II. FIRST EXPERIENCES AS A WRITER.
TRAVELING by packet boat on the Erie Canal, from Rochester, and by steamboat down the Hudson from Albany, I arrived at the pier in New York at daybreak on the morning of May 15 (1847).
And what a daybreak it was! The great river, the shipping, the mastfringed wharves, the misty morning light, the silent streets of the hardly yet awakening city, the vastness and strangeness and mystery of it all, kindled my enthusiasm and made me glad I had come. In all that mighty metropolis I knew not a single soul; I brought no message to any one, not a letter of introduction; I knew no more what was before me than if I had dropped upon Mars or the Moon; but what of that? Here was life, and I was young!
It was characteristic of my impressible and impulsive nature that I strolled about City Hall Park and down Broadway to the Battery, where I sat long on the benches, enjoying the novel scenes, the sails and steamboats, the dashing waves, the cool breeze from the water, then crossed by ferry to Brooklyn and back, before I thought of looking for a boarding-place. Then I found one on the shady side of Duane Street, quite near Broadway, and not very far from the steamboat wharf, where I had left my trunk. In country fashion I knocked at the door, and wondered why nobody came to let me in. I was so green I did not know a doorbell.
The door was opened by a smiling little doctor, who, I must do him the justice to say, continued to smile (perhaps he smiled all the more) when he learned that I had come for board and not for a prescription. He instructed me in the mysteries of the bell-pull, and a maid convoyed me upstairs to the landlady. It was a boarding-house “for gentlemen only, ” the “ gentlemen ” being for the most part dry goods clerks, and young men — elderly men, too, as I was soon to discover — out of business and seeking employment.
I had a room-mate at first, a companionable fellow, who began at once to enlighten me in the agreeable vices of city life, offering to “ take me everywhere.” He was so well dressed and so frankly friendly, and the allurements he described were, from his point of view, such matters of course for any one privileged to enjoy them, that I did not realize at all that my first city acquaintance was a dangerous one. Indeed, he was not dangerous to me. I listened to him with curiosity and perfect toleration, and took one or two walks with him; but soon withdrew from his society, simply because our tastes were not congenial, and I had aspirations to which his atmosphere was not the breath of life. I told our landlady that I must have a room by myself, or go elsewhere, — that I not only wished to write and study a good deal, but that the mere presence of a room-mate was irksome to me. She gave me a small room with one window, high up in the house, — the conventional garret, in short, — and I was happy.
What, after all, was the motive that had brought me to New York? That I had secret hopes of becoming an author is certainly true; but I had not confided them to my most intimate friend, I scarcely dared acknowledge them to myself; and I was not presumptuous enough to suppose that at the age of nineteen, ill equipped as I was for such a career, I could start in at once and earn a living by my pen. I carried with me my manuscripts and books, and habits of study and composition, in which I had satisfaction for their own sake, and which I fondly believed would reward me with happiness, if not fortune, in the near future; but in the meantime I flattered myself that I was looking for some business of a practical nature.
I answered an advertisement for a young man who wrote a good hand and knew something of accounts, and found a crowd of applicants at the place before me. I visited an employment office, which got my dollar on the false pretense of insuring me a good situation within a week, but rendered me not the slightest service. I had cherished, like so many country boys, romantic dreams of going to sea; I frequented the wharves, and observed the sailors, and was quickly cured of any desire to ship before the mast, but still fancied I would like to be a supercargo, or something of that sort; even a voyage or two as cabin boy might have its attractions. I had also heard of such a position as that of navy captain’s secretary, which I thought would be peculiarly desirable for a youth of some literary capacity wishing to see the world. One day, perceiving a man-of-war in port, and a fine-looking officer on the quarter-deck walking to and fro under an awning, I ventured on board, and accosted him, with all due respect, as I thought then, and as I still believe. I have quite forgotten what I was starting to say, but I remember well the curt command that cut me short: “ Take off your hat when you address a gentleman ! ” uttered without discontinuing his walk, or turning his face, which he carried high before him.
If he had hurled a binnacle at me, or a bow-anchor, or anything else naval and characteristic, I could not have been more astounded. Seeing that he wore his own cap (handsomely gold-laced, as I have him in my mind’s eye still), and we were in the open air but for the awning, I could not possibly discover how I had merited so brutal a rebuff. I stared at him a moment, stifling with astonishment and humiliation, and indignant enough to hurl back at him anything in his own line, a capstan or a forecastle — I was too angry to make a discriminating choice. Fortunately I had sense enough to reflect that he was in his own little kingdom, and that if I was not pleased with the manners of the country the sooner I took myself out of it the better. I turned my back on him abruptly and left the ship, choking down my wrath, but thinking intently (too late, as was my habit) of the killingly sarcastic retort I might have made. Thus was quenched in me the last flickering inclination for a seafaring life.
Meanwhile I went about the actual, unpractical business which, unconfessedly, I had most at heart. I offered a volume of verses — metrical tales chiefly, in a variety of styles, derived from Byron, Scott, and Burns, with here and there a reminiscence of Hudibras — to two or three publishers, all of whom but one declined even to look at them (perhaps looking at the author’s face was sufficient), telling me,kindly enough but firmly, that no book of poems unless written by a man of established reputation could possibly attract public attention. The one who did at last consent to examine my manuscripts returned them with even fewer words, no doubt thinking he had already wasted too many on a hopeless case.
