John Jay Chapman


ALAS, that one should have to look back on him! Alas, that a creature so vivid with thoughts, originality, life, and delightfulness, should be gone from the world! Surely nobody else could rain such violent, inexcusable affront upon his friends, and be so constantly forgiven. He had once with Theodore Roosevelt what you would call a mortal quarrel. In after years they came suddenly face to face upon a train, and fell, so to speak, into each other’s arms. This is but a single instance. There were people by the dozen who endured abuse from him that they would have taken from no one else, yet, when the first shock was past, got over it. And when he died, letters were published in London and Paris, and editorials in New York, all in the same tone of admiration and regret, and clergymen spoke of him in their sermons.

He wrote seventeen short books. You will have to look for them in second-hand shops. The first (so he told his Harvard classmates on their forty-fifth anniversary) sold 1800 copies, the second 1342, the third 811, the fourth 103; after which he stopped counting. His work was very uneven. He was impatient. Had he taken pains more often, had he buckled down to it always, as he did sometimes, — as, for instance, he did when he wrote his essays on Emerson and the Greek Genius, — he would have left a shelf surpassed in our literature by none of its kind. And one may feel certain that, had his gift for public speaking been equal to his mastery of style, and had he gone about like Emerson, lecturing instead of writing on Religion, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, the Drama, WilIiam Lloyd Garrison, and Tammany politics, no one, when death brought him a day’s publicity, would have needed (as some did need) to ask, ‘Who was John Jay Chapman?’


Jack Chapman: he comes more readily to the mind so than as John Jay Chapman. Throughout his days he was not John Jay but Jack, even to many who had never seen him. Was it because he could laugh enchantingly? That has to do with it. Undoubtedly an imp lived in him, almost inextricable from the rest of him; peeping out with a wink or a mischievous chuckle in his talk, his conduct, his writing, even upon his deathbed — and sometimes prancing at large. His thoughts were sudden; they took him by surprise just as if someone else had spoken them, and they delighted him just as much. But the laughter was merely one sign of the man, like his style; and who shall explain personality? This something, whatever it be, passed beyond the circle of his acquaintance, as the fragrance of flowers floats over the garden wall, as the light of a lamp shines from the room where it burns into the trees round the house.

Yes, the imp was inextricable from the poet, critic, crusader, rebel. Victor, his eldest son, an aviator of the Escadrille Lafayette, was killed near Verdun, June 23, 1916. Victor was the child of his first wife, Minna Timmins, and the second son he was to lose by sudden death. Victor had joined the Légion Étrangère in August 1914, and in the year following had transferred to aviation. His father published the boy’s letters, preceded by a short memoir of him and his mother; a few pages, strange, wonderful, containing one paragraph where appears an imp frisking not at all, a very earnest imp. Here is part of what precedes this: —

Victor’s mother was so remarkable a woman and so like him in many ways — she was so much the author of the heroic atmosphere, a sort of poetic aloofness that hung about him and suggested early death in some heroic form — that to leave her out in any account of him would be to leave out part of himself. . . . A swarthy, fiery, large-eyed girt, who looked like the younger sibyl of Michael Angelo. . . . She would have been like an eagle in a barnyard anywhere . . . a classic figure, athletic, sweeping, and impulsive. . . . I think there must be twenty notebooks of every size and shape among her papers, crammed with musings, rhapsodies, and dates. Her reading was miscellaneous, voracious, and disordered; and her memoranda were like the leaves blown about the Cumæan cavern by the winds of inspiration.

Yet for all this whirlwind which seemed to move in her steps, there was a central calm in her, a smiling majesty; and when I think of her it is as a tall young matron full of life, entering a room with gayety, bearing an armful of flowers for the pots and vases — crowned with inner dignity. . . . She had the man-minded seriousness of women in classic myths, the regular brow, heavy dark hair, free gait of the temperament that lives in heroic thought. . . . There have been few women like her; and most of them have existed only in the imagination of Æschylus and the poets.

But Minna’s seriousness was not the whole of her. Within the priestess there lived a joyous nymph . . . when she ran riot, it was the riot of the grapevine. . . . She acted upon impulses which were loving and headlong, tender and fierce . . . but always large. . . . Her unconventionality and habit of spontaneous expression did not please all people. There are those who cannot enjoy nature in this geyser form.

And now for the freakish gleam, of which a friend had reminded him: —

Minna and I were walking on Fifth Avenue, apparently engaged in moral discussion, when someone met us. It seems that she had taken the tortoise-shell pins out of her hair, and her braids fell to her waist. Her plea was that she had a headache. My sense of propriety was shocked, and I was vainly supplying her with sound reasons for a more seemly behavior. At length I gave way to her point of view, took off my coat and carried it on my arm. This policy of non-resistance worked like a charm, and she put up her hair. I resumed my coat.

Chapman took his ideas, causes, opinions, as some take measles, violently. He had a way of dashing an idea in your face. One day he announced with a shout: —

‘I’ve boiled Walt Whitman down to his essence: he was a tramp!’

Out of this germ came a penetrating essay, to be seen in that first volume, which found the 1800 purchasers. But William James was one of them; and he said of the essay on Emerson, which gives the book its title, that when he had been preparing an oration to be delivered on the one-hundredth anniversary of Emerson’s birth, nothing in America had thrown so much light on the subject as what Chapman had written.

Sometimes the theory he flung at you would be perfectly wrong and bear suspicious resemblance to improvisation. Shakespeare, he announced one day, was a spirit whom nothing had ever troubled, a creature whose sun shone imperturbably, no matter what. He was asked if Hamlet was the work of a man who had known no worry over the scheme of things, and advised to read the sonnets with attention. This struck him; he said he would have to think about it. In his ‘Glance towards Shakespeare ’ good things abound: ‘ The use of great men is to bind the world together. Everybody knows of them, thinks and writes about them, till they become portions of the common mind. . . . I once saw Hamlet played in German, by a Pole . . . five feet high . . . and more determinedly out of his mind than is possible outside Poland. Certainly these plays overstimulate humanity . . . we ought not to be surprised if they excite the actors. The judicious may grieve as they sit in the best seats . . . for grieving is the chief joy of the judicious. . . .’

