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´╗┐Title: My Literary Passions
Author: Howells, William Dean, 1837-1920
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "My Literary Passions" ***

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By William Dean Howells



    IV.     IRVING
    VII.    SCOTT
    IX.     POPE
    XII.    OSSIAN
    XV.     DICKENS


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, he 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
woodcuts 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
times, in my natural affinity for villains, I had mocked and suffered
with Richard III.

Probably no dramatist ever needed the stage less, and none ever brought
more to it. There have been few joys for me in life comparable to that
of seeing the curtain rise on "Hamlet," and hearing the guards begin to
talk about the ghost; and yet how fully this joy imparts itself without
any material embodiment! It is the same in the whole range of his plays:
they fill the scene, but if there is no scene they fill the soul. They
are neither worse nor better because of the theatre. They are so great
that it cannot hamper them; they are so vital that they enlarge it to
their own proportions and endue it with something of their own living
force. They make it the size of life, and yet they retire it so wholly
that you think no more of it than you think of the physiognomy of one who
talks importantly to you. I have heard people say that they would rather
not see Shakespeare played than to see him played ill, but I cannot agree
with them. He can better afford to be played ill than any other man that
ever wrote. Whoever is on the stage, it is always Shakespeare who is
speaking to me, and perhaps this is the reason why in the past I can
trace no discrepancy between reading his plays and seeing them.

The effect is so equal from either experience that I am not sure as to
some plays whether I read them or saw them first, though as to most of
them I am aware that I never saw them at all; and if the whole truth must
be told there is still one of his plays that I have not read, and I
believe it is esteemed one of his greatest. There are several, with all
my reading of others, that I had not read till within a few years; and I
do not think I should have lost much if I, had never read "Pericles" and
"Winter's Tale."

In those early days I had no philosophized preference for reality in
literature, and I dare say if I had been asked, I should have said that
the plays of Shakespeare where reality is least felt were the most
imaginative; that is the belief of the puerile critics still; but I
suppose it was my instinctive liking for reality that made the great
Histories so delightful to me, and that rendered "Macbeth" and "Hamlet"
vital in their very ghosts and witches. There I found a world
appreciable to experience, a world inexpressibly vaster and grander than
the poor little affair that I had only known a small obscure corner of,
and yet of one quality with it, so that I could be as much at home and
citizen in it as where I actually lived. There I found joy and sorrow
mixed, and nothing abstract or typical, but everything standing for
itself, and not for some other thing. Then, I suppose it was the
interfusion of humor through so much of it, that made it all precious and
friendly. I think I had a native love of laughing, which was fostered in
me by my father's way of looking at life, and had certainly been
flattered by my intimacy with Cervantes; but whether this was so or not,
I know that I liked best and felt deepest those plays and passages in
Shakespeare where the alliance of the tragic and the comic was closest.
Perhaps in a time when self-consciousness is so widespread, it is the
only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am sure that without it I
should not have been naturalized to that world of Shakespeare's
Histories, where I used to spend so much of my leisure, with such a sense
of his own intimate companionship there as I had nowhere else. I felt
that he must somehow like my being in the joke of it all, and that in his
great heart he had room for a boy willing absolutely to lose himself in
him, and be as one of his creations.

It was the time of life with me when a boy begins to be in love with the
pretty faces that then peopled this world so thickly, and I did not fail
to fall in love with the ladies of that Shakespeare-world where I lived
equally. I cannot tell whether it was because I found them like my
ideals here, or whether my ideals acquired merit because of their
likeness to the realities there; they appeared to be all of one degree of
enchanting loveliness; but upon the whole I must have preferred them in
the plays, because it was so much easier to get on with them there; I was
always much better dressed there; I was vastly handsomer; I was not
bashful or afraid, and I had some defects of these advantages to contend
with here.

That friend of mine, the printer whom I have mentioned, was one with me
in a sense of the Shakespearean humor, and he dwelt with me in the sort
of double being I had in those two worlds. We took the book into the
woods at the ends of the long summer afternoons that remained to us when
we had finished our work, and on the shining Sundays of the warm, late
spring, the early, warm autumn, and we read it there on grassy slopes or
heaps of fallen leaves; so that much of the poetry is mixed for me with a
rapturous sense of the out-door beauty of this lovely natural world.
We read turn about, one taking the story up as the other tired, and as we
read the drama played itself under the open sky and in the free air with
such orchestral effects as the soughing woods or some rippling stream
afforded. It was not interrupted when a squirrel dropped a nut on us
from the top of a tall hickory; and the plaint of a meadow-lark prolonged
itself with unbroken sweetness from one world to the other.

But I think it takes two to read in the open air. The pressure of walls
is wanted to keep the mind within itself when one reads alone; otherwise
it wanders and disperses itself through nature. When my friend left us
for want of work in the office, or from the vagarious impulse which is so
strong in our craft, I took my Shakespeare no longer to the woods and
fields, but pored upon him mostly by night, in the narrow little space
which I had for my study, under the stairs at home. There was a desk
pushed back against the wall, which the irregular ceiling eloped down to
meet behind it, and at my left was a window, which gave a good light on
the writing-leaf of my desk. This was my workshop for six or seven
years, and it was not at all a bad one; I have had many since that were
not so much to the purpose; and though I would not live my life over, I
would willingly enough have that little study mine again. But it is gone
an utterly as the faces and voices that made home around it, and that I
was fierce to shut out of it, so that no sound or sight should molest me
in the pursuit of the end which I sought gropingly, blindly, with very
little hope, but with an intense ambition, and a courage that gave way
under no burden, before no obstacle. Long ago changes were made in the
low, rambling house which threw my little closet into a larger room; but
this was not until after I had left it many years; and as long as I
remained a part of that dear and simple home it was my place to read, to
write, to muse, to dream.

I sometimes wish in these later years that I had spent less time in it,
or that world of books which it opened into; that I had seen more of the
actual world, and had learned to know my brethren in it better. I might
so have amassed more material for after use in literature, but I had to
fit myself to use it, and I suppose that this was what I was doing, in my
own way, and by such light as I had. I often toiled wrongly and
foolishly; but certainly I toiled, and I suppose no work is wasted. Some
strength, I hope, was coming to me, even from my mistakes, and though I
went over ground that I need not have traversed, if I had not been left
so much to find the way alone, yet I was not standing still, and some of
the things that I then wished to do I have done. I do not mind owning
that in others I have failed. For instance, I have never surpassed
Shakespeare as a poet, though I once firmly meant to do so; but then, it
is to be remembered that very few other people have surpassed him, and
that it would not have been easy.


My ardor for Shakespeare must have been at its height when I was between
sixteen and seventeen years old, for I fancy when I began to formulate my
admiration, and to try to measure his greatness in phrases, I was less
simply impassioned than at some earlier time. At any rate, I am sure
that I did not proclaim his planetary importance in creation until I was
at least nineteen. But even at an earlier age I no longer worshipped at
a single shrine; there were many gods in the temple of my idolatry, and I
bowed the knee to them all in a devotion which, if it was not of one
quality, was certainly impartial. While I was reading, and thinking, and
living Shakespeare with such an intensity that I do not see how there
could have been room in my consciousness for anything else, there seem to
have been half a dozen other divinities there, great and small, whom I
have some present difficulty in distinguishing. I kept Irving, and
Goldsmith, and Cervantes on their old altars, but I added new ones, and
these I translated from the contemporary: literary world quite as often
as from the past. I am rather glad that among them was the gentle and
kindly Ik Marvel, whose 'Reveries of a Bachelor' and whose 'Dream Life'
the young people of that day were reading with a tender rapture which
would not be altogether surprising, I dare say, to the young people of
this. The books have survived the span of immortality fixed by our
amusing copyright laws, and seem now, when any pirate publisher may
plunder their author, to have a new life before them. Perhaps this is
ordered by Providence, that those who have no right to them may profit by
them, in that divine contempt of such profit which Providence so often

I cannot understand just how I came to know of the books, but I suppose
it was through the contemporary criticism which I was then beginning to
read, wherever I could find it, in the magazines and newspapers; and I
could not say why I thought it would be very 'comme il faut' to like
them. Probably the literary fine world, which is always rubbing
shoulders with the other fine world, and bringing off a little of its
powder and perfume, was then dawning upon me, and I was wishing to be of
it, and to like the things that it liked; I am not so anxious to do it
now. But if this is true, I found the books better than their friends,
and had many a heartache from their pathos, many a genuine glow of
purpose from their high import, many a tender suffusion from their
sentiment. I dare say I should find their pose now a little
old-fashioned. I believe it was rather full of sighs, and shrugs and
starts, expressed in dashes, and asterisks, and exclamations, but I am
sure that the feeling was the genuine and manly sort which is of all
times and always the latest wear. Whatever it was, it sufficed to win my
heart, and to identify me with whatever was most romantic and most
pathetic in it. I read 'Dream Life' first--though the 'Reveries of a
Bachelor' was written first, and I believe is esteemed the better book
--and 'Dream Life' remains first in my affections. I have now little
notion what it was about, but I love its memory. The book is associated
especially in my mind with one golden day of Indian summer, when I
carried it into the woods with me, and abandoned myself to a welter of
emotion over its page. I lay, under a crimson maple, and I remember how
the light struck through it and flushed the print with the gules of the
foliage. My friend was away by this time on one of his several absences
in the Northwest, and I was quite alone in the absurd and irrelevant
melancholy with which I read myself and my circumstances into the book. I
began to read them out again in due time, clothed with the literary airs
and graces that I admired in it, and for a long time I imitated Ik Marvel
in the voluminous letters I wrote my friend in compliance with his
Shakespearean prayer:

     "To Milan let me hear from thee by letters,
     Of thy success in love, and what news else
     Betideth here in absence of thy friend;
     And I likewise will visit thee with mine."

Milan was then presently Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Verona was our little
village; but they both served the soul of youth as well as the real
places would have done, and were as really Italian as anything else in
the situation was really this or that. Heaven knows what gaudy
sentimental parade we made in our borrowed plumes, but if the travesty
had kept itself to the written word it would have been all well enough.
My misfortune was to carry it into print when I began to write a story,
in the Ik Marvel manner, or rather to compose it in type at the case, for
that was what I did; and it was not altogether imitated from Ik Marvel
either, for I drew upon the easier art of Dickens at times, and helped
myself out with bald parodies of Bleak House in many places. It was all
very well at the beginning, but I had not reckoned with the future
sufficiently to have started with any clear ending in my mind, and as I
went on I began to find myself more and more in doubt about it. My
material gave out; incidents failed me; the characters wavered and
threatened to perish on my hands. To crown my misery there grew up an
impatience with the story among its readers, and this found its way to me
one day when I overheard an old farmer who came in for his paper say that
he did not think that story amounted to much. I did not think so either,
but it was deadly to have it put into words, and how I escaped the mortal
effect of the stroke I do not know. Somehow I managed to bring the
wretched thing to a close, and to live it slowly into the past. Slowly
it seemed then, but I dare say it was fast enough; and there is always
this consolation to be whispered in the ear of wounded vanity, that the
world's memory is equally bad for failure and success; that if it will
not keep your triumphs in mind as you think it ought, neither will it
long dwell upon your defeats. But that experience was really terrible.
It was like some dreadful dream one has of finding one's self in battle
without the courage needed to carry one creditably through the action,
or on the stage unprepared by study of the part which one is to appear
in. I have hover looked at that story since, so great was the shame and
anguish that I suffered from it, and yet I do not think it was badly
conceived, or attempted upon lines that were mistaken. If it were not
for what happened in the past I might like some time to write a story on
the same lines in the future.


What I have said of Dickens reminds me that I had been reading him at the
same time that I had been reading Ik Marvel; but a curious thing about
the reading of my later boyhood is that the dates do not sharply detach
themselves one from another. This may be so because my reading was much
more multifarious than it had been earlier, or because I was reading
always two or three authors at a time. I think Macaulay a little
antedated Dickens in my affections, but when I came to the novels of that
masterful artist (as I must call him, with a thousand reservations as to
the times when he is not a master and not an artist), I did not fail to
fall under his spell.

This was in a season of great depression, when I began to feel in broken
health the effect of trying to burn my candle at both ends. It seemed
for a while very simple and easy to come home in the middle of the
afternoon, when my task at the printing-office was done, and sit down to
my books in my little study, which I did not finally leave until the
family were in bed; but it was not well, and it was not enough that I
should like to do it. The most that can be said in defence of such a
thing is that with the strong native impulse and the conditions it was
inevitable. If I was to do the thing I wanted to do I was to do it in
that way, and I wanted to do that thing, whatever it was, more than I
wanted to do anything else, and even more than I wanted to do nothing.
I cannot make out that I was fond of study, or cared for the things I was
trying to do, except as a means to other things. As far as my pleasure
went, or my natural bent was concerned, I would rather have been
wandering through the woods with a gun on my shoulder, or lying under a
tree, or reading some book that cost me no sort of effort. But there was
much more than my pleasure involved; there was a hope to fulfil, an aim
to achieve, and I could no more have left off trying for what I hoped and
aimed at than I could have left off living, though I did not know very
distinctly what either was. As I look back at the endeavor of those days
much of it seems mere purblind groping, wilful and wandering. I can see
that doing all by myself I was not truly a law to myself, but only a sort
of helpless force.

I studied Latin because I believed that I should read the Latin authors,
and I suppose I got as much of the language as most school-boys of my
age, but I never read any Latin author but Cornelius Nepos. I studied
Greek, and I learned so much of it as to read a chapter of the Testament,
and an ode of Anacreon. Then I left it, not because I did not mean to go
farther, or indeed stop short of reading all Greek literature, but
because that friend of mine and I talked it over and decided that I could
go on with Greek any time, but I had better for the present study German,
with the help of a German who had come to the village. Apparently I was
carrying forward an attack on French at the same time, for I distinctly
recall my failure to enlist with me an old gentleman who had once lived a
long time in France, and whom I hoped to get at least an accent from.
Perhaps because he knew he had no accent worth speaking of, or perhaps
because he did not want the bother of imparting it, he never would keep
any of the engagements he made with me, and when we did meet he so
abounded in excuses and subterfuges that he finally escaped me, and I was
left to acquire an Italian accent of French in Venice seven or eight
years later. At the same time I was reading Spanish, more or less,
but neither wisely nor too well. Having had so little help in my
studies, I had a stupid pride in refusing all, even such as I might have
availed myself of, without shame, in books, and I would not read any
Spanish author with English notes. I would have him in an edition wholly
Spanish from beginning to end, and I would fight my way through him
single-handed, with only such aid as I must borrow from a lexicon.

I now call this stupid, but I have really no more right to blame the boy
who was once I than I have to praise him, and I am certainly not going to
do that. In his day and place he did what he could in his own way; he
had no true perspective of life, but I do not know that youth ever has
that. Some strength came to him finally from the mere struggle,
undirected and misdirected as it often was, and such mental fibre as he
had was toughened by the prolonged stress. It could be said, of course,
that the time apparently wasted in these effectless studies could have
been well spent in deepening and widening a knowledge of English
literature never yet too great, and I have often said this myself; but
then, again, I am not sure that the studies were altogether effectless.
I have sometimes thought that greater skill had come to my hand from them
than it would have had without, and I have trusted that in making known
to me the sources of so much English, my little Latin and less Greek have
enabled me to use my own speech with a subtler sense of it than I should
have had otherwise.

But I will by no means insist upon my conjecture. What is certain is
that for the present my studies, without method and without stint, began
to tell upon my health, and that my nerves gave way in all manner of
hypochondriacal fears. These finally resolved themselves into one,
incessant, inexorable, which I could escape only through bodily fatigue,
or through some absorbing interest that took me out of myself altogether
and filled my morbid mind with the images of another's creation.

In this mood I first read Dickens, whom I had known before in the reading
I had listened to. But now I devoured his books one after another as
fast as I could read them. I plunged from the heart of one to another,
so as to leave myself no chance for the horrors that beset me. Some of
them remain associated with the gloom and misery of that time, so that
when I take them up they bring back its dreadful shadow. But I have
since read them all more than once, and I have had my time of thinking
Dickens, talking Dickens, and writing Dickens, as we all had who lived in
the days of the mighty magician. I fancy the readers who have come to
him since he ceased to fill the world with his influence can have little
notion how great it was. In that time he colored the parlance of the
English-speaking race, and formed upon himself every minor talent
attempting fiction. While his glamour lasted it was no more possible for
a young novelist to escape writing Dickens than it was for a young poet
to escape writing Tennyson. I admired other authors more; I loved them
more, but when it came to a question of trying to do something in fiction
I was compelled, as by a law of nature, to do it at least partially in
his way.

All the while that he held me so fast by his potent charm I was aware
that it was a very rough magic now and again, but I could not assert my
sense of this against him in matters of character and structure. To
these I gave in helplessly; their very grotesqueness was proof of their
divine origin, and I bowed to the crudest manifestations of his genius in
these kinds as if they were revelations not to be doubted without
sacrilege. But in certain small matters, as it were of ritual, I
suffered myself to think, and I remember boldly speaking my mind about
his style, which I thought bad.

I spoke it even to the quaint character whom I borrowed his books from,
and who might almost have come out of his books. He lived in Dickens in
a measure that I have never known another to do, and my contumely must
have brought him a pang that was truly a personal grief. He forgave it,
no doubt because I bowed in the Dickens worship without question on all
other points. He was then a man well on towards fifty, and he had come
to America early in life, and had lived in our village many years,
without casting one of his English prejudices, or ceasing to be of a
contrary opinion on every question, political, religious and social.
He had no fixed belief, but he went to the service of his church whenever
it was held among us, and he revered the Book of Common Prayer while he
disputed the authority of the Bible with all comers. He had become a
citizen, but he despised democracy, and achieved a hardy consistency only
by voting with the pro-slavery party upon all measures friendly to the
institution which he considered the scandal and reproach of the American
name. From a heart tender to all, he liked to say wanton, savage and
cynical things, but he bore no malice if you gainsaid him. I know
nothing of his origin, except the fact of his being an Englishman, or
what his first calling had been; but he had evolved among us from a
house-painter to an organ-builder, and he had a passionate love of music.
He built his organs from the ground up, and made every part of them with
his own hands; I believe they were very good, and at any rate the
churches in the country about took them from him as fast as he could make
them. He had one in his own house, and it was fine to see him as he sat
before it, with his long, tremulous hands outstretched to the keys, his
noble head thrown back and his sensitive face lifted in the rapture of
his music. He was a rarely intelligent creature, and an artist in every
fibre; and if you did not quarrel with his manifold perversities, he was
a delightful companion.

After my friend went away I fell much to him for society, and we took
long, rambling walks together, or sat on the stoop before his door,
or lounged over the books in the drug-store, and talked evermore of
literature. He must have been nearly three times my age, but that did
not matter; we met in the equality of the ideal world where there is
neither old nor young, any more than there is rich or poor. He had read
a great deal, but of all he had read he liked Dickens best, and was
always coming back to him with affection, whenever the talk strayed.
He could not make me out when I criticised the style of Dickens; and when
I praised Thackeray's style to the disadvantage of Dickens's he could
only accuse me of a sort of aesthetic snobbishness in my preference.
Dickens, he said, was for the million, and Thackeray was for the upper
ten thousand. His view amused me at the time, and yet I am not sure that
it was altogether mistaken.

There is certainly a property in Thackeray that somehow flatters the
reader into the belief that he is better than other people. I do not
mean to say that this was why I thought him a finer writer than Dickens,
but I will own that it was probably one of the reasons why I liked him
better; if I appreciated him so fully as I felt, I must be of a finer
porcelain than the earthen pots which were not aware of any particular
difference in the various liquors poured into them. In Dickens the
virtue of his social defect is that he never appeals to the principle
which sniffs, in his reader. The base of his work is the whole breadth
and depth of humanity itself. It is helplessly elemental, but it is not
the less grandly so, and if it deals with the simpler manifestations of
character, character affected by the interests and passions rather than
the tastes and preferences, it certainly deals with the larger moods
through them. I do not know that in the whole range of his work he once
suffers us to feel our superiority to a fellow-creature through any
social accident, or except for some moral cause. This makes him very fit
reading for a boy, and I should say that a boy could get only good from
him. His view of the world and of society, though it was very little
philosophized, was instinctively sane and reasonable, even when it was
most impossible.

We are just beginning to discern that certain conceptions of our
relations to our fellow-men, once formulated in generalities which met
with a dramatic acceptation from the world, and were then rejected by it
as mere rhetoric, have really a vital truth in them, and that if they
have ever seemed false it was because of the false conditions in which we
still live. Equality and fraternity, these are the ideals which once
moved the world, and then fell into despite and mockery, as unrealities;
but now they assert themselves in our hearts once more.

