III. EARLY YEARS IN BOSTON.
“ TAKE me to a good boarding-place, ” I said to the cabman who picked me up on my arrival in Boston that morning in August, 1848; and he set me down at No. 33 Brattle Street, in an ancient, unattractive quarter of the city. Indeed, all that part of Boston through which our wheels rattled over the rough cobble-stone pavements impressed me as unattractive, if not ancient; and I couldn’t help comparing the narrow, crooked streets, into the midst of which I was whirled and dropped, with Broadway, which my windows had looked out on for the last five months, and to which I had grown strongly attached.
“Never mind,” I said to myself consolingly; “I shall stay here only a couple of weeks.”
No. 33 was near the lower end of the street, three or four doors from the Quincy House, which popular hostelry has long since taken in that and other adjoining brick buildings in its successive extensions. Just beyond that was the old Brattle Street Church, which had quartered a British regiment during the siege of Boston, and still showed conspicuously, embedded in the masonry over the door, the twenty-four pound iron ball, from a rebel cannon at Cambridge, that struck the brick front the night before the evacuation.
The boarding-house was kept by Mrs. Kittredge, a widow, who received me with such motherly kindness and made me so comfortable that I felt well satisfied to pass there the days of my exile from the Perrault manage and French cookery, while seeing the city and transacting my business with editors. The longer I stayed in Boston the better I liked it. I quickly discovered the harbor and the two rivers that united to form it; the Common, like a patch of beautiful country on the skirt of the town, and the Public Garden beyond, then a garden only in name, an unfilled lower level, with made land and raised streets on three sides, and a broad embankment on the fourth, fronting Charles River, and fencing out the tides. That embankment presented an attractive walk.
I found the Boston weeklies ready to accept about everything I had to offer, and set gleefully to work to furnish the sort of contributions most in demand. “Stories, give us stories!” said they all; and stories they had from me from that time forth. The pay was small indeed, but I had no longer any difficulty in getting my articles published. The most flourishing of these papers paid its writers only two dollars a column, or one hundred dollars for a novelette running through ten or twelve numbers. Some paid only half those rates, while others kept to “the good old rule, the simple plan,” of paying very little, or nothing at all, relying for contributions upon amateurs who were not only eager to write for nothing, but who aided largely in the support of at least one so-called “magazine, ” by interesting their friends to subscribe for it, or to buy the issues containing their articles.
So I settled down for the fall and winter in Boston, and with deep regret wrote to the Perraults, giving up the room they had retained for me, and sending for such effects as I had left in their keeping. Thus closed my twenty-first year.
One of the best of the Boston weeklies of those days was the Olive Branch, a semi-religious family paper, to which I became a frequent contributor, and to the readers of which I became so favorably known that in the summer following, 1849, I was invited to join a party in an excursion to Moosehead Lake, with the understanding that I was to write for that paper letters descriptive of the region visited, then in the heart of the wilds of Maine. I was ever ready for any adventure, and few things could have delighted me more than the prospect of this one, in which I was to see strange scenery, with agreeable companions, and find, among the woods and waters of that wilderness, congenial subjects for my pen. I have quite forgotten to what steamboat, or stagecoach, or hotel interest I owed this privilege; it was probably a combination of such interests; for, as I remember, I had no fares or other expenses to pay during the two or three weeks of that memorable journey.
Among my fellow travelers there were two of whom I cherish an affectionate remembrance. These were old Father Taylor, the pulpit orator, and Mrs. Taylor. He was then in the meridian of his powers, one of Boston’s celebrities, and a striking personality. I had heard him preach at the Seaman’s Bethel, not because I cared much for preachers and sermons, — not having then recovered from the aversion to them with which my early experience had inspired me, — but because nobody in those days could be said to have seen Boston who had not seen and heard Father Taylor. His sermons were never learned or dogmatic, but wonderfully earnest and direct, often illustrated by -quaint nautical metaphors (he had followed the sea in his youth), and enforced by a “ terrible gift of familiarity ” that brought him heart to heart with his hearers. These were largely composed of men from the wharves and ships, with their families and friends, to whom he did incalculable good, in shaping their paths toward sober and righteous living.
He was then near sixty years old, but his seamed and tawny visage made him appear much older; rather short of stature, but active, and as full of enthusiasm as a boy. He was certainly a more ardent fisherman than the youngest member of the party; for, as I recall, when our little Moosehead steamboat swung around under the stupendous overhanging rock of Mt. Kineo, and, having once looked up in awe and astonishment, I turned to witness the effect on Father Taylor, I beheld him, not gazing upward at all, but down at the water, with rod in hand, watching his line, which he had flung over for a bite as soon as the paddles were still. He joined in the camping-out and moosehunting by night, and was as eager as any of us to get a shot at the noble game, as our deftly paddled canoes glided into the mouth of some stream, and we heard the clash of boughs where the animals crossed or came to drink, but never within-range of our guns.
The fame of the great preacher’s advent went abroad in the wilderness, and drew a large concourse of people to hear him when he preached from the deck of the steamer at Greenville, the Sunday after our arrival. “It seemed ” (to quote his own words) “as if God had shaken the woods and hills to bring his people together.” I remained to note the strange audience that had gathered from nobody appeared to know where, — pioneer settlers and wood-choppers, hunters and trappers and guides, halfbreeds and Indians, stage - drivers, steamboat-men and tourists, with many women and children; — then, having heard enough of the sermon to write a notice of it, I stole away to my room in the hotel to indite my Olive Branch letter.
