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Entire PG Edition of The Works of William Dean Howells by William Dean Howells

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When they mounted the broad stairway, tidily strewn with straw to save it
from the mud of careless boots, and entered the long saloon of the
steamboat, the promise of their fancy was more than made good for them.
From the clerk's office, where they eagerly paid their fare, the saloon
stretched two hundred feet by thirty away to the stern, a cavernous
splendor of white paint and gilding, starred with electric bulbs, and
fenced at the stern with wide windows of painted glass. Midway between
the great stove in the bow where the men were herded, and the great stove
at the stern where the women kept themselves in the seclusion which the
tradition of Western river travel still guards, after well-nigh a hundred
years, they were given ample state-rooms, whose appointments so exactly
duplicated those they remembered from far-off days that they could have
believed themselves awakened from a dream of insubstantial time, with the
events in which it had seemed to lapse, mere feints of experience. When
they sat down at the supper-table and were served with the sort of
belated steamboat dinner which it recalled as vividly, the kind, sooty
faces and snowy aprons of those who served them were so quite those of
other days that they decided all repasts since were mere Barmecide
feasts, and made up for the long fraud practised upon them with the
appetites of the year 1850.


A rigider sincerity than shall be practised here might own that the table
of the good steamboat 'Avonek' left something to be desired, if tested by
more sophisticated cuisines, but in the article of corn-bread it was of
an inapproachable preeminence. This bread was made of the white corn
which North knows not, nor the hapless East; and the buckwheat cakes at
breakfast were without blame, and there was a simple variety in the
abundance which ought to have satisfied if it did not flatter the choice.
The only thing that seemed strangely, that seemed sadly, anomalous in a
land flowing with ham and bacon was that the 'Avonek' had not imagined
providing either for the guests, no one of whom could have had a
religious scruple against them.

The thing, indeed, which was first and last conspicuous in the
passengers, was their perfectly American race and character. At the
start, when with an acceptable observance of Western steamboat tradition
the 'Avonek' left her wharf eight hours behind her appointed time, there
were very few passengers; but they began to come aboard at the little
towns of both shores as she swam southward and westward, till all the
tables were so full that, in observance of another Western steamboat
tradition; one did well to stand guard over his chair lest some other who
liked it should seize it earlier. The passengers were of every age and
condition, except perhaps the highest condition, and they seemed none the
worse for being more like Americans of the middle of the last century
than of the beginning of this. Their fashions were of an approximation
to those of the present, but did not scrupulously study detail; their
manners were those of simpler if not sincerer days.

The women kept to themselves at their end of the saloon, aloof from the
study of any but their husbands or kindred, but the men were everywhere
else about, and open to observation. They were not so open to
conversation, for your mid-Westerner is not a facile, though not an
unwilling, talker. They sat by their tall, cast-iron stove (of the oval
pattern unvaried since the earliest stove of the region), and silently
ruminated their tobacco and spat into the clustering, cuspidors at their
feet. They would always answer civilly if questioned, and oftenest
intelligently, but they asked nothing in return, and they seemed to have
none of that curiosity once known or imagined in them by Dickens and
other averse aliens. They had mostly faces of resolute power, and such a
looking of knowing exactly what they wanted as would not have promised
well for any collectively or individually opposing them. If ever the
sense of human equality has expressed itself in the human countenance it
speaks unmistakably from American faces like theirs.

They were neither handsome nor unhandsome; but for a few striking
exceptions, they had been impartially treated by nature; and where they
were notably plain their look of force made up for their lack of beauty.
They were notably handsomest in a tall young fellow of a lean face,
absolute Greek in profile, amply thwarted with a branching mustache, and
slender of figure, on whom his clothes, lustrous from much sitting down
and leaning up, grew like the bark on a tree, and who moved slowly and
gently about, and spoke with a low, kind voice. In his young comeliness
he was like a god, as the gods were fancied in the elder world: a chewing
and a spitting god, indeed, but divine in his passionless calm.

He was a serious divinity, and so were all the mid-Western human-beings
about him. One heard no joking either of the dapper or cockney sort of
cities, or the quaint graphic phrasing of Eastern country folk; and it
may have been not far enough West for the true Western humor. At any
rate, when they were not silent these men still were serious.

The women were apparently serious, too, and where they were associated
with the men were, if they were not really subject, strictly abeyant, in
the spectator's eye. The average of them was certainly not above the
American woman's average in good looks, though one young mother of six
children, well grown save for the baby in her arms, was of the type some
masters loved to paint, with eyes set wide under low arched brows. She
had the placid dignity and the air of motherly goodness which goes fitly
with such beauty, and the sight of her was such as to disperse many of
the misgivings that beset the beholder who looketh upon the woman when
she is New. As she seemed, so any man might wish to remember his mother

All these river folk, who came from the farms and villages along the
stream, and never from the great towns or cities, were well mannered, if
quiet manners are good; and though the men nearly all chewed tobacco and
spat between meals, at the table they were of an exemplary behavior. The
use of the fork appeared strange to them, and they handled it strenuously
rather than agilely, yet they never used their knives shovel-wise,
however they planted their forks like daggers in the steak: the steak
deserved no gentler usage, indeed. They were usually young, and they
were constantly changing, bent upon short journeys between the shore
villages; they were mostly farm youth, apparently, though some were said
to be going to find work at the great potteries up the river for wages
fabulous to home-keeping experience.

One personality which greatly took the liking of one of our tourists was
a Kentucky mountaineer who, after three years' exile in a West Virginia
oil town, was gladly returning to the home for which he and all his
brood-of large and little comely, red-haired boys and girls-had never
ceased to pine. His eagerness to get back was more than touching; it was
awing; for it was founded on a sort of mediaeval patriotism that could
own no excellence beyond the borders of the natal region. He had
prospered at high wages in his trade at that oil town, and his wife and
children had managed a hired farm so well as to pay all the family
expenses from it, but he was gladly leaving opportunity behind, that he
might return to a land where, if you were passing a house at meal-time,
they came out and made you come in and eat. "When you eat where I've
been living you pay fifty cents," he explained. "And are you taking all
your household stuff with you?" "Only the cook-stove. Well, I'll tell
you: we made the other things ourselves; made them out of plank, and they
were not worth-moving." Here was the backwoods surviving into the day of
Trusts; and yet we talk of a world drifted hopelessly far from the old


The new ideals, the ideals of a pitiless industrialism, were sufficiently
expressed along the busy shores, where the innumerable derricks of oil-
wells silhouetted their gibbet shapes against the horizon, and the myriad
chimneys of the foundries sent up the smoke of their torment into the
quiet skies and flamed upon the forehead of the evening like baleful
suns. But why should I be so violent of phrase against these guiltless
means of millionairing? There must be iron and coal as well as wheat and
corn in the world, and without their combination we cannot have bread.
If the combination is in the form of a trust, such as has laid its giant
clutch upon all those warring industries beside the Ohio and swept them
into one great monopoly, why, it has still to show that it is worse than
competition; that it is not, indeed, merely the first blind stirrings of
the universal cooperation of which the dreamers of ideal commonwealths
have always had the vision.

The derricks and the chimneys, when one saw them, seem to have all the
land to themselves; but this was an appearance only, terrifying in its
strenuousness, but not, after all, the prevalent aspect. That was rather
of farm, farms, and evermore farms, lying along the rich levels of the
stream, and climbing as far up its beautiful hills as the plough could
drive. In the spring and in the Mall, when it is suddenly swollen by the
earlier and the later rains, the river scales its banks and swims over
those levels to the feet of those hills, and when it recedes it leaves
the cornfields enriched for the crop that, has never failed since the
forests were first cut from the land. Other fertilizing the fields have
never had any, but they teem as if the guano islands had been emptied
into their laps. They feel themselves so rich that they part with great
lengths and breadths of their soil to the river, which is not good for
the river, and is not well for the fields; so that the farmers, whose
ease learns slowly, are beginning more and more to fence their borders
with the young willows which form a hedge in the shallow wash such a
great part of the way up and down the Ohio. Elms and maples wade in
among the willows, and in time the river will be denied the indigestion
which it confesses in shoals and bars at low water, and in a difficulty
of channel at all stages.

Meanwhile the fields flourish in spite of their unwise largesse to the
stream, whose shores the comfortable farmsteads keep so constantly that
they are never out of sight. Most commonly they are of brick, but
sometimes of painted wood, and they are set on little eminences high
enough to save them from the freshets, but always so near the river that
they cannot fail of its passing life. Usually a group of planted
evergreens half hides the house from the boat, but its inmates will not
lose any detail of the show, and come down to the gate of the paling
fence to watch the 'Avonek' float by: motionless men and women, who lean
upon the supporting barrier, and rapt children who hold by their skirts
and hands. There is not the eager New England neatness about these
homes; now and then they have rather a sloven air, which does not discord
with their air of comfort; and very, very rarely they stagger drunkenly
in a ruinous neglect. Except where a log cabin has hardily survived the
pioneer period, the houses are nearly all of one pattern; their facades
front the river, and low chimneys point either gable, where a half-story
forms the attic of the two stories below. Gardens of pot-herbs flank
them, and behind cluster the corn-cribs, and the barns and stables
stretch into the fields that stretch out to the hills, now scantily
wooded, but ever lovely in the lines that change with the steamer's

Except in the immediate suburbs of the large towns, there is no ambition
beyond that of rustic comfort in the buildings on the shore. There is no
such thing, apparently, as a summer cottage, with its mock humility of
name, up or down the whole tortuous length of the Ohio. As yet the land
is not openly depraved by shows of wealth; those who amass it either keep
it to themselves or come away to spend it in European travel, or pause to
waste it unrecognized on the ungrateful Atlantic seaboard. The only
distinctions that are marked are between the homes of honest industry
above the banks and the homes below them of the leisure, which it is
hoped is not dishonest. But, honest or dishonest, it is there apparently
to stay in the house-boats which line the shores by thousands, and repeat
on Occidental terms in our new land the river-life of old and far Cathay.

They formed the only feature of their travel which our tourists found
absolutely novel; they could clearly or dimly recall from the past every
other feature but the houseboats, which they instantly and gladly
naturalized to their memories of it. The houses had in common the form
of a freight-car set in a flat-bottomed boat; the car would be shorter or
longer, with one, or two, or three windows in its sides, and a section of
stovepipe softly smoking from its roof. The windows might be curtained
or they might be bare, but apparently there was no other distinction
among the houseboat dwellers, whose sluggish craft lay moored among the
willows, or tied to an elm or a maple, or even made fast to a stake on
shore. There were cases in which they had not followed the fall of the
river promptly enough, and lay slanted on the beach, or propped up to a
more habitable level on its slope; in a sole, sad instance, the house had
gone down with the boat and lay wallowing in the wash of the flood. But
they all gave evidence of a tranquil and unhurried life which the soul of
the beholder envied within him, whether it manifested itself in the lord
of the house-boat fishing from its bow, or the lady coming to cleanse
some household utensil at its stern. Infrequently a group of the house-
boat dwellers seemed to be drawing a net, and in one high event they
exhibited a good-sized fish of their capture, but nothing so strenuous
characterized their attitude on any other occasion. The accepted theory
of them was that they did by day as nearly nothing as men could do and
live, and that by night their forays on the bordering farms supplied the
simple needs of people who desired neither to toil nor to spin, but only
to emulate Solomon in his glory with the least possible exertion. The
joyful witness of their ease would willingly have sacrificed to them any
amount of the facile industrial or agricultural prosperity about them and
left them slumberously afloat, unmolested by dreams of landlord or tax-
gatherer. Their existence for the fleeting time seemed the true
interpretation of the sage's philosophy, the fulfilment of the poet's

"Why should we only toil, that are the roof and crown of things."

