Literature and Life, Entire
William Dean Howells

Part 6 out of 9



To give an account of one's reading is in some sort to give an account of
one's life; and I hope that I shall not offend those who follow me in
these papers, if I cannot help speaking of myself in speaking of the
authors I must call my masters: my masters not because they taught me
this or that directly, but because I had such delight in them that I
could not fail to teach myself from them whatever I was capable of
learning. I do not know whether I have been what people call a great
reader; I cannot claim even to have been a very wise reader; but I have
always been conscious of a high purpose to read much more, and more
discreetly, than I have ever really done, and probably it is from the
vantage-ground of this good intention that I shall sometimes be found
writing here rather than from the facts of the case.

But I am pretty sure that I began right, and that if I had always kept
the lofty level which I struck at the outset I should have the right to
use authority in these reminiscences without a bad conscience. I shall
try not to use authority, however, and I do not expect to speak here of
all my reading, whether it has been much or little, but only of those
books, or of those authors that I have felt a genuine passion for. I
have known such passions at every period of my life, but it is mainly of
the loves of my youth that I shall write, and I shall write all the more
frankly because my own youth now seems to me rather more alien than that
of any other person.

I think that I came of a reading race, which has always loved literature
in a way, and in spite of varying fortunes and many changes. From a
letter of my great-grandmother's written to a stubborn daughter upon some
unfilial behavior, like running away to be married, I suspect that she
was fond of the high-colored fiction of her day, for she tells the wilful
child that she has "planted a dagger in her mother's heart," and I should
not be surprised if it were from this fine-languaged lady that my
grandfather derived his taste for poetry rather than from his father, who
was of a worldly wiser mind. To be sure, he became a Friend by
Convincement as the Quakers say, and so I cannot imagine that he was
altogether worldly; but he had an eye to the main chance: he founded the
industry of making flannels in the little Welsh town where he lived, and
he seems to have grown richer, for his day and place, than any of us have
since grown for ours. My grandfather, indeed, was concerned chiefly in
getting away from the world and its wickedness. He came to this country
early in the nineteenth century and settled his family in a log-cabin in
the Ohio woods, that they might be safe from the sinister influences of
the village where he was managing some woollen-mills. But he kept his
affection for certain poets of the graver, not to say gloomier sort, and
he must have suffered his children to read them, pending that great
question of their souls' salvation which was a lifelong trouble to him.

My father, at any rate, had such a decided bent in the direction of
literature, that he was not content in any of his several economical
experiments till he became the editor of a newspaper, which was then the
sole means of satisfying a literary passion. His paper, at the date when
I began to know him, was a living, comfortable and decent, but without
the least promise of wealth in it, or the hope even of a much better
condition. I think now that he was wise not to care for the advancement
which most of us have our hearts set upon, and that it was one of his
finest qualities that he was content with a lot in life where he was not
exempt from work with his hands, and yet where he was not so pressed by
need but he could give himself at will not only to the things of the
spirit, but the things of the mind too. After a season of scepticism he
had become a religious man, like the rest of his race, but in his own
fashion, which was not at all the fashion of my grandfather: a Friend who
had married out of Meeting, and had ended a perfervid Methodist. My
father, who could never get himself converted at any of the camp-meetings
where my grandfather often led the forces of prayer to his support, and
had at last to be given up in despair, fell in with the writings of
Emanuel Swedenborg, and embraced the doctrine of that philosopher with a
content that has lasted him all the days of his many years. Ever since I
can remember, the works of Swedenborg formed a large part of his library;
he read them much himself, and much to my mother, and occasionally a
"Memorable Relation" from them to us children. But he did not force them
upon our notice, nor urge us to read them, and I think this was very
well. I suppose his conscience and his reason kept him from doing so.
But in regard to other books, his fondness was too much for him, and when
I began to show a liking for literature he was eager to guide my choice.

His own choice was for poetry, and the most of our library, which was not
given to theology, was given to poetry. I call it the library now, but
then we called it the bookcase, and that was what literally it was,
because I believe that whatever we had called our modest collection of
books, it was a larger private collection than any other in the town
where we lived. Still it was all held, and shut with glass doors, in a
case of very few shelves. It was not considerably enlarged during my
childhood, for few books came to my father as editor, and he indulged
himself in buying them even more rarely. My grandfather's book store
(it was also the village drug-store) had then the only stock of
literature for sale in the place; and once, when Harper & Brothers' agent
came to replenish it, be gave my father several volumes for review. One
of these was a copy of Thomson's Seasons, a finely illustrated edition,
whose pictures I knew long before I knew the poetry, and thought them the
most beautiful things that ever were. My father read passages of the
book aloud, and he wanted me to read it all myself. For the matter of
that he wanted me to read Cowper, from whom no one could get anything but
good, and he wanted me to read Byron, from whom I could then have got no
harm; we get harm from the evil we understand. He loved Burns, too, and
he used to read aloud from him, I must own, to my inexpressible
weariness. I could not away with that dialect, and I could not then feel
the charm of the poet's wit, nor the tender beauty of his pathos. Moore,
I could manage better; and when my father read "Lalla Rookh" to my mother
I sat up to listen, and entered into all the woes of Iran in the story of
the "Fire Worshippers." I drew the line at the "Veiled Prophet of
Khorassan," though I had some sense of the humor of the poet's conception
of the critic in "Fadladeen." But I liked Scott's poems far better, and
got from Ispahan to Edinburgh with a glad alacrity of fancy. I followed
the "Lady of the Lake" throughout, and when I first began to contrive
verses of my own I found that poem a fit model in mood and metre.

Among other volumes of verse on the top shelf of the bookcase, of which I
used to look at the outside without penetrating deeply within, were
Pope's translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Dryden's Virgil,
pretty little tomes in tree-calf, published by James Crissy in
Philadelphia, and illustrated with small copper-plates, which somehow
seemed to put the matter hopelessly beyond me. It was as if they said to
me in so many words that literature which furnished the subjects of such
pictures I could not hope to understand, and need not try. At any rate,
I let them alone for the time, and I did not meddle with a volume of
Shakespeare, in green cloth and cruelly fine print, which overawed me in
like manner with its wood-cuts. I cannot say just why I conceived that
there was something unhallowed in the matter of the book; perhaps this
was a tint from the reputation of the rather profligate young man from
whom my father had it. If he were not profligate I ask his pardon. I
have not the least notion who he was, but that was the notion I had of
him, whoever he was, or wherever he now is. There may never have been
such a young man at all; the impression I had may have been pure
invention of my own, like many things with children, who do not very
distinctly know their dreams from their experiences, and live in the
world where both project the same quality of shadow.

There were, of course, other books in the bookcase, which my
consciousness made no account of, and I speak only of those I remember.
Fiction there was none at all that I can recall, except Poe's 'Tales of
the Grotesque and the Arabesque' (I long afflicted myself as to what
those words meant, when I might easily have asked and found out) and
Bulwer's Last Days of Pompeii, all in the same kind of binding. History
is known, to my young remembrance of that library, by a History of the
United States, whose dust and ashes I hardly made my way through; and by
a 'Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada', by the ever dear and precious
Fray Antonio Agapida, whom I was long in making out to be one and the
same as Washington Irving.

In school there was as little literature then as there is now, and I
cannot say anything worse of our school reading; but I was not really
very much in school, and so I got small harm from it. The printing-
office was my school from a very early date. My father thoroughly
believed in it, and he had his beliefs as to work, which he illustrated
as soon as we were old enough to learn the trade he followed. We could
go to school and study, or we could go into the printing-office and work,
with an equal chance of learning, but we could not be idle; we must do
something, for our souls' sake, though he was willing enough we should
play, and he liked himself to go into the woods with us, and to enjoy the
pleasures that manhood can share with childhood. I suppose that as the
world goes now we were poor. His income was never above twelve hundred a
year, and his family was large; but nobody was rich there or then; we
lived in the simple abundance of that time and place, and we did not know
that we were poor. As yet the unequal modern conditions were undreamed
of (who indeed could have dreamed of them forty or fifty years ago?) in
the little Southern Ohio town where nearly the whole of my most happy
boyhood was passed.


