The establishment of our paper in the village where there had been none before, and its enlargement from four to eight pages, were events so filling that they left little room for any other excitement but that of getting acquainted with the young people of the village, and going to parties, and sleigh rides, and walks, and drives, and picnics, and dances, and all the other pleasures in which that community seemed to indulge beyond any other we had known. The village was smaller than the one we had just left, but it was by no means less lively, and I think that for its size and time and place it had an uncommon share of what has since been called culture. The intellectual experience of the people was mainly theological and political, as it was everywhere in that day, but there were several among them who had a real love for books, and when they met at the druggist's, as they did every night, to dispute of the inspiration of the Scriptures and the principles of the Free Soil party, the talk sometimes turned upon the respective merits of Dickens and Thackeray, Gibbon and Macaulay, Wordsworth and Byron. There were law students who read "Noctes Ambrosianae," the 'Age of Reason', and Bailey's "Festus," as well as Blackstone's 'Commentaries;' and there was a public library in that village of six hundred people, small but very well selected, which was kept in one of the lawyers' offices, and was free to all. It seems to me now that the people met there oftener than they do in most country places, and rubbed their wits together more, but this may be one of those pleasing illusions of memory which men in later life are subject to.
I insist upon nothing, but certainly the air was friendlier to the tastes I had formed than any I had yet known, and I found a wider if not deeper sympathy with them. There was one of our printers who liked books, and we went through 'Don Quixote' together again, and through the 'Conquest of Granada', and we began to read other things of Irving's. There was a very good little stock of books at the village drugstore, and among those that began to come into my hands were the poems of Dr. Holmes, stray volumes of De Quincey, and here and there minor works of Thackeray. I believe I had no money to buy them, but there was an open account, or a comity, between the printer and the bookseller, and I must have been allowed a certain discretion in regard to getting books.
Still I do not think I went far in the more modern authors, or gave my heart to any of them. Suddenly, it was now given to Shakespeare, without notice or reason, that I can recall, except that my friend liked him too, and that we found it a double pleasure to read him together. Printers in the old-time offices were always spouting Shakespeare more or less, and I suppose I could not have kept away from him much longer in the nature of things. I cannot fix the time or place when my friend and I began to read him, but it was in the fine print of that unhallowed edition of ours, and presently we had great lengths of him by heart, out of "Hamlet," out of "The Tempest," out of "Macbeth," out of "Richard III.," out of "Midsummer-Night's Dream," out of the "Comedy of Errors," out of "Julius Caesar," out of "Measure for Measure," out of "Romeo and Juliet," out of "Two Gentlemen of Verona."
These were the plays that we loved, and must have read in common, or at least at the same time: but others that I more especially liked were the Histories, and among them particularly were the Henrys, where Falstaff appeared. This gross and palpable reprobate greatly took my fancy. I delighted in him immensely, and in his comrades, Pistol, and Bardolph, and Nym. I could not read of his death without emotion, and it was a personal pang to me when the prince, crowned king, denied him: blackguard for blackguard, I still think the prince the worse blackguard. Perhaps I flatter myself, but I believe that even then, as a boy of sixteen, I fully conceived of Falstaff's character, and entered into the author's wonderfully humorous conception of him. There is no such perfect conception of the selfish sensualist in literature, and the conception is all the more perfect because of the wit that lights up the vice of Falstaff, a cold light without tenderness, for he was not a good fellow, though a merry companion. I am not sure but I should put him beside Hamlet, and on the name level, for the merit of his artistic completeness, and at one time I much preferred him, or at least his humor.
As to Falstaff personally, or his like, I was rather fastidious, and would not have made friends with him in the flesh, much or little. I revelled in all his appearances in the Histories, and I tried to be as happy where a factitious and perfunctory Falstaff comes to life again in the "Merry Wives of Windsor," though at the bottom of my heart I felt the difference. I began to make my imitations of Shakespeare, and I wrote 57 out passages where Falstaff and Pistol and Bardolph talked together, in that Ercles vein which is so easily caught. This was after a year or two of the irregular and interrupted acquaintance with the author which has been my mode of friendship with all the authors I have loved. My worship of Shakespeare went to heights and lengths that it had reached with no earlier idol, and there was a supreme moment, once, when I found myself saying that the creation of Shakespeare was as great as the creation of a planet.
There ought certainly to be some bound beyond which the cult of favorite authors should not be suffered to go. I should keep well within the limit of that early excess now, and should not liken the creation of Shakespeare to the creation of any heavenly body bigger, say, than one of the nameless asteroids that revolve between Mars and Jupiter. Even this I do not feel to be a true means of comparison, and I think that in the case of all great men we like to let our wonder mount and mount, till it leaves the truth behind, and honesty is pretty much cast out as ballast. A wise criticism will no more magnify Shakespeare because he is already great than it will magnify any less man. But we are loaded down with the responsibility of finding him all we have been told he is, and we must do this or suspect ourselves of a want of taste, a want of sensibility. At the same time, we may really be honester than those who have led us to expect this or that of him, and more truly his friends. I wish the time might come when we could read Shakespeare, and Dante, and Homer, as sincerely and as fairly as we read any new book by the least known of our contemporaries. The course of criticism is towards this, but when I began to read Shakespeare I should not have ventured to think that he was not at every moment great. I should no more have thought of questioning the poetry of any passage in him than of questioning the proofs of holy writ. All the same, I knew very well that much which I read was really poor stuff, and the persons and positions were often preposterous. It is a great pity that the ardent youth should not be permitted and even encouraged to say this to himself, instead of falling slavishly before a great author and accepting him at all points as infallible. Shakespeare is fine enough and great enough when all the possible detractions are made, and I have no fear of saying now that he would be finer and greater for the loss of half his work, though if I had heard any one say such a thing then I should have held him as little better than one of the wicked.
Upon the whole it was well that I had not found my way to Shakespeare earlier, though it is rather strange that I had not. I knew him on the stage in most of the plays that used to be given. I had shared the conscience of Macbeth, the passion of Othello, the doubt of Hamlet; many times, in my natural affinity for villains, I had mocked and suffered with Richard III.
Probably no dramatist ever needed the stage less, and none ever brought more to it. There have been few joys for me in life comparable to that of seeing the curtain rise on "Hamlet," and hearing the guards begin to talk about the ghost; and yet how fully this joy imparts itself without any material embodiment! It is the same in the whole range of his plays: they fill the scene, but if there is no scene they fill the soul. They are neither worse nor better because of the theatre. They are so great that it cannot hamper them; they are so vital that they enlarge it to their own proportions and endue it with something of their own living force. They make it the size of life, and yet they retire it so wholly that you think no more of it than you think of the physiognomy of one who talks importantly to you. I have heard people say that they would rather not see Shakespeare played than to see him played ill, but I cannot agree with them. He can better afford to be played ill than any other man that ever wrote. Whoever is on the stage, it is always Shakespeare who is speaking to me, and perhaps this is the reason why in the past I can trace no discrepancy between reading his plays and seeing them.
The effect is so equal from either experience that I am not sure as to some plays whether I read them or saw them first, though as to most of them I am aware that I never saw them at all; and if the whole truth must be told there is still one of his plays that I have not read, and I believe it is esteemed one of his greatest. There are several, with all my reading of others, that I had not read till within a few years; and I do not think I should have lost much if I, had never read "Pericles" and "Winter's Tale."
In those early days I had no philosophized preference for reality in literature, and I dare say if I had been asked, I should have said that the plays of Shakespeare where reality is least felt were the most imaginative; that is the belief of the puerile critics still; but I suppose it was my instinctive liking for reality that made the great Histories so delightful to me, and that rendered "Macbeth" and "Hamlet" vital in their very ghosts and witches. There I found a world appreciable to experience, a world inexpressibly vaster and grander than the poor little affair that I had only known a small obscure corner of, and yet of one quality with it, so that I could be as much at home and citizen in it as where I actually lived. There I found joy and sorrow mixed, and nothing abstract or typical, but everything standing for itself, and not for some other thing. Then, I suppose it was the interfusion of humor through so much of it, that made it all precious and friendly. I think I had a native love of laughing, which was fostered in me by my father's way of looking at life, and had certainly been flattered by my intimacy with Cervantes; but whether this was so or not, I know that I liked best and felt deepest those plays and passages in Shakespeare where the alliance of the tragic and the comic was closest. Perhaps in a time when self-consciousness is so widespread, it is the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am sure that without it I should not have been naturalized to that world of Shakespeare's Histories, where I used to spend so much of my leisure, with such a sense of his own intimate companionship there as I had nowhere else. I felt that he must somehow like my being in the joke of it all, and that in his great heart he had room for a boy willing absolutely to lose himself in him, and be as one of his creations.
