Atlantic Monthly, Vol. IV, No. 26, December, 1859
Part 5 out of 5
remembrance, as the ivy clings to the stone, adding beauty to
beauty,--associations which make men proud of their ancestors and
desirous to equal them in achievement The University at Cambridge, just
entering on the second quarter of its third century, has not a single
building that is beautiful, perhaps we might say none that is not
positively ugly; and we almost despair of a future when our people
shall become enlightened and magnanimous enough to appreciate noble
architecture at its true worth, as the expression of the greatness of
national character, as an enduring record of faith and of truth, and as
an essential instrument in any system of education that professes to be
1._Forty-Four Years of the Life of a Hunter_; being Reminiscences of
MESHACH BROWNING, a Maryland Hunter; roughly written down by Himself.
Revised and illustrated by E. STABLER. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott &
Co. 1859. pp. x., 400.
2. _Ten Years of Preacher-Life_; Chapters from an Autobiography. By
WILLIAM HENRY MILBURN. New York: Derby & Jackson. 1859. pp. 363.
BENVENUTO CELLINI was right in his _dictum_ about autobiographies; and
so was Dr. Kitchener, in his about hares. First catch your perfectly
sincere and unconscious man. He is even more uncommon than a genius of
the first order. Most men dress themselves for their autobiographies,
as Machiavelli used to do for reading the classics, in their best
clothes; they receive us, as it were, in a parlor chilling and awkward
from its unfamiliarity with man, and keep us carefully away from the
kitchen-chimney-corner, where they would feel at home, and would not
look on a lapse into nature as the unpardonable sin. But what do we
want of a hospitality that makes strangers of us, or of confidences
that keep us at arm's-length? Better the tavern and the newspaper; for
in the one we can grumble, and from the other learn more of our
neighbors than we care to know. John Smith's autobiography is commonly
John Smith's design for an equestrian statue of himself,--very fine,
certainly, and as much like him as like Marcus Aurelius. Saint
Augustine, kneeling to confess, has an eye to the picturesque, and does
it in _pontificalibus_, resolved that Domina Grundy shall think all the
better of him. Rousseau cries, "I will bare my heart to you!" and,
throwing open his waistcoat, makes us the confidants of his dirty
linen. Montaigne, indeed, reports of himself with the impartiality of a
naturalist, and Boswell, in his letters to Temple, shows a maudlin
irretentiveness; but is not old Samuel Pepys, after all, the only man
who spoke to himself of himself with perfect simplicity, frankness, and
unconsciousness?--a creature unique as the dodo,--a solitary specimen,
to show that it was possible for Nature to indulge in so odd a whimsey!
An autobiography is good for nothing, unless the author tell us in it
precisely what he meant not to tell. A man who can say what he thinks
of another to his face is a disagreeable rarity; but one who could look
his own Ego straight in the eye, and pronounce unbiased judgment, were
worthy of Sir Thomas Browne's Museum. Had Cheiron written his
autobiography, the consciousness of his equine crupper would have
ridden him like a nightmare; should a mermaid write hers, she would
sink the fish's tail, nor allow it to be put into the scales, in
weighing her character. The mermaid, in truth, is the emblem of those
who strive to see themselves;--her mirror is too small to reflect
anything more than the _mulier formosa superne_.
We looked for a great prize in Meshach Browning's account of himself,
and have been disappointed. Not that some very fair grains of wheat may
not be had for the winnowing, but the proportion of chaff is
disheartening. Meshach has been edited, and has not come out of that
fiery furnace unscathed. Mr. Stabler has not let him come before us in
his deerskin hunting-shirt, but has made him presentable by getting him
into a black dress-coat, the uniform of perfect respectability and
tiresomeness. He has corrected Meshach's style for him! He has made him
write that unexceptionable English which neither gods nor men, but only
columns, allow. (The kindness of an anonymous correspondent, however,
enables us to assure him that _lay_, and not _laid_, is the preterite
of _lie_.) One page of Meshach's own writing would have been worth all
his bear-stories put together. Many men may shoot bears, but few can
write like backwoodsmen. We shall expect an edition of "The Rivals"
from Mr. Stabler, with Mrs. Malaprop's epitaphs revised by the "Aids to
Composition." Luckily, Meshach himself will never know the wrong that
has been done him. On the contrary, he probably pleases himself in
finding that he is made to write President's English, and admires the
new leaves and apples not his own. But, in his polishing, American
letters have met as great a loss as American fiction did when the
depositions of the survivors of Bunker's Hill, taken fifty years after
the battle, were burned.
