coals embedded in ashes; it was used in cold weather to rest the feet on in the sleigh, or in the cold meeting-house. My mother always took hers to church with her from November until April.
The first friction matches I ever saw were brought to school by a boy who lighted one by placing it in the folds of a piece of sandpaper and drawing it out with a quick pull. When we who stood looking on saw it come out actually on fire, our wonder and envy knew no bounds. No, sir! he would n’t let one of us ignite or even touch one; he would light just one more himself, and only one, and we need n’t tease, for those magical bits of wood were too precious to be wasted in idle experiments. It was n’t long before everybody had matches, and a new era in household economy began.
Along with matches, stoves came into the settlement. A “Franklin” was set up in our kitchen, and the arched brick oven, that had been built into the chimney by the fireplace to supersede the primitive oven outside the house, was itself superseded. The tin “baker,” in which meats were roasted before an open fire, also became obsolete. We still had open fires in the sitting-room, and sometimes in the “east room” (or parlor) when my sisters came to have beaux.
When I was seven years old, my eldest sister married one of these beaux, a young Vermonter, who had taught our district school and made her acquaintance while boarding around. I do not recall the wedding ceremony, but I remember full well the beautifully frosted wedding-cake, served to a large company grouped before our sitting-room fire. It was winter, and not long after, namely, in February, 1835, the young couple emigrated to “the West, ” as our father and mother had done just twenty-three years before; the West, in the later instance, being Illinois.
The world was all a mystery to me, which I was forever seeking to solve; but the greatest mystery of all was that of the people around me. I can hardly remember a time when I did not try to enter somehow into their consciousness and think with their thoughts. I would sit patiently in my little chair, and watch my mother rocking and knitting, something within me yearning to fathom something in her; wondering how it seemed to be as old as she, how life looked to her, and what it was that made her chair rock and her hands move, always just so, and not otherwise. When I was old enough to be taken to meeting, I would entertain myself by studying certain persons whose faces fascinated me, endeavoring to guess their secrets, and to make out why one was gray and wrinkled, another young and handsome, and why one was always so distinctly one’s own self and not another’s. I knew they never had any such thoughts as troubled a little boy like me, but what were their thoughts ?
At times it seemed to me that while the people and things around me might be real, I was a sort of dream. Then they were the dream, and I was the sole reality; even my own father and mother and brothers and sisters were phantoms, and the earth and trees and clouds were pictures, provided for my use and entertainment. These flittings across my inner consciousness would hardly reach the surface of my thoughts; if ever they did, I was sensible enough to perceive that they were the idlest illusions, and I early outgrew them.
But the feeling that everything was provided and prearranged for me was more persistent. Invisible beings surrounded and watched over me, and shaped the world and all things for my good. They knew all that I did or thought or felt; they were so near and so real that I sometimes talked to them, and was sure they whispered to me, though I could never quite make out what they said. This belief, if anything so formless and unreasoned can be called a belief, was wholly instinctive, and could not have been suggested by, as it probably antedated, any teaching I received regarding God and the angels. God, according to my earliest conception, was a big man, taller than our well-sweep; and angels were great white things with wings. My invisibles had nothing so tangible as wings, and were as bodiless as the breeze that brushed my hair. The sense of their immediate presence became gradually obscured ; but even after I was old enough to argue myself out of it, I never quite lost the feeling of their oversight and guidance, — the feeling which I have elsewhere commemorated, attempting to define what is so indefinable : —
That I was somehow chosen, the special care
Of Powers that led me through life’s changeful vision,
Spirits and influences of earth and air.”