“I must make a reputation before I can get anybody to print my volume, ” I said to myself; and I could see but one way of doing that. I selected some of the shorter pieces from my collection, and began offering them to the weekly papers, along with some prose sketches which I had brought from the country, or completed after my arrival. I did not find editors anxious to fill their columns with my poetry; and though my prose articles met with more favor, I was told even by those who expressed a willingness to print them that they did not pay for “such things.”
I was a shy youth, and it really required heroic effort on my part to make these calls on editors and publishers, and offer them my crude literary wares, which I was pretty sure to have handed back to me, perhaps with that cold silence so much more killing even than criticism to a young writer’s aspirations. How often in those days I stood panting at an editor’s door, waiting to still my heart-beats and gain breath and courage for the interview, then perhaps cravenly descending the stairs and putting off till another day the dreaded ordeal! I could never forget those bitter experiences, which I trust made me somewhat tender of the feelings of literary aspirants, when in later years it came my turn to exercise a little brief authority in an editorial chair.
Rebuffs from other sources made me peculiarly sensitive to the first kind words of encouragement that I remember receiving in those days. I suppose I was all the more grateful for them because they came from one of those whom it required most courage to meet. In my boyhood I was overawed by imposing reputations; and in 1847 Major Noah was one of the prominent men of New York. He had originated two or three daily papers, and was then editor and proprietor of the Sunday Times. To him, among others, I submitted a specimen of my verse. He looked up from his desk, in a small, littered room, where he was writing rapidly his weekly editorials for the Times, and told me dryly that it would be of no use for him to read my poem since he could not print it.
“It may be of use to me, if you will take the trouble to look at it, ” I said; “for I should like to have some person of experience tell me whether there is any chance of my earning money by my pen in this city of New York.”
“Anybody who wishes to do that must write prose and leave poetry alone,” he replied. Whereupon I told him I had at my boarding-place an unfinished story I would like to show him. “Finish it,” he said, “and bring it to me. I shall not probably be able to use it, but I may direct you to somebody who can. At all events, I will tell you what I think of it.”
From the moment when he spoke to me I was relieved entirely of the diffidence with which I had approached him. When I went to call on him again I felt that I was going to see a friend. Meanwhile I had finished my story — the most ambitious thing I had yet attempted — and sent it to him.
He offered me a stool beside his chair and laid out my manuscript on his desk.
“ Young man, ” said he, “ I think you have it in you.” I was speechless, shivering with joy. “This,” pushing my poem aside, “ is well enough; you may get to write very good verse by and by. But don’t write any more while you have to earn your living by your pen. Here is your stronghold, ” laying his large but delicate hand on my story. “I haven’t had time to read much of it, but I see that you have struck the right key, and that you have had the good sense not to make your style too dignified, but lively and entertaining. You have humor; you can tell a story; that’s a great deal in your favor.”
This is the substance of his kindly comment, which the novelty of the circumstance and the immense importance to me of the occasion impressed indelibly upon my mind. He then inquired if I had any other means of support.
“None whatever,” I replied, “unless I go back to farming or schoolteaching, which I don’t mean to do.”
“All the better,” he said; “necessity will teach you sobriety, industry, thrift. You will have to work hard; you will meet with a great deal of discouragement; but writing for the press is a perfectly legitimate profession, and if you devote yourself to it, there is no reason why you should n’t succeed.”
I do not know that ever in my life any words had made me so happy as these. In subsequent days of struggle, when more than once I was on the point of flinging down my pen, I sometimes wondered whether they were wise for him to speak or good for me to hear. But now that more than half a century has passed, and I can look back upon my early life almost as dispassionately as if it were that of another person, I can thank him again for the first authentic judgment ever pronounced upon my literary possibilities.
“ Come with me, ” he said, putting on his hat; and we went out together, I with my roll of manuscript, he with his stout cane. Even if I had been unaware of the fact, I should very soon have discovered that I was in company with an important personage. Everybody observed him, and it seemed as if every third or fourth man we met gave him a respectful salute. He continued his friendly talk with me in a way that relieved me of all sense of my own insignificance in the shadow of his celebrity and august proportions. Looking back upon myself now, through the glass of memory, I behold a very different figure from that which retired so precipitately from the unmannerly officer’s quarterdeck hardly two weeks before. One is a confident youth, stepping hopefully beside his noble guide and friend; the other, an abashed and verdant boy. There seem to be two of me on those curiously contrasted occasions.
The Major took me to the office of a publisher in Ann Street, who did not chance to be in. He left my manuscript, with a good word for it, and a promise to call with me again. Twice afterwards he took me to Ann Street, with no better success. Such disinterested kindness, on the part of an old and eminent and fully occupied man, to a strange lad from the country warms my heart again with reverence and gratitude as I think of it at this distant day.
At last he gave me a letter of introduction to Mr. Williams, the Ann Street publisher, and advised me to find him when I could. I did at last find him, with a smile on his face and my own manuscript in his hand, reading it with manifest amusement, when I handed him Noah’s letter. It was a story, as I recollect, in some ten chapters, in which I had made an attempt to portray Western scenes and characters as I had observed them during my year in Illinois. After some talk about it, he asked me what price I expected to receive for it. I replied that I had not put any price upon it. “Major Noah, ” I said, “advised me to leave that to you.” But as he urged me to name a “figure,” I said I had hoped it might be worth to him about a hundred and twenty-five dollars.
“Hardly that, ” he said,with a smile. “ We have never paid so much for any writer’s first story.”
