Unbound Old Atlantics
IN a corner of the old sitting-room at home stood a tall, old-fashioned secretary, with two deep drawers in its lower part. In these drawers were packed away old numbers of the Atlantic Monthly. Our father’s subscription to the magazine began with its first number, that of November, 1857. This was in his early married life; in the course of years the old Atlantics had filled full the deep lower drawer, and were crowding out of the upper drawer, despite my mother’s protest, the linen tablecloths and napkins that rightfully belonged there. Lowell’s line in The Cathedral, “Poor Richard slowly elbowing Plato out,” has in some odd way always recalled to me that home process of eviction. Although in this case it was, if anything, Plato who was elbowing out Poor Richard.
As we children grew up in the home those two deep drawers in the old secretary became to us a storehouse where we could always find something to read; a storehouse that we neglected when new books came, but constantly kept turning back to when the new book was exhausted. When Little Women came the drawer was neglected. When Death Trailer, the Chief of the Scouts shook in my excited hand (my sincerest thanks to Mr. Harvey for his defense of the dime novel in the July Atlantic), its bright yellow cover blotted out of my mind all memory of the duller yellowish-brown covers of the old Atlantics.
But Little Women and Death Trailer were only occasional, they came and went; and always there were the drawers full of the old magazines for us to fall back on. These were ready to welcome us at any moment; they were not resentful at our neglect, but were secure in their abiding power to charm.
It was on long Sunday afternoons that we most often turned to them. No picture of the old home life comes more often than that of the old sitting-room with one sister sitting cross-legged on the floor in the open space between the lounge and the old secretary, so that she could reach out her hand to the open drawer when she wanted a fresh magazine; and with the other sister stretched full length on the floor, with all the magazines that contained some one continued story collected around her.
We had our troubles with those continued stories, for often there was a number missing: if it was n’t the final number we simply read on undisturbed; but if it was, then we made up out of our own heads an ending to suit ourselves. One of the missing numbers was that of April, 1861, which had in it the last installment of Elsie Vernier. Since growing up I have often wondered what Oliver Wendell Holmes would have thought of the ending that the girl of twelve found appropriate for his psychological study. Her ending did n’t have any psychology in it, and there was no “study; ” she finished the story.
It was an understood law between the two sisters that if one was called away to finish some household task, her open magazine must not be taken by the other. Late one afternoon my sister had been called away to help about the supper, and I sat there selfishly rejoicing that she and not I had been called, and comfortably finishing my own story. When it was finished I sat down by my sister’s open magazine, meaning just to glance at it. Ah, but the book lay open at “ The Man without a Country ; ” and the glance grew into eager, absorbed reading. When my sister came back I could not give the book up, so she let me read it with her. Then the two girls stretched out on the floor in the dusky sitting-room, with elbows firmly planted, and with chins resting on the palms of their hands, and read the story together by the firelight.
Do you who have read that way remember, if you were the quicker reader, having to wait for the other one to catch up before you could turn the leaf? Always the most interesting parts came at the bottom of the right-hand page. To this day I can remember just where in “ The Man without a Country ” came some of the places where I had to wait for a leaf to be turned in that old Atlantic.
That winter’s evening in the dusky twilight the fire-illumined page soon took on prismatic colors, seen through my fast-gathering tears. When we came to the place in the story where Nolan, reading aloud, had to read
Who never to himself hath said
’ This is my own, my native land ’! ”
“the big round tears cours’d one another down my innocent nose,” and from there on to the end of the story, the great tears of childhood splashed intermittently on the pages.
Several years ago the editor of one of the magazines had people send to him their lists of the ten best short stories. Of the thousands of lists sent in nearly every one contained “ The Man without a Country.” How could it have been otherwise, if to each one of the makers of those lists that story was an integral part of his own childhood ? My own list had in it four of the old Atlantic stories ; the three others were “My Double, and how he undid me,” “In a Cellar,” and “ Marjorie Daw.”
Not all my recollections of the old Atlantics have for their background the fire-lit sitting-room. In summer my favorite reading place was the old sawmill. This stood by the river about four or five rods from home, and was so built that most of it stood out over the running water. Between it and the house was the log yard, where the great logs lay waiting their turn at the saw. Going over to the saw-mill there was always room to find a pathway in amongst the logs; but I preferred the “overland route,” jumping from one log to another.