Blindly, unwittingly, erringly as Dickens often urged them, these ideals
mark the whole tendency of his fiction, and they are what endear him to
the heart, and will keep him dear to it long after many a cunninger
artificer in letters has passed into forgetfulness. I do not pretend
that I perceived the full scope of his books, but I was aware of it in
the finer sense which is not consciousness. While I read him, I was in a
world where the right came out best, as I believe it will yet do in this
world, and where merit was crowned with the success which I believe will
yet attend it in our daily life, untrammelled by social convention or
economic circumstance. In that world of his, in the ideal world, to
which the real world must finally conform itself, I dwelt among the shows
of things, but under a Providence that governed all things to a good end,
and where neither wealth nor birth could avail against virtue or right.
Of course it was in a way all crude enough, and was already contradicted
by experience in the small sphere of my own being; but nevertheless it
was true with that truth which is at the bottom of things, and I was
happy in it. I could not fail to love the mind which conceived it, and
my worship of Dickens was more grateful than that I had yet given any
writer. I did not establish with him that one-sided understanding which
I had with Cervantes and Shakespeare; with a contemporary that was not
possible, and as an American I was deeply hurt at the things he had said
against us, and the more hurt because I felt that they were often so
just. But I was for the time entirely his, and I could not have wished
to write like any one else.

I do not pretend that the spell I was under was wholly of a moral or
social texture. For the most part I was charmed with him because he was
a delightful story-teller; because he could thrill me, and make me hot
and cold; because he could make me laugh and cry, and stop my pulse and
breath at will. There seemed an inexhaustible source of humor and pathos
in his work, which I now find choked and dry; I cannot laugh any more at
Pickwick or Sam Weller, or weep for little Nell or Paul Dombey; their
jokes, their griefs, seemed to me to be turned on, and to have a
mechanical action. But beneath all is still the strong drift of a
genuine emotion, a sympathy, deep and sincere, with the poor, the lowly,
the unfortunate. In all that vast range of fiction, there is nothing
that tells for the strong, because they are strong, against the weak,
nothing that tells for the haughty against the humble, nothing that tells
for wealth against poverty. The effect of Dickens is purely democratic,
and however contemptible he found our pseudo-equality, he was more truly
democratic than any American who had yet written fiction. I suppose it
was our instinctive perception in the region of his instinctive
expression, that made him so dear to us, and wounded our silly vanity so
keenly through our love when he told us the truth about our horrible sham
of a slave-based freedom. But at any rate the democracy is there in his
work more than he knew perhaps, or would ever have known, or ever
recognized by his own life. In fact, when one comes to read the story of
his life, and to know that he was really and lastingly ashamed of having
once put up shoe-blacking as a boy, and was unable to forgive his mother
for suffering him to be so degraded, one perceives that he too was the
slave of conventions and the victim of conditions which it is the highest
function of his fiction to help destroy.

I imagine that my early likes and dislikes in Dickens were not very
discriminating. I liked 'David Copperfield,' and 'Barnaby Rudge,' and
'Bleak House,' and I still like them; but I do not think I liked them
more than 'Dombey & Son,' and 'Nicholas Nickleby,' and the 'Pickwick
Papers,' which I cannot read now with any sort of patience, not to speak
of pleasure. I liked 'Martin Chuzzlewit,' too, and the other day I read
a great part of it again, and found it roughly true in the passages that
referred to America, though it was surcharged in the serious moods, and
caricatured in the comic. The English are always inadequate observers;
they seem too full of themselves to have eyes and ears for any alien
people; but as far as an Englishman could, Dickens had caught the look of
our life in certain aspects. His report of it was clumsy and farcical;
but in a large, loose way it was like enough; at least he had caught the
note of our self-satisfied, intolerant, and hypocritical provinciality,
and this was not altogether lost in his mocking horse-play.

I cannot make out that I was any the less fond of Dickens because of it.
I believe I was rather more willing to accept it as a faithful
portraiture then than I should be now; and I certainly never made any
question of it with my friend the organ-builder. 'Martin Chuzzlewit' was
a favorite book with him, and so was the 'Old Curiosity Shop.' No doubt
a fancied affinity with Tom Pinch through their common love of music made
him like that most sentimental and improbable personage, whom he would
have disowned and laughed to scorn if he had met him in life; but it was
a purely altruistic sympathy that he felt with Little Nell and her
grandfather. He was fond of reading the pathetic passages from both
books, and I can still hear his rich, vibrant voice as it lingered in
tremulous emotion on the periods he loved. He would catch the volume up
anywhere, any time, and begin to read, at the book-store, or the harness-
shop, or the law-office, it did not matter in the wide leisure of a
country village, in those days before the war, when people had all the
time there was; and he was sure of his audience as long as he chose to
read. One Christmas eve, in answer to a general wish, he read the
'Christmas Carol' in the Court-house, and people came from all about to
hear him.

He was an invalid and he died long since, ending a life of suffering in
the saddest way. Several years before his death money fell to his
family, and he went with them to an Eastern city, where he tried in vain
to make himself at home. He never ceased to pine for the village he had
left, with its old companionships, its easy usages, its familiar faces;
and he escaped to it again and again, till at last every tie was severed,
and he could come back no more. He was never reconciled to the change,
and in a manner he did really die of the homesickness which deepened an
hereditary taint, and enfeebled him to the disorder that carried him.
off. My memories of Dickens remain mingled with my memories of this
quaint and most original genius, and though I knew Dickens long before I
knew his lover, I can scarcely think of one without thinking of the


Certain other books I associate with another pathetic nature, of whom the
organ-builder and I were both fond. This was the young poet who looked
after the book half of the village drug and book store, and who wrote
poetry in such leisure as he found from his duties, and with such
strength as he found in the disease preying upon him. He must have been
far gone in consumption when I first knew him, for I have no recollection
of a time when his voice was not faint and husky, his sweet smile wan,
and his blue eyes dull with the disease that wasted him away,

        "Like wax in the fire,
        Like snow in the sun."

People spoke of him as once strong and vigorous, but I recall him fragile
and pale, gentle, patient, knowing his inexorable doom, and not hoping or
seeking to escape it. As the end drew near he left his employment and
went home to the farm, some twenty miles away, where I drove out to see
him once through the deep snow of a winter which was to be his last.
My heart was heavy all the time, but he tried to make the visit pass
cheerfully with our wonted talk about books. Only at parting, when he
took my hand in his thin, cold clasp, he said, "I suppose my disease is
progressing," with the patience he always showed.

I did not see him again, and I am not sure now that his gift was very
distinct or very great. It was slight and graceful rather, I fancy,
and if he had lived it might not have sufficed to make him widely known,
but he had a real and a very delicate sense of beauty in literature,
and I believe it was through sympathy with his preferences that I came
into appreciation of several authors whom I had not known, or had not
cared for before. There could not have been many shelves of books in
that store, and I came to be pretty well acquainted with them all before
I began to buy them. For the most part, I do not think it occurred to me
that they were there to be sold; for this pale poet seemed indifferent to
the commercial property in them, and only to wish me to like them.

I am not sure, but I think it was through some volume which I found in
his charge that I first came to know of De Quincey; he was fond of
Dr. Holmes's poetry; he loved Whittier and Longfellow, each represented
in his slender stock by some distinctive work. There were several stray
volumes of Thackeray's minor writings, and I still have the 'Yellowplush
Papers' in the smooth red cloth (now pretty well tattered) of Appleton's
Popular Library, which I bought there. But most of the books were in the
famous old brown cloth of Ticknor & Fields, which was a warrant of
excellence in the literature it covered. Besides these there were
standard volumes of poetry, published by Phillips & Sampson, from
wornout plates; for a birthday present my mother got me Wordsworth in
this shape, and I am glad to think that I once read the "Excursion" in
it, for I do not think I could do so now, and I have a feeling that it is
very right and fit to have read the "Excursion." To be honest, it was
very hard reading even then, and I cannot truthfully pretend that I have
ever liked Wordsworth except in parts, though for the matter of that, I
do not suppose that any one ever did. I tried hard enough to like
everything in him, for I had already learned enough to know that I ought
to like him, and that if I did not, it was a proof of intellectual and
moral inferiority in me. My early idol, Pope, had already been tumbled
into the dust by Lowell, whose lectures on English Poetry had lately been
given in Boston, and had met with my rapturous acceptance in such
newspaper report as I had of them. So, my preoccupations were all in
favor of the Lake School, and it was both in my will and my conscience to
like Wordsworth. If I did not do so it was not my fault, and the fault
remains very much what it first was.

I feel and understand him more deeply than I did then, but I do not think
that I then failed of the meaning of much that I read in him, and I am
sure that my senses were quick to all the beauty in him. After suffering
once through the "Excursion" I did not afflict myself with it again,
but there were other poems of his which I read over and over, as I fancy
it is the habit of every lover of poetry to do with the pieces he is fond
of. Still, I do not make out that Wordsworth was ever a passion of mine;
on the other hand, neither was Byron. Him, too, I liked in passages and
in certain poems which I knew before I read Wordsworth at all; I read him
throughout, but I did not try to imitate him, and I did not try to
imitate Wordsworth.

Those lectures of Lowell's had a great influence with me, and I tried to
like whatever they bade me like, after a fashion common to young people
when they begin to read criticisms; their aesthetic pride is touched;
they wish to realize that they too can feel the fine things the critic
admires. From this motive they do a great deal of factitious liking;
but after all the affections will not be bidden, and the critic can only
avail to give a point of view, to enlighten a perspective. When I read
Lowell's praises of him, I had all the will in the world to read Spencer,
and I really meant to do so, but I have not done so to this day, and as
often as I have tried I have found it impossible. It was not so with
Chaucer, whom I loved from the first word of his which I found quoted in
those lectures, and in Chambers's 'Encyclopaedia of English Literature,'
which I had borrowed of my friend the organ-builder.

In fact, I may fairly class Chaucer among my passions, for I read him
with that sort of personal attachment I had for Cervantes, who resembled
him in a certain sweet and cheery humanity. But I do not allege this as
the reason, for I had the same feeling for Pope, who was not like either
of them. Kissing goes by favor, in literature as in life, and one cannot
quite account for one's passions in either; what is certain is, I liked
Chaucer and I did not like Spencer; possibly there was an affinity
between reader and poet, but if there was I should be at a loss to name
it, unless it was the liking for reality; and the sense of mother earth
in human life. By the time I had read all of Chaucer that I could find
in the various collections and criticisms, my father had been made a
clerk in the legislature, and on one of his visits home he brought me the
poet's works from the State Library, and I set about reading them with a
glossary. It was not easy, but it brought strength with it, and lifted
my heart with a sense of noble companionship.

I will not pretend that I was insensible to the grossness of the poet's
time, which I found often enough in the poet's verse, as well as the
goodness of his nature, and my father seems to have felt a certain
misgiving about it. He repeated to me the librarian's question as to
whether he thought he ought to put an unexpurgated edition in the hands
of a boy, and his own answer that he did not believe it would hurt me.
It was a kind of appeal to me to make the event justify him, and I
suppose he had not given me the book without due reflection. Probably he
reasoned that with my greed for all manner of literature the bad would
become known to me along with the good at any rate, and I had better know
that he knew it.

The streams of filth flow down through the ages in literature, which
sometimes seems little better than an open sewer, and, as I have said,
I do not see why the time should not come when the noxious and noisome
channels should be stopped; but the base of the mind is bestial, and so
far the beast in us has insisted upon having his full say. The worst of
lewd literature is that it seems to give a sanction to lewdness in the
life, and that inexperience takes this effect for reality: that is the
danger and the harm, and I think the fact ought not to be blinked.
Compared with the meaner poets the greater are the cleaner, and Chaucer
was probably safer than any other English poet of his time, but I am not
going to pretend that there are not things in Chaucer which a boy would
be the better for not reading; and so far as these words of mine shall be
taken for counsel, I am not willing that they should unqualifiedly praise
him. The matter is by no means simple; it is not easy to conceive of a
means of purifying the literature of the past without weakening it, and
even falsifying it, but it is best to own that it is in all respects just
what it is, and not to feign it otherwise. I am not ready to say that
the harm from it is positive, but you do get smeared with it, and the
filthy thought lives with the filthy rhyme in the ear, even when it does
not corrupt the heart or make it seem a light thing for the reader's
tongue and pen to sin in kind.

I loved my Chaucer too well, I hope, not to get some good from the best
in him; and my reading of criticism had taught me how and where to look
for the best, and to know it when I had found it. Of course I began to
copy him. That is, I did not attempt anything like his tales in kind;
they must have seemed too hopelessly far away in taste and time, but I
studied his verse, and imitated a stanza which I found in some of his
things and had not found elsewhere; I rejoiced in the freshness and
sweetness of his diction, and though I felt that his structure was
obsolete, there was in his wording something homelier and heartier than
the imported analogues that had taken the place of the phrases he used.

I began to employ in my own work the archaic words that I fancied most,
which was futile and foolish enough, and I formed a preference for the
simpler Anglo-Saxon woof of our speech, which was not so bad. Of course,
being left so much as I was to my own whim in such things, I could not
keep a just mean; I had an aversion for the Latin derivatives which was
nothing short of a craze. Some half-bred critic whom I had read made me
believe that English could be written without them, and had better be
written so, and I did not escape from this lamentable error until I had
produced with weariness and vexation of spirit several pieces of prose
wholly composed of monosyllables. I suspect now that I did not always
stop to consider whether my short words were not as Latin by race as any
of the long words I rejected, and that I only made sure they were short.

The frivolous ingenuity which wasted itself in this exercise happily
could not hold out long, and in verse it was pretty well helpless from
the beginning. Yet I will not altogether blame it, for it made me know,
as nothing else could, the resources of our tongue in that sort; and in
the revolt from the slavish bondage I took upon myself I did not go so
far as to plunge into any very wild polysyllabic excesses. I still like
the little word if it says the thing I want to say as well as the big
one, but I honor above all the word that says the thing. At the same
time I confess that I have a prejudice against certain words that I
cannot overcome; the sight of some offends me, the sound of others, and
rather than use one of those detested vocables, even when I perceive that
it would convey my exact meaning, I would cast about long for some other.
I think this is a foible, and a disadvantage, but I do not deny it.

An author who had much to do with preparing me for the quixotic folly in
point was that Thomas Babington Macaulay, who taught simplicity of
diction in phrases of as "learned length and thundering sound," as any he
would have had me shun, and who deplored the Latinistic English of
Johnson in terms emulous of the great doctor's orotundity and
ronderosity. I wonder now that I did not see how my physician avoided
his medicine, but I did not, and I went on to spend myself in an endeavor
as vain and senseless as any that pedantry has conceived. It was none
the less absurd because I believed in it so devoutly, and sacrificed
myself to it with such infinite pains and labor. But this was long after
I read Macaulay, who was one of my grand passions before Dickens or


One of the many characters of the village was the machinist who had his
shop under our printing-office when we first brought our newspaper to the
place, and who was just then a machinist because he was tired of being
many other things, and had not yet made up his mind what he should be
next. He could have been whatever he turned his agile intellect and his
cunning hand to; he had been a schoolmaster and a watch-maker, and I
believe an amateur doctor and irregular lawyer; he talked and wrote
brilliantly, and he was one of the group that nightly disposed of every
manner of theoretical and practical question at the drug-store; it was
quite indifferent to him which side he took; what he enjoyed was the
mental exercise. He was in consumption, as so many were in that region,
and he carbonized against it, as he said; he took his carbon in the
liquid form, and the last time I saw him the carbon had finally prevailed
over the consumption, but it had itself become a seated vice; that was
many years since, and it is many years since he died.

He must have been known to me earlier, but I remember him first as he
swam vividly into my ken, with a volume of Macaulay's essays in his hand,
one day. Less figuratively speaking, he came up into the printing-office
to expose from the book the nefarious plagiarism of an editor in a
neighboring city, who had adapted with the change of names and a word or
two here and there, whole passages from the essay on Barere, to the
denunciation of a brother editor. It was a very simple-hearted fraud,
and it was all done with an innocent trust in the popular ignorance which
now seems to me a little pathetic; but it was certainly very barefaced,
and merited the public punishment which the discoverer inflicted by means
of what journalists call the deadly parallel column. The effect ought
logically to have been ruinous for the plagiarist, but it was really
nothing of the kind. He simply ignored the exposure, and the comments of
the other city papers, and in the process of time he easily lived down
the memory of it and went on to greater usefulness in his profession.

But for the moment it appeared to me a tremendous crisis, and I listened
as the minister of justice read his communication, with a thrill which
lost itself in the interest I suddenly felt in the plundered author.
Those facile and brilliant phrases and ideas struck me as the finest
things I had yet known in literature, and I borrowed the book and read it
through. Then I borrowed another volume of Macaulay's essays, and
another and another, till I had read them every one. It was like a long
debauch, from which I emerged with regret that it should ever end.

I tried other essayists, other critics, whom the machinist had in his
library, but it was useless; neither Sidney Smith nor Thomas Carlyle
could console me; I sighed for more Macaulay and evermore Macaulay. I
read his History of England, and I could measurably console myself with
that, but only measurably; and I could not go back to the essays and read
them again, for it seemed to me I had absorbed them so thoroughly that I
had left nothing unenjoyed in them. I used to talk with the machinist
about them, and with the organ-builder, and with my friend the printer,
but no one seemed to feel the intense fascination in them that I did, and
that I should now be quite unable to account for.

Once more I had an author for whom I could feel a personal devotion, whom
I could dream of and dote upon, and whom I could offer my intimacy in
many an impassioned revery. I do not think T. B. Macaulay would really
have liked it; I dare say he would not have valued the friendship of the
sort of a youth I was, but in the conditions he was helpless, and I
poured out my love upon him without a rebuff. Of course I reformed my
prose style, which had been carefully modelled upon that of Goldsmith and
Irving, and began to write in the manner of Macaulay, in short, quick
sentences, and with the prevalent use of brief Anglo-Saxon words, which
he prescribed, but did not practise. As for his notions of literature, I
simply accepted them with the feeling that any question of them would
have been little better than blasphemy.

For a long time he spoiled my taste for any other criticism; he made it
seem pale, and poor, and weak; and he blunted my sense to subtler
excellences than I found in him. I think this was a pity, but it was a
thing not to be helped, like a great many things that happen to our hurt
in life; it was simply inevitable. How or when my frenzy for him began
to abate I cannot say, but it certainly waned, and it must have waned
rapidly, for after no great while I found myself feeling the charm of
quite different minds, as fully as if his had never enslaved me. I
cannot regret that I enjoyed him so keenly as I did; it was in a way a
generous delight, and though he swayed me helplessly whatever way he
thought, I do not think yet that he swayed me in any very wrong way. He
was a bright and clear intelligence, and if his light did not go far, it
is to be said of him that his worst fault was only to have stopped short
of the finest truth in art, in morals, in politics.


What remained to me from my love of Macaulay was a love of criticism,
and I read almost as much in criticism as I read in poetry and history
and fiction. It was of an eccentric doctor, another of the village
characters, that I got the works of Edgar A. Poe; I do not know just how,
but it must have been in some exchange of books; he preferred
metaphysics. At any rate I fell greedily upon them, and I read with no
less zest than his poems the bitter, and cruel, and narrow-minded
criticisms which mainly filled one of the volumes. As usual, I accepted
them implicitly, and it was not till long afterwards that I understood
how worthless they were.

I think that hardly less immoral than the lubricity of literature, and
its celebration of the monkey and the goat in us, is the spectacle such
criticism affords of the tigerish play of satire. It is monstrous that
for no offence but the wish to produce something beautiful, and the
mistake of his powers in that direction, a writer should become the prey
of some ferocious wit, and that his tormentor should achieve credit by
his lightness and ease in rending his prey; it is shocking to think how
alluring and depraving the fact is to the young reader emulous of such
credit, and eager to achieve it. Because I admired these barbarities of
Poe's, I wished to irritate them, to spit some hapless victim on my own
spear, to make him suffer and to make the reader laugh. This is as far
as possible from the criticism that enlightens and ennobles, but it is
still the ideal of most critics, deny it as they will; and because it is
the ideal of most critics criticism still remains behind all the other
literary arts.

I am glad to remember that at the same time I exulted in these ferocities
I had mind enough and heart enough to find pleasure in the truer and
finer work, the humaner work of other writers, like Hazlitt, and Leigh
Hunt, and Lamb, which became known to me at a date I cannot exactly fix.
I believe it was Hazlitt whom I read first, and he helped me to clarify
and formulate my admiration of Shakespeare as no one else had yet done;
Lamb helped me too, and with all the dramatists, and on every hand I was
reaching out for light that should enable me to place in literary history
the authors I knew and loved.