“Oh, well,” I replied, “name your own price.”
He named twenty-five dollars. That seems a ludicrous falling away from my figure, but I did not regard it as at all ludicrous at the time. Twenty-five dollars, as the first substantial earnings of my pen, was after all a goodly sum, for one in my circumstances, and vastly better than the return of my manuscript into my hands. That a production of my pen could be deemed to have any money value was a consideration that carried with it present satisfaction and hope in the future. I gladly accepted his offer, and saw him lay my story away on a shelf beside a number of others awaiting each its turn at the newspaper mill of novelettes attached to the publishing shop.
Soon after that Major Noah took me to the office of Mr. Holden, publisher of Holden’s Dollar Magazine, so called because it was sent to subscribers for one dollar a year, although, as I found, it earned a still further claim to the title by paying its writers one dollar a page. An introduction by Major Noah insured me polite attention from Mr. Holden, who read promptly the story I offered him (a sort of backwoods adventure), accepted it, and printed it in his forthcoming number. These were the first contributions of mine ever accepted by “paying” publications. The Holden story was quite short; it made only five or six pages, and I remember having to wait for my five or six dollars until it appeared between the covers of the magazine. It was copied into Howitt’s People’s Journal, of London, and reprinted in many papers in this country, and was the cause of my indulging illusory dreams of a brilliantly dawning reputation.
After getting a second story accepted by Holden’s, and one by another periodical of some literary pretensions, of which I have forgotten even the name, I determined to devote myself solely to writing for magazines and newspapers. I have now to tell how, after I had given up all thought of seeking other employment, other employment sought me.
Among the Duane Street boarders was an Englishman of somewhat distinguished appearance, Dr. Child, with whom I soon became quite intimately acquainted, although he was my senior by about fifteen years. Perhaps we were all the more interested in each other because of the contrast in our early lives ; he had been confessedly a prodigal, and he told me of the opportunities he had wasted, while I confided to him mine, which I had shaped for myself against adverse circumstances. His father had been a successful oculist in a provincial English town, in whose office he had had experience as an assistant, and upon whose death he had essayed to succeed him in his practice. Failing in that, and in several other ventures, he had come to this country with an eye-water which he hoped to transmute into a Pactolian stream. He had been some time in New York, looking for a partner in his enterprise, — the doctor to furnish the formula, as an offset to the ten or twenty thousand dollars necessary for the manufacture and advertising.
He had a professional habit of scrutinizing people’s optics, and perceiving signs of the chronic irritation in mine, he presented me with a bottle of Child’s Magical Remedy (or Radical Remedy; I have forgotten just what he called it, but one name is as good as another), which he guaranteed would cure them in ten days. This was the beginning of our friendship, which would have continued till this time if it had lasted as long as the ailment has that he proposed to relieve.
I had known him barely a month when he one day drew me aside to ask if I had a little money I could spare. “Not for making eye-water, ” I replied jokingly; but he was profoundly serious. He went on to say that he had left a wife in England, that she had followed him to America (rather against his wishes, I inferred), and was then staying with a relative in Hoboken. He was planning to set up housekeeping with her, and had selected a small tenement suitable for their purpose in Jersey City. But the furniture was all to be bought, and he was out of money. The Hoboken relative (an engraver of gold watch-cases and watch-dials) would help him a little; but he needed about forty dollars more; and could I accommodate him to that amount ?
“I have as much,” I said (I had just got my twenty-five dollars from the Ann Street shop), “but I shall probably need it to pay my board before I get more. ”
“Advance me forty dollars,” he replied, “and come and live with us and board it out;” arguing that a quiet home, like the one offered me, would be much pleasanter, and better for my literary work, than the Duane Street boarding-house.
I was easily persuaded, and handed over to him nearly all the money I had, rather rashly, as it seems to me now; but although, in his rôle of oculist and self-styled “doctor,” I considered him a charlatan, I trusted him as a friend. The house was furnished, and I went to live with the reunited pair, in very modest quarters, in Jersey City. There I passed the rest of that summer quite comfortably, taking long rambles on the Jersey side, a salt water bath every morning on a tide-washed beach of the great river, and frequent ferry trips to New York. I had a good room to write in, with which indispensable convenience I felt I could be happy almost anywhere.
In the shop of the Hoboken relative the doctor had learned to do a little ornamental work with the graver, chiefly on gold pencil-cases; and some time in the autumn he set up a little shop of his own, in the back room at home. I used to sit by his table, watching him; and one day, borrowing a graver and a strip of zinc, amused myself with them while we talked. After a little practice I could cut his simple rose-petals and little branching scrolls as well as he could, and soon found myself working on the pencil-cases. Gold pencils were the fashion in those days, and as Christmas was approaching, he had more work than he could do without assistance. On the other hand, the periodicals I was writing for had accepted as many of my articles as they could use for some time to come, and, as I generally had to wait for my pay until the day of publication, I was in need of money, and glad of a chance to earn it. So, when he proposed to take me into partnership I accepted the offer, bought a set of gravers, and settled down to the work, which was quite to my taste, and which, almost from the start, I could turn off as rapidly as he. It required something of a knack to make with a free hand the clean, graceful strokes, of varying width and depth, taking care never to cut through the thin material.
