Literature and Life, Entire
William Dean Howells

Part 7 out of 9

poet's works from the State Library, and I set about reading them with a
glossary. It was not easy, but it brought strength with it, and lifted
my heart with a sense of noble companionship.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

I state these things simply and somewhat baldly; I might easily refine
upon them, and study that subtle effect for good and for evil which young
people are always receiving from the fiction they read; but this its not
the time or place for the inquiry, and I only wish to own that so far as
I understand it, the chief part of my ethical experience has been from
novels. The life and character I have found portrayed there have
appealed always to the consciousness of right and wrong implanted in me;
and from no one has this appeal been stronger than from George Eliot.
Her influence continued through many years, and I can question it now
only in the undue burden she seems to throw upon the individual, and her
failure to account largely enough for motive from the social environment.
There her work seems to me unphilosophical.

It shares whatever error there is in its perspective with that of
Hawthorne, whose 'Marble Faun' was a new book at the same time that 'Adam
Bede' was new, and whose books now came into my life and gave it their
tinge. He was always dealing with the problem of evil, too, and I found
a more potent charm in his more artistic handling of it than I found in
George Eliot. Of course, I then preferred the region of pure romance
where he liked to place his action; but I did not find his instances the
less veritable because they shone out in

"The light that never was on sea or land."

I read the 'Marble Faun' first, and then the 'Scarlet Letter,' and then
the 'House of Seven Gables,' and then the 'Blithedale Romance;' but I
always liked best the last, which is more nearly a novel, and more
realistic than the others. They all moved me with a sort of effect such
as I had not felt before. They veers so far from time and place that,
although most of them related to our country and epoch, I could not
imagine anything approximate from them; and Hawthorne himself seemed a
remote and impalpable agency, rather than a person whom one might
actually meet, as not long afterward happened with me. I did not hold
the sort of fancied converse with him that I held with ether authors,
and I cannot pretend that I had the affection for him that attracted me
to them. But he held me by his potent spell, and for a time he dominated
me as completely as any author I have read. More truly than any other
American author he has been a passion with me, and lately I heard with a
kind of pang a young man saying that he did not believe I should find the
'Scarlet Letter' bear reading now. I did not assent to the possibility,
but the notion gave me a shiver of dismay. I thought how much that book
had been to me, how much all of Hawthorne's books had been, and to have
parted with my faith in their perfection would have been something I
would not willingly have risked doing.

Of course there is always something fatally weak in the scheme of the
pure romance, which, after the color of the contemporary mood dies out of
it, leaves it in danger of tumbling into the dust of allegory; and
perhaps this inherent weakness was what that bold critic felt in the
'Scarlet Letter.' But none of Hawthorne's fables are without a profound
and distant reach into the recesses of nature and of being. He came back
from his researches with no solution of the question, with no message,
indeed, but the awful warning, "Be true, be true," which is the burden of
the Scarlet Letter; yet in all his books there is the hue of thoughts
that we think only in the presence of the mysteries of life and death.
It is not his fault that this is not intelligence, that it knots the brow
in sorer doubt rather than shapes the lips to utterance of the things
that can never be said. Some of his shorter stories I have found thin
and cold to my later reading, and I have never cared much for the 'House
of Seven Gables,' but the other day I was reading the 'Blithedale
Romance' again, and I found it as potent, as significant, as sadly and
strangely true as when it first enthralled my soul.

