Part 2 out of 5
If one could meet Lowell in a fairly empty horse-car, he would be quite
sociable and entertaining; but if the horse-car filled up, he would
become reticent again. He clung to his old friends, his classmates, and
others with whom he had grown up, and did not easily make new ones. The
modesty of his ambition is conspicuous in the fact that he was quite
satisfied with the small salary paid him by the college,--at first only
twelve hundred dollars. He evidently did not care for luxury.
Lowell's second marriage was as simple and inevitable as the first. Miss
Dunlap was not an ordinary housekeeper, but the sister of one of Maria
Lowell's most intimate friends, and she was such a pleasant, attractive
lady that the wonder is rather he should have waited four years before
concluding to offer himself. She was compared to the Greek bust called
Clyte, because her hair grew so low down upon her forehead, and this was
considered an additional charm.
Louisa Alcott had a story that at first she refused Lowell's offer on
account of what people might say; and that then he composed a poem
answering her objections in the form of an allegory, and that this
finally convinced her. If he had considered material interests he would
have married differently.
In November, 1857, the firm of Phillips & Sampson issued the first number
of the _Atlantic Monthly_ in the cause of high-minded literature,--a
cause which ultimately proved to be their ruin. Lowell accepted the
position of editor, and such a periodical as it proved to be under his
guidance could not have been found in England, and perhaps not in the
whole of Europe; but it could not be made to pay, and two years later
Phillips & Sampson failed,--partly on that account, and partially the
victims of a piratical opposition.
Lowell published Emerson's "Brahma" in spite of the shallow ridicule with
which he foresaw it would be greeted; but when Emerson sent him his "Song
of Nature" he returned it on account of the single stanza:
"One in a Judaean manger,
And one by Avon stream,
One over against the mouths of Nile,
And one in the Academe."
which he declared was more than the _Atlantic_ could be held
responsible for. Emerson, who really knew little as to what the public
thought of him, was for once indignant. He said: "I did not know who had
constituted Mr. Lowell my censor, and I carried the verses to Miss
Caroline Hoar, who read them and said, that she considered those four
lines the best in the piece." He permitted Lowell, however, to publish
the poem without them, as may be seen by examining the pages of the
_Atlantic_, and afterwards published the original copy in his "May
Lowell's editorship of the _North American Review_, which followed
after this, was not so successful. It was chiefly a political magazine at
that time, and to understand politics in a large way--that is,
sufficiently to write on the subject--one must not only be a close
observer of public affairs, but also a profound student of history; and
Lowell was neither. He was not acquainted with prominent men in public
life, and depended too much on information derived at dinner-parties, or
similar occasions. During the war period Sumner, Wilson, and Andrew were
almost omnipotent in Massachusetts, for the three worked together in a
common cause; but power always engenders envy and so an inside opposition
grew up within the Republican party to which Lowell lent his assistance
without being aware of its true character. His articles in the _North
American_ on public affairs were severely criticised by Andrew and
Wilson, while Frank W. Bird frankly called them "giving aid and comfort
to the enemy." It was certainly a doubtful course to pursue at such a
critical juncture--when all patriots should have been united--and it
offended a good many Republicans without conciliating the opposition.
Lowell's successor in this editorial chair was an old Webster Whig who
had become a Democrat.
In 1873 he resigned his professorship and went to Italy for a holiday. He
said to some friends whom he met in Florence: "I am tired of being called
Professor Lowell, and I want to be plain Mr. Lowell again. Eliot wanted
to keep my name on the catalogue for the honor of the university, but I
did not like the idea." This was true republicanism and worthy of a poet.
Lowell was little known on the continent, and he travelled in a quiet,
unostentatious manner. He went to dine with his old friends, but avoided
introductions, and remained at Florence nearly two months after other
Americans had departed for Rome. The reason he alleged for this was that
Rome was a mouldy place and the ruins made him feel melancholy; also,
because he preferred oil paintings to frescos. He had just come from
Venice, and spoke with enthusiasm of the mighty works of Tintoretto,--
especially his small painting of the Visitation, above the landing of the
staircase in the Scuola of San Rocco. He did not like the easel-paintings
of Raphael on account of their hard outlines; those in the Vatican did
him better justice. This idea he may have derived from William Morris
Hunt, the Boston portrait-painter. He considered the action of the Niobe
group too strenuous to be represented in marble.
Miss Mary Felton liked the Niobe statues; so Lowell said, "Now come back
with me, and I will sit on you." Accordingly we all returned to the Niobe
hall, where Lowell lectured us on the statues without, however, entirely
convincing Miss Felton. Then we went to the hall in the Uffizi Palace,
which is called the _Tribune_. Mrs. Lowell had never been in the
_Tribune_, where the Venus de' Medici is enshrined; so her husband
opened the door wide and said, "Now go in"--as if he were opening the
gates of Paradise.
At Bologna he wished to make an excursion into the mountains, but the
100 veturino charged about twice the usual price, and though the man
afterwards reduced his demand to a reasonable figure Lowell would not go
with him at all, and told him that such practices made Americans dislike
the Italian people. It is to be feared that a strange Italian might fare
just as badly in America.
Readers of Lowell's "Fireside Travels" will have noticed that the first
of them is addressed to the "Edelmann Storg" in Rome. The true translation
of this expression is "Nobleman Story;" that is, William W. Story,
the sculptor, who modelled the statue of Edward Everett in the Boston
public garden. Lowell's biographer, however, does not appear to have
been aware of the full significance of this paraphrase of Story's name.
When King Bomba II. was expelled from Naples by Garibaldi he retired to
Rome with his private possessions, including a large number of oil
paintings. Wishing to dispose of some of these, and being aware that
Americans paid good prices, he applied to William Story to transact the
business for him. This the sculptor did in a satisfactory manner;
whereupon King Bomba, instead of rewarding Story with a cheque, conferred
on him a patent of nobility. It seems equally strange that Story should
have accepted such a dubious honor, and that Lowell should recognize it.
On his return to Cambridge the following year, Lowell found himself a
grandfather, his daughter having married a gentleman farmer in Worcester
county. He was greatly delighted, and wrote to E. L. Godkin, editor of
"If you wish to taste the real bouquet of life, I advise you to procure
yourself a grandson, whether by adoption or theft.... Get one, and the
_Nation_ will no longer offend anybody." [Footnote: Scudder's
biography, ii., 186.]
This was a pretty broad hint, but E. L. Godkin was not the man to pay
much attention to the advice of Lowell or anybody. In fact, he seems to
have won Lowell over after this to his own way of thinking.
Lowell certainly became more conservative with age. He did not support
the movement for negro citizenship, and had separated himself in a manner
from the other New England poets. After 1872 Longfellow saw little of
him, except on state occasions. In 1876 he made a political address that
showed that if he had not already gone over to the Democratic party he
was very close upon the line. Charles Francis Adams had already gone over
to Tilden, and had carried the _North American Review_ with him. It
would not do to lose Lowell also, so the Republican leaders hit upon the
shrewd device of nominating him as a presidential elector, an honor which
he could not very well decline. When the disputed election of Hayes and
Tilden came, Godkin proposed that, in order to prevent "Mexicanizing the
government," one of the Hayes electors should cast his vote for General
Bristow, which would throw the election of President into the House of
Representatives; and he endeavored to persuade Lowell to do this. Lowell
went so far as to take legal advice on the subject, but his counsellor
informed him that since the election of John Quincy Adams it had been
virtually decided that an elector must cast his vote according to the
ticket on which he was chosen. When the electors met at the Parker House
in January, 1877, Lowell deposited his ballot for Hayes and Wheeler, and
the slight applause that followed showed that his colleagues were
conscious of the position he had assumed.
When President Hayes appointed Lowell to be Minister to Spain, Lowell
remarked that he did not see why it should have come to him. It really
came to him through his friend E. E. Hoar, of Concord, who was brother-
in-law to Secretary Evarts. His friends wondered that he should accept
the position, but the truth was that Lowell at this time was
comparatively poor. His taxes had increased, and his income had
diminished. He complained to C. P. Cranch that the whole profit from the
sale of his books during the preceding year was less than a hundred
dollars, and he thought there ought to be a law for the protection of
authors. The real trouble was hard times.
He did not like Madrid, and at the end of a year wrote that it seemed
impossible for him to endure the life there any longer. Evarts gave him a
vacation, and at the end of the second year Hayes promoted him to the
Court of St. James.
Such an appointment would have been dangerous enough in 1861, but at the
time it was made the relations between the United States and Great
Britain were sufficiently peaceable to warrant it. Lowell represented his
country in a highly creditable manner. The only difficulty he experienced
was with the Fenian agitation, and he managed that with such diplomatic
tact that no one has yet been able to discover whether he was in favor of
home rule for Ireland or not.
He made a number of excellent addresses in England, besides a multitude
of after-dinner speeches. Perhaps the best of them was his address at the
Coleridge celebration, in which he levelled an attack on the English
canonization of what they call "common sense," but which is really a new
name for dogmatism. Lowell, if not a transcendentalist, was always an
idealist, and he knew that ideality was as necessary to Cromwell and
Canning as it was to Shakespeare and Scott.
He was certainly more popular in England than he had ever been in
America, and he openly admitted that he disliked to resign his position.
Professor Child said, in 1882: "Lowell's conversation is witty, with a
basis of literary cramming; and that seems to be what the English like.
He went to twenty-nine dinner parties in the month of June, and made a
speech at each one of them."
In the last years of his life he was greatly infested with imitators who,
as he said of Emerson in the "Fable for Critics," stole his fruit and
then brought it back to him on their own dishes. Some of them were too
influential to be easily disposed of, and others did not know when they
were rebuffed. An old man, failing in strength and vigor, he had to
endure them as best he could.
The story of Lowell's visions rests on a single authority, and if there
was any truth in it, it seems probable that he would have confided the
fact to more intimate friends. There are well-authenticated instances of
visions seen by persons in a waking condition--this always happens, for
instance, in _delirium tremens_--but they are sure to indicate
nervous derangement, and are commonly followed by death. If there was
ever a poet with a sound mind and a sound body, it was James Russell
Edwin Arnold considered him the best of American poets, while Matthew
Arnold did not like him at all. Emerson, in his last years, preferred him
to Longfellow, but it is doubtful if he always did so. The strong point
of his poetry is its intelligent manliness,--the absence of affectation
and all sentimentality; but it lacks the musical element. He composed
neither songs nor ballads,--nothing to match Hiawatha, or Gray's famous
Elegy. America still awaits a poet who shall combine the _savoir
faire_ of Lowell with the force of Emerson and the grace and purity of
Emerson had an advantage over his literary contemporaries in the vigorous
life he lived. You feel in his writing the energy of necessity. The
academic shade is not favorable to the cultivation of genius, and Lowell
reclined under it too much. His best work was already performed before he
became a professor. What he lacks as a poet, however, he compensates for
as a wit. He is the best of American humorists--there are few who will be
inclined to dispute that--even though we regret occasional cynicisms,
like his jest on Milton's blindness in "Fireside Travels."
[Illustration: C. P. CRANCH]
Christopher Pearce Cranch was born March 9, 1813, at Alexandria,
Virginia, and was the son of Judge William Cranch, of the United States
Circuit Court. His father came originally from Weymouth, Massachusetts,
and had been appointed to his position through the influence of John
Quincy Adams. His mother, Anna Greenleaf, belonged to a well known Boston
family. Pearce, as he was always called by his relatives, indicated a
talent for the fine arts, as commonly happens, at an early age, and
united with this a lively interest in music, singing and playing on the
flute. These side issues may have prevented him from entering college so
early as he might otherwise have done. He graduated at Columbia College,
in 1832, after a three-year course. He wished to make a profession of
painting, but Judge Cranch was aware how precarious this would be as a
means of livelihood, and advised him to study for the ministry,--for
which his quiet ways and grave demeanor seemed to have adapted him. He
accordingly entered the Harvard Divinity-School, and was ordained as a
For the next six years Cranch lived the life of an itinerant preacher. He
preached all over New England, making friends everywhere, and receiving
numerous calls without, however, settling down to a fixed habitation.
