Oliver Speaking


I WANT this paper to depict Oliver Herford as he was in life. His jests, his pictures, and his songs will live again in the hearts of his friends, and these more intimate sidelights on his wayward way will also interest those who knew him slightly or not at all.

Many descriptions of Oliver liken him to a sprite, an elf, or a pixy. But these terms do not really fit him. Richard Hovey’s line, in his tribute to Barney McGee, comes nearer: —

Will-o’-the-wisp, with a flicker of Puck in you.

But Puck is not sib to Oliver. Puck implies a mischievous, teasing, mocking element, wholly foreign to Oliver’s nature. To me, Oliver Herford is the personification of Ariel — ‘Ariel and all his quality.’

Prospero says: ‘Fine apparition! My quaint Ariel,’ and, ‘My Ariel, chick . . . to the elements be free.’ Thus might the gods have spoken to Oliver at his birth. And, like Ariel, Oliver might have returned: —

Merrily, merrily shall I live now,
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

Oliver Herford, the man, may be described in full in the usually misused phrase, ‘a gentleman and a scholar.’ Having spent many hours with many wise ones in arguing what or who is a gentleman, I find that in the last analysis that question is answered for me by — Oliver Herford.

And a scholar he was, as well. Few knew the extent of his widespread erudition. Few knew his familiarity with the classics, from Hesiod to Herodotus, or his positive knowledge of modern poetry and belles-lettres.

Of his work he was his own sternest, if not most consistent, critic. Many a time a gem of poesy was torn to shreds and wastebasketed, because it did not meet his approval at the moment. Possibly this hypercritical sense of his was a little pitted speck in his ripened mentality.

Listen to his own tale of woe: —

‘And this is my tragedy. The Supreme Chemist, when concocting the thing I call ME out of the odds and ends used in manufacturing character, with the best intentions in the universe, instead of making a perfect artist like James Montgomery Flagg or Wallace Morgan, as He surely intended to do, put in by mistake a whole lot of critic stuff left over in the fashioning of Alexander Woollcott; the result being a Jekyll and Hyde combination of artist and critic — like the Centaur — “two natures in perpetual strife,” the one destroying as fast as the other creates.’

Oliver dilated on this theme, and detailed how often his trusty eraser helped him undo the errors of his pencil. One asked him then, if he were cast on a desert island and had to choose between his pencil and his eraser, which would be his choice. Without hesitation he responded, ‘My eraser, of course.’

This innate sense of criticism included human beings as well as their writings, and sometimes Oliver felt it as a premonition before he had seen the person. Once I asked him if he had met a man who had suddenly achieved a specious popularity, and whom we will call Shobal Jackson.

‘Oh, Carolyn,’ he said, a look as of fear in his eyes, ‘if you knew how many hundreds of men I have refused to meet for fear they might be Shobal Jackson! ’

Oliver was not at all Bohemian, not gregarious. He was much more conventional than strangers thought him.

He has been called an entertainer. He was the farthest possible remove from that. An entertainer implies a purposeful programme negotiated by a determined performer. Oliver’s jests were spontaneous and impromptu. If his friends were entertained by him, and they were, he was also entertained by them, and there was no forced or even intentional entertaining on either side.

The great charm of Oliver Herford lies in the fact that, instead of following the main-traveled roads of wit and humor, he strays into bypaths of whimsical fancy and fantastic imagination.

No one is more successful than he in personifying animals or inanimate things. He never wrote an ‘animal story,’ but with a swift, fleeting touch of his pen or pencil he vivifies an ant or a lion, the earth or the sun, and the effect of a personage is given. His realm is Fancy, and his scope is the material universe. His success is due to his innate comprehension and mastery of the principle of reductio ad absurdum.

As the Duke in As You Like It remarked about Touchstone: ‘He uses his folly like a stalking-horse and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit.’

And, after all, Oliver’s bubble, reputation, rests on his wit — and humor.

Here is a fine example of his unposed, unpurposed humor.

He had various studios in New York, moving frequently. The one I liked best was a long apartment of three or four rooms, the top floor of an old house somewhere in the East Thirties.

Being an artist, Oliver was unable to preserve even a semblance of order or tidiness about his belongings. A visit to his studio revealed tumbled heaps of books, helter-skelter piles of papers, sketches, and letters.