How did they pass their illimitable leisure, when they rested from the
fishing-net by day and the chicken-coop by night? Did they read the new
historical fictions aloud to one another? Did some of them even meditate
the thankless muse and not mind her ingratitude? Perhaps the ladies of
the house-boats, when they found themselves--as they often did--in
companies of four or five, had each other in to "evenings," at which one
of them read a paper on some artistic or literary topic.


The trader's boat, of an elder and more authentic tradition, sometimes
shouldered the house-boats away from a village landing, but it, too, was
a peaceful home, where the family life visibly went hand-in-hand with
commerce. When the trader has supplied all the wants and wishes of a
neighborhood, he unmoors his craft and drops down the river's tide to
where it meets the ocean's tide in the farthermost Mississippi, and there
either sells out both his boat and his stock, or hitches his home to some
returning steamboat, and climbs slowly, with many pauses, back to the
upper Ohio. But his home is not so interesting as that of the
houseboatman, nor so picturesque as that of the raftsman, whose floor of
logs rocks flexibly under his shanty, but securely rides the current. As
the pilots said, a steamboat never tries to hurt a raft of logs, which is
adapted to dangerous retaliation; and by night it always gives a wide
berth to the lantern tilting above the raft from a swaying pole. By day
the raft forms one of the pleasantest aspects of the river-life, with its
convoy of skiffs always searching the stream or shore for logs which have
broken from it, and which the skiffmen recognize by distinctive brands or
stamps. Here and there the logs lie in long ranks upon the shelving
beaches, mixed with the drift of trees and fence-rails, and frames of
corn-cribs and hencoops, and even house walls, which the freshets have
brought down and left stranded. The tops of the little willows are
tufted gayly with hay and rags, and other spoil of the flood; and in one
place a disordered mattress was lodged high among the boughs of a water-
maple, where it would form building material for countless generations of
birds. The fat cornfields were often littered with a varied wreckage
which the farmers must soon heap together and burn, to be rid of it, and
everywhere were proofs of the river's power to devastate as well as
enrich its shores. The dwellers there had no power against it, in its
moments of insensate rage, and the land no protection from its
encroachments except in the simple device of the willow hedges, which, if
planted, sometimes refused to grow, but often came of themselves and kept
the torrent from the loose, unfathomable soil of the banks, otherwise
crumbling helplessly into it.

The rafts were very well, and the house-boats and the traders' boats, but
the most majestic feature of the riverlife was the tow of coal-barges
which, going or coming, the 'Avonek' met every few miles. Whether going
or coming they were pushed, not pulled, by the powerful steamer which
gathered them in tens and twenties before her, and rode the mid-current
with them, when they were full, or kept the slower water near shore when
they were empty. They claimed the river where they passed, and the
'Avonek' bowed to an unwritten law in giving them the full right of way,
from the time when their low bulk first rose in sight, with the chimneys
of their steamer towering above them and her gay contours gradually
making themselves seen, till she receded from the encounter, with the
wheel at her stern pouring a cataract of yellow water from its blades.
It was insurpassably picturesque always, and not the tapering masts or
the swelling sails of any sea-going craft could match it.


So at least the travellers thought who were here revisiting the earliest
scenes of childhood, and who perhaps found them unduly endeared. They
perused them mostly from an easy seat at the bow of the hurricane-deck,
and, whenever the weather favored them, spent the idle time in selecting
shelters for their declining years among the farmsteads that offered
themselves to their choice up and down the shores. The weather commonly
favored them, and there was at least one whole day on the lower river
when the weather was divinely flattering. The soft, dull air lulled
their nerves while it buffeted their faces, and the sun, that looked
through veils of mist and smoke, gently warmed their aging frames and
found itself again in their hearts. Perhaps it was there that the water-
elms and watermaples chiefly budded, and the red-birds sang, and the
drifting flocks of blackbirds called and clattered; but surely these also
spread their gray and pink against the sky and filled it with their
voices. There were meadow-larks and robins without as well as within,
and it was no subjective plough that turned the earliest furrows in those
opulent fields.

When they were tired of sitting there, they climbed, invited or
uninvited, but always welcomed, to the pilothouse, where either pilot of
the two who were always on watch poured out in an unstinted stream the
lore of the river on which all their days had been passed. They knew
from indelible association every ever-changing line of the constant
hills; every dwelling by the low banks; every aspect of the smoky towns;
every caprice of the river; every-tree, every stump; probably every bud
and bird in the sky. They talked only of the river; they cared for
nothing else. The Cuban cumber and the Philippine folly were equally far
from them; the German prince was not only as if he had never been here,
but as if he never had been; no public question concerned them but that
of abandoning the canals which the Ohio legislature was then foolishly
debating. Were not the canals water-ways, too, like the river, and if
the State unnaturally abandoned them would not it be for the behoof of
those railroads which the rivermen had always fought, and which would
have made a solitude of the river if they could?

But they could not, and there was nothing more surprising and delightful
in this blissful voyage than the evident fact that the old river traffic
had strongly survived, and seemed to be more strongly reviving. Perhaps
it was not; perhaps the fondness of those Ohio-river-born passengers was
abused by an illusion (as subjective as that of the buds and birds) of a
vivid variety of business and pleasure on the beloved stream. But again,
perhaps not. They were seldom out of sight of the substantial proofs of
both in the through or way packets they encountered, or the nondescript
steam craft that swarmed about the mouths of the contributory rivers, and
climbed their shallowing courses into the recesses of their remotest
hills, to the last lurking-places of their oil and coal.


The Avonek was always stopping to put off or take on merchandise or men.
She would stop for a single passenger, plaited in the mud with his
telescope valise or gripsack under the edge of a lonely cornfield, or to
gather upon her decks the few or many casks or bales that a farmer wished
to ship. She lay long hours by the wharf-boats of busy towns, exchanging
one cargo for another, in that anarchic fetching and carrying which we
call commerce, and which we drolly suppose to be governed by laws. But
wherever she paused or parted, she tested the pilot's marvellous skill;
for no landing, no matter how often she landed in the same place, could
be twice the same. At each return the varying stream and shore must be
studied, and every caprice of either divined. It was always a triumph,
a miracle, whether by day or by night, a constant wonder how under the
pilot's inspired touch she glided softly to her moorings, and without a
jar slipped from them again and went on her course.

But the landings by night were of course the finest. Then the wide fan
of the search-light was unfurled upon the point to be attained and the
heavy staging lowered from the bow to the brink, perhaps crushing the
willow hedges in it's fall, and scarcely touching the land before a
black, ragged deck-hand had run out through the splendor and made a line
fast to the trunk of the nearest tree. Then the work of lading or
unlading rapidly began in the witching play of the light that set into
radiant relief the black, eager faces and the black, eager figures of the
deck-hands struggling up or down the staging under boxes of heavy wares,
or kegs of nails, or bales of straw, or blocks of stone, steadily mocked
or cursed at in their shapeless effort, till the last of them reeled back
to the deck down the steep of the lifting stage, and dropped to his
broken sleep wherever he could coil himself, doglike, down among the
heaps of freight.

No dog, indeed, leads such a hapless life as theirs; and ah! and ah! why
should their sable shadows intrude in a picture that was meant to be all
so gay and glad? But ah! and ah! where, in what business of this hard
world, is not prosperity built upon the struggle of toiling men, who
still endeavor their poor best, and writhe and writhe under the burden of
their brothers above, till they lie still under the lighter load of their
mother earth?


Absence of distinction
Aim at nothing higher than the amusement of your readers
Anise-seed bag
Any man's country could get on without him
Begun to fight with want from their cradles
Blasts of frigid wind swept the streets
Clemens is said to have said of bicycling
Could not, as the saying is, find a stone to throw at a dog
Disbeliever in punishments of all sorts
Do not want to know about such squalid lives
Early self-helpfulness of children is very remarkable
Encounter of old friends after the lapse of years
Even a day's rest is more than most people can bear
Eyes fixed steadfastly upon the future
Face that expresses care, even to the point of anxiety
For most people choice is a curse
General worsening of things, familiar after middle life
Happy in the indifference which ignorance breeds in us
Hard to think up anything new
Heart of youth aching for their stoical sorrows
Heighten our suffering by anticipation
If one were poor, one ought to be deserving
Lascivious and immodest as possible
Literary spirit is the true world-citizen
Look of challenge, of interrogation, almost of reproof
Malevolent agitators
Meet here to the purpose of a common ostentation
Neatness that brings despair
Noble uselessness
Openly depraved by shows of wealth
People have never had ideals, but only moods and fashions
People might oftener trust themselves to Providence
People of wealth and fashion always dissemble their joy
Plagiarism carries inevitable detection with it
Pure accident and by its own contributory negligence
Refused to see us as we see ourselves
Should be very sorry to do good, as people called it
So many millionaires and so many tramps
So touching that it brought the lump into my own throat
Solution of the problem how and where to spend the summer
Some of it's good, and most of it isn't
Some of us may be toys and playthings without reproach
Superiority one likes to feel towards the rich and great
Take our pleasures ungraciously
The old and ugly are fastidious as to the looks of others
They are so many and I am so few
Those who decide their fate are always rebelling against it
Those who work too much and those who rest too much
Unfailing American kindness
Visitors of the more inquisitive sex
We cannot all be hard-working donkeys
We who have neither youth nor beauty should always expect it
Whatever choice you make, you are pretty sure to regret it


By William Dean Howells





The papers collected here under the name of 'My Literary Passions' were
printed serially in a periodical of such vast circulation that they might
well have been supposed to have found there all the acceptance that could
be reasonably hoped for them. Nevertheless, they were reissued in a
volume the year after they first appeared, in 1895, and they had a
pleasing share of such favor as their author's books have enjoyed. But
it is to be doubted whether any one liked reading them so much as he
liked writing them--say, some time in the years 1893 and 1894, in a New
York flat, where he could look from his lofty windows over two miles and
a half of woodland in Central Park, and halloo his fancy wherever he
chose in that faery realm of books which he re-entered in reminiscences
perhaps too fond at times, and perhaps always too eager for the reader's
following. The name was thought by the friendly editor of the popular
publication where they were serialized a main part of such inspiration as
they might be conjectured to have, and was, as seldom happens with editor
and author, cordially agreed upon before they were begun.

The name says, indeed, so exactly and so fully what they are that little
remains for their bibliographer to add beyond the meagre historical
detail here given. Their short and simple annals could be eked out by
confidences which would not appreciably enrich the materials of the
literary history of their time, and it seems better to leave them to the
imagination of such posterity as they may reach. They are rather
helplessly frank, but not, I hope, with all their rather helpless
frankness, offensively frank. They are at least not part of the polemic
which their author sustained in the essays following them in this volume,
and which might have been called, in conformity with 'My Literary
Passions', by the title of 'My Literary Opinions' better than by the
vague name which they actually wear.

They deal, to be sure, with the office of Criticism and the art of
Fiction, and so far their present name is not a misnomer. It follows
them from an earlier date and could not easily be changed, and it may
serve to recall to an elder generation than this the time when their
author was breaking so many lances in the great, forgotten war between
Realism and Romanticism that the floor of the "Editor's Study" in
Harper's Magazine was strewn with the embattled splinters. The "Editor's
Study" is now quite another place, but he who originally imagined it in
1886, and abode in it until 1892, made it at once the scene of such
constant offence that he had no time, if he had the temper, for defence.
The great Zola, or call him the immense Zola, was the prime mover in the
attack upon the masters of the Romanticistic school; but he lived to own
that he had fought a losing fight, and there are some proofs that he was
right. The Realists, who were undoubtedly the masters of fiction in
their passing generation, and who prevailed not only in France, but in
Russia, in Scandinavia, in Spain, in Portugal, were overborne in all
Anglo-Saxon countries by the innumerable hosts of Romanticism, who to
this day possess the land; though still, whenever a young novelist does
work instantly recognizable for its truth and beauty among us, he is seen
and felt to have wrought in the spirit of Realism. Not even yet,
however, does the average critic recognize this, and such lesson as the
"Editor's Study" assumed to teach remains here in all its essentials for
his improvement.