Judicious he seldom was, and counted on others to supply this useful commodity for him. He would read aloud some paper in first draft, and listen to comments with a watchful eye, accepting correction well aimed with instant agreement and complete humility, scrawling rapid notes on the margin.

So was he accustomed — but more in youth than later — to thump some doctrine down till the china danced — and then to ponder and respect adequate dissent from it. Arrogance and modesty, ruthlessness and sweetness — such contradiction lay in him deep; but the sweetness was the deeper, and, long before the end of his life, prevailed. And at no time, not even when his assertions were pouring out most truculently, was he a talker who listened only to himself. Clever people there are who while you take your turn in conversation sit watching you with an eye of forbearance, and resume with an air as if you had taken a liberty which they would pass over. Jack Chapman played fair, generous to your thoughts, generous with his. Agree with him or disagree — and both might easily happen in the same five minutes — either was a luxury. Whichever way, your very best wits were set tingling. Any of your shortcomings were likely to bring out the imp, who could tease skillfully. The solemnity of pedants was a favorite mark. There was a pedant at Harvard working up a thesis on the Newfoundland fisheries for a Ph. D., who came into the room one day with an armful of pamphlets, as usual, and, as usual, a ponderous expression. One look at him, and the imp pranced immediately: —

‘Hullo, Charley, get many footnotes to-day?’


He did not come as a bolt from the blue. The contending elements in him, the contradictions — passion, reason; fierceness, sweetness; arrogance, modesty; defiance of conventions, orthodox propriety — all these that inhabited him and chased each other in and out without ever affecting the depths of his spiritual essence are direct inheritance, easily to be traced. Only the perpetual mystery of genius remains. Others have had more; but, by the turn of his, he was an apparition in American Letters, in his own way as much out of the established picture as Poe, or as Byron in England. He clashed with Conformity, shocked the respectable, jolted the timid, ripped the standardized pattern to rags. Repentance came to him in later days for some of his excesses in attacking such persons as President Eliot or Professor Norton. Some of his shafts were truly aimed and struck home, but were cruel; and he fitted his own words about the abolitionists: ‘The antislavery people were not always refined. . . . Garrison’s rampant and impersonal egotism was good politics, but bad taste.’ You may call Chapman a belated abolitionist, and not be far out of the way. But when the imp vanished and became crusader, then this soldier of God against Mammon could so tower as to make one think of Lincoln. He is speaking at Coatesville, Pennsylvania, in August 1912.

‘I will tell you why I am here; I will tell you what happened to me. When I read in the newspapers of August 14, a year ago, about the burning alive of a human being, and of how a few desperate, fiend-minded men had been permitted to torture a man chained to an iron bedstead, burning alive, thrust back by pitchforks when he struggled out of it, while around about stood hundreds of well-dressed American citizens, both from the vicinity and from afar, coming on foot and in wagons, assembling on telephone call, as if by magic, silent, whether from terror or indifference, fascinated and impotent, hundreds of persons watching this awful sight and making no attempt to stay the wickedness, and no one man among them all who was inspired to risk his life and stop it, no one man to name the name of Christ, of humanity, of government! — as I read the newspaper accounts of the scene enacted here in Coatesville a year ago, I seemed to get a glimpse into the unconscious soul of this country. I saw a seldom-revealed picture of the American heart and the American nature. I seemed to be looking into the heart of the criminal — a cold thing, an awful thing. . . . I said to myself . . . what I have seen is not an illusion. It is the truth. I have seen death in the heart of this people. For to look at the agony of a fellow being and remain aloof means death in the heart of the onlooker. . . .

I say that our need is a new life, and that books and resolutions will not save us, but only such disposition in our hearts and souls as will enable the new life, love, force, virtue, which surround us always, to enter into us. . . .’

On the anniversary of the crime, he journeyed to the place in the teeth of some threats, and delivered his address to an audience of two, while from a church across the street the citizens of Coatesville discreetly emerged after worship with countenances carefully averted.

But listen to a brief tale of his forbears, and you will understand all of John Jay Chapman, save his genius.

He bore his great-great-grandfather’s name; a man active in our Revolution, member of the Continental Congress, emissary under Washington to France and England, negotiator of a famous treaty, and first Chief Justice of the United States. The Jays were Huguenots; driven from home in 1685, they brought here some of the ablest and worthiest blood of France. Chapman’s grandfather was also John Jay, our minister to Vienna in the late sixties and early seventies; active in the antislavery movement, writer of pamphlets, and a very urbane, handsome personage. The sight of this old gentleman reading family prayers each day in Bedford House, his country place, belongs, with Washington, with Lincoln, with Cleveland, to yesterday’s seven thousand years. Mark this: he cut dead in the street a lifelong friend, a leader of the New York bar; this lawyer had dedicated all his skill, force, and prestige to saving from the law the felons Fisk and Gould, who had bled the Erie Railroad white and bribed judges with the dollars they had looted from the stockholders. To cut a friend on a principle of public morality has been uncommon in any day.

On the other side of the family was a notable grandmother, Maria Weston Chapman, an abolitionist, friend of Harriet Martineau; also extremely handsome, and also a personage. Her force and heart were inherited by her son, Henry Grafton Chapman, a broker, president of the stock exchange, who, upon a day of historic chaos in Wall Street, proved his quality by a bold prompt stroke, and closed the stock exchange on his own responsibility amid the howls of bedlam. Beside his courage, he was genial, whimsical, and at times quite outrageous. Coming downstairs one morning, he saw the cook with her bonnet on, going out of the house into Washington Square.

‘Where are you going?’

‘I’m leaving.’