Those were pleasant hours for me, in the small back room. The doctor was excellent company. He had done a good deal of miscellaneous reading, and seen a life as widely different from mine as his provincial England was distant from my own native backwoods and Western prairies; and (if his wife chanced to be out of earshot) he delighted to impart to me his varied experiences. Some of these were not, from a moralistic point of view, particularly to his credit, but I was an eager student of life, and nothing human was foreign to my interest.
His eye-water having failed to float his fortunes, it is difficult to conjecture what would have become of the Jersey City housekeeping, and of me and my forty dollars, but for this industry, to which he was introduced by the Hoboken relative. I boarded out his debt to me, according to our agreement; and through the connection thus formed I was by the middle of December earning two or three dollars a day at the trade picked up thus by accident.
After Christmas, work was less plenty, and occasionally there was none at all. We now experienced the disadvantage of not having acquired the handicraft by a more thorough apprenticeship. The New York factory, pleased with our pencil - cases, proposed to me to take silver combs to engrave ; and I remember how reluctant I was to admit that I had learned to do pencil-cases only. The surface of the high silver comb (such as ladies wore in those days) called for a breadth of treatment quite beyond my experience. The foreman thought I could do it, and, after my frank confession, I was willing to make the trial. I took home one of the combs and carved on it a design that must have astonished him by its bold originality. I recall the peculiar smile with which he held it up and regarded it. I can also still imagine the galaxy of bright faces that would have been turned toward any lady venturing to bear that cynosure aloft on her back hair in any civilized assembly. It would have been just the thing for the Queen of Dahomey, or a belle of the Cannibal Islands. But the factory was not making combs for those markets. Blushing very red, I remarked, “I told you I could n’t do it. ”
The foreman replied, “I guess you told the truth for once! ”
We had a good laugh over it, which he probably enjoyed more than I did. I knew as well as he how grotesquely bad it was, and was surprised when he added, —
“ For a first attempt you might have done worse. You need practice and instruction.” He then proposed that I should come and work in the shop, assuring me that I should be earning a good living in the course of a few weeks. He knew my friend’s Hoboken relative, who was easily earning his seven or eight dollars a day by cutting miniature setters and pheasants, nests with eggs, and tufts of grass, on gold watch-dials, and thought I could do as well in time. The proposal was alluring, and it required courage to decline it. But I had chosen my calling, and could not think seriously of another.
Soon after that, the supply of pencilcases ran so low that there was not work enough even for one ; so I withdrew from the partnership and returned to my writing, — which, indeed, I had never quite abandoned. I passed the winter pleasantly and contentedly enough. But one such winter sufficed. Then in spring the young man’s fancy lightly turned to a change of boarding-place.
One forenoon, as I was strolling on Broadway, not far above City Hall Park, I saw in a doorway the notice, “Furnished Room to let.” There were similar notices displayed all over the city, and I must have passed several that morning; but at that door, up a flight of steps (there was a wine store in the basement), something impelled me to ring, — my good genius if I have one. It proved to be the one domicile in which, if I had thought of it beforehand, I should have deemed it especially fortunate to be received. If I had sought it I should probably never have found it; and I had come upon it by what appeared the merest chance.
A French maid admitted me, and a vivacious Frenchman, who spoke hardly a word of English, showed me the room, and introduced me to his wife, a stout, red-faced woman, as voluble and friendly, and as delightfully ignorant of English, as himself. They seemed as happy at the prospect of having a lodger who could speak their language a little as I was pleased to enter a family in which only French was spoken. They took no boarders, and the room alone — a good-sized one, up three flights, with an outlook on Broadway cost two thirds as much as I had paid for board and lodgings together in Duane Street and Jersey City, — far too much for my precarious income ; but I could not let pass such an opportunity for acquiring a colloquial familiarity with the language I had as yet had but little practice in speaking. As I was to get my meals outside, I thought I could, when necessary, scrimp enough in that direction to offset the higher room rent.
I hastened back to Jersey City, packed my books and baggage, and took leave of the friends in whose home I had been an inmate for about nine months. I was a home-loving youth, and it was always painful for me to sever such ties, even after they had become a little irksome; but in this instance any regrets I may have felt were lessened by the immediate certainty of a desirable change. I was like a plant that had outgrown its environment, and exhausted the soil which had for a season sufficed for its nourishment; and the very roots of my being rejoiced in the prospect of transplantation.
I saw little of the Childs after the separation, and soon lost track of them altogether. I often wondered what had become of the doctor, with his eyewater, and his pencil-case engraving, so incompatible with his English dignity, and of domestic little Mrs. Child, with her dropped h’s, — into what haven they could have drifted, out of the fierce currents of our American life, which they seemed so incompetent to cope with, — but I never knew, until, some five and twenty years afterwards, a tall, elderly gentleman, with grizzled locks, and of rather distinguished appearance, sought me out, in Arlington. It was my old friend the doctor. He had come to make me a friendly visit; but it seemed that it was, after all, partly woman’s curiosity that had sent him; Mrs. Child having charged him not to pass through Boston, where he had business, without learning for a certainty if J. T. Trowbridge, the writer, and so forth, was the person of the same name who, when little more than a boy, had engraved pencil-cases and sat up late nights over his books and manuscripts in the Jersey City cottage. I was gratified to learn that they had found a port of peace, into which Providence itself seemed to have guided their bark, after many vicissitudes of storm and calm. They had at last found their proper place in an Old People’s Home, or some such institution, in Baltimore, not as dependent inmates, I was glad to know, but as superintendent and matron. I could hardly imagine a more ideal position for him with his affable manners and mild dignity, and for her with her strict domestic economy, — not too strict, I trust, for the inmates under their charge. Another quarter of a century, and more, has swept by since the doctor’s visit, and the two must long since have fallen in with the procession of those who have entered that Home, from the world of struggle and failure, and, after a sojourn more or less brief in its tranquil retreat, passed on into the shadow of the Greater Peace.