Problems which have baffled the greatest minds oppressed me at a very early age. I can remember lying on my back under an orchard tree, when I could n’t have been more than eight or nine years old, gazing up through the boughs into the blue depths of the sky, and trying to think of time and space, until my inmost sense ached with the effort. It was the beginning of time that troubled me, for it must have had a beginning; and yet — what was before that ? And there must be a limit to the sky; but when I conceived of that limit as a great blank wall, no matter how far away, the same difficulty met me, — what was beyond that wall ? My older brother seemed never to have thought of such things, and hardly to know what I meant when I spoke of them. I could never be satisfied with my mother’s answer when I carried my questions to her, — “Those are things nobody can understand, ” — and I wondered how it could satisfy her. It was no explanation to say that God made the world, unless somebody could tell me who made God, or how he made himself, and what was before God was.
I was brought up under the shadow of the Calvinism of those days, and listened to its preachings and teachings, sitting in the straight - backed pew of the meeting-house or on a bench of the Sunday-school. Sunday was a day of irksome restraint and gloom. It began at sundown on Saturday, and ended at sundown on Sunday, and sometimes a little earlier for us boys, if the afternoon chanced to be overcast, and we could convince our mother that it was time to relieve the pressure and let our youthful spirits effervesce. Fortunately she was more liberal than her creed, and although anything like games or sports was prohibited in the hours that were to be kept “holy, ” and a certain amount of serious reading was enjoined, we generally had the freedom of the barn and fields and orchard before and after church. No work was performed except the necessary chores.
Church-going was rigidly observed. Our meeting-house was at Ogden Centre, a mile away as the crows flew when they flew straight; it was considerably farther around by the road. Every Sunday morning the one-horse wagon was brought to the door about the time the ringing of the first bell sent its loud bim-bom over the woods and farms and into our hearts, with all its solemn associations. The mother, in her best black gown, and with her foot-stove, if the weather was cold, the father, freshly shaved, in his high black stock and equally uncomfortable tall black hat, and such of the sisters as were at home, filled the two broad seats, with perhaps one of us youngsters wedged in, though we preferred to walk in good weather; then the vehicle moved out of the front gate, and joined the procession of carriages going in the same direction, impelled by the same pious duty. With the foot-stove or without it, went luncheons for the noonday hour, for the religious exercises were an all-day affair, with forenoon and afternoon services, and the Bible class and Sunday-school in the interval which the minister took for rest between his sermons. It was not supposed that his hearers needed rest. There were sheds for the vehicles, and the man who was kind to his beasts usually put into his wagon with the family sandwiches a small bag of grain for his team. The services began at half past ten, and were over at half past two, unless the afternoon sermon was “lengthy,” as it was very apt to be: four hours of doctrine and edification on which Heaven was supposed to smile; four hours of light and sunshine and recreation stricken out of our lives on that so-called day of rest.
I can remember how utterly vacuous I felt, in both mind and body, at the end of that exhausting ordeal. Often one of the family would remain at home, to take care of the house, and of my younger brother, five years my junior, before he was old enough to be subjected to that long confinement. Happy the day and blissful the chance when that care-taking was assigned to me. I was never lonely when left alone, yet I was always glad when I saw the dust and heard the rumble of carriages coming home from meeting. I knew how hungry everybody would be, and never failed to have the pot and kettle boiling.
My mother was a woman of strong devotional feelings, and with an unquestioning faith in a divine Providence and in immortality. She no more doubted that eternal life awaited her in the blissful society of friends she had known here than that she should awaken in the morning after a normal night’s sleep. This belief seemed inherent in her, and she loved to dwell upon it. The doctrines of total depravity and eternal torment she accepted on the authority of her church; but that they were external to her spiritual nature I am convinced, for the reason that she never insisted upon them, nor even mentioned them, as I now recall, in her endeavors to impress upon us younger children the necessity for a “change of heart.” Three of my sisters became church members in their girlhood. I think my older brother also joined the church; if he did, he became a backslider. He got “converted ” in the tremendous excitement of revival meetings, but in him the exuberance of unreflecting animal spirits did not permit the religious feeling to strike permanent root.