It was the time of life with me when a boy begins to be in love with the pretty faces that then peopled this world so thickly, and I did not fail to fall in love with the ladies of that Shakespeare-world where I lived equally. I cannot tell whether it was because I found them like my ideals here, or whether my ideals acquired merit because of their likeness to the realities there; they appeared to be all of one degree of enchanting loveliness; but upon the whole I must have preferred them in the plays, because it was so much easier to get on with them there; I was always much better dressed there; I was vastly handsomer; I was not bashful or afraid, and I had some defects of these advantages to contend with here.
That friend of mine, the printer whom I have mentioned, was one with me in a sense of the Shakespearean humor, and he dwelt with me in the sort of double being I had in those two worlds. We took the book into the woods at the ends of the long summer afternoons that remained to us when we had finished our work, and on the shining Sundays of the warm, late spring, the early, warm autumn, and we read it there on grassy slopes or heaps of fallen leaves; so that much of the poetry is mixed for me with a rapturous sense of the out-door beauty of this lovely natural world. We read turn about, one taking the story up as the other tired, and as we read the drama played itself under the open sky and in the free air with such orchestral effects as the soughing woods or some rippling stream afforded. It was not interrupted when a squirrel dropped a nut on us from the top of a tall hickory; and the plaint of a meadow-lark prolonged itself with unbroken sweetness from one world to the other.
But I think it takes two to read in the open air. The pressure of walls is wanted to keep the mind within itself when one reads alone; otherwise it wanders and disperses itself through nature. When my friend left us for want of work in the office, or from the vagarious impulse which is so strong in our craft, I took my Shakespeare no longer to the woods and fields, but pored upon him mostly by night, in the narrow little space which I had for my study, under the stairs at home. There was a desk pushed back against the wall, which the irregular ceiling eloped down to meet behind it, and at my left was a window, which gave a good light on the writing-leaf of my desk. This was my workshop for six or seven years, and it was not at all a bad one; I have had many since that were not so much to the purpose; and though I would not live my life over, I would willingly enough have that little study mine again. But it is gone an utterly as the faces and voices that made home around it, and that I was fierce to shut out of it, so that no sound or sight should molest me in the pursuit of the end which I sought gropingly, blindly, with very little hope, but with an intense ambition, and a courage that gave way under no burden, before no obstacle. Long ago changes were made in the low, rambling house which threw my little closet into a larger room; but this was not until after I had left it many years; and as long as I remained a part of that dear and simple home it was my place to read, to write, to muse, to dream.
I sometimes wish in these later years that I had spent less time in it, or that world of books which it opened into; that I had seen more of the actual world, and had learned to know my brethren in it better. I might so have amassed more material for after use in literature, but I had to fit myself to use it, and I suppose that this was what I was doing, in my own way, and by such light as I had. I often toiled wrongly and foolishly; but certainly I toiled, and I suppose no work is wasted. Some strength, I hope, was coming to me, even from my mistakes, and though I went over ground that I need not have traversed, if I had not been left so much to find the way alone, yet I was not standing still, and some of the things that I then wished to do I have done. I do not mind owning that in others I have failed. For instance, I have never surpassed Shakespeare as a poet, though I once firmly meant to do so; but then, it is to be remembered that very few other people have surpassed him, and that it would not have been easy.
XIV. IK MARVEL
My ardor for Shakespeare must have been at its height when I was between sixteen and seventeen years old, for I fancy when I began to formulate my admiration, and to try to measure his greatness in phrases, I was less simply impassioned than at some earlier time. At any rate, I am sure that I did not proclaim his planetary importance in creation until I was at least nineteen. But even at an earlier age I no longer worshipped at a single shrine; there were many gods in the temple of my idolatry, and I bowed the knee to them all in a devotion which, if it was not of one quality, was certainly impartial. While I was reading, and thinking, and living Shakespeare with such an intensity that I do not see how there could have been room in my consciousness for anything else, there seem to have been half a dozen other divinities there, great and small, whom I have some present difficulty in distinguishing. I kept Irving, and Goldsmith, and Cervantes on their old altars, but I added new ones, and these I translated from the contemporary: literary world quite as often as from the past. I am rather glad that among them was the gentle and kindly Ik Marvel, whose 'Reveries of a Bachelor' and whose 'Dream Life' the young people of that day were reading with a tender rapture which would not be altogether surprising, I dare say, to the young people of this. The books have survived the span of immortality fixed by our amusing copyright laws, and seem now, when any pirate publisher may plunder their author, to have a new life before them. Perhaps this is ordered by Providence, that those who have no right to them may profit by them, in that divine contempt of such profit which Providence so often shows.
I cannot understand just how I came to know of the books, but I suppose it was through the contemporary criticism which I was then beginning to read, wherever I could find it, in the magazines and newspapers; and I could not say why I thought it would be very 'comme il faut' to like them. Probably the literary fine world, which is always rubbing shoulders with the other fine world, and bringing off a little of its powder and perfume, was then dawning upon me, and I was wishing to be of it, and to like the things that it liked; I am not so anxious to do it now. But if this is true, I found the books better than their friends, and had many a heartache from their pathos, many a genuine glow of purpose from their high import, many a tender suffusion from their sentiment. I dare say I should find their pose now a little old- fashioned. I believe it was rather full of sighs, and shrugs and starts, expressed in dashes, and asterisks, and exclamations, but I am sure that the feeling was the genuine and manly sort which is of all times and always the latest wear. Whatever it was, it sufficed to win my heart, and to identify me with whatever was most romantic and most pathetic in it. I read 'Dream Life' first—though the 'Reveries of a Bachelor' was written first, and I believe is esteemed the better book—and 'Dream Life' remains first in my affections. I have now little notion what it was about, but I love its memory. The book is associated especially in my mind with one golden day of Indian summer, when I carried it into the woods with me, and abandoned myself to a welter of emotion over its page. I lay, under a crimson maple, and I remember how the light struck through it and flushed the print with the gules of the foliage. My friend was away by this time on one of his several absences in the Northwest, and I was quite alone in the absurd and irrelevant melancholy with which I read myself and my circumstances into the book. I began to read them out again in due time, clothed with the literary airs and graces that I admired in it, and for a long time I imitated Ik Marvel in the voluminous letters I wrote my friend in compliance with his Shakespearean prayer:
"To Milan let me hear from thee by letters, Of thy success in love, and what news else Betideth here in absence of thy friend; And I likewise will visit thee with mine."
Milan was then presently Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Verona was our little village; but they both served the soul of youth as well as the real places would have done, and were as really Italian as anything else in the situation was really this or that. Heaven knows what gaudy sentimental parade we made in our borrowed plumes, but if the travesty had kept itself to the written word it would have been all well enough. My misfortune was to carry it into print when I began to write a story, in the Ik Marvel manner, or rather to compose it in type at the case, for that was what I did; and it was not altogether imitated from Ik Marvel either, for I drew upon the easier art of Dickens at times, and helped myself out with bald parodies of Bleak House in many places. It was all very well at the beginning, but I had not reckoned with the future sufficiently to have started with any clear ending in my mind, and as I went on I began to find myself more and more in doubt about it. My material gave out; incidents failed me; the characters wavered and threatened to perish on my hands. To crown my misery there grew up an impatience with the story among its readers, and this found its way to me one day when I overheard an old farmer who came in for his paper say that he did not think that story amounted to much. I did not think so either, but it was deadly to have it put into words, and how I escaped the mortal effect of the stroke I do not know. Somehow I managed to bring the wretched thing to a close, and to live it slowly into the past. Slowly it seemed then, but I dare say it was fast enough; and there is always this consolation to be whispered in the ear of wounded vanity, that the world's memory is equally bad for failure and success; that if it will not keep your triumphs in mind as you think it ought, neither will it long dwell upon your defeats. But that experience was really terrible. It was like some dreadful dream one has of finding one's self in battle without the courage needed to carry one creditably through the action, or on the stage unprepared by study of the part which one is to appear in. I have hover looked at that story since, so great was the shame and anguish that I suffered from it, and yet I do not think it was badly conceived, or attempted upon lines that were mistaken. If it were not for what happened in the past I might like some time to write a story on the same lines in the future.