It was known to the members of our party that I did not stay through the services, and it occasioned some comment, which I regretted, fearing to wound my venerable friend, not in his ministerial vanity, if he had any, but by inspiring in him a pious concern for my soul. That “concern” was a subject which, in my boyhood, I had conceived an invincible repugnance to hearing discussed ; and I congratulated myself that in all our daily intercourse since we left Boston, Father Taylor had never once inquired whether I had met with a change of heart. He would probably now infer that I had not. That Sunday evening, after I had finished and folded my letters, a rap came upon my door, and I could hardly have told whether I was pleased or disturbed, as, on opening it, I met the genial but serious countenance of the old preacher.
“Young man,” he said, “it’s a fine evening, and I want a little walk and talk with you. Will you come? ”
“With pleasure! ” I responded; and it was with pleasure indeed that I strolled and conversed with him, during the summer twilight hour, on the wild and lonely shore of the lake. He inquired about my boyhood and my life in Boston, and talked pleasantly of our trip, yet never once edged toward the topic I dreaded to have introduced. At last, as we were returning to the hotel, he said: —
“Young man, there’s one thing I want to impress upon you. There ’s nothing like being prepared.” He paused and confronted me, with the twilight gleam from the clear sky and the reflection from the water lighting his benign countenance, furrowed by long experience of the world’s sins and woes. “We are enjoying a blessed opportunity, and must make the most of it. We are to take an early start up the lake in the morning, and what I suggest is that we should have our fishing-tackle, bait, everything needed for the day’s sport, on board the steamboat before breakfast.”
How 1 loved the dear old man at that moment!
During the summer my mother came on from western New York to visit me in Boston. I met her in Framingham, my father’s birthplace, where we had relatives, and brought her back with me to my Brattle Street boardingplace. I had resolved not to go home until I was assured of success in my chosen vocation; and she had not seen me for over two years. It had been my habit to send her everything I wrote, and to keep her constantly informed as to my varying fortunes, so that she felt but little concern regarding my moral and material circumstances; but she yearned to behold her “ absent child ” once more, and to see with her own eyes how he was living and the kind of company he kept. She appeared contented with me in every respect, except that she wished I would go to church more regularly and “ write more poetry.” She stayed with me a few days at No. 33, and we did not meet again for another two years.
It was the summer of the California “ gold craze, ” and a friend of mine, a ship-broker, invited me to accompany him in the Minerva Jones, a brigantine he was fitting out for a voyage around Cape Horn. I gladly accepted, believing I could do well by writing letters to Boston papers, and gain a useful experience even if I failed to make a fortune in the California gold fields. I have often wondered what would have been the effect on me and my literary work if I had carried out my intention and become a “ forty-niner. ” I shaped all my plans for sailing at the appointed time, and looked forward with hope and glee to the sea voyage and strange adventures in a new land. But the day of sailing was again and again postponed, and when at last the Minerva Jones swung off into the stream I had engaged in another enterprise that detained me, for good or ill, in Boston.
That enterprise was a new weekly paper, for which two other parties furnished the capital and I (as they were pleased to term it) the “brains.” For reasons of policy they preferred to be “silent partners ” as far as the use of their names was concerned. One was interested in another publication of which the new paper was to be in some sense a rival. The third party was Hotchkiss & Co., newsdealers, who could not give their imprint to the new sheet without danger of prejudicing the proprietors of numerous other publications sold over their counters. So it was determined to issue the paper under the firm name of “J. T. Trowbridge & Co.” I remonstrated strongly against this, not only on account of my youth and inexperience (I was then barely twenty-two), but because I aspired to be known solely as a writer. However, as I could still keep my nom de plume unspotted from the world of business, I suffered my judgment — and, I can truly add, my modesty — to be overruled. As an equal partner I was to be entitled to one third of the profits when there were any; meanwhile I was to draw a small salary, sufficient for my living expenses, on account of my editorial work, and receive additional pay for such tales and sketches as I chose to contribute. The name of the new weekly was The Yankee Nation, a title not of my choosing.
I found in my new position other advantages than the one my friends were inclined to joke me about, — that of always having my contributions accepted. It afforded me, indeed, an independence of the whims of editors, and made me one of the judges on the bench before which I had hitherto appeared only in the crowd of clients more or less humble. It gave me free access to concert halls and theatres, and I was surprised and flattered when some of the great publishing houses began to send me their books for notice, and to quote The Yankee Nation as authority in advertising them. Better than all this, I had steady employment; while in the use of the office paste-pot and scissors, and in reading manuscripts and proofs and conferring with contributors, I experienced at least partial relief from the hot-house process of forcing the imagination for ideas, to which the writer must often subject himself who depends for a livelihood solely upon his pen. I still wrote a great deal, however ; altogether too much for my own good, I am sure, and probably for the paper’s; being always ready to supply a story, long or short, or to fill space for which no fit contribution was offered. What I wrote must have been often very poor indeed, but to my mind now, as I look back, the marvel is that it was no worse.
I formed a pleasant acquaintance with contributors and friendly relations with a few. I was careful never to treat anybody with the coldness and curtness with which I had often been treated by editors; while, young as I was in appearance and in years, there seemed small danger of my overawing the humblest, as I had been overawred. Nevertheless, I was sometimes embarrassed by the robes of imputed dignity that invested my boyishness in the editorial chair. I recall an instance which a ghastly subsequent circumstance impressed on my memory.
