The Letters of Horace Howard Furness
Edited by Houghton Mifflin Co. 1922. 2 volumes. 12mo. xv+351, vii + 296 pp. Illustrated. $8.00.. Boston and New York:
IF, as Horace Howard Furness used to say, ‘One touch of Shakespeare makes the whole world kin,’lovers of their kind have reason to be grateful for these volumes of letters. Telling the story of a life of fruitful scholarship dedicated to a high task, they bring also to public knowledge a man whose humanity is a precious heritage. The working hours of more than half a century were devoted by Furness to preparing the volumes of the Variorum Shakespeare; in almost every letter there is reference to his labors; nevertheless, so completely did he humanize his task that what stands forth here is not so much the work as the man.
Though he was ‘deaf as twenty-seven adders’ and his occupation was one of extreme isolation, the spell of Shakespeare’s universality drew him out to mankind, and drew mankind to him. So the fascination of these volumes lies in the unfolding of a humanity that with the years grew deeper, richer, more tender, and more irresistible. Let not the seasoned reader of ‘ Letters’ be misled into thinking that at the close of the first volume, which brings Furness to the age of sixty-five, he has the whole story; the period of old age when, in spite of his loneliness, he refused to become dependent upon others and even to the end worked steadily, at times with an ‘ardor almost youthful,’is fully as significant.
The life-stuff is of the simplest: an upbringing in the idealistic atmosphere of an antislavery family; a consecrated period of war service; congenial work which called forth his best powers and brought him renown; years of happy married life followed by an even longer period of widowhood; devotion to Ids children, his sister, and his father; constancy in affection for the lost wife and daughter; an old age that ennobled all that had gone before. This material is irradiated by humor, by wisdom, by love; all human meanness and bitterness are for the moment obliterated by a flood of light that is verily from on high. A single sentence may bring a shout of laughter or a gush of tears; whichever the response, we are happier for companionship with a man who had come so near to the secret of life.
A few long passages are even more significant in revealing Furness’s nature. There is the description of his waiting with his father in the Philadelphia station to receive the body of John Brown; his accounts of Lincoln are invaluable for their vividness and truth, and he has preserved a phrase of Lincoln’s about the Southerners being ‘our brothers in error,’ which, however much it outraged the young abolitionist, at the moment, is important as containing the germ of the Second Inaugural Address. The narrative of Furness’s reading of Antony and Cleopatra at Cambridge epitomizes his power over men by the grace of Shakespeare; while the incident of the blind negro beggar searches the soul and ‘upbraids our despondency.’
Whatever the subject, whoever the correspondent, Furness knew his aim — the heart of the friend he was writing to; and he never missed the mark. The book is a touchstone; let him who is unworthy of it beware!
HENRY GREENLEAF PEARSON.