An Early Contributor's Recollections
IN the latter part of October, 1857, when the first number of the Atlantic had been out a day or two, I went one evening to take a hand at whist with Francis Henry Underwood, John Bartlett, and a young man I will call The Fourth Hand, who remarked as we took our places around the table, “Gentlemen, what say you? Let’s not play whist! I’d rather spend the evening talking about the Atlantic Monthly.”
If The Fourth Hand had been a projector of the magazine, like Underwood, or an intimate friend of both Underwood and Lowell, and as deep in their counsels as Bartlett, or a contributor (more or less humble) to the said initial number, like myself, the preference he expressed might seem natural enough. But as he was not of the literary set, — by occupation a salesman in a picture store, and not even an amateur author, — I was impressed by the proposal, and recall it now, as illustrative of the extraordinary interest excited by the appearance of the new periodical.
I was, for one, quite ready to talk about it, and should no doubt have been reconciled to passing a large part of the evening in discussing my own particular contribution to it. As this relates to an early phase of a movement that has become historic, I wall give a little time to discussing it here and now.
Spiritualism was then a newly risen faith, — faith ancient as the longing hearts and eager gaze of mortals, faith forever rising and declining, but at that time amazingly ascendant, although very near our earthly horizon, and struggling in clouds so aflame with it as often to be mistaken for the source of light they veiled. My story was “Pendlam, a Modern Reformer,” a satire aimed not at spiritualism itself, which I forbore to mention in the narrative, but at the follies and impostures that flaunted in its train, and cast discredit on the cause with which they claimed kinship. These I detested all the more because I was something of a spiritualist myself; nor was my opposition to them lessened by the circumstance that near friends of mine were, as it seemed to me, dangerously tolerant of such pretensions and delusions. The brotherly watch I kept over them, and my own prolonged experiences as an earnest student of the “manifestations,” gave me exceptional advantages as an observer of the peculiar social ferment, which I believed myself better fitted to understand than any who were wholly in it and whirled by it, or who viewed it coldly and scornfully from the outside.
Such was the situation that furnished the motive for my story. Strange as it seems to me now, glancing again over its pages after an interval of fifty years, the wildest schemes and most incredible vagaries described in it were not imaginary, but had their counterparts in conditions of which I was personally cognizant. It calls up, with the fidelity of a fadeless photograph, one of the old-time meetings of the Disciples of Freedom (as I called my reformers), in the Melodeon (the well-known hall on Washington street), “crowded with one of those stifling audiences for which no ventilation seemed availing; ” lank stalks of humanity “raked from unheard-of outlandish stubbles;” the zealous and the credulous, the curious and the skeptical, the youthful with the gray-haired; on the platform speakers wise or unwise, guileless or designing, who poured forth platitudes or absurdities, beautiful inspirations or frothy denunciations. I did not depict either of my friends in the characters of the story. Pendlam and his Susan and the wreck of their married life were entirely fictitious; but as types of persons and tendencies they were as entirely true. pendlam represented a class of sincere, but over-zealous enthusiasts, who forgot reason and prudence in their pursuit of the latest vagaries in magnetisms and influences, impressions and communications, mediumistic or psychic, or whatever the terms were in the cant of the period. They swung from one belief to another in a manner hinted in the name of my hero, — Pendlam, short for ’pendulum, — although I am not aware that anybody heeded the suggestion. Beginning as a preacher and temperance reformer, he passed through kaleidoscopic changes of faith and morals, until, wearied and worn with his own errors and failures, he ended in celibacy and Catholicism. “The tossed voyager, failing to make the continent of truth, but beating hither and thither amid the reefs and breakers of dangerous coasts, mistaking many islands for the main, and drifting on unknown seas, had at last steered straight to the old Catholic shores from which the great discoverers sailed so many years before.”
Neither of the “disciples ” typified had done just this thing at that time, but the conclusion seemed prophetic of two of them, a married couple who separated amicably in order to follow each his or her “affinity,” and after many wanderings came together again to join a community of Shakers, whose manner of life they finally deemed the best — until they tried it.
The subject of my contribution, and the fact that the writer was well known in spiritualistic circles, caused it to be talked of at the time; and I was grieved to find that the near friends I speak of were keenly hurt by it. It was so true to my deepest convictions and kindest intentions that I could not regret having written it; yet I do not now recall any other reason than to spare them further pain, which I may have had for omitting it from my volume of Coupon Bonds and Other Stories, published a few years later.