Month after month for the six years in which the "Editor's Study"
continued in the keeping of its first occupant, its lesson was more or
less stormily delivered, to the exclusion, for the greater part, of other
prophecy, but it has not been found well to keep the tempestuous manner
along with the fulminant matter in this volume. When the author came to
revise the material, he found sins against taste which his zeal for
righteousness could not suffice to atone for. He did not hesitate to
omit the proofs of these, and so far to make himself not only a precept,
but an example in criticism. He hopes that in other and slighter things
he has bettered his own instruction, and that in form and in fact the
book is altogether less crude and less rude than the papers from which it
has here been a second time evolved.

The papers, as they appeared from month to month, were not the product of
those unities of time and place which were the happy conditioning of
'My Literary Passions.' They could not have been written in quite so
many places as times, but they enjoyed a comparable variety of origin.
Beginning in Boston, they were continued in a Boston suburb, on the
shores of Lake George, in a Western New York health resort, in Buffalo,
in Nahant; once, twice, and thrice in New York, with reversions to
Boston, and summer excursions to the hills and waters of New England,
until it seemed that their author had at last said his say, and he
voluntarily lapsed into silence with the applause of friends and enemies

The papers had made him more of the last than of the first, but not as
still appears to him with greater reason. At moments his deliverances
seemed to stir people of different minds to fury in two continents, so
far as they were English-speaking, and on the coasts of the seven seas;
and some of these came back at him with such violent personalities as it
is his satisfaction to remember that he never indulged in his attacks
upon their theories of criticism and fiction. His opinions were always
impersonal; and now as their manner rather than their make has been
slightly tempered, it may surprise the belated reader to learn that it
was the belief of one English critic that their author had "placed
himself beyond the pale of decency" by them. It ought to be less
surprising that, since these dreadful words were written of him, more
than one magnanimous Englishman has penitently expressed to the author
the feeling that he was not so far wrong in his overboldly hazarded
convictions. The penitence of his countrymen is still waiting
expression, but it may come to that when they have recurred to the
evidences of his offence in their present shape.




To give an account of one's reading is in some sort to give an account of
one's life; and I hope that I shall not offend those who follow me in
these papers, if I cannot help speaking of myself in speaking of the
authors I must call my masters: my masters not because they taught me
this or that directly, but because I had such delight in them that I
could not fail to teach myself from them whatever I was capable of
learning. I do not know whether I have been what people call a great
reader; I cannot claim even to have been a very wise reader; but I have
always been conscious of a high purpose to read much more, and more
discreetly, than I have ever really done, and probably it is from the
vantage-ground of this good intention that I shall sometimes be found
writing here rather than from the facts of the case.

But I am pretty sure that I began right, and that if I had always kept
the lofty level which I struck at the outset I should have the right to
use authority in these reminiscences without a bad conscience. I shall
try not to use authority, however, and I do not expect to speak here of
all my reading, whether it has been much or little, but only of those
books, or of those authors that I have felt a genuine passion for. I
have known such passions at every period of my life, but it is mainly of
the loves of my youth that I shall write, and I shall write all the more
frankly because my own youth now seems to me rather more alien than that
of any other person.

I think that I came of a reading race, which has always loved literature
in a way, and in spite of varying fortunes and many changes. From a
letter of my great-grandmother's written to a stubborn daughter upon some
unfilial behavior, like running away to be married, I suspect that she
was fond of the high-colored fiction of her day, for she tells the wilful
child that she has "planted a dagger in her mother's heart," and I should
not be surprised if it were from this fine-languaged lady that my
grandfather derived his taste for poetry rather than from his father, who
was of a worldly wiser mind. To be sure, he became a Friend by
Convincement as the Quakers say, and so I cannot imagine that he was
altogether worldly; but he had an eye to the main chance: he founded the
industry of making flannels in the little Welsh town where he lived, and
he seems to have grown richer, for his day and place, than any of us have
since grown for ours. My grandfather, indeed, was concerned chiefly in
getting away from the world and its wickedness. He came to this country
early in the nineteenth century and settled his family in a log-cabin in
the Ohio woods, that they might be safe from the sinister influences of
the village where he was managing some woollen-mills. But he kept his
affection for certain poets of the graver, not to say gloomier sort, and
he must have suffered his children to read them, pending that great
question of their souls' salvation which was a lifelong trouble to him.

My father, at any rate, had such a decided bent in the direction of
literature, that he was not content in any of his several economical
experiments till he became the editor of a newspaper, which was then the
sole means of satisfying a literary passion. His paper, at the date when
I began to know him, was a living, comfortable and decent, but without
the least promise of wealth in it, or the hope even of a much better
condition. I think now that he was wise not to care for the advancement
which most of us have our hearts set upon, and that it was one of his
finest qualities that he was content with a lot in life where he was not
exempt from work with his hands, and yet where he was not so pressed by
need but he could give himself at will not only to the things of the
spirit, but the things of the mind too. After a season of scepticism he
had become a religious man, like the rest of his race, but in his own
fashion, which was not at all the fashion of my grandfather: a Friend who
had married out of Meeting, and had ended a perfervid Methodist. My
father, who could never get himself converted at any of the camp-meetings
where my grandfather often led the forces of prayer to his support, and
had at last to be given up in despair, fell in with the writings of
Emanuel Swedenborg, and embraced the doctrine of that philosopher with a
content that has lasted him all the days of his many years. Ever since I
can remember, the works of Swedenborg formed a large part of his library;
he read them much himself, and much to my mother, and occasionally a
"Memorable Relation" from them to us children. But he did not force them
upon our notice, nor urge us to read them, and I think this was very
well. I suppose his conscience and his reason kept him from doing so.
But in regard to other books, his fondness was too much for him, and when
I began to show a liking for literature he was eager to guide my choice.

His own choice was for poetry, and the most of our library, which was not
given to theology, was given to poetry. I call it the library now, but
then we called it the bookcase, and that was what literally it was,
because I believe that whatever we had called our modest collection of
books, it was a larger private collection than any other in the town
where we lived. Still it was all held, and shut with glass doors, in a
case of very few shelves. It was not considerably enlarged during my
childhood, for few books came to my father as editor, and he indulged
himself in buying them even more rarely. My grandfather's book store
(it was also the village drug-store) had then the only stock of
literature for sale in the place; and once, when Harper & Brothers' agent
came to replenish it, be gave my father several volumes for review. One
of these was a copy of Thomson's Seasons, a finely illustrated edition,
whose pictures I knew long before I knew the poetry, and thought them the
most beautiful things that ever were. My father read passages of the
book aloud, and he wanted me to read it all myself. For the matter of
that he wanted me to read Cowper, from whom no one could get anything but
good, and he wanted me to read Byron, from whom I could then have got no
harm; we get harm from the evil we understand. He loved Burns, too, and
he used to read aloud from him, I must own, to my inexpressible
weariness. I could not away with that dialect, and I could not then feel
the charm of the poet's wit, nor the tender beauty of his pathos. Moore,
I could manage better; and when my father read "Lalla Rookh" to my mother
I sat up to listen, and entered into all the woes of Iran in the story of
the "Fire Worshippers." I drew the line at the "Veiled Prophet of
Khorassan," though I had some sense of the humor of the poet's conception
of the critic in "Fadladeen." But I liked Scott's poems far better, and
got from Ispahan to Edinburgh with a glad alacrity of fancy. I followed
the "Lady of the Lake" throughout, and when I first began to contrive
verses of my own I found that poem a fit model in mood and metre.

Among other volumes of verse on the top shelf of the bookcase, of which I
used to look at the outside without penetrating deeply within, were
Pope's translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Dryden's Virgil,
pretty little tomes in tree-calf, published by James Crissy in
Philadelphia, and illustrated with small copper-plates, which somehow
seemed to put the matter hopelessly beyond me. It was as if they said to
me in so many words that literature which furnished the subjects of such
pictures I could not hope to understand, and need not try. At any rate,
I let them alone for the time, and I did not meddle with a volume of
Shakespeare, in green cloth and cruelly fine print, which overawed me in
like manner with its wood-cuts. I cannot say just why I conceived that
there was something unhallowed in the matter of the book; perhaps this
was a tint from the reputation of the rather profligate young man from
whom my father had it. If he were not profligate I ask his pardon. I
have not the least notion who he was, but that was the notion I had of
him, whoever he was, or wherever he now is. There may never have been
such a young man at all; the impression I had may have been pure
invention of my own, like many things with children, who do not very
distinctly know their dreams from their experiences, and live in the
world where both project the same quality of shadow.

There were, of course, other books in the bookcase, which my
consciousness made no account of, and I speak only of those I remember.
Fiction there was none at all that I can recall, except Poe's 'Tales of
the Grotesque and the Arabesque' (I long afflicted myself as to what
those words meant, when I might easily have asked and found out) and
Bulwer's Last Days of Pompeii, all in the same kind of binding. History
is known, to my young remembrance of that library, by a History of the
United States, whose dust and ashes I hardly made my way through; and by
a 'Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada', by the ever dear and precious
Fray Antonio Agapida, whom I was long in making out to be one and the
same as Washington Irving.

In school there was as little literature then as there is now, and I
cannot say anything worse of our school reading; but I was not really
very much in school, and so I got small harm from it. The printing-
office was my school from a very early date. My father thoroughly
believed in it, and he had his beliefs as to work, which he illustrated
as soon as we were old enough to learn the trade he followed. We could
go to school and study, or we could go into the printing-office and work,
with an equal chance of learning, but we could not be idle; we must do
something, for our souls' sake, though he was willing enough we should
play, and he liked himself to go into the woods with us, and to enjoy the
pleasures that manhood can share with childhood. I suppose that as the
world goes now we were poor. His income was never above twelve hundred a
year, and his family was large; but nobody was rich there or then; we
lived in the simple abundance of that time and place, and we did not know
that we were poor. As yet the unequal modern conditions were undreamed
of (who indeed could have dreamed of them forty or fifty years ago?) in
the little Southern Ohio town where nearly the whole of my most happy
boyhood was passed.


When I began to have literary likings of my own, and to love certain
books above others, the first authors of my heart were Goldsmith,
Cervantes, and Irving. In the sharply foreshortened perspective of the
past I seem to have read them all at once, but I am aware of an order of
time in the pleasure they gave me, and I know that Goldsmith came first.
He came so early that I cannot tell when or how I began to read him, but
it must have been before I was ten years old. I read other books about
that time, notably a small book on Grecian and Roman mythology, which I
perused with such a passion for those pagan gods and goddesses that, if
it had ever been a question of sacrificing to Diana, I do not really know
whether I should have been able to refuse. I adored indiscriminately all
the tribes of nymphs and naiads, demigods and heroes, as well as the high
ones of Olympus; and I am afraid that by day I dwelt in a world peopled
and ruled by them, though I faithfully said my prayers at night, and fell
asleep in sorrow for my sins. I do not know in the least how Goldsmith's
Greece came into my hands, though I fancy it must have been procured for
me because of a taste which I showed for that kind of reading, and I can
imagine no greater luck for a small boy in a small town of Southwestern
Ohio well-nigh fifty years ago. I have the books yet; two little, stout
volumes in fine print, with the marks of wear on them, but without those
dishonorable blots, or those other injuries which boys inflict upon books
in resentment of their dulness, or out of mere wantonness. I was always
sensitive to the maltreatment of books; I could not bear to see a book
faced down or dogs-eared or broken-backed. It was like a hurt or an
insult to a thing that could feel.