I fancy it was well for me at this period to have got at the four great
English reviews, the Edinburgh, the Westminster, the London Quarterly,
and the North British, which I read regularly, as well as Blackwood's
Magazine. We got them in the American editions in payment for printing
the publisher's prospectus, and their arrival was an excitement, a joy,
and a satisfaction with me, which I could not now describe without having
to accuse myself of exaggeration. The love of literature, and the hope
of doing something in it, had become my life to the exclusion of all
other interests, or it was at least the great reality, and all other
things were as shadows. I was living in a time of high political tumult,
and I certainly cared very much for the question of slavery which was
then filling the minds of men; I felt deeply the shame and wrong of our
Fugitive Slave Law; I was stirred by the news from Kansas, where the
great struggle between the two great principles in our nationality was
beginning in bloodshed; but I cannot pretend that any of these things
were more than ripples on the surface of my intense and profound interest
in literature. If I was not to live by it, I was somehow to live for it.

If I thought of taking up some other calling it was as a means only;
literature was always the end I had in view, immediately or finally.
I did not see how it was to yield me a living, for I knew that almost all
the literary men in the country had other professions; they were editors,
lawyers, or had public or private employments; or they were men of
wealth; there was then not one who earned his bread solely by his pen in
fiction, or drama, or history, or poetry, or criticism, in a day when
people wanted very much less butter on their bread than they do now.
But I kept blindly at my studies, and yet not altogether blindly, for,
as I have said, the reading I did had more tendency than before, and I
was beginning to see authors in their proportion to one another, and to
the body of literature.

The English reviews were of great use to me in this; I made a rule of
reading each one of them quite through. To be sure I often broke this
rule, as people are apt to do with rules of the kind; it was not possible
for a boy to wade through heavy articles relating to English politics and
economics, but I do not think I left any paper upon a literary topic
unread, and I did read enough politics, especially in Blackwood's, to be
of Tory opinions; they were very fit opinions for a boy, and they did not
exact of me any change in regard to the slavery question.


I suppose I might almost class my devotion to English reviews among my
literary passions, but it was of very short lease, not beyond a year or
two at the most. In the midst of it I made my first and only essay aside
from the lines of literature, or rather wholly apart from it. After some
talk with my father it was decided, mainly by myself, I suspect, that I
should leave the printing-office and study law; and it was arranged with
the United States Senator who lived in our village, and who was at home
from Washington for the summer, that I was to come into his office. The
Senator was by no means to undertake my instruction himself; his nephew,
who had just begun to read law, was to be my fellow-student, and we were
to keep each other up to the work, and to recite to each other, until we
thought we had enough law to go before a board of attorneys and test our
fitness for admission to the bar.

This was the custom in that day and place, as I suppose it is still in
most parts of the country. We were to be fitted for practice in the
courts, not only by our reading, but by a season of pettifogging before
justices of the peace, which I looked forward to with no small shrinking
of my shy spirit; but what really troubled me most, and was always the
grain of sand between my teeth, was Blackstone's confession of his own
original preference for literature, and his perception that the law was
"a jealous mistress," who would suffer no rival in his affections.
I agreed with him that I could not go through life with a divided
interest; I must give up literature or I must give up law. I not only
consented to this logically, but I realized it in my attempt to carry on
the reading I had loved, and to keep at the efforts I was always making
to write something in verse or prose, at night, after studying law all
day. The strain was great enough when I had merely the work in the
printing-office; but now I came home from my Blackstone mentally fagged,
and I could not take up the authors whom at the bottom of my heart I
loved so much better. I tried it a month, but almost from the fatal day
when I found that confession of Blackstone's, my whole being turned from
the "jealous mistress" to the high minded muses: I had not only to go
back to literature, but I had also to go back to the printing-office.
I did not regret it, but I had made my change of front in the public eye,
and I felt that it put me at a certain disadvantage with my fellow-
citizens; as for the Senator, whose office I had forsaken, I met him now
and then in the street, without trying to detain him, and once when he
came to the printing-office for his paper we encountered at a point where
we could not help speaking. He looked me over in my general effect of
base mechanical, and asked me if I had given up the law; I had only to
answer him I had, and our conference ended. It was a terrible moment for
me, because I knew that in his opinion I had chosen a path in life, which
if it did not lead to the Poor House was at least no way to the White
House. I suppose now that he thought I had merely gone back to my trade,
and so for the time I had; but I have no reason to suppose that he judged
my case narrow-mindedly, and I ought to have had the courage to have the
affair out with him, and tell him just why I had left the law; we had
sometimes talked the English reviews over, for he read them as well as I,
and it ought not to have been impossible for me to be frank with him;
but as yet I could not trust any one with my secret hope of some day
living for literature, although I had already lived for nothing else.
I preferred the disadvantage which I must be at in his eyes, and in the
eyes of most of my fellow-citizens; I believe I had the applause of the
organ-builder, who thought the law no calling for me.

In that village there was a social equality which, if not absolute, was
as nearly so as can ever be in a competitive civilization; and I could
have suffered no slight in the general esteem for giving up a profession
and going back to a trade; if I was despised at all it was because I had
thrown away the chance of material advancement; I dare say some people
thought I was a fool to do that. No one, indeed, could have imagined the
rapture it was to do it, or what a load rolled from my shoulders when I
dropped the law from them. Perhaps Sinbad or Christian could have
conceived of my ecstatic relief; yet so far as the popular vision reached
I was not returning to literature, but to the printing business, and I
myself felt the difference. My reading had given me criterions different
from those of the simple life of our village, and I did not flatter
myself that my calling would have been thought one of great social
dignity in the world where I hoped some day to make my living.
My convictions were all democratic, but at heart I am afraid I was a
snob, and was unworthy of the honest work which I ought to have felt it
an honor to do; this, whatever we falsely pretend to the contrary, is the
frame of every one who aspires beyond the work of his hands. I do not
know how it had become mine, except through my reading, and I think it
was through the devotion I then had for a certain author that I came to a
knowledge not of good and evil so much as of common and superfine.


It was of the organ-builder that I had Thackeray's books first. He knew
their literary quality, and their rank in the literary, world; but I
believe he was surprised at the passion I instantly conceived for them.
He could not understand it; he deplored it almost as a moral defect in
me; though he honored it as a proof of my critical taste. In a certain
measure he was right.

What flatters the worldly pride in a young man is what fascinates him
with Thackeray. With his air of looking down on the highest, and
confidentially inviting you to be of his company in the seat of the
scorner he is irresistible; his very confession that he is a snob, too,
is balm and solace to the reader who secretly admires the splendors he
affects to despise. His sentimentality is also dear to the heart of
youth, and the boy who is dazzled by his satire is melted by his easy
pathos. Then, if the boy has read a good many other books, he is taken
with that abundance of literary turn and allusion in Thackeray; there is
hardly a sentence but reminds him that he is in the society of a great
literary swell, who has read everything, and can mock or burlesque life
right and left from the literature always at his command. At the same
time he feels his mastery, and is abjectly grateful to him in his own
simple love of the good for his patronage of the unassuming virtues.
It is so pleasing to one's 'vanity, and so safe, to be of the master's
side when he assails those vices and foibles which are inherent in the
system of things, and which one can contemn with vast applause so long as
one does not attempt to undo the conditions they spring from.

I exulted to have Thackeray attack the aristocrats, and expose their
wicked pride and meanness, and I never noticed that he did not propose to
do away with aristocracy, which is and must always be just what it has
been, and which cannot be changed while it exists at all. He appeared to
me one of the noblest creatures that ever was when he derided the shams
of society; and I was far from seeing that society, as we have it, was
necessarily a sham; when he made a mock of snobbishness I did not know
but snobbishness was something that might be reached and cured by
ridicule. Now I know that so long as we have social inequality we shall
have snobs; we shall have men who bully and truckle, and women who snub
and crawl. I know that it is futile to, spurn them, or lash them for
trying to get on in the world, and that the world is what it must be from
the selfish motives which underlie our economic life. But I did not know
these things then, nor for long afterwards, and so I gave my heart to
Thackeray, who seemed to promise me in his contempt of the world a refuge
from the shame I felt for my own want of figure in it. He had the effect
of taking me into the great world, and making me a party to his splendid
indifference to titles, and even to royalties; and I could not see that
sham for sham he was unwittingly the greatest sham of all.

I think it was 'Pendennis' I began with, and I lived in the book to the
very last line of it, and made its alien circumstance mine to the
smallest detail. I am still not sure but it is the author's greatest
book, and I speak from a thorough acquaintance with every line he has
written, except the Virginians, which I have never been able to read
quite through; most of his work I have read twice, and some of it twenty

After reading 'Pendennis' I went to 'Vanity Fair,' which I now think the
poorest of Thackeray's novels--crude, heavy-handed, caricatured. About
the same time I revelled in the romanticism of 'Henry Esmond,' with its
pseudo-eighteenth-century sentiment, and its appeals to an overwrought
ideal of gentlemanhood and honor. It was long before I was duly revolted
by Esmond's transfer of his passion from the daughter to the mother whom
he is successively enamoured of. I believe this unpleasant and
preposterous affair is thought one of the fine things in the story; I do
not mind owning that I thought it so myself when I was seventeen; and if
I could have found a Beatrix to be in love with, and a Lady Castlewood to
be in love with me, I should have asked nothing finer of fortune.
The glamour of Henry Esmond was all the deeper because I was reading the
'Spectator' then, and was constantly in the company of Addison, and
Steele, and Swift, and Pope, and all the wits at Will's, who are
presented evanescently in the romance. The intensely literary keeping,
as well as quality, of the story I suppose is what formed its highest
fascination for me; but that effect of great world which it imparts to
the reader, making him citizen, and, if he will, leading citizen of it,
was what helped turn my head.

This is the toxic property of all Thackeray's writing. He is himself
forever dominated in imagination by the world, and even while he tells
you it is not worth while he makes you feel that it is worth while. It
is not the honest man, but the man of honor, who shines in his page; his
meek folk are proudly meek, and there is a touch of superiority, a glint
of mundane splendor, in his lowliest. He rails at the order of things,
but he imagines nothing different, even when he shows that its baseness,
and cruelty, and hypocrisy are well-nigh inevitable, and, for most of
those who wish to get on in it, quite inevitable. He has a good word for
the virtues, he patronizes the Christian graces, he pats humble merit on
the head; he has even explosions of indignation against the insolence and
pride of birth, and purse-pride. But, after all, he is of the world,
worldly, and the highest hope he holds out is that you may be in the
world and despise its ambitions while you compass its ends.

I should be far from blaming him for all this. He was of his time; but
since his time men have thought beyond him, and seen life with a vision
which makes his seem rather purblind. He must have been immensely in
advance of most of the thinking and feeling of his day, for people then
used to accuse his sentimental pessimism of cynical qualities which we
could hardly find in it now. It was the age of intense individualism,
when you were to do right because it was becoming to you, say, as a
gentleman, and you were to have an eye single to the effect upon your
character, if not your reputation; you were not to do a mean thing
because it was wrong, but because it was mean. It was romanticism
carried into the region of morals. But I had very little concern then as
to that sort of error.

I was on a very high esthetic horse, which I could not have conveniently
stooped from if I had wished; it was quite enough for me that Thackeray's
novels were prodigious works of art, and I acquired merit, at least with
myself, for appreciating them so keenly, for liking them so much. It
must be, I felt with far less consciousness than my formulation of the
feeling expresses, that I was of some finer sort myself to be able to
enjoy such a fine sort. No doubt I should have been a coxcomb of some
kind, if not that kind, and I shall not be very strenuous in censuring
Thackeray for his effect upon me in this way. No doubt the effect was
already in me, and he did not so much produce it as find it.

In the mean time he was a vast delight to me, as much in the variety of
his minor works--his 'Yellowplush,' and 'Letters of Mr. Brown,' and
'Adventures of Major Gahagan,' and the 'Paris Sketch Book,' and the
'Irish Sketch Book,' and the 'Great Hoggarty Diamond,' and the 'Book of
Snobs,' and the 'English Humorists,' and the 'Four Georges,' and all the
multitude of his essays, and verses, and caricatures--as in the spacious
designs of his huge novels, the 'Newcomes,' and 'Pendennis,' and 'Vanity
Fair,' and 'Henry Esmond,' and 'Barry Lyndon.'

There was something in the art of the last which seemed to me then, and
still seems, the farthest reach of the author's great talent. It is
couched, like so much of his work, in the autobiographic form, which next
to the dramatic form is the most natural, and which lends itself with
such flexibility to the purpose of the author. In 'Barry Lyndon' there
is imagined to the life a scoundrel of such rare quality that he never
supposes for a moment but he is the finest sort of a gentleman; and so,
in fact, he was, as most gentlemen went in his day. Of course, the
picture is over-colored; it was the vice of Thackeray, or of Thackeray's
time, to surcharge all imitations of life and character, so that a
generation apparently much slower, if not duller than ours, should not
possibly miss the artist's meaning. But I do not think it is so much
surcharged as 'Esmond;' 'Barry Lyndon' is by no manner of means so
conscious as that mirror of gentlemanhood, with its manifold
self-reverberations; and for these reasons I am inclined to think
he is the most perfect creation of Thackeray's mind.

I did not make the acquaintance of Thackeray's books all at once, or even
in rapid succession, and he at no time possessed the whole empire of my
catholic, not to say, fickle, affections, during the years I was
compassing a full knowledge and sense of his greatness, and burning
incense at his shrine. But there was a moment when he so outshone and
overtopped all other divinities in my worship that I was effectively his
alone, as I have been the helpless and, as it were, hypnotized devotee of
three or four others of the very great. From his art there flowed into
me a literary quality which tinged my whole mental substance, and made it
impossible for me to say, or wish to say, anything without giving it the
literary color. That is, while he dominated my love and fancy, if I had
been so fortunate as to have a simple concept of anything in life, I must
have tried to give the expression of it some turn or tint that would
remind the reader of books even before it reminded him of men.

It is hard to make out what I mean, but this is a try at it, and I do not
know that I shall be able to do better unless I add that Thackeray, of
all the writers that I have known, is the most thoroughly and profoundly
imbued with literature, so that when he speaks it is not with words and
blood, but with words and ink. You may read the greatest part of
Dickens, as you may read the greatest part of Hawthorne or Tolstoy, and
not once be reminded of literature as a business or a cult, but you can
hardly read a paragraph, hardly a sentence, of Thackeray's without being
reminded of it either by suggestion or downright allusion.

I do not blame him for this; he was himself, and he could not have been
any other manner of man without loss; but I say that the greatest talent
is not that which breathes of the library, but that which breathes of the
street, the field, the open sky, the simple earth. I began to imitate
this master of mine almost as soon as I began to read him; this must be,
and I had a greater pride and joy in my success than I should probably
have known in anything really creative; I should have suspected that, I
should have distrusted that, because I had nothing to test it by, no
model; but here before me was the very finest and noblest model, and I
had but to form my lines upon it, and I had produced a work of art
altogether more estimable in my eyes than anything else could have been.
I saw the little world about me through the lenses of my master's
spectacles, and I reported its facts, in his tone and his attitude, with
his self-flattered scorn, his showy sighs, his facile satire. I need not
say I was perfectly satisfied with the result, or that to be able to
imitate Thackeray was a much greater thing for me than to have been able
to imitate nature. In fact, I could have valued any picture of the life
and character I knew only as it put me in mind of life and character as
these had shown themselves to me in his books.


At the same time, I was not only reading many books besides Thackeray's,
but I was studying to get a smattering of several languages as well as I
could, with or without help. I could now manage Spanish fairly well, and
I was sending on to New York for authors in that tongue. I do not
remember how I got the money to buy them; to be sure it was no great sum;
but it must have been given me out of the sums we were all working so
hard to make up for the debt, and the interest on the debt (that is
always the wicked pinch for the debtor!), we had incurred in the purchase
of the newspaper which we lived by, and the house which we lived in.
I spent no money on any other sort of pleasure, and so, I suppose, it was
afforded me the more readily; but I cannot really recall the history of
those acquisitions on its financial side. In any case, if the sums I
laid out in literature could not have been comparatively great, the
excitement attending the outlay was prodigious.

I know that I used to write on to Messrs. Roe Lockwood & Son, New York,
for my Spanish books, and I dare say that my letters were sufficiently
pedantic, and filled with a simulated acquaintance with all Spanish
literature. Heaven knows what they must have thought, if they thought
anything, of their queer customer in that obscure little Ohio village;
but he could not have been queerer to them than to his fellow-villagers,
I am sure. I haunted the post-office about the time the books were due,
and when I found one of them in our deep box among a heap of exchange
newspapers and business letters, my emotion was so great that it almost
took my breath. I hurried home with the precious volume, and shut myself
into my little den, where I gave myself up to a sort of transport in it.
These books were always from the collection of Spanish authors published
by Baudry in Paris, and they were in saffron-colored paper cover, printed
full of a perfectly intoxicating catalogue of other Spanish books which I
meant to read, every one, some time. The paper and the ink had a certain
odor which was sweeter to me than the perfumes of Araby. The look of the
type took me more than the glance of a girl, and I had a fever of longing
to know the heart of the book, which was like a lover's passion. Some
times I did not reach its heart, but commonly I did. Moratin's 'Origins
of the Spanish Theatre,' and a large volume of Spanish dramatic authors,
were the first Spanish books I sent for, but I could not say why I sent
for them, unless it was because I saw that there were some plays of
Cervantes among the rest. I read these and I read several comedies of
Lope de Vega, and numbers of archaic dramas in Moratin's history, and I
really got a fairish perspective of the Spanish drama, which has now
almost wholly faded from my mind. It is more intelligible to me why I
should have read Conde's 'Dominion of the Arabs in Spain;' for that was
in the line of my reading in Irving, which would account for my pleasure
in the 'History of the Civil Wars of Granada;' it was some time before I
realized that the chronicles in this were a bundle of romances and not
veritable records; and my whole study in these things was wholly
undirected and unenlightened. But I meant to be thorough in it, and I
could not rest satisfied with the Spanish-English grammars I had; I was
not willing to stop short of the official grammar of the Spanish Academy.
I sent to New York for it, and my booksellers there reported that they
would have to send to Spain for it. I lived till it came to hand through
them from Madrid; and I do not understand why I did not perish then from
the pride and joy I had in it.

But, after all, I am not a Spanish scholar, and can neither speak nor
write the language. I never got more than a good reading use of it,
perhaps because I never really tried for more. But I am very glad of
that, because it has been a great pleasure to me, and even some profit,
and it has lighted up many meanings in literature, which must always have
remained dark to me. Not to speak now of the modern Spanish writers whom
it has enabled me to know in their own houses as it were, I had even in
that remote day a rapturous delight in a certain Spanish book, which was
well worth all the pains I had undergone to get at it. This was the
famous picaresque novel, 'Lazarillo de Tormes,' by Hurtado de Mendoza,
whose name then so familiarized itself to my fondness that now as I write
it I feel as if it were that of an old personal friend whom I had known
in the flesh. I believe it would not have been always comfortable to
know Mendoza outside of his books; he was rather a terrible person; he
was one of the Spanish invaders of Italy, and is known in Italian history
as the Tyrant of Sierra. But at my distance of time and place I could
safely revel in his friendship, and as an author I certainly found him a
most charming companion. The adventures of his rogue of a hero, who
began life as the servant and accomplice of a blind beggar, and then
adventured on through a most diverting career of knavery, brought back
the atmosphere of Don Quixote, and all the landscape of that dear wonder-
world of Spain, where I had lived so much, and I followed him with all
the old delight.

I do not know that I should counsel others to do so, or that the general
reader would find his account in it, but I am sure that the intending
author of American fiction would do well to study the Spanish picaresque
novels; for in their simplicity of design he will find one of the best
forms for an American story. The intrigue of close texture will never
suit our conditions, which are so loose and open and variable; each man's
life among us is a romance of the Spanish model, if it is the life of a
man who has risen, as we nearly all have, with many ups and downs. The
story of 'Latzarillo' is gross in its facts, and is mostly "unmeet for
ladies," like most of the fiction in all languages before our times; but
there is an honest simplicity in the narration, a pervading humor, and a
rich feeling for character that gives it value.

I think that a good deal of its foulness was lost upon me, but I
certainly understood that it would not do to present it to an American
public just as it was, in the translation which I presently planned to
make. I went about telling the story to people, and trying to make them
find it as amusing as I did, but whether I ever succeeded I cannot say,
though the notion of a version with modifications constantly grew with
me, till one day I went to the city of Cleveland with my father. There
was a branch house of an Eastern firm of publishers in that place, and I
must have had the hope that I might have the courage to propose a
translation of Lazarillo to them. My father urged me to try my fortune,
but my heart failed me. I was half blind with one of the headaches that
tormented me in those days, and I turned my sick eyes from the sign,
"J. P. Jewett & Co., Publishers," which held me fascinated, and went home
without at least having my much-dreamed-of version of Lazarillo refused.