My Broadway landlord was M. Perrault, one of the best known members of the French colony in New York; an accomplished violinist, and leader of the orchestra at Niblo’s Garden. The family was as characteristically French and Parisian as the Jersey City household had been English and provincial. Although only a lodger, I was welcomed at once to the small salon, and made to feel so much at home in it, that from the first I spent much of my leisure time with the Perraults and their friends who frequented the house. The very first Sunday after my arrival I was invited to dinner, and made acquainted with French cookery, and that indispensable attendant upon it and promoter of good cheer, Bordeaux wine. There were only four at table, the two Perraults, their son Raphael, a boy of nine, and myself, the only guest. But it was a dinner of courses, —not very expensive, I judge, and certainly neither lavish nor ostentatious ; every dish simple, individual, and prepared in ways that were at once as novel to me as they were agreeable. Perrault was himself an amateur cook, of a skill that might have qualified him as a chef, if he had not been making a good income more satisfactorily by conducting Niblo’s orchestra, teaching the violin, and copying scores. He was the inventor of a sauce Perrault, which, Madame boasted, was popular among their New York compatriots, and even had some vogue in Paris. Every few days after that, memorably on Sundays, he would come to my room and smilingly announce that he had given the finishing touches to the dinner, and had come to take me down with him, perhaps adding gentle force to urgent persuasion. If I remonstrated, “Not so soon again; you are altogether too kind! ” he would assure me that my dining with them was considered by both him and Madame as a favor, and she especially would be désolée if I declined. Nor could I believe him in any way hypocritical; there could be no motive for their proffered hospitality but the satisfaction there was in it for them and for their guest. They were kind-hearted, fond of society, and ardent in friendship, and if their Gallic cordiality was sometimes effusive rather than deep, it was not insincere.
I had been with them but a short time when another opportunity was opened to me, — golden, glorious, to an impecunious youth! Might Perrault have the pleasure of taking me to the theatre? When Niblo’s was n’t crowded he could at any time smuggle in a friend. Of course I was enchanted to accept; and well I remember the awesome mystery of the dim stage entrance, — his violin preceding him, as we passed the obliging doorkeeper, and I following, fast held by his other hand; — then the tortuous way behind the scenes and under the stage, to a seat in the front row, near the orchestra (there were no orchestra stalls in those days). The house was filling rapidly; the musicians took their places ; quiet succeeded the rustle of music leaves and the tuning of instruments, and suddenly, in an instant, what there was of me was converted into a bundle of thrills from head to foot, my joy in the music quickened by the novelty of the situation and the pride I felt in Perrault’s leadership.
The performance that followed was not by any means my first play; but I had never before seen a great actor in a great part. The piece was Merry Wives of Windsor, and from that coigne of vantage, an end seat in the front row, I for the first time beheld Hackett as Falstaff, to my mind then, and as I remember it still, an amazing personation of the greatest comic character on the stage. Other good acting I witnessed that season at Niblo’s, under Perrault’s auspices, but everything else fades in the effulgence of Falstaff, and the rainbow hues of a troupe of ballet girls that came later. Could it have been any such troupe of frilled and lithe - limbed nymphs that Carlyle saw on a London stage, and scornfully described as “mad, restlessly jumping and clipping scissors ” ? — those leaping and pirouetting, curving and undulating shapes, miraculous, glorified, weaving their dance, every movement timed to the strains of the orchestra, a living web of beauty and music! For such indeed they were — not jumping scissors, in whirling inverted saucers ! — to my dewy adolescence.
Among the advantages enjoyed in my new lodging, I must not omit a large miscellaneous collection, mostly in paper covers, of the works of French authors. It was not lacking in the earlier classics, but it was especially rich in the productions of contemporary writers, novelists, dramatists, poets, then at the zenith of their celebrity, or nearing it, — Sue, Balzac, Victor Hugo, George Sand and her confrère, Jules Sandeau, Lamartine, Dumas, Scribe, Soulié, and a long list beside. These I read indiscriminately and with avidity, in days of discouragement and forced leisure, while waiting for my accepted articles to appear, or for others to be accepted by the periodicals I was writing for. My solitude was peopled and my loneliness soothed by a world of fictitious characters in Monte - Cristo and Les Trois Mousquetaires (I wish I could read them now, or anything else, with such zest!), Le Juif Errant (I had my own choice copy of Les Mystères de Paris), Hugo’s Le Dernier Jour d’un Condamné, George Sand’s Indiana, and, among others not least, Scribe’s Pequillo Alliaga, a romance of adventure, eclipsed by the number and popularity of the author’s dramas, but worthy, I then thought (I wonder what I should think now), to take rank with Gil Blas. Perrault was a scoffer at superstition and prudery (I shrink from saying religion and virtue, which might perhaps be nearer exactitude), and he did not mind the risk of corrupting my youth by putting into my hands Voltaire’s La Pucelle and Parny’s La Guerre des Dieux. But the risk was not great. Something instinctive afforded me a ducklike immunity in passing through puddles.
