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

Part 6 out of 78

chosen by the Republican majority in 1816, and in that most painful hour
when there was question of the policy and justice of counting Hayes in
for the presidency, it was suggested by some of Lowell's friends that he
should use the original right of the electors under the constitution,
and vote for Tilden, whom one vote would have chosen president over
Hayes. After he had cast his vote for Hayes, he quietly referred to the
matter one day, in the moment of lighting his pipe, with perhaps the
faintest trace of indignation in his tone. He said that whatever the
first intent of the constitution was, usage had made the presidential
electors strictly the instruments of the party which chose them, and that
for him to have voted for Tilden when he had been chosen to vote for
Hayes would have-been an act of bad faith.

He would have resumed for me all the old kindness of our relations before
the recent year of his absence, but this had inevitably worked a little
estrangement. He had at least lost the habit of me, and that says much
in such matters. He was not so perfectly at rest in the Cambridge
environment; in certain indefinable ways it did not so entirely suffice
him, though he would have been then and always the last to allow this.
I imagine his friends realized more than he, that certain delicate but
vital filaments of attachment had frayed and parted in alien air, and
left him heart-loose as he had not been before.

I do not know whether it crossed his mind after the election of Hayes
that he might be offered some place abroad, but it certainly crossed the
minds of some of his friends, and I could not feel that I was acting for
myself alone when I used a family connection with the President, very
early in his term, to let him know that I believed Lowell would accept a
diplomatic mission. I could assure him that I was writing wholly without
Lowell's privity or authority, and I got back such a letter as I could
wish in its delicate sense of the situation. The President said that he
had already thought of offering Lowell something, and he gave me the
pleasure, a pleasure beyond any other I could imagine, of asking Lowell
whether he would accept the mission to Austria. I lost no time carrying
his letter to Elmwood, where I found Lowell over his coffee at dinner.
He saw me at the threshold, and called to me through the open door to
come in, and I handed him the letter, and sat down at table while he ran
it through. When he had read it, he gave a quick "Ah!" and threw it
over the length of the table to Mrs. Lowell. She read it in a smiling
and loyal reticence, as if she would not say one word of all she might
wish to say in urging his acceptance, though I could see that she was
intensely eager for it. The whole situation was of a perfect New England
character in its tacit significance; after Lowell had taken his coffee we
turned into his study without further allusion to the matter.

A day or two later he came to my house to say that he could not accept
the Austrian mission, and to ask me to tell the President so for him, and
make his acknowledgments, which he would also write himself. He remained
talking a little while of other things, and when he rose to go, he said
with a sigh of vague reluctance, "I should like to see a play of
Calderon," as if it had nothing to do with any wish of his that could
still be fulfilled. "Upon this hint I acted," and in due time it was
found in Washington, that the gentleman who had been offered the Spanish
mission would as lief go to Austria, and Lowell was sent to Madrid.


When we met in London, some years later, he came almost every afternoon
to my lodging, and the story of our old-time Cambridge walks began again
in London phrases. There were not the vacant lots and outlying fields of
his native place, but we made shift with the vast, simple parks, and we
walked on the grass as we could not have done in an American park, and
were glad to feel the earth under our feet. I said how much it was like
those earlier tramps; and that pleased him, for he wished, whenever a
thing delighted him, to find a Cambridge quality in it.

But he was in love with everything English, and was determined I should
be so too, beginning with the English weather, which in summer cannot be
overpraised. He carried, of course, an umbrella, but he would not put it
up in the light showers that caught us at times, saying that the English
rain never wetted you. The thick short turf delighted him; he would
scarcely allow that the trees were the worse for foliage blighted by a
vile easterly storm in the spring of that year. The tender air, the
delicate veils that the moisture in it cast about all objects at the
least remove, the soft colors of the flowers, the dull blue of the low
sky showing through the rifts of the dirty white clouds, the hovering
pall of London smoke, were all dear to him, and he was anxious that I
should not lose anything of their charm.

He was anxious that I should not miss the value of anything in England,
and while he volunteered that the aristocracy had the corruptions of
aristocracies everywhere, he insisted upon my respectful interest in it
because it was so historical. Perhaps there was a touch of irony in this
demand, but it is certain that he was very happy in England. He had come
of the age when a man likes smooth, warm keeping, in which he need make
no struggle for his comfort; disciplined and obsequious service; society,
perfectly ascertained within the larger society which we call
civilization; and in an alien environment, for which he was in no wise
responsible, he could have these without a pang of the self-reproach
which at home makes a man unhappy amidst his luxuries, when he considers
their cost to others. He had a position which forbade thought of
unfairness in the conditions; he must not wake because of the slave, it
was his duty to sleep. Besides, at that time Lowell needed all the rest
he could get, for he had lately passed through trials such as break the
strength of men, and how them with premature age. He was living alone in
his little house in Lowndes Square, and Mrs. Lowell was in the country,
slowly recovering from the effects of the terrible typhus which she had
barely survived in Madrid. He was yet so near the anguish of that
experience that he told me he had still in his nerves the expectation of
a certain agonized cry from her which used to rend them. But he said he
had adjusted himself to this, and he went on to speak with a patience
which was more affecting in him than in men of more phlegmatic
temperament, of how we were able to adjust ourselves to all our trials
and to the constant presence of pain. He said he was never free of a
certain distress, which was often a sharp pang, in one of his shoulders,
but his physique had established such relations with it that, though he
was never unconscious of it, he was able to endure it without a
recognition of it as suffering.

He seemed to me, however, very well, and at his age of sixty-three, I
could not see that he was less alert and vigorous than he was when I
first knew him in Cambridge. He had the same brisk, light step, and
though his beard was well whitened and his auburn hair had grown ashen
through the red, his face had the freshness and his eyes the clearness of
a young man's. I suppose the novelty of his life kept him from thinking
about his years; or perhaps in contact with those great, insenescent
Englishmen, he could not feel himself old. At any rate he did not once
speak of age, as he used to do ten years earlier, and I, then half
through my forties, was still "You young dog" to him. It was a bright
and cheerful renewal of the early kindliness between us, on which indeed
there had never been a shadow, except such as distance throws. He wished
apparently to do everything he could to assure us of his personal
interest; and we were amused to find him nervously apprehensive of any
purpose, such as was far from us, to profit by him officially. He
betrayed a distinct relief when he found we were not going to come upon
him even for admissions to the houses of parliament, which we were to see
by means of an English acquaintance. He had not perhaps found some other
fellow-citizens so considerate; he dreaded the half-duties of his place,
like presentations to the queen, and complained of the cheap ambitions he
had to gratify in that way.

He was so eager to have me like England in every way, and seemed so fond
of the English, that I thought it best to ask him whether he minded my
quoting, in a paper about Lexington, which I was just then going to print
in a London magazine, some humorous lines of his expressing the mounting
satisfaction of an imaginary Yankee story-teller who has the old fight
terminate in Lord Percy's coming

"To hammer stone for life in Concord jail."

It had occurred to me that it might possibly embarrass him to have this
patriotic picture presented to a public which could not take our Fourth
of July pleasure in it, and I offered to suppress it, as I did afterwards
quite for literary reasons. He said, No, let it stand, and let them make
the worst of it; and I fancy that much of his success with a people who
are not gingerly with other people's sensibilities came from the
frankness with which he trampled on their prejudice when he chose.
He said he always told them, when there was question of such things,
that the best society he had ever known was in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
He contended that the best English was spoken there; and so it was, when
he spoke it.

We were in London out of the season, and he was sorry that he could not
have me meet some titles who he declared had found pleasure in my books;
when we returned from Italy in the following June, he was prompt to do me
this honor. I dare say he wished me to feel it to its last implication,
and I did my best, but there was nothing in the evening I enjoyed so much
as his coming up to Mrs. Lowell, at the close, when there was only a
title or two left, and saying to her as he would have said to her at
Elmwood, where she would have personally planned it, "Fanny, that was a
fine dinner you gave us." Of course, this was in a tender burlesque;
but it remains the supreme impression of what seemed to me a cloudlessly
happy period for Lowell. His wife was quite recovered of her long
suffering, and was again at the head of his house, sharing in his
pleasures, and enjoying his successes for his sake; successes so great
that people spoke of him seriously, as "an addition to society" in
London, where one man more or less seemed like a drop in the sea.
She was a woman perfectly of the New England type and tradition: almost
repellantly shy at first, and almost glacially cold with new
acquaintance, but afterwards very sweet and cordial. She was of a dark
beauty with a regular face of the Spanish outline; Lowell was of an ideal
manner towards her, and of an admiration which delicately travestied
itself and which she knew how to receive with smiling irony. After her
death, which occurred while he was still in England, he never spoke of
her to me, though before that he used to be always bringing her name in,
with a young lover-like fondness.


In the hurry of the London season I did not see so much of Lowell on our
second sojourn as on our first, but once when we were alone in his study
there was a return to the terms of the old meetings in Cambridge. He
smoked his pipe, and sat by his fire and philosophized; and but for the
great London sea swirling outside and bursting through our shelter, and
dashing him with notes that must be instantly answered, it was a very
fair image of the past. He wanted to tell me about his coachman whom he
had got at on his human side with great liking and amusement, and there
was a patient gentleness in his manner with the footman who had to keep
coming in upon him with those notes which was like the echo of his young
faith in the equality of men. But he always distinguished between the
simple unconscious equality of the ordinary American and its assumption
by a foreigner. He said he did not mind such an American's coming into
his house with his hat on; but if a German or Englishman did it, he
wanted to knock it off. He was apt to be rather punctilious in his shows
of deference towards others, and at one time he practised removing his
own hat when he went into shops in Cambridge. It must have mystified the
Cambridge salesmen, and I doubt if he kept it up.

With reference to the doctrine of his young poetry, the fierce and the
tender humanity of his storm and stress period, I fancy a kind of baffle
in Lowell, which I should not perhaps find it easy to prove. I never
knew him by word or hint to renounce this doctrine, but he could not come
to seventy years without having seen many high hopes fade, and known many
inspired prophecies fail. When we have done our best to make the world
over, we are apt to be dismayed by finding it in much the old shape.
As he said of the moral government of the universe, the scale is so vast,
and a little difference, a little change for the better, is scarcely
perceptible to the eager consciousness of the wholesale reformer.
But with whatever sense of disappointment, of doubt as to his own deeds
for truer freedom and for better conditions I believe his sympathy was
still with those who had some heart for hoping and striving. I am sure
that though he did not agree with me in some of my own later notions for
the redemption of the race, he did not like me the less but rather the
more because (to my own great surprise I confess) I had now and then the
courage of my convictions, both literary and social.

He was probably most at odds with me in regard to my theories of fiction,
though he persisted in declaring his pleasure in my own fiction. He was
in fact, by nature and tradition, thoroughly romantic, and he could not
or would not suffer realism in any but a friend. He steadfastly refused
even to read the Russian masters, to his immense loss, as I tried to
persuade him, and even among the modern Spaniards, for whom he might have
had a sort of personal kindness from his love of Cervantes, he chose one
for his praise the least worthy, of it, and bore me down with his heavier
metal in argument when I opposed to Alarcon's factitiousness the
delightful genuineness of Valdes. Ibsen, with all the Norwegians, he put
far from him; he would no more know them than the Russians; the French
naturalists he abhorred. I thought him all wrong, but you do not try
improving your elders when they have come to three score and ten years,
and I would rather have had his affection unbroken by our difference of
opinion than a perfect agreement. Where he even imagined that this
difference could work me harm, he was anxious to have me know that he
meant me none; and he was at the trouble to write me a letter when a
Boston paper had perverted its report of what he said in a public lecture
to my disadvantage, and to assure me that he had not me in mind. When
once he had given his liking, he could not bear that any shadow of change
should seem to have come upon him. He had a most beautiful and endearing
ideal of friendship; he desired to affirm it and to reaffirm it as often
as occasion offered, and if occasion did not offer, he made occasion.
It did not matter what you said or did that contraried him; if he thought
he had essentially divined you, you were still the same: and on his part
he was by no means exacting of equal demonstration, but seemed not even
to wish it.