I am quite at a loss to know why my reading had this direction or that in
those days. It had necessarily passed beyond my father's suggestion, and
I think it must have been largely by accident or experiment that I read
one book rather than another. He made some sort of newspaper arrangement
with a book-store in Cleveland, which was the means of enriching our home
library with a goodly number of books, shop-worn, but none the worse for
that, and new in the only way that books need be new to the lover of
them. Among these I found a treasure in Curtis's two books, the 'Nile
Notes of a Howadji,' and the 'Howadji in Syria.' I already knew him by
his 'Potiphar Papers,' and the ever-delightful reveries which have since
gone under the name of 'Prue and I;' but those books of Eastern travel
opened a new world of thinking and feeling. They had at once a great
influence upon me. The smooth richness of their diction; the amiable
sweetness of their mood, their gracious caprice, the delicacy of their
satire (which was so kind that it should have some other name), their
abundance of light and color, and the deep heart of humanity underlying
their airiest fantasticality, all united in an effect which was different
from any I had yet known.

As usual, I steeped myself in them, and the first runnings of my fancy
when I began to pour it out afterwards were of their flavor. I tried to
write like this new master; but whether I had tried or not, I should
probably have done so from the love I bore him. He was a favorite not
only of mine, but of all the young people in the village who were reading
current literature, so that on this ground at least I had abundant
sympathy. The present generation can have little notion of the deep
impression made upon the intelligence and conscience of the whole nation
by the 'Potiphar Papers,' or how its fancy was rapt with the 'Prue and I'
sketches, These are among the most veritable literary successes we have
had, and probably we who were so glad when the author of these beautiful
things turned aside from the flowery paths where he led us, to battle for
freedom in the field of politics, would have felt the sacrifice too great
if we could have dreamed it would be life-long. But, as it was, we could
only honor him the more, and give him a place in our hearts which he
shared with Longfellow.

This divine poet I have never ceased to read. His Hiawatha was a new
book during one of those terrible Lake Shore winters, but all the other
poems were old friends with me by that time. With a sister who is no
longer living I had a peculiar affection for his pretty and touching and
lightly humorous tale of 'Kavanagh,' which was of a village life enough
like our own, in some things, to make us know the truth of its delicate
realism. We used to read it and talk it fondly over together, and I
believe some stories of like make and manner grew out of our pleasure in
it. They were never finished, but it was enough to begin them, and there
were few writers, if any, among those I delighted in who escaped the
tribute of an imitation. One has to begin that way, or at least one had
in my day; perhaps it is now possible for a young writer to begin by
being himself; but for my part, that was not half so important as to be
like some one else. Literature, not life, was my aim, and to reproduce
it was my joy and my pride.

I was widening my knowledge of it helplessly and involuntarily, and I was
always chancing upon some book that served this end among the great
number of books that I read merely for my pleasure without any real
result of the sort. Schlegel's 'Lectures on Dramatic Literature' came
into my hands not long after I had finished my studies in the history of
the Spanish theatre, and it made the whole subject at once luminous.
I cannot give a due notion of the comfort this book afforded me by the
light it cast upon paths where I had dimly made my way before, but which
I now followed in the full day.

Of course, I pinned my faith to everything that Schlegel said.
I obediently despised the classic unities and the French and Italian
theatre which had perpetuated them, and I revered the romantic drama
which had its glorious course among the Spanish and English poets, and
which was crowned with the fame of the Cervantes and the Shakespeare whom
I seemed to own, they owned me so completely. It vexes me now to find
that I cannot remember how the book came into my hands, or who could have
suggested it to me. It is possible that it may have been that artist who
came and stayed a month with us while she painted my mother's portrait.
She was fresh from her studies in New York, where she had met authors and
artists at the house of the Carey sisters, and had even once seen my
adored Curtis somewhere, though she had not spoken with him. Her talk
about these things simply emparadised me; it lifted me into a heaven of
hope that I, too, might some day meet such elect spirits and converse
with them face to face. My mood was sufficiently foolish, but it was not
such a frame of mind as I can be ashamed of; and I could wish a boy no
happier fortune than to possess it for a time, at least.


I cannot quite see now how I found time for even trying to do the things
I had in hand more or less. It is perfectly clear to me that I did none
of them well, though I meant at the time to do none of them other than
excellently. I was attempting the study of no less than four languages,
and I presently added a fifth to these. I was reading right and left in
every direction, but chiefly in that of poetry, criticism, and fiction.
From time to time I boldly attacked a history, and carried it by a 'coup
de main,' or sat down before it for a prolonged siege. There was
occasionally an author who worsted me, whom I tried to read and quietly
gave up after a vain struggle, but I must say that these authors were
few. I had got a very fair notion of the range of all literature, and
the relations of the different literatures to one another, and I knew
pretty well what manner of book it was that I took up before I committed
myself to the task of reading it. Always I read for pleasure, for the
delight of knowing something more; and this pleasure is a very different
thing from amusement, though I read a great deal for mere amusement, as I
do still, and to take my mind away from unhappy or harassing thoughts.
There are very few things that I think it a waste of time to have read;
I should probably have wasted the time if I had not read them, and at the
period I speak of I do not think I wasted much time.

My day began about seven o'clock, in the printing-office, where it took
me till noon to do my task of so many thousand ems, say four or five.
Then we had dinner, after the simple fashion of people who work with
their hands for their dinners. In the afternoon I went back and
corrected the proof of the type I had set, and distributed my case for
the next day. At two or three o'clock I was free, and then I went home
and began my studies; or tried to write something; or read a book.
We had supper at six, and after that I rejoiced in literature, till I
went to bed at ten or eleven. I cannot think of any time when I did not
go gladly to my books or manuscripts, when it was not a noble joy as well
as a high privilege.

But it all ended as such a strain must, in the sort of break which was
not yet known as nervous prostration. When I could not sleep after my
studies, and the sick headaches came oftener, and then days and weeks of
hypochondriacal misery, it was apparent I was not well; but that was not
the day of anxiety for such things, and if it was thought best that I
should leave work and study for a while, it was not with the notion that
the case was at all serious, or needed an uninterrupted cure. I passed
days in the woods and fields, gunning or picking berries; I spent myself
in heavy work; I made little journeys; and all this was very wholesome
and very well; but I did not give up my reading or my attempts to write.
No doubt I was secretly proud to have been invalided in so great a cause,
and to be sicklied over with the pale cast of thought, rather than by
some ignoble ague or the devastating consumption of that region. If I
lay awake, noting the wild pulsations of my heart, and listening to the
death-watch in the wall, I was certainly very much scared, but I was not
without the consolation that I was at least a sufferer for literature.
At the same time that I was so horribly afraid of dying, I could have
composed an epitaph which would have moved others to tears for my
untimely fate. But there was really not impairment of my constitution,
and after a while I began to be better, and little by little the health
which has never since failed me under any reasonable stress of work
established itself.

I was in the midst of this unequal struggle when I first became
acquainted with the poet who at once possessed himself of what was best
worth having in me. Probably I knew of Tennyson by extracts, and from
the English reviews, but I believe it was from reading one of Curtis's
"Easy Chair" papers that I was prompted to get the new poem of "Maud,"
which I understood from the "Easy Chair" was then moving polite youth in
the East. It did not seem to me that I could very well live without that
poem, and when I went to Cleveland with the hope that I might have
courage to propose a translation of Lazarillo to a publisher it was with
the fixed purpose of getting "Maud" if it was to be found in any
bookstore there.

I do not know why I was so long in reaching Tennyson, and I can only
account for it by the fact that I was always reading rather the earlier
than the later English poetry. To be sure I had passed through what I
may call a paroxysm of Alexander Smith, a poet deeply unknown to the
present generation, but then acclaimed immortal by all the critics, and
put with Shakespeare, who must be a good deal astonished from time to
time in his Elysian quiet by the companionship thrust upon him. I read
this now dead-and-gone immortal with an ecstasy unspeakable; I raved of
him by day, and dreamed of him by night; I got great lengths of his
"Life-Drama" by heart; and I can still repeat several gorgeous passages
from it; I would almost have been willing to take the life of the sole
critic who had the sense to laugh at him, and who made his wicked fun in
Graham's Magazine, an extinct periodical of the old extinct Philadelphian
species. I cannot tell how I came out of this craze, but neither could
any of the critics who led me into it, I dare say. The reading world is
very susceptible of such-lunacies, and all that can be said is that at a
given time it was time for criticism to go mad over a poet who was
neither better nor worse than many another third-rate poet apotheosized
before and since. What was good in Smith was the reflected fire of the
poets who had a vital heat in them; and it was by mere chance that I
bathed myself in his second-hand effulgence. I already knew pretty well
the origin of the Tennysonian line in English poetry; Wordsworth, and
Keats, and Shelley; and I did not come to Tennyson's worship a sudden
convert, but my devotion to him was none the less complete and exclusive.
Like every other great poet he somehow expressed the feelings of his day,
and I suppose that at the time he wrote "Maud" he said more fully what
the whole English-speaking race were then dimly longing to utter than any
English poet who has lived.

One need not question the greatness of Browning in owning the fact that
the two poets of his day who preeminently voiced their generation were
Tennyson and Longfellow; though Browning, like Emerson, is possibly now
more modern than either. However, I had then nothing to do with
Tennyson's comparative claim on my adoration; there was for the time no
parallel for him in the whole range of literary divinities that I had
bowed the knee to. For that while, the temple was not only emptied of
all the other idols, but I had a richly flattering illusion of being his
only worshipper. When I came to the sense of this error, it was with the
belief that at least no one else had ever appreciated him so fully, stood
so close to him in that holy of holies where he wrought his miracles.

I say tawdily and ineffectively and falsely what was a very precious and
sacred experience with me. This great poet opened to me a whole world of
thinking and feeling, where I had my being with him in that mystic
intimacy, which cannot be put into words. I at once identified myself
not only with the hero of the poem, but in some so with the poet himself,
when I read "Maud"; but that was only the first step towards the lasting
state in which his poetry has upon the whole been more to me than that of
any other poet. I have never read any other so closely and continuously,
or read myself so much into and out of his verse. There have been times
and moods when I have had my questions, and made my cavils, and when it
seemed to me that the poet was less than I had thought him; and certainly
I do not revere equally and unreservedly all that he has written; that
would be impossible. But when I think over all the other poets I have
read, he is supreme above them in his response to some need in me that he
has satisfied so perfectly.

Of course, "Maud" seemed to me the finest poem I had read, up to that
time, but I am not sure that this conclusion was wholly my own; I think
it was partially formed for me by the admiration of the poem which I felt
to be everywhere in the critical atmosphere, and which had already
penetrated to me. I did not like all parts of it equally well, and some
parts of it seemed thin and poor (though I would not suffer myself to say
so then), and they still seem so. But there were whole passages and
spaces of it whose divine and perfect beauty lifted me above life. I did
not fully understand the poem then; I do not fully understand it now, but
that did not and does not matter; for there something in poetry that
reaches the soul by other enues than the intelligence. Both in this poem
and others of Tennyson, and in every poet that I have loved, there are
melodies and harmonies enfolding significance that appeared long after I
had first read them, and had even learned them by heart; that lay weedy
in my outer ear and were enough in their Mere beauty of phrasing, till
the time came for them to reveal their whole meaning. In fact they could
do this only to later and greater knowledge of myself and others, as
every one must recognize who recurs in after-life to a book that he read
when young; then he finds it twice as full of meaning as it was at first.

I could not rest satisfied with "Maud"; I sent the same summer to
Cleveland for the little volume which then held all the poet's work, and
abandoned myself so wholly to it, that for a year I read no other verse
that I can remember. The volume was the first of that pretty blue-and-
gold series which Ticknor & Fields began to publish in 1856, and which
their imprint, so rarely affixed to an unworthy book, at once carried far
and wide. Their modest old brown cloth binding had long been a quiet
warrant of quality in the literature it covered, and now this splendid
blossom of the bookmaking art, as it seemed, was fitly employed to convey
the sweetness and richness of the loveliest poetry that I thought the
world had yet known. After an old fashion of mine, I read it
continuously, with frequent recurrences from each new poem to some that
had already pleased me, and with a most capricious range among the
pieces. "In Memoriam" was in that book, and the "Princess"; I read the
"Princess" through and through, and over and over, but I did not then
read "In Memoriam" through, and I have never read it in course; I am not
sure that I have even yet read every part of it. I did not come to the
"Princess," either, until I had saturated my fancy and my memory with
some of the shorter poems, with the "Dream of Fair Women," with the
"Lotus-Eaters," with the "Miller's Daughter," with the "Morte d'Arthur,"
with "Edwin Morris, or The Lake," with "Love and Duty," and a score of
other minor and briefer poems. I read the book night and day, in-doors
and out, to myself and to whomever I could make listen. I have no words
to tell the rapture it was to me; but I hope that in some more articulate
being, if it should ever be my unmerited fortune to meet that 'sommo
poeta' face to face, it shall somehow be uttered from me to him, and he
will understand how completely he became the life of the boy I was then.
I think it might please, or at least amuse, that lofty ghost, and that he
would not resent it, as he would probably have done on earth. I can well
understand why the homage of his worshippers should have afflicted him
here, and I could never have been one to burn incense in his earthly
presence; but perhaps it might be done hereafter without offence.
I eagerly caught up and treasured every personal word I could find about
him, and I dwelt in that sort of charmed intimacy with him through his
verse, in which I could not presume nor he repel, and which I had enjoyed
in turn with Cervantes and Shakespeare, without a snub from them.

I have never ceased to adore Tennyson, though the rapture of the new
convert could not last. That must pass like the flush of any other
passion. I think I have now a better sense of his comparative greatness,
but a better sense of his positive greatness I could not have than I had
at the beginning; and I believe this is the essential knowledge of a
poet. It is very well to say one is greater than Keats, or not so great
as Wordsworth; that one is or is not of the highest order of poets like
Shakespeare and Dante and Goethe; but that does not mean anything of
value, and I never find my account in it. I know it is not possible for
any less than the greatest writer to abide lastingly in one's life. Some
dazzling comer may enter and possess it for a day, but he soon wears his
welcome out, and presently finds the door, to be answered with a not-at-
home if he knocks again. But it was only this morning that I read one of
the new last poems of Tennyson with a return of the emotion which he
first woke in me well-nigh forty years ago. There has been no year of
those many when I have not read him and loved him with something of the
early fire if not all the early conflagration; and each successive poem
of his has been for me a fresh joy.

He went with me into the world from my village when I left it to make my
first venture away from home. My father had got one of those legislative
clerkships which used to fall sometimes to deserving country editors when
their party was in power, and we together imagined and carried out a
scheme for corresponding with some city newspapers. We were to furnish a
daily, letter giving an account of the legislative proceedings which I
was mainly to write up from material he helped me to get together. The
letters at once found favor with the editors who agreed to take them, and
my father then withdrew from the work altogether, after telling them who
was doing it. We were afraid they might not care for the reports of a
boy of nineteen, but they did not seem to take my age into account, and I
did not boast of my youth among the lawmakers. I looked three or four
years older than I was; but I experienced a terrible moment once when a
fatherly Senator asked me my age. I got away somehow without saying, but
it was a great relief to me when my twentieth birthday came that winter,
and I could honestly proclaim that I was in my twenty-first year.

I had now the free range of the State Library, and I drew many sorts of
books from it. Largely, however, they were fiction, and I read all the
novels of Bulwer, for whom I had already a great liking from 'The
Caxtons' and 'My Novel.' I was dazzled by them, and I thought him a
great writer, if not so great a one as he thought himself. Little or
nothing of those romances, with their swelling prefaces about the poet
and his function, their glittering criminals, and showy rakes and rogues
of all kinds, and their patrician perfume and social splendor, remained
with me; they may have been better or worse; I will not attempt to say.
If I may call my fascination with them a passion at all, I must say that
it was but a fitful fever. I also read many volumes of Zschokke's
admirable tales, which I found in a translation in the Library, and I
think I began at the same time to find out De Quincey. These authors I
recall out of the many that passed through my mind almost as tracelessly
as they passed through my hands. I got at some versions of Icelandic
poems, in the metre of "Hiawatha"; I had for a while a notion of studying
Icelandic, and I did take out an Icelandic grammar and lexicon, and
decided that I would learn the language later. By this time I must have
begun German, which I afterwards carried so far, with one author at
least, as to find in him a delight only second to that I had in Tennyson;
but as yet Tennyson was all in all to me in poetry. I suspect that I
carried his poems about with me a great part of the time; I am afraid
that I always had that blue-and-gold Tennyson in my pocket; and I was
ready to draw it upon anybody, at the slightest provocation. This is the
worst of the ardent lover of literature: he wishes to make every one else
share his rapture, will he, nill he. Many good fellows suffered from my
admiration of this author or that, and many more pretty, patient maids.
I wanted to read my favorite passages, my favorite poems to them; I am
afraid I often did read, when they would rather have been talking; in the
case of the poems I did worse, I repeated them. This seems rather
incredible now, but it is true enough, and absurd as it is, it at least
attests my sincerity. It was long before I cured myself of so pestilent
a habit; and I am not yet so perfectly well of it that I could be safely
trusted with a fascinating book and a submissive listener. I dare say I
could not have been made to understand at this time that Tennyson was not
so nearly the first interest of life with other people as he was with me;
I must often have suspected it, but I was helpless against the wish to
make them feel him as important to their prosperity and well-being as he
was to mine. My head was full of him; his words were always behind my
lips; and when I was not repeating his phrase to myself or to some one
else, I was trying to frame something of my own as like him as I could.
It was a time of melancholy from ill-health, and of anxiety for the
future in which I must make my own place in the world. Work, and hard
work, I had always been used to and never afraid of; but work is by no
means the whole story. You may get on without much of it, or you may do
a great deal, and not get on. I was willing to do as much of it as I
could get to do, but I distrusted my health, somewhat, and I had many
forebodings, which my adored poet helped me to transfigure to the
substance of literature, or enabled me for the time to forget. I was
already imitating him in the verse I wrote; he now seemed the only worthy
model for one who meant to be as great a poet as I did. None of the
authors whom I read at all displaced him in my devotion, and I could not
have believed that any other poet would ever be so much to me. In fact,
as I have expressed, none ever has been.


That winter passed very quickly and happily for me, and at the end of the
legislative session I had acquitted myself so much to the satisfaction of
one of the newspapers which I wrote for that I was offered a place on it.
I was asked to be city editor, as it was called in that day, and I was to
have charge of the local reporting. It was a great temptation, and for a
while I thought it the greatest piece of good fortune. I went down to
Cincinnati to acquaint myself with the details of the work, and to fit
myself for it by beginning as reporter myself. One night's round of the
police stations with the other reporters satisfied me that I was not
meant for that work, and I attempted it no farther. I have often been
sorry since, for it would have made known to me many phases of life that
I have always remained ignorant of, but I did not know then that life was
supremely interesting and important. I fancied that literature, that
poetry was so; and it was humiliation and anguish indescribable to think
of myself torn from my high ideals by labors like those of the reporter.
I would not consent even to do the office work of the department, and the
proprietor and editor who was more especially my friend tried to make
some other place for me. All the departments were full but the one I
would have nothing to do with, and after a few weeks of sufferance and
suffering I turned my back on a thousand dollars a year, and for the
second time returned to the printing-office.

I was glad to get home, for I had been all the time tormented by my old
malady of homesickness. But otherwise the situation was not cheerful for
me, and I now began trying to write something for publication that I
could sell. I sent off poems and they came back; I offered little
translations from the Spanish that nobody wanted. At the same time I
took up the study of German, which I must have already played with, at
such odd times as I could find. My father knew something of it, and that
friend of mine among the printers was already reading it and trying to
speak it. I had their help with the first steps so far as the
recitations from Ollendorff were concerned, but I was impatient to read
German, or rather to read one German poet who had seized my fancy from
the first line of his I had seen.

This poet was Heinrich Heine, who dominated me longer than any one author
that I have known. Where or when I first acquainted myself with his most
fascinating genius, I cannot be sure, but I think it was in some article
of the Westminster Review, where several poems of his were given in
English and German; and their singular beauty and grace at once possessed
my soul. I was in a fever to know more of him, and it was my great good
luck to fall in with a German in the village who had his books. He was a
bookbinder, one of those educated artisans whom the revolutions of 1848
sent to us in great numbers. He was a Hanoverian, and his accent was
then, I believe, the standard, though the Berlinese is now the accepted
pronunciation. But I cared very little for accent; my wish was to get at
Heine with as little delay as possible; and I began to cultivate the
friendship of that bookbinder in every way. I dare say he was glad of
mine, for he was otherwise quite alone in the village, or had no
companionship outside of his own family. I clothed him in all the
romantic interest I began to feel for his race and language, which new
took the place of the Spaniards and Spanish in my affections. He was a
very quick and gay intelligence, with more sympathy for my love of our
author's humor than for my love of his sentiment, and I can remember very
well the twinkle of his little sharp black eyes, with their Tartar slant,
and the twitching of his keenly pointed, sensitive nose, when we came to
some passage of biting satire, or some phrase in which the bitter Jew had
unpacked all the insult of his soul.

