I WAS born in the ancient town of Redding, Connecticut, just before I can remember. I conceived an early aversion to the stony pastures and bleak hills of the locality, and did not appreciate the great honor of first, beholding daylight in the same town that had given to the world Joel Barlow, poet, diplomat, and friend of Washington, and had furnished headquarters to General Putnam in the times that tried men’s souls. Nor did I foresee the interesting fact that if I tarried permanently there I should have Mark Twain’s company in curling up and spending my second childhood in this sequestered nest. Not comprehending my patriotic inheritance or my illustrious environment, I was probably delighted when my father resolved to try a change and moved the family to Orange, near the learned town of New Haven.
For the first year or two I was educated at home, and my favorite aunt often assured me that if I would be good and tried hard I could get to be President of the United States. Very likely I could have been, but having a lot of other things to do, and early learning how much worry the office involves, I have never sought the nomination.
My life before the age of fifteen seems to have been rather purposeless and colorless. While visiting at my ambitious aunt’s in Birmingham, I was fond of playing with the bright children next door. There I first saw phonography. A sedate and scholarly but ingenious and enterprising man their father was — Mr. George Kellogg. He took a most kindly interest in the curiosity which the strange characters excited and told me what they were for. He even lent me an English book of phonography, one of Isaac Pitman’s earliest, and, though a busy man, he gave me some suggestions and practical hints which I afterward made useful.
About this time one Thomas Ranney began a desolating campaign of pothooks and trammels in Connecticut. My father encouraged all my vagaries; phonography to him was always a wonder and delight. He arranged that I should enlist under the Ranney banner, and I walked to Derby, four miles and back, three times a week to attend the evening classes. He used Andrews and Boyle’s class book and reader. They wore of the sixteenth edition and had just come out. The days took on a serious hue. I went around the house analyzing orally all the words I could think of and got the reputation of talking to myself. I made a feeble effort to report the sermons of our bucolic parson ; but, as I did not wholly conceal my machinery, I excited his jealousy by attracting more attention than he did. Then I laid aside my pencil and followed the skeletons of words on my knee. Some of the spectators thought I was crazy, but my schoolmates considered me inspired. I persistently followed this habit of spectral phonography, if I may so call it, and it greatly assisted me in mastering the art, which I pursued with avidity and which I early determined to practise for a living.
My next impulse took the form of a desire to ‘get a job.’ I was quite incompetent for any reporting position, but of this I was unconscious, and I thought I saw light ahead. In an adjoining town a good uncle of mine solaced his conscience and shriveled his pocketbook by keeping a temperance hotel. For the comfort of his guests he took a daily New York newspaper, and when they laid it down his nephew cribbed its substance eagerly. One day I found an advertisement stating that for one dollar a lesson Mr. Theron C. Leland, ‘professor of phonography,’ would in eight lessons prepare any young man for an amanuensis and would ‘guarantee him a position.’ From the dictionary I learned what an amanuensis was. My father immediately arranged to have me ‘polished off,’ as he called it, and I was not long in hunting up and finding Mr. Leland in the great city.
My training began at once, and it was severe. Mr. Leland gave his lessons in the editorial rooms of the Herald of the Union — a pro-slavery weekly newspaper, especially devoted to the interests of Daniel Webster. He received the editor’s articles from dictation while his pupils looked admiringly on and followed with their tardy pencils. As the dictations were given in what was virtually a public room, the organ of the great Expounder could hardly be said to have a secret policy. This building was where the tall Western Union towers have since risen on lower Broadway, and the distinguished editor was accessible only after a climb of four flights of stairs.
One morning I got there before any of the office staff’, and was busily writing when I heard the clump of heavy boots coming up the stairs, for in those days everybody wore top boots who could afford them. The owner of the boots paused on the upper landing, balanced himself a moment at the newel post, looked around through the empty rooms, and said, ‘What! Mr. Leland abed yet?’ I answered that he would probably arrive very soon and pushed an armchair toward the visitor. He was a portly man, with thin hair, a lean, wrinkled face in need of the razor, beetling brows, and unfathomable gray eyes. He seemed weary. Conspicuous articles of his apparel were a very tall silk hat, a blue coat with flat brass buttons, nankeen vest, and a high inflexible stock that looked like a ring of cast iron around his neck.
‘No,’ he said, ’I will not. wait. Tell him that I called — that Mr. Webster called. And I want to see him at once.’