What I have said of Dickens reminds me that I had been reading him at the same time that I had been reading Ik Marvel; but a curious thing about the reading of my later boyhood is that the dates do not sharply detach themselves one from another. This may be so because my reading was much more multifarious than it had been earlier, or because I was reading always two or three authors at a time. I think Macaulay a little antedated Dickens in my affections, but when I came to the novels of that masterful artist (as I must call him, with a thousand reservations as to the times when he is not a master and not an artist), I did not fail to fall under his spell.
This was in a season of great depression, when I began to feel in broken health the effect of trying to burn my candle at both ends. It seemed for a while very simple and easy to come home in the middle of the afternoon, when my task at the printing-office was done, and sit down to my books in my little study, which I did not finally leave until the family were in bed; but it was not well, and it was not enough that I should like to do it. The most that can be said in defence of such a thing is that with the strong native impulse and the conditions it was inevitable. If I was to do the thing I wanted to do I was to do it in that way, and I wanted to do that thing, whatever it was, more than I wanted to do anything else, and even more than I wanted to do nothing. I cannot make out that I was fond of study, or cared for the things I was trying to do, except as a means to other things. As far as my pleasure went, or my natural bent was concerned, I would rather have been wandering through the woods with a gun on my shoulder, or lying under a tree, or reading some book that cost me no sort of effort. But there was much more than my pleasure involved; there was a hope to fulfil, an aim to achieve, and I could no more have left off trying for what I hoped and aimed at than I could have left off living, though I did not know very distinctly what either was. As I look back at the endeavor of those days much of it seems mere purblind groping, wilful and wandering. I can see that doing all by myself I was not truly a law to myself, but only a sort of helpless force.
I studied Latin because I believed that I should read the Latin authors, and I suppose I got as much of the language as most school-boys of my age, but I never read any Latin author but Cornelius Nepos. I studied Greek, and I learned so much of it as to read a chapter of the Testament, and an ode of Anacreon. Then I left it, not because I did not mean to go farther, or indeed stop short of reading all Greek literature, but because that friend of mine and I talked it over and decided that I could go on with Greek any time, but I had better for the present study German, with the help of a German who had come to the village. Apparently I was carrying forward an attack on French at the same time, for I distinctly recall my failure to enlist with me an old gentleman who had once lived a long time in France, and whom I hoped to get at least an accent from. Perhaps because he knew he had no accent worth speaking of, or perhaps because he did not want the bother of imparting it, he never would keep any of the engagements he made with me, and when we did meet he so abounded in excuses and subterfuges that he finally escaped me, and I was left to acquire an Italian accent of French in Venice seven or eight years later. At the same time I was reading Spanish, more or less, but neither wisely nor too well. Having had so little help in my studies, I had a stupid pride in refusing all, even such as I might have availed myself of, without shame, in books, and I would not read any Spanish author with English notes. I would have him in an edition wholly Spanish from beginning to end, and I would fight my way through him single-handed, with only such aid as I must borrow from a lexicon.
I now call this stupid, but I have really no more right to blame the boy who was once I than I have to praise him, and I am certainly not going to do that. In his day and place he did what he could in his own way; he had no true perspective of life, but I do not know that youth ever has that. Some strength came to him finally from the mere struggle, undirected and misdirected as it often was, and such mental fibre as he had was toughened by the prolonged stress. It could be said, of course, that the time apparently wasted in these effectless studies could have been well spent in deepening and widening a knowledge of English literature never yet too great, and I have often said this myself; but then, again, I am not sure that the studies were altogether effectless. I have sometimes thought that greater skill had come to my hand from them than it would have had without, and I have trusted that in making known to me the sources of so much English, my little Latin and less Greek have enabled me to use my own speech with a subtler sense of it than I should have had otherwise.
But I will by no means insist upon my conjecture. What is certain is that for the present my studies, without method and without stint, began to tell upon my health, and that my nerves gave way in all manner of hypochondriacal fears. These finally resolved themselves into one, incessant, inexorable, which I could escape only through bodily fatigue, or through some absorbing interest that took me out of myself altogether and filled my morbid mind with the images of another's creation.
In this mood I first read Dickens, whom I had known before in the reading I had listened to. But now I devoured his books one after another as fast as I could read them. I plunged from the heart of one to another, so as to leave myself no chance for the horrors that beset me. Some of them remain associated with the gloom and misery of that time, so that when I take them up they bring back its dreadful shadow. But I have since read them all more than once, and I have had my time of thinking Dickens, talking Dickens, and writing Dickens, as we all had who lived in the days of the mighty magician. I fancy the readers who have come to him since he ceased to fill the world with his influence can have little notion how great it was. In that time he colored the parlance of the English-speaking race, and formed upon himself every minor talent attempting fiction. While his glamour lasted it was no more possible for a young novelist to escape writing Dickens than it was for a young poet to escape writing Tennyson. I admired other authors more; I loved them more, but when it came to a question of trying to do something in fiction I was compelled, as by a law of nature, to do it at least partially in his way.
All the while that he held me so fast by his potent charm I was aware that it was a very rough magic now and again, but I could not assert my sense of this against him in matters of character and structure. To these I gave in helplessly; their very grotesqueness was proof of their divine origin, and I bowed to the crudest manifestations of his genius in these kinds as if they were revelations not to be doubted without sacrilege. But in certain small matters, as it were of ritual, I suffered myself to think, and I remember boldly speaking my mind about his style, which I thought bad.
I spoke it even to the quaint character whom I borrowed his books from, and who might almost have come out of his books. He lived in Dickens in a measure that I have never known another to do, and my contumely must have brought him a pang that was truly a personal grief. He forgave it, no doubt because I bowed in the Dickens worship without question on all other points. He was then a man well on towards fifty, and he had come to America early in life, and had lived in our village many years, without casting one of his English prejudices, or ceasing to be of a contrary opinion on every question, political, religious and social. He had no fixed belief, but he went to the service of his church whenever it was held among us, and he revered the Book of Common Prayer while he disputed the authority of the Bible with all comers. He had become a citizen, but he despised democracy, and achieved a hardy consistency only by voting with the pro-slavery party upon all measures friendly to the institution which he considered the scandal and reproach of the American name. From a heart tender to all, he liked to say wanton, savage and cynical things, but he bore no malice if you gainsaid him. I know nothing of his origin, except the fact of his being an Englishman, or what his first calling had been; but he had evolved among us from a house-painter to an organ-builder, and he had a passionate love of music. He built his organs from the ground up, and made every part of them with his own hands; I believe they were very good, and at any rate the churches in the country about took them from him as fast as he could make them. He had one in his own house, and it was fine to see him as he sat before it, with his long, tremulous hands outstretched to the keys, his noble head thrown back and his sensitive face lifted in the rapture of his music. He was a rarely intelligent creature, and an artist in every fibre; and if you did not quarrel with his manifold perversities, he was a delightful companion.
After my friend went away I fell much to him for society, and we took long, rambling walks together, or sat on the stoop before his door, or lounged over the books in the drug-store, and talked evermore of literature. He must have been nearly three times my age, but that did not matter; we met in the equality of the ideal world where there is neither old nor young, any more than there is rich or poor. He had read a great deal, but of all he had read he liked Dickens best, and was always coming back to him with affection, whenever the talk strayed. He could not make me out when I criticised the style of Dickens; and when I praised Thackeray's style to the disadvantage of Dickens's he could only accuse me of a sort of aesthetic snobbishness in my preference. Dickens, he said, was for the million, and Thackeray was for the upper ten thousand. His view amused me at the time, and yet I am not sure that it was altogether mistaken.
There is certainly a property in Thackeray that somehow flatters the reader into the belief that he is better than other people. I do not mean to say that this was why I thought him a finer writer than Dickens, but I will own that it was probably one of the reasons why I liked him better; if I appreciated him so fully as I felt, I must be of a finer porcelain than the earthen pots which were not aware of any particular difference in the various liquors poured into them. In Dickens the virtue of his social defect is that he never appeals to the principle which sniffs, in his reader. The base of his work is the whole breadth and depth of humanity itself. It is helplessly elemental, but it is not the less grandly so, and if it deals with the simpler manifestations of character, character affected by the interests and passions rather than the tastes and preferences, it certainly deals with the larger moods through them. I do not know that in the whole range of his work he once suffers us to feel our superiority to a fellow-creature through any social accident, or except for some moral cause. This makes him very fit reading for a boy, and I should say that a boy could get only good from him. His view of the world and of society, though it was very little philosophized, was instinctively sane and reasonable, even when it was most impossible.
