Entire PG Edition of The Works of William Dean Howells
William Dean Howells

Part 14 out of 78

times, in my natural affinity for villains, I had mocked and suffered
with Richard III.

Probably no dramatist ever needed the stage less, and none ever brought
more to it. There have been few joys for me in life comparable to that
of seeing the curtain rise on "Hamlet," and hearing the guards begin to
talk about the ghost; and yet how fully this joy imparts itself without
any material embodiment! It is the same in the whole range of his plays:
they fill the scene, but if there is no scene they fill the soul. They
are neither worse nor better because of the theatre. They are so great
that it cannot hamper them; they are so vital that they enlarge it to
their own proportions and endue it with something of their own living
force. They make it the size of life, and yet they retire it so wholly
that you think no more of it than you think of the physiognomy of one who
talks importantly to you. I have heard people say that they would rather
not see Shakespeare played than to see him played ill, but I cannot agree
with them. He can better afford to be played ill than any other man that
ever wrote. Whoever is on the stage, it is always Shakespeare who is
speaking to me, and perhaps this is the reason why in the past I can
trace no discrepancy between reading his plays and seeing them.

The effect is so equal from either experience that I am not sure as to
some plays whether I read them or saw them first, though as to most of
them I am aware that I never saw them at all; and if the whole truth must
be told there is still one of his plays that I have not read, and I
believe it is esteemed one of his greatest. There are several, with all
my reading of others, that I had not read till within a few years; and I
do not think I should have lost much if I, had never read "Pericles" and
"Winter's Tale."

In those early days I had no philosophized preference for reality in
literature, and I dare say if I had been asked, I should have said that
the plays of Shakespeare where reality is least felt were the most
imaginative; that is the belief of the puerile critics still; but I
suppose it was my instinctive liking for reality that made the great
Histories so delightful to me, and that rendered "Macbeth" and "Hamlet"
vital in their very ghosts and witches. There I found a world
appreciable to experience, a world inexpressibly vaster and grander than
the poor little affair that I had only known a small obscure corner of,
and yet of one quality with it, so that I could be as much at home and
citizen in it as where I actually lived. There I found joy and sorrow
mixed, and nothing abstract or typical, but everything standing for
itself, and not for some other thing. Then, I suppose it was the
interfusion of humor through so much of it, that made it all precious and
friendly. I think I had a native love of laughing, which was fostered in
me by my father's way of looking at life, and had certainly been
flattered by my intimacy with Cervantes; but whether this was so or not,
I know that I liked best and felt deepest those plays and passages in
Shakespeare where the alliance of the tragic and the comic was closest.
Perhaps in a time when self-consciousness is so widespread, it is the
only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am sure that without it I
should not have been naturalized to that world of Shakespeare's
Histories, where I used to spend so much of my leisure, with such a sense
of his own intimate companionship there as I had nowhere else. I felt
that he must somehow like my being in the joke of it all, and that in his
great heart he had room for a boy willing absolutely to lose himself in
him, and be as one of his creations.

It was the time of life with me when a boy begins to be in love with the
pretty faces that then peopled this world so thickly, and I did not fail
to fall in love with the ladies of that Shakespeare-world where I lived
equally. I cannot tell whether it was because I found them like my
ideals here, or whether my ideals acquired merit because of their
likeness to the realities there; they appeared to be all of one degree of
enchanting loveliness; but upon the whole I must have preferred them in
the plays, because it was so much easier to get on with them there; I was
always much better dressed there; I was vastly handsomer; I was not
bashful or afraid, and I had some defects of these advantages to contend
with here.

That friend of mine, the printer whom I have mentioned, was one with me
in a sense of the Shakespearean humor, and he dwelt with me in the sort
of double being I had in those two worlds. We took the book into the
woods at the ends of the long summer afternoons that remained to us when
we had finished our work, and on the shining Sundays of the warm, late
spring, the early, warm autumn, and we read it there on grassy slopes or
heaps of fallen leaves; so that much of the poetry is mixed for me with a
rapturous sense of the out-door beauty of this lovely natural world.
We read turn about, one taking the story up as the other tired, and as we
read the drama played itself under the open sky and in the free air with
such orchestral effects as the soughing woods or some rippling stream
afforded. It was not interrupted when a squirrel dropped a nut on us
from the top of a tall hickory; and the plaint of a meadow-lark prolonged
itself with unbroken sweetness from one world to the other.

But I think it takes two to read in the open air. The pressure of walls
is wanted to keep the mind within itself when one reads alone; otherwise
it wanders and disperses itself through nature. When my friend left us
for want of work in the office, or from the vagarious impulse which is so
strong in our craft, I took my Shakespeare no longer to the woods and
fields, but pored upon him mostly by night, in the narrow little space
which I had for my study, under the stairs at home. There was a desk
pushed back against the wall, which the irregular ceiling eloped down to
meet behind it, and at my left was a window, which gave a good light on
the writing-leaf of my desk. This was my workshop for six or seven
years, and it was not at all a bad one; I have had many since that were
not so much to the purpose; and though I would not live my life over, I
would willingly enough have that little study mine again. But it is gone
an utterly as the faces and voices that made home around it, and that I
was fierce to shut out of it, so that no sound or sight should molest me
in the pursuit of the end which I sought gropingly, blindly, with very
little hope, but with an intense ambition, and a courage that gave way
under no burden, before no obstacle. Long ago changes were made in the
low, rambling house which threw my little closet into a larger room; but
this was not until after I had left it many years; and as long as I
remained a part of that dear and simple home it was my place to read, to
write, to muse, to dream.

I sometimes wish in these later years that I had spent less time in it,
or that world of books which it opened into; that I had seen more of the
actual world, and had learned to know my brethren in it better. I might
so have amassed more material for after use in literature, but I had to
fit myself to use it, and I suppose that this was what I was doing, in my
own way, and by such light as I had. I often toiled wrongly and
foolishly; but certainly I toiled, and I suppose no work is wasted. Some
strength, I hope, was coming to me, even from my mistakes, and though I
went over ground that I need not have traversed, if I had not been left
so much to find the way alone, yet I was not standing still, and some of
the things that I then wished to do I have done. I do not mind owning
that in others I have failed. For instance, I have never surpassed
Shakespeare as a poet, though I once firmly meant to do so; but then, it
is to be remembered that very few other people have surpassed him, and
that it would not have been easy.


My ardor for Shakespeare must have been at its height when I was between
sixteen and seventeen years old, for I fancy when I began to formulate my
admiration, and to try to measure his greatness in phrases, I was less
simply impassioned than at some earlier time. At any rate, I am sure
that I did not proclaim his planetary importance in creation until I was
at least nineteen. But even at an earlier age I no longer worshipped at
a single shrine; there were many gods in the temple of my idolatry, and I
bowed the knee to them all in a devotion which, if it was not of one
quality, was certainly impartial. While I was reading, and thinking, and
living Shakespeare with such an intensity that I do not see how there
could have been room in my consciousness for anything else, there seem to
have been half a dozen other divinities there, great and small, whom I
have some present difficulty in distinguishing. I kept Irving, and
Goldsmith, and Cervantes on their old altars, but I added new ones, and
these I translated from the contemporary: literary world quite as often
as from the past. I am rather glad that among them was the gentle and
kindly Ik Marvel, whose 'Reveries of a Bachelor' and whose 'Dream Life'
the young people of that day were reading with a tender rapture which
would not be altogether surprising, I dare say, to the young people of
this. The books have survived the span of immortality fixed by our
amusing copyright laws, and seem now, when any pirate publisher may
plunder their author, to have a new life before them. Perhaps this is
ordered by Providence, that those who have no right to them may profit by
them, in that divine contempt of such profit which Providence so often

I cannot understand just how I came to know of the books, but I suppose
it was through the contemporary criticism which I was then beginning to
read, wherever I could find it, in the magazines and newspapers; and I
could not say why I thought it would be very 'comme il faut' to like
them. Probably the literary fine world, which is always rubbing
shoulders with the other fine world, and bringing off a little of its
powder and perfume, was then dawning upon me, and I was wishing to be of
it, and to like the things that it liked; I am not so anxious to do it
now. But if this is true, I found the books better than their friends,
and had many a heartache from their pathos, many a genuine glow of
purpose from their high import, many a tender suffusion from their
sentiment. I dare say I should find their pose now a little old-
fashioned. I believe it was rather full of sighs, and shrugs and starts,
expressed in dashes, and asterisks, and exclamations, but I am sure that
the feeling was the genuine and manly sort which is of all times and
always the latest wear. Whatever it was, it sufficed to win my heart,
and to identify me with whatever was most romantic and most pathetic in
it. I read 'Dream Life' first--though the 'Reveries of a Bachelor' was
written first, and I believe is esteemed the better book--and 'Dream
Life' remains first in my affections. I have now little notion what it
was about, but I love its memory. The book is associated especially in
my mind with one golden day of Indian summer, when I carried it into the
woods with me, and abandoned myself to a welter of emotion over its page.
I lay, under a crimson maple, and I remember how the light struck through
it and flushed the print with the gules of the foliage. My friend was
away by this time on one of his several absences in the Northwest, and I
was quite alone in the absurd and irrelevant melancholy with which I read
myself and my circumstances into the book. I began to read them out
again in due time, clothed with the literary airs and graces that I
admired in it, and for a long time I imitated Ik Marvel in the voluminous
letters I wrote my friend in compliance with his Shakespearean prayer:

"To Milan let me hear from thee by letters,
Of thy success in love, and what news else
Betideth here in absence of thy friend;
And I likewise will visit thee with mine."

Milan was then presently Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Verona was our little
village; but they both served the soul of youth as well as the real
places would have done, and were as really Italian as anything else in
the situation was really this or that. Heaven knows what gaudy
sentimental parade we made in our borrowed plumes, but if the travesty
had kept itself to the written word it would have been all well enough.
My misfortune was to carry it into print when I began to write a story,
in the Ik Marvel manner, or rather to compose it in type at the case, for
that was what I did; and it was not altogether imitated from Ik Marvel
either, for I drew upon the easier art of Dickens at times, and helped
myself out with bald parodies of Bleak House in many places. It was all
very well at the beginning, but I had not reckoned with the future
sufficiently to have started with any clear ending in my mind, and as I
went on I began to find myself more and more in doubt about it. My
material gave out; incidents failed me; the characters wavered and
threatened to perish on my hands. To crown my misery there grew up an
impatience with the story among its readers, and this found its way to me
one day when I overheard an old farmer who came in for his paper say that
he did not think that story amounted to much. I did not think so either,
but it was deadly to have it put into words, and how I escaped the mortal
effect of the stroke I do not know. Somehow I managed to bring the
wretched thing to a close, and to live it slowly into the past. Slowly
it seemed then, but I dare say it was fast enough; and there is always
this consolation to be whispered in the ear of wounded vanity, that the
world's memory is equally bad for failure and success; that if it will
not keep your triumphs in mind as you think it ought, neither will it
long dwell upon your defeats. But that experience was really terrible.
It was like some dreadful dream one has of finding one's self in battle
without the courage needed to carry one creditably through the action,
or on the stage unprepared by study of the part which one is to appear
in. I have hover looked at that story since, so great was the shame and
anguish that I suffered from it, and yet I do not think it was badly
conceived, or attempted upon lines that were mistaken. If it were not
for what happened in the past I might like some time to write a story on
the same lines in the future.


What I have said of Dickens reminds me that I had been reading him at the
same time that I had been reading Ik Marvel; but a curious thing about
the reading of my later boyhood is that the dates do not sharply detach
themselves one from another. This may be so because my reading was much
more multifarious than it had been earlier, or because I was reading
always two or three authors at a time. I think Macaulay a little
antedated Dickens in my affections, but when I came to the novels of that
masterful artist (as I must call him, with a thousand reservations as to
the times when he is not a master and not an artist), I did not fail to
fall under his spell.

