Ticknor and Fields and the Old South Clock

I DO not keep a diary. I know how terrifying I might be to my friends — and enemies — if I did. I know, also, what a bore a diary is when published, and one feels forced to read it, because, perchance, something of interest may be found. How do we wade through dreary wastes of “Rainy day,” “Walked to Grant’s tomb,” “Grievously exercised with the mumps,” and many another item that might have had interest to the writer of a few years gone by, or of a century distant.

Though I do not keep a diary, and am in no danger of developing into a Pepys, charming old rascal! yet on occasion I record facts that interest me, for my personal gratification. For instance, on the evening of Wednesday, November 4, 1874, I made such a record of fact. I had been asked by a lady of Boston to “ assist ” at a meeting in her Beacon Hill parlors, — her “salon,” shall I say ? After the literary exercises proper on such occasions in Boston, there was the usual standing-up conversation, and the subject of the Atlantic Monthly came up. You remember that in its extreme youth the magazine was transferred from the publishing house of Phillips and Sampson, to whose enterprise it owed its existence, to that of Ticknor and Fields, then occupying the “Old Corner Bookstore ” on School Street, on the corner of Washington, just a little farther down town than the Old South Church. The late governor Alexander H. Rice told me on that November evening how the transfer was made. The original publishers had failed, and Mr. Rice was their assignee, upon whom rested the responsibility of settling the business. The Atlantic was a valuable part of the assets, of course, and Mr. Rice said that he sent letters to a dozen different publishers telling them that he would sell ii to the highest bidder whose offer should be received by noon on a certain day. The day arrived and not one bid had come. Mr, Rice walked over to the office of Ticknor and Fields, and said to Mr. Ticknor, “ I have not yet received your bid for the Atlantic.” “No,” replied the publisher, and you will not, for we don’t care to undertake the responsibility of the venture.” In point of fact, Mr. Rice told me, the risk was not great, for the circulation at the time stood at thirty thousand copies.

Mr. Rice was not to be put off in this cavalier fashion. He pointed to the clock on the Old South, and it was after half past eleven. “I am about to go to my office to open the bids,” said he, “and I am sure that Ticknor and Fields will be sorry if I find none there from them.” Mr. Ticknor was apparently immovable, Mr. Fields was in Europe. Mr. Rice continued his appeals. The hands of the old clock kept on their way, and soon they indicated five minutes of twelve. Then Mr. Rice made his last effort, and Mr. Ticknor turned to his desk and wrote a line on a piece of paper, handing it to the governor, sealed. Mr. Rice carried it to his office, and solemnly proceeded to open it. It was the only bid, and the sum mentioned was ten thousand dollars. Mr. Rice wenl at once to Mr. Ticknor again, and said “The Atlantic is yours!” Mr. Ticknor was startled, and replied, “Pray let no one know what I bid, for all my friends would think me crazy!” The brilliant history of the magazine during the period of the ownership of the honored house of Ticknor and Fields shows at once how little publishers are able to forecast the future, and how difficult it is to estimate the value of literary assets. Doubtless Mr. Ticknor thought when he handed his little slip of paper to Governor Rice that he had made a bid so modest that he was in no danger of having it accepted, and it seems equally sure that when he found that no other publisher had bid so high as he, he was alarmed lest he had made a deplorable exhibition of a lack of business acumen.