Goldsmith's History of Rome came to me much later, but quite as
immemorably, and after I had formed a preference for the Greek Republics,
which I dare say was not mistaken. Of course I liked Athens best, and
yet there was something in the fine behavior of the Spartans in battle,
which won a heart formed for hero-worship. I mastered the notion of
their communism, and approved of their iron money, with the poverty it
obliged them to, yet somehow their cruel treatment of the Helots failed
to shock me; perhaps I forgave it to their patriotism, as I had to
forgive many ugly facts in the history of the Romans to theirs. There
was hardly any sort of bloodshed which I would not pardon in those days
to the slayers of tyrants; and the swagger form of such as despatched a
despot with a fine speech was so much to my liking that I could only
grieve that I was born too late to do and to say those things.

I do not think I yet felt the beauty of the literature which made them
all live in my fancy, that I conceived of Goldsmith as an artist using
for my rapture the finest of the arts; and yet I had been taught to see
the loveliness of poetry, and was already trying to make it on my own
poor account. I tried to make verses like those I listened to when my
father read Moore and Scott to my mother, but I heard them with no such
happiness as I read my beloved histories, though I never thought then of
attempting to write like Goldsmith. I accepted his beautiful work as
ignorantly as I did my other blessings. I was concerned in getting at
the Greeks and Romans, and I did not know through what nimble air and by
what lovely ways I was led to them. Some retrospective perception of
this came long afterward when I read his essays, and after I knew all of
his poetry, and later yet when I read the 'Vicar of Wakefield'; but for
the present my eyes were holden, as the eyes of a boy mostly are in the
world of art. What I wanted with my Greeks and Romans after I got at
them was to be like them, or at least to turn them to account in verse,
and in dramatic verse at that. The Romans were less civilized than the
Greeks, and so were more like boys, and more to a boy's purpose. I did
not make literature of the Greeks, but I got a whole tragedy out of the
Romans; it was a rhymed tragedy, and in octosyllabic verse, like the
"Lady of the Lake." I meant it to be acted by my schoolmates, but I am
not sure that I ever made it known to them. Still, they were not
ignorant of my reading, and I remember how proud I was when a certain
boy, who had always whipped me when we fought together, and so outranked
me in that little boys' world, once sent to ask me the name of the Roman
emperor who lamented at nightfall, when he had done nothing worthy, that
he had lost a day. The boy was going to use the story, in a composition,
as we called the school themes then, and I told him the emperor's name; I
could not tell him now without turning to the book.

My reading gave me no standing among the boys, and I did not expect it to
rank me with boys who were more valiant in fight or in play; and I have
since found that literature gives one no more certain station in the
world of men's activities, either idle or useful. We literary folk try
to believe that it does, but that is all nonsense. At every period of
life, among boys or men, we are accepted when they are at leisure, and
want to be amused, and at best we are tolerated rather than accepted.
I must have told the boys stories out of my Goldsmith's Greece and Rome,
or it would not have been known that I had read them, but I have no
recollection now of doing so, while I distinctly remember rehearsing the
allegories and fables of the 'Gesta Romanorum', a book which seems to
have been in my hands about the same time or a little later. I had a
delight in that stupid collection of monkish legends which I cannot
account for now, and which persisted in spite of the nightmare confusion
it made of my ancient Greeks and Romans. They were not at all the
ancient Greeks and Romans of Goldsmith's histories.

I cannot say at what times I read these books, but they must have been
odd times, for life was very full of play then, and was already beginning
to be troubled with work. As I have said, I was to and fro between the
schoolhouse and the printing-office so much that when I tired of the one
I must have been very promptly given my choice of the other. The
reading, however, somehow went on pretty constantly, and no doubt my love
for it won me a chance for it. There were some famous cherry-trees in
our yard, which, as I look back at them, seem to have been in flower or
fruit the year round; and in one of them there was a level branch where a
boy could sit with a book till his dangling legs went to sleep, or till
some idler or busier boy came to the gate and called him down to play
marbles or go swimming. When this happened the ancient world was rolled
up like a scroll, and put away until the next day, with all its orators
and conspirators, its nymphs and satyrs, gods and demigods; though
sometimes they escaped at night and got into the boy's dreams.

I do not think I cared as much as some of the other boys for the 'Arabian
Nights' or 'Robinson Crusoe,' but when it came to the 'Ingenious
Gentleman of La Mancha,' I was not only first, I was sole.

Before I speak, however, of the beneficent humorist who next had my
boyish heart after Goldsmith, let me acquit myself in full of my debt to
that not unequal or unkindred spirit. I have said it was long after I
had read those histories, full of his inalienable charm, mere pot-boilers
as they were, and far beneath his more willing efforts, that I came to
know his poetry. My father must have read the "Deserted Village" to us,
and told us something of the author's pathetic life, for I cannot
remember when I first knew of "sweet Auburn," or had the light of the
poet's own troubled day upon the "loveliest village of the plain."
The 'Vicar of Wakefield' must have come into my life after that poem and
before 'The Traveler'. It was when I would have said that I knew all
Goldsmith; we often give ourselves credit for knowledge in this way
without having any tangible assets; and my reading has always been very
desultory. I should like to say here that the reading of any one who
reads to much purpose is always very desultory, though perhaps I had
better not say so, but merely state the fact in my case, and own that I
never read any one author quite through without wandering from him to
others. When I first read the 'Vicar of Wakefield' (for I have since
read it several times, and hope yet to read it many times), I found its
persons and incidents familiar, and so I suppose I must have heard it
read. It is still for me one of the most modern novels: that is to say,
one of the best. It is unmistakably good up to a certain point, and then
unmistakably bad, but with always good enough in it to be forever
imperishable. Kindness and gentleness are never out of fashion; it is
these in Goldsmith which make him our contemporary, and it is worth the
while of any young person presently intending deathless renown to take a
little thought of them. They are the source of all refinement, and I do
not believe that the best art in any kind exists without them. The style
is the man, and he cannot hide himself in any garb of words so that we
shall not know somehow what manner of man he is within it; his speech
betrayeth him, not only as to his country and his race, but more subtly
yet as to his heart, and the loves and hates of his heart. As to
Goldsmith, I do not think that a man of harsh and arrogant nature, of
worldly and selfish soul, could ever have written his style, and I do not
think that, in far greater measure than criticism has recognized, his
spiritual quality, his essential friendliness, expressed itself in the
literary beauty that wins the heart as well as takes the fancy in his

I should have my reservations and my animadversions if it came to close
criticism of his work, but I am glad that he was the first author I
loved, and that even before I knew I loved him I was his devoted reader.
I was not consciously his admirer till I began to read, when I was
fourteen, a little volume of his essays, made up, I dare say, from the
'Citizen of the World' and other unsuccessful ventures of his. It
contained the papers on Beau Tibbs, among others, and I tried to write
sketches and studies of life in their manner. But this attempt at
Goldsmith's manner followed a long time after I tried to write in the
style of Edgar A. Poe, as I knew it from his 'Tales of the Grotesque
erred Arabesque.' I suppose the very poorest of these was the "Devil in
the Belfry," but such as it was I followed it as closely as I could in
the "Devil in the Smoke-Pipes"; I meant tobacco-pipes. The resemblance
was noted by those to whom I read my story; I alone could not see it or
would not own it, and I really felt it a hardship that I should be found
to have produced an imitation.

It was the first time I had imitated a prose writer, though I had
imitated several poets like Moore, Campbell, and Goldsmith himself.
I have never greatly loved an author without wishing to write like him.
I have now no reluctance to confess that, and I do not see why I should
not say that it was a long time before I found it best to be as like
myself as I could, even when I did not think so well of myself as of some
others. I hope I shall always be able and willing to learn something
from the masters of literature and still be myself, but for the young
writer this seems impossible. He must form himself from time to time
upon the different authors he is in love with, but when he has done this
he must wish it not to be known, for that is natural too. The lover
always desires to ignore the object of his passion, and the adoration
which a young writer has for a great one is truly a passion passing the
love of women. I think it hardly less fortunate that Cervantes was one
of my early passions, though I sat at his feet with no more sense of his
mastery than I had of Goldsmith's.


I recall very fully the moment and the place when I first heard of 'Don
Quixote,' while as yet I could not connect it very distinctly with
anybody's authorship. I was still too young to conceive of authorship,
even in my own case, and wrote my miserable verses without any notion of
literature, or of anything but the pleasure of seeing them actually come
out rightly rhymed and measured. The moment was at the close of a
summer's day just before supper, which, in our house, we had lawlessly
late, and the place was the kitchen where my mother was going about her
work, and listening as she could to what my father was telling my brother
and me and an apprentice of ours, who was like a brother to us both, of a
book that he had once read. We boys were all shelling peas, but the
story, as it went on, rapt us from the poor employ, and whatever our
fingers were doing, our spirits were away in that strange land of
adventures and mishaps, where the fevered life of the knight truly
without fear and without reproach burned itself out. I dare say that my
father tried to make us understand the satirical purpose of the book.
I vaguely remember his speaking of the books of chivalry it was meant to
ridicule; but a boy could not care for this, and what I longed to do at
once was to get that book and plunge into its story. He told us at
random of the attack on the windmills and the flocks of sheep, of the
night in the valley of the fulling-mills with their trip-hammers, of the
inn and the muleteers, of the tossing of Sancho in the blanket, of the
island that was given him to govern, and of all the merry pranks at the
duke's and duchess's, of the liberation of the galley-slaves, of the
capture of Mambrino's helmet, and of Sancho's invention of the enchanted
Dulcinea, and whatever else there was wonderful and delightful in the
most wonderful and delightful book in the world. I do not know when or
where my father got it for me, and I am aware of an appreciable time that
passed between my hearing of it and my having it. The event must have
been most important to me, and it is strange I cannot fix the moment when
the precious story came into my hands; though for the matter of that
there is nothing more capricious than a child's memory, what it will hold
and what it will lose.

It is certain my Don Quixote was in two small, stout volumes not much
bigger each than my Goldsmith's 'Greece', bound in a sort of law-calf,
well fitted to withstand the wear they were destined to undergo. The
translation was, of course, the old-fashioned version of Jervas, which,
whether it was a closely faithful version or not, was honest eighteenth-
century English, and reported faithfully enough the spirit of the
original. If it had any literary influence with me the influence must
have been good. But I cannot make out that I was sensible of the
literature; it was the forever enchanting story that I enjoyed.
I exulted in the boundless freedom of the design; the open air of that
immense scene, where adventure followed adventure with the natural
sequence of life, and the days and the nights were not long enough for
the events that thronged them, amidst the fields and woods, the streams
and hills, the highways and byways, hostelries and hovels, prisons and
palaces, which were the setting of that matchless history. I took it as
simply as I took everything else in the world about me. It was full of
meaning that I could not grasp, and there were significances of the kind
that literature unhappily abounds in, but they were lost upon my
innocence. I did not know whether it was well written or not; I never
thought about that; it was simply there in its vast entirety, its
inexhaustible opulence, and I was rich in it beyond the dreams of

My father must have told us that night about Cervantes as well as about
his 'Don Quixote', for I seem to have known from the beginning that he
was once a slave in Algiers, and that he had lost a hand in battle, and I
loved him with a sort of personal affection, as if he were still living
and he could somehow return my love. His name and nature endeared the
Spanish name and nature to me, so that they were always my romance, and
to this day I cannot meet a Spanish man without clothing him in something
of the honor and worship I lavished upon Cervantes when I was a child.
While I was in the full flush of this ardor there came to see our school,
one day, a Mexican gentleman who was studying the American system of
education; a mild, fat, saffron man, whom I could almost have died to
please for Cervantes' and Don Quixote's sake, because I knew he spoke
their tongue. But he smiled upon us all, and I had no chance to
distinguish myself from the rest by any act of devotion before the
blessed vision faded, though for long afterwards, in impassioned
reveries, I accosted him and claimed him kindred because of my fealty,
and because I would have been Spanish if I could.