We are just beginning to discern that certain conceptions of our relations to our fellow-men, once formulated in generalities which met with a dramatic acceptation from the world, and were then rejected by it as mere rhetoric, have really a vital truth in them, and that if they have ever seemed false it was because of the false conditions in which we still live. Equality and fraternity, these are the ideals which once moved the world, and then fell into despite and mockery, as unrealities; but now they assert themselves in our hearts once more.
Blindly, unwittingly, erringly as Dickens often urged them, these ideals mark the whole tendency of his fiction, and they are what endear him to the heart, and will keep him dear to it long after many a cunninger artificer in letters has passed into forgetfulness. I do not pretend that I perceived the full scope of his books, but I was aware of it in the finer sense which is not consciousness. While I read him, I was in a world where the right came out best, as I believe it will yet do in this world, and where merit was crowned with the success which I believe will yet attend it in our daily life, untrammelled by social convention or economic circumstance. In that world of his, in the ideal world, to which the real world must finally conform itself, I dwelt among the shows of things, but under a Providence that governed all things to a good end, and where neither wealth nor birth could avail against virtue or right. Of course it was in a way all crude enough, and was already contradicted by experience in the small sphere of my own being; but nevertheless it was true with that truth which is at the bottom of things, and I was happy in it. I could not fail to love the mind which conceived it, and my worship of Dickens was more grateful than that I had yet given any writer. I did not establish with him that one-sided understanding which I had with Cervantes and Shakespeare; with a contemporary that was not possible, and as an American I was deeply hurt at the things he had said against us, and the more hurt because I felt that they were often so just. But I was for the time entirely his, and I could not have wished to write like any one else.
I do not pretend that the spell I was under was wholly of a moral or social texture. For the most part I was charmed with him because he was a delightful story-teller; because he could thrill me, and make me hot and cold; because he could make me laugh and cry, and stop my pulse and breath at will. There seemed an inexhaustible source of humor and pathos in his work, which I now find choked and dry; I cannot laugh any more at Pickwick or Sam Weller, or weep for little Nell or Paul Dombey; their jokes, their griefs, seemed to me to be turned on, and to have a mechanical action. But beneath all is still the strong drift of a genuine emotion, a sympathy, deep and sincere, with the poor, the lowly, the unfortunate. In all that vast range of fiction, there is nothing that tells for the strong, because they are strong, against the weak, nothing that tells for the haughty against the humble, nothing that tells for wealth against poverty. The effect of Dickens is purely democratic, and however contemptible he found our pseudo-equality, he was more truly democratic than any American who had yet written fiction. I suppose it was our instinctive perception in the region of his instinctive expression, that made him so dear to us, and wounded our silly vanity so keenly through our love when he told us the truth about our horrible sham of a slave-based freedom. But at any rate the democracy is there in his work more than he knew perhaps, or would ever have known, or ever recognized by his own life. In fact, when one comes to read the story of his life, and to know that he was really and lastingly ashamed of having once put up shoe-blacking as a boy, and was unable to forgive his mother for suffering him to be so degraded, one perceives that he too was the slave of conventions and the victim of conditions which it is the highest function of his fiction to help destroy.
I imagine that my early likes and dislikes in Dickens were not very discriminating. I liked 'David Copperfield,' and 'Barnaby Rudge,' and 'Bleak House,' and I still like them; but I do not think I liked them more than 'Dombey & Son,' and 'Nicholas Nickleby,' and the 'Pickwick Papers,' which I cannot read now with any sort of patience, not to speak of pleasure. I liked 'Martin Chuzzlewit,' too, and the other day I read a great part of it again, and found it roughly true in the passages that referred to America, though it was surcharged in the serious moods, and caricatured in the comic. The English are always inadequate observers; they seem too full of themselves to have eyes and ears for any alien people; but as far as an Englishman could, Dickens had caught the look of our life in certain aspects. His report of it was clumsy and farcical; but in a large, loose way it was like enough; at least he had caught the note of our self-satisfied, intolerant, and hypocritical provinciality, and this was not altogether lost in his mocking horse-play.
I cannot make out that I was any the less fond of Dickens because of it. I believe I was rather more willing to accept it as a faithful portraiture then than I should be now; and I certainly never made any question of it with my friend the organ-builder. 'Martin Chuzzlewit' was a favorite book with him, and so was the 'Old Curiosity Shop.' No doubt a fancied affinity with Tom Pinch through their common love of music made him like that most sentimental and improbable personage, whom he would have disowned and laughed to scorn if he had met him in life; but it was a purely altruistic sympathy that he felt with Little Nell and her grandfather. He was fond of reading the pathetic passages from both books, and I can still hear his rich, vibrant voice as it lingered in tremulous emotion on the periods he loved. He would catch the volume up anywhere, any time, and begin to read, at the book-store, or the harness- shop, or the law-office, it did not matter in the wide leisure of a country village, in those days before the war, when people had all the time there was; and he was sure of his audience as long as he chose to read. One Christmas eve, in answer to a general wish, he read the 'Christmas Carol' in the Court-house, and people came from all about to hear him.
He was an invalid and he died long since, ending a life of suffering in the saddest way. Several years before his death money fell to his family, and he went with them to an Eastern city, where he tried in vain to make himself at home. He never ceased to pine for the village be had left, with its old companionships, its easy usages, its familiar faces; and he escaped to it again and again, till at last every tie was severed, and he could come back no more. He was never reconciled to the change, and in a manner he did really die of the homesickness which deepened an hereditary taint, and enfeebled him to the disorder that carried him. off. My memories of Dickens remain mingled with my memories of this quaint and most original genius, and though I knew Dickens long before I knew his lover, I can scarcely think of one without thinking of the other.
XVI. WORDSWORTH, LOWELL, CHAUCER
Certain other books I associate with another pathetic nature, of whom the organ-builder and I were both fond. This was the young poet who looked after the book half of the village drug and book store, and who wrote poetry in such leisure as he found from his duties, and with such strength as he found in the disease preying upon him. He must have been far gone in consumption when I first knew him, for I have no recollection of a time when his voice was not faint and husky, his sweet smile wan, and his blue eyes dull with the disease that wasted him away,
"Like wax in the fire, Like snow in the sun."
People spoke of him as once strong and vigorous, but I recall him fragile and pale, gentle, patient, knowing his inexorable doom, and not hoping or seeking to escape it. As the end drew near he left his employment and went home to the farm, some twenty miles away, where I drove out to see him once through the deep snow of a winter which was to be his last. My heart was heavy all the time, but he tried to make the visit pass cheerfully with our wonted talk about books. Only at parting, when he took my hand in his thin, cold clasp, he said, "I suppose my disease is progressing," with the patience he always showed.
I did not see him again, and I am not sure now that his gift was very distinct or very great. It was slight and graceful rather, I fancy, and if he had lived it might not have sufficed to make him widely known, but he had a real and a very delicate sense of beauty in literature, and I believe it was through sympathy with his preferences that I came into appreciation of several authors whom I had not known, or had not cared for before. There could not have been many shelves of books in that store, and I came to be pretty well acquainted with them all before I began to buy them. For the most part, I do not think it occurred to me that they were there to be sold; for this pale poet seemed indifferent to the commercial property in them, and only to wish me to like them.
I am not sure, but I think it was through some volume which I found in his charge that I first came to know of De Quincey; he was fond of Dr. Holmes's poetry; he loved Whittier and Longfellow, each represented in his slender stock by some distinctive work. There were several stray volumes of Thackeray's minor writings, and I still have the 'Yellowplush Papers' in the smooth red cloth (now pretty well tattered) of Appleton's Popular Library, which I bought there. But most of the books were in the famous old brown cloth of Ticknor & Fields, which was a warrant of excellence in the literature it covered. Besides these there were standard volumes of poetry, published by Phillips & Sampson, from worn- out plates; for a birthday present my mother got me Wordsworth in this shape, and I am glad to think that I once read the "Excursion" in it, for I do not think I could do so now, and I have a feeling that it is very right and fit to have read the "Excursion." To be honest, it was very hard reading even then, and I cannot truthfully pretend that I have ever liked Wordsworth except in parts, though for the matter of that, I do not suppose that any one ever did. I tried hard enough to like everything in him, for I had already learned enough to know that I ought to like him, and that if I did not, it was a proof of intellectual and moral inferiority in me. My early idol, Pope, had already been tumbled into the dust by Lowell, whose lectures on English Poetry had lately been given in Boston, and had met with my rapturous acceptance in such newspaper report as I had of them. So, my preoccupations were all in favor of the Lake School, and it was both in my will and my conscience to like Wordsworth. If I did not do so it was not my fault, and the fault remains very much what it first was.
