The Atlantic's Pleasant Days in Tremont Street
MY first knowledge of the making of the Atlantic was in the last years of Mr. Fields’s editorship and of his connection with, the house of Ticknor and Fields, or, as it was at his retirement, Fields, Osgood and Co. The office was his private room at 124 Tremont Street, one of the spacious dwelling-houses, of an earlier generation, in that street, which business had of a sudden absorbed and in some sort reconstructed. His was the smaller front room ou the second floor, — the larger, in which Mr. Aldrich, as editor of Every Saturday, had his desk, was a general reception-room, — with one window looking upon Tremont Street, and another upon Hamilton Place. It was a cheerful little room, with an open fire, opposite to which was a sofa for visitors, with prints, mostly portraits, upon the walls, and Mr. Fields’s standing desk in one corner, on which lay an always open book in which from time to time he noted appointments of all sorts, and every other thing, no matter how trifling, that he wished to remember, the recent pages being always carefully examined more than once in a day. This habit, among others, made him one of the most dependable persons I have ever known. He never forgot an engagement of any kind or the slightest promise, and he was punctuality itself. The thing in the room which at once attracted the attention of every visitor with the least artistic sense, was a cabinet picture — a jester and dwarf — by Zamacois, which hung over the sofa, and glorified the whole place. Two of this brilliant young Spaniard’s works had found their way to America not long before, and one of them had been bought by Dickens, the other by Ticknor and Fields. The broad window seats were covered with MSS., while on the floor below were piled books sent to the magazine. Mr. Howells, the assistant editor, did his work, the greater part of the actual editorial labor, at his home in Cambridge or at the University Press. Mr. Fields was at that time unable to use his hand in writing, and dictated his letters, beside requiring other asistance. Between whiles, I was set to weed out the MSS., so that the hopeless need not be sent to Cambridge. Typewriters had not come to save editorial eyes, and, to my inexperience, a large part of the effusions were at first more or less illegible, while the number written with pale ink on thin paper and rolled, seemed painfully large. When I kept an exact account in later times, the number of MSS. received from year to year hardly varied, and I should judge that it was much the same in those days, for if there were fewer writers there were fewer magazines. The volume of stories was large, but the “dialect story,” so-called, was then inconspicuous, and chiefly represented by rural New England tales and fishing-village sketches. The wild west was hardly in evidence, and there were not many war stories. It was too near to write easily of, — what there were usually came from Northern pens. There were certainly as many verses as to-day, with the same tendency toward a widespread outburst of rhyme on any sensation of the hour.
But it is impossible to say much about that room without speaking particularly of Mr. Fields, the gracious host of more distinguished visitors than any other Atlantic office can have known. Like all men who have risen to an enviable position without extraneous aid of any sort, Mr. Fields had detractors and unfriends who were willing to magnify any little foible or affectation; but I, — and I only speak of myself by way of illustration, — coming to him very young and selfdistrustful, suddenly faced with the problem of earning a living, and fully conscious of no training for that end, shall be thankful and grateful to the last day of my life, that at the outset I fell into such kind, considerate hands. I knew that I often did badly, I know it better now, but there was never a word of blame or even a look of annoyance, while for anything that could by any possibility be commended, praise was never lacking. Always there was thoughtful courtesy and a pleasant humor making dull tasks easy. No one could have been gentler or more sympathetic to the procession of literary aspirants who found their way to him, though he firmly refused to be bored beyond reasonable limits, and seemed to have discovered the secret of the inclined plane for lingering visitors which Dr. Holmes longed for, the inclination as imperceptible to most as it was efficacious. Love of literature was as genuine and heartfelt a feeling in him as in any one I have ever known. Not a writer — in any literary sense — he had an unbounded and generous appreciation of the literary gifts of others, and was even willing, not once or twice, to publish to his own loss that which he felt was good. And it should be said that his judgment as to the commercial success of any venture was usually excellent, so far as any one can judge in such matters, and that he was a very shrewd and competent man of business, one not in the least likely to be imposed upon or self-deceived in a question of affairs. I remember his speaking to me in those days and later of the deterioration in the taste of American readers which he believed had set in after the war. Before, he declared, any good edition of a good book was almost sure of at least a fair sale, — a surety which seemed to have quite passed away. There were many more readers, but the best books were less read.