This would seem to have been a peculiarity of his temperament; for
in 1875 George William Curtis wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Cranch a letter which
began with "O ye Bedouins"; and it is true that until that time he can
hardly be said to have had a habitation of his own. He extended his
migration as minister-at-large from Bangor, Maine, to Louisville,
Kentucky. His varied accomplishments made him attractive to the younger
members of the parishes for which he preached, but he never remained long
enough in one place for their interest to take root.
The wave of German thought and literary interest was now sweeping over
England and America. Repelled by doctors of divinity and the older class
of scholars, it was seized upon with avidity by the more susceptible
natures of the younger generation. Its influence was destined to be felt
all through the coming period of American literature. C. P. Cranch was
affected by it, as Emerson, Longfellow and even Hawthorne, were affected
by it. This, however, did not take place at once, and when Emerson's
"Nature" was published, Cranch was at first repelled by the peculiarity
of its style. At the house of Rev. James Freeman Clark, in Cincinnati, he
drew some innocently satirical illustrations of it. One was of a man with
an enormous eye under which he wrote: "I became one great transparent
eye-ball"; and another was a pumpkin with a human face, beneath which was
written: "We expand and grow in the sunshine." In another sketch Emerson
and Margaret Fuller were represented driving "over hill and dale" in a
[Footnote: Sanborn's Life of Alcott.]
He would make these humorous sketches to entertain his friends at any
time, seizing on a half-sheet of paper, or whatever might be at hand; but
he did not long continue to caricature Emerson. His first volume of
poetry, published in 1844, was dedicated to Emerson, and in Dwight's
"Translations from Goethe and Schiller," there are a number of short
pieces by Cranch, almost perfect in their rendering from German to
English. Among these the celebrated ballad of "The Fisher" is translated
so beautifully as to be slightly, if at all, inferior to the original.
"The water in dreamy motion kept,
As he sat in a dreamy mood,
A wave hove up, and a damsel stept
All dripping from the flood,"
may have appealed strongly to Cranch at this time; for we find that in
October, 1841, he was married at Fishkill-on-the-Hudson to a young lady
of an old Knickerbocker family, Miss Elizabeth De Windt. If she did not
come to him out of the Hudson, there can be no doubt that he courted her
by the banks of the most beautiful river in North America.
Cranch had given up the clerical profession six months before this, and
had adopted that of a landscape painter, for which he would seem to have
studied with some artist in New York City,--unknown to fame, and long
since forgotten. He continued to sketch and paint, and write prose and
verse on the Hudson until 1846, when he embarked with his wife on a
sailing packet for Marseilles. He had the good fortune to find a fellow-
passenger in George William Curtis, and during the voyage of seven weeks,
a lifelong friendship grew up between these two highly gifted men.
The volume of poems which he published in 1844 is now exceedingly rare;
yet many of the pieces belong to a high order of excellence. In ease and
grace of versification they resemble Longfellow, but in thought they are
more like Emerson or Goethe. Consider this opening from "The Riddle":
"Ye bards, ye prophets, ye sages,
Read to me, if ye can,
That which hath been the riddle of ages,
Read me the riddle of _Man_.
Then came the bard with his lyre,
And the sage with his pen and scroll,
And the prophet with his eye of fire,
To unriddle a human soul.
But the soul stood up in its might;
Its stature they could not scan;
And it rayed out a dazzling mystic light,
And shamed their wisest plan.
Yet sweetly the bard did sing,
And learnedly talked the sage,
And the seer flashed by with his lightning wing,
Soaring beyond his age."
This is sonorous. It has a majesty of expression and a greatness of
thought which makes Longfellow's "Psalm of Life" seem weak and even
common-place. The whole poem is pitched in the same key, and Cranch never
equalled it again, excepting once, and then in a very different manner.
Rev. Gideon Arch, a Hungarian scholar, philologist, and exile of 1849,
said of his "Endymion" that there were Endymions in all languages, but
that Cranch's was the best. To resuscitate it from the oblivion into
which it has fallen, it is given entire:
"Yes, it is the queenly moon
Walking through her starred saloon,
Silvering all she looks upon:
I am her Endymion;
For by night she comes to me,--
O, I love her wondrously.
She into my window looks,
As I sit with lamp and books,
And the night-breeze stirs the leaves,
And the dew drips down the eaves;
O'er my shoulder peepeth she,
O, she loves me royally!
Then she tells me many a tale,
With her smile, so sheeny pale,
Till my soul is overcast
With such dream-light of the past,
That I saddened needs must be,
And I love her mournfully.
Oft I gaze up in her eyes,
Raying light through winter skies;
Far away she saileth on;
I am no Endymion;
O, she is too bright for me,
And I love her hopelessly!
Now she comes to me again,
And we mingle joy and pain,
Now she walks no more afar,
Regal with train-bearing star,
But she bends and kisses me--
O, we love now mutually!"
This has the very sheen of moonlight upon it, and certainly is to be
preferred to Dr. Johnson's scholastic "Endymion":
"Diana, huntress chaste and fair,
Now thy hounds have gone to sleep,"--
If Cranch had continued in this line, and perhaps have improved upon it,
he would surely have become one of the foremost American poets, but a
poet cannot live by verse alone, and after he began to be thoroughly in
earnest with his painting, his rhythmic genius fell into the background.
From Marseilles George W. Curtis proceeded to Egypt, where he wrote his
well known book of Nile travels, while Cranch set out for Rome to perfect
He studied there at a night-school, painting in water colors from nude
models and arrangements of drapery, but not taking lessons from any
regular instructor. He never applied himself much to figure-painting,
however. He sold his paintings chiefly to American travellers, and when
the Revolution broke out in 1848, he returned to Sorrento, where his
second child, Mrs. Leonora Scott, was born. His first child was born the
year previous, in Rome, but afterwards died. In 1851, he returned to New
York and Fishkill, but not meeting with such good appreciation there as
he had in Italy, he went to Europe again in the autumn of 1853, and
resided in Paris. One cause of this may have been the unfriendliness of
his brother-in-law, who was a leading art critic in New York City, and
who disliked Cranch on account of his wife, and never neglected an
opportunity of disparaging his work.
One of his early landscapes is now before me. I think it must have been
painted anterior to his sojourn in Rome, owing to the coldness of the
coloring. It represents a scene on the Hudson near Fishkill, with some
cattle in the foreground, and a rather bold-looking mountain on the
opposite side of the river. The clouds above the mountain are light and
fleecy; the foliage soft and graceful; the cattle also are fine, but the
effect is like a chilly spring day when one requires a winter overcoat.
An allegorical piece, illustrating Heine's fir-tree dreaming of the palm,
has a much pleasanter effect, although it represents a wintry scene.
His art improved greatly in Paris, and he also wrote a number of short
poems which his friend, James Russell Lowell, published in the
_Atlantic Monthly_. In 1856 George L. Stearns sent him an order for
a painting, which Cranch executed the following year, and wrote Mr.
Stearns this explanation concerning it, in a very interesting letter
dated Paris, March 18, 1857:
"Your picture is done and is quite a favorite with those who have seen
it. In fact, I think so well of it that I shall probably send it to the
Exposition, which opens soon. After that it shall be sent to you. It is
an oak and a sunset--a warm and low-toned picture--and I am sure you
will like it."
This landscape represents two vigorous oak trees by the bank of a river,
with a sunset seen through the branches, and reflected in the water. The
scene is remarkably like a similar one on Concord River, about two
hundred yards below the spot where Hawthorne and Channing discovered the
body of the schoolmistress who drowned herself, as Hawthorne supposed,
from lack of sympathy. It seems as if the original sketch must have been
made at that point. It is of a deep rich coloring, smoothly and
delicately finished,--a painting that no one has yet been able to find
fault with. Rev. Samuel Longfellow, who knew almost every picture in the
galleries of Europe, considered it equal to a Ruysdael, and he liked it
better than a Ruysdael.
In the letter above referred to Cranch also writes:
"Since your letter (a long time ago) I have written you a good many
epistles (in a kind of invisible ink of my invention) which probably you
have never received.
"The truth is, I am a distinguished case of total depravity in the matter
of correspondence. Letters ought to flow from one as easily and
spontaneously as spoken words. But then one must write all the time and
report life continuously, as one does in speech. A letter does nothing
but give some little detached morsel of one's life--and we say to
ourselves what is the use of holding up to a friend three thousand miles
off such unsatisfactory statements, such dribblings and droppings? 'Write
what is uppermost,' says one at your elbow. Ah, if we could only say what
is uppermost; as I sit down for instance to write (say this letter) I am
caught into a sort of whirl of thoughts, in which it is impossible to say
exactly what is foremost and what is hindmost. Then if I only attempt to
narrate events, where am I to begin--so you see (I am theorizing about
letters) a letter must be a sort of epitome of a friend's being and life
or else nothing. Applying the theory to myself, finding myself unable to
shut my genie in a box and carry him on my shoulders, I simply go and
state that there is such a box with a genie supposed to be in it, lying
at the custom-house, and here is the roughest sort of sketch of it," etc.
This is characteristic of the man. He lived largely in an atmosphere of
poetic pleasantry, which served as an alleviation to his cares and as an
attraction to his friends.
Cranch did not always succeed so well. He never became a mannerist, but
there was too much similarity in his subjects, and the treatment too
often bordered on the commonplace. Tintoretto said: "Colors can be bought
at the paint-shop, but good designs are only obtained by sleepless nights
and much reflection." It is doubtful if Cranch ever laid awake over his
work, either in poetry or painting. He had a dreamy, phlegmatic
disposition, which seemed to carry him through life without much effort
of the will. He once confessed that when he was a boy he would never fire
a gun for fear it might kick him over, and when he was at Hampton beach
in 1875 he was in the habit of going out to sketch at a certain hour with
prosaic regularity. He did not seem to be on the watch, as an artist
should, for rare effects of light and scenery, and he talked of art with
very little enthusiasm. Yet he lived the true life of his profession,
enjoying his work, contented with little praise, and without envy of
those who were more fortunate. What is called _odium artisticum_ was
unknown to him.
He was an unpretending, courteous American gentleman. His disposition was
perfect, and no one could remember having seen him out of temper. His
pleasant flow of wit and humor, together with his varied accomplishments,
made him a very brilliant man in society, and he counted among his
friends the finest _literati_ in Rome, London, and the United
States. He knew Thackeray as he knew Curtis and Lowell, and was once
dining with him in a London chop-house, when Thackeray said: "Have you
read the last number of The Newcombs?--if not, I will read it to you."
Accordingly he gave the waiter a shilling to obtain the document, and
read it aloud to Cranch and a friend who was with him.
[Footnote: Both mentioned in Hawthorne's Notebook.]
Cranch could never understand this, for it was the last thing he would
have done himself without an invitation; but he enjoyed the reading, and
often referred to it.
When he returned to America in 1863 he went to live on Staten Island in
order to be near George William Curtis, who cared for him as Damon did
for Pythias, and who served to counteract the ill-omened influence of
Cranch's brother-in-law. The Century Club purchased one of his pictures,
an allegorical subject, which I believe still hangs in their halls. From
1873 to 1877 Lowell would seem to have frequented Cranch's house in
preference to any other in Cambridge.