My father was a constant churchgoer, and he at one time led the choir. He never became a communicant, not because he had leanings toward skepticism, but because he had not consciously “experienced religion.” If right living constitutes righteousness, there was no more righteous man in the church than he was out of it. But he had not met with the change of heart which was deemed essential to an admission to its fold. He was at times persuaded by our mother to conduct family worship, but he lacked the gift of prayer in which she abounded; and I recall painful occasions when, as we all knelt at our chairs, he broke down in his supplication, becoming stranded, so to speak, with his burden ; whereupon she would sail in and take it up, and on a full tide of eloquence bear it into port.
I had something of my mother’s natural religious feeling, yet not all the pains of perdition preached by imported revivalists — which, in the dim candlelight, amid the misty exhalations, the sobbings and moanings, of the evening meetings, frightened my mates and acquaintances into seeking the “anxious seat ” — could terrify me into following their example. Something granitic within me resisted all such influences. Whatever intelligence and spiritual perception I had, revolted against the threatenings hurled down upon us by those pulpit prophets of wrath, and I sat cold and critical, at times even cynical, I fear, when the exhorters shouted, and some of the worst boys I knew, recently convicted of sin, got hold of me and implored me to come forward, be prayed for, and gain a hope.
I prayed by myself, frequently aloud, when I was walking alone in the fields; prayed earnestly that the truth might be shown to me, opening my heart to it like a flower to the light, and making vows to follow wherever it led, to live by it and confess it, at whatever cost. I remember doing this when I was about twelve years old. But the more I thought of the fall of man, total depravity, everlasting torment, and kindred tenets, the more strongly they impressed me as being unnatural and humanly contrived. Once I became angry with a sled I was making, the pieces of which would not fit according to my plan. I gave it a vindictive kick. Then I checked myself and said, “That’s like what they say God did when he made the world and found it did n’t suit him. ” I was calmed and shamed, and at once set about putting the pieces together.
I was always wondering at the beauty and mystery of the earth and sky, — the air in its place, the water in its place, the birds adapted to their life, the fishes to theirs, the growth of trees and grass and flowers, the sun by day, and by night the moon and stars, — and I never once imagined that these visible miracles could have come about by any sort of chance. I had a vague conception of a law of adaptation in nature, some power that kept the balance of things, which in later years the theories of evolution and the survival of the fittest confirmed and explained. I clung intuitively to a belief in divine Providence and an intelligent Source of Life; not in consequence of the religious instructions I received, but rather in spite of them. I say in spite of them, because I regard those preachings and teachings as having been distinctly harmful to me in many ways. They cast a shadow over my childhood, and enshrouded in baleful gloom even the Sun of Righteousness. It was not until long after I got away from them that I came back to the Bible with a fresh sense of the beauty of its literature, and of the spiritual insight and power that illumine the best parts of it, and make it, above all other books, the Word of God.
I was only an average pupil until about my fifteenth year. I learned my lessons readily and recited them glibly by rote, without really understanding much about them, when a slight thing gave my mind a start. In what was called the “back part of the spelling-book ” there was a list of foreign words and phrases with their English equivalents affixed. We had not been required to learn these, and perhaps they interested me the more for this reason. I went through them eagerly, committed them to memory, and conceived an ardent desire to study a foreign language.
I wished to have some necessary books bought for me, but money for such things was scarce in our family, and no doubt my parents thought it better that I should confine myself to studies that were taught in school. An invalid cousin of mine, a young lady who had had a boarding-school education, heard of my ambition, and on her deathbed directed that her French books should be given to me. There were only three of these, — a grammar of the old-fashioned sort, a small dictionary, and a reader, — but I never in my life felt richer than when the precious volumes were brought home and put into my hands.
It was probably all the better for my mental discipline that the language was not made easy to me by our more modern methods. Yet I did not find it hard; there was a joy in acquiring it which made a pastime of the dry conjugations, and of the slow process of reading with the help of a dictionary.
I did not find much difficulty with anything but the pronunciation. The textbooks gave me little help in that, and since the death of my cousin I did not know anybody who had the slightest acquaintance with the language. I went through the grammar and reader, and a Télémaque which I found in the town library, and so got to read and translate the language before I ever heard it spoken.
