Of Literature (Entire)
William Dean Howells

Part 3 out of 15

rather English than American in character. He was quite exterior to the
Atlantic group of writers, and had no interest in me as one of it.
Literary Boston of that day was not a solidarity, as I soon perceived;
and I understood that it was only in my quality of stranger that I saw
the different phases of it. I should not be just to a vivid phase if I
failed to speak of Mrs. Julia Ward Howe and the impulse of reform which
she personified. I did not sympathize with this then so much as I do
now, but I could appreciate it on the intellectual side. Once, many
years later, I heard Mrs. Howe speak in public, and it seemed to me that
she made one of the best speeches I had ever heard. It gave me for the
first time a notion of what women might do in that sort if they entered
public life; but when we met in those earlier days I was interested in
her as perhaps our chief poetess. I believe she did not care much to
speak of literature; she was alert for other meanings in life, and I
remember how she once brought to book a youthful matron who had perhaps
unduly lamented the hardships of housekeeping, with the sharp demand,
"Child, where is your religion?" After the many years of an acquaintance
which had not nearly so many meetings as years, it was pleasant to find
her, at the latest, as strenuous as ever for the faith of works, and as
eager to aid Stepniak as John Brown. In her beautiful old age she
survives a certain literary impulse of Boston, but a still higher impulse
of Boston she will not survive, for that will last while the city


The Cambridge men were curiously apart from others that formed the great
New England group, and with whom in my earlier ignorance I had always
fancied them mingling. Now and then I met Doctor Holmes at Longfellow's
table, but not oftener than now and then, and I never saw Emerson in
Cambridge at all except at Longfellow's funeral. In my first years on
the Atlantic I sometimes saw him, when he would address me some grave,
rather retrorsive civilities, after I had been newly introduced to him,
as I had always to be on these occasions. I formed the belief that he
did not care for me, either in my being or doing, and I am far from
blaming him for that: on such points there might easily be two opinions,
and I was myself often of the mind I imagined in him.

If Emerson forgot me, it was perhaps because I was not of those qualities
of things which even then, it was said, he could remember so much better
than things themselves. In his later years I sometimes saw him in the
Boston streets with his beautiful face dreamily set, as he moved like one
to whose vision

"Heaven opens inward, chasms yawn,
Vast images in glimmering dawn,
Half shown, are broken and withdrawn."

It is known how before the end the eclipse became total and from moment
to moment the record inscribed upon his mind was erased. Some years
before he died I sat between him and Mrs. Rose Terry Cooke, at an
'Atlantic Breakfast' where it was part of my editorial function to
preside. When he was not asking me who she was, I could hear him asking
her who I was. His great soul worked so independently of memory as we
conceive it, and so powerfully and essentially, that one could not help
wondering if; after all, our personal continuity, our identity hereafter,
was necessarily trammeled up with our enduring knowledge of what happens
here. His remembrance absolutely ceased with an event, and yet his
character, his personality, his identity fully persisted.

I do not know, whether the things that we printed for Emerson after his
memory began to fail so utterly were the work of earlier years or not,
but I know that they were of his best. There were certain poems which
could not have been more electly, more exquisitely his, or fashioned with
a keener and juster self-criticism. His vision transcended his time so
far that some who have tired themselves out in trying to catch up with
him have now begun to say that he was no seer at all; but I doubt if
these form the last court of appeal in his case. In manner, he was very
gentle, like all those great New England men, but he was cold, like many
of them, to the new-comer, or to the old-comer who came newly. As I have
elsewhere recorded, I once heard him speak critically of Hawthorne, and
once he expressed his surprise at the late flowering brilliancy of
Holmes's gift in the Autocrat papers after all his friends supposed it
had borne its best fruit. But I recall no mention of Longfellow, or
Lowell, or Whittier from him. At a dinner where the talk glanced upon
Walt Whitman he turned to me as perhaps representing the interest
posterity might take in the matter, and referred to Whitman's public use
of his privately written praise as something altogether unexpected. He
did not disown it or withdraw it, but seemed to feel (not indignantly)
that there had been an abuse of it.


The first time I saw Whittier was in Fields's room at the publishing
office, where I had come upon some editorial errand to my chief. He
introduced me to the poet: a tall, spare figure in black of Quaker cut,
with a keen, clean-shaven face, black hair, and vivid black eyes. It was
just after his poem, 'Snow Bound', had made its great success, in the
modest fashion of those days, and had sold not two hundred thousand but
twenty thousand, and I tried to make him my compliment. I contrived to
say that I could not tell him how much I liked it; and he received the
inadequate expression of my feeling with doubtless as much effusion as he
would have met something more explicit and abundant. If he had judged
fit to take my contract off my hands in any way, I think he would have
been less able to do so than any of his New England contemporaries.
In him, as I have suggested, the Quaker calm was bound by the frosty
Puritanic air, and he was doubly cold to the touch of the stranger,
though he would thaw out to old friends, and sparkle in laugh and joke.
I myself never got so far with him as to experience this geniality,
though afterwards we became such friends as an old man and a young man
could be who rarely met. Our better acquaintance began with some talk,
at a second meeting, about Bayard Taylor's 'Story of Kennett', which had
then lately appeared, and which he praised for its fidelity to Quaker
character in its less amiable aspects. No doubt I had made much of my
own Quaker descent (which I felt was one of the few things I had to be
proud of), and he therefore spoke the more frankly of those traits of
brutality into which the primitive sincerity of the sect sometimes
degenerated. He thought the habit of plain-speaking had to be jealously
guarded to keep it from becoming rude-speaking, and he matched with
stories of his own some things I had heard my father tell of Friends in
the backwoods who were Foes to good manners.

Whittier was one of the most generous of men towards the work of others,
especially the work of a new man, and if I did anything that he liked,
I could count upon him for cordial recognition. In the quiet of his
country home at Danvers he apparently read all the magazines, and kept
himself fully abreast of the literary movement, but I doubt if he so
fully appreciated the importance of the social movement. Like some
others of the great anti-slavery men, he seemed to imagine that mankind
had won itself a clear field by destroying chattel slavery, and he had.
no sympathy with those who think that the man who may any moment be out
of work is industrially a slave. This is not strange; so few men last
over from one reform to another that the wonder is that any should, not
that one should not. Whittier was prophet for one great need of the
divine to man, and he spoke his message with a fervor that at times was
like the trembling of a flame, or the quivering of midsummer sunshine.
It was hard to associate with the man as one saw him, still, shy, stiff,
the passion of his verse. This imbued not only his antislavery
utterances, but equally his ballads of the old witch and Quaker
persecution, and flashed a far light into the dimness where his
interrogations of Mystery pierced. Whatever doubt there can be of the
fate of other New England poets in the great and final account, it seems
to me that certain of these pieces make his place secure.

There is great inequality in his work, and I felt this so strongly that
when I came to have full charge of the Magazine, I ventured once to
distinguish. He sent me a poem, and I had the temerity to return it, and
beg him for something else. He magnanimously refrained from all show of
offence, and after a while, when he had printed the poem elsewhere,
he gave me another. By this time, I perceived that I had been wrong,
not as to the poem returned, but as to my function regarding him and such
as he. I had made my reflections, and never again did I venture to pass
upon what contributors of his quality sent me. I took it and printed it,
and praised the gods; and even now I think that with such men it was not
my duty to play the censor in the periodical which they had made what it
was. They had set it in authority over American literature, and it was
not for me to put myself in authority over them. Their fame was in their
own keeping, and it was not my part to guard it against them.

After that experience I not only practised an eager acquiescence in their
wish to reach the public through the Atlantic, but I used all the
delicacy I was master of in bowing the way to them. Sometimes my utmost
did not avail, or more strictly speaking it did not avail in one instance
with Emerson. He had given me upon much entreaty a poem which was one of
his greatest and best, but the proof-reader found a nominative at odds
with its verb. We had some trouble in reconciling them, and some other
delays, and meanwhile Doctor Holmes offered me a poem for the same
number. I now doubted whether I should get Emerson's poem back in time
for it, but unluckily the proof did come back in time, and then I had to
choose between my poets, or acquaint them with the state of the case, and
let them choose what I should do. I really felt that Doctor Holmes had
the right to precedence, since Emerson had withheld his proof so long
that I could not count upon it; but I wrote to Emerson, and asked (as
nearly as I can remember) whether he would consent to let me put his poem
over to the next number, or would prefer to have it appear in the same
number with Doctor Holmes's; the subjects were cognate, and I had my
misgivings. He wrote me back to "return the proofs and break up the
forms." I could not go to this iconoclastic extreme with the
electrotypes of the magazine, but I could return the proofs. I did so,
feeling that I had done my possible, and silently grieving that there
could be such ire in heavenly minds.


Emerson, as I say, I had once met in Cambridge, but Whittier never;
and I have a feeling that poet as Cambridge felt him to be, she had her
reservations concerning him. I cannot put these into words which would
not oversay them, but they were akin to those she might have refined upon
in regard to Mrs. Stowe. Neither of these great writers would have
appeared to Cambridge of the last literary quality; their fame was with a
world too vast to be the test that her own

"One entire and perfect crysolite"

would have formed. Whittier in fact had not arrived at the clear
splendor of his later work without some earlier turbidity; he was still
from time to time capable of a false rhyme, like morn and dawn. As for
the author of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' her syntax was such a snare to her that
it sometimes needed the combined skill of all the proof-readers and the
assistant editor to extricate her. Of course, nothing was ever written
into her work, but in changes of diction, in correction of solecisms, in
transposition of phrases, the text was largely rewritten on the margin of
her proofs. The soul of her art was present, but the form was so often
absent, that when it was clothed on anew, it would have been hard to say
whose cut the garment was of in many places. In fact, the proof-reading
of the 'Atlantic Monthly' was something almost fearfully scrupulous and
perfect. The proofs were first read by the under proof-reader in the
printing-office; then the head reader passed them to me perfectly clean
as to typography, with his own abundant and most intelligent comments on
the literature; and then I read them, making what changes I chose, and
verifying every quotation, every date, every geographical and
biographical name, every foreign word to the last accent, every technical
and scientific term. Where it was possible or at all desirable the proof
was next submitted to the author. When it came back to me, I revised it,
accepting or rejecting the author's judgment according as he was entitled
by his ability and knowledge or not to have them. The proof now went to
the printers for correction; they sent it again to the head reader, who
carefully revised it and returned it again to me. I read it a second
time, and it was again corrected. After this it was revised in the
office and sent to the stereotyper, from whom it came to the head reader
for a last revision in the plates.

It would not do to say how many of the first American writers owed their
correctness in print to the zeal of our proof-reading, but I may say that
there were very few who did not owe something. The wisest and ablest
were the most patient and grateful, like Mrs. Stowe, under correction;
it was only the beginners and the more ignorant who were angry; and
almost always the proof-reading editor had his way on disputed points.
I look back now, with respectful amazement at my proficiency in detecting
the errors of the great as well as the little. I was able to discover
mistakes even in the classical quotations of the deeply lettered Sumner,
and I remember, in the earliest years of my service on the Atlantic,
waiting in this statesman's study amidst the prints and engravings that
attested his personal resemblance to Edmund Burke, with his proofs in my
hand and my heart in my mouth, to submit my doubts of his Latinity. I
forget how he received them; but he was not a very gracious person.

Mrs. Stowe was a gracious person, and carried into age the inalienable
charm of a woman who must have been very, charming earlier. I met her
only at the Fieldses' in Boston, where one night I witnessed a
controversy between her and Doctor Holmes concerning homoeopathy and
allopathy which lasted well through dinner. After this lapse of time,
I cannot tell how the affair ended, but I feel sure of the liking with
which Mrs. Stowe inspired me. There was something very simple, very
motherly in her, and something divinely sincere. She was quite the
person to take 'au grand serieux' the monstrous imaginations of Lady
Byron's jealousy and to feel it on her conscience to make public report
of them when she conceived that the time had come to do so.