As I look back on those few years nothing impresses me so much as the good spirits, even the gayety, that pervaded the establishment. I think it was a very prosperous time for the Atlantic, loyally supported as it was by the best writers in the country, and with practically hardly a rival in its own kind; while business flourished amain. (I believe it was an era of general prosperity, too much founded on paper money and other unwholesome conditions to be lasting.) The members of the house, Mr. Aldrich, Mr. Anthony, the art manager, Mr. Howells when in town, and frequent guests, used to have a luncheon every day (brought in from the Parker House, I think) in an upstairs room. This must have been a particularly cheerful board, — certainly those who sat round it could make it so. As for the visitors in Mr. Fields’s little room, I remember one day when Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, and Whittier were all crowded together there, when the portly figure of Mr. Bayard Taylor blocked the doorway, and it was decided to seek scats and space in the larger room. Visitors such as these need not be described, — that has been done so often and sometimes so well, that X could scarcely presume to give my superficial and superfluous impressions, though I can say that for brilliant, suggestive, entertaining, pungent, and humorous talk, no one of them, not even Dr. Holmes, nor any other man of letters whom I have met, could be compared to Lowell. How pleasant it is to remember the speech of these older writers, English undefiled, with never a hint of an American or any other accent. It would have been recognized as faultless speech bv a true and cultivated ear in any English-speaking land. Thinking of it, one feels that Lowell had reason for saying — and who had so much right to say it — that lie believed that nowhere was purer English spoken than by the well-trained in and about his birthplace.
Among the occasional visitors at that time was Mr. Motley, who was then living in Park Street. I had heard his contemporaries speak of his youthful beauty and brilliant gifts, and I had a schoolgirlish enthusiasm for his histories. It was not a case where any disillusion need be feared, in personal attractiveness, manner or conversation. His thoughts were apparently completely occupied by the presidential election, in which he took an almost passionate interest. “I cannot sleep,” he declared one day, “my mind is so full of it.” “And if Grant should not be elected ?” said Mr. Fields. “Ah,” he returned, with intense feeling, “that is a calamity that is unthinkable! ” This remembrance makes still more painful the story of what came afterward. Charles Sumner I recall, seeming to fill the small room with his commanding stature and heavy voice, leaving upon me the impression chiefly of a portentous literalness, and a lack of humor almost phenomenal. The most stimulating and interesting of talkers, after Mr. Lowell, was certainly Mr. Henry James, Senior, whose keen perceptiveness and caustic wit sometimes half concealed his sensitive depth of feeling. There were the clergymen whose parishes may have been said to extend throughout the country, and who were also men of letters, — Dr. A. P. Peabody, Dr. James Freeman Clarke, whose very names are to those who knew them like a benediction, and Dr. Edward Everett Hale. The great Boston preacher of that time, Dr. George Putnam, of the First Church, Roxbury, to hear whom Mr. Fields sometimes took his guests, was solely and entirely a preacher, — his printed sermons give but a hint of his power, —and I never saw him in the office but once. Mr. Fields had told me that he had taken Thackeray to the old Roxbury Church years before, and when Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Stephen were paying him a brief visit he took her there. “I never knew before wliat preaching could be,” she said when the service was over, which reminded her host of her father’s words in the same place (of which she knew nothing): “It seems to me that I have heard preaching for the first time in my life.”