I took other books from the library, which was supported by subscribers, of whom my father was one. I read Ivanhoe with wonder and delight, and in consequence of the historical curiosity it excited in me, took out next an abridged Hume’s History of England. I read Cooper’s Spy and Leather Stocking Tales, James’s Richelieu, and Henri Quatre, Croly’s Salathiel, and Ingraham’s Lafitte the Pirate of the Gulf, and thought them all good.
I read Byron with the greatest avidity, and became possessed of a copy of Scott’s Lady of the Lake, whole pages of which — I might almost say whole cantos — I was soon able to recite from memory. I was even absorbed in Pope’s Essay on Man, regarding it as the most perfect combination possible of sublime philosophy and lucid verse. I read much of Shakespeare, and tried to read more. Othello, King Lear, The Tempest, Hamlet, Timon of Athens, and a few other plays interested me profoundly; but I could not get through Love’s Labour ’s Lost. As I look back now, I am surprised at the boyish audacity with which I criticised works so famous. The indecencies and whimsical conceits I found in the plays offended my taste, and I thought the tragical ending of Hamlet too melodramatic, although I did not have that word for what I felt to be forced and artificial in that homicidal scene.
I went through a volume of Plutarch because I liked it, and Rollin’s Ancient History because I thought it one of those things a well-informed youth ought not to neglect. A similar sense of duty carried me over dreary tracts of Aiken’s British Poets, which I blamed myself for finding dull, and Pope’s Homer, which I thought I ought to like for the reason that Homer and Pope were both celebrated poets. But the couplets that I found so cogent and convincing in the Essay on Man became monotonous in the Iliad, and left me unmoved. Of other books I remember reading at that age, I may mention Abercrombie’s Intellectual Powers, Blair’s Rhetoric, some volumes of the Spectator, the Arabian Nights and Gulliver’s Travels, Locke’s Essay on the Human Understanding (abridged edition), works on Phrenology and Physiology, Paradise Lost, and the Pirate’s Own Book. When I had money of my own, I purchased books in Rochester, among others some volumes of a Bibliothèque Choisie de la Littérature Française, of which I best recall Alfred de Vigny’s fine historical romance, Cinq-Mars. I procured Latin textbooks, and took up the study of that language, also without a teacher.
Up to the time of my intellectual awakening, I had scarcely any clear conception of the use and meaning of English grammar, although I could parse fluently and recite all the rules. The study of another language threw a flood of light on the grammar of my own, like a lantern shining backward on a path one has been treading in the dark. My mind also awoke to the real value of other branches, of which only a parrotlike knowledge had been required of me hitherto. And “composition” became a delight.
I began to write verses when I was thirteen, but I was accused by some of my mates of copying them out of books, until I composed an acrostic on the name of one of them. As it was a name Mrs. Hemans and Kirke White would hardly have cared to celebrate, even if they had heard of it, and as the ingenuity of altering any of their lines to suit it would have been considerable, the charge of plagiarizing was not pressed.
After I was thirteen I attended only the winter term of the school, my services being required on the farm in summer; but the teaching I missed was probably no loss to me when my mind had become independently aroused. In the hour’s nooning with the books I loved, I have no doubt but I learned more than I should have done in the whole day’s routine in school. I almost wonder now at the extent of my studies and readings while I was doing a boy’s regular work on the farm. I was fond of sport, and liked to hunt and fish and play ball and fly kites as well as most boys. But I made a good deal of “odd spells ” which others idled away. The men of learning and genius I read about, or whose writings I admired, caused in me pangs of despairing emulation, as I constantly contrasted their high achievements with my own petty, unprofitable life.
It was not alone the love of study that kept me at my books. I saw my companions give themselves up to idle talk and amusement, and often wished that I might pass my days as carelessly as they. What was that inward scourge which chastised those shallower inclinations, and drove me back to my selfallotted tasks ? Many times I asked myself this question. I did not know then how much may be acquired in the course of a year by a boy engaged in almost any kind of work, who gives now and then a leisure hour to earnest reading and study without a teacher; but I was finding it out by experience.