I would not have had the boy-world about me know anything of these fond
dreams; but it was my tastes alone, my passions, which were alien there;
in everything else I was as much a citizen as any boy who had never heard
of Don Quixote. But I believe that I carried the book about with me most
of the time, so as not to lose any chance moment of reading it. Even in
the blank of certain years, when I added little other reading to my
store, I must still have been reading it. This was after we had removed
from the town where the earlier years of my boyhood were passed, and I
had barely adjusted myself to the strange environment when one of my
uncles asked me to come with him and learn the drug business, in the
place, forty miles away, where he practised medicine. We made the long
journey, longer than any I have made since, in the stage-coach of those
days, and we arrived at his house about twilight, he glad to get home,
and I sick to death with yearning for the home I had left. I do not know
how it was that in this state, when all the world was one hopeless
blackness around me, I should have got my 'Don Quixote' out of my bag;
I seem to have had it with me as an essential part of my equipment for my
new career. Perhaps I had been asked to show it, with the notion of
beguiling me from my misery; perhaps I was myself trying to drown my
sorrows in it. But anyhow I have before me now the vision of my sweet
young aunt and her young sister looking over her shoulder, as they stood
together on the lawn in the summer evening light. My aunt held my Don
Quixote open in one hand, while she clasped with the other the child she
carried on her arm. She looked at the book, and then from time to time
she looked at me, very kindly but very curiously, with a faint smile, so
that as I stood there, inwardly writhing in my bashfulness, I had the
sense that in her eyes I was a queer boy. She returned the book without
comment, after some questions, and I took it off to my room, where the
confidential friend of Cervantes cried himself to sleep.

In the morning I rose up and told them I could not stand it, and I was
going home. Nothing they could say availed, and my uncle went down to
the stage-office with me and took my passage back.

The horror of cholera was then in the land; and we heard in the stage-
office that a man lay dead of it in the hotel overhead. But my uncle led
me to his drugstore, where the stage was to call for me, and made me
taste a little camphor; with this prophylactic, Cervantes and I somehow
got home together alive.

The reading of 'Don Quixote' went on throughout my boyhood, so that I
cannot recall any distinctive period of it when I was not, more or less,
reading that book. In a boy's way I knew it well when I was ten, and a
few years ago, when I was fifty, I took it up in the admirable new
version of Ormsby, and found it so full of myself and of my own
irrevocable past that I did not find it very gay. But I made a great
many discoveries in it; things I had not dreamt of were there, and must
always have been there, and other things wore a new face, and made a new
effect upon me. I had my doubts, my reserves, where once I had given it
my whole heart without question, and yet in what formed the greatness of
the book it seemed to me greater than ever. I believe that its free and
simple design, where event follows event without the fettering control of
intrigue, but where all grows naturally out of character and conditions,
is the supreme form of fiction; and I cannot help thinking that if we
ever have a great American novel it must be built upon some such large
and noble lines. As for the central figure, Don Quixote himself, in his
dignity and generosity, his unselfish ideals, and his fearless devotion
to them, he is always heroic and beautiful; and I was glad to find in my
latest look at his history that I had truly conceived of him at first,
and had felt the sublimity of his nature. I did not want to laugh at him
so much, and I could not laugh at all any more at some of the things done
to him. Once they seemed funny, but now only cruel, and even stupid, so
that it was strange to realize his qualities and indignities as both
flowing from the same mind. But in my mature experience, which threw a
broader light on the fable, I was happy to keep my old love of an author
who had been almost personally, dear to me.



I have told how Cervantes made his race precious to me, and I am sure
that it must have been he who fitted me to understand and enjoy the
American author who now stayed me on Spanish ground and kept me happy in
Spanish air, though I cannot trace the tie in time and circumstance
between Irving and Cervantes. The most I can make sure of is that I read
the 'Conquest of Granada' after I read Don Quixote, and that I loved the
historian so much because I had loved the novelist much more. Of course
I did not perceive then that Irving's charm came largely from Cervantes
and the other Spanish humorists yet unknown to me, and that he had formed
himself upon them almost as much as upon Goldsmith, but I dare say that
this fact had insensibly a great deal to do with my liking. Afterwards I
came to see it, and at the same time to see what was Irving's own in
Irving; to feel his native, if somewhat attenuated humor, and his
original, if somewhat too studied grace. But as yet there was no
critical question with me. I gave my heart simply and passionately to
the author who made the scenes of that most pathetic history live in my
sympathy, and companioned me with the stately and gracious actors in

I really cannot say now whether I loved the Moors or the Spaniards more.
I fought on both sides; I would not have had the Spaniards beaten, and
yet when the Moors lost I was vanquished with them; and when the poor
young King Boabdil (I was his devoted partisan and at the same time a
follower of his fiery old uncle and rival, Hamet el Zegri) heaved the
Last Sigh of the Moor, as his eyes left the roofs of Granada forever, it
was as much my grief as if it had burst from my own breast. I put both
these princes into the first and last historical romance I ever wrote.
I have now no idea what they did in it, but as the story never came to a
conclusion it does not greatly matter. I had never yet read an
historical romance that I can make sure of, and probably my attempt must
have been based almost solely upon the facts of Irving's history. I am
certain I could not have thought of adding anything to them, or at all
varying them.

In reading his 'Chronicle' I suffered for a time from its attribution to
Fray Antonio Agapida, the pious monk whom he feigns to have written it,
just as in reading 'Don Quixote' I suffered from Cervantes masquerading
as the Moorish scribe, Cid Hamet Ben Engeli. My father explained the
literary caprice, but it remained a confusion and a trouble for me, and I
made a practice of skipping those passages where either author insisted
upon his invention. I will own that I am rather glad that sort of thing
seems to be out of fashion now, and I think the directer and franker
methods of modern fiction will forbid its revival. Thackeray was fond of
such open disguises, and liked to greet his reader from the mask of
Yellowplush and Michael Angelo Titmarsh, but it seems to me this was in
his least modern moments.

My 'Conquest of Granada' was in two octavo volumes, bound in drab boards,
and printed on paper very much yellowed with time at its irregular edges.
I do not know when the books happened in my hands. I have no remembrance
that they were in any wise offered or commended to me, and in a sort of
way they were as authentically mine as if I had made them. I saw them at
home, not many months ago, in my father's library (it has long outgrown
the old bookcase, which has gone I know not where), and upon the whole I
rather shrank from taking them down, much more from opening them, though
I could not say why, unless it was from the fear of perhaps finding the
ghost of my boyish self within, pressed flat like a withered leaf,
somewhere between the familiar pages.

When I learned Spanish it was with the purpose, never yet fulfilled, of
writing the life of Cervantes, although I have since had some forty-odd
years to do it in. I taught myself the language, or began to do so, when
I knew nothing of the English grammar but the prosody at the end of the
book. My father had the contempt of familiarity with it, having himself
written a very brief sketch of our accidence, and he seems to have let me
plunge into the sea of Spanish verbs and adverbs, nouns and pronouns, and
all the rest, when as yet I could not confidently call them by name, with
the serene belief that if I did not swim I would still somehow get ashore
without sinking. The end, perhaps, justified him, and I suppose I did
not do all that work without getting some strength from it; but I wish I
had back the time that it cost me; I should like to waste it in some
other way. However, time seemed interminable then, and I thought there
would be enough of it for me in which to read all Spanish literature; or,
at least, I did not propose to do anything less.

I followed Irving, too, in my later reading, but at haphazard, and with
other authors at the same time. I did my poor best to be amused by his
'Knickerbocker History of New York', because my father liked it so much,
but secretly I found it heavy; and a few years ago when I went carefully
through it again. I could not laugh. Even as a boy I found some other
things of his uphill work. There was the beautiful manner, but the
thought seemed thin; and I do not remember having been much amused by
'Bracebridge Hall', though I read it devoutly, and with a full sense that
it would be very 'comme il faut' to like it. But I did like the 'Life of
Goldsmith'; I liked it a great deal better than the more authoritative
'Life by Forster', and I think there is a deeper and sweeter sense of
Goldsmith in it. Better than all, except the 'Conquest of Granada',
I liked the 'Legend of Sleepy Hollow' and the story of Rip Van Winkle,
with their humorous and affectionate caricatures of life that was once of
our own soil and air; and the 'Tales of the Alhambra', which transported
me again, to the scenes of my youth beside the Xenil. It was long after
my acquaintance with his work that I came to a due sense of Irving as an
artist, and perhaps I have come to feel a full sense of it only now, when
I perceive that he worked willingly only when he worked inventively.
At last I can do justice to the exquisite conception of his 'Conquest of
Granada', a study of history which, in unique measure, conveys not only
the pathos, but the humor of one of the most splendid and impressive
situations in the experience of the race. Very possibly something of the
severer truth might have been sacrificed to the effect of the pleasing
and touching tale, but I do not under stand that this was really done.
Upon the whole I am very well content with my first three loves in
literature, and if I were to choose for any other boy I do not see how I
could choose better than Goldsmith and Cervantes and Irving, kindred
spirits, and each not a master only, but a sweet and gentle friend, whose
kindness could not fail to profit him.


In my own case there followed my acquaintance with these authors certain
Boeotian years, when if I did not go backward I scarcely went forward in
the paths I had set out upon. They were years of the work, of the over-
work, indeed, which falls to the lot of so many that I should be ashamed
to speak of it except in accounting for the fact. My father had sold his
paper in Hamilton and had bought an interest in another at Dayton, and we
were all straining our utmost to help pay for it. My daily tasks began
so early and ended so late that I had little time, even if I had the
spirit, for reading; and it was not till what we thought ruin, but what
was really release, came to us that I got back again to my books. Then
we went to live in the country for a year, and that stress of toil, with
the shadow of failure darkening all, fell from me like the horror of an
evil dream. The only new book which I remember to have read in those two
or three years at Dayton, when I hardly remember to have read any old
ones, was the novel of 'Jane Eyre,' which I took in very imperfectly, and
which I associate with the first rumor of the Rochester Knockings, then
just beginning to reverberate through a world that they have not since
left wholly at peace. It was a gloomy Sunday afternoon when the book
came under my hand; and mixed with my interest in the story was an
anxiety lest the pictures on the walls should leave their nails and come
and lay themselves at my feet; that was what the pictures had been doing
in Rochester and other places where the disembodied spirits were
beginning to make themselves felt. The thing did not really happen in my
case, but I was alone in the house, and it might very easily have

If very little came to me in those days from books, on the other hand my
acquaintance with the drama vastly enlarged itself. There was a hapless
company of players in the town from time to time, and they came to us for
their printing. I believe they never paid for it, or at least never
wholly, but they lavished free passes upon us, and as nearly as I can
make out, at this distance of time, I profited by their generosity, every
night. They gave two or three plays at every performance to houses
ungratefully small, but of a lively spirit and impatient temper that
would not brook delay in the representation; and they changed the bill
each day. In this way I became familiar with Shakespeare before I read
him, or at least such plays of his as were most given in those days, and
I saw "Macbeth" and "Hamlet," and above all "Richard III.," again and
again. I do not know why my delight in those tragedies did not send me
to the volume of his plays, which was all the time in the bookcase at
home, but I seem not to have thought of it, and rapt as I was in them I
am not sure that they gave me greater pleasure, or seemed at all finer,
than "Rollo," "The Wife," "The Stranger," "Barbarossa," "The Miser of
Marseilles," and the rest of the melodramas, comedies, and farces which I
saw at that time. I have a notion that there were some clever people in
one of these companies, and that the lighter pieces at least were well
played, but I may be altogether wrong. The gentleman who took the part
of villain, with an unfailing love of evil, in the different dramas, used
to come about the printing-office a good deal, and I was puzzled to find
him a very mild and gentle person. To be sure he had a mustache, which
in those days devoted a man to wickedness, but by day it was a blond
mustache, quite flaxen, in fact, and not at all the dark and deadly thing
it was behind the footlights at night. I could scarcely gasp in his
presence, my heart bounded so in awe and honor of him when he paid a
visit to us; perhaps he used to bring the copy of the show-bills. The
company he belonged to left town in the adversity habitual with them.