In those days when I tried to kindle my heart at the cold altar of
Goethe, I did read a great deal of his prose and somewhat of his poetry,
but it was to be ten years yet before I should go faithfully through with
his Faust and come to know its power. For the present, I read 'Wilhelm
Meister' and the 'Wahlverwandschaften,' and worshipped him much at
second-hand through Heine. In the mean time I invested such Germans as
I met with the halo of their national poetry, and there was one lady of
whom I heard with awe that she had once known my Heine. When I came to
meet her, over a glass of the mild egg-nog which she served at her house
on Sunday nights, and she told me about Heine, and how he looked, and
some few things he said, I suffered an indescribable disappointment; and
if I could have been frank with myself I should have owned to a fear that
it might have been something like that, if I had myself met the poet in
the flesh, and tried to hold the intimate converse with him that I held
in the spirit. But I shut my heart to all such misgivings and went on
reading him much more than I read any other German author. I went on
writing him too, just as I went on reading and writing Tennyson. Heine
was always a personal interest with me, and every word of his made me
long to have had him say it to me, and tell me why he said it. In a poet
of alien race and language and religion I found a greater sympathy than I
have experienced with any other. Perhaps the Jews are still the chosen
people, but now they bear the message of humanity, while once they bore
the message of divinity. I knew the ugliness of Heine's nature: his
revengefulness, and malice, and cruelty, and treachery, and uncleanness;
and yet he was supremely charming among the poets I have read. The
tenderness I still feel for him is not a reasoned love, I must own; but,
as I am always asking, when was love ever reasoned?

I had a room-mate that winter in Columbus who was already a contributor
to the Atlantic Monthly, and who read Browning as devotedly as I read
Heine. I will not say that he wrote him as constantly, but if that had
been so, I should not have cared. What I could not endure without pangs
of secret jealousy was that he should like Heine, too, and should read
him, though it was but an arm's-length in an English version. He had
found the origins of those tricks and turns of Heine's in 'Tristram
Shandy' and the 'Sentimental Journey;' and this galled me, as if he had
shown that some mistress of my soul had studied her graces from another
girl, and that it was not all her own hair that she wore. I hid my
rancor as well as I could, and took what revenge lay in my power by
insinuating that he might have a very different view if he read Heine in
the original. I also made haste to try my own fate with the Atlantic,
and I sent off to Mr. Lowell that poem which he kept so long in order to
make sure that Heine had not written it, as well as authorized it.


This was the winter when my friend Piatt and I made our first literary
venture together in those 'Poems of Two Friends;' which hardly passed the
circle of our amity; and it was altogether a time of high literary
exaltation with me. I walked the streets of the friendly little city by
day and by night with my head so full of rhymes and poetic phrases that
it seemed as if their buzzing might have been heard several yards away;
and I do not yet see quite how I contrived to keep their music out of my
newspaper paragraphs. Out of the newspaper I could not keep it, and from
time to time I broke into verse in its columns, to the great amusement of
the leading editor, who knew me for a young man with a very sharp tooth
for such self-betrayals in others. He wanted to print a burlesque review
he wrote of the 'Poems of Two Friends' in our paper, but I would not
suffer it. I must allow that it was very, funny, and that he was always
a generous friend, whose wounds would have been as faithful as any that
could have been dealt me then. He did not indeed care much for any
poetry but that of Shakespeare and the 'Ingoldsby Legends;' and when one
morning a State Senator came into the office with a volume of Tennyson,
and began to read,

"The poet in a golden clime was born,
With golden stars above;
Dowered with the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn
The love of love,"

he hitched his chair about, and started in on his leader for the day.

He might have been more patient if he had known that this State Senator
was to be President Garfield. But who could know anything of the
tragical history that was so soon to follow that winter of 1859-60?
Not I; at least I listened rapt by the poet and the reader, and it seemed
to me as if the making and the reading of poetry were to go on forever,
and that was to be all there was of it. To be sure I had my hard little
journalistic misgivings that it was not quite the thing for a State
Senator to come round reading Tennyson at ten o'clock in the morning, and
I dare say I felt myself superior in my point of view, though I could not
resist the charm of the verse. I myself did not bring Tennyson to the
office at that time. I brought Thackeray, and I remember that one day
when I had read half an hour or so in the 'Book of Snobs,' the leading
editor said frankly, Well, now, he guessed we had had enough of that.
He apologized afterwards as if he were to blame, and not I, but I dare
say I was a nuisance with my different literary passions, and must have
made many of my acquaintances very tired of my favorite authors. I had
some consciousness of the fact, but I could not help it.