This was in a season of great depression, when I began to feel in broken
health the effect of trying to burn my candle at both ends. It seemed
for a while very simple and easy to come home in the middle of the
afternoon, when my task at the printing-office was done, and sit down to
my books in my little study, which I did not finally leave until the
family were in bed; but it was not well, and it was not enough that I
should like to do it. The most that can be said in defence of such a
thing is that with the strong native impulse and the conditions it was
inevitable. If I was to do the thing I wanted to do I was to do it in
that way, and I wanted to do that thing, whatever it was, more than I
wanted to do anything else, and even more than I wanted to do nothing.
I cannot make out that I was fond of study, or cared for the things I was
trying to do, except as a means to other things. As far as my pleasure
went, or my natural bent was concerned, I would rather have been
wandering through the woods with a gun on my shoulder, or lying under a
tree, or reading some book that cost me no sort of effort. But there was
much more than my pleasure involved; there was a hope to fulfil, an aim
to achieve, and I could no more have left off trying for what I hoped and
aimed at than I could have left off living, though I did not know very
distinctly what either was. As I look back at the endeavor of those days
much of it seems mere purblind groping, wilful and wandering. I can see
that doing all by myself I was not truly a law to myself, but only a sort
of helpless force.

I studied Latin because I believed that I should read the Latin authors,
and I suppose I got as much of the language as most school-boys of my
age, but I never read any Latin author but Cornelius Nepos. I studied
Greek, and I learned so much of it as to read a chapter of the Testament,
and an ode of Anacreon. Then I left it, not because I did not mean to go
farther, or indeed stop short of reading all Greek literature, but
because that friend of mine and I talked it over and decided that I could
go on with Greek any time, but I had better for the present study German,
with the help of a German who had come to the village. Apparently I was
carrying forward an attack on French at the same time, for I distinctly
recall my failure to enlist with me an old gentleman who had once lived a
long time in France, and whom I hoped to get at least an accent from.
Perhaps because he knew he had no accent worth speaking of, or perhaps
because he did not want the bother of imparting it, he never would keep
any of the engagements he made with me, and when we did meet he so
abounded in excuses and subterfuges that he finally escaped me, and I was
left to acquire an Italian accent of French in Venice seven or eight
years later. At the same time I was reading Spanish, more or less,
but neither wisely nor too well. Having had so little help in my
studies, I had a stupid pride in refusing all, even such as I might have
availed myself of, without shame, in books, and I would not read any
Spanish author with English notes. I would have him in an edition wholly
Spanish from beginning to end, and I would fight my way through him
single-handed, with only such aid as I must borrow from a lexicon.

I now call this stupid, but I have really no more right to blame the boy
who was once I than I have to praise him, and I am certainly not going to
do that. In his day and place he did what he could in his own way; he
had no true perspective of life, but I do not know that youth ever has
that. Some strength came to him finally from the mere struggle,
undirected and misdirected as it often was, and such mental fibre as he
had was toughened by the prolonged stress. It could be said, of course,
that the time apparently wasted in these effectless studies could have
been well spent in deepening and widening a knowledge of English
literature never yet too great, and I have often said this myself; but
then, again, I am not sure that the studies were altogether effectless.
I have sometimes thought that greater skill had come to my hand from them
than it would have had without, and I have trusted that in making known
to me the sources of so much English, my little Latin and less Greek have
enabled me to use my own speech with a subtler sense of it than I should
have had otherwise.

But I will by no means insist upon my conjecture. What is certain is
that for the present my studies, without method and without stint, began
to tell upon my health, and that my nerves gave way in all manner of
hypochondriacal fears. These finally resolved themselves into one,
incessant, inexorable, which I could escape only through bodily fatigue,
or through some absorbing interest that took me out of myself altogether
and filled my morbid mind with the images of another's creation.

In this mood I first read Dickens, whom I had known before in the reading
I had listened to. But now I devoured his books one after another as
fast as I could read them. I plunged from the heart of one to another,
so as to leave myself no chance for the horrors that beset me. Some of
them remain associated with the gloom and misery of that time, so that
when I take them up they bring back its dreadful shadow. But I have
since read them all more than once, and I have had my time of thinking
Dickens, talking Dickens, and writing Dickens, as we all had who lived in
the days of the mighty magician. I fancy the readers who have come to
him since he ceased to fill the world with his influence can have little
notion how great it was. In that time he colored the parlance of the
English-speaking race, and formed upon himself every minor talent
attempting fiction. While his glamour lasted it was no more possible for
a young novelist to escape writing Dickens than it was for a young poet
to escape writing Tennyson. I admired other authors more; I loved them
more, but when it came to a question of trying to do something in fiction
I was compelled, as by a law of nature, to do it at least partially in
his way.

All the while that he held me so fast by his potent charm I was aware
that it was a very rough magic now and again, but I could not assert my
sense of this against him in matters of character and structure. To
these I gave in helplessly; their very grotesqueness was proof of their
divine origin, and I bowed to the crudest manifestations of his genius in
these kinds as if they were revelations not to be doubted without
sacrilege. But in certain small matters, as it were of ritual, I
suffered myself to think, and I remember boldly speaking my mind about
his style, which I thought bad.

I spoke it even to the quaint character whom I borrowed his books from,
and who might almost have come out of his books. He lived in Dickens in
a measure that I have never known another to do, and my contumely must
have brought him a pang that was truly a personal grief. He forgave it,
no doubt because I bowed in the Dickens worship without question on all
other points. He was then a man well on towards fifty, and he had come
to America early in life, and had lived in our village many years,
without casting one of his English prejudices, or ceasing to be of a
contrary opinion on every question, political, religious and social.
He had no fixed belief, but he went to the service of his church whenever
it was held among us, and he revered the Book of Common Prayer while he
disputed the authority of the Bible with all comers. He had become a
citizen, but he despised democracy, and achieved a hardy consistency only
by voting with the pro-slavery party upon all measures friendly to the
institution which he considered the scandal and reproach of the American
name. From a heart tender to all, he liked to say wanton, savage and
cynical things, but he bore no malice if you gainsaid him. I know
nothing of his origin, except the fact of his being an Englishman, or
what his first calling had been; but he had evolved among us from a
house-painter to an organ-builder, and he had a passionate love of music.
He built his organs from the ground up, and made every part of them with
his own hands; I believe they were very good, and at any rate the
churches in the country about took them from him as fast as he could make
them. He had one in his own house, and it was fine to see him as he sat
before it, with his long, tremulous hands outstretched to the keys, his
noble head thrown back and his sensitive face lifted in the rapture of
his music. He was a rarely intelligent creature, and an artist in every
fibre; and if you did not quarrel with his manifold perversities, he was
a delightful companion.

After my friend went away I fell much to him for society, and we took
long, rambling walks together, or sat on the stoop before his door,
or lounged over the books in the drug-store, and talked evermore of
literature. He must have been nearly three times my age, but that did
not matter; we met in the equality of the ideal world where there is
neither old nor young, any more than there is rich or poor. He had read
a great deal, but of all he had read he liked Dickens best, and was
always coming back to him with affection, whenever the talk strayed.
He could not make me out when I criticised the style of Dickens; and when
I praised Thackeray's style to the disadvantage of Dickens's he could
only accuse me of a sort of aesthetic snobbishness in my preference.
Dickens, he said, was for the million, and Thackeray was for the upper
ten thousand. His view amused me at the time, and yet I am not sure that
it was altogether mistaken.

There is certainly a property in Thackeray that somehow flatters the
reader into the belief that he is better than other people. I do not
mean to say that this was why I thought him a finer writer than Dickens,
but I will own that it was probably one of the reasons why I liked him
better; if I appreciated him so fully as I felt, I must be of a finer
porcelain than the earthen pots which were not aware of any particular
difference in the various liquors poured into them. In Dickens the
virtue of his social defect is that he never appeals to the principle
which sniffs, in his reader. The base of his work is the whole breadth
and depth of humanity itself. It is helplessly elemental, but it is not
the less grandly so, and if it deals with the simpler manifestations of
character, character affected by the interests and passions rather than
the tastes and preferences, it certainly deals with the larger moods
through them. I do not know that in the whole range of his work he once
suffers us to feel our superiority to a fellow-creature through any
social accident, or except for some moral cause. This makes him very fit
reading for a boy, and I should say that a boy could get only good from
him. His view of the world and of society, though it was very little
philosophized, was instinctively sane and reasonable, even when it was
most impossible.

We are just beginning to discern that certain conceptions of our
relations to our fellow-men, once formulated in generalities which met
with a dramatic acceptation from the world, and were then rejected by it
as mere rhetoric, have really a vital truth in them, and that if they
have ever seemed false it was because of the false conditions in which we
still live. Equality and fraternity, these are the ideals which once
moved the world, and then fell into despite and mockery, as unrealities;
but now they assert themselves in our hearts once more.

Blindly, unwittingly, erringly as Dickens often urged them, these ideals
mark the whole tendency of his fiction, and they are what endear him to
the heart, and will keep him dear to it long after many a cunninger
artificer in letters has passed into forgetfulness. I do not pretend
that I perceived the full scope of his books, but I was aware of it in
the finer sense which is not consciousness. While I read him, I was in a
world where the right came out best, as I believe it will yet do in this
world, and where merit was crowned with the success which I believe will
yet attend it in our daily life, untrammelled by social convention or
economic circumstance. In that world of his, in the ideal world, to
which the real world must finally conform itself, I dwelt among the shows
of things, but under a Providence that governed all things to a good end,
and where neither wealth nor birth could avail against virtue or right.
Of course it was in a way all crude enough, and was already contradicted
by experience in the small sphere of my own being; but nevertheless it
was true with that truth which is at the bottom of things, and I was
happy in it. I could not fail to love the mind which conceived it, and
my worship of Dickens was more grateful than that I had yet given any
writer. I did not establish with him that one-sided understanding which
I had with Cervantes and Shakespeare; with a contemporary that was not
possible, and as an American I was deeply hurt at the things he had said
against us, and the more hurt because I felt that they were often so
just. But I was for the time entirely his, and I could not have wished
to write like any one else.

I do not pretend that the spell I was under was wholly of a moral or
social texture. For the most part I was charmed with him because he was
a delightful story-teller; because he could thrill me, and make me hot
and cold; because he could make me laugh and cry, and stop my pulse and
breath at will. There seemed an inexhaustible source of humor and pathos
in his work, which I now find choked and dry; I cannot laugh any more at
Pickwick or Sam Weller, or weep for little Nell or Paul Dombey; their
jokes, their griefs, seemed to me to be turned on, and to have a
mechanical action. But beneath all is still the strong drift of a
genuine emotion, a sympathy, deep and sincere, with the poor, the lowly,
the unfortunate. In all that vast range of fiction, there is nothing
that tells for the strong, because they are strong, against the weak,
nothing that tells for the haughty against the humble, nothing that tells
for wealth against poverty. The effect of Dickens is purely democratic,
and however contemptible he found our pseudo-equality, he was more truly
democratic than any American who had yet written fiction. I suppose it
was our instinctive perception in the region of his instinctive
expression, that made him so dear to us, and wounded our silly vanity so
keenly through our love when he told us the truth about our horrible sham
of a slave-based freedom. But at any rate the democracy is there in his
work more than he knew perhaps, or would ever have known, or ever
recognized by his own life. In fact, when one comes to read the story of
his life, and to know that he was really and lastingly ashamed of having
once put up shoe-blacking as a boy, and was unable to forgive his mother
for suffering him to be so degraded, one perceives that he too was the
slave of conventions and the victim of conditions which it is the highest
function of his fiction to help destroy.

I imagine that my early likes and dislikes in Dickens were not very
discriminating. I liked 'David Copperfield,' and 'Barnaby Rudge,' and
'Bleak House,' and I still like them; but I do not think I liked them
more than 'Dombey & Son,' and 'Nicholas Nickleby,' and the 'Pickwick
Papers,' which I cannot read now with any sort of patience, not to speak
of pleasure. I liked 'Martin Chuzzlewit,' too, and the other day I read
a great part of it again, and found it roughly true in the passages that
referred to America, though it was surcharged in the serious moods, and
caricatured in the comic. The English are always inadequate observers;
they seem too full of themselves to have eyes and ears for any alien
people; but as far as an Englishman could, Dickens had caught the look of
our life in certain aspects. His report of it was clumsy and farcical;
but in a large, loose way it was like enough; at least he had caught the
note of our self-satisfied, intolerant, and hypocritical provinciality,
and this was not altogether lost in his mocking horse-play.