Our own adversity had been growing, and now it became overwhelming. We
had to give up the paper we had struggled so hard to keep, but when the
worst came it was not half so bad as what had gone before. There was no
more waiting till midnight for the telegraphic news, no more waking at
dawn to deliver the papers, no more weary days at the case, heavier for
the doom hanging over us. My father and his brothers had long dreamed of
a sort of family colony somewhere in the country, and now the uncle who
was most prosperous bought a milling property on a river not far from
Dayton, and my father went out to take charge of it until the others
could shape their business to follow him. The scheme came to nothing
finally, but in the mean time we escaped from the little city and its
sorrowful associations of fruitless labor, and had a year in the country,
which was blest, at least to us children, by sojourn in a log-cabin,
while a house was building for us.


This log-cabin had a loft, where we boys slept, and in the loft were
stored in barrels the books that had now begun to overflow the bookcase.
I do not know why I chose the loft to renew my long-neglected friendship
with them. The light could not have been good, though if I brought my
books to the little gable window that overlooked the groaning and
whistling gristmill I could see well enough. But perhaps I liked the
loft best because the books were handiest there, and because I could be
alone. At any rate, it was there that I read Longfellow's "Spanish
Student," which I found in an old paper copy of his poems in one of the
barrels, and I instantly conceived for it the passion which all things
Spanish inspired in me. As I read I not only renewed my acquaintance
with literature, but renewed my delight in people and places where I had
been happy before those heavy years in Dayton. At the same time I felt a
little jealousy, a little grudge, that any one else should love them as
well as I, and if the poem had not been so beautiful I should have hated
the poet for trespassing on my ground. But I could not hold out long
against the witchery of his verse. The "Spanish Student" became one of
my passions; a minor passion, not a grand one, like 'Don Quixote' and the
'Conquest of Granada', but still a passion, and I should dread a little
to read the piece now, lest I should disturb my old ideal of its beauty.
The hero's rogue servant, Chispa, seemed to me, then and long afterwards,
so fine a bit of Spanish character that I chose his name for my first
pseudonym when I began to write for the newspapers, and signed my
legislative correspondence for a Cincinnati paper with it. I was in love
with the heroine, the lovely dancer whose 'cachucha' turned my head,
along with that of the cardinal, but whose name even I have forgotten,
and I went about with the thought of her burning in my heart, as if she
had been a real person.


All the while I was bringing up the long arrears of play which I had not
enjoyed in the toil-years at Dayton, and was trying to make my Spanish
reading serve in the sports that we had in the woods and by the river.
We were Moors and Spaniards almost as often as we were British and
Americans, or settlers and Indians. I suspect that the large, mild boy,
the son of a neighboring farmer, who mainly shared our games, had but a
dim notion of what I meant by my strange people, but I did my best to
enlighten him, and he helped me make a dream out of my life, and did his
best to dwell in the region of unrealities where I preferably had my
being; he was from time to time a Moor when I think he would rather have
been a Mingo.

I got hold of Scott's poems, too, in that cabin loft, and read most of
the tales which were yet unknown to me after those earlier readings of my
father's. I could not say why "Harold the Dauntless" most took my fancy;
the fine, strongly flowing rhythm of the verse had a good deal to do with
it, I believe. I liked these things, all of them, and in after years I
liked the "Lady of the Lake" more and more, and from mere love of it got
great lengths of it by heart; but I cannot say that Scott was then or
ever a great passion with me. It was a sobered affection at best, which
came from my sympathy with his love of nature, and the whole kindly and
humane keeping of his genius. Many years later, during the month when I
was waiting for my passport as Consul for Venice, and had the time on my
hands, I passed it chiefly in reading all his novels, one after another,
without the interruption of other reading. 'Ivanhoe' I had known before,
and the 'Bride of Lammermoor' and 'Woodstock', but the rest had remained
in that sort of abeyance which is often the fate of books people expect
to read as a matter of course, and come very near not reading at all, or
read only very late. Taking them in this swift sequence, little or
nothing of them remained with me, and my experience with them is against
that sort of ordered and regular reading, which I have so often heard
advised for young people by their elders. I always suspect their elders
of not having done that kind of reading themselves.

For my own part I believe I have never got any good from a book that I
did not read lawlessly and wilfully, out of all leading and following,
and merely because I wanted to read it; and I here make bold to praise
that way of doing. The book which you read from a sense of duty, or
because for any reason you must, does not commonly make friends with you.
It may happen that it will yield you an unexpected delight, but this will
be in its own unentreated way and in spite of your good intentions.
Little of the book read for a purpose stays with the reader, and this is
one reason why reading for review is so vain and unprofitable. I have
done a vast deal of this, but I have usually been aware that the book was
subtly withholding from me the best a book can give, since I was not
reading it for its own sake and because I loved it, but for selfish ends
of my own, and because I wished to possess myself of it for business
purposes, as it were. The reading that does one good, and lasting good,
is the reading that one does for pleasure, and simply and unselfishly,
as children do. Art will still withhold herself from thrift, and she
does well, for nothing but love has any right to her.

Little remains of the events of any period, however vivid they were in
passing. The memory may hold record of everything, as it is believed,
but it will not be easily entreated to give up its facts, and I find
myself striving in vein to recall the things that I must have read that
year in the country. Probably I read the old things over; certainly I
kept on with Cervantes, and very likely with Goldsmith. There was a
delightful history of Ohio, stuffed with tales of the pioneer times,
which was a good deal in the hands of us boys; and there was a book of
Western Adventure, full of Indian fights and captivities, which we wore
to pieces. Still, I think that it was now that I began to have a
literary sense of what I was reading. I wrote a diary, and I tried to
give its record form and style, but mostly failed. The versifying which
I was always at was easier, and yielded itself more to my hand. I should
be very glad to, know at present what it dealt with.


When my uncles changed their minds in regard to colonizing their families
at the mills, as they did in about a year, it became necessary for my
father to look about for some new employment, and he naturally looked in
the old direction. There were several schemes for getting hold of this
paper and that, and there were offers that came to nothing. In that day
there were few salaried editors in the country outside of New York, and
the only hope we could have was of some place as printers in an office
which we might finally buy. The affair ended in our going to the State
capital, where my father found work as a reporter of legislative
proceedings for one of the daily journals, and I was taken into the
office as a compositor. In this way I came into living contact with
literature again, and the daydreams began once more over the familiar
cases of type. A definite literary ambition grew up in me, and in the
long reveries of the afternoon, when I was distributing my case,
I fashioned a future of overpowering magnificence and undying celebrity.
I should be ashamed to say what literary triumphs I achieved in those
preposterous deliriums. What I actually did was to write a good many
copies of verse, in imitation, never owned, of Moore and Goldsmith, and
some minor poets, whose work caught my fancy, as I read it in the
newspapers or put it into type.

One of my pieces, which fell so far short of my visionary performances as
to treat of the lowly and familiar theme of Spring, was the first thing I
ever had in print. My father offered it to the editor of the paper I
worked on, and I first knew, with mingled shame and pride, of what he had
done when I saw it in the journal. In the tumult of my emotions I
promised myself that if I got through this experience safely I would
never suffer anything else of mine to be published; but it was not long
before I offered the editor a poem myself. I am now glad to think it
dealt with so humble a fact as a farmer's family leaving their old home
for the West. The only fame of my poem which reached me was when another
boy in the office quoted some lines of it in derision. This covered me
with such confusion that I wonder that I did not vanish from the earth.
At the same time I had my secret joy in it, and even yet I think it was
attempted in a way which was not false or wrong. I had tried to sketch
an aspect of life that I had seen and known, and that was very well
indeed, and I had wrought patiently and carefully in the art of the poor
little affair.

My elder brother, for whom there was no place in the office where I
worked, had found one in a store, and he beguiled the leisure that light
trade left on his hands by reading the novels of Captain Marryat. I read
them after him with a great deal of amusement, but without the passion
that I bestowed upon my favorite authors. I believe I had no critical
reserves in regard to them, but simply they did not take my fancy.
Still, we had great fun with Japhet in 'Search of a Father', and with
'Midshipman Easy', and we felt a fine physical shiver in the darkling
moods of 'Snarle-yow the Dog-Fiend.' I do not remember even the names of
the other novels, except 'Jacob Faithful,' which I chanced upon a few
years ago and found very, hard reading.

We children who were used to the free range of woods and fields were
homesick for the country in our narrow city yard, and I associate with
this longing the 'Farmer's Boy of Bloomfield,' which my father got for
me. It was a little book in blue cloth, and there were some mild wood-
cuts in it. I read it with a tempered pleasure, and with a vague
resentment of its trespass upon Thomson's ground in the division of its
parts under the names of the seasons. I do not know why I need have felt
this. I was not yet very fond of Thomson. I really liked Bloomfield
better; for one thing, his poem was written in the heroic decasyllabics
which I preferred to any other verse.


I infer, from the fact of this preference that I had already begun to
read Pope, and that I must have read the "Deserted Village" of Goldsmith.
I fancy, also, that I must by this time have read the Odyssey, for the
"Battle of the Frogs and Mice" was in the second volume, and it took me
so much that I paid it the tribute of a bald imitation in a mock-heroic
epic of a cat fight, studied from the cat fights in our back yard, with
the wonted invocation to the Muse, and the machinery of partisan gods and
goddesses. It was in some hundreds of verses, which I did my best to
balance as Pope did, with a caesura falling in the middle of the line,
and a neat antithesis at the end.

The story of the Odyssey charmed me, of course, and I had moments of
being intimate friends with Ulysses, but I was passing out of that phase,
and was coming to read more with a sense of the author, and less with a
sense of his characters as real persons; that is, I was growing more
literary, and less human. I fell in love with Pope, whose life I read
with an ardor of sympathy which I am afraid he hardly merited. I was of
his side in all his quarrels, as far as I understood them, and if I did
not understand them I was of his side anyway. When I found that he was a
Catholic I was almost ready to abjure the Protestant religion for his
sake; but I perceived that this was not necessary when I came to know
that most of his friends were Protestants. If the truth must be told,
I did not like his best things at first, but long remained chiefly
attached to his rubbishing pastorals, which I was perpetually imitating,
with a whole apparatus of swains and shepherdesses, purling brooks,
enamelled meads, rolling years, and the like.