I feel and understand him more deeply than I did then, but I do not think that I then failed of the meaning of much that I read in him, and I am sure that my senses were quick to all the beauty in him. After suffering once through the "Excursion" I did not afflict myself with it again, but there were other poems of his which I read over and over, as I fancy it is the habit of every lover of poetry to do with the pieces he is fond of. Still, I do not make out that Wordsworth was ever a passion of mine; on the other hand, neither was Byron. Him, too, I liked in passages and in certain poems which I knew before I read Wordsworth at all; I read him throughout, but I did not try to imitate him, and I did not try to imitate Wordsworth.
Those lectures of Lowell's had a great influence with me, and I tried to like whatever they bade me like, after a fashion common to young people when they begin to read criticisms; their aesthetic pride is touched; they wish to realize that they too can feel the fine things the critic admires. From this motive they do a great deal of factitious liking; but after all the affections will not be bidden, and the critic can only avail to give a point of view, to enlighten a perspective. When I read Lowell's praises of him, I had all the will in the world to read Spencer, and I really meant to do so, but I have not done so to this day, and as often as I have tried I have found it impossible. It was not so with Chaucer, whom I loved from the first word of his which I found quoted in those lectures, and in Chambers's 'Encyclopaedia of English Literature,' which I had borrowed of my friend the organ-builder.
In fact, I may fairly class Chaucer among my passions, for I read him with that sort of personal attachment I had for Cervantes, who resembled him in a certain sweet and cheery humanity. But I do not allege this as the reason, for I had the same feeling for Pope, who was not like either of them. Kissing goes by favor, in literature as in life, and one cannot quite account for one's passions in either; what is certain is, I liked Chaucer and I did not like Spencer; possibly there was an affinity between reader and poet, but if there was I should be at a loss to name it, unless it was the liking for reality; and the sense of mother earth in human life. By the time I had read all of Chaucer that I could find in the various collections and criticisms, my father had been made a clerk in the legislature, and on one of his visits home he brought me the poet's works from the State Library, and I set about reading them with a glossary. It was not easy, but it brought strength with it, and lifted my heart with a sense of noble companionship.
I will not pretend that I was insensible to the grossness of the poet's time, which I found often enough in the poet's verse, as well as the goodness of his nature, and my father seems to have felt a certain misgiving about it. He repeated to me the librarian's question as to whether he thought he ought to put an unexpurgated edition in the hands of a boy, and his own answer that he did not believe it would hurt me. It was a kind of appeal to me to make the event justify him, and I suppose he had not given me the book without due reflection. Probably he reasoned that with my greed for all manner of literature the bad would become known to me along with the good at any rate, and I had better know that he knew it.
The streams of filth flow down through the ages in literature, which sometimes seems little better than an open sewer, and, as I have said, I do not see why the time should not come when the noxious and noisome channels should be stopped; but the base of the mind is bestial, and so far the beast in us has insisted upon having his full say. The worst of lewd literature is that it seems to give a sanction to lewdness in the life, and that inexperience takes this effect for reality: that is the danger and the harm, and I think the fact ought not to be blinked. Compared with the meaner poets the greater are the cleaner, and Chaucer was probably safer than any other English poet of his time, but I am not going to pretend that there are not things in Chaucer which a boy would be the better for not reading; and so far as these words of mine shall be taken for counsel, I am not willing that they should unqualifiedly praise him. The matter is by no means simple; it is not easy to conceive of a means of purifying the literature of the past without weakening it, and even falsifying it, but it is best to own that it is in all respects just what it is, and not to feign it otherwise. I am not ready to say that the harm from it is positive, but you do get smeared with it, and the filthy thought lives with the filthy rhyme in the ear, even when it does not corrupt the heart or make it seem a light thing for the reader's tongue and pen to sin in kind.
I loved my Chaucer too well, I hope, not to get some good from the best in him; and my reading of criticism had taught me how and where to look for the best, and to know it when I had found it. Of course I began to copy him. That is, I did not attempt anything like his tales in kind; they must have seemed too hopelessly far away in taste and time, but I studied his verse, and imitated a stanza which I found in some of his things and had not found elsewhere; I rejoiced in the freshness and sweetness of his diction, and though I felt that his structure was obsolete, there was in his wording something homelier and heartier than the imported analogues that had taken the place of the phrases he used.
I began to employ in my own work the archaic words that I fancied most, which was futile and foolish enough, and I formed a preference for the simpler Anglo-Saxon woof of our speech, which was not so bad. Of course, being left so much as I was to my own whim in such things, I could not keep a just mean; I had an aversion for the Latin derivatives which was nothing short of a craze. Some half-bred critic whom I had read made me believe that English could be written without them, and had better be written so, and I did not escape from this lamentable error until I had produced with weariness and vexation of spirit several pieces of prose wholly composed of monosyllables. I suspect now that I did not always stop to consider whether my short words were not as Latin by race as any of the long words I rejected, and that I only made sure they were short.
The frivolous ingenuity which wasted itself in this exercise happily could not hold out long, and in verse it was pretty well helpless from the beginning. Yet I will not altogether blame it, for it made me know, as nothing else could, the resources of our tongue in that sort; and in the revolt from the slavish bondage I took upon myself I did not go so far as to plunge into any very wild polysyllabic excesses. I still like the little word if it says the thing I want to say as well as the big one, but I honor above all the word that says the thing. At the same time I confess that I have a prejudice against certain words that I cannot overcome; the sight of some offends me, the sound of others, and rather than use one of those detested vocables, even when I perceive that it would convey my exact meaning, I would cast about long for some other. I think this is a foible, and a disadvantage, but I do not deny it.
An author who had much to do with preparing me for the quixotic folly in point was that Thomas Babington Macaulay, who taught simplicity of diction in phrases of as "learned length and thundering sound," as any he would have had me shun, and who deplored the Latinistic English of Johnson in terms emulous of the great doctor's orotundity and ronderosity. I wonder now that I did not see how my physician avoided his medicine, but I did not, and I went on to spend myself in an endeavor as vain and senseless as any that pedantry has conceived. It was none the less absurd because I believed in it so devoutly, and sacrificed myself to it with such infinite pains and labor. But this was long after I read Macaulay, who was one of my grand passions before Dickens or Chaucer.
One of the many characters of the village was the machinist who had his shop under our printing-office when we first brought our newspaper to the place, and who was just then a machinist because he was tired of being many other things, and had not yet made up his mind what he should be next. He could have been whatever he turned his agile intellect and his cunning hand to; he had been a schoolmaster and a watch-maker, and I believe an amateur doctor and irregular lawyer; he talked and wrote brilliantly, and he was one of the group that nightly disposed of every manner of theoretical and practical question at the drug-store; it was quite indifferent to him which side he took; what he enjoyed was the mental exercise. He was in consumption, as so many were in that region, and he carbonized against it, as he said; he took his carbon in the liquid form, and the last time I saw him the carbon had finally prevailed over the consumption, but it had itself become a seated vice; that was many years since, and it is many years since he died.
He must have been known to me earlier, but I remember him first as he swam vividly into my ken, with a volume of Macaulay's essays in his hand, one day. Less figuratively speaking, he came up into the printing-office to expose from the book the nefarious plagiarism of an editor in a neighboring city, who had adapted with the change of names and a word or two here and there, whole passages from the essay on Barere, to the denunciation of a brother editor. It was a very simple-hearted fraud, and it was all done with an innocent trust in the popular ignorance which now seems to me a little pathetic; but it was certainly very barefaced, and merited the public punishment which the discoverer inflicted by means of what journalists call the deadly parallel column. The effect ought logically to have been ruinous for the plagiarist, but it was really nothing of the kind. He simply ignored the exposure, and the comments of the other city papers, and in the process of time he easily lived down the memory of it and went on to greater usefulness in his profession.
But for the moment it appeared to me a tremendous crisis, and I listened as the minister of justice read his communication, with a thrill which lost itself in the interest I suddenly felt in the plundered author. Those facile and brilliant phrases and ideas struck me as the finest things I had yet known in literature, and I borrowed the book and read it through. Then I borrowed another volume of Macaulay's essays, and another and another, till I had read them every one. It was like a long debauch, from which I emerged with regret that it should ever end.
