Eugene Field, A Study In Heredity And Contradictions
Part 2 out of 5
Tufts over their not infrequent delinquencies. The story is told in
Monson that the boys, under the leadership of Field, built a "moated
castle" of tree-trunks and brushwood in a well-nigh inaccessible part
of these woods. Thence they sallied forth on their imaginary forays and
thither they retired when in disgrace with Mr. Tufts. Around this
retreat they dug a deep trench, which they covered artfully with boughs
and dead leaves. Then they beguiled their reverend preceptor into
chasing them to their "mountain fastness." Lightly they skipped across
the concealed moat on the only firm ground they had purposely left,
leaving him in the moment of exultant success to plunge neck deep into
a tangled mass of brushwood and mud. In such playful ways as these
Field endeared himself to the frequent forgiveness of Mr. Tufts. "It
was impossible," said Mr. Tufts to me, "to cherish anger against a
pupil whose contrition was as profuse and whimsical as his
transgressions were frequent. The boys were boys."
Of Eugene's education when he came to Monson Mr. Tufts testifies: "In
his studies he was about fitted for an ordinary high school, except in
arithmetic. He had read a little Latin--enough to commence Caesar. I
found him about an average boy in his lessons, not dull, but not a
quick and ready scholar like his father, who graduated from Middlebury
College at the age of fifteen, strong and athletic. He did not seem to
care much for his books or his lessons anyway, but was inclined to get
along as easily as he could, partly on account of his delicate health,
which made close study irksome, and partly because his mind was very
juvenile and undeveloped. His health improved gradually, while his
interest in his studies increased slowly but steadily. Judge Forbes, of
Westboro, for a time his room-mate and a remarkable scholar, remarked
on reading his journal that his chum occasionally took up his book for
study when his teacher came around, though he was not always particular
which side up his book was. And so it was through life."
But Eugene did improve in his scholarship, and during the last six
months before leaving to enter Williams College, in 1868, Mr. Tufts
says he did seem "to catch something of the spirit of Cicero and Virgil
and Homer [where was Horace?], and to catch a little ambition for an
education." His gentle preceptor thus summed up the characteristics of
the youth he was trying to fit for college:
"Eugene gave little if any indications of becoming a poet, or such
a poet as he was, or even a superior writer, in his youth. He was
always, however bright and lively in conversation, abounding in wit,
self-possessed, and never laughing at his own jokes, showing, too, some
of that exhaustless fountain of humor in which he afterward excelled.
But he did not like confinement or close application, nor did he have
patience to correct and improve what he wrote, as he afterward did when
his taste was more cultivated. In declamation Eugene always excelled,
reciting with marked effect 'Spartacus,' 'The Soldier of the Legion,'
and 'The Dream of Clarence' from Shakespeare. He inherited from his
father a rich, strong, musical, and sympathetic voice, which made him a
pleasant speaker and afterward a successful public reader. He very
naturally excelled in conversation at table and in getting up little
comic almanacs, satirizing the boys, but always in good-humor, never
descending to anything bitter or vulgar. Indeed, in all his fun, he
showed ever a certain purity and nobility of character."
On one occasion, Eugene wearied of the persistent efforts of Mr. Tufts
to place his feet on the first rung of the ladder to learning, and
started off afoot for his home in Amherst. He followed the railway
track, counting the ties for twenty-five miles, and arrived, thoroughly
exhausted, full of contrition, and ready to take the first train back
to school. This was probably the most severe physical effort of Eugene
Mr. Tufts says that Field was "by nature and by his training, too,
respectful toward religion and religious people, being at one time here
[Monson] considerably moved and interested personally in a religious
awakening, and speaking earnestly in meeting and urging the young to a
religious life. Great credit for the remarkable success of Eugene is
due to his Aunt Jones, Miss Mary French, and his guardian, Professor
John Burgess, who were a continual and living influence about him until
he arrived at maturity."
In 1868, at the age when his father was admitted to the bar of Vermont,
Eugene Field, according to Mr. Tufts, was barely able to pass the
examination for entrance at Williams "with some conditions." The only
evidence preserved in the books of the college that he passed at all is
the following entry:
Eugene Field, aged 18, September 5, 1868, son of R.M. Field,
[Illustration: THE REV. JAMES TUFTS.]
Among the professors and residents of Williamstown there is scarcely a
tradition or trace of his presence. He did not fit into the treadmill
of daily lessons and lectures. He was impatient of routine and
discipline. There is a story extant, which is a self-evident
fabrication, that President Mark Hopkins, meeting him on the street one
day, asked him how he was getting along with his studies. Field replied
that he was doing very well. Thereupon President Hopkins, in kindly
humor, remarked: "I am glad to hear it, for, remember, you have the
reputation of three universities to maintain." This apocryphal story is
greatly relished in Williamstown, where, among the professors, there
seems to linger a strange feeling of resentment that Field was not
recognized as possessing the budding promise that is better worth
cultivating than the mediocrity of the ninety-and-nine orderly youths
who pursue the uneventful tenor of college life to a diploma--and are
never heard of afterward. There is a bare possibility, however, that
President Hopkins might have referred to the fact that Eugene's
grandfather held an A.B. from Williams and the honorary degree of A.M.
from Dartmouth, while his father was an alumnus of Middlebury. It is
more probably an after--and a merry--thought built upon Field's own
unfinished career at Williams, Knox, and the University of Missouri.
From personal inquiry at Williamstown I find that none of the
professors at Williams saw an encouraging gleam of aptitude for
anything in the big-eyed, shambling youth whom Mr. Tufts had
assiduously coached to meet the requirements of matriculation. There is
a shadowy tradition that he did fairly well in his Latin themes when
the subject suited his fancy, but his fancy more often led him to a
sporting resort, kept by an ex-pugilist named Pettit, where he took a
hand in billiards and made awkward essays with the boxing-gloves. Of
course there is the inevitable yarn of a college town that he became so
conceited over his skill in the manly art that he ventured to "stand
up" before Pettit, to the bloody disfigurement of his countenance and
the humiliation of his pride. If this is true, the lesson lasted him
all his life, for a less combative adult than Eugene Field never
graduated from an American college. He had a physical as well as a
moral antipathy to personal participation in anything involving bodily
danger or violence.
Even then Field possessed the wit and the plentiful lack of reverence
for the conventionalities of life that must have rendered him both
intolerable and incomprehensible to a body of serious-minded and
necessarily conventional professors. The very traits that subsequently
made him the most entertaining comrade in the world provoked only
consternation and uneasiness at Williams. This eventually led President
Hopkins to inform Mr. Tufts privately that it might be well for his
pupil, as certainly it would conduce to the orderly life of
Williamstown, if he would run up from Monson and persuade Eugene to
return home with him. There was no dismissal, rustication, or official
reprimand of Eugene Field by the ever-honored President Hopkins. Field
simply faded out of the annals and class of 1872, as if he had never
been entered at Williams.
Memories of Eugene Field are not as thick at Williamstown as
blackberries on the Pelham hills. President Carter does not cherish
them kindly because, perhaps, on the occasion of his appointment, Field
gravely discussed his qualifications for the chair once occupied by
Mark Hopkins as resting upon his contribution of "a small but active
pellet" to the pharmaceutical equipment of his countrymen, famed for
its efficacy to cure all disorders of mind and body "while you sleep."
"Hy." Walden, much in demand as an expressman, remembers Field as a
somewhat reckless fellow and "dare-devil," and is authority for the
story of Field's discomfiture in the boxing bout with the redoubtable
Old Tom McMahon, who has been a familiar character to the students of
Williams for nearly two generations, has a hazy recollection of the
eccentric Eugene who flitted across the college campus a third of a
century ago. He says that, if he "remembers right, Mr. Field was not
one of the gentlemen who cared much for his clothes," but he "guessed
he was made careless like, and in some ways he was a fine young man."
[Illustration: WILLIAMS COLLEGE BUILDINGS, WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS.]
The most valuable glimpse of Field at Williams is contained in the
following letter written by Solomon B. Griffin, the managing editor of
the Springfield Republican for many years, with whom I have had some
correspondence in respect to the matter referred to therein. He not
only knew Field at Williamstown, but was one of his life-long friends
and warmest admirers. After a few introductory words, under date of
Springfield, February 4th, 1901, Mr. Griffin wrote:
Yes, I was of the class of 1872, but Field flitted before I became
connected with it. But Williamstown was my birthplace and home and
I struck up an acquaintance with him at Smith's college bookstore
and the post-office. Field was raw and not a bit deferential to
established customs, and so the secret-society men were not attracted
to him. The "trotting" or preliminary attentions to freshmen
constitute a great and revered feature of college life. When I saw
Field "trotting" a lank and gawky freshman for the "Mills Theological
Society," the humor of it appealed to one soaked in the traditions of
a college town, and we "became acquainted." Field left the class
about as I came in.
It is not remarkable that Tom McMahon has no clear recollection of
Field, who was in college only about six months and was not a
fraternity man. There are so many coming and going! Nor that the
faculty should be mindful of the lawless, irresponsible boy, and
not of the genius that developed on its own lines and was never
conventionalized but always remained a sinner however brilliant, and
a flayer of good men unblessed with a saving sense of humor. If there
is any kind thought for me in my old home it is because I did what
Field couldn't do, paid outward respect to the environment. It was
possible for me to see his point of view and theirs--to them
irreconcilable, and to him also.
Mr. Tufts's memorandum-book shows that Eugene returned to Monson April
27th, 1889, so his experience, if not his education, at Williams
covered almost eight months of an impressionable period of his life. It
is interesting to record the comment of Mrs. Tufts on the return of the
wanderer to her indulgent care. "He was too smart for the professors at
Williams," said she; "because they did not understand him, they could
not pardon his eccentricities." That she did understand her husband's
favorite pupil is evidenced in the following brief description, given
off-hand to the writer: "Eugene was not much of a student, but very
much of an irrepressible boy. There was no malice in his pranks, only
the inherited disposition to tease somebody and everybody."
On July 5th, 1869, Eugene was summoned to St. Louis by the serious
illness of his father, who died July 12th.
Thus ended his education, so far as it was to be affected by the
environments and instructors of New England. Thenceforth he was
destined to be a western man, with an ineradicable tang of Puritan
prejudices and convictions cropping out unexpectedly and incongruously
in all he thought and wrote.
In the autumn of 1869 Eugene entered the sophomore class at Knox
College, Galesburg, Ill., where Professor John William Burgess, who
had been chosen as his guardian, held the chair of logic, rhetoric,
English literature, and political science. But his career at Knox was
practically a repetition of that at Williams. He chafed under the
restraint of set rules and the requirement of attention to studies
in which he took no interest. If he had been allowed to choose, he
would have devoted his time to reading the Latin classics and
declaiming--that is, as much time as he could spare from plaguing
the professors and interrupting the studies of his companions by
every device of a festive and fertile imagination.