A copy of the Overland Monthly had fallen into my hands, and I was exceedingly interested in a sketch, “ The Luck of Roaring Camp,” by an author wdiose name I had never before heard. I asked Mr. Fields to read it, and he cared more for it even than I, — being much older and wiser, — and very soon dictated a letter to Mr. Harte, begging him to send something to the Atlantic (whose editors, so far as I have known them, have always anxiously watched for promising new authors). The reply, which came in due time, I think, not only expressed a willingness to become a contributor, but spoke of the writer’s probable departure from California, I cannot say how long it was before the Ilarte family reached Boston and became the guests of Mr. Howells in Cambridge. I only know that it was the time when every man was quoting from “The Heathen Chinee,” and generally carrying the verses in his pocket-book. There was, I thought, a good deal of curiosity felt about the office as to the sort of man the suddenly popular author would prove to be. He was found good-looking (and exceedingly welldressed), extremely self-possessed, with a gracefully friendly and even affectionate manner to the new business and literary acquaintances of his own age in the establishment, with whom he speedily became intimate. Mr. Fields told me that the only occasion when he had seen Bret Hartc’s cool self-poise disturbed was when he took him to visit Longfellow. That beautiful, gracious presence, the dignified, historic house, and the remembrance of the tragedy those rooms had seen, deeply impressed the visitor, — “actually took him down a bit,” were I think the real words used. All my recollections of intercourse with Mr. Ilarte then or later are agreeable. It would always be so, I fancy, when the intercourse did not include business or pecuniary engagements.
As I recall those pleasant rooms in Tremont Street, it seems as though they were always full of sunshine (they really had a northern exposure), as if the cheerfulness that pervaded them had left a visible brightness in the memory. There could not be grayness or dullness with Mr. Fields, Mr. Aldrich, and Mr. Osgood in possession, and the constant visitor, who, the chances were, would be wise or witty, or both. Literary bores and cranks of course found their way there in considerable numbers, but they only appeared to give the needed relief. And much work was done, but nimbleness of spirit seemed to give quickness and deftness to head and hand. I think clouds and rain began to come when Mr. Fields retired. Perhaps he took from the house, besides more material things, a desirable element of conservatism and wise caution. For six months thereafter he retained the headship of the magazine, when Mr. Howells became sole editor, and there was no longer a Boston office. Mr. Fields still retained his room, though he was in it less, and it was still a resort for friends old and new. But there was a change in the atmosphere of the establishment, — new enterprises proved costly, and necessarily, at their outset, unremunerative, and possibly times were changing everywhere; then came the calamity of the Great Fire. The Atlantic Monthly was sold to Messrs. Hurd and Houghton, and until that house united with that of R. It. Osgood and Co., I knew nothing save by hearsay of the making of the magazine. There was no special difference in it, except in the adoption of the Webster orthography. I remember my anguish when, on opening the first number issued with the new imprint, my eye lighted on the word mold (mould). On making my moan to Mr. Howells, who of course had nothing to do with the matter, I got little sympathy, he being a reformer on principle. But it must have been more or less an annoyance to some of the typical Atlantic writers, judging by the care they took that their books should be spelled in the old way. Had not the Autocrat in one of the earliest numbers of the Monthly, placed “a correct habit of spelling the English language ” among the qualities which perhaps gave Boston a right to look down on the mob of cities; and the only time I ever saw Mr. Longfellow show a feeling even remotely akin to anger, was when, at a later time, he discovered in a cheap, popular edition of his poems the word traveler. It was not in the poems themselves, but in a press notice, printed among others at the end of the book; nevertheless it was corrected and apologized for.
From the pleasant quarters in Tremont Street the house moved to Winthrop Square, and never again till it reached Park Street did it know the comforts of home, so to speak, — it had only business offices. The whole quarter of the city where the new building stood was in a chaotic state, — rising from its ashes would, I suppose, be the proper expression. At that time came the consolidation of J. R. Osgood and Co., with Hurd and Houghton, of course bringing back the Atlantic and some of my old work therein. But there was no real Atlantic office in that building, which one winter night was burned to the ground. Many Atlantic MSS. were burned with it, — how many I never exactly knew, for the book where they were recorded went too. So far as I could recollect them, I wrote to the possible contributors of their loss, and as I remember, with very few exceptions, they behaved exceedingly well, though very few of them seemed to have kept copies even of poems.
It was with a new name, Houghton, Mifflin and Co., that the house came to Park Street. Here Mr. Howells on his weekly visits had the use of a small, dark room, which was certainly never considered an Atlantic office. That came with Mr. Aldrich’s assumption of the editorship, the first office of the magazine in Boston since the Tremont Street days.