I tried other essayists, other critics, whom the machinist had in his library, but it was useless; neither Sidney Smith nor Thomas Carlyle could console me; I sighed for more Macaulay and evermore Macaulay. I read his History of England, and I could measurably console myself with that, but only measurably; and I could not go back to the essays and read them again, for it seemed to me I had absorbed them so thoroughly that I had left nothing unenjoyed in them. I used to talk with the machinist about them, and with the organ-builder, and with my friend the printer, but no one seemed to feel the intense fascination in them that I did, and that I should now be quite unable to account for.
Once more I had an author for whom I could feel a personal devotion, whom I could dream of and dote upon, and whom I could offer my intimacy in many an impassioned revery. I do not think T. B. Macaulay would really have liked it; I dare say he would not have valued the friendship of the sort of a youth I was, but in the conditions he was helpless, and I poured out my love upon him without a rebuff. Of course I reformed my prose style, which had been carefully modelled upon that of Goldsmith and Irving, and began to write in the manner of Macaulay, in short, quick sentences, and with the prevalent use of brief Anglo-Saxon words, which he prescribed, but did not practise. As for his notions of literature, I simply accepted them with the feeling that any question of them would have been little better than blasphemy.
For a long time he spoiled my taste for any other criticism; he made it seem pale, and poor, and weak; and he blunted my sense to subtler excellences than I found in him. I think this was a pity, but it was a thing not to be helped, like a great many things that happen to our hurt in life; it was simply inevitable. How or when my frenzy for him began to abate I cannot say, but it certainly waned, and it must have waned rapidly, for after no great while I found myself feeling the charm of quite different minds, as fully as if his had never enslaved me. I cannot regret that I enjoyed him so keenly as I did; it was in a way a generous delight, and though he swayed me helplessly whatever way he thought, I do not think yet that he swayed me in any very wrong way. He was a bright and clear intelligence, and if his light did not go far, it is to be said of him that his worst fault was only to have stopped short of the finest truth in art, in morals, in politics.
XVIII. CRITICS AND REVIEWS
What remained to me from my love of Macaulay was a love of criticism, and I read almost as much in criticism as I read in poetry and history and fiction. It was of an eccentric doctor, another of the village characters, that I got the works of Edgar A. Poe; I do not know just how, but it must have been in some exchange of books; he preferred metaphysics. At any rate I fell greedily upon them, and I read with no less zest than his poems the bitter, and cruel, and narrow-minded criticisms which mainly filled one of the volumes. As usual, I accepted them implicitly, and it was not till long afterwards that I understood how worthless they were.
I think that hardly less immoral than the lubricity of literature, and its celebration of the monkey and the goat in us, is the spectacle such criticism affords of the tigerish play of satire. It is monstrous that for no offence but the wish to produce something beautiful, and the mistake of his powers in that direction, a writer should become the prey of some ferocious wit, and that his tormentor should achieve credit by his lightness and ease in rending his prey; it is shocking to think how alluring and depraving the fact is to the young reader emulous of such credit, and eager to achieve it. Because I admired these barbarities of Poe's, I wished to irritate them, to spit some hapless victim on my own spear, to make him suffer and to make the reader laugh. This is as far as possible from the criticism that enlightens and ennobles, but it is still the ideal of most critics, deny it as they will; and because it is the ideal of most critics criticism still remains behind all the other literary arts.
I am glad to remember that at the same time I exulted in these ferocities I had mind enough and heart enough to find pleasure in the truer and finer work, the humaner work of other writers, like Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt, and Lamb, which became known to me at a date I cannot exactly fix. I believe it was Hazlitt whom I read first, and he helped me to clarify and formulate my admiration of Shakespeare as no one else had yet done; Lamb helped me too, and with all the dramatists, and on every hand I was reaching out for light that should enable me to place in literary history the authors I knew and loved.
I fancy it was well for me at this period to have got at the four great English reviews, the Edinburgh, the Westminster, the London Quarterly, and the North British, which I read regularly, as well as Blackwood's Magazine. We got them in the American editions in payment for printing the publisher's prospectus, and their arrival was an excitement, a joy, and a satisfaction with me, which I could not now describe without having to accuse myself of exaggeration. The love of literature, and the hope of doing something in it, had become my life to the exclusion of all other interests, or it was at least the great reality, and all other things were as shadows. I was living in a time of high political tumult, and I certainly cared very much for the question of slavery which was then filling the minds of men; I felt deeply the shame and wrong of our Fugitive Slave Law; I was stirred by the news from Kansas, where the great struggle between the two great principles in our nationality was beginning in bloodshed; but I cannot pretend that any of these things were more than ripples on the surface of my intense and profound interest in literature. If I was not to live by it, I was somehow to live for it.
If I thought of taking up some other calling it was as a means only; literature was always the end I had in view, immediately or finally. I did not see how it was to yield me a living, for I knew that almost all the literary men in the country had other professions; they were editors, lawyers, or had public or private employments; or they were men of wealth; there was then not one who earned his bread solely by his pen in fiction, or drama, or history, or poetry, or criticism, in a day when people wanted very much less butter on their bread than they do now. But I kept blindly at my studies, and yet not altogether blindly, for, as I have said, the reading I did had more tendency than before, and I was beginning to see authors in their proportion to one another, and to the body of literature.
The English reviews were of great use to me in this; I made a rule of reading each one of them quite through. To be sure I often broke this rule, as people are apt to do with rules of the kind; it was not possible for a boy to wade through heavy articles relating to English politics and economics, but I do not think I left any paper upon a literary topic unread, and I did read enough politics, especially in Blackwood's, to be of Tory opinions; they were very fit opinions for a boy, and they did not exact of me any change in regard to the slavery question.
XIX. A NON-LITERARY EPISODE
I suppose I might almost class my devotion to English reviews among my literary passions, but it was of very short lease, not beyond a year or two at the most. In the midst of it I made my first and only essay aside from the lines of literature, or rather wholly apart from it. After some talk with my father it was decided, mainly by myself, I suspect, that I should leave the printing-office and study law; and it was arranged with the United States Senator who lived in our village, and who was at home from Washington for the summer, that I was to come into his office. The Senator was by no means to undertake my instruction himself; his nephew, who had just begun to read law, was to be my fellow-student, and we were to keep each other up to the work, and to recite to each other, until we thought we had enough law to go before a board of attorneys and test our fitness for admission to the bar.
This was the custom in that day and place, as I suppose it is still in most parts of the country. We were to be fitted for practice in the courts, not only by our reading, but by a season of pettifogging before justices of the peace, which I looked forward to with no small shrinking of my shy spirit; but what really troubled me most, and was always the grain of sand between my teeth, was Blackstone's confession of his own original preference for literature, and his perception that the law was "a jealous mistress," who would suffer no rival in his affections. I agreed with him that I could not go through life with a divided interest; I must give up literature or I must give up law. I not only consented to this logically, but I realized it in my attempt to carry on the reading I had loved, and to keep at the efforts I was always making to write something in verse or prose, at night, after studying law all day. The strain was great enough when I had merely the work in the printing-office; but now I came home from my Blackstone mentally fagged, and I could not take up the authors whom at the bottom of my heart I loved so much better. I tried it a month, but almost from the fatal day when I found that confession of Blackstone's, my whole being turned from the "jealous mistress" to the high minded muses: I had not only to go back to literature, but I had also to go back to the printing-office. I did not regret it, but I had made my change of front in the public eye, and I felt that it put me at a certain disadvantage with my fellow- citizens; as for the Senator, whose office I had forsaken, I met him now and then in the street, without trying to detain him, and once when he came to the printing-office for his paper we encountered at a point where we could not help speaking. He looked me over in my general effect of base mechanical, and asked me if I had given up the law; I had only to answer him I had, and our conference ended. It was a terrible moment for me, because I knew that in his opinion I had chosen a path in life, which if it did not lead to the Poor House was at least no way to the White House. I suppose now that he thought I had merely gone back to my trade, and so for the time I had; but I have no reason to suppose that he judged my case narrow-mindedly, and I ought to have had the courage to have the affair out with him, and tell him just why I had left the law; we had sometimes talked the English reviews over, for he read them as well as I, and it ought not to have been impossible for me to be frank with him; but as yet I could not trust any one with my secret hope of some day living for literature, although I had already lived for nothing else. I preferred the disadvantage which I must be at in his eyes, and in the eyes of most of my fellow-citizens; I believe I had the applause of the organ-builder, who thought the law no calling for me.
