My Own Story


THE war was nearing its close, and an era of assured prosperity for the North was setting in, when Mr. James T. Fields (of Ticknor & Fields, then publishers of the Atlantic Monthly) invited my coöperation in establishing a new “illustrated magazine for boys and girls.” I at once became interested in it, and, with other friends of Mr. Fields, began to consider the important question of an appropriate and attractive title. Dr. Holmes, who had christened the Atlantic, wittily suggested the Atlantic Lighter; a number of other names were proposed and rejected, Our Young Folks being the one finally chosen. Well-known contributors were enlisted for the early numbers, —Mrs. Stowe, Miss Alcott, Whittier, Higginson, Aldrich, Rose Terry, Miss Phelps, and a long list besides. Among the later writers were Edward Everett Hale and his sister, Lucretia Hale (author of the quaint Peterkin Papers), Bayard Taylor, James Parton, Mrs. Akers Allen, Celia Thaxter, and Charles Dickens, who contributed a four part serial story, A Holiday Romance. Lowell and Longfellow also were represented by poems. The magazine was a financial success from the start.

The first number was that for January, 1865, with the names of J. T. Trowbridge, Gail Hamilton, and Lucy Larcom on the cover, as editors. These were retained until Gail Hamilton’s violent rupture with the publishers (who were also publishers of her books) over a question of copyright, which led to her attack upon them — especially upon the head of the firm, lately her personal friend — in her wonderfully witty but woefully unwise Battle of the Books. When it was no longer possible to keep her name, all the names were quietly dropped from the cover, and the two others appeared only on the title-pages of the yearly volumes. Mr. Howard M. Ticknor was office editor from the first, while I was contributing and (nominally) consulting editor until, after Mr. Ticknor’s withdrawal from the firm and Miss Larcom’s retirement from the chair in which she temporarily succeeded him, I became manager in 1870.

The firm at that time, under its new name of Fields, Osgood & Co., occupied a spacious store and chambers at 124 Tremont Street, where I had a wellfurnished and attractive room up two flights, with windows overlooking the Common. Below mine was the private room of Mr. Fields, then head of the firm, and editor of the Atlantic. Mr. Howells was his assistant, and soon to be chief, if not practically so already. Adjoining Mr. Fields’s room was a large reading-room, in a corner of which Mr. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, conductor of Every Saturday, had his desk. In the position of cashier and bookkeeper was a capable young man, Mr. Edwin D. Mead, who left it in the early seventies to complete in Germany his studies for some sectarian ministry, his chosen profession, which he seems to have outgrown before he entered it, for when he returned from abroad it was to begin a larger lifework in literature and reform. The house had a lunchroom, with a generously served table, at which publishers and editors met, and such contributors and book-authors as happened to be about were often welcomed. My habit was to give only my morning hours to office work, and to go home to Arlington at noon; but when I was detained in town, this lunch table and its goodly company made ample amends for the inconvenience.

I contributed to Our Young Folks a great variety of articles in prose and verse; among others, Darius Green and his Flying Machine, which immediately, like The Vagabonds, that had previously appeared in the Atlantic, became a favorite with platform readers and reciters all over the country. I wrote for it a series of papers on practical subjects, that were afterwards collected in a volume entitled Lawrence’s Adventures among the Ice-Cutters, Glass-Makers, Coal-Miners, IronMen, and Ship-Builders, giving in the guise of a story carefully studied and accurate accounts of the industries described ; in gathering material for which I had gone as far as the iron-mills and coal-mines of Pennsylvania. To avoid making my own name too conspicuous I put the pseudonym Harvey Wilder to a series of articles on natural history, and that of Augustus Holmes to papers on Volcanoes and Geysers, Mountains and Glaciers, What is the Sun ? Glimpses of the Moon, and kindred topics. I had the satisfaction of knowing that I made these subjects interesting, and was amused when some astute critic, in commending this “new writer ” (Augustus Holmes), concluded his notice with the remark: “ It would be well if more men of science would write in this entertaining style.”

I printed also over my own name articles on Richmond Prisons, A Visit to Mount Vernon, and A Tennessee Farmhouse, — advance chapters from The South and its Battlefields, a book descriptive of an extensive tour I made through the Southern states just after the war.

For serials we had Mayne Reid’s Afloat in the Forest, Kellogg’s Good Old Times, Carleton’s Winning his Way, Dr. Isaac I. Hayes’s Cast Away in the Cold, Mrs. Whitney’s We Girls, Mrs. Diaz’s William Henry Letters (which, although not in the form of a story, were in their naturalness and humor more diverting than most stories), and, to crown all, T. B. Aldrich’s Story of a Bad Boy.

I had written short stories for the magazine, but none continued through more than three numbers, when, in the fall of 1870, after I had become managing editor, I consulted the publishers as to whom I should invite to furnish the serial for the ensuing year. It was getting late in the season, and none had as yet been volunteered. One of the firm gave me a droll look and remarked, in the words of Priscilla, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John? ”

I said, “I haven’t thought of that, but if you mean it ” —

“ I mean it! ” he answered decisively.

So I wrote Jack Hazard and his Fortunes, turning aside each month from my other work to furnish the installments, which ran through the twelve numbers of 1871. For a subject I went back to the Erie Canal, the old Ogden homestead, and Spencer’s Basin; and took for my chief character a vicious little driver, with intent to bring out what good was latent in him, by redeeming him from evil influences and placing him in favorable surroundings. Connected with him in interest was his noble Newfoundland dog, Lion. The old homestead I peopled with the Chatford family, and gave to the neighborhood other fictitious characters, all true to the life I had known there, but none of them portraits. I had great fun in writing the story, a chapter of which I would dash off at a sitting, in an afternoon, and perhaps send it the next day to the printers, with hardly an erasure. In each mail came letters showing the lively interest of readers everywhere in Jack and his dog.