‘What for?’

‘I can’t get on with Mrs. Chapman.’

‘Neither can I. But I’ve done it for seventeen years. Now you take that bonnet off and go back to the kitchen.’

The cook stayed.

He was among the founders of the Knickerbocker Club, which at first was but little frequented. Coming in there one afternoon, he found one member sitting solitary by the fire.

‘You can go home now,’ he said. ‘I’ll stay.’

His son might just as well have said this.

He was a warm, winning, delightful man. The lady he could n’t get on with, daughter of the John Jay who cut his lawyer friend, was that rare flower of our civilization, a great lady, as were all her sisters: rare then, rarer to-day. She had wit, style, spirited appearance, the look of race; and her letters were full of cleverness. Her company was vivacious and stimulating. With no pretense to special cultivation, she had enough for ten women you habitually meet at dinner. The power of affection was in her, and the power of scorn; perfect gallantry under misfortune; and when it came to launching her two daughters in the stream of New York society, which even then was growing muddy, she could be as hard as nails.

As a little girl in the nursery, Thackeray’s Rose and the Ring had been read to her; and when she looked at the picture of Baron Sleibootz standing behind Prince Bulbo with his thumb to his nose, that gesture made an impression. She registered a secret resolve that if ever she saw the person who wrote that story and drew that picture she would make that gesture at him. Not long after, she was in the drawingroom with her mother when a visitor was announced. As he entered, her mother said: —

‘ Ella, say how-d’ye-do to Mr. Thackeray, who wrote that nice story about the Rose and the Ring.’

Ella did not say how-d’ye-do; she retired under a table, where she kept behind its overhanging cover throughout the author’s visit, heedless of any commands from Mrs. Jay. His visit ended, the visitor had reached the door when out came Ella from under the table, and was ordered by her mother to say good-bye and thank him for his story.

The child stood silent, put her thumb to her nose, and spread her fingers out.

After a moment of stupefaction, Thackeray put his thumb to his nose, added the other hand, wiggled his fingers, and so quitted the house.

The table at Bedford House in summer would be long, with Mr. and Mrs. Jay at its ends, and between them their married daughters, Mrs. Chapman, Mrs. Schieffelin, and Mrs. Robinson, with such grandchildren as were old enough to dine and sup with their elders, and school friends of the grandsons. The way in which Mr. Jay’s married daughters would behave at meals must at times have made him vainly wish not to laugh.

‘Goodness!’ exclaimed Mrs. Chapman once. ‘It’s Thursday, Augusta’s night for coming to supper!’ Augusta was a half sister of Mr. Jay’s, and lived in another country place, half a mile across lawns and fields.

‘We must get through somehow,’ said Mrs. Schieffelin.

‘Can’t somebody stop her?’ said Mrs. Chapman. ‘Wister, go over and stop her.’ The boy was fifteen then.

‘Wister,’ said Mrs. Robinson, ‘we’ll give you twenty-five cents if you’ll stop Augusta.’

The famous Beecher trial had been going on, that year or another, and Beecher was not yet acquitted of the grave charge brought against him. His counsel, William M. Evarts, came up to Mr. Jay’s for the week-end, and those reckless daughters dared some of us to ask Mr. Evarts if his client was guilty. And we did! We were gravely told that Beecher was innocent.

A novel was undertaken by four or five of the young people, each writing a chapter, and reading it aloud in turn after supper.

Jack Chapman’s began: ‘Lounging in his luxurious chamber, the Marquis was seated in his purple dressing-gown with his feet in iced claret.’

The epoch at which we are born into the world has nearly as much to do with what we are as the sires and grandsires of whose stuff we are made. Chapman was born in 1862, while the North under Lincoln was fighting for the Union, the South for separate independence and the perpetuation of slavery. Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Appomattox, the assassination of Lincoln — these events lay then beyond his understanding; but the country was living on the highest peak of its history since Washington, and the baby grew into childhood with the contending tempests of strife raging round the peak. The after-winds were long in dying down. Any child of four, five, six, during that time, saw uncles and cousins in uniform, heard women talk of their work in the Sanitary Fair, watched the flags and processions from the nursery window, heard brass music in the street — and, without knowing what it was all about, added these to the tale of Little Red Riding-Hood and the song of the Queen in the parlor eating bread and honey. All were equally figures in the pageant of his inner existence, where he watched and played with them. As he grew into boyhood, the figures took their real places; but the impression had been made, the trick had been done; never again would he think of those names, those controversies, that tragic drama, without something of that pageant of the nursery swimming into his ken and setting his emotions vibrating to the depths of his being. This, too, is mingled with the ancestral elements in Chapman.


His schooling at Saint Paul’s, where he went in 1874, was cut short by the first of those nervous disturbances which recurred at intervals all his life whenever he was too long and too much strained by one of his crusades. Into these he always poured the whole of himself, and upon each occasion became of a single-track mind. For this he was too delicately organized, too highly wrought, and lived too often near the edge of being overwrought; twice he fell over the edge, and once it cost him a year of absolute repose to climb out.

The usual Saint Paul’s boy could withstand the pressure of Creed and Litany, services, sermons, hymns, sacred studies. To sing ‘Weary of earth, and laden with my sin,’ or ‘My sins, my sins, my Saviour,’ or ‘Soon shall you and I be lying each within our narrow bed,’ rolled lightly off most young backs. Less than two years of it cast Jack Chapman into a state so morbid that when he went to his innings at cricket — it was the school game then — he would be seen to shut his eyes, lean over his bat, and so stand silent before the wicket, while the bowler waited at the other end. He was praying. They took him away in mid-term, and he had pneumonia. At Harvard, four years later, beneath the cold douche of Evolution, he reacted. The props of dogma being knocked from beneath his faith, it wholly collapsed. For a while he took unbelief as hard as he had taken belief. With a nature so sensitive, so earnest, so headlong, nothing else could be. Many a schoolboy remains robustly pagan; many another suffers somewhat while his school faith wrestles with science in college and is doomed; but the wholesome old Adam in him saves him from extremes. Jack Chapman declined to attend Chapel during his senior year, in spite of warnings from the Dean; and for this his degree was withheld at Commencement; he did not graduate with his class. But his class had long found his delightfulness out, for he had shaken free from all morbidness, was a joyous companion, chosen into the Dickey, the Hasty Pudding, the Porcellian Club, and as Ivy Orator on Class Day, June 20, 1884. He was cross at being orator, wishing to be class poet as his brother Henry had been the year before.