After he was replaced at London by a minister more immediately
representative of the Democratic administration, he came home. He made a
brave show of not caring to have remained away, but in truth he had
become very fond of England, where he had made so many friends, and where
the distinction he had, in that comfortably padded environment, was so
agreeable to him.

It would have been like him to have secretly hoped that the new President
might keep him in London, but he never betrayed any ignoble
disappointment, and he would not join in any blame of him. At our first
meeting after he came home he spoke of the movement which had made Mr.
Cleveland president, and said he supposed that if he had been here,
he should have been in it. All his friends were, he added, a little
helplessly; but he seemed not to dislike my saying I knew one of his
friends who was not: in fact, as I have told, he never disliked a plump
difference--unless he disliked the differer.

For several years he went back to England every summer, and it was not
until he took up his abode at Elmwood again that he spent a whole year at
home. One winter he passed at his sister's home in Boston, but mostly he
lived with his daughter at Southborough. I have heard a story of his
going to Elmwood soon after his return in 1885, and sitting down in his
old study, where he declared with tears that the place was full of
ghosts. But four or five years later it was well for family reasons that
he should live there; and about the same time it happened that I had
taken a house for the summer in his neighborhood. He came to see me,
and to assure me, in all tacit forms of his sympathy in a sorrow for
which there could be no help; but it was not possible that the old
intimate relations should be resumed. The affection was there, as much
on his side as on mine, I believe; but he was now an old man and I was an
elderly man, and we could not, without insincerity, approach each other
in the things that had drawn us together in earlier and happier years.
His course was run; my own, in which he had taken such a generous
pleasure, could scarcely move his jaded interest. His life, so far as it
remained to him, had renewed itself in other air; the later friendships
beyond seas sufficed him, and were without the pang, without the effort
that must attend the knitting up of frayed ties here.

He could never have been anything but American, if he had tried, and he
certainly never tried; but he certainly did not return to the outward
simplicities of his life as I first knew it. There was no more round-
hat-and-sack-coat business for him; he wore a frock and a high hat, and
whatever else was rather like London than Cambridge; I do not know but
drab gaiters sometimes added to the effect of a gentleman of the old
school which he now produced upon the witness. Some fastidiousnesses
showed themselves in him, which were not so surprising. He complained of
the American lower class manner; the conductor and cabman would be kind
to you but they would not be respectful, and he could not see the fun of
this in the old way. Early in our acquaintance he rather stupified me by
saying, "I like you because you don't put your hands on me," and I heard
of his consenting to some sort of reception in those last years, "Yes,
if they won't shake hands."

Ever since his visit to Rome in 1875 he had let his heavy mustache grow
long till it dropped below the corners of his beard, which was now almost
white; his face had lost the ruddy hue so characteristic of him. I fancy
he was then ailing with premonitions of the disorder which a few years
later proved mortal, but he still bore himself with sufficient vigor,
and he walked the distance between his house and mine, though once when I
missed his visit the family reported that after he came in he sat a long
time with scarcely a word, as if too weary to talk. That winter, I went
into Boston to live, and I saw him only at infrequent intervals, when I
could go out to Elmwood. At such times I found him sitting in the room
which was formerly the drawing-room, but which had been joined with his
study by taking away the partitions beside the heavy mass of the old
colonial chimney. He told me that when he was a newborn babe, the nurse
had carried him round this chimney, for luck, and now in front of the
same hearth, the white old man stretched himself in an easy-chair, with
his writing-pad on his knees and his books on the table at his elbow, and
was willing to be entreated not to rise. I remember the sun used to come
in at the eastern windows full pour, and bathe the air in its warmth.

He always hailed me gayly, and if I found him with letters newly come
from England, as I sometimes did, he glowed and sparkled with fresh life.
He wanted to read passages from those letters, he wanted to talk about
their writers, and to make me feel their worth and charm as he did.
He still dreamed of going back to England the next summer, but that was
not to be. One day he received me not less gayly than usual, but with a
certain excitement, and began to tell me about an odd experience he had
had, not at all painful, but which had very much mystified him. He had
since seen the doctor, and the doctor had assured him that there was
nothing alarming in what had happened, and in recalling this assurance,
he began to look at the humorous aspects of the case, and to make some
jokes about it. He wished to talk of it, as men do of their maladies,
and very fully, and I gave him such proof of my interest as even inviting
him to talk of it would convey. In spite of the doctor's assurance,
and his joyful acceptance of it, I doubt if at the bottom of his heart
there was not the stir of an uneasy misgiving; but he had not for a long
time shown himself so cheerful.

It was the beginning of the end. He recovered and relapsed, and
recovered again; but never for long. Late in the spring I came out,
and he had me stay to dinner, which was somehow as it used to be at two
o'clock; and after dinner we went out on his lawn. He got a long-handled
spud, and tried to grub up some dandelions which he found in his turf,
but after a moment or two he threw it down, and put his hand upon his
back with a groan. I did not see him again till I came out to take leave
of him before going away for the summer, and then I found him sitting on
the little porch in a western corner of his house, with a volume of Scott
closed upon his finger. There were some other people, and our meeting
was with the constraint of their presence. It was natural in nothing so
much as his saying very significantly to me, as if he knew of my heresies
concerning Scott, and would have me know he did not approve of them, that
there was nothing he now found so much pleasure in as Scott's novels.
Another friend, equally heretical, was by, but neither of us attempted to
gainsay him. Lowell talked very little, but he told of having been a
walk to Beaver Brook, and of having wished to jump from one stone to
another in the stream, and of having had to give it up. He said, without
completing the sentence, If it had come to that with him! Then he fell
silent again; and with some vain talk of seeing him when I came back in
the fall, I went away sick at heart. I was not to see him again, and I
shall not look upon his like.

I am aware that I have here shown him from this point and from that in a
series of sketches which perhaps collectively impart, but do not assemble
his personality in one impression. He did not, indeed, make one
impression upon me, but a thousand impressions, which I should seek in
vain to embody in a single presentment. What I have cloudily before me
is the vision of a very lofty and simple soul, perplexed, and as it were
surprised and even dismayed at the complexity of the effects from motives
so single in it, but escaping always to a clear expression of what was
noblest and loveliest in itself at the supreme moments, in the divine
exigencies. I believe neither in heroes nor in saints; but I believe in
great and good men, for I have known them, and among such men Lowell was
of the richest nature I have known. His nature was not always serene or
pellucid; it was sometimes roiled by the currents that counter and cross
in all of us; but it was without the least alloy of insincerity, and it
was never darkened by the shadow of a selfish fear. His genius was an
instrument that responded in affluent harmony to the power that made him
a humorist and that made him a poet, and appointed him rarely to be quite
either alone.


I believe neither in heroes nor in saints
It is well to hold one's country to her promises
Liked being with you, not for what he got, but for what he gave


by William Dean Howells


Being the wholly literary spirit I was when I went to make my home in
Cambridge, I do not see how I could well have been more content if I had
found myself in the Elysian Fields with an agreeable eternity before me.
At twenty-nine, indeed, one is practically immortal, and at that age,
time had for me the effect of an eternity in which I had nothing to do
but to read books and dream of writing them, in the overflow of endless
hours from my work with the manuscripts, critical notices, and proofs of
the Atlantic Monthly. As for the social environment I should have been
puzzled if given my choice among the elect of all the ages, to find poets
and scholars more to my mind than those still in the flesh at Cambridge
in the early afternoon of the nineteenth century. They are now nearly
all dead, and I can speak of them in the freedom which is death's
doubtful favor to the survivor; but if they were still alive I could say
little to their offence, unless their modesty was hurt with my praise.


One of the first and truest of our Cambridge friends was that exquisite
intelligence, who, in a world where so many people are grotesquely
miscalled, was most fitly named; for no man ever kept here more perfectly
and purely the heart of such as the kingdom of heaven is of than Francis
J. Child. He was then in his prime, and I like to recall the outward
image which expressed the inner man as happily as his name. He was of
low stature and of an inclination which never became stoutness; but what
you most saw when you saw him was his face of consummate refinement: very
regular, with eyes always glassed by gold-rimmed spectacles, a straight,
short, most sensitive nose, and a beautiful mouth with the sweetest smile
mouth ever wore, and that was as wise and shrewd as it was sweet. In a
time when every other man was more or less bearded he was clean shaven,
and of a delightful freshness of coloring which his thick sunny hair,
clustering upon his head in close rings, admirably set off. I believe he
never became gray, and the last time I saw him, though he was broken then
with years and pain, his face had still the brightness of his
inextinguishable youth.

It is well known how great was Professor Child's scholarship in the
branches of his Harvard work; and how especially, how uniquely, effective
it was in the study of English and Scottish balladry to which he gave so
many years of his life. He was a poet in his nature, and he wrought with
passion as well as knowledge in the achievement of as monumental a task
as any American has performed. But he might have been indefinitely less
than he was in any intellectual wise, and yet been precious to those who
knew him for the gentleness and the goodness which in him were protected
from misconception by a final dignity as delicate and as inviolable as
that of Longfellow himself.

We were still much less than a year from our life in Venice, when he came
to see us in Cambridge, and in the Italian interest which then commended
us to so many fine spirits among our neighbors we found ourselves at the
beginning of a life-long friendship with him. I was known to him only by
my letters from Venice, which afterwards became Venetian Life, and by a
bit of devotional verse which he had asked to include in a collection he
was making, but he immediately gave us the freedom of his heart, which
after wards was never withdrawn. In due time he imagined a home-school,
to which our little one was asked, and she had her first lessons with his
own daughter under his roof. These things drew us closer together, and
he was willing to be still nearer to me in any time of trouble. At one
such time when the shadow which must some time darken every door, hovered
at ours, he had the strength to make me face it and try to realize, while
it was still there, that it was not cruel and not evil. It passed, for
that time, but the sense of his help remained; and in my own case I can
testify of the potent tenderness which all who knew him must have known
in him. But in bearing my witness I feel accused, almost as if he were
present; by his fastidious reluctance from any recognition of his
helpfulness. When this came in the form of gratitude taking credit to
itself in a pose which reflected honor upon him as the architect of
greatness, he was delightfully impatient of it, and he was most amusingly
dramatic in reproducing the consciousness of certain ineffectual alumni
who used to overwhelm him at Commencement solemnities with some such
pompous acknowledgment as, "Professor Child, all that I have become, sir,
I owe to your influence in my college career." He did, with delicious
mockery, the old-fashioned intellectual poseurs among the students, who
used to walk the groves of Harvard with bent head, and the left arm
crossing the back, while the other lodged its hand in the breast of the
high buttoned frock-coat; and I could fancy that his classes in college
did not form the sunniest exposure for young. folly and vanity. I know
that he was intolerant of any manner of insincerity, and no flattery
could take him off his guard. I have seen him meet this with a cutting
phrase of rejection, and no man was more apt at snubbing the patronage
that offers itself at times to all men. But mostly he wished to do
people pleasure, and he seemed always to be studying how to do it; as for
need, I am sure that worthy and unworthy want had alike the way to his

Children were always his friends, and they repaid with adoration the
affection which he divided with them and with his flowers. I recall him
in no moments so characteristic as those he spent in making the little
ones laugh out of their hearts at his drolling, some festive evening in
his house, and those he gave to sharing with you his joy in his
gardening. This, I believe, began with violets, and it went on to roses,
which he grew in a splendor and profusion impossible to any but a true
lover with a genuine gift for them. Like Lowell, he spent his summers in
Cambridge, and in the afternoon, you could find him digging or pruning
among his roses with an ardor which few caprices of the weather could
interrupt. He would lift himself from their ranks, which he scarcely
overtopped, as you came up the footway to his door, and peer purblindly
across at you. If he knew you at once, he traversed the nodding and
swaying bushes, to give you the hand free of the trowel or knife; or if
you got indoors unseen by him he would come in holding towards you some
exquisite blossom that weighed down the tip of its long stem with a
succession of hospitable obeisances.