In Francis Parkman I knew much later than in some others a
differentiation of the New England type which was not less
characteristic. He, like so many other Boston men of letters, was of
patrician family, and of those easy fortunes which Clio prefers her sons
to be of; but he paid for these advantages by the suffering in which he
wrought at what is, I suppose, our greatest history. He wrought at it
piecemeal, and sometimes only by moments, when the terrible head aches
which tormented him, and the disorder of the heart which threatened his
life, allowed him a brief respite for the task which was dear to him.
He must have been more than a quarter of a century in completing it, and
in this time, as he once told me, it had given him a day-laborer's wages;
but of course money was the least return he wished from it. I read the
regularly successive volumes of 'The Jesuits in North America, The Old
Regime in Canada', the 'Wolfe and Montcalm', and the others that went to
make up the whole history with a sufficiently noisy enthusiasm, and our
acquaintance began by his expressing his gratification with the praises
of them that I had put in print. We entered into relations as
contributor and editor, and I know that he was pleased with my eagerness
to get as many detachable chapters from the book in hand as he could give
me for the magazine, but he was of too fine a politeness to make this the
occasion of his first coming to see me. He had walked out to Cambridge,
where I then lived, in pursuance of a regimen which, I believe, finally
built up his health; that it was unsparing, I can testify from my own
share in one of his constitutionals in Boston, many years later.

His experience in laying the groundwork for his history, and his
researches in making it thorough, were such as to have liberated him to
the knowledge of other manners and ideals, but he remained strictly a
Bostonian, and as immutably of the Boston social and literary faith as
any I knew in that capital of accomplished facts. He had lived like an
Indian among the wild Western tribes; he consorted with the Canadian
archaeologists in their mousings among the colonial archives of their
fallen state; every year he went to Quebec or Paris to study the history
of New France in the original documents; European society was open to him
everywhere; but he had those limitations which I nearly always found in
the Boston men, I remember his talking to me of 'The Rise of Silas
Lapham', in a somewhat troubled and uncertain strain, and interpreting
his rise as the achievement of social recognition, without much or at all
liking it or me for it. I did not think it my part to point out that I
had supposed the rise to be a moral one; and later I fell under his
condemnation for certain high crimes and misdemeanors I had been guilty
of against a well-known ideal in fiction. These in fact constituted
lese-majesty of romanticism, which seemed to be disproportionately dear
to a man who was in his own way trying to tell the truth of human nature
as I was in mine. His displeasures passed, however, and my last meeting
with our greatest historian, as I think him, was of unalloyed
friendliness. He came to me during my final year in Boston for nothing
apparently but to tell me of his liking for a book of mine describing
boy-life in Southern Ohio a half-century ago. He wished to talk about
many points of this, which he found the same as his own boylife in the
neighborhood of Boston; and we could agree that the life of the Anglo-
Saxon boy was pretty much the same everywhere. He had helped himself
into my apartment with a crutch, but I do not remember how he had fallen
lame. It was the end of his long walks, I believe, and not long
afterwards I had the grief to read of his death. I noticed that perhaps
through his enforced quiet, he had put on weight; his fine face was full;
whereas when I first knew him he was almost delicately thin of figure and
feature. He was always of a distinguished presence, and his face had a
great distinction.

It had not the appealing charm I found in the face of James Parton,
another historian I knew earlier in my Boston days. I cannot say how
much his books, once so worthily popular, are now known but I have an
abiding sense of their excellence. I have not read the 'Life of
Voltaire', which was the last, but all the rest, from the first, I have
read, and if there are better American biographies than those of Franklin
or of Jefferson, I could not say where to find them. The Greeley and the
Burr were younger books, and so was the Jackson, and they were not nearly
so good; but to all the author had imparted the valuable humanity in
which he abounded. He was never of the fine world of literature, the
world that sniffs and sneers, and abashes the simpler-hearted reader.
But he was a true artist, and English born as he was, he divined American
character as few Americans have done. He was a man of eminent courage,
and in the days when to be an agnostic was to be almost an outcast, he
had the heart to say of the Mysteries, that he did not know. He outlived
the condemnation that this brought, and I think that no man ever came
near him without in some measure loving him. To me he was of a most
winning personality, which his strong, gentle face expressed, and a cast
in the eye which he could not bring to bear directly upon his vis-a-vis,
endeared. I never met him without wishing more of his company, for he
seldom failed to say something to whatever was most humane and most
modern in me. Our last meeting was at Newburyport, whither he had long
before removed from New York, and where in the serene atmosphere of the
ancient Puritan town he found leisure and inspiration for his work.
He was not then engaged upon any considerable task, and he had aged and
broken somewhat. But the old geniality, the old warmth glowed in him,
and made a summer amidst the storm of snow that blinded the wintry air
without. A new light had then lately come into my life, by which I saw
all things that did not somehow tell for human brotherhood dwarfish and
ugly, and he listened, as I imagined, to what I had to say with the
tolerant sympathy of a man who has been a long time thinking those
things, and views with a certain amusement the zeal of the fresh

There was yet another historian in Boston, whose acquaintance I made
later than either Parkman's or Parton's, and whose very recent death
leaves me with the grief of a friend. No ones indeed, could meet John
Codman Ropes without wishing to be his friend, or without finding a
friend in him. He had his likes and his dislikes, but he could have had
no enmities except for evil and meanness. I never knew a man of higher
soul, of sweeter nature, and his whole life was a monument of character.
It cannot wound him now to speak of the cruel deformity which came upon
him in his boyhood, and haunted all his after days with suffering. His
gentle face showed the pain which is always the part of the hunchback,
but nothing else in him confessed a sense of his affliction, and the
resolute activity of his mind denied it in every way. He was, as is well
known, a very able lawyer, in full practice, while he was making his
studies of military history, and winning recognition for almost unique
insight and thoroughness in that direction, though I believe that when he
came to embody the results in those extraordinary volumes recording the
battles of our civil war, he retired from the law in some measure. He
knew these battles more accurately than the generals who fought them, and
he was of a like proficiency in the European wars from the time of
Napoleon down to our own time. I have heard a story, which I cannot
vouch for, that when foreknowledge of his affliction, at the outbreak of
our civil war, forbade him to be a soldier, he became a student of
soldiership, and wreaked in that sort the passion of his most gallant
spirit. But whether this was true or not, it is certain that he pursued
the study with a devotion which never blinded him to the atrocity of war.
Some wars he could excuse and even justify, but for any war that seemed
wanton or aggressive, he had only abhorrence.

The last summer of a score that I had known him, we sat on the veranda of
his cottage at York Harbor, and looked out over the moonlit sea, and he
talked of the high and true things, with the inextinguishable zest for
the inquiry which I always found in him, though he was then feeling the
approaches of the malady which was so soon to end all groping in these
shadows for him. He must have faced the fact with the same courage and
the same trust with which he faced all facts. From the first I found him
a deeply religious man, not only in the ecclesiastical sense, but in the
more mystical meanings of the word, and he kept his faith as he kept his
youth to the last. Every one who knew him, knows how young he was in
heart, and how he liked to have those that were young in years about him.
He wished to have his house in Boston, as well as his cottage at York,
full of young men and young girls, whose joy of life he made his own, and
whose society he preferred to his contemporaries'. One could not blame
him for that, or for seeking the sun, wherever he could, but it would be
a false notion of him to suppose that his sympathies were solely or
chiefly with the happy. In every sort, as I knew him, he was fine and
good. The word is not worthy of him, after some of its uses and
associations, but if it were unsmutched by these, and whitened to its
primitive significance, I should say he was one of the most perfect
gentlemen I ever knew.


Celia Thaxter
Charles F. Browne
Dawn upon him through a cloud of other half remembered faces
Edmund Quincy
Ethical sense, not the aesthetical sense
Few men last over from one reform to another
Francis Parkman
Generous lover of all that was excellent in literature
Got out of it all the fun there was in it
Greeting of great impersonal cordiality
Grieving that there could be such ire in heavenly minds
His remembrance absolutely ceased with an event
Julia Ward Howe
Looked as if Destiny had sat upon it
Man who may any moment be out of work is industrially a slave
Pathos of revolt from the colorless rigidities
Plain-speaking or Rude Speaking
Pointed the moral in all they did
Sometimes they sacrificed the song to the sermon
Tired themselves out in trying to catch up with him
True to an ideal of life rather than to life itself
Wasted face, and his gay eyes had the death-look
When to be an agnostic was to be almost an outcast
Whitman's public use of his privately written praise


by William Dean Howells


Elsewhere we literary folk are apt to be such a common lot, with
tendencies here and there to be a shabby lot; we arrive from all sorts of
unexpected holes and corners of the earth, remote, obscure; and at the
best we do so often come up out of the ground; but at Boston we were of
ascertained and noted origin, and good part of us dropped from the skies.
Instead of holding horses before the doors of theatres; or capping verses
at the plough-tail; or tramping over Europe with nothing but a flute in
the pocket; or walking up to the metropolis with no luggage but the MS.
of a tragedy; or sleeping in doorways or under the arches of bridges; or
serving as apothecaries' 'prentices--we were good society from the
beginning. I think this was none the worse for us, and it was vastly the
better for good society.

Literature in Boston, indeed, was so respectable, and often of so high a
lineage, that to be a poet was not only to be good society, but almost to
be good family. If one names over the men who gave Boston her supremacy
in literature during that Unitarian harvest-time of the old Puritanic
seed-time which was her Augustan age, one names the people who were and
who had been socially first in the city ever since the self-exile of the
Tories at the time of the Revolution. To say Prescott, Motley, Parkman,
Lowell, Norton, Higginson, Dana, Emerson, Channing, was to say patrician,
in the truest and often the best sense, if not the largest. Boston was
small, but these were of her first citizens, and their primacy, in its
way, was of the same quality as that, say, of the chief families of
Venice. But these names can never have the effect for the stranger that
they had for one to the manner born. I say had, for I doubt whether in
Boston they still mean all that they once meant, and that their
equivalents meant in science, in law, in politics. The most famous, if
not the greatest of all the literary men of Boston, I have not mentioned
with them, for Longfellow was not of the place, though by his sympathies
and relations he became of it; and I have not mentioned Oliver Wendell
Holmes, because I think his name would come first into the reader's
thought with the suggestion of social quality in the humanities.

Holmes was of the Brahminical caste which his humorous recognition
invited from its subjectivity in the New England consciousness into the
light where all could know it and own it, and like Longfellow he was
allied to the patriciate of Boston by the most intimate ties of life.
For a long time, for the whole first period of his work, he stood for
that alone, its tastes, its prejudices, its foibles even, and when he
came to stand in his 'second period, for vastly, for infinitely more,
and to make friends with the whole race, as few men have ever done,
it was always, I think, with a secret shiver of doubt, a backward look of
longing, and an eye askance. He was himself perfectly aware of this at
times, and would mark his several misgivings with a humorous sense of the
situation. He was essentially too kind to be of a narrow world, too
human to be finally of less than humanity, too gentle to be of the finest
gentility. But such limitations as he had were in the direction I have
hinted, or perhaps more than hinted; and I am by no means ready to make a
mock of them, as it would be so easy to do for some reasons that he has
himself suggested. To value aright the affection which the old Bostonian
had for Boston one must conceive of something like the patriotism of men
in the times when a man's city was a man's country, something Athenian,
something Florentine. The war that nationalized us liberated this love
to the whole country, but its first tenderness remained still for Boston,
and I suppose a Bostonian still thinks of himself first as a Bostonian
and then as an American, in a way that no New-Yorker could deal with
himself. The rich historical background dignifies and ennobles the
intense public spirit of the place, and gives it a kind of personality.