I was in many respects fortunately situated, although I did not know it at the time. I thought it hard that I could not have the educational privileges which some boys at the Basin had, and which they scorned and wasted. I had a cousin on the Willey side living in Geneseo, where I visited him. His father was a lawyer, and the son had all the advantages of an academic course, and of a village life, simple enough, in fact, but cultured and elegant in comparison with my own. He was two or three years older than I, so learned that I hardly dared speak to him of my humble studies, and so well dressed that I was ashamed of my country clothes, as I knew he was, when his Geneseo friends saw him with me on the street. His position and accomplishments were so far beyond anything I could hope ever to attain that I went home with a very poor opinion of my opportunities, and might have been discouraged from my endeavors at self-improvement if I had not pursued it for its own sake, or if something within me deeper than discouragement and better than ambition had not held me to my purpose. I was naturally indolent, and it was probably well for me that, instead of circumstances made easy for me, I had obstacles to overcome.
My father never drove his boys or his hired men. I generally had a good part of a rainy day to myself, and often other afternoons, when work was not pressing. I nearly always had a book handy which I could snatch up between whiles. I fear this habit was many a source of annoyance to the family, and I can remember hearing the frequent question, “Where ’s John? ” answered with tart impatience, “Oh, he ’s got his nose in one of his everlasting books somewhere ! ” I am sorry to say I did not always take my nose out as soon as I should have done. My ambition did not invariably receive that encouragement from other members of the family which could have been desired. I was painfully impressed by what one of my sisters, five years older than I, once said of precocious boys, who know more at fourteen or fifteen than they ever do afterwards, adding, “I guess that is going to be the way with John.” I don’t suppose that this was really her opinion, but it was natural to think that any branching conceit in a younger brother should be kept well pruned. Not that I ever made a parade of my acquirements. I often wished that my reputation for reading and study had been less, in order that less might have been expected of me. I knew a little of so many things that I was credited with knowing many more, my ignorance of which was often a source of embarrassment and humiliation.
This studiousness on my part developed in me an independence of social excitements and a reliance on my own inward resources, as appeared in the way I spent the Fourth of July when I was fifteen years old. While every other boy in town went to the “celebration,” I remained at home, entirely alone, with no company but my books and my own thoughts. When I was tired of reading — for I had weak eyes, and could never use them long at a time — I went out into the field and hoed corn for an hour or two, an altogether voluntary task. Then I went back to my book, and my frugal dinner which I prepared myself and ate while I read ; then returned and hoed corn for another hour in the afternoon. The exercise refreshed me for the reading, and the reading made the open air and the sunshine and the society of cawing crows and wild hawks, sailing over, a renewed delight. I think it was the happiest Fourth of July of my boyhood; and I did not envy my brothers the uproarious fun they had to tell of when they came home at night. To spend an entire day in work seemed to me a wicked waste of time and opportunity ; but to break it up with intervals of reading and study, in this way, was my ideal of a farm-boy’s life.
In the way of literature everything was grist that came to my mill. I even have an affectionate recollection of two or three old-fashioned schoolbooks. The Historical Reader had a new interest for me after I had read Ivanhoe, and it was the selections from Milton and Shakespeare in Porter’s Rhetorical Reader that sent me to Paradise Lost and Hamlet. The brief extracts from the poets in Brown’s Grammar had for me an indefinable charm.
I was not particularly good in arithmetic, but algebra appealed powerfully to my understanding, and I had great pleasure in it. This I studied in school when I was fifteen and sixteen.
One of my sisters had a copy of Burritt’s Astronomy and Geography of the Heavens, which I studied by myself, tracing out the principal constellations visible in our latitude, and learning pretty thoroughly all that was then popularly taught concerning the stars and the solar system. This was welcome food to my reason and imagination.