When Cranch first went to live there he occupied a small but sunny and
otherwise desirable house on the westerly side of Appian Way,--a name
that amused him mightily,--but in 1876 he purchased the house on the
southwestern corner of Ellery and Harvard Streets. Having arranged his
household goods there he sent one of his own paintings as a present to
Emerson in order to renew their early acquaintance. Emerson responded to
it by a characteristic note, in which he said that his son and daughter,
who were both good artists, had expressed their approval of his present.
He then referred to the danger which arises from a multiplicity of
talents, and said: "I well recollect how you made the frogs vocal in the
ponds back of Sleepy Hollow."
Cranch did not feel that this was very complimentary, but a few days
later there came an invitation for Mr. and Mrs. Cranch to spend the day
at Concord. Emerson met them at the railway station with his carryall. He
had on an old cylinder hat which had evidently seen good service, and yet
became him remarkably. He was interested to hear what George William
Curtis thought about politics, and to find that it agreed closely with
the opinion of his friend, Judge Hoar. The Cranchs had a delightful
Cranch's baritone voice was like his poem, the "Riddle," deep, rich and
sonorous. He might have earned a larger income with it, perhaps, than he
did by writing and painting. He sang comic songs in a manner peculiarly
his own,--as if the words were enclosed in a parenthesis,--as much as to
say, "I do not approve of this, but I sing it just the same," and this
made the performance all the more amusing. He sang Bret Harte's "Jim" in
a very effective manner, and he often sang the epitaph on Shakespeare's
"Good friend, for Jesus sake forbeare,"
as a recitative, both in English and Italian,--_In questa tomba_.
He seemed to bring out a hidden force in his singing, which was not
apparent on ordinary occasions. His reading of poetry was also fine, but
he depended in it rather too much on his voice, too little on the meaning
of the verse. It was not equal to Celia Thaxter's reading.
The same types of physiognomy continually reappear among artists. William
M. Hunt looked like Horace Vernet, and Cranch in his old age resembled
the Louvre portrait of Tintoretto, although his features were not so
strong. He used to say in jest that he was descended from Lucas Cranach,
but that the second vowel had dropped out. He cared as little for the
fashions as poets and artists commonly do, but there was no dandy in
Boston who appeared so well in a full dress suit.
In 1873 the Velasquez method of painting was in full vogue at Boston.
Cranch did not believe in imitations, or in adopting the latest style
from Paris, and he set himself against the popular hue-and-cry somewhat
to his personal disadvantage. Charles Perkins and the other art scholars
who founded the Art Museum in Copley Square were all on Cranch's side,
but that did not seem to help him with the public. "They cannot bend the
bow of Ulysses," said Cranch in some disgust. He preferred Murillo to
Velasquez, and once had quite an argument with William Hunt on the
subject in Doll & Richards's picture-store. Hunt asserted that there was
no essential difference between a sketch and a finished picture,--he
might have said there was no difference between a boy and a man,--that
all the artist needed was to express himself, and that it was immaterial
in what way he did so. Cranch thought afterwards, though unfortunately it
did not occur to him at the moment, that the test of such a theory would
be its application to sculpture. He wondered what Raphael would have
thought of it.
It was quite a grief to Cranch that his own daughter, who inherited his
talent, should have deserted him at this juncture, and gone over to the
opposition. She filled his house with rough, heavily-shaded studies of
still-life, flowers, and faces of her friends; but of all Hunt's pupils,
Miss Cranch, Miss Knowlton, and Miss Lamb were the only ones who achieved
artistic distinction in their special work.
It was in order to withdraw her from this Walpurgis art-dance that Cranch
undertook his last journey to Paris in his seventieth year. There the
young lady quickly dropped her Boston method, and, acquiring a more
conservative handling, became an excellent portrait painter; too soon,
however, obliged to relinquish her art on account of ill-health.
Cranch's landscapes now adorn the walls of private houses; very largely
the houses of his numerous friends. He did not paint in the fashion of
the time, but like Millet followed a fashion of his own; and I do not
know of any of his pictures in public collections, although there are
many that deserve the honor. The best landscape of his that I have seen
was painted just before his last visit to Paris. It represents a low-
toned sunset like the "Two Oaks"; an autumnal scene on a narrow river,
with maples here and there upon its banks. The sky is covered by a dull
gray cloud, but in the west the sun shines through a low opening and
gives promise of a better day. The peculiar liquid effect of the setting
sun is wonderfully rendered, and the rich browns and russets of the
foliage lead up, as it were, like a flight of steps to this final glory,
--a restful and impressive scene. This landscape is not painted in the
smooth manner of the "Two Oaks," but with soft, flakelike touches which
slightly remind one of Murillo. Its coloring has the peculiarity that
artificial light wholly changes its character, whereas Cranch's
paintings, previous to 1875, appear much the same by electric light that
they do in daytime. It is called the "Home of the Wood Duck."
Between 1870 and 1880 he published a number of poems in the _Atlantic
Monthly_ as well as a longer piece called "Satan," for which it was
said by a certain wit that he received the devil's pay. His two books for
young folks, "The Last of the Huggermuggers" and "Kobboltozo," ought not
to be overlooked, for the illustrations in them are the only remains we
have of his rare pencil drawings, as good, if not better, than
It is likely that the parents read these stories with more pleasure than
their children; for they not only contain a deal of fine wit, but there
is a moral allegory running through them both. An American vessel is
wrecked on a strange island, and the sailors who have escaped death are
astonished at the gigantic proportions of the sand and the sea-shells,
and of the bushes by the shore. Presently the Huggermuggers appear, and
the American mariners in terror run to hide themselves; but they soon
find that these giants are the kindliest of human beings. There are also
dwarfs on the island, larger than ordinary men, but small compared with
the Huggermuggers. They are disagreeable, envious creatures, who wish to
ruin the giants in order to have the island more entirely to themselves.
Having accomplished this in a somewhat mysterious manner, they attempted
to improve their own stature by eating a certain shell-fish which had
been the favorite food of the giants; but the shell-fish had also
disappeared with the Huggermuggers, and after searching for it a long
time they finally summoned the Mer-King, the genius of the sea, who
raised his head above the water in a secluded cove and spoke these
"Not in the Ocean deep and clear,
Not on the Land so broad and fair,
Not in the regions of boundless Air,
Not in the Fire's burning sphere--
'Tis not here--'tis not there:
Ye may seek it everywhere.
He that is a dwarf in spirit
Never shall the isle inherit.
Hearts that grow 'mid daily cares
Come to greatness unawares;
Noble souls alone may know
How the giants live and grow."
This is an allegory, but of very general application; and it has more
especially a political application. Cranch may have intended it to
illustrate the life of Alexander Hamilton.
Cranch was not a giant himself, but he knew how to distinguish true
greatness from the spurious commodity. Emerson considered his varied
accomplishments his worst enemy; but that depends on how you choose to
look at it. It is probable enough that if Cranch had followed out a
single pursuit to its perfection, and if he had not lived so many years
in Europe, he would have been a more celebrated man; but Cranch did not
care for celebrity. He was content to live and to let live. Men of great
force, like Macaulay and Emerson, who impress their personality on the
times in which they live, communicate evil as well as good; but Cranch
had no desire to influence his fellow men, and for this reason his
influence was of a purer quality. It was like the art of Albert Durer. No
one could conceive of Cranch's injuring anybody; and if all men were like
him there would be no more wars, no need of revolutions. Force, however,
is necessary to combat the evil that is already established.
He died at his house on Ellery Street January 20, 1890, as gently and
peacefully as he had lived. There is an excellent portrait of him by
Duveneck in the rooms of the University Club, at Boston; but the sketch
of his life, by George William Curtis, was refused on the ground that he
was an Emersonian. The same objection might have been raised against
Lowell, or Curtis himself with equally good reason.
T. G. APPLETON.
Thomas G. Appleton, universally known as "Tom" Appleton, was a notable
figure during the middle of the last century not only in Boston and
Cambridge, but in Paris, Rome, Florence, and other European cities. He
was descended from one of the oldest and wealthiest families of Boston,
and graduated from Harvard in 1831, together with Wendell Phillips and
George Lothrop Motley. He was not distinguished in college for his
scholarship, but rather as a wit, a _bon vivant_, and a good fellow.
Yet his companions looked upon him as a strong character and much above
the average in intellect. After taking his degree of Bachelor of Arts he
went through the Law School, and attempted to practise that profession in
Boston. At the end of the first year, happening to meet Wendell Phillips
on the sidewalk, the latter inquired if he had any clients. He had not;
neither had Phillips, and they both agreed that waiting for fortune in
the legal profession was wearisome business. They were both well adapted
to it, and the only reason for their ill success would seem to have been
that they belonged to wealthy and rather aristocratic families, amongst
whom there is little litigation.
At the same time Sumner was laying the foundation by hard study for his
future distinction as a legal authority, and Motley was discussing Goethe
and Kant with the youthful Bismarck in Berlin. Wendell Phillips soon gave
up his profession to become an orator in the anti-slavery cause; and Tom
Appleton went to Rome and took lessons in oil painting.
Nothing can be more superficial than to presume that young men who write
verses or study painting think themselves geniuses. A man may have a
genius for mechanics; and in most instances men and women are attracted
to the arts from the elevating character of the occupation. It is not
likely that Tom Appleton considered himself a genius, for although he had
plenty of self-confidence, his opinion of himself was always a modest
one. He painted the portraits of some of his friends, but he never fairly
made a profession of it. However, he learned the mechanism of pictorial
art in this way, and soon became one of the best connoisseurs of his
His finest enjoyment was to meet with some person, especially a stranger,
with whom he could discuss the celebrated works in the galleries of
Europe. He soon became known as a man who had something to say, and who
knew how to say it. He told the Italian picture-dealers to cheat him as
much as they could, and he gave amusing accounts of their various
attempts to do this. He knew more than they did.
After this time he lived as much in Europe as he did in America. Before
1860 he had crossed the Atlantic nearly forty times. The marriage of his
sister to Henry W. Longfellow was of great advantage to him, for through
Longfellow he made the acquaintance of many celebrated persons whom he
would not otherwise have known, and being always equal to such occasions
he retained their respect and good will. One might also say, "What could
Longfellow have done without _him_?" His conversation was never
forced, and the wit, for which he became as much distinguished in social
life as Lowell or Holmes, was never premeditated, often making its
appearance on unexpected occasions to refresh his hearers with its
sparkle and originality.
In the "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table" Doctor Holmes quotes this saying
by the "wittiest of men," that "good Americans, when they die, go to
Paris." Now this wittiest of men was Tom Appleton, as many of us knew at
that time. He said of Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" that it probably
had faded out from being stared at by sightseers, and that the same thing
might have happened to the Sistine Madonna if it had not been put under
glass,--these being the two most popular paintings in Europe. His fund of
anecdotes was inexhaustible.
Earlier in life he was occasionally given to practical jokes. A woman who
kept a thread and needle store in Boston was supposed to have committed
murder, and was tried for it but acquitted. One day, as Appleton was
going by her place of business with a friend he said: "Come in here with
me; I want to see how that woman looks." Then surveying the premises, as
if he wished to find something to purchase, he asked her if she had any
"galluses" for sale,--gallus being a shop-boy's term at the time for
When the Art Museum in Boston was first built its odd appearance
attracted very general attention, and some one asked Tom Appleton what he
thought of it. "Well," he said, "I have heard that architecture is a kind
of frozen music, and if so I should call the Art Museum frozen 'Yankee
Thomas G. Appleton was no dilettante; his interest in the subject was
serious and abiding. He did not wear his art as he did his gloves, nor
did he turn it into an intellectual abstraction. There was nothing he
disliked more than the kind of pretension which tries to make a knowledge
of art a vehicle for self-importance. "Who," he said, "ought not to feel
humble before a painting of Titian's or Correggio's? It is only when we
feel so that we can appreciate a great work of art." He believed that an
important moral lesson could be inculcated by a picture as well as by a
poem,--even by a realistic Dutch painting. "Women worship the Venus of
Milo now," he said, "just as they did in ancient Greece, and it is good
for them, too." He respected William Morris Hunt as the best American
painter of his time, but thought he would be a better painter if he were
not so proud. Pride leads to arrogance, and arrogance is blinding.