This oration heralds much of what he was to become, and partly chronicles him at the age of twenty-two.

‘I thank you, my classmates, for being able to thank you for this platform. And yet I hardly understand why you have conferred upon me this great honor. . . . I am conscious of possessing none of those qualifications for which our former Ivy orators have been so distinguished. . . . I do not entirely dislike all college officials. The Bursar does not seem to me utterly intolerable. . . . Then the business in U. 5 and the method of conducting it. They have not struck me as being so absurd that the mere mention of the locality would raise a smile. . . . If some of the officials are hardly polite, there are others who make up for them. I cannot feel bitterly amused by these things. . . .

‘Then the Faculty — I don’t think them a complete set of imbeciles. . . . Truly I am sorry you have so wretchedly equipped an orator . . . one who has no enemy. Why, if I should meet the Dean in the street, I should simply touch my hat to him. . . .

‘And now, my classmates, let’s bid ourselves good-bye. . . . I can see . . . any one of you thirty years hence returning . . . on Commencement and meeting with another ’84 man. I can see you, having inquired his name, and pretending to recollect it, visibly affected. . . .’

Twenty-five years after, forty-five years after, his classmates listened to him with laughing and cheers, still the same Jack Chapman, still the comic mask; but the earnest eyes that looked through it grew more and more visible. He has indicated his recovery of faith in one of the half-dozen most remarkable of his essays, ‘The Influence of Schools.’

Saint Paul’s had left its mark within him deeper than he knew. During one of his long illnesses he writes: —

My mind used to dwell in strange places. It would pause over some spot in the world, — some room or field that I had seen . . . in previous years, — and would refuse to move on. . . . Sometimes for days at a time it would remain as carefully placed as a camera. . . . The places were always empty — never a person in them. . . . It was natural enough that I should sometimes have found myself back at Saint Paul’s School . . . always alone with the place, suffering it to move through me. . . . Immense sadness everywhere; immense power. . . . Dr. Coit was a tall man in a long black coat . . . always within an invisible tower of isolation. . . . He lived within that solitude which a great purpose and constant prayer cast about a man. . . . He was so charged with moral passion that many people could not receive the delivery of it. . . . His hand laid gently upon one’s shoulder caused such a strong physical, moral, and galvanic appeal to my sensibilities that I invariably burst into tears. . . . Twenty years after . . . at the age of forty odd, and through the medium of another and very severe illness . . . my nature began to take up again the threads of Saint Paul’s School influence, and to receive the ideas which Dr. Coit had been striving to convey, though in forms that would have been incomprehensible to himself. The School had somehow been carrying on this work within me through all these years. . . .


Within six weeks after his Ivy Oration, he is at Bayreuth, hearing Parsifal. Music was one of the several languages that he understood without speaking it. He used to say that he must have been a musician in a previous incarnation. Writing of Parsifal, he doubts its music being really religious, but is certain it ranks Wagner among the greatest artists. Presently in Vienna, what he has to say of many operas bores to the heart of the question with an insight very unusual for a youth of twenty-two.

He writes next from Dresden, where he has made friends with Harry Cust, a young Englishman: —

I don’t wish to put myself on a par with him. He is cleverer than I, knows more, and is a great deal nicer. . . . Went with him the other night at 12.30 to a beer room and treated a tableful of boors to beer, got them singing songs. . . . The boors were pretty full. I told them a story about Australia and a female barbarian which went on and on and on and was the same thing over and over again, only each time as if I had almost forgotten an important point, and got them laughing like swine. Then we all stood up and sang Die Wacht am Rhein, and then we bolted. We likened ourselves to Faust and Mephistopheles in Auerbach’s cellar. I smoked so many cigars that I did not go to bed, but wrote you this letter.

In St. Petersburg he and Cust stayed with the German ambassador, General von Schweinitz, who had married Chapman’s youngest aunt, Anna Jay, when her father was our minister to Vienna. The General was delighted with both his guests, and, in presenting them to the Emperor of Russia, said of Cust, ‘He is a beautiful youth; but [pointing admiringly to Chapman] this young fellow understands Goethe!’

Alexander the Tsar bowed in grave approval, Cust felt belittled, Chapman was merry over it for many years.

From the German Embassy he writes:

You take me up a little too short on the logic of my letters. . . . When I write I sit down at a table and say whatever comes into my head without trying to resolve contradictions. There are two methods of composition. The dramatic and the philosophical. The second says what it means, the first says something and you see what it means. For instance, if you want to express indecision, you may say ‘I am undecided,’ or you may express two contradictory intentions one after the other, and let the other man see. I don’t recommend this method for the forum, but it has its advantages with people you know, being more homely, forcible, and with regard to the exact shade of meaning expressed — accurate.

Following this: —

I have come to the conclusion there is no such thing as letter writing — only perhaps you don’t know this, and might find it out by experiment — and you know I am a very sympathetic person of good judgment and will give you good advice in case you get into trouble. Above all, no facetiousness. Appropos (now don’t write and tell me there is only one p in that) I know my letters rile you, or usually do; if so, don’t write. Apropos of the ms. you showed me ... do you remember Herbert Spencer and the ‘economy of the attention’? Well, all art is nothing but the economy of the attention. Poetry, painting, &c., and all bad art is the neglect of it. You know all this sort of thing, only don’t be irritated by my writing it. Now your novel squanders the attention by being written in several keys at once. It is like a picture out of perspective or with mixed lights in it. . . . All the things you choose to say about the Christian religion — communion — the atmosphere of it — the incongruity — you choose to say. . . . The question is only how people feel. Describe this so that everyone who has been through it will feel it again and will say, ‘Yes, that is what we felt and this was what it was. . . .’ I got both your delightful letters together this morning. If you call me Bulbul I shall be put to the inconvenience of thinking up some worse name for you. . . .