The story had been the leading feature eight or nine months, when the same member of the firm who had suggested my undertaking the serial (this was Mr. John S. Clark, now of the Prang Educational Company) said to me, “It won’t do to finish Jack’s Fortunes in the December number! In completing it for the volume, leave it open for a sequel, which we will announce for next year. That boy and dog are running so well they can’t stop for another twelvemonth, sure! ”

Accordingly I followed the initial story with A Chance for Himself, and that in turn, for similar reasons, with Doing his Best, the third of the Jack Hazard series. I had already begun a fourth, Fast Friends, the first chapters of which were in type, with a large part of the magazine number for January, 1874, when the proverbial “thunderbolt out of a clear sky ” struck the publishing house.

The sky was not so clear as it had seemed to many of us who were enjoying the fancied security of that hospitable roof. Mr. Fields retired from the firm in 1871, and Mr. J. R. Osgood (who, like Mr. Fields, had risen from the ranks in the business) became head of the house. He was able, honorable, large-hearted, but aggressive and selfconfident, and under his leadership the concern assumed enterprises involving hazards which the other’s more conservative judgment could hardly have sanctioned. Of these, I remember most about Every Saturday, which began, and ran some time, as a modest reprint of selections from foreign periodicals ; but which J. R. Osgood & Co. (the new firm) changed to a large illustrated sheet, designed to rival Harper’s Weekly in popular favor. It did not, however, prove a success; and before long financial difficulties necessitated the disposal of the Atlantic Monthly to its present publishers, and the sale of Our Young Folks to Scribner & Co., who merged it in St. Nicholas.

Thus again I experienced the severance of agreeable and advantageous business relations that I had come to consider permanent. With the house established by the elder Ticknor, as with that of Phillips, Sampson & Co., I had esteemed it an honor to be connected; and once more I felt deprived of a home. The “Old Corner Bookstore ” (on the corner of Washington and School streets) was old and famous as early as when I first came to Boston. Phillips, Sampson & Co. had Emerson and Prescott leading their list of authors; while Ticknor & Fields were the publishers of Longfellow and Tennyson, Lowell and Hawthorne, and all that goodly company to whose names Emerson’s was also to be added after the downfall of the Winter Street house. The acquisition at the same time (1859) of the Atlantic Monthly had been all that was needed to give the Old Corner unrivaled preëminence as representative of the best literature of New England, and of Old England in America. I followed the Atlantic with my contributions, which led to the publication by the firm, not only of my books for the young growing out of Our Young Folks, but also of three other books, of some importance at least to their author, — Coupon Bonds and Other Stories, consisting chiefly of contributions I had made to the Atlantic and Harper’s, and two volumes of verse, The Vagabonds and Other Poems, and The Emigrant’s Story and Other Poems, also collected from periodicals. The scattering of these volumes was not the least of the casualties I had to deplore, upon the passing of the firm of J. R. Osgood & Co. All, however, went into good hands; and the misfortune that cost me the editorship — to which I had become attached by so many interests that I felt the loss as a personal bereavement — brought with it, as misfortunes so often do, its compensation, in the freedom it gave to form other desirable engagements.

Along with Our Young Folks the new serial I had commenced writing for it went over to St. Nicholas, the chapters I had put into type for our January number going into the January number of that magazine. In the same number I published a card, in which, as editor, I took leave of Our Young Folks readers, and bespoke their favor for the new monthly.

I confidently expected to finish Jack’s career in Fast Friends, but that story had been running hardly half a year when I was invited to New York for a conference with Mr. Roswell Smith and Mrs. Dodge, regarding a serial for the ensuing year (1875). Mr. Smith was Dr. J. G. Holland’s partner in the publication of St. Nicholas and Scribner’s Monthly (now The Century). Mrs. Dodge was then, as always after, chief editor of St. Nicholas; and Frank R. Stockton, at that time unknown to fame, was, as I well remember, her office assistant. For a couple of days Mr. Smith, whose guest I was, gave a large part of his leisure to making my visit pleasant; and I came home with a commission to write a fifth Jack Hazard story, The Young Surveyor.

This was the last of the series, Jack having reached manhood, and won the hand of the heroine ; but it was not the last of my continued stories for St. Nicholas. Others of a similar character succeeded, the chief of which were His Own Master, The Tinkham Brothers’ Tide-Mill, Toby Trafford (written at Geneva, during my second sojourn abroad), and, passing over several others, Two Biddicut Boys (1897), the latest up to this time; all republished duly in book form.

While I was still connected with Our Young Folks, Mr. Ford (for whom I had previously written a good deal when he was editor of the Watchman and Reflector) asked me for contributions to the Youth’s Companion, which he had recently acquired. The Companion had been started early in the century by Nathaniel Willis, father of N. P. Willis, and had held the even tenor of its way as a rather namby-pamby child’s paper, until by a curious combination of circumstances Mr. Ford woke up one morning, in some surprise, to find himself its sole proprietor. It had then about five thousand subscribers. Being a man of broad business views, he had at first hardly dreamed of doing much with it; but while looking about for an enterprise nearer the level of his ambition, he put some money and a good deal of thought and energy into the little paper. He was “ashamed,” he once frankly confessed to me, to connect his reputation with “so small an affair; ” and so issued it over the fictitious firm name of “Perry Mason & Co.,” by whom it purports to be published to this day. It was for a long time a mystery, even to those who had transactions with the concern, who “Perry Mason & Co.” could be. There was then no other “ Perry Mason ” or “Co.” than the quiet little man with the pale forehead and round smooth face, whose plain signature was to become so familiar to me, signed to letters and checks, Daniel S. Ford.