After he came into possession of his inheritance he showed that he could
make a good use of money. One of his first acts was to purchase a set of
engravings in the Vatican, valued at ten thousand dollars, for the Boston
Public Library. "I was not such a fool as to pay that sum for it,
though," he remarked to Rev. Samuel Longfellow. He visited the studios of
struggling artists in Rome and Boston, gave them advice and
encouragement,--made purchases himself, sometimes, and advised his
friends to purchase when he found a painting that was really excellent.
He also purchased some valuable old paintings to adorn his house on
He placed two of these at one time on free exhibition at Doll's picture-
store, and going into the rooms where they hung, I found Tom Appleton
explaining their merits to a group of remarkably pretty school-girls.
At the same moment, another gentleman who knew Mr. Appleton entered, and
said, "Ah! a Palma Vecio, Mr. Appleton; how delightful! It is a Palma, is
"That," replied Mr. Appleton, "is probably a Palma; but what do you say
to this, which I consider a much better picture?" The gentleman did not
know; but it looked like Venetian coloring.
"Quite right," said Mr. Appleton; "I bought it at the sale of a private
collection in Rome, and it was catalogued as a Tintoretto, but I said,
'No, Bassano;' and it is the best Bassano I ever saw. The Italians call
it '_Il Coconotte_.'"
Mr. Appleton had no intention of palming off doubtful paintings on his
friends or the public; but in regard to "_Il Coconotte_" he was
confident of its true value, and rightly so. The painting, so called from
a head in the group covered very thinly with hair, was the pride of his
collection and one of the best of Bassano's works. The other painting
looked to me like a Palma, and I have always supposed that it was one.
After this Mr. Appleton branched off on to an interesting anecdote
concerning an Italian cicerone, and finally left his audience as well
entertained as if they had been to the theatre.
In 1871 he published a volume of poems for private circulation, in which
there were a number of excellent pieces, and especially two which deserve
a place in any choice collection of American poetry. One is called the
"Whip of the Sky" and relates to a subject which Mr. Appleton often dwelt
upon,--the unnecessary haste and restlessness of American life, and is
given here for the wider circulation which it amply deserves:
THE WHIP OF THE SKY.
Weary with travel, charmed with home,
The youth salutes New England's air;
Nor notes, within the azure dome,
A vigilant, menacing figure there,
Whose thonged hand swings
A whip which sings:
"Step, step, step," sings the whip of the sky:
"Hurry up, move along, you can if you try!"
Remembering Como's languid side,
Where, pulsing from the citron deep,
The nightingale's aerial tide
Floats through the day, repose and sleep,
Reclined in groves,--
A voice reproves.
"Step, step, step," cracks the whip of the sky:
"Hurry up, jump along, rest when you die!"
Slave of electric will, which strips
From him the bliss of easeful hours;
And bids, as from a tyrant's lips,
Rest, quiet, fly, as useless flowers,
He wings his heart
To make him smart.
"Step, step, step," snaps the whip of the sky:
"Hurry up, race along, rest when you die!"
He maddens in the breathless race,
Nor misses station, power or pelf;
And only loses in the chase
The hunted lord of all,--himself.
His gain is loss,
His treasure dross.
"Step, step, step," mocks the whip of the sky,
"Hurry up, limp along, rest when you die!"
With care he burthens all his soul;
Heaped ingots curve his willing back;
Submissive to that fierce control,
He needs at last the sky-whip's crack,
Till at the grave,
No more a slave,--
"Rest, rest, rest," sighs the whip of the sky:
"Hurry not, haste no more, rest when you die!"
Celia Thaxter, the finest of poetic readers, read this to me one
September morning at the Isles of Shoals, and at the conclusion she
remarked: "If that could only be read every year in our public schools it
might do the American people some good."
As compared with this, the sonnet on Pompeii has the effect of a strong
complementary color,--for instance, like orange against dark blue. It
echoes the pathetic reverie that we feel on beholding the monuments of
the mighty past. It contains not the pathos of yesterday, nor of a
hundred years ago, but as Emerson says, "of the time out of mind."
The silence there was what most haunted me.
Long, speechless streets, whose stepping-stones invite
Feet which shall never come; to left and right
Gay colonnades and courts,--beyond, the glee,
Heartless, of that forgetful Pagan sea.
O'er roofless homes and waiting streets, the light
Lies with a pathos sorrowfuler than night.
Fancy forbids this doom of Life with Death
Wedded; and with a wand restores the Life.
The jostling throngs swarm, animate, beneath
The open shops, and all the tropic strife
Of voices, Roman, Greek, Barbarian, mix. The wreath
Indolent hangs on far Vesuvius's crest;
And beyond the glowing town, and guiltless sea, sweet rest.
Tom Appleton was greatly interested in the performances of the
spiritualists, trance mediums, and other persons pretending to
supernatural powers. How far he believed in this occult science can now
only be conjectured, but he was not a man to be easily played upon. He
thought at least that there was more in it than was dreamed of by
philosophers. When the Longfellow party was at Florence in April, 1869,
Prince George of Hanover, recently driven from his kingdom by Bismarck,
called to see the poet, and finding that he had gone out, was entertained
by Mr. Appleton with some remarkable stories of hypnotic and
spiritualistic performances. The prince, who was a most amiable looking
young German, was evidently very much interested.
Deafness came upon Mr. Appleton in the last years of his life, though not
so as to prevent his enjoying the society of those who had clear voices
and who spoke distinctly. When one of his friends suggested that the
trouble might be wax in his ears, he shook his head sadly and said: "Oh
no: not _wax_, but _wane_."
He was finally taken ill while all alone in New York City, and the
Longfellows were telegraphed for. When one of his relatives came to him
he spoke of his malady in a stoically humorous manner; and his last words
were when he was dying: "How interesting this all is!" A man never left
this world with a more perfect faith in immortality!
I have often been inside the old Holmes house in Cambridge. It served as
a boarding-house during our college days, but afterwards Professor James
B. Thayer rented it for a term of years, until it was finally swept away
like chaff by President Eliot's broom of reform. The popular notion that
it was a quaint-looking old mansion of the eighteenth century, which
seems to have been encouraged by Doctor Holmes himself, is a
misconception. It was a two-and-a-half story, low-studied house, such as
were built at the beginning of the last century, with a roof at an angle
of forty-five degrees and a two-story ell on the right side of the front
door. Doctor Holmes says:
"Gambrel, gambrel; let me beg
You will look at a horse's hinder leg.
First great angle above the hoof,--
That is the gambrel; hence gambrel roof."
Now, any one who looks carefully at the picture of the old Holmes
house, in Morse's biography of the Doctor, will perceive that this
was not the style of roof which the house had,--at least, in its later
Doctor Holmes graduated at Harvard in 1829 at the age of twenty. His
class has been a celebrated one in Boston, and there were certainly some
good men in it,--especially Benjamin Pierce and James Freeman Clarke,--
but I think it was Doctor Holmes's class-poems that gave it its chief
celebrity, which, after all, means that it was a good deal talked about.
In one of these he said:
"No wonder the tutor can't sleep in his bed
With two twenty-niners over his head."
He was said to have composed twenty-nine poems for his class, and then
declared that he had reached the proper limit,--that it would not be
prudent to go beyond the magical number. It was not a dissipated class,
but one with a good deal of life in it, much given to late hours and
jokes, practical and unpractical. The Doctor himself is mysteriously
silent concerning his college course, and so are his biographers; but we
may surmise that it was not very different in general tenor from
Lowell's; although his Yankee shrewdness would seem to have preserved him
from serious catastrophes.
In the "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table" Doctor Holmes mentions an early
acquaintance with Margaret Fuller, which is not referred to by Mr. Morse,
but must have arisen either at Mrs. Prentiss's Boston school or at the
Cambridgeport school which young Oliver afterwards attended. Even at that
age he recognized Margaret's intellectual gifts, and he was not a little
emulous of her; for he fancied that he "had also drawn a small prize in
the great literary lottery." He looked into one of her compositions,
which was lying on the teacher's desk, and felt quite crest-fallen by
discovering a word in it which he did not know the meaning of. This word
was _trite_; and it may he suspected that a good many use it without
being aware of its proper significance.
Margaret Fuller rose to celebrity with the spontaneity of true genius,
and left her name high upon the natural bridge of American literature.
Holmes did not come before the public until years after her death; and
then perhaps it might not have happened but for James Russell Lowell and
the _Atlantic_. He was a bright man, and possessed a peculiar mental
quality of his own; but as we think of him now we can hardly call him a
genius. He would evidently have liked in his youth to have made a
profession of literature; but his verse lacked the charm and universality
which made Longfellow popular so readily; nor did he possess the daring
spirit of innovation with which Emerson startled and convinced his
contemporaries. He first tried the law, and as that did not suit his
taste he fell into medicine, but evidently without any natural bent or
inclination for the profession. He was fond of the university, and when,
after a temporary professorship at Dartmouth he was appointed lecturer on
anatomy at the Harvard Medical-School, his friends realized that he had
found his right position.
Lecturing on anatomy is a routine, but by no means a sinecure. It
requires a clearness and accuracy of statement which might be compared to
the work of an optician. Some idea of it can be derived from the fact
that there may be eight or ten points to a human bone, each of which has
a name of eight or ten syllables,--only to be acquired by the hardest
study. Doctor Holmes's lecturing manner was incisive and sometimes
pungent, like his conversation, but always good-humored and well
calculated to make an impression even on the most lymphatic temperaments.
While it may be said that others might have done it as well, it is
doubtful if he could have been excelled in his own specialty. His ready
fund of wit often served to revive the drooping spirits of his audience,
and many of his jests have become a kind of legendary lore at the
Medical-School. Most of them, however, were of a too anatomical character
to be reproduced in print.
So the years rolled over Doctor Holmes's head; living quietly, working
steadily, and accumulating a store of proverbial wisdom by the way. In
June, 1840, he married Amelia Lee Jackson, of Boston, an alliance which
brought him into relationship with half the families on Beacon Street,
and which may have exercised a determining influence on the future course
of his life. Doctor Holmes was always liberally inclined, and ready to
welcome such social and political improvements as time might bring; but
he never joined any of the liberal or reformatory movements of his time.
Certain old friends of Emerson affirmed, when Holmes published his
biography of the Concord sage in 1885, that no one else was so much given
to jesting as Emerson in his younger days. This may have been true; but
it is also undeniable that Emerson himself had changed much during that
time, and that the socialistic Emerson of 1840 was largely a different
person from the author of "Society and Solitude." Holmes had already
composed one of the fairest tributes to Emerson's intellectual quality
that has yet been written.
"He seems a winged Franklin, heavenly wise,
Born to unlock the secrets of the skies."
Emerson began his course in direct apposition to the conventional world;
but he was the great magnet of the age, and the world could not help
being attracted by him. It modified its course, and Emerson also modified
his, so that the final reconciliation might take place. Meanwhile Doctor
Holmes pursued the even tenor of his way. Concord does not appear to have
been attractive to him. He had a brother, John Holmes, who was reputed by
his friends to be as witty as the "Autocrat" himself, but who lived a
quiet, inconspicuous life. John was an intimate friend of Hon. E. R. Hoar
and often went to Concord to visit him; but I never heard of the Doctor
being seen there, though it may have happened before my time. He does not
speak over-much of Emerson in his letters, and does not mention
Hawthorne, Thoreau or Alcott, so far as we know, at all. They do not
appear to have attracted his attention.