In literature Doctor Holmes survived all the Bostonians who had given the
city her primacy in letters, but when I first knew him there was no
apparent ground for questioning it. I do not mean now the time when I
visited New England, but when I came to live near Boston, and to begin
the many happy years which I spent in her fine, intellectual air.
I found time to run in upon him, while I was there arranging to take my
place on the Atlantic Monthly, and I remember that in this brief moment
with him he brought me to book about some vaunting paragraph in the
'Nation' claiming the literary primacy for New York. He asked me if I
knew who wrote it, and I was obliged to own that I had written it myself,
when with the kindness he always showed me he protested against my
position. To tell the truth, I do not think now I had any very good
reasons for it, and I certainly could urge none that would stand against
his. I could only fall back upon the saving clause that this primacy was
claimed mainly if not wholly for New York in the future. He was willing
to leave me the connotations of prophecy, but I think he did even this
out of politeness rather than conviction, and I believe he had always a
sensitiveness where Boston was concerned, which could not seem ungenerous
to any generous mind. Whatever lingering doubt of me he may have had,
with reference to Boston, seemed to satisfy itself when several years
afterwards he happened to speak of a certain character in an early novel
of mine, who was not quite the kind of Bostonian one could wish to be.
The thing came up in talk with another person, who had referred to my
Bostonian, and the doctor had apparently made his acquaintance in the
book, and not liked him. "I understood, of course," he said, "that he
was a Bostonian, not the Bostonian," and I could truthfully answer that
this was by all means my own understanding too.

His fondness for his city, which no one could appreciate better than
myself, I hope, often found expression in a burlesque excess in his
writings, and in his talk perhaps oftener still. Hard upon my return
from Venice I had a half-hour with him in his old study on Charles
Street, where he still lived in 1865, and while I was there a young man
came in for the doctor's help as a physician, though he looked so very
well, and was so lively and cheerful, that I have since had my doubts
whether he had not made a pretext for a glimpse of him as the Autocrat.
The doctor took him upon his word, however, and said he had been so long
out of practice that he could not do anything for him, but he gave him
the address of another physician, somewhere near Washington Street.
"And if you don't know where Washington Street is," he said, with a gay
burst at a certain vagueness which had come into the young man's face,
"you don't know anything."

We had been talking of Venice, and what life was like there, and he made
me tell him in some detail. He was especially interested in what I had
to say of the minute subdivision and distribution of the necessaries,
the small coins, and the small values adapted to their purchase,
the intensely retail character, in fact, of household provisioning;
and I could see how he pleased himself in formulating the theory that the
higher a civilization the finer the apportionment of the demands and
supplies. The ideal, he said, was a civilization in which you could buy
two cents' worth of beef, and a divergence from this standard was towards

The secret of the man who is universally interesting is that he is
universally interested, and this was, above all, the secret of the charm
that Doctor Holmes had for every one. No doubt he knew it, for what that
most alert intelligence did not know of itself was scarcely worth
knowing. This knowledge was one of his chief pleasures, I fancy; he
rejoiced in the consciousness which is one of the highest attributes of
the highly organized man, and he did not care for the consequences in
your mind, if you were so stupid as not to take him aright. I remember
the delight Henry James, the father of the novelist, had in reporting to
me the frankness of the doctor, when he had said to him, "Holmes, you are
intellectually the most alive man I ever knew." "I am, I am," said the
doctor. "From the crown of my head to the sole of my foot, I'm alive,
I'm alive!" Any one who ever saw him will imagine the vivid relish he
had in recognizing the fact. He could not be with you a moment without
shedding upon you the light of his flashing wit, his radiant humor, and
he shone equally upon the rich and poor in mind. His gaiety of heart
could not withhold itself from any chance of response, but he did wish
always to be fully understood, and to be liked by those he liked. He
gave his liking cautiously, though, for the affluence of his sympathies
left him without the reserves of colder natures, and he had to make up
for these with careful circumspection. He wished to know the character
of the person who made overtures to his acquaintance, for he was aware
that his friendship lay close to it; he wanted to be sure that he was a
nice person, and though I think he preferred social quality in his
fellow-man, he did not refuse himself to those who had merely a sweet and
wholesome humanity. He did not like anything that tasted or smelt of
Bohemianism in the personnel of literature, but he did not mind the scent
of the new-ploughed earth, or even of the barn-yard. I recall his
telling me once that after two younger brothers-in-letters had called
upon him in the odor of an habitual beeriness and smokiness, he opened
the window; and the very last time I saw him he remembered at eighty-five
the offence he had found on his first visit to New York, when a
metropolitan poet had asked him to lunch in a basement restaurant.


He seemed not to mind, however, climbing to the little apartment we had
in Boston when we came there in 1866, and he made this call upon us in
due form, bringing Mrs. Holmes with him as if to accent the recognition
socially. We were then incredibly young, much younger than I find people
ever are nowadays, and in the consciousness of our youth we felt, to the
last exquisite value of the fact, what it was to have the Autocrat come
to see us; and I believe he was not displeased to perceive this; he liked
to know that you felt his quality in every way. That first winter,
however, I did not see him often, and in the spring we went to live in
Cambridge, and thereafter I met him chiefly at Longfellow's, or when I
came in to dine at the Fieldses', in Boston. It was at certain meetings
of the Dante Club, when Longfellow read aloud his translation for
criticism, and there was supper later, that one saw the doctor; and his
voice was heard at the supper rather than at the criticism, for he was no
Italianate. He always seemed to like a certain turn of the talk toward
the mystical, but with space for the feet on a firm ground of fact this
side of the shadows; when it came to going over among them, and laying
hold of them with the band of faith, as if they were substance, he was
not of the excursion. It is well known how fervent, I cannot say devout,
a spiritualist Longfellow's brother-in-law, Appleton, was; and when he
was at the table too, it took all the poet's delicate skill to keep him
and the Autocrat from involving themselves in a cataclysmal controversy
upon the matter of manifestations. With Doctor Holmes the inquiry was
inquiry, to the last, I believe, and the burden of proof was left to the
ghosts and their friends. His attitude was strictly scientific; he
denied nothing, but he expected the supernatural to be at least as
convincing as the natural.

There was a time in his history when the popular ignorance classed him
with those who were once rudely called infidels; but the world has since
gone so fast and so far that the mind he was of concerning religious
belief would now be thought religious by a good half of the religious
world. It is true that he had and always kept a grudge against the
ancestral Calvinism which afflicted his youth; and he was through all
rises and lapses of opinion essentially Unitarian; but of the honest
belief of any one, I am sure he never felt or spoke otherwise than most
tolerantly, most tenderly. As often as he spoke of religion, and his
talk tended to it very often, I never heard an irreligious word from him,
far less a scoff or sneer at religion; and I am certain that this was not
merely because he would have thought it bad taste, though undoubtedly he
would have thought it bad taste; I think it annoyed, it hurt him, to be
counted among the iconoclasts, and he would have been profoundly grieved
if he could have known how widely this false notion of him once
prevailed. It can do no harm at this late day to impart from the secrets
of the publishing house the fact that a supposed infidelity in the tone
of his story The Guardian Angel cost the Atlantic Monthly many
subscribers. Now the tone of that story would not be thought even mildly
agnostic, I fancy; and long before his death the author had outlived the
error concerning him.

It was not the best of his stories, by any means, and it would not be too
harsh to say that it was the poorest. His novels all belonged to an
order of romance which was as distinctly his own as the form of
dramatized essay which he invented in the Autocrat. If he did not think
poorly of them, he certainly did not think too proudly, and I heard him
quote with relish the phrase of a lady who had spoken of them to him as
his "medicated novels." That, indeed, was perhaps what they were; a
faint, faint odor of the pharmacopoeia clung to their pages; their magic
was scientific. He knew this better than any one else, of course, and if
any one had said it in his turn he would hardly have minded it. But what
he did mind was the persistent misinterpretation of his intention in
certain quarters where he thought he had the right to respectful
criticism in stead of the succession of sneers that greeted the
successive numbers of his story; and it was no secret that he felt the
persecution keenly. Perhaps he thought that he had already reached that
time in his literary life when he was a fact rather than a question,
and when reasons and not feelings must have to do with his acceptance or
rejection. But he had to live many years yet before he reached this
state. When he did reach it, happily a good while before his death,
I do not believe any man ever enjoyed the like condition more. He loved
to feel himself out of the fight, with much work before him still,
but with nothing that could provoke ill-will in his activities. He loved
at all times to take himself objectively, if I may so express my sense of
a mental attitude that misled many. As I have said before, he was
universally interested, and he studied the universe from himself. I do
not know how one is to study it otherwise; the impersonal has really no
existence; but with all his subtlety and depth he was of a make so
simple, of a spirit so naive, that he could not practise the feints some
use to conceal that interest in self which, after all, every one knows is
only concealed. He frankly and joyously made himself the starting-point
in all his inquest of the hearts and minds of other men, but so far from
singling himself out in this, and standing apart in it, there never was
any one who was more eagerly and gladly your fellow-being in the things
of the soul.


In the things of the world, he had fences, and looked at some people
through palings and even over the broken bottles on the tops of walls;
and I think he was the loser by this, as well as they. But then I think
all fences are bad, and that God has made enough differences between men;
we need not trouble ourselves to multiply them. Even behind his fences,
however, Holmes had a heart kind for the outsiders, and I do not believe
any one came into personal relations with him who did not experience this
kindness. In that long and delightful talk I had with him on my return
from Venice (I can praise the talk because it was mainly his), we spoke
of the status of domestics in the Old World, and how fraternal the
relation of high and low was in Italy, while in England, between master
and man, it seemed without acknowledgment of their common humanity.
"Yes," he said, "I always felt as if English servants expected to be
trampled on; but I can't do that. If they want to be trampled on, they
must get some one else." He thought that our American way was infinitely
better; and I believe that in spite of the fences there was always an
instinctive impulse with him to get upon common ground with his fellow-
man. I used to notice in the neighborhood cabman who served our block on
Beacon Street a sort of affectionate reverence for the Autocrat, which
could have come from nothing but the kindly terms between them; if you
went to him when he was engaged to Doctor Holmes, he told you so with a
sort of implication in his manner that the thought of anything else for
the time was profanation. The good fellow who took him his drives about
the Beverly and Manchester shores seemed to be quite in the joke of the
doctor's humor, and within the bounds of his personal modesty and his
functional dignity permitted himself a smile at the doctor's sallies,
when you stood talking with him, or listening to him at the carriage-

The civic and social circumstance that a man values himself on is
commonly no part of his value, and certainly no part of his greatness.
Rather, it is the very thing that limits him, and I think that Doctor
Holmes appeared in the full measure of his generous personality to those
who did not and could not appreciate his circumstance, and not to those
who formed it, and who from life-long association were so dear and
comfortable to him. Those who best knew how great a man he was were
those who came from far to pay him their duty, or to thank him for some
help they had got from his books, or to ask his counsel or seek his
sympathy. With all such he was most winningly tender, most intelligently
patient. I suppose no great author was ever more visited by letter and
in person than he, or kept a faithfuler conscience for his guests. With
those who appeared to him in the flesh he used a miraculous tact, and I
fancy in his treatment of all the physician native in him bore a
characteristic part. No one seemed to be denied access to him, but it
was after a moment of preparation that one was admitted, and any one who
was at all sensitive must have felt from the first moment in his presence
that there could be no trespassing in point of time. If now and then
some insensitive began to trespass, there was a sliding-scale of
dismissal that never failed of its work, and that really saved the author
from the effect of intrusion. He was not bored because he would not be.

I transfer at random the impressions of many years to my page, and I
shall not try to observe a chronological order in these memories. Vivid
among them is that of a visit which I paid him with Osgood the publisher,
then newly the owner of the Atlantic Monthly, when I had newly become the
sole editor. We wished to signalize our accession to the control of the
magazine by a stroke that should tell most in the public eye, and we
thought of asking Doctor Holmes to do something again in the manner of
the Autocrat and the Professor at the Breakfast Table. Some letters had
passed between him and the management concerning our wish, and then
Osgood thought that it would be right and fit for us to go to him in
person. He proposed the visit, and Doctor Holmes received us with a mind
in which he had evidently formulated all his thoughts upon the matter.
His main question was whether at his age of sixty years a man was
justified in seeking to recall a public of the past, or to create a new
public in the present. He seemed to have looked the ground over not only
with a personal interest in the question, but with a keen scientific zest
for it as something which it was delightful to consider in its generic
relations; and I fancy that the pleasure of this inquiry more than
consoled him for such pangs of misgiving as he must have had in the
personal question. As commonly happens in the solution of such problems,
it was not solved; he was very willing to take our minds upon it, and to
incur the risk, if we thought it well and were willing to share it.