One end of the long low building was open; and one lying here on the sunlit boards, looking up from one’s reading, could see far off down the river where it swung in a great curve, with the hemlock trees climbing up to the top of its steep bank on one side, and with the low willows fringing the wide level meadow on the other side.
The floor of the old mill was not laid with matched boards, and through the great cracks between the boards, as one lay on the rough floor face downwards, reading, one caught the flash of the running water far beneath.
The water-driven, vertical saw, slowly slicing up the great logs into slabs, did not have the angry “zip, zip ” of the circular saw, but a droning sound that blended with that of the rushing water, deepening the murmur.
The echoes of the Civil War had scarcely died away throughout the land, and the thrill of its courage and devotion stirred the responsive heart of childhood. I could dimly remember the home-coming of my father from the war, and had slowly learned to realize that the young uncle who had been our playmate and companion would never return. So the old Atlantics opened almost of themselves to Whittier’s “Barbara Frietchie,” Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Longfellow’s “The Cumberland.”
Of them all the little girl liked “ Barbara Frietchie” the best. Lying there reading on the sunlit boards, with the reflections from the running water below dancing on walls and ceiling, the girl consciously saw none of these things. She saw instead the streets of Fredericktown, with Stonewall Jackson riding at the head of the rebel troops, and The Flag flying from the empty attic window over them.
But unconsciously she must have noted it all. Far in the dusky interior of the old mill aslant its dimness fell a shaft of motelit golden light from its one western window. The woman to-day finds herself unable to keep separate in her consciousness this real window of the mill from that attic window of the poem; and, in defiance of time and space, that shaft of golden dusky light falls on the upturned faces of Stone walks men.
Both “Barbara Frietchie” and “The Cumberland ” have in them one moment of high dramatic action. I do not think young children appreciate silent heroism; they like best the bold defiance of speech and of action: so Barbara Frietchie’s “Shoot if you must this old gray head,” and the commander of the Cumberland’s “It is better to sink than to yield,” found their true place in the girl’s heart beside that one line of Marmion, “The hand of Douglas is his own.”
“ The Battle Hymn of the Republic ” has in it no one speech of open defiance, but is full of deep, strong reverberations like those of distant thunder among low hills. It is said that no one has ever truly heard that poem who has not heard it sung by a regiment of armed men; the tread of their marching feet being its one true accompaniment.
I cannot tell, I have never so heard it; the poem repeats itself in my mind to the deep throbs of great masses of plunging water. Part of the old saw-mill was built out over the dam; and, when the river ran high in the spring, the volume of water was so great that it fell in one smooth unbroken wall from the top of the dam into the deep pool below’. Even the great timbers of the old mill shook with its vibration. The flying spray flung up from the pool far below sometimes reached the girl, who on the outermost pile of lumber half read to herself, half chanted aloud, the Battle Hymn.
One other poem of the old Atlantics, Robert Low’ell’s “ Relief of Lucknow,” connects itself with those days, though it had nothing to do with the Civil War except as all deeds of heroism naturally belonged with it. That poem seemed to pick out of the murmurous undertone of sound in the old mill, and take for its own, the sound of the steel teeth of the saw forcing their way through the great logs. I think the poem must have laid claim to the droning sound of the saw by virtue of the kinship between that sound and the sound of the bagpipes of the rescuers in the poem.
In one of the late Atlantics there is a poem, “ The Book Lover,” in praise of the all-sufficingness of a book. The author speaks of himself as perched in some window-seat, or as in the alcove of a great library, or as being seated by the home fireside. He says of himself in each and all of these places —
Beyond the pages of my book.”
He even says that he would be happy stowed away on a shelf, if a beloved book were stowed away with him.
That may be true for Mr. Scollard, but for my own self, full half the charm of those poems in the old Atlantics came from the sights and sounds amongst which they were read. They would not stand for what they do in my life if it had not been for my reading-place in the old mill.
