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A Belated Guest by William Dean Howells

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This etext was produced by David Widger

[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the
file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an
entire meal of them. D.W.]

LITERARY FRIENDS AND ACQUAINTANCES--A Belated Guest

by William Dean Howells

A BELATED GUEST

It is doubtful whether the survivor of any order of things finds
compensation in the privilege, however undisputed by his contemporaries,
of recording his memories of it. This is, in the first two or three
instances, a pleasure. It is sweet to sit down, in the shade or by the
fire, and recall names, looks, and tones from the past; and if the
Absences thus entreated to become Presences are those of famous people,
they lend to the fond historian a little of their lustre, in which he
basks for the time with an agreeable sense of celebrity. But another
time comes, and comes very soon, when the pensive pleasure changes to the
pain of duty, and the precious privilege converts itself into a grievous
obligation. You are unable to choose your company among those immortal
shades; if one, why not another, where all seem to have a right to such
gleams of this 'dolce lome' as your reminiscences can shed upon them?
Then they gather so rapidly, as the years pass, in these pale realms,
that one, if one continues to survive, is in danger of wearing out such
welcome, great or small, as met ones recollections in the first two or
three instances, if one does one's duty by each. People begin to say,
and not without reason, in a world so hurried and wearied as this: "Ah,
here he is again with his recollections!" Well, but if the recollections
by some magical good-fortune chance to concern such a contemporary of his
as, say, Bret Harte, shall not he be partially justified, or at least
excused?

I.

My recollections of Bret Harte begin with the arrest, on the Atlantic
shore, of that progress of his from the Pacific Slope, which, in the
simple days of 1871, was like the progress of a prince, in the universal
attention and interest which met and followed it. He was indeed a
prince, a fairy prince in whom every lover of his novel and enchanting
art felt a patriotic property, for his promise and performance in those
earliest tales of 'The Luck of Roaring Camp', and 'Tennessee's Partner',
and 'Maggles', and 'The Outcasts of Poker Flat', were the earnests of an
American literature to come. If it is still to come, in great measure,
that is not Harte's fault, for he kept on writing those stories, in one
form or another, as long as he lived. He wrote them first and last in
the spirit of Dickens, which no man of his time could quite help doing,
but he wrote them from the life of Bret Harte, on the soil and in the air
of the newest kind of new world, and their freshness took the soul of his
fellow-countrymen not only with joy, but with pride such as the
Europeans, who adored him much longer, could never know in him.

When the adventurous young editor who had proposed being his host for
Cambridge and the Boston neighborhood, while Harte was still in San
Francisco, and had not yet begun his princely progress eastward, read of
the honors that attended his coming from point to point, his courage
fell, as if he had perhaps, committed himself in too great an enterprise.
Who was he, indeed, that he should think of making this

"Dear son of memory, great heir of fame,"

his guest, especially when he heard that in Chicago Harte failed of
attending a banquet of honor because the givers of it had not sent a
carriage to fetch him to it, as the alleged use was in San Francisco?
Whether true or not, and it was probably not true in just that form,
it must have been this rumor which determined his host to drive into
Boston for him with the handsomest hack which the livery of Cambridge
afforded, and not trust to the horse-car and the local expressman to get
him and his baggage out, as he would have done with a less portentous
guest. However it was, he instantly lost all fear when they met at the
station, and Harte pressed forward with his cordial hand-clasp, as if he
were not even a fairy prince, and with that voice and laugh which were
surely the most winning in the world. He was then, as always, a child of
extreme fashion as to his clothes and the cut of his beard, which he wore
in a mustache and the drooping side-whiskers of the day, and his jovial
physiognomy was as winning as his voice, with its straight nose and
fascinating thrust of the under lip, its fine eyes, and good forehead,
then thickly crowned with the black hair which grew early white, while
his mustache remained dark the most enviable and consoling effect
possible in the universal mortal necessity of either aging or dying.
He was, as one could not help seeing, thickly pitted, but after the first
glance one forgot this, so that a lady who met him for the first time
could say to him, "Mr. Harte, aren't you afraid to go about in the cars
so recklessly when there is this scare about smallpox?" "No, madam," he
could answer in that rich note of his, with an irony touched by pseudo-
pathos, "I bear a charmed life."