He graced with unaffected poetry a life of as hard study, of as hard
work, and as varied achievement as any I have known or read of; and he
played with gifts and acquirements such as in no great measure have made
reputations. He had a rare and lovely humor which could amuse itself
both in English and Italian with such an airy burletta as "Il Pesceballo"
(he wrote it in Metastasian Italian, and Lowell put it in libretto
English); he had a critical sense as sound as it was subtle in all
literature; and whatever he wrote he imbued with the charm of a style
finely personal to himself. His learning in the line of his Harvard
teaching included an early English scholarship unrivalled in his time,
and his researches in ballad literature left no corner of it untouched.
I fancy this part of his study was peculiarly pleasant to him; for he
loved simple and natural things, and the beauty which he found nearest
life. At least he scorned the pedantic affectations of literary
superiority; and he used to quote with joyous laughter the swelling
exclamation of an Italian critic who proposed to leave the summits of
polite learning for a moment, with the cry, "Scendiamo fra il popolo!"
(Let us go down among the people.)


Of course it was only so hard worked a man who could take thought and
trouble for another. He once took thought for me at a time when it was
very important to me, and when he took the trouble to secure for me an
engagement to deliver that course of Lowell lectures in Boston, which I
have said Lowell had the courage to go in town to hear. I do not
remember whether Professor Child was equal to so much, but he would have
been if it were necessary; and I rather rejoice now in the belief that he
did not seek quite that martyrdom.

He had done more than enough for me, but he had done only what he was
always willing to do for others. In the form of a favor to himself he
brought into my fife the great happiness of intimately knowing Hjalmar
Hjorth Boyesen, whom he had found one summer day among the shelves in the
Harvard library, and found to be a poet and an intending novelist. I do
not remember now just how this fact imparted itself to the professor, but
literature is of easily cultivated confidence in youth, and possibly the
revelation was spontaneous. At any rate, as a susceptible young editor,
I was asked to meet my potential contributor at the professor's two
o'clock dinner, and when we came to coffee in the study, Boyesen took
from the pocket nearest his heart a chapter of 'Gunnar', and read it to

Perhaps the good professor who brought us together had plotted to have
both novel and novelist make their impression at once upon the youthful
sub-editor; but at any rate they did not fail of an effect. I believe it
was that chapter where Gunnar and Ragnhild dance and sing a 'stev'
together, for I associate with that far happy time the rich mellow tones
of the poet's voice in the poet's verse. These were most characteristic
of him, and it is as if I might put my ear against the ethereal wall
beyond which he is rapt and hear them yet.

Our meeting was on a lovely afternoon of summer, and the odor of the
professor's roses stole in at the open windows, and became part of the
gentle event. Boyesen walked home with me, and for a fortnight after I
think we parted only to dream of the literature which we poured out upon
each other in every waking moment. I had just learned to know Bjornson's
stories, and Boyesen told me of his poetry and of his drama, which in
even measure embodied the great Norse literary movement, and filled me
with the wonder and delight of that noble revolt against convention, that
brave return to nature and the springs of poetry in the heart and the
speech of the common people. Literature was Boyesen's religion more than
the Swedenborgian philosophy in which we had both been spiritually
nurtured, and at every step of our mounting friendship we found ourselves
on common ground in our worship of it. I was a decade his senior, but at
thirty-five I was not yet so stricken in years as not to be able fully to
rejoice in the ardor which fused his whole being in an incandescent
poetic mass. I have known no man who loved poetry more generously and
passionately; and I think he was above all things a poet. His work took
the shape of scholarship, fiction, criticism, but poetry gave it all a
touch of grace and beauty. Some years after this first meeting of ours I
remember a pathetic moment with him, when I asked him why he had not
written any verse of late, and he answered, as if still in sad
astonishment at the fact, that he had found life was not all poetry. In
those earlier days I believe he really thought it was!

Perhaps it really is, and certainly in the course of a life that
stretched almost to half a century Boyesen learned more and more to see
the poetry of the everyday world at least as the material of art. He did
battle valiantly for that belief in many polemics, which I suppose gave
people a sufficiently false notion of him; and he showed his faith by
works in fiction which better illustrated his motive. Gunnar stands at
the beginning of these works, and at the farthest remove from it in
matter and method stands 'The Mammon of Unrighteousness'. The lovely
idyl won him fame and friendship, and the great novel added neither to
him, though he had put the experience and the observation of his ripened
life into it. Whether it is too late or too early for it to win the
place in literature which it merits I do not know; but it always seemed
to me the very spite of fate that it should have failed of popular
effect. Yet I must own that it has so failed, and I own this without
bitterness towards Gunnar, which embalmed the spirit of his youth as
'The Mammon of Unrighteousness' embodied the thought of his manhood.


It was my pleasure, my privilege, to bring Gunnar before the public as
editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and to second the author in many a
struggle with the strange idiom he had cast the story in. The proofs
went back and forth between us till the author had profited by every hint
and suggestion of the editor. He was quick to profit by any hint, and he
never made the same mistake twice. He lived his English as fast as he
learned it; the right word became part of him; and he put away the wrong
word with instant and final rejection. He had not learned American
English without learning newspaper English, but if one touched a phrase
of it in his work, he felt in his nerves, which are the ultimate arbiters
in such matters, its difference from true American and true English.
It was wonderful how apt and how elect his diction was in those days;
it seemed as if his thought clothed itself in the fittest phrase without
his choosing. In his poetry he had extraordinary good fortune from the
first; his mind had an apparent affinity with what was most native, most
racy in our speech; and I have just been looking over Gunnar and
marvelling anew at the felicity and the beauty of his phrasing.

I do not know whether those who read his books stop much to consider how
rare his achievement was in the mere means of expression. Our speech is
rather more hospitable than most, and yet I can remember but five other
writers born to different languages who have handled English with
anything like his mastery. Two Italians, Ruffini, the novelist, and
Gallenga, the journalist; two Germans, Carl Schurz and Carl Hillebrand,
and the Dutch novelist Maarten Maartens, have some of them equalled but
none of them surpassed him. Yet he was a man grown when he began to
speak and to write English, though I believe he studied it somewhat in
Norway before he came to America. What English he knew he learned the
use of here, and in the measure of its idiomatic vigor we may be proud of
it as Americans.

He had least of his native grace, I think, in his criticism; and yet as a
critic he had qualities of rare temperance, acuteness, and knowledge.
He had very decided convictions in literary art; one kind of thing he
believed was good and all other kinds less good down to what was bad; but
he was not a bigot, and he made allowances for art-in-error. His hand
fell heavy only upon those heretics who not merely denied the faith but
pretended that artifice was better than nature, that decoration was more
than structure, that make-believe was something you could live by as you
live by truth. He was not strongest, however, in damnatory criticism.
His spirit was too large, too generous to dwell in that, and it rose
rather to its full height in his appreciations of the great authors whom
he loved, and whom he commented from the plenitude of his scholarship as
well as from his delighted sense of their grandeur. Here he was almost
as fine as in his poetry, and only less fine than in his more fortunate
essays in fiction.

After Gunnar he was a long while in striking another note so true. He
did not strike it again till he wrote 'The Mammon of Unrighteousness',
and after that he was sometimes of a wandering and uncertain touch.
There are certain stories of his which I cannot read without a painful
sense of their inequality not only to his talent, but to his knowledge of
human nature, and of American character. He understood our character
quite as well as he understood our language, but at times he seemed not
to do so. I think these were the times when he was overworked, and ought
to have been resting instead of writing. In such fatigue one loses
command of alien words, alien situations; and in estimating Boyesen's
achievements we must never forget that he was born strange to our
language and to our life. In 'Gunnar' he handled the one with grace and
charm; in his great novel he handled both with masterly strength. I call
'The Mammon of Unrighteousness' a great novel, and I am quite willing to
say that I know few novels by born Americans that surpass it in dealing
with American types and conditions. It has the vast horizon of the
masterpieces of fictions; its meanings are not for its characters alone,
but for every reader of it; when you close the book the story is not at
an end.

I have a pang in praising it, for I remember that my praise cannot please
him any more. But it was a book worthy the powers which could have given
us yet greater things if they had not been spent on lesser things.
Boyesen could "toil terribly," but for his fame he did not always toil
wisely, though he gave himself as utterly in his unwise work as in his
best; it was always the best he could do. Several years after our first
meeting in Cambridge, he went to live in New York, a city where money
counts for more and goes for less than in any other city of the world,
and he could not resist the temptation to write more and more when he
should have written less and less. He never wrote anything that was not
worth reading, but he wrote too much for one who was giving himself with
all his conscience to his academic work in the university honored by his
gifts and his attainments, and was lecturing far and near in the
vacations which should have been days and weeks and months of leisure.
The wonder is that even such a stock of health as his could stand the
strain so long, but he had no vices, and his only excesses were in the
direction of the work which he loved so well. When a man adds to his
achievements every year, we are apt to forget the things he has already
done; and I think it well to remind the reader that Boyesen, who died at
forty-eight, had written, besides articles, reviews, and lectures
unnumbered, four volumes of scholarly criticism on German and
Scandinavian literature, a volume of literary and social essays, a
popular history of Norway, a volume of poems, twelve volumes of fiction,
and four books for boys.

Boyesen's energies were inexhaustible. He was not content to be merely a
scholar, merely an author; he wished to be an active citizen, to take his
part in honest politics, and to live for his day in things that most men
of letters shun. His experience in them helped him to know American life
better and to appreciate it more justly, both in its good and its evil;
and as a matter of fact he knew us very well. His acquaintance with us
had been wide and varied beyond that of most of our literary men, and
touched many aspects of our civilization which remain unknown to most
Americans. When be died he had been a journalist in Chicago, and a
teacher in Ohio; he had been a professor in Cornell University and a
literary free lance in New York; and everywhere his eyes and ears had
kept themselves open. As a teacher he learned to know the more fortunate
or the more ambitious of our youth, and as a lecturer his knowledge was
continually extending itself among all ages and classes of Americans.

He was through and through a Norseman, but he was none the less a very
American. Between Norsk and Yankee there is an affinity of spirit more
intimate than the ties of race. Both have the common-sense view of life;
both are unsentimental. When Boyesen told me that among the Norwegians
men never kissed each other, as the Germans, and the Frenchmen, and the
Italians do, I perceived that we stood upon common ground. When he
explained the democratic character of society in Norway, I could well
understand how he should find us a little behind his own countrymen in
the practice, if not the theory of equality, though they lived under a
king and we under a president. But he was proud of his American
citizenship; he knew all that it meant, at its best, for humanity. He
divined that the true expression of America was not civic, not social,
but domestic almost, and that the people in the simplest homes, or those
who remained in the tradition of a simple home life, were the true
Americans as yet, whatever the future Americans might be.

When I first knew him he was chafing with the impatience of youth and
ambition at what he thought his exile in the West. There was, to be
sure, a difference between Urbana, Ohio, and Cambridge, Massachusetts,
and he realized the difference in the extreme and perhaps beyond it.
I tried to make him believe that if a man had one or two friends anywhere
who loved letters and sympathized with him in his literary attempts,
it was incentive enough; but of course he wished to be in the centres of
literature, as we all do; and he never was content until he had set his
face and his foot Eastward. It was a great step for him from the
Swedenborgian school at Urbana to the young university at Ithaca; and I
remember his exultation in making it. But he could not rest there, and
in a few years he resigned his professorship, and came to New York, where
he entered high-heartedly upon the struggle with fortune which ended in
his appointment in Columbia.