When I began to have literary likings of my own, and to love certain
books above others, the first authors of my heart were Goldsmith,
Cervantes, and Irving. In the sharply foreshortened perspective of the
past I seem to have read them all at once, but I am aware of an order of
time in the pleasure they gave me, and I know that Goldsmith came first.
He came so early that I cannot tell when or how I began to read him, but
it must have been before I was ten years old. I read other books about
that time, notably a small book on Grecian and Roman mythology, which I
perused with such a passion for those pagan gods and goddesses that, if
it had ever been a question of sacrificing to Diana, I do not really know
whether I should have been able to refuse. I adored indiscriminately all
the tribes of nymphs and naiads, demigods and heroes, as well as the high
ones of Olympus; and I am afraid that by day I dwelt in a world peopled
and ruled by them, though I faithfully said my prayers at night, and fell
asleep in sorrow for my sins. I do not know in the least how Goldsmith's
Greece came into my hands, though I fancy it must have been procured for
me because of a taste which I showed for that kind of reading, and I can
imagine no greater luck for a small boy in a small town of Southwestern
Ohio well-nigh fifty years ago. I have the books yet; two little, stout
volumes in fine print, with the marks of wear on them, but without those
dishonorable blots, or those other injuries which boys inflict upon books
in resentment of their dulness, or out of mere wantonness. I was always
sensitive to the maltreatment of books; I could not bear to see a book
faced down or dogs-eared or broken-backed. It was like a hurt or an
insult to a thing that could feel.

Goldsmith's History of Rome came to me much later, but quite as
immemorably, and after I had formed a preference for the Greek Republics,
which I dare say was not mistaken. Of course I liked Athens best, and
yet there was something in the fine behavior of the Spartans in battle,
which won a heart formed for hero-worship. I mastered the notion of
their communism, and approved of their iron money, with the poverty it
obliged them to, yet somehow their cruel treatment of the Helots failed
to shock me; perhaps I forgave it to their patriotism, as I had to
forgive many ugly facts in the history of the Romans to theirs. There
was hardly any sort of bloodshed which I would not pardon in those days
to the slayers of tyrants; and the swagger form of such as despatched a
despot with a fine speech was so much to my liking that I could only
grieve that I was born too late to do and to say those things.

I do not think I yet felt the beauty of the literature which made them
all live in my fancy, that I conceived of Goldsmith as an artist using
for my rapture the finest of the arts; and yet I had been taught to see
the loveliness of poetry, and was already trying to make it on my own
poor account. I tried to make verses like those I listened to when my
father read Moore and Scott to my mother, but I heard them with no such
happiness as I read my beloved histories, though I never thought then of
attempting to write like Goldsmith. I accepted his beautiful work as
ignorantly as I did my other blessings. I was concerned in getting at
the Greeks and Romans, and I did not know through what nimble air and by
what lovely ways I was led to them. Some retrospective perception of
this came long afterward when I read his essays, and after I knew all of
his poetry, and later yet when I read the 'Vicar of Wakefield'; but for
the present my eyes were holden, as the eyes of a boy mostly are in the
world of art. What I wanted with my Greeks and Romans after I got at
them was to be like them, or at least to turn them to account in verse,
and in dramatic verse at that. The Romans were less civilized than the
Greeks, and so were more like boys, and more to a boy's purpose. I did
not make literature of the Greeks, but I got a whole tragedy out of the
Romans; it was a rhymed tragedy, and in octosyllabic verse, like the
"Lady of the Lake." I meant it to be acted by my schoolmates, but I am
not sure that I ever made it known to them. Still, they were not
ignorant of my reading, and I remember how proud I was when a certain
boy, who had always whipped me when we fought together, and so outranked
me in that little boys' world, once sent to ask me the name of the Roman
emperor who lamented at nightfall, when he had done nothing worthy, that
he had lost a day. The boy was going to use the story, in a composition,
as we called the school themes then, and I told him the emperor's name; I
could not tell him now without turning to the book.

My reading gave me no standing among the boys, and I did not expect it to
rank me with boys who were more valiant in fight or in play; and I have
since found that literature gives one no more certain station in the
world of men's activities, either idle or useful. We literary folk try
to believe that it does, but that is all nonsense. At every period of
life, among boys or men, we are accepted when they are at leisure, and
want to be amused, and at best we are tolerated rather than accepted.
I must have told the boys stories out of my Goldsmith's Greece and Rome,
or it would not have been known that I had read them, but I have no
recollection now of doing so, while I distinctly remember rehearsing the
allegories and fables of the 'Gesta Romanorum', a book which seems to
have been in my hands about the same time or a little later. I had a
delight in that stupid collection of monkish legends which I cannot
account for now, and which persisted in spite of the nightmare confusion
it made of my ancient Greeks and Romans. They were not at all the
ancient Greeks and Romans of Goldsmith's histories.

I cannot say at what times I read these books, but they must have been
odd times, for life was very full of play then, and was already beginning
to be troubled with work. As I have said, I was to and fro between the
schoolhouse and the printing-office so much that when I tired of the one
I must have been very promptly given my choice of the other. The
reading, however, somehow went on pretty constantly, and no doubt my love
for it won me a chance for it. There were some famous cherry-trees in
our yard, which, as I look back at them, seem to have been in flower or
fruit the year round; and in one of them there was a level branch where a
boy could sit with a book till his dangling legs went to sleep, or till
some idler or busier boy came to the gate and called him down to play
marbles or go swimming. When this happened the ancient world was rolled
up like a scroll, and put away until the next day, with all its orators
and conspirators, its nymphs and satyrs, gods and demigods; though
sometimes they escaped at night and got into the boy's dreams.

I do not think I cared as much as some of the other boys for the 'Arabian
Nights' or 'Robinson Crusoe,' but when it came to the 'Ingenious
Gentleman of La Mancha,' I was not only first, I was sole.

Before I speak, however, of the beneficent humorist who next had my
boyish heart after Goldsmith, let me acquit myself in full of my debt to
that not unequal or unkindred spirit. I have said it was long after I
had read those histories, full of his inalienable charm, mere pot-boilers
as they were, and far beneath his more willing efforts, that I came to
know his poetry. My father must have read the "Deserted Village" to us,
and told us something of the author's pathetic life, for I cannot
remember when I first knew of "sweet Auburn," or had the light of the
poet's own troubled day upon the "loveliest village of the plain."
The 'Vicar of Wakefield' must have come into my life after that poem and
before 'The Traveler'. It was when I would have said that I knew all
Goldsmith; we often give ourselves credit for knowledge in this way
without having any tangible assets; and my reading has always been very
desultory. I should like to say here that the reading of any one who
reads to much purpose is always very desultory, though perhaps I had
better not say so, but merely state the fact in my case, and own that I
never read any one author quite through without wandering from him to
others. When I first read the 'Vicar of Wakefield' (for I have since
read it several times, and hope yet to read it many times), I found its
persons and incidents familiar, and so I suppose I must have heard it
read. It is still for me one of the most modern novels: that is to say,
one of the best. It is unmistakably good up to a certain point, and then
unmistakably bad, but with always good enough in it to be forever
imperishable. Kindness and gentleness are never out of fashion; it is
these in Goldsmith which make him our contemporary, and it is worth the
while of any young person presently intending deathless renown to take a
little thought of them. They are the source of all refinement, and I do
not believe that the best art in any kind exists without them. The style
is the man, and he cannot hide himself in any garb of words so that we
shall not know somehow what manner of man he is within it; his speech
betrayeth him, not only as to his country and his race, but more subtly
yet as to his heart, and the loves and hates of his heart. As to
Goldsmith, I do not think that a man of harsh and arrogant nature, of
worldly and selfish soul, could ever have written his style, and I do not
think that, in far greater measure than criticism has recognized, his
spiritual quality, his essential friendliness, expressed itself in the
literary beauty that wins the heart as well as takes the fancy in his

I should have my reservations and my animadversions if it came to close
criticism of his work, but I am glad that he was the first author I
loved, and that even before I knew I loved him I was his devoted reader.
I was not consciously his admirer till I began to read, when I was
fourteen, a little volume of his essays, made up, I dare say, from the
'Citizen of the World' and other unsuccessful ventures of his. It
contained the papers on Beau Tibbs, among others, and I tried to write
sketches and studies of life in their manner. But this attempt at
Goldsmith's manner followed a long time after I tried to write in the
style of Edgar A. Poe, as I knew it from his 'Tales of the Grotesque
erred Arabesque.' I suppose the very poorest of these was the "Devil in
the Belfry," but such as it was I followed it as closely as I could in
the "Devil in the Smoke-Pipes"; I meant tobacco-pipes. The resemblance
was noted by those to whom I read my story; I alone could not see it or
would not own it, and I really felt it a hardship that I should be found
to have produced an imitation.