However, he who knows how to read with the ends of his fingers may yet
find good meat in the book. An honest provincialism has escaped Mr.
Stabler's weeding-hoe here and there, and we get a few glimpses, in
spite of him, into log-cabin interiors when the inmates are not in
their Sunday-clothes. We learn how much a sound stomach has to do with
human felicity; that a bride may make her husband happy, though her
whole outfit consist of two cups and saucers, two knives and forks, and
two spoons; that a man may be hospitable in a cabin, twelve by fifteen,
with only the forest for his larder; and that an American needs only an
axe, a rifle, and _nary red_, for his start in life. Meshach Browning
finds in his Paradise very much what our first parents found outside of
theirs. At nineteen he is the husband of pretty Mary McMullen, and
joint-proprietor with the rest of mankind of all-outdoors,--it being an
eccentricity of McMullen _pere_ to prefer a back to a front view of his
sons-in-law. Meshach, who is sure of a comfortable fireside wherever
there are trees, moves into the nearest bit of wilderness, builds a
house with the timber felled to make a clearing, plants his acre or
two, and forthwith shoots a bear, whose salted flesh will keep him and
his wife alive till harvest. Thus in 1800 was a family founded, which
fifty years later had increased to one hundred and twenty-two, of whom
sixty-seven, as their progenitor says proudly, were "capable of bearing
arms for the defence of their country,"--though, to be sure, the
Harper's Ferry affair leaves us in some doubt as to the direction in
which they would bear them. The community of which the Brownings, man
and wife, became members at their marriage was a wholly self-subsistent
one. The men wore deerskins procured by their own rifles and dressed
and tailored by themselves,--while the women spun and wove both flax
and wool. Powder and lead seem to have been the only things for which
they were dependent on outsiders. Browning's father was an English
soldier, who, escaping from Braddock's massacre, deserted and settled
in the highlands of Western Maryland,--as a place, we suppose, equally
safe from the provost-martial of the redcoat and the tomahawk of the
red man. It is curious to think of the great contrast between father
and son: the one a British soldier of the day of strictest powder and
pigtail; the other, a man who never wore a hat, except in fine
weather,--and in the house, of course, like the rest of his countrymen.
In this case, we find the very purest American type (for Meshach has
not a single Old-World notion) produced in a single generation. We
ourselves have known a parallel instance in the children of a British
soldier who deserted during the War of 1812; in tone of thought,
accent, dialect, and physique they were unmistakably Yankee. If the
backwoods Americanize men so fast, is it wonderful that two centuries
of the Western Hemisphere should have produced a breed so unlike the
parent Bull? It is time Bull began to reconcile himself to it.
One of the most amusing passages in Meshach's autobiography is that in
which he relates his military experience as captain of a company of
militia. The company appear to have gone into action only once, and
that was on occasion of a muster when they undertook to _lick_ their
commander, with whom, for some reason or other, they were discontented.
As well as we can make out, the result seems to have been, that the
captain licked _them_; though our Caesar's Commentaries are naturally
so confused on this topic, that we almost feel, after reading them, as
if we had been through the fight ourselves.
The book should have been shorter by at least two-thirds,--for one
bear-story is just like another, and Meshach's style of narrative is
one that cannot bear the prosperity of print. However, we find much
that is interesting in the volume, as in all records of real
Mr. Milburn's account of himself we have also found very entertaining.
In some respects it belongs on the same shelf with Meshach Browning's;
for we think the best chapters in it are those which bring us into
contact with Cartwright and other Methodist ministers, the frontiersmen
and bushfighters of the Church, who do not bandy subtilties with
Mephistopheles, nor consider that the Prince of Darkness is a
gentleman, but go in for a rough-and-tumble fight with Satan and his
imps, as with so many red _Injuns_ undeserving of the rights and
incapable of the amenities of civilized warfare. We confess a thorough
liking for these Leatherstockings of the clergy, true apostolic
successors of the heavy-handed fisherman, Peter. Their rough-and-ready
gospel is just the thing for men who feel as if they could not get
religion, unless from a preacher who can "whip" them as well as thunder
doctrine at their ears.
We prefer those parts of Mr. Milburn's book in which he tells us what
he saw (if we may say it of a blind man) to those in which he
undertakes to tell us what he was. The history of the growth of his
mind is not of vital importance to us, and we should be quite willing
to have "returned unexperienced to our graves," like Grumio's
fellow-servants. We think there is getting to be altogether too much
unreserve in the world. We doubt if any man have the right to take
mankind by the button and tell all about himself, unless, like Dante,
he can symbolize his experience. Even Goethe we only half thank,
especially when he kisses and tells, and prefer Shakspeare's
indifference to the intimacy of the German. Silence about one's self is
the most golden of all, as men commonly discover after babbling. Mr.