My engagement with Our Young Folks prohibited me from writing for any other periodical, except the Atlantic, to which I remained a pretty constant contributor; but as soon as I was released from that, Mr. Ford again called on me, and I went over to the Companion, writing for it stories long and short, and after a while one serial a year, for many years. From a mere child’s paper he was converting it rapidly into a miscellany of the very first class for young people and families. Its circulation increased at a rate that astonished Mr. Ford himself, rising by waves and tides from thousands to hundreds of thousands. Quorum pars parva fui; of all this I felt myself a part, if only a small part; it was a part, however, which he was always magnanimous in recognizing.

He was as liberal with his pay as he was with his praise. Both may have been designed to encourage my contributions ; but I think he was as sincere in the one as he was generous in the other. The pay he increased voluntarily, without any solicitation on my part, often drawing his checks for larger sums than our agreement called for, and making them from time to time larger and larger, until the rate of compensation became, considering the circumstances, munificent. Our personal relations were of the pleasantest. When I handed him a manuscript, he frequently drew his check for it immediately, without reading it; always urging me to write more.

Unfortunately, while the paper was building up, his health was breaking down ; he became simultaneously an invalid and a millionaire. I was one of the last contributors whom he continued to see and transact business with personally. At last it became so difficult for him to meet any attachés of the paper except his “heads of departments,” as he called them, that I discontinued my visits to him, some time in 1887. The business of the concern had then grown to prodigious proportions. He had as many heads of departments as the President of the United States, and the paper circulated over half a million copies. I once heard Dr. Holmes wittily describe the increase in the number of instructors in the Medical College since his time. “Then,” said he, “there were five or six of us. Now there are over seventy. The roast beef of yesterday is the hashed meat of to-day.” The change in Mr. Ford’s working force, from the time when I began with him to the last year of our intercourse, was even more surprising. He was at first alone in the editorship and business management. Afterwards Mr. Hezekiah Butterworth became editorial assistant. Then one by one others were taken on, until there were anywhere from twelve to twenty on the editorial staff alone. The paper in the meanwhile adopted the policy of securing for its advertised lists of contributors banner names, which were paid for and paraded at a cost that would have ruined in a single season a periodical of less affluent resources. Even members of the English royal family were induced to become contributors to the paper which Mr. Ford, a few years before, had been ashamed to put his name to as publisher. As he gradually withdrew from its management my own contributions to it became fewer, and ceased almost altogether during my second sojourn in Europe from 1888 to 1891. Friendly as its new managers were, I could never feel at home in the paper’s palatial new quarters, and it could never again be to me what it had been in the era of its earlier marvelous growth, and in the happiest days of the remarkable man who may be said to have created it.

My contributions to the Companion comprised, besides a large number of short stories and other sketches and poems, some of my most successful serials, among these The Silver Medal, The Pocket Rifle, and The Little Master. All the long stories and many of the short ones, like my contributions to Our Young Folks and St. Nicholas, have been reissued in book form.

I also wrote a serial for one sensational paper, a New York weekly. Although I was offered an exceptionally good price for this I hesitated about accepting it until I had consulted two or three judicious friends, one of them Mr. Longfellow.

“Accept it, by all means! ” he said. “Of course you will not write down to the level of such a paper, but try to bring it up to your level. You will have an audience that you would probably reach in no other way.” And he added something more as to the good work I would do by showing that literature could be entertaining without being melodramatic.

I remembered well his words because they coincided so entirely with my own views in writing for such a publication. I furnished the story, which, while not at all sensational, won the approval of the publishers, and which was afterwards included in my sets of books for the young, under the title Bound in Honor.

All this time I continued subject to the “blissful thralldom of the Muse.” In 1877 I published The Book of Gold, comprising, with the title poem, four others of lesser length, all of which had first appeared in Harper’s Magazine, illustrated with a view to the volume; A Home Idyl in 1881, and The Lost Earl in 1888, both likewise made up principally of my metrical contributions to periodicals.

In addition to the five books of verse already designated, I will mention Guy Vernon, in a Masque of Poets (1878), of the authorship of which anonymous novelette in verse I now for the first time make public acknowledgment.

My stories, written ostensibly for the young, were intended for older readers as well; and this was doubtless one secret of their success. I was sometimes amused by hearing of a parent carrying home the periodical containing an installment of one of my serials, and hiding it from the younger members of the household until he had enjoyed the first reading of the chapters. This was one of the satisfactions that reconciled me to a kind of work not at all in the direction of my earlier ambition, but which a sort of fatality — perhaps the divinity that shapes our ends — led me to do.