One year of this was enough for the faculty of Knox and for the
restless scholar, so in the autumn of 1870 Eugene joined his brother
Roswell in the junior class at the University of Missouri. Here Eugene
Field ended, without graduating, such education as the school and the
university was ever to give him, for in the spring of 1871 he left
Columbia for St. Louis, never to return--a student at three
universities and a graduate from none.
Of Eugene Field's life in Columbia many stories abound there and
throughout Missouri. From the aged and honored historian of the
university I have the following testimony as to the relations of the
two brothers with that institution, premising it with the fact that all
the official records of students were consumed in the fire that visited
the university in 1892:
Roswell M. Field attended the university as a freshman in 1868-69, as a
sophomore in 1869-70, and as a junior in 1870-71. He was a student of
the institution these three sessions only. His brother Eugene Field was
a student of the junior class, session 1870-71, and never before or
I knew both of them well. Eugene was an inattentive, indifferent
student, making poor progress in the studies of the course--a genial,
sportive, song-singing, fun-making companion. Nevertheless he was
bright, sparkling, entertaining and a leader among "the boys." In truth
he was in intellect above his fellows and a genius along his favorite
lines. He was prolific of harmless pranks and his school life was a big
[Illustration: THE OLD KNOX COLLEGE BUILDINGS, GALESBURG. ILL.]
There has been preserved the following specimen of the "rigs" Eugene
was in the habit of grinding out at the expense of the faculty--this
being aimed at President Daniel Reed (1868-77). The poem is entitled:
_BUCEPHALUS: A TAIL.
Twelve by the clock and all is well--
That is, I think so, but who can tell?
So quiet and still the city seems
That even old Luna's brightest beams
Cannot a single soul discover
Upon the streets the whole town over.
The Marshal smiles a genial smile
And retires to snooze for a little while,
To dream of billies and dirks and slings,
The calaboose and such pleasant things.
The college dig now digs for bed
With bunged-up eyes and aching head,
Conning his lesson o'er and o'er,
Till an audible melodious snore
Tells that he's going the kingdom through
Where Greek's at a discount and Latin, too.
The Doctor, robed in his snowy white,
Gazes out from his window height,
And he bends to the breezes his noble form,
Like a stately oak in a thunderstorm,
And watches his sleek and well-fed cows
At the expense of the college browse.
His prayers are said; out goes the light;
Good-night; O learned pres, good-night.
Half-past five by Ficklin's time
When I again renew my rhyme;
Old Sol is up and the college dig
Resumes his musty, classic gig,
"Caesar venit celere jam."
With here and there an auxiliary--
The Marshal awakes and stalks around
With an air importantly profound,
And seizing on a luckless wight
Who quietly stayed at home all night
On a charge of not preserving order,
Drags him before the just Recorder.
In vain the hapless youth denies it;
A barroom loafer testifies it.
"Fine him," the court-house rabble shout
(This is the latest jury out).
So when his pocketbook is eased
Most righteous justice is appeased.
The Doctor lay in his little bed,
His night-cap 'round his God-like head,
With a blanket thick and snowy sheet
Enveloped his l---- pshaw! and classical feet,
And he cleared his throat and began: "My dear,
As well in Indiana as here--
I always took a morning ride,
With you, my helpmeet, by my side.
"This morning is so clear and cool,
We'll ride before it's time for school.
Holloa, there John! you lazy cuss!
Bring forth my horse, Bucephalus!"
So spake the man of letters. Straight
Black John went through the stable gate,
But soon returned with hair on end,
While terror wings his speed did lend,
And out he sent his piteous wail:
"O boss! Old Bucky's lost his tail!"
Down went the night-cap on the ground,
Hats, boots and clothing flying round;
In vain his helpmeet cried "Hold on!"
He went right through that sable John.
Sing, sing, O Muse, what deeds were done
This morn by God-like Peleus' son;
Descend, O fickle Goddess, urge
My lyre to his bombastic splurge.
Boots and the man I sing, who first
Those Argive machinations cursed;
His swimming eyes did Daniel raise
To that sad tail of other days,
And cried "Alas! what ornery cuss
Has shaved you, my Bucephalus?"
Then turning round he gently sighed,
"We will postpone our morning ride."
In wrath I smite my quivering lyre,
Come once again, fair Muse, inspire
My song to more heroic acts
Than these poor simple, truthful facts.
Cursed be the man who hatched the plot!
Let dire misfortune be his lot!
Palsied the hand that struck the blow!
Blind be the eyes that saw the show!
Hated the wretch who ruthless bled
This innocent old quadruped.
Subpreps, a word of caution, please;
Better prepare your A, B, C's
Than prowl around at dead of night.
Don't rouse the beast in Daniel's breast;
Perhaps you'll come out second best.
Dear, gentle reader, pardon, pray,
I'm thinking now I hear you say,
"Oh, nonsense! what a foolish fuss
About a horse, Bucephalus."_
This is no better verse, and possibly no worse, than much of the
adolescent doggerel that is so often preserved by fond parents to
prove that their child early gave signs of poetic and literary genius.
[Illustration: STATE UNIVERSITY BUILDINGS AT COLUMBIA, MO.]
CHOICE OF A PROFESSION
Eugene Field was in his twenty-first year when he turned his back upon
the colleges and faced life. Roswell M. Field, Sr., had been dead two
years, and the moderate fortune which he had left, consisting mostly of
realty valued at about $60,000, had not yet been distributed among the
legatees, Eugene and Roswell M. Field and Mary French Field. To the
last named one-fifth had been willed in recognition of the loving care
she had bestowed upon the testator's two motherless sons, each of whom
was to receive two-fifths of the father's estate. Eugene therefore
looked forward to the possession of property worth something like
$25,000. In St. Louis, in 1871, this was regarded as quite a large
fortune. It would have been ample to start any young man, with
prudence, regular habits, and a small modicum of business sense, well
along in any profession or occupation he might adopt. But it was and
would have been a bagatelle to Eugene though ten times the amount,
unless surrounded with conditions as impenetrable as chilled steel to a
pewter chisel to resist the seductive ingenuity of his spendthrift
On first going to St. Louis to live, Eugene Field was peculiarly
fortunate in being taken into the home and enduring friendship of
Melvin L. Gray, the executor of his father's estate, and of Mrs. Gray.
To the memory of the latter, on her death several years since, Eugene
contributed a memorial from which I have already quoted and which in
some respects is the most sincerely beautiful piece of prose he ever
wrote. In that he refers to his first coming to St. Louis in the
My acquaintance with Mrs. Gray began in 1871. I was at that time just
coming of age, and there were many reasons why I was attracted to the
home over which this admirable lady presided. In the first-place Mrs.
Gray's household was a counterpart of the households to which my
boyhood life in New England had attracted me. Again both Mr. and Mrs.
Gray were old friends of my parents; and upon Mr. Gray's accepting
the executorship of my father's estate, Mrs. Gray felt, I am pleased
to believe, somewhat more than a friendly interest in the two boys,
who, coming from rural New England life into the great, strange,
fascinating city, stood in need of disinterested friendship and
prudent counsel. I speak for my brother and myself when I say that
for the period of twenty years we found in Mrs. Gray a friend as
indulgent, as forbearing, as sympathetic, as kindly suggestive and as
disinterested as a mother, and in her home a refuge from temptation,
care and vexation.
[Illustration: EARLY PORTRAITS OF EUGENE FIELD.]
In the subscription edition of "A Little Book of Western Verse," of
which I had all the labor and none of the fleeting fame of publisher,
Field dedicated his paraphrase of the Twenty-third Psalm to Mr. Gray,
and it was to this constant friend of his youth and manhood, who still
survives (1901), that Field indited the beautiful dedication of "The
_Come dear old friend! and with us twain
To calm Digentian groves repair;
The turtle coos his sweet refrain
And posies are a-blooming there,
And there the romping Sabine girls
With myrtle braid their lustrous curls._
I have followed the original copy Field sent to Mr. Gray, which has
several variations in punctuation from the version as printed in "The
Sabine Farm," where the eighth line reads:
_Bind myrtle in their lustrous curls,_
which the reader can compare with the original as printed above. In
that same dedication Field referred to Mr. Gray as one
_Who lov'st us for our father's sake._
In announcing to Mr. Gray by letter, June 28th, 1891, his intention to
make this dedication, Field wrote:
It will interest, and we [Roswell was a joint contributor to "The
Sabine Farm"] are hoping that it will please you to know that we
shall dedicate this volume to you, as a slight, though none the less
sincere, token of our regard and affection to you, as the friend of
our father and as the friend to us. Were our father living, it would
please him, we think, to see his sons collaborating as versifiers of
the pagan lyrist whose songs he admired; it would please him, too,
we are equally certain, to see us dedicating a result of our
enthusiastic toil to so good a man and to so good a friend as you.
These quotations are interesting as indicating the character of the
surroundings of Eugene Field's early life in St. Louis.
It was the hope of their father that one, if not both, of his sons
would adopt the profession of the law, in which he and his brother
Charles and their father before them had attained both distinction and
something more than a competence. But neither Eugene nor his brother
Roswell had the slightest predilection for the law. By nature and by a
certain inconsequence of fancy they were peculiarly unfitted for the
practice of a profession which requires drudgery to attain a mastery
of its subtle requirements and a preternatural gravity in the
application of its stilted jargon to the simplest forms of justice.
The stage, on the other hand, possessed a fascination for Eugene. He
was a mimic by inheritance, a comedian by instinct and unrestrained
habit. Everything appealed to his sense of the queer, the fanciful,
and the utterly ridiculous. He was a student of the whimsicalities of
character and nature, and delighted in their portrayal by voice or
pen. Strange to relate, however, his first thought of adopting the
histrionic profession contemplated tragedy as his forte. He had
inherited a wondrous voice, deep, sweet, and resonant, from his
father, and had a face so plastic that it could be moulded at will to
all the expressions of terror, malignity, and devotion, or anon into
the most grotesque and mirth-provoking lines of comedy. His early love
for reciting passages from "Spartacus," referred to by the Rev. Mr.