Milburn, in one of his chapters, gives an account of his passage
through what he is pleased to call _neology_ and _rationalism_. He
represents himself as having sounded the depths of German metaphysics,
criticism, and aesthetics. But a man who is able to write a sentence in
which Lessing's Works are spoken of as if the reading of them tended to
make men "transcendentalists of the supra-nebulous order" no more
deserves a scourging by angels for his devotion to German literature
than Saint Jerome did for being a Ciceronian. No truly thorough course
of study ever weakened or unsteadied any man's mind, for it is the
surest way to make him think less of himself,--and we cannot help
believing that the disease Mr. Milburn went through was nothing more
nor less than _sentimentalism_, a complaint as common to a certain
period of life as measles. But while we think him mistaken in his
diagnosis, we cannot but commend the good sense and manliness of his
course of treatment.
Bating the egotism unavoidable in a work of the sort, the style of Mr.
Milburn's book is agreeable, and the anecdotes of various kinds with
which it abounds render it very amusing. It is of particular interest
as showing how much a blind man may accomplish both for himself and
others, that the loss of sight may be borne with cheerfulness as well
as resignation, and that the sufferer by such a calamity is sure of
kindness and sympathy from his fellow-men.
_A First Lesson in Natural History_. By ACTAEA. Boston: Little, Brown,
& Co. 1859. pp. 82.
This is an altogether charming little book. Simple, clear, and
methodical, the style leaves nothing to be desired, and suggests no
wish that anything were away. An aunt called upon for more stories--and
no wonder, when she tells them so well--resolves to play the Nereid,
and takes her little ones in fancy down among the slopes and dells of
Ocean to watch the lovely growths and the strange creatures in which,
through plant and mineral, or what seem such, Life is yearning upward
toward the higher individuality of Volition. She tells us (for we
seemed among her hearers as we read, and drew our stool nearer) all
about the sea-anemones and corals, the coral-reefs, the jelly-fishes,
star-fishes, and sea-urchins,--which last are not to be confounded with
the buoys so frequently to be met with in our harbors. That the stories
have the sanction of Agassiz is warrant of their scientific accuracy,
while the feminine grace with which they are told is a science to be
learned of no professor.
Since the fairies are all dead, it is pleasant to know that Pan can be
brought to life again for children by the study of Nature. Now that the
wonders of the invisible world are closed, the little ones can have no
better set-off than in the beauty and marvel of God's visible creation.
Here also are food for the imagination and material for poetry.
Whatever teaches a child to observe teaches him to think, and
strengthens memory, a faculty which in fitting conjunction is
We dislike the science that is sometimes forced down youthful throats
by the Mrs. Squeerses of polite learning, a vile compound of treacle
and brimstone; but there is a vast difference between science as dead
fact and science as living poetry,--the harvest of the child's own
eyes, gathered on seashores and hillsides, in fields and lanes. We like
the aim and tendency of this little book, because it is likely to draw
children away from hooks, and to entice them into that admirably
ventilated schoolroom of out-doors which will give them sound lungs and
stomachs and muscular limbs. It teaches them, too, without their
knowing it; which is the only true way; for they contrive to make their
minds duck's-backs, under the assiduous watering-pot of instruction.
The knowledge it gives them is real, and not merely a thing of terms
and phrases. Moreover, the kind of it is suitable; a great thing; for
we hold a Pascal in a pinafore to be as great an outrage as a learned
We have found the generality of books written for children of late so
thoroughly bad, as void of invention as they are full of vulgarisms in
thought and language, that it is a downright pleasure to meet with one
so fresh and graceful as this of Aectaea's. We hope she will follow it
with a series, for she has shown herself qualified to do for science
what Hawthorne has done for mythology.
_Poems_. By ASNE WHITNEY. New York: Appleton & Co. 1859.