The drive out from Boston was not too long for getting on terms of
personal friendship with the family which just filled the hack, the two
boys intensely interested in the novelties of a New England city and
suburb, and the father and mother continually exchanging admiration of
such aspects of nature as presented themselves in the leafless sidewalk
trees, and patches of park and lawn. They found everything so fine, so
refined, after the gigantic coarseness of California, where the natural
forms were so vast that one could not get on companionable terms with
them. Their host heard them without misgiving for the world of romance
which Harte had built up among those huge forms, and with a subtle
perception that this was no excursion of theirs to the East, but a
lifelong exodus from the exile which he presently understood they must
always have felt California to be. It is different now, when people are
every day being born in California, and must begin to feel it home from
the first breath, but it is notable that none of the Californians of that
great early day have gone back to live amid the scenes which inspired and
prospered them.

Before they came in sight of the editor's humble roof he had mocked
himself to his guest for his trepidations, and Harte with burlesque
magnanimity had consented to be for that occasion only something less
formidable than he had loomed afar. He accepted with joy the theory of
passing a week in the home of virtuous poverty, and the week began as
delightfully as it went on. From first to last Cambridge amused him as
much as it charmed him by that air of academic distinction which was
stranger to him even than the refined trees and grass. It has already
been told how, after a list of the local celebrities had been recited to
him, he said, "why, you couldn't stand on your front porch and fire off
your revolver without bringing down a two volumer," and no doubt the
pleasure he had in it was the effect of its contrast with the wild
California he had known, and perhaps, when he had not altogether known
it, had invented.

II.

Cambridge began very promptly to show him those hospitalities which he
could value, and continued the fable of his fairy princeliness in the
curiosity of those humbler admirers who could not hope to be his hosts or
his fellow-guests at dinner or luncheon. Pretty presences in the tie-
backs of the period were seen to flit before the home of virtuous
poverty, hungering for any chance sight of him which his outgoings or
incomings might give. The chances were better with the outgoings than
with the incomings, for these were apt to be so hurried, in the final
result of his constitutional delays, as to have the rapidity of the
homing pigeon's flight, and to afford hardly a glimpse to the quickest
eye. It cannot harm him, or any one now, to own that Harte was nearly
always late for those luncheons and dinners which he was always going out
to, and it needed the anxieties and energies of both families to get him
into his clothes, and then into the carriage where a good deal of final
buttoning must have been done, in order that he might not arrive so very
late. He was the only one concerned who was quite unconcerned; his
patience with his delays was inexhaustible; he arrived at the expected
houses smiling, serenely jovial, radiating a bland gaiety from his whole
person, and ready to ignore any discomfort he might have occasioned.

Of course, people were glad to have him on his own terms, and it may be
truly said that it was worth while to have him on any terms. There never
was a more charming companion, an easier or more delightful guest.

It was not from what he said, for he was not much of a talker, and almost
nothing of a story-teller; but he could now and then drop the fittest
word, and with a glance or smile of friendly intelligence express the
appreciation of another's fit word which goes far to establish for a man
the character of boon humorist. It must be said of him that if he took
the honors easily that were paid him he took them modestly, and never by
word or look invited them, or implied that he expected them. It was fine
to see him humorously accepting the humorous attribution of scientific
sympathies from Agassiz, in compliment of his famous epic describing the
incidents that "broke up the society upon the Stanislow." It was a
little fearsome to hear him frankly owning to Lowell his dislike for
something over-literary in the phrasing of certain verses of 'The
Cathedral.' But Lowell could stand that sort of thing from a man who
could say the sort of things that Harte said to him of that delicious
line picturing the bobolink as he

"Runs down a brook of laughter in the air."