Tufts, showed the bent of his mind, and when he became master of his
own affairs he sought out Edwin Forrest and confided to him his
ambition to go on the boards. Would that I could reproduce Field's
version of that interview! He approached the great tragedian with a
sinking heart, for Forrest had a reputation for brusque roughness
never exceeded on or off the stage. But Eugene managed to prefer his
request for advice and an opening in Forrest's company. The
dark-browed Othello looked his visitor over from head to foot, and, in
a voice that rolled through the flies of the stage where this little
scene was enacted, exclaimed:
"Boy, return to your friends and bid them apprentice you to a
wood-sawyer, rather than waste your life on a precarious profession
whose successes are few and whose rewards are bankruptcy and
ingratitude. Go! study and learn of Coriolanus."
This I repeat from memory, preserving the sense and the three words
"boy," "wood-sawyer," and "Coriolanus," which always recurred in
Field's various versions of "Why I did not go on the stage." Eugene
returned to St. Louis and quietly disposed of the costumes he had
prepared for such characters as Hamlet, Lear, and Spartacus.
[Illustration: MELVIN L. GRAY.]
Francis Wilson, in his "The Eugene Field I Knew," preserves the
following story of Eugene's further venture in search of a profession:
He organized a company of his own in conjunction with his friend,
Marvin Eddy, who tells of a comedy Field wrote in which the heroines
were impersonated by Field himself to the heroes of the only other
acting member of the cast--Mr. Eddy. A Madame Saunders was the
orchestra, or rather the pianist, and Monsieur Saunders painted
the posters which announced the coming of the "great and only"
entertainment. Rehearsals were held in the hotel dining-rooms. While
a darky carried a placard of announcement, the result of Saunders's
artistic handiwork, the local band, specially engaged, played in
front of the principal places in town. Mr. Eddy recalls that Field
had a sweet bass voice which he used with much effect both in songs
The season, confined to such towns in Missouri as Carrollton, Richmond,
etc., lasted about two weeks and was what the papers would call a
Which, being interpreted into the vernacular of the author of "Sharps
and Flats," spelled a popular "frost" and a financial failure. And
thus Missouri closed the door of comedy against Field, as Forrest had
shut the gates of tragedy in his pale and intellectual face.
There was still one profession open to him in which he had made a few
halting and tentative steps--that of journalism, with its broad
entrance and narrowing perspective into the fair field of letters.
While a sophomore at Knox he had exercised his irrepressible
inclination "to shoot folly as it flies" by contributions to the local
paper of Galesburg, which had the piquant flavor of personal comment.
His youthful dash at the door of the stage had brought him into the
comradeship of Stanley Waterloo and several other young journalists in
St. Louis, and he was easily persuaded to try his 'prentice hand as a
reporter, under the tutelage of Stanley Huntley, of the "Spoopendyke
But Eugene Field was yet without the stern incentive of necessity that
is the seed of journalism. Circumstances, however, were ripening that
would soon leave him no excuse on that score for not buckling down to
"sawing wood," as for twenty-three years he was wont to consider his
daily work. When he reached his majority he was entitled to his share
in the first distribution of his father's estate. Before this could be
made, Mr. Gray had to dispose of a part of the land which he held as
executor of Roswell M. Field. It was accordingly offered for sale at
auction, and enough to realize $20,000 was sold. Under the will,
Eugene's share of this was $8,000, and he immediately placed himself
in the way of investing it where it would be the least incumbrance to
him. While at Columbia he had met Edgar V. Comstock, the brother of
his future wife, through whom it was that he made her acquaintance.
Upon the first touch of the cash payment on his share of the
executor's sale, Eugene at once proposed to young Comstock that they
visit Europe in company, he bearing the expenses of the expedition.
His friend did not need much persuasion to embark on what promised to
be such a lark. And so, in the fall of 1872, the two, against the
prudent counsels of Mr. Gray, set out to see the world, and they saw
it just as far as Eugene's cash and the balance of that $8,000 would
In his "Auto-Analysis," Field says: "In 1872 I visited Europe,
spending six months and my patrimony in France, Italy, Ireland, and
England." This is as near the sober truth as anything Field ever wrote
about himself. The youthful spendthrift and his companion landed in
Ireland, and by slow, but extravagant, stages reached Italy, taking
the principal cities and sights of England and France en route. About
the only letters that reached America from Field during this European
trip (always excepting those that went by every mail-steamer to a
young lady in St. Jo) were those addressed with business-like brevity
to Mr. Gray, calling for more and still more funds to carry the
travellers onward. Before they had reached Italy the mails were too
slow to convey Field's importunity, and he had recourse to the cable
to impress Mr. Gray with the dire immediateness of his impecuniosity.
In order to relieve this Mr. Gray was forced to discount the notes for
the deferred payments on the sale of the Field land, and when Eugene
and his brother-in-law-to-be reached Naples their soulful appeals for
more currency with which to continue their golden girdle of the earth
were met with the chilling notice "No funds available." Happily, in
their meteoric transit across Europe, they had invested in many
articles of vertu and convertible souvenirs of the places they had
visited. By the sale, or sometimes by the pledge, of these accumulated
impedimenta of travel, Eugene made good his retreat to America, where
he landed with empty pockets and an inexhaustible fund of mirthful
stories and invaluable experience.
On arriving in New York, Field had to seek the Western Union Telegraph
office to secure funds for the necessary transportation to St. Louis.
These Mr. Gray furnished so liberally that Eugene promptly invested
the surplus in a French poodle, which he carried in triumph back to
Missouri as a memento of his sojourn in Paris. This costly pet, the
sole exhibit of his foreign travel, he named McSweeny, in memory, I
suppose, of the pleasant days he had spent in Ireland.
[Illustration: MRS. MELVIN L. GRAY.]
Years afterward I remember to have been with Field when he opened a
package containing a watch, which for more than a decade had been an
unredeemed witness to his triumphant entry into and impecunious exit
from Naples or Florence--I forget which.
Mrs. Below, Field's sister-in-law, in her little brochure, "Eugene
Field in His Home," preserves a letter written by him from Rome to a
friend in Ireland, in which may be traced the bent of his mind to take
a whimsical view of all things coming within the range of his
observation. In this he bids farewell to political discussion:
For since the collapse of the Greeley and Brown movement I have given
over all hope of rescuing my torn and bleeding country from Grant and
his minions, and have resolved to have nothing more to do with
politics. Methinks, my country will groan to hear this declaration!
And there is the following description of how he was enjoying himself
in Italy, with the last remittances of his patrimony growing fewer and
We have been two months in Nice and a month or so travelling in
Italy. Two weeks we passed in Naples, and a most delightful place we
found it. Its natural situation is simply charming, though the
climate is said to be very unhealthy. I climbed Vesuvius and peered
cautiously into the crater. It was a glorious sight--nothing else
like it in the world! Such a glorious smell of brimstone! Such
enlivening whiffs of hot steam and sulphuric fumes! Then too the
grand veil of impenetrable white smoke that hung over the yawning
abyss! No wonder people rave about this crater and no wonder poor
Pliny lost his life coming too near the fascinating monster. The
ascent of Vesuvius is no mean undertaking, and I advise all American
parents to train their children especially for it by drilling them
daily upon their backyard ash-heaps.
His descent of Vesuvius was made "upon a dead run," and he "astonished
the natives by my [his] celerity and recklessness."
This letter was written on Washington's birthday, 1873, and in later
years the omission of any reference to the anniversary would have
thrown suspicion on its genuineness; but Field had not yet begun to
reckon life by anniversaries. Neither is there in it a shadow of the
impending crisis in his finances nor a suggestion of another reason
that robbed his return voyage of all distressing thoughts of retreat.
MARRIAGE AND EARLY DOMESTIC LIFE
And now I come to that event in the life of Eugene Field which has
naturally attracted the widest interest among all who have delighted
in his written tributes to womankind and mother love. In his memorial
to Mrs. Gray, Field has given expression to his special reverence for
the love between parent and child. "For my dear mother," he wrote,
"went from me so many years ago that when I come to speak of the
blessedness of a mother's love, I hardly know whereof I speak, it is
all so far, so very far away, and withal so precious, so sacred a
thing." This note recurs constantly through his writings, and it is
not to be wondered at that the love of a man for a woman should have
come early to a youth whose heart had always felt the yearning for
something more tender and personal than the utmost kindness of those
upon whose affections others had equal or greater claims.
Through his boyhood and school days, Field's affection for the
petticoated sex had been tempered by an irresistible impulse to tease
all the daughters of Eve. It is doubtful if his affections were ever
more seriously engaged by the girls of Amherst or the young ladies of
Williams and Knox than was his attention by the regular studies of
school or college. He came to both in his own way and time; with the
difference that when he once felt the touch of the inevitable maiden's
hand in his, he responded with an immediate ardor far different from
the slow and eccentric manner in which he wooed the love of
scholarship and letters.
It was while a junior at the University of Missouri that Eugene Field
made the acquaintance of Edgar V. Comstock, the sharer of the European
trip and experiences. Now Edgar's parents lived at St. Joseph, and
with them five sisters, the Misses Ida, Carrie, Georgia, Julia
Sutherland, and Gussie Comstock, and the fairest of them all was
Julia, albeit, at the time her brother was in college, she was still
in short dresses. What more natural than that Edgar's elder sisters
should visit him during his college term and there meet and be
attracted by the gaunt, yet already unique and striking, figure of
Eugene Field, the most unscholarly student and most incorrigible wag
in Columbia? Julia was too young at this time, in the estimation of
her sisters, to travel so far from St. Jo. Besides, what interest
would a little girl in short skirts take in the grave and intellectual
life of the brother and his undergraduate friends?
Out of the friendship of Eugene and Edgar and the visit of Edgar's
sisters to Columbia, fate was weaving a web for the unsuspecting
subject of this narrative which was not to be denied or altered by
leaving little Julia to rusticate at home like another pretty little
Cinderella. But this is not a fairy tale. It has no prince or glass
slippers or pumpkin coaches, with which Field's fancy could have
invested it. When the two friends separated on Commencement Day, after
Field had delivered an oration that impressed Miss Ida (Mrs. Below),
because of "his pale face and deep voice," a promise had been extorted
that he would visit the Comstocks in their home in St. Joseph.