But once every few years the chaos of that studio was reduced to order. A scrublady was summoned, a stepladder brought, and a junk wagon stood at the door. As if by a whirlwind, sketches, books, and papers disappeared. Lucky was the friend who chanced to be present at such a time, for to him would be presented in rapid succession books, pictures, artist’s paraphernalia, photographs, personal belongings, even clothes and pipes. Not old and worthless rubbish, either. I well remember Oliver’s being obliged to rush out and buy a new Gladstone bag to take on an unexpected trip, because the day before he had given away his own new one. When these clearing occasions came, everything had to go. Even half-finished poems and pictures shared the common fate, and thus has the public been deprived of what it might have had. For a few days after the cyclone a spick-and-span order reigned, which would delight the soul of a New England housewife. No work was done, lest it disarrange implements or materials. Letters were not opened, as torn paper would sadly mar the effect of the empty wastebasket.

On one occasion I entered the studio during one of these brief spells of spotlessness, and, unthinkingly, tore a letter to bits. Oliver walked the floor in dismay. What could be done with the scraps? I suggested that I had a halffilled wastebasket out in my New Jersey home. He hailed the fact with joy, and, stuffing the scraps in an envelope, directed and mailed it to my address.

Another time, when I had an appointment with Oliver, he was late at the tryst, and explained the delay thus: —

‘You see, Carolyn,’ he said, ‘I was hurrying here to meet you, and as I walked along Broadway I met a kitten, who stopped me and shyly asked if she might speak to me a minute. “What is it, my dear?” I said gently, for she was a timid little thing, and looked as if she had been crying, beside. “If you please, sir,” she said, in a hesitating way, “if you please, I can’t do arithmethic very well — and, will you tell me how much eight from nine leaves?” I saw through her in a moment! The little rascal had foolishly frittered away eight of her nine lives, and she wanted to know how many she had left. She looked so pathetic and waited so anxiously for my reply that I had n’t the heart to tell her the cruel truth, and let her know she had only one life left to live. So I told her six, and she brightened up wonderfully. “Oh, thank you, sir,” she cried, and with a saucy, kittenish bow and smile she turned and ran into one of the cross streets. I hope it was n’t cross to her!‘


One of the dearest things about Oliver was his ready helpfulness in an emergency.

On the occasion of a dinner given in honor of Bliss Carman, the guests stayed unconscionably late. I had to return to my New Jersey home by train, but we commuters thought little of traveling late on the good old P. R. R.

Oliver, however, would n’t hear of it. His sense of chivalry was too strong, and he insisted on taking me home, and then returning to New York. I told him if he went home with me he must stay the night, well knowing how delighted my family would be. To this he agreed, and then one of the guests observed that, though he could go home with me in his evening clothes, what about coming back in them the next morning?

This gave Oliver to think, for he was a meticulous dresser.

Whereupon the host offered a day coat of his own. This Oliver donned with glee, declaring that now everything was all right.

And it was, save that the said host was a much smaller man, and Oliver’s wrists came way down out of the tooshort sleeves, and the coat strained perilously at its seams. But we reached our journey’s end in safety, and next morning Oliver appeared at breakfast wearing the far-too-small garment with an air of dignity that forbade all mention of it.

Another day he was out at my home, and my sister told him of a club we were forming and offered him the privilege of membership.

’It is,’ she explained, ‘the Esurient Club. Do you know the meaning of “esurient”?’

‘No,’ said Oliver, ‘I’ve not the faintest idea what it means.’

‘Then you can join. A member must not know the meaning of the word, he must not ask anyone what it means, and he must not look in any dictionary.’

‘Then how does he find out what it means?’

‘Oh, you have to wait until you run across it in a book, or hear it accidentally in a casual conversation. When that occurs, you are given a degree, but of course you must n’t tell the other members what it means.’

Oliver said he would think it over before joining the club, and later wrote to my sister that, after all, he had discovered he was ineligible for membership.

‘I’m sorry,’ he wrote, ‘but I find that to belong to a club like that one must not only fail to know what “esurient” means, but one must care what it means. I don’t.’

One evening the talk turned upon Shakespeare and his choice of words. One bewailed the frequent misprints in some editions of the Plays, and quoted, ‘Ferdinand, with hair upstaring,’ claiming that it should be ‘ upstarting.’

