Some Nineteenth-Century Americans

THE books on the biographical shelf of any library stand a double chance of interesting the reader to whom no human thing is foreign. They are like all other books in that the writers must give their own flavor, more or less individual, to each. They are unlike the rest of the library in that the theme of each is inevitably that most human of themes, —a person and his life, with all that is implied in the contact of one life with others. It may almost be said that a double stupidity is required to make a biography dull, — a stupidity enveloping both the writer and his theme. There are widely varying degrees of interest in the things to be revealed in different biographies, even as biographers display a wide diversity of cunning and power in making the most of their opportunities. Yet the stars do not often conjoin so malignly as to permit a complete disappointment both in theme and in treatment. Certainly the titles and the authorship of a few of the new accessions to the shelf of biography bear with them a promise of which at least a partial fulfillment is assured.

It has become the fashion amongst biographers to let a man speak as volubly as possible for himself — through letters, diaries, and quotations from his published works. When the biographer is essentially less interesting than his theme, this is a fortunate fashion. This relation, however, does not always exist. It may even happen at times that the reader finds himself in the condition of a guest at a dinner to which a delightful host has asked him to meet a delightful friend. The guest goes home disappointed if the host has taken the rôle of a mere prompter, asking those leading questions which provide the links of conversation, and has contributed nothing more himself. Our host, Mr. Henry James, leaves no such regret with those whom he has introduced to William Wetmore Story and His Friends.1 His book has grown from “ a boxful of old papers, personal records and relics all,” which was placed in his hands. In printing these papers, chiefly letters, he has seized every opportunity to let Story speak for himself; but, in the nature of the case, the letters to Story outnumber those of his own writing. From beginning to end of the two volumes, moreover, Mr. James supplies a generous contribution of comment and interpretation, page after page of writing which could have come from no pen but his own. The reader is correspondingly grateful that Mr. James has not followed blindly the current fashion of biography, for besides learning all that is told of Story and his friends one gains a new and fuller acquaintance with Mr. James himself.

The preliminary chapter, Precursors, strikes the keynote of Mr. James’s special fitness for his task. His Precursors are those first Americans of the nineteenth century who found their native land barren of artistic promptings and satisfactions, and sought in Europe what they missed at home. The keen sympathy of Mr. James with these pioneers and their successors is repeatedly shown forth. This, indeed, is quite as it should be, for Story, with all his reasons for feeling himself a true portion of the Boston and Cambridge community, manifestly suffered from something very like homesickness when he revisited it. What it all amounted to —as Mr. James himself has made bold to state the case — “ was that, with an alienated mind, he found himself again steeped in a society both fundamentally and superficially bourgeois, the very type and model of such a society, presenting it in the most favorable, the most admirable, light; so that its very virtues irritated him, so that its inability to be strenuous without passion, its cultivation of its serenity, its presentation of a surface on which it would appear to him that the only ruffle was an occasionally acuter spasm of the moral sense, must have acted as a tacit reproach.” Yet Mr. James indulges the speculation that if Boston, and not Italy, had been the home of Story, the poet rather than the sculptor might have attained the higher development in him. The literary art, as the biographer subtly argues, “ has by no means all its advantages in the picturesque country. . . . In London, in Boston, he would have had to live with his conception, there being nothing else about him of the same color and quality.” In one way and another, then, it is honestly made to appear that Story paid the penalty of the absentee. But the points at which the insight of Mr. James has penetrated the less evident significances of this theme are quite too many to specify.

Of the letters at Mr. James’s disposal, those written by Story himself reveal many winning qualities of a man with rarely versatile powers. In none of them does he stand forth more clearly than when writing to the friends of longest association, Lowell and Mr. Norton. Yet he appears with but little loss of distinctness in the letters which all his friends wrote to him. One realizes him the more clearly for finding Lowell at his own delightful best in more than one of his characteristic bits of fooling. It is only to a man of a certain sort — none too familiar — that Browning could have written as he did in the great crisis that came to him with the death of Mrs. Browning. Of many other friends — such as Sumner, Landor, Lord Lytton — there are characteristic glimpses. Mr. James’s image of most of them as “ ghosts ” is forced perhaps into a duty too constant and obvious. In many passages of the biographer’s work there is of course much that is anything but obvious. Humor, insight, delicacy of perception and expression, — these good things are so abundant that one should not grow querulous over such sentences as, “ The ship of our friends was, auspiciously — if not indeed, as more promptly determinant of reactions, ominously — the America, and they passed Cape Race (oh the memory, as through the wicked light of wild seastorms, of those old sick passings of Cape Race !) on October 13th.” This is not an isolated example of what may be called Mr. James’s past-mastery of the English sentence. These happily separated fragments baffle and estrange one like passages from his later novels. Yet here they may be taken — like the inadequate index with which the volumes are equipped — not too seriously ; for the compensations are many. The total impression of the volumes is that of a faithful picture of a delightful man, period, and group of personalities.