In the usual course of human events nothing further of concern to us
would have come from the exchange of these common civilities of
student life. Edgar would have returned to his home and forgotten
Eugene, and Eugene would have gone his way and never known that Edgar
had a younger sister Julia sitting at the gate awaiting the coming of
her prince. But shortly after returning to St. Louis, Field was
inspired by his natural roving restlessness--the French call it
Fate--to run clear across the state of Missouri, some three hundred
miles, to see what kind of a town St. Joseph was and incidentally to
visit his college friend. Nearly twenty years later, in the gathering
gloom of a rented apartment in London, the still-constant lover wrote
of what happened when he first saw "Saint Jo, Buchanan County," in the
early seventies. There he first met "the brown-eyed maiden" of his
song, the Julia of numberless valentines that ran the gamut of grave
and gay through the intervening years, the heroine of frequent drives
which they "snailed along," as their proper horse went slow,
_In those leafy aisles, where Cupid smiles
In Lover's Lane, Saint Jo._
* * * * *
_Ah! sweet the hours of springtime
When the heart inclines to woo,
And it's deemed all right for the callow wight
To do what he wants to do._
In his "Auto-Analysis" Field says, "I favor early marriage." Even if
Edgar Comstock's elder sisters had known this, it is doubtful whether
the thought would have crossed their minds that their brother's chum
of twenty-one would overlook their more mature charms (they were all
fair to look upon), to be more than gracious to their fourteen-year-old
sister. Time out of mind sophisticated sisters of sixteen and eighteen
have regarded younger sisters as altogether out of the sphere of those
attentions which find their echo in wedding bells, only to awake some
bright morning to find the child a woman and the attentive friend an
So it happened in this case. While her sisters were thinking how good
it was of Field to take so much interest in a mere child, their long
afternoon drives together down "Lovers' Lane, Saint Jo," had come to
that happy turn that ignores all immaturities of age and lays the life
of a man at the feet of the maid--albeit, the feet are still strangers
to the French heels and have not yet known the witchery that goes with
long dresses. Once sure of himself, Field lost no time in making his
wishes known not only to Mistress Julia, but to her astonished family.
She listened and was lost and won. Her parents expostulated that she
was but a child. Field had no difficulty in convincing them that she
would outgrow that. He pleaded for an immediate marriage, but her
father firmly insisted that though Julia might not be too young to
love and be loved, she was "o'er young to marry yet." Field was forced
to accept the sensible decree against the early realization of his
hopes and returned to St. Louis with the understanding that he should
establish himself in business and wait until Miss Comstock was
Whether this had anything to do with Field's going to Europe or not I
cannot say. It had nothing to do with his return, for his term of
waiting for his modern Rachel had still two years to run when he got
back from Europe. There is a pretty story told that after all
arrangements were made for his European trip and he and Edgar
Comstock, accompanied by Miss Ida, had reached New York, she and her
brother were amazed to receive a note by mail saying, "Important
business has called me back to St. Joseph; I hope you will pardon my
sudden leave-taking." They knew the nature of his important business
and had to wait with what patience they could command while he posted
fifteen hundred miles and returned with barely time, if all
connections served, to catch the steamer.
Field never dreamed of fulfilling that condition of his probation
which required him to become established in business. If he had done
so the date of his marriage would have been indefinitely postponed. He
returned from Europe, as we have seen, sans the better part of his
patrimony, in the spring of 1873, and instead of attempting to
establish himself in business, immediately set himself to secure an
abridgment of his term of waiting. The years between fourteen and
eighteen run slow. To every true lover Time moves with leaden feet. As
Rosalind tells us, "Marry, he trots hard with a young maid between the
contract of her marriage and the day it is solemnized: if the interim
be but a se'nnight, Time's pace is so hard that it seems the length of
seven year." What wonder then if the four years they were pledged to
wait seemed an eternity, and that both set themselves to abridge it by
all the arts and persuasion of young lovers. They pleaded and
contrived so cunningly and successfully that the obdurate parents
finally acceded to their wishes, and Eugene Field and Julia Sutherland
Comstock were married at St. Joseph on October 16th, 1873. The bride
"at that time was a girl of sixteen," is the laconic and only comment
of the "Auto-Analysis." This he supplemented with the further
information, "we have had eight children--three daughters and five
[Illustration: MRS. EUGENE FIELD.]
But this is jumping from Saint Jo into the future more than a score of
years in advance of our story. The young couple spent their honeymoon
in the East. Field took especial delight in showing his bride of
sixteen the wonders of New York and in playing practical jokes upon
her unsophisticated nature, thereby keeping her in a perpetual state
of amazement or of terror as to what he would do next. He sought to
make her at home at Delmonico's by ordering "boiled pig's feet a la
Saint Jo," with a gravity of countenance that tested the solemnity of
the waiters and provoked the protest, "Oh, Eugene!" that was to be the
feminine accompaniment to his boyish humor throughout their married
life. No matter how often Field played his antics before or on his
wife, they always seemed to take her by surprise and evoked a
remonstrance in which pride over his mirthfulness mollified all
By the time Field returned to St. Louis his ready funds were exhausted
and he had to appeal to Mr. Gray to raise more by mortgaging the
balance of his interest in his father's property. This is as good a
place as any to take leave of the patrimony that came to Field at the
death of his father, for he was never to see any more dividends from
that source. When the loans fell due there were no funds to pay them,
nor equity in the land to justify their renewal. So the land was sold
and bid in by Mr. Gray, who holds it yet and would gladly dispose of
it for what he paid out of his pocket and the goodness of his heart.
Roswell Field tells an interesting story of how their father's land
speculation went out of sight in the queer mutations that befall real
estate. In the year before Roswell the elder died, he took his younger
son for a drive in the country south of St. Louis, where the property
lies unimproved to this day. "Rosy," said the father, "hold on to your
Carondelet property. In fifteen years it will be worth half a million
dollars, and, very likely, a million and a half." That was
thirty-three years ago when the Carondelet iron furnaces were in full
blast and the city seemed stretching southward. In 1869 the property
was appraised at $125,000. The panic came on and St. Louis changed its
mind and headed toward the west, where the best part of the city now
rears its mansions and wonders how it ever dreamed of going south.
There Carondelet still bakes in the sun, on the far side of a slough
which has diverted a fortune from the sons of the sanguine Roswell M.
Field, the elder.
More provident than his brother, Roswell lived comfortably on his
share for nearly seven years, only in the end to envy the superior
shrewdness of Eugene, who, putting his portion into cash, realized
more from it, and spent it like a lord while it lasted. I must confess
that I share Roswell's views, for the investment which Eugene Field
made in the two years after coming of age in spending $20,000 on
experience, returned to him many fold in the profession he was finally
driven to adopt, not as a pastime, but to earn a livelihood for
himself and his growing family.
Having shot his bolt, Field went to work as a reporter on the St.
Louis Evening Journal. He was not much of a success as a reporter for
the simple reason that his fancy was more active than his legs and he
was irresistibly disposed to save the latter at the expense of the
The best pen picture I have been able to secure of Field at this
period of his career is from his life-long friend, William C. Buskett,
the hero of "Penn Yan Bill," to whom Field dedicated "Casey's Table
d'Hote," the first poem in "A Little Book of Western Verse."
"My association with Eugene Field," says Mr. Buskett, "began in St.
Louis, Mo., in 1872. We had a little circle of friends that was surely
to be envied in that we were fond of each other and our enjoyment was
pure and genuine. In 1875 we formed what was known as the 'Arion
Quartette,' composed of Thomas L. Crawford, now clerk in the United
States Circuit Court in St. Louis, Thomas C. Baker (deceased), Roswell
Martin Field, a brother of Eugene, and myself. 'Gene (as he was always
called by his intimates) did not sing in the quartette, though he had
a good voice. We frequently gave entertainments, at which Eugene was
always the centre of attraction. The 'Old Sexton' was his favorite
song. He was a great mimic and tease, and was always bubbling over
with fun. At that time he was living on Adams Street, and many of
these entertainments were given at his house. His household then
consisted of himself, wife, and baby 'Trotty,' the pet name given his
eldest daughter, Mary French Field, and with them Mrs. Comstock,
mother of Mrs. Field, Edgar V. and Misses Carrie, Georgia, and Gussie
Comstock, a delightful family.
"There was a genuine bond of friendship among us all then, for we were
comparatively oblivious to care and trouble. We were all poor, you may
say, earning reasonable salaries, but that never seemed to worry us
much. If one had a dollar we would always divide and the crowd was
never a cent ahead, but we defied misfortune.
"Among the pranks that Eugene used to play upon his wife in those days
was that of appearing at some of our rehearsals on a warm evening in a
costume that never failed to tease her. He would walk into the parlor
and say: 'Well, boys, let us take off our coats and take it easy; it's
too hot.' We would all proceed to do so. When Eugene would remove his
coat he would display a red flannel undershirt, having pinned his
cuffs to his coat sleeves and his necktie and collar to his shirt. He
placed no limit on his humor."
Who of those at all intimate with Field will forget the enjoyment he
took in trolling forth, in a quaint, quavering, cracked, but tuneful
recitative, one stanza of "Ossian's Serenade":
_I'll chase the antelope over the plain
The tiger's cub I'll bind with a chain,
The wild gazelle with its silvery feet
I'll give to thee as a playmate sweet.
Then come with me in my light canoe,
While the sea is calm and the sky is blue,
For I'll not linger another day
For storms may rise and love decay._
Well, this was a snatch that lingered in his memory from the old days
in Adams Street, St. Louis, where he first caught it from the lips of
Mr. Buskett, in whose family it was an heirloom. Field finally traced
it to its source through persistent letters written to himself in his
"Sharps and Flats" column in the Chicago Record.
The glad wild days of which Mr. Buskett testifies were passed in St.
Louis after Field's return from a brief experience as city editor of
the St. Joseph Gazette in 1875-76. The time is fixed by the presence
of "Trotty" in the gypsy circle, who was the best bit of news he
"managed to acquire" in the days whereof he wrote:
_Oh, many a peck of apples and of peaches did I get
When I helped 'em run the local on the "St. Jo Gazette."_
Judge Henry W. Burke, of St. Joseph, is authority for this story of
the time when he was associated with Field on the Gazette: Burke had
been sent out to report a "swell society event" in the eastern part of
the city. Nearly all the prominent people of St. Joseph were present
and the names of all were published. Burke's story of the affair was a
column long, and after it was written Field got hold of the copy and
at the end of the list of those present added, "and last but not least
the handsome and talented society editor of the Gazette, H.W. Burke."
The feelings of the young reporter and embryo judge may be imagined.
But a few months of "whooping up locals on the St. Jo Gazette" were
enough for Eugene, who pined for the broader field and more congenial
associations of St. Louis. Thither he returned in the spring of 1876,
and the Evening Journal, being by this time consolidated with the
Times, he became an editorial writer and paragrapher on the hyphenated
publication. He also resumed the eccentric semi-bohemian life which
Mr. Buskett has rather suggested than described. He had little or no
business ability, had no use for money except to spend it, and
therefore early adopted the plan of leaving to Mrs. Field the
management of their household expenditures. To her, then, as
throughout his life, was paid his weekly stipend--often depleted by
the drafts for the "usual V" or the "necessary X" which he was wont to
draw in advance from the cashier almost every week.