I ought not to omit from the list of these favorites an author who was
then beginning to have his greatest vogue, and who somehow just missed of
being a very great one. We were all reading his jaunty, nervy, knowing
books, and some of us were questioning whether we ought not to set him
above Thackeray and Dickens and George Eliot, 'tulli quanti', so great
was the effect that Charles Reade had with our generation. He was a man
who stood at the parting of the ways between realism and romanticism, and
if he had been somewhat more of a man he might have been the master of a
great school of English realism; but, as it was, he remained content to
use the materials of realism and produce the effect of romanticism. He
saw that life itself infinitely outvalued anything that could be feigned
about it, but its richness seemed to corrupt him, and he had not the
clear, ethical conscience which forced George Eliot to be realistic when
probably her artistic prepossessions were romantic.

As yet, however, there was no reasoning of the matter, and Charles Reade
was writing books of tremendous adventure and exaggerated character,
which he prided himself on deriving from the facts of the world around
him. He was intoxicated with the discovery he had made that the truth
was beyond invention, but he did not know what to do with the truth in
art after he had found it in life, and to this day the English mostly do
not. We young people were easily taken with his glittering error, and we
read him with much the same fury, that he wrote. 'Never Too Late to
Mend;' 'Love Me Little, Love Me Long;' 'Christie Johnstone;' 'Peg
Woffington;' and then, later, 'Hard Cash,' 'The Cloister and the Hearth,'
'Foul Play,' 'Put Yourself in His Place'--how much they all meant once,
or seemed to mean!

The first of them, and the other poems and fictions I was reading, meant
more to me than the rumors of war that were then filling the air, and
that so soon became its awful actualities. To us who have our lives so
largely in books the material world is always the fable, and the ideal
the fact. I walked with my feet on the ground, but my head was in the
clouds, as light as any of them. I neither praise nor blame this fact;
but I feel bound to own it, for that time, and for every time in my life,
since the witchery of literature began with me.

Those two happy winters in Columbus, when I was finding opportunity and
recognition, were the heydey of life for me. There has been no time like
them since, though there have been smiling and prosperous times a plenty;
for then I was in the blossom of my youth, and what I had not I could
hope for without unreason, for I had so much of that which I had most
desired. Those times passed, and there came other times, long years of
abeyance, and waiting, and defeat, which I thought would never end, but
they passed, too.

I got my appointment of Consul to Venice, and I went home to wait for my
passport and to spend the last days, so full of civic trouble, before I
should set out for my post. If I hoped to serve my country there and
sweep the Confederate cruisers from the Adriatic, I am afraid my prime
intent was to add to her literature and to my own credit. I intended,
while keeping a sleepless eye out for privateers, to write poems.
concerning American life which should eclipse anything yet done in that
kind, and in the mean time I read voraciously and perpetually, to make
the days go swiftly which I should have been so glad to have linger. In
this month I devoured all the 'Waverley novels,' but I must have been
devouring a great many others, for Charles Reade's 'Christie Johnstone'
is associated with the last moment of the last days.

A few months ago I was at the old home, and I read that book again,
after not looking at it for more than thirty years; and I read it with
amazement at its prevailing artistic vulgarity, its prevailing aesthetic
error shot here and there with gleams of light, and of the truth that
Reade himself was always dimly groping for. The book is written
throughout on the verge of realism, with divinations and conjectures
across its border, and with lapses into the fool's paradise of
romanticism, and an apparent content with its inanity and impossibility.
But then it was brilliantly new and surprising; it seemed to be the last
word that could be said for the truth in fiction; and it had a spell that
held us like an anesthetic above the ache of parting, and the anxiety for
the years that must pass, with all their redoubled chances, before our
home circle could be made whole again. I read on, and the rest listened,
till the wheels of the old stage made themselves heard in their approach
through the absolute silence of the village street. Then we shut the
book and all went down to the gate together, and parted under the pale
sky of the October night. There was one of the home group whom I was not
to see again: the young brother who died in the blossom of his years
before I returned from my far and strange sojourn. He was too young then
to share our reading of the novel, but when I ran up to his room to bid
him good-by I found him awake, and, with aching hearts, we bade each
other good-by forever!