This modest volume is a collection of Miss Whitney's previously printed
poems, scattered about in forgotten newspapers, with perhaps as many
more, which now appear in print for the first time. The uncommon merit
of some of her early poems, especially "Bertha," "Hymn to the Sea," and
"Lilian," (here most unpoetically called "Facts in Verse,") long ago
awakened a desire in lovers of good poetry to know more of Miss Whitney
and what she had written; and the desire is gratified by the
publication of this book. We can hardly say that the new poems are
better than the old; though some of them, as "The Ceyba and the
Jaguey," "Undine," "Dominique," and "My Window," are marked by the same
quick insight, the same force and dignity of expression, which charm us
in the earlier verses. We still find "Lilian" the best of all, as it is
the longest; there are in it passages of description as clear and vivid
as the landscapes of Church and Turner, and touches of profound and
glowing imagination; and the whole poem, in spite of its obscurity,
affects the mind like a strain of high and mournful music. The Sonnets
are all more or less harsh and unintelligible,--a criticism which
applies to many of the other poems. Miss Whitney evidently despises
foot-notes as utterly as Tennyson, and leaves much unexplained in her
titles and in the poems themselves, which might help us to understand
them, if we knew it. Obscurity of thought and a lack of facility in
versification cause evident defects in her otherwise fine book; on the
other hand, she is never flat and seldom feeble, but writes as one
whose thoughts and feelings move on a high level, sustained by a
familiarity with the strength and beauty, rather than the grace and
tenderness of literature. Few of our countrywomen have written better
poems, and her little book gives finer food for thought and fancy than
many a more bulky volume. Is it ungracious to charge her with
affectation? for this is the clinging curse of modern poetry, and one
may trace it even in the noble idyls of the greatest English poet now
alive. The Brownings overflow with it, and it is the chief
characteristic of scores of the lesser poets of the day. If all who
write verses could learn how sacred language is, how full of beauty is
its austere simplicity, they would cease from their endless tricks of
word-painting and the Florentine mosaics of speech. Miss Whitney
offends less than many in this way, and has shown some of the rarer
gifts of that indefinable being,--a true poet.
_Sword and Gown_. A Novel: by the Author of "Guy Livingstone." Boston:
Ticknor & Fields.
This is rather a brilliant sketch than a carefully wrought and finely
finished romance. The actors are drawn in bold outlines, which it does
not appear to have been the purpose of the author to fill up in the
delicate manner usually deemed necessary for the development of
character in fiction. But they are so vigorously drawn, and the
narration is so full of power, that few readers can resist the
fascination of the story, in spite of the intrusive little digressions
which everywhere appear, and which, jumping at random through passages
of history, religion, art, politics, literature, as a circus-rider
forsakes his steed to dash through the many-colored tissue screens that
are invitingly held out to him, interfere quite seriously with its
progress. It is certainly a book in which the interest is positive, and
from which the attention is seldom allowed to wander; and is, so far, a
But there is also another relation in which it is to be considered.
Without being much of a moralist, one may clearly perceive that its
tone is unhealthy and its sentiment vicious. What it aims at we would
not assume to decide; what it accomplishes is, to secure a sympathy for
a reckless and dare-devil spirit which drives the hero through a
tolerably long career of more than moderate iniquity, and leaves him
impenitent at the end. It will hardly do to say that the object of the
book is only to amuse. Dealing with the subjects it does, it must work
good or evil. Its theme is this: An imperious beauty, whose heart has
been seared in earliest youth, and whose passions are half supposed to
be dead, is brought in contact, at a French watering-place, with a man
whose life has been passed in wildest excesses, whose amatory exploits
have echoed through Europe, and who knows no higher human motive of
action than the prosecution of selfish and sensual enjoyment. His good
qualities are dauntless personal courage, which, however, often sinks
into brutal ferocity, and occasional touches of generous emotion
towards his friends. The young girl's heart-strings are again set in
tune, and made to quiver in harmony with those of the determined
conqueror. Just as her soul is yielded, the intelligence that her lover
has a living wife is imparted to her. Here a resemblance to a striking
incident in "Jane Eyre" may be detected; but mark the difference in the
result:--Jane Eyre, resolute in her righteous convictions, flies from a
struggle which she perhaps feels herself incapable of sustaining; the
present heroine consents to remain near her lover, on his promise of
good behavior! What follows cannot be averted,--who would expect that
it should be? The elopement which is planned, however, is prevented by
the interference of a third party, and the lovers submit to their
destiny of separation. They meet once again, but it is only when the
hero, mortally wounded in a Crimean battle, lies expiring at Scutari.
With the bitter agony of the dying farewell, the scene closes. The
characters remain unchanged to the end. The Sword, though stained in
many places with impurities, still glistens with a lustre that
bewilders and confuses the senses. The Gown--which seems introduced at
all only for the purpose of mockery, its representative being invested
with all contemptible and unmanly attributes--still lies covered with
the reproach that has been cast upon it.
The moral of such a book is not a good one. The author does his best,
by various arts, to make the reader look kindly upon a guilty love, and
to regard with admiration those who are animated by it, notwithstanding
the hero is no better at the end than he was at the opening, and the
heroine is rather worse. And such is his undeniable power, that with
many readers he will be too likely to carry his point.
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