The fruits of sophistication and of simplicity could hardly be contrasted more strongly than in turning from Mr. James’s work to the record of Mr. J. T. Trowbridge’s 2 fruitful years. In this volume, with which the readers of the Atlantic have already had some opportunity to familiarize themselves, subject and writer are one. The Backwoods Boyhood which Mr. Trowbridge describes, and his early experiences of teaching and bread-winning by various methods, provided as a whole the most valuable training he could have had for the work he was destined to perform. In spite of the novels and poems with which he has delighted his maturer readers, it is of course as a writer of stories for boys that he has taken his securest hold upon the remembrance of his generation. It is the privilege of maturity to exhibit toward what has concerned the boyhood left behind an attitude in which something patronizing, perhaps half apologetic, is found. But with this is blended the peculiar tenderness which accompanies a sense of proprietorship and early discovery. If the boys who have not yet grown to manhood are doomed to lack a memory which shall become a possession of this sort, so much the worse for them. Their fathers have had Mr. Trowbridge, and in his Own Story many of them will find abundant grounds for their allegiance to him.

The qualities in a writer upon which the youthful reader is perhaps surest to insist are those of directness and sanity. These appear with rare distinctness in Mr. Trowbridge’s reminiscences. The manner of the narrative is simplicity itself. It is all as modest as the writer was when he spoke to Longfellow “ of his being already a famous poet, a Cambridge professor, a man representing the highest culture, when I first came to Boston with the odor of my native backwoods still upon me,—without friends, or academic acquirements, or advantages of any sort;—and of the feeling I could never quite get over, of the immense distance between us.” Yet there is never a trace of that false modesty which sometimes becomes a distorting glass when its possessor looks through its medium upon surrounding objects and persons. This seeing of things clearly — the quality which appeals to boys — gives a high value to the comments Mr. Trowbridge has made in the later chapters of his book upon contemporary writers. To Emerson his “ spiritual indebtedness was first and last the greatest,” and he acknowledges it generously. In writing of Whitman, whom he knew well, he takes the point of view which must ultimately come to prevail — of separating wheat from chaff, both in the man’s character and in his work. His powers are recognized, and his limitations. His debt to Emerson is recorded, apparently beyond dispute. Against those later friends of Whitman who maintain “ that he wrote his first Leaves of Grass before he had read Emerson,” Mr. Trowbridge squarely arrays himself : “ When they urge his own authority for their contention, I can only reply that he told me distinctly the contrary, when his memory was fresher.” The handling of Alcott is as reverent as one with Mr. Trowbridge’s esteem of Emerson’s opinion would naturally make it. Yet the pervading sanity of the reminiscences incites the reader to draw his own conclusions from the story of Alcott on the Nantasket boat, complacently accepting the “provision” which he foresaw would be made for his fare, and of the Conversation in which the Sage ascribed to himself and Emerson the “ highest ” temperament and placed his hearers, including Mr. Trowbridge, far lower in the scale. By swelling the list of just such anecdotes as these, Mr. Trowbridge does his part in confirming the justice of Professor Wendell’s estimate of “ the extreme type of what Yankee idealism could come to when unhampered by humor or common-sense.” Indeed, there is hardly any one of whom Mr. Trowbridge has written without making a personality more definite. It is even worth while to know that Longfellow after a conversation with Dr. Holmes almost always suffered from a headache. It is noteworthy, also, that the author — as if to symbolize his habit of getting at the reality of whatever he is writing about — is fond of setting down the stature of his friends in feet and inches. The book, in a word, is one of those valuable contributions to the knowledge of a period which are also to be measured by the genuine pleasure they bring to the reader.