I was not, however, so bookish a boy as this condensed and continuous account of my studies may seem to imply. They were for the most part done at odd spells, the summer’s farm work, the night and morning chores in winter, sports and social recreations occupying always the greater part of my time.
The weakness of the eyes I have mentioned was another hindrance. There was no trouble with the sight, and my mother used to say that they were as strong as any child’s until I had the measles, which left them irritable, and with a tendency to chronic inflammation. When I was twelve years old, I was sent to Dr. Munn, an oculist of some note, in Rochester, to have my eyes examined. He said there was nothing the matter with them but a slight congestion, which could be quickly remedied. I said that was what I had come for, and submitted to his treatment. He called an attendant to hold my head on the pad of the chair, and proceeded to pass a short curved lancet around each eyeball, between it and the lids, as coolly and with as little regard for my outcries as if he had been peeling onions. I was in his chair five minutes, and his fee was five dollars. As I had expected nothing more than a prescription, I had only a two-dollar note with me. He took the money from my pocketbook, which I blindly handed him, bound my handkerchief on my bleeding orbs, saying they would be all right in a day or two, and sent me home by the neighbor who had brought me, and who had witnessed the treatment, as much surprised at it as I was. I should n’t have regretted the pain, intense as it was, if any good had come of it; but it was weeks before my eyes fully recovered from that worse than useless operation. It may have done them no permanent harm, but it certainly did them no good. The irritability remained, always easily aggravated by over - use of the eyes, a cold, or much exposure to artificial light. And it has continued, a very serious inconvenience, through all my life, interfering with my literary labors, often causing me to shun society and evening entertainments, and so, unfortunately, tending to confirm in me a natural inclination toward retirement and reverie.
Although not the most useful lad on a farm, I liked certain kinds of farm work very well. Ploughing was my favorite employment. I drove the team with the lines passed over my back and under one arm, and at fifteen turned a furrow, my father said, as well as any man. In those lonely but pleasant hours in the field, with no companions but the kind, dumb, steady-going horses, I made a great many verses, which I retained in my memory and wrote down after the day’s work was done.
Tales and romances in rhyme, after the manner of Byron and Scott, I planned and partly composed in this way. It may be in consequence of the habit thus formed that few of the many verses I have written since have been composed with pen in hand. They have oftener come to me when I have been walking in the woods and fields, or by the water-side, or lying awake in the dark.
I was lying thus awake when I composed the first of my pieces that got into print. I was sixteen years old, and was attending the winter term of the district school. The teacher had announced to our class, in dismissing us at night, that compositions would be expected of us, and I thought it would be a novelty to write mine in rhyme. I did not decide on a subject until after I had gone to bed; then the Tomb of Napoleon occurred to me. Before I slept I had shaped five nine-line stanzas in the metre of Childe Harold, which I wrote out and revised the next day.
With the exception of an essay on the Disappearance of the North American Indians, full of wailing winds and moaning waters and other stock imagery befitting the subject, this was the most serious thing I had undertaken in the way of a school composition, and it was received with mingled incredulity and astonishment. One boy of my age loudly declared that I could never have written a line of it. I said, “You have a good reason for thinking so. ” “ What is that ? ” he eagerly asked. I replied, “Because you could n’t have written a line of it yourself to save your life! ”
It was much talked about in school and out; and, as much to my surprise as anybody’s, it soon appeared in the columns of our county newspaper, the Rochester Republican. I never knew whether it was my father or the schoolmaster who sent it to the printers, but the author’s initials were given, “J. T. T., of Ogden, ” with the extenuating phrase, “a lad of sixteen years,” which did much to destroy any satisfaction I might otherwise have felt on first seeing my rhymes in print. It was copied by a Chicago paper, accompanied by an editorial note comparing it with “the early productions of Prior, Pope, and Chatterton, ” and calling attention to it as “an indication of what might be expected of the author at a more mature age.” This was the first newspaper notice any lines of mine ever received, and it did n’t do any harm.