It was the first time I had imitated a prose writer, though I had
imitated several poets like Moore, Campbell, and Goldsmith himself.
I have never greatly loved an author without wishing to write like him.
I have now no reluctance to confess that, and I do not see why I should
not say that it was a long time before I found it best to be as like
myself as I could, even when I did not think so well of myself as of some
others. I hope I shall always be able and willing to learn something
from the masters of literature and still be myself, but for the young
writer this seems impossible. He must form himself from time to time
upon the different authors he is in love with, but when he has done this
he must wish it not to be known, for that is natural too. The lover
always desires to ignore the object of his passion, and the adoration
which a young writer has for a great one is truly a passion passing the
love of women. I think it hardly less fortunate that Cervantes was one
of my early passions, though I sat at his feet with no more sense of his
mastery than I had of Goldsmith's.


I recall very fully the moment and the place when I first heard of 'Don
Quixote,' while as yet I could not connect it very distinctly with
anybody's authorship. I was still too young to conceive of authorship,
even in my own case, and wrote my miserable verses without any notion of
literature, or of anything but the pleasure of seeing them actually come
out rightly rhymed and measured. The moment was at the close of a
summer's day just before supper, which, in our house, we had lawlessly
late, and the place was the kitchen where my mother was going about her
work, and listening as she could to what my father was telling my brother
and me and an apprentice of ours, who was like a brother to us both, of a
book that he had once read. We boys were all shelling peas, but the
story, as it went on, rapt us from the poor employ, and whatever our
fingers were doing, our spirits were away in that strange land of
adventures and mishaps, where the fevered life of the knight truly
without fear and without reproach burned itself out. I dare say that my
father tried to make us understand the satirical purpose of the book.
I vaguely remember his speaking of the books of chivalry it was meant to
ridicule; but a boy could not care for this, and what I longed to do at
once was to get that book and plunge into its story. He told us at
random of the attack on the windmills and the flocks of sheep, of the
night in the valley of the fulling-mills with their trip-hammers, of the
inn and the muleteers, of the tossing of Sancho in the blanket, of the
island that was given him to govern, and of all the merry pranks at the
duke's and duchess's, of the liberation of the galley-slaves, of the
capture of Mambrino's helmet, and of Sancho's invention of the enchanted
Dulcinea, and whatever else there was wonderful and delightful in the
most wonderful and delightful book in the world. I do not know when or
where my father got it for me, and I am aware of an appreciable time that
passed between my hearing of it and my having it. The event must have
been most important to me, and it is strange I cannot fix the moment when
the precious story came into my hands; though for the matter of that
there is nothing more capricious than a child's memory, what it will hold
and what it will lose.

It is certain my Don Quixote was in two small, stout volumes not much
bigger each than my Goldsmith's 'Greece', bound in a sort of law-calf,
well fitted to withstand the wear they were destined to undergo. The
translation was, of course, the old-fashioned version of Jervas, which,
whether it was a closely faithful version or not, was honest eighteenth-
century English, and reported faithfully enough the spirit of the
original. If it had any literary influence with me the influence must
have been good. But I cannot make out that I was sensible of the
literature; it was the forever enchanting story that I enjoyed.
I exulted in the boundless freedom of the design; the open air of that
immense scene, where adventure followed adventure with the natural
sequence of life, and the days and the nights were not long enough for
the events that thronged them, amidst the fields and woods, the streams
and hills, the highways and byways, hostelries and hovels, prisons and
palaces, which were the setting of that matchless history. I took it as
simply as I took everything else in the world about me. It was full of
meaning that I could not grasp, and there were significances of the kind
that literature unhappily abounds in, but they were lost upon my
innocence. I did not know whether it was well written or not; I never
thought about that; it was simply there in its vast entirety, its
inexhaustible opulence, and I was rich in it beyond the dreams of

My father must have told us that night about Cervantes as well as about
his 'Don Quixote', for I seem to have known from the beginning that he
was once a slave in Algiers, and that he had lost a hand in battle, and I
loved him with a sort of personal affection, as if he were still living
and he could somehow return my love. His name and nature endeared the
Spanish name and nature to me, so that they were always my romance, and
to this day I cannot meet a Spanish man without clothing him in something
of the honor and worship I lavished upon Cervantes when I was a child.
While I was in the full flush of this ardor there came to see our school,
one day, a Mexican gentleman who was studying the American system of
education; a mild, fat, saffron man, whom I could almost have died to
please for Cervantes' and Don Quixote's sake, because I knew he spoke
their tongue. But he smiled upon us all, and I had no chance to
distinguish myself from the rest by any act of devotion before the
blessed vision faded, though for long afterwards, in impassioned
reveries, I accosted him and claimed him kindred because of my fealty,
and because I would have been Spanish if I could.

I would not have had the boy-world about me know anything of these fond
dreams; but it was my tastes alone, my passions, which were alien there;
in everything else I was as much a citizen as any boy who had never heard
of Don Quixote. But I believe that I carried the book about with me most
of the time, so as not to lose any chance moment of reading it. Even in
the blank of certain years, when I added little other reading to my
store, I must still have been reading it. This was after we had removed
from the town where the earlier years of my boyhood were passed, and I
had barely adjusted myself to the strange environment when one of my
uncles asked me to come with him and learn the drug business, in the
place, forty miles away, where he practised medicine. We made the long
journey, longer than any I have made since, in the stage-coach of those
days, and we arrived at his house about twilight, he glad to get home,
and I sick to death with yearning for the home I had left. I do not know
how it was that in this state, when all the world was one hopeless
blackness around me, I should have got my 'Don Quixote' out of my bag;
I seem to have had it with me as an essential part of my equipment for my
new career. Perhaps I had been asked to show it, with the notion of
beguiling me from my misery; perhaps I was myself trying to drown my
sorrows in it. But anyhow I have before me now the vision of my sweet
young aunt and her young sister looking over her shoulder, as they stood
together on the lawn in the summer evening light. My aunt held my Don
Quixote open in one hand, while she clasped with the other the child she
carried on her arm. She looked at the book, and then from time to time
she looked at me, very kindly but very curiously, with a faint smile, so
that as I stood there, inwardly writhing in my bashfulness, I had the
sense that in her eyes I was a queer boy. She returned the book without
comment, after some questions, and I took it off to my room, where the
confidential friend of Cervantes cried himself to sleep.

In the morning I rose up and told them I could not stand it, and I was
going home. Nothing they could say availed, and my uncle went down to
the stage-office with me and took my passage back.

The horror of cholera was then in the land; and we heard in the stage-
office that a man lay dead of it in the hotel overhead. But my uncle led
me to his drugstore, where the stage was to call for me, and made me
taste a little camphor; with this prophylactic, Cervantes and I somehow
got home together alive.

The reading of 'Don Quixote' went on throughout my boyhood, so that I
cannot recall any distinctive period of it when I was not, more or less,
reading that book. In a boy's way I knew it well when I was ten, and a
few years ago, when I was fifty, I took it up in the admirable new
version of Ormsby, and found it so full of myself and of my own
irrevocable past that I did not find it very gay. But I made a great
many discoveries in it; things I had not dreamt of were there, and must
always have been there, and other things wore a new face, and made a new
effect upon me. I had my doubts, my reserves, where once I had given it
my whole heart without question, and yet in what formed the greatness of
the book it seemed to me greater than ever. I believe that its free and
simple design, where event follows event without the fettering control of
intrigue, but where all grows naturally out of character and conditions,
is the supreme form of fiction; and I cannot help thinking that if we
ever have a great American novel it must be built upon some such large
and noble lines. As for the central figure, Don Quixote himself, in his
dignity and generosity, his unselfish ideals, and his fearless devotion
to them, he is always heroic and beautiful; and I was glad to find in my
latest look at his history that I had truly conceived of him at first,
and had felt the sublimity of his nature. I did not want to laugh at him
so much, and I could not laugh at all any more at some of the things done
to him. Once they seemed funny, but now only cruel, and even stupid, so
that it was strange to realize his qualities and indignities as both
flowing from the same mind. But in my mature experience, which threw a
broader light on the fable, I was happy to keep my old love of an author
who had been almost personally, dear to me.



