In the spring of 1857 I was in England. On the 23d of May, Lowell wrote to me,
“We are going to start a new magazine here in October ... The magazine is to be free without being fanatical, and we hope to unite in it all available talent of all modes of opinion. The magazine is to have opinions of its own and not be afraid to speak them. I think we shall be scholarly and gentlemanlike.”
The publishers, as I soon learned, wished to obtain contributions for the new magazine from writers in England; and as I was about to return to America in the summer, I was asked to bring home such manuscripts as might be sent to me by their writers, who should receive instructions to forward them to me. Accordingly when I left England in July, I had several manuscripts in my charge. No one of them, so far as I remember, was written by a writer of such distinction that his name is familiar to the present generation; but the work of an author not yet eminent and perhaps never to be so is generally as precious to him as to the writer in highest repute.
At the end of the voyage in New York I saw all my luggage safely on the pier, and delivered it over to the driver of the hotel wagon with directions to bring it to the hotel to which I was going for the night; and I was dismayed when, on the arrival of the wagon at the hotel, the trunk containing the precious manuscripts, and much else of value, did not appear with the other pieces. The driver admitted that he had seen it on the pier, and thinking that he had overlooked it, returned to seek for it, but it was not to de found. An active search was made that day and the next in other hotels, and in the offices of the express companies. Advertisements of the loss, with offers of reward for the return of the trunk, were put into the newspapers. Handbills of the same character were printed and sent to the police stations; but all to no avail. “The whole affair of the lost trunk,” wrote Lowell to me toward the end of August, “is as melancholy as it is mysterious.” But it had its compensations.
As the weeks went on, and the character of the new magazine defined itself with increasing distinctness, the publishers began to recognize that the accident relieved them from what might have been an embarrassment. It had intervened to save the editors from the ungracious duty of rejecting well-intended but unsatisfactory material. Another result not less fortunate was the recognition of the error of soliciting numerous contributions from foreign writers. The Atlantic was to depend for its success upon American writers. It was a curious fact, however, that the leading article in the first number was the sketch of an English author, Douglas Jerrold, who is hardly to be reckoned among the immortals, by an English writer—James Hannay—“who occupied,” said Allibone in his invaluable dictionary, “a distinguished position as a writer of fiction;” but of whose numerous works not one is known to the readers of to day. This article had escaped the ill-luck of being in my trunk.
In August Lowell wrote, —
“This reading endless manuscripts is hard work, and takes a great deal of time; but I have resolved that nothing shall go in which I have not first read. I wish to have nothing go in that will merely do, but I fear I cannot keep so high a standard. It is astonishing how much there is that heaps just short of the line of good, and drops into the limbo of indifferent. However, Number One will be clever: Emerson, ‘Illusions;’ Prescott, ‘Battle of Lepanto;’ Holmes, ‘Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table;’ Motley, ‘Florentine Mosaics;’ Mrs. Stowe, ‘A Stowery;’ Hannay, ‘Reminiscences of Jerrold,’ very good. I know that that is pretty well; but I tremble for Number Two. The names of the authors, you understand, are a secret.”
His question in regard to the second number did not last long, and two months later he wrote: —
“The second number of Maga. will be out to-morrow, and it is a very good one—better than the first, which is what I wished, and I hope Number Three will be better yet. The song I wish the young lady to sing is, ‘Mamma, I'm young, but I'm growin’ yet.’”
No magazine could have had a more brilliant and prosperous start, or one which gave better promise for continued success. At the outset it depended largely for its cordial reception by the public upon the contributions of writers already eminent, the great writers of the middle of the century. As one by one these lights were extinguished, their places were not supplied by any of equal luster. But while the higher ranks of literature, especially poetry, were thus depleted, there was a rapid increase of capable writers of abundant knowledge, and of trained faculty of thought and of expression, and of manifest talent. A democracy was substituting itself for the older aristocracy and with the usual result: the general level was raised, while but few conspicuous elevations lifted themselves above its surface.
