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X. Charles Eliot Norton

It is a tradition in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, that Howells used to exult, on arriving from his Western birthplace, in having at length met for the first time, in Charles Eliot Norton, the only man he had ever seen who had been cultivated up to the highest point of which he was capable. To this the verdict of all Cambridge readily assented. What the neighbors could not at that time foresee was that the man thus praised would ever live to be an octogenarian, or that in doing so he would share those attractions of constantly increasing mildness and courtesy which are so often justly claimed for advancing years. There was in him, at an earlier period, a certain amount of visible self-will, and a certain impatience with those who dissented from him,--he would not have been his father's son had it been otherwise. But these qualities diminished, and he grew serener and more patient with others as the years went on. Happy is he who has lived long enough to say with Goethe, “It is only necessary to grow old to become more indulgent. I see no fault committed which I have not committed myself.” [122] This milder and more genial spirit increased constantly as Norton grew older, until it served at last only to make his high-bred nature more attractive.

He was born in Cambridge, November 16, 1827, and died in the very house where he was born, October 21, 1908. He was descended, like several other New England authors, from a line of Puritan clergymen. He was the son of Professor Andrews Norton, of Harvard University, who was descended from the Rev. John Norton, born in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in 1651. The mother of the latter was the daughter of Emanuel Downing, and the niece of Governor John Winthrop. Mrs. Bradstreet, the well-known Puritan poetess, was also