Saint Paul’s School reënters. ‘How about your religious correspondence? . . . If I had the power to do what I pleased with the school I should find it hard to take away their superstitions and not rub off the edge of their virtue. . . . This is a dull letter. Reads somehow more or less as one talks to a girl . . . it’s only because one talks freely to girls and about things connected with feelings, &c.’

More or less as one talks to a girl. One cannot feel sure that Solomon was the first to find the way of a man with a maid too wonderful for him; but we may be certain that Jack Chapman’s way was extremely unlike Solomon’s. As far as could be discerned, it was a girl’s intelligence that brought, not him to her feet, but her to his. At this stage of his life, he could be heard to say quite frequently that Mary So-and-so or Lucy So-and-so was an exceptionally intelligent girl. But soon it seemed as if Mary and Lucy fell into the background, and it was Emily whose intellect was far out of the common. Now an exceedingly vivid, handsome youth of twenty-three, with brown eyes that, whether they flash or brood or sparkle, are burning with vitality, whose figure is alert, and whose soft slight moustache becomes him, may talk to a maid about his religious doubts, or his literary beliefs, or Wagner, or Herbert Spencer, as passionately as he pleases: it all comes to the same thing. Emily, Lucy, and Mary should have been warned by the fact that he spoke freely to other people of each in her turn: silence would have been more promising. And so the unusual brains of several young ladies did not protect their perfectly female hearts. An older woman who had observed some of these episodes remarked that Jack Chapman was inconstant; and men must accept woman’s word for this.

Chapman at twenty-three was undoubtedly an intellectual philanderer, who came to the end of Emily’s, Lucy’s, and Mary’s brains, and forgot all about them in the discovery of the next one. Had any Victorian father demanded what his ‘intentions’ were, he would have been astonished. His intention was merely to find a sympathetic listener, and this gave him no trouble whatsoever. On his return from Europe to enter the Harvard Law School, he found such listeners in both Boston and New York. They were spellbound by his fiery assertions and denials. Denials and assertions imply each other, and out of his mouth they rushed together daily. His highly wrought temperament had not wholly settled from the turbulence into which it had been cast by his religious reaction. He was inclined to run a tilt against any current opinion or established reputation. Goethe was now a mere dilettante; Plato a clever littérateur; Shakespeare would bear watching; and many other extravagances of the sort, covering quite a period. So that one day it brought upon him the rebuke of another older woman: —

‘Jack, you take nothing seriously but yourself.’

And yet, through it all, something in him of entrancing sweetness (quite aside from his brilliance) made him the centre of concern and affection — this, too, notwithstanding his wholly inexcusable habit of telling people exactly what he thought of them with the suddenness of an ambush, the violence of an explosion, and (sometimes) the accuracy of a sharpshooter. This temptation to give you a piece of his mind beset him all his life. One afternoon within a few weeks of his death, he was resting, and conversation touched upon a neighbor, for whose character he had the highest value.

‘I’ve a good mind, though,’ he declared, sitting up, ‘to go over there and tell her some home truths.’ Then his expression softened, and the imp twinkled in his eye. ‘But I ain’ goin’ to do it.’

After his holiday in Europe, in September 1885 he entered the Harvard Law School. When a problem came up in the discussion of a case, the professors often called upon him to explain it. He joined a household of fellow students, full of enterprising hospitality. They asked to dinner not only many undergraduates from the Porcellian and A. D. clubs; Charles Norton came from his house at Shady Hill; and William James; Judge Holmes, and the historian John C. Ropes from Boston; and many another elder, sage and civilized like these. A more familiar and delightful mingling of young and old over good food, good talk, and good wine can seldom have flourished in the bleak, prim, and desiccated climate of Cambridge. This company of young men in their mid-twenties was both a house of study and a house of laughter, where Trusts, Wills, Contracts, and Equity Pleading, argument about the Civil War, toasts to the Supreme Bench of Massachusetts, and games of poker ware all equally at home, and certain of the members would rise early to attend cockfights.

There was plenty of hard study, and Chapman read his law as attentively as any. Parenthetically, amid his concentration upon this, his wits would go what is called woolgathering. Whatever he actually gathered, — whether a worse opinion of Goethe, or a better one of Plato, or a growing absorption in Minna Timmins, — he grew absentminded. He had a way of talking aloud while dressing. One morning he gave a dismayed shout which brought a neighbor student inquiringly into his room. He pointed to an engraved invitation to dinner stuck in his lookingglass.

‘That was for last night, and I forgot it. What’s to be done?’

‘Put on all your best clothes, cut the Law School, go straight into Boston, and apologize to Mrs. Sears.’

This advice was taken. At noon the two met again.

‘Well, did you make peace?’

‘She was at home. I began at once. I crawled, I groveled, and when I was through, I found I’d apologized to the wrong Mrs. Sears!’ And he fell into his enchanting laughter.