We began to read Heine together when my vocabulary had to be dug almost
word by word out of the dictionary, for the bookbinder's English was
rather scanty at the best, and was not literary. As for the grammar, I
was getting that up as fast as I could from Ollendorff, and from other
sources, but I was enjoying Heine before I well knew a declension or a
conjugation. As soon as my task was done at the office, I went home to
the books, and worked away at them until supper. Then my bookbinder and
I met in my father's editorial room, and with a couple of candles on the
table between us, and our Heine and the dictionary before us, we read
till we were both tired out.

The candles were tallow, and they lopped at different angles in the flat
candlesticks heavily loaded with lead, which compositors once used.
It seems to have been summer when our readings began, and they are
associated in my memory with the smell of the neighboring gardens, which
came in at the open doors and windows, and with the fluttering of moths,
and the bumbling of the dorbugs, that stole in along with the odors.
I can see the perspiration on the shining forehead of the bookbinder as
he looks up from some brilliant passage, to exchange a smile of triumph
with me at having made out the meaning with the meagre facilities we had
for the purpose; he had beautiful red pouting lips, and a stiff little
branching mustache above them, that went to the making of his smile.
Sometimes, in the truce we made with the text, he told a little story of
his life at home, or some anecdote relevant to our reading, or quoted a
passage from some other author. It seemed to me the make of a high
intellectual banquet, and I should be glad if I could enjoy anything as
much now.

We walked home as far as his house, or rather his apartment over one of
the village stores; and as he mounted to it by an outside staircase, we
exchanged a joyous "Gute Nacht," and I kept on homeward through the dark
and silent village street, which was really not that street, but some
other, where Heine had been, some street out of the Reisebilder, of his
knowledge, or of his dream. When I reached home it was useless to go to
bed. I shut myself into my little study, and went over what we had read,
till my brain was so full of it that when I crept up to my room at last,
it was to lie down to slumbers which were often a mere phantasmagory of
those witching Pictures of Travel.

I was awake at my father's call in the morning, and before my mother had
breakfast ready I had recited my lesson in Ollendorff to him. To tell
the truth, I hated those grammatical studies, and nothing but the love of
literature, and the hope of getting at it, could ever have made me go
through them. Naturally, I never got any scholarly use of the languages
I was worrying at, and though I could once write a passable literary
German, it has all gone from me now, except for the purposes of reading.
It cost me so much trouble, however, to dig the sense out of the grammar
and lexicon, as I went on with the authors I was impatient to read, that
I remember the words very well in all their forms and inflections, and I
have still what I think I may call a fair German vocabulary.

The German of Heine, when once you are in the joke of his capricious
genius, is very simple, and in his poetry it is simple from the first,
so that he was, perhaps, the best author I could have fallen in with if I
wanted to go fast rather than far. I found this out later, when I
attempted other German authors without the glitter of his wit or the
lambent glow of his fancy to light me on my hard way. I should find it
hard to say just why his peculiar genius had such an absolute fascination
for me from the very first, and perhaps I had better content myself with
saying simply that my literary liberation began with almost the earliest
word from him; for if he chained me to himself he freed me from all other
bondage. I had been at infinite pains from time to time, now upon one
model and now upon another, to literarify myself, if I may make a word
which does not quite say the thing for me. What I mean is that I had
supposed, with the sense at times that I was all wrong, that the
expression of literature must be different from the expression of life;
that it must be an attitude, a pose, with something of state or at least
of formality in it; that it must be this style, and not that; that it
must be like that sort of acting which you know is acting when you see it
and never mistake for reality. There are a great many children,
apparently grown-up, and largely accepted as critical authorities, who
are still of this youthful opinion of mine. But Heine at once showed me
that this ideal of literature was false; that the life of literature was
from the springs of the best common speech and that the nearer it could
be made to conform, in voice, look and gait, to graceful, easy,
picturesque and humorous or impassioned talk, the better it was.

He did not impart these truths without imparting certain tricks with
them, which I was careful to imitate as soon as I began to write in his
manner, that is to say instantly. His tricks he had mostly at
second-hand, and mainly from Sterne, whom I did not know well enough then
to know their origin. But in all essentials he was himself, and my final
lesson from him, or the final effect of all my lessons from him, was to
find myself, and to be for good or evil whatsoever I really was.

I kept on writing as much like Heine as I could for several years,
though, and for a much longer time than I should have done if I had
ever become equally impassioned of any other author.

Some traces of his method lingered so long in my work that nearly ten
years afterwards Mr. Lowell wrote me about something of mine that
he had been reading: "You must sweat the Heine out of your bones as
men do mercury," and his kindness for me would not be content with less
than the entire expulsion of the poison that had in its good time saved
my life. I dare say it was all well enough not to have it in my bones
after it had done its office, but it did do its office.

It was in some prose sketch of mine that his keen analysis had found the
Heine, but the foreign property had been so prevalent in my earlier work
in verse that he kept the first contribution he accepted from me for the
Atlantic Monthly a long time, or long enough to make sure that it was not
a translation of Heine. Then he printed it, and I am bound to say that
the poem now justifies his doubt to me, in so much that I do not see why
Heine should not have had the name of writing it if he had wanted. His
potent spirit became immediately so wholly my "control," as the mediums
say, that my poems might as well have been communications from him so far
as any authority of my own was concerned; and they were quite like other
inspirations from the other world in being so inferior to the work of the
spirit before it had the misfortune to be disembodied and obliged to use
a medium. But I do not think that either Heine or I had much lasting
harm from it, and I am sure that the good, in my case at least, was one
that can only end with me. He undid my hands, which had taken so much
pains to tie behind my back, and he forever persuaded me that though it
may be ingenious and surprising to dance in chains, it is neither pretty
nor useful.


Another author who was a prime favorite with me about this time was De
Quincey, whose books I took out of the State Library, one after another,
until I had read them all. We who were young people of that day thought
his style something wonderful, and so indeed it was, especially in those
passages, abundant everywhere in his work, relating to his own life with
an intimacy which was always-more rather than less. His rhetoric there,
and in certain of his historical studies, had a sort of luminous
richness, without losing its colloquial ease. I keenly enjoyed this
subtle spirit, and the play of that brilliant intelligence which lighted
up so many ways of literature with its lambent glow or its tricksy
glimmer, and I had a deep sympathy with certain morbid moods and
experiences so like my own, as I was pleased to fancy. I have not looked
at his Twelve Caesars for twice as many years, but I should be greatly
surprised to find it other than one of the greatest historical monographs
ever written. His literary criticisms seemed to me not only exquisitely
humorous, but perfectly sane and just; and it delighted me to have him
personally present, with the warmth of his own temperament in regions of
cold abstraction; I am not sure that I should like that so much now. De
Quincey was hardly less autobiographical when he wrote of Kant, or the
Flight of the Crim-Tartars, than when he wrote of his own boyhood or the
miseries of the opium habit. He had the hospitable gift of making you at
home with him, and appealing to your sense of comradery with something of
the flattering confidentiality of Thackeray, but with a wholly different

In fact, although De Quincey was from time to time perfunctorily Tory,
and always a good and faithful British subject, he was so eliminated from
his time and place by his single love for books, that one could be in his
company through the whole vast range of his writings, and come away
without a touch of snobbishness; and that is saying a great deal for an
English writer. He was a great little creature, and through his intense
personality he achieved a sort of impersonality, so that you loved the
man, who was forever talking-of himself, for his modesty and reticence.
He left you feeling intimate with him but by no means familiar; with all
his frailties, and with all those freedoms he permitted himself with the
lives of his contemporaries, he is to me a figure of delicate dignity,
and winning kindness. I think it a misfortune for the present generation
that his books have fallen into a kind of neglect, and I believe that
they will emerge from it again to the advantage of literature.

In spite of Heine and Tennyson, De Quincey had a large place in my
affections, though this was perhaps because he was not a poet; for more
than those two great poets there was then not much room. I read him the
first winter I was at Columbus, and when I went down from the village the
next winter, to take up my legislative correspondence again, I read him
more than ever. But that was destined to be for me a very disheartening
time. I had just passed through a rheumatic fever, which left my health
more broken than before, and one morning shortly after I was settled in
the capital, I woke to find the room going round me like a wheel. It was
the beginning of a vertigo which lasted for six months, and which I began
to fight with various devices and must yield to at last. I tried
medicine and exercise, but it was useless, and my father came to take my
letters off my hands while I gave myself some ineffectual respites.
I made a little journey to my old home in southern Ohio, but there and
everywhere, the sure and firm-set earth waved and billowed under my feet,
and I came back to Columbus and tried to forget in my work the fact that
I was no better. I did not give up trying to read, as usual, and part of
my endeavor that winter was with Schiller, and Uhland, and even Goethe,
whose 'Wahlverwandschaften,' hardly yielded up its mystery to me. To
tell the truth, I do not think that I found my account in that novel.
It must needs be a disappointment after Wilhelm Meister, which I had read
in English; but I dare say my disappointment was largely my own fault;
I had certainly no right to expect such constant proofs and instances of
wisdom in Goethe as the unwisdom of his critics had led me to hope for.
I remember little or nothing of the story, which I tried to find very
memorable, as I held my sick way through it. Longfellow's "Miles
Standish" came out that winter, and I suspect that I got vastly more real
pleasure from that one poem of his than I found in all my German authors
put together, the adored Heine always excepted; though certainly I felt
the romantic beauty of 'Uhland,' and was aware of something of Schiller's
generous grandeur.

Of the American writers Longfellow has been most a passion with me, as
the English, and German, and Spanish, and Russian writers have been. I
am sure that this was largely by mere chance. It was because I happened,
in such a frame and at such a time, to come upon his books that I loved
them above those of other men as great. I am perfectly sensible that
Lowell and Emerson outvalue many of the poets and prophets I have given
my heart to; I have read them with delight and with a deep sense of their
greatness, and yet they have not been my life like those other, those
lesser, men. But none of the passions are reasoned, and I do not try to
account for my literary preferences or to justify them.

I dragged along through several months of that winter, and did my best to
carry out that notable scheme of not minding my vertigo. I tried doing
half-work, and helping my father with the correspondence, but when it
appeared that nothing would avail, he remained in charge of it, till the
close of the session, and I went home to try what a complete and
prolonged rest would do for me. I was not fit for work in the printing-
office, but that was a simpler matter than the literary work that was
always tempting me. I could get away from it only by taking my gun and
tramping day after day through the deep, primeval woods. The fatigue was
wholesome, and I was so bad a shot that no other creature suffered loss
from my gain except one hapless wild pigeon. The thawing snow left the
fallen beechnuts of the autumn before uncovered among the dead leaves,
and the forest was full of the beautiful birds. In most parts of the
middle West they are no longer seen, except in twos or threes, but once
they were like the sands of the sea for multitude. It was not now the
season when they hid half the heavens with their flight day after day;
but they were in myriads all through the woods, where their iridescent
breasts shone like a sudden untimely growth of flowers when you came upon
them from the front. When they rose in fright, it was like the upward
leap of fire, and with the roar of flame. I use images which, after all,
are false to the thing I wish to express; but they must serve. I tried
honestly enough to kill the pigeons, but I had no luck, or too much, till
I happened to bring down one of a pair that I found apart from the rest
in a softy tree-top. The poor creature I had widowed followed me to the
verge of the woods, as I started home with my prey, and I do not care to
know more personally the feelings of a murderer than I did then. I tried
to shoot the bird, but my aim was so bad that I could not do her this
mercy, and at last she flew away, and I saw her no more.

The spring was now opening, and I was able to keep more and more with
Nature, who was kinder to me than I was to her other children, or wished
to be, and I got the better of my malady, which gradually left me for no
more reason apparently than it came upon me. But I was still far from
well, and I was in despair of my future. I began to read again
--I suppose I had really never altogether stopped. I borrowed from my
friend the bookbinder a German novel, which had for me a message of
lasting cheer. It was the 'Afraja' of Theodore Mugge, a story of life in
Norway during the last century, and I remember it as a very lovely story
indeed, with honest studies of character among the Norwegians, and a
tender pathos in the fate of the little Lap heroine Gula, who was perhaps
sufficiently romanced. The hero was a young Dane, who was going up among
the fiords to seek his fortune in the northern fisheries; and by a
process inevitable in youth I became identified with him, so that I
adventured, and enjoyed, and suffered in his person throughout. There
was a supreme moment when he was sailing through the fiords, and finding
himself apparently locked in by their mountain walls without sign or hope
of escape, but somehow always escaping by some unimagined channel, and
keeping on. The lesson for him was one of trust and courage; and I, who
seemed to be then shut in upon a mountain-walled fiord without inlet or
outlet, took the lesson home and promised myself not to lose heart again.
It seems a little odd that this passage of a book, by no means of the
greatest, should have had such an effect with me at a time when I was no
longer so young as to be unduly impressed by what I read; but it is true
that I have never since found myself in circumstances where there seemed
to be no getting forward or going back, without a vision of that fiord
scenery, and then a rise of faith, that if I kept on I should, somehow,
come out of my prisoning environment.


I got back health enough to be of use in the printing office that autumn,
and I was quietly at work there with no visible break in my surroundings
when suddenly the whole world opened to me through what had seemed an
impenetrable wall. The Republican newspaper at the capital had been
bought by a new management, and the editorial force reorganized upon a
footing of what we then thought metropolitan enterprise; and to my great
joy and astonishment I was asked to come and take a place in it. The
place offered me was not one of lordly distinction; in fact, it was
partly of the character of that I had already rejected in Cincinnati,
but I hoped that in the smaller city its duties would not be so odious;
and by the time I came to fill it, a change had taken place in the
arrangements so that I was given charge of the news department. This
included the literary notices and the book reviews, and I am afraid that
I at once gave my prime attention to these.

It was an evening paper, and I had nearly as much time for reading and
study as I had at home. But now society began to claim a share of this
leisure, which I by no means begrudged it. Society was very charming in
Columbus then, with a pretty constant round of dances and suppers, and an
easy cordiality, which I dare say young people still find in it
everywhere. I met a great many cultivated people, chiefly young ladies,
and there were several houses where we young fellows went and came almost
as freely as if they were our own. There we had music and cards, and
talk about books, and life appeared to me richly worth living; if any one
had said this was not the best planet in the universe I should have
called him a pessimist, or at least thought him so, for we had not the
word in those days. A world in which all those pretty and gracious women
dwelt, among the figures of the waltz and the lancers, with chat between
about the last instalment of 'The Newcomes,' was good enough world for
me; I was only afraid it was too good. There were, of course, some girls
who did not read, but few openly professed indifference to literature,
and there was much lending of books back and forth, and much debate of
them. That was the day when 'Adam Bede' was a new book, and in this I
had my first knowledge of that great intellect for which I had no
passion, indeed, but always the deepest respect, the highest honor; and
which has from time to time profoundly influenced me by its ethics.

I state these things simply and somewhat baldly; I might easily refine
upon them, and study that subtle effect for good and for evil which young
people are always receiving from the fiction they read; but this its not
the time or place for the inquiry, and I only wish to own that so far as
I understand it, the chief part of my ethical experience has been from
novels. The life and character I have found portrayed there have
appealed always to the consciousness of right and wrong implanted in me;
and from no one has this appeal been stronger than from George Eliot.
Her influence continued through many years, and I can question it now
only in the undue burden she seems to throw upon the individual, and her
failure to account largely enough for motive from the social environment.
There her work seems to me unphilosophical.

It shares whatever error there is in its perspective with that of
Hawthorne, whose 'Marble Faun' was a new book at the same time that 'Adam
Bede' was new, and whose books now came into my life and gave it their
tinge. He was always dealing with the problem of evil, too, and I found
a more potent charm in his more artistic handling of it than I found in
George Eliot. Of course, I then preferred the region of pure romance
where he liked to place his action; but I did not find his instances the
less veritable because they shone out in

     "The light that never was on sea or land."

I read the 'Marble Faun' first, and then the 'Scarlet Letter,' and then
the 'House of Seven Gables,' and then the 'Blithedale Romance;' but I
always liked best the last, which is more nearly a novel, and more
realistic than the others. They all moved me with a sort of effect such
as I had not felt before. They veers so far from time and place that,
although most of them related to our country and epoch, I could not
imagine anything approximate from them; and Hawthorne himself seemed a
remote and impalpable agency, rather than a person whom one might
actually meet, as not long afterward happened with me. I did not hold
the sort of fancied converse with him that I held with ether authors,
and I cannot pretend that I had the affection for him that attracted me
to them. But he held me by his potent spell, and for a time he dominated
me as completely as any author I have read. More truly than any other
American author he has been a passion with me, and lately I heard with a
kind of pang a young man saying that he did not believe I should find the
'Scarlet Letter' bear reading now. I did not assent to the possibility,
but the notion gave me a shiver of dismay. I thought how much that book
had been to me, how much all of Hawthorne's books had been, and to have
parted with my faith in their perfection would have been something I
would not willingly have risked doing.

Of course there is always something fatally weak in the scheme of the
pure romance, which, after the color of the contemporary mood dies out of
it, leaves it in danger of tumbling into the dust of allegory; and
perhaps this inherent weakness was what that bold critic felt in the
'Scarlet Letter.' But none of Hawthorne's fables are without a profound
and distant reach into the recesses of nature and of being. He came back
from his researches with no solution of the question, with no message,
indeed, but the awful warning, "Be true, be true," which is the burden of
the Scarlet Letter; yet in all his books there is the hue of thoughts
that we think only in the presence of the mysteries of life and death.
It is not his fault that this is not intelligence, that it knots the brow
in sorer doubt rather than shapes the lips to utterance of the things
that can never be said. Some of his shorter stories I have found thin
and cold to my later reading, and I have never cared much for the 'House
of Seven Gables,' but the other day I was reading the 'Blithedale
Romance' again, and I found it as potent, as significant, as sadly and
strangely true as when it first enthralled my soul.

In those days when I tried to kindle my heart at the cold altar of
Goethe, I did read a great deal of his prose and somewhat of his poetry,
but it was to be ten years yet before I should go faithfully through with
his Faust and come to know its power. For the present, I read 'Wilhelm
Meister' and the 'Wahlverwandschaften,' and worshipped him much at
second-hand through Heine. In the mean time I invested such Germans as
I met with the halo of their national poetry, and there was one lady of
whom I heard with awe that she had once known my Heine. When I came to
meet her, over a glass of the mild egg-nog which she served at her house
on Sunday nights, and she told me about Heine, and how he looked, and
some few things he said, I suffered an indescribable disappointment; and
if I could have been frank with myself I should have owned to a fear that
it might have been something like that, if I had myself met the poet in
the flesh, and tried to hold the intimate converse with him that I held
in the spirit. But I shut my heart to all such misgivings and went on
reading him much more than I read any other German author. I went on
writing him too, just as I went on reading and writing Tennyson. Heine
was always a personal interest with me, and every word of his made me
long to have had him say it to me, and tell me why he said it. In a poet
of alien race and language and religion I found a greater sympathy than I
have experienced with any other. Perhaps the Jews are still the chosen
people, but now they bear the message of humanity, while once they bore
the message of divinity. I knew the ugliness of Heine's nature: his
revengefulness, and malice, and cruelty, and treachery, and uncleanness;
and yet he was supremely charming among the poets I have read. The
tenderness I still feel for him is not a reasoned love, I must own; but,
as I am always asking, when was love ever reasoned?

I had a room-mate that winter in Columbus who was already a contributor
to the Atlantic Monthly, and who read Browning as devotedly as I read
Heine. I will not say that he wrote him as constantly, but if that had
been so, I should not have cared. What I could not endure without pangs
of secret jealousy was that he should like Heine, too, and should read
him, though it was but an arm's-length in an English version. He had
found the origins of those tricks and turns of Heine's in 'Tristram
Shandy' and the 'Sentimental Journey;' and this galled me, as if he had
shown that some mistress of my soul had studied her graces from another
girl, and that it was not all her own hair that she wore. I hid my
rancor as well as I could, and took what revenge lay in my power by
insinuating that he might have a very different view if he read Heine in
the original. I also made haste to try my own fate with the Atlantic,
and I sent off to Mr. Lowell that poem which he kept so long in order to
make sure that Heine had not written it, as well as authorized it.