‘No,’ said Oliver. ‘Anybody could say “upstarting,” but that’s commonplace. “Up-staring” — fine!

‘It must be wonderful,’ he went on, ‘to be so frightened that your hair stands on end! Once, you know, the Seven Sutherland Sisters were out walking, late at night, and they thought they heard a lion roar, and they were so frightened their hair stood on end, and tickled the moon!’

These are the whimseys with which Oliver delighted his friends. His bons mots and epigrams reýcho through the Players, but in a small circle of intimates he was at his best. How little they know of Oliver who only Herford know!

Oliver, like Miniver Cheevy, sighed for what was not. He wanted to be an editor.

He began by having a page of his OWJI in Leslie’s Weekly, called ‘Pen and Inklings.’ I’m not sure how long this ran, but I have ten pages, dated during the summer of 1920. I also have one page of Harper’s Weekly and one of Everybody’s Magazine, with the same caption, all carrying short bits of Oliver’s verse and prose. To quote one from the Leslie’s Weekly lot: —


I sped the Mystic Ouija to and fro,
The Secret of the After Life to know,
And by and by the Ouija spelled for me
The letters, D, A, M, F, I, N, O.

This is accompanied by a lovely picture of a classic-looking lady with a halo. She is using a planchette, not a ouija board, but what of that?

Usually placid and urbane, Oliver was ever irritated by anything that offended his taste.

Himself a past grand master in the writing of a spring poem, he thus holds forth in his ‘Pen and Inklings’ page_—

There is one spring crop that shows no sign of failing, and that is the crop of Spring Poets — the spurious variety, I mean. Their medium is Free Verse. No frost of disdain can blight, no floods of abuse can wither their exuberant vitality, no mousetooth of satire gnaw through the tough fibre of their Art-Ego.

The true Spring Poetry, delicate as the yellow Lady-slipper and as hard to find, is threatened with extinction by the rank growth of this spurious variety, as irritating as poison ivy. If you think I speak too feelingly take a look at this versicule removed from the insides of a book of New Verse just published: —

Old, ugly and stern
The night lies upon the water,
And it quivers in the twilight
Like a tortured belly.

This, if alcohol were not so expensive, would be a specimen worthy of preservation.

Finding that a page did not fill the desire for editorship, Oliver planned, with two collaborators, a weekly, entitled Enfant Terrible. The editorial announcement read thus: —



Gelett Burgess Oliver Herford


Carolyn Wells

The first number appeared on April first, 1898. It was a fine-looking paper about the size and shape of Life. It contained no contributions save those by the Gubernatorial Board. It was beautifully printed in blue and white, and yet a second number never appeared.

Oliver’s next venture in the editorial field was Dreamland. This, a weekly also, started on May 20, 1905. In the first number the editorial staff is listed as M. Regan, O. Herford, F. Metcalfe. M. Regan was Mrs. Oliver Herford, and an able partner in the enterprise.

A second number came out on May twenty-second, and I think there were no more. I have only the two. This periodical contained the first pages of one of Oliver’s cleverest conceits, the adventures of the Rough House Kitten, a most adorable specimen of hoodlum kittenhood.

The stationery of this periodical is a joy in itself. It bears a pictorial headpiece in Oliver’s best vein, showing the Dreamland offices in the woods, elves plying typewriters, fairies writing at toadstool desks, a morning-glory telephone, and birds and bees for messengers. It is called, as second title, ‘A Weekly Caprice,’and its optimistic motto is, ’All’s gold that glitters.’

Much later, somewhere around 1922, Oliver became one of the editors of Life. Naturally, one result of this was amusing letters from his editorial chair: —

DEAR CAROLYN: A check for $7.00 was sent you on November 24th — No! I mean a check for $24.00 was sent you on November 7th. If you have no record of its receipt, please let me know.
In justice to the editorial board, I think I ought to tell you that we accept no Spring poetry before the 27th of January, except on Leap Year, when the date is extended to the 28th.
If anything of yours went back, I did n’t know about it. I take everything I see of yours, and I am
Affectionately and alwaysly yours,

And again: —

DEAR CAROLYN: I enclose a picture with caption, ‘East is East and West is West,’ which needs something to go with it. Something in verse. Only you can treat the startling proposition ’East is East and West is West’ in a satisfactory manner, and about 500 words, and drag in the pictures.
Faithfully, OLIVER


A bibliography of Oliver Herford’s books would be hard to compile. He himself had no knowledge of how many he had written and remembered only a few of their names. His first book, Pen and Inklings, in no sense a reprint of his page of the same title, was published in 1893 by George M. Allen. I have three variants of this book, but it is now out of print and practically unobtainable.