I had hardly had time to adjust myself to the novelty of my situation, when one morning in the latter part of November, 1849, a spare, thin-shouldered, very plainly dressed old gentleman entered the office to see about getting into the paper an article that had been left with me a short time before. It was not his own composition, but a descriptive letter from some foreign land, written by a young person in whom he was interested. It was a relief to learn that he was not a decayed author in need of earning a few dollars, as his appearance at first led me to suspect. When I handed the manuscript back to him, expressing regret that I couldn’t use it, he remarked deprecatingly that he did not expect to receive pay for it, even intimating that he would be willing to pay something for its insertion. As I could not accept it even on those terms, he went off with an air of disappointment, having spoken all the while in a low tone, and treated me with a deference that mightily amused the foreman of the printing-room who witnessed the interview.
“Do you know that man? ” he said excitedly. “He could buy out this shop and every other newspaper on the street, without putting his hand very deep into his pocket, either!” He went on to say, “That is Dr. Parkman, one of the richest men and best known figures in Boston! ” and laughed at the idea of his coming in that meek manner to ask me to accept a manuscript.
I was surprised, but should probably have never thought again of the incident but for the shocking circumstance already alluded to.
Dr. George Parkman was a retired physician, brother of Dr. Francis Parkman, the eminent Unitarian divine, and uncle of the younger Francis, the future historian, who was to make the name illustrious. The old doctor was reputed eccentric and close in his dealings, yet he was a philanthropist in his way; it was he who gave the land for the Harvard Medical College in Boston, and he had published a treatise on Insanity and the Treatment of the Insane, — an author, after all, though not of the class I at first surmised. This venerable citizen went out from my office and, that day or the next, mysteriously disappeared, — so soon, in fact, after our interview that I fancied I must have been one of the last persons who saw him alive.
The sudden and unaccountable vanishing, in an afternoon, in an hour, of “one of the richest men and best known figures in Boston, ” was the wonder of the town, until that feeling was changed to amazement and horror when his dissevered and half-destroyed remains were discovered in the laboratory of Professor John White Webster, of the Medical College. Webster had an amiable and highly esteemed family; he was a professor of chemistry, a writer on scientific subjects, and a person of high position in social and scientific circles. He was arrested, tried for the murder, and convicted. When it was too late he made a confession that might have lightened the gravamen of the charge against him if it had been made in time. According to that statement, the old doctor, on that last afternoon of his life, had come to the professor’s office to collect a debt about which there had arisen some annoying difficulties, and by his overbearing insistence and angry denunciations had provoked from Webster a fatal blow. Instead of proclaiming at once the crime, committed, as he averred, in the heat of passion, Webster concealed and cut up the body, burned portions in the furnace, and had the rest in hiding, awaiting destruction, when he was exposed by the janitor. Despite all the influences brought to bear, to save the guilty man from the gallows and his innocent family from their involvement in the hideous tragedy, the law took its course, and he was hanged on the last Friday of August, 1850. What horror and misery might have been averted (I used to think) if Dr. George Parkman had faced his debtor with something of the conciliatory meekness with which he approached the youth clothed in the brief authority of an editor’s chair!
The authority was even briefer than the wearer of it had reason to expect. The Yankee Nation made so good a start, and kept so prosperously afloat for five or six months, that Mr. Isaac Crooker, of Hotchkiss & Co., who had been its business manager from the outset, determined to devote to it his entire attention, and withdrew from that firm for the purpose. He took the paper as his share of the firm’s assets, and bought out the third partner, thus assuming all interests except my own. He was a genial fellow worker, and our mutual relations were always as pleasant as possible; my satisfaction in the new arrangement having but one serious drawback, Mr. Crooker’s uncertain health. He had a consumptive tendency, which after another half year or so became so pronounced that his physician ordered him to leave all business cares behind and seek a more congenial climate. With my consent he turned over his two-thirds interest to another publisher, whose main object in acquiring it was, as it proved, to give employment to a relative, a retired minister, by placing him in the editorial chair. As there had been a tacit understanding that I was to keep the position, this was an unpleasant surprise to me. I had become accustomed to the routine work, and liked it, and was looking forward to an early sharing of profits, which had been hitherto absorbed in the expenses attending the establishment of a new publication. But as I held only a minority of the stock, I submitted to the inevitable (I could always do that with a stout heart and a smiling countenance), and walked out of the office with my few personal belongings under my arm, cheerfully giving place to my grave and reverend successor. As the chief merit of the paper — if it had any merit at all — was the vivacity the abounding good spirits of its youthful editor infused into it, and as that quality quickly evaporated, it failed to please its old patrons, or to attract new ones; like poor Crooker, it fell into a decline, and hardly survived him, lingering a few months longer, and then disappearing from the world’s eye.
I had been but a very short time out of the editorial office when my friend Ben: Perley Poore (he always punctuated his prænomen with a colon) accosted me one day on the street in this wise : —
“You are just the man I am looking for! The Fair opens to-day” (it was one of Boston’s early industrial expositions), “ and I am starting a little sheet, The Mirror of the Fair, that I want you to take charge of.”
“ ‘ Angels and ministers of grace ’! ” I exclaimed. “I know nothing about the Fair, or anything in it.”
“Go in and see it, ” he replied, “and in fifteen minutes you will know as much about it as anybody. Write two or three short articles a day on any subject suggested; then brief comments, five or ten line paragraphs, about the most curious or interesting things you find; having our advertisers in mind, first and always.”
This was the substance of his instructions, and after taking me into the Fair and introducing me to the management, he left me, as he said, “ to work out my own salvation,” I seem to have worked it out satisfactorily, for with the exception of the advertising columns, I wrote almost the entire contents of the little daily Mirror of the Fair as long as there was any Fair to mirror.