I have told how Cervantes made his race precious to me, and I am sure
that it must have been he who fitted me to understand and enjoy the
American author who now stayed me on Spanish ground and kept me happy in
Spanish air, though I cannot trace the tie in time and circumstance
between Irving and Cervantes. The most I can make sure of is that I read
the 'Conquest of Granada' after I read Don Quixote, and that I loved the
historian so much because I had loved the novelist much more. Of course
I did not perceive then that Irving's charm came largely from Cervantes
and the other Spanish humorists yet unknown to me, and that he had formed
himself upon them almost as much as upon Goldsmith, but I dare say that
this fact had insensibly a great deal to do with my liking. Afterwards I
came to see it, and at the same time to see what was Irving's own in
Irving; to feel his native, if somewhat attenuated humor, and his
original, if somewhat too studied grace. But as yet there was no
critical question with me. I gave my heart simply and passionately to
the author who made the scenes of that most pathetic history live in my
sympathy, and companioned me with the stately and gracious actors in

I really cannot say now whether I loved the Moors or the Spaniards more.
I fought on both sides; I would not have had the Spaniards beaten, and
yet when the Moors lost I was vanquished with them; and when the poor
young King Boabdil (I was his devoted partisan and at the same time a
follower of his fiery old uncle and rival, Hamet el Zegri) heaved the
Last Sigh of the Moor, as his eyes left the roofs of Granada forever, it
was as much my grief as if it had burst from my own breast. I put both
these princes into the first and last historical romance I ever wrote.
I have now no idea what they did in it, but as the story never came to a
conclusion it does not greatly matter. I had never yet read an
historical romance that I can make sure of, and probably my attempt must
have been based almost solely upon the facts of Irving's history. I am
certain I could not have thought of adding anything to them, or at all
varying them.

In reading his 'Chronicle' I suffered for a time from its attribution to
Fray Antonio Agapida, the pious monk whom he feigns to have written it,
just as in reading 'Don Quixote' I suffered from Cervantes masquerading
as the Moorish scribe, Cid Hamet Ben Engeli. My father explained the
literary caprice, but it remained a confusion and a trouble for me, and I
made a practice of skipping those passages where either author insisted
upon his invention. I will own that I am rather glad that sort of thing
seems to be out of fashion now, and I think the directer and franker
methods of modern fiction will forbid its revival. Thackeray was fond of
such open disguises, and liked to greet his reader from the mask of
Yellowplush and Michael Angelo Titmarsh, but it seems to me this was in
his least modern moments.

My 'Conquest of Granada' was in two octavo volumes, bound in drab boards,
and printed on paper very much yellowed with time at its irregular edges.
I do not know when the books happened in my hands. I have no remembrance
that they were in any wise offered or commended to me, and in a sort of
way they were as authentically mine as if I had made them. I saw them at
home, not many months ago, in my father's library (it has long outgrown
the old bookcase, which has gone I know not where), and upon the whole I
rather shrank from taking them down, much more from opening them, though
I could not say why, unless it was from the fear of perhaps finding the
ghost of my boyish self within, pressed flat like a withered leaf,
somewhere between the familiar pages.

When I learned Spanish it was with the purpose, never yet fulfilled, of
writing the life of Cervantes, although I have since had some forty-odd
years to do it in. I taught myself the language, or began to do so, when
I knew nothing of the English grammar but the prosody at the end of the
book. My father had the contempt of familiarity with it, having himself
written a very brief sketch of our accidence, and he seems to have let me
plunge into the sea of Spanish verbs and adverbs, nouns and pronouns, and
all the rest, when as yet I could not confidently call them by name, with
the serene belief that if I did not swim I would still somehow get ashore
without sinking. The end, perhaps, justified him, and I suppose I did
not do all that work without getting some strength from it; but I wish I
had back the time that it cost me; I should like to waste it in some
other way. However, time seemed interminable then, and I thought there
would be enough of it for me in which to read all Spanish literature; or,
at least, I did not propose to do anything less.

I followed Irving, too, in my later reading, but at haphazard, and with
other authors at the same time. I did my poor best to be amused by his
'Knickerbocker History of New York', because my father liked it so much,
but secretly I found it heavy; and a few years ago when I went carefully
through it again. I could not laugh. Even as a boy I found some other
things of his uphill work. There was the beautiful manner, but the
thought seemed thin; and I do not remember having been much amused by
'Bracebridge Hall', though I read it devoutly, and with a full sense that
it would be very 'comme il faut' to like it. But I did like the 'Life of
Goldsmith'; I liked it a great deal better than the more authoritative
'Life by Forster', and I think there is a deeper and sweeter sense of
Goldsmith in it. Better than all, except the 'Conquest of Granada',
I liked the 'Legend of Sleepy Hollow' and the story of Rip Van Winkle,
with their humorous and affectionate caricatures of life that was once of
our own soil and air; and the 'Tales of the Alhambra', which transported
me again, to the scenes of my youth beside the Xenil. It was long after
my acquaintance with his work that I came to a due sense of Irving as an
artist, and perhaps I have come to feel a full sense of it only now, when
I perceive that he worked willingly only when he worked inventively.
At last I can do justice to the exquisite conception of his 'Conquest of
Granada', a study of history which, in unique measure, conveys not only
the pathos, but the humor of one of the most splendid and impressive
situations in the experience of the race. Very possibly something of the
severer truth might have been sacrificed to the effect of the pleasing
and touching tale, but I do not under stand that this was really done.
Upon the whole I am very well content with my first three loves in
literature, and if I were to choose for any other boy I do not see how I
could choose better than Goldsmith and Cervantes and Irving, kindred
spirits, and each not a master only, but a sweet and gentle friend, whose
kindness could not fail to profit him.


In my own case there followed my acquaintance with these authors certain
Boeotian years, when if I did not go backward I scarcely went forward in
the paths I had set out upon. They were years of the work, of the over-
work, indeed, which falls to the lot of so many that I should be ashamed
to speak of it except in accounting for the fact. My father had sold his
paper in Hamilton and had bought an interest in another at Dayton, and we
were all straining our utmost to help pay for it. My daily tasks began
so early and ended so late that I had little time, even if I had the
spirit, for reading; and it was not till what we thought ruin, but what
was really release, came to us that I got back again to my books. Then
we went to live in the country for a year, and that stress of toil, with
the shadow of failure darkening all, fell from me like the horror of an
evil dream. The only new book which I remember to have read in those two
or three years at Dayton, when I hardly remember to have read any old
ones, was the novel of 'Jane Eyre,' which I took in very imperfectly, and
which I associate with the first rumor of the Rochester Knockings, then
just beginning to reverberate through a world that they have not since
left wholly at peace. It was a gloomy Sunday afternoon when the book
came under my hand; and mixed with my interest in the story was an
anxiety lest the pictures on the walls should leave their nails and come
and lay themselves at my feet; that was what the pictures had been doing
in Rochester and other places where the disembodied spirits were
beginning to make themselves felt. The thing did not really happen in my
case, but I was alone in the house, and it might very easily have

If very little came to me in those days from books, on the other hand my
acquaintance with the drama vastly enlarged itself. There was a hapless
company of players in the town from time to time, and they came to us for
their printing. I believe they never paid for it, or at least never
wholly, but they lavished free passes upon us, and as nearly as I can
make out, at this distance of time, I profited by their generosity, every
night. They gave two or three plays at every performance to houses
ungratefully small, but of a lively spirit and impatient temper that
would not brook delay in the representation; and they changed the bill
each day. In this way I became familiar with Shakespeare before I read
him, or at least such plays of his as were most given in those days, and
I saw "Macbeth" and "Hamlet," and above all "Richard III.," again and
again. I do not know why my delight in those tragedies did not send me
to the volume of his plays, which was all the time in the bookcase at
home, but I seem not to have thought of it, and rapt as I was in them I
am not sure that they gave me greater pleasure, or seemed at all finer,
than "Rollo," "The Wife," "The Stranger," "Barbarossa," "The Miser of
Marseilles," and the rest of the melodramas, comedies, and farces which I
saw at that time. I have a notion that there were some clever people in
one of these companies, and that the lighter pieces at least were well
played, but I may be altogether wrong. The gentleman who took the part
of villain, with an unfailing love of evil, in the different dramas, used
to come about the printing-office a good deal, and I was puzzled to find
him a very mild and gentle person. To be sure he had a mustache, which
in those days devoted a man to wickedness, but by day it was a blond
mustache, quite flaxen, in fact, and not at all the dark and deadly thing
it was behind the footlights at night. I could scarcely gasp in his
presence, my heart bounded so in awe and honor of him when he paid a
visit to us; perhaps he used to bring the copy of the show-bills. The
company he belonged to left town in the adversity habitual with them.