I ran through an Italian grammar on my way across the Atlantic, and from
my knowledge of Latin, Spanish, and French, I soon had a reading
acquaintance with the language. I had really wanted to go to Germany,
that I might carry forward my studies in German literature, and I first
applied for the consulate at Munich. The powers at Washington thought it
quite the same thing to offer me Rome; but I found that the income of the
Roman consulate would not give me a living, and I was forced to decline
it. Then the President's private secretaries, Mr. John Nicolay and Mr.
John Hay, who did not know me except as a young Westerner who had written
poems in the Atlantic Monthly, asked me how I would like Venice, and
promised that they would have the salary put up to a thousand a year,
under the new law to embarrass privateers. It was really put up to
fifteen hundred, and with this income assured me I went out to the city
whose influence changed the whole course of my literary life.

No privateers ever came, though I once had notice from Turin that the
Florida had been sighted off Ancona; and I had nearly four years of
nearly uninterrupted leisure at Venice, which I meant to employ in
reading all Italian literature, and writing a history of the republic.
The history, of course, I expected would be a long affair, and I did not
quite suppose that I could despatch the literature in any short time;
besides, I had several considerable poems on hand that occupied me a good
deal, and worked at these as well as advanced myself in Italian,
preparatory to the efforts before me.

I had already a slight general notion of Italian letters from Leigh Hunt,
and from other agreeable English Italianates; and I knew that I wanted to
read not only the four great poets, Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, and Tasso,
but that whole group of burlesque poets, Pulci, Berni, and the rest, who,
from what I knew of them, I thought would be even more to my mind. As a
matter of fact, and in the process of time, I did read somewhat of all
these, but rather in the minor than the major way; and I soon went off
from them to the study of the modern poets, novelists, and playwrights
who interested me so much more. After my wonted fashion I read half a
dozen of these authors together, so that it would be hard to say which I
began with, but I had really a devotion to Dante, though not at that
time, or ever for the whole of Dante. During my first year in Venice I
met an ingenious priest, who had been a tutor in a patrician family, and
who was willing to lead my faltering steps through the "Inferno." This
part of the "Divine Comedy" I read with a beginner's carefulness, and
with a rapture in its beauties, which I will whisper the reader do not
appear in every line.

Again I say it is a great pity that criticism is not honest about the
masterpieces of literature, and does not confess that they are not every
moment masterly, that they are often dull and tough and dry, as is
certainly the case with Dante's. Some day, perhaps, we shall have this
way of treating literature, and then the lover of it will not feel
obliged to browbeat himself into the belief that if he is not always
enjoying himself it is his own fault. At any rate I will permit myself
the luxury of frankly saying that while I had a deep sense of the majesty
and grandeur of Dante's design, many points of its execution bored me,
and that I found the intermixture of small local fact and neighborhood
history in the fabric of his lofty creation no part of its noblest
effect. What is marvellous in it is its expression of Dante's
personality, and I can never think that his personalities enhance its
greatness as a work of art. I enjoyed them, however, and I enjoyed them
the more, as the innumerable perspectives of Italian history began to
open all about me. Then, indeed, I understood the origins if I did not
understand the aims of Dante, which there is still much dispute about
among those who profess to know them clearly. What I finally perceived
was that his poem came through him from the heart of Italian life, such
as it was in his time, and that whatever it teaches, his poem expresses
that life, in all its splendor and squalor, its beauty and deformity, its
love and its hate.