After my day's work at the case I wore the evening away in my boyish
literary attempts, forcing my poor invention in that unnatural kind, and
rubbing and polishing at my wretched verses till they did sometimes take
on an effect, which, if it was not like Pope's, was like none of mine.
With all my pains I do not think I ever managed to bring any of my
pastorals to a satisfactory close. They all stopped somewhere about
halfway. My swains could not think of anything more to say, and the
merits of my shepherdesses remained undecided. To this day I do not know
whether in any given instance it was the champion of Chloe or of Sylvia
that carried off the prize for his fair, but I dare say it does not much
matter. I am sure that I produced a rhetoric as artificial and treated
of things as unreal as my master in the art, and I am rather glad that I
acquainted myself so thoroughly with a mood of literature which, whatever
we may say against it, seems to have expressed very perfectly a mood of

The severe schooling I gave myself was not without its immediate use.
I learned how to choose between words after a study of their fitness,
and though I often employed them decoratively and with no vital sense of
their qualities, still in mere decoration they had to be chosen
intelligently, and after some thought about their structure and meaning.
I could not imitate Pope without imitating his methods, and his method
was to the last degree intelligent. He certainly knew what he was doing,
and although I did not always know what I was doing, he made me wish to
know, and ashamed of not knowing. There are several truer poets who
might not have done this; and after all the modern contempt of Pope, he
seems to me to have been at least one of the great masters, if not one of
the great poets. The poor man's life was as weak and crooked as his
frail, tormented body, but he had a dauntless spirit, and he fought his
way against odds that might well have appalled a stronger nature.
I suppose I must own that he was from time to time a snob, and from time
to time a liar, but I believe that he loved the truth, and would have
liked always to respect himself if he could. He violently revolted,
now and again, from the abasement to which he forced himself, and he
always bit the heel that trod on him, especially if it was a very high,
narrow heel, with a clocked stocking and a hooped skirt above it.
I loved him fondly at one time, and afterwards despised him, but now I am
not sorry for the love, and I am very sorry for the despite. I humbly,
own a vast debt to him, not the least part of which is the perception
that he is a model of ever so much more to be shunned than to be followed
in literature.

He was the first of the writers of great Anna's time whom I knew, and he
made me ready to understand, if he did not make me understand at once,
the order of mind and life which he belonged to. Thanks to his
pastorals, I could long afterwards enjoy with the double sense requisite
for full pleasure in them, such divinely excellent artificialities at
Tasso's "Aminta" and Guarini's "Pastor Fido"; things which you will
thoroughly like only after you are in the joke of thinking how people
once seriously liked them as high examples of poetry.

Of course I read other things of Pope's besides his pastorals, even at
the time I read these so much. I read, or not very easily or willingly
read at, his 'Essay on Man,' which my father admired, and which he
probably put Pope's works into my hands to have me read; and I read the
'Dunciad,' with quite a furious ardor in the tiresome quarrels it
celebrates, and an interest in its machinery, which it fatigues me to
think of. But it was only a few years ago that I read the 'Rape of the
Lock,' a thing perfect of its kind, whatever we may choose to think of
the kind. Upon the whole I think much better of the kind than I once
did, though still not so much as I should have thought if I had read the
poem when the fever of my love for Pope was at the highest.

It is a nice question how far one is helped or hurt by one's
idealizations of historical or imaginary characters, and I shall not try
to answer it fully. I suppose that if I once cherished such a passion
for Pope personally that I would willingly have done the things that he
did, and told the lies, and vented the malice, and inflicted the
cruelties that the poor soul was full of, it was for the reason, partly,
that I did not see these things as they were, and that in the glamour of
his talent I was blind to all but the virtues of his defects, which he
certainly had, and partly that in my love of him I could not take sides
against him, even when I knew him to be wrong. After all, I fancy not
much harm comes to the devoted boy from his enthusiasms for this
imperfect hero or that. In my own case I am sure that I distinguished as
to certain sins in my idols. I could not cast them down or cease to
worship them, but some of their frailties grieved me and put me to secret
shame for them. I did not excuse these things in them, or try to believe
that they were less evil for them than they would have been for less
people. This was after I came more or less to the knowledge of good and
evil. While I remained in the innocence of childhood I did not even
understand the wrong. When I realized what lives some of my poets had
led, how they were drunkards, and swindlers, and unchaste, and untrue,
I lamented over them with a sense of personal disgrace in them, and to
this day I have no patience with that code of the world which relaxes
itself in behalf of the brilliant and gifted offender; rather he should
suffer more blame. The worst of the literature of past times, before an
ethical conscience began to inform it, or the advance of the race
compelled it to decency, is that it leaves the mind foul with filthy
images and base thoughts; but what I have been trying to say is that the
boy, unless he is exceptionally depraved beforehand, is saved from these
through his ignorance. Still I wish they were not there, and I hope the
time will come when the beast-man will be so far subdued and tamed in us
that the memory of him in literature shall be left to perish; that what
is lewd and ribald in the great poets shall be kept out of such editions
as are meant for general reading, and that the pedant-pride which now
perpetuates it as an essential part of those poets shall no longer have
its way. At the end of the ends such things do defile, they do corrupt.
We may palliate them or excuse them for this reason or that, but that is
the truth, and I do not see why they should not be dropped from
literature, as they were long ago dropped from the talk of decent people.
The literary histories might keep record of them, but it is loath some to
think of those heaps of ordure, accumulated from generation to
generation, and carefully passed down from age to age as something
precious and vital, and not justly regarded as the moral offal which they

During the winter we passed at Columbus I suppose that my father read
things aloud to us after his old habit, and that I listened with the
rest. I have a dim notion of first knowing Thomson's 'Castle of
Indolence' in this way, but I was getting more and more impatient of
having things read to me. The trouble was that I caught some thought or
image from the text, and that my fancy remained playing with that while
the reading went on, and I lost the rest. But I think the reading was
less in every way than it had been, because his work was exhausting and
his leisure less. My own hours in the printing-office began at seven and
ended at six, with an hour at noon for dinner, which I often used for
putting down such verses as had come to me during the morning. As soon
as supper was over at night I got out my manuscripts, which I kept in
great disorder, and written in several different hands on several
different kinds of paper, and sawed, and filed, and hammered away at my
blessed Popean heroics till nine, when I went regularly to bed, to rise
again at five. Sometimes the foreman gave me an afternoon off on
Saturdays, and though the days were long the work was not always
constant, and was never very severe. I suspect now the office was not so
prosperous as might have been wished. I was shifted from place to place
in it, and there was plenty of time for my day-dreams over the
distribution of my case. I was very fond of my work, though, and proud
of my swiftness and skill in it. Once when the perplexed foreman could
not think of any task to set me he offered me a holiday, but I would not
take it, so I fancy that at this time I was not more interested in my art
of poetry than in my trade of printing. What went on in the office
interested me as much as the quarrels of the Augustan age of English
letters, and I made much more record of it in the crude and shapeless
diary which I kept, partly in verse and partly in prose, but always of a
distinctly lower literary kind than that I was trying otherwise to write.
There must have been some mention in it of the tremendous combat with wet
sponges I saw there one day between two of the boys who hurled them back
and forth at each other. This amiable fray, carried on during the
foreman's absence, forced upon my notice for the first time the boy who
has come to be a name well-known in literature. I admired his vigor as a
combatant, but I never spoke to him at that time, and I never dreamed
that he, too, was effervescing with verse, probably as fiercely as
myself. Six or seven years later we met again, when we had both become
journalists, and had both had poems accepted by Mr. Lowell for the
Atlantic Monthly, and then we formed a literary friendship which
eventuated in the joint publication of a volume of verse. 'The Poems of
Two Friends' became instantly and lastingly unknown to fame; the West
waited, as it always does, to hear what the East should say; the East
said nothing, and two-thirds of the small edition of five hundred came
back upon the publisher's hands. I imagine these copies were "ground up"
in the manner of worthless stock, for I saw a single example of the book
quoted the other day in a book-seller's catalogue at ten dollars, and I
infer that it is so rare as to be prized at least for its rarity. It was
a very pretty little book, printed on tinted paper then called "blush,"
in the trade, and it was manufactured in the same office where we had
once been boys together, unknown to each other. Another boy of that time
had by this time become foreman in the office, and he was very severe
with us about the proofs, and sent us hurting messages on the margin.
Perhaps he thought we might be going to take on airs, and perhaps we
might have taken on airs if the fate of our book had been different.
As it was I really think we behaved with sufficient meekness, and after
thirty four or five years for reflection I am still of a very modest mind
about my share of the book, in spite of the price it bears in the book-
seller's catalogue. But I have steadily grown in liking for my friend's
share in it, and I think that there is at present no American of twenty-
three writing verse of so good a quality, with an ideal so pure and high,
and from an impulse so authentic as John J. Piatt's were then. He
already knew how to breathe into his glowing rhyme the very spirit of the
region where we were both native, and in him the Middle West has its true
poet, who was much more than its poet, who had a rich and tender
imagination, a lovely sense of color, and a touch even then securely and
fully his own. I was reading over his poems in that poor little book a
few days ago, and wondering with shame and contrition that I had not at
once known their incomparable superiority to mine. But I used then and
for long afterwards to tax him with obscurity, not knowing that my own
want of simplicity and directness was to blame for that effect.
My reading from the first was such as to enamour me of clearness, of
definiteness; anything left in the vague was intolerable to me; but my
long subjection to Pope, while it was useful in other ways, made me so
strictly literary in my point of view that sometimes I could not see what
was, if more naturally approached and without any technical
preoccupation, perfectly transparent. It remained for another great
passion, perhaps the greatest of my life, to fuse these gyves in which I
was trying so hard to dance, and free me forever from the bonds which I
had spent so much time and trouble to involve myself in. But I was not
to know that passion for five or six years yet, and in the mean time I
kept on as I had been going, and worked out my deliverance in the
predestined way. What I liked then was regularity, uniformity,
exactness. I did not conceive of literature as the expression of life,
and I could not imagine that it ought to be desultory, mutable, and
unfixed, even if at the risk of some vagueness.


My father was very fond of Byron, and I must before this have known that
his poems were in our bookcase. While we were still in Columbus I began
to read them, but I did not read so much of them as could have helped me
to a truer and freer ideal. I read "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,"
and I liked its vulgar music and its heavy-handed sarcasm. These would,
perhaps, have fascinated any boy, but I had such a fanaticism for
methodical verse that any variation from the octosyllabic and
decasyllabic couplets was painful to me. The Spencerian stanza, with its
rich variety of movement and its harmonious closes, long shut "Childe
Harold" from me, and whenever I found a poem in any book which did not
rhyme its second line with its first I read it unwillingly or not at all.

This craze could not last, of course, but it lasted beyond our stay in
Columbus, which ended with the winter, when the Legislature adjourned,
and my father's employment ceased. He tried to find some editorial work
on the paper which had printed his reports, but every place was full, and
it was hopeless to dream of getting a proprietary interest in it. We had
nothing, and we must seek a chance where something besides money would
avail us. This offered itself in the village of Ashtabula, in the
northeastern part of the State, and there we all found ourselves one
moonlight night of early summer. The Lake Shore Railroad then ended at
Ashtabula, in a bank of sand, and my elder brother and I walked up from
the station, while the rest of the family, which pretty well filled the
omnibus, rode. We had been very happy at Columbus, as we were apt to be
anywhere, but none of us liked the narrowness of city streets, even so
near to the woods as those were, and we were eager for the country again.
We had always lived hitherto in large towns, except for that year at the
Mills, and we were eager to see what a village was like, especially a
village peopled wholly by Yankees, as our father had reported it. I must
own that we found it far prettier than anything we had known in Southern
Ohio, which we were so fond of and so loath to leave, and as I look back
it still seems to me one of the prettiest little places I have ever
known, with its white wooden houses, glimmering in the dark of its elms
and maples, and their silent gardens beside each, and the silent, grass-
bordered, sandy streets between them. The hotel, where we rejoined our
family, lurked behind a group of lofty elms, and we drank at the town
pump before it just for the pleasure of pumping it.