Up to this time I had never quite dared to think that anything I might write was worth publishing. If I had secret dreams of becoming an author, they were scarcely acknowledged even to myself. Shy and diffident, I did not show my most intimate friend, I did not reveal to one of my own family, the quires of foolscap I was spoiling with verses composed while following the plough. After the veil of my reserve had been lifted by that first publication, I began to send to the papers short poems occasionally, which appeared with my initials, but without the offensive reference to the writer’s tender years.
I did the usual farm-boy’s chores that winter, before and after school. I milked two or three cows, foddered the cattle and sheep, rode the horses to water, often chopping the ice out of the trough in cold weather, and shoveled paths through the drifts. I was naturally of a hopeful and cheerful disposition, and I remember that as a very pleasant winter.
But in the spring I fell into an unaccountable melancholy. There had been talk of my continuing my studies and preparing for college, but it seemed that nothing was to be done about it that season. The school was over; I thought I was accomplishing nothing; I was wasting my youth; I was in my seventeenth year! The idea of another summer spent in farm work filled me with despair.
I did not conceal my despondency; my folks called me sullen, and asked me what was the matter. The mere mention of my misery intensified it. I could not have told what ailed me; I nursed imaginary woes. I was reading Byron again, and fancied myself akin to that stormy, dissatisfied spirit.
There is no knowing how long this morbid state would have continued had not a real and overwhelming sorrow come to drive from my mind all unreal wrongs and causeless discontent. My father was stricken with an incurable and rapid disease, and died in May. This first intimate acquaintance with death and the anguish of separation seemed suddenly to end my boyhood, while the great calamity changed all our lives.
My mother was left with the small farm of fifty acres, her three boys and one unmarried daughter still at home. The will provided that my elder brother, then only nineteen, but an active and enterprising youth, fond of horses, cattle, and country life, should keep the homestead, while I should be free to stay or go, after I was seventeen.
This arrangement seemed the best that could be made. My brother was quite unselfish about it. Taking me aside a few days after the funeral, he said I could have the farm if I wished it, and if I thought I could care as well for it and for our mother’s interest in it as he could. He urged me to think it carefully over, assuring me that he would be satisfied either to remain or to go in my place. Now that the choice was left to me, leaving home became a more serious matter than it had appeared before, my future and his and our mother’s more or less depending upon my decision. If I remained I was sure of a living, and I could, no doubt, always command some leisure for my favorite pursuits. On the other hand, a feeling of loneliness and uncertainty all at once oppressed me at the prospect of going out into the world unguided, inexperienced, to make my dubious way. I consulted our mother, who said she would consent to whatever we desired; it would be equally hard to part with either of us, and perhaps I might, after a while, get to manage the farm as well as he could, and do as well by our younger brother. So it was still left to me; and I confess that I was half tempted to choose the immediate good and the more timid part, as I was to be more than once tempted to choose between the narrow certainty and the larger possibility, in the years to follow.
After two or three anxious days and nights, courage and resolution came. I said, “It was father’s plan; he knew best. You are cut out for a farmer; I am not.” I saw that he was relieved. “But remember,” he joined with our mother in saying, “this will always be your home whenever you wish to come back to it.”
I never went back to it, except for brief visits, after starting out to make my own way in the world; and before many years it passed from his and her hands, to become the possession of strangers. My brother married at twenty-one, a step of which she approved, although she felt that thenceforward the home for which she had toiled so long and made so many sacrifices was no longer her home, as it had been from the time when her own hands helped to carve it out of the wilderness. It had a new mistress, as was fitting; and where her own children had played, grandchildren soon toddled about the door. My brother was a good farmer, but he had a restless disposition. He grew tired of the farm, and wished to sell it. She consented even to this heartbreaking sacrifice. His new home was to be hers, and the homes of her married daughters would always be open to her, but there was no other spot in the world like that where her very life had so long struck its roots; and when these were uptorn, she felt that she was from that time forth a “sojourner in the land, ” as she used to say with Christian resignation.