Mr. Leland came in shortly and said, ‘Ah, yes; Air. Webster is in town, then. I must go over to Number Eleven. Don’t you want to come along?’
It was Mr. Leland’s generous and amiable custom to invite his pupils to accompany him when he called to report, and of course I went with him gladly. The Number Eleven he had mentioned was a large parlor on the second floor of the Astor House which the Expounder of the Constitution occupied whenever he was in the city. And there we presently found him. He walked leisurely up and down the room as he spoke. The dictation seemed to be the outline of a law speech which he was about to deliver, — perhaps the last he ever did deliver, — I have forgotten where or in whose interest; but as he mentioned ‘dollars’ frequently, I have since fancied that it perhaps had something to do with the tariff, then a foremost topic of discussion. Mr. Webster folded his hands behind him as he walked, and between his sentences emitted a slight buzzing or humming sound from his lips — a peculiarity which I have never seen referred to. I had my notebook and was very much astonished at the extreme slowness of the orator’s dictation. He spoke on that occasion not more than fifty or sixty words a minute, and it could not have been difficult to follow him in longhand. The ‘mighty Daniel’ looked the sick man that he was, and his various infirmities were emphasized by the deep disgust that had taken possession of him when General Taylor was nominated over him at Philadelphia in 1848 and when General Scott was given similar precedence in the nominating convention at Baltimore in 1852. To have two ‘ignorant frontier colonels’ preferred to him was more than his proud soul could endure.
At the end of my prescribed course Mr. Leland promptly said, ‘Very well, sir, your term is ended. What next?'
‘Work,’ I said, ‘if I can.’ His question seemed to lack positiveness. I inferred that he was quite as doubtful about my competency as I was myself, but he added, ‘There’s nothing like trying, is there? I have spoken to a man named Pray who sometimes has work for a phonographer, and I will give you a note to him.'
He wrote a few hasty lines, enclosed them, and handed them to me. I was not long in finding the handsome residence of Isaac C. Pray, No. 23 Irving Place, close to the great Academy of Music. It was a bashful and awkward boy who rang the doorbell and handed in an improvised card and the note. Bridget reappeared presently and said briefly, ‘Folly me!’
I did. My disqualifications seemed mountainous as I walked through the hall and presented myself to Mr. Pray, who wheeled in his cushioned chair as I went in, looked surprised, and exclaimed, ‘Dear me! A mere stripling!'
This was discouraging, but in lieu of something more sensible I said, ‘I have grown quite a little this last year, sir.’ He laughed, took me by the hand, and said, ‘However, young man, it is n’t age that always tells, is it?’
Not thinking of anything better to say, I answered, ‘No, sir, it is n’t. I am older than I look.’ Thinking it over afterward, it occurred to me that this was malapropos, but he laughed again, as if I had said a very bright thing.
‘Can you report?’ he suddenly asked.
I have admired myself very much since because I had the self-possession and mendacity to look him straight in the eye and answer, ‘ Yes, sir.’
‘How many words a minute?’ And I ventured audaciously, ‘A hundred or a hundred and fifty.’ I ought to have said fifty or seventy-five.
I must have turned scarlet, for I felt myself a guilty thing whose sins were about to be exposed.
‘Let’s try it,’ he said, and motioned me to a table. He spoke five or six minutes, perhaps, and then stopped to take breath. ‘Now read it,’ he said.
How I ever got through it I cannot now conceive, but. he remarked approvingly, — or reprovingly, — ‘Ah! You remembered it, you rascal!’
I felt now that my doom was just as good as sealed. He had guessed right, for at least half of the paragraph was attributable to a good memory. I was greatly relieved when he continued, ‘Perhaps you’ll do. Can you earn eight dollars a week? Suppose you begin by running errands!’
‘Yes, sir,’ I answered. ’It will give me pleasure to be of use to you.’
‘You will board with me,’ he resumed. ‘Breakfast, eight; dinner, six — be punctual! Meanwhile you can take this down to the Herald office and deliver it to Mr. Bennett in person. In person. Be sure and leave it!’ And he handed me a large sealed envelope from his desk. I took it, bowed myself out, and in a few minutes found my way to the den where the elder Bennett forged his thunderbolts. It was at the top of a building adjoining the American Museum at the junction of Broadway and Park Row, and Underhill had pointed it out to me as a fearsome cavern where ambitious reporters were tortured. I trembled as I handed the great man the parcel.