It might have been possible for me to live by writing stories at one dollar a page or two dollars and a half a chapter, if I could have got them published after they were accepted or paid for when published. To widen my field and secure, as I hoped, better compensation, I sent an essay to the Knickerbocker, then the foremost literary periodical in the country. It quickly appeared in those elegant pages, to which Irving and his compeers had given character; and full of confidence in this new vehicle for my productions, I went one morning to call on the polite editor. He received me cordially, appeared somewhat surprised at my youth, and assured me that the covers of his magazine would always be elastic enough to make room for such papers as that which I had given him. “Given ” him, I found it was in a quite literal sense, for when I hinted at the subject of compensation, he smilingly informed me that it was not his custom to pay for the contributions of new writers. As he had rushed my essay into print without notifying me of its acceptance, or consulting me as to the signature I wished to have attached to it, and as I had purposely withheld the pseudonym under which I was writing for less literary periodicals, and had not yet begun to write under my own name, he had published it anonymously, so that I did not even have the credit of being a contributor to Knickerbocker. I was then using chiefly the pseudonym of Paul Creyton, which I kept for some years for two reasons, — first, because I was well aware of my work being only that of a ’prentice hand, and wished to reserve my own name for more mature compositions; and, second, as Paul Creyton grew in popularity, I found an ever increasing advantage in retaining so good an introduction to editors and readers. If I had put off using my own name until I was conscious of doing my best work, I might never have used it; so that, as it seems to me now, I might as well have begun using it from the first, — or, rather, a modified form of it, writing it Townsend Trowbridge, omitting the J. or John for greater distinctiveness, and to avoid confusion of identity with any other Trowbridge.
I can hardly remember now what periodicals I wrote for, or what I wrote ; but one story I recall, which I should probably have forgotten with the rest, if it had not come to light again, like a lost river, a few years later. It was a novelette in three or four installments, that was accepted by the Manhattan Flashlight (although that was not the name of the paper) with such unexampled promptitude, and in a letter so polite, complimentary, and full of golden promise, that once more the tide in my affairs seemed at the flood. Or nearly so: each installment was to be liberally paid for when published, and the first would be put into the printers’ hands immediately upon my acceptance of the editorial terms. Accept them I did with joyful celerity; then, having waited two or three weeks, I called at the publication office, only to find the door locked, and the appalling notice staring me in the face, “To Let— Inquire Room Below.” At “room below” I inquired with a sick heart: “ What has become of the Flashlight? ” and was told that it had “gone out.” The proprietor had decamped, leaving behind him nothing but debts ; and I could neither come upon his trail, nor recover my manuscript.
Two or three years afterward a Boston editor asked me how it chanced that I was writing a continued story for a certain New York weekly paper of a somewhat questionable character; a paper I had never heard of before. It was my lost river reappearing in the most unexpected of desert places. I wrote to the publisher for explanations, and after a long and harassing delay was informed that he had received my manuscript with the assets of some business he had bought out (not the Flashlight), that I must look to his predecessor for redress, and that he would be pleased to receive from me another story as good! He must have been lacking in a sense of humor, or he would have added “on the same terms.” Redress from any source was of course out of the question.
About this time, in Boston, I knew of a similar adventure befalling a story by an author of world-wide reputation. After the publication of the Scarlet Letter had made “ the obscurest man of letters in America ” one of the most famous, the gloomy but powerfully impressive story of Ethan Brand, which was written several years before, and had lain neglected in the desks of unappreciative editors, appeared as “original ” in the columns of the Boston Literary Museum. Knowing the editor, I hastened to inquire of him how he had been able to get a contribution from Hawthorne. Complacently puffing his cigar, he told me it had come to him from some other office, where it had been “knocking around,” that he did n’t suppose it had ever been paid for, and that he had printed it without consulting the author. He rather expected to hear from him, but he never did; and it is quite probable that Hawthorne never knew of the illicit publication. He must have kept a copy of the strayed Ethan Brand, which not long after appeared in authorized form elsewhere.
Among the few friends who used to climb to my third-story room on Broadway was old Major Noah, whom I can remember flushed and puffing like another Falstaff, as he sank into a chair after ascending those steep flights. He would stop on his way down town, to give me a kindly greeting, and to inquire about my prospects ; he also gave me a little work to do in the way of translation from the French. He once brought me a volume of Paris sketches, from which, not reading the language himself, he desired me to select and translate for him such as I deemed best suited to the latitude of New York.
The surprising similarity of the life of the two cities was exemplified by the fact that the translations I made were printed with but few changes in the columns of the Sunday Times, and served quite as well for New York as for Paris. I quickly caught the trick of adaptation, and soon had the pleasure of seeing these social satires appear in the Major’s paper (anonymously, of course), with many local touches I had given them before they passed under his experienced pen.