I followed my first contribution with others in verse and prose (oftener in verse than in prose in those earliest years), one of which had an adventure so unusual that it may bear relating.
This was a story of New England country life, which was accepted, sent to the printers, and returned to me in proofsheets with a gratifying promptness that augured well of the editorial approval. The sheets had already been corrected by Lowell, and they bore, moreover, in the handwriting always delightful to my eyes, little marginal comments inspired by his learning or fancy; as when, against the exclamation “Law suz!” used by one of my female characters, he suggested, “probably a contraction of ‘Lord save us.’ ” In my lodgings in Seaver Place I was one morning reading the proofs, — pleased to see how well the thing looked in type, and smiling, no doubt, at the marks of Lowell’s interest in it, — when a hurried note came by messenger from Underwood, saying that Lowell had, upon reflection, decided that “ it could n’t go in.”
In twenty minutes I was confronting Underwood in the Winter Street office.
“Can’t go into what?” I said; “the next number?”
“It can’t go into the magazine at all!” he replied, evidently as much disturbed by the incident as I was.
“But it has gone in!” I said. “Here are the numbered pages! You don’t put rejected articles into type, do you ?”
Not often, he hoped, if he was to stand between authors and the editor-in-chief! He went on to say that Lowell’s objection was an afterthought, and that it was made solely from a moral, not a literary point of view. I listened in no little wonderment as to how my innocent pen had been betrayed into anything morally offensive, and drew a breath of relief when I heard the explanation, I had allowed my principal character to accept money from his father in a manner that might befit the scamp of a piece, but not the hero! The unfitness had not occurred to Lowell when he read the manuscript, nor had he given it much thought in correcting the proofs; but it had haunted him since, and he had suddenly made up his mind, — “and he is firm as Rhadamanthus ! ” declared Underwood, who had remonstrated in vain against the verdict.
As my hero was not much of a “hero,” but a very common mortal in a situation meant to be comic, and as Lowell himself had not thought seriously of the objectionable transaction until after he had not only passed it in the manuscript but actually in the proofs, I considered his final act as inconsistent, and rather unfair to the author. But I merely said, “Very well; where is my manuscript ? ”
Underwood thereupon took from his desk the original copy, and “copy” it was in the fullest sense of the printer’s term, disfigured forever by smooches of the compositor’s type-soiled digits. He expressed regret at its unpresentableness, knowing well that it could not go in that dishonored state to another editor, and that the proofs would be alike unavailable for any such purpose. I said, “I can rewrite it,—T have nothing else to do! ” and walked stiffly out of the office.
I was confident that with a stroke of the pen I could obviate Lowell’s objection, if his Rhadamanthine attitude did not render him too unreasonably fastidious. But if he had not himself seen that possibility, I was not in a mood to suggest it, or to re-submit the story to him with any seeming solicitation on my part.
I transcribed it that afternoon and evening, and sent it the next day to Harper’s Magazine, by which it was accepted and put into type about as promptly as it had been by the Atlantic. Soon after its publication Underwood, being in New York, called on Charles F. Briggs, Lowell’s confidential friend, to whom the poet had made the amazing gift of A Fable for Critics, ten years or so before. Lowell was desirous of getting from that experienced editor and accomplished man of letters any suggestions lie might have to make regarding the Atlantic Monthly. This Briggs praised duly, but with the qualifying remark, “What you want is more good story-writers.”
“ We can’t get them,” said Underwood.
Briggs then asked, “Who is the writer of this story in the last Harper’s?" — which he proceeded to characterize as he took the magazine from his table, — “’Nancy Blynn’s Lovers.’ Can’t you get him ?”
Underwood thereupon told how that renegade story of mine had been accepted for the Atlantic, put into type, and finally cast out by Lowell.
“You incomparable idiots!” Briggs ejaculated. “Do you go in when it rains ? ”
On his return from New York, Underwood reported to me this conversation, and also to Lowell, who I dare say was less amused by it than I was.
The incident did not in the least degree diminish my regard for the conscientious editor, or my very great admiration and liking for the writer and the man. I was indeed sincerely sorry that any contribution of mine should have caused him the slightest uneasiness or needless trouble. The subject was not directly mentioned by either of us when next we met, but in some way the conversation led to rejected contributions, and I remember his relating a serio-comic adventure he had recently had with a hatful of them. He was walking one windy morning over Cambridge bridge, when his hat blew off, and fell into the Charles, with half a dozen or more manuscripts with which it was freighted, and which he was returning to the Boston office. A boatman recovered the hat, but the scattered manuscripts perished in those waves of oblivion. “If they had been accepted articles,” Lowell remarked, “it would n’t have been quite so bad; for we might with some grace ask the writers for fresh copies. But how can you tell a self-respecting contributor that his manuscript has been not only rejected, but sent to a watery grave!”