I cannot make out that I was any the less fond of Dickens because of it.
I believe I was rather more willing to accept it as a faithful
portraiture then than I should be now; and I certainly never made any
question of it with my friend the organ-builder. 'Martin Chuzzlewit' was
a favorite book with him, and so was the 'Old Curiosity Shop.' No doubt
a fancied affinity with Tom Pinch through their common love of music made
him like that most sentimental and improbable personage, whom he would
have disowned and laughed to scorn if he had met him in life; but it was
a purely altruistic sympathy that he felt with Little Nell and her
grandfather. He was fond of reading the pathetic passages from both
books, and I can still hear his rich, vibrant voice as it lingered in
tremulous emotion on the periods he loved. He would catch the volume up
anywhere, any time, and begin to read, at the book-store, or the harness-
shop, or the law-office, it did not matter in the wide leisure of a
country village, in those days before the war, when people had all the
time there was; and he was sure of his audience as long as he chose to
read. One Christmas eve, in answer to a general wish, he read the
'Christmas Carol' in the Court-house, and people came from all about to
hear him.

He was an invalid and he died long since, ending a life of suffering in
the saddest way. Several years before his death money fell to his
family, and he went with them to an Eastern city, where he tried in vain
to make himself at home. He never ceased to pine for the village be had
left, with its old companionships, its easy usages, its familiar faces;
and he escaped to it again and again, till at last every tie was severed,
and he could come back no more. He was never reconciled to the change,
and in a manner he did really die of the homesickness which deepened an
hereditary taint, and enfeebled him to the disorder that carried him.
off. My memories of Dickens remain mingled with my memories of this
quaint and most original genius, and though I knew Dickens long before I
knew his lover, I can scarcely think of one without thinking of the


Certain other books I associate with another pathetic nature, of whom the
organ-builder and I were both fond. This was the young poet who looked
after the book half of the village drug and book store, and who wrote
poetry in such leisure as he found from his duties, and with such
strength as he found in the disease preying upon him. He must have been
far gone in consumption when I first knew him, for I have no recollection
of a time when his voice was not faint and husky, his sweet smile wan,
and his blue eyes dull with the disease that wasted him away,

"Like wax in the fire,
Like snow in the sun."

People spoke of him as once strong and vigorous, but I recall him fragile
and pale, gentle, patient, knowing his inexorable doom, and not hoping or
seeking to escape it. As the end drew near he left his employment and
went home to the farm, some twenty miles away, where I drove out to see
him once through the deep snow of a winter which was to be his last.
My heart was heavy all the time, but he tried to make the visit pass
cheerfully with our wonted talk about books. Only at parting, when he
took my hand in his thin, cold clasp, he said, "I suppose my disease is
progressing," with the patience he always showed.

I did not see him again, and I am not sure now that his gift was very
distinct or very great. It was slight and graceful rather, I fancy,
and if he had lived it might not have sufficed to make him widely known,
but he had a real and a very delicate sense of beauty in literature,
and I believe it was through sympathy with his preferences that I came
into appreciation of several authors whom I had not known, or had not
cared for before. There could not have been many shelves of books in
that store, and I came to be pretty well acquainted with them all before
I began to buy them. For the most part, I do not think it occurred to me
that they were there to be sold; for this pale poet seemed indifferent to
the commercial property in them, and only to wish me to like them.

I am not sure, but I think it was through some volume which I found in
his charge that I first came to know of De Quincey; he was fond of
Dr. Holmes's poetry; he loved Whittier and Longfellow, each represented
in his slender stock by some distinctive work. There were several stray
volumes of Thackeray's minor writings, and I still have the 'Yellowplush
Papers' in the smooth red cloth (now pretty well tattered) of Appleton's
Popular Library, which I bought there. But most of the books were in the
famous old brown cloth of Ticknor & Fields, which was a warrant of
excellence in the literature it covered. Besides these there were
standard volumes of poetry, published by Phillips & Sampson, from worn-
out plates; for a birthday present my mother got me Wordsworth in this
shape, and I am glad to think that I once read the "Excursion" in it,
for I do not think I could do so now, and I have a feeling that it is
very right and fit to have read the "Excursion." To be honest, it was
very hard reading even then, and I cannot truthfully pretend that I have
ever liked Wordsworth except in parts, though for the matter of that,
I do not suppose that any one ever did. I tried hard enough to like
everything in him, for I had already learned enough to know that I ought
to like him, and that if I did not, it was a proof of intellectual and
moral inferiority in me. My early idol, Pope, had already been tumbled
into the dust by Lowell, whose lectures on English Poetry had lately been
given in Boston, and had met with my rapturous acceptance in such
newspaper report as I had of them. So, my preoccupations were all in
favor of the Lake School, and it was both in my will and my conscience to
like Wordsworth. If I did not do so it was not my fault, and the fault
remains very much what it first was.

I feel and understand him more deeply than I did then, but I do not think
that I then failed of the meaning of much that I read in him, and I am
sure that my senses were quick to all the beauty in him. After suffering
once through the "Excursion" I did not afflict myself with it again,
but there were other poems of his which I read over and over, as I fancy
it is the habit of every lover of poetry to do with the pieces he is fond
of. Still, I do not make out that Wordsworth was ever a passion of mine;
on the other hand, neither was Byron. Him, too, I liked in passages and
in certain poems which I knew before I read Wordsworth at all; I read him
throughout, but I did not try to imitate him, and I did not try to
imitate Wordsworth.

Those lectures of Lowell's had a great influence with me, and I tried to
like whatever they bade me like, after a fashion common to young people
when they begin to read criticisms; their aesthetic pride is touched;
they wish to realize that they too can feel the fine things the critic
admires. From this motive they do a great deal of factitious liking;
but after all the affections will not be bidden, and the critic can only
avail to give a point of view, to enlighten a perspective. When I read
Lowell's praises of him, I had all the will in the world to read Spencer,
and I really meant to do so, but I have not done so to this day, and as
often as I have tried I have found it impossible. It was not so with
Chaucer, whom I loved from the first word of his which I found quoted in
those lectures, and in Chambers's 'Encyclopaedia of English Literature,'
which I had borrowed of my friend the organ-builder.

In fact, I may fairly class Chaucer among my passions, for I read him
with that sort of personal attachment I had for Cervantes, who resembled
him in a certain sweet and cheery humanity. But I do not allege this as
the reason, for I had the same feeling for Pope, who was not like either
of them. Kissing goes by favor, in literature as in life, and one cannot
quite account for one's passions in either; what is certain is, I liked
Chaucer and I did not like Spencer; possibly there was an affinity
between reader and poet, but if there was I should be at a loss to name
it, unless it was the liking for reality; and the sense of mother earth
in human life. By the time I had read all of Chaucer that I could find
in the various collections and criticisms, my father had been made a
clerk in the legislature, and on one of his visits home he brought me the
poet's works from the State Library, and I set about reading them with a
glossary. It was not easy, but it brought strength with it, and lifted
my heart with a sense of noble companionship.

I will not pretend that I was insensible to the grossness of the poet's
time, which I found often enough in the poet's verse, as well as the
goodness of his nature, and my father seems to have felt a certain
misgiving about it. He repeated to me the librarian's question as to
whether he thought he ought to put an unexpurgated edition in the hands
of a boy, and his own answer that he did not believe it would hurt me.
It was a kind of appeal to me to make the event justify him, and I
suppose he had not given me the book without due reflection. Probably he
reasoned that with my greed for all manner of literature the bad would
become known to me along with the good at any rate, and I had better know
that he knew it.

The streams of filth flow down through the ages in literature, which
sometimes seems little better than an open sewer, and, as I have said,
I do not see why the time should not come when the noxious and noisome
channels should be stopped; but the base of the mind is bestial, and so
far the beast in us has insisted upon having his full say. The worst of
lewd literature is that it seems to give a sanction to lewdness in the
life, and that inexperience takes this effect for reality: that is the
danger and the harm, and I think the fact ought not to be blinked.
Compared with the meaner poets the greater are the cleaner, and Chaucer
was probably safer than any other English poet of his time, but I am not
going to pretend that there are not things in Chaucer which a boy would
be the better for not reading; and so far as these words of mine shall be
taken for counsel, I am not willing that they should unqualifiedly praise
him. The matter is by no means simple; it is not easy to conceive of a
means of purifying the literature of the past without weakening it, and
even falsifying it, but it is best to own that it is in all respects just
what it is, and not to feign it otherwise. I am not ready to say that
the harm from it is positive, but you do get smeared with it, and the
filthy thought lives with the filthy rhyme in the ear, even when it does
not corrupt the heart or make it seem a light thing for the reader's
tongue and pen to sin in kind.

I loved my Chaucer too well, I hope, not to get some good from the best
in him; and my reading of criticism had taught me how and where to look
for the best, and to know it when I had found it. Of course I began to
copy him. That is, I did not attempt anything like his tales in kind;
they must have seemed too hopelessly far away in taste and time, but I
studied his verse, and imitated a stanza which I found in some of his
things and had not found elsewhere; I rejoiced in the freshness and
sweetness of his diction, and though I felt that his structure was
obsolete, there was in his wording something homelier and heartier than
the imported analogues that had taken the place of the phrases he used.

I began to employ in my own work the archaic words that I fancied most,
which was futile and foolish enough, and I formed a preference for the
simpler Anglo-Saxon woof of our speech, which was not so bad. Of course,
being left so much as I was to my own whim in such things, I could not
keep a just mean; I had an aversion for the Latin derivatives which was
nothing short of a craze. Some half-bred critic whom I had read made me
believe that English could be written without them, and had better be
written so, and I did not escape from this lamentable error until I had
produced with weariness and vexation of spirit several pieces of prose
wholly composed of monosyllables. I suspect now that I did not always
stop to consider whether my short words were not as Latin by race as any
of the long words I rejected, and that I only made sure they were short.

The frivolous ingenuity which wasted itself in this exercise happily
could not hold out long, and in verse it was pretty well helpless from
the beginning. Yet I will not altogether blame it, for it made me know,
as nothing else could, the resources of our tongue in that sort; and in
the revolt from the slavish bondage I took upon myself I did not go so
far as to plunge into any very wild polysyllabic excesses. I still like
the little word if it says the thing I want to say as well as the big
one, but I honor above all the word that says the thing. At the same
time I confess that I have a prejudice against certain words that I
cannot overcome; the sight of some offends me, the sound of others, and
rather than use one of those detested vocables, even when I perceive that
it would convey my exact meaning, I would cast about long for some other.
I think this is a foible, and a disadvantage, but I do not deny it.

An author who had much to do with preparing me for the quixotic folly in
point was that Thomas Babington Macaulay, who taught simplicity of
diction in phrases of as "learned length and thundering sound," as any he
would have had me shun, and who deplored the Latinistic English of
Johnson in terms emulous of the great doctor's orotundity and
ronderosity. I wonder now that I did not see how my physician avoided
his medicine, but I did not, and I went on to spend myself in an endeavor
as vain and senseless as any that pedantry has conceived. It was none
the less absurd because I believed in it so devoutly, and sacrificed
myself to it with such infinite pains and labor. But this was long after
I read Macaulay, who was one of my grand passions before Dickens or


One of the many characters of the village was the machinist who had his
shop under our printing-office when we first brought our newspaper to the
place, and who was just then a machinist because he was tired of being
many other things, and had not yet made up his mind what he should be
next. He could have been whatever he turned his agile intellect and his
cunning hand to; he had been a schoolmaster and a watch-maker, and I
believe an amateur doctor and irregular lawyer; he talked and wrote
brilliantly, and he was one of the group that nightly disposed of every
manner of theoretical and practical question at the drug-store; it was
quite indifferent to him which side he took; what he enjoyed was the
mental exercise. He was in consumption, as so many were in that region,
and he carbonized against it, as he said; he took his carbon in the
liquid form, and the last time I saw him the carbon had finally prevailed
over the consumption, but it had itself become a seated vice; that was
many years since, and it is many years since he died.

He must have been known to me earlier, but I remember him first as he
swam vividly into my ken, with a volume of Macaulay's essays in his hand,
one day. Less figuratively speaking, he came up into the printing-office
to expose from the book the nefarious plagiarism of an editor in a
neighboring city, who had adapted with the change of names and a word or
two here and there, whole passages from the essay on Barere, to the
denunciation of a brother editor. It was a very simple-hearted fraud,
and it was all done with an innocent trust in the popular ignorance which
now seems to me a little pathetic; but it was certainly very barefaced,
and merited the public punishment which the discoverer inflicted by means
of what journalists call the deadly parallel column. The effect ought
logically to have been ruinous for the plagiarist, but it was really
nothing of the kind. He simply ignored the exposure, and the comments of
the other city papers, and in the process of time he easily lived down
the memory of it and went on to greater usefulness in his profession.