New York is a mart and not a capital, in literature as well as in other
things, and doubtless he increasingly felt this. I know that there came
a time when he no longer thought the West must be exile for a literary
man; and his latest visits to its summer schools as a lecturer impressed
him with the genuineness of the interest felt there in culture of all
kinds. He spoke of this, with a due sense of what was pathetic as well
as what was grotesque in some of its manifestations; and I think that in
reconciling himself to our popular crudeness for the sake of our popular
earnestness, he completed his naturalization, in the only sense in which
our citizenship is worth having.

I do not wish to imply that he forgot his native land, or ceased to love
it proudly and tenderly. He kept for Norway the fondness which the man
sitting at his own hearth feels for the home of his boyhood. He was of
good family; his people were people of substance and condition, and he
could have had an easier life there than here. He could have won even
wider fame, and doubtless if he had remained in Norway, he would have
been one of that group of great Norwegians who have given their little
land renown surpassed by that of no other in the modern republic of
letters. The name of Boyesen would have been set with the names of
Bjornson, of Ibsen, of Kielland, and of Lie. But when once he had seen
America (at the wish of his father, who had visited the United States
before him), he thought only of becoming an American. When I first knew
him he was full of the poetry of his mother-land; his talk was of fjords
and glaciers, of firs and birches, of hulders and nixies, of housemen and
gaardsmen; but he was glad to be here, and I think he never regretted
that he had cast his lot with us. Always, of course, he had the deepest
interest in his country and countrymen. He stood the friend of every
Norwegian who came to him in want or trouble, and they, came to him
freely and frequently. He sympathized strongly with Norway in her
quarrel with Sweden, and her wish for equality as well as autonomy; and
though he did not go all lengths with the national party, he was decided
in his feeling that Sweden was unjust to her sister kingdom, and
strenuous for the principles of the Norwegian leaders.

But, as I have said, poetry, was what his ardent spirit mainly meditated
in that hour when I first knew him in Cambridge, before we had either of
us grown old and sad, if not wise. He overflowed with it, and he talked
as little as he dreamed of anything else in the vast half-summer we spent
together. He was constantly at my house, where in an absence of my
family I was living bachelor, and where we sat indoors and talked, or
sauntered outdoors and talked, with our heads in a cloud of fancies, not
unmixed with the mosquitoes of Cambridge: if I could have back the
fancies, I would be willing to have the mosquitoes with them. He looked
the poetry he lived: his eyes were the blue of sunlit fjords; his brown
silken hair was thick on the crown which it later abandoned to a
scholarly baldness; his soft, red lips half hid a boyish pout in the
youthful beard and mustache. He was short of stature, but of a stalwart
breadth of frame, and his voice was of a peculiar and endearing quality,
indescribably mellow and tender when he read his verse.

I have hardly the right to dwell so long upon him here, for he was only a
sojourner in Cambridge, but the memory of that early intimacy is too much
for my sense of proportion. As I have hinted, our intimacy was renewed
afterwards, when I too came to live in New York, where as long as he was
in this 'dolce lome', he hardly let a week go by without passing a long
evening with me. Our talk was still of literature and life, but more of
life than of literature, and we seldom spoke of those old times. I still
found him true to the ideals which had clarified themselves to both of us
as the duty of unswerving fealty to the real thing in whatever we did.
This we felt, as we had felt it long before, to be the sole source of
beauty and of art, and we warmed ourselves at each other's hearts in our
devotion to it, amidst a misunderstanding environment which we did not
characterize by so mild an epithet. Boyesen, indeed, out-realisted me,
in the polemics of our aesthetics, and sometimes when an unbeliever was
by, I willingly left to my friend the affirmation of our faith, not
without some quaking at his unsparing strenuousness in disciplining the
heretic. But now that ardent and active soul is Elsewhere, and I have
ceased even to expect the ring, which, making itself heard at the late
hour of his coming, I knew always to be his and not another's. That
mechanical expectation of those who will come no more is something
terrible, but when even that ceases, we know the irreparability of our
loss, and begin to realize how much of ourselves they have taken with


It was some years before the Boyesen summer, which was the fourth or
fifth of our life in Cambridge, that I made the acquaintance of a man,
very much my senior, who remains one of the vividest personalities in my
recollection. I speak of him in this order perhaps because of an obscure
association with Boyesen through their religious faith, which was also
mine. But Henry James was incommensurably more Swedenborgian than either
of us: he lived and thought and felt Swedenborg with an entirety and
intensity far beyond the mere assent of other men. He did not do this in
any stupidly exclusive way, but in the most luminously inclusive way,
with a constant reference of these vain mundane shadows to the spiritual
realities from which they project. His piety, which sometimes expressed
itself in terms of alarming originality and freedom, was too large for
any ecclesiastical limits, and one may learn from the books which record
it, how absolutely individual his interpretations of Swedenborg were.
Clarifications they cannot be called, and in that other world whose
substantial verity was the inspiration of his life here, the two sages
may by this time have met and agreed to differ as to some points in the
doctrine of the Seer. In such a case, I cannot imagine the apostle
giving way; and I do not say he would be wrong to insist, but I think he
might now be willing to allow that the exegetic pages which sentence by
sentence were so brilliantly suggestive, had sometimes a collective
opacity which the most resolute vision could not penetrate. He put into
this dark wisdom the most brilliant intelligence ever brought to the
service of his mystical faith; he lighted it up with flashes of the
keenest wit and bathed it in the glow of a lambent humor, so that it is
truly wonderful to me how it should remain so unintelligible. But I have
only tried to read certain of his books, and perhaps if I had persisted
in the effort I might have found them all as clear at last as the one
which seems to me the clearest, and is certainly most encouragingly
suggestive: I mean the one called 'Society the Redeemed Form of Man.'

He had his whole being in his belief; it had not only liberated him from
the bonds of the Calvinistic theology in which his youth was trammelled,
but it had secured him against the conscious ethicism of the prevailing
Unitarian doctrine which supremely worshipped Conduct; and it had colored
his vocabulary to such strange effects that he spoke of moral men with
abhorrence; as more hopelessly lost than sinners. Any one whose sphere
tempted him to recognition of the foibles of others, he called the Devil;
but in spite of his perception of such diabolism, he was rather fond of
yielding to it, for he had a most trenchant tongue. I myself once fell
under his condemnation as the Devil, by having too plainly shared his joy
in his characterization of certain fellow-men; perhaps a group of
Bostonians from whom he had just parted and whose reciprocal pleasure of
themselves he presented in the image of "simmering in their own fat and
putting a nice brown on each other."

Swedenborg himself he did not spare as a man. He thought that very
likely his life had those lapses in it which some of his followers deny;
and he regarded him on the aesthetical side as essentially commonplace,
and as probably chosen for his prophetic function just because of his
imaginative nullity: his tremendous revelations could be the more
distinctly and unmistakably inscribed upon an intelligence of that sort,
which alone could render again a strictly literal report of them.

As to some other sorts of believers who thought they had a special
apprehension of the truth, he, had no mercy upon them if they betrayed,
however innocently, any self-complacency in their possession. I went one
evening to call upon him with a dear old Shaker elder, who had the
misfortune to say that his people believed themselves to be living the
angelic life. James fastened upon him with the suggestion that according
to Swedenborg the most celestial angels were unconscious of their own
perfection, and that if the Shakers felt they were of angelic condition
they were probably the sport of the hells. I was very glad to get my
poor old friend off alive, and to find that he was not even aware of
being cut asunder: I did not invite him to shake himself.

With spiritualists James had little or no sympathy; he was not so
impatient of them as the Swedenborgians commonly are, and he probably
acknowledged a measure of verity in the spiritistic phenomena; but he
seemed rather incurious concerning them, and he must have regarded them
as superfluities of naughtiness, mostly; as emanations from the hells.
His powerful and penetrating intellect interested itself with all social
and civil facts through his religion. He was essentially religious, but
he was very consciously a citizen, with most decided opinions upon
political questions. My own darkness as to anything like social reform
was then so dense that I cannot now be clear as to his feeling in such
matters, but I have the impression that it was far more radical than I
could understand. He was of a very merciful mind regarding things often
held in pitiless condemnation, but of charity, as it is commonly
understood, he had misgivings. He would never have turned away from him
that asketh; but he spoke with regret of some of his benefactions in the
past, large gifts of money to individuals, which he now thought had done
more harm than good.

I never knew him to judge men by the society scale. He was most human in
his relations with others, and was in correspondence with all sorts of
people seeking light and help; he answered their letters and tried to
instruct them, and no one was so low or weak but he or she could reach
him on his or her own level, though he had his humorous perception of
their foibles and disabilities; and he had that keen sense of the
grotesque which often goes with the kindliest nature. He told of his
dining, early in life, next a fellow-man from Cape Cod at the Astor
House, where such a man could seldom have found himself. When they were
served with meat this neighbor asked if he would mind his putting his fat
on James's plate: he disliked fat. James said that he considered the
request, and seeing no good reason against it, consented.

He could be cruel with his tongue when he fancied insincerity or
pretence, and then cruelly sorry for the hurt he gave. He was indeed
tremulously sensitive, not only for himself but for others, and would
offer atonement far beyond the measure of the offence he supposed himself
to have given.

At all times he thought originally in words of delightful originality,
which painted a fact with the greatest vividness. Of a person who had a
nervous twitching of the face, and who wished to call up a friend to
them, he said, "He spasmed to the fellow across the room, and introduced
him." His written style had traits of the same bold adventurousness,
but it was his speech which was most captivating. As I write of him I
see him before me: his white bearded face, with a kindly intensity which
at first glance seemed fierce, the mouth humorously shaping the mustache,
the eyes vague behind the glasses; his sensitive hand gripping the stick
on which he rested his weight to ease it from the artificial limb he


The Goethean face and figure of Louis Agassiz were in those days to be
seen in the shady walks of Cambridge to which for me they lent a
Weimarish quality, in the degree that in Weimar itself a few years ago,
I felt a quality of Cambridge. Agassiz, of course, was Swiss and Latin,
and not Teutonic, but he was of the Continental European civilization,
and was widely different from the other Cambridge men in everything but
love of the place. "He is always an Europaen," said Lowell one day, in
distinguishing concerning him; and for any one who had tasted the flavor
of the life beyond the ocean and the channel, this had its charm. Yet he
was extremely fond of his adoptive compatriots, and no alien born had a
truer or tenderer sense of New England character. I have an idea that no
one else of his day could have got so much money for science out of the
General Court of Massachusetts; and I have heard him speak with the
wisest and warmest appreciation of the hard material from which he was
able to extract this treasure. The legislators who voted appropriations
for his Museum and his other scientific objects were not usually lawyers
or professional men, with the perspectives of a liberal education, but
were hard-fisted farmers, who had a grip of the State's money as if it
were their own, and yet gave it with intelligent munificence. They
understood that he did not want it for himself, and had no interested aim
in getting it; they knew that, as he once said, he had no time to make
money, and wished to use it solely for the advancement of learning; and
with this understanding they were ready, to help him generously.
He compared their liberality with that of kings and princes, when these
patronized science, with a recognition of the superior plebeian
generosity. It was on the veranda of his summer house at Nahant, while
he lay in the hammock, talking of this, that I heard him refer also to
the offer which Napoleon III. had made him, inviting him upon certain
splendid conditions to come to Paris after he had established himself in
Cambridge. He said that he had not come to America without going over
every such possibility in his own mind, and deciding beforehand against
it. He was a republican, by nationality and by preference, and was
entirely satisfied with his position and environment in New England.