Another good friend I had was Archibald McLees, an expert line and letter engraver, and a man of very decided literary tastes. I found his shop a delightful lounging-place; seated on a high stool, with his steel plate before him, in white light, he would talk with me of Dickens and Scott, Béranger and Molière, turning now and then from his work, with an expressive look over his shoulder, to give point to some story, or a quotation from Sam Weller. We dined together at the restaurants, took excursions together (he knew the city like a native), and once went together to sit for our phrenological charts in the office of the Fowlers. The younger Fowler made a few hits, in manipulating our craniums; but on coming away, we concluded that, except for the names written on our respective charts, it would have been difficult to distinguish one from the other. McLees had as much literary ability as I, according to the scale of numbers; while I seemed fully his equal in artistic taste and mechanic skill. As the object I had chiefly in view, in consulting a phrenologist, was to get some outward evidence of my aptitude for the career I had chosen, the result was disappointing. Fowler’s first words, in placing his hand on my forehead, — “This brain is always thinking — thinking — thinking! ” — led me to expect a striking delineation ; but I afterwards reflected that, like other remarks that followed, they would have applied equally well to any number of heads that passed under his observation. He made a correct map of the country, yet quite failed to penetrate the life of the region, or to take into account the electric and skyey influences which, quite as much as the topographical conformation, causes each to differ from any other. About this time I went with a young man of my acquaintance to attend one of Fowler’s lectures. My friend was a rather commonplace fellow, but he had a massive frontal development, and Fowler, who singled him out from among the audience and called him to the platform for a public examination, gave him a Websterian intellect. Websterian faculties he may have had, yet he somehow lacked the spirit needful to give them force and character. The mill was too big for the water power.
I carried out heroically enough my plan of retrenching in other ways to offset, when necessary, my increased room rent. This necessity came not very long after my installment at Perrault’s. I stopped buying books, but that was no great sacrifice as long as I had access to shelves crowded with the most attractive French authors; and an evening now and then at Niblo’s made it easy for me to forego other places of amusement. Then I could enjoy a band concert any fine summer evening sitting at my open window.
To keep myself comfortable and presentable in the matter of dress was always my habit; I bought nothing on credit (probably I couldn’t have done otherwise if I had tried); and I should have felt dishonored if ever my laundress delivered her bundle and went away unpaid. So that there remained only one direction in which my expenditures could be much curtailed.
I had begun with three meals a day at the restaurants, which I soon reduced to two, then a few weeks later to one, and finally on a few occasions to none at all. I did n’t starve in the meanwhile; on the contrary I lived well enough to keep myself in the condition of perfect (although never very robust) health, which I enjoyed at all seasons, and at whatever occupation, through all my early years. Hungry I may have been at times, but no more so, probably, than was good for me, and never for long. When I couldn’t afford a meal at the restaurants I would smuggle a sixpenny loaf up my three flights and into my room (I was ashamed of this forced economy), with perhaps a little fruit or a wedge of cheese. This I might have found hard fare, and unsatisfactory, had it not been sauced with something that made up for the lack of luxuries; a pure and wholesome light wine, vin ordinaire, which through Perrault I could get in the store downstairs at the importer’s price of a shilling a bottle (twelve and a half cents). With a glass of this I could always make a palatable meal off my loaf and fruit; the worst feature being the solitariness of it, and the absence of that which renders a frugal repast better than a banquet without it, friendly converse at table. In this respect the restaurant was not much better, except when I had a companion at dinner, which was n’t always convenient; so that I soon became weary enough of this unsocial way of living. Sometimes I hardly knew where the next loaf was coming from; but then I would get pay for an article in time to keep me from actual want and out of debt; or I would raise money in another way that I shrink from mentioning, not from any feeling of false pride, at this distant day, but on account of the associations the memory of it calls up.
When necessity pressed, I would take from my modest collection the volumes I could best spare, and dispose of them at a second-hand bookstore for about one quarter what they had cost me, yet generally enough for the day’s need. One night I even passed under the illomened sign, that triple emblem of avarice, want, and woe, the pawnbroker’s three balls; an occasion rendered memorable to me by a painful circumstance. I parted with a flute that I had paid two dollars and a half for when I had a boyish ambition to become a player, and which I was glad to pledge for the cost of a dinner when I had given up the practice and didn’t expect ever to resume it. The money-lender’s cage had two wickets opening into the narrow entry-way; while I paused at one of these, the slight, shrinking figure of a woman all in black came to the other, and pushed in, over the worn and greasy counter, a bundle which the ogre behind the bars shook out into a gown of some dark stuff, glanced at disapprovingly, refolded, and passed back to her with a sad shake of the head. She had probably named a sum that did not appeal to his sense of what was businesslike; and she now said something else in a choked voice, in reply to which he once more took in the garment, and gave her in return a ticket, with a small coin. A wing of the little stall where she stood had concealed her face from me while she was transacting her sorrowful business, but I had a full look at it as she went out, and so pinched with penury and wrung with distress did it appear, that a horribly miserable and remorseful feeling clutched at my vitals, as if I were somehow implicated in her calamity, and ought to put into her hand the two or three shillings (whatever the sum may have been) that I had received for the flute. I should have been happier if I had done so. I was young, stout-hearted, patient with ill fortune, if not quite defiant of it, and sustained by the certainty that my need was as temporary as it was trivial; while hers, as I fancied, was a long-drawn desolation that only death could end. Her image haunted me, and for many days and nights I could never pass a pawnbroker’s sign without feeling that clutch at my heart.
The band concert I have spoken of should also be enumerated among the advantages of my Perrault lodging. Opposite my room, but a block or two farther down Broadway, was the Café des Mille Colonnes, a brilliant house of entertainment, with a balcony on which an orchestra used to play, on summer evenings, the popular airs of the period, to which I listened many a lonely hour, sitting by the window of my unlighted chamber, “ thinking — thinking — thinking! ” The throngs of pedestrians mingled below, moving (marvelous to conceive) each to his or her “separate business and desire; ” the omnibuses and carriages rumbled and rattled past; while, over all, those strains of sonorous brass built their bridge of music, from the high café balcony to my still higher window ledge, spanning joy and woe, sin and sorrow, past and future, all the mysteries of the dark river of life. Night after night were played the same pieces, which became so interwoven with the thoughts of my solitary hours, with all my hopes and doubts, longings and aspirations, that for years afterward I could never hear one of those mellow, martial, or pensive strains without being immediately transported back to my garret and my crust.