My relations with editors have almost invariably been harmonious. They have been entirely so, from first to last, with the conductors of the Atlantic; and I have had dealings with all of these, except perhaps with the one whose term of office was the briefest. I have always accepted with cheerful acquiescence the editorial point of view, even when most adverse to my own; and I wish to avow here my frequent and very great indebtedness to wise editorial suggestions. I might adduce instances of this that have occurred in the recent years of this magazine; but there may be less imprudence in going back for examples to an earlier administration. In the spring of 1864, at a time of domestic affliction, I chanced one evening to pass the doors of a Boston theatre when it was resounding with the plaudits of the audience over some scene in a play piratically dramatized from one of my own novels; and returned to my broken home with the shouts still ringing in my ears. Such a contrast between the public show and the private reality left a strong impression on me; so that when, eight years later, I wrote “Author’s Night,” embodying that and other experiences and recollections of the stage, I gave the piece a tragical ending. This story in verse I sent to Mr. Howells, who pronounced it “fresh, vivid, and real,” but protested against the sad conclusion. I saw at once how entirely right he was, rewrote the latter part of the piece, and returned the whole to him in the final form in which it soon after appeared, immensely improved in accordance with his suggestion. Some time after that I sent him a short story, the motive of which he thought worthy of much more expanded and elaborate treatment. I recast it, upon his recommendation, turning the brief prose sketch into a narrative poem of over six hundred lines; which, however, I did not offer to him, as I washed it to receive magazine illustrations that might be used wfith it in book-form. So it went to New York, and had good fortune as The Boole oj Gold.
It may be no more indiscreet than much I am here recording, to relate how very near I once was to becoming Lowell’s editorial assistant. Calling one day at the Winter Street bookstore, I found Underwood so unhappy over some mysterious occurrence that he could hardly speak; he merely gripped my hand, and murmuring a word or two of greeting, put on his hat and went out. Greatly perplexed, I entered Mr. Phillips’s room, and finding him alone, asked, “What is the matter with Frank?”
He beckoned me to close the door and draw a chair near his desk; then said, “Mr. Underwood has resigned his situation in this house.”
When I expressed my astonishment, and inquired what the trouble was, he merely replied that a crisis had come in some matter he was n’t quite ready to explain; adding, with a grimmish sort of smile which I well remember, “He did n’t believe his resignation would be accepted, but it was, so quickly it took his breath away!”
“Impossible!” I said.
But he answered firmly, “It is irrevocable ! ”
Still greater was my amazement when he went on to say, “It is so fully decided, I am already thinking of his successor.” After some further conversation which he charged me to regard as strictly confidential, he ended with, “If things go as I am sure they are going, there is nobody I’d sooner see in his place than yourself;” the full meaning of which was, that I might become the firm’s “literary adviser.”
If in the surprise of the moment my concern for my friend’s interests became confused in the sudden looming up of my own, I was careful not to let any selfish considerations influence my conduct. I insisted that I did not believe he would go. I said, “I don’t see how he can go; but if he does, I shall of course be glad to talk with you further.” I did not visit the bookstore again for two or three days, thinking it best to keep entirely out of its disturbed atmosphere until the little storm was over. When I next looked in, I found Underwood cheerful, and Phillips sedately smiling.
“Just as I told you!” I reminded the head of the house.
“You were right,” he said succinctly. “Lowell came in and patched it up. He was the only man that could do it!”
It was, no doubt, this affair that Lowell alluded to when he wrote to Richard Grant White (letter of April 6, 1859, printed by Scudder): “Your letter came just in the midst of a bother in the Atlantic, which it took all my diplomacy to settle so that both sides should not bite their own noses off, to which mad meal they had evident appetites. It is all ‘fixed’ now, and things go smoothly again.”
A series of three papers published in the second year of the magazine are of especial interest to me, as they recall how barely at one time I escaped being something very different from the firm’s adviser and Lowell’s assistant.