This, Harte told him, was the line he liked best of all his lines, and
Lowell smoked well content with the praise. Yet they were not men to get
on easily together, Lowell having limitations in directions where Harte
had none. Afterward in London they did not meet often or willingly.
Lowell owned the brilliancy and uncommonness of Harte's gift, while he
sumptuously surfeited his passion of finding everybody more or less a Jew
by finding that Harte was at least half a Jew on his father's side; he
had long contended for the Hebraicism of his name.

With all his appreciation of the literary eminences whom Fields used to
class together as "the old saints," Harte had a spice of irreverence that
enabled him to take them more ironically than they might have liked, and
to see the fun of a minor literary man's relation to them. Emerson's
smoking amused him, as a Jovian self-indulgence divinely out of character
with so supreme a god, and he shamelessly burlesqued it, telling how
Emerson at Concord had proposed having a "wet night" with him over a
glass of sherry, and had urged the scant wine upon his young friend with
a hospitable gesture of his cigar. But this was long after the Cambridge
episode, in which Longfellow alone escaped the corrosive touch of his
subtle irreverence, or, more strictly speaking, had only the effect of
his reverence. That gentle and exquisitely modest dignity, of
Longfellow's he honored with as much veneration as it was in him to
bestow, and he had that sense of Longfellow's beautiful and perfected art
which is almost a test of a critic's own fineness.

III.

As for Harte's talk, it was mostly ironical, not to the extreme of
satire, but tempered to an agreeable coolness even for the things he
admired. He did not apparently care to hear himself praised, but he
could very accurately and perfectly mark his discernment of excellence in
others. He was at times a keen observer of nature and again not,
apparently. Something was said before him and Lowell of the beauty of
his description of a rabbit, startled with fear among the ferns, and
lifting its head with the pulsation of its frightened heart visibly
shaking it; then the talk turned on the graphic homeliness of Dante's
noticing how the dog's skin moves upon it, and Harte spoke of the
exquisite shudder with which a horse tries to rid itself of a fly.

But once again, when an azalea was shown to him as the sort of bush that
Sandy drunkenly slept under in 'The Idyl of Iced Gulch', he asked, "Why,
is that an azalea?" To be sure, this might have been less from his
ignorance or indifference concerning the quality of the bush he had sent
Sandy to sleep under than from his willingness to make a mock of an
azalea in a very small pot, so disproportionate to uses which an azalea
of Californian size could easily lend itself to.

You never could be sure of Harte; he could only by chance be caught in
earnest about anything or anybody. Except for those slight recognitions
of literary, traits in his talk with Lowell, nothing remained from his
conversation but the general criticism he passed upon his brilliant
fellow-Hebrew Heine, as "rather scorbutic." He preferred to talk about
the little matters of common incident and experience. He amused himself
with such things as the mystification of the postman of whom he asked his
way to Phillips Avenue, where he adventurously supposed his host to be
living. "Why," the postman said, "there is no Phillips Avenue in
Cambridge. There's Phillips Place." "Well," Harte assented, "Phillips
Place will do; but there is a Phillips Avenue." He entered eagerly into
the canvass of the distinctions and celebrities asked to meet him at the
reception made for him, but he had even a greater pleasure in
compassionating his host for the vast disparity between the caterer's
china and plated ware and the simplicities and humilities of the home of
virtuous poverty; and he spluttered with delight at the sight of the
lofty 'epergnes' set up and down the supper-table when he was brought in
to note the preparations made in his honor. Those monumental structures
were an inexhaustible joy to him; he walked round and round the room, and
viewed them in different perspectives, so as to get the full effect of
the towering forms that dwarfed it so.