Our own adversity had been growing, and now it became overwhelming. We
had to give up the paper we had struggled so hard to keep, but when the
worst came it was not half so bad as what had gone before. There was no
more waiting till midnight for the telegraphic news, no more waking at
dawn to deliver the papers, no more weary days at the case, heavier for
the doom hanging over us. My father and his brothers had long dreamed of
a sort of family colony somewhere in the country, and now the uncle who
was most prosperous bought a milling property on a river not far from
Dayton, and my father went out to take charge of it until the others
could shape their business to follow him. The scheme came to nothing
finally, but in the mean time we escaped from the little city and its
sorrowful associations of fruitless labor, and had a year in the country,
which was blest, at least to us children, by sojourn in a log-cabin,
while a house was building for us.


This log-cabin had a loft, where we boys slept, and in the loft were
stored in barrels the books that had now begun to overflow the bookcase.
I do not know why I chose the loft to renew my long-neglected friendship
with them. The light could not have been good, though if I brought my
books to the little gable window that overlooked the groaning and
whistling gristmill I could see well enough. But perhaps I liked the
loft best because the books were handiest there, and because I could be
alone. At any rate, it was there that I read Longfellow's "Spanish
Student," which I found in an old paper copy of his poems in one of the
barrels, and I instantly conceived for it the passion which all things
Spanish inspired in me. As I read I not only renewed my acquaintance
with literature, but renewed my delight in people and places where I had
been happy before those heavy years in Dayton. At the same time I felt a
little jealousy, a little grudge, that any one else should love them as
well as I, and if the poem had not been so beautiful I should have hated
the poet for trespassing on my ground. But I could not hold out long
against the witchery of his verse. The "Spanish Student" became one of
my passions; a minor passion, not a grand one, like 'Don Quixote' and the
'Conquest of Granada', but still a passion, and I should dread a little
to read the piece now, lest I should disturb my old ideal of its beauty.
The hero's rogue servant, Chispa, seemed to me, then and long afterwards,
so fine a bit of Spanish character that I chose his name for my first
pseudonym when I began to write for the newspapers, and signed my
legislative correspondence for a Cincinnati paper with it. I was in love
with the heroine, the lovely dancer whose 'cachucha' turned my head,
along with that of the cardinal, but whose name even I have forgotten,
and I went about with the thought of her burning in my heart, as if she
had been a real person.


All the while I was bringing up the long arrears of play which I had not
enjoyed in the toil-years at Dayton, and was trying to make my Spanish
reading serve in the sports that we had in the woods and by the river.
We were Moors and Spaniards almost as often as we were British and
Americans, or settlers and Indians. I suspect that the large, mild boy,
the son of a neighboring farmer, who mainly shared our games, had but a
dim notion of what I meant by my strange people, but I did my best to
enlighten him, and he helped me make a dream out of my life, and did his
best to dwell in the region of unrealities where I preferably had my
being; he was from time to time a Moor when I think he would rather have
been a Mingo.

I got hold of Scott's poems, too, in that cabin loft, and read most of
the tales which were yet unknown to me after those earlier readings of my
father's. I could not say why "Harold the Dauntless" most took my fancy;
the fine, strongly flowing rhythm of the verse had a good deal to do with
it, I believe. I liked these things, all of them, and in after years I
liked the "Lady of the Lake" more and more, and from mere love of it got
great lengths of it by heart; but I cannot say that Scott was then or
ever a great passion with me. It was a sobered affection at best, which
came from my sympathy with his love of nature, and the whole kindly and
humane keeping of his genius. Many years later, during the month when I
was waiting for my passport as Consul for Venice, and had the time on my
hands, I passed it chiefly in reading all his novels, one after another,
without the interruption of other reading. 'Ivanhoe' I had known before,
and the 'Bride of Lammermoor' and 'Woodstock', but the rest had remained
in that sort of abeyance which is often the fate of books people expect
to read as a matter of course, and come very near not reading at all, or
read only very late. Taking them in this swift sequence, little or
nothing of them remained with me, and my experience with them is against
that sort of ordered and regular reading, which I have so often heard
advised for young people by their elders. I always suspect their elders
of not having done that kind of reading themselves.

For my own part I believe I have never got any good from a book that I
did not read lawlessly and wilfully, out of all leading and following,
and merely because I wanted to read it; and I here make bold to praise
that way of doing. The book which you read from a sense of duty, or
because for any reason you must, does not commonly make friends with you.
It may happen that it will yield you an unexpected delight, but this will
be in its own unentreated way and in spite of your good intentions.
Little of the book read for a purpose stays with the reader, and this is
one reason why reading for review is so vain and unprofitable. I have
done a vast deal of this, but I have usually been aware that the book was
subtly withholding from me the best a book can give, since I was not
reading it for its own sake and because I loved it, but for selfish ends
of my own, and because I wished to possess myself of it for business
purposes, as it were. The reading that does one good, and lasting good,
is the reading that one does for pleasure, and simply and unselfishly,
as children do. Art will still withhold herself from thrift, and she
does well, for nothing but love has any right to her.

Little remains of the events of any period, however vivid they were in
passing. The memory may hold record of everything, as it is believed,
but it will not be easily entreated to give up its facts, and I find
myself striving in vein to recall the things that I must have read that
year in the country. Probably I read the old things over; certainly I
kept on with Cervantes, and very likely with Goldsmith. There was a
delightful history of Ohio, stuffed with tales of the pioneer times,
which was a good deal in the hands of us boys; and there was a book of
Western Adventure, full of Indian fights and captivities, which we wore
to pieces. Still, I think that it was now that I began to have a
literary sense of what I was reading. I wrote a diary, and I tried to
give its record form and style, but mostly failed. The versifying which
I was always at was easier, and yielded itself more to my hand. I should
be very glad to, know at present what it dealt with.


When my uncles changed their minds in regard to colonizing their families
at the mills, as they did in about a year, it became necessary for my
father to look about for some new employment, and he naturally looked in
the old direction. There were several schemes for getting hold of this
paper and that, and there were offers that came to nothing. In that day
there were few salaried editors in the country outside of New York, and
the only hope we could have was of some place as printers in an office
which we might finally buy. The affair ended in our going to the State
capital, where my father found work as a reporter of legislative
proceedings for one of the daily journals, and I was taken into the
office as a compositor. In this way I came into living contact with
literature again, and the daydreams began once more over the familiar
cases of type. A definite literary ambition grew up in me, and in the
long reveries of the afternoon, when I was distributing my case,
I fashioned a future of overpowering magnificence and undying celebrity.
I should be ashamed to say what literary triumphs I achieved in those
preposterous deliriums. What I actually did was to write a good many
copies of verse, in imitation, never owned, of Moore and Goldsmith, and
some minor poets, whose work caught my fancy, as I read it in the
newspapers or put it into type.

One of my pieces, which fell so far short of my visionary performances as
to treat of the lowly and familiar theme of Spring, was the first thing I
ever had in print. My father offered it to the editor of the paper I
worked on, and I first knew, with mingled shame and pride, of what he had
done when I saw it in the journal. In the tumult of my emotions I
promised myself that if I got through this experience safely I would
never suffer anything else of mine to be published; but it was not long
before I offered the editor a poem myself. I am now glad to think it
dealt with so humble a fact as a farmer's family leaving their old home
for the West. The only fame of my poem which reached me was when another
boy in the office quoted some lines of it in derision. This covered me
with such confusion that I wonder that I did not vanish from the earth.
At the same time I had my secret joy in it, and even yet I think it was
attempted in a way which was not false or wrong. I had tried to sketch
an aspect of life that I had seen and known, and that was very well
indeed, and I had wrought patiently and carefully in the art of the poor
little affair.

My elder brother, for whom there was no place in the office where I
worked, had found one in a store, and he beguiled the leisure that light
trade left on his hands by reading the novels of Captain Marryat. I read
them after him with a great deal of amusement, but without the passion
that I bestowed upon my favorite authors. I believe I had no critical
reserves in regard to them, but simply they did not take my fancy.
Still, we had great fun with Japhet in 'Search of a Father', and with
'Midshipman Easy', and we felt a fine physical shiver in the darkling
moods of 'Snarle-yow the Dog-Fiend.' I do not remember even the names of
the other novels, except 'Jacob Faithful,' which I chanced upon a few
years ago and found very, hard reading.

We children who were used to the free range of woods and fields were
homesick for the country in our narrow city yard, and I associate with
this longing the 'Farmer's Boy of Bloomfield,' which my father got for
me. It was a little book in blue cloth, and there were some mild wood-
cuts in it. I read it with a tempered pleasure, and with a vague
resentment of its trespass upon Thomson's ground in the division of its
parts under the names of the seasons. I do not know why I need have felt
this. I was not yet very fond of Thomson. I really liked Bloomfield
better; for one thing, his poem was written in the heroic decasyllabics
which I preferred to any other verse.