After the Law School, he went to New York, entered the bar in due course, setting up an office. A second illness of the same kind as the one at Saint Paul’s School, but more severe, overtook him at this time; and for a year he walked about New York and paid visits, all in a sort of tragic inner exile, surrounded by affection to which he reached out for comfort and sustenance. Two forces played a chief part in lifting him out of this state: great happiness, and great indignation. The latter was roused by his coming face to face with the misrule and the despotism of Tammany. It was the epoch of Croker, a political thief whose memory is now obscured by the political thieves that have followed him. The great happiness was his marriage to Minna Timmins in 1889. She reconstructed his life. She filled their house in West Eighty-second Street with beautiful things from Italy, with interesting guests from both shores of the Atlantic, with the many old friends who came to dine or to stay, but best of all with herself and the atmosphere of perpetual interest that she created. There she bore him three sons; and after the birth of the third in 1897, suddenly, all in a moment, she died. He did not often speak of those years. He spoke readily about many things near to him, more readily than is the general custom; but his silence upon what was nearest was well-nigh absolute. Upon being urged to carry out his plan for an essay on Plato, his eyes grew sombre, and he murmured, ‘It’s not much fun writing what nobody reads.’ When in 1916 the news came that Victor, his son, had been killed in the air near Verdun, he was told, by way of offering something to tide him through this, that he must publish the boy’s letters from the front, and that to these must be joined some account of Minna, Victor’s mother. He turned away, and looked out of the window.

‘Hm,’ he said, almost inaudibly, ‘that won’t be so easy.’

To read the vivid pages he wrote, charged with poetry and suppressed emotion, is to see that this husband had known all the joy that a wife can be.


To read in these days the pages he wrote about our politics during those happy domestic years is to be surprised that they were ridiculed as fantastic.

Misgovernment in the United States is an incident in the history of commerce. It is a part of the triumph of industrial progress. . . . The long and the short of the matter is that the sudden creation of wealth in the United States has been too much for our people. . . . We are personally dishonest. . . . The people of the United States are notably and peculiarly dishonest in financial matters. The effect of this on government is but one of the forms in which the ruling passion is manifest. ‘ What is there in it for me?’ is the state of mind in which our people have been existing.

Does that seem so fantastic to-day?

This book, Causes and Consequences, was a pioneer diagnosis of our trouble; he put his finger on the spot — the alliance between Government and Big Business. The book is dedicated ‘to the members of Club C.’ It gives a picture of this battle for reform in New York politics during the nineties; campaigns for the mayoralty; and the story in more detail appears in Practical Agitation, the third book, which sold 811 copies. Any student of that period will find much to help him in both volumes, as well as many passages of permanently valuable analysis: —

The notable lack in our literature is this: the prickles and irregularities of personal feeling have been pumice-stoned away. It is too smooth. There is an absence of individuality, of private opinion. This is the same lack that curses our politics — the absence of private opinion. The sacrifice in political life is honesty, in literary life is intellect; but the closer you examine honesty and intellect the more clearly they appear to be the same thing.

Now this is not the sort of stuff that the best sellers are made of, but it is twin with the doctrine preached byVan Wyck Brooks in his admirable study, The Ordeal of Mark Twain; it lurks in Ernest Hemingway’s remark that ‘Americans are not interesting.’ In short, it is the lash laid by the individualist on the back of a community where mass production of boot polish, character, and thinking ensures mediocrity in all of them.

During those nineties, the energy of his existence was various and, one might well say, ceaseless. He edited a sparkling, mocking paper called the Nursery, devoted to reform; he was active in organizing ‘Good Government’ Clubs; he wrote, he spoke, he was continually exhorting a multitude of citizens to show their public spirit. Yet amid all this, published in the same year with Causes and Consequences, 1898, is Emerson and Other Essays, seven in all — the first of more than a hundred pages, the one which William James placed so high, followed by ‘Walt Whitman,’ ‘A Study of Romeo,’ ‘Michael Angelo’s Sonnets,’ ‘The Fourth Canto of the Inferno,’ ‘Robert Browning,’ ‘Robert Louis Stevenson.’

Could one possibly predict from this that his next volume would be Four Plays for Children?

‘A talent for acting is quite common in children,’ he writes in the Preface; ‘ indeed, they act with a charm seldom found in grown people.’

In 1898, his battles for reform politics had come to an end. The Good Government party, known as the ‘Goo Goos,’ having planned a campaign against Platt’s Republican machine, had asked Theodore Roosevelt, just returned from the Spanish War, to run for Governor on their Independent ticket. But Platt, knowing that Roosevelt would carry any ticket he headed, also nominated him. Roosevelt withdrew his acceptance of the Independent nomination and the movement collapsed.

By 1908, when the plays for children appeared, Jack Chapman had passed through stormy controversy, the tragedy of a supreme loss, the helplessness of a father with three motherless young children, the cruel death of one of these while swimming near Gratz in Austria, and a long grave illness — through all this he had passed, and from this into a healing calm. What he wrote of a classmate applies to him: ‘His mind and character appeared to rise under stroke after stroke of the divine lightning.’ Nevertheless, the lightning would have killed him but for Elizabeth Chanler, whom he married in April 1898, and who, as far as it lay in human power to do so, sheltered him with her wisdom and her serenity for the rest of his days. These, one may be sure, would have been fewer but for her. They lived in New York less and less, more and more on the Hudson, opposite the Catskills, where they built a house on a piece of her family land. She bore him a son, and the children grew out of the nursery into the drawing-room. As they grew, their father wrote these plays. They were acted by the little Chapmans, their friends in the neighborhood, and the children of the village. To these he began the habit of reading poetry. They would come on set days to listen to him. The custom became an institution. As the years went on, the small villagers grew to young men, their reader into an elderly one whose early influence upon their minds and natures they treasured with affectionate remembrance. Throughout these charming, innocent little dramas you may read traces of their author’s personal mood. In ‘The Hermits,’ Francesco, a hermit, speaks: —

At fifty, a retired buccaneer
With the rich breath of life inflates his lungs,
And blows out golden spheres of poesy.