Early in 1857 the Mormons in their new state of “Deseret” had shown themselves so defiant of Federal authority that it became necessary to send out a strong military force to crush the incipient rebellion. This force was to leave Fort Leavenworth in June or July, cross the Plains (a phrase of sinister significance in those days), and reach Salt Lake City early in the autumn. Closely following the news that the movement had at last been decided upon by Buchanan’s vacillating administration, came a proposal from the New York Tribune that I should accompany the expedition as correspondent of that paper; a proposal which my desire for employment and readiness for adventure would have made me eager to accept. Fortunately for me, perhaps, it was not sent to me directly, but through the hands of the encyclopædic Robert Carter, then the Tribune’s Boston representative. Carter had a young friend and protégé, Albert G. Browne, a sturdy and capable fellow, whom he at once, in reply to the Tribune people, recommended for the appointment, without even giving me a chance to consider it. I forgave this act of Carter’s at the time, and afterwards had reason to be rather glad of it, on learning what hardships befell the expedition, when, in the following winter, it so narrowly missed the fate of Napoleon’s army in its retreat from Russia. Browne accompanied it in my place, and wrote an excellent account of it, which appeared in the March, April, and May numbers of 1859, — a history I used to fancy I might have written myself but for Carter’s interposition. Browne had a more robust constitution than mine, a fact that may have influenced the elder man in choosing between us; and, looking back now upon the event, I am inclined to think that, if I had gone with the expedition, I should not have been in the way of writing that history, or ever anything else, after the terrible Utah business.
The editors must indeed have experienced a dearth of “good story-writers,” else they would hardly have risked beginning to print, in the very first Atlantic, a serial by a writer little known, of which they had only three or four chapters in hand. This hazard they incurred in the case of C. W. Philleo’s “Akin by Marriage,” of which I remember little more than that it was nicknamed “Achin’ by Marriage ” by jocular readers, and that all jocularity regarding it soon ceased, in the sudden eclipse that befell both story and writer. He was to furnish the installments month bymonth, — nearly always an unwise plan for editor and author. They ran three months; and at the close of the January installment (1858) appeared the usual notice, “To be continued in the next number.” But there was to be no “next” for the serial, although all who knew him augured confidently a far happier Next Number for the amiable invalid, who passed on into that other life almost as his hand let fall the pen on an unfinished page of his story.
Besides “Akin by Marriage,” Mrs. Stowe’s “The Morning Veil” (which she sent at the last moment in place of the opening chapters of a novel that was expected of her), and my own “Pendlam,” the first Atlantic had in the way of fiction a story entitled “Sally Parson’s Duty,” which should have satisfied even the exacting Briggs. The writer was Miss Rose Terry, one of the pioneer delineators of humble New England life; she had wit, pathos, a firm-fibred style, and certainty of touch. Her stories were true to character and dialect, and genuinely humorous, without any of the Sam Slick style of caricature that had been so popular earlier in the century; they were equally free from lapses into improbable and strained situations, such as have marred the work of more distinguished successors in the same field. Her contributions were frequent through all the early years of the magazine, and continued after the familiar name of Rose Terry was changed to Rose Terry Cooke; ceasing in 1876, to the regret of judicious readers.
The most noteworthy of all the early stories appeared in the second year of the magazine (Feb., 1859), and attracted immediate and extraordinary attention. The scene of it was laid chiefly in Paris, with the life of which city the writer seemed easily familiar. The plot, as I remember, — and I recall few of those early contributions so distinctly, — turned upon the hero’s adventures in the recovery of a diamond of fabulous value and a wonderful history. It had been mysteriously and very adroitly stolen, but an imperfect verbal clue led him rightly to believe it to be concealed “in a cellar,” — not a wine-cellar, as he for a while supposes, but actually a salt-cellar, which he manages to intercept at the table of a distinguished hostess, and dramatically to upset under the eyes of two baffled conspirators. There were weak points in the construction, but “In a Cellar” was none the less a deft performance, distinguished by freshness of poetic perception and charm of style, — altogether surprising as the production of a hitherto unknown hand. The surprise became wonder when we were told that the said hand was small, and feminine, and inexperienced, — the hand of a young girl who had never seen a foreign shore, and knew little of the world outside of books and her own magical imagination. Underwood boasted of the story in advance of its publication, and said Lowell was in high editorial glee over it, although a little suspicious at first of its being a clever adaptation from the French, — a dazzling imposture! Its author was “a Miss Prescott of Newburyport,” still in her teens, according to first reports, but really, as ascertained later, “in the early twenties.” What Lowell thought of the newly discovered writer may be inferred from the fact that she was nominated by him for the distinction of keeping Mrs. Stowe in countenance at the famous Atlantic dinner, — much gossiped about then and written about since, — to which no other “lady contributor” had the honor of an invitation.