Outside of his scientific circle in Cambridge he was more friends with
Longfellow than with any one else, I believe, and Longfellow told me how,
after the doctors had condemned Agassiz to inaction, on account of his
failing health he had broken down in his friend's study, and wept like an
'Europaer', and lamented, "I shall never finish my work!" Some papers
which he had begun to write for the Magazine, in contravention of the
Darwinian theory, or part of it, which it is known Agassiz did not
accept, remained part of the work which he never finished. After his
death, I wished Professor Jeffries Wyman to write of him in the Atlantic,
but he excused himself on account of his many labors, and then he
voluntarily spoke of Agassiz's methods, which he agreed with rather than
his theories, being himself thoroughly Darwinian. I think he said
Agassiz was the first to imagine establishing a fact not from a single
example, but from examples indefinitely repeated. If it was a question
of something about robins for instance, he would have a hundred robins
examined before he would receive an appearance as a fact.

Of course no preconception or prepossession of his own was suffered to
bar his way to the final truth he was seeking, and he joyously renounced
even a conclusion if he found it mistaken. I do not know whether Mrs.
Agassiz has put into her interesting life of him, a delightful story
which she told me about him. He came to her beaming one day, and
demanded, "You know I have always held such and such an opinion about a
certain group of fossil fishes?" "Yes, yes!" "Well, I have just been
reading ------'s new book, and he has shown me that there isn't the least
truth in my theory"; and he burst into a laugh of unalloyed pleasure in
relinquishing his error.

I could touch science at Cambridge only on its literary and social side,
of course, and my meetings with Agassiz were not many. I recall a dinner
at his house to Mr. Bret Harte, when the poet came on from California,
and Agassiz approached him over the coffee through their mutual
scientific interest in the last meeting of the geological "Society upon
the Stanislow." He quoted to the author some passages from the poem
recording the final proceedings of this body, which had particularly
pleased him, and I think Mr. Harte was as much amused at finding himself
thus in touch with the savant, as Agassiz could ever have been with that
delicious poem.

Agassiz lived at one end of Quincy Street, and James almost at the other
end, with an interval between them which but poorly typified their
difference of temperament. The one was all philosophical and the other
all scientific, and yet towards the close of his life, Agassiz may be
said to have led that movement towards the new position of science in
matters of mystery which is now characteristic of it. He was ancestrally
of the Swiss "Brahminical caste," as so many of his friends in Cambridge
were of the Brahminical caste of New England; and perhaps it was the line
of ancestral pasteurs which at last drew him back, or on, to the
affirmation of an unformulated faith of his own. At any rate, before
most other savants would say that they had souls of their own he became,
by opening a summer school of science with prayer, nearly as consolatory
to the unscientific who wished to believe they had souls, as Mr. John
Fiske himself, though Mr. Fiske, as the arch-apostle of Darwinism, had
arrived at nearly the same point by such a very different road.

Mr. Fiske had been our neighbor in our first Cambridge home, and when we
went to live in Berkeley Street, he followed with his family and placed
himself across the way in a house which I already knew as the home of
Richard Henry Dana, the author of 'Two Years Before the Mast.' Like
nearly all the other Cambridge men of my acquaintance Dana was very much
my senior, and like the rest he welcomed my literary promise as cordially
as if it were performance, with no suggestion of the condescension which
was said to be his attitude towards many of his fellow-men. I never saw
anything of this, in fact, and I suppose he may have been a blend of
those patrician qualities and democratic principles which made Lowell
anomalous even to himself. He is part of the anti-slavery history of his
time, and he gave to the oppressed his strenuous help both as a man and a
politician; his gifts and learning in the law were freely at their
service. He never lost his interest in those white slaves, whose brutal
bondage he remembered as bound with them in his 'Two Years Before the
Mast,' and any luckless seaman with a case or cause might count upon his
friendship as surely as the black slaves of the South. He was able to
temper his indignation for their oppression with a humorous perception of
what was droll in its agents and circumstances; and I wish I could recall
all that he said once about sea-etiquette on merchant vessels, where the
chief mate might no more speak to the captain at table without being
addressed by him than a subject might put a question to his sovereign.
He was amusing in his stories of the Pacific trade in which he said it
was very noble to deal in furs from the Northwest, and very ignoble to
deal in hides along the Mexican and South American coasts. Every ship's
master wished naturally to be in the fur-carrying trade, and in one of
Dana's instances, two vessels encounter in mid-ocean, and exchange the
usual parley as to their respective ports of departure and destination.
The final demand comes through the trumpet, "What cargo?" and the captain
so challenged yields to temptation and roars back "Furs!" A moment of
hesitation elapses, and then the questioner pursues, "Here and there a

There were other distinctions, of which seafaring men of other days were
keenly sensible, and Dana dramatized the meeting of a great, swelling
East Indiaman, with a little Atlantic trader, which has hailed her. She
shouts back through her captain's trumpet that she is from Calcutta, and
laden with silks, spices, and other orient treasures, and in her turn she
requires like answer from the sail which has presumed to enter into
parley with her. "What cargo?" The trader confesses to a mixed cargo for
Boston, and to the final question, her master replies in meek apology,
"Only from Liverpool, sir!" and scuttles down the horizon as swiftly as

Dana was not of the Cambridge men whose calling was in Cambridge. He was
a lawyer in active practice, and he went every day to Boston. One was
apt to meet him in those horse-cars which formerly tinkled back and forth
between the two cities, and which were often so full of one's
acquaintance that they had all the social elements of an afternoon tea.
They were abusively overcrowded at times, of course, and one might easily
see a prime literary celebrity swaying from, a strap, or hanging uneasily
by the hand-rail to the lower steps of the back platform. I do not mean
that I ever happened to see the author of Two Years Before the Mast in
either fact, but in his celebrity he had every qualification for the
illustration of my point. His book probably carried the American name
farther and wider than any American books except those of Irving and
Cooper at a day when our writers were very little known, and our
literature was the only infant industry not fostered against foreign
ravage, but expressly left to harden and strengthen itself as it best
might in a heartless neglect even at home. The book was delightful, and
I remember it from a reading of thirty years ago, as of the stuff that
classics are made of. I venture no conjecture as to its present
popularity, but of all books relating to the sea I think it, is the best.
The author when I knew him was still Richard Henry Dana, Jr., his father,
the aged poet, who first established the name in the public recognition,
being alive, though past literary activity. It was distinctively a
literary race, and in the actual generation it has given proofs of its
continued literary vitality in the romance of 'Espiritu Santo' by the
youngest daughter of the Dana I knew.


There could be no stronger contrast to him in origin, education, and
character than a man who lived at the same time in Cambridge, and who
produced a book which in its final fidelity to life is not unworthy to be
named with 'Two Years Before the Mast.' Ralph Keeler wrote the 'Vagabond
Adventures' which he had lived. I have it on my heart to name him in the
presence of our great literary men not only because I had an affection
for him, tenderer than I then knew, but because I believe his book is
worthier of more remembrance than it seems to enjoy. I was reading it
only the other day, and I found it delightful, and much better than I
imagined when I accepted for the Atlantic the several papers which it is
made up of. I am not sure but it belongs to the great literature in that
fidelity to life which I have spoken of, and which the author brought
himself to practise with such difficulty, and under so much stress from
his editor. He really wanted to fake it at times, but he was docile at
last and did it so honestly that it tells the history of his strange
career in much better terms than it can be given again. He had been, as
he claimed, "a cruel uncle's ward" in his early orphan-hood, and while
yet almost a child he had run away from home, to fulfil his heart's
desire of becoming a clog-dancer in a troupe of negro minstrels. But it
was first his fate to be cabin-boy and bootblack on a lake steamboat,
and meet with many squalid adventures, scarcely to be matched outside of
a Spanish picaresque novel. When he did become a dancer (and even a
danseuse) of the sort he aspired to be, the fruition of his hopes was so
little what he imagined that he was very willing to leave the Floating
Palace on the Mississippi in which his troupe voyaged and exhibited, and
enter the college of the Jesuit Fathers at Cape Girardeau in Missouri.
They were very good to him, and in their charge he picked up a good deal
more Latin, if not less Greek than another strolling player who also took
to literature. From college Keeler went to Europe, and then to
California, whence he wrote me that he was coming on to Boston with the
manuscript of a novel which he wished me to read for the magazine. I
reported against it to my chief, but nothing could shake Keeler's faith
in it, until he had printed it at his own cost, and known it fail
instantly and decisively. He had come to Cambridge to see it through the
press, and he remained there four or five years, with certain brief
absences. Then, during the Cuban insurrection of the early seventies, he
accepted the invitation of a New York paper to go to Cuba as its

"Don't go, Keeler," I entreated him, when he came to tell me of his
intention. "They'll garrote you down there."

"Well," he said, with the air of being pleasantly interested by the
coincidence, as he stood on my study hearth with his feet wide apart in
a fashion he had, and gayly flirted his hand in the air, "that's what
Aldrich says, and he's agreed to write my biography, on condition that
I make a last dying speech when they bring me out on the plaza to do it,
'If I had taken the advice of my friend T. B. Aldrich, author of
'Marjorie Daw and Other People,' I should not now be in this place.'"

He went, and he did not come back. He was not indeed garroted as his
friends had promised, but he was probably assassinated on the steamer by
which he sailed from Santiago, for he never arrived in Havana, and was
never heard of again.

I now realize that I loved him, though I did as little to show it as men
commonly do. If I am to meet somewhere else the friends who are no
longer here, I should like to meet Ralph Keeler, and I would take some
chances of meeting in a happy place a soul which had by no means kept
itself unspotted, but which in all its consciousness of error, cheerfully
trusted that "the Almighty was not going to scoop any of us." The faith
worded so grotesquely could not have been more simply or humbly affirmed,
and no man I think could have been more helplessly sincere. He had
nothing of that false self-respect which forbids a man to own himself
wrong promptly and utterly when need is; and in fact he owned to some
things in his checkered past which would hardly allow him any sort of
self-respect. He had always an essential gaiety not to be damped by any
discipline, and a docility which expressed itself in cheerful compliance.
"Why do you use bias for opinion?" I demanded, in going over a proof with
him. "Oh, because I'm such an ass--such a bi-ass."

He had a philosophy which he liked to impress with a vivid touch on his
listener's shoulder: "Put your finger on the present moment and enjoy it.
It's the only one you've got, or ever will have." This light and joyous
creature could not but be a Pariah among our Brahmins, and I need not say
that I never met him in any of the great Cambridge houses. I am not sure
that he was a persona grata to every one in my own, for Keeler was framed
rather for men's liking, and Mr. Aldrich and I had our subtleties as to
whether his mind about women was not so Chinese as somewhat to infect his
manner. Keeler was too really modest to be of any rebellious mind
towards the society which ignored him, and of too sweet a cheerfulness to
be greatly vexed by it. He lived on in the house of a suave old actor,
who oddly made his home in Cambridge, and he continued of a harmless
Bohemianism in his daily walk, which included lunches at Boston
restaurants as often as he could get you to let him give them you, if you
were of his acquaintance. On a Sunday he would appear coming out of the
post-office usually at the hour when all cultivated Cambridge was coming
for its letters, and wave a glad hand in air, and shout a blithe
salutation to the friend he had marked for his companion in a morning
stroll. The stroll was commonly over the flats towards Brighton (I do
not know why, except perhaps that it was out of the beat of the better
element) and the talk was mainly of literature, in which he was doing
less than he meant to do, and which he seemed never able quite to feel
was not a branch of the Show Business, and might not be legitimately
worked by like advertising, though he truly loved and honored it.

I suppose it was not altogether a happy life, and Keeler had his moments
of amusing depression, which showed their shadows in his smiling face.
He was of a slight figure and low stature, with hands and feet of almost
womanish littleness. He was very blonde, and his restless eyes were
blue; he wore his yellow beard in whiskers only, which he pulled
nervously but perhaps did not get to droop so much as he wished.