Once when I was trouting in a mountain stream, I came to one of those potholes that pebbles, in whirling eddies, occasionally scoop in the solid ledge. It was cask-shaped, with polished, bulging sides, and it was filled with crystalclear water, in the depths of which were discernible fishes of extraordinary size. They would not rise to a fly, but I let down a bait, saw one of the lusty fellows make for it, and drew out a dace about four or five inches long. Wondering how the large fish had missed the hook and allowed a little brother to take it, I dropped my bait again, once more saw a big one seize it, and once more pulled out a small wriggler. I had to repeat this process several times before my senses were convinced that the large fishes were an illusion, occasioned by a combined refraction and reflection of light in the oval-shaped rocky receptacle. The giants peopling the pothole were mere pygmies, one and all.

This has been largely my experience in life. The fish in the pool of anticipation has (with few exceptions) appeared vastly larger than when I caught and took it from the hook. The fame and good fortune I cast my line for, which hope and imagination magnified to such alluring proportions, proved but modest prizes, when landed in the light of common day. Likewise the great men I have approached have (with the exceptions aforesaid) proved to be common mortals, with the usual limitations, when I have come to regard them at short range. Instead of great epics and works of fiction that all the world would be waiting to acclaim, I have written some minor poems cared for by a few, half a dozen novels, and a large number of small books, that have been successful enough in their way.

These last, as I have endeavored to show, were written, not so much from choice, as in answer to an actual immediate demand for what, as it proved, I was well fitted to do, namely, a style of story that should not be bad as literature, and which should interest at the same time young and old. This I have been the more willing to do because the love story, deemed indispensable in most novels, has been so overdone as to become flat and unprofitable except when retouched with exceptional freshness; and because I was glad of an opportunity to produce a sort of minor novel true to life, with other elements of interest replacing that traditional material. Unquestionably, too, I obeyed a law of my nature in moving on lines of least resistance. In novel-writing I had countless competitors, many vastly abler than myself. In my own peculiar field I was alone.

When I was returning from the World’s Fair in 1893, a young woman journalist came down from Buffalo to Lockport to “interview ” me, in my brother’s house, for the Illustrated Express. In her three column article in that paper I was made to say many things differently from the manner in which I did say them, and others that I did not say at all, as is common with “ interviewers; ” but I find in her report one paragraph which so exactly expressed my mind upon the subject of my boys’ stories that I reproduce it here. “Undoubtedly,” I said, “they have in a great measure obscured my popularity as a writer of verse. I have naturally felt somewhat aggrieved at this. My best, fullest, and most thoughtful work has been woven into my poems; yet I find myself far more widely known as a story-writer than as a poet. But the fact has its compensations. Wherever I go I am greeted as an old friend by boys, or by men who have read my books as boys, or, better still, I receive the thanks of some mother whose boy she fancies the reading of my books has consoled in times of sickness, or perhaps helped to find, and inspired to keep, the right road. I don’t know but that, after all, the most satisfactory monument I could choose would be to live in the hearts and memories of mothers and boys.”

I had in my early years several literary passions, more or less ardent and enduring. The first were Scott and Byron, the idols of my boyhood. Then it was Poe, the melody and glamour of whose verse had for me an indescribable fascination. Afterwards came Tennyson, who, with an equal sensitiveness to beauty and the magic of words, opened fountains of thought and of human interest that seemed never to have been unsealed in Poe. Dickens was an early favorite; a little later Thackeray; and I had unbounded admiration for Carlyle. Shelley I never cared for, except in a few lyrics (I could never get through The Witch of Atlas or The Revolt of Islam) ; — he had line Æolian chords, but a thin sounding-board; — and Keats was too luxurious a draught to be more than rarely indulged in. At one time I addicted myself to Browning; and Shakespeare I had always with me. Macaulay, Montaigne, Plato, Whitman, — to each of these I gave in turn seasons of almost exclusive devotion. But of all writers ancient or modern, poets, philosophers, prophets, the one to whom my spiritual indebtedness was first and last the greatest, was Emerson.

I heard much of Emerson during my first years in Boston, but through such false echoes that mere prejudice rendered me indifferent to the man and his message. More than to any other source, I owed this misconception to Boston’s favorite evening paper, whose versatile and gifted editor — himself a poet, the author of at least one popular song, and of two or three dramas more or less successful — now and again printed extracts from Emerson’s writings, with such comments upon them as perverted their meaning and exposed them to ridicule. It was not till long after this that my own experience taught me to distrust such extracts; as when some critic accused me of making the new moon rise in the east, citing from one of my stories a sentence that really seemed to convict me of the blunder he at the same time charged against Coleridge, in the famous lines: —

“ From the sails the dew did drip —
Till clomb above the eastern bar
The hornèd moon, with one brig’ht star
Within the nether tip.”

Just what the Ancient Mariner had in his vivid but somewhat ill-regulated imagination I will not stop to discuss; but what I described — as the context would have shown — was the “hornèd moon ” indeed, rising over the city roofs; not the new moon, however, but the old moon, — not crescent but decrescent, — which the youthful hero of the story, in studying the stars from his scuttle window too long past midnight, saw (as I myself had seen it in just such circumstances) soaring pale and ghostlike in the morning sky. This early moon (which Coleridge undoubtedly had in mind, with the morning star not too literally “within the nether tip”) my critic had very likely never observed; just as the talented editor of evening news had never witnessed those splendors of the spiritual dawn which the poet-seer discerned, and which his detractors saw fit to discredit and deride.

With this editor (the same who had previously declined to print my sonnet to Theodore Parker) I became acquainted later, and found him to be not only a person of taste and culture, as his own writings showed, but a fair-minded man, who would not, I am sure, have done any one an intentional wrong. But how great a wrong he had done, not only to Emerson, but still more to me, I became aware, when a happy chance revealed to me the constellations of thought against which he had so long helped to keep my scuttle closed.