But for the moment it appeared to me a tremendous crisis, and I listened
as the minister of justice read his communication, with a thrill which
lost itself in the interest I suddenly felt in the plundered author.
Those facile and brilliant phrases and ideas struck me as the finest
things I had yet known in literature, and I borrowed the book and read it
through. Then I borrowed another volume of Macaulay's essays, and
another and another, till I had read them every one. It was like a long
debauch, from which I emerged with regret that it should ever end.

I tried other essayists, other critics, whom the machinist had in his
library, but it was useless; neither Sidney Smith nor Thomas Carlyle
could console me; I sighed for more Macaulay and evermore Macaulay. I
read his History of England, and I could measurably console myself with
that, but only measurably; and I could not go back to the essays and read
them again, for it seemed to me I had absorbed them so thoroughly that I
had left nothing unenjoyed in them. I used to talk with the machinist
about them, and with the organ-builder, and with my friend the printer,
but no one seemed to feel the intense fascination in them that I did, and
that I should now be quite unable to account for.

Once more I had an author for whom I could feel a personal devotion, whom
I could dream of and dote upon, and whom I could offer my intimacy in
many an impassioned revery. I do not think T. B. Macaulay would really
have liked it; I dare say he would not have valued the friendship of the
sort of a youth I was, but in the conditions he was helpless, and I
poured out my love upon him without a rebuff. Of course I reformed my
prose style, which had been carefully modelled upon that of Goldsmith and
Irving, and began to write in the manner of Macaulay, in short, quick
sentences, and with the prevalent use of brief Anglo-Saxon words, which
he prescribed, but did not practise. As for his notions of literature, I
simply accepted them with the feeling that any question of them would
have been little better than blasphemy.

For a long time he spoiled my taste for any other criticism; he made it
seem pale, and poor, and weak; and he blunted my sense to subtler
excellences than I found in him. I think this was a pity, but it was a
thing not to be helped, like a great many things that happen to our hurt
in life; it was simply inevitable. How or when my frenzy for him began
to abate I cannot say, but it certainly waned, and it must have waned
rapidly, for after no great while I found myself feeling the charm of
quite different minds, as fully as if his had never enslaved me. I
cannot regret that I enjoyed him so keenly as I did; it was in a way a
generous delight, and though he swayed me helplessly whatever way he
thought, I do not think yet that he swayed me in any very wrong way. He
was a bright and clear intelligence, and if his light did not go far, it
is to be said of him that his worst fault was only to have stopped short
of the finest truth in art, in morals, in politics.


What remained to me from my love of Macaulay was a love of criticism,
and I read almost as much in criticism as I read in poetry and history
and fiction. It was of an eccentric doctor, another of the village
characters, that I got the works of Edgar A. Poe; I do not know just how,
but it must have been in some exchange of books; he preferred
metaphysics. At any rate I fell greedily upon them, and I read with no
less zest than his poems the bitter, and cruel, and narrow-minded
criticisms which mainly filled one of the volumes. As usual, I accepted
them implicitly, and it was not till long afterwards that I understood
how worthless they were.

I think that hardly less immoral than the lubricity of literature, and
its celebration of the monkey and the goat in us, is the spectacle such
criticism affords of the tigerish play of satire. It is monstrous that
for no offence but the wish to produce something beautiful, and the
mistake of his powers in that direction, a writer should become the prey
of some ferocious wit, and that his tormentor should achieve credit by
his lightness and ease in rending his prey; it is shocking to think how
alluring and depraving the fact is to the young reader emulous of such
credit, and eager to achieve it. Because I admired these barbarities of
Poe's, I wished to irritate them, to spit some hapless victim on my own
spear, to make him suffer and to make the reader laugh. This is as far
as possible from the criticism that enlightens and ennobles, but it is
still the ideal of most critics, deny it as they will; and because it is
the ideal of most critics criticism still remains behind all the other
literary arts.

I am glad to remember that at the same time I exulted in these ferocities
I had mind enough and heart enough to find pleasure in the truer and
finer work, the humaner work of other writers, like Hazlitt, and Leigh
Hunt, and Lamb, which became known to me at a date I cannot exactly fix.
I believe it was Hazlitt whom I read first, and he helped me to clarify
and formulate my admiration of Shakespeare as no one else had yet done;
Lamb helped me too, and with all the dramatists, and on every hand I was
reaching out for light that should enable me to place in literary history
the authors I knew and loved.

I fancy it was well for me at this period to have got at the four great
English reviews, the Edinburgh, the Westminster, the London Quarterly,
and the North British, which I read regularly, as well as Blackwood's
Magazine. We got them in the American editions in payment for printing
the publisher's prospectus, and their arrival was an excitement, a joy,
and a satisfaction with me, which I could not now describe without having
to accuse myself of exaggeration. The love of literature, and the hope
of doing something in it, had become my life to the exclusion of all
other interests, or it was at least the great reality, and all other
things were as shadows. I was living in a time of high political tumult,
and I certainly cared very much for the question of slavery which was
then filling the minds of men; I felt deeply the shame and wrong of our
Fugitive Slave Law; I was stirred by the news from Kansas, where the
great struggle between the two great principles in our nationality was
beginning in bloodshed; but I cannot pretend that any of these things
were more than ripples on the surface of my intense and profound interest
in literature. If I was not to live by it, I was somehow to live for it.

If I thought of taking up some other calling it was as a means only;
literature was always the end I had in view, immediately or finally.
I did not see how it was to yield me a living, for I knew that almost all
the literary men in the country had other professions; they were editors,
lawyers, or had public or private employments; or they were men of
wealth; there was then not one who earned his bread solely by his pen in
fiction, or drama, or history, or poetry, or criticism, in a day when
people wanted very much less butter on their bread than they do now.
But I kept blindly at my studies, and yet not altogether blindly, for,
as I have said, the reading I did had more tendency than before, and I
was beginning to see authors in their proportion to one another, and to
the body of literature.

The English reviews were of great use to me in this; I made a rule of
reading each one of them quite through. To be sure I often broke this
rule, as people are apt to do with rules of the kind; it was not possible
for a boy to wade through heavy articles relating to English politics and
economics, but I do not think I left any paper upon a literary topic
unread, and I did read enough politics, especially in Blackwood's, to be
of Tory opinions; they were very fit opinions for a boy, and they did not
exact of me any change in regard to the slavery question.


I suppose I might almost class my devotion to English reviews among my
literary passions, but it was of very short lease, not beyond a year or
two at the most. In the midst of it I made my first and only essay aside
from the lines of literature, or rather wholly apart from it. After some
talk with my father it was decided, mainly by myself, I suspect, that I
should leave the printing-office and study law; and it was arranged with
the United States Senator who lived in our village, and who was at home
from Washington for the summer, that I was to come into his office. The
Senator was by no means to undertake my instruction himself; his nephew,
who had just begun to read law, was to be my fellow-student, and we were
to keep each other up to the work, and to recite to each other, until we
thought we had enough law to go before a board of attorneys and test our
fitness for admission to the bar.

This was the custom in that day and place, as I suppose it is still in
most parts of the country. We were to be fitted for practice in the
courts, not only by our reading, but by a season of pettifogging before
justices of the peace, which I looked forward to with no small shrinking
of my shy spirit; but what really troubled me most, and was always the
grain of sand between my teeth, was Blackstone's confession of his own
original preference for literature, and his perception that the law was
"a jealous mistress," who would suffer no rival in his affections.
I agreed with him that I could not go through life with a divided
interest; I must give up literature or I must give up law. I not only
consented to this logically, but I realized it in my attempt to carry on
the reading I had loved, and to keep at the efforts I was always making
to write something in verse or prose, at night, after studying law all
day. The strain was great enough when I had merely the work in the
printing-office; but now I came home from my Blackstone mentally fagged,
and I could not take up the authors whom at the bottom of my heart I
loved so much better. I tried it a month, but almost from the fatal day
when I found that confession of Blackstone's, my whole being turned from
the "jealous mistress" to the high minded muses: I had not only to go
back to literature, but I had also to go back to the printing-office.
I did not regret it, but I had made my change of front in the public eye,
and I felt that it put me at a certain disadvantage with my fellow-
citizens; as for the Senator, whose office I had forsaken, I met him now
and then in the street, without trying to detain him, and once when he
came to the printing-office for his paper we encountered at a point where
we could not help speaking. He looked me over in my general effect of
base mechanical, and asked me if I had given up the law; I had only to
answer him I had, and our conference ended. It was a terrible moment for
me, because I knew that in his opinion I had chosen a path in life, which
if it did not lead to the Poor House was at least no way to the White
House. I suppose now that he thought I had merely gone back to my trade,
and so for the time I had; but I have no reason to suppose that he judged
my case narrow-mindedly, and I ought to have had the courage to have the
affair out with him, and tell him just why I had left the law; we had
sometimes talked the English reviews over, for he read them as well as I,
and it ought not to have been impossible for me to be frank with him;
but as yet I could not trust any one with my secret hope of some day
living for literature, although I had already lived for nothing else.
I preferred the disadvantage which I must be at in his eyes, and in the
eyes of most of my fellow-citizens; I believe I had the applause of the
organ-builder, who thought the law no calling for me.

In that village there was a social equality which, if not absolute, was
as nearly so as can ever be in a competitive civilization; and I could
have suffered no slight in the general esteem for giving up a profession
and going back to a trade; if I was despised at all it was because I had
thrown away the chance of material advancement; I dare say some people
thought I was a fool to do that. No one, indeed, could have imagined the
rapture it was to do it, or what a load rolled from my shoulders when I
dropped the law from them. Perhaps Sinbad or Christian could have
conceived of my ecstatic relief; yet so far as the popular vision reached
I was not returning to literature, but to the printing business, and I
myself felt the difference. My reading had given me criterions different
from those of the simple life of our village, and I did not flatter
myself that my calling would have been thought one of great social
dignity in the world where I hoped some day to make my living.
My convictions were all democratic, but at heart I am afraid I was a
snob, and was unworthy of the honest work which I ought to have felt it
an honor to do; this, whatever we falsely pretend to the contrary, is the
frame of every one who aspires beyond the work of his hands. I do not
know how it had become mine, except through my reading, and I think it
was through the devotion I then had for a certain author that I came to a
knowledge not of good and evil so much as of common and superfine.


It was of the organ-builder that I had Thackeray's books first. He knew
their literary quality, and their rank in the literary, world; but I
believe he was surprised at the passion I instantly conceived for them.
He could not understand it; he deplored it almost as a moral defect in
me; though he honored it as a proof of my critical taste. In a certain
measure he was right.

What flatters the worldly pride in a young man is what fascinates him
with Thackeray. With his air of looking down on the highest, and
confidentially inviting you to be of his company in the seat of the
scorner he is irresistible; his very confession that he is a snob, too,
is balm and solace to the reader who secretly admires the splendors he
affects to despise. His sentimentality is also dear to the heart of
youth, and the boy who is dazzled by his satire is melted by his easy
pathos. Then, if the boy has read a good many other books, he is taken
with that abundance of literary turn and allusion in Thackeray; there is
hardly a sentence but reminds him that he is in the society of a great
literary swell, who has read everything, and can mock or burlesque life
right and left from the literature always at his command. At the same
time he feels his mastery, and is abjectly grateful to him in his own
simple love of the good for his patronage of the unassuming virtues.
It is so pleasing to one's 'vanity, and so safe, to be of the master's
side when he assails those vices and foibles which are inherent in the
system of things, and which one can contemn with vast applause so long as
one does not attempt to undo the conditions they spring from.

I exulted to have Thackeray attack the aristocrats, and expose their
wicked pride and meanness, and I never noticed that he did not propose to
do away with aristocracy, which is and must always be just what it has
been, and which cannot be changed while it exists at all. He appeared to
me one of the noblest creatures that ever was when he derided the shams
of society; and I was far from seeing that society, as we have it, was
necessarily a sham; when he made a mock of snobbishness I did not know
but snobbishness was something that might be reached and cured by
ridicule. Now I know that so long as we have social inequality we shall
have snobs; we shall have men who bully and truckle, and women who snub
and crawl. I know that it is futile to, spurn them, or lash them for
trying to get on in the world, and that the world is what it must be from
the selfish motives which underlie our economic life. But I did not know
these things then, nor for long afterwards, and so I gave my heart to
Thackeray, who seemed to promise me in his contempt of the world a refuge
from the shame I felt for my own want of figure in it. He had the effect
of taking me into the great world, and making me a party to his splendid
indifference to titles, and even to royalties; and I could not see that
sham for sham he was unwittingly the greatest sham of all.