This was, indeed, an early symptom of the enormous change in every field of thought—intellectual, moral, spiritual, social, and material—during the past fifty years, which make a wider division between the beginning of the half-century and its end than is to be measured by the mere tale of years. The change marks a new era in the history of civilization, and to an old man whose memories extend over the whole period, the difference between 1857 and 1907 seems like that between ancient and modern times.
Think for a moment of the conditions of time earlier date. Lincoln was unknown outside of Illinois. There was no Atlantic cable, no telephone. Our great war, which now seems so long ago, was yet unfought. These few facts are enough to serve as boundaries of the vast tract of history included in the half-century. Events momentous and impressive have crowded the years; but more significant than events has been the rapid and immense increase of knowledge, and the consequent change in the material conditions and intellectual outlook of the world.
In 1859 the Origin of Species was published, a book perhaps as important, not only in its immediate but in its remote effects, as any ever issued from the press. The doctrine of Evolution received from Darwin's work precisely that illustration and application required to change it from a questionable hypothesis to a verifiable theory, — a theory which, while affording a well-supported and effective explanation of the origin and process of the forms of life out the earth, was equally applicable to every part of the mighty drama of the universe. But through this theory now has not only been generally adopted by the more intelligent part of civilized mankind, but has been accepted widely as a popular creed, and although it has thus gained possession of the intellect of men, it has not yet possessed itself of their hearts or of their imaginations. They admit its authority, but their sentiment is not as yet touched by the vast change consequent on it in the relation of man to the universe and in his conception of the universe itself. This slowness of effect of new truths upon the sentiment of men is not strange. Perhaps the most striking example of it is that afforded by the Copernican theory of our solar system, which, although universally accept as true, is still far from controlling the sentiment and imagination. Take any thousand people to-day of the most intelligent to be found anywhere in the world, and although all of them will declare that they hold the Copernican system as established, yet probably nine-tenths of them still at heart, and so far as the sentiment of religion and of life is concerned, regard this earth as the centre of the universe and man as the chief object of creation.
In like manner with the theory of Evolution. While it holds sway in every field of science, and with such attractive force as to draw most of the vigorous and capable intellectual life of the time into these fields in pursuit of knowledge or of wealth, it still seems to affect but little the higher spiritual life of the mass of men. It has, indeed, been an incalculable benefit in loosening the bonds of superstition from the minds of men, but at the same time it has indirectly exerted a powerful influence tending, through the rapid and intoxicating advance of control of the great forces of nature and of the boundless sources of natural wealth, to the subordination of spiritual to material interests.
Thus, both directly and indirectly, it has had a disastrous effect upon pure literature, especially upon the literature of the pure imagination, upon poetry, and upon romance. To-day the writing about material things and of the daily affairs of men, of politics and of society, history, biography, voyages and travels, encyclopedias, and scientific treatises, far outweighs, in quality no less than in quantity, the literature of sentiment and the imagination. The whole spiritual nature of man is finding but little, and for the most part only feeble and unsatisfactory, expression.
In poetry there is not to-day a single commanding voice. Now and then a transient note of power is heard but the strongest are those which deal with and for the most part glorify material things. The great harpers of the House of Paine have departed. Orpheus, and Orion who sat “syde faste” by him, and Eacides Chiron, and the Bret Glascurion, have all left their seats, and only the
“... smale harpers with their glees,”
who sat beneath them, remain, while afar from them are heard
“Many thousand tymes twelve
That maken loude menstraleyes”
“Many a floute and lilting-horne
And pypès made of grenè corne.”
But this shall not be forever. The spirit in man is never wholly quenched. Romance never dies out of the world. The stars of night still shine to the souls of men. One generation after another may try to content itself with apples of the Dead Sea, but the time shall come when the quest of the fruit of the Tree of Life shall be undertaken again in earnest and with fair promise. Great harpers shall fill again the seats once occupied by Orpheus and Orion, and the later days of the Atlantic Monthly, in that perhaps still distant time, may be no less worthy of fame than when Emerson and Longfellow and Lowell and Whittier and Holmes were its regular contributors.