Before the newspaper cashier had risen as a life-saving station on the
horizon of Eugene Field's constant impecuniosity, his father's
executor, Mr. Gray, had been the object of his intermittent appeals
for funds to meet pressing needs. The means he invented to wheedle the
generous, but methodical, executor out of these appropriations
afforded Field more genuine pleasure than the success that attended
them. The coin they yielded passed through his fingers like water
through a sieve, but the enjoyment of his happy schemes abided in his
memory and also in that of his constant friend always. One of Field's
most effective methods of securing an advance from Mr. Gray was the
threat of going on the stage under the assumed name of Melvin L. Gray.
On one occasion Field approached him for money for living expenses,
and being met with what appeared to be an unrelenting negative, coolly
said: "Very well, if you cannot advance it to me out of the estate I
shall be compelled to go on the stage. But as I cannot keep my own
name I have decided to assume yours, and shall have lithographs struck
off at once. They will read, 'To-night, M.L. Gray, Banjo and Specialty
Artist.'" It is needless to say that the much-needed funds were found.
But whether they went to the payment of living expenses, to the
importunity of some threatening creditor, or were divided between the
joys of the bibliomaniac and the bon vivant, Field in his most
confiding humor never disclosed to me.
But this I know, that one of these always respectful, if apparently
threatening, appeals to Mr. Gray, was the basis for one of the few
newspaper attacks on Eugene Field that he resented deeply. Some time
after he had left St. Louis and was engaged on the Denver Tribune, the
Spectator, a weekly paper of the former city, contained the following
gossip regarding him which was written in a thoughtless rather than an
intentionally inimical spirit:
One of the cleverest young journalists of this city, a few years ago,
was Mr. Eugene Field, whose charming short poems and witty paragraphs
still occasionally find their way into our paper from Denver, where he
is now located. Mr. Field was the happy possessor of one of those
sunny dispositions which is thoroughly antagonistic to trouble of
every description; he absolutely refused to entertain the black demon
under any pretext whatever, and after spending a small fortune with
the easy grace of a prince, he settled down to doing without one with
equal grace and nonchalance, in a manner more creditable to himself
than satisfying to his creditors. Did his hatter or tailor present an
untimely bill, the gay debonnaire Eugene would scribble on the back
thereof an impromptu rhyme expressive of his deep regret at not being
able to offer the cash instead, and return the same with an airy grace
that the renowned orator, J. Wilkins Micawber, himself might have
While the intellectual prominences upon the cranium of our friend and
fellow-citizen had been well looked to, Dame Nature totally neglected
to develop his bump of veneration; age possessed no qualities, wealth
and position no prerogatives, which this singularly constituted young
man felt bound to respect. When his father's executor, an able and
exceedingly dignified member of the St. Louis bar, would refuse to
respond to his frequent demands for moneyed advances, the young
reprobate would coolly elevate his heels to a point in dangerous
proximity to the old gentleman's nose, and threaten to go upon the
stage, taking his guardian's honored name as a stage pseudonym and
representing himself to be his son. This threat generally sufficed to
bring the elder gentleman to terms, as he knew his charge's ability to
execute as well as to threaten.
He was an inveterate joker, and his tendency to break out without
regard to fitness of time or place into some mad prank made him almost
a terror to his friends. On one occasion he informed a young lady
friend that he did not think he would be able to come to her wedding
because he had such a terrible toothache. "Then why not have your
tooth pulled out?" said the young lady. "I never thought of that,"
quoth Eugene gravely; "I guess I will." When the wedding day arrived,
among the other bridal gifts came a small box bearing Mr. Field's
card, and reposing on a velvet cushion inside was the identical tooth
which the bride had advised him to have extracted, and in the cavity
where had once throbbed the agonizing nerve was neatly stuffed a
The recollection of the many amusing traits and freaks of this
versatile genius affords amusement to the innumerable friends of his
to this day. But time which sobers us all has doubtless taken some of
the foam and sparkle from this rare spirit, although it would be hard
to convince his friends that he will ever be anything but the gay and
Mr. Gray, who vouches for the general accuracy of the story of the
strange wedding present, with its costly filling, preserves among his
most cherished mementoes of his foster son-in-law, if I may be allowed
the expression, Field's prompt repudiation of that paragraph in the
above which charged him with lack of respect for one from whom he had
received every evidence of affection:
DENVER, June 25, 1883.
DEAR MR. GRAY,
A copy of last Saturday's St. Louis Spectator has just arrived and I
am equally surprised, pained and indignant to find in it a personal
article about myself which represents me in the untruthful light of
having been disrespectful and impudent to you. I believe you will
bear me out when I say that my conduct towards you has upon all
occasions been respectful and gentlemanly. I may not have been able
to repay you the many obligations you have placed me under, but I
have always regarded you with feelings of affectionate gratitude and
I am deeply distressed lest the article referred to may create a
widely different impression. Of course it makes no difference to you,
but as gratitude is about all I have in this world to bestow on those
who are good and kind to me, it is not right that I should be
advertised--even in a joking way--as an ingrate.
This letter is valuable in more ways than the one which it was so
unnecessarily written to serve. It is a negative admission of the
general faithfulness of the impression left by Field upon those
familiar with his life in St. Louis, and the reference to gratitude as
all he had to bestow upon his true friends will be recognized as
genuine by all who ever came near enough to his inner life to
appreciate its sweetness as well as its lightness. As for his airy
method of disposing of insistent creditors I have no doubt that the
rhymes on the backs of their bills more often than not were more to
them than the dollars and cents on their faces.
During the second period of his life in St. Louis two sons were born
to Field and his wife, Melvin G., named after the "Dear Mr. Gray," of
the foregoing letter, and Eugene, Jr., who, being born when the
Pinafore craze was at its height, received the nickname of "Pinny,"
which has adhered to him to the present time. The fact that Melvin of
all the children of Eugene Field was never called by any other name by
a father prone to giving pet names, more or less fanciful, to every
person and thing with which he came in contact, is, I take it, an even
more sincere tribute to the high respect and love, if not reverence,
in which he held Melvin's godfather.
The third son and last child born to Field during the time of which I
am now writing appeared upon the scene, with his two eyes of wondrous
blue, very like his father's, at Kansas City, whither the family had
moved in the year 1880. Although he was duly christened Frederick,
this newcomer was promptly nicknamed "Daisy," because, forsooth,
Field one day happened to fancy that his two eyes looked like daisies
peeping up at him from the grass. The similitude was far fetched, but
the name stuck.
In Kansas City, where Field went from St. Louis to assume at thirty
years of age the managing editorship of the Times of that town, the
family lived in a rented house which was made the rendezvous for all
the light-hearted members of the newspaper and theatrical professions.
Perhaps I cannot give a more faithful picture of Field's life through
all this period than is contained in the following unpublished lines,
to the original manuscript of which I supplied the title, "The Good
Knight and His Lady." Perhaps I should explain that it was written at
a time when Field was infatuated with the stories and style of the
early English narratives of knights and ladies:
_THE GOOD KNIGHT AND HIS LADY
Soothly there was no lady faire
In all the province could compare
With Lady Julia Field,
The noble knight's most beauteous wife
For whom at any time his life
He would righte gladly yield.
'Twas at a tourney in St. Joe
The good knight met her first, I trow,
And was enamoured, straight;
And in less time than you could say
A pater noster he did pray
Her to become his mate.
And from the time she won his heart,
She sweetly played her wifely part--
Contented with her lot!
And tho' the little knightly horde
Came faster than they could afford
The good wife grumbled not.
But when arrived a prattling son,
She simply said, "God's will be done--
This babe shall give us joy!"
And when a little girl appeared,
The good wife quoth: "'Tis well--I feared
'Twould be another boy!"
She leased her castle by the year--
Her tables groaned with sumptuous cheer,
As epicures all say;
She paid her bills on Tuesdays, when
On Monday nights that best of men--
Her husband--drew his pay.
And often, when the good knight craved
A dime wherewith he might get shaved,
She doled him out the same;
For these and other generous deeds
The good and honest knight must needs
Have loved the kindly dame.
At all events, he never strayed
From those hymeneal vows he made
When their two loves combined;
A matron more discreet than she
Or husband more devote than he
It would be hard to find.
July 4th, 1885._
And so in very sooth it would have been. Under what circumstances and
with what purpose Field wrote this I cannot now recall, if I ever
knew. Nothing like it exists among my many manuscripts of his. It is
written in pencil on what appears to be a sheet from a pad of ledger
paper, watermarked "1879," a fact I mention for the benefit of his
bibliomaniac admirers. And, what is most peculiar, it is written on
both sides of the sheet--something most unusual with Field, except in
correspondence--where the economy of the old half ounce three-cent
postage and his New England training prevailed over his disposition to
be lavish with paper if not with ink. Anyway, Field's "Good Knight and
His Lady" gives a clearer insight into his home relations than any
other thing that has been preserved respecting them. That it was
prepared with care is witnessed by several interlineations in ink,
sealed by a blot of his favorite red ink on the corner, which for a
wonder does not bear the marks of the deliberate blemishes with which
he frequently embellished his neatest manuscripts.
EARLY EXPERIENCES IN JOURNALISM
Although Eugene Field made his first essay in journalism as a reporter,
there is not the shadow of a tradition that he made any more progress
along the line of news-gathering and descriptive writing than he did as
a student at Williams. He had too many grotesque fancies dancing
through his whimsical brain to make account or "copy" of the plain
ordinary facts that for the most part make up the sum of the news of
the average reporter's day. What he wrote for the St. Louis Journal or
Times-Journal, therefore, had little relation to the happening he was
sent out to report, but from the outset it possessed the quality that
attracted readers. The peculiarities and not the conventions of life
appealed to him and he devoted himself to them with an assiduity that
lasted while he lived. Thus when he was sent by the Journal to
Jefferson City to report the proceedings of the Missouri State
Legislature, what his paper got was not an edifying summary of that
unending grist of mostly irrelevant and immaterial legislation through
the General Assembly hopper, but a running fire of pungent comment on
the Idiosyncrasies of its officers and members. He would attach himself
to the legislators whose personal qualities afforded most profitable
ammunition for sport in print. He shunned the sessions of Senate and
House and held all night sessions of story and song with the choice
spirits to be found on the floors and in the lobbies of every western
legislature. I wonder why I wrote "western" when the species is as
ubiquitous in Maine as in Colorado? From such sources Field gleaned the
infinite fund of anecdote and of character-study which eventually made
him the most sought-for boon companion that ever crossed the lobby of
a legislature or of a state capital hotel in Missouri, Colorado, or
Illinois. He was a looker-on in the legislative halls, and right
merrily he lampooned everything he saw. Nothing was too trivial for
his notice, nothing so serious as to escape his ridicule or satire.