It was a passage from Emerson in Griswold’s Prose-Writers of America which by its incisiveness of style and singular suggestiveness startled me as by a new discovery, and sent me hasting to the nearest bookstore for the first volume of the Essays. This must have been in the latter part of 1852 ; for in my copy of the Second Series I find my name and the date written, “January, 1853 ; ” and I had read, and proclaimed from the housetop of my enthusiasm, and given away, the First Essays, before I procured another copy, along with the Second Series. The First Series I have now in a later edition, 1859. Between this and the earlier one I must have possessed and parted with several successive copies, which in those days I had a mania for presenting to friends who had not read Emerson; to whom I imagined he would bring as welcome a revelation as he had brought to me. I always chose the First Series, comprising Self-Reliance, Spiritual Laws, and Heroism, for that propaganda. It was a fond illusion, I found that those gift copies were seldom read; or, if read at all, that their beauties were but hazily perceived, and their skyey heraldings unheeded.

To the Essays I quickly added the Poems, Representative Men, Nature and the Addresses, contributions to the Dial; whatever of Emerson I could lay my eager hands on. No words of mine are adequate to describe the effect upon me of those extraordinary writings. It was more like the old-time religious conversion or change of heart than anything I had ever before experienced; some such effect as the best Biblical writings might have had, if I could have brought to them as fresh and receptive a mind, undulled by the dreary associations of my Sunday-school going and pew-imprisoned boyhood. They inspired me with self-trust; they reinforced my perceptions, and opened new vistas of ideas, as if some optic glass of highly magnifying and separating power had been added to my hitherto unaided vision. They caused me to make vows to truth, to purity, to poverty, — if poverty should be the penalty of absolute obedience to truth; vows, alas, which had often to be renewed, but never to be disowned or renounced.

When I considered by what misrepresentations I had been kept out of that which I felt to be an inestimable birthright, I could not quite forgive their author; and I had afterwards an opportunity of knowing that the injury had touched one more deeply concerned than I. That opportunity came after I had begun to publish my first small books through Phillips, Sampson & Co., who were also the publishers of Emerson’s volumes. They were at the same time issuing a series of English classics, under the supervision of the Boston editor in question.

Entering the bookstore one forenoon, I met the said editor going out; and presently saw Emerson at a shelf examining some books. In the private office I found Mr. Phillips, who received me with a curious smile, and, when I had entered, closed the door. Then he related with quiet glee a circumstance that had just occurred. The editor, seeing Emerson at the bookshelves, had asked Mr. Phillips for an introduction to him. Mr. Phillips said, “I will consult Mr. Emerson;” and going out into the bookroom he proposed the presentation. Emerson bent his brows and responded in his slow, emphatic way, —

“Sargent? Mr. Epes Sargent, of the Evening Transcript ? ” Then, after a pause: “I have nothing for Mr. Sargent, and Mr. Sargent has nothing for me.” Perfectly dispassionate and dignified; but there was nothing more to be said, and Mr. Phillips had to go back to his visitor, and tell him that the desired introduction was declined. I was pleased through and through to learn how my own grievance in the matter had been atoned for, and still more interested to find that even the serene Concord sage was, after all, human, and capable of a righteous resentment, — if that can indeed be called by so misleading a name, which was more likely the feeling he avowed in his letter to Henry Ware, regarding their differences of opinion: “I shall read what you and other good men write, as I have always done, — glad when you speak my thought, and skipping the page that has nothing for me.” He simply “skipped” Mr. Sargent.

It may be in place here to state that the conservative editor grew in time to be as radical as Parker, if not as transcendental as Emerson ; during the war of emancipation he published an antislavery novel, and afterwards wrote books on spiritualism, of which he became an earnest exponent.

That the average editor and man of culture should have found in Emerson many enigmas seems natural enough, and hardly to need an apology, since even the young Cambridge poet, Henry W. Longfellow, could write in a letter to his father, upon the appearance of the first book of Essays, in 1841, that it was “full of sublime prose poetry, magnificent absurdities, and simple truths. It is a striking book, but as it is impossible to see any connection between the ideas, I do not think it would please you.” The lack of connection was indisputable ; and, if a fault, characteristic. There was nothing of the willow or the elm, no graceful sweep of foliage or drooping spray, in the mind of the man or in his style of writing. His ideas were like the needles of the pine, each separate, pointed, bristling, in number infinite, crowning the stately stem that was a symbol of himself, as it was his favorite among all the forest trees.

Once on an ocean voyage an accomplished Belgian who was coming to this country asked me about our best writers. I gave him a volume of Emerson, and he undertook the Essay on Manners. In a little while he came to me in amazement and disgust, declaring that there was no logical sequence in the thoughts. I said, “That does not trouble me. I see the mountain peaks, and take for granted the invisible range out of which they rise. ” But for him, without clear logical sequence there was no such thing as style.