“In a Cellar” was followed in later numbers by other stories from the same pen, — none to my mind quite so striking or of such ingenuity of plot, but all marked by the same imaginative vivacity and affluence of diction, sometimes even showing a tendency to excess in those admirable qualities. In writing editorially of her first book, Sir Rohan’s Ghost, Lowell declared (February, 1860), “It is very plain that we have got a new poet;” and “It is our deliberate judgment that no first volume by any author has ever been published in America showing more undoubtful [sic] symptoms of genuine poetic power than this.”
In 1865 Miss Harriet Prescott became Mrs. Harriet Prescott Spofford; under which name her contributions to periodical literature have continued, in prose and verse, through all the intervening years.
The June number of 1858 led off with the first of a series of three papers descriptive of a trip to the wilds of Maine,— inevitably challenging comparison with Lowell’s own “Moosehead Journal,” which had appeared in the old Putnam’s Monthly, four or five years before, and had astonished magazine readers by its delightful humor and wit and fancy. These qualities “Chesuncook” likewise had, but of a dryer, quainter, less exuberant sort. The writer, Henry David Thoreau, had published two volumes, — his Week, which had fallen literally dead from the press (if any work so vital in thought and observation could be called dead), and the more remarkable Walden, which strongly impressed the author’s small but select and ever enlarging circle of readers. Outside that circle “Chesuncook” was not much cared for by the patrons of the magazine, but there was one person who did not undervalue it, the author himself, who thought it ought to be paid for at the rate allowed Emerson for his starlit essays. But the office did not think so, and he had to be content with the five or six dollars a page received by the rank-and-file of contributors, — truly liberal compensation in those days.
“Chesuncook” was Thoreau’s sole contribution. But in 1862, after he had got through with this world and passed on to make trial of the next (“ One world at a time!” he said on his death-bed to some one who wished to talk to him of a future life), “Walking” appeared (in the June number), to be followed by more of his characteristic essays in the three or four succeeding years. He left manuscripts enough to make many volumes, which have been well edited and duly published, and have even achieved the popularity he affected to despise. Wal-den is a classic, the still-born Week has been reprinted in successive editions; he lives for us in a whole shelf-full of books which “no library is complete without;” a fortune amazingly in contrast with that of so many writers of those years, whose reputations have hardly survived them, even when they have not survived their reputations.
In those early anonymous days there appeared in the Atlantic (October, 1859) a poem on a rather hackneyed subject, “Old Papers,” which however was relieved from commonplaceness by genuine feeling and vigor of expression. If any one had taken the trouble to inquire into the authorship (which I doubt that any one ever did), he might have been the first to discover Henry Howard Brownell, of Hartford, Connecticut, — a scholarly writer who had remained in obscurity until his fortieth year, but whom an extraordinary opportunity awaited. He had been educated for the law and been admitted to the bar, but had turned his back on clients (if there were any to turn his back on), and betaken himself to literature. He had put forth a volume of Poems which nobody seemed to have heard of, and had written popular histories for a subscription-book publisher, whom I got to know later, and who regarded me with amused incredulity when I told him his hack-writer was a genius.
I have often thought that the uplift of enthusiasm and incentive which the Civil War brought to so many was a leaven to the whole nation, that more than compensated for all the tremendous cost. It brought a fresh inspiration to Brownell. He wrote patriotic pieces, serious, scornful, or humorous, that went the “rounds of the press,” one of which met with surprising good fortune. This was a metrical version of Farragut’s “General Orders” issued to his fleet April 4, 1862, before the famous “river fight” that brought New Orleans back into the Union; a version in which naval terms were swung into rhyme with as much freedom and force and skill as if it had been written at a white heat by some sailor-bard on a battleship. This remarkable “tour de force” attracted the attention of Farragut himself and brought from him a letter to the author. A correspondence ensued that resulted in Brownell’s entering the navy as acting ensign on the flagship — really in the capacity of Farragut’s private secretary — some time in 1863 (I do not recall the precise date). He had expressed a wish to witness a naval battle, and the grim old commodore (not yet admiral) had replied that he would gratify him.