We are indebted to Lowell for all that Doctor Holmes has given us. The
Doctor was forty-eight when the _Atlantic Monthly_ appeared before
the public, and according to his own confession he had long since given
up hope of a literary life. We hardly know another instance like it; but
so much the better for him. He had no immature efforts of early life to
regret; and when the cask once was tapped, the old wine came forth with a
fine bouquet. When Phillips & Sampson consulted Lowell in regard to the
editorship of the _Atlantic,_ he said at once: "We must get
something from Oliver Wendell Holmes." He was Lowell's great discovery
and proved to be his best card,--a clear, shining light, and not an
When the "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table" first appeared few were in the
secret of its authorship and everybody asked: "Who is this new luminary?"
It was exactly what the more intelligent public wanted, and Holmes jumped
at once into the position in literature which he has held ever since.
Readers were delighted with his wit, surprised at his originality and
impressed by his proverbial wisdom. It was the advent of a sound, healthy
intelligence, not unlike that of President Lincoln, which could deal with
common-place subjects in a significant and characteristic manner. The
landlady's daughter, the schoolmistress, little Boston, and the young man
called John, are as real and tangible as the _dramatis personae_ in
one of Moliere's plays. They seem more real to us than many of the
distinguished men and women whom we read of in the newspapers.
Doctor Holmes is the American Sterne. He did not seek a vehicle for his
wit in the oddities and mishaps of English middle-class domestic life,
but in the contrasts and incongruities of a Boston boarding-house. He
informs us at the outset that he much prefers a family with an ancestry--
one that has had a judge or a governor in it, with old family portraits,
old books and claw-footed furniture; but if Doctor Holmes had depended on
such society for his material he would hardly have interested the public
whom he addressed. One of Goethe's critics complained that the class of
persons he had introduced in "Wilhelm Meister" did not belong to good
society; and to this the "aristocratic" poet replied: "I have often been
in society called good, from which I have not been able to obtain an idea
for the shortest poem."
So it is always: the interesting person is the one who struggles. After
the struggle is over, and prosperity commences, the moral ends,--young
Corey and his bride go off to Mexico. The lives of families are
represented by those of its prominent individuals. The ambitious son of
an old and wealthy family makes a new departure from former precedents,
thus creating a fresh struggle for himself, and becomes an orator, like
Wendell Philips, or a scientist, like Darwin.
In the "Autocrat" we recognize the dingy wall-paper of the dining-room,
the well-worn furniture, the cracked water-pitcher, and the slight aroma
of previous repasts; but we soon forget this unattractive background, for
the scene is full of genuine human life. The men and women who congregate
there appear for what they really are. They wear no mental masks and
other disguises like the people we meet at fashionable entertainments;
and each acts himself or herself. Boarding-houses, sanitariums, and sea
voyages are the places to study human nature. When a man is half seasick
the old original Adam shows forth in him through all the wrappings of
education, social restraint, imitation and attempts at self-improvement,
with which he has covered it over for so many years. Once on a Cunard
steamship I heard an architect from San Francisco tell the story of the
hoop-snake, which takes its tail in its teeth and rolls over the prairies
at a speed equal to any express train. He evidently believed the story
himself, and as I looked round on the company I saw that they all
believed it, too, excepting Captain Martyn, who gave me a sly look from
the corner of his eye. "Rocked in the cradle of the deep," they had
become like children again, and were ready to credit anything that was
told in a confident manner. But Doctor Holmes's digressions are
The "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table" is an irregular panorama of human
life without either a definite beginning or end,--unless the autocrat's
offering himself to the schoolmistress (an incident which only took place
on paper) can be considered so; but it is by no means a patchwork. He
talks of horse-racing, the Millerites, elm trees, Doctor Johnson, the
composition of poetry and much else; but these subjects are introduced
and treated with an adroitness that amounts to consummate art. He is
always at the boarding-house, and if his remarks sometimes shoot over the
heads of his auditors, this is only because he intends that they should.
The first ten or fifteen pages of the "Autocrat" are written in such a
cold, formal and pedantic manner that the wonder is that Lowell should
have published it. After that the style suddenly changes and the Doctor
becomes himself. It is like a convention call which ends in a sympathetic
Doctor Holmes's humor permeates every sentence that he wrote. Even in his
most serious moods we meet with it in a peculiar phrase, or the use of
some exceptional word.
Now and then his wit is very brilliant, lighting up its surroundings like
the sudden appearance of a meteor. The essence of humor consists in a
contrast which places the object or person compared at a disadvantage. If
the contrast is a dignified one we have high comedy; but if the reverse,
low comedy. Some of Holmes's comparisons make the reader laugh out aloud.
He says that a tedious preacher or lecturer, with an alert listener in
the audience, resembles a crow followed by a king-bird,--a spectacle
which of itself is enough to make one smile; and as for an elevated
comparison, what could be more so, unless we were to seek one in the
moon. There is a threefold wit in it; but the full force of this can only
be appreciated in the original text.
Nature commonly sets her own stamp on the face of a humorist. The long
pointed nose of Cervantes is indicative of immeasurable fun, and there
have been many similar noses on the faces of less distinguished wits.
Doctor Holmes ridiculed phrenology as an attempt to estimate the money in
a safe by the knobs on the outside, but he evidently was a believer in
physiognomy, and he exemplified this in his own case. His face had a
comical expression from boyhood; its profile reminded one of those
prehistoric images which Di Cesnola brought from Cyprus. As if he were
conscious of this he asserted his dignity in a more decided manner than a
man usually does who is confident of the respect of those about him. Thus
he acquired a style of his own, different from that of any other person
in Boston. He was not a man to be treated with disrespect or undue
A medical student named Holyoke once had occasion to call on him, and as
soon as he had introduced himself Doctor Holmes said: "There, me friend,
stand there and let me take an observation of you." He then fetched an
old book from his library which contained a portrait of Holyoke's
grandfather, who had also been a physician. He compared the two faces,
saying: "Forehead much the same; nose not so full; mouth rather more
feminine; chin not quite so strong; but on the whole a very good
likeness, and I have no doubt you will make an excellent doctor." After
Holyoke had explained his business Doctor Holmes finally said: "I liked
your grandfather, and shall always be glad to see you here."
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was class poet of 1861, an honor which
pleased his father very much. Immediately after graduating he went to the
war, and came near losing his life at the battle of Antietam. A rifle-
ball passed through both lungs, and narrowly missed his heart. Alexander
Hamilton died of exactly such a wound in seven hours; and yet in three
days Captain Holmes was able to write to his father. The Doctor started
at once for the seat of war, and met with quite a series of small
adventures which he afterwards described in a felicitous article in the
_Atlantic,_ called "My Hunt after the Captain." His friend, Dr.
Henry P. Bowditch, lost his son in the same battle, and when they met at
the railway depot Holmes said: "I would give my house to have your
fortune like mine."
In a letter to Motley dated February 3, 1862, he says:
"I was at a dinner at Parker's the other day where Governor Andrew and
Emerson, and various unknown dingy-linened friends of progress met to
hear Mr. Conway, the not unfamous Unitarian minister of Washington,--
Virginia-born, with seventeen secesh cousins, fathers, and other
relatives,--tell of his late experience at the seat of Government. He is
an out-and-out immediate emancipationist,--believes that is the only way
to break the strength of the South; that the black man is the life of the
South; that they dread work above all things, and cling to the slave as
the drudge that makes life tolerable to them. I do not know if his
opinion is worth much."
This was a meeting of the Bird Club which Doctor Holmes attended and the
dingy-linened friends of progress were such men as Dr. Samuel G. Howe,
Governor Washburn, Governor Claflin, Dr. Estes Howe, and Frank B.
Sanborn. It has always been a trick of fashionable society, a trick as
old as the age of Pericles, to disparage liberalism by accusing it of
vulgarity; but we regret to find Doctor Holmes falling into line in this
particular. He always speaks of Sumner in his letters with something like
a slur--not to Motley, for Motley was Sumner's friend, but to others who
might be more sympathetic. This did not, however, prevent him from going
to Sumner in 1868 to ask a favor for his second son, who wanted to be
private secretary to the Senator and learn something of foreign affairs.
Sumner granted the request, although he must have been aware that the
Doctor was not over-friendly to him; but it proved an unfortunate
circumstance for Edward J. Holmes, who contracted malaria in Washington,
and this finally resulted in an early death.
Why is it that members of the medical profession should take an
exceptional interest in poisonous reptiles? Professor Reichert and Dr. S.
Weir Mitchell spent a large portion of their leisure hours for several
years in experimenting with the virus of rattlesnakes, and of the Gila
monster, without, however, quite exhausting the subject. Doctor Holmes
kept a rattlesnake in a cage for a pet, and was accustomed to stir it up
with an ox-goad. A New York doctor lost his life by fooling with a
poisonous snake, and another in Liverpool frightened a whole congregation
of scientists with two torpid rattlesnakes which suddenly came to life on
the president's table. Does it arise from their custom of dealing with
deadly poisons, or is it because they officiate as the high priests of
Doctor Holmes's "Elsie Venner" was one of the offshoots of this peculiar
medical interest, and when we think of it in that light the story seems
natural enough. The idea of a snaky woman is as old as the fable of
Medusa. I read the novel when I was fifteen, and it made as decided an
impression on me as "Ivanhoe" or "Pickwick." I remember especially a
proverbial saying of the old doctor who serves as the presiding genius of
the plot: he knew "the kind of people who are never sick but what they
are going to die, and the other kind who never know they are sick until
they are dead." If Doctor Holmes had taken this as his text, and written
a novel on those lines, he might have created a work of far-reaching
importance. He appears to have known very little concerning poisonous
reptiles; had never heard of the terrible fer-de-lance, which infests the
cane-swamps of Brazil--a snake ten feet in length which strikes without
warning and straight as a fencer's thrust. But "Elsie Venner" and
Holmes's second novel, "The Guardian Angel," are, to use Lowell's
expression on a different subject:
"As full of wit, gumption and good Yankee sense,
As there are mosses on an old stone fence."
In the autumn of 1865 some Harvard students, radically inclined, obtained
possession of a religious society in the college called the Christian
Union, revolutionized it and changed its name to the Liberal Fraternity.
They then invited Emerson, Henry James, Sr., Doctor Holmes, and Colonel
Higginson to deliver lectures in Cambridge under their auspices. This was
a pretty bold stroke, but Holmes evidently liked it. He said to the
committee that waited upon him: "What is your rank and file? How deep do
you go down into the class?" He also promised to lecture, and that he did
not was more the fault of the students than his own. He was by no means a
radical in religious matters, but he hated small sectarian differences--
the substitution of dogma for true religious feeling. In his poem at the
grand Harvard celebration in 1886 he made a special point of this
"For nothing burns with such amazing speed
As the dry sticks of a religious creed."
Creeds are necessary, however, and an enlightened education teaches us
not to value them above their true worth.
In 1867 Doctor Holmes published a volume of poetry which was generally
well received, but was criticised in the _Nation_ with needless and
unmerciful severity. Rev. Edward Everett Hale and other friends of his
had already been attacked in the same periodical, and the Doctor thought
he knew the man who did it; but whether he was right in his conjecture
cannot be affirmed. There can be no doubt that these diatribes were
written by a Harvard professor who owned a large interest in the
_Nation_, and who was obliged to go to Europe the following year in
order to escape the odium of an imprudent speech at a public dinner. In
this critique Holmes's poetry was summed up under the heading of
"versified misfortunes"; and Holmes himself wrote to Mrs. Stowe that the
object of the writer was evidently "to injure at any rate, and to wound
It was certainly contemptible to treat a man like Doctor Holmes in this
manner,--one so universally kind to others, and whose work was always, at
least, above mediocrity. He behaved in a dignified manner in regard to
it, and he made no attempt at self-justification, although the wound was
evidently long in healing. What recourse has a man who places himself
before the public against the envenomed shafts of an invisible adversary?