Poore was at that time publishing his American Sentinel, and at the close of the Fair he offered me a position on that paper, which I was not slow to accept. I wrote for it sketches and editorials, and assisted him in the office, taking entire editorial charge of the paper in his frequent absences. It was during his absence in Washington, early in 1851, that a poor little innocent article of mine, touching satirically upon our Northern zeal in slave-catching and Southern threats of secession (burning questions then), lost it many subscribers, and, I fear, hastened its demise.
This was my last experience as an editor in those years, but not quite my last opportunity. Some time after the Sentinel incident I was called upon by the proprietor of a Boston daily, who made the astonishing proposal that I should become its editor-in-chief. Astonishing, indeed, for I had had no training in journalistic work of the kind that would be required of me. I did not believe myself fitted for it, and wondered that anybody should have conceived such an idea of my capabilities. I regarded even my connection with the weekly press as something merely temporary, all my aspirations being toward some more distinctively literary occupation. The salary offered (twice what I could hope to earn by my pen) was, I confess, a staggering temptation, as I sat for a moment gazing into the face of my visitor, almost doubting his sanity ; but I put it promptly and resolutely behind me. I might have pleaded my youth, my natural indolence, my self-distrust; above all, my insufficient knowledge of men and events. I merely said, “I could never do the necessary night work; my eyes would not permit it.” This was my ostensible reason for declining the position; but, behind that, an inner Voice, irrespective of all reasons, shaped an irrevocable No.
In fact, I engaged in no other editorial work of any kind until Our Young Folks was started in 1865.
Some interesting events marked the history of Boston in those early years. I had been but a few weeks in the city when, October 25, 1848, the Cochituate water was introduced. There was a grand procession through the streets, then a celebration on the slopes of the Common overlooking the Frog Pond. An ode, written for the occasion by a brilliant young poet of Cambridge, James Russell Lowell, was sung by an immense choir of schoolchildren, and there were appropriate addresses, setting forth the benefits of the new water supply, which was to replace the antiquated wells and cisterns, and meet the needs of the growing city for an indefinite future, — the next millennium, some predicted. After so much impressive preparation, Mayor Quincy smilingly asked if it was the people’s will that the water should be brought in. A multitudinous, jubilant shout went up, as if it had been meant to reach the moon. The mayor’s hand waved, cannon thundered, all the bells of the city clanged. As if roused by the summons, a lionlike head of tawny-maned water pushed up through the fountain’s collar, seemed to hesitate a moment at the amazing spectacle of human faces, then reared and towered, in a mighty column eighty feet in height, and shook out its tumbling yellow locks in the waning light. The flow, turbid at first, gradually cleared, changing from dull gold to glittering silver, and the great concourse of citizens broke up, with countenances illumined as if shone upon by a miracle; even the prophets of evil, the doubters and fault-finders of the day, hardly foreseeing in how few years Boston would be clamoring for a more abundant water supply!
As I look back now, I cannot help wondering how many of those citizens yet live and recall the wild enthusiasm of the hour. Where are the happy schoolchildren who sang ? Who of them survive, old men and women now, to tell the tale ? Boston has since had another Mayor Quincy, grandson of him whose upraised hand set the guns and bells dinning and the water spouting. The chief water commissioner was Nathan Hale, one of Boston’s foremost citizens; since when, a son of his, then an obscure young country minister, has shaped for himself a long and useful and distinguished career. The Cambridge poet, writer of the not over-successful ode (too long and too full of subtle and even learned allusion for the occasion, with some unsingable lines), has more than fulfilled the promise of his prime, and passed on, leaving a name high among the illustrious of the age.
The new fountain, in its varied forms, became the Common’s chief attraction, adding the one needed charm of soaring and plashing water to that green pleasure ground. The surrounding slopes and malls were long my daily and nightly haunt. There I found solace for my continued exile from the country, and, especially on summer evenings, indulged my love of lonely reverie.
An event of greater interest to me was the coming to Boston of Jenny Lind in September, 1850. She gave, if I remember rightly, four concerts in Tremont Temple, in which high prices were maintained, and afterwards two concerts, at what were called popular prices, in the immense new hall over the then recently constructed Fitchburg Railroad Station. I heard her at one of the Tremont Temple concerts, and again at the first Fitchburg Hall concert, where a disastrous panic was so narrowly averted.
Anticipating a rush on the last occasion, and having invited a lady friend to accompany me, I took the precaution of going early to the hall that memorable evening, and succeeded in getting good seats on the right hand side (how well I remember the exact position!) about halfway back from the stage. Soon the uproar began. The seats were not numbered, and the auditorium would accommodate only about four thousand people, while by some oversight five thousand tickets had been sold. As the throngs came pouring in, the crowding for places, the eddying and recoiling and vociferating, became frightful; and a double danger threatened, that of the floor giving way under the enormous weight imposed upon it, and of the multitude destroying itself in its own terror and frenzy. Even after the disappointed hundreds who could not get in had been turned away, and the time had passed for the opening of the concert, the tumult continued. My companion was frightened, and entreated me to take her out; and I became excited in trying to quell the excitement of others. The orchestra struck up, but its strains were drowned in the general disturbance. Somebody tried to address the audience, half of whom were on their feet, while everybody seemed to be crying, “ Down! down! ” those who were up calling as loudly as those who were already down. Some pulled down those who were standing before them, to be in turn pulled down by those behind. Then on the stage a radiant figure appeared, serene, but with bosom visibly heaving; and a voice of uttermost simple purity glided forth like an angel of light on the stormy waters, stilling them into instant calm.