The service of Mr. Trowbridge’s boyhood in preparing him for his work in the world is one of those things which are easier to recognize when past than they would have been in looking forward. Yet the recognition is complete. The two other autobiographies in the present group of books provide instances of beginnings from which it is even harder to see how a poet3 and a scientist4 could have emerged.

The New England childhood of Richard Henry Stoddard was of the somewhat squalid, quite unlettered kind not often recorded of real persons, for the simple reason that few who have experienced it have developed the power to conquer their circumstances. Even of his motherwho moved from one mill town to another, and after his father’s death married a stevedore and drifted to New York, the son cannot give an encouraging report. His schooling was of the slenderest, yet, with what he taught himself by indomitable reading, it might have led to something more germane to his later life than the work in an iron foundry to which he found himself committed at eighteen. After three years of this hard labor there was a period of employment by a carriage painter, and of the emergence from this work into that of the writer there is no more definite account than the statement with which the story of his courtship comes to a climax : “ Being married, I set resolutely to work to learn the only trade for which I seemed fitted — literature.” The rarely congenial life of the married poets, the good and evil fortunes which they faced with equal courage, the intimacies with such men from the front rank of the second order in letters as G. H. Boker, T. B. Read, and Bayard Taylor, the frequent glimpses of others with more abiding claims to greatness, — these are the chief themes of Mr. Stoddard’s reminiscences. Interesting as many of them are, they fail as a whole to impress one with the importance which would attach to a small collection of the very best lyrics from the published writings of Mr. and Mrs. Stoddard.

Of a type of boyhood quite as unfamiliar in American annals as that of Mr. Stoddard Professor Newcomb’s Reminiscences afford a striking example. The Canadian provinces have so far supplied but few of our men of distinction. Yet the picture of Nova Scotia in the fourth and fifth decades of the century is drawn against a background like that of the remoter parts of New England at an earlier time. The anomaly of Professor Newcomb’s formative period was his apprenticeship through the important years between sixteen and eighteen to a quack botanic doctor whose theory of life was summed up in his declaration : “ This world is all a humbug, and the biggest humbug is the best man. That’s the Yankee doctrine, and that’s the reason the Yankees get along so well.” It was a good augury for the future of the apprentice that this man and his theory filled him with increasing disgust, which finally expressed itself in just such a running away to seek his fortunes as many a writer of fiction has utilized as “ material” for his opening chapters. The hero of the escape soon found himself in those thickly trodden paths of schoolteaching which have so often led on to eminence. On the avenues by which it was reached — through work on the Nautical Almanac, in the Naval Observatory at Washington, in many important astronomical undertakings — he came into contact with many men of distinction in the world of science. Of them, and of the various scientific enterprises with which Washington and the national government have had to do, Professor Newcomb has written with enthusiasm and a contagious sympathy. To some readers it will be a matter of surprise to find how many of the names which are instantly recognized as important mean less to the uninstructed in scientific lore than corresponding, or even less important, names in almost any of the arts would signify. With the realization of this fact comes a sense of the usefulness of Reminiscences like these of Professor Newcomb’s : they will bring into the clearer light of recognition some of the most valuable phases of intellectual activity in America through the generations which may now fairly begin to be reminiscent.

The beginning and the long continuance of Whittier’s career are matters of profuse and familiar record. One does not look, therefore, for many surprises in the new attempts to picture his life. It is more interesting to compare the points of view of two writers who bring to their task respectively the qualifications of the younger contemporary and of the very much younger student who belongs to a later generation.

Colonel Higginson’s book5 has already been a year before the public. The personality of the writer finds expression in it perhaps a little less freely than one might wish. Like one without the advantages of a contemporary, Colonel Higginson has availed himself freely of the previous records of Whittier and his times, not even eschewing his own good story of the Atlantic Club dinner in honor of Mrs. Stowe. But in addition to his use of the more obvious sources, he has drawn with advantage — as befits so constant a champion of the sex — upon the short sketches of Whittier by his friends Mrs. Fields and Mrs. Claflin. The passages from their little books confirm all one’s impressions of the true sympathy which existed between Whittier and his feminine friends, and therefore have even a greater biographic value than that which appears on the surface. For the light the volume throws upon the anti-slavery period one welcomes especially such pages as those in which Colonel Higginson discriminates between the voting and the non-voting abolitionists, and shows how possible he himself found it to work with both. It is because these pages have so marked a value that the reader finds himself regretting that there are not more of them.