Criticism may torment this sense or that sense out of it, but at the end
of the ends the "Divine Comedy" will stand for the patriotism of
medieval Italy, as far as its ethics is concerned, and for a profound and
lofty ideal of beauty, as far as its aesthetics is concerned. This is
vague enough and slight enough, I must confess, but I must confess also
that I had not even a conception of so much when I first read the
"Inferno." I went at it very simply, and my enjoyment of it was that
sort which finds its account in the fine passages, the brilliant
episodes, the striking pictures. This was the effect with me of all the
criticism which I had hitherto read, and I am not sure yet that the
criticism which tries to be of a larger scope, and to see things "whole,"
is of any definite effect. As a matter of fact we see nothing whole,
neither life nor art. We are so made, in soul and in sense, that we can
deal only with parts, with points, with degrees; and the endeavor to
compass any entirety must involve a discomfort and a danger very
threatening to our intellectual integrity.

Or if this postulate is as untenable as all the others, still I am very
glad that I did not then lose any fact of the majesty, and beauty, and
pathos of the great certain measures for the sake of that fourth
dimension of the poem which is not yet made palpable or visible. I took
my sad heart's fill of the sad story of "Paolo and Francesca," which I
already knew in Leigh Hunt's adorable dilution, and most of the lines
read themselves into my memory, where they linger yet. I supped on the
horrors of Ugolino's fate with the strong gust of youth, which finds
every, exercise of sympathy a pleasure. My good priest sat beside me in
these rich moments, knotting in his lap the calico handkerchief of the
snuff-taker, and entering with tremulous eagerness into my joy in things
that he had often before enjoyed. No doubt he had an inexhaustible
pleasure in them apart from mine, for I have found my pleasure in them
perennial, and have not failed to taste it as often as I have read or
repeated any of the great passages of the poem to myself. This pleasure
came often from some vital phrase, or merely the inspired music of a
phrase quite apart from its meaning. I did not get then, and I have not
got since, a distinct conception of the journey through Hell, and as
often as I have tried to understand the topography of the poem I have
fatigued myself to no purpose, but I do not think the essential meaning
was lost upon me.

I dare say my priest had his notion of the general shape and purport,
the gross material body of the thing, but he did not trouble me with it,
while we sat tranced together in the presence of its soul. He seemed,
at times, so lost in the beatific vision, that he forgot my stumblings in
the philological darkness, till I appealed to him for help. Then he
would read aloud with that magnificent rhythm the Italians have in
reading their verse, and the obscured meaning would seem to shine out of
the mere music of the poem, like the color the blind feel in sound.

I do not know what has become of him, but if he is like the rest of the
strange group of my guides, philosophers, and friends in literature--the
printer, the organ-builder, the machinist, the drug-clerk, and the
bookbinder--I am afraid he is dead. In fact, I who was then I, might be
said to be dead too, so little is my past self like my present self in
anything but the "increasing purpose" which has kept me one in my love of
literature. He was a gentle and kindly man, with a life and a longing,
quite apart from his vocation, which were never lived or fulfilled.
I did not see him after he ceased to read Dante with me, and in fact I
was instructed by the suspicions of my Italian friends to be careful how
I consorted with a priest, who might very well be an Austrian spy.
I parted with him for no such picturesque reason, for I never believed
him other than the truest and faithfulest of friends, but because I was
then giving myself more entirely to work in which he could not help me.

Naturally enough this was a long poem in the terza rima of the "Divina
Commedia," and dealing with a story of our civil war in a fashion so
remote that no editor would print it. This was the first fruits and the
last of my reading of Dante, in verse, and it was not so like Dante as I
would have liked to make it; but Dante is not easy to imitate; he is too
unconscious, and too single, too bent upon saying the thing that is in
him, with whatever beauty inheres in it, to put on the graces that others
may catch.