I had not been long in Boston when Theodore Parker’s growing fame — or infamy, as some good haters of his heresies preferred to call it — attracted me on Sunday mornings to the Melodeon, where the small independent society over which he had been lately installed held its meetings.
The Melodeon — entered from Washington Street just below the site of the present Boston Theatre — was a popular concert and exhibition hall, where the very beatings of the pulse of New England reforms could be felt and measured. There, notably, the old-time anti - slavery conventions hammered away at that amazing futility, abolitionism, abhorred and derided, but nevertheless destined to prove the coulter of the terrible war-driven emancipation plough. There one could listen to the uncompromising Garrison, whose aim was solely to convince, and not to charm; to the eloquent Phillips, who charmed even when he did not convince; to the brothers Burleigh, one of whom favored a fancied resemblance to the pictures of Christ, by parting his hair in the middle and letting it fall on his shoulders in wavy folds; to Frederick Douglass, a natural orator, whose own rise from slavery was the most powerful of all arguments for the cause he advocated; to Pillsbury, Foster, and others noted or notorious in their day, women as well as men, their names now remembered only in connection with that agitation. Parker was one of the leaders in it; his exceptional ability and position as a preacher gave him more than a local reputation, and carried the odium of his name as far as those of Phillips and Garrison were known and hated. How he was regarded in South Carolina was illustrated by an experience a Boston merchant once had at Charleston. An excited crowd gathering around the hotel register where he had written his name observed him with suspicious whisperings and threatening looks, which became alarming; when the excited landlord stepped up to him and said anxiously: “Your name is Parker ? ” “That is my name, sir. ” “ Theodore Parker, of Boston ? the abolitionist?” “Oh no, no, sir! I am Theodore D. Parker, a very different man ! ” The landlord heaved a sigh of relief. “ I am glad to hear it! ” he said. “ And allow me to give you a bit of wholesome advice. When you are registering your name in Southern hotels, write the D. damned plain! ”
Parker occasionally spoke at antislavery meetings, but he was at his best when he had the Melodeon platform to himself, with his own peculiar audience before him. There every Sunday morning his sturdy figure could be seen standing behind his secular-looking desk; no orator, rarely using a gesture, entirely free from the conventional pulpit tone and mannerism; reading his hour-long discourse (lecture rather than sermon) with a grinding earnestness well suiting his direct appeals to the reason and conscience of his auditors. The reading might at times have seemed monotonous but for the refreshing modernness of his topics, and the illustrative wit and fact and logic that illuminated them.
I was at first repelled by the occasional mercilessness of his judgments and the force of his invective; for he could out-Garrison Garrison in his denunciations of slaveholding and its political and clerical supporters ; and even while he voiced my own early convictions regarding the theological dogmas in the gloom of which I had been reared, I was often made to wince by the harshness of metaphor he applied to them.
I seem to have got well over this sensitiveness by the time his congregation, having outgrown the limits of the Melodeon, removed to the then new Music Hall, in the autumn of 1852 ; for upon that event I addressed to him a sonnet that opened with these lines: —
With his strong arm of intellect; who shakes
The dungeon-walls of error; grinds and breaks
Its chains on reason’s adamantine ledge ;
and ended with —
Proclaim him faithful to the sacred trust,
Truth, crushed, entombed, but newly risen, needs
To cleanse her temples of sepulchral dust,
Yea, to hurl down that thing of rot and rust,
That skeleton in mail, Religion cased in creeds !
I saw no harshness of metaphor in this, nor indeed any fault except that the last line was an alexandrine. But the editor of Boston’s favorite evening paper (of whom I shall have more to say later), to whom I offered it, handed it back to me with the remark: “I suppose you are aware that these sentiments are contrary to those entertained by nine out of ten of our readers ? ” — instancing Parker’s offensive radicalism in politics and religion. I said I was pleased to know that that was his reason for not printing the lines. “ It is a very good editorial reason, ” he replied; and we parted amicably.
In response to my mother’s frequently expressed wish that I should “write more poetry ” and go of tener to meeting, I informed her in a letter about this time that I occasionally wrote verses, and that I went frequently to hear Rev. Theodore Parker, — writing the Rev. (as the Charleston landlord would have said) quite plain. I did not send her the sonnet; and I left her to learn from a good uncle of mine that “ if Theodore Parker wasn’t doing as much harm in the world as the devil, it was because he was n’t so smart as the devil; but that he was doing as much harm as he knew how.” She believed in her hoy, however, and I had little trouble in convincing her that with all his faults Parker was a great and brave and conscientious man.
I did not get my sonnet printed, but I meant that it should have at least one interested reader, and accordingly sent a copy of it to Parker himself. It called out from him a kindly appreciative letter, and brought me the honor of his acquaintance. This ought to have proved a very great advantage to me; for he invited me to come and see him, showed me his collection of rare books in the different languages of which he was master, and proffered me the free use of them, either to examine there in his library, or to carry away and read at my leisure. “Come in at any time, ” he said, “and help yourself; don’t be afraid of intruding upon me. I shall be glad to see you, if I am here; and to talk with you, unless I happen to have a pressing task in hand. ” He encouraged me to talk about my early life and my reasons for leaving home; and used me as an illustration of a point in his next Sunday’s discourse, quoting my very words, when he alluded to the country-bred youth who comes to the city “because he aspires to something better than working on a farm at twelve dollars a month; ” to me a curious exemplification of his habit of making every rill of experience tributary to that omnivorous stream, his weekly sermon.