The village was all that we could have imagined of simply and sweetly
romantic in the moonlight, and when the day came it did not rob it of its
charm. It was as lovely in my eyes as the loveliest village of the
plain, and it had the advantage of realizing the Deserted Village without
being deserted.


The book that moved me most, in our stay of six months at Ashtabula, was
then beginning to move the whole world more than any other book has moved
it. I read it as it came out week after week in the old National Era,
and I broke my heart over Uncle Tom's Cabin, as every one else did. Yet
I cannot say that it was a passion of mine like Don Quixote, or the other
books that I had loved intensely. I felt its greatness when I read it
first, and as often as I have read it since, I have seen more and more
clearly that it was a very great novel. With certain obvious lapses in
its art, and with an art that is at its best very simple, and perhaps
primitive, the book is still a work of art. I knew this, in a measure
then, as I know it now, and yet neither the literary pride I was
beginning to have in the perception of such things, nor the powerful
appeal it made to my sympathies, sufficed to impassion me of it. I could
not say why this was so. Why does the young man's fancy, when it lightly
turns to thoughts of love, turn this way and not that? There seems no
more reason for one than for the other.

Instead of remaining steeped to the lips in the strong interest of what
is still perhaps our chief fiction, I shed my tribute of tears, and went
on my way. I did not try to write a story of slaver, as I might very
well have done; I did not imitate either the make or the manner of Mrs.
Stowe's romance; I kept on at my imitation of Pope's pastorals, which I
dare say I thought much finer, and worthier the powers of such a poet as
I meant to be. I did this, as I must have felt then, at some personal
risk of a supernatural kind, for my studies were apt to be prolonged into
the night after the rest of the family had gone to bed, and a certain
ghost, which I had every reason to fear, might very well have visited the
small room given me to write in. There was a story, which I shrank from
verifying, that a former inmate of our house had hung himself in it, but
I do not know to this day whether it was true or not. The doubt did not
prevent him from dangling at the door-post, in my consciousness, and many
a time I shunned the sight of this problematical suicide by keeping my
eyes fastened on the book before me. It was a very simple device, but
perfectly effective, as I think any one will find who employs it in like
circumstances; and I would really like to commend it to growing boys
troubled as I was then.

I never heard who the poor soul was, or why he took himself out of the
world, if he really did so, or if he ever was in it; but I am sure that
my passion for Pope, and my purpose of writing pastorals, must have been
powerful indeed to carry me through dangers of that kind. I suspect that
the strongest proof of their existence was the gloomy and ruinous look of
the house, which was one of the oldest in the village, and the only one
that was for rent there. We went into it because we must, and we were to
leave it as soon as we could find a better. But before this happened we
left Ashtabula, and I parted with one of the few possibilities I have
enjoyed of seeing a ghost on his own ground, as it were.

I was not sorry, for I believe I never went in or came out of the place,
by day or by night, without a shudder, more or less secret; and at least,
now, we should be able to get another house.


Very likely the reading of Ossian had something to do with my morbid
anxieties. I had read Byron's imitation of him before that, and admired
it prodigiously, and when my father got me the book--as usual I did not
know where or how he got it--not all the tall forms that moved before the
eyes of haunted bards in the dusky vale of autumn could have kept me from
it. There were certain outline illustrations in it, which were very good
in the cold Flaxman manner, and helped largely to heighten the
fascination of the poems for me. They did not supplant the pastorals of
Pope in my affections, and they were never the grand passion with me that
Pope's poems had been.

I began at once to make my imitations of Ossian, and I dare say they were
not windier and mistier than the original. At the same time I read the
literature of the subject, and gave the pretensions of Macpherson an
unquestioning faith. I should have made very short work of any one who
had impugned the authenticity of the poems, but happily there was no one
who held the contrary opinion in that village, so far as I knew, or who
cared for Ossian, or had even heard of him. This saved me a great deal
of heated controversy with my contemporaries, but I had it out in many
angry reveries with Dr. Johnson and others, who had dared to say in their
time that the poems of Ossian were not genuine lays of the Gaelic bard,
handed down from father to son, and taken from the lips of old women in
Highland huts, as Macpherson claimed.

In fact I lived over in my small way the epoch of the eighteenth century
in which these curious frauds found polite acceptance all over Europe,
and I think yet that they were really worthier of acceptance than most of
the artificialities that then passed for poetry. There was a light of
nature in them, and this must have been what pleased me, so long-shut up
to the studio-work of Pope. But strangely enough I did not falter in my
allegiance to him, or realize that here in this free form was a
deliverance, if I liked, from the fetters and manacles which I had been
at so much pains to fit myself with. Probably nothing would then have
persuaded me to put them off permanently, or to do more than lay them
aside for the moment while I tried that new stop and that new step.

I think that even then I had an instinctive doubt whether formlessness
was really better than formality. Something, it seems to me, may be
contained and kept alive in formality, but in formlessness everything
spills and wastes away. This is what I find the fatal defect of our
American Ossian, Walt Whitman, whose way is where artistic madness lies.
He had great moments, beautiful and noble thoughts, generous aspirations,
and a heart wide and warm enough for the whole race, but he had no
bounds, no shape; he was as liberal as the casing air, but he was often
as vague and intangible. I cannot say how long my passion for Ossian
lasted, but not long, I fancy, for I cannot find any trace of it in the
time following our removal from Ashtabula to the county seat at
Jefferson. I kept on with Pope, I kept on with Cervantes, I kept on with
Irving, but I suppose there was really not substance enough in Ossian to
feed my passion, and it died of inanition.


The establishment of our paper in the village where there had been none
before, and its enlargement from four to eight pages, were events so
filling that they left little room for any other excitement but that of
getting acquainted with the young people of the village, and going to
parties, and sleigh rides, and walks, and drives, and picnics, and
dances, and all the other pleasures in which that community seemed to
indulge beyond any other we had known. The village was smaller than the
one we had just left, but it was by no means less lively, and I think
that for its size and time and place it had an uncommon share of what has
since been called culture. The intellectual experience of the people was
mainly theological and political, as it was everywhere in that day, but
there were several among them who had a real love for books, and when
they met at the druggist's, as they did every night, to dispute of the
inspiration of the Scriptures and the principles of the Free Soil party,
the talk sometimes turned upon the respective merits of Dickens and
Thackeray, Gibbon and Macaulay, Wordsworth and Byron. There were law
students who read "Noctes Ambrosianae," the 'Age of Reason', and Bailey's
"Festus," as well as Blackstone's 'Commentaries;' and there was a public
library in that village of six hundred people, small but very well
selected, which was kept in one of the lawyers' offices, and was free to
all. It seems to me now that the people met there oftener than they do
in most country places, and rubbed their wits together more, but this may
be one of those pleasing illusions of memory which men in later life are
subject to.

I insist upon nothing, but certainly the air was friendlier to the tastes
I had formed than any I had yet known, and I found a wider if not deeper
sympathy with them. There was one of our printers who liked books, and
we went through 'Don Quixote' together again, and through the 'Conquest
of Granada', and we began to read other things of Irving's. There was a
very good little stock of books at the village drugstore, and among those
that began to come into my hands were the poems of Dr. Holmes, stray
volumes of De Quincey, and here and there minor works of Thackeray.
I believe I had no money to buy them, but there was an open account,
or a comity, between the printer and the bookseller, and I must have been
allowed a certain discretion in regard to getting books.

Still I do not think I went far in the more modern authors, or gave my
heart to any of them. Suddenly, it was now given to Shakespeare, without
notice or reason, that I can recall, except that my friend liked him too,
and that we found it a double pleasure to read him together. Printers in
the old-time offices were always spouting Shakespeare more or less, and I
suppose I could not have kept away from him much longer in the nature of
things. I cannot fix the time or place when my friend and I began to
read him, but it was in the fine print of that unhallowed edition of
ours, and presently we had great lengths of him by heart, out of
"Hamlet," out of "The Tempest," out of "Macbeth," out of "Richard III.,"
out of "Midsummer-Night's Dream," out of the "Comedy of Errors," out of
"Julius Caesar," out of "Measure for Measure," out of "Romeo and Juliet,"
out of "Two Gentlemen of Verona."

These were the plays that we loved, and must have read in common, or at
least at the same time: but others that I more especially liked were the
Histories, and among them particularly were the Henrys, where Falstaff
appeared. This gross and palpable reprobate greatly took my fancy.
I delighted in him immensely, and in his comrades, Pistol, and Bardolph,
and Nym. I could not read of his death without emotion, and it was a
personal pang to me when the prince, crowned king, denied him: blackguard
for blackguard, I still think the prince the worse blackguard. Perhaps I
flatter myself, but I believe that even then, as a boy of sixteen,
I fully conceived of Falstaff's character, and entered into the author's
wonderfully humorous conception of him. There is no such perfect
conception of the selfish sensualist in literature, and the conception is
all the more perfect because of the wit that lights up the vice of
Falstaff, a cold light without tenderness, for he was not a good fellow,
though a merry companion. I am not sure but I should put him beside
Hamlet, and on the name level, for the merit of his artistic
completeness, and at one time I much preferred him, or at least his

As to Falstaff personally, or his like, I was rather fastidious, and
would not have made friends with him in the flesh, much or little.
I revelled in all his appearances in the Histories, and I tried to be as
happy where a factitious and perfunctory Falstaff comes to life again in
the "Merry Wives of Windsor," though at the bottom of my heart I felt the
difference. I began to make my imitations of Shakespeare, and I wrote 57
out passages where Falstaff and Pistol and Bardolph talked together, in
that Ercles vein which is so easily caught. This was after a year or two
of the irregular and interrupted acquaintance with the author which has
been my mode of friendship with all the authors I have loved. My worship
of Shakespeare went to heights and lengths that it had reached with no
earlier idol, and there was a supreme moment, once, when I found myself
saying that the creation of Shakespeare was as great as the creation of a

There ought certainly to be some bound beyond which the cult of favorite
authors should not be suffered to go. I should keep well within the
limit of that early excess now, and should not liken the creation of
Shakespeare to the creation of any heavenly body bigger, say, than one of
the nameless asteroids that revolve between Mars and Jupiter. Even this
I do not feel to be a true means of comparison, and I think that in the
case of all great men we like to let our wonder mount and mount, till it
leaves the truth behind, and honesty is pretty much cast out as ballast.
A wise criticism will no more magnify Shakespeare because he is already
great than it will magnify any less man. But we are loaded down with the
responsibility of finding him all we have been told he is, and we must do
this or suspect ourselves of a want of taste, a want of sensibility. At
the same time, we may really be honester than those who have led us to
expect this or that of him, and more truly his friends. I wish the time
might come when we could read Shakespeare, and Dante, and Homer, as
sincerely and as fairly as we read any new book by the least known of our
contemporaries. The course of criticism is towards this, but when I
began to read Shakespeare I should not have ventured to think that he was
not at every moment great. I should no more have thought of questioning
the poetry of any passage in him than of questioning the proofs of holy
writ. All the same, I knew very well that much which I read was really
poor stuff, and the persons and positions were often preposterous. It is
a great pity that the ardent youth should not be permitted and even
encouraged to say this to himself, instead of falling slavishly before a
great author and accepting him at all points as infallible. Shakespeare
is fine enough and great enough when all the possible detractions are
made, and I have no fear of saying now that he would be finer and greater
for the loss of half his work, though if I had heard any one say such a
thing then I should have held him as little better than one of the

Upon the whole it was well that I had not found my way to Shakespeare
earlier, though it is rather strange that I had not. I knew him on the
stage in most of the plays that used to be given. I had shared the
conscience of Macbeth, the passion of Othello, the doubt of Hamlet; many

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