The Scotch editor who terrorized New York at that time was, as I recall him, rough-hewn and bony, six feet high, with a harsh and strident voice, a crescent of white whiskers under his chin, and so terribly cross-eyed that when he looked at me with one eye, he looked out at the City Hall with the other.
‘Who from?’ he bluntly asked, without taking the document.
‘Mr. Isaac C. Pray,’ I answered.
‘Nothing to do with Mr. Isaac C. Pray! Nothing to do with Mr. Isaac C. Pray!’ he exclaimed angrily. But he took the parcel and tore off the envelope, disclosing a quantity of printed matter. With a savage gesture he flung it out the door into the hall, fixed me with one good eye, and shouted, ‘I don’t want it! I won’t have it! Carry it back and tell him to keep his stuff!’ And he turned his back on me.
I went out at once and collected the matter before it could blow away, but not before I had discovered it to consist of galley proofs. Notwithstanding the order, ‘Be sure and leave it,’ 1 made my way uptown again with it, bewildered and amazed at the reception, and wondering if my job depended on the singular performances and ungovernable temper of the master of the Herald. I was reassured by my reception at Irving Place, where the author pleasantly accepted the package, merely exclaiming, ‘Yet that fool once got his living as a proofreader!’
Without more mystery or concealment, Mr. Pray now took me into his confidence.
‘You must say nothing at any time to any person of anything you may hear in this house,’ he said quietly. ‘Or of my business.’ He added, ‘I have undertaken to write a life of Mr. Bennett, rather against his protest. He doesn’t like the idea wholly and gets angry about it. He is odd, but will come round all right. These are some of the early proof sheets, and I wanted to give him a chance to revise them and correct any errors. Bennett does not want his life written at all, and declares he will not contribute a word.’ Hereupon the author handed me the rejected proofs to read, saying I had ‘ better get the hang of it.’
It was still a riddle to me, as week after week I went on making copy from his dictation, and the riddle was not wholly solved when the handsome finished book issued, the next year, from the press of Stringer and Townsend. In the introduction, as there printed, will be found the following illuminating paragraph: —
The author of these pages has sought no person’s counsel upon his theme or its mode of treatment. Neither Mr. Bennett nor any one connected with him has been consulted either directly or indirectly, with respect to the writing or publication of these memoirs. It would have been easy, had circumstances permitted and he been willing, for Mr. Bennett himself to supply some points in his career which he alone can justly elucidate; but the desire of the author has been to be free from influences which might arise from personal inquiry.
It is obvious that Mr. Pray had imposed upon himself a terribly difficult task: to write a friendly biography of an unfriendly man without the active assistance or even the passive sympathy and acquiescence of the subject of it, and even under his prohibition. The reader who desires to know how that herculean labor was accomplished is referred to the volume itself—Memoirs of James Gordon Bennett and His Times.
As a manuscript maker I managed to give satisfaction, for Mr. Pray was fortunately very amiable and not very exacting, and he had many callers to occupy his time. I was repelled once more in a second visit to the Herald, but I always suspected, though I never knew, that while the volume was in course of preparation Mr. Bennett’s wrath subsided, without being placated.
There were eight persons, if I remember correctly, around the dinner table that first night at Mr. Pray’s. I talked as little as possible, for I immediately discovered that silence was my role.
It was far the most brilliant company I had ever met. The conversation ran on the latest books, the latest plays, the latest songs, the new magazines, and, generally, what was going on in Bohemia.
The second or third day Mr. Pray pushed across the table to me a little brown envelope containing two tickets to hear the great Forrest, asking me, ‘Have you heard him?’
‘No, sir,’ I said, delighted. ‘I have never been to the theatre but once; that was to hear Mr. Burton the other night as “Toodles.”’
‘Good thing! Good thing!’ he exclaimed. ‘And you’ll be delighted with Forrest in Macbeth. He is having wonderful success at the Broadway, you know.’
I did n’t know, but I kept that to myself.
By this time I had come to harbor a respectful curiosity concerning the people with whom I. was breaking daily bread and to whom I had been barely presented. I asked Underhill who they were.
‘Well,’ he answered, ‘they are lots of things. They are literary “ fellows.” They are theatre sharps, I have done some work for Pray, myself.
‘He gave me some tickets to Forrest the other night,’ I said.