His generous offer of his library appears to me now as surprising as my failure to make use of it was unaccountable. In thanking him for the enviable privilege, I felt sure that I should return in a day or two and enjoy it. Then the thought of finding him at his desk, writing his next Sunday’s homily, decided me to wait until Monday; then for some reason I postponed the visit another week ; then — then — in short, I did not go at all! He never repeated the invitation, and I let so long a time elapse that I was at length ashamed to remind him of it. Thus the perverse imp of diffidence and irresolution held me back from many advantages in life, which I had but to face with simple faith and courage, lay hold of, and possess. I recall with shame another instance of my unfortunate faint-heartedness, in those days. When I most needed such a friend and adviser, I had the good fortune to meet Mrs. Stowe, then in the dazzling dawn of her success and fame. She treated me with exceeding kindness, complimented something I had written, and invited me to visit her in Andover, adding, “ I want you to make our house one of your homes.” I remember well the words and the winning smile with which they were spoken. Of course I promised to go, and of course I never went. Long afterwards I reminded her of that gracious invitation, and of my seemingly ungracious treatment of it. “Foolish boy! ” she said; “why didn’t you come ? ” Foolish boy indeed!
The discourses of Parker were a moral and intellectual stimulus, and well I recall the tremendous temporary effect of some of them, — like his sermon on Daniel Webster; — but they never entered very deeply into my life. Extreme radical as he was in his religious and reformatory opinions, the great body of modern thought has come so nearly abreast with him, even passing in some directions beyond him, that he appears a moderate conservative to those who read his writings to-day. Perhaps his influence over me would have been stronger if it had not been early eclipsed by that of his great contemporary, Emerson.
It had long been my ambition to publish a book ; and in the autumn of 1851 and the following winter (while in quiet lodgings in Seaver Place) I gave all the time I could spare from my sketchwriting to working out the scenes of a novel.
The story chiefly concerned two Boston families, one recently risen to wealth and social pretension, the other aristocratic and decayed, whose relations with each other gave scope for some good dialogue and delineation of character. The early chapters were, as I remember, lively enough; but I had started out impulsively, without any well-defined plan, and, what was worse, without any interior knowledge of the kind of life I was attempting to describe. I found it impossible to work my situations up to a climax; I lost my interest in the task, and held myself to it by mere force of will, bringing it to a premature conclusion, while it was never, in fact, properly finished. I still had hope that entertainment enough would be found in the story to redeem it from utter failure; but, after it had been successively declined by two or three publishers, I began to take their view of it, which confirmed my own private judgment, and smiled in a sickly sort of way when one of my friends, who had borrowed it to read, declared, on returning it, that the opening chapters were as good as those of Vanity Fair. When I asked about the concluding chapters, he said he “did n’t get so far as those.” I fear nobody ever did. He was sure he could find a publisher for it, if I would let him ; but I had by that time made up my mind that it should never again be offered for publication, unless I could first find courage to rewrite the latter half. That courage never came.
One of the Boston weeklies I wrote for in the early fifties was The Carpet Bag, to which I was attracted less by any pecuniary advantage it offered than by my very great liking for the man who gave it whatever character and reputation it enjoyed. This was Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber, who had begun life as a compositor, and while setting type in the office of The Boston Post had commenced printing in that paper his quaint sayings of “Mrs. Partington, ” so widely popular in their day, and now so nearly forgotten. He had a large, genial nature, something like Walt Whitman’s, but without Whitman’s courage and immense personal force, and with nothing of his genius; although Shillaber, too, was a poet in his way, writing with great facility a racy, semi-humorous verse, specimens of which he collected in a volume, Rhymes with Reason and Without, in 1853. He also published The Life and Sayings of Mrs. Partington, with the proceeds of which he purchased a home in Chelsea, unfortunately in a quarter where real estate was destined to decline in value. Our acquaintance began in 1850, and ripened quickly into a friendship that continued as long as he lived, notwithstanding a divergence in our political opinions,—a divergence that became very wide indeed when men of the North had to choose between a Union dominated by slavery and resistance to that domination. Even at the time of Lincoln’s second election there was a modicum of truth in what I said to him jocularly, that I believed he would vote for Jeff Davis if Jeff Davis had the regular Democratic nomination, indorsed by The Boston Post. His physical proportions, his wit and humor and amiable social qualities, made him for many years a notable figure in Boston.
Working at the printer’s case in The Carpet Bag office, where I first saw him, was a sandy-haired, thin-featured youth, with a long nose and pale complexion, known as Charley Brown. He had been brought to Boston, from Maine, in 1851, by his uncle, Dr. Calvin Farrar, who was getting a pamphlet printed, to advertise a water-cure establishment he had at Waterford, and who offered the job to the printers of The Carpet Bag, provided they would take the boy with it. They took the job and the boy (then aged seventeen), who before he was much older began to write mildly funny things for the paper over the signature, “Lieutenant Chubb.” He probably chose the pseudonym Chubb for the reason that he himself was lank; just as he may have claimed to have learned his trade in the office of The Skowhegan Clarion, because of the oddity of the name, whereas he had really come from another town in Maine, and from the office of a paper less grotesquely labeled. His serious countenance veiled a spirit of original and audacious waggery; and he was even then known to be capable of the same conscientious painstaking in the accomplishment of a solemn act of drollery as when, a few years after, while on a lecturing tour in midwinter, occupying with a friend a room of arctic temperature, he got out of bed in the middle of the night to hang before a wind-shaken sash a “skeleton ” hoop skirt he had found in a closet, remarking shiveringly, “It will keep out the c-o-oarsest of the c-o-old ! ” From Boston he went to Cleveland, where Charley Brown of The Carpet Bag became Charles F. Browne of the Plaindealer, and Lieutenant Chubb developed into Artemus Ward.