In that village there was a social equality which, if not absolute, was as nearly so as can ever be in a competitive civilization; and I could have suffered no slight in the general esteem for giving up a profession and going back to a trade; if I was despised at all it was because I had thrown away the chance of material advancement; I dare say some people thought I was a fool to do that. No one, indeed, could have imagined the rapture it was to do it, or what a load rolled from my shoulders when I dropped the law from them. Perhaps Sinbad or Christian could have conceived of my ecstatic relief; yet so far as the popular vision reached I was not returning to literature, but to the printing business, and I myself felt the difference. My reading had given me criterions different from those of the simple life of our village, and I did not flatter myself that my calling would have been thought one of great social dignity in the world where I hoped some day to make my living. My convictions were all democratic, but at heart I am afraid I was a snob, and was unworthy of the honest work which I ought to have felt it an honor to do; this, whatever we falsely pretend to the contrary, is the frame of every one who aspires beyond the work of his hands. I do not know how it had become mine, except through my reading, and I think it was through the devotion I then had for a certain author that I came to a knowledge not of good and evil so much as of common and superfine.
It was of the organ-builder that I had Thackeray's books first. He knew their literary quality, and their rank in the literary, world; but I believe he was surprised at the passion I instantly conceived for them. He could not understand it; he deplored it almost as a moral defect in me; though he honored it as a proof of my critical taste. In a certain measure he was right.
What flatters the worldly pride in a young man is what fascinates him with Thackeray. With his air of looking down on the highest, and confidentially inviting you to be of his company in the seat of the scorner he is irresistible; his very confession that he is a snob, too, is balm and solace to the reader who secretly admires the splendors he affects to despise. His sentimentality is also dear to the heart of youth, and the boy who is dazzled by his satire is melted by his easy pathos. Then, if the boy has read a good many other books, he is taken with that abundance of literary turn and allusion in Thackeray; there is hardly a sentence but reminds him that he is in the society of a great literary swell, who has read everything, and can mock or burlesque life right and left from the literature always at his command. At the same time he feels his mastery, and is abjectly grateful to him in his own simple love of the good for his patronage of the unassuming virtues. It is so pleasing to one's 'vanity, and so safe, to be of the master's side when he assails those vices and foibles which are inherent in the system of things, and which one can contemn with vast applause so long as one does not attempt to undo the conditions they spring from.
I exulted to have Thackeray attack the aristocrats, and expose their wicked pride and meanness, and I never noticed that he did not propose to do away with aristocracy, which is and must always be just what it has been, and which cannot be changed while it exists at all. He appeared to me one of the noblest creatures that ever was when he derided the shams of society; and I was far from seeing that society, as we have it, was necessarily a sham; when he made a mock of snobbishness I did not know but snobbishness was something that might be reached and cured by ridicule. Now I know that so long as we have social inequality we shall have snobs; we shall have men who bully and truckle, and women who snub and crawl. I know that it is futile to, spurn them, or lash them for trying to get on in the world, and that the world is what it must be from the selfish motives which underlie our economic life. But I did not know these things then, nor for long afterwards, and so I gave my heart to Thackeray, who seemed to promise me in his contempt of the world a refuge from the shame I felt for my own want of figure in it. He had the effect of taking me into the great world, and making me a party to his splendid indifference to titles, and even to royalties; and I could not see that sham for sham he was unwittingly the greatest sham of all.
I think it was 'Pendennis' I began with, and I lived in the book to the very last line of it, and made its alien circumstance mine to the smallest detail. I am still not sure but it is the author's greatest book, and I speak from a thorough acquaintance with every line he has written, except the Virginians, which I have never been able to read quite through; most of his work I have read twice, and some of it twenty times.
After reading 'Pendennis' I went to 'Vanity Fair,' which I now think the poorest of Thackeray's novels—crude, heavy-handed, caricatured. About the same time I revelled in the romanticism of 'Henry Esmond,' with its pseudo-eighteenth-century sentiment, and its appeals to an overwrought ideal of gentlemanhood and honor. It was long before I was duly revolted by Esmond's transfer of his passion from the daughter to the mother whom he is successively enamoured of. I believe this unpleasant and preposterous affair is thought one of the fine things in the story; I do not mind owning that I thought it so myself when I was seventeen; and if I could have found a Beatrix to be in love with, and a Lady Castlewood to be in love with me, I should have asked nothing finer of fortune. The glamour of Henry Esmond was all the deeper because I was reading the 'Spectator' then, and was constantly in the company of Addison, and Steele, and Swift, and Pope, and all the wits at Will's, who are presented evanescently in the romance. The intensely literary keeping, as well as quality, of the story I suppose is what formed its highest fascination for me; but that effect of great world which it imparts to the reader, making him citizen, and, if he will, leading citizen of it, was what helped turn my head.
This is the toxic property of all Thackeray's writing. He is himself forever dominated in imagination by the world, and even while he tells you it is not worth while he makes you feel that it is worth while. It is not the honest man, but the man of honor, who shines in his page; his meek folk are proudly meek, and there is a touch of superiority, a glint of mundane splendor, in his lowliest. He rails at the order of things, but he imagines nothing different, even when he shows that its baseness, and cruelty, and hypocrisy are well-nigh inevitable, and, for most of those who wish to get on in it, quite inevitable. He has a good word for the virtues, he patronizes the Christian graces, he pats humble merit on the head; he has even explosions of indignation against the insolence and pride of birth, and purse-pride. But, after all, he is of the world, worldly, and the highest hope he holds out is that you may be in the world and despise its ambitions while you compass its ends.
I should be far from blaming him for all this. He was of his time; but since his time men have thought beyond him, and seen life with a vision which makes his seem rather purblind. He must have been immensely in advance of most of the thinking and feeling of his day, for people then used to accuse his sentimental pessimism of cynical qualities which we could hardly find in it now. It was the age of intense individualism, when you were to do right because it was becoming to you, say, as a gentleman, and you were to have an eye single to the effect upon your character, if not your reputation; you were not to do a mean thing because it was wrong, but because it was mean. It was romanticism carried into the region of morals. But I had very little concern then as to that sort of error.
I was on a very high esthetic horse, which I could not have conveniently stooped from if I had wished; it was quite enough for me that Thackeray's novels were prodigious works of art, and I acquired merit, at least with myself, for appreciating them so keenly, for liking them so much. It must be, I felt with far less consciousness than my formulation of the feeling expresses, that I was of some finer sort myself to be able to enjoy such a fine sort. No doubt I should have been a coxcomb of some kind, if not that kind, and I shall not be very strenuous in censuring Thackeray for his effect upon me in this way. No doubt the effect was already in me, and he did not so much produce it as find it.
In the mean time he was a vast delight to me, as much in the variety of his minor works—his 'Yellowplush,' and 'Letters of Mr. Brown,' and 'Adventures of Major Gahagan,' and the 'Paris Sketch Book,' and the 'Irish Sketch Book,' and the 'Great Hoggarty Diamond,' and the 'Book of Snobs,' and the 'English Humorists,' and the 'Four Georges,' and all the multitude of his essays, and verses, and caricatures—as in the spacious designs of his huge novels, the 'Newcomes,' and 'Pendennis,' and 'Vanity Fair,' and 'Henry Esmond,' and 'Barry Lyndon.'
There was something in the art of the last which seemed to me then, and still seems, the farthest reach of the author's great talent. It is couched, like so much of his work, in the autobiographic form, which next to the dramatic form is the most natural, and which lends itself with such flexibility to the purpose of the author. In 'Barry Lyndon' there is imagined to the life a scoundrel of such rare quality that he never supposes for a moment but he is the finest sort of a gentleman; and so, in fact, he was, as most gentlemen went in his day. Of course, the picture is over-colored; it was the vice of Thackeray, or of Thackeray's time, to surcharge all imitations of life and character, so that a generation apparently much slower, if not duller than ours, should not possibly miss the artist's meaning. But I do not think it is so much surcharged as 'Esmond;' 'Barry Lyndon' is by no manner of means so conscious as that mirror of gentlemanhood, with its manifold self- reverberations; and for these reasons I am inclined to think he is the most perfect creation of Thackeray's mind.