Of this at least we may be satisfied, that whatever is extravagant and
overwrought always brings its own reaction in due course; and Doctor
Holmes's reputation does not appear to have suffered permanently from
this attack. The general public, especially the republic of womankind,
forms its own opinion, and pays slight attention to literary criticisms
of that description.
Holmes's poetry rarely rises to eloquence, but neither does it descend to
sentimentality. It resembles the man's own life, in which there were no
bold endeavors, great feats, or desperate struggles; but it was a life so
judicious, healthful and highly intellectual that we cannot help admiring
it. "Dorothy Q." is perhaps the best of his short poems, as it is the
most widely known. The name itself is slightly humorous, but it is a
perfect work of art, and the line,
"Soft and low is a maiden's 'Yes,'"
has the beautiful hush of a sanctuary in it. A finer verse could not be
written. Also for a comic piece nothing equal to "The Wonderful One-hoss
Shay" has appeared since Burns's "Tam O'Shanter." It is based on a
logical illusion which brings it down to recent times, and the gravity
with which the story is narrated makes its impossibility all the more
amusing. The building of the chaise is described with a practical
accuracy of detail, and yet with a poetical turn to every verse:
"The hubs of logs from the 'Settler's ellum',--
Last of its timber,--they couldn't sell 'em;
Never an axe had seen their chips,
And the wedges flew from between their lips,
Their blunt ends frizzled like celery-tips";
I believe that even cultivated readers have found more real satisfaction
in the "One-Hoss Shay" than in many a more celebrated lyric.
Doctor Holmes lived amid a comparatively narrow circle of friends and
acquaintances. He attended the Saturday Club, but Lowell appears to have
been the only member of it with whom he was on confidential terms. He was
rarely seen or heard of in Longfellow's house. In the winter of 1878 he
met Mrs. L. Maria Child for the first time at the Chestnut Street Club.
It appears that she did not catch his name when he was introduced to her,
and stranger still did not recognize his face. When the Doctor inquired
concerning her literary occupation she replied that she considered
herself too old to drive a quill any longer, and then fortunately added:
"Now, there is Doctor Holmes, I think he shows his customary good
judgment in retiring from the literary field in proper season." What the
Doctor thought of this is unknown, but he still continued to write.
At the age of seventy his _alma mater_ conferred on Doctor Holmes an
LL.D., and this was followed soon afterwards by Oxford and Cambridge, in
England; but why was it not given ten or fifteen years earlier, when
Holmes was in his prime? Then it might have been a service and a
satisfaction to him; but when a man is seventy such tributes have small
value for him. There had been an _Atlantic_ breakfast for Doctor
Holmes in Boston, and a Holmes breakfast in New York. He was in the
public eye, and by honoring him the University honored itself. So Harvard
conferred an LL.D. on General Winfield Scott just before the fatal battle
of Bull Run,--instead of after his brilliant Mexican campaign. If the
degree was not conferred on Holmes for his literary work, what reason
could be assigned for it; and if he deserved it on that account, Emerson
and Hawthorne certainly deserved it much more. Let us be thankful that no
such mischief was contemplated. If honorary degrees are to be given in
order to attract attention to a university, or worse still, for the
purpose of obtaining legacies, they had better be abolished altogether.
During his last visit to England Doctor Holmes was the guest of F. Max
Muller at Oxford, and years afterwards Professor Muller wrote to an
American correspondent concerning him and others:
"Froude was a dear friend of mine, related to my wife; so was Kingsley--
dear soul. Renan used to fetch books for me when we first met at the
Bibliothique Royale. Emerson stayed at my house on his last visit here.
But the best of all my American friends was Wendell Holmes. When he left
us he said, 'I have talked to thousands of people--you are the only one
with whom I have had a conversation.' We had talked about [Greek: ta
megisthta]--the world as the logos, as the thought of God. What a pure
soul his was--a real Serene Highness."
This is trancendentalism from the fountainhead; and here Doctor Holmes
may fairly be said to have avenged himself on the _Nation's_
FRANK W. BIRD, AND THE BIRD CLUB.
It is less than four miles from Harvard Square to Boston City Hall, a
building rather exceptional for its fine architecture among public
edifices, but the change in 1865 was like the change from one sphere of
human thought and activity to another. In Boston politics was everything,
and literature, art, philosophy nothing, or next to nothing. There was
mercantile life, of course, and careworn merchants anxiously waiting
about the gold-board; but there were no tally-ho coaches; there was no
golf or polo, and very little yachting. Fashionable society was also at a
low ebb, and as Wendell Phillips remarked in 1866, the only parties were
boys' and girls' dancing-parties. A large proportion of the finest young
men in the city had, like the Lowells, shed their blood for the Republic.
The young people danced, but their elders looked grave.
At this time the political centre of Massachusetts and, to a certain
extent of New England, was the Bird Club, which met every Saturday
afternoon at Young's Hotel to dine and discuss the affairs of the nation.
Its membership counted both Senators, the Governor, a number of ex-
Governors and four or five members of Congress. They were a strong team
when they were all harnessed together.
[Illustration: F. W. BIRD]
Francis William Bird, the original organizer of the club, was born in
Dedham, October 22, 1809, and the only remarkable fact concerning his
ancestry would seem to be that his great-grandmother was a Hawthorne, of
the same family as Nathaniel Hawthorne; but there was no trace of that
strongly-marked lineage in his composition. As a boy he was quick at
mathematics, but not much of a student, so that he was full eighteen
years of age before he entered Brown University. His college course also
left him in a depleted physical condition, and it was several years later
when he commenced the actual labor of life. His father had intended him
for the law; but this did not agree with his health, and his physician
advised a more active employment. Accordingly we find him in 1835 engaged
in the manufacture of paper at East Walpole, an occupation in which he
continued until 1892,--always suffering from dyspepsia, but always equal
to whatever occasion demanded of him. He was a tall, thin, wiry-looking
man, with a determined expression, but of kind and friendly manners.
He must have been a skilful man of business, for all the great financial
storms of the half century, in which he lived and worked, rolled over him
without causing him any serious embarrassment. His note was always good,
and his word was as good as his note. He always seemed to have money
enough for what he wanted to do. In prosperous times he spent generously,
although habitually practising a kind of stoical severity in regard to
his private affairs. He considered luxury the bane of wealth, and
continually admonished his children to avoid it. He was an old-fashioned
Puritan with liberal and progressive ideas.
After his marriage in 1843 to Miss Abigail Frances Newell, of Boston, he
built a commodious house in a fine grove of chestnuts on a hill-side at
East Walpole; and there he brought up his children like Greeks and
Amazons. Chestnut woods are commonly infested with hornets, but he
directed us boys not to molest them, for he wished them to learn that
hornets would not sting unless they were interfered with; an excellent
principle in human nature. Mrs. Bird resembled her husband so closely in
face and figure, that they might have been mistaken for brother and
sister. She was an excellent New England woman of the old style, and well
adapted to make her husband comfortable and happy.
The connection between manufacturing and politics is a direct and natural
one. A man who employs thirty or forty workmen, and treats them fairly,
can easily obtain an election to the Legislature without exercising any
direct influence over them; but Frank Bird's workmen felt that he had a
personal interest in each one of them. He never was troubled with
strikes. When hard times came his employees submitted to a reduction of
wages without murmuring, and when business was good they shared again in
the general prosperity. As a consequence Mr. Bird could go to the
Legislature as often as he desired; and when he changed from the
Republican to the Democratic party, in 1872, they still continued to vote
for him, until at the age of seventy-one he finally retired from public
On one election day he is said to have called his men together, and to
have told them: "You will have two hours this afternoon to cast your
votes in. The mill will close at 4 o'clock, and I expect every man to
vote as I do. Now I am going to vote just as I please, and I hope you
will all do the same; but if any one of my men does not vote just as he
wants to, and I find it out, I will discharge him to-morrow." One can
imagine Abraham Lincoln making a speech like this, on a similar occasion.
Frank W. Bird, like J. B. Sargent, of New Haven, was a rare instance of
an American manufacturer who believed in free-trade. This was one reason
why he joined the Democratic party in 1872. He considered that protection
encouraged sleazy and fraudulent work, and placed honest manufacturers at
a disadvantage; though he obtained these ideas rather from reading
English magazines than from any serious study of his own. He was
naturally much more of a Democrat than a Whig, or Federalist, but he
opposed the doctrine of State Rights, declaring that it was much more
responsible for the Civil War than the anti-slavery agitation was.
The same political exigency which roused James Russell Lowell also
brought Francis William Bird before the public. In company with Charles
Francis Adams he attended the Buffalo convention, in 1848, and helped to
nominate Martin Van Buren for the Presidency. He was, however, doing more
effective work by assisting Elizur Wright in publishing the
_Chronotype_ (the most vigorous of all the anti-slavery papers),
both with money and writing; and in a written argument there were few who
could equal him. He appears to have been the only person at that time who
gave Elizur Wright much support and encouragement.
In 1850 Bird was elected to the State Legislature and worked vigorously
for the election of Sumner the ensuing winter. His chief associates
during the past two years had been Charles Francis Adams, the most
distinguished of American diplomats since Benjamin Franklin, John A.
Andrew, then a struggling lawyer, and Henry L. Pierce, afterwards Mayor
of Boston. Now a greater name was added to them; for Sumner was not only
an eloquent orator, perhaps second to Webster, but he had a worldwide
reputation as a legal authority.
Adams, however, failed to recognize that like his grandfather he was
living in a revolutionary epoch, and after the Kansas struggle commenced
he became continually more conservative--if that is the word for it--and
finally in his Congressional speech in the winter of 1861 he made the
fatal statement that personally he would be "in favor of permitting the
Southern States to secede," although he could not see that there was any
legal right for it. This acted as a divider between him and his former
associates, until in 1876 he found himself again in the same party with
Frank W. Bird.
During the administration of Governor Banks, that is, between 1857 and
1860, Bird served on the Governor's council, although generally in
opposition to Banks himself. He went as a delegate to the Chicago
Convention of 1860, where he voted at first for Seward, and afterwards
for Lincoln. From that time forward, until 1880, he was always to be
found at the State House, and devoted so much time to public affairs that
it is a wonder his business of paper manufacturing did not suffer from
it. Yet he always seemed to have plenty of time, and was never so much
absorbed in what he was doing but that he could give a cordial greeting
to any of his numerous friends. His face would beam with pleasure at the
sight of an old acquaintance, and I have known him to dash across the
street like a school-boy in order to intercept a former member of the
Legislature who was passing by on the other side. Such a man has a good
Frank Bird's abilities fitted him for higher positions than he ever
occupied; but he was so serviceable in the Legislature that all his
friends felt that he ought to remain there. He was inexorable in his
demand for honest government, and when he rose to speak all the guilty
consciences in the house began to tremble. He was the terror of the
lobbyist, and of the legislative log-roller. This made him many enemies,
but he expected it and knew how to meet them. He was especially feared
while Andrew was Governor, for every one knew that he had consulted with
Andrew before making his motion. He was the Governor's man of business.
He came to know the character of every politician in the State,--what his
opinions were, and how far he could be depended on. In this way he also
became of great service to Sumner and Wilson, who wished to know what was
taking place behind their backs while they were absent at Washington.