‘Well he might!’ he exclaimed. ‘He has the entree of all the greenrooms in the city. He used to edit the Journal of Commerce, and, later, the Ladies’ Companion. Now he writes for the Sunday News. He was manager of the Park Theatre for years. And, bless your soul, he’s a highly successtul actor himself. Before 1850 he played Hamlet, Othello, Sir Giles Overreach, and Shylock at the Queen’s Theatre in London. Did n’t you know he wrote the farce entitled Here She Goes and There She Goes, also several serious plays like The Hermit of Malta? Oh, he’s a great boy! And don’t you know that it is his sister, Miss Malvina Pray, who has made such a hit at the Broadway? ’
I was astonished. I felt that my genial friend had pumped me full of information and I sat up late that night receiving dictation, the better to qualify myself for my work. Mr. Pray himself later expanded this information by telling me that in 1850 and '51 he was the musical and dramatic editor of the Herald, and that he resigned that position to become manager of the National Theatre. I drew some inferences and kept still.
It now seemed to me as if I had struck a permanent job, and it certainly was an agreeable one.
The front parlor was the workshop. It was small and frequently crowded. When my presence for any reason was undesirable, Mr. Pray would toss a bit of blank paper to me across the table, saying, ‘Take that to Harris.’ He had reminded me that Mrs. Harris was the authority of Sairey Gamp. ‘And,’ said he, ‘this is a Dickens household and these were Dickens’s headquarters. He went from here to the banquet in 1842 on Washington Irving’s arm. And there probably never was so much embarrassment round a dinner table as when Irving, the chairman, broke down in his presentation speech.’
Mr. Pray sometimes kept me up late by dictating dramatic reviews for the city newspapers after a play, and I soon learned that he not only was a regular critic, but was considered an authority on actors and acting. He often gave me a ticket to some theatre, and I heard Junius Brutus Booth as Richard III.
One morning the great American tragedian, Edwin Forrest, stepped in. I recognized him immediately without the masquerading make-up of Macbeth. He had now attained not only distinction but, unfortunately, notoriety, for through jealousy of the great Englishman Macready, then acting in New York, he had fomented the Astor Place riot, resulting in the death of twenty-two exasperated citizens and the wounding of a hundred more. Also, Mrs. Forrest had sought and obtained her divorce after a long contest. Both the divorce and the riot seemed to increase his audiences.
All his life Forrest longed to be a comedian, though he had the very face of Melpomene, the frame of Virginius, and a voice of thunder. No man was ever more obviously fitted to his rôle and his environment. Capable of great tenderness and genuine emotion, he was turbulent and aggressive in expression and giantesque in stature. I saw him many times during those months, and sometimes, at Mr. Pray’s request, received from him the dictation of a letter. But his quarrel with Macready had soured him and he was already past the meridian of his powers.
Forrest had cavernous eyes, and a magnificent head, topped with a wealth of dark, tousled hair. He was a very handsome man. I recall hearing a prolonged conversation, or rather a monologue, about his congressional ambitions. ‘You can and you shall go to the Senate!’ exclaimed Pray. ‘See what incredible idiots this state has sent there!’ ‘Thank you — thank you for the classification!’ said the actor, and they both laughed heartily.
Another of the royal line of monarchs of the American stage I met here about this time. One evening came a violent and aggressive rubadub in the vestibule like a volley of musketry. When the door was opened it admitted a grotesque inebriate who staggered to the sideboard and grabbed the decanter. His coat was much too small for him, his necktie was erected under his left car, and he spoke with an inimitable stutter as he clutched the empty air above his smashed white hat and took up the rôle which he had rendered so familiar. Yes, it was verily the same old ‘Toodles,’ as which he had appeared more than seven hundred times.
I was of course immensely interested in the personnel of my temporary domicile. It was unique. One evening the partition of the dining room slid noiselessly aside like a piece of stage scenery, and the table was drawn out to seat twenty persons instead of eight. It was a theatre party. I was not invited, but I had met several people who were there. Voices that penetrated my room proclaimed a convivial evening and a jolly assembly of the devotees of the sock and buskin.