Keeler was a native of Ohio, and there lived at Cambridge when I first
came there an Indianian, more accepted by literary society, who was of
real quality as a poet. Forceythe Willson, whose poem of "The Old
Sergeant" Doctor Holmes used to read publicly in the closing year of the
civil war, was of a Western altitude of figure, and of an extraordinary
beauty of face in an oriental sort. He had large, dark eyes with clouded
whites; his full, silken beard was of a flashing Persian blackness.
He was excessively nervous, to such an extreme that when I first met him
at Longfellow's, he could not hold himself still in his chair. I think
this was an effect of shyness in him, as well as physical, for afterwards
when I went to find him in his own house he was much more at ease.

He preferred to receive me in the dim, large hall after opening his door
to me himself, and we sat down there and talked, I remember, of
supernatural things. He was much interested in spiritualism, and he had
several stories to tell of his own experience in such matters. But none
was so good as one which I had at second hand from Lowell, who thought it
almost the best ghost story he had ever heard. The spirit of Willson's
father appeared to him, and stood before him. Willson was accustomed to
apparitions, and so he said simply, "Won't you sit down, father?" The
phantom put out his hand to lay hold of a chair-back as some people do in
taking a seat, and his shadowy arm passed through the frame-work.
"Ah!" he said, "I forgot that I was not substance."

I do not know whether "The Old Sergeant" is ever read now; it has
probably passed with other great memories of the great war; and I am
afraid none of Willson's other verse is remembered. But he was then a
distinct literary figure, and not to be left out of the count of our
poets. I did not see him again. Shortly afterwards I heard that he had
left Cambridge with signs of consumption, which must have run a rapid
course, for a very little later came the news of his death.


The most devoted Cantabrigian, after Lowell, whom I knew, would perhaps
have contended that if he had stayed with us Willson might have lived;
for John Holmes affirmed a faith in the virtues of the place which
ascribed almost an aseptic character to its air, and when he once
listened to my own complaints of an obstinate cold, he cheered himself,
if not me, with the declaration, "Well, one thing, Mr. Howells, Cambridge
never let a man keep a cold yet!"

If he had said it was better to live in Cambridge with a cold than
elsewhere without one I should have believed him; as it was, Cambridge
bore him out in his assertion, though she took her own time to do it.

Lowell had talked to me of him before I met him, celebrating his peculiar
humor with that affection which was not always so discriminating, and
Holmes was one of the first Cambridge men I knew. I knew him first in
the charming old Colonial house in which his famous brother and he were
born. It was demolished long before I left Cambridge, but in memory it
still stands on the ground since occupied by the Hemenway Gymnasium, and
shows for me through that bulk a phantom frame of Continental buff in the
shadow of elms that are shadows themselves. The 'genius loci' was
limping about the pleasant mansion with the rheumatism which then
expressed itself to his friends in a resolute smile, but which now
insists upon being an essential trait of the full-length presence to my
mind: a short stout figure, helped out with a cane, and a grizzled head
with features formed to win the heart rather than the eye of the

In one of his own eyes there was a cast of such winning humor and
geniality that it took the liking more than any beauty could have done,
and the sweetest, shy laugh in the world went with this cast.

I long wished to get him to write something for the Magazine, and at last
I prevailed with him to review a history of Cambridge which had come out.

He did it charmingly of course, for he loved more to speak of Cambridge
than anything else. He held his native town in an idolatry which was not
blind, but which was none the less devoted because he was aware of her
droll points and her weak points. He always celebrated these as so many
virtues, and I think it was my own passion for her that first commended
me to him. I was not her son, but he felt that this was my misfortune
more than my fault, and he seemed more and more to forgive it. After we
had got upon the terms of editor and contributor, we met oftener than
before, though I do not now remember that I ever persuaded him to write
again for me. Once he gave me something, and then took it back, with a
self-distrust of it which I could not overcome.

When the Holmes house was taken down, he went to live with an old
domestic in a small house on the street amusingly called Appian Way. He
had certain rooms of her, and his own table, but he would not allow that
he was ever anything but a lodger in the place, where he continued till
he died. In the process of time he came so far to trust his experience
of me, that he formed the habit of giving me an annual supper. Some days
before this event, he would appear in my study, and with divers delicate
and tentative approaches, nearly always of the same tenor, he would say
that he should like to ask my family to an oyster supper with him. "But
you know," he would explain, "I haven't a house of my own to ask you to,
and I should like to give you the supper here." When I had agreed to
this suggestion with due gravity, he would inquire our engagements, and
then say, as if a great load were off his mind, "Well, then, I will send
up a few oysters to-morrow," or whatever day we had fixed on; and after a
little more talk to take the strangeness out of the affair, would go his
way. On the day appointed the fish-man would come with several gallons
of oysters, which he reported Mr. Holmes had asked him to bring, and in
the evening the giver of the feast would reappear, with a lank oil-cloth
bag, sagged by some bottles of wine. There was always a bottle of red
wine, and sometimes a bottle of champagne, and he had taken the
precaution to send some crackers beforehand, so that the supper should be
as entirely of his own giving as possible. He was forced to let us do
the cooking and to supply the cold-slaw, and perhaps he indemnified
himself for putting us to these charges and for the use of our linen and
silver, by the vast superfluity of his oysters, with which we remained
inundated for days. He did not care to eat many himself, but seemed
content to fancy doing us a pleasure; and I have known few greater ones
in life, than in the hospitality that so oddly played the host to us at
our own table.

It must have seemed incomprehensible to such a Cantabrigian that we
should ever have been willing to leave Cambridge, and in fact I do not
well understand it myself. But if he resented it, he never showed his
resentment. As often as I happened to meet him after our defection he
used me with unabated kindness, and sparkled into some gaiety too
ethereal for remembrance. The last time I met him was at Lowell's
funeral, when I drove home with him and Curtis and Child, and in the
revulsion from the stress of that saddest event, had our laugh, as people
do in the presence of death, at something droll we remembered of the
friend we mourned.

My nearest literary neighbor, when we lived in Sacramento Street, was the
Rev. Dr. John G. Palfrey, the historian of New England, whose chimney-
tops amid the pine-tops I could see from my study window when the leaves
were off the little grove of oaks between us. He was one of the first of
my acquaintances, not suffering the great disparity of our ages to count
against me, but tactfully and sweetly adjusting himself to my youth in
the friendly intercourse which he invited. He was a most gentle and
kindly old man, with still an interest in liberal things which lasted
till the infirmities of age secluded him from the world and all its
interests. As is known, he had been in his prime one of the foremost of
the New England anti-slavery men, and he had fought the good fight with a
heavy heart for a brother long settled in Louisiana who sided with the
South, and who after the civil war found himself disfranchised. In this
temporary disability he came North to visit Doctor Palfrey upon the
doctor's insistence, though at first he would have nothing to do with
him, and refused even to answer his letters. "Of course," the doctor
said, "I was not going to stand that from my mother's son, and I simply
kept on writing." So he prevailed, but the fiery old gentleman from
Louisiana was reconciled to nothing in the North but his brother, and
when he came to return my visit, he quickly touched upon his cause of
quarrel with us. "I can't vote," he declared, "but my coachman can, and
I don't know how I'm to get the suffrage, unless my physician paints me
all over with the iodine he's using for my rheumatic side."

Doctor Palfrey was most distinctly of the Brahminical caste and was long
an eminent Unitarian minister, but at the time I began to know him he had
long quitted the pulpit. He was so far of civic or public character as
to be postmaster at Boston, when we were first neighbors, but this
officiality was probably so little in keeping with his nature that it was
like a return to his truer self when he ceased to hold the place, and
gave his time altogether to his history. It is a work which will hardly
be superseded in the interest of those who value thorough research and
temperate expression. It is very just, and without endeavor for picture
or drama it is to me very attractive. Much that has to be recorded of
New England lacks charm, but he gave form and dignity and presence to the
memories of the past, and the finer moments of that great story, he gave
with the simplicity that was their best setting. It seems to me such an
apology (in the old sense) as New England might have written for herself,
and in fact Doctor Palfrey was a personification of New England in one of
the best and truest kinds. He was refined in the essential gentleness of
his heart without being refined away; he kept the faith of her Puritan
tradition though he no longer kept the Puritan faith, and his defence of
the Puritan severity with the witches and Quakers was as impartial as it
was efficient in positing the Puritans as of their time, and rather
better and not worse than other people of the same time. He was himself
a most tolerant man, and his tolerance was never weak or fond; it stopped
well short of condoning error, which he condemned when he preferred to
leave it to its own punishment. Personally he was without any flavor of
harshness; his mind was as gentle as his manner, which was one of the
gentlest I have ever known.

Of as gentle make but of more pensive temper, with unexpected bursts of
lyrical gaiety, was Christopher Pearse Cranch, the poet, whom I had known
in New York long before he came to live in Cambridge. He could not only
play and sing most amusing songs, but he wrote very good poems and
painted pictures perhaps not so good. I always liked his Venetian
pictures, for their poetic, unsentimentalized veracity, and I printed as
well as liked many of his poems. During the time that I knew him more
than his due share of troubles and sorrows accumulated themselves on his
fine head, which the years had whitened, and gave a droop to the
beautiful, white-bearded face. But he had the artist soul and the poet
heart, and no doubt he could take refuge in these from the cares that
shadowed his visage. My acquaintance with him in Cambridge renewed
itself upon the very terms of its beginning in New York. We met at
Longfellow's table, where he lifted up his voice in the Yankee folk-song,
"On Springfield Mountain there did dwell," which he gave with a perfectly
killing mock-gravity.


At Cambridge the best society was better, it seems to me, than even that
of the neighboring capital. It would be rather hard to prove this, and I
must ask the reader to take my word for it, if he wishes to believe it.
The great interests in that pleasant world, which I think does not
present itself to my memory in a false iridiscence, were the intellectual
interests, and all other interests were lost in these to such as did not
seek them too insistently.

People held themselves high; they held themselves personally aloof from
people not duly assayed; their civilization was still Puritan though
their belief had long ceased to be so. They had weights and measure,
stamped in an earlier time, a time surer of itself than ours, by which
they rated the merit of all comers, and rejected such as did not bear the
test. These standards were their own, and they were satisfied with them;
most Americans have no standards of their own, but these are not
satisfied even with other people's, and so our society is in a state of
tolerant and tremulous misgiving.

Family counted in Cambridge, without doubt, as it counts in New England
everywhere, but family alone did not mean position, and the want of
family did not mean the want of it. Money still less than family
commanded; one could be openly poor in Cambridge without open shame, or
shame at all, for no one was very rich there, and no one was proud of his

I do not wonder that Turguenieff thought the conditions ideal, as Boyesen
portrayed them to him; and I look back at my own life there with wonder
at my good fortune. I was sensible, and I still am sensible this had its
alloys. I was young and unknown and was making my way, and I had to
suffer some of the penalties of these disadvantages; but I do not believe
that anywhere else in this ill-contrived economy, where it is vainly
imagined that the material struggle forms a high incentive and
inspiration, would my penalties have been so light. On the other hand,
the good that was done me I could never repay if I lived all over again
for others the life that I have so long lived for myself. At times, when
I had experienced from those elect spirits with whom I was associated,
some act of friendship, as signal as it was delicate, I used to ask
myself, how I could ever do anything unhandsome or ungenerous towards any
one again; and I had a bad conscience the next time I did it.

The air of the Cambridge that I knew was sufficiently cool to be bracing,
but what was of good import in me flourished in it. The life of the
place had its lateral limitations; sometimes its lights failed to detect
excellent things that lay beyond it; but upward it opened illimitably.
I speak of it frankly because that life as I witnessed it is now almost
wholly of the past. Cambridge is still the home of much that is good and
fine in our literature: one realizes this if one names Colonel Thomas
Wentworth Higginson, Mr. John Fiske, Mr. William James, Mr. Horace E.
Scudder, not to name any others, but the first had not yet come back to
live in his birthplace at the time I have been writing of, and the rest
had not yet their actual prominence. One, in deed among so many absent,
is still present there, whom from time to time I have hitherto named
without offering him the recognition which I should have known an
infringement of his preferences. But the literary Cambridge of thirty
years ago could not be clearly imagined or justly estimated without
taking into account the creative sympathy of a man whose contributions to
our literature only partially represent what he has constantly done for
the humanities. I am sure that, after the easy heroes of the day are
long forgot, and the noisy fames of the strenuous life shall dwindle to
their essential insignificance before those of the gentle life, we shall
all see in Charles Eliot Norton the eminent scholar who left the quiet of
his books to become our chief citizen at the moment when he warned his
countrymen of the ignominy and disaster of doing wrong.