His next book is Artful Anticks, the Century Company, 1897. This, too, is now hard to come by.

As Oliver seldom had any one of his own books in his possession, it is not surprising that he said, on hearing that his earlier volumes were being ‘collected,’ ‘Well, that’s good; now when I want to refer to one I can borrow it from a collector!’

In quick succession his books came out under various imprints and frequent dates. I have about fifty separate titles, and yet I have never seen one that I have vaguely heard of, called, I am told, Jungle Jingles.

Oliver was especially happy in writing inscriptions. My copy of A Little Book of Bores has this in its inscription to me: —

Where are all the Bores?
Have they ceased to curse?
No, they’re all out-doors
A-writing of Free Verse.

Oliver and I collaborated on a book called A Phenomenal Fauna, in 1902. When I asked him to inscribe a copy for me, he wrote thus: —

You ’d oughter be oughtergraphing this here book for me, not me for you. But have it your own way!

I like best of all The Rubaiyat of a Persian Kitten. The inscription in my book is an inimitable little fluffy kitten, whose fur is trailing off in unloosened, disheveled snarls, with the legend: —

And many a cat unravell’d by the way —

thus parodying his own parody.

At times, though, The Alphabet of Celebrities comes to the fore as a favorite; or The Tale of a Pen and Ink Puppet, among the cleverest of the lot; or The Kitten’s Garden of Verses.

To reread these books is to marvel anew at the illimitable stretch of Oliver’s imagination, and the unimaginable expanse of his imagery.

He had a quicksilver mind. And, be it remembered, that word does not connote haste, but life. Living silver is the real definition of liquid mercury. Oliver Herford was quicksilver-witted.

His métier, to use long and unbeautiful words, was the apotheosis of the incongruous. An unused and unfinished series of pictures and text was planned to tell of Gertie, the Gungirl, a débutante desperado. Also a film version of an old fairy tale, in the days when captions were fine writing, has this first scene: ‘Like a little red corpuscle in the arteries of silence, RidingHood sped through the wolf-haunted shadows.’ And it goes on to where the bad wolf comes, disguised as a piano tuner: ‘On the pulsant waves of the Lee Shubert serenade, Grannie is wafted to the vast Alhambra of dreams.’

Englishmen always seem to know everything worth knowing, from the Battle of Hastings on. And especially do they know their mother tongue.

One day someone said, in Oliver’s presence, that Americans almost invariably used their ‘shalls’ and ‘wills’ mistakenly.

‘That is n’t the trouble,’ said Oliver; ‘it is that they don’t know that such a word as shall exists.’

Another time someone wrote to him, using the phrase ‘Faith, Hope, and Charity,’ with a comma after ‘Hope.’

Oliver waxed wroth. ‘A comma before and!’ he exclaimed. ‘The dullard! Is the conjunction to have no recognition in this language of ours?’

And Oliver knew his Shakespeare. It has often seemed to me that their fancies ran in similar channels.

Shakespeare tells of one who beat his tabor, and his hearers ‘advanc’d their eyelids, lifted up their noses as they smelt music.’ Oliver, in a recent essay, tells of listening to a colloquy between two roses on a garden bush, and begins, ‘At the moment when I caught the scent of their conversation . . .’