We came away rejoicing, and the new series began with the new year
following. It was by no means the popular success that we had hoped;
not because the author had not a thousand new things to say, or failed to
say them with the gust and freshness of his immortal youth, but because
it was not well to disturb a form associated in the public mind with an
achievement which had become classic. It is of the Autocrat of the
Breakfast Table that people think, when they think of the peculiar
species of dramatic essay which the author invented, and they think also
of the Professor at the Breakfast Table, because he followed so soon;
but the Poet at the Breakfast Table came so long after that his advent
alienated rather than conciliated liking. Very likely, if the Poet had
come first he would have had no second place in the affections of his
readers, for his talk was full of delightful matter; and at least one of
the poems which graced each instalment was one of the finest and greatest
that Doctor Holmes ever wrote. I mean "Homesick in Heaven," which seems
to me not only what I have said, but one of the most important, the most
profoundly pathetic in the language. Indeed, I do not know any other
that in the same direction goes so far with suggestion so penetrating.
The other poems were mainly of a cast which did not win; the metaphysics
in them were too much for the human interest, and again there rose a
foolish clamor of the creeds against him on account of them. The great
talent, the beautiful and graceful fancy, the eager imagination of the
Autocrat could not avail in this third attempt, and I suppose the Poet at
the Breakfast Table must be confessed as near a failure as Doctor Holmes
could come. It certainly was so in the magazine which the brilliant
success of the first had availed to establish in the high place the
periodical must always hold in the history of American literature.
Lowell was never tired of saying, when he recurred to the first days of
his editorship, that the magazine could never have gone at all without
the Autocrat papers. He was proud of having insisted upon Holmes's doing
something for the new venture, and he was fond of recalling the author's
misgivings concerning his contributions, which later repeated themselves
with too much reason, though not with the reason that was in his own


He lived twenty-five years after that self-question at sixty, and after
eighty he continued to prove that threescore was not the limit of a man's
intellectual activity or literary charm. During all that time the work
he did in mere quantity was the work that a man in the prime of life
might well have been vain of doing, and it was of a quality not less
surprising. If I asked him with any sort of fair notice I could rely
upon him always for something for the January number, and throughout the
year I could count upon him for those occasional pieces in which he so
easily excelled all former writers of occasional verse, and which he
liked to keep from the newspapers for the magazine. He had a pride in
his promptness with copy, and you could always trust his promise. The
printer's toe never galled the author's kibe in his case; he wished to
have an early proof, which he corrected fastidiously, but not overmuch,
and he did not keep it long. He had really done all his work in the
manuscript, which came print-perfect and beautifully clear from his pen,
in that flowing, graceful hand which to the last kept a suggestion of the
pleasure he must have had in it. Like all wise contributors, he was not
only patient, but very glad of all the queries and challenges that proof-
reader and editor could accumulate on the margin of his proofs, and when
they were both altogether wrong he was still grateful. In one of his
poems there was some Latin-Quarter French, which our collective purism
questioned, and I remember how tender of us he was in maintaining that in
his Parisian time, at least, some ladies beyond the Seine said "Eh,
b'en," instead of "Eh, bien." He knew that we must be always on the
lookout for such little matters, and he would not wound our ignorance.
I do not think any one enjoyed praise more than he. Of course he would
not provoke it, but if it came of itself, he would not deny himself the
pleasure, as long as a relish of it remained. He used humorously to
recognize his delight in it, and to say of the lecture audiences which
in earlier times hesitated applause, "Why don't they give me three times
three? I can stand it!" He himself gave in the generous fulness he
desired. He did not praise foolishly or dishonestly, though he would
spare an open dislike; but when a thing pleased him he knew how to say so
cordially and skilfully, so that it might help as well as delight.
I suppose no great author has tried more sincerely and faithfully to
befriend the beginner than he; and from time to time he would commend
something to me that he thought worth looking at, but never insistently.
In certain cases, where he had simply to ease a burden, from his own to
the editorial shoulders, he would ask that the aspirant might be
delicately treated. There might be personal reasons for this, but
usually his kindness of heart moved him. His tastes had their
geographical limit, but his sympathies were boundless, and the hopeless
creature for whom he interceded was oftener remote from Boston and New
England than otherwise.

It seems to me that he had a nature singularly affectionate, and that it
was this which was at fault if he gave somewhat too much of himself to
the celebration of the Class of '29, and all the multitude of Boston
occasions, large and little, embalmed in the clear amber of his verse,
somewhat to the disadvantage of the amber. If he were asked he could not
deny the many friendships and fellowships which united in the asking;
the immediate reclame from these things was sweet to him; but he loved
to comply as much as he loved to be praised. In the pleasure he got he
could feel himself a prophet in his own country, but the country which
owned him prophet began perhaps to feel rather too much as if it owned
him, and did not prize his vaticinations at all their worth. Some polite
Bostonians knew him chiefly on this side, and judged him to their own
detriment from it.


After we went to live in Cambridge, my life and the delight in it were so
wholly there that in ten years I had hardly been in as many Boston
houses. As I have said, I met Doctor Holmes at the Fieldses', and at
Longfellow's, when he came out to a Dante supper, which was not often,
and somewhat later at the Saturday Club dinners. One parlous time at the
publisher's I have already recalled, when Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe and
the Autocrat clashed upon homeopathy, and it required all the tact of the
host to lure them away from the dangerous theme. As it was, a battle
waged in the courteous forms of Fontenoy, went on pretty well through the
dinner, and it was only over the coffee that a truce was called. I need
not say which was heterodox, or that each had a deep and strenuous
conscience in the matter. I have always felt it a proof of his extreme
leniency to me, unworthy, that the doctor was able to tolerate my own
defection from the elder faith in medicine; and I could not feel his
kindness less caressing because I knew it a concession to an infirmity.
He said something like, After all a good physician was the great matter;
and I eagerly turned his clemency to praise of our family doctor.

He was very constant at the Saturday Club, as long as his strength
permitted, and few of its members missed fewer of its meetings.
He continued to sit at its table until the ghosts of Hawthorne,
of Agassiz, of Emerson, of Longfellow, of Lowell, out of others less
famous, bore him company there among the younger men in the flesh.
It must have been very melancholy, but nothing could deeply cloud his
most cheerful spirit. His strenuous interest in life kept him alive to
all the things of it, after so many of his friends were dead. The
questions which he was wont to deal with so fondly, so wisely, the great
problems of the soul, were all the more vital, perhaps, because the
personal concern in them was increased by the translation to some other
being of the men who had so often tried with him to fathom them here.
The last time I was at that table he sat alone there among those great
memories; but he was as gay as ever I saw him; his wit sparkled, his
humor gleamed; the poetic touch was deft and firm as of old; the serious
curiosity, the instant sympathy remained. To the witness he was
pathetic, but to himself he could only have been interesting, as the
figure of a man surviving, in an alien but not unfriendly present, the
past which held so vast a part of all that had constituted him. If he
had thought of himself in this way, it would have been without one
emotion of self-pity, such as more maudlin souls indulge, but with a love
of knowledge and wisdom as keenly alert as in his prime.

For three privileged years I lived all but next-door neighbor of Doctor
Holmes in that part of Beacon Street whither he removed after he left his
old home in Charles Street, and during these years I saw him rather
often. We were both on the water side, which means so much more than the
words say, and our library windows commanded the same general view of the
Charles rippling out into the Cambridge marshes and the sunsets, and
curving eastward under Long Bridge, through shipping that increased
onward to the sea. He said that you could count fourteen towns and
villages in the compass of that view, with the three conspicuous
monuments accenting the different attractions of it: the tower of
Memorial Hall at Harvard; the obelisk on Bunker Hill; and in the centre
of the picture that bulk of Tufts College which he said he expected to
greet his eyes the first thing when he opened them in the other world.
But the prospect, though generally the same, had certain precious
differences for each of us, which I have no doubt he valued himself as
much upon as I did. I have a notion that he fancied these were to be
enjoyed best in his library through two oval panes let into the bay there
apart from the windows, for he was apt to make you come and look out of
them if you got to talking of the view before you left. In this pleasant
study he lived among the books, which seemed to multiply from case to
case and shelf to shelf, and climb from floor to ceiling. Everything was
in exquisite order, and the desk where he wrote was as scrupulously neat
as if the sloven disarray of most authors' desks were impossible to him.
He had a number of ingenious little contrivances for helping his work,
which he liked to show you; for a time a revolving book-case at the
corner of his desk seemed to be his pet; and after that came his
fountain-pen, which he used with due observance of its fountain
principle, though he was tolerant of me when I said I always dipped mine
in the inkstand; it was a merit in his eyes to use a fountain pen in
anywise. After you had gone over these objects with him, and perhaps
taken a peep at something he was examining through his microscope, he sat
down at one corner of his hearth, and invited you to an easy chair at the
other. His talk was always considerate of your wish to be heard, but the
person who wished to talk when he could listen to Doctor Holmes was his
own victim, and always the loser. If you were well advised you kept
yourself to the question and response which manifested your interest in
what he was saying, and let him talk on, with his sweet smile, and that
husky laugh he broke softly into at times. Perhaps he was not very well
when you came in upon him; then he would name his trouble, with a
scientific zest and accuracy, and pass quickly to other matters. As I
have noted, he was interested in himself only on the universal side; and
he liked to find his peculiarity in you better than to keep it his own;
he suffered a visible disappointment if he could not make you think or
say you were so and so too. The querulous note was not in his most
cheerful register; he would not dwell upon a specialized grief; though
sometimes I have known him touch very lightly and currently upon a slight
annoyance, or disrelish for this or that. As he grew older, he must have
had, of course, an old man's disposition to speak of his infirmities; but
it was fine to see him catch himself up in this, when he became conscious
of it, and stop short with an abrupt turn to something else. With a real
interest, which he gave humorous excess, he would celebrate some little
ingenious thing that had fallen in his way, and I have heard him
expatiate with childlike delight upon the merits of a new razor he had
got: a sort of mower, which he could sweep recklessly over cheek and chin
without the least danger of cutting himself. The last time I saw him he
asked me if he had ever shown me that miraculous razor; and I doubt if he
quite liked my saying I had seen one of the same kind.

It seemed to me that he enjoyed sitting at his chimney-corner rather as
the type of a person having a good time than as such a person; he would
rather be up and about something, taking down a book, making a note,
going again to his little windows, and asking you if you had seen the
crows yet that sometimes alighted on the shoals left bare by the ebb-tide
behind the house. The reader will recall his lovely poem, "My Aviary,"
which deals with the winged life of that pleasant prospect. I shared
with him in the flock of wild-ducks which used to come into our neighbor
waters in spring, when the ice broke up, and stayed as long as the
smallest space of brine remained unfrozen in the fall. He was graciously
willing I should share in them, and in the cloud of gulls which drifted
about in the currents of the sea and sky there, almost the whole year
round. I did not pretend an original right to them, coming so late as I
did to the place, and I think my deference pleased him.


As I have said, he liked his fences, or at least liked you to respect
them, or to be sensible of them. As often as I went to see him I was
made to wait in the little reception-room below, and never shown at once
to his study. My name would be carried up, and I would hear him
verifying my presence from the maid through the opened door; then there
came a cheery cry of wellcome: "Is that you? Come up, come up!" and I
found him sometimes half-way down the stairs to meet me. He would make
an excuse for having kept me below a moment, and say something about the
rule he had to observe in all cases, as if he would not have me feel his
fence a personal thing. I was aware how thoroughly his gentle spirit
pervaded the whole house; the Irish maid who opened the door had the
effect of being a neighbor too, and of being in the joke of the little
formality; she apologized in her turn for the reception-room; there was
certainly nothing trampled upon in her manner, but affection and
reverence for him whose gate she guarded, with something like the
sentiment she would have cherished for a dignitary of the Church, but
nicely differenced and adjusted to the Autocrat's peculiar merits.