This was the winter when my friend Piatt and I made our first literary
venture together in those 'Poems of Two Friends;' which hardly passed the
circle of our amity; and it was altogether a time of high literary
exaltation with me. I walked the streets of the friendly little city by
day and by night with my head so full of rhymes and poetic phrases that
it seemed as if their buzzing might have been heard several yards away;
and I do not yet see quite how I contrived to keep their music out of my
newspaper paragraphs. Out of the newspaper I could not keep it, and from
time to time I broke into verse in its columns, to the great amusement of
the leading editor, who knew me for a young man with a very sharp tooth
for such self-betrayals in others. He wanted to print a burlesque review
he wrote of the 'Poems of Two Friends' in our paper, but I would not
suffer it. I must allow that it was very, funny, and that he was always
a generous friend, whose wounds would have been as faithful as any that
could have been dealt me then. He did not indeed care much for any
poetry but that of Shakespeare and the 'Ingoldsby Legends;' and when one
morning a State Senator came into the office with a volume of Tennyson,
and began to read,

     "The poet in a golden clime was born,
     With golden stars above;
     Dowered with the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn
     The love of love,"

he hitched his chair about, and started in on his leader for the day.

He might have been more patient if he had known that this State Senator
was to be President Garfield. But who could know anything of the
tragical history that was so soon to follow that winter of 1859-60?
Not I; at least I listened rapt by the poet and the reader, and it seemed
to me as if the making and the reading of poetry were to go on forever,
and that was to be all there was of it. To be sure I had my hard little
journalistic misgivings that it was not quite the thing for a State
Senator to come round reading Tennyson at ten o'clock in the morning, and
I dare say I felt myself superior in my point of view, though I could not
resist the charm of the verse. I myself did not bring Tennyson to the
office at that time. I brought Thackeray, and I remember that one day
when I had read half an hour or so in the 'Book of Snobs,' the leading
editor said frankly, Well, now, he guessed we had had enough of that.
He apologized afterwards as if he were to blame, and not I, but I dare
say I was a nuisance with my different literary passions, and must have
made many of my acquaintances very tired of my favorite authors. I had
some consciousness of the fact, but I could not help it.

I ought not to omit from the list of these favorites an author who was
then beginning to have his greatest vogue, and who somehow just missed of
being a very great one. We were all reading his jaunty, nervy, knowing
books, and some of us were questioning whether we ought not to set him
above Thackeray and Dickens and George Eliot, 'tulli quanti', so great
was the effect that Charles Reade had with our generation. He was a man
who stood at the parting of the ways between realism and romanticism, and
if he had been somewhat more of a man he might have been the master of a
great school of English realism; but, as it was, he remained content to
use the materials of realism and produce the effect of romanticism. He
saw that life itself infinitely outvalued anything that could be feigned
about it, but its richness seemed to corrupt him, and he had not the
clear, ethical conscience which forced George Eliot to be realistic when
probably her artistic prepossessions were romantic.

As yet, however, there was no reasoning of the matter, and Charles Reade
was writing books of tremendous adventure and exaggerated character,
which he prided himself on deriving from the facts of the world around
him. He was intoxicated with the discovery he had made that the truth
was beyond invention, but he did not know what to do with the truth in
art after he had found it in life, and to this day the English mostly do
not. We young people were easily taken with his glittering error, and we
read him with much the same fury, that he wrote. 'Never Too Late to
Mend;' 'Love Me Little, Love Me Long;' 'Christie Johnstone;' 'Peg
Woffington;' and then, later, 'Hard Cash,' 'The Cloister and the Hearth,'
'Foul Play,' 'Put Yourself in His Place'--how much they all meant once,
or seemed to mean!

The first of them, and the other poems and fictions I was reading, meant
more to me than the rumors of war that were then filling the air, and
that so soon became its awful actualities. To us who have our lives so
largely in books the material world is always the fable, and the ideal
the fact. I walked with my feet on the ground, but my head was in the
clouds, as light as any of them. I neither praise nor blame this fact;
but I feel bound to own it, for that time, and for every time in my life,
since the witchery of literature began with me.

Those two happy winters in Columbus, when I was finding opportunity and
recognition, were the heydey of life for me. There has been no time like
them since, though there have been smiling and prosperous times a plenty;
for then I was in the blossom of my youth, and what I had not I could
hope for without unreason, for I had so much of that which I had most
desired. Those times passed, and there came other times, long years of
abeyance, and waiting, and defeat, which I thought would never end, but
they passed, too.

I got my appointment of Consul to Venice, and I went home to wait for my
passport and to spend the last days, so full of civic trouble, before I
should set out for my post. If I hoped to serve my country there and
sweep the Confederate cruisers from the Adriatic, I am afraid my prime
intent was to add to her literature and to my own credit. I intended,
while keeping a sleepless eye out for privateers, to write poems.
concerning American life which should eclipse anything yet done in that
kind, and in the mean time I read voraciously and perpetually, to make
the days go swiftly which I should have been so glad to have linger. In
this month I devoured all the 'Waverley novels,' but I must have been
devouring a great many others, for Charles Reade's 'Christie Johnstone'
is associated with the last moment of the last days.

A few months ago I was at the old home, and I read that book again,
after not looking at it for more than thirty years; and I read it with
amazement at its prevailing artistic vulgarity, its prevailing aesthetic
error shot here and there with gleams of light, and of the truth that
Reade himself was always dimly groping for. The book is written
throughout on the verge of realism, with divinations and conjectures
across its border, and with lapses into the fool's paradise of
romanticism, and an apparent content with its inanity and impossibility.
But then it was brilliantly new and surprising; it seemed to be the last
word that could be said for the truth in fiction; and it had a spell that
held us like an anesthetic above the ache of parting, and the anxiety for
the years that must pass, with all their redoubled chances, before our
home circle could be made whole again. I read on, and the rest listened,
till the wheels of the old stage made themselves heard in their approach
through the absolute silence of the village street. Then we shut the
book and all went down to the gate together, and parted under the pale
sky of the October night. There was one of the home group whom I was not
to see again: the young brother who died in the blossom of his years
before I returned from my far and strange sojourn. He was too young then
to share our reading of the novel, but when I ran up to his room to bid
him good-by I found him awake, and, with aching hearts, we bade each
other good-by forever!


I ran through an Italian grammar on my way across the Atlantic, and from
my knowledge of Latin, Spanish, and French, I soon had a reading
acquaintance with the language. I had really wanted to go to Germany,
that I might carry forward my studies in German literature, and I first
applied for the consulate at Munich. The powers at Washington thought it
quite the same thing to offer me Rome; but I found that the income of the
Roman consulate would not give me a living, and I was forced to decline
it. Then the President's private secretaries, Mr. John Nicolay and Mr.
John Hay, who did not know me except as a young Westerner who had written
poems in the Atlantic Monthly, asked me how I would like Venice, and
promised that they would have the salary put up to a thousand a year,
under the new law to embarrass privateers. It was really put up to
fifteen hundred, and with this income assured me I went out to the city
whose influence changed the whole course of my literary life.

No privateers ever came, though I once had notice from Turin that the
Florida had been sighted off Ancona; and I had nearly four years of
nearly uninterrupted leisure at Venice, which I meant to employ in
reading all Italian literature, and writing a history of the republic.
The history, of course, I expected would be a long affair, and I did not
quite suppose that I could despatch the literature in any short time;
besides, I had several considerable poems on hand that occupied me a good
deal, and worked at these as well as advanced myself in Italian,
preparatory to the efforts before me.

I had already a slight general notion of Italian letters from Leigh Hunt,
and from other agreeable English Italianates; and I knew that I wanted to
read not only the four great poets, Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, and Tasso,
but that whole group of burlesque poets, Pulci, Berni, and the rest, who,
from what I knew of them, I thought would be even more to my mind. As a
matter of fact, and in the process of time, I did read somewhat of all
these, but rather in the minor than the major way; and I soon went off
from them to the study of the modern poets, novelists, and playwrights
who interested me so much more. After my wonted fashion I read half a
dozen of these authors together, so that it would be hard to say which I
began with, but I had really a devotion to Dante, though not at that
time, or ever for the whole of Dante. During my first year in Venice I
met an ingenious priest, who had been a tutor in a patrician family, and
who was willing to lead my faltering steps through the "Inferno." This
part of the "Divine Comedy" I read with a beginner's carefulness, and
with a rapture in its beauties, which I will whisper the reader do not
appear in every line.

Again I say it is a great pity that criticism is not honest about the
masterpieces of literature, and does not confess that they are not every
moment masterly, that they are often dull and tough and dry, as is
certainly the case with Dante's. Some day, perhaps, we shall have this
way of treating literature, and then the lover of it will not feel
obliged to browbeat himself into the belief that if he is not always
enjoying himself it is his own fault. At any rate I will permit myself
the luxury of frankly saying that while I had a deep sense of the majesty
and grandeur of Dante's design, many points of its execution bored me,
and that I found the intermixture of small local fact and neighborhood
history in the fabric of his lofty creation no part of its noblest
effect. What is marvellous in it is its expression of Dante's
personality, and I can never think that his personalities enhance its
greatness as a work of art. I enjoyed them, however, and I enjoyed them
the more, as the innumerable perspectives of Italian history began to
open all about me. Then, indeed, I understood the origins if I did not
understand the aims of Dante, which there is still much dispute about
among those who profess to know them clearly. What I finally perceived
was that his poem came through him from the heart of Italian life, such
as it was in his time, and that whatever it teaches, his poem expresses
that life, in all its splendor and squalor, its beauty and deformity, its
love and its hate.

Criticism may torment this sense or that sense out of it, but at the end
of the ends the "Divine Comedy" will stand for the patriotism of
medieval Italy, as far as its ethics is concerned, and for a profound and
lofty ideal of beauty, as far as its aesthetics is concerned. This is
vague enough and slight enough, I must confess, but I must confess also
that I had not even a conception of so much when I first read the
"Inferno." I went at it very simply, and my enjoyment of it was that
sort which finds its account in the fine passages, the brilliant
episodes, the striking pictures. This was the effect with me of all the
criticism which I had hitherto read, and I am not sure yet that the
criticism which tries to be of a larger scope, and to see things "whole,"
is of any definite effect. As a matter of fact we see nothing whole,
neither life nor art. We are so made, in soul and in sense, that we can
deal only with parts, with points, with degrees; and the endeavor to
compass any entirety must involve a discomfort and a danger very
threatening to our intellectual integrity.

Or if this postulate is as untenable as all the others, still I am very
glad that I did not then lose any fact of the majesty, and beauty, and
pathos of the great certain measures for the sake of that fourth
dimension of the poem which is not yet made palpable or visible. I took
my sad heart's fill of the sad story of "Paolo and Francesca," which I
already knew in Leigh Hunt's adorable dilution, and most of the lines
read themselves into my memory, where they linger yet. I supped on the
horrors of Ugolino's fate with the strong gust of youth, which finds
every exercise of sympathy a pleasure. My good priest sat beside me in
these rich moments, knotting in his lap the calico handkerchief of the
snuff-taker, and entering with tremulous eagerness into my joy in things
that he had often before enjoyed. No doubt he had an inexhaustible
pleasure in them apart from mine, for I have found my pleasure in them
perennial, and have not failed to taste it as often as I have read or
repeated any of the great passages of the poem to myself. This pleasure
came often from some vital phrase, or merely the inspired music of a
phrase quite apart from its meaning. I did not get then, and I have not
got since, a distinct conception of the journey through Hell, and as
often as I have tried to understand the topography of the poem I have
fatigued myself to no purpose, but I do not think the essential meaning
was lost upon me.

I dare say my priest had his notion of the general shape and purport,
the gross material body of the thing, but he did not trouble me with it,
while we sat tranced together in the presence of its soul. He seemed,
at times, so lost in the beatific vision, that he forgot my stumblings in
the philological darkness, till I appealed to him for help. Then he
would read aloud with that magnificent rhythm the Italians have in
reading their verse, and the obscured meaning would seem to shine out of
the mere music of the poem, like the color the blind feel in sound.

I do not know what has become of him, but if he is like the rest of the
strange group of my guides, philosophers, and friends in literature--the
printer, the organ-builder, the machinist, the drug-clerk, and the
bookbinder--I am afraid he is dead. In fact, I who was then I, might be
said to be dead too, so little is my past self like my present self in
anything but the "increasing purpose" which has kept me one in my love of
literature. He was a gentle and kindly man, with a life and a longing,
quite apart from his vocation, which were never lived or fulfilled.
I did not see him after he ceased to read Dante with me, and in fact I
was instructed by the suspicions of my Italian friends to be careful how
I consorted with a priest, who might very well be an Austrian spy.
I parted with him for no such picturesque reason, for I never believed
him other than the truest and faithfulest of friends, but because I was
then giving myself more entirely to work in which he could not help me.

Naturally enough this was a long poem in the terza rima of the "Divina
Commedia," and dealing with a story of our civil war in a fashion so
remote that no editor would print it. This was the first fruits and the
last of my reading of Dante, in verse, and it was not so like Dante as I
would have liked to make it; but Dante is not easy to imitate; he is too
unconscious, and too single, too bent upon saying the thing that is in
him, with whatever beauty inheres in it, to put on the graces that others
may catch.


However, this poem only shared the fate of nearly, all the others that I
wrote at this time; they came back to me with unfailing regularity from
all the magazine editors of the English-speaking world; I had no success
with any of them till I sent Mr. Lowell a paper on recent Italian comedy
for the North American Review, which he and Professor Norton had then
begun to edit. I was in the mean time printing the material of Venetian
Life and the Italian Journeys in a Boston newspaper after its rejection
by the magazines; and my literary life, almost without my willing it, had
taken the course of critical observance of books and men in their

That is to say, I was studying manners, in the elder sense of the word,
wherever I could get at them in the frank life of the people about me,
and in such literature of Italy as was then modern. In this pursuit I
made a discovery that greatly interested me, and that specialized my
inquiries. I found that the Italians had no novels which treated of
their contemporary life; that they had no modern fiction but the
historical romance. I found that if I wished to know their life from
their literature I must go to their drama, which was even then
endeavoring to give their stage a faithful picture of their
civilization. There was even then in the new circumstance of a people
just liberated from every variety of intellectual repression and
political oppression, a group of dramatic authors, whose plays were not
only delightful to see but delightful to read, working in the good
tradition of one of the greatest realists who has ever lived, and
producing a drama of vital strength and charm. One of them, whom I by no
means thought the best, has given us a play, known to all the world,
which I am almost ready to think with Zola is the greatest play of modern
times; or if it is not so, I should be puzzled to name the modern drama
that surpasses "La Morte Civile" of Paolo Giacometti. I learned to know
all the dramatists pretty well, in the whole range of their work, on the
stage and in the closet, and I learned to know still better, and to love
supremely, the fine, amiable genius whom, as one of them said, they did
not so much imitate as learn from to imitate nature.

This was Carlo Goldoni, one of the first of the realists, but antedating
conscious realism so long as to have been born at Venice early in the
eighteenth century, and to have come to his hand-to-hand fight with the
romanticism of his day almost before that century had reached its noon.
In the early sixties of our own century I was no more conscious of his
realism than he was himself a hundred years before; but I had eyes in my
head, and I saw that what he had seen in Venice so long before was so
true that it was the very life of Venice in my own day; and because I
have loved the truth in art above all other things, I fell instantly and
lastingly in love with Carlo Goldoni. I was reading his memoirs, and
learning to know his sweet, honest, simple nature while I was learning to
know his work, and I wish that every one who reads his plays would read
his life as well; one must know him before one can fully know them. I
believe, in fact, that his autobiography came into my hands first. But,
at any rate, both are associated with the fervors and languors of that
first summer in Venice, so that I cannot now take up a book of Goldoni's
without a renewed sense of that sunlight and moonlight, and of the sounds
and silences of a city that is at once the stillest and shrillest in the

Perhaps because I never found his work of great ethical or aesthetical
proportions, but recognized that it pretended to be good only within its
strict limitations, I recur to it now without that painful feeling of a
diminished grandeur in it, which attends us so often when we go back to
something that once greatly pleased us. It seemed to me at the time that
I must have read all his comedies in Venice, but I kept reading new ones
after I came home, and still I can take a volume of his from the shelf,
and when thirty years are past, find a play or two that I missed before.
Their number is very great, but perhaps those that I fancy I have not
read, I have really read once or more and forgotten. That might very
easily be, for there is seldom anything more poignant in any one of them
than there is in the average course of things. The plays are light and
amusing transcripts from life, for the most part, and where at times they
deepen into powerful situations, or express strong emotions, they do so
with persons so little different from the average of our acquaintance
that we do not remember just who the persons are.

There is no doubt but the kindly playwright had his conscience, and meant
to make people think as well as laugh. I know of none of his plays that
is of wrong effect, or that violates the instincts of purity, or insults
common sense with the romantic pretence that wrong will be right if you
will only paint it rose-color. He is at some obvious pains to "punish
vice and reward virtue," but I do not mean that easy morality when I
praise his; I mean the more difficult sort that recognizes in each man's
soul the arbiter not of his fate surely, but surely of his peace. He
never makes a fool of the spectator by feigning that passion is a reason
or justification, or that suffering of one kind can atone for wrong of
another. That was left for the romanticists of our own century to
discover; even the romanticists whom Goldoni drove from the stage, were
of that simpler eighteenth-century sort who had not yet liberated the
individual from society, but held him accountable in the old way. As for
Goldoni himself, he apparently never dreams of transgression; he is of
rather an explicit conventionality in most things, and he deals with
society as something finally settled. How artfully he deals with it,
how decently, how wholesomely, those who know Venetian society of the
eighteenth century historically, will perceive when they recall the
adequate impression he gives of it without offence in character or
language or situation. This is the perpetual miracle of his comedy,
that it says so much to experience and worldly wisdom, and so little to
inexperience and worldly innocence. No doubt the Serenest Republic was
very strict with the theatre, and suffered it to hold the mirror up to
nature only when nature was behaving well, or at least behaving as if
young people were present. Yet the Italians are rather plain-spoken, and
they recognize facts which our company manners at least do not admit the
existence of. I should say that Goldoni was almost English, almost
American, indeed, in his observance of the proprieties, and I like this
in him; though the proprieties are not virtues, they are very good
things, and at least are better than the improprieties.

This, however, I must own, had not a great deal to do with my liking him
so much, and I should be puzzled to account for my passion, as much in
his case as in most others. If there was any reason for it, perhaps it
was that he had the power of taking me out of my life, and putting me
into the lives of others, whom I felt to be human beings as much as
myself. To make one live in others, this is the highest effect of
religion as well as of art, and possibly it will be the highest bliss we
shall ever know. I do not pretend that my translation was through my
unselfishness; it was distinctly through that selfishness which perceives
that self is misery; and I may as well confess here that I do not regard
the artistic ecstasy as in any sort noble. It is not noble to love the
beautiful, or to live for it, or by it; and it may even not be refining.
I would not have any reader of mine, looking forward to some aesthetic
career, suppose that this love is any merit in itself; it may be the
grossest egotism. If you cannot look beyond the end you aim at, and seek
the good which is not your own, all your sacrifice is to yourself and not
of yourself, and you might as well be going into business. In itself and
for itself it is no more honorable to win fame than to make money, and
the wish to do the one is no more elevating than the wish to do the

But in the days I write of I had no conception of this, and I am sure
that my blindness to so plain a fact kept me even from seeking and
knowing the highest beauty in the things I worshipped. I believe that if
I had been sensible of it I should hays read much more of such humane
Italian poets and novelists as Manzoni and D'Azeglio, whom I perceived to
be delightful, without dreaming of them in the length and breadth of
their goodness. Now and then its extent flashed upon me, but the glimpse
was lost to my retroverted vision almost as soon as won. It is only in
thinking back to there that I can realize how much they might always have
meant to me. They were both living in my time in Italy, and they were
two men whom I should now like very much to have seen, if I could have
done so without that futility which seems to attend every effort to pay
one's duty to such men.

The love of country in all the Italian poets and romancers of the long
period of the national resurrection ennobled their art in a measure which
criticism has not yet taken account of. I conceived of its effect then,
but I conceived of it as a misfortune, a fatality; now I am by no means
sure that it was so; hereafter the creation of beauty, as we call it, for
beauty's sake, may be considered something monstrous. There is forever a
poignant meaning in life beyond what mere living involves, and why should
not there be this reference in art to the ends beyond art?
The situation, the long patience, the hope against hope, dignified and
beautified the nature of the Italian writers of that day, and evoked from
them a quality which I was too little trained in their school to
appreciate. But in a sort I did feel it, I did know it in them all, so
far as I knew any of them, and in the tragedies of Manzoni, and in the
romances of D'Azeglio, and yet more in the simple and modest records of
D'Azeglio's life published after his death, I profited by it, and
unconsciously prepared myself for that point of view whence all the arts
appear one with all the uses, and there is nothing beautiful that is

I am very glad of that experience of Italian literature, which I look
back upon as altogether wholesome and sanative, after my excesses of
Heine. No doubt it was all a minor affair as compared with equal
knowledge of French literature, and so far it was a loss of time. It is
idle to dispute the general positions of criticism, and there is no
useful gainsaying its judgment that French literature is a major
literature and Italian a minor literature in this century; but whether
this verdict will stand for all time, there may be a reasonable doubt.
Criterions may change, and hereafter people may look at the whole affair
so differently that a literature which went to the making of a people
will not be accounted a minor literature, but will take its place with
the great literary movements.