I was not long in discovering that well-defined hostilities still existed between Mr. Bennett and his biographer. In the ‘moral war’ which had been waged for years against the Herald by almost all the newspapers of New York, the object of which was its suppression and annihilation, Mr. Pray had defended Mr. Bennett, but not in that exclusive and whole-hearted manner which the editor claimed as a right. Pray, a highly educated and refined man, insisted that the assailants, whom he called ‘assassins of character,’ were indeed a disgrace to journalism and to the city, but he also insisted that in the battle of invective and vituperation Mr. Bennett had placed himself upon their level. This is a sufficient explanation of Bennett’s repudiation of the volunteer biographer. But Mr. Pray did not shrink from his selfimposed task. He said in the book: —
While censuring the indiscriminate attacks made upon Mr. Bennett, where the most indecorous treatment was used towards those connected with him without regard to sex or to those chivalrous restraints which subdue passion and malignity even in their most fiery moods, be it not understood that any recriminations by the Herald are justified. They are just as censurable as the assaults of which complaint is made. All such personalities are disgraceful, spring whence they may, and provoked by whatever injustice and wrong. No mind cultivated by taste and education can view them with anything less than loathing and contempt.
As a specimen of the prolonged battle of indecency, a hand grenade from the enemy, with only a portion of its powder remaining, may show what vile combustibles were used by the ‘moral’ editors: —
Stigma on the city — obscenity and profanity — vicious and depraved — corrupting influence — vice and vulgar licentiousness — hypocrisy, ignorance, and bloated conceit — most diabolical and execrable — double apostate and traitor — liar and poltroon — political Iago — half crazy, uneducated wretch — slipshod, ribald style — profligate ridicule and impious jests — immoral and blasphemous monstrosity — a vagabond who fled his country — wretch — pest — villain — forger — blackmailer, &e.
To such a broadside of envy, hatred, and malice, Mr. Bennett replies: —
These blockheads are determined to make me the greatest man of the age. Newspaper abuse made Mr. Van Buren chief magistrate of this republic, and newspaper abuse will make me the chief editor of this country. Well — be it so. I can’t help it.
The first years of the Herald had been years of desperate poverty, disappointment, and failure. Mr. Bennett made it inoffensive and even prudish. He was without money and without friends. Frequently he could not pay for paper for the next edition. But he was determined to succeed, and at last found t hat he could do it only by constantly piquing curiosity and exciting alarm. He tried and adopted a decent and dignified course at first, and pursued it until it was obvious that if he persisted in it the paper could not exist for a single month. He then became the father of sensational journalism— the ‘yellow’ product of the times. He assailed the character and impugned the motives of distinguished citizens with a result that might have been foreseen, and perhaps was. He was assaulted upon the street with clubs and knocked down three times in as many weeks. After one of these assaults he made a humorous report of it, saying, ‘My damage is a mere scratch,’ and adding: —
As to intimidating me, or changing my course, the thing cannot be done. I tell the honest truth in my paper and leave the consequences to God. I may be attacked, I may he murdered, but I never will succumb. I never will abandon the cause of truth, morals, and virtue. To me, these attacks, lies, are as the idle wind. They do not ruffle my temper. Conscious of virtue, integrity, and the purest principles, I can easily smile at the assassins and defy their daggers. My life has been one invariable series of efforts, useful to the world and honorable to myself, to create an honorable reputation during life, and to leave something at my death for which posterity may honor my memory. I am building up a newspaper that will take the lead of all others that ever appeared in the world, in virtue, in morals, in science, in knowledge, in industry, in taste, in power and influence. My whole private life has been one of virtue, integrity, and honorable effort in every relation of society. I mean to make the Herald the great organ of social life, the prime element of civilization. I shall mix commerce and business, pure religion and morals, literature and poetry, the drama and dramatic purity, till the Herald shall outstrip everything in the conception of man.
When Mr. Bennett married and returned from his honeymoon with his bride, the newspapers of New York leagued together to compel the manager of the Astor House to refuse to entertain them on the ground that they were immoral persons! He did not resent the dastardly conduct except to say: —
Praise and dispraise — abuse and condemnation — are equally thrown away on me. Born in the midst of the strictest morality, educated in the principles of the highest integrity, inclined, from the first impulses of existence, to be a believer in human virtue, I have grown up holding with a death grasp to the original elements of my soul, while every new discovery has but revealed a deeper depravity in every form both in this country and Europe. I have seen human depravity to the core. I proclaim each morning the deep guilt that is encrusting society. What is my reward? I am called a scoundrel — a depraved wretch — a vile calumniator — a miserable poltroon — these anonymous assassins of character are leagued and stimulated by the worst men in society — by speculators — by pickpockets — by sixpenny editors — by miserable hypocrites, whose crimes and immoralities I have exposed, and shall continue to expose as long as the God of Heaven gives me a soul to think and a hand to execute. Slanders the most vile and dastardly that blackness of heart can conceive are circulated against the Herald and my personal character — a character that has never yet been stained either in the old world or the new.