Another Boston weekly to which I was a frequent contributor was The Yankee Blade, conducted by a man of culture and experience, William Mathews, — afterwards Professor Mathews, author of Oratory and Orators, and other popular works. He one day said to me, after reading a sketch I had handed him, “You ought to write a book.” I replied that I should “like to find a publisher of the same opinion ; ” which led to his taking me, a few days later, to the publishing house of Phillips, Sampson & Co., one of the largest and most enterprising in Boston.
I did not then enter the publishers’ office for the first time. The stately and urbane head of the firm received us with the same distinguished courtesy with which he had bowed me from his presence, on handing back the manuscript of my unfortunate novel, that I had submitted to him some months before. He did not seem to recall the circumstance, and I was grateful to him for greeting me as if he then saw my blushing face for the first time.
Between him and my friend there had evidently been talk concerning me, and the question of what I might do for the house soon came up.
“Not a novel, —not just now; that may come later,” Mr. Phillips said, in answer to a suggestion from me; “but a domestic story, something that will make wholesome reading for young people and families. To be a book about this size, ” — handing me a small volume. The result of the interview was the writing of the little book, Father Brighthopes, which was thrown off rapidly in about three weeks, and which appeared in the month of May of that year, 1853.
Its success was immediate; the critics were kind to its many faults; people of the most opposed sectarian views united in accepting Father Brighthopes as an embodiment of practical Christianity ; and I was soon gratified and humbled (as I sincerely wrote in the preface to the revised edition of the story published after the first plates were worn out) by hearing how he had affected many lives, — more, I feared, than he had affected mine.
Up to that year my health, although never robust, had been uniformly good, often exuberant. In all weathers I enjoyed my daily walks, gave myself ample recreation, mental and social, and at one time, for about a year and a half, took sparring lessons of Professor Cram, and other vigorous exercise, at his Gymnasium on Washington Street. But I was never a good sleeper, and often when my mind was too actively employed, and I most needed sleep, I got least. That spring I fell into a state which the doctors called “nervous debility, ” and having a horror of drugs, I spent the month of June at a water-cure establishment in Worcester, where I made a pretty thorough trial of the shower bath, sitz bath, wetsheet pack, and other interesting processes pertaining to that treatment.
Mr. Phillips, my publisher, lived in Worcester, and I had other agreeable acquaintances there. Edward Everett Hale was then in Worcester, settled over his first parish; before his marriage he had boarded with Mr. Phillips, who knew him intimately, and who took me one Sunday to hear him preach. Dining with Mr. Phillips, after the services, I drew from him this opinion of Mr. Hale: —
“ Mr. Hale, ” he said, “ is a very able man. But I doubt if he ever makes a mark in the world, for the reason that he lacks industry.” 1
A singular judgment, it may seem, in the light of what this “very able man ” has since accomplished. But the truth is, Mr. Hale was not in the habit of bestowing much study upon his sermons (the one I heard was short, and shall I be quite frank about it and say flimsy?); and Mr. Phillips could not well foresee how far the wonderfully versatile activity, the large understanding, and still larger heart of this preacher, philanthropist, man of letters, were to carry him in the next half hundred years. His “industry,” if we may call it such, must have been prodigious, though not of the plodding sort, or centred overmuch in his sermons.
In Worcester, too, that summer, I first saw and heard another young minister, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, presiding over a “free church” there, and preaching (in a hall, as I remember) sermons marked by the careful preparation, earnestness of thought, and grace of style which have characterized all his subsequent work now for almost fifty years. The friend who took me to hear him told me that Higginson even then contemplated withdrawing from the pulpit in order to devote himself to literature. “Entreat him not to do that! ” I said, speaking out of my own experience of an author’s early struggles, without considering his maturer years, or how well his academic training and thorough culture fitted him for boldly entering on a career of letters which in my undisciplined youth, and with my poor equipment, I had found so arduous.
I did not derive any appreciable benefit from the douching, soaking, and skin friction to which I was subjected at the Worcester Water Cure. What I really needed was rest, or some treatment (if any treatment at all but Nature’s own) that would soothe the nerves and restore nutrition, — safeguard the citadel, so to speak, instead of drawing the vital energies away from it by the constant surprises and assaults they had to resist at the harassed outposts. Moreover, the society of people whose invalidism was their chief interest in life and topic of conversation was not cheeringly tonic.
On my way back to Boston I stopped to see my Trowbridge relatives in Framingham. When, at dinner, I had occasion to remark that I could n’t, with impunity, eat all things set before me, a wise old grandam of the family poured for me a glass of hard cider, saying, “Drink it, and you ’ll have no more of that trouble.” I drank, and verified her prophecy. Whether I owed my restored digestion to the cider, or to some other cause, I cannot affirm. I had had a needed mental rest, and now the physical forces that had been so incessantly diverted to the surface by the water treatment turned inward, to the tired system’s grateful relief.
That summer I visited my Western relatives, and continued the journey as far as St. Anthony’s Falls. Returning to Boston about the last of October, I set to work at once to take advantage of the wind of success that had filled the sails of my first little book; and by the middle of January (1854) had followed that by two more of a similar character, written one after the other, with the stereotypers at the heel of my pen.