I think it was 'Pendennis' I began with, and I lived in the book to the
very last line of it, and made its alien circumstance mine to the
smallest detail. I am still not sure but it is the author's greatest
book, and I speak from a thorough acquaintance with every line he has
written, except the Virginians, which I have never been able to read
quite through; most of his work I have read twice, and some of it twenty

After reading 'Pendennis' I went to 'Vanity Fair,' which I now think the
poorest of Thackeray's novels--crude, heavy-handed, caricatured. About
the same time I revelled in the romanticism of 'Henry Esmond,' with its
pseudo-eighteenth-century sentiment, and its appeals to an overwrought
ideal of gentlemanhood and honor. It was long before I was duly revolted
by Esmond's transfer of his passion from the daughter to the mother whom
he is successively enamoured of. I believe this unpleasant and
preposterous affair is thought one of the fine things in the story; I do
not mind owning that I thought it so myself when I was seventeen; and if
I could have found a Beatrix to be in love with, and a Lady Castlewood to
be in love with me, I should have asked nothing finer of fortune.
The glamour of Henry Esmond was all the deeper because I was reading the
'Spectator' then, and was constantly in the company of Addison, and
Steele, and Swift, and Pope, and all the wits at Will's, who are
presented evanescently in the romance. The intensely literary keeping,
as well as quality, of the story I suppose is what formed its highest
fascination for me; but that effect of great world which it imparts to
the reader, making him citizen, and, if he will, leading citizen of it,
was what helped turn my head.

This is the toxic property of all Thackeray's writing. He is himself
forever dominated in imagination by the world, and even while he tells
you it is not worth while he makes you feel that it is worth while. It
is not the honest man, but the man of honor, who shines in his page; his
meek folk are proudly meek, and there is a touch of superiority, a glint
of mundane splendor, in his lowliest. He rails at the order of things,
but he imagines nothing different, even when he shows that its baseness,
and cruelty, and hypocrisy are well-nigh inevitable, and, for most of
those who wish to get on in it, quite inevitable. He has a good word for
the virtues, he patronizes the Christian graces, he pats humble merit on
the head; he has even explosions of indignation against the insolence and
pride of birth, and purse-pride. But, after all, he is of the world,
worldly, and the highest hope he holds out is that you may be in the
world and despise its ambitions while you compass its ends.

I should be far from blaming him for all this. He was of his time; but
since his time men have thought beyond him, and seen life with a vision
which makes his seem rather purblind. He must have been immensely in
advance of most of the thinking and feeling of his day, for people then
used to accuse his sentimental pessimism of cynical qualities which we
could hardly find in it now. It was the age of intense individualism,
when you were to do right because it was becoming to you, say, as a
gentleman, and you were to have an eye single to the effect upon your
character, if not your reputation; you were not to do a mean thing
because it was wrong, but because it was mean. It was romanticism
carried into the region of morals. But I had very little concern then as
to that sort of error.

I was on a very high esthetic horse, which I could not have conveniently
stooped from if I had wished; it was quite enough for me that Thackeray's
novels were prodigious works of art, and I acquired merit, at least with
myself, for appreciating them so keenly, for liking them so much. It
must be, I felt with far less consciousness than my formulation of the
feeling expresses, that I was of some finer sort myself to be able to
enjoy such a fine sort. No doubt I should have been a coxcomb of some
kind, if not that kind, and I shall not be very strenuous in censuring
Thackeray for his effect upon me in this way. No doubt the effect was
already in me, and he did not so much produce it as find it.

In the mean time he was a vast delight to me, as much in the variety of
his minor works--his 'Yellowplush,' and 'Letters of Mr. Brown,' and
'Adventures of Major Gahagan,' and the 'Paris Sketch Book,' and the
'Irish Sketch Book,' and the 'Great Hoggarty Diamond,' and the 'Book of
Snobs,' and the 'English Humorists,' and the 'Four Georges,' and all the
multitude of his essays, and verses, and caricatures--as in the spacious
designs of his huge novels, the 'Newcomes,' and 'Pendennis,' and 'Vanity
Fair,' and 'Henry Esmond,' and 'Barry Lyndon.'

There was something in the art of the last which seemed to me then, and
still seems, the farthest reach of the author's great talent. It is
couched, like so much of his work, in the autobiographic form, which next
to the dramatic form is the most natural, and which lends itself with
such flexibility to the purpose of the author. In 'Barry Lyndon' there
is imagined to the life a scoundrel of such rare quality that he never
supposes for a moment but he is the finest sort of a gentleman; and so,
in fact, he was, as most gentlemen went in his day. Of course, the
picture is over-colored; it was the vice of Thackeray, or of Thackeray's
time, to surcharge all imitations of life and character, so that a
generation apparently much slower, if not duller than ours, should not
possibly miss the artist's meaning. But I do not think it is so much
surcharged as 'Esmond;' 'Barry Lyndon' is by no manner of means so
conscious as that mirror of gentlemanhood, with its manifold self-
reverberations; and for these reasons I am inclined to think he is the
most perfect creation of Thackeray's mind.

I did not make the acquaintance of Thackeray's books all at once, or even
in rapid succession, and he at no time possessed the whole empire of my
catholic, not to say, fickle, affections, during the years I was
compassing a full knowledge and sense of his greatness, and burning
incense at his shrine. But there was a moment when he so outshone and
overtopped all other divinities in my worship that I was effectively his
alone, as I have been the helpless and, as it were, hypnotized devotee of
three or four others of the very great. From his art there flowed into
me a literary quality which tinged my whole mental substance, and made it
impossible for me to say, or wish to say, anything without giving it the
literary color. That is, while he dominated my love and fancy, if I had
been so fortunate as to have a simple concept of anything in life, I must
have tried to give the expression of it some turn or tint that would
remind the reader of books even before it reminded him of men.

It is hard to make out what I mean, but this is a try at it, and I do not
know that I shall be able to do better unless I add that Thackeray, of
all the writers that I have known, is the most thoroughly and profoundly
imbued with literature, so that when he speaks it is not with words and
blood, but with words and ink. You may read the greatest part of
Dickens, as you may read the greatest part of Hawthorne or Tolstoy, and
not once be reminded of literature as a business or a cult, but you can
hardly read a paragraph, hardly a sentence, of Thackeray's without being
reminded of it either by suggestion or downright allusion.

I do not blame him for this; he was himself, and he could not have been
any other manner of man without loss; but I say that the greatest talent
is not that which breathes of the library, but that which breathes of the
street, the field, the open sky, the simple earth. I began to imitate
this master of mine almost as soon as I began to read him; this must be,
and I had a greater pride and joy in my success than I should probably
have known in anything really creative; I should have suspected that, I
should have distrusted that, because I had nothing to test it by, no
model; but here before me was the very finest and noblest model, and I
had but to form my lines upon it, and I had produced a work of art
altogether more estimable in my eyes than anything else could have been.
I saw the little world about me through the lenses of my master's
spectacles, and I reported its facts, in his tone and his attitude, with
his self-flattered scorn, his showy sighs, his facile satire. I need not
say I was perfectly satisfied with the result, or that to be able to
imitate Thackeray was a much greater thing for me than to have been able
to imitate nature. In fact, I could have valued any picture of the life
and character I knew only as it put me in mind of life and character as
these had shown themselves to me in his books.


At the same time, I was not only reading many books besides Thackeray's,
but I was studying to get a smattering of several languages as well as I
could, with or without help. I could now manage Spanish fairly well, and
I was sending on to New York for authors in that tongue. I do not
remember how I got the money to buy them; to be sure it was no great sum;
but it must have been given me out of the sums we were all working so
hard to make up for the debt, and the interest on the debt (that is
always the wicked pinch for the debtor!), we had incurred in the purchase
of the newspaper which we lived by, and the house which we lived in.
I spent no money on any other sort of pleasure, and so, I suppose, it was
afforded me the more readily; but I cannot really recall the history of
those acquisitions on its financial side. In any case, if the sums I
laid out in literature could not have been comparatively great, the
excitement attending the outlay was prodigious.

I know that I used to write on to Messrs. Roe Lockwood & Son, New York,
for my Spanish books, and I dare say that my letters were sufficiently
pedantic, and filled with a simulated acquaintance with all Spanish
literature. Heaven knows what they must have thought, if they thought
anything, of their queer customer in that obscure little Ohio village;
but he could not have been queerer to them than to his fellow-villagers,
I am sure. I haunted the post-office about the time the books were due,
and when I found one of them in our deep box among a heap of exchange
newspapers and business letters, my emotion was so great that it almost
took my breath. I hurried home with the precious volume, and shut myself
into my little den, where I gave myself up to a sort of transport in it.
These books were always from the collection of Spanish authors published
by Baudry in Paris, and they were in saffron-colored paper cover, printed
full of a perfectly intoxicating catalogue of other Spanish books which I
meant to read, every one, some time. The paper and the ink had a certain
odor which was sweeter to me than the perfumes of Araby. The look of the
type took me more than the glance of a girl, and I had a fever of longing
to know the heart of the book, which was like a lover's passion. Some
times I did not reach its heart, but commonly I did. Moratin's 'Origins
of the Spanish Theatre,' and a large volume of Spanish dramatic authors,
were the first Spanish books I sent for, but I could not say why I sent
for them, unless it was because I saw that there were some plays of
Cervantes among the rest. I read these and I read several comedies of
Lope de Vega, and numbers of archaic dramas in Moratin's history, and I
really got a fairish perspective of the Spanish drama, which has now
almost wholly faded from my mind. It is more intelligible to me why I
should have read Conde's 'Dominion of the Arabs in Spain;' for that was
in the line of my reading in Irving, which would account for my pleasure
in the 'History of the Civil Wars of Granada;' it was some time before I
realized that the chronicles in this were a bundle of romances and not
veritable records; and my whole study in these things was wholly
undirected and unenlightened. But I meant to be thorough in it, and I
could not rest satisfied with the Spanish-English grammars I had; I was
not willing to stop short of the official grammar of the Spanish Academy.
I sent to New York for it, and my booksellers there reported that they
would have to send to Spain for it. I lived till it came to hand through
them from Madrid; and I do not understand why I did not perish then from
the pride and joy I had in it.

But, after all, I am not a Spanish scholar, and can neither speak nor
write the language. I never got more than a good reading use of it,
perhaps because I never really tried for more. But I am very glad of
that, because it has been a great pleasure to me, and even some profit,
and it has lighted up many meanings in literature, which must always have
remained dark to me. Not to speak now of the modern Spanish writers whom
it has enabled me to know in their own houses as it were, I had even in
that remote day a rapturous delight in a certain Spanish book, which was
well worth all the pains I had undergone to get at it. This was the
famous picaresque novel, 'Lazarillo de Tormes,' by Hurtado de Mendoza,
whose name then so familiarized itself to my fondness that now as I write
it I feel as if it were that of an old personal friend whom I had known
in the flesh. I believe it would not have been always comfortable to
know Mendoza outside of his books; he was rather a terrible person; he
was one of the Spanish invaders of Italy, and is known in Italian history
as the Tyrant of Sierra. But at my distance of time and place I could
safely revel in his friendship, and as an author I certainly found him a
most charming companion. The adventures of his rogue of a hero, who
began life as the servant and accomplice of a blind beggar, and then
adventured on through a most diverting career of knavery, brought back
the atmosphere of Don Quixote, and all the landscape of that dear wonder-
world of Spain, where I had lived so much, and I followed him with all
the old delight.

I do not know that I should counsel others to do so, or that the general
reader would find his account in it, but I am sure that the intending
author of American fiction would do well to study the Spanish picaresque
novels; for in their simplicity of design he will find one of the best
forms for an American story. The intrigue of close texture will never
suit our conditions, which are so loose and open and variable; each man's
life among us is a romance of the Spanish model, if it is the life of a
man who has risen, as we nearly all have, with many ups and downs. The
story of 'Latzarillo' is gross in its facts, and is mostly "unmeet for
ladies," like most of the fiction in all languages before our times; but
there is an honest simplicity in the narration, a pervading humor, and a
rich feeling for character that gives it value.