At the time of the Sargent episode I had myself never spoken with Emerson, and should have deemed it high presumption on my part to ask to be presented to him. All the more gratifying therefore was the way in which our first interview came about. Entering the publisher’s private room one day, I found Mr. Emerson there; and, having said “Good-morning ” to Mr. Phillips, I retired to the bookroom. Presently Mr. Phillips came to me and said Mr. Emerson would like to meet me. Thrilled with happy surprise, yet doubtful, I said, “I am afraid you suggested it! ” “Not at all,” he replied. “When you spoke to me in the office, he kept his eyes on you; and after you had gone out, he asked, ' Is that somebody I ought to know ? ’ I told him who you were, and he said, ’I wish to see him! '”

Just when this occurred I cannot now recall, except that it was in the spring of the year; for when, after one of his questions, I told him that I lived in Boston, he inquired, “How can you spare the country, this gay spring weather ? ” I said, “That is something we cannot spare altogether; we must have our Woodnotes, and be free to follow our Forerunners.” The moment I had spoken I feared he might regard the allusion to his poems as idle compliment; but it evidently did not displease him. With his “wise, sweet smile,” he remarked, “ I confess a tender interest in any mention of my poems ; I am so seldom reminded that they are ever read by anybody. It is only my prose that gives them a sort of vicarious vitality; ” a just statement of the comparative esteem in which his prose and verse were held in those early years of the second half of the century. After some deprecatory words from me, he went on, in his peculiar, hesitating manner, pausing often as if seeking the right word, then uttering it with an emphasis that relieved it of any suspicion of uncertainty : —

“I feel it a hardship that — with something of a lover’s passion for what is to me the most precious thing in life, poetry — I have no gift of fluency in it, only a rude and stammering utterance. ”

After this I felt there was no longer any danger of appearing a base flatterer; I forgot his fine injunction of forbearance, — in the presence of high behavior to refrain from speech,

“ Nobility more nobly to repay ; ”

and averred the penetrating thought, often the incomparable note of beauty and sweetness, I found in his verse, citing some lines that at least attested an appreciative familiarity with it.

“ Here and there a touch; here and there a grain among the husks, ” he smilingly admitted. To all which I listened with intense interest, having hitherto been barely able to conceive of any limitations, conscious or other, in the master I so much revered; fancying the rudenesses he deplored to be an essential part of his scheme, a relieving background to his beauties ; fondly imagining some magic of genius even in his rare grammatical lapses, like the strange error of construction in these lines, perpetuated I think in later editions,— an error which a simple transposition of the words to their natural order will instantly reveal, —

“ There need no vows to bind
Whom not each other seek, but find.”

The talk turning upon other topics, I remember particularly what was said of Alcott,one of whose “Conversations ” I had lately attended, and found, as I confessed, disappointing. I said, “It was no doubt partly my fault that he was n’t inspired; for, as he told us complacently afterwards, ‘a wise man among blockheads is the greatest blockhead of all. ’ ”

With an amused smile Emerson replied, “That is Alcott! He is wise, but he cannot always command his wisdom. More than most men, he needs provocation — and the happy moment. ” When I asked why so great a man had never written anything remarkable, he said, “He makes sad work indeed when he attempts to put his thoughts on paper; as if the jealous Muse forsook him the moment he betakes himself to his pen.” I recall also this observation: “ He has precious goods on his shelves; but he has no show-window.” This was the first time I ever heard the “ show-window ” metaphor used in this way, and I am inclined to think it originated with Emerson, perhaps on this occasion. I myself may have aided to popularize it by quoting him.

I had after that opportunities of seeing the more familiar side of the sage, and remember how scandalized I once was, at a Saturday Club dinner (when I was present as a guest, not as a member), to hear him rallied by the convivial and too irreverent Horatio Woodman for his “neglect of duty” and “want of conscience ” in some business of the club. Emerson took the badinage in good part, answering, in a sort of dazed surprise, that he had not understood just what part of the neglected business had been entrusted to his care. “You should have known, ” said Woodman. “ Every member of this club is expected to do his duty.” I could n’t help recalling the incident, a few years later, when Woodman suddenly dropped out, not only from the Saturday Club, but from all business and social circles that knew him so well as a man of affairs and a consorter with literary celebrities ; vanishing in a night, never more to be heard from by anxious clients whose funds he had mysteriously conveyed away.

At that same table I, for the first and only time, saw Emerson, sitting opposite me, light a cigar, and pull away at it as unconcernedly as the least saintly man at the board. That he should partake sparingly of wine, I regarded as fitting enough. But to me there appeared something incongruous about the cigar, I hardly know why; for it always seemed right and proper that Holmes, Lowell, and even Longfellow should smoke. I believe, however, that Emerson did not have the tobacco habit. His indulgence (if it was an indulgence) was limited to rare occasions.

Emerson’s appearance was striking, and his manner not without a certain austere awkwardness, especially noticeable on the lecture platform, where for years I seldom missed an opportunity of hearing him. He was tall and spare, with a slight stoop of the shoulders, a head carried slightly forward, and fine eyes of a peculiar peering, penetrating expression. The strong aquiline nose was the most characteristic feature, but he had ears to match; they were the side wheels to that prow; viewed behind, they stood out from his head like wings borrowed from the feet of Mercury. The head itself was one to baffle phrenology. There seemed to be nothing remarkable about it except its unusual height in the spiritual and moral regions, veneration, firmness, self-esteem. It was otherwise almost commonplace, full in the observing faculties, but falling away to flatness in what is known as causality; likewise full, however, in ideality and sublimity. His power did not lie in the so-called reasoning faculties; he neither possessed nor overmuch esteemed the gifts of the controversialist and the dialectician. He never argued, he announced; what was reasoning in others was in him a questioning of the perceptions. To all this add temperament, genius, the torrential source of being we name the soul, elusive to the anatomist, and to the fumbling fingers of the phrenologist forever past finding out.