Then my publishers proposed to me what I had in vain proposed to them not so very long before, — a novel. A full-fledged work of fiction, as they called it, to be issued in monthly parts, after the manner with which Dickens and Thackeray had familiarized the public. I was at first dismayed by the suggestion, foreseeing how much to my disadvantage would be the comparison with those great writers which my following their fashion would seem to challenge. I was willing enough to undertake the work of fiction, but I desired to write it more at my leisure than would be possible with the inexorable printer waiting for my monthly copy. The publishers argued that I could get a good start by beginning at once; their plan being to bring out the first number in the spring. On the last day of January Mr. Sampson (whose pet scheme it was) took me to spend a night with him at his home in West Roxbury; and when we parted at midnight, and I went to bed (but not to sleep), I had assented to the venture. To this day I marvel at my own temerity and at the firm’s amazing confidence in me.
February 6 I commenced writing Martin Merrivale, his X Mark; by the middle of March I had three numbers (to make thirty-six large octavo pages each) in the hands of the illustrators and stereotypers; and on May 1 the initial number was issued. Each number was to have as a frontispiece a carefully drawn illustration by Hammatt Billings, one of the most skillful designers of those days, but so exasperatingly remiss in keeping his engagements that after a deal of trouble in getting the first two or three blocks from him, I put my manuscript parts into the hands of S. W. Rowse (later the famous crayon artist), who furnished all the subsequent drawings, and with whom I had always the pleasantest personal and business relations.
Early in July I took my work to Wallingford, Vt., in a lovely valley of the Green Mountains, where I finished it late in August. The month of September I passed chiefly among the White Mountains, and returned to Boston about the last of the month, to see the concluding numbers of Martin through the press. There were to have been fifteen of these, but after seven or eight had been published separately, the remainder were issued together, in December, simultaneously with a bound volume containing the completed work.
The subject of the story was a young writer from a rural village going to Boston to find a publisher for his great romance, The Beggar of Bagdad. His adventures among publishers, editors, and " brother authors,” beginning at the foot of the hill of difficulty, the top of which he had expected to reach at easy strides, were among the best things in it, if there were any “best; ” while the romantic and sentimental parts were the poorest, and very poor indeed, in comparison with the high ideal I had had in mind when I set out to write. The issue in numbers was not a financial success; and it was not until the volume had had time to make its way with the public, as it did but slowly, that I received any substantial returns for my steady half-year’s labor.
The next spring, April, 1855, I went abroad, and spent ten months in Europe, seeing London, Paris, Florence, Rome, Naples, and other points of all-absorbing interest to an enthusiastic youth (of all which I dare not pause to speak), but passing the summer and autumn mainly in Paris, where I completed another novel, Neighbor Jackwood, of which I have given some account in a previous number of this magazine.2
The novel, Neighbor Jackwood, I turned into Neighbor Jackwood, a play, that was successfully produced on the Boston Museum stage. This I followed with a spectacular piece, Sindbad the Sailor, which also had a prosperous run of several weeks; and did other work for the Museum manager, in the way of adaptation and dramatization. Meanwhile I contributed to two of the popular Philadelphia magazines, to Putnam’s and Harper’s; and in the summer of 1857 I made still another Western journey, writing letters for the New York Tribune over the signature of “Jackwood.”
In the fall of 1857 the Atlantic Monthly was started, to me an event of vital interest and importance, marking an epoch in my literary activity. It was a distinction for a young writer to appear in its pages. The pay for contributions was for those days unprecedentedly liberal, and the hospitality of its covers afforded a stimulus to high endeavor. I contributed to the early volumes poems, stories, sketches of travel, and one political paper, We are a Nation, into which I poured the fervor of my patriotic feeling, on the second election of Lincoln.
I had followed as faithfully as I could Major Noah’s advice as to writing prose instead of poetry. Having burned my metrical romances, I wrote verse only at intervals for the next ten years. Then with the ampler leisure gained by the publication of my books, I returned to my early love. I find, on looking back, that I contributed to the first volumes of the Atlantic articles in verse oftener than anything else, among them some of my most prosperous poems, At Sea, Midsummer, The Pewee, and The Vagabonds.
The Atlantic had been hardly two years in existence when an event occurred that was to me little less than a calamity. Its publishers were likewise the publishers of my books. The death of Mr, Sampson, and that of Mr. Phillips which occurred soon after, resulted in the breaking up of the firm, in the fall of 1859, and the sale at auction of its enormous stock of books and sheets and stereotype plates. My own books went to a New York house, that of a stepmother, so to speak, very different from the home where they had been born, their exile from which I felt as a personal grief. Fortunately the Atlantic went into good hands, those of Ticknor & Fields; my contributions to it continued, and resulted for me later in intimate business relations with that firm and its successors.
Political convulsion succeeded the dissolution of the firm of Phillips, Sampson &Co., and brought new discouragement, in addition to that caused by the loss of their friendly interest in my books. The Southern sky was black with clouds that burst in the Civil War. I had married in the spring of 1860, and was living quietly in the suburbs of Boston, writing for the magazines, and also applying myself, rather languidly, to another work of fiction, when the great national conflict, which had set back the waters of my literary course, forced them with accumulated impetus into a new channel, — the war novels, The Drummer Boy, Cudjo’s Cave, and The Three Scouts.
J. T. Trowbridge.
(To be continued.)
- In the summer of the World’s Fair, at Chicago, riding away from a club dinner, in a coach with Dr. Hale and Eugene Field, I ventured to repeat this dictum, uttered by Mr. Phillips forty years before. Dr. Hale looked grave for a moment, as his mind glanced back to those old Worcester days, then dryly remarked, “ Mr. Phillips was a good friend of mine, and — in most matters — a very sagacious man.”↩
- Some Confessions of a Novel-Writer, Atlantic Monthly, March, 1895.↩