Brownell could not, therefore, — surprising as it seems, — have witnessed the engagement described in the first of his two great battle-pieces (“The River Fight”), which occurred April 24 and 25, 1862. The poem may, however, have been written after he joined Farragut, and while he was with him on the Mississippi ; which circumstance would account for the first-hand knowledge apparent in it, and its vivid realism. The poet who, before setting foot on a quarter-deck, could turn “General Orders” into ringing rhythm, might surely, after witnessing minor naval operations, be capable of fusing into fiery verse the battle scenes he heard talked over familiarly by those who had taken a foremost part in them. This supposition likewise accounts for the fact of “The River Fight” having been first printed in an obscure southern (Union) paper, the New Orleans Era, a sheet that must have been a frequent welcome visitant on board our cruisers in the Mississippi.
In this light —now for the first time, I think, thrown upon Brownell’s battlepieces — it is curious to note that it was the landsman-poet’s “General Orders” that probably decided the metre and manner of “The River Fight,” and of the still more astounding “Bay Fight” that came later, describing the battle of Mobile Bay, at which he certainly was present. In the former poem, ‘General Orders ” is incorporated so skillfully that it seems a part of the original composition; although Dr. Holmes, with his keen perception of form and feeling of dramatic movement, pronounced it out of place there, as serving to distract the reader from the main narrative. He thought (I am quoting from his Atlantic paper on “Our Battle Laureate”) that it might better have been “printed by itself,” seemingly unaware that it had been so printed originally, and even overlooking the fact that it likewise so appeared on a previous page of the edition of Browmell’s poems that must have been under his eyes as he wrote.
A copy of this edition I have now before me, — a presentation copy from the poet, neatly inscribed with “the author’s compliments” on the fly-leaf, and in two of the war poems having emendations of the text made in the same scholarly hand, — not at all the hand one would imagine must have written the poems themselves with a pen of fire.
A few things regarding this thin volume with a green cover seem worth considering. It is a “second edition,” published by Carleton, New York, in 1864; and it bears the title, Lyrics of a Day, or Newspaper Poetry, by a Volunteer in the U. S. Service; which seems to indicate the author’s own modest opinion of his work as anything likely to endure. The copyright notice has the author’s full name, Henry Howard Brownell, and the year of entry is 1863; although, singularly enough, the last eighteen pages are given to “The Bay Fight,” which bears date “U. S. Flag Ship Hartford, Mobile Bay, 1864.” These eighteen, together with the previous twenty-five pages (including “The River Fight”), have evidently been clapped upon the back of a first edition, without regard to the copyright entry, which of course does not cover them.
It was this second edition that fell into the hands of the Autocrat, and incited him to write the notable paper I quote from (Atlantic for May, 1865), in which he acclaimed as “ Our Battle Laureate” the man who in his twenty years of authorship had hitherto achieved only a newspaper reputation. “If Drayton had fought at Agincourt, if Campbell had held a sabre at Hohenlinden, if Scott had been in the saddle with Marmion, if Tennyson had charged with the Six Hundred at Balaklava, each of these poets might possibly have pictured what he said as faithfully and as fearfully as Mr. Brownell has painted the sea-fights in which he took part as a combatant. The two great battle-poems begin, each of them, with beautiful descriptive lines, move on with gradually kindling fire, reach the highest intensity of action, till the words themselves have the weight and the rush of shot and shell, and the verses seem aflame with the passion of the conflict.”
This is the keynote of the Doctor’s acclaim, which, although enthusiastic, was surely not extravagant in its praise, - - for where else in all literature shall we find the terrible excitement of a mighty conflict conveyed in four such lines as these from “The Bay Fight,” which I give as a sample of Brownell’s power of compressed expression ? —
Death ? A dream of the eyes !
We were atoms in God’s great storm
That roared through the angry skies.
Such a paper, from such an authority, appearing in a periodical of highest literary standing, was sure to attract attention, all the greater because it was at a time of tremendous patriotic exaltation: Richmond had fallen, Lincoln had just been assassinated, and the minds of men were in a tumult of righteous wrath and wild jubilation. Readers of the magazine, especially a few of us who wrote for it, turned from the discussion of the close of the Rebellion and the death of the President, to ask each other, when we met, — “Have you read the May number?” “Seen Holmes’s article on £Our Battle Laureate’ ?” “Who is this Brownell, anyway, and where can you get his book?” And I remember how curious at least one of them was to meet the man whom the Doctor’s pen had in a day made famous. I was soon to have that gratification, and this is how it happened.
The magazine had been out but a few days, when I received a note from Mr. James T. Fields (then editor), that read briefly: “Turn in at the Old Corner tomorrow morning, if you are in town.” Such requests from the office had a peculiar significance, and it was not my habit to neglect them. The next morning, accordingly, I might have been seen turning in duly at the Old Corner, then the famous Ticknor and Fields bookstore and publishing-house, to which the Atlantic had been transferred after the dissolution of the Winter Street firm of Phillips, Sampson and Co., also at that time the home of Our Young Folks,with which I was intimately connected.