The last time I was in that place, a visitant who had lately knocked at
my own door was about to enter. I met the master of the house on the
landing of the stairs outside his study, and he led me in for the few
moments we could spend together. He spoke of the shadow so near, and
said he supposed there could be no hope, but he did not refuse the cheer
I offered him from my ignorance against his knowledge, and at something
that was thought or said he smiled, with even a breath of laughter, so
potent is the wont of a lifetime, though his eyes were full of tears, and
his voice broke with his words. Those who have sorrowed deepest will
understand this best.

It was during the few years of our Beacon Street neighborhood that he
spent those hundred days abroad in his last visit to England and France.
He was full of their delight when he came back, and my propinquity gave
me the advantage of hearing him speak of them at first hand. He
whimsically pleased himself most with his Derby-day experiences, and
enjoyed contrasting the crowd and occasion with that of forty or fifty
years earlier, when he had seen some famous race of the Derby won;
nothing else in England seemed to have moved him so much, though all that
royalties, dignities, and celebrities could well do for him had been
done. Of certain things that happened to him, characteristic of the
English, and interesting to him in their relation to himself through his
character of universally interested man, he spoke freely; but he has said
what he chose to the public about them, and I have no right to say more.
The thing that most vexed him during his sojourn apparently was to have
been described in one of the London papers as quite deaf; and I could
truly say to him that I had never imagined him at all deaf, or heard him
accused of it before. "Oh, yes," he said, "I am a little hard of hearing
on one side. But it isn't deafness."

He had, indeed, few or none of the infirmities of age that make
themselves painfully or inconveniently evident. He carried his slight
figure erect, and until his latest years his step was quick and sure.
Once he spoke of the lessened height of old people, apropos of something
that was said, and "They will shrink, you know," he added, as if he were
not at all concerned in the fact himself. If you met him in the street,
you encountered a spare, carefully dressed old gentleman, with a clean-
shaven face and a friendly smile, qualified by the involuntary frown of
his thick, senile brows; well coated, lustrously shod, well gloved, in a
silk hat, latterly wound with a mourning-weed. Sometimes he did not know
you when he knew you quite well, and at such times I think it was kind to
spare his years the fatigue of recalling your identity; at any rate, I am
glad of the times when I did so. In society he had the same vagueness,
the same dimness; but after the moment he needed to make sure of you, he
was as vivid as ever in his life. He made me think of a bed of embers on
which the ashes have thinly gathered, and which, when these are breathed
away, sparkles and tinkles keenly up with all the freshness of a newly
kindled fire. He did not mind talking about his age, and I fancied
rather enjoyed doing so. Its approaches interested him; if he was going,
he liked to know just how and when he was going. Once he spoke of his
lasting strength in terms of imaginative humor: he was still so intensely
interested in nature, the universe, that it seemed to him he was not like
an old man so much as a lusty infant which struggles against having the
breast snatched from it. He laughed at the notion of this, with that
impersonal relish which seemed to me singularly characteristic of the
self-consciousness so marked in him. I never heard one lugubrious word
from him in regard to his years. He liked your sympathy on all grounds
where he could have it self-respectfully, but he was a most manly spirit,
and he would not have had it even as a type of the universal decay.
Possibly he would have been interested to have you share in that analysis
of himself which he was always making, if such a thing could have been.

He had not much patience with the unmanly craving for sympathy in others,
and chiefly in our literary craft, which is somewhat ignobly given to it,
though he was patient, after all. He used to say, and I believe he has
said it in print,--[Holmes said it in print many times, in his three
novels and scattered through the "Breakfast Table" series. D.W.]--that
unless a man could show a good reason for writing verse, it was rather
against him, and a proof of weakness. I suppose this severe conclusion
was something he had reached after dealing with innumerable small poets
who sought the light in him with verses that no editor would admit to
print. Yet of morbidness he was often very tender; he knew it to be
disease, something that must be scientifically rather than ethically
treated. He was in the same degree kind to any sensitiveness, for he was
himself as sensitive as he was manly, and he was most delicately
sensitive to any rightful social claim upon him. I was once at a dinner
with him, where he was in some sort my host, in a company of people whom
he had not seen me with before, and he made a point of acquainting me
with each of them. It did not matter that I knew most of them already;
the proof of his thoughtfulness was precious, and I was sorry when I had
to disappoint it by confessing a previous knowledge.


I had three memorable meetings with him not very long before he died: one
a year before, and the other two within a few months of the end. The
first of these was at luncheon in the summer-house of a friend whose
hospitality made it summer the year round, and we all went out to meet
him, when he drove up in his open carriage, with the little sunshade in
his hand, which he took with him for protection against the heat, and
also, a little, I think, for the whim of it. He sat a moment after he
arrived, as if to orient himself in respect to each of us. Beside the
gifted hostess, there was the most charming of all the American
essayists, and the Autocrat seemed at once to find himself singularly at
home with the people who greeted him. There was no interval needed for
fanning away the ashes; he tinkled up before he entered the house, and at
the table he was as vivid and scintillant as I ever saw him, if indeed I
ever saw him as much so. The talk began at once, and we had made him
believe that there was nothing egotistic in his taking the word, or
turning it in illustration from himself upon universal matters. I spoke
among other things of some humble ruins on the road to Gloucester, which
gave the way-side a very aged look; the tumbled foundation-stones of poor
bits of houses, and "Ah," he said, "the cellar and the well?" He added,
to the company generally, "Do you know what I think are the two lines of
mine that go as deep as any others, in a certain direction?" and he began
to repeat stragglingly certain verses from one of his earlier poems,
until he came to the closing couplet. But I will give them in full,
because in going to look them up I have found them so lovely, and because
I can hear his voice again in every fondly accented syllable:

"Who sees unmoved, a ruin at his feet,
The lowliest home where human hearts have beat?
Its hearth-stone, shaded with the bistre stain,
A century's showery torrents wash in vain;
Its starving orchard where the thistle blows,
And mossy trunks still mark the broken rows;
Its chimney-loving poplar, oftenest seen
Next an old roof, or where a roof has been;
Its knot-grass, plantain,--all the social weeds,
Man's mute companions following where he leads;
Its dwarfed pale flowers, that show their straggling heads,
Sown by the wind from grass-choked garden-beds;
Its woodbine creeping where it used to climb;
Its roses breathing of the olden time;
All the poor shows the curious idler sees,
As life's thin shadows waste by slow degrees,
Till naught remains, the saddening tale to tell,
Save home's last wrecks--the CELLAR AND THE WELL!"

The poet's chanting voice rose with a triumphant swell in the climax, and
"There," he said, "isn't it so? The cellar and the well--they can't be
thrown down or burnt up; they are the human monuments that last longest
and defy decay." He rejoiced openly in the sympathy that recognized with
him the divination of a most pathetic, most signal fact, and he repeated
the last couplet again at our entreaty, glad to be entreated for it.
I do not know whether all will agree with him concerning the relative
importance of the lines, but I think all must feel the exquisite beauty
of the picture to which they give the final touch.

He said a thousand witty and brilliant things that day, but his pleasure
in this gave me the most pleasure, and I recall the passage distinctly
out of the dimness that covers the rest. He chose to figure us younger
men, in touching upon the literary circumstance of the past and present,
as representative of modern feeling and thinking, and himself as no
longer contemporary. We knew he did this to be contradicted, and we
protested, affectionately, fervently, with all our hearts and minds; and
indeed there were none of his generation who had lived more widely into
ours. He was not a prophet like Emerson, nor ever a voice crying in the
wilderness like Whittier or Lowell. His note was heard rather amid the
sweet security of streets, but it was always for a finer and gentler
civility. He imagined no new rule of life, and no philosophy or theory
of life will be known by his name. He was not constructive; he was
essentially observant, and in this he showed the scientific nature.
He made his reader known to himself, first in the little, and then in the
larger things. From first to last he was a censor, but a most winning
and delightful censor, who could make us feel that our faults were other
people's, and who was not wont

"To bait his homilies with his brother worms."

At one period he sat in the seat of the scorner, as far as Reform was
concerned, or perhaps reformers, who are so often tedious and ridiculous;
but he seemed to get a new heart with the new mind which came to him when
he began to write the Autocrat papers, and the light mocker of former
days became the serious and compassionate thinker, to whom most truly
nothing that was human was alien. His readers trusted and loved him; few
men have ever written so intimately with so much dignity, and perhaps
none has so endeared himself by saying just the thing for his reader that
his reader could not say for himself. He sought the universal through
himself in others, and he found to his delight and theirs that the most
universal thing was often, if not always, the most personal thing.

In my later meetings with him I was struck more and more by his
gentleness. I believe that men are apt to grow gentler as they grow
older, unless they are of the curmudgeon type, which rusts and crusts
with age, but with Doctor Holmes the gentleness was peculiarly marked.
He seemed to shrink from all things that could provoke controversy, or
even difference; he waived what might be a matter of dispute, and rather
sought the things that he could agree with you upon. In the last talk I
had with him he appeared to have no grudge left, except for the puritanic
orthodoxy in which he had been bred as a child. This he was not able to
forgive, though its tradition was interwoven with what was tenderest and
dearest in his recollections of childhood. We spoke of puritanism, and
I said I sometimes wondered what could be the mind of a man towards life
who had not been reared in its awful shadow, say an English Churchman, or
a Continental Catholic; and he said he could not imagine, and that he did
not believe such a man could at all enter into our feelings; puritanism,
he seemed to think, made an essential and ineradicable difference. I do
not believe he had any of that false sentiment which attributes virtue of
character to severity of creed, while it owns the creed to be wrong.

He differed from Longfellow in often speaking of his contemporaries. He
spoke of them frankly, but with an appreciative rather than a censorious
criticism. Of Longfellow himself he said that day, when I told him I had
been writing about him, and he seemed to me a man without error, that he
could think of but one error in him, and that was an error of taste, of
almost merely literary taste. It was at an earlier time that he talked
of Lowell, after his death, and told me that Lowell once in the fever of
his anti-slavery apostolate had written him, urging him strongly, as a
matter of duty, to come out for the cause he had himself so much at
heart. Afterwards Lowell wrote again, owning himself wrong in his
appeal, which he had come to recognize as invasive. "He was ten years
younger than I," said the doctor.

I found him that day I speak of in his house at Beverly Farms, where he
had a pleasant study in a corner by the porch, and he met me with all the
cheeriness of old. But he confessed that he had been greatly broken up
by the labor of preparing something that might be read at some
commemorative meeting, and had suffered from finding first that he could
not write something specially for it. Even the copying and adapting an
old poem had overtaxed him, and in this he showed the failing powers of
age. But otherwise he was still young, intellectually; that is, there
was no failure of interest in intellectual things, especially literary
things. Some new book lay on the table at his elbow, and he asked me if
I had seen it, and made some joke about his having had the good luck to
read it, and have it lying by him a few days before when the author
called. I do not know whether he schooled himself against an old man's
tendency to revert to the past or not, but I know that he seldom did so.
That morning, however, he made several excursions into it, and told me
that his youthful satire of the 'Spectre Pig' had been provoked by a poem
of the elder Dana's, where a phantom horse had been seriously employed,
with an effect of anticlimax which he had found irresistible. Another
foray was to recall the oppression and depression of his early religious
associations, and to speak with moving tenderness of his father, whose
hard doctrine as a minister was without effect upon his own kindly

In a letter written to me a few weeks after this time, upon an occasion
when he divined that some word from him would be more than commonly dear,
he recurred to the feeling he then expressed: "Fifty-six years ago--more
than half a century--I lost my own father, his age being seventy-three
years. As I have reached that period of life, passed it, and now left it
far behind, my recollections seem to brighten and bring back my boyhood
and early manhood in a clearer and fairer light than it came to me in my
middle decades. I have often wished of late years that I could tell him
how I cherished his memory; perhaps I may have the happiness of saying
all I long to tell him on the other side of that thin partition which I
love to think is all that divides us."