Collective opacity
Expectation of those who will come no more
Felt that this was my misfortune more than my fault
Found life was not all poetry
He had no time to make money
Intellectual poseurs
No time to make money
NYC, a city where money counts for more and goes for less
One could be openly poor in Cambridge without open shame
Put your finger on the present moment and enjoy it
Standards were their own, and they were satisfied with them
Wonderful to me how it should remain so unintelligible


by William Dean Howells


It is doubtful whether the survivor of any order of things finds
compensation in the privilege, however undisputed by his contemporaries,
of recording his memories of it. This is, in the first two or three
instances, a pleasure. It is sweet to sit down, in the shade or by the
fire, and recall names, looks, and tones from the past; and if the
Absences thus entreated to become Presences are those of famous people,
they lend to the fond historian a little of their lustre, in which he
basks for the time with an agreeable sense of celebrity. But another
time comes, and comes very soon, when the pensive pleasure changes to the
pain of duty, and the precious privilege converts itself into a grievous
obligation. You are unable to choose your company among those immortal
shades; if one, why not another, where all seem to have a right to such
gleams of this 'dolce lome' as your reminiscences can shed upon them?
Then they gather so rapidly, as the years pass, in these pale realms,
that one, if one continues to survive, is in danger of wearing out such
welcome, great or small, as met ones recollections in the first two or
three instances, if one does one's duty by each. People begin to say,
and not without reason, in a world so hurried and wearied as this: "Ah,
here he is again with his recollections!" Well, but if the recollections
by some magical good-fortune chance to concern such a contemporary of his
as, say, Bret Harte, shall not he be partially justified, or at least


My recollections of Bret Harte begin with the arrest, on the Atlantic
shore, of that progress of his from the Pacific Slope, which, in the
simple days of 1871, was like the progress of a prince, in the universal
attention and interest which met and followed it. He was indeed a
prince, a fairy prince in whom every lover of his novel and enchanting
art felt a patriotic property, for his promise and performance in those
earliest tales of 'The Luck of Roaring Camp', and 'Tennessee's Partner',
and 'Maggles', and 'The Outcasts of Poker Flat', were the earnests of an
American literature to come. If it is still to come, in great measure,
that is not Harte's fault, for he kept on writing those stories, in one
form or another, as long as he lived. He wrote them first and last in
the spirit of Dickens, which no man of his time could quite help doing,
but he wrote them from the life of Bret Harte, on the soil and in the air
of the newest kind of new world, and their freshness took the soul of his
fellow-countrymen not only with joy, but with pride such as the
Europeans, who adored him much longer, could never know in him.

When the adventurous young editor who had proposed being his host for
Cambridge and the Boston neighborhood, while Harte was still in San
Francisco, and had not yet begun his princely progress eastward, read of
the honors that attended his coming from point to point, his courage
fell, as if he had perhaps, committed himself in too great an enterprise.
Who was he, indeed, that he should think of making this

"Dear son of memory, great heir of fame,"

his guest, especially when he heard that in Chicago Harte failed of
attending a banquet of honor because the givers of it had not sent a
carriage to fetch him to it, as the alleged use was in San Francisco?
Whether true or not, and it was probably not true in just that form,
it must have been this rumor which determined his host to drive into
Boston for him with the handsomest hack which the livery of Cambridge
afforded, and not trust to the horse-car and the local expressman to get
him and his baggage out, as he would have done with a less portentous
guest. However it was, he instantly lost all fear when they met at the
station, and Harte pressed forward with his cordial hand-clasp, as if he
were not even a fairy prince, and with that voice and laugh which were
surely the most winning in the world. He was then, as always, a child of
extreme fashion as to his clothes and the cut of his beard, which he wore
in a mustache and the drooping side-whiskers of the day, and his jovial
physiognomy was as winning as his voice, with its straight nose and
fascinating thrust of the under lip, its fine eyes, and good forehead,
then thickly crowned with the black hair which grew early white, while
his mustache remained dark the most enviable and consoling effect
possible in the universal mortal necessity of either aging or dying.
He was, as one could not help seeing, thickly pitted, but after the first
glance one forgot this, so that a lady who met him for the first time
could say to him, "Mr. Harte, aren't you afraid to go about in the cars
so recklessly when there is this scare about smallpox?" "No, madam," he
could answer in that rich note of his, with an irony touched by pseudo-
pathos, "I bear a charmed life."

The drive out from Boston was not too long for getting on terms of
personal friendship with the family which just filled the hack, the two
boys intensely interested in the novelties of a New England city and
suburb, and the father and mother continually exchanging admiration of
such aspects of nature as presented themselves in the leafless sidewalk
trees, and patches of park and lawn. They found everything so fine, so
refined, after the gigantic coarseness of California, where the natural
forms were so vast that one could not get on companionable terms with
them. Their host heard them without misgiving for the world of romance
which Harte had built up among those huge forms, and with a subtle
perception that this was no excursion of theirs to the East, but a
lifelong exodus from the exile which he presently understood they must
always have felt California to be. It is different now, when people are
every day being born in California, and must begin to feel it home from
the first breath, but it is notable that none of the Californians of that
great early day have gone back to live amid the scenes which inspired and
prospered them.

Before they came in sight of the editor's humble roof he had mocked
himself to his guest for his trepidations, and Harte with burlesque
magnanimity had consented to be for that occasion only something less
formidable than he had loomed afar. He accepted with joy the theory of
passing a week in the home of virtuous poverty, and the week began as
delightfully as it went on. From first to last Cambridge amused him as
much as it charmed him by that air of academic distinction which was
stranger to him even than the refined trees and grass. It has already
been told how, after a list of the local celebrities had been recited to
him, he said, "why, you couldn't stand on your front porch and fire off
your revolver without bringing down a two volumer," and no doubt the
pleasure he had in it was the effect of its contrast with the wild
California he had known, and perhaps, when he had not altogether known
it, had invented.


Cambridge began very promptly to show him those hospitalities which he
could value, and continued the fable of his fairy princeliness in the
curiosity of those humbler admirers who could not hope to be his hosts or
his fellow-guests at dinner or luncheon. Pretty presences in the tie-
backs of the period were seen to flit before the home of virtuous
poverty, hungering for any chance sight of him which his outgoings or
incomings might give. The chances were better with the outgoings than
with the incomings, for these were apt to be so hurried, in the final
result of his constitutional delays, as to have the rapidity of the
homing pigeon's flight, and to afford hardly a glimpse to the quickest
eye. It cannot harm him, or any one now, to own that Harte was nearly
always late for those luncheons and dinners which he was always going out
to, and it needed the anxieties and energies of both families to get him
into his clothes, and then into the carriage where a good deal of final
buttoning must have been done, in order that he might not arrive so very
late. He was the only one concerned who was quite unconcerned; his
patience with his delays was inexhaustible; he arrived at the expected
houses smiling, serenely jovial, radiating a bland gaiety from his whole
person, and ready to ignore any discomfort he might have occasioned.

Of course, people were glad to have him on his own terms, and it may be
truly said that it was worth while to have him on any terms. There never
was a more charming companion, an easier or more delightful guest.

It was not from what he said, for he was not much of a talker, and almost
nothing of a story-teller; but he could now and then drop the fittest
word, and with a glance or smile of friendly intelligence express the
appreciation of another's fit word which goes far to establish for a man
the character of boon humorist. It must be said of him that if he took
the honors easily that were paid him he took them modestly, and never by
word or look invited them, or implied that he expected them. It was fine
to see him humorously accepting the humorous attribution of scientific
sympathies from Agassiz, in compliment of his famous epic describing the
incidents that "broke up the society upon the Stanislow." It was a
little fearsome to hear him frankly owning to Lowell his dislike for
something over-literary in the phrasing of certain verses of 'The
Cathedral.' But Lowell could stand that sort of thing from a man who
could say the sort of things that Harte said to him of that delicious
line picturing the bobolink as he

"Runs down a brook of laughter in the air."

This, Harte told him, was the line he liked best of all his lines, and
Lowell smoked well content with the praise. Yet they were not men to get
on easily together, Lowell having limitations in directions where Harte
had none. Afterward in London they did not meet often or willingly.
Lowell owned the brilliancy and uncommonness of Harte's gift, while he
sumptuously surfeited his passion of finding everybody more or less a Jew
by finding that Harte was at least half a Jew on his father's side; he
had long contended for the Hebraicism of his name.

With all his appreciation of the literary eminences whom Fields used to
class together as "the old saints," Harte had a spice of irreverence that
enabled him to take them more ironically than they might have liked, and
to see the fun of a minor literary man's relation to them. Emerson's
smoking amused him, as a Jovian self-indulgence divinely out of character
with so supreme a god, and he shamelessly burlesqued it, telling how
Emerson at Concord had proposed having a "wet night" with him over a
glass of sherry, and had urged the scant wine upon his young friend with
a hospitable gesture of his cigar. But this was long after the Cambridge
episode, in which Longfellow alone escaped the corrosive touch of his
subtle irreverence, or, more strictly speaking, had only the effect of
his reverence. That gentle and exquisitely modest dignity, of
Longfellow's he honored with as much veneration as it was in him to
bestow, and he had that sense of Longfellow's beautiful and perfected art
which is almost a test of a critic's own fineness.


As for Harte's talk, it was mostly ironical, not to the extreme of
satire, but tempered to an agreeable coolness even for the things he
admired. He did not apparently care to hear himself praised, but he
could very accurately and perfectly mark his discernment of excellence in
others. He was at times a keen observer of nature and again not,
apparently. Something was said before him and Lowell of the beauty of
his description of a rabbit, startled with fear among the ferns, and
lifting its head with the pulsation of its frightened heart visibly
shaking it; then the talk turned on the graphic homeliness of Dante's
noticing how the dog's skin moves upon it, and Harte spoke of the
exquisite shudder with which a horse tries to rid itself of a fly.

But once again, when an azalea was shown to him as the sort of bush that
Sandy drunkenly slept under in 'The Idyl of Iced Gulch', he asked, "Why,
is that an azalea?" To be sure, this might have been less from his
ignorance or indifference concerning the quality of the bush he had sent
Sandy to sleep under than from his willingness to make a mock of an
azalea in a very small pot, so disproportionate to uses which an azalea
of Californian size could easily lend itself to.

You never could be sure of Harte; he could only by chance be caught in
earnest about anything or anybody. Except for those slight recognitions
of literary, traits in his talk with Lowell, nothing remained from his
conversation but the general criticism he passed upon his brilliant
fellow-Hebrew Heine, as "rather scorbutic." He preferred to talk about
the little matters of common incident and experience. He amused himself
with such things as the mystification of the postman of whom he asked his
way to Phillips Avenue, where he adventurously supposed his host to be
living. "Why," the postman said, "there is no Phillips Avenue in
Cambridge. There's Phillips Place." "Well," Harte assented, "Phillips
Place will do; but there is a Phillips Avenue." He entered eagerly into
the canvass of the distinctions and celebrities asked to meet him at the
reception made for him, but he had even a greater pleasure in
compassionating his host for the vast disparity between the caterer's
china and plated ware and the simplicities and humilities of the home of
virtuous poverty; and he spluttered with delight at the sight of the
lofty 'epergnes' set up and down the supper-table when he was brought in
to note the preparations made in his honor. Those monumental structures
were an inexhaustible joy to him; he walked round and round the room, and
viewed them in different perspectives, so as to get the full effect of
the towering forms that dwarfed it so.