However, this poem only shared the fate of nearly, all the others that I
wrote at this time; they came back to me with unfailing regularity from
all the magazine editors of the English-speaking world; I had no success
with any of them till I sent Mr. Lowell a paper on recent Italian comedy
for the North American Review, which he and Professor Norton had then
begun to edit. I was in the mean time printing the material of Venetian
Life and the Italian Journeys in a Boston newspaper after its rejection
by the magazines; and my literary life, almost without my willing it, had
taken the course of critical observance of books and men in their

That is to say, I was studying manners, in the elder sense of the word,
wherever I could get at them in the frank life of the people about me,
and in such literature of Italy as was then modern. In this pursuit I
made a discovery that greatly interested me, and that specialized my
inquiries. I found that the Italians had no novels which treated of
their contemporary life; that they had no modern fiction but the
historical romance. I found that if I wished to know their life from
their literature I must go to their drama, which was even then
endeavoring to give their, stage a faithful picture of their
civilization. There was even then in the new circumstance of a people
just liberated from every variety of intellectual repression and
political oppression, a group of dramatic authors, whose plays were not
only delightful to see but delightful to read, working in the good
tradition of one of the greatest realists who has ever lived, and
producing a drama of vital strength and charm. One of them, whom I by no
means thought the best, has given us a play, known to all the world,
which I am almost ready to think with Zola is the greatest play of modern
times; or if it is not so, I should be puzzled to name the modern drama
that surpasses "La Morte Civile" of Paolo Giacometti. I learned to know
all the dramatists pretty well, in the whole range of their work, on the
stage and in the closet, and I learned to know still better, and to love
supremely, the fine, amiable genius whom, as one of them said, they did
not so much imitate as learn from to imitate nature.

This was Carlo Goldoni, one of the first of the realists, but antedating
conscious realism so long as to have been born at Venice early in the
eighteenth century, and to have come to his hand-to-hand fight with the
romanticism of his day almost before that century had reached its noon.
In the early sixties of our own century I was no more conscious of his
realism than he was himself a hundred years before; but I had eyes in my
head, and I saw that what he had seen in Venice so long before was so
true that it was the very life of Venice in my own day; and because I
have loved the truth in art above all other things, I fell instantly and
lastingly in love with Carlo Goldoni. I was reading his memoirs, and
learning to know his sweet, honest, simple nature while I was learning to
know his work, and I wish that every one who reads his plays would read
his life as well; one must know him before one can fully know them. I
believe, in fact, that his autobiography came into my hands first. But,
at any rate, both are associated with the fervors and languors of that
first summer in Venice, so that I cannot now take up a book of Goldoni's
without a renewed sense of that sunlight and moonlight, and of the sounds
and silences of a city that is at once the stillest and shrillest in the

Perhaps because I never found his work of great ethical or aesthetical
proportions, but recognized that it pretended to be good only within its
strict limitations, I recur to it now without that painful feeling of a
diminished grandeur in it, which attends us so often when we go back to
something that once greatly pleased us. It seemed to me at the time that
I must have read all his comedies in Venice, but I kept reading new ones
after I came home, and still I can take a volume of his from the shelf,
and when thirty years are past, find a play or two that I missed before.
Their number is very great, but perhaps those that I fancy I have not
read, I have really read once or more and forgotten. That might very
easily be, for there is seldom anything more poignant in any one of them
than there is in the average course of things. The plays are light and
amusing transcripts from life, for the most part, and where at times they
deepen into powerful situations, or express strong emotions, they do so
with persons so little different from the average of our acquaintance
that we do not remember just who the persons are.