My brother tried two or three kinds of business, and finally settled down as a market gardener in Lockport, where we already had a sister living. Our mother’s widowhood lasted thirty-eight years, — four years longer than the period of her entire married life. She died in Lockport in 1882, in her ninety-first year. Her constant prayer had long been that she might not outlive her usefulness, and that prayer seemed to have been granted. She retained all her faculties to an extraordinary degree, and was remarkably active until a fatal illness, occasioned by a fall which crippled her; but even in those last days she delighted to be doing bits of knitting or embroidery for some of her children or grandchildren, her perfect faith in a future life continuing to the close.
Whether her later years would have had fewer trials if I, instead of my brother, had remained and kept the homestead can never be known; but it was better for me that I should go.
Being seventeen in the September after my father’s death (1844), I went to live with a married sister in Lockport, for the purpose of attending a classical school there. Out of school I found an educated French-Canadian who gave me lessons in French pronunciation, and encouraged my visits to his family; this being my first practice in speaking the language. I did morning and evening chores to pay for my board, and gained an exceedingly small newspaper prize offered for a New Year’s Address, the first money I ever earned by my pen.
In the following summer I made a trip around the lakes to Illinois, where I lived one year, hunting grouse and deer in the autumn, teaching a small school in winter, raising a crop of wheat on land leased to me by my brother-in-law, doing other farm work, and, what was of far greater importance to me, pursuing all the while my studies, and reading everything I could lay my hands on. In the fall I returned to Lockport, N. Y., where I taught for one term a district school a little out of the village.
The Lockport winter term was the last of my experience as a school-teacher. At its close I went to Brockport, a village on the Erie Canal, where there was an academy, with the intention of entering it. I entered it for one day; or, more strictly speaking, for one hour. I saw the principal, whom I remember as a stocky man with a wooden leg, and talked with students who had been a year or two in attendance. When I learned how long they had been in traversing fields of study which I had passed, unassisted, in one half the time (more superficially, without doubt), how far in advance I was in Latin of the class I hoped to enter, and how far behind in Greek, and how little progress the routine of the term promised after all, I was dismayed at what, to my boyish conceit, appeared a treadmill process of education. The truth was, my desultory methods of study had rendered me impatient of what would have been, undoubtedly, a useful discipline. I had idealized the academy, which I had longed for and looked forward to so long, fancying it something entirely different from the Lockport classical school; and I found it a little more of the same sort, on a larger scale. With my habits of solitary application, I could do out of it all I could hope to do in it, and more in directions in which I wished to go.
Then there was the important economic consideration. From my farming and teaching I had saved barely enough money to take me through the term; and at its close I should have to go to work to earn more, either at farming or teaching. To neither of these occupations did I desire ever to return. I went out from the throng of students when the organization of classes had barely begun, and walked the streets of Brockport village in a deeply anxious frame of mind, until I had reached one of those momentous decisions which often mark a crisis in our lives. I would give up all thought of working my way through college, and face the world at once in search of fortune, if fortune there might be for one so ill prepared and of so uncertain aims.
I hastened to the pleasant village home where I had engaged board for the term, and found, to my relief, that the room would be in request by other applicants ; packed my trunk, and hurried with it on board the first packet boat for Spencer’s Basin; returned to the Ogden homestead for a brief visit, and to put into shape some poems and sketches, a few in print but more in manuscript, which I had not yet been wise enough to burn; then, on the tenth day of May, 1847, not yet twenty years of age, I started for New York.
J. T. Trowbridge.
(To be continued.)
- In attempting for the first time a connected story of my life, it has been necessary in a few instances to go over ground previously touched upon in two or three brief personal sketches written long since, and probably long since forgotten. Whatever in these had to be retold has been entirely reshaped and coördinated in the ampler narrative which follows in the present and succeeding numbers of this magazine.↩