There was little about his work at this time that gave promise of
anything beyond the spicy facility of a quick-witted, light-hearted
western paragrapher. Looking back it is possible, however, to
discover something of the flavor of the inextinguishable drollery
that persisted to his last printed work in such verses as these in
the St. Louis Journal:
_THE NEW BABY
We welcome thee, eventful morn
Since to the poet there is born
A son and heir;
A fuzzy babe of rosy hue,
And staring eyes of misty blue
Sans teeth, sans hair.
Let those who know not wedded joy
Revile this most illustrious boy--
This genial child!
But let the brother poets raise
Their songs and chant their sweetest lays
To him reviled.
Then strike, O bards, your tuneful lyres,
'Awake, O rhyming souls, your fires,
And use no stint!
Bring forth the festive syrup cup--
Fill every loyal beaker up
In the spring of 1879 the St. Louis Times-Journal printed the following
April verses by Field, which were copied without the author's name by
London Truth, and went the rounds of the papers in this country,
credited to that misnamed paper, and attributed, much to Field's glee,
to William S. Gilbert, then at the height of his Pinafore and Bab
The turtles drum in the pulseless bay,
The crickets creak in the prickful hedge,
The bull-frogs boom in the puddling sedge
And the whoopoe whoops its vesper lay
In the twilight soft and gray.
Two lovers stroll in the glinting gloam--
His hand in her'n and her'n in his--
She blushes deep--he is talking biz--
They hug and hop as they listless roam--
It's late when they get back home.
Down by the little wicket-gate,
Down where the creepful ivy grows,
Down where the sweet nasturtium blows,
A box-toed parent lies in wait--
For the maiden and her mate.
Let crickets creak and bull-frogs boom,
The whoopoe wail in the distant dell--
Their tuneful throbs will ne'er dispel
The planted pain and the rooted gloom--
Of the lover's dismal doom._
Just by the way of illustrating in fac-simile and preserving the
character of the newspaper paragrapher's work in the last century, the
following "Funny Fancies," by Field, from the St. Louis Journal of
August 3d, 1878, may be of interest:
A green Christmas--No, no, we mean a green peach makes a fat
A philanthropic citizen of Memphis has wedded a Miss Hoss. He doubtless
took her for wheel or whoa.
We have tried every expedient and we find that the simple legend:
"Smallpox in this House" will preserve the most uninterrupted bliss in
an editorial room.
There is a moment when a man's soul revolts against the dispensations
of Providence, and that is when he finds that his wife has been using
his flannel trousers to wrap up the ice in.
To the average Athenian the dearest spot on earth is the Greece spot.
Mr. Deer was hung at Atlanta. Of course he died game.
'Tis pleasant at the close of day
And if your partner makes a miss
But if she gives your chin a thwack,
A great many newspaper men lie awake night after night mentally
debating whether they will leave their property to some charitable
institution or spend it the next day for something with a little lemon
It was during his earlier connection with the St. Louis Journal that
Field was assigned the duty of misreporting Carl Schurz, when that
peripatetic statesman stumped Missouri in 1874 as a candidate for
re-election to the United States Senate. Field in later years paid
unstinted tribute to the logic, eloquence, and patriotic force of Mr.
Schurz's futile appeals to the rural voters of Missouri. But during the
trip his reports were in nowise conducive to the success of the
Republican and Independent candidate. Mr. Schurz's only remonstrances
were, "Field, why will you lie so outrageously?" It was only by the
exercise of careful watchfulness that Mr. Schurz's party was saved from
serious compromise through the practical jokes and snares which Field
laid for the grave, but not revered Senator. On one occasion when a
party of German serenaders appeared at the hotel where the party was
stopping, before Mr. Schurz had completed a necessary change of toilet
Field stepped out on the veranda, and, waving the vociferous cornet and
trombone to silence, proceeded to address the crowd in broken English.
As he went on the cheering soon subsided into amazed silence at the
heterodox doctrines he uttered, until the bogus candidate was pushed
unceremoniously aside by the real one. Mr. Schurz had great difficulty
in saving Field from the just wrath of the crowd, which had resented
his broken English more than his political heresies.
On another occasion when there was a momentary delay on the part of the
gentleman who was to introduce Mr. Schurz, Field stepped to the front
and with a strong German accent addressed the gathering as follows:
LADIES AND SHENTLEMEN: I haf such a pad colt dot et vas not bossible
for me to make you a speedg to-night, but I haf die bleasure to
introduce to you my prilliant chournatistic friend Euchene Fielt, who
will spoke you in my blace.
It was all done so quickly and so seriously that the joke was complete
before Mr. Schurz could push himself into the centre of the stage.
Annoyance and mirth mingled in the explanations that followed. A love
of music common to both was the only thing that made Field tolerable to
his serious-minded elder.
Regarding Eugene Field's work upon the St. Jo Gazette, it was local in
character and of the most ephemeral nature. There is preserved in the
pocket-books of some old printers in the West the galley proof of a
doggerel rhyme read by him at the printers' banquet, at St. Joseph,
Mo., January 1st, 1876. It details the fate of a "Rat" printer, who,
in addition to the mortal offence of "spacing out agate" type with
brevier, sealed his doom by stepping on the tail of our old friend,
the French poodle McSweeny. The execution of the victim's sentence
was described as follows:
_His body in the fatal cannon then they force
Shouting erstwhile in accents madly hoarse,
"Death to all Rats"--the fatal match is struck,
The cannon pointed upwards--then kerchuck!
Fiz! Snap! Ker--boom! Slug 14's grotesque form
Sails out to ride a race upon the storm,
Up through the roof, and up into the sky--
As if he sought for "cases" up on high,
Till like a rocket, or like one who's trusted,
He fell again to earth--completely busted._
There is not much suggestion, or even promise, in this doggerel, of
the Eugene Field whose verses of occasion were destined within a dozen
years to be sought for in every newspaper office in America.
Long before Field learned the value of his time and writing, he began
to appreciate the value of printer's ink and showed much shrewdness in
courting its favor. He did not wait for chance to bring his wares into
notice, but early joined the circle of busy paragraphers who formed a
wider, if less distinguished, mutual admiration society than that
free-masonry of authorship which at one time almost limited literary
fame in the United States to Henry James, William Dean Howells, Charles
Dudley Warner, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich. Robert J. Burdette is about
the only survivor of the coterie of paragraphers, who, a quarter of a
century ago, made such papers as the Burlington Hawkeye, the Detroit
Free Press, the Oil City Derrick, the Danbury News, and the Cincinnati
Saturday Night, widely quoted throughout the Union for their clever
squibs and lively sallies. Field put himself in the way of the
reciprocating round of mutual quotation and spicy comment, and before
he left St. Louis his "Funny Fancies" in the Times-Journal had the
approval of his fellow-jesters if they could not save that paper from
its approaching doom.
Before leaving St. Louis, however, Eugene Field was to strike one of
the notes that was to vibrate so sweetly and surely to his touch unto
the end. He had lost one baby son in St. Jo, and Melvin was a mere
large-eyed infant when his father was moved at Christmas-time, 1878,
to write his "Christmas Treasures," which he frequently, though
incorrectly, declared to be "the first verse I ever wrote." He probably
meant by this that it was the first verse he ever wrote "that he cared
to preserve," those specimens I have introduced being only given as
marking the steps crude and faltering by which he attained a facility
and technique in the art of versification seldom surpassed.
In Mr. Field's "Auto-Analysis" will be found the following reference to
this early specimen of his verse:
I wrote and published my first bit of verse in 1879: It was entitled
"Christmas Treasures" [see "Little Book of Western Verse"]. Just ten
years later I began suddenly to write verse very frequently.
Which merely indicates what little track Field kept of how, when, or
where he wrote the verse that attracted popular attention and by which
he is best remembered. I need hardly say that with a few noteworthy
exceptions his most highly-prized poems were written before 1888, as a
reference to the "Little Book of Western Verse," above cited, and which
was published in 1889, will clearly show.
In the year 1880 Field received and accepted an offer of the managing
editorship of the Kansas City Times, a position which he filled with
singular ability and success, but which for a year put an almost
absolute extinguisher on his growth as a writer. Under his management
the Times became the most widely-quoted newspaper west of the
Mississippi. He made it the vehicle for every sort of quaint and
exaggerated story that the free and rollicking West could furnish or
invent. He was not particular whether the Times printed the first,
fullest, or most accurate news of the day so long as its pages were
racy with the liveliest accounts and comments on the daily comedy,
eccentricity, and pathos of life.
Right merrily did he abandon himself to the buoyant spirits of an
irrepressible nature. Never sparing himself in the duties of his
exacting position on the Times, neither did he spare himself in
extracting from life all the honey of comedy there was in it. His
salary did not begin to keep pace with his tastes and his pleasures.
But he faced debts with the calm superiority of a genius to whom the
world owed and was willing to pay a living.
There lived in Kansas City, when Field was at the height of his local
fame there, one George Gaston, whose cafe and bar was the resort of all
the choice spirits of the town. He fairly worshipped Field, who made
his place famous by entertainments there, and by frequent squibs in the
Times. Although George had a rule suspending credit when the checks
given in advance of pay day amounted to more than a customer's weekly
salary, he never thought of enforcing it in the case of 'Gene. More
than once some particularly fine story or flattering notice of the good
cheer at Gaston's sufficed to restore Field's credit on George's
spindle. At Christmas-time that credit was under a cloud of checks for
two bits (25 cents), four bits, and a dollar or more each to the total
of $135.50, when, touched by some simple piece that Field wrote in the
Times, Gaston presented his bill for the amount endorsed "paid in
full." When the document was handed to Field he scanned it for a moment
and then walked over to the bar, behind which George was standing
smiling complacently and eke benevolently.
"How's this, George?" said Field.
"Oh, that's all right," returned George.
"But this is receipted," continued the ex-debtor.
"Sure," said the gracious creditor.
"Do I understand," said Field, with a gravity that should have warned
his friend, "that I have paid this bill?"
"That's what," was George's laconic assurance.
"In full's what I said," murmured the unsuspecting philanthropist,
enjoying to the full his own magnanimity.
"Well, sir," said Field, raising his voice without relaxing a muscle,
"Is it not customary in Missouri when one gentleman pays another
gentleman in full to set up the wine?"