I think that a good deal of its foulness was lost upon me, but I
certainly understood that it would not do to present it to an American
public just as it was, in the translation which I presently planned to
make. I went about telling the story to people, and trying to make them
find it as amusing as I did, but whether I ever succeeded I cannot say,
though the notion of a version with modifications constantly grew with
me, till one day I went to the city of Cleveland with my father. There
was a branch house of an Eastern firm of publishers in that place, and I
must have had the hope that I might have the courage to propose a
translation of Lazarillo to them. My father urged me to try my fortune,
but my heart failed me. I was half blind with one of the headaches that
tormented me in those days, and I turned my sick eyes from the sign,
"J. P. Jewett & Co., Publishers," which held me fascinated, and went home
without at least having my much-dreamed-of version of Lazarillo refused.


I am quite at a loss to know why my reading had this direction or that in
those days. It had necessarily passed beyond my father's suggestion, and
I think it must have been largely by accident or experiment that I read
one book rather than another. He made some sort of newspaper arrangement
with a book-store in Cleveland, which was the means of enriching our home
library with a goodly number of books, shop-worn, but none the worse for
that, and new in the only way that books need be new to the lover of
them. Among these I found a treasure in Curtis's two books, the 'Nile
Notes of a Howadji,' and the 'Howadji in Syria.' I already knew him by
his 'Potiphar Papers,' and the ever-delightful reveries which have since
gone under the name of 'Prue and I;' but those books of Eastern travel
opened a new world of thinking and feeling. They had at once a great
influence upon me. The smooth richness of their diction; the amiable
sweetness of their mood, their gracious caprice, the delicacy of their
satire (which was so kind that it should have some other name), their
abundance of light and color, and the deep heart of humanity underlying
their airiest fantasticality, all united in an effect which was different
from any I had yet known.

As usual, I steeped myself in them, and the first runnings of my fancy
when I began to pour it out afterwards were of their flavor. I tried to
write like this new master; but whether I had tried or not, I should
probably have done so from the love I bore him. He was a favorite not
only of mine, but of all the young people in the village who were reading
current literature, so that on this ground at least I had abundant
sympathy. The present generation can have little notion of the deep
impression made upon the intelligence and conscience of the whole nation
by the 'Potiphar Papers,' or how its fancy was rapt with the 'Prue and I'
sketches, These are among the most veritable literary successes we have
had, and probably we who were so glad when the author of these beautiful
things turned aside from the flowery paths where he led us, to battle for
freedom in the field of politics, would have felt the sacrifice too great
if we could have dreamed it would be life-long. But, as it was, we could
only honor him the more, and give him a place in our hearts which he
shared with Longfellow.

This divine poet I have never ceased to read. His Hiawatha was a new
book during one of those terrible Lake Shore winters, but all the other
poems were old friends with me by that time. With a sister who is no
longer living I had a peculiar affection for his pretty and touching and
lightly humorous tale of 'Kavanagh,' which was of a village life enough
like our own, in some things, to make us know the truth of its delicate
realism. We used to read it and talk it fondly over together, and I
believe some stories of like make and manner grew out of our pleasure in
it. They were never finished, but it was enough to begin them, and there
were few writers, if any, among those I delighted in who escaped the
tribute of an imitation. One has to begin that way, or at least one had
in my day; perhaps it is now possible for a young writer to begin by
being himself; but for my part, that was not half so important as to be
like some one else. Literature, not life, was my aim, and to reproduce
it was my joy and my pride.

I was widening my knowledge of it helplessly and involuntarily, and I was
always chancing upon some book that served this end among the great
number of books that I read merely for my pleasure without any real
result of the sort. Schlegel's 'Lectures on Dramatic Literature' came
into my hands not long after I had finished my studies in the history of
the Spanish theatre, and it made the whole subject at once luminous.
I cannot give a due notion of the comfort this book afforded me by the
light it cast upon paths where I had dimly made my way before, but which
I now followed in the full day.

Of course, I pinned my faith to everything that Schlegel said.
I obediently despised the classic unities and the French and Italian
theatre which had perpetuated them, and I revered the romantic drama
which had its glorious course among the Spanish and English poets, and
which was crowned with the fame of the Cervantes and the Shakespeare whom
I seemed to own, they owned me so completely. It vexes me now to find
that I cannot remember how the book came into my hands, or who could have
suggested it to me. It is possible that it may have been that artist who
came and stayed a month with us while she painted my mother's portrait.
She was fresh from her studies in New York, where she had met authors and
artists at the house of the Carey sisters, and had even once seen my
adored Curtis somewhere, though she had not spoken with him. Her talk
about these things simply emparadised me; it lifted me into a heaven of
hope that I, too, might some day meet such elect spirits and converse
with them face to face. My mood was sufficiently foolish, but it was not
such a frame of mind as I can be ashamed of; and I could wish a boy no
happier fortune than to possess it for a time, at least.


I cannot quite see now how I found time for even trying to do the things
I had in hand more or less. It is perfectly clear to me that I did none
of them well, though I meant at the time to do none of them other than
excellently. I was attempting the study of no less than four languages,
and I presently added a fifth to these. I was reading right and left in
every direction, but chiefly in that of poetry, criticism, and fiction.
From time to time I boldly attacked a history, and carried it by a 'coup
de main,' or sat down before it for a prolonged siege. There was
occasionally an author who worsted me, whom I tried to read and quietly
gave up after a vain struggle, but I must say that these authors were
few. I had got a very fair notion of the range of all literature, and
the relations of the different literatures to one another, and I knew
pretty well what manner of book it was that I took up before I committed
myself to the task of reading it. Always I read for pleasure, for the
delight of knowing something more; and this pleasure is a very different
thing from amusement, though I read a great deal for mere amusement, as I
do still, and to take my mind away from unhappy or harassing thoughts.
There are very few things that I think it a waste of time to have read;
I should probably have wasted the time if I had not read them, and at the
period I speak of I do not think I wasted much time.

My day began about seven o'clock, in the printing-office, where it took
me till noon to do my task of so many thousand ems, say four or five.
Then we had dinner, after the simple fashion of people who work with
their hands for their dinners. In the afternoon I went back and
corrected the proof of the type I had set, and distributed my case for
the next day. At two or three o'clock I was free, and then I went home
and began my studies; or tried to write something; or read a book.
We had supper at six, and after that I rejoiced in literature, till I
went to bed at ten or eleven. I cannot think of any time when I did not
go gladly to my books or manuscripts, when it was not a noble joy as well
as a high privilege.

But it all ended as such a strain must, in the sort of break which was
not yet known as nervous prostration. When I could not sleep after my
studies, and the sick headaches came oftener, and then days and weeks of
hypochondriacal misery, it was apparent I was not well; but that was not
the day of anxiety for such things, and if it was thought best that I
should leave work and study for a while, it was not with the notion that
the case was at all serious, or needed an uninterrupted cure. I passed
days in the woods and fields, gunning or picking berries; I spent myself
in heavy work; I made little journeys; and all this was very wholesome
and very well; but I did not give up my reading or my attempts to write.
No doubt I was secretly proud to have been invalided in so great a cause,
and to be sicklied over with the pale cast of thought, rather than by
some ignoble ague or the devastating consumption of that region. If I
lay awake, noting the wild pulsations of my heart, and listening to the
death-watch in the wall, I was certainly very much scared, but I was not
without the consolation that I was at least a sufferer for literature.
At the same time that I was so horribly afraid of dying, I could have
composed an epitaph which would have moved others to tears for my
untimely fate. But there was really not impairment of my constitution,
and after a while I began to be better, and little by little the health
which has never since failed me under any reasonable stress of work
established itself.

I was in the midst of this unequal struggle when I first became
acquainted with the poet who at once possessed himself of what was best
worth having in me. Probably I knew of Tennyson by extracts, and from
the English reviews, but I believe it was from reading one of Curtis's
"Easy Chair" papers that I was prompted to get the new poem of "Maud,"
which I understood from the "Easy Chair" was then moving polite youth in
the East. It did not seem to me that I could very well live without that
poem, and when I went to Cleveland with the hope that I might have
courage to propose a translation of Lazarillo to a publisher it was with
the fixed purpose of getting "Maud" if it was to be found in any book-
store there.

I do not know why I was so long in reaching Tennyson, and I can only
account for it by the fact that I was always reading rather the earlier
than the later English poetry. To be sure I had passed through what I
may call a paroxysm of Alexander Smith, a poet deeply unknown to the
present generation, but then acclaimed immortal by all the critics, and
put with Shakespeare, who must be a good deal astonished from time to
time in his Elysian quiet by the companionship thrust upon him. I read
this now dead-and-gone immortal with an ecstasy unspeakable; I raved of
him by day, and dreamed of him by night; I got great lengths of his
"Life-Drama" by heart; and I can still repeat several gorgeous passages
from it; I would almost have been willing to take the life of the sole
critic who had the sense to laugh at him, and who made his wicked fun in
Graham's Magazine, an extinct periodical of the old extinct Philadelphian
species. I cannot tell how I came out of this craze, but neither could
any of the critics who led me into it, I dare say. The reading world is
very susceptible of such-lunacies, and all that can be said is that at a
given time it was time for criticism to go mad over a poet who was
neither better nor worse than many another third-rate poet apotheosized
before and since. What was good in Smith was the reflected fire of the
poets who had a vital heat in them; and it was by mere chance that I
bathed myself in his second-hand effulgence. I already knew pretty well
the origin of the Tennysonian line in English poetry; Wordsworth, and
Keats, and Shelley; and I did not come to Tennyson's worship a sudden
convert, but my devotion to him was none the less complete and exclusive.
Like every other great poet he somehow expressed the feelings of his day,
and I suppose that at the time he wrote "Maud" he said more fully what
the whole English-speaking race were then dimly longing to utter than any
English poet who has lived.

One need not question the greatness of Browning in owning the fact that
the two poets of his day who preeminently voiced their generation were
Tennyson and Longfellow; though Browning, like Emerson, is possibly now
more modern than either. However, I had then nothing to do with
Tennyson's comparative claim on my adoration; there was for the time no
parallel for him in the whole range of literary divinities that I had
bowed the knee to. For that while, the temple was not only emptied of
all the other idols, but I had a richly flattering illusion of being his
only worshipper. When I came to the sense of this error, it was with the
belief that at least no one else had ever appreciated him so fully, stood
so close to him in that holy of holies where he wrought his miracles.

I say tawdily and ineffectively and falsely what was a very precious and
sacred experience with me. This great poet opened to me a whole world of
thinking and feeling, where I had my being with him in that mystic
intimacy, which cannot be put into words. I at once identified myself
not only with the hero of the poem, but in some so with the poet himself,
when I read "Maud"; but that was only the first step towards the lasting
state in which his poetry has upon the whole been more to me than that of
any other poet. I have never read any other so closely and continuously,
or read myself so much into and out of his verse. There have been times
and moods when I have had my questions, and made my cavils, and when it
seemed to me that the poet was less than I had thought him; and certainly
I do not revere equally and unreservedly all that he has written; that
would be impossible. But when I think over all the other poets I have
read, he is supreme above them in his response to some need in me that he
has satisfied so perfectly.

Of course, "Maud" seemed to me the finest poem I had read, up to that
time, but I am not sure that this conclusion was wholly my own; I think
it was partially formed for me by the admiration of the poem which I felt
to be everywhere in the critical atmosphere, and which had already
penetrated to me. I did not like all parts of it equally well, and some
parts of it seemed thin and poor (though I would not suffer myself to say
so then), and they still seem so. But there were whole passages and
spaces of it whose divine and perfect beauty lifted me above life. I did
not fully understand the poem then; I do not fully understand it now, but
that did not and does not matter; for there something in poetry that
reaches the soul by other enues than the intelligence. Both in this poem
and others of Tennyson, and in every poet that I have loved, there are
melodies and harmonies enfolding significance that appeared long after I
had first read them, and had even learned them by heart; that lay weedy
in my outer ear and were enough in their Mere beauty of phrasing, till
the time came for them to reveal their whole meaning. In fact they could
do this only to later and greater knowledge of myself and others, as
every one must recognize who recurs in after-life to a book that he read
when young; then he finds it twice as full of meaning as it was at first.