He was a tease, as many a sweet and fine wit is apt to be, but his
teasing was of the quality of a caress, so much kindness went with it.
He lamented as an irreparable loss his having missed seeing that night an
absent-minded brother in literature, who came in rubber shoes, and
forgetfully wore them throughout the evening. That hospitable soul of
Ralph Keeler, who had known him in California, but had trembled for their
acquaintance when he read of all the honors that might well have spoiled
Harte for the friends of his simpler days, rejoiced in the unchanged
cordiality of his nature when they met, and presently gave him one of
those restaurant lunches in Boston, which he was always sumptuously
providing out of his destitution. Harte was the life of a time which was
perhaps less a feast of reason than a flow of soul. The truth is, there
was nothing but careless stories carelessly told, and jokes and laughing,
and a great deal of mere laughing without the jokes, the whole as unlike
the ideal of a literary symposium as well might be; but there was present
one who met with that pleasant Boston company for the first time, and to
whom Harte attributed a superstition of Boston seriousness not realized
then and there. "Look at him," he said, from time to time. "This is the
dream of his life," and then shouted and choked with fun at the
difference between the occasion and the expectation he would have
imagined in his commensal's mind. At a dinner long after in London,
where several of the commensals of that time met again, with other
literary friends of a like age and stature, Harte laid his arms well
along their shoulders as they formed in a half-circle before him, and
screamed out in mocking mirth at the bulbous favor to which the slim
shapes of the earlier date had come. The sight was not less a rapture to
him that he was himself the prey of the same practical joke from the
passing years. The hair which the years had wholly swept from some of
those thoughtful brows, or left spindling autumnal spears, "or few or
none," to "shake against the cold," had whitened to a wintry snow on his,
while his mustache had kept its youthful black. "He looks," one of his
friends said to another as they walked home together, "like a French
marquis of the ancien regime." "Yes," the other assented, thoughtfully,
"or like an American actor made up for the part."

The saying closely fitted the outward fact, but was of a subtle injustice
in its implication of anything histrionic in Harte's nature. Never was
any man less a 'poseur'; he made simply and helplessly known what he was
at any and every moment, and he would join the witness very cheerfully in
enjoying whatever was amusing in the disadvantage to himself. In the
course of events, which were in his case so very human, it came about on
a subsequent visit of his to Boston that an impatient creditor decided to
right himself out of the proceeds of the lecture which was to be given,
and had the law corporeally present at the house of the friend where
Harte dined, and in the anteroom at the lecture-hall, and on the
platform, where the lecture was delivered with beautiful aplomb and
untroubled charm. He was indeed the only one privy to the law's presence
who was not the least affected by it, so that when his host of an earlier
time ventured to suggest, "Well, Harte, this is the old literary
tradition; this is the Fleet business over again," he joyously smote his
thigh and crowed out, "Yes, the Fleet!" No doubt he tasted all the
delicate humor of the situation, and his pleasure in it was quite
unaffected.

If his temperament was not adapted to the harsh conditions of the elder
American world, it might very well be that his temperament was not
altogether in the wrong. If it disabled him for certain experiences of
life, it was the source of what was most delightful in his personality,
and perhaps most beautiful in his talent. It enabled him to do such
things as he did without being at all anguished for the things he did not
do, and indeed could not. His talent was not a facile gift; he owned
that he often went day after day to his desk, and sat down before that
yellow post-office paper on which he liked to write his literature, in
that exquisitely refined script of his, without being able to inscribe a
line. It may be owned for him that though he came to the East at thirty-
four, which ought to have been the very prime of his powers, he seemed to
have arrived after the age of observation was past for him. He saw
nothing aright, either in Newport, where he went to live, or in New York,
where he sojourned, or on those lecturing tours which took him about the
whole country; or if he saw it aright, he could not report it aright, or
would not. After repeated and almost invariable failures to deal with
the novel characters and circumstances which he encountered he left off
trying, and frankly went back to the semi-mythical California he had half
discovered, half created, and wrote Bret Harte over and over as long as
he lived. This, whether he did it from instinct or from reason, was the
best thing he could do, and it went as nearly as might be to satisfy the
insatiable English fancy for the wild America no longer to be found on
our map.

It is imaginable of Harte that this temperament defended him from any
bitterness in the disappointment he may have shared with that simple
American public which in the early eighteen-seventies expected any and
everything of him in fiction and drama. The long breath was not his; he
could not write a novel, though he produced the like of one or two, and
his plays were too bad for the stage, or else too good for it. At any
rate, they could not keep it, even when they got it, and they denoted the
fatigue or the indifference of their author in being dramatizations of
his longer or shorter fictions, and not originally dramatic efforts.
The direction in which his originality lasted longest, and most
strikingly affirmed his power, was in the direction of his verse.