I do not insist upon this possibility, and I am far from defending myself
for liking the comedies of Goldoni better than the comedies of Moliere,
upon purely aesthetic grounds, where there is no question as to the
artistic quality. Perhaps it is because I came to Moliere's comedies
later, and with my taste formed for those of Goldoni; but again, it is
here a matter of affection; I find Goldoni for me more sympathetic, and
because he is more sympathetic I cannot do otherwise than find him more
natural, more true. I will allow that this is vulnerable, and as I say,
I do not defend it. Moliere has a place in literature infinitely loftier
than Goldoni's; and he has supplied types, characters, phrases, to the
currency of thought, and Goldoni has supplied none. It is, therefore,
without reason which I can allege that I enjoy Goldoni more. I am
perfectly willing to be rated low for my preference, and yet I think that
if it had been Goldoni's luck to have had the great age of a mighty
monarchy for his scene, instead of the decline of an outworn republic,
his place in literature might have been different.


I have always had a great love for the absolutely unreal, the purely
fanciful in all the arts, as well as of the absolutely real; I like the
one on a far lower plane than the other, but it delights me, as a
pantomime at a theatre does, or a comic opera, which has its being wholly
outside the realm of the probabilities. When I once transport myself to
this sphere I have no longer any care for them, and if I could I would
not exact of them an allegiance which has no concern with them. For this
reason I have always vastly enjoyed the artificialities of pastoral
poetry; and in Venice I read with a pleasure few serious poems have given
me the "Pastor Fido" of Guarini. I came later but not with fainter zest
to the "Aminta" of Tasso, without which, perhaps, the "Pastor Fido" would
not have been, and I revelled in the pretty impossibilities of both these
charming effects of the liberated imagination.

I do not the least condemn that sort of thing; one does not live by
sweets, unless one is willing to spoil one's digestion; but one may now
and then indulge one's self without harm, and a sugar-plum or two after
dinner may even be of advantage. What I object to is the romantic thing
which asks to be accepted with all its fantasticality on the ground of
reality; that seems to me hopelessly bad. But I have been able to dwell
in their charming out-land or no-land with the shepherds and
shepherdesses and nymphs, satyrs, and fauns, of Tasso and Guarini, and I
take the finest pleasure in their company, their Dresden china loves and
sorrows, their airy raptures, their painless throes, their polite
anguish, their tears not the least salt, but flowing as sweet as the
purling streams of their enamelled meadows. I wish there were more of
that sort of writing; I should like very much to read it.

The greater part of my reading in Venice, when I began to find that I
could not help writing about the place, was in books relating to its life
and history, which I made use of rather than found pleasure in. My
studies in Italian literature were full of the most charming interest,
and if I had to read a good many books for conscience' sake, there were a
good many others I read for their own sake. They were chiefly poetry;
and after the first essays in which I tasted the classic poets, they were
chiefly the books of the modern poets.

For the present I went no farther in German literature, and I recurred to
it in later years only for deeper and fuller knowledge of Heine; my
Spanish was ignored, as all first loves are when one has reached the age
of twenty-six. My English reading was almost wholly in the Tauchnitz
editions, for otherwise English books were not easily come at then and
there. George Eliot's 'Romola' was then new, and I read it again and
again with the sense of moral enlargement which the first fiction to
conceive of the true nature of evil gave all of us who were young in that
day. Tito Malema was not only a lesson, he was a revelation, and I
trembled before him as in the presence of a warning and a message from
the only veritable perdition. His life, in which so much that was good
was mixed, with so much that was bad, lighted up the whole domain of
egotism with its glare, and made one feel how near the best and the worst
were to each other, and how they sometimes touched without absolute
division in texture and color. The book was undoubtedly a favorite of
mine, and I did not see then the artistic falterings in it which were
afterwards evident to me.

There were not Romolas to read all the time, though, and I had to devolve
upon inferior authors for my fiction the greater part of the time. Of
course, I kept up with 'Our Mutual Friend,' which Dickens was then
writing, and with 'Philip,' which was to be the last of Thackeray. I was
not yet sufficiently instructed to appreciate Trollope, and I did not
read him at all.

I got hold of Kingsley, and read 'Yeast,' and I think some other novels
of his, with great relish, and without sensibility to his Charles
Readeish lapses from his art into the material of his art. But of all
the minor fiction that I read at this time none impressed me so much as
three books which had then already had their vogue, and which I knew
somewhat from reviews. They were Paul Ferroll, 'Why Paul Ferroll Killed
His Wife,' and 'Day after Day.' The first two were, of course, related
to each other, and they were all three full of unwholesome force. As to
their aesthetic merit I will not say anything, for I have not looked at
either of the books for thirty years. I fancy, however, that their
strength was rather of the tetanic than the titanic sort. They made your
sympathies go with the hero, who deliberately puts his wife to death for
the lie she told to break off his marriage with the woman he had loved,
and who then marries this tender and gentle girl, and lives in great
happiness with her till her death. Murder in the first degree is
flattered by his fate up to the point of letting him die peacefully in
Boston after these dealings of his in England; and altogether his story
could not be commended to people with a morbid taste for bloodshed.
Naturally enough the books were written by a perfectly good woman, the
wife of an English clergyman, whose friends were greatly scandalized by
them. As a sort of atonement she wrote 'Day after Day,' the story of a
dismal and joyless orphan, who dies to the sound of angelic music, faint
and farheard, filling the whole chamber. A carefuller study of the
phenomenon reveals the fact that the seraphic strains are produced by the
steam escaping from the hot-water bottles at the feet of the invalid.

As usual, I am not able fully to account for my liking of these books,
and I am so far from wishing to justify it that I think I ought rather to
excuse it. But since I was really greatly fascinated with them, and read
them with an evergrowing fascination, the only honest thing to do is to
own my subjection to them. It would be an interesting and important
question for criticism to study, that question why certain books at a.
certain time greatly dominate our fancy, and others manifestly better
have no influence with us. A curious proof of the subtlety of these Paul
Ferroll books in the appeal they made to the imagination is the fact that
I came to them fresh from 'Romolo,' and full of horror for myself in
Tito; yet I sympathized throughout with Paul Ferroll, and was glad when
he got away.


On my return to America, my literary life immediately took such form that
most of my reading was done for review. I wrote at first a good many of
the lighter criticisms in 'The Nation', at New York, and after I went to
Boston to become the assistant editor of the 'Atlantic Monthly' I wrote
the literary notices in that periodical for four or five years.

It was only when I came into full charge of the magazine that I began to
share these labors with others, and I continued them in some measure as
long as I had any relation to it. My reading for reading's sake, as I
had hitherto done it, was at an end, and I read primarily for the sake of
writing about the book in hand, and secondarily for the pleasure it might
give me. This was always considerable, and sometimes so great that I
forgot the critic in it, and read on and on for pleasure. I was master
to review this book or that as I chose, and generally I reviewed only
books I liked to read, though sometimes I felt that I ought to do a book,
and did it from a sense of duty; these perfunctory criticisms I do not
think were very useful, but I tried to make them honest.

In a long sickness, which I had shortly after I went to live in
Cambridge, a friend brought me several of the stories of Erckmann-
Chatrian, whom people were then reading much more than they are now, I
believe; and I had a great joy in them, which I have renewed since as
often as I have read one of their books. They have much the same quality
of simple and sincerely moralized realism that I found afterwards in the
work of the early Swiss realist, Jeremias Gotthelf, and very likely it
was this that captivated my judgment. As for my affections, battered and
exhausted as they ought to have been in many literary passions, they
never went out with fresher enjoyment than they did to the charming story
of 'L'Ami Fritz,' which, when I merely name it, breathes the spring sun
and air about me, and fills my senses with the beauty and sweetness of
cherry blossoms. It is one of the loveliest and kindest books that ever
was written, and my heart belongs to it still; to be sure it belongs to
several hundreds of other books in equal entirety.

It belongs to all the books of the great Norwegian Bjorstjerne Bjornson,
whose 'Arne,' and whose 'Happy Boy,' and whose 'Fisher Maiden' I read in
this same fortunate sickness. I have since read every other book of his
that I could lay hands on: 'Sinnove Solbakken,' and 'Magnhild,' and
'Captain Manzanca,' and 'Dust,' and 'In God's Ways,' and 'Sigurd,' and
plays like "The Glove" and "The Bankrupt." He has never, as some authors
have, dwindled in my sense; when I open his page, there I find him as
large, and free, and bold as ever. He is a great talent, a clear
conscience, a beautiful art. He has my love not only because he is a
poet of the most exquisite verity, but because he is a lover of men,
with a faith in them such as can move mountains of ignorance,
and dulness, and greed. He is next to Tolstoy in his willingness to give
himself for his kind; if he would rather give himself in fighting than in
suffering wrong, I do not know that his self-sacrifice is less in degree.

I confess, however, that I do not think of him as a patriot and a
socialist when I read him; he is then purely a poet, whose gift holds me
rapt above the world where I have left my troublesome and wearisome self
for the time. I do not know of any novels that a young endeavorer in
fiction could more profitably read than his for their large and simple
method, their trust of the reader's intelligence, their sympathy with
life. With him the problems are all soluble by the enlightened and
regenerate will; there is no baffling Fate, but a helping God. In
Bjornson there is nothing of Ibsen's scornful despair, nothing of his
anarchistic contempt, but his art is full of the warmth and color of a
poetic soul, with no touch of the icy cynicism which freezes you in the
other. I have felt the cold fascination of Ibsen, too, and I should be
far from denying his mighty mastery, but he has never possessed me with
the delight that Bjornson has.

In those days I read not only all the new books, but I made many forays
into the past, and came back now and then with rich spoil, though I
confess that for the most part I had my trouble for my pains; and I wish
now that I had given the time I spent on the English classics to
contemporary literature, which I have not the least hesitation in saying
I like vastly better. In fact, I believe that the preference for the
literature of the past, except in the case of the greatest masters, is
mainly the affectation of people who cannot otherwise distinguish
themselves from the herd, and who wish very much to do so.

There is much to be learned from the minor novelists and poets of the
past about people's ways of thinking and feeling, but not much that the
masters do not give you in better quality and fuller measure; and I
should say, Read the old masters and let their schools go, rather than
neglect any possible master of your own time. Above all, I would not
have any one read an old author merely that he might not be ignorant of
him; that is most beggarly, and no good can come of it. When literature
becomes a duty it ceases to be a passion, and all the schoolmastering in
the world, solemnly addressed to the conscience, cannot make the fact
otherwise. It is well to read for the sake of knowing a certain ground
if you are to make use of your knowledge in a certain way, but it would
be a mistake to suppose that this is a love of literature.


In those years at Cambridge my most notable literary experience without
doubt was the knowledge of Tourguenief's novels, which began to be
recognized in all their greatness about the middle seventies. I think
they made their way with such of our public as were able to appreciate
them before they were accepted in England; but that does not matter. It
is enough for the present purpose that 'Smoke,' and 'Lisa,' and 'On the
Eve,' and 'Dimitri Roudine,' and 'Spring Floods,' passed one after
another through my hands, and that I formed for their author one of the
profoundest literary passions of my life.

I now think that there is a finer and truer method than his, but in its
way, Tourguenief's method is as far as art can go. That is to say, his
fiction is to the last degree dramatic. The persons are sparely
described, and briefly accounted for, and then they are left to transact
their affair, whatever it is, with the least possible comment or
explanation from the author. The effect flows naturally from their
characters, and when they have done or said a thing you conjecture why as
unerringly as you would if they were people whom you knew outside of a
book. I had already conceived of the possibility of this from Bjornson,
who practises the same method, but I was still too sunken in the gross
darkness of English fiction to rise to a full consciousness of its
excellence. When I remembered the deliberate and impertinent moralizing
of Thackeray, the clumsy exegesis of George Eliot, the knowing nods and
winks of Charles Reade, the stage-carpentering and limelighting of
Dickens, even the fine and important analysis of Hawthorne, it was with a
joyful astonishment that I realized the great art of Tourguenief.

Here was a master who was apparently not trying to work out a plot, who
was not even trying to work out a character, but was standing aside from
the whole affair, and letting the characters work the plot out. The
method was revealed perfectly in 'Smoke,' but each successive book of his
that I read was a fresh proof of its truth, a revelation of its
transcendent superiority. I think now that I exaggerated its value
somewhat; but this was inevitable in the first surprise. The sane
aesthetics of the first Russian author I read, however, have seemed more
and more an essential part of the sane ethics of all the Russians I have
read. It was not only that Tourguenief had painted life truly, but that
he had painted it conscientiously.

Tourguenief was of that great race which has more than any other fully
and freely uttered human nature, without either false pride or false
shame in its nakedness. His themes were oftenest those of the French
novelist, but how far he was from handling them in the French manner and
with the French spirit! In his hands sin suffered no dramatic
punishment; it did not always show itself as unhappiness, in the personal
sense, but it was always unrest, and without the hope of peace. If the
end did not appear, the fact that it must be miserable always appeared.
Life showed itself to me in different colors after I had once read
Tourguenief; it became more serious, more awful, and with mystical
responsibilities I had not known before. My gay American horizons were
bathed in the vast melancholy of the Slav, patient, agnostic, trustful.
At the same time nature revealed herself to me through him with an
intimacy she had not hitherto shown me. There are passages in this
wonderful writer alive with a truth that seems drawn from the reader's
own knowledge; who else but Tourguenief and one's own most secret self
ever felt all the rich, sad meaning of the night air drawing in at the
open window, of the fires burning in the darkness on the distant fields?
I try in vain to give some notion of the subtle sympathy with nature
which scarcely put itself into words with him. As for the people of his
fiction, though they were of orders and civilizations so remote from my
experience, they were of the eternal human types whose origin and
potentialities every one may find in his own heart, and I felt their
verity in every touch.

I cannot describe the satisfaction his work gave me; I can only impart
some sense of it, perhaps, by saying that it was like a happiness I had
been waiting for all my life, and now that it had come, I was richly
content forever. I do not mean to say that the art of Tourguenief
surpasses the art of Bjornson; I think Bjornson is quite as fine and
true. But the Norwegian deals with simple and primitive circumstances
for the most part, and always with a small world; and the Russian has to
do with human nature inside of its conventional shells, and his scene is
often as large as Europe. Even when it is as remote as Norway, it is
still related to the great capitals by the history if not the actuality
of the characters. Most of Tourguenief's books I have read many times
over, all of them I have read more than twice. For a number of years I
read them again and again without much caring for other fiction. It was
only the other day that I read Smoke through once more, with no
diminished sense of its truth, but with somewhat less than my first
satisfaction in its art. Perhaps this was because I had reached the
point through my acquaintance with Tolstoy where I was impatient even of
the artifice that hid itself. In 'Smoke' I was now aware of an artifice
that kept out of sight, but was still always present somewhere, invisibly
operating the story.

I must not fail to own the great pleasure that I have had in some of the
stories of Auerbach. It is true that I have never cared greatly for 'On
the Heights,' which in its dealing with royalties seems too far aloof
from the ordinary human life, and which on the moral side finally fades
out into a German mistiness. But I speak of it with the imperfect
knowledge of one who was never able to read it quite through, and I have
really no right to speak of it. The book of his that pleased me most was
'Edelweiss,' which, though the story was somewhat too catastrophical,
seemed to me admirably good and true. I still think it very delicately
done, and with a deep insight; but there is something in all Auerbach's
work which in the retrospect affects me as if it dealt with pigmies.


I have always loved history, whether in the annals of peoples or in the
lives of persons, and I have at all times read it. I am not sure but I
rather prefer it to fiction, though I am aware that in looking back over
this record of my literary passions I must seem to have cared for very
little besides fiction. I read at the time I have just been speaking of,
nearly all the new poetry as it came out, and I constantly recurred to it
in its mossier sources, where it sprang from the green English ground, or
trickled from the antique urns of Italy.

I do not think that I have ever cared much for metaphysics, or to read
much in that way, but from time to time I have done something of it.

Travels, of course, I have read as part of the great human story, and
autobiography has at times appeared to me the most delightful reading in
the world; I have a taste in it that rejects nothing, though I have never
enjoyed any autobiographies so much as those of such Italians as have
reasoned of themselves.

I suppose I have not been a great reader of the drama, and I do not know
that I have ever greatly relished any plays but those of Shakespeare and
Goldoni, and two or three of Beaumont and Fletcher, and one or so of
Marlow's, and all of Ibsen's and Maeterlinck's. The taste for the old
English dramatists I believe I have never formed.

Criticism, ever since I filled myself so full of it in my boyhood, I have
not cared for, and often I have found it repulsive.

I have a fondness for books of popular science, perhaps because they too
are part of the human story.

I have read somewhat of the theology of the Swedenborgian faith I was
brought up in, but I have not read other theological works; and I do not
apologize for not liking any. The Bible itself was not much known to me
at an age when most children have been obliged to read it several times
over; the gospels were indeed familiar, and they have always been to me
the supreme human story; but the rest of the New Testament I had not read
when a man grown, and only passages of the Old Testament, like the story
of the Creation, and the story of Joseph, and the poems of Job and
Ecclesiastes, with occasional Psalms. I therefore came to the Scriptures
with a sense at once fresh and mature, and I can never be too glad that I
learned to see them under the vaster horizon and in the truer
perspectives of experience.

Again as lights on the human story I have liked to read such books of
medicine as have fallen in my way, and I seldom take up a medical
periodical without reading of all the cases it describes, and in fact
every article in it.

But I did not mean to make even this slight departure from the main
business of these papers, which is to confide my literary passions to the
reader; he probably has had a great many of his own. I think I may class
the "Ring and the Book" among them, though I have never been otherwise a
devotee of Browning. But I was still newly home from Italy, or away from
home, when that poem appeared, and whether or not it was because it took
me so with the old enchantment of that land, I gave my heart promptly to
it. Of course, there are terrible longueurs in it, and you do get tired
of the same story told over and over from the different points of view,
and yet it is such a great story, and unfolded with such a magnificent
breadth and noble fulness, that one who blames it lightly blames himself
heavily. There are certain books of it--"Caponsacchi's story,"
"Pompilia's story," and "Count Guido's story"--that I think ought to rank
with the greatest poetry ever written, and that have a direct, dramatic
expression of the fact and character, which is without rival. There is a
noble and lofty pathos in the close of Caponsacchi's statement, an
artless and manly break from his self-control throughout, that seems to
me the last possible effect in its kind; and Pompilia's story holds all
of womanhood in it, the purity, the passion, the tenderness, the
helplessness. But if I begin to praise this or any of the things I have
liked, I do not know when I should stop. Yes, as I think it over, the
"Ring and the Book" appears to me one of the great few poems whose
splendor can never suffer lasting eclipse, however it may have presently
fallen into abeyance. If it had impossibly come down to us from some
elder time, or had not been so perfectly modern in its recognition of
feeling and motives ignored by the less conscious poetry of the past, it
might be ranked with the great epics.

Of other modern poets I have read some things of William Morris, like the
"Life and Death of Jason," the "Story of Gudrun," and the "Trial of
Guinevere," with a pleasure little less than passionate, and I have
equally liked certain pieces of Dante Rossetti. I have had a high joy in
some of the great minor poems of Emerson, where the goddess moves over
Concord meadows with a gait that is Greek, and her sandalled tread
expresses a high scorn of the india-rubber boots that the American muse
so often gets about in.

The "Commemoration Ode" of Lowell has also been a source from which I
drank something of the divine ecstasy of the poet's own exalted mood, and
I would set this level with the 'Biglow Papers,' high above all his other
work, and chief of the things this age of our country shall be remembered
by. Holmes I always loved, and not for his wit alone, which is so
obvious to liking, but for those rarer and richer strains of his in which
he shows himself the lover of nature and the brother of men. The deep
spiritual insight, the celestial music, and the brooding tenderness of
Whittier have always taken me more than his fierier appeals and his civic
virtues, though I do not underrate the value of these in his verse.

My acquaintance with these modern poets, and many I do not name because
they are so many, has been continuous with their work, and my pleasure in
it not inconstant if not equal. I have spoken before of Longfellow as
one of my first passions, and I have never ceased to delight in him; but
some of the very newest and youngest of our poets have given me thrills
of happiness, for which life has become lastingly sweeter.