‘We are just moving into our new house,’ he writes from Barrytown in April 1905, ‘and unpacking treasures bought abroad, and planting terraces and apple trees, and rolling roads. . . . I seem to have been too busy for the last twenty years to keep track of old friends, or any kind of friends, and I hope that in the few remaining years I may have a chance to do it. [These copy-book sentiments sound most unlike him!] I work at music all the time, at least as much as my brains will permit, and am really beginning to enjoy it horribly.’ In May, from Saint Paul’s School, where he has gone to see his son Victor: ‘The relation of the old group of masters towards the boys is one of courtesy . . . tenderness and (in some of them) humor. This relation seems quite gone from the modern world, which goes in for a sort of jollying and camaraderie with the boys . . . which seems coarse and false somehow. I know it in other schools.’ Later the same year: ‘We have been reading The House of Mirth half through. It is doubtful how much further we shall get, owing to the lack of bass strings in Mrs. W’s harp. It’s fearfully clever and for the first hour quite satisfactory, but there’s no stomach to it — and it’s all reiterated — and it’s thin — and no reverberations of circumfluent good feeling. . . . There is no saving your interest in these characters; they defy you, they rush to the waste-paper basket. After all, one must have benevolence somewhere in any book. All the same, I ’ve read more of it than all the passages of H. James piece out to if put end to end the times I’ve tried to read him.’ From London: ‘Henry James I saw this morning. . . . He is a brick.’

The healing calm went on. Husband and wife looked at the Hudson and the Catskills, stayed with friends; traveled; and the retired buccaneer blew some more soap bubbles as the children grew older. He writes from Boston: ‘Very glad we came here. . . . We have eaten so many kinds of game pie, turtle soup, Bar-le-Duc, Rhine wine cup, &c., that we can hardly ask our way to the museum. . . . Went to see the Library. . . . Never saw anything so horrible as Sargent’s crucifixion. Reminds me of the Wiertz pictures at Brussels. S. is an empty fakir. Abbey too — most empty — the magazine covers them both.’

The following is from ‘Neptune’s Isle,’ the most iridescent of all his soap bubbles; played upon a real island off the Maine coast. It obviously drips with Shakespeare; but such dripping is not within the compass of everybody.


This isle is Aphrodite’s toilet box
From which she chooses jewels for her hair.
Begirt it is with wet enamel stones
That gem the edge like lamps, yes, light the deeps, —
Those alabaster glooms of weedy green
Where in the fanning waters are displayed
The fringes of Poseidon’s canopy.
Envious of earth, he spreads his water kingdom
Up through delicious and perpetual swamps,
And every salt seduction of sea flowers,
Beach-pea and cranberry, with meadow-sweet,
Sundew, and waxen tiny tea-berries,
That lace the silken cushions of the marsh
With leaves of jade.

Amid the soap bubbles appeared Learning and Other Essays. Merely to read the table of contents is to be sure that, if ever Science comes to photograph our thinking, such a brain as Chapman’s would be like a drop of water under the microscope, charged with jostling life; only, instead of dots, sparks and stars would be rushing about. In any country but our own, this volume would be enough to place its author among critics of the first rank. As one turns the pages, astonishment grows that such a succession of profound or delightful observations should have wasted their sweetness upon our desert air. One might quote almost at hazard and be sure of lighting upon something to arrest the attention at once. Page 59: ‘Now let us remember the Greeks, since we cannot escape them. The cultivated, conventional, logical, and overcivilized Greek wished his tragedy to be elegant and in a just measure solemn, not to say awe-inspiring. He expected this, much as we expect coffee after dinner when we dine out.’ On page 155 he shows the mystic that lived in him. ‘In the caverns of our nature lie hid various emotions like beasts in a lair. They are shy to the voice of question or of curiosity, and they slink and crouch all the more if we try to lure them out for inspection. But they come gamboling and roaring forth at the call of ingenuous human utterance. Any utterance that has in it no afterthought, but is mere speech that has grown out of a need to speak, lays a spell upon the wild things within us. Before the echo of it has died away they are rampant in the open, ignorant of how they came forth. Let no one then wonder at the difficulties that surround all study of the human emotions — blushing giants, vanishing genii that they are.’ This begins an essay on ‘The Comic.’

In speaking at Hobart College to the graduating class of 1900, he says, page 185: ‘I wondered what I had to say to you boys. . . . And I think I have one thing to say. If you wish to be useful, never take a course that will silence you.’ True to his own doctrine many years later, when he had learned that his friends planned to ask Harvard to give him an honorary degree, he opposed this: ‘I could n’t accept it. I should n’t be free to say what I think about Harvard.’ There spoke the grandson of John Jay, who cut his friend David Dudley Field in the street. Hobart and Yale gave him honorary degrees.

What terrible books we do read! [This in 1912.] Jane Addams all about prostitution and more. Booker Washington, the man farthest down. Tuberculosis. Arbitration. I draw the line myself at arbitration, but Elizabeth subscribes to the societies and they send a cubic yard per week of conference talk. . . . Last night I read a paper before our little local college about Harvard and Eliot and the dreary folly it all was. . . . By the way, and historically speaking, do you know there has never before been such wickedness on the globe as to-day in big American cities? It’s a new record. Poor old darling little Antioch — and its fountain built by the prostitutes — and its domestic charm. Poor harmless Middle Ages with just a few sharp pinches of Inquisition or a murder or two — poison — an oubliette — chiefly the necessary discipline of church government. But in America we have constructed various machines — as big as the nation — 70 million soul-power machines — for destruction of humanity. The most heartless people in history — that’s what we are. But I think we are changing for the better.

He is always thinking that. Whenever he savagely rips the present open, the future is coming, the future is all right. Hope lies invariably at the bottom of his Pandora box, hope rooted in an impregnable faith.

Ah truth! whatever truth may be,
’T is neither yours nor mine,
’T will shine through taciturnity,
Through broken speech’t will shine.
Then wherefore sweat to have one’s say? —
To save what cannot pass away,
Or rescue the divine?

It was when his September had come, and with it a mellow resignation, supreme sorrow weathered, controversies ended, serenity gathering, that he wrote those lines.