George could scarcely respire for a moment, but gradually recovered
sufficiently to mumble, "Gents, this is one on yours truly. What'll you
And with one voice Field's cronies, who were witnesses to the scene,
ejaculated, "Make it a case." And they made a night of it, such as
would have rejoiced the hearts of the joyous spirits of the "Noctes
From such revels and such fooling Field often went to work next day
without an hour's sleep.
While in Kansas City Field wrote that pathetic tale of misplaced
confidence that records the fate of "Johnny Jones and his sister Sue."
It was entitled "The Little Peach" and has had a vogue fully as wide,
if not as sentimental, as "Little Boy Blue." Field's own estimate of
this production is somewhat bluntly set out in the following note upon
a script copy of it made in 1887:
Originally printed in the Kansas City Times, recited publicly by Henry
E. Dixey, John A. Mackey, Sol Smith Russell, and almost every comedian
in America. Popular but rotten.
The last word is not only harsh but unjust. The variation of the
closing exclamation of each verse is as skilful as anything Field ever
did. Different, indeed, from the refrain in "Wynken, Blynken and Nod,"
but touching the chords of mirth with certainty and irresistible
effect. Field might have added, that none of the comedians he has named
ever gave to the experience of "Johnny Jones and His Sister Sue" in
public recitation the same melancholy humor and pathetic conclusion as
did the author of their misfortunes and untimely end himself. As a
penance, perhaps, for the injustice done to "The Little Peach" in the
quoted comment, Field spent several days in 1887 in translating it, so
to speak, into Greek characters, in which it appears in the volume
given to Mrs. Thompson, which is herewith reproduced in facsimile as a
specimen of one of the grotesque fancies Field indulged:
[Illustration: "THE PEAR" IN FIELD'S "GREEK" TEXT.]
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the Greek characters, I have
retranslated this poem into corresponding English, which the reader can
compare with his version of "The Little Peach."
(In English Equivalent.)
A little pear in a garden grue
A little pear of emerald 'ue
Kissed bi the sun and bathed bi the due,
One da, going that garden thro'
That little pear kame to the fue
Of Thomas Smith and 'is sister Sue
Up at the pear a klub tha thrue
Down from the stem on uikh it grue
Fell the little pear of emerald 'ue
Tom took a bite and Sue took one too
And then the trouble began to brue
Trouble the doktors kouldn't subdue
Too true (paragorik too?).
Under the turf fare the daisies grue
They planted Tom and 'is sister Sue
And their little souls to the angels flue
But as to the pear of emerald 'ue
Kissed bi the sun and bathed bi the due
I'll add that its mission on earth is thro'
IN DENVER, 1881-1883
It was in Denver that Eugene Field entered upon and completed the final
stage of what may be called the hobble-de-hoy period in his life and
literary career. He went to the capital of Colorado the most
indefatigable merry-maker that ever turned night into day, a
past-master in the art of mimicry, the most inveterate practical joker
that ever violated the proprieties of friendship, time, and occasion to
raise a laugh or puncture a fraud. As his friend of those days, E.D.
Cowen, has written, "as a farceur and entertainer no professional could
Field was tempted to go to Denver by the offer of the managing
editorship of the Tribune, which was owned and controlled by the
railroad and political coalition then dominant in Colorado. It was run
on a scale of extravagance out of all proportion to its legitimate
revenue, its newspaper functions being altogether subordinate to
services as a railroad ally and political organ. The late O.H.
Rothacker, one of the ablest and most versatile writers in the country,
was at the head of its editorial staff, and Fred J.V. Skiff, now head
of the Field Columbian Museum, was its business manager. These men,
with Field, were given carte blanche to surround themselves with a
staff and news-gathering equipment to make the Tribune "hum." And they
did make it hum, so that the humming was heard far beyond the borders
of the centennial state.
In studying the character of Eugene Field and his doings in Denver, it
must be borne in mind that we are considering a period in the life of
that city years ago, when the conditions were very different from those
prevailing there now or from those to be met with to-day in any other
large city in the country. Denver in 1881 was very much what San
Francisco was under the influence of the gold rush of the early
fifties, only complicated with the struggles of rival railway
companies. All the politics, railway, and mining interests of the newly
created state centred in Denver. The city was alive with the throbbing
energy of strife and speculation over mines, railway grants, and
political power. Life was rapid, boisterous, and rough. Nothing had
settled into the conventional grooves of habit. The whole community was
fearless in its gayety. It had not learned to affect the sobriety and
demureness of stupidity lest its frivolity should be likened to the
crackling of thorns under a pot.
Into this civilization of the mining camp and smelter, just emerging
into that of the railway, political, and financial centre of a vast and
wealthy territory, came Eugene Field at the age of thirty-one, as free
from care, warm-hearted, and open-handed as the most reckless
adventurer in Colorado. Although a husband and a father, devoted as
ever to his family, he threw himself into the bohemian life of Denver
with the abandon of a youth of twenty. It is almost inconceivable where
Field found the time and strength for the whirl of work and play in
which there was no let up during his two years' stay in Denver. His
duties as managing editor of the Tribune would have taxed the energies
and resources of the strongest man, for he did not spare himself to
fulfil the purpose of his engagement--to make the paper "hum." He
mapped out and directed the work of the staff with a comprehensive
shrewdness and keen appreciation of what his public, as well as his
employers, wanted that left no room for criticism. He kept the whole
city guessing what sensation or reputation would be exploded next in
But he did not confine himself to the duties of directing the work of
others. He started a column headed "Odds and Ends," to which he was the
principal and, by all odds, the most frequent contributor. He had not
been in the city many months before he began the occasional publication
of those skits which, under the title of "The Tribune Primer," were
gathered into his first unpretentious book of forty-eight pages, and
which in its original form is now one of the most sought after quarries
of the American bibliomaniac. Writing of these sketches in 1894, he
The little sketches appeared in the Denver Tribune in the Fall of
1881 and winter of 1882. The whole number did not exceed fifty. I
quit writing them because all the other newspapers in the country
began imitating the project.
In fact the series began October 10th, 1881, and ended December 19th of
the same year. Edward B. Morgan, of Denver, in an introductory note to
a few of the sketches omitted from the original "Tribune Primer,"
printed in the Cornhill Booklet for January, 1901, gives the following
version of how the skits began:
Of the origin of these sketches a story is told--although the writer
cannot vouch for it--that on the Sunday evening preceding their first
publication the "printer's devil" was dispatched post-haste to
Field's home for copy which his happy-go-lucky manner of working had
not produced. We may perhaps picture him engaged in what was always
nearest and dearest to his heart, the amusement of his children, and
perhaps reading to them or more likely composing for them primer
sketches which he on the spur of the moment parodied for older
readers. He has probably expressed his own feelings in the third one
of the skits which he then wrote:
THE REPORTER ON SUNDAY
Is this Sunday? Yes, it is a Sunday. How peaceful and quiet it is.
But who is the man? He does not look peaceful. He is a reporter and
he is swearing. What makes him swear? Because he has to work on
Sunday? Oh no! he is swearing because he has to Break the Fourth
Commandment. It is a sad thing to be a Reporter.
According to Mr. Cowen, however, the inspiration of the primer
compositions was a libel suit brought against the Tribune by Governor
Evans. In ridiculing the governor and his action Field three times used
the old primer method--with illustrations after the fashion of John
Phoenix--and the success of these little sarcasms undoubtedly
encouraged him to elaborate the idea. Field also had a column of
unsigned verse and storyettes in the Tribune under the heading, "For
the Little Folks."
Mr. Morgan discredits Field's statement that the whole number of the
Primers issued did not exceed fifty, because of the unlikelihood of
printing such a small edition of a book to be sold for twenty-five
cents and advertising it daily a month in advance, with a foot-note,
"Trade supplied at Special Rates." Which merely shows that Mr. Morgan
applied to Field's acts the same rule of thumb that would be applicable
to ninety-nine out of a hundred reasonable publishers. But Field was a
rule unto himself, and he could be counted on to be the one hundredth
and unique individual where the other ninety-and-nine were orthodox and
conventional. The fact that only seven or eight copies of the original
Primer are known to book collectors tends to confirm Field's statement,
which receives side light and support from his suggestion to Francis
Wilson that the first edition of "Echoes from the Sabine Farm," which
Mr. Wilson issued in such sumptuous form nearly ten years later, should
consist of only fifty copies, and that each of the two should reserve
one and that they should "burn the other forty-eight."
I have not the slightest doubt that the same disposition was made of
all copies of "The Tribune Primer" over the first fifty, which were
supplied to the favored few at "Special Rates." This was just such a
freak as would have occurred to Field, and in Denver there was no
restraint upon the act following upon any wild thought that flitted
through his topsy-turvy brain.
The jocose spirit in which Field at this time viewed the methods,
duties, and responsibilities of journalism may be gleaned from the
following specimens taken at random from his "Tribune Primer" sketches:
What is that I see? That, my Child, is the News Interviewer and he is
now interviewing a Man. But where is the Man? I can see no Man. The
Man, my Child, is in his Mind.
A RECHERCHE AFFAIR
This is a recherche Affair. Recherche Affairs are sometimes met with
in Parlors and Ball Rooms. But more Generally in the Society
Department of newspapers. A Recherche Affair is an Affair where the
Society Editor is invited to the refreshment table. When the Society
Editor is told his Room is Better than his Company, the Affair is not
THE STEAM PRESS
Is this not a Beautiful Steam Press? The Steam is Lying Down on the
Floor taking a Nap. He came from Africa and is Seventy Years Old. The
Press prints Papers. It can Print Nine Hundred papera an Hour. It
takes One Hour and Forty Minutes to Print the Edition of the Paper.
The Paper has a circulation of Thirty-seven thousand. The business
Manager says so.
It was indeed a happy departure from the ruder fooling of the newspaper
paragrapher of that day to clothe satire on current events and
every-day affairs in the innocent simplicity of the nursery. But the
vast majority of these Primer paragraphs were by no means as innocent
as those quoted. Many of them had a sting more sharp than that of the
wasp embalmed in one of them:
See the Wasp. He has pretty yellow stripes around his Body, and a
darning needle in his tail. If you will Pat the Wasp upon the Tail,
we will Give you a nice Picture Book.
Very many of them seemed inspired by an irrepressible desire to incite
little children to deeds of mischief never dreamed of in Baxter's
Saints' Rest. Here are a precious pair of paragraphs, each calculated
to bring the joy that takes its meals standing into any home circle
where youthful incorrigibles were in need of outside encouragement to
their infant initiative:
THE NASTY TOBACCO
What is that Nasty looking object? It is a Chew of Tobacco. Oh, how
naughty it is to use the Filthy weed. It makes the teeth black, and
spoils the Parlor Carpet. Go Quick and Throw the Horrid Stuff Away.