I had already written at Air. Fields’s request “The Last Rally” for the previous November number of the Atlantic, and the prose article on the second election of Lincoln, “We are a Nation,” for the December issue; so that I was not unprepared for the proposal that awaited me when I found him in his private room, which was, that I should write a “jubilee poem” on the fall of the Rebellion, for the June Atlantic,— at once, for, as he said, the first forms of that number were already on the press.
Always diffident of my capabilities, I replied that the time was too short.
“Not if you will undertake it,” he said. “I’ll hold back the last form for you, if necessary. Bring it in on Saturday, if you can, and then go to the Saturday Club dinner,” — to occur, as I remember, in two or three days. He went on: “It will be unusually interesting, as we expect a full attendance— Emerson, Low’ell, Holmes; and BattleLaureate Brownell is to be there. He will be Holmes’s guest, and you will be mine.”
I suppose I tried to appear as if two such propositions coming almost in a breath — that I should write the poem and meet the notables — were not particularly exhilarating; and perhaps I succeeded. At all events, I accepted the invitation for Saturday, and said I would think of the poem. I envy my own lost youth as I look back upon it (I was thirty-seven, but that seems very young to me now!) and recall the exaltation of spirits with which I went out of the Old Corner office, and walked all the way back to Prospect Hill (in Somerville, where my home then was), planning and already composing the poem expected of me. This must have been about the 26th or 27th of April, as the Club was to dine on the 29th.
I was to meet Fields in his office on Saturday afternoon and go with him to the dinner; of which anticipated festival I could not have been thinking very intently, during the horse-car trip from the suburbs, as I find in my note-book this memorandum of that memorable day: “Finished ‘The Jaguar Hunt’ on my way to town.” “The Jaguar Hunt” was ray “jubilee poem.” At his desk I wrote into it, with the quill-pen he handed me, the alterations or additions I had thought of “on the way;” read it to him, at his insistence, then studied his countenance and intonations while he read it aloud in turn; all with much doubt on my part as to its being really as good as I had hoped it was, but thinking vastly better of it when at the finish he declared it was “just the thing!” He marked it for the printers, dropped it into the open mouth of a bag at his elbow, and said, “Now for the Parker House!”
There was as large an attendance at the Club meeting as he had expected, and some of the most noted of the notables were there when we arrived, — Lowell and his brother-in-law, Dr. Estes Howe; Emerson and Judge Hoar, from Concord; Rouse, the artist, and Dwight, the musical critic; Hedge and Whipple, and, foremost in vivacious activity, if least of all in stature, the Autocrat, with a stranger a head taller than himself, whom he was introducing to the company.
The stranger was a plain, pleasant, quiet person, not at all embarrassed, yet seemingly a little dazed at finding himself the centre of such a group; as different as possible from the sort of Berserker bard one fancied must have written the battle poems; the youngest person present excepting myself (he was seven years my senior), and the most modest, with possibly the same exception. I thought Holmes characterized him very well, when, after introducing us, he said to me aside, in schoolgirlish phrase, but with an emphasis all his own, —
“He’s just as nice as he can be!”
There were twenty or more at table, all on familiar terms with one another, the most distinguished with the more obscure, — not a head with a halo, any more than if the halos had been taken off and checked with the hats at the coat-room window. I have always found that the truly illustrious do not wear their glories consciously; and that when a man sees too certainly the circle of light around his own brow, all the more certainly it is n’t there.
There were interesting things done and said, as there must be at such a gathering, but the incident with which this narrative is chiefly concerned occurred when Holmes got upon his feet and Lowell rapped on the board to call the attention of the talkers. After some complimentary allusion to his guest, — who sat beside him, with down-looking eyes, twirling an empty wine-glass,— Holmes drew from his pocket a manuscript, remarking that he was to have the happiness of reading to us a new poem by the writer who had shown himself an unrivaled master in that class of composition.
“It was written,” he said, “within the past twenty-four hours, and the ink is hardly yet dry on it. It is a vivid and dramatic picture of the sinking of that black piratical craft, the Rebellion.”
He paused to adjust his glasses and unfold the manuscript; while I thought, rather aghast, of my “Jaguar Hunt,” and Fields whispered with a little smile in his big beard, “The same subject!”