The writer of a later generation cannot rely upon the aid of these personal remembrances. The necessity is therefore laid upon him of putting to the best possible use all the existing sources of information. Before Professor Carpenter’s book 6 was finished Colonel Higginson’s could be added to the list of authorities. What he has done is not so much to draw upon their pages for quotation — though of course they must frequently be used in this way — as to make them his own, and to give forth in a fresh form their essential elements. Professor Carpenter, addressing the younger generation in its own language, has accomplished this difficult task with uncommon success. He has been fortunate, moreover, in securing really important letters, not hitherto published, which passed between Whittier and such men as John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and William Lloyd Garrison. These, together with what appears to be the justifiable emphasis laid upon Whittier’s reluctant celibacy, place certain pages of the book among the “ original sources ” for future study. There is a fresh value also in the author’s discussion of the anti-slavery question as it affected not only Whittier, but all his fellow countrymen. The book, from its very nature, makes no attempt at the completeness of the Lives and Letters which are sure to follow the death of a great man. It is merely an admirable specimen of those products of a later day which give posterity what it really wishes and needs to know, and render the more voluminous records necessary in the course of time to special students only.

It has been said in England that the supreme test of citizenship in the United States is found in the record of a man’s relation to the civil war. Both Whittier and Henry Ward Beecher were of the generation to which the remark applies. A full third of Dr. Lyman Abbott’s new life of Beecher 7 deals with the period which begins with the antislavery agitation and ends with the problems of reconstruction. Beecher’s part in the great struggle of our national life is set forth with a fullness and comprehension which make these pages — like the best of Colonel Higginson’s and Professor Carpenter’s — a genuine addition to the history of the period. The unique service of Beecher to his country was — as everybody knows — the series of speeches in England which had so remarkable an effect in bringing the British middle and laboring classes into sympathy with the Union cause. It was a self-imposed duty undertaken with some doubt regarding its wisdom. The speeches, but five in number, were delivered under circumstances of the utmost physical difficulty. But their success, first with the audiences that had to be conquered, and then with a half-hostile public, was one of the notable triumphs of our heroic period; and Dr. Abbott is to be thanked for putting it so etfectivelv on record. For the rest of Beecher’s career — it is no easy task to write of the most conspicuous member of the family which inspired the remark that mankind is divided into “ the good, the bad, and the Beechers.” It would be harder for most biographers than it has been for Dr. Abbott, for, except in such a chapter as the discreet and restrained “Under Accusation,” into which the whole miserable Tilton business is compressed, the author has permitted himself the fluency of one whose constant practice has made it easy to expatiate on any theme. Some condensation might therefore have been well. Yet the book leaves a clear impression of an extraordinary personality : — the preacher who, using his text, as he said himself, as a gate not to swing upon, but to push open and go in, made his pulpit a living power ; the editor, who observed no rules or office hours, yet profoundly affected the type of journalism with which he had to do ; the writer and public speaker, of persuasive wit and eloquence. The figure of Beecher could not be spared from an American gallery of the last century, and Dr. Abbott’s picture bids fair to stand as the authoritative portrait.

M. A. De Wolfe Howe.

  1. William Wetmore Story and His Friends. By ITI-INKY JAMES. In two volumes. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1903.
  2. My Own Story. With Recollections of Noted Persons. By JOHN TOWNSEND TROWBRIDGE. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1903.
  3. Recollections Personal and Literary. By RICHARD HENRY STODDARD. Edited by RIPLEY HITCHCOCK, with an Introduction by EDMUND CLARENCE STEDMAN. New York: A. S. Barnes & Co. 1903.
  4. Reminiscences of an Astronomer. By SIMON NEWCOMB. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1903.
  5. John Greenleaf Whittier. By THOMAS WENTWORTH HIGGINSON. English Men of Letters. New York : The Macmillan Co. 1902.
  6. John Greenleaf Whittier. By GEORGE RICE CARPENTER. American Men of Letters. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1903.
  7. Henry Ward Beecher. By LYMAN ABBOTT. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1903.