Whatever minds there may be about Harte's fiction finally, there can
hardly be more than one mind about his poetry. He was indeed a poet;
whether he wrote what drolly called itself "dialect," or wrote language,
he was a poet of a fine and fresh touch. It must be allowed him that in
prose as well he had the inventive gift, but he had it in verse far more
importantly. There are lines, phrases, turns in his poems,
characterizations, and pictures which will remain as enduringly as
anything American, if that is not saying altogether too little for them.
In poetry he rose to all the occasions he made for himself, though he
could not rise to the occasions made for him, and so far failed in the
demands he acceded to for a Phi Beta Kappa poem, as to come to that
august Harvard occasion with a jingle so trivial, so out of keeping, so
inadequate that his enemies, if he ever truly had any, must have suffered
from it almost as much as his friends. He himself did not suffer from
his failure, from having read before the most elect assembly of the
country a poem which would hardly have served the careless needs of an
informal dinner after the speaking had begun; he took the whole
disastrous business lightly, gayly, leniently, kindly, as that golden
temperament of his enabled him to take all the good or bad of life.

The first year of his Eastern sojourn was salaried in a sum which took
the souls of all his young contemporaries with wonder, if no baser
passion, in the days when dollars were of so much farther flight than
now, but its net result in a literary return to his publishers was one
story and two or three poems. They had not profited much by his book,
which, it will doubtless amaze a time of fifty thousand editions selling
before their publication, to learn had sold only thirty-five hundred in
the sixth month of its career, as Harte himself,

"With sick and scornful looks averse,"

confided to his Cambridge host after his first interview with the Boston
counting-room. It was the volume which contained "The Luck of Roaring
Camp," and the other early tales which made him a continental, and then
an all but a world-wide fame. Stories that had been talked over, and
laughed over, and cried over all up and down the land, that had been
received with acclaim by criticism almost as boisterous as their
popularity, and recognized as the promise of greater things than any done
before in their kind, came to no more than this pitiful figure over the
booksellers' counters. It argued much for the publishers that in spite
of this stupefying result they were willing, they were eager, to pay him
ten thousand dollars for whatever, however much or little, he chose to
write in a year: Their offer was made in Boston, after some offers
mortifyingly mean, and others insultingly vague, had been made in New
York.

It was not his fault that their venture proved of such slight return in
literary material. Harte was in the midst of new and alien conditions,
--[See a corollary in M. Froude who visited the U.S. for a few months and
then published a comprehensive analysis of the nation and its people.
Twain's rebuttal (Mr. Froude's Progress) would have been 'a propos' for
Harte in Cambridge. D.W.]--and he had always his temperament against
him, as well as the reluctant if not the niggard nature of his muse. He
would no doubt have been only too glad to do more than he did for the
money, but actually if not literally he could not do more. When it came
to literature, all the gay improvidence of life forsook him, and be
became a stern, rigorous, exacting self-master, who spared himself
nothing to achieve the perfection at which he aimed. He was of the order
of literary men like Goldsmith and De Quincey, and Sterne and Steele, in
his relations with the outer world, but in his relations with the inner
world he was one of the most duteous and exemplary citizens. There was
nothing of his easy-going hilarity in that world; there he was of a
Puritanic severity, and of a conscience that forgave him no pang. Other
California writers have testified to the fidelity with which he did his
work as editor. He made himself not merely the arbiter but the
inspiration of his contributors, and in a region where literature had
hardly yet replaced the wild sage-brush of frontier journalism, he made
the sand-lots of San Francisco to blossom as the rose, and created a
literary periodical of the first class on the borders of civilization.