I still think there could have been no other reading-place equal to it. The sun came in at the open southern end, and lay warm and still on the rough board floor; cool breezes blew out of its dim interior from the far-away open northern end, bringing with them the drone of the saw and the clean smell of fresh lumber and fresh sawdust; and up from below and in at every side came the murmur and flash of running water.
The girl so loved this reading-place that she came out to it to read on the occasional sunshiny March day, when the branches of the willow’s that fringed the level meadow at the curve of the river were showing the coming of spring in their deepened yellow color; and she kept coming until sometimes the page was darkened by a sudden flurry of November snow; and, looking up from her reading, she could not see the pointed tops of the hemlocks that crowned the river bluff.
There is convincing proof that the girl who read there was not a creature all compact of sensibility to poetry and to murmuring sound, but was indeed of most veritable flesh and blood. In one of the old Atlantics, opposite the page on which is “The Cumberland,” there are unmistakable marks of bread-andbutter fingers, and there is also a dull brownish-red stain that must once have been jam. I only hope that that prosaic record enrolls me with Goethe’s Charlotte, who, according to Thackeray, in the very crucial moment of the tragedy when Werther’s body was borne past her, “went on cutting bread and butter.” However that may be, no other page of the old Atlantics is so dear to the woman as the one that bears these childish marks.
Doubtless for grown-up people it is more convenient to have one’s old Atlantics bound; but, if ours had been bound and had stood in a formal row on the book-shelves, instead of lying unbound in the old secretary, we children would never have so burrowed in amongst them, and have lived so intimately with them as we did. Heavy bound volumes would not so easily have lain open on the sitting-room floor, nor would they so readily have lent themselves to transportation across the logs to the saw-mill.
The years come and go, until the sisters now have come into the midst of their teens: but the contents of the drawers of the old secretary have neither been outgrown nor exhausted. The old familiar stories and poems are being read over and over again, and new treasures are being found in the old magazines. Now it is “Dorothy Q.,” Stedman’s “The Doorstep,” Nora Perry’s “ After the Ball,” that are being learned by heart and dreamed over. These new poems have not driven out of our hearts the old war poems, but have fitted down beside these into their own true place in the widening life of girlhood. The old mill is still my reading-place, and despite the dignity of sixteen years, I go out to it by the old “overland route.”
On warm midsummer afternoons when the water was so low that the mill could not run, the murmur of the shallow water from the shrunken bed of the river below hardly reached up to me; a slumberous stillness brooded over the whole place; and the smell of the newly sawed lumber in the hot sunshine seemed to fill full all the silent place, left empty of sound.
On such an afternoon, when I read in Helen Hunt’s “Coronation” of those filmy nets of sun woven by the subtle noon at the king’s gates, into whose drowsy snare the king’s guards fell, before my very eyes in the old mill were those same subtle, yellow nets being woven, only no king’s guards were being ensnared by them. They had caught and were holding all the forest odors that had been stored up in the great logs, and, having been set free by the saw, were now again imprisoned.
But we sisters now were beginning to read articles that were neither stories nor poems. One such article stands out in my mind as marking the destruction of a childhood’s belief. Children are firm believers in the power of absolute justice; right is always triumphant in their creed. My first view of there being such a thing as triumphant injustice came to me through the old Atlantic article “The Fight of a Man with a Railroad.”
As the result of that reading some of the foundations of the girl’s thinking, some of her settled belief, gave way; a certain .feeling of security went out of her life. She had never consciously known that she had these beliefs, they were so inherently a part of herself; but as she read the article, as the bitter knowledge that the power of a great corporation could make judges give unjust decisions, as the bitter knowledge that you might have wrongs and you could get no redress of them, as the bitterness of weakness at the mercy of unrestrained strength, as these all came home to her, blank bewilderment came with them.
Her childhood conception of Law as being a great powerful something that kept any one from doing you an injury; or, if the injury had been done, punished the one who did it and kept him from doing it again, was doubtless very crude; yet it looks to the woman to-day as if the gist of the whole matter were in it. If men can feel that back of all their separate and often conflicting interests there is a power to which they may appeal to protect these interests in so far as they should be protected, and that this power is stronger than the strongest man or combination of men, and that its decisions are incorruptible, then you have the rock foundation on which society, civilization, and government may rest.