Put it in the Ice Cream Freezer or in the Coffee Pot where Nobody can
see it. Little Girls you should never chew Tobacco.
The Bottle is full of Mucilage. Take it and Pour some Mucilage into
Papa's Slippers. Then when Papa comes Home it will be a Question
whether there will be more Stick in the Slippers than on your Pants.
But whoever wishes to learn of the peculiar side of Child life that
appealed most strongly to Eugene Field when his own earlier born
children were still in the nursery age, should get a copy of "The
Tribune Primer" and read, not only the sketches themselves, but between
the lines, where he will find much of the teasing spirit that kept his
whole household wondering what he would do next. In these sketches will
be found frequent references to the Bugaboo, a creation of his fancy,
"With a big Voice like a Bear, and Claws as long as a Knife." His
warning to the little children then was, "If you are Good, Beware of
the Bugaboo." In later life he reserved the terror of the Bugaboo for
naughty little boys and girls.
His first poem to his favorite hobgoblin, as it appeared in the Denver
Tribune, was the following:
_THE AWFUL BUGABOO
There was an awful Bugaboo
Whose Eyes were Red and Hair was Blue;
His Teeth were Long and Sharp and White
And he went prowling 'round at Night.
A little Girl was Tucked in Bed,
A pretty Night Cap on her Head;
Her Mamma heard her Pleading Say,
"Oh, do not Take the Lamp away!"
But Mamma took away the lamp
And oh, the Room was Dark and Damp;
The Little Girl was Scared to Death--
She did not Dare to Draw her Breath.
And all at once the Bugaboo
Came Rattling down the Chimney Flue;
He Perched upon the little Bed
And scratched the Girl until she bled.
He drank the Blood and Scratched again--
The little Girl cried out in vain--
He picked her up and Off he Flew--
This Naughty, Naughty Bugaboo!
So, children when in Bed to-night,
Don't let them Take away the Light,
Or else the Awful Bugaboo
May come and Fly away with You._
It is a far cry in time and a farther one in literary worth from "The
Awful Bugaboo" of 1883 to "Seein' Things" of 1894. The sex of the
victim is different, and the spirit of the incorrigible western tease
gives way to the spirit of Puritanic superstition, but there can be no
mistaking the persistence of the Bugaboo germ in the later verse:
_An' yet I hate to go to bed,
For when I'm tucked up warm an' snug an' when my prayers are said,
Mother tells me "Happy Dreams!" and takes away the light,
An' leaves me lyin' all alone an' seein' things at night!_
* * * * *
_Sometimes they are as black as ink, an' other times they're white--
But the color ain't no difference when you're seein' things at night._
In all that Field wrote, whether in prose or rhyme, for the Denver
Tribune nothing contributed to his literary reputation or gave promise
of the place in American letters he was to attain, save one little bit
of fugitive verse, which was for years to justify its title of "The
Wanderer." It contains one of the prettiest, tenderest, most vitally
poetic ideas that ever occurred to Eugene Field. And yet he deliberately
disclaimed it in the moment of its conception and laid it, like a
little foundling, at the door of Madame Modjeska. The expatriation of
the Polish actress, between whom and Field there existed a singularly
warm and enduring friendship, formed the basis for the allegory of the
shell on the mountain, and doubtless suggested to him the humor, if not
the sentiment, of attributing the poem to her and writing it in the
first person. The circumstances of its publication justify its
reproduction here, although I suppose it is one of the most familiar
of Field's poems. I copy it from his manuscript:
Upon a mountain height, far from the sea,
I found a shell,
And to my listening ear this lonely thing
Ever a song of ocean seem'd to sing--
Ever a tale of ocean seem'd to tell.
How came the shell upon the mountain height?
Ah, who can say
Whether there dropped by some too careless hand--
Whether there cast when oceans swept the land,
Ere the Eternal had ordained the day?
Strange, was it not? Far from its native deep,
One song it sang;
Sang of the awful mysteries of the tide,
Sang of the restless sea, profound and wide--
Ever with echoes of the ocean rang.
And as the shell upon the mountain height
Sang of the sea,
So do I ever, leagues and leagues away--
So do I ever, wandering where I may,
Sing, O my home! sing, O my home! of thee!_
I have seen it stated that Madame Modjeska regarded the liberty taken
with her name in this connection with feelings of displeasure, and
Hamlin Garland has reported a conversation with Field, during the
summer of 1893, when the latter, speaking of his work in Denver, and of
"The Tribune Primer" as the most conspicuous thing he did there, said:
"The other thing which rose above the level of my ordinary work was a
bit of verse, 'The Wanderer,' which I credited to Modjeska, and which
has given her no little annoyance." In his note to Mrs. Thompson's
manuscript copy of "The Wanderer," Field says:
These verses appeared in the Denver Tribune credited to Helena
Modjeska. They were copied far and wide over Modjeska's name.
Modjeska took the joke in pretty good part. The original publication
was June, 1883.
Madame Modjeska not only took the joke in "pretty good part," but
esteemed its perpetrator all the more highly for the light in which it
placed her before the public, which she was then delighting with her
exquisite impersonations of Rosalind and Mary Stuart. For years after
its publication Madame Modjeska, wherever she appeared throughout the
country, was reminded of this joke by the scores of letters sent to her
room, as soon as she registered, requesting autograph copies of "The
Wanderer," or the honor of her signature to a clipping of it neatly
pasted in the autograph hunter's album. Nor were autograph hunters the
only ones imposed on by the signature to "The Wanderer." In August,
1883, Professor David Swing, writing in the Weekly Magazine, gave it as
his opinion that the alleged Modjeska poem was indeed written by
Modjeska, and concluded: "The conversation and tone of her thoughts as
expressed among friends betrays a mind that at least loves the poetic,
and is quite liable to attempt a verse. The child-like simplicity of
this little song is so like Modjeska that no demand arises for any
outside help in the matter." And Field, like the true fisherman he was,
having secured a fine rise, proceeded to remark: "It will, perhaps,
pain the Professor to learn that Madame Modjeska now denies ever having
seen the verses until they appeared in print."
But not until Field reclaimed his child and published "The Wanderer"
as his own, in "A Little Book of Western Verse," was the verse-reading
public satisfied to give the Polish comedienne a long rest from
importunities concerning it.
ANECDOTES OF LIFE IN DENVER
No story of Eugene Field's life would be true, no study of his
personality complete, if it ignored or even glossed over "the mad wild
ways of his youthful days" in Denver. He never wearied of telling of
the constant succession of harum-scarum pranks that made the Tribune
office the storm-centre for all the fun-loving characters in Colorado.
Not that Field ever neglected his work or his domestic duties for play,
but it was a dull day for Denver when his pen or his restless spirit
for mischief did not provide some fresh cause for local amazement or
merriment. His associates and abettors in all manner of frolics, where
he was master of the revels, were kindred spirits among the railway
managers, agents, politicians, mining speculators, lawyers, and doctors
of the town. Into this company a fresh ingredient would be introduced
every week from the theatrical troupes which made Denver the western
limit of their circuits or a convenient break in the long overland
Field's office was a fitting retreat for the genius of disorder. It had
none of the conveniences that are supposed to be necessary in the rooms
of modern managing editors. It was open and accessible to the public
without the intermediary of an office-boy or printer's devil. Field had
his own way of making visitors welcome, whether they came in friendly
guise or on hostile measures bent. Over his desk hung the inhospitable
sign, "This is my busy day," which he is said to have invented, and on
the neighboring wall the motto, "God bless our proof-reader, He can't
call for him too soon." But his crudest device, "fatal," as his friend
E.D. Cowen writes, "to the vengeance of every visitor who came with a
threat of libel suit, and temporarily subversive of the good feeling of
those friends he lured into its treacherous embrace, was a bottomless
black-walnut chair." Its yawning seat was always concealed by a few
exchanges carelessly thrown there--the floor being also liberally
strewn with them. As it was the only chair in the room except the one
Field occupied himself, his caller, though never asked to do so, would
be sure to see in Field's suave smile an invitation to drop into the
trap and thence ingloriously to the floor. Through this famous chair,
on his first visit to the Tribune office, "Bill" Nye dropped into a
lifelong friendship with Eugene Field. When the victim happened to be
an angry sufferer from a too personal reference to his affairs in the
paper, Field would make the most profuse apologies for the scant
furnishings of the office, which he shrewdly ascribed to the poverty of
the publishing company, and tender his own chair as some small
compensation for the mishap.
I have spoken of Edgar W.--more familiarly known as "Bill"--Nye's
unceremonious introduction to Field's friendship. This followed upon
what was virtually the discovery of Nye by Field. The former was what
old-time printers described as "plugging along" without recognition on
the Laramie Boomerang. His peculiar humor caught the attention of
Field, who, with the intuition of a born journalist, wrote and got Nye
to contribute a weekly letter to the Tribune. At first Nye was paid the
princely stipend of $5 a week for these letters. This was raised to
$10, and when Field informed Nye that he was to receive $15 per letter,
the latter promptly packed his grip and took the first train for
Denver, to see what sort of a newspaper Croesus presided over the
order-blank of the Tribune. When he appeared before Field he was
whiskered like a western farmer and his head had not pushed its way
through a thick growth of hair. He was altogether a different looking
personage from the bald-headed, clean-shaven humorist with whose
features the world was destined to become so well acquainted.
After the incident of the chair nothing would do Field but a dinner at
the St. James Hotel, given in honor of Bill Nye. The affair started
after the Tribune had gone to press and lasted all night. At five
o'clock in the morning the company escorted their guest to his room and
departed, with elaborate professions of good-will. They waited in the
hotel office long enough for Nye to get to bed, and then sent up cards,
requesting his presence down-stairs on immediate business. But Nye was
equal to his tormentors, and the bell-boy returned, bearing a shot-gun,
with the message that it would speak for him. When Nye first visited
Field in Chicago, his presence in town was heralded with the following
The latest news from Bill Nye is to the effect that he has discovered
a coal mine on his little farm near Hudson, Wis. Ten days ago he
was spading over his garden--an exercise recommended by his
physician--and he struck a very rich vein of what is called rock
coal. Nye paid $2,000 for this farm, and since the development of
this coal deposit on the premises he has been offered $10,000 for
five acres. He believes that he has a great fortune within his grasp.
As illustrative of how impossible it was for Field to keep money, it is
related that on one occasion he coaxed F.J.V. Skiff, then business
manager of the Tribune, to advance "just another" $10 to meet some
urgent domestic demands. Scarcely had Mr. Skiff time to place the order
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