There is no doubt but the kindly playwright had his conscience, and meant
to make people think as well as laugh. I know of none of his plays that
is of wrong effect, or that violates the instincts of purity, or insults
common sense with the romantic pretence that wrong will be right if you
will only paint it rose-color. He is at some obvious pains to "punish
vice and reward virtue," but I do not mean that easy morality when I
praise his; I mean the more difficult sort that recognizes in each man's
soul the arbiter not of his fate surely, but surely of his peace. He
never makes a fool of the spectator by feigning that passion is a reason
or justification, or that suffering of one kind can atone for wrong of
another. That was left for the romanticists of our own century to
discover; even the romanticists whom Goldoni drove from the stage, were
of that simpler eighteenth-century sort who had not yet liberated the
individual from society, but held him accountable in the old way. As for
Goldoni himself, he apparently never dreams of transgression; he is of
rather an explicit conventionality in most things, and he deals with
society as something finally settled. How artfully he deals with it,
how decently, how wholesomely, those who know Venetian society of the
eighteenth century historically, will perceive when they recall the
adequate impression he gives of it without offence in character or
language or situation. This is the perpetual miracle of his comedy,
that it says so much to experience and worldly wisdom, and so little to
inexperience and worldly innocence. No doubt the Serenest Republic was
very strict with the theatre, and suffered it to hold the mirror up to
nature only when nature was behaving well, or at least behaving as if
young people were present. Yet the Italians are rather plain-spoken, and
they recognize facts which our company manners at least do not admit the
existence of. I should say that Goldoni was almost English, almost
American, indeed, in his observance of the proprieties, and I like this
in him; though the proprieties are not virtues, they are very good
things, and at least are better than the improprieties.

This, however, I must own, had not a great deal to do with my liking him
so much, and I should be puzzled to account for my passion, as much in
his case as in most others. If there was any reason for it, perhaps it
was that he had the power of taking me out of my life, and putting me
into the lives of others, whom I felt to be human beings as much as
myself. To make one live in others, this is the highest effect of
religion as well as of art, and possibly it will be the highest bliss we
shall ever know. I do not pretend that my translation was through my
unselfishness; it was distinctly through that selfishness which perceives
that self is misery; and I may as well confess here that I do not regard
the artistic ecstasy as in any sort noble. It is not noble to love the
beautiful, or to live for it, or by it; and it may even not be refining.
I would not have any reader of mine, looking forward to some aesthetic
career, suppose that this love is any merit in itself; it may be the
grossest egotism. If you cannot look beyond the end you aim at, and seek
the good which is not your own, all your sacrifice is to yourself and not
of yourself, and you might as well be going into business. In itself and
for itself it is no more honorable to win fame than to make money, and
the wish to do the one is no more elevating than the wish to do the

But in the days I write of I had no conception of this, and I am sure
that my blindness to so plain a fact kept me even from seeking and
knowing the highest beauty in the things I worshipped. I believe that if
I had been sensible of it I should hays read much more of such humane
Italian poets and novelists as Manzoni and D'Azeglio, whom I perceived to
be delightful, without dreaming of them in the length and breadth of
their goodness. Now and then its extent flashed upon me, but the glimpse
was lost to my retroverted vision almost as soon as won. It is only in
thinking back to there that I can realize how much they might always have
meant to me. They were both living in my time in Italy, and they were
two men whom I should now like very much to have seen, if I could have
done so without that futility which seems to attend every effort to pay
one's duty to such men.

The love of country in all the Italian poets and romancers of the long
period of the national resurrection ennobled their art in a measure which
criticism has not yet taken account of. I conceived of its effect then,
but I conceived of it as a misfortune, a fatality; now I am by no means
sure that it was so; hereafter the creation of beauty, as we call it, for
beauty's sake, may be considered something monstrous. There is forever a
poignant meaning in life beyond what mere living involves, and why should
not there be this reference in art to the ends beyond art?
The situation, the long patience, the hope against hope, dignified and
beautified the nature of the Italian writers of that day, and evoked from
them a quality which I was too little trained in their school to
appreciate. But in a sort I did feel it, I did know it in them all, so
far as I knew any of them, and in the tragedies of Manzoni, and in the
romances of D'Azeglio, and yet more in the simple and modest records of
D'Azeglio's life published after his death, I profited by it, and
unconsciously prepared myself for that point of view whence all the arts
appear one with all the uses, and there is nothing beautiful that is

I am very glad of that experience of Italian literature, which I look
back upon as altogether wholesome and sanative, after my excesses of
Heine. No doubt it was all a minor affair as compared with equal
knowledge of French literature, and so far it was a loss of time. It is
idle to dispute the general positions of criticism, and there is no
useful gainsaying its judgment that French literature is a major
literature and Italian a minor literature in this century; but whether
this verdict will stand for all time, there may be a reasonable doubt.
Criterions may change, and hereafter people may look at the whole affair
so differently that a literature which went to the making of a people
will not be accounted a minor literature, but will take its place with
the great literary movements.