I infer, from the fact of this preference that I had already begun to
read Pope, and that I must have read the "Deserted Village" of Goldsmith.
I fancy, also, that I must by this time have read the Odyssey, for the
"Battle of the Frogs and Mice" was in the second volume, and it took me
so much that I paid it the tribute of a bald imitation in a mock-heroic
epic of a cat fight, studied from the cat fights in our back yard, with
the wonted invocation to the Muse, and the machinery of partisan gods and
goddesses. It was in some hundreds of verses, which I did my best to
balance as Pope did, with a caesura falling in the middle of the line,
and a neat antithesis at the end.

The story of the Odyssey charmed me, of course, and I had moments of
being intimate friends with Ulysses, but I was passing out of that phase,
and was coming to read more with a sense of the author, and less with a
sense of his characters as real persons; that is, I was growing more
literary, and less human. I fell in love with Pope, whose life I read
with an ardor of sympathy which I am afraid he hardly merited. I was of
his side in all his quarrels, as far as I understood them, and if I did
not understand them I was of his side anyway. When I found that he was a
Catholic I was almost ready to abjure the Protestant religion for his
sake; but I perceived that this was not necessary when I came to know
that most of his friends were Protestants. If the truth must be told,
I did not like his best things at first, but long remained chiefly
attached to his rubbishing pastorals, which I was perpetually imitating,
with a whole apparatus of swains and shepherdesses, purling brooks,
enamelled meads, rolling years, and the like.

After my day's work at the case I wore the evening away in my boyish
literary attempts, forcing my poor invention in that unnatural kind, and
rubbing and polishing at my wretched verses till they did sometimes take
on an effect, which, if it was not like Pope's, was like none of mine.
With all my pains I do not think I ever managed to bring any of my
pastorals to a satisfactory close. They all stopped somewhere about
halfway. My swains could not think of anything more to say, and the
merits of my shepherdesses remained undecided. To this day I do not know
whether in any given instance it was the champion of Chloe or of Sylvia
that carried off the prize for his fair, but I dare say it does not much
matter. I am sure that I produced a rhetoric as artificial and treated
of things as unreal as my master in the art, and I am rather glad that I
acquainted myself so thoroughly with a mood of literature which, whatever
we may say against it, seems to have expressed very perfectly a mood of

The severe schooling I gave myself was not without its immediate use.
I learned how to choose between words after a study of their fitness,
and though I often employed them decoratively and with no vital sense of
their qualities, still in mere decoration they had to be chosen
intelligently, and after some thought about their structure and meaning.
I could not imitate Pope without imitating his methods, and his method
was to the last degree intelligent. He certainly knew what he was doing,
and although I did not always know what I was doing, he made me wish to
know, and ashamed of not knowing. There are several truer poets who
might not have done this; and after all the modern contempt of Pope, he
seems to me to have been at least one of the great masters, if not one of
the great poets. The poor man's life was as weak and crooked as his
frail, tormented body, but he had a dauntless spirit, and he fought his
way against odds that might well have appalled a stronger nature.
I suppose I must own that he was from time to time a snob, and from time
to time a liar, but I believe that he loved the truth, and would have
liked always to respect himself if he could. He violently revolted,
now and again, from the abasement to which he forced himself, and he
always bit the heel that trod on him, especially if it was a very high,
narrow heel, with a clocked stocking and a hooped skirt above it.
I loved him fondly at one time, and afterwards despised him, but now I am
not sorry for the love, and I am very sorry for the despite. I humbly,
own a vast debt to him, not the least part of which is the perception
that he is a model of ever so much more to be shunned than to be followed
in literature.

He was the first of the writers of great Anna's time whom I knew, and he
made me ready to understand, if he did not make me understand at once,
the order of mind and life which he belonged to. Thanks to his
pastorals, I could long afterwards enjoy with the double sense requisite
for full pleasure in them, such divinely excellent artificialities at
Tasso's "Aminta" and Guarini's "Pastor Fido"; things which you will
thoroughly like only after you are in the joke of thinking how people
once seriously liked them as high examples of poetry.

Of course I read other things of Pope's besides his pastorals, even at
the time I read these so much. I read, or not very easily or willingly
read at, his 'Essay on Man,' which my father admired, and which he
probably put Pope's works into my hands to have me read; and I read the
'Dunciad,' with quite a furious ardor in the tiresome quarrels it
celebrates, and an interest in its machinery, which it fatigues me to
think of. But it was only a few years ago that I read the 'Rape of the
Lock,' a thing perfect of its kind, whatever we may choose to think of
the kind. Upon the whole I think much better of the kind than I once
did, though still not so much as I should have thought if I had read the
poem when the fever of my love for Pope was at the highest.

It is a nice question how far one is helped or hurt by one's
idealizations of historical or imaginary characters, and I shall not try
to answer it fully. I suppose that if I once cherished such a passion
for Pope personally that I would willingly have done the things that he
did, and told the lies, and vented the malice, and inflicted the
cruelties that the poor soul was full of, it was for the reason, partly,
that I did not see these things as they were, and that in the glamour of
his talent I was blind to all but the virtues of his defects, which he
certainly had, and partly that in my love of him I could not take sides
against him, even when I knew him to be wrong. After all, I fancy not
much harm comes to the devoted boy from his enthusiasms for this
imperfect hero or that. In my own case I am sure that I distinguished as
to certain sins in my idols. I could not cast them down or cease to
worship them, but some of their frailties grieved me and put me to secret
shame for them. I did not excuse these things in them, or try to believe
that they were less evil for them than they would have been for less
people. This was after I came more or less to the knowledge of good and
evil. While I remained in the innocence of childhood I did not even
understand the wrong. When I realized what lives some of my poets had
led, how they were drunkards, and swindlers, and unchaste, and untrue,
I lamented over them with a sense of personal disgrace in them, and to
this day I have no patience with that code of the world which relaxes
itself in behalf of the brilliant and gifted offender; rather he should
suffer more blame. The worst of the literature of past times, before an
ethical conscience began to inform it, or the advance of the race
compelled it to decency, is that it leaves the mind foul with filthy
images and base thoughts; but what I have been trying to say is that the
boy, unless he is exceptionally depraved beforehand, is saved from these
through his ignorance. Still I wish they were not there, and I hope the
time will come when the beast-man will be so far subdued and tamed in us
that the memory of him in literature shall be left to perish; that what
is lewd and ribald in the great poets shall be kept out of such editions
as are meant for general reading, and that the pedant-pride which now
perpetuates it as an essential part of those poets shall no longer have
its way. At the end of the ends such things do defile, they do corrupt.
We may palliate them or excuse them for this reason or that, but that is
the truth, and I do not see why they should not be dropped from
literature, as they were long ago dropped from the talk of decent people.
The literary histories might keep record of them, but it is loath some to
think of those heaps of ordure, accumulated from generation to
generation, and carefully passed down from age to age as something
precious and vital, and not justly regarded as the moral offal which they