In the summer of 1914, he had a chance in Germany to see the soul of the Teuton naked. Nothing since, either written or disclosed, corrects the analysis of that soul which he made in his brief book, Deutschland über Alles. The war for a while had a quaint, quixotic effect upon him: he would go to no Symphony concert; if the greatest music in the world had come out of the Teutons, something must be all wrong with all music! From this he recovered; but with Wagner he was done. He declared that Wagner was the greatest plea for evil ever made. He even hemmed and hawed over Die Meistersinger.

Victor, his son, had enlisted in the Légion Étrangère, virtually at once, transferring a year later to aviation. He had opposed this enlisting vehemently, and the boy had submitted. ‘But,’ the father writes, ‘there was something in his voice and manner . . . of a soul-tragedy.’ And this Elizabeth saw more clearly; and when the boy was out of the room she said: ‘He has submitted through his humility and his reverence for you. But I would rather see him lying on the battlefield than see that look in his face.’

One son had been lost already, long ago, and now, in time, Victor lay on the battlefield, the first of the heroic Escadrille Lafayette to go. But it needed no boy in the war to bring the horror and the haunting of it home to Chapman’s heart and mind. He wrote fugitive pieces, satires upon what Roosevelt called Wilson’s ‘waging peace.’ Both these fathers lost sons, and both showed the same bold, noble front to it. But in the slender book of verse which Chapman published when the war was over there are some revealing lines. ‘Sorrow, that watches while the body sleeps’ is the beginning of one poem, and another opens, —

The earth is damp: in everything
I taste the bitter breath of pallid spring,

and closes, —

Would that like them beneath the sod I lay,
Beneath the glistening grass,
Beneath the flood of things that come, and pass,
Beckon, and shine and fade away.

Very seldom did he allow anything like this to escape from the secret chamber of his reticence; but it slowly told upon his aspect. Hard to imagine in 1920 that alert, unscarred, defiant youth of 1884, who might have gleamed from the portal of Sunium to watch from the cliff for ships on the Ægean Sea. In 1920 he had become a presence, gentle, august, gray-bearded, with quiet eyes, and a brow made beautiful by thought; of mark in the Century Club; beloved among the neighbors who had heard him read to them, in their childhood; valued by the companions of the Coffee House; hailed as a prophet by the New Republic; and with many Harvard shoulders shrugging, and discreet citizens pursing their lips and shaking their heads over his detonating diatribes.

For he could still boil over. Serenity never took whole possession of him. He boiled at hearing Harvard was to build a memorial to men who fought and died for Germany as well as for France. He wrote a letter called ‘A Monument to Zero.’ If the war meant anything, it was the grapple between two principles utterly opposed to each other; therefore a monument to both annulled its own meaning. Harvard replied that it had no such intention.

Presently a prelate of the Roman Church preached a sermon in Cambridge, in which he spoke of a great neighboring seat of learning as having once had the light, but as having now lost it. When no answer to this piece of impudence came from Harvard, Chapman boiled over again, and continued to boil as the same issue came up in other ways. It was not against the faith of Rome or against anyone’s faith that Chapman made his too violent war. He placed faith, no matter how formulated, above every other good in the world, and loss of faith above every other evil. But he held that the business of a church was to save souls, not to pull wires. As Edward S. Martin says in his wise and most discerning appreciation of him: ‘Catholics might say their prayers and get to Heaven in their own way without criticism from Chapman, but control of American education was another matter.’

He bestirred himself with his whole might; letters, verse, manifestoes, flew broadcast from his pen. It brought him ‘ lots of hearty notes from private persons unknown to me,’ he writes, ‘and a few anonymous railings.’ But, as usual, sustained controversy did not agree with him. ‘I have consigned the Pope to God who made him — but why, and how could He do it?’ And presently: ‘Elizabeth and I are going to Spain. . . . The reason . . . is that I must make a break.’ And next: ‘I made this discovery: The sense of responsibility is pure fatigue. The instant you throw it off you have more mind. The illusion that one must do something about anything is a symptom of poison in the system.’ In a subsequent letter one feels that the poison is eliminated and healing calm returned when he writes from Bordeaux, at the hostelry of deserved renown, the Chapon-Fin: —

The waiter had just produced a large thin chafing dish and had transferred to it some very diaphanous pancakes which he proceeded to powder with sugar while the dish was heating and then to baste with sublimated drawn butter and the odor of violets. I had all but finished a pint of Château de Beauséjour 1922. . . . After all, what do literature and family life amount to compared to a first-rate restaurant? . . .

Yet, healing calm and all, how could this child of Huguenot and abolitionist escape from his own blood? Crusading underlies the last volume he published, on Lucian, Plato, and Greek morals; underlies an article upon Goethe, completed in London during the last summer he ever saw. And then the reverence that lived beneath all his rebelliousness appears when his wife offers to take down from his dictation a paragraph that will complete an unfinished paper about Shakespeare. He was weak and ill. He refused to dictate. ‘It would be blasphemy,’ he said, ‘unless I could give my whole strength to talking about him.’

Not the surgical operation that revealed how brief a time was left him, nor drugs, nor fatal illness, made any change in the quality of that spirit and that mind. While he was coming out of the ether he said, with eyes still closed:

‘ It appears to me that this is a typical period of transition.’

Becoming a little stronger: —

‘It seems to me that a little diversion is now in order. And [shaking his finger humorously at the nurse] if anything goes wrong, it will be your fault.’

He used to make fun at times over what he called the good deeds of Elizabeth, his wife, among the neighbors. Unable to eat some special chicken brought him to the hospital from home, he directed that it be taken to other patients, and learned that she had already given the same order.

‘So we both done good! ’ he said, with his old spice of bad grammar.

Slightly delirious on the last of his five days after the operation, he began plucking at his wife’s hand, saying: —

‘I want to take it away.’

‘What?’ she asked. ‘Is it the pillow?’

‘No. I want to take away the mute, and play on the open strings.’

After those words, the end was not long delayed.