But, though Oliver Herford well knew and loved the lines published over the name of William Shakespeare, he was one of the strongest advocates of the belief that they were written by Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford — concerning which I append one of his characteristic letters: —

DARLING CAROLYN: A myriad thanks for the books. They came so quickly, they (as Charlie Towne once said) ‘almost took my breath away.’ It was as if you had a private flash of lightning and you stuck it into the books as you would a fork (which accounts for the term forked lightning). I am eager to read the new evidence in support of De Vere, — and why don’t we start a De Vere society? I nominate you as President, Harriet as Vice President and Peggy and me as Treasurer.
With love from the both of us,

Oliver’s conviction that Oxford wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare was so positive that he wrote many essays on the subject. And, though disclaiming any interest in rare books, he tells of a Very Rare Book in his possession. He writes: —

It is an obese red cloth 12mo, and upon its back and cover are (in gold) the words ’THE COMPLETE WORKS OF EDWARD DE VERE, seventeenth Earl of Oxford.’ It was once a volume of Shakespeare. It is now the only copy of Oxford’s plays and poems in the world, and on the title-page are the words, ‘FIRST EDITION.’

Oliver’s comprehensive tastes included knowledge of all types of poesy, with more or less admiration. Though thoroughly conversant with all the rules for French forms, he resented their trammeling exactness, and seldom wrote them. He called them Frog Verse. But he had a liking for the limerick, in its better manifestations. In an essay he calls it the Black Sheep of Poetry, and defines it thus: —

The Limerick is a wadgetty little verse of five anapestic lines, of which the first, second and fifth are three stress and rhyme and the third and fourth two stress and rhyme. Roughly speaking, the first line tells the hero’s (or heroine’s) name, nationality or station in life. The second line describes his character, occupation or desire. The third and fourth tell what he does or what happens to him and the fifth line brings the story to a surprising yet logical conclusion.

The Limerick is the smallest, the speediest and the most promising of all the verse family, and yet to-day the Limerick is lying idle, or, what is worse, wasting its substance in riotous ribaldry.

Yet Oliver did n’t write many limericks. His Muse was too fanciful, too graceful for that vehicle. But he said he had two lines to use as third and fourth in any limerick, so he was never at a loss, except for the other three. His patent inside lines were: —

When they said, ‘Goodness me!’
She replied, ‘That may be’ ...

On one occasion Oliver and I, and a mutual friend, were asked to be judges of the results of a newspaper Limerick Contest. As the honorarium was beyond the dreams of avarice, we consented, and when the time came we forgathered in conference. The great mass of material had been winnowed down to a hundred or less, and we diligently scanned the ‘last lines’ to select the best.

Finally, after much and heated discussion, we found ourselves unable to reach an agreement. Oliver and the Mutual Friend each stood out for a different prize winner. I was ready to vote with either if they would only agree and let us go home. We started early in the afternoon, as we all had dinner engagements, but the weary, quarrelsome hours passed until it was too late for any of our dinner parties. I tried my best to help them get together, but without success. Late in the evening Oliver declared he was going home and we could do what we pleased. Naturally the Mutual Friend gleefully decided on his own original choice, and, as I could n’t combat him successfully, I had to agree.

But the two men never spoke to each other again.


In due time Oliver discovered the woman the good Lord had made purposely for him. After he married Peggy, their home was the dearest spot on earth to visit. She complemented his wit with her humor, and his humor with her wit. The Herfords’ became a rendezvous where at four o’clock, every day, tea awaited all friendly comers, and where I passed crowded hours of sheer delight, listening to the kind of conversation I like best of all — the desultory, humorous chat of serious minds. Or, better yet, I would be summoned as in this peroration of an editorial letter: —

When are you going ever again to give a party at our house by coming to see Peggy and me? Just you, Carolyn dear.
As ever, OLIVER

Peggy is the most delightful of hostesses, and has a marvelous laugh like the sound of the old-time musical glasses. Oliver’s laugh was a smile.

A trip anywhere, with the Herfords, was a carnival. One summer we were all in London, and several of us went down to Kent to spend a week-end with Frances Hodgson Burnett in her historic villa, Maytham.

We went by train and the start-off was complicated. What with getting luggage stuck, and keeping the party together, and getting a compartment 1o ourselves and suchlike, we were put to it.

Oliver was inventing. ‘It’s a way to get a compartment to one’s self, d’ you see?’ he explained. ‘You invent some collapsible rubber people — like balloon pigs, you know— that may be carried in the pocket and blown up when necessary. Three or four of these placed in the various seats would fool any guard. And if one were shaped like a baby, with a crying arrangement that would work mechanically, the others would not be needed.’