I wonder a little now at the courage I kept up, a waif (as I seemed often to myself) in the great, strange city, a mere atom in all that multitudinous human existence. I do not remember that, even at the lowest ebb of my fortunes, I ever once lost faith in myself, or a certain philosophical cheerfulness that enabled me then, as it has always since, to bear uncomplainingly my share of rebuffs and discouragements ; I never once succumbed to homesickness or thought of returning to my furrows. I have only grateful recollections of those times of trial, which no doubt had their use in tempering my too shy and sensitive nature, and in deepening my inward resources.
This way of living could not have continued long before it was relieved by a change as welcome as it was unexpected. Although I managed somehow to pay my room rent when due, the Perraults must have suspected my impecuniosity, for their invitations became more and more frequent, until I found myself dining with them three or four times a week. If this hospitality had meant only social enjoyment and a solace to my solitude, it would have been pure satisfaction; but it had for me, moreover, a money-saving significance that touched my self-respect. So I remarked one day, as I took my customary seat at their table, that I couldn’t keep on dining with them so often unless they would consent to take me as a boarder. Before this they had declared that they would not receive a boarder for any consideration ; I had now, however, come to be regarded as one of the family, and they readily acceded to my proposal. One of the family I then indeed became, and as intimate a part of their French ménage as I had been of the English household in Jersey City.
It was a rather rash arrangement on my part, for the terms agreed upon, though moderate enough in view of the more generous way of living, made my weekly expenses nearly double what they had been at Dr. Child’s or in Duane Street, and this at a time when I had only a vague notion as to how I was to meet them. That my horror of debt should have permitted me to rush into this indiscretion is something I can hardly explain. Circumstance led me a better way than prudence would have approved; I obeyed one of those impulses that seem often to be in the private counsels of Providence, and are wiser than wisdom. I had had enough of the restaurants, and bread eaten in secret had ceased to be pleasant. I felt no compunctions in exchanging those useful experiences for French café au lait and French cookery, a more regular home life, and daily good cheer.
I became more at ease in my mind as to money obligations ; and from that time I do not remember to have had much difficulty in meeting them. The Perraults trusted me implicitly, and were always willing to await my convenience when my weekly reckonings fell in arrears. Perrault overflowed with good-fellowship, and with a vivacity akin to wit; and Madame had but one serious fault, — that which accounted for her too rubicund complexion. Quite too often, after the midday lunch, poor little Raphael was sent downstairs with her empty bottle, to be filled at the wineshop below with something more ardent than Bordeaux or Burgundy. I was fain to go out when I saw the cognac come in, to take its place beside snuff-box and tumbler, on her sitting-room table; but would sometimes be persuaded to sit with her while she sipped and talked, and took snuff and grew drowsy, and then perhaps in the midst of a sentence dropped asleep in her chair, to awaken not seldom in an ill temper that vented itself on poor little Raphael if he chanced to be near. At other times she would be as indulgently good to him as became a mother; and me she always treated with the utmost courtesy and kindness. I never had a word of disagreement with her save on a single topic; in the discussion of which she herself unconsciously presented a living argument on my side, — an argument, however, that I could not with propriety adduce. I would never unite with her in lowering the contents of the bottle.
Meanwhile I was enjoying increased facilities for acquiring a colloquial familiarity with the French language. When I entered the house I could read and translate it readily enough, and I had gained a good accent from my French-Canadian teacher in Lockport; but I spoke it stiffly and bookishly, and it was difficult for me to follow a rapid and careless enunciation. In a company of French-speaking people I would lose a large part of the conversation that was not addressed directly to me. But I was passing happily through that transitional stage, and getting a practical use of the language that was to be of inestimable value to me all my life. I may add here my belief that in no other language is the disadvantage so great of having first learned it by the eye only, and not by the ear; often in such a case the ear never quite catches up with the eye in understanding it.
I was so well satisfied with my later domestic arrangements that I rested in the comfortable feeling that they would continue indefinitely. But they were to be suddenly interrupted.
I had been with the Perraults only about five months as a lodger, and the latter half of that time as a boarder, when another of those circumstances that override our plans took me away from them and from the city. In August of that year, 1848, — fifteen months after landing on the pier, early that May morning, from the North River boat, — by the advice of a literary acquaintance I made a trip to Boston, chiefly for the purpose of securing new vehicles for my tales and sketches, in the periodical press outside of New York. My cheery “Au revoir!” to my French host and hostess proved to be a final farewell. I found the latitude of Boston so hospitable to those light literary ventures that I prolonged my stay, and what was at first intended as a visit became a permanent residence.
Thus ended, before I was yet twentyone, the New York episode of my youth. I had not accomplished what I secretly hoped to do, I had passed through trials and humiliations, and tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But I had come out of the ordeal with courage and purpose undiminished, a heart unscathed by temptation and unembittered by disappointment. My first stumbling steps were no doubt better for my discipline and right progress than the leap I vaguely aspired to make at the outset. It is well that we cannot always bend the world to our will; and I long since learned to be thankful that no publisher was found undiscerning enough to print my first thin volume of very thin verse.
J. T. Trowbridge.