I do not insist upon this possibility, and I am far from defending myself
for liking the comedies of Goldoni better than the comedies of Moliere,
upon purely aesthetic grounds, where there is no question as to the
artistic quality. Perhaps it is because I came to Moliere's comedies
later, and with my taste formed for those of Goldoni; but again, it is
here a matter of affection; I find Goldoni for me more sympathetic, and
because he is more sympathetic I cannot do otherwise than find him more
natural, more true. I will allow that this is vulnerable, and as I say,
I do not defend it. Moliere has a place in literature infinitely loftier
than Goldoni's; and he has supplied types, characters, phrases, to the
currency of thought, and Goldoni has supplied none. It is, therefore,
without reason which I can allege that I enjoy Goldoni more. I am
perfectly willing to be rated low for my preference, and yet I think that
if it had been Goldoni's luck to have had the great age of a mighty
monarchy for his scene, instead of the decline of an outworn republic,
his place in literature might have been different.


I have always had a great love for the absolutely unreal, the purely
fanciful in all the arts, as well as of the absolutely real; I like the
one on a far lower plane than the other, but it delights me, as a
pantomime at a theatre does, or a comic opera, which has its being wholly
outside the realm of the probabilities. When I once transport myself to
this sphere I have no longer any care for them, and if I could I would
not exact of them an allegiance which has no concern with them. For this
reason I have always vastly enjoyed the artificialities of pastoral
poetry; and in Venice I read with a pleasure few serious poems have given
me the "Pastor Fido" of Guarini. I came later but not with fainter zest
to the "Aminta" of Tasso, without which, perhaps, the "Pastor Fido" would
not have been, and I revelled in the pretty impossibilities of both these
charming effects of the liberated imagination.

I do not the least condemn that sort of thing; one does not live by
sweets, unless one is willing to spoil one's digestion; but one may now
and then indulge one's self without harm, and a sugar-plum or two after
dinner may even be of advantage. What I object to is the romantic thing
which asks to be accepted with all its fantasticality on the ground of
reality; that seems to me hopelessly bad. But I have been able to dwell
in their charming out-land or no-land with the shepherds and
shepherdesses and nymphs, satyrs, and fauns, of Tasso and Guarini, and I
take the finest pleasure in their company, their Dresden china loves and
sorrows, their airy raptures, their painless throes, their polite
anguish, their tears not the least salt, but flowing as sweet as the
purling streams of their enamelled meadows. I wish there were more of
that sort of writing; I should like very much to read it.

The greater part of my reading in Venice, when I began to find that I
could not help writing about the place, was in books relating to its life
and history, which I made use of rather than found pleasure in. My
studies in Italian literature were full of the most charming interest,
and if I had to read a good many books for conscience' sake, there were a
good many others I read for their own sake. They were chiefly poetry;
and after the first essays in which I tasted the classic poets, they were
chiefly the books of the modern poets.

For the present I went no farther in German literature, and I recurred to
it in later years only for deeper and fuller knowledge of Heine; my
Spanish was ignored, as all first loves are when one has reached the age
of twenty-six. My English reading was almost wholly in the Tauchnitz
editions, for otherwise English books were not easily come at then and
there. George Eliot's 'Romola' was then new, and I read it again and
again with the sense of moral enlargement which the first fiction to
conceive of the true nature of evil gave all of us who were young in that
day. Tito Malema was not only a lesson, he was a revelation, and I
trembled before him as in the presence of a warning and a message from
the only veritable perdition. His life, in which so much that was good
was mixed, with so much that was bad, lighted up the whole domain of
egotism with its glare, and made one feel how near the best and the worst
were to each other, and how they sometimes touched without absolute


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