Sumner did not trouble himself much as to public opinion, but this was of
great importance to Wilson, who depended on politics for his daily bread.
Both, however, wanted to know the condition of affairs in their own
State, and they found that Frank Bird's information was always
trustworthy,--for he had no ulterior object of his own.
Thus he acquired much greater influence in public affairs than most of
the members of Congress. When Mr. Baldwin, who represented his district,
retired in 1868, Frank Bird became a candidate for the National
Legislature, but he suffered from the disadvantage of living at the small
end of the district, and the prize was carried off by George F. Hoar,
afterwards United States Senator; but going to Congress in the seventies
was not what it had been in the fifties and sixties, when the halls of
the Capitol resounded with the most impressive oratory of the nineteenth
Frank Bird did not pretend to be an orator. His speeches were frank,
methodical and directly to the point; and very effective with those who
could be influenced by reason, without appeals to personal prejudice. He
hated flattery in all its forms, and honestly confessed that the
temptation of public speakers to cajole their audiences was the one great
demon of a democratic government. He liked Wendell Phillips on account of
the manly way in which he fought against his audiences, and strove to
bring them round to his own opinion.
He was as single-minded as Emerson or Lincoln. In November, 1862, Emerson
said to me: "I came from Springfield the other day in the train with your
father's friend, Frank Bird, and I like him very much. I often see his
name signed to newspaper letters, and in future I shall always read
them." Strangely enough, a few days later I was dining with Mr. Bird and
he referred to the same incident. When I informed him that Emerson had
also spoken of it he seemed very much pleased.
If any one paid him a compliment or expressed gratitude for some act of
kindness, he would hesitate and become silent for a moment, as if he were
reflecting whether he deserved it or not; and then would go on to some
His acts of kindness were almost numberless. He assisted those whom
others would not assist; and if he suspected that a small office-holder
was being tyrannized over, he would take no rest until he had satisfied
himself of the truth of the case. In February, 1870, he learned that a
high official in the Boston Post-office, who was supported in his
position by the Governor of the State, was taking advantage of this to
levy a blackmail on his subordinates, compelling them to pay him a
commission in order to retain their places. Frank Bird was furious with
honest indignation. He said: "I will go to Washington and have that man
turned out if I have to see Grant himself for it"; and so he did.
One evening at Walpole a poor woman came to him in distress, because her
only son had been induced to enlist in the Navy, and was already on board
a man-of-war at the Boston Navy-yard. Mr. Bird knew the youth, and was
aware that he was very slightly feeble-minded. The vessel would sail in
three days, and there was no time to be lost. He telegraphed the facts as
briefly as possible to Senator Wilson, and in twenty-four hours received
an order to have the widow's son discharged. Then he would not trust the
order to the commandant, who might have delayed its execution, but sent
it to an agent of his own in the Navy-yard, who saw that the thing was
Frank Bird's most distinguished achievement in politics was the
nomination of Andrew for Governor in 1860. Governor Banks was not
favorable to Andrew and his friends, and used what influence he possessed
for the benefit of Henry L. Dawes. An organization for the nomination of
Dawes had already been secretly formed before Frank Bird was acquainted
with Banks's retirement from the field. Bird and Henry L. Pierce were at
Plymouth when they first heard of it, about the middle of July, and they
immediately returned to Boston, started a bureau, opened a subscription-
list, and with the cooperation of the Bird Club carried the movement
through. It would have made a marked difference in public affairs during
the War for the Union if Dawes had been Governor instead of Andrew.
[Footnote: Dawes was an excellent man in his way, but during eighteen
years in the United States Senate he never made an important speech.]
Frank Bird had this peculiarity, that the more kindly he felt to those
who were unfortunate in life, the more antagonistic he seemed to those
who were exceptionally prosperous. He appeared to have a sort of spite
against handsome men and women, as if nature had been over-partial to
them in comparison with others. He was not a pedantic moralist, but at
the same time rather exacting in his requirements of others, as he was of
The Bird Club was evolved out of the conditions of its times, like a
natural growth. Its nucleus was formed in the campaign of 1848, when
Bird, Andrew, Henry L. Pierce, and William S. Robinson fell into the
habit of dining together and discussing public affairs every Saturday
afternoon. It was not long before they were joined by Elizur Wright and
Henry Wilson. Sumner came to dine with them, when he was not in
Washington, and Dr. S. G. Howe came with him. The Kansas excitement
brought in George L. Stearns and Frank B. Sanborn,--one the president and
the other the secretary of the Kansas Aid Society. In 1860 the club had
from thirty to forty members, and during the whole course of its
existence it had more than sixty members; but it never had any regular
organization. A member could bring a friend with him, and if the friend
was liked, Mr. Bird would invite him to come again. No vote ever appears
to have been taken. Mr. Bird sat at the head of the table, and if he was
late or absent his place would be supplied by George L. Stearns. At his
right hand sat Governor Andrew, and either Sumner or Stearns on his left.
Doctor Howe and Wilson sat next to them, and were balanced on the
opposite side by Sanborn, Governor Washburn, and two or three members of
Congress. However, there was no systematic arrangement of the guests at
this feast, although the more important members of the club naturally
clustered about Mr. Bird.
N. P. Banks never appeared there, either as Governor or General; and from
this it was argued that he was ambitious to become Senator; or it may
have been owing to his differences with Bird, while the latter was on the
Governor's Council. In this way the Bird Club became the test of a man's
political opinion, and prominent politicians who absented themselves from
it were looked upon with more or less distrust.
The discussions at the club were frank, manly, and unreserved. Members
who talked from the point were likely to be corrected without ceremony,
and sometimes received pretty hard knocks. On one occasion General B. F.
Butler, who had come into the club soon after his celebrated contraband-
of-war order, was complaining that the New York Republicans had nominated
General Francis C. Barlow for Secretary of State, and that General Barlow
had not been long enough in the Republican party to deserve it, when
Robinson replied to him that Barlow had been a Republican longer than
some of those present, and Frank Bird remarked that he was as good a
Republican as any that were going. Butler looked as if he had swallowed a
William S. Robinson was at once the wit and scribe of the club, and the
only newswriter that was permitted to come to the table. He enjoyed the
advantage of confidential talk and authentic information, which no other
writer of that time possessed, and his letters to the Springfield
_Republican_, extending over a period of fifteen years, come next in
value to the authentic documents of that important period. They possessed
the rare merit of a keen impartiality, and though sometimes rather sharp,
were never far from the mark. He not only criticised Grant and the
political bosses of that time, but his personal friends, Sumner, Wilson,
and Frank Bird himself.
In 1872 Emerson said to a member of the club: "I do not like William
Robinson. His hand is against every man"; but it is doubtful if Robinson
ever published so hard a criticism of any person, and certainly none so
unjust. Emerson without being aware of it was strongly influenced by a
cabal for the overthrow of Robinson, in which General Butler took a
leading hand. Robinson was clerk of the State Senate, and could not
afford to lose his position; afterwards, when he did lose it, he fell
sick and died. He preferred truth-telling and poverty to a compromising
prosperity, and left no one to fill his place.
Frank B. Sanborn was for a time editor of the Boston _Commonwealth_,
and afterwards of the Springfield _Republican_; but he was better
known as the efficient Secretary of the Board of State Charities, a
position to which he was appointed by Governor Andrew, and from which he
was unjustly removed by Governor Ames, twenty years later. He was an
indefatigable worker, and during that time there was not an almshouse or
other institution, public or private, in the State for the benefit of the
unfortunate portion of mankind where he was not either feared or
respected--a man whose active principle was the conscientious performance
of duty. He was also noted for his fidelity to his friends. He cared for
the family of John Brown and watched over their interests as if they had
been his own family; he made a home for the poet Channing in his old age,
and was equally devoted to the Alcotts and others, who could not
altogether help themselves. He was himself a charitable institution.
Henry Wilson is also worth a passing notice, for the strange resemblance
of his life to President Lincoln's, if for no other reason. His name was
originally Colbath, and he was reputed to have been born under a barbery-
bush in one of the green lanes of New Hampshire. The name is an
exceptional one, and the family would seem to have been of the same
roving Bedouin-like sort as that of Lincoln's ancestors. He began life as
a shoemaker, was wholly self-educated, and changed his name to escape
from his early associations. He would seem to have absorbed all the
virtue in his family for several generations. No sooner had he entered
into politics than he was recognized to have a master hand. He rose
rapidly to the highest position in the gift of his State, and finally to
be Vice-President. If his health had not given way in 1873 he might even
have become President in the place of Hayes; for he was a person whom
every man felt that he could trust. His loyalty to Sumner bordered on
veneration, and was the finest trait in his character. There was no
pretense in Henry Wilson's patriotism; everyone felt that he would have
died for his country.
In 1870 General Butler disappeared from the club, to the great relief of
Sumner and his immediate friends. He had already shown the cloven foot by
attacking the financial credit of the government; and the question was,
what would he do next? He had found the club an obstacle to his further
advancement in politics, and when in the autumn campaign Wendell Phillips
made a series of attacks on the character of the club, and especially on
Bird himself, the hand of Butler was immediately recognized in it, and
his plans for the future were easily calculated. It is probable that
Phillips supposed he was doing the public a service in this, but the
methods he pursued were not much to his credit. Phillips learned that the
president of the Hartford and Erie Railroad had recently given Mr. Bird
an Alderney bull-calf, and as he could not find anything else against
Bird's character he made the most of this. He spoke of it as of the
nature of a legislative bribe, and in an oration delivered in the Boston
Music Hall he called it "a thousand dollars in blood."
"Who," he asked of his audience, "would think of exchanging a _bird_
for a bull!"
This was unfortunate for the calf, which lost its life in consequence;
but it was not worth more than ten dollars, and the contrast between the
respective reputations of General Butler and Mr. Bird made Wendell
Phillips appear in rather a ridiculous light.
The following year, 1871, as the Bird Club expected, General Butler made
a strong fight for the gubernatorial nomination, and the club opposed him
in a solid body. Sanborn at this time was editing the Springfield
_Republican_, and he exposed Butler's past political course in an
unsparing manner. Butler made speeches in all the cities and larger towns
of the State, and when he came to Springfield he singled out Sanborn,
whom he recognized in the audience, for a direct personal attack. Sanborn
rose to reply to him, and the contrast between the two men was like that
between Lincoln and Douglas; Sanborn six feet four inches in height, and
Butler much shorter, but very thick-set. The altercation became a warm
one, and Butler must have been very angry, for he grew red in the face
and danced about the platform as if the boards were hot under his feet.
The audience greeted both speakers with applause and hisses.
It was a decided advantage for General Butler that there were three other
candidates in the field; but both Sumner and Wilson brought their
influence to bear against him, and this, with Sanborn's telling
editorials, would seem to have decided his defeat; for when the final
struggle came at the Worcester Convention the vote was a very close one
and a small matter might have changed it in his favor.
The difference between Sumner and the administration, in 1872, on the San
Domingo question accomplished what Phillips and Butler were unable to
effect. Frank Bird and Sumner's more independent friends left the club,
which was then dining at Young's Hotel, and seceded to the Parker House,
where Sumner joined them not long afterwards. Senator Wilson and the more
deep-rooted Republicans formed a new organization called the
Massachusetts Club, which still existed in the year 1900.