When forecasting the destiny of the Herald, its master speaks like an inspired prophet on some mountain of vision. The Herald before 1840 is full of these predictions. For instance: —
When I started on my own hook last spring I could not, to save my soul, get credit from friend or foe for five dollars. With industry, talent, and reputation acknowledged on all hands, I was cried down by some secret influence, attempted to be trampled on, and even audaciously assailed in the open street by the very persons I had spent years in supporting and raising in the scale of society. I never quailed — I never feared — I never saw the man I dreaded to meet face to face, or the obstacle I would not attempt to surmount.
I go for hard work, just principles, an independent mind, a name that will last for ages after my death, and a place in the glorious hereafter, side by side with the greatest master spirit and the purest benefactor of the human race.
My ambition is to make the newspaper press the great organ and pivot of government, society, commerce, finance, religion, and all human civilization. I want to leave behind me no castles, no monuments of marble, no statues of bronze, no pyramids of brick — simply a name. The name of James Gordon Bennett as one of the benefactors of the human race will satisfy every desire and every hope.
I mean to fink my life, character, fortune, faith, all with the Herald. If I live, I know I shall succeed in my purpose, for I never yet set my heart upon a thing that I did not accomplish it.
The other newspapers shake their sides with ribald laughter at this exhibition of egotism and effrontery. The braggart is set upon by Tray, Blanche, and Sweetheart; but they have serious moments, too, these scoffing editors. They wish they could guess the riddle of this Sphinx of journalism.
He calls upon God so often that they hail him blasphemer; he protests his own personal virtue with an earnestness that is very comical, and they call him hypocrite. But above the racket of their railing is heard a complacent voice venturing to prophesy that the Herald will be the leading champion of truth, honesty, and virtue after they are all dead, and they know not what to think. They had seen this magician establish the Herald with less than five hundred dollars in his pocket. They had seen him repeatedly knocked down and rising from the prostration as if refreshed, merely remarking the next day, ‘The Herald is producing as complete a revolution in the intellectual habits of daily life as steam power is in the material. If a splendid fortune shall result for myself, that may be a matter of complacency, but it is a matter of course.’
To this magnificent forecast the unanimous press of the city would belch forth its volley of abuse. It called the offensive editor ‘virago, vixen, Xantippe, public scold.’ One of his adversaries erected a gallows to hang him on, and another prepared a ducking stool at the Battery. The hostility of the large and rich papers to this impudent intruder knew no bounds.
He gave his enemies as good as they sent, ‘and worse,’ as Sir Boyle Roche might say. Bennett was not a gifted writer, but his columns bristled with exclamations, interrogations, sneers, lampoons, reprimands, sardonic grins. The combatants flung at each other billingsgate and the argot of thieves, till all were in danger of being suffocated in the reek and effluvium of their unsavory battlefield. The Herald was small and lively. The big papers were chagrined and maddened past endurance to see its jocose, scandalous, and quizzing paragraphs sought for and laughed over while their own brilliant essays were ignored. His motto was ‘Never be more than a day ahead of the people, and never an hour behind.’
I, an unsophisticated youth in my teens, and quite unacquainted with the great world’s ways, had but a vague comprehension of the dreadful tumult, and only a shadowy conception of the singular character of Mr. Bennett and his relation to the public. It was only when I absorbed the spirit of the book by a re-perusal that I became thoroughly acquainted with the curious controversy.
While condemning Mr. Bennett for the Herald’s bad manners, Mr. Pray could not help adding in extenuation: —
The dark character of journalism was necessary to educate the people into the enjoyment of a higher style of art, just as Negro minstrelsy was necessary. Persons of fashionable habits and wishing to be esteemed patrons of the arts and admirers of literature would not support Mr. Bennett while the Herald was in its infancy, modest, prudish, and daintily fashioned. He tried them, and they sorely tried him. He could not prosper. In other words, he could not attract public attention till he caricatured himself physically and morally, mentally and editorially, and became, to all outward appearance, that which he had never been. He must be a mountebank. He must blacken his face, or the public would not look at him. Mr. Bennett might have written in prose or verse, with the force and elevated fervor of a Milton, yet, in the city of New York, he would not have sold newspapers enough in the year to furnish him with shilling dinners, provided he honestly paid, as was ever his wont, his printers and paper-makers.