The girl read this article at home on a certain evening; by some irony of fate, at school on the morning of that very day, her English history lesson had been on the Magna Carta.
The barbarous mediæval Latin of the fortieth clause of the Great Charter, “Nulli vendemus, nulli negabimus, aut differemus rectum aut justitiam,” took on strange interpretations read by the light of the facts in that article. There in her history textbook stood the fortieth clause of the Great Charter, “To none will we sell, to none wall we deny, to none will we delay either right or justice; ” and there in the old Atlantic stood the record of a law trial in an American court, with its bought judges, its delayed and denied justice.
It would need a larger brain than that of the sixteen-year-old girl to take in, within less than twenty-four hours, that clause and that law trial, and not have them jostle each other.
Was it Lowell who said, “The more we know of ancient literature, the more we are struck with its modernness ” ? Well, the more we read the old Atlantics, the more we recognize that the questions raised there so long ago are the live questions of to-day. Here are two of the questions raised in that old article on the fight with the railroad: “Are the railroads and the courts the masters or the servants of the people who pay for both ? ” “ Does the public intend deliberately to tax itself enormously through the railroads for a common service so that a few favored individuals may become inordinately arrogant and rich?”
If these two questions had appeared in any leading magazine or newspaper in this last month, all that would have excited surprise in the questions would have been the clearness with which they were put, and the directness with which they go at the heart of the problem; yet the Atlantic in which they appeared bears date of December, 1872.
Mr. Coleman, the author, speaking of the fight, says, “ My fight is still going on, and I trust it will continue till the insolence of these railroad corporations is curbed, and they are taught their single and true function, that of common carriers for the sovereign people.” One wonders if throughout the thirty-five years since the article was written Mr. Coleman has continued to fight the good fight and is to-day a veteran in the ranks; or did he long ago become discouraged at the difficulty of teaching the railroads that lesson and give it all up ? or, for in thirty-five years much may happen, did he die in the midst of the battle, still fighting ?
We hear now on all sides the term “robber barons ” applied to some of the great capitalists. When it began to be generally so applied several years ago it had to my ears an oddly familiar sound. Suddenly it flashed upon me one day where I had heard it, and I turned to the old Atlantics. There stood this sentence in the issue for August, 1870: “The old robber barons of the Middle Ages who plundered sword in hand and lance in rest were more honest than this new aristocracy of swindling millionaires.”
It is a little difficult for those who were brought up on the Atlantic Monthly not to have a half-resentful feeling when all the world comes round to adopting ideas and expressions which they and their magazine have shared together. One laughs at one’s self for the feeling, one recognizes the inherent snobbishness and littleness of it, but it is there.
On the lucus a non lucendo principle the following incident belongs with this record, although the very point involved is, — the not being in an old Atlantic. The night before, my sister and I had been out to a party, and in the morning we were wakened by our father calling,—
“Slug-a-beds, are n’t you ever coming down ?”
To our laughing reply of “Never,” came back “Then I’m coming up,” and in a moment father came into the room with a magazine in his hand.
“This came last evening after you were gone, and I want you to hear this poem.”
Then father began to read aloud to us Longfellow’s “ Morituri Salutamus.” On our ears fell, in our father’s voice (I have never known any one who read aloud so well), that wonderful opening of the poem: —
Salute you ! ’ was the gladiators’ cry
In the arena, standing face to face
With death and with the Roman populace.”
When father finished reading, in the hush that followed I reached out my hand for the magazine, and — it was n’t the Atlantic.
That Longfellow, or Holmes, or Lowell, or Emerson, or Whittier ever wrote for any other magazine had simply never occurred to me as being among the possibilities. If any one had suggested such a thing I would have indignantly denied it; but there before my eyes lay the evidence of Longfellow’s treachery. During my father’s reading I had felt the beauty and the pathos of the poem, but I never read it again until I read it in a regular edition of Longfellow’s poems wherein no trace of that hated rival magazine appeared.
I, who to-day am older than my father was then, have learned by the years that lie between how noble the poem is in its courageous acceptance both of the work that the old may undertake and of the limitations of that work. And yet even now between me and the beauty of the poem lies the shadow of the fact that it did not come out in the Atlantic.