It is useless to wonder now what would have been his future if the
publisher of the Overland Monthly had been of imagination or capital
enough to meet the demand which Harte dimly intimated to his Cambridge
host as the condition of his remaining in California. Publishers, men
with sufficient capital, are of a greatly varying gift in the regions of
prophecy, and he of the Overland Monthly was not to be blamed if he could
not foresee his account in paying Harte ten thousand a year to continue
editing the magazine. He did according to his lights, and Harte came to
the East, and then went to England, where his last twenty-five years were
passed in cultivating the wild plant of his Pacific Slope discovery. It
was always the same plant, leaf and flower and fruit, but it perennially
pleased the constant English world, and thence the European world, though
it presently failed of much delighting these fastidious States. Probably
he would have done something else if he could; he did not keep on doing
the wild mining-camp thing because it was the easiest, but because it was
for him the only possible thing. Very likely he might have preferred not
doing anything.

IV.

The joyous visit of a week, which has been here so poorly recovered from
the past, came to an end, and the host went with his guest to the station
in as much vehicular magnificence as had marked his going to meet him
there. Harte was no longer the alarming portent of the earlier time, but
an experience of unalloyed delight. You must love a person whose worst
trouble-giving was made somehow a favor by his own unconsciousness of the
trouble, and it was a most flattering triumph to have got him in time, or
only a little late, to so many luncheons and dinners. If only now he
could be got to the train in time the victory would be complete, the
happiness of the visit without a flaw. Success seemed to crown the
fondest hope in this respect. The train had not yet left the station;
there stood the parlor-car which Harte had seats in; and he was followed
aboard for those last words in which people try to linger out pleasures
they have known together. In this case the sweetest of the pleasures had
been sitting up late after those dinners, and talking them over, and then
degenerating from that talk into the mere giggle and making giggle which
Charles Lamb found the best thing in life. It had come to this as the
host and guest sat together for those parting moments, when Harte
suddenly started up in the discovery of having forgotten to get some
cigars. They rushed out of the train together, and after a wild descent
upon the cigar-counter of the restaurant, Harte rushed back to his car.
But by this time the train was already moving with that deceitful
slowness of the departing train, and Harte had to clamber up the steps of
the rearmost platform. His host clambered after, to make sure that he
was aboard, which done, he dropped to the ground, while Harte drew out of
the station, blandly smiling, and waving his hand with a cigar in it, in
picturesque farewell from the platform.

Then his host realized that he had dropped to the ground barely in time
to escape being crushed against the side of the archway that sharply
descended beside the steps of the train, and he went and sat down in that
handsomest hack, and was for a moment deathly sick at the danger that had
not realized itself to him in season. To be sure, he was able, long
after, to adapt the incident to the exigencies of fiction, and to have a
character, not otherwise to be conveniently disposed of, actually crushed
to death between a moving train and such an archway.

Besides, he had then and always afterward, the immense super-compensation
of the memories of that visit from one of the most charming personalities
in the world,

"In life's morning march when his bosom was young,"

and when infinitely less would have sated him. Now death has come to
join its vague conjectures to the broken expectations of life, and that
blithe spirit is elsewhere. But nothing can take from him who remains
the witchery of that most winning presence. Still it looks smiling from
the platform of the car, and casts a farewell of mock heartbreak from it.
Still a gay laugh comes across the abysm of the years that are now
numbered, and out of somewhere the hearer's sense is rapt with the mellow
cordial of a voice that was like no other.

[This last paragraph reminds one again that, as with Holmes: a great poet
writes the best prose. D.W.]

ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:

Always sumptuously providing out of his destitution
Could only by chance be caught in earnest about anything
Couldn't fire your revolver without bringing down a two volumer
Death's vague conjectures to the broken expectations of life
Dollars were of so much farther flight than now
Enjoying whatever was amusing in the disadvantage to himself
Express the appreciation of another's fit word
Gay laugh comes across the abysm of the years
Giggle which Charles Lamb found the best thing in life
His enemies suffered from it almost as much as his friends
His plays were too bad for the stage, or else too good for it
Insatiable English fancy for the wild America no longer there
Long breath was not his; he could not write a novel
Mellow cordial of a voice that was like no other
Not much of a talker, and almost nothing of a story-teller
Now death has come to join its vague conjectures
Offers mortifyingly mean, and others insultingly vague
Only one concerned who was quite unconcerned
So refined, after the gigantic coarseness of California
Wrote them first and last in the spirit of Dickens

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