I could not rest satisfied with "Maud"; I sent the same summer to
Cleveland for the little volume which then held all the poet's work, and
abandoned myself so wholly to it, that for a year I read no other verse
that I can remember. The volume was the first of that pretty blue-and-
gold series which Ticknor & Fields began to publish in 1856, and which
their imprint, so rarely affixed to an unworthy book, at once carried far
and wide. Their modest old brown cloth binding had long been a quiet
warrant of quality in the literature it covered, and now this splendid
blossom of the bookmaking art, as it seemed, was fitly employed to convey
the sweetness and richness of the loveliest poetry that I thought the
world had yet known. After an old fashion of mine, I read it
continuously, with frequent recurrences from each new poem to some that
had already pleased me, and with a most capricious range among the
pieces. "In Memoriam" was in that book, and the "Princess"; I read the
"Princess" through and through, and over and over, but I did not then
read "In Memoriam" through, and I have never read it in course; I am not
sure that I have even yet read every part of it. I did not come to the
"Princess," either, until I had saturated my fancy and my memory with
some of the shorter poems, with the "Dream of Fair Women," with the
"Lotus-Eaters," with the "Miller's Daughter," with the "Morte d'Arthur,"
with "Edwin Morris, or The Lake," with "Love and Duty," and a score of
other minor and briefer poems. I read the book night and day, in-doors
and out, to myself and to whomever I could make listen. I have no words
to tell the rapture it was to me; but I hope that in some more articulate
being, if it should ever be my unmerited fortune to meet that 'sommo
poeta' face to face, it shall somehow be uttered from me to him, and he
will understand how completely he became the life of the boy I was then.
I think it might please, or at least amuse, that lofty ghost, and that he
would not resent it, as he would probably have done on earth. I can well
understand why the homage of his worshippers should have afflicted him
here, and I could never have been one to burn incense in his earthly
presence; but perhaps it might be done hereafter without offence.
I eagerly caught up and treasured every personal word I could find about
him, and I dwelt in that sort of charmed intimacy with him through his
verse, in which I could not presume nor he repel, and which I had enjoyed
in turn with Cervantes and Shakespeare, without a snub from them.

I have never ceased to adore Tennyson, though the rapture of the new
convert could not last. That must pass like the flush of any other
passion. I think I have now a better sense of his comparative greatness,
but a better sense of his positive greatness I could not have than I had
at the beginning; and I believe this is the essential knowledge of a
poet. It is very well to say one is greater than Keats, or not so great
as Wordsworth; that one is or is not of the highest order of poets like
Shakespeare and Dante and Goethe; but that does not mean anything of
value, and I never find my account in it. I know it is not possible for
any less than the greatest writer to abide lastingly in one's life. Some
dazzling comer may enter and possess it for a day, but he soon wears his
welcome out, and presently finds the door, to be answered with a not-at-
home if he knocks again. But it was only this morning that I read one of
the new last poems of Tennyson with a return of the emotion which he
first woke in me well-nigh forty years ago. There has been no year of
those many when I have not read him and loved him with something of the
early fire if not all the early conflagration; and each successive poem
of his has been for me a fresh joy.

He went with me into the world from my village when I left it to make my
first venture away from home. My father had got one of those legislative
clerkships which used to fall sometimes to deserving country editors when
their party was in power, and we together imagined and carried out a
scheme for corresponding with some city newspapers. We were to furnish a
daily, letter giving an account of the legislative proceedings which I
was mainly to write up from material he helped me to get together. The
letters at once found favor with the editors who agreed to take them, and
my father then withdrew from the work altogether, after telling them who
was doing it. We were afraid they might not care for the reports of a
boy of nineteen, but they did not seem to take my age into account, and I
did not boast of my youth among the lawmakers. I looked three or four
years older than I was; but I experienced a terrible moment once when a
fatherly Senator asked me my age. I got away somehow without saying, but
it was a great relief to me when my twentieth birthday came that winter,
and I could honestly proclaim that I was in my twenty-first year.

I had now the free range of the State Library, and I drew many sorts of
books from it. Largely, however, they were fiction, and I read all the
novels of Bulwer, for whom I had already a great liking from 'The
Caxtons' and 'My Novel.' I was dazzled by them, and I thought him a
great writer, if not so great a one as he thought himself. Little or
nothing of those romances, with their swelling prefaces about the poet
and his function, their glittering criminals, and showy rakes and rogues
of all kinds, and their patrician perfume and social splendor, remained
with me; they may have been better or worse; I will not attempt to say.
If I may call my fascination with them a passion at all, I must say that
it was but a fitful fever. I also read many volumes of Zschokke's
admirable tales, which I found in a translation in the Library, and I
think I began at the same time to find out De Quincey. These authors I
recall out of the many that passed through my mind almost as tracelessly
as they passed through my hands. I got at some versions of Icelandic
poems, in the metre of "Hiawatha"; I had for a while a notion of studying
Icelandic, and I did take out an Icelandic grammar and lexicon, and
decided that I would learn the language later. By this time I must have
begun German, which I afterwards carried so far, with one author at
least, as to find in him a delight only second to that I had in Tennyson;
but as yet Tennyson was all in all to me in poetry. I suspect that I
carried his poems about with me a great part of the time; I am afraid
that I always had that blue-and-gold Tennyson in my pocket; and I was
ready to draw it upon anybody, at the slightest provocation. This is the
worst of the ardent lover of literature: he wishes to make every one else
share his rapture, will he, nill he. Many good fellows suffered from my
admiration of this author or that, and many more pretty, patient maids.
I wanted to read my favorite passages, my favorite poems to them; I am
afraid I often did read, when they would rather have been talking; in the
case of the poems I did worse, I repeated them. This seems rather
incredible now, but it is true enough, and absurd as it is, it at least
attests my sincerity. It was long before I cured myself of so pestilent
a habit; and I am not yet so perfectly well of it that I could be safely
trusted with a fascinating book and a submissive listener. I dare say I
could not have been made to understand at this time that Tennyson was not
so nearly the first interest of life with other people as he was with me;
I must often have suspected it, but I was helpless against the wish to
make them feel him as important to their prosperity and well-being as he
was to mine. My head was full of him; his words were always behind my
lips; and when I was not repeating his phrase to myself or to some one
else, I was trying to frame something of my own as like him as I could.
It was a time of melancholy from ill-health, and of anxiety for the
future in which I must make my own place in the world. Work, and hard
work, I had always been used to and never afraid of; but work is by no
means the whole story. You may get on without much of it, or you may do
a great deal, and not get on. I was willing to do as much of it as I
could get to do, but I distrusted my health, somewhat, and I had many
forebodings, which my adored poet helped me to transfigure to the
substance of literature, or enabled me for the time to forget. I was
already imitating him in the verse I wrote; he now seemed the only worthy
model for one who meant to be as great a poet as I did. None of the
authors whom I read at all displaced him in my devotion, and I could not
have believed that any other poet would ever be so much to me. In fact,
as I have expressed, none ever has been.


That winter passed very quickly and happily for me, and at the end of the
legislative session I had acquitted myself so much to the satisfaction of
one of the newspapers which I wrote for that I was offered a place on it.
I was asked to be city editor, as it was called in that day, and I was to
have charge of the local reporting. It was a great temptation, and for a
while I thought it the greatest piece of good fortune. I went down to
Cincinnati to acquaint myself with the details of the work, and to fit
myself for it by beginning as reporter myself. One night's round of the
police stations with the other reporters satisfied me that I was not
meant for that work, and I attempted it no farther. I have often been
sorry since, for it would have made known to me many phases of life that
I have always remained ignorant of, but I did not know then that life was
supremely interesting and important. I fancied that literature, that
poetry was so; and it was humiliation and anguish indescribable to think
of myself torn from my high ideals by labors like those of the reporter.
I would not consent even to do the office work of the department, and the
proprietor and editor who was more especially my friend tried to make
some other place for me. All the departments were full but the one I
would have nothing to do with, and after a few weeks of sufferance and
suffering I turned my back on a thousand dollars a year, and for the
second time returned to the printing-office.

I was glad to get home, for I had been all the time tormented by my old
malady of homesickness. But otherwise the situation was not cheerful for
me, and I now began trying to write something for publication that I
could sell. I sent off poems and they came back; I offered little
translations from the Spanish that nobody wanted. At the same time I
took up the study of German, which I must have already played with, at
such odd times as I could find. My father knew something of it, and that
friend of mine among the printers was already reading it and trying to
speak it. I had their help with the first steps so far as the
recitations from Ollendorff were concerned, but I was impatient to read
German, or rather to read one German poet who had seized my fancy from
the first line of his I had seen.

This poet was Heinrich Heine, who dominated me longer than any one author
that I have known. Where or when I first acquainted myself with his most
fascinating genius, I cannot be sure, but I think it was in some article
of the Westminster Review, where several poems of his were given in
English and German; and their singular beauty and grace at once possessed
my soul. I was in a fever to know more of him, and it was my great good
luck to fall in with a German in the village who had his books. He was a
bookbinder, one of those educated artisans whom the revolutions of 1848
sent to us in great numbers. He was a Hanoverian, and his accent was
then, I believe, the standard, though the Berlinese is now the accepted
pronunciation. But I cared very little for accent; my wish was to get at
Heine with as little delay as possible; and I began to cultivate the
friendship of that bookbinder in every way. I dare say he was glad of
mine, for he was otherwise quite alone in the village, or had no
companionship outside of his own family. I clothed him in all the
romantic interest I began to feel for his race and language, which new
took the place of the Spaniards and Spanish in my affections. He was a
very quick and gay intelligence, with more sympathy for my love of our
author's humor than for my love of his sentiment, and I can remember very
well the twinkle of his little sharp black eyes, with their Tartar slant,
and the twitching of his keenly pointed, sensitive nose, when we came to
some passage of biting satire, or some phrase in which the bitter Jew had
unpacked all the insult of his soul.

We began to read Heine together when my vocabulary had to be dug almost
word by word out of the dictionary, for the bookbinder's English was
rather scanty at the best, and was not literary. As for the grammar, I
was getting that up as fast as I could from Ollendorff, and from other
sources, but I was enjoying Heine before I well knew a declension or a
conjugation. As soon as my task was done at the office, I went home to
the books, and worked away at them until supper. Then my bookbinder and
I met in my father's editorial room, and with a couple of candles on the
table between us, and our Heine and the dictionary before us, we read
till we were both tired out.

The candles were tallow, and they lopped at different angles in the flat
candlesticks heavily loaded with lead, which compositors once used.
It seems to have been summer when our readings began, and they are
associated in my memory with the smell of the neighboring gardens, which
came in at the open doors and windows, and with the fluttering of moths,
and the bumbling of the dorbugs, that stole in along with the odors.
I can see the perspiration on the shining forehead of the bookbinder as
he looks up from some brilliant passage, to exchange a smile of triumph
with me at having made out the meaning with the meagre facilities we had
for the purpose; he had beautiful red pouting lips, and a stiff little
branching mustache above them, that went to the making of his smile.
Sometimes, in the truce we made with the text, he told a little story of
his life at home, or some anecdote relevant to our reading, or quoted a
passage from some other author. It seemed to me the make of a high
intellectual banquet, and I should be glad if I could enjoy anything as
much now.

We walked home as far as his house, or rather his apartment over one of
the village stores; and as he mounted to it by an outside staircase, we
exchanged a joyous "Gute Nacht," and I kept on homeward through the dark
and silent village street, which was really not that street, but some
other, where Heine had been, some street out of the Reisebilder, of his
knowledge, or of his dream. When I reached home it was useless to go to
bed. I shut myself into my little study, and went over what we had read,
till my brain was so full of it that when I crept up to my room at last,
it was to lie down to slumbers which were often a mere phantasmagory of
those witching Pictures of Travel.

I was awake at my father's call in the morning, and before my mother had
breakfast ready I had recited my lesson in Ollendorff to him. To tell
the truth, I hated those grammatical studies, and nothing but the love of
literature, and the hope of getting at it, could ever have made me go
through them. Naturally, I never got any scholarly use of the languages
I was worrying at, and though I could once write a passable literary
German, it has all gone from me now, except for the purposes of reading.
It cost me so much trouble, however, to dig the sense out of the grammar
and lexicon, as I went on with the authors I was impatient to read, that
I remember the words very well in all their forms and inflections, and I
have still what I think I may call a fair German vocabulary.