He was a tease, as many a sweet and fine wit is apt to be, but his
teasing was of the quality of a caress, so much kindness went with it.
He lamented as an irreparable loss his having missed seeing that night an
absent-minded brother in literature, who came in rubber shoes, and
forgetfully wore them throughout the evening. That hospitable soul of
Ralph Keeler, who had known him in California, but had trembled for their
acquaintance when he read of all the honors that might well have spoiled
Harte for the friends of his simpler days, rejoiced in the unchanged
cordiality of his nature when they met, and presently gave him one of
those restaurant lunches in Boston, which he was always sumptuously
providing out of his destitution. Harte was the life of a time which was
perhaps less a feast of reason than a flow of soul. The truth is, there
was nothing but careless stories carelessly told, and jokes and laughing,
and a great deal of mere laughing without the jokes, the whole as unlike
the ideal of a literary symposium as well might be; but there was present
one who met with that pleasant Boston company for the first time, and to
whom Harte attributed a superstition of Boston seriousness not realized
then and there. "Look at him," he said, from time to time. "This is the
dream of his life," and then shouted and choked with fun at the
difference between the occasion and the expectation he would have
imagined in his commensal's mind. At a dinner long after in London,
where several of the commensals of that time met again, with other
literary friends of a like age and stature, Harte laid his arms well
along their shoulders as they formed in a half-circle before him, and
screamed out in mocking mirth at the bulbous favor to which the slim
shapes of the earlier date had come. The sight was not less a rapture to
him that he was himself the prey of the same practical joke from the
passing years. The hair which the years had wholly swept from some of
those thoughtful brows, or left spindling autumnal spears, "or few or
none," to "shake against the cold," had whitened to a wintry snow on his,
while his mustache had kept its youthful black. "He looks," one of his
friends said to another as they walked home together, "like a French
marquis of the ancien regime." "Yes," the other assented, thoughtfully,
"or like an American actor made up for the part."

The saying closely fitted the outward fact, but was of a subtle injustice
in its implication of anything histrionic in Harte's nature. Never was
any man less a 'poseur'; he made simply and helplessly known what he was
at any and every moment, and he would join the witness very cheerfully in
enjoying whatever was amusing in the disadvantage to himself. In the
course of events, which were in his case so very human, it came about on
a subsequent visit of his to Boston that an impatient creditor decided to
right himself out of the proceeds of the lecture which was to be given,
and had the law corporeally present at the house of the friend where
Harte dined, and in the anteroom at the lecture-hall, and on the
platform, where the lecture was delivered with beautiful aplomb and
untroubled charm. He was indeed the only one privy to the law's presence
who was not the least affected by it, so that when his host of an earlier
time ventured to suggest, "Well, Harte, this is the old literary
tradition; this is the Fleet business over again," he joyously smote his
thigh and crowed out, "Yes, the Fleet!" No doubt he tasted all the
delicate humor of the situation, and his pleasure in it was quite

If his temperament was not adapted to the harsh conditions of the elder
American world, it might very well be that his temperament was not
altogether in the wrong. If it disabled him for certain experiences of
life, it was the source of what was most delightful in his personality,
and perhaps most beautiful in his talent. It enabled him to do such
things as he did without being at all anguished for the things he did not
do, and indeed could not. His talent was not a facile gift; he owned
that he often went day after day to his desk, and sat down before that
yellow post-office paper on which he liked to write his literature, in
that exquisitely refined script of his, without being able to inscribe a
line. It may be owned for him that though he came to the East at thirty-
four, which ought to have been the very prime of his powers, he seemed to
have arrived after the age of observation was past for him. He saw
nothing aright, either in Newport, where he went to live, or in New York,
where he sojourned, or on those lecturing tours which took him about the
whole country; or if he saw it aright, he could not report it aright, or
would not. After repeated and almost invariable failures to deal with
the novel characters and circumstances which he encountered he left off
trying, and frankly went back to the semi-mythical California he had half
discovered, half created, and wrote Bret Harte over and over as long as
he lived. This, whether he did it from instinct or from reason, was the
best thing he could do, and it went as nearly as might be to satisfy the
insatiable English fancy for the wild America no longer to be found on
our map.

It is imaginable of Harte that this temperament defended him from any
bitterness in the disappointment he may have shared with that simple
American public which in the early eighteen-seventies expected any and
everything of him in fiction and drama. The long breath was not his; he
could not write a novel, though he produced the like of one or two, and
his plays were too bad for the stage, or else too good for it. At any
rate, they could not keep it, even when they got it, and they denoted the
fatigue or the indifference of their author in being dramatizations of
his longer or shorter fictions, and not originally dramatic efforts.
The direction in which his originality lasted longest, and most
strikingly affirmed his power, was in the direction of his verse.

Whatever minds there may be about Harte's fiction finally, there can
hardly be more than one mind about his poetry. He was indeed a poet;
whether he wrote what drolly called itself "dialect," or wrote language,
he was a poet of a fine and fresh touch. It must be allowed him that in
prose as well he had the inventive gift, but he had it in verse far more
importantly. There are lines, phrases, turns in his poems,
characterizations, and pictures which will remain as enduringly as
anything American, if that is not saying altogether too little for them.
In poetry he rose to all the occasions he made for himself, though he
could not rise to the occasions made for him, and so far failed in the
demands he acceded to for a Phi Beta Kappa poem, as to come to that
august Harvard occasion with a jingle so trivial, so out of keeping, so
inadequate that his enemies, if he ever truly had any, must have suffered
from it almost as much as his friends. He himself did not suffer from
his failure, from having read before the most elect assembly of the
country a poem which would hardly have served the careless needs of an
informal dinner after the speaking had begun; he took the whole
disastrous business lightly, gayly, leniently, kindly, as that golden
temperament of his enabled him to take all the good or bad of life.

The first year of his Eastern sojourn was salaried in a sum which took
the souls of all his young contemporaries with wonder, if no baser
passion, in the days when dollars were of so much farther flight than
now, but its net result in a literary return to his publishers was one
story and two or three poems. They had not profited much by his book,
which, it will doubtless amaze a time of fifty thousand editions selling
before their publication, to learn had sold only thirty-five hundred in
the sixth month of its career, as Harte himself,

"With sick and scornful looks averse,"

confided to his Cambridge host after his first interview with the Boston
counting-room. It was the volume which contained "The Luck of Roaring
Camp," and the other early tales which made him a continental, and then
an all but a world-wide fame. Stories that had been talked over, and
laughed over, and cried over all up and down the land, that had been
received with acclaim by criticism almost as boisterous as their
popularity, and recognized as the promise of greater things than any done
before in their kind, came to no more than this pitiful figure over the
booksellers' counters. It argued much for the publishers that in spite
of this stupefying result they were willing, they were eager, to pay him
ten thousand dollars for whatever, however much or little, he chose to
write in a year: Their offer was made in Boston, after some offers
mortifyingly mean, and others insultingly vague, had been made in New

It was not his fault that their venture proved of such slight return in
literary material. Harte was in the midst of new and alien conditions,
--[See a corollary in M. Froude who visited the U.S. for a few months and
then published a comprehensive analysis of the nation and its people.
Twain's rebuttal (Mr. Froude's Progress) would have been 'a propos' for
Harte in Cambridge. D.W.]--and he had always his temperament against
him, as well as the reluctant if not the niggard nature of his muse. He
would no doubt have been only too glad to do more than he did for the
money, but actually if not literally he could not do more. When it came
to literature, all the gay improvidence of life forsook him, and be
became a stern, rigorous, exacting self-master, who spared himself
nothing to achieve the perfection at which he aimed. He was of the order
of literary men like Goldsmith and De Quincey, and Sterne and Steele, in
his relations with the outer world, but in his relations with the inner
world he was one of the most duteous and exemplary citizens. There was
nothing of his easy-going hilarity in that world; there he was of a
Puritanic severity, and of a conscience that forgave him no pang. Other
California writers have testified to the fidelity with which he did his
work as editor. He made himself not merely the arbiter but the
inspiration of his contributors, and in a region where literature had
hardly yet replaced the wild sage-brush of frontier journalism, he made
the sand-lots of San Francisco to blossom as the rose, and created a
literary periodical of the first class on the borders of civilization.

It is useless to wonder now what would have been his future if the
publisher of the Overland Monthly had been of imagination or capital
enough to meet the demand which Harte dimly intimated to his Cambridge
host as the condition of his remaining in California. Publishers, men
with sufficient capital, are of a greatly varying gift in the regions of
prophecy, and he of the Overland Monthly was not to be blamed if he could
not foresee his account in paying Harte ten thousand a year to continue
editing the magazine. He did according to his lights, and Harte came to
the East, and then went to England, where his last twenty-five years were
passed in cultivating the wild plant of his Pacific Slope discovery. It
was always the same plant, leaf and flower and fruit, but it perennially
pleased the constant English world, and thence the European world, though
it presently failed of much delighting these fastidious States. Probably
he would have done something else if he could; he did not keep on doing
the wild mining-camp thing because it was the easiest, but because it was
for him the only possible thing. Very likely he might have preferred not
doing anything.


The joyous visit of a week, which has been here so poorly recovered from
the past, came to an end, and the host went with his guest to the station
in as much vehicular magnificence as had marked his going to meet him
there. Harte was no longer the alarming portent of the earlier time, but
an experience of unalloyed delight. You must love a person whose worst
trouble-giving was made somehow a favor by his own unconsciousness of the
trouble, and it was a most flattering triumph to have got him in time, or
only a little late, to so many luncheons and dinners. If only now he
could be got to the train in time the victory would be complete, the
happiness of the visit without a flaw. Success seemed to crown the
fondest hope in this respect. The train had not yet left the station;
there stood the parlor-car which Harte had seats in; and he was followed
aboard for those last words in which people try to linger out pleasures
they have known together. In this case the sweetest of the pleasures had
been sitting up late after those dinners, and talking them over, and then
degenerating from that talk into the mere giggle and making giggle which
Charles Lamb found the best thing in life. It had come to this as the
host and guest sat together for those parting moments, when Harte
suddenly started up in the discovery of having forgotten to get some
cigars. They rushed out of the train together, and after a wild descent
upon the cigar-counter of the restaurant, Harte rushed back to his car.
But by this time the train was already moving with that deceitful
slowness of the departing train, and Harte had to clamber up the steps of
the rearmost platform. His host clambered after, to make sure that he
was aboard, which done, he dropped to the ground, while Harte drew out of
the station, blandly smiling, and waving his hand with a cigar in it, in
picturesque farewell from the platform.

Then his host realized that he had dropped to the ground barely in time
to escape being crushed against the side of the archway that sharply
descended beside the steps of the train, and he went and sat down in that
handsomest hack, and was for a moment deathly sick at the danger that had
not realized itself to him in season. To be sure, he was able, long
after, to adapt the incident to the exigencies of fiction, and to have a
character, not otherwise to be conveniently disposed of, actually crushed
to death between a moving train and such an archway.

Besides, he had then and always afterward, the immense super-compensation
of the memories of that visit from one of the most charming personalities
in the world,

"In life's morning march when his bosom was young,"

and when infinitely less would have sated him. Now death has come to
join its vague conjectures to the broken expectations of life, and that
blithe spirit is elsewhere. But nothing can take from him who remains
the witchery of that most winning presence. Still it looks smiling from
the platform of the car, and casts a farewell of mock heartbreak from it.
Still a gay laugh comes across the abysm of the years that are now
numbered, and out of somewhere the hearer's sense is rapt with the mellow
cordial of a voice that was like no other.

[This last paragraph reminds one again that, as with Holmes: a great poet
writes the best prose. D.W.]


Back to Full Books