“It is entitled ‘Down!’” — and the Doctor proceeded to read. Every eye was turned upon him except the downcast pair at his elbow. He never had a more attentive audience; and he threw all his force of expression into the short and rugged lines. The poem was cast in the same form of metre as the battlepieces; it was a battle-piece itself, not the less lurid and flame-lit for being figurative. It was greeted with prolonged applause, every right hand clapping its fellow, except the hand that twirled the glass, — the hand that had written the poem. The enthusiasm which I shared with the rest has had four decades and more to cool, as the people’s flush of victory over a fallen foe has cooled; but even now, as I recall the time, and the hour, and the Doctor’s impassioned delivery, I am stirred again by lines like these: —
Ten thousand fathom deep,
With God’s glad sun overhead,—
That is the way to weep,
So will we mourn our dead !
Hardly had the applause subsided when Emerson fixed his searching eyes upon me, and calling my name across the table, asked in his deliberate way, — “ Can — you — match — that ? ”
Before I could answer, Fields spoke up confidently: “Yes, he can! He has given me a poem on the same subject; I wish I had it here, but I sent it to the printers an hour ago!”
He afterwards asked for Brownell’s manuscript; it was transferred from Holmes’s pocket to his own, and both poems appeared within a few pages of each other in the last signature of the June Atlantic.
The theme of both poems was in a general way the same, although my “ Jaguar ” typified more especially the Slave
Power, which had been favored and feared and petted until it had grown to be a savage monster, hunted down at last for dragging “the white lamb of Peace to his lair.”
“ Now saddle your horses, now look to your guns !...
Buckle tight, boys! ” said he, “for who gal-
lops with me,
Such a hunt as was never before, he shall
It may be worth while to note here the curiously close resemblance between the theme and symbolism of Brownell’s poem and of Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain! ” written about that time, and published in the Sequel to Drum Taps a few months later. In “Down! ” we have the sinking of the enemy’s ship. In Whitman’s poem —
Brownell has this brief allusion to the death of Lincoln: —
Whitman has the identical figure in but slightly varying phrase: —
Fallen cold and dead ;
and this is the thought be expands in his touching and tender monody. Yet there is no certainty that Whitman had ever seen Brownell’s poem.
When the after-dinner cigars were in full blast, and the diners shoved back their chairs or changed positions at the table, Brownell and I drew together and became well acquainted in a half-hour’s talk we had, standing near a window. He asked if I had published any other war poem than “ The Last Rally; ” and when I mentioned “The Color Bearer,” remarked that he had a poem with the same title, which he would recite to me if I wished it. Of course I wished it, and there in the waning daylight of the window niche, he told me how he had got from a newspaper item the idea of his poem, which he went on to repeat in quiet tones, hardly audible above the near-by conversation. I recognized in it his characteristic touches; when I said so, and went on to speak of the qualities I admired in some of his poems, he answered with a gentle smile, “There’s nothing I can’t do!” —showing what self-reliance may repose under the most unpretentious demeanor.
Returning to Hartford, he sent me in a day or two the inscribed copy of his Lyrics I have mentioned. I had correspondence with him at that time and later; but we never met again. A revised and much more presentable edition of his poems was brought out soon after by Ticknor and Fields, under the improved title, War Lyrics and Other Poems, and -with an appreciative preface by Aldrich. It had some vogue, but nothing like what might have been expected of it, from its own extraordinary merits, and the press notices, which generally echoed Holmes’s eloquent praises. It has been long out of print, and I know not where a copy of it can be obtained; all which goes to show that neither the acclamation of one man, nor the confirmation of many men, can give a writer renown, as Goethe is declared by Tolstoy to have made the fame of Shakespeare.
In 1867 Brownell sailed again with Farragut, this time on an expedition of good-will and pleasantness, accompanying the great admiral in his foreign voyages and peaceful conquest of an admiring world.
His death in 1872 called forth but little comment; but in the May Atlantic of the following year Aldrich printed a sonnet in his memory, —
But let him go unlaureled to his grave.
The wreath so generously woven by Holmes for the brow of “Our Battle Laureate” had proved not fadeless and had been forgotten. He is now little read except in anthologies; Emerson, in Parnassus, gives two of his pieces, “The Old Cove” and “The Bay Fight;” and Stedman in his collection prints “The Burial of the Dane,” “The Sphinx,” and also portions of “The Bay Fight.” Fortunately fame is not happiness, and is of little worth compared with those private solaces and satisfactions which it has often less power to give than to take away. Brownell did not overvalue it; he lived his own true life and was content.