I admired the beauty of the hoppoled country as we rode through it. ‘But oh, Carolyn,’ Oliver said, ‘if you could only see it in the spring! The lanes are walled in on either side with the pink bloom of the may — and the wild flowers—’

Tears came to his blue eyes at the mere thought of spring in Kent, and I realized at last why English poets have sometimes written poems about spring.

But all thought of sentiment was lost when we challenged Oliver to make a limerick about each absurdly named station as we passed it. Railroad trains in the shires are not streamlined speeders, so, with abundant time, Oliver came out ahead.

Soon after our arrival at Maytham Hall, Mrs. Burnett took us out to her own special rose garden and seated us all on great stones, placed there for the purpose, and read to us fairy tales of her own composition.

Sitting under trailing wild roses, and being herself of a fairy clan, she transmuted the whole atmosphere into fairy gold. Oliver was in his element, we all fell under the charm, and when it was over we found it difficult to return to the house as ordinary mortals.

Among the most fascinating of Oliver’s by-products are the whimsical letters he wrote to friends. This is an extract from one sent me while he was in London: —

I would send you a kitten an I had one to send, but in truth I have had no kittens for a long, long time. Do you remember the kitten wreath I sent you once? That was a grand kitten year. Now the trees are bare, and only one little kitten have I been able to shake down for you. I sent thee once a kitten wreath, now all the trees are bare; and I can only find enough to make a kittonière. I send you the kittonière and I hope that next year will be brighter and more kittenful.

The wreath, looking like flowers and tied with a big bow of ribbon, proves on close inspection to be made of tiny kittens with smiling faces, and the kittonière speaks for itself.

Later he writes, ‘I would enclose another kitten, but there are nothing but very small buds, and I don’t know what color they would come out, and I know you hate magenta kittens. There should be one out week after next.’

A bit from another whimsey letter says: —

I’m planning to rewrite the alphabet, and have it begin with C is for Carolyn instead of A is for Apple or Adam (or Adam’s Apple, for that matter). It’s a terribly simple thing to do if you don’t lose your nerve. You just consider the alphabet as a circle, and instead of (when you straighten it out) dividing it between Z and A you divide it between B and C and make B the last letter and C the first. Don’t say anything about it, though, as I want to surprise the schools — and the writing world.

Oliver was especially clever in the art of inscribing his books. In my copy of Artful Anticks, he has filled three flyleaves with pictures. One is a portrait of himself as gardener, with a sprinkling pot in hand, carefully watering a kitten tree, which, in full bearing, grows thriftily in a wooden tub.

A more elaborate picture of the beautiful wreath of kittens bears this legend: —

As I walked around my garden
I spy’d a kitten tree,
And I gather’d all the kits to make
This kitten wreath for thee.

A darling conceit is a check, given to me because, Oliver said, he had no gift kittens by him at the moment. The check, on a Boston bank, is duly drawn and signed, and bears, in the blank for the amount, the words ‘One Kitten,’ and the loveliest picture of a kitten ever seen.

Another of my cherished possessions is a drawing of a kitten which Oliver made while sitting opposite me at a table. He drew the kitten upside down to himself, thus it was right side up to me, and I could watch the drawing progress from the proper point of view. When it was finished, no one would guess that the artist had worked in reverse!

Fooling? Yes, but such excellent fooling.

Endless are the anecdotes which might be told of Oliver’s impromptu fun. At a publisher’s dinner in honor of a newly published book, copies of the volume were given to the guests. As usual, these were sent round the table for autographs. Oliver sat next to Mary E. Wilkins, another waggish genius. In every book, as it came around to them, Oliver wrote Miss Wilkins’s name and she wrote his.

Familiar as Oliver’s sketches are, in the world of illustration, few know much of his colored pictures. His paintings have a charm of their own, with their hiring quality of pastel tints and mysterious tones. Seldom has his color work appeared in magazines, but one delightful series was published, which included that acme of daredeviltry, ’The Wash That Stayed Out All Night.’

An old nurse gives us a word picture of Oliver, at five, ‘sitting in his tiny armchair by the ingleside, brooding and pondering like a little old man.’ And we respond: —

So walked he from his birth;
In simpleness and gentleness and honor and clean mirth.

Or is not the most appropriate dirge his own inspired couplet: —

The Bubble winked at me, and said:
‘You’ll miss me, brother, when you’re dead.’