Men are never long together without speaking of women, and I said how
inevitably men's lives ended where they began, in the keeping of women,
and their strength failed at last and surrendered itself to their care.
I had not finished before I was made to feel that I was poaching, and
"Yes," said the owner of the preserve, "I have spoken of that," and he
went on to tell me just where. He was not going to have me suppose I had
invented those notions, and I could not do less than own that I must have
found them in his book, and forgotten it.

He spoke of his pleasant summer life in the air, at once soft and fresh,
of that lovely coast, and of his drives up and down the country roads.
Sometimes this lady and sometimes that came for him, and one or two
habitually, but he always had his own carriage ordered, if they failed,
that he might not fail of his drive in any fair weather. His cottage was
not immediately on the sea, but in full sight of it, and there was a
sense of the sea about it, as there is in all that incomparable region,
and I do not think he could have been at home anywhere beyond the reach
of its salt breath.

I was anxious not to outstay his strength, and I kept my eye on the clock
in frequent glances. I saw that he followed me in one of these, and I
said that I knew what his hours were, and I was watching so that I might
go away in time, and then he sweetly protested. Did I like that chair I
was sitting in? It was a gift to him, and he said who gave it, with a
pleasure in the fact that was very charming, as if he liked the
association of the thing with his friend. He was disposed to excuse the
formal look of his bookcases, which were filled with sets, and presented
some phalanxes of fiction in rather severe array.

When I rose to go, he was concerned about my being able to find my way
readily to the station, and he told me how to go, and what turns to take,
as if he liked realizing the way to himself. I believe he did not walk
much of late years, and I fancy he found much the same pleasure in
letting his imagination make this excursion to the station with me that
he would have found in actually going.

I saw him once more, but only once, when a day or two later he drove up
by our hotel in Magnolia toward the cottage where his secretary was
lodging. He saw us from his carriage, and called us gayly to him, to
make us rejoice with him at having finally got that commemorative poem
off his mind. He made a jest of the trouble it had cost him, even some
sleeplessness, and said he felt now like a convalescent. He was all
brightness, and friendliness, and eagerness to make us feel his mood,
through what was common to us all; and I am glad that this last
impression of him is so one with the first I ever had, and with that
which every reader receives from his work.

That is bright, and friendly and eager too, for it is throughout the very
expression of himself. I think it is a pity if an author disappoints
even the unreasonable expectation of the reader, whom his art has invited
to love him; but I do not believe that Doctor Holmes could inflict this
disappointment. Certainly he could disappoint no reasonable expectation,
no intelligent expectation. What he wrote, that he was, and every one
felt this who met him. He has therefore not died, as some men die, the
remote impersonal sort, but he is yet thrillingly alive in every page of
his books. The quantity of his literature is not great, but the quality
is very surprising, and surprising first of all as equality. From the
beginning to the end he wrote one man, of course in his successive
consciousnesses. Perhaps every one does this, but his work gives the
impression of an uncommon continuity, in spite of its being the effect of
a later and an earlier impulse so very marked as to have made the later
an astonishing revelation to those who thought they knew him.


It is not for me in such a paper as this to attempt any judgment of his
work. I have loved it, as I loved him, with a sense of its limitations
which is by no means a censure of its excellences. He was not a man who
cared to transcend; he liked bounds, he liked horizons, the constancy of
shores. If he put to sea, he kept in sight of land, like the ancient
navigators. He did not discover new continents; and I will own that I,
for my part, should not have liked to sail with Columbus. I think one
can safely affirm that as great and as useful men stayed behind, and
found an America of the mind without stirring from their thresholds.


Appeal, which he had come to recognize as invasive
Appeared to have no grudge left
Could make us feel that our faults were other people's
Hard of hearing on one side. But it isn't deafness
Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Autocrat clashed upon homeopathy
He was not bored because he would not be
He was not constructive; he was essentially observant
His readers trusted and loved him
Men's lives ended where they began, in the keeping of women
Not a man who cared to transcend; he liked bounds
Not much patience with the unmanly craving for sympathy
Old man's disposition to speak of his infirmities
Old man's tendency to revert to the past
Person who wished to talk when he could listen
Reformers, who are so often tedious and ridiculous
Secret of the man who is universally interesting
Sought the things that he could agree with you upon
Spare his years the fatigue of recalling your identity
Study in a corner by the porch
Those who have sorrowed deepest will understand this best
Times when a man's city was a man's country
Turn of the talk toward the mystical
Work gives the impression of an uncommon continuity


by William Dean Howells


We had expected to stay in Boston only until we could find a house in Old
Cambridge. This was not so simple a matter as it might seem; for the
ancient town had not yet quickened its scholarly pace to the modern step.
Indeed, in the spring of 1866 the impulse of expansion was not yet
visibly felt anywhere; the enormous material growth that followed the
civil war had not yet begun. In Cambridge the houses to be let were few,
and such as there were fell either below our pride or rose above our
purse. I wish I might tell how at last we bought a house; we had no
money, but we were rich in friends, who are still alive to shrink from
the story of their constant faith in a financial future which we
sometimes doubted, and who backed their credulity with their credit.
It is sufficient for the present record, which professes to be strictly
literary, to notify the fact that on the first day of May, 1866, we went
out to Cambridge and began to live in a house which we owned in fee if
not in deed, and which was none the less valuable for being covered with
mortgages. Physically, it was a carpenter's box, of a sort which is
readily imagined by the Anglo-American genius for ugliness, but which it
is not so easy to impart a just conception of. A trim hedge of arbor-
vita; tried to hide it from the world in front, and a tall board fence
behind; the little lot was well planted (perhaps too well planted) with
pears, grapes, and currants, and there was a small open space which I
lost no time in digging up for a kitchen-garden. On one side of us were
the open fields; on the other a brief line of neighbor-houses; across the
street before us was a grove of stately oaks, which I never could
persuade Aldrich had painted leaves on them in the fall. We were really
in a poor suburb of a suburb; but such is the fascination of ownership,
even the ownership of a fully mortgaged property, that we calculated the
latitude and longitude of the whole earth from the spot we called ours.
In our walks about Cambridge we saw other places where we might have been
willing to live; only, we said, they were too far off: We even prized the
architecture of our little box, though we had but so lately lived in a
Gothic palace on the Grand Canal in Venice, and were not uncritical of
beauty in the possessions of others. Positive beauty we could not have
honestly said we thought our cottage had as a whole, though we might have
held out for something of the kind in the brackets of turned wood under
its eaves. But we were richly content with it; and with life in
Cambridge, as it began to open itself to us, we were infinitely more than
content. This life, so refined, so intelligent, so gracefully simple, I
do not suppose has anywhere else had its parallel.


It was the moment before the old American customs had been changed by
European influences among people of easier circumstances; and in
Cambridge society kept what was best of its village traditions, and chose
to keep them in the full knowledge of different things. Nearly every one
had been abroad; and nearly every one had acquired the taste for olives
without losing a relish for native sauces; through the intellectual life
there was an entire democracy, and I do not believe that since the
capitalistic era began there was ever a community in which money counted
for less. There was little show of what money could buy; I remember but
one private carriage (naturally, a publisher's); and there was not one
livery, except a livery in the larger sense kept by the stableman Pike,
who made us pay now a quarter and now a half dollar for a seat in his
carriages, according as he lost or gathered courage for the charge. We
thought him extortionate, and we mostly walked through snow and mud of
amazing depth and thickness.

The reader will imagine how acceptable this circumstance was to a young
literary man beginning life with a fully mortgaged house and a salary of
untried elasticity. If there were distinctions made in Cambridge they
were not against literature, and we found ourselves in the midst of a
charming society, indifferent, apparently, to all questions but those of
the higher education which comes so largely by nature. That is to say,
in the Cambridge of that day (and, I dare say, of this) a mind cultivated
in some sort was essential, and after that came civil manners, and the
willingness and ability to be agreeable and interesting; but the question
of riches or poverty did not enter. Even the question of family, which
is of so great concern in New England, was in abeyance. Perhaps it was
taken for granted that every one in Old Cambridge society must be of good
family, or he could not be there; perhaps his mere residence tacitly
ennobled him; certainly his acceptance was an informal patent of
gentility. To my mind, the structure of society was almost ideal, and
until we have a perfectly socialized condition of things I do not believe
we shall ever have a more perfect society. The instincts which governed
it were not such as can arise from the sordid competition of interests;
they flowed from a devotion to letters, and from a self-sacrifice in
material things which I can give no better notion of than by saying that
the outlay of the richest college magnate seemed to be graduated to the
income of the poorest.

In those days, the men whose names have given splendor to Cambridge were
still living there. I shall forget some of them in the alphabetical
enumeration of Louis Agassiz, Francis J. Child, Richard Henry Dana, Jun.,
John Fiske, Dr. Asa Gray, the family of the Jameses, father and sons,
Lowell, Longfellow, Charles Eliot Norton, Dr. John G. Palfrey, James
Pierce, Dr. Peabody, Professor Parsons, Professor Sophocles. The variety
of talents and of achievements was indeed so great that Mr. Bret Harte,
when fresh from his Pacific slope, justly said, after listening to a
partial rehearsal of them, "Why, you couldn't fire a revolver from your
front porch anywhere without bringing down a two-volumer!" Everybody had
written a book, or an article, or a poem; or was in the process or
expectation of doing it, and doubtless those whose names escape me will
have greater difficulty in eluding fame. These kindly, these gifted folk
each came to see us and to make us at home among them; and my home is
still among them, on this side and on that side of the line between the
living and the dead which invisibly passes through all the streets of the
cities of men.


We had the whole summer for the exploration of Cambridge before society
returned from the mountains and the sea-shore, and it was not till
October that I saw Longfellow. I heard again, as I heard when I first
came to Boston, that he was at Nahant, and though Nahant was no longer so
far away, now, as it was then, I did not think of seeking him out even
when we went for a day to explore that coast during the summer. It seems
strange that I cannot recall just when and where I saw him, but early
after his return to Cambridge I had a message from him asking me to come
to a meeting of the Dante Club at Craigie House.

Longfellow was that winter (1866-7) revising his translation of the
'Paradiso', and the Dante Club was the circle of Italianate friends and
scholars whom he invited to follow him and criticise his work from the
original, while he read his version aloud. Those who were most
constantly present were Lowell and Professor Norton, but from time to
time others came in, and we seldom sat down at the nine-o'clock supper
that followed the reading of the canto in less number than ten or twelve.

The criticism, especially from the accomplished Danteists I have named,
was frank and frequent. I believe they neither of them quite agreed with
Longfellow as to the form of version he had chosen, but, waiving that,
the question was how perfectly he had done his work upon the given lines:
I myself, with whatever right, great or little, I may have to an opinion,
believe thoroughly in Longfellow's plan. When I read his version my
sense aches for the rhyme which he rejected, but my admiration for his
fidelity to Dante otherwise is immeasurable. I remember with equal
admiration the subtle and sympathetic scholarship of his critics, who
scrutinized every shade of meaning in a word or phrase that gave them
pause, and did not let it pass till all the reasons and facts had been
considered. Sometimes, and even often, Longfellow yielded to their
censure, but for the most part, when he was of another mind, he held to
his mind, and the passage had to go as he said. I make a little haste to
say that in all the meetings of the Club, during a whole winter of
Wednesday evenings, I myself, though I faithfully followed in an Italian
Dante with the rest, ventured upon one suggestion only. This was kindly,
even seriously, considered by the poet, and gently rejected. He could
not do anything otherwise than gently, and I was not suffered to feel
that I had done a presumptuous thing. I can see him now, as he looked up
from the proof-sheets on the round table before him, and over at me,
growing consciously smaller and smaller, like something through a
reversed opera-glass. He had a shaded drop-light in front of him, and in
its glow his beautiful and benignly noble head had a dignity peculiar to

All the portraits of Longfellow are likenesses more or less bad and good,
for there was something as simple in the physiognomy as in the nature of
the man. His head, after he allowed his beard to grow and wore his hair
long in the manner of elderly men, was leonine, but mildly leonine, as
the old painters conceived the lion of St. Mark. Once Sophocles, the ex-
monk of Mount Athos, so long a Greek professor at Harvard, came in for
supper, after the reading was over, and he was leonine too, but of a
fierceness that contrasted finely with Longfellow's mildness. I remember
the poet's asking him something about the punishment of impaling, in
Turkey, and his answering, with an ironical gleam of his fiery eyes,
"Unhappily, it is obsolete." I dare say he was not so leonine, either,
as he looked.