To the obloquy and reviling of the current newspaper press resounding through the country, Mr. Bennett calmly answered: —
I have been a wayward, self-dependent, resolute, freethinking being from my earliest days. Yet there were implanted in my burning soul those lofty principles of morals, honor, philosophy and religion, that the contumely of the world cannot shake or all the editors or bankers in Christendom intimidate. I feel myself, in this land, engaged in a great cause — the cause of truth, public faith, and science, against falsehood, fraud, and ignorance. I would not abandon it even to reach the glittering coronet of the extinct title of the Duke of Gordon.
I bear a charmed existence. Neither fire nor sword nor steel nor competition nor hate nor abuse nor falsehood nor slander nor indictment nor persecution in a thousand forms can quench my spirit or impede my movements. I do sincerely believe that some superior power watches over me.
How gentlemen of taste, refinement, and education could carry on so absurd a warfare for ephemeral notoriety is indeed surprising. But it went on and on till every vestige of character seemed to be lost by every belligerent. The afflicted public appears to have regarded the combatants only as tragedians who die on the stage at night and come to vigorous life in the morning. And so the campaign of swashbucklers persisted, the garrulous scolds persuading themselves that they were dealing with brother bandits and that the safety of society required that they should be deemed bestial and despicable.
It is not necessary to call attention to the tremendous improvement in editorial courtesy since the days of the elder Bennett. If editors of the New York newspapers of the present day should conduct themselves towards each other as did Weed, Bennett, Greeley, Raymond, Webb, and their contemporaries, they would not survive the derision with which they would be greeted.
While in New York I saw the poet N. P. Willis a good many times. I had been delighted with his Letters from under a Bridge, and, boylike, sought every opportunity to get a glimpse of the brilliant author. There was a bookstore in Union Square which I had heard he was in the habit of visiting, and thither I went and lay in wait for him. About the third morning I saw him and shadowed him — followed him quietly around till I heard the proprietor address him by name. Then I was happy. I stole to his side and clandestinely inspected him. A pair of bright eyes, I remember, a graying reddish beard, long hair flowing almost in ringlets, a soft ‘Kossuth’ hat, with broad, wayward brim and crown irregularly indented, a vest of yellow cut velvet, and a large black brigandish cloak drawn around his trim figure.
I feasted on him. I gloated over the privilege with youthful enthusiasm, He went away. I moved along and stood exactly where he had stood. He vanished. I followed him. To the sidewalk. To the corner. To an omnibus. I thought his hands the handsomest man’s hands I had ever seen. I was ashamed to follow him farther, but I went away radiant, and said to myself, ‘ I have seen another great man.’ And so I had — one of the most remarkable of his kind.
At a later day I learned that the critics declared Willis’s style artificial and affected. It always seemed to me exceedingly natural. It was not simple; it was complex and fantastic, but it was natural — to him. But I have always wondered how ‘Absalom’s Lament ’ and other religious poems which I had wept over at school could ever have been written by such a dilettante, exquisite, and leader of fashion as this man became.
Willis was cordially loved, not only by his own family, in which he was a model husband and father, but by his employees and by everybody who came into intimate relations with him. He had a warm, buoyant, happy nature, which reflected its colors on all.
The reader can hardly guess how disappointed and distressed I was when my services as an amanuensis at Irving Place came to a sudden end. This was announced in a letter from my mother: ‘We have concluded that it is best for you to come home and go to school.’ The summons was a great shock.
In vain I pleaded that I was ‘now at school ’ — the best school that any boy was likely to have, where I was being taught the mysteries of bookmaking and the methods of accurate composition, ‘ besides having important lessons every day in American history.’ This was strictly true.
I did not go into details, but it seems that information had already reached my home that I had been inadvertently thrown into the company and under the influence of ‘play actors’ and that I was somehow involved in the immoral ‘moral war’ on the strange and incomprehensible editor of the Herald. In after years I discovered that it was the fear that I might drift to the stage that made my recall peremptory. The apprehension was entirely unfounded. I was interested in the curious life of the actors whom I saw, but not attracted to share it — partly, perhaps, because I never possessed the smallest dramatic talent.