I did not make the acquaintance of Thackeray's books all at once, or even in rapid succession, and he at no time possessed the whole empire of my catholic, not to say, fickle, affections, during the years I was compassing a full knowledge and sense of his greatness, and burning incense at his shrine. But there was a moment when he so outshone and overtopped all other divinities in my worship that I was effectively his alone, as I have been the helpless and, as it were, hypnotized devotee of three or four others of the very great. From his art there flowed into me a literary quality which tinged my whole mental substance, and made it impossible for me to say, or wish to say, anything without giving it the literary color. That is, while he dominated my love and fancy, if I had been so fortunate as to have a simple concept of anything in life, I must have tried to give the expression of it some turn or tint that would remind the reader of books even before it reminded him of men.
It is hard to make out what I mean, but this is a try at it, and I do not know that I shall be able to do better unless I add that Thackeray, of all the writers that I have known, is the most thoroughly and profoundly imbued with literature, so that when he speaks it is not with words and blood, but with words and ink. You may read the greatest part of Dickens, as you may read the greatest part of Hawthorne or Tolstoy, and not once be reminded of literature as a business or a cult, but you can hardly read a paragraph, hardly a sentence, of Thackeray's without being reminded of it either by suggestion or downright allusion.
I do not blame him for this; he was himself, and he could not have been any other manner of man without loss; but I say that the greatest talent is not that which breathes of the library, but that which breathes of the street, the field, the open sky, the simple earth. I began to imitate this master of mine almost as soon as I began to read him; this must be, and I had a greater pride and joy in my success than I should probably have known in anything really creative; I should have suspected that, I should have distrusted that, because I had nothing to test it by, no model; but here before me was the very finest and noblest model, and I had but to form my lines upon it, and I had produced a work of art altogether more estimable in my eyes than anything else could have been. I saw the little world about me through the lenses of my master's spectacles, and I reported its facts, in his tone and his attitude, with his self-flattered scorn, his showy sighs, his facile satire. I need not say I was perfectly satisfied with the result, or that to be able to imitate Thackeray was a much greater thing for me than to have been able to imitate nature. In fact, I could have valued any picture of the life and character I knew only as it put me in mind of life and character as these had shown themselves to me in his books.
XXI. "LAZARILLO DE TORMES"
At the same time, I was not only reading many books besides Thackeray's, but I was studying to get a smattering of several languages as well as I could, with or without help. I could now manage Spanish fairly well, and I was sending on to New York for authors in that tongue. I do not remember how I got the money to buy them; to be sure it was no great sum; but it must have been given me out of the sums we were all working so hard to make up for the debt, and the interest on the debt (that is always the wicked pinch for the debtor!), we had incurred in the purchase of the newspaper which we lived by, and the house which we lived in. I spent no money on any other sort of pleasure, and so, I suppose, it was afforded me the more readily; but I cannot really recall the history of those acquisitions on its financial side. In any case, if the sums I laid out in literature could not have been comparatively great, the excitement attending the outlay was prodigious.
I know that I used to write on to Messrs. Roe Lockwood & Son, New York, for my Spanish books, and I dare say that my letters were sufficiently pedantic, and filled with a simulated acquaintance with all Spanish literature. Heaven knows what they must have thought, if they thought anything, of their queer customer in that obscure little Ohio village; but he could not have been queerer to them than to his fellow-villagers, I am sure. I haunted the post-office about the time the books were due, and when I found one of them in our deep box among a heap of exchange newspapers and business letters, my emotion was so great that it almost took my breath. I hurried home with the precious volume, and shut myself into my little den, where I gave myself up to a sort of transport in it. These books were always from the collection of Spanish authors published by Baudry in Paris, and they were in saffron-colored paper cover, printed full of a perfectly intoxicating catalogue of other Spanish books which I meant to read, every one, some time. The paper and the ink had a certain odor which was sweeter to me than the perfumes of Araby. The look of the type took me more than the glance of a girl, and I had a fever of longing to know the heart of the book, which was like a lover's passion. Some times I did not reach its heart, but commonly I did. Moratin's 'Origins of the Spanish Theatre,' and a large volume of Spanish dramatic authors, were the first Spanish books I sent for, but I could not say why I sent for them, unless it was because I saw that there were some plays of Cervantes among the rest. I read these and I read several comedies of Lope de Vega, and numbers of archaic dramas in Moratin's history, and I really got a fairish perspective of the Spanish drama, which has now almost wholly faded from my mind. It is more intelligible to me why I should have read Conde's 'Dominion of the Arabs in Spain;' for that was in the line of my reading in Irving, which would account for my pleasure in the 'History of the Civil Wars of Granada;' it was some time before I realized that the chronicles in this were a bundle of romances and not veritable records; and my whole study in these things was wholly undirected and unenlightened. But I meant to be thorough in it, and I could not rest satisfied with the Spanish-English grammars I had; I was not willing to stop short of the official grammar of the Spanish Academy. I sent to New York for it, and my booksellers there reported that they would have to send to Spain for it. I lived till it came to hand through them from Madrid; and I do not understand why I did not perish then from the pride and joy I had in it.
But, after all, I am not a Spanish scholar, and can neither speak nor write the language. I never got more than a good reading use of it, perhaps because I never really tried for more. But I am very glad of that, because it has been a great pleasure to me, and even some profit, and it has lighted up many meanings in literature, which must always have remained dark to me. Not to speak now of the modern Spanish writers whom it has enabled me to know in their own houses as it were, I had even in that remote day a rapturous delight in a certain Spanish book, which was well worth all the pains I had undergone to get at it. This was the famous picaresque novel, 'Lazarillo de Tormes,' by Hurtado de Mendoza, whose name then so familiarized itself to my fondness that now as I write it I feel as if it were that of an old personal friend whom I had known in the flesh. I believe it would not have been always comfortable to know Mendoza outside of his books; he was rather a terrible person; he was one of the Spanish invaders of Italy, and is known in Italian history as the Tyrant of Sierra. But at my distance of time and place I could safely revel in his friendship, and as an author I certainly found him a most charming companion. The adventures of his rogue of a hero, who began life as the servant and accomplice of a blind beggar, and then adventured on through a most diverting career of knavery, brought back the atmosphere of Don Quixote, and all the landscape of that dear wonder- world of Spain, where I had lived so much, and I followed him with all the old delight.
I do not know that I should counsel others to do so, or that the general reader would find his account in it, but I am sure that the intending author of American fiction would do well to study the Spanish picaresque novels; for in their simplicity of design he will find one of the best forms for an American story. The intrigue of close texture will never suit our conditions, which are so loose and open and variable; each man's life among us is a romance of the Spanish model, if it is the life of a man who has risen, as we nearly all have, with many ups and downs. The story of 'Latzarillo' is gross in its facts, and is mostly "unmeet for ladies," like most of the fiction in all languages before our times; but there is an honest simplicity in the narration, a pervading humor, and a rich feeling for character that gives it value.
I think that a good deal of its foulness was lost upon me, but I certainly understood that it would not do to present it to an American public just as it was, in the translation which I presently planned to make. I went about telling the story to people, and trying to make them find it as amusing as I did, but whether I ever succeeded I cannot say, though the notion of a version with modifications constantly grew with me, till one day I went to the city of Cleveland with my father. There was a branch house of an Eastern firm of publishers in that place, and I must have had the hope that I might have the courage to propose a translation of Lazarillo to them. My father urged me to try my fortune, but my heart failed me. I was half blind with one of the headaches that tormented me in those days, and I turned my sick eyes from the sign, "J. P. Jewett & Co., Publishers," which held me fascinated, and went home without at least having my much-dreamed-of version of Lazarillo refused.
XXII. CURTIS, LONGFELLOW, SCHLEGEL
I am quite at a loss to know why my reading had this direction or that in those days. It had necessarily passed beyond my father's suggestion, and I think it must have been largely by accident or experiment that I read one book rather than another. He made some sort of newspaper arrangement with a book-store in Cleveland, which was the means of enriching our home library with a goodly number of books, shop-worn, but none the worse for that, and new in the only way that books need be new to the lover of them. Among these I found a treasure in Curtis's two books, the 'Nile Notes of a Howadji,' and the 'Howadji in Syria.' I already knew him by his 'Potiphar Papers,' and the ever-delightful reveries which have since gone under the name of 'Prue and I;' but those books of Eastern travel opened a new world of thinking and feeling. They had at once a great influence upon me. The smooth richness of their diction; the amiable sweetness of their mood, their gracious caprice, the delicacy of their satire (which was so kind that it should have some other name), their abundance of light and color, and the deep heart of humanity underlying their airiest fantasticality, all united in an effect which was different from any I had yet known.