When Longfellow read verse, it was with a hollow, with a mellow resonant
murmur, like the note of some deep-throated horn. His voice was very
lulling in quality, and at the Dante Club it used to have early effect
with an old scholar who sat in a cavernous armchair at the corner of the
fire, and who drowsed audibly in the soft tone and the gentle heat. The
poet had a fat terrier who wished always to be present at the meetings of
the Club, and he commonly fell asleep at the same moment with that dear
old scholar, so that when they began to make themselves heard in concert,
one could not tell which it was that most took our thoughts from the text
of the Paradiso. When the duet opened, Longfellow would look up with an
arch recognition of the fact, and then go gravely on to the end of the
canto. At the close he would speak to his friend and lead him out to
supper as if he had not seen or heard anything amiss.


In that elect company I was silent, partly because I was conscious of my
youthful inadequacy, and partly because I preferred to listen. But
Longfellow always behaved as if I were saying a succession of edifying
and delightful things, and from time to time he addressed himself to me,
so that I should not feel left out. He did not talk much himself, and I
recall nothing that he said. But he always spoke both wisely and simply,
without the least touch of pose, and with no intention of effect, but
with something that I must call quality for want of a better word; so
that at a table where Holmes sparkled, and Lowell glowed, and Agassiz
beamed, he cast the light of a gentle gaiety, which seemed to dim all
these vivider luminaries. While he spoke you did not miss Fields's story
or Tom Appleton's wit, or even the gracious amity of Mr. Norton, with his
unequalled intuitions.

The supper was very plain: a cold turkey, which the host carved, or a
haunch of venison, or some braces of grouse, or a platter of quails, with
a deep bowl of salad, and the sympathetic companionship of those elect
vintages which Longfellow loved, and which he chose with the inspiration
of affection. We usually began with oysters, and when some one who was
expected did not come promptly, Longfellow invited us to raid his plate,
as a just punishment of his delay. One evening Lowell remarked, with the
cayenne poised above his bluepoints, "It's astonishing how fond these
fellows are of pepper."

The old friend of the cavernous arm-chair was perhaps not wide enough
awake to repress an "Ah?" of deep interest in this fact of natural
history, and Lowell was provoked to go on. "Yes, I've dropped a red
pepper pod into a barrel of them, before now, and then taken them out in
a solid mass, clinging to it like a swarm of bees to their queen."

"Is it possible?" cried the old friend; and then Longfellow intervened to
save him from worse, and turned the talk.

I reproach myself that I made no record of the talk, for I find that only
a few fragments of it have caught in my memory, and that the sieve which
should have kept the gold has let it wash away with the gravel.
I remember once Doctor Holmes's talking of the physician as the true
seer, whose awful gift it was to behold with the fatal second sight of
science the shroud gathering to the throat of many a doomed man
apparently in perfect health, and happy in the promise of unnumbered
days. The thought may have been suggested by some of the toys of
superstition which intellectual people like to play with.

I never could be quite sure at first that Longfellow's brother-in-law,
Appleton, was seriously a spiritualist, even when he disputed the most
strenuously with the unbelieving Autocrat. But he really was in earnest
about it, though he relished a joke at the expense of his doctrine, like
some clerics when they are in the safe company of other clerics. He told
me once of having recounted to Agassiz the facts of a very remarkable
seance, where the souls of the departed outdid themselves in the
athletics and acrobatics they seem so fond of over there, throwing large
stones across the room, moving pianos, and lifting dinner-tables and
setting them a-twirl under the chandelier. "And now," he demanded, "what
do you say to that?" "Well, Mr. Appleton," Agassiz answered, to
Appleton's infinite delight, "I say that it did not happen."

One night they began to speak at the Dante supper of the unhappy man
whose crime is a red stain in the Cambridge annals, and one and another
recalled their impressions of Professor Webster. It was possibly with a
retroactive sense that they had all felt something uncanny in him, but,
apropos of the deep salad-bowl in the centre of the table, Longfellow
remembered a supper Webster was at, where he lighted some chemical in
such a dish and held his head over it, with a handkerchief noosed about
his throat and lifted above it with one hand, while his face, in the pale
light, took on the livid ghastliness of that of a man hanged by the neck.

Another night the talk wandered to the visit which an English author (now
with God) paid America at the height of a popularity long since toppled
to the ground, with many another. He was in very good humor with our
whole continent, and at Longfellow's table he found the champagne even
surprisingly fine. "But," he said to his host, who now told the story,
"it cawn't be genuine, you know!"

Many years afterwards this author revisited our shores, and I dined with
him at Longfellow's, where he was anxious to constitute himself a guest
during his sojourn in our neighborhood. Longfellow was equally anxious
that he should not do so, and he took a harmless pleasure in out-
manoeuvring him. He seized a chance to speak with me alone, and plotted
to deliver him over to me without apparent unkindness, when the latest
horse-car should be going in to Boston, and begged me to walk him to
Harvard Square and put him aboard. "Put him aboard, and don't leave him
till the car starts, and then watch that he doesn't get off."

These instructions he accompanied with a lifting of the eyebrows, and a
pursing of the mouth, in an anxiety not altogether burlesque. He knew
himself the prey of any one who chose to batten on him, and his
hospitality was subject to frightful abuse. Perhaps Mr. Norton has
somewhere told how, when he asked if a certain person who had been
outstaying his time was not a dreadful bore, Longfellow answered, with
angelic patience, "Yes; but then you know I have been bored so often!"

There was one fatal Englishman whom I shared with him during the great
part of a season: a poor soul, not without gifts, but always ready for
more, especially if they took the form of meat and drink. He had brought
letters from one of the best English men alive, who withdrew them too
late to save his American friends from the sad consequences of welcoming
him. So he established himself impregnably in a Boston club, and came
out every day to dine with Longfellow in Cambridge, beginning with his
return from Nahant in October and continuing far into December. That was
the year of the great horse-distemper, when the plague disabled the
transportation in Boston, and cut off all intercourse between the suburb
and the city on the street railways. "I did think," Longfellow
pathetically lamented, "that when the horse-cars stopped running, I
should have a little respite from L., but he walks out."

In the midst of his own suffering he was willing to advise with me
concerning some poems L. had offered to the Atlantic Monthly, and after
we had desperately read them together he said, with inspiration, "I think
these things are more adapted to music than the magazine," and this
seemed so good a notion that when L. came to know their fate from me,
I answered, confidently, "I think they are rather more adapted to music."
He calmly asked, "Why?" and as this was an exigency which Longfellow had
not forecast for me, I was caught in it without hope of escape. I really
do not know what I said, but I know that I did not take the poems, such
was my literary conscience in those days; I am afraid I should be weaker


The suppers of the Dante Club were a relaxation from the severity of
their toils on criticism, and I will not pretend that their table-talk
was of that seriousness which duller wits might have given themselves up
to. The passing stranger, especially if a light or jovial person, was
always welcome, and I never knew of the enforcement of the rule I heard
of, that if you came in without question on the Club nights, you were a
guest; but if you rang or knocked, you could not get in.

Any sort of diversion was hailed, and once Appleton proposed that
Longfellow should show us his wine-cellar. He took up the candle burning
on the table for the cigars, and led the way into the basement of the
beautiful old Colonial mansion, doubly memorable as Washington's
headquarters while he was in Cambridge, and as the home of Longfellow for
so many years. The taper cast just the right gleams on the darkness,
bringing into relief the massive piers of brick, and the solid walls of
stone, which gave the cellar the effect of a casemate in some fortress,
and leaving the corners and distances to a romantic gloom. This basement
was a work of the days when men built more heavily if not more
substantially than now, but I forget, if I ever knew, what date the wine-
cellar was of. It was well stored with precious vintages, aptly
cobwebbed and dusty; but I could not find that it had any more charm than
the shelves of a library: it is the inside of bottles and of books that
makes its appeal. The whole place witnessed a bygone state and luxury,
which otherwise lingered in a dim legend or two. Longfellow once spoke
of certain old love-letters which dropped down on the basement stairs
from some place overhead; and there was the fable or the fact of a
subterranean passage under the street from Craigie House to the old
Batchelder House, which I relate to these letters with no authority I can
allege. But in Craigie House dwelt the proud fair lady who was buried in
the Cambridge church-yard with a slave at her head and a slave at her

"Dust is in her beautiful eyes,"

and whether it was they that smiled or wept in their time over those
love-letters, I will leave the reader to say. The fortunes of her Tory
family fell with those of their party, and the last Vassal ended his days
a prisoner from his creditors in his own house, with a weekly enlargement
on Sundays, when the law could not reach him. It is known how the place
took Longfellow's fancy when he first came to be professor in Harvard,
and how he was a lodger of the last Mistress Craigie there, long before
he became its owner. The house is square, with Longfellow's study where
he read and wrote on the right of the door, and a statelier library
behind it; on the left is the drawing-room, with the dining-room in its
rear; from its square hall climbs a beautiful stairway with twisted
banisters, and a tall clock in their angle.

The study where the Dante Club met, and where I mostly saw Longfellow,
was a plain, pleasant room, with broad panelling in white painted pine;
in the centre before the fireplace stood his round table, laden with
books, papers, and proofs; in the farthest corner by the window was a
high desk which he sometimes stood at to write. In this room Washington
held his councils and transacted his business with all comers; in the
chamber overhead he slept. I do not think Longfellow associated the
place much with him, and I never heard him speak of Washington in
relation to it except once, when he told me with peculiar relish what he
called the true version of a pious story concerning the aide-de-camp who
blundered in upon him while he knelt in prayer. The father of his
country rose and rebuked the young man severely, and then resumed his
devotions. "He rebuked him," said Longfellow, lifting his brows and
making rings round the pupils of his eyes, "by throwing his scabbard at
his head."

All the front windows of Craigie House look, out over the open fields
across the Charles, which is now the Longfellow Memorial Garden. The
poet used to be amused with the popular superstition that he was holding
this vacant ground with a view to a rise in the price of lots, while all
he wanted was to keep a feature of his beloved landscape unchanged.
Lofty elms drooped at the corners of the house; on the lawn billowed
clumps of the lilac, which formed a thick hedge along the fence. There
was a terrace part way down this lawn, and when a white-painted
balustrade was set some fifteen years ago upon its brink, it seemed
always to have been there. Long verandas stretched on either side of the
mansion; and behind was an old-fashioned garden with beds primly edged
with box after a design of the poet's own. Longfellow had a ghost story
of this quaint plaisance, which he used to tell with an artful reserve of
the catastrophe. He was coming home one winter night, and as he crossed
the garden he was startled by a white figure swaying before him. But he
knew that the only way was to advance upon it. He pushed boldly forward,
and was suddenly caught under the throat-by the clothes-line with a long
night-gown on it.