The great days of the Bird Club were over. With the death of Sumner, in
1874, its political importance came to an end, and although its members
continued to meet for five or six years longer, it ceased to attract
At the age of eighty Frank W. Bird still directed the financial affairs
of his paper business, but he looked back on his life as a "wretched
failure." No matter how much he accomplished, it seemed to him as nothing
compared with what he had wished to do. Would there were more such
Charles Pickney Sumner, the father of Charles Sumner, was a man of an
essentially veracious nature. He was high sheriff of Suffolk County,
Massachusetts, and when there was a criminal to be executed he always
performed the office himself. Once when some one inquired why he did not
delegate such a disagreeable task to one of his deputies, he is said to
have replied, "Simply because it is disagreeable." It was this elevated
sense of moral responsibility which formed the keynote of his son's
Charles Sumner's mother was Miss Relief Jacobs, a name in which we
distinguish at once a mixture of the Hebrew and the Puritan. She belonged
in fact to a Christianized Jewish family, but how long since her
ancestors became Christianized remains in doubt. Yet it is easy to
recognize the Hebrew element in Sumner's nature; the inflexibility of
purpose, the absolute self-devotion, and even the prophetic forecast.
Sumner was an old Hebrew prophet in the guise of an American statesman.
True to his mother's name, he was at once a Puritan and an Israelite in
whom there was no guile; for he was wholly exempt from covetousness and
other meaner qualities of the Hebrew nature. In such respects Jews and
Yankees are much alike. Either they are generous and high-minded, or they
Charles was rather a peculiar boy, as great men are apt to be in their
youth. He cared little for boyish games, and still less for the bright
eyes of the girls. He had remarkably long arms and legs, which were too
often in the way of his comrades, and from which he derived the nickname
at the Latin-School of "gawky Sumner"; and it may be well to notice here
that there is no better sign for future superiority than for a lad to be
ridiculed in this manner; while the wags who invent such _sobriquets_
usually come to no good end. [Footnote: More than one such has died the
death of an inebriate.] There is sufficient evidence, however, that
Sumner was well liked both at school and at college.
He had his revenge on declamation day, for whereas others stumbled
through their pieces, he seemed perfectly at home on the platform; his
awkwardness disappeared and his performance gave plain indications of the
future orator. Wendell Phillips was in the class after him, and they both
were excellent speakers.
Sumner's early life was not like that of Lincoln, neither was he obliged
to split rails for a living; but it was a life of good stoical training
nevertheless. Sheriff Sumner had eight children living at one time, and
with the natural desire to give them as good an education as his own, he
could not afford to spend much on external elegances. It was not until
Charles had become a distinguished lawyer that his mother dispensed with
the iron forks and spoons on her dinner table; and this gives a fair idea
of their domestic economy. We learn from Pierce's biography that his
college expenses did not exceed two hundred dollars a year; and this
He entered at Harvard in the class of 1830; a year after Doctor Holmes
and a year before Wendell Phillips. Much more is known concerning his
college life than that of other distinguished men of that time, and it is
highly interesting to recognize the mature man foreshadowed in the youth
of eighteen. He was a good scholar in everything but mathematics; yet, at
the same time, he cared little for rank. He was an enthusiastic reader,
and sometimes neglected his studies for a book in which he was more
deeply interested. He also liked to converse about the books he read, and
in this way acquired a reputation for loquacity which never left him as
long as he lived. It was sometimes troublesome to his friends, but it was
of great advantage to him as a public speaker. He lived a quiet, sober,
industrious life in college, attracting comparatively little attention
from either his instructors or his fellow students. Yet, he showed the
independence of his character by attending a cattle-show at Brighton, a
proceeding for which he would have been suspended if it had been
discovered by the college faculty. There were many foolish, monkish
restrictions at Harvard in those days, and among them it was not
considered decorous for a student to wear a colored vest. He might wear a
white vest, but not a buff or a figured one. Sumner preferred a buff
vest, and insisted on wearing it. When he was reprimanded for doing so he
defended his course vigorously, and exposed the absurdity of the
regulation in such plain terms that the faculty concluded to let him
alone for the future. [Footnote: In 1860 he still continued to wear a buff
vest in summer weather.] He was exceedingly fond of the Greek and Latin
authors, and quoted from them in his letters at this time, as he did
afterwards in his speeches. His college course was not a brilliant one
like Everett's and Phillips's, but seems to have been based on a more
It was in the Law-School that Sumner first distinguished himself. Judge
Story, who had left the United States Supreme Bench to become a Harvard
professor, was the chief luminary of the school and the finest instructor
in law of his time. He soon discovered in Sumner a pupil after his own
heart, and in spite of the disparity of their ages they became intimate
friends. This is the more significant because Phillips was also in the
same class, and the more brilliant scholar of the two; but Judge Story
soon discovered that Phillips was studying as a means to an end, while
Sumner's interest in the law was like that of a great artist who works
from the pure love of his subject.
William W. Story, who was a boy at this time, records the fact that
Sumner was always pleasant and kind to children.
At the age of twenty-four Charles Sumner was himself appointed an
instructor at the Law-School; and during the two following years he
edited the reports of Judge Story's decisions in the United States
It is evident from James Russell Lowell's "Fable for Critics" that the
personalities of his contemporaries troubled him: he could not see over
their heads. In 1837 Sumner went to Europe and we find from his letters
to Judge Story, George S. Hillard, and others, that he had already
obtained a vantage ground from which the civilized world lay before him,
as all New England does from the top of Mount Washington. He goes into a
French law court, and analyzes the procedure of French justice in a
letter which has the value of an historical document. He noticed that
Napoleon was still spoken of as _l'Empereur_, although there was a
king in France,--a fact pregnant with future consequences. He remained in
Paris until he was a complete master of the French language, and attended
one hundred and fifty lectures at the university and elsewhere. He
enjoyed the grand opera and the acting in French theatres; nor did he
neglect to study Italian art. He was making a whole man of himself; and
it seemed as if an unconscious instinct was guiding him to his destiny.
Fortunate was the old Sheriff to have such a son; but Charles Sumner was
also fortunate to have had a father who was willing to save and economize
for his benefit. Otherwise he might have been a sheriff himself.
Judge Story's letters of introduction opened the doors wide to him in
England. In the course of ten months he became acquainted with almost
every distinguished person in the United Kingdom. He never asked for
introductions, and he never presented himself without one. He was handed
from one mansion to another all the way from London to the Scotch
Highlands. Only twenty-seven years of age, he was treated on an equality
by men ten to fifteen years his senior; and he proved himself equal to
their expectations. No American except Lowell has ever made such a
favorable impression in England as Sumner; but this happened in Sumner's
youth, while Lowell in his earlier visits attracted little attention.
It is perfectly true that if he had been the son of an English sheriff
this would not have happened; but he encountered the same obstacles in
Boston society that he would have done under similar conditions in Great
Britain. The doors of Wentworth House and Strachan Park were open to him,
but those of Beacon Street were closed,--and perhaps it was better for
him on the whole that they were.
Sumner's letters from Europe are at least as interesting as those written
by any other American. Such breadth of vision is not often united with
clearness and accuracy of detail. All his letters ought to be published
in a volume by themselves. Sumner returned to America the following year
and settled himself quietly and soberly to his work as a lawyer. He was
not a success, however, as a practitioner in the courts, unless he could
plead before a bench of judges. In the Common Pleas an ordinary
pettifogger would often take a case away from him. He could not, if he
would, have practised those seductive arts by which Rufus Choate drew the
jury into his net, in spite of their deliberate intentions to the
contrary. Yet, Sumner's reputation steadily improved, so that when
Longfellow came to live in Cambridge he found Sumner delivering lectures
at the Harvard Law-School, where he might have remained the rest of his
life, if he had been satisfied with a merely routine employment, and the
fortunes of the republic had not decided differently.
The attraction between Sumner and Longfellow was immediate and permanent.
It was owing more perhaps to the essential purity of their natures, than
to mutual sympathy in regard to art and literature; although Longfellow
held Sumner's literary judgment in such respect that he rarely published
a new poem without first subjecting his work to Sumner's criticism.
Those who admired Sumner at this time, for his fine moral and
intellectual qualities, had no adequate conception of the far nobler
quality which lay concealed in the depths of his nature. Charles Sumner
was a hero,--one to whom life was nothing in comparison with his duty.
It was in the anti-Irish riot of June, 1837, that he first gave evidence
of this. Nothing was more hateful to him than race prejudice, and what
might be called international malignity, which he believed was the most
frequent cause of war.
As soon as Sumner was notified of the disturbance, he hastened to the
scene of action, seized on a prominent position, and attempted to address
the insurgents; but his pacific words only excited them to greater fury.
They charged on him and his little group of supporters, knocked him down
and trampled on him. Dr. S. G. Howe, who stood near by, a born fighter,
protected Sumner's prostrate body, and finally carried him to a place of
safety, although twice his own size. Sumner took his mishap very coolly,
and, as soon as he could talk freely, addressed his friends on the evils
resulting from race prejudice.
This incident may have led Sumner to the choice of a subject for his
Fourth of July oration in 1845. The title of this address was "The True
Grandeur of Nations," but its real object was one which Sumner always had
at heart, and never relinquished the hope of,--namely, the establishment
of an international tribunal, which should possess jurisdiction over the
differences and quarrels between nations, and so bring warfare forever to
an end. The plan is an impracticable one, because the decisions of a
court only have validity if it is able to enforce them, and how could the
decisions of an international tribunal have value in case the parties
concerned declined to accept them? It would only result in waging war in
order to prevent war. Yet, of all the Fourth of July orations that were
delivered in the nineteenth century, Sumner's and Webster's are the only
two that have survived; and the "True Grandeur of Nations" has recently
been published by the London Peace Society as an argument in favor of
their philanthropic movement.
Sumner was now in the prime of manhood, and a rarely handsome man. He had
an heroic figure, six feet two inches in height, and well proportioned in
all respects. His features, too large and heavy in his youth, had become
strong and regular, and although he had not acquired that leonine look of
reserved power with which he confronted the United States Senate, his
expression was frank and fearless. As L. Maria Child, who heard him
frequently, said, he seemed to be as much in his place on the platform as
a statue on its pedestal. His gestures had not the natural grace of
Phillips's or the more studied elegance of Everett, but he atoned for
these deficiencies by the manly earnestness of his delivery. He made
an impression on the highly cultivated men and women who composed his
audience which they always remembered.
The question has often been raised by the older abolitionists, "Why did
not Sumner take an earlier interest in the anti-slavery struggle?" The
answer is twofold. That he did not join the Free-soilers in 1844 was most
probably owing to the influence of Judge Story, who had already marked
Sumner out for the Supreme Bench, and wished him to concentrate his
energies in that direction. His friends, too, at this time--Hillard,
Felton, Liebe, and even Longfellow--were either opposed to introducing
the slavery question into politics or practically indifferent to it.
On the other hand, Sumner never could agree with Garrison's position on
this question. He held the Constitution in too great respect to admit
that it was an agreement with death and a government with the devil. He
believed that the founders of the Constitution were opposed to slavery,
and that the expression, "persons held to labor," was good evidence of
this. One of his finest orations in the Senate was intended to prove this
point. Furthermore he perceived the futility of Garrison's idea--and this
was afterwards disproved by the war--that if it were not for the National
Government the slaves would rise in rebellion and so obtain their
freedom. He always asserted that slavery would be abolished under the
Constitution or not at all. Like Abraham Lincoln he waited for his time
Charles Sumner was the reply that Massachusetts made to the Fugitive
Slave Law, and a telling reply it was. Unlike his legal contemporaries he
recognized the law as a revolutionary act which, unless it was
successfully opposed, would strike a death-blow at American freedom. He
saw that it could only be met by counter-revolution, and he prepared his
mind for the consequences. It was only at such a time that so
uncompromising a statesman as Sumner could have entered into political
life; for the possibility of compromise had passed away with the
suspension of the writ of _habeas corpus_, and Sumner's policy of
"no compromise" was the one which brought the slavery question to a
successful issue. For fifteen years in Congress he held to that policy as
faithfully as a planet to its course, and those who differed with him
were left in the rear.