During the winter we passed at Columbus I suppose that my father read
things aloud to us after his old habit, and that I listened with the
rest. I have a dim notion of first knowing Thomson's 'Castle of
Indolence' in this way, but I was getting more and more impatient of
having things read to me. The trouble was that I caught some thought or
image from the text, and that my fancy remained playing with that while
the reading went on, and I lost the rest. But I think the reading was
less in every way than it had been, because his work was exhausting and
his leisure less. My own hours in the printing-office began at seven and
ended at six, with an hour at noon for dinner, which I often used for
putting down such verses as had come to me during the morning. As soon
as supper was over at night I got out my manuscripts, which I kept in
great disorder, and written in several different hands on several
different kinds of paper, and sawed, and filed, and hammered away at my
blessed Popean heroics till nine, when I went regularly to bed, to rise
again at five. Sometimes the foreman gave me an afternoon off on
Saturdays, and though the days were long the work was not always
constant, and was never very severe. I suspect now the office was not so
prosperous as might have been wished. I was shifted from place to place
in it, and there was plenty of time for my day-dreams over the
distribution of my case. I was very fond of my work, though, and proud
of my swiftness and skill in it. Once when the perplexed foreman could
not think of any task to set me he offered me a holiday, but I would not
take it, so I fancy that at this time I was not more interested in my art
of poetry than in my trade of printing. What went on in the office
interested me as much as the quarrels of the Augustan age of English
letters, and I made much more record of it in the crude and shapeless
diary which I kept, partly in verse and partly in prose, but always of a
distinctly lower literary kind than that I was trying otherwise to write.
There must have been some mention in it of the tremendous combat with wet
sponges I saw there one day between two of the boys who hurled them back
and forth at each other. This amiable fray, carried on during the
foreman's absence, forced upon my notice for the first time the boy who
has come to be a name well-known in literature. I admired his vigor as a
combatant, but I never spoke to him at that time, and I never dreamed
that he, too, was effervescing with verse, probably as fiercely as
myself. Six or seven years later we met again, when we had both become
journalists, and had both had poems accepted by Mr. Lowell for the
Atlantic Monthly, and then we formed a literary friendship which
eventuated in the joint publication of a volume of verse. 'The Poems of
Two Friends' became instantly and lastingly unknown to fame; the West
waited, as it always does, to hear what the East should say; the East
said nothing, and two-thirds of the small edition of five hundred came
back upon the publisher's hands. I imagine these copies were "ground up"
in the manner of worthless stock, for I saw a single example of the book
quoted the other day in a book-seller's catalogue at ten dollars, and I
infer that it is so rare as to be prized at least for its rarity. It was
a very pretty little book, printed on tinted paper then called "blush,"
in the trade, and it was manufactured in the same office where we had
once been boys together, unknown to each other. Another boy of that time
had by this time become foreman in the office, and he was very severe
with us about the proofs, and sent us hurting messages on the margin.
Perhaps he thought we might be going to take on airs, and perhaps we
might have taken on airs if the fate of our book had been different.
As it was I really think we behaved with sufficient meekness, and after
thirty four or five years for reflection I am still of a very modest mind
about my share of the book, in spite of the price it bears in the book-
seller's catalogue. But I have steadily grown in liking for my friend's
share in it, and I think that there is at present no American of twenty-
three writing verse of so good a quality, with an ideal so pure and high,
and from an impulse so authentic as John J. Piatt's were then. He
already knew how to breathe into his glowing rhyme the very spirit of the
region where we were both native, and in him the Middle West has its true
poet, who was much more than its poet, who had a rich and tender
imagination, a lovely sense of color, and a touch even then securely and
fully his own. I was reading over his poems in that poor little book a
few days ago, and wondering with shame and contrition that I had not at
once known their incomparable superiority to mine. But I used then and
for long afterwards to tax him with obscurity, not knowing that my own
want of simplicity and directness was to blame for that effect.
My reading from the first was such as to enamour me of clearness, of
definiteness; anything left in the vague was intolerable to me; but my
long subjection to Pope, while it was useful in other ways, made me so
strictly literary in my point of view that sometimes I could not see what
was, if more naturally approached and without any technical
preoccupation, perfectly transparent. It remained for another great
passion, perhaps the greatest of my life, to fuse these gyves in which I
was trying so hard to dance, and free me forever from the bonds which I
had spent so much time and trouble to involve myself in. But I was not
to know that passion for five or six years yet, and in the mean time I
kept on as I had been going, and worked out my deliverance in the
predestined way. What I liked then was regularity, uniformity,
exactness. I did not conceive of literature as the expression of life,
and I could not imagine that it ought to be desultory, mutable, and
unfixed, even if at the risk of some vagueness.


My father was very fond of Byron, and I must before this have known that
his poems were in our bookcase. While we were still in Columbus I began
to read them, but I did not read so much of them as could have helped me
to a truer and freer ideal. I read "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,"
and I liked its vulgar music and its heavy-handed sarcasm. These would,
perhaps, have fascinated any boy, but I had such a fanaticism for
methodical verse that any variation from the octosyllabic and
decasyllabic couplets was painful to me. The Spencerian stanza, with its
rich variety of movement and its harmonious closes, long shut "Childe
Harold" from me, and whenever I found a poem in any book which did not
rhyme its second line with its first I read it unwillingly or not at all.

This craze could not last, of course, but it lasted beyond our stay in
Columbus, which ended with the winter, when the Legislature adjourned,
and my father's employment ceased. He tried to find some editorial work
on the paper which had printed his reports, but every place was full, and
it was hopeless to dream of getting a proprietary interest in it. We had
nothing, and we must seek a chance where something besides money would
avail us. This offered itself in the village of Ashtabula, in the
northeastern part of the State, and there we all found ourselves one
moonlight night of early summer. The Lake Shore Railroad then ended at
Ashtabula, in a bank of sand, and my elder brother and I walked up from
the station, while the rest of the family, which pretty well filled the
omnibus, rode. We had been very happy at Columbus, as we were apt to be
anywhere, but none of us liked the narrowness of city streets, even so
near to the woods as those were, and we were eager for the country again.
We had always lived hitherto in large towns, except for that year at the
Mills, and we were eager to see what a village was like, especially a
village peopled wholly by Yankees, as our father had reported it. I must
own that we found it far prettier than anything we had known in Southern
Ohio, which we were so fond of and so loath to leave, and as I look back
it still seems to me one of the prettiest little places I have ever
known, with its white wooden houses, glimmering in the dark of its elms
and maples, and their silent gardens beside each, and the silent, grass-
bordered, sandy streets between them. The hotel, where we rejoined our
family, lurked behind a group of lofty elms, and we drank at the town
pump before it just for the pleasure of pumping it.

The village was all that we could have imagined of simply and sweetly
romantic in the moonlight, and when the day came it did not rob it of its
charm. It was as lovely in my eyes as the loveliest village of the
plain, and it had the advantage of realizing the Deserted Village without
being deserted.


The book that moved me most, in our stay of six months at Ashtabula, was
then beginning to move the whole world more than any other book has moved
it. I read it as it came out week after week in the old National Era,
and I broke my heart over Uncle Tom's Cabin, as every one else did. Yet
I cannot say that it was a passion of mine like Don Quixote, or the other
books that I had loved intensely. I felt its greatness when I read it
first, and as often as I have read it since, I have seen more and more
clearly that it was a very great novel. With certain obvious lapses in
its art, and with an art that is at its best very simple, and perhaps
primitive, the book is still a work of art. I knew this, in a measure
then, as I know it now, and yet neither the literary pride I was
beginning to have in the perception of such things, nor the powerful
appeal it made to my sympathies, sufficed to impassion me of it. I could
not say why this was so. Why does the young man's fancy, when it lightly
turns to thoughts of love, turn this way and not that? There seems no
more reason for one than for the other.

Instead of remaining steeped to the lips in the strong interest of what
is still perhaps our chief fiction, I shed my tribute of tears, and went
on my way. I did not try to write a story of slaver, as I might very
well have done; I did not imitate either the make or the manner of Mrs.
Stowe's romance; I kept on at my imitation of Pope's pastorals, which I
dare say I thought much finer, and worthier the powers of such a poet as
I meant to be. I did this, as I must have felt then, at some personal
risk of a supernatural kind, for my studies were apt to be prolonged into
the night after the rest of the family had gone to bed, and a certain
ghost, which I had every reason to fear, might very well have visited the
small room given me to write in. There was a story, which I shrank from
verifying, that a former inmate of our house had hung himself in it, but
I do not know to this day whether it was true or not. The doubt did not
prevent him from dangling at the door-post, in my consciousness, and many
a time I shunned the sight of this problematical suicide by keeping my
eyes fastened on the book before me. It was a very simple device, but
perfectly effective, as I think any one will find who employs it in like
circumstances; and I would really like to commend it to growing boys
troubled as I was then.

I never heard who the poor soul was, or why he took himself out of the
world, if he really did so, or if he ever was in it; but I am sure that
my passion for Pope, and my purpose of writing pastorals, must have been
powerful indeed to carry me through dangers of that kind. I suspect that
the strongest proof of their existence was the gloomy and ruinous look of
the house, which was one of the oldest in the village, and the only one
that was for rent there. We went into it because we must, and we were to
leave it as soon as we could find a better. But before this happened we
left Ashtabula, and I parted with one of the few possibilities I have
enjoyed of seeing a ghost on his own ground, as it were.

I was not sorry, for I believe I never went in or came out of the place,
by day or by night, without a shudder, more or less secret; and at least,
now, we should be able to get another house.


Very likely the reading of Ossian had something to do with my morbid
anxieties. I had read Byron's imitation of him before that, and admired
it prodigiously, and when my father got me the book--as usual I did not
know where or how he got it--not all the tall forms that moved before the
eyes of haunted bards in the dusky vale of autumn could have kept me from
it. There were certain outline illustrations in it, which were very good
in the cold Flaxman manner, and helped largely to heighten the
fascination of the poems for me. They did not supplant the pastorals of
Pope in my affections, and they were never the grand passion with me that
Pope's poems had been.