Perhaps it was at the end of a long night of the Dante Club that I heard
him tell this story. The evenings were sometimes mornings before the
reluctant break-up came, but they were never half long enough for me.
I have given no idea of the high reasoning of vital things which I must
often have heard at that table, and that I have forgotten it is no proof
that I did not hear it. The memory will not be ruled as to what it shall
bind and what it shall loose, and I should entreat mine in vain for
record of those meetings other than what I have given. Perhaps it would
be well, in the interest of some popular conceptions of what the social
intercourse of great wits must be, for me to invent some ennobling and
elevating passages of conversation at Longfellow's; perhaps I ought to do
it for the sake of my own repute as a serious and adequate witness. But
I am rather helpless in the matter; I must set down what I remember, and
surely if I can remember no phrase from Holmes that a reader could live
or die by, it is something to recall how, when a certain potent cheese
was passing, he leaned over to gaze at it, and asked: "Does it kick?
Does it kick?" No strain of high poetic thinking remains to me from
Lowell, but he made me laugh unforgettably with his passive adventure one
night going home late, when a man suddenly leaped from the top of a high
fence upon the sidewalk at his feet, and after giving him the worst
fright of his life, disappeared peaceably into the darkness. To be sure,
there was one most memorable supper, when he read the "Bigelow Paper"
he had finished that day, and enriched the meaning of his verse with the
beauty of his voice. There lingers yet in my sense his very tone in
giving the last line of the passage lamenting the waste of the heroic
lives which in those dark hours of Johnson's time seemed to have been

"Butchered to make a blind man's holiday."

The hush that followed upon his ceasing was of that finest quality which
spoken praise always lacks; and I suppose that I could not give a just
notion of these Dante Club evenings without imparting the effect of such
silences. This I could not hopefully undertake to do; but I am tempted
to some effort of the kind by my remembrance of Longfellow's old friend
George Washington Greene, who often came up from his home in Rhode
Island, to be at those sessions, and who was a most interesting and
amiable fact of those delicate silences. A full half of his earlier life
had been passed in Italy, where he and Longfellow met and loved each
other in their youth with an affection which the poet was constant to in
his age, after many vicissitudes, with the beautiful fidelity of his
nature. Greene was like an old Italian house-priest in manner, gentle,
suave, very suave, smooth as creamy curds, cultivated in the elegancies
of literary taste, and with a certain meek abeyance. I think I never
heard him speak, in all those evenings, except when Longfellow addressed
him, though he must have had the Dante scholarship for an occasional
criticism. It was at more recent dinners, where I met him with the
Longfellow family alone, that he broke now and then into a quotation from
some of the modern Italian poets he knew by heart (preferably Giusti),
and syllabled their verse with an exquisite Roman accent and a bewitching
Florentine rhythm. Now and then at these times he brought out a faded
Italian anecdote, faintly smelling of civet, and threadbare in its
ancient texture. He liked to speak of Goldoni and of Nota, of Niccolini
and Manzoni, of Monti and Leopardi; and if you came to America, of the
Revolution and his grandfather, the Quaker General Nathaniel Greene,
whose life he wrote (and I read) in three volumes: He worshipped
Longfellow, and their friendship continued while they lived, but towards
the last of his visits at Craigie House it had a pathos for the witness
which I should grieve to wrong. Greene was then a quivering paralytic,
and he clung tremulously to Longfellow's arm in going out to dinner,
where even the modern Italian poets were silent upon his lips. When we
rose from table, Longfellow lifted him out of his chair, and took him
upon his arm again for their return to the study.

He was of lighter metal than most other members of the Dante Club, and he
was not of their immediate intimacy, living away from Cambridge, as he
did, and I shared his silence in their presence with full sympathy.
I was by far the youngest of their number, and I cannot yet quite make
out why I was of it at all. But at every moment I was as sensible of my
good fortune as of my ill desert. They were the men whom of all men
living I most honored, and it seemed to be impossible that I at my age
should be so perfectly fulfilling the dream of my life in their company.
Often, the nights were very cold, and as I returned home from Craigie
House to the carpenter's box on Sacramento Street, a mile or two away,
I was as if soul-borne through the air by my pride and joy, while the
frozen blocks of snow clinked and tinkled before my feet stumbling along
the middle of the road. I still think that was the richest moment of my
life, and I look back at it as the moment, in a life not unblessed by
chance, which I would most like to live over again--if I must live any.
The next winter the sessions of the Dante Club were transferred to the
house of Mr. Norton, who was then completing his version of the 'Vita
Nuova'. This has always seemed to me a work of not less graceful art
than Longfellow's translation of the 'Commedia'. In fact, it joins the
effect of a sympathy almost mounting to divination with a patient
scholarship and a delicate skill unknown to me elsewhere in such work.
I do not know whether Mr. Norton has satisfied himself better in his
prose version of the 'Commedia' than in this of the 'Vita Nuova', but I
do not believe he could have satisfied Dante better, unless he had rhymed
his sonnets and canzonets. I am sure he might have done this if he had
chosen. He has always pretended that it was impossible, but miracles are
never impossible in the right hands.


After three or four years we sold the carpenter's box on Sacramento
Street, and removed to a larger house near Harvard Square, and in the
immediate neighborhood of Longfellow. He gave me an easement across that
old garden behind his house, through an opening in the high board fence
which enclosed it, and I saw him oftener than ever, though the meetings
of the Dante Club had come to an end. At the last of them, Lowell had
asked him, with fond regret in his jest, "Longfellow, why don't you do
that Indian poem in forty thousand verses?" The demand but feebly
expressed the reluctance in us all, though I suspect the Indian poem
existed only by the challenger's invention. Before I leave my faint and
unworthy record of these great times I am tempted to mention an incident
poignant with tragical associations. The first night after Christmas the
holly and the pine wreathed about the chandelier above the supper-table
took fire from the gas, just as we came out from the reading, and
Longfellow ran forward and caught the burning garlands down and bore them
out. No one could speak for thinking what he must be thinking of when
the ineffable calamity of his home befell it. Curtis once told me that a
little while before Mrs. Longfellow's death he was driving by Craigie
House with Holmes, who said be trembled to look at it, for those who
lived there had their happiness so perfect that no change, of all the
changes which must come to them, could fail to be for the worse.
I did not know Longfellow before that fatal time, and I shall not say
that his presence bore record of it except in my fancy. He may always
have had that look of one who had experienced the utmost harm that fate
can do, and henceforth could possess himself of what was left of life in
peace. He could never have been a man of the flowing ease that makes all
comers at home; some people complained of a certain 'gene' in him; and he
had a reserve with strangers, which never quite lost itself in the
abandon of friendship, as Lowell's did. He was the most perfectly modest
man I ever saw, ever imagined, but he had a gentle dignity which I do not
believe any one, the coarsest, the obtusest, could trespass upon. In the
years when I began to know him, his long hair and the beautiful beard
which mixed with it were of one iron-gray, which I saw blanch to a
perfect silver, while that pearly tone of his complexion, which Appleton
so admired, lost itself in the wanness of age and pain. When he walked,
he had a kind of spring in his gait, as if now and again a buoyant
thought lifted him from the ground. It was fine to meet him coming down
a Cambridge street; you felt that the encounter made you a part of
literary history, and set you apart with him for the moment from the poor
and mean. When he appeared in Harvard Square, he beatified if not
beautified the ugliest and vulgarest looking spot on the planet outside
of New York. You could meet him sometimes at the market, if you were of
the same provision-man as he; and Longfellow remained as constant to his
tradespeople as to any other friends. He rather liked to bring his
proofs back to the printer's himself, and we often found ourselves
together at the University Press, where the Atlantic Monthly used to be
printed. But outside of his own house Longfellow seemed to want a fit
atmosphere, and I love best to think of him in his study, where he
wrought at his lovely art with a serenity expressed in his smooth,
regular, and scrupulously perfect handwriting. It was quite vertical,
and rounded, with a slope neither to the right nor left, and at the time
I knew him first, he was fond of using a soft pencil on printing paper,
though commonly he wrote with a quill. Each letter was distinct in
shape, and between the verses was always the exact space of half an inch.
I have a good many of his poems written in this fashion, but whether they
were the first drafts or not I cannot say; very likely not. Towards the
last he no longer sent his poems to the magazines in his own hand; but
they were always signed in autograph.

I once asked him if he were not a great deal interrupted, and he said,
with a faint sigh, Not more than was good for him, he fancied; if it were
not for the interruptions, he might overwork. He was not a friend to
stated exercise, I believe, nor fond of walking, as Lowell was; he had
not, indeed, the childish associations of the younger poet with the
Cambridge neighborhoods; and I never saw him walking for pleasure except
on the east veranda of his house, though I was told he loved walking in
his youth. In this and in some other things Longfellow was more European
than American, more Latin than Saxon. He once said quaintly that one got
a great deal of exercise in putting on and off one's overcoat and

I suppose no one who asked decently at his door was denied access to him,
and there must have been times when he was overrun with volunteer
visitors; but I never heard him complain of them. He was very charitable
in the immediate sort which Christ seems to have meant; but he had his
preferences; humorously owned, among beggars. He liked the German
beggars least, and the Italian beggars most, as having most savair-faire;
in fact, we all loved the Italians in Cambridge. He was pleased with the
accounts I could give him of the love and honor I had known for him in
Italy, and one day there came a letter from an Italian admirer, addressed
to "Mr. Greatest Poet Longfellow," which he said was the very most
amusing superscription he had ever seen.

It is known that the King of Italy offered Longfellow the cross of San
Lazzaro, which is the Italian literary decoration. It came through the
good offices of my old acquaintance Professor Messadaglia, then a deputy
in the Italian Parliament, whom, for some reason I cannot remember, I had
put in correspondence with Longfellow. The honor was wholly unexpected,
and it brought Longfellow a distress which was chiefly for the gentleman
who had procured him the impossible distinction. He showed me the pretty
collar and cross, not, I think, without a natural pleasure in it. No man
was ever less a bigot in things civil or religious than he, but he said,
firmly, "Of course, as a republican and a Protestant, I can't accept a
decoration from a Catholic prince." His decision was from his
conscience, and I think that all Americans who think duly about it will
approve his decision.


Such honors as he could fitly permit himself he did not refuse, and I
recall what zest he had in his election to the Arcadian Academy, which
had made him a shepherd of its Roman Fold, with the title, as he said, of
"Olimipico something." But I fancy his sweetest pleasure in his vast
renown came from his popular recognition everywhere. Few were the lands,
few the languages he was unknown to: he showed me a version of the "Psalm
of Life" in Chinese. Apparently even the poor lost autograph-seeker was
not denied by his universal kindness; I know that he kept a store of
autographs ready written on small squares of paper for all who applied by
letter or in person; he said it was no trouble; but perhaps he was to be
excused for refusing the request of a lady for fifty autographs, which
she wished to offer as a novel attraction to her guests at a lunch party.

Foreigners of all kinds thronged upon him at their pleasure, apparently,
and with perfect impunity. Sometimes he got a little fun, very, very
kindly, out of their excuses and reasons; and the Englishman who came to
see him because there were no ruins to visit in America was no fable, as
I can testify from the poet himself. But he had no prejudice against
Englishmen, and even at a certain time when the coarse-handed British
criticism began to blame his delicate art for the universal acceptance of
his verse, and to try to sneer him into the rank of inferior poets, he
was without rancor for the clumsy misliking that he felt. He could not
understand rudeness; he was too finely framed for that; he could know it
only as Swedenborg's most celestial angels perceived evil, as something
distressful, angular. The ill-will that seemed nearly always to go with
adverse criticism made him distrust criticism, and the discomfort which
mistaken or blundering praise gives probably made him shy of all
criticism. He said that in his early life as an author he used to seek
out and save all the notices of his poems, but in his latter days he read
only those that happened to fall in his way; these he cut out and amused
his leisure by putting together in scrapbooks. He was reluctant to make
any criticism of other poets; I do not remember ever to have heard him
make one; and his writings show no trace of the literary dislikes or
contempts which we so often mistake in ourselves for righteous judgments.
No doubt he had his resentments, but he hushed them in his heart, which
he did not suffer them to embitter. While Poe was writing of "Longfellow
and other Plagiarists," Longfellow was helping to keep Poe alive by the
loans which always made themselves gifts in Poe's case. He very, very
rarely spoke of himself at all, and almost never of the grievances which
he did not fail to share with all who live.

He was patient, as I said, of all things, and gentle beyond all mere


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