Long after I had thought never to read it--in fact when I was 'nel mezzo
del cammin di nostra vita'--I read Milton's "Paradise Lost," and found in
it a majestic beauty that justified to me the fame it wears, and eclipsed
the worth of those lesser poems which I had ignorantly accounted his
worthiest. In fact, it was one of the literary passions of the time I
speak of, and it shared my devotion for the novels of Tourguenief and
(shall I own it?) the romances of Cherbuliez. After all, it is best to
be honest, and if it is not best, it is at least easiest; it involves the
fewest embarrassing consequences; and if I confess the spell that the
Revenge of Joseph Noirel cast upon me for a time, perhaps I shall be able
to whisper the reader behind my hand that I have never yet read the
"AEneid" of Virgil; the "Georgics," yes; but the "AEneid," no. Some
time, however, I expect to read it and to like it immensely. That is
often the case with things that I have held aloof from indefinitely.

One fact of my experience which the reader may, find interesting is that
when I am writing steadily I have little relish for reading. I fancy,
that reading is not merely a pastime when it is apparently the merest
pastime, but that a certain measure of mind-stuff is used up in it, and
that if you are using up all the mind stuff you have, much or little, in
some other way, you do not read because you have not the mind-stuff for
it. At any rate it is in this sort only that I can account for my
failure to read a great deal during four years of the amplest quiet that
I spent in the country at Belmont, whither we removed from Cambridge.
I had promised myself that in this quiet, now that I had given up
reviewing, and wrote little or nothing in the magazine but my stories,
I should again read purely for the pleasure of it, as I had in the early
days before the critical purpose had qualified it with a bitter alloy.
But I found that not being forced to read a number of books each month,
so that I might write about them, I did not read at all, comparatively
speaking. To be sure I dawdled over a great many books that I had read
before, and a number of memoirs and biographies, but I had no intense
pleasure from reading in that time, and have no passions to record of it.
It may have been a period when no new thing happened in literature deeply
to stir one's interest; I only state the fact concerning myself, and
suggest the most plausible theory I can think of.

I wish also to note another incident, which may or may not have its
psychological value. An important event of these years was a long
sickness which kept me helpless some seven or eight weeks, when I was
forced to read in order to pass the intolerable time. But in this misery
I found that I could not read anything of a dramatic cast, whether in the
form of plays or of novels. The mere sight of the printed page, broken
up in dialogue, was anguish. Yet it was not the excitement of the
fiction that I dreaded, for I consumed great numbers of narratives of
travel, and was not in the least troubled by hairbreadth escapes, or
shipwrecks, or perils from wild beasts or deadly serpents; it was the
dramatic effect contrived by the playwright or novelist, and worked up to
in the speech of his characters that I could not bear. I found a like
impossible stress from the Sunday newspaper which a mistaken friend sent
in to me, and which with its scare-headings, and artfully wrought
sensations, had the effect of fiction, as in fact it largely was.

At the end of four years we went abroad again, and travel took away the
appetite for reading as completely as writing did. I recall nothing read
in that year in Europe which moved me, and I think I read very little,
except the local histories of the Tuscan cities which I afterwards wrote


In fact, it was not till I returned, and took up my life again in Boston,
in the old atmosphere of work, that I turned once more to books. Even
then I had to wait for the time when I undertook a critical department in
one of the magazines, before I felt the rise of the old enthusiasm for an
author. That is to say, I had to begin reading for business again before
I began reading for pleasure. One of the first great pleasures which I
had upon these terms was in the book of a contemporary Spanish author.
This was the 'Marta y Maria' of Armando Palacio Valdes, a novelist who
delights me beyond words by his friendly and abundant humor, his feeling
for character, and his subtle insight. I like every one of his books
that I have read, and I believe that I have read nearly every one that he
has written. As I mention 'Riverito, Maximina, Un Idilio de un Inferno,
La Hermana de San Sulpizio, El Cuarto Poder, Espuma,' the mere names
conjure up the scenes and events that have moved me to tears and
laughter, and filled me with a vivid sense of the life portrayed in them.
I think the 'Marta y Maria' one of the most truthful and profound
fictions I have read, and 'Maximina' one of the most pathetic, and
'La Hermana de San Sulpizio' one of the most amusing. Fortunately, these
books of Valdes's have nearly all been translated, and the reader may
test the matter in English; though it necessarily halts somewhat behind
the Spanish.

I do not know whether the Spaniards themselves rank Valdes with Galdos or
not, and I have no wish to decide upon their relative merits. They are
both present passions of mine, and I may say of the 'Dona Perfecta' of
Galdos that no book, if I except those of the greatest Russians, has
given me a keener and deeper impression; it is infinitely pathetic, and
is full of humor, which, if more caustic than that of Valdes, is not less
delicious. But I like all the books of Galdos that I have read, and
though he seems to have worked more tardily out of his romanticism than
Valdes, since he has worked finally into such realism as that of Leon
Roch, his greatness leaves nothing to be desired.

I have read one of the books of Emilia Pardo-Bazan, called 'Morrina,'
which must rank her with the great realists of her country and age; she,
too, has that humor of her race, which brings us nearer the Spanish than
any other non-Anglo-Saxon people.

A contemporary Italian, whom I like hardly less than these noble
Spaniards, is Giovanni Verga, who wrote 'I Malavoglia,' or, as we call it
in English, 'The House by the Medlar Tree': a story of infinite beauty,
tenderness and truth. As I have said before, I think with Zola that
Giacometti, the Italian author of "La Morte Civile," has written almost
the greatest play, all round, of modern times.

But what shall I say of Zola himself, and my admiration of his epic
greatness? About his material there is no disputing among people of our
Puritanic tradition. It is simply abhorrent, but when you have once
granted him his material for his own use, it is idle and foolish to deny
his power. Every literary theory of mine was contrary to him when I took
up 'L'Assommoir,' though unconsciously I had always been as much of a
realist as I could, but the book possessed me with the same fascination
that I felt the other day in reading his 'L'Argent.' The critics know
now that Zola is not the realist he used to fancy himself, and he is full
of the best qualities of the romanticism he has hated so much; but for
what he is, there is but one novelist of our time, or of any, that
outmasters him, and that is Tolstoy. For my own part, I think that the
books of Zola are not immoral, but they are indecent through the facts
that they nakedly represent; they are infinitely more moral than the
books of any other French novelist. This may not be saying a great deal,
but it is saying the truth, and I do not mind owning that he has been one
of my great literary passions, almost as great as Flaubert, and greater
than Daudet or Maupassant, though I have profoundly appreciated the
exquisite artistry of both these. No French writer, however, has moved
me so much as the Spanish, for the French are wanting in the humor which
endears these, and is the quintessence of their charm.

You cannot be at perfect ease with a friend who does not joke, and I
suppose this is what deprived me of a final satisfaction in the company
of Anthony Trollope, who jokes heavily or not at all, and whom I should
otherwise make bold to declare the greatest of English novelists; as it
is, I must put before him Jane Austen, whose books, late in life, have
been a youthful rapture with me. Even without, much humor Trollope's
books have been a vast pleasure to me through their simple truthfulness.
Perhaps if they were more humorous they would not be so true to the
British life and character present in them in the whole length and
breadth of its expansive commonplaceness. It is their serious fidelity
which gives them a value unique in literature, and which if it were
carefully analyzed would afford a principle of the same quality in an
author who was undoubtedly one of the finest of artists as well as the
most Philistine of men.

I came rather late, but I came with all the ardor of what seems my
perennial literary youth, to the love of Thomas Hardy, whom I first knew
in his story 'A Pair of Blue Eyes.' As usual, after I had read this book
and felt the new charm in it, I wished to read the books of no other
author, and to read his books over and over. I love even the faults of
Hardy; I will let him play me any trick he chooses (and he is not above
playing tricks, when he seems to get tired of his story or perplexed with
it), if only he will go on making his peasants talk, and his rather
uncertain ladies get in and out of love, and serve themselves of every
chance that fortune offers them of having their own way. We shrink from
the unmorality of the Latin races, but Hardy has divined in the heart of
our own race a lingering heathenism, which, if not Greek, has certainly
been no more baptized than the neo-hellenism of the Parisians. His
heroines especially exemplify it, and I should be safe in saying that his
Ethelbertas, his Eustacias, his Elfridas, his Bathshebas, his Fancies,
are wholly pagan. I should not dare to ask how much of their charm came
from that fact; and the author does not fail to show you how much harm,
so that it is not on my conscience. His people live very close to the
heart of nature, and no one, unless it is Tourguenief, gives you a richer
and sweeter sense of her unity with human nature. Hardy is a great poet
as well as a great humorist, and if he were not a great artist also his
humor would be enough to endear him to me.


I come now, though not quite in the order of time, to the noblest of all
these enthusiasms--namely, my devotion for the writings of Lyof Tolstoy.
I should wish to speak of him with his own incomparable truth, yet I do
not know how to give a notion of his influence without the effect of
exaggeration. As much as one merely human being can help another I
believe that he has helped me; he has not influenced me in aesthetics
only, but in ethics, too, so that I can never again see life in the way I
saw it before I knew him. Tolstoy awakens in his reader the will to be a
man; not effectively, not spectacularly, but simply, really. He leads
you back to the only true ideal, away from that false standard of the
gentleman, to the Man who sought not to be distinguished from other men,
but identified with them, to that Presence in which the finest gentleman
shows his alloy of vanity, and the greatest genius shrinks to the measure
of his miserable egotism. I learned from Tolstoy to try character and
motive by no other test, and though I am perpetually false to that
sublime ideal myself, still the ideal remains with me, to make me ashamed
that I am not true to it. Tolstoy gave me heart to hope that the world
may yet be made over in the image of Him who died for it, when all
Caesars things shall be finally rendered unto Caesar, and men shall come
into their own, into the right to labor and the right to enjoy the fruits
of their labor, each one master of himself and servant to every other.
He taught me to see life not as a chase of a forever impossible personal
happiness, but as a field for endeavor towards the happiness of the whole
human family; and I can never lose this vision, however I close my eyes,
and strive to see my own interest as the highest good. He gave me new
criterions, new principles, which, after all, were those that are taught
us in our earliest childhood, before we have come to the evil wisdom of
the world. As I read his different ethical books, 'What to Do,'
'My Confession,' and 'My Religion,' I recognized their truth with a
rapture such as I have known in no other reading, and I rendered them my
allegiance, heart and soul, with whatever sickness of the one and despair
of the other. They have it yet, and I believe they will have it while I
live. It is with inexpressible astonishment that I bear them attainted
of pessimism, as if the teaching of a man whose ideal was simple goodness
must mean the prevalence of evil. The way he showed me seemed indeed
impossible to my will, but to my conscience it was and is the only
possible way. If there, is any point on which he has not convinced my
reason it is that of our ability to walk this narrow way alone. Even
there he is logical, but as Zola subtly distinguishes in speaking of
Tolstoy's essay on "Money," he is not reasonable. Solitude enfeebles and
palsies, and it is as comrades and brothers that men must save the world
from itself, rather than themselves from the world. It was so the
earliest Christians, who had all things common, understood the life of
Christ, and I believe that the latest will understand it so.

I have spoken first of the ethical works of Tolstoy, because they are of
the first importance to me, but I think that his aesthetical works are as
perfect. To my thinking they transcend in truth, which is the highest
beauty, all other works of fiction that have been written, and I believe
that they do this because they obey the law of the author's own life.
His conscience is one ethically and one aesthetically; with his will to
be true to himself he cannot be false to his knowledge of others. I
thought the last word in literary art had been said to me by the novels
of Tourguenief, but it seemed like the first, merely, when I began to
acquaint myself with the simpler method of Tolstoy. I came to it by
accident, and without any manner, of preoccupation in The Cossacks, one
of his early books, which had been on my shelves unread for five or six
years. I did not know even Tolstoy's name when I opened it, and it was
with a kind of amaze that I read it, and felt word by word, and line by
line, the truth of a new art in it.

I do not know how it is that the great Russians have the secret of
simplicity. Some say it is because they have not a long literary past
and are not conventionalized by the usage of many generations of other
writers, but this will hardly account for the brotherly directness of
their dealing with human nature; the absence of experience elsewhere
characterizes the artist with crudeness, and simplicity is the last
effect of knowledge. Tolstoy is, of course, the first of them in this
supreme grace. He has not only Tourguenief's transparency of style,
unclouded by any mist of the personality which we mistakenly value in
style, and which ought no more to be there than the artist's personality
should be in a portrait; but he has a method which not only seems without
artifice, but is so. I can get at the manner of most writers, and tell
what it is, but I should be baffled to tell what Tolstoy's manner is;
perhaps he has no manner. This appears to me true of his novels, which,
with their vast variety of character and incident, are alike in their
single endeavor to get the persons living before you, both in their
action and in the peculiarly dramatic interpretation of their emotion and
cogitation. There are plenty of novelists to tell you that their
characters felt and thought so and so, but you have to take it on trust;
Tolstoy alone makes you know how and why it was so with them and not
otherwise. If there is anything in him which can be copied or burlesqued
it is this ability of his to show men inwardly as well as outwardly; it
is the only trait of his which I can put my hand on.

After 'The Cossacks' I read 'Anna Karenina' with a deepening sense of the
author's unrivalled greatness. I thought that I saw through his eyes a
human affair of that most sorrowful sort as it must appear to the
Infinite Compassion; the book is a sort of revelation of human nature in
circumstances that have been so perpetually lied about that we have
almost lost the faculty of perceiving the truth concerning an illicit
love. When you have once read 'Anna Karenina' you know how fatally
miserable and essentially unhappy such a love must be. But the character
of Karenin himself is quite as important as the intrigue of Anna and
Vronsky. It is wonderful how such a man, cold, Philistine and even mean
in certain ways, towers into a sublimity unknown (to me, at least), in
fiction when he forgives, and yet knows that he cannot forgive with
dignity. There is something crucial, and something triumphant, not
beyond the power, but hitherto beyond the imagination of men in this
effect, which is not solicited, not forced, not in the least romantic,
but comes naturally, almost inevitably, from the make of man.

The vast prospects, the far-reaching perspectives of 'War and Peace' made
it as great a surprise for me in the historical novel as 'Anna Karenina'
had been in the study of contemporary life; and its people and interests
did not seem more remote, since they are of a civilization always as
strange and of a humanity always as known.

I read some shorter stories of Tolstoy's before I came to this greatest
work of his: I read 'Scenes of the Siege of Sebastopol,' which is so much
of the same quality as 'War and Peace;' and I read 'Policoushka' and most
of his short stories with a sense of my unity with their people such as I
had never felt with the people of other fiction.

His didactic stories, like all stories of the sort, dwindle into
allegories; perhaps they do their work the better for this, with the
simple intelligences they address; but I think that where Tolstoy becomes
impatient of his office of artist, and prefers to be directly a teacher,
he robs himself of more than half his strength with those he can move
only through the realization of themselves in others. The simple pathos,
and the apparent indirectness of such a tale as that of 'Poticoushka,'
the peasant conscript, is of vastly more value to the world at large than
all his parables; and 'The Death of Ivan Ilyitch,' the Philistine
worldling, will turn the hearts of many more from the love of the world
than such pale fables of the early Christian life as "Work while ye have
the Light." A man's gifts are not given him for nothing, and the man who
has the great gift of dramatic fiction has no right to cast it away or to
let it rust out in disuse.

Terrible as the 'Kreutzer Sonata' was, it had a moral effect dramatically
which it lost altogether when the author descended to exegesis, and
applied to marriage the lesson of one evil marriage. In fine, Tolstoy is
certainly not to be held up as infallible. He is very, distinctly
fallible, but I think his life is not less instructive because in certain
things it seems a failure. There was but one life ever lived upon the
earth which was without failure, and that was Christ's, whose erring and
stumbling follower Tolstoy is. There is no other example, no other
ideal, and the chief use of Tolstoy is to enforce this fact in our age,
after nineteen centuries of hopeless endeavor to substitute ceremony for
character, and the creed for the life. I recognize the truth of this
without pretending to have been changed in anything but my point of view
of it. What I feel sure is that I can never look at life in the mean and
sordid way that I did before I read Tolstoy.

Artistically, he has shown me a greatness that he can never teach me.
I am long past the age when I could wish to form myself upon another
writer, and I do not think I could now insensibly take on the likeness of
another; but his work has been a revelation and a delight to me, such as
I am sure I can never know again. I do not believe that in the whole
course of my reading, and not even in the early moment of my literary
enthusiasms, I have known such utter satisfaction in any writer, and this
supreme joy has come to me at a time of life when new friendships, not to
say new passions, are rare and reluctant. It is as if the best wine at
this high feast where I have sat so long had been kept for the last, and
I need not deny a miracle in it in order to attest my skill in judging
vintages. In fact, I prefer to believe that my life has been full of
miracles, and that the good has always come to me at the right time, so
that I could profit most by it. I believe if I had not turned the corner
of my fiftieth year, when I first knew Tolstoy, I should not have been
able to know him as fully as I did. He has been to me that final
consciousness, which he speaks of so wisely in his essay on "Life."
I came in it to the knowledge of myself in ways I had not dreamt of
before, and began at least to discern my relations to the race, without
which we are each nothing. The supreme art in literature had its highest
effect in making me set art forever below humanity, and it is with the
wish to offer the greatest homage to his heart and mind, which any man
can pay another, that I close this record with the name of Lyof Tolstoy.


    Account of one's reading is an account of one's life
    Adam Bede
    Affections will not be bidden
    Air of looking down on the highest
    Alliance of the tragic and the comic
    Anthony Trollope
    Authors I must call my masters
    Capriciousness of memory: what it will hold and what lose
    Celebration of the monkey and the goat in us
    Conquest of Granada
    Contemptible he found our pseudo-equality
    Criticism still remains behind all the other literary arts
    Dickens is purely democratic
    Escaped at night and got into the boy's dreams
    Fictions subtle effect for good and for evil on the young
    Finer sort myself to be able to enjoy such a fine sort
    Had the sense that in her eyes I was a queer boy
    Hardly any sort of bloodshed which I would not pardon
    He undid my hands
    Hospitable gift of making you at home with him
    In school there was as little literature then as there is now
    Inexperience takes this effect (literary lewdness) for realit
    Jews are still the chosen people
    Kindness and gentleness are never out of fashion
    Kissing goes by favor, in literature as in life
    Lewd literature seems to give a sanction to lewdness in the life
    Life of Goldsmith
    Live it slowly into the past
    Lubricity of literature
    Made many of my acquaintances very tired of my favorite authors
    Men who bully and truckle
    Mustache, which in those days devoted a man to wickedness
    My own youth now seems to me rather more alien
    My reading gave me no standing among the boys
    Neither worse nor better because of the theatre
    Never appeals to the principle which sniffs, in his reader
    None of the passions are reasoned,
    Not very distinctly know their dreams from their experiences
    Now little notion what it was about, but I love its memory
    Our horrible sham of a slave-based freedom
    Prejudice against certain words that I cannot overcome
    President Garfield
    Probably no dramatist ever needed the stage less
    Rape of the Lock
    Rapture of the new convert could not last
    Reservations as to the times when he is not a master
    Responsibility of finding him all we have been told he is
    Secretly admires the splendors he affects to despise
    Self-flattered scorn, his showy sighs, his facile satire
    Self-satisfied, intolerant, and hypocritical provinciality
    Should probably have wasted the time if I had not read them
    Slave-based freedom
    So long as we have social inequality we shall have snobs
    Society, as we have it, was necessarily a sham
    Somehow expressed the feelings of his day
    Somewhat too studied grace
    Speaks it is not with words and blood, but with words and ink
    Spit some hapless victim: make him suffer and the reader laugh
    Style is the man, and he cannot hide himself in any garb
    Surcharge all imitations of life and character
    Surcharged in the serious moods, and caricatured in the comic
    Tales of the Alhambra
    The great doctor's orotundity and ronderosity
    To be for good or evil whatsoever I really was
    Toiled, and I suppose no work is wasted
    Trace no discrepancy between reading his plays and seeing them
    Tried to like whatever they bade me like
    Truth is beyond invention
    Unmeet for ladies
    Vicar of Wakefield
    Vices and foibles which are inherent in the system of things
    We did not know that we were poor
    We see nothing whole, neither life nor art
    What I had not I could hope for without unreason
    What we thought ruin, but what was really release
    When was love ever reasoned?
    Wide leisure of a country village
    Women who snub and crawl
    Words of learned length and thundering sound
    World's memory is equally bad for failure and success
    Worst came it was not half so bad as what had gone before
    You cannot be at perfect ease with a friend who does not joke
    You may do a great deal (of work), and not get on

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