I began at once to make my imitations of Ossian, and I dare say they were
not windier and mistier than the original. At the same time I read the
literature of the subject, and gave the pretensions of Macpherson an
unquestioning faith. I should have made very short work of any one who
had impugned the authenticity of the poems, but happily there was no one
who held the contrary opinion in that village, so far as I knew, or who
cared for Ossian, or had even heard of him. This saved me a great deal
of heated controversy with my contemporaries, but I had it out in many
angry reveries with Dr. Johnson and others, who had dared to say in their
time that the poems of Ossian were not genuine lays of the Gaelic bard,
handed down from father to son, and taken from the lips of old women in
Highland huts, as Macpherson claimed.

In fact I lived over in my small way the epoch of the eighteenth century
in which these curious frauds found polite acceptance all over Europe,
and I think yet that they were really worthier of acceptance than most of
the artificialities that then passed for poetry. There was a light of
nature in them, and this must have been what pleased me, so long-shut up
to the studio-work of Pope. But strangely enough I did not falter in my
allegiance to him, or realize that here in this free form was a
deliverance, if I liked, from the fetters and manacles which I had been
at so much pains to fit myself with. Probably nothing would then have
persuaded me to put them off permanently, or to do more than lay them
aside for the moment while I tried that new stop and that new step.

I think that even then I had an instinctive doubt whether formlessness
was really better than formality. Something, it seems to me, may be
contained and kept alive in formality, but in formlessness everything
spills and wastes away. This is what I find the fatal defect of our
American Ossian, Walt Whitman, whose way is where artistic madness lies.
He had great moments, beautiful and noble thoughts, generous aspirations,
and a heart wide and warm enough for the whole race, but he had no
bounds, no shape; he was as liberal as the casing air, but he was often
as vague and intangible. I cannot say how long my passion for Ossian
lasted, but not long, I fancy, for I cannot find any trace of it in the
time following our removal from Ashtabula to the county seat at
Jefferson. I kept on with Pope, I kept on with Cervantes, I kept on with
Irving, but I suppose there was really not substance enough in Ossian to
feed my passion, and it died of inanition.


The establishment of our paper in the village where there had been none
before, and its enlargement from four to eight pages, were events so
filling that they left little room for any other excitement but that of
getting acquainted with the young people of the village, and going to
parties, and sleigh rides, and walks, and drives, and picnics, and
dances, and all the other pleasures in which that community seemed to
indulge beyond any other we had known. The village was smaller than the
one we had just left, but it was by no means less lively, and I think
that for its size and time and place it had an uncommon share of what has
since been called culture. The intellectual experience of the people was
mainly theological and political, as it was everywhere in that day, but
there were several among them who had a real love for books, and when
they met at the druggist's, as they did every night, to dispute of the
inspiration of the Scriptures and the principles of the Free Soil party,
the talk sometimes turned upon the respective merits of Dickens and
Thackeray, Gibbon and Macaulay, Wordsworth and Byron. There were law
students who read "Noctes Ambrosianae," the 'Age of Reason', and Bailey's
"Festus," as well as Blackstone's 'Commentaries;' and there was a public
library in that village of six hundred people, small but very well
selected, which was kept in one of the lawyers' offices, and was free to
all. It seems to me now that the people met there oftener than they do
in most country places, and rubbed their wits together more, but this may
be one of those pleasing illusions of memory which men in later life are
subject to.

I insist upon nothing, but certainly the air was friendlier to the tastes
I had formed than any I had yet known, and I found a wider if not deeper
sympathy with them. There was one of our printers who liked books, and
we went through 'Don Quixote' together again, and through the 'Conquest
of Granada', and we began to read other things of Irving's. There was a
very good little stock of books at the village drugstore, and among those
that began to come into my hands were the poems of Dr. Holmes, stray
volumes of De Quincey, and here and there minor works of Thackeray.
I believe I had no money to buy them, but there was an open account,
or a comity, between the printer and the bookseller, and I must have been
allowed a certain discretion in regard to getting books.

Still I do not think I went far in the more modern authors, or gave my
heart to any of them. Suddenly, it was now given to Shakespeare, without
notice or reason, that I can recall, except that my friend liked him too,
and that we found it a double pleasure to read him together. Printers in
the old-time offices were always spouting Shakespeare more or less, and I
suppose I could not have kept away from him much longer in the nature of
things. I cannot fix the time or place when my friend and I began to
read him, but it was in the fine print of that unhallowed edition of
ours, and presently we had great lengths of him by heart, out of
"Hamlet," out of "The Tempest," out of "Macbeth," out of "Richard III.,"
out of "Midsummer-Night's Dream," out of the "Comedy of Errors," out of
"Julius Caesar," out of "Measure for Measure," out of "Romeo and Juliet,"
out of "Two Gentlemen of Verona."

These were the plays that we loved, and must have read in common, or at
least at the same time: but others that I more especially liked were the
Histories, and among them particularly were the Henrys, where Falstaff
appeared. This gross and palpable reprobate greatly took my fancy.
I delighted in him immensely, and in his comrades, Pistol, and Bardolph,
and Nym. I could not read of his death without emotion, and it was a
personal pang to me when the prince, crowned king, denied him: blackguard
for blackguard, I still think the prince the worse blackguard. Perhaps I
flatter myself, but I believe that even then, as a boy of sixteen,
I fully conceived of Falstaff's character, and entered into the author's
wonderfully humorous conception of him. There is no such perfect
conception of the selfish sensualist in literature, and the conception is
all the more perfect because of the wit that lights up the vice of
Falstaff, a cold light without tenderness, for he was not a good fellow,
though a merry companion. I am not sure but I should put him beside
Hamlet, and on the name level, for the merit of his artistic
completeness, and at one time I much preferred him, or at least his

As to Falstaff personally, or his like, I was rather fastidious, and
would not have made friends with him in the flesh, much or little.
I revelled in all his appearances in the Histories, and I tried to be as
happy where a factitious and perfunctory Falstaff comes to life again in
the "Merry Wives of Windsor," though at the bottom of my heart I felt the
difference. I began to make my imitations of Shakespeare, and I wrote 57
out passages where Falstaff and Pistol and Bardolph talked together, in
that Ercles vein which is so easily caught. This was after a year or two
of the irregular and interrupted acquaintance with the author which has
been my mode of friendship with all the authors I have loved. My worship
of Shakespeare went to heights and lengths that it had reached with no
earlier idol, and there was a supreme moment, once, when I found myself
saying that the creation of Shakespeare was as great as the creation of a

There ought certainly to be some bound beyond which the cult of favorite
authors should not be suffered to go. I should keep well within the
limit of that early excess now, and should not liken the creation of
Shakespeare to the creation of any heavenly body bigger, say, than one of
the nameless asteroids that revolve between Mars and Jupiter. Even this
I do not feel to be a true means of comparison, and I think that in the
case of all great men we like to let our wonder mount and mount, till it
leaves the truth behind, and honesty is pretty much cast out as ballast.
A wise criticism will no more magnify Shakespeare because he is already
great than it will magnify any less man. But we are loaded down with the
responsibility of finding him all we have been told he is, and we must do
this or suspect ourselves of a want of taste, a want of sensibility. At
the same time, we may really be honester than those who have led us to
expect this or that of him, and more truly his friends. I wish the time
might come when we could read Shakespeare, and Dante, and Homer, as
sincerely and as fairly as we read any new book by the least known of our
contemporaries. The course of criticism is towards this, but when I
began to read Shakespeare I should not have ventured to think that he was
not at every moment great. I should no more have thought of questioning
the poetry of any passage in him than of questioning the proofs of holy
writ. All the same, I knew very well that much which I read was really
poor stuff, and the persons and positions were often preposterous. It is
a great pity that the ardent youth should not be permitted and even
encouraged to say this to himself, instead of falling slavishly before a
great author and accepting him at all points as infallible. Shakespeare
is fine enough and great enough when all the possible detractions are
made, and I have no fear of saying now that he would be finer and greater
for the loss of half his work, though if I had heard any one say such a
thing then I should have held him as little better than one of the

Upon the whole it was well that I had not found my way to Shakespeare
earlier, though it is rather strange that I had not. I knew him on the
stage in most of the plays that used to be given. I had shared the
conscience of Macbeth, the passion of Othello, the doubt of Hamlet; many
times, in my natural affinity for villains, I had mocked and suffered
with Richard III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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