The German of Heine, when once you are in the joke of his capricious
genius, is very simple, and in his poetry it is simple from the first,
so that he was, perhaps, the best author I could have fallen in with if I
wanted to go fast rather than far. I found this out later, when I
attempted other German authors without the glitter of his wit or the
lambent glow of his fancy to light me on my hard way. I should find it
hard to say just why his peculiar genius had such an absolute fascination
for me from the very first, and perhaps I had better content myself with
saying simply that my literary liberation began with almost the earliest
word from him; for if he chained me to himself he freed me from all other
bondage. I had been at infinite pains from time to time, now upon one
model and now upon another, to literarify myself, if I may make a word
which does not quite say the thing for me. What I mean is that I had
supposed, with the sense at times that I was all wrong, that the
expression of literature must be different from the expression of life;
that it must be an attitude, a pose, with something of state or at least
of formality in it; that it must be this style, and not that; that it
must be like that sort of acting which you know is acting when you see it
and never mistake for reality. There are a great many children,
apparently grown-up, and largely accepted as critical authorities, who
are still of this youthful opinion of mine. But Heine at once showed me
that this ideal of literature was false; that the life of literature was
from the springs of the best common speech and that the nearer it could
be made to conform, in voice, look and gait, to graceful, easy,
picturesque and humorous or impassioned talk, the better it was.

He did not impart these truths without imparting certain tricks with
them, which I was careful to imitate as soon as I began to write in his
manner, that is to say instantly. His tricks he had mostly at second-
hand, and mainly from Sterne, whom I did not know well enough then to
know their origin. But in all essentials he was himself, and my final
lesson from him, or the final effect of all my lessons from him, was to
find myself, and to be for good or evil whatsoever I really was.

I kept on writing as much like Heine as I could for several years,
though, and for a much longer time than I should have done if I had
ever become equally impassioned of any other author.

Some traces of his method lingered so long in my work that nearly ten
years afterwards Mr. Lowell wrote me about something of mine that
he had been reading: "You must sweat the Heine out of your bones as
men do mercury," and his kindness for me would not be content with less
than the entire expulsion of the poison that had in its good time saved
my life. I dare say it was all well enough not to have it in my bones
after it had done its office, but it did do its office.

It was in some prose sketch of mine that his keen analysis had found the
Heine, but the foreign property had been so prevalent in my earlier work
in verse that he kept the first contribution he accepted from me for the
Atlantic Monthly a long time, or long enough to make sure that it was not
a translation of Heine. Then he printed it, and I am bound to say that
the poem now justifies his doubt to me, in so much that I do not see why
Heine should not have had the name of writing it if he had wanted. His
potent spirit became immediately so wholly my "control," as the mediums
say, that my poems might as well have been communications from him so far
as any authority of my own was concerned; and they were quite like other
inspirations from the other world in being so inferior to the work of the
spirit before it had the misfortune to be disembodied and obliged to use
a medium. But I do not think that either Heine or I had much lasting
harm from it, and I am sure that the good, in my case at least, was one
that can only end with me. He undid my hands, which had taken so much
pains to tie behind my back, and he forever persuaded me that though it
may be ingenious and surprising to dance in chains, it is neither pretty
nor useful.


Another author who was a prime favorite with me about this time was De
Quincey, whose books I took out of the State Library, one after another,
until I had read them all. We who were young people of that day thought
his style something wonderful, and so indeed it was, especially in those
passages, abundant everywhere in his work, relating to his own life with
an intimacy which was always-more rather than less. His rhetoric there,
and in certain of his historical studies, had a sort of luminous
richness, without losing its colloquial ease. I keenly enjoyed this
subtle spirit, and the play of that brilliant intelligence which lighted
up so many ways of literature with its lambent glow or its tricksy
glimmer, and I had a deep sympathy with certain morbid moods and
experiences so like my own, as I was pleased to fancy. I have not looked
at his Twelve Caesars for twice as many years, but I should be greatly
surprised to find it other than one of the greatest historical monographs
ever written. His literary criticisms seemed to me not only exquisitely
humorous, but perfectly sane and just; and it delighted me to have him
personally present, with the warmth of his own temperament in regions of
cold abstraction; I am not sure that I should like that so much now. De
Quincey was hardly less autobiographical when he wrote of Kant, or the
Flight of the Crim-Tartars, than when he wrote of his own boyhood or the
miseries of the opium habit. He had the hospitable gift of making you at
home with him, and appealing to your sense of comradery with something of
the flattering confidentiality of Thackeray, but with a wholly different

In fact, although De Quincey was from time to time perfunctorily Tory,
and always a good and faithful British subject, he was so eliminated from
his time and place by his single love for books, that one could be in his
company through the whole vast range of his writings, and come away
without a touch of snobbishness; and that is saying a great deal for an
English writer. He was a great little creature, and through his intense
personality he achieved a sort of impersonality, so that you loved the
man, who was forever talking-of himself, for his modesty and reticence.
He left you feeling intimate with him but by no means familiar; with all
his frailties, and with all those freedoms he permitted himself with the
lives of his contemporaries, he is to me a figure of delicate dignity,
and winning kindness. I think it a misfortune for the present generation
that his books have fallen into a kind of neglect, and I believe that
they will emerge from it again to the advantage of literature.

In spite of Heine and Tennyson, De Quincey had a large place in my
affections, though this was perhaps because he was not a poet; for more
than those two great poets there was then not much room. I read him the
first winter I was at Columbus, and when I went down from the village the
next winter, to take up my legislative correspondence again, I read him
more than ever. But that was destined to be for me a very disheartening
time. I had just passed through a rheumatic fever, which left my health
more broken than before, and one morning shortly after I was settled in
the capital, I woke to find the room going round me like a wheel. It was
the beginning of a vertigo which lasted for six months, and which I began
to fight with various devices and must yield to at last. I tried
medicine and exercise, but it was useless, and my father came to take my
letters off my hands while I gave myself some ineffectual respites.
I made a little journey to my old home in southern Ohio, but there and
everywhere, the sure and firm-set earth waved and billowed under my feet,
and I came back to Columbus and tried to forget in my work the fact that
I was no better. I did not give up trying to read, as usual, and part of
my endeavor that winter was with Schiller, and Uhland, and even Goethe,
whose 'Wahlverwandschaften,' hardly yielded up its mystery to me. To
tell the truth, I do not think that I found my account in that novel.
It must needs be a disappointment after Wilhelm Meister, which I had read
in English; but I dare say my disappointment was largely my own fault;
I had certainly no right to expect such constant proofs and instances of
wisdom in Goethe as the unwisdom of his critics had led me to hope for.
I remember little or nothing of the story, which I tried to find very
memorable, as I held my, sick way through it. Longfellow's "Miles
Standish" came out that winter, and I suspect that I got vastly more real
pleasure from that one poem of his than I found in all my German authors
put together, the adored Heine always excepted; though certainly I felt
the romantic beauty of 'Uhland,' and was aware of something of Schiller's
generous grandeur.

Of the American writers Longfellow has been most a passion with me, as
the English, and German, and Spanish, and Russian writers have been. I
am sure that this was largely by mere chance. It was because I happened,
in such a frame and at such a time, to come upon his books that I loved
them above those of other men as great. I am perfectly sensible that
Lowell and Emerson outvalue many of the poets and prophets I have given
my heart to; I have read them with delight and with a deep sense of their
greatness, and yet they have not been my life like those other, those
lesser, men. But none of the passions are reasoned, and I do not try to
account for my literary preferences or to justify them.

I dragged along through several months of that winter, and did my best to
carry out that notable scheme of not minding my vertigo. I tried doing
half-work, and helping my father with the correspondence, but when it
appeared that nothing would avail, he remained in charge of it, till the
close of the session, and I went home to try what a complete and
prolonged rest would do for me. I was not fit for work in the printing-
office, but that was a simpler matter than the literary work that was
always tempting me. I could get away from it only by taking my gun and
tramping day after day through the deep, primeval woods. The fatigue was
wholesome, and I was so bad a shot that no other creature suffered loss
from my gain except one hapless wild pigeon. The thawing snow left the
fallen beechnuts of the autumn before uncovered among the dead leaves,
and the forest was full of the beautiful birds. In most parts of the
middle West they are no longer seen, except in twos or threes, but once
they were like the sands of the sea for multitude. It was not now the
season when they hid half the heavens with their flight day after day;
but they were in myriads all through the woods, where their iridescent
breasts shone like a sudden untimely growth of flowers when you came upon
them from the front. When they rose in fright, it was like the upward
leap of fire, and with the roar of flame. I use images which, after all,
are false to the thing I wish to express; but they must serve. I tried
honestly enough to kill the pigeons, but I had no luck, or too much, till
I happened to bring down one of a pair that I found apart from the rest
in a softy tree-top. The poor creature I had widowed followed me to the
verge of the woods, as I started home with my prey, and I do not care to
know more personally the feelings of a murderer than I did then. I tried
to shoot the bird, but my aim was so bad that I could not do her this
mercy, and at last she flew away, and I saw her no more.

The spring was now opening, and I was able to keep more and more with
Nature, who was kinder to me than I was to her other children, or wished
to be, and I got the better of my malady, which gradually left me for no
more reason apparently than it came upon me. But I was still far from
well, and I was in despair of my future. I began to read again--
I suppose I had really never altogether stopped. I borrowed from my
friend the bookbinder a German novel, which had for me a message of
lasting cheer. It was the 'Afraja' of Theodore Mugge, a story of life in
Norway during the last century, and I remember it as a very lovely story
indeed, with honest studies of character among the Norwegians, and a
tender pathos in the fate of the little Lap heroine Gula, who was perhaps
sufficiently romanced. The hero was a young Dane, who was going up among
the fiords to seek his fortune in the northern fisheries; and by a
process inevitable in youth I became identified with him, so that I
adventured, and enjoyed, and suffered in his person throughout. There
was a supreme moment when he was sailing through the fiords, and finding
himself apparently locked in by their mountain walls without sign or hope
of escape, but somehow always escaping by some unimagined channel, and
keeping on. The lesson for him was one of trust and courage; and I, who
seemed to be then shut in upon a mountain-walled fiord without inlet or
outlet, took the lesson home and promised myself not to lose heart again.
It seems a little odd that this passage of a book, by no means of the
greatest, should have had such an effect with me at a time when I was no
longer so young as to be unduly impressed by what I read; but it is true
that I have never since found myself in circumstances where there seemed
to be no getting forward or going back, without a vision of that fiord
scenery, and then a rise of faith, that if I kept on I should, somehow,
come out of my prisoning environment.


I got back health enough to be of use in the printing office that autumn,
and I was quietly at work there with no visible break in my surroundings
when suddenly the whole world opened to me through what had seemed an
impenetrable wall. The Republican newspaper at the capital had been
bought by a new management, and the editorial force reorganized upon a
footing of what we then thought metropolitan enterprise; and to my great
joy and astonishment I was asked to come and take a place in it. The
place offered me was not one of lordly distinction; in fact, it was
partly of the character of that I had already rejected in Cincinnati,
but I hoped that in the smaller city its duties would not be so odious;
and by the time I came to fill it, a change had taken place in the
arrangements so that I was given charge of the news department. This
included the literary notices and the book reviews, and I am afraid that
I at once gave my prime attention to these.

It was an evening paper, and I had nearly as much time for reading and
study as I had at home. But now society began to claim a share of this
leisure, which I by no means begrudged it. Society was very charming in
Columbus then, with a pretty constant round of dances and suppers, and an
easy cordiality, which I dare say young people still find in it
everywhere. I met a great many cultivated people, chiefly young ladies,
and there were several houses where we young fellows went and came almost
as freely as if they were our own. There we had music and cards, and
talk about books, and life appeared to me richly worth living; if any one
had said this was not the best planet in the universe I should have
called him a pessimist, or at least thought him so, for we had not the
word in those days. A world in which all those pretty and gracious women
dwelt, among the figures of the waltz and the lancers, with chat between
about the last instalment of 'The Newcomes,' was good enough world for
me; I was only afraid it was too good. There were, of course, some girls
who did not read, but few openly professed indifference to literature,
and there was much lending of books back and forth, and much debate of
them. That was the day when 'Adam Bede' was a new book, and in this I
had my first knowledge of that great intellect for which I had no
passion, indeed, but always the deepest respect, the highest honor; and
which has from time to time profoundly influenced me by its ethics.

I state these things simply and somewhat baldly; I might easily refine


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