In lecturing he had but one gesture, a downward thrust of his clenched right hand, which was nearly always held contorted and tense at his side, and which he used with unconscious earnestness in driving his imaginary stakes. He was at times amusingly careless with his manuscript, losing his place and searching for it with stoical indifference to his patiently waiting audience, — “up to my old tricks,” as I once heard him say, when he was an unusually long time shuffling the misplaced leaves. He had the same habit that marked his conversation, of seeming often to pause and hesitate before coming down with force upon the important word. His voice was a pure baritone, and a perfect vehicle for his thought, which in great and happy moments imparted to it a quality I never heard in any other human speech. Schools of oratory, teachers of elocution, might have learned a new lesson from those resonant intonations ; and I knew at least one professor of the art who studied them with the closest admiring attentiveness.

Professor Lewis Monroe, who had himself a voice of extraordinary breadth and mellowness and of highest culture, once said to me, as we walked away together from one of the lectures, “Those tones cannot be taught; they are possible only to him who can fill them with the same energy of spirit; it is the soul that creates that voice.” Wendell Phillips had an organ of greater range, on the whole the most effective oratorical instrument I ever heard; it had all the notes of persuasion, sarcasm, invective, impassioned appeal; in its combination of qualities surpassing that of the graceful and finished Everett, the witty and familiar Beecher, the too ponderous Sumner, the almost inspired Kossuth, — even the voice of the great Webster, as I heard it, probably in its decadence, when the worn and weary statesman was lifted to his feet, to make his last speech in Faneuil Hall. Emerson was no orator, like either of these; he had no gift of extemporary utterance, no outburst of improvisation. But in the expression of ethical thought, or in downright moral vehemence, I believed and still believe him unequaled. Well I remember how he once thrilled an immense audience in Tremont Temple, in the Kansas Free State war days, in speaking of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, which Rufus Choate had recently brushed rather contemptuously aside as “glittering generalities.” Emerson quoted the phrase ; then, after a moment’s pause, hurled at the remotest benches these words, like ringing javelins: “They do glitter ! they have a right to glitter! ” with a concentrated power no orator could have surpassed.

The Alcott Conversation to which I have alluded was held at the house of Mr. Alonzo E. Newton, in Cambridge; and there were present, besides myself, Mr. and Mrs. Newton and Mr. Lewis Monroe, all eager for new thought and full of the joyous anticipation of listening to so sublime a teacher. I recollect his main stock of ideas, — upon diet (he was a vegetarian, as I had myself once been for a good twelvemonth) ; upon temperament, insisting upon the superiority of the light, or angelic, to the dark, or demonic, and instancing himself and Emerson as types of the “highest;” and, among other things, the proper attitude of a wise man uttering his wisdom, — not standing, but seated (he himself always sat). As Monroe had aspirations toward oratory, and usually felt an impulse to rise to his feet when he had anything impressive to say even to a small audience, he ventured a question on that point; to which Alcott answered serenely that such an attitude might be natural to a person of the inferior temperament (Monroe was dark), but not to one of the purer type. I said I should hardly suppose that temperament had so much to do with it, in Monroe’s case, as his habit in teaching; he was accustomed to talking on his feet; I was not, and would never talk on my feet, if I could help it. Alcott said oracularly, “I teach; I sit.”

He thereupon took from his pocket a limp-covered book in which were copied or pasted selections that he at times relied upon to help out his Conversations. He first read Emerson’s Bacchus (which I knew by heart), and read it badly, in a sort of schoolboy manner, amazing in one who called himself a teacher, and who had in fact been a school-teacher many years of his life. This he followed with The Goblet, the first lines of which were indelibly impressed upon my memory by the twang and unction of his intonations : —

“ I drank the dregs of every cup,
All institutions I drank up ;
But still one cup remains for me,
The sacred cup of Family.”

“That is not Emerson’s?” I commented, although the poem had lines in Emerson’s manner, — I should say now in Emerson’s worst manner.

“It is — not — Emerson’s,” Alcott slowly replied; and as no further comment was forthcoming, he closed the book, in a dead silence. I knew then that the poem was his own, as well as I did when I saw it long afterwards in his Tablets, with emendations, and — what was still more to its advantage — without the singsong. As Monroe was then beginning his great work as a teacher of elocution, which finally developed into the School of Oratory (of Boston University), and as the first principle of his system was absolute naturalness of tone and emphasis, I felt — and indeed a glance at his countenance during the reading assured me — that he had pleasantly recovered from the shock of having his impulse as to attitude condemned by our philosopher as belonging to the lower temperament.

After that, more abstruse subjects were introduced, and Alcott threw out some of his transcendental ideas, not with any coherence or coÖrdination, but rather in hints and tangents. These regarded preëxistence, which he entertained not poetically, like Wordsworth in his Intimations, but more literally even than Plato, from whom his particular views on the subject appeared to have been derived; with especial reference to the “lapse.” By this he meant the lapse from the original state of perfection in which the souls of men were created, and from which they fell before they were born into the world, or there was a world for them to be born into. The creation of the world itself seemed to have been disastrously affected by this lapse. As, according to Edmund Spenser, whose familiar line he quoted,

“ Soule is forme, and doth the bodie make,”

so, according to Alcott, by a supposed law of correspondences suspiciously like Swedenborg’s, the soul of man made the world, and, because of the said lapse, flawed it with imperfections. Reptiles and other malignant and grotesque creatures were merely man’s low thoughts and evil dispositions projected into those concrete forms. It was a new juggling of the old riddle, — if man was created perfect, how could he fall ? and, since a sinless deity could not have created sin, how came sin into the world ? It was hard to tell whether this curious readaptation of the Calvinistic dogmas of the fall of man and the origin of evil, with its strong flavor of Neo-Platonism, was to be received as fact or fable; but what I learned subsequently of Alcott’s philosophy convinced me that it was seriously meant. Even in those early days, before the publication of The Origin of Species had revolutionized nineteenth-century thought, the best minds were coming gradually to a perception of the truth, — more or less dimly foreshadowed by here and there a writer ancient or modern, — that the methods of nature are evolutionary ; that, as Emerson expressed it, in the fine pre-Darwinian lines: —

“ Striving to be man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form.”

But Alcott’s theory was quite the reverse of this, — that man, instead of ascending through nature, had descended into it from some previous state of existence, and had muddled it. Much of this appeared to me hazy fantasticality. We found him, nevertheless, an interesting man, and well worth our money (his fee for a Conversation was anywhere from five dollars upwards, or whatever his friends chose to give him) ; although this particular Conversation proved, as I confessed to Emerson, disappointing.

Some time after this I had the pleasure of attending another of these Conversations, which was held at the house of Dr. William F. Channing, — a son of the great Channing, and a man of scientific attainments, well known at that time as the inventor of Boston’s system of electric fire alarm. Alcott should on that occasion have talked well, if ever; for there were present, besides Channing and other celebrities, Whipple the essayist, and Emerson himself. Even in that atmosphere his genius spread but feeble and ineffectual wings. The Conversation was much more constrained than it had been in the smaller company at Mr. Newton’s; and I remember how depressingly it flagged, until Emerson, as if to prompt his friend, perhaps also to give him a hint as to his inert condition and a chance to explain himself out of it, spoke of the intermittence of the divine influx, saying with his customary alternating pause and compensating emphasis, —“What do you think of the — solstice ? of the — eclipse? We are not always — in the sun.”

Yet with that opening Alcott had only cloudy and commonplace suggestions to make, regarding reaction after effort, periods of rest, and the like ; never once soaring into the blue. I could not help recalling, and wishing to quote, the fine sentences Emerson himself had struck out on this theme, in one of his essays, writing of the difference between one hour and another in life; of our faith coming in moments, our power descending into us we know not whence ; and of our being pensioners of this ethereal river whose flowing we neither control nor comprehend. I was able subsequently to recall many things said by others that evening, although nobody talked particularly well; but hardly anything of Alcott’s. His part in the Conversation seemed strangely lacking in spontaneity and point. If to me so much less memorable than I had previously found it, at my friend’s house in Cambridge, it could not, I am sure, have been altogether owing to my greater susceptibility to the first impression.

Alcott was tall and well proportioned, with thin white hair worn in long, flowing locks, a pure, pale complexion, placid features, and a rather loose mouth. Placidity appeared to be his normal condition, from which you would have said no conceivable circumstances could rouse him to any display of energy. If an acquaintance met him in the woods, he could he counted upon to do two things, — begin to discourse, and to look about for a log to sit down on. He began life as a Yankee peddler; but that occupation, commonly thought inseparable from shrewdness and an eye for the dollar, did not seem to have developed in him a sense of the practical value of money, or of pecuniary obligation. He had perfect faith in a Providence that justified the ways and looked out for the welfare of the saints. A friend of mine once saw him on a Nantasket boat, without a ticket, or money to pay for one. When called sharply to account by the fare-taker, he remarked innocently that the trip had attracted him, and that he believed “ there would be some provision ” — a belief that was immediately vindicated by a passenger recognizing him, and stepping up to make the said “provision.” There were times, before his daughter Louisa began to earn money by her facile and popular pen, when the family would have starved but for the generous gifts of Emerson and others, and the energies of Mrs. Alcott, a woman of great worth and good sense, who kept the wolf from the door while her husband dreamed dreams.

I met him occasionally in those years, and tried hard to accept his own estimate of himself, and to see in him what Emerson saw. His own estimate and what Emerson saw are curiously shown in a passage from Emerson’s diary, quoted in Sanborn’s Life of Alcott: “I said to him, ‘A great man formulates his thought. Who can tell what you exist to say ? You at least ought to say what is your thought, what you stand for.’ He looked about a little and anSwered that ' he had not a lecture or a book,—but if Zoroaster, Pythagoras, Socrates, Behmen, Swedenborg were to meet in this town, he should not be ashamed, but should be free of that company.' It was well said, and I know not whom in this country they would ask for so readily.”

I wrote once, in an epigram intended for the eye of a friend: —

Do you care to meet Alcott ? His mind is a mirror,
Reflecting the unspoken thought of his hearer:
To the great he is great; to the fool he’s a fool:
In the world’s dreary desert a crystalline pool,
Where a lion looks in and a lion appears;
But an ass will see only his own ass’s ears.

When I found that he was not always great even to the greatest, that his most illustrious friend failed at times to evoke a luminous image from the pool that to my apprehension appeared oftener stagnant than crystalline, still I was bound to believe those whose opportunities of sounding him were so much better than mine, and who discovered in him a profundity I could never perceive. Yet I wondered not a little at Emerson’s taking so seriously pretensions that must to him at times have seemed grotesque, as when Alcott once said to him (as cited again from the diary, in Sanborn’s Life of Alcott), “You write of Plato, Pythagoras, Jesus ; why do not you write of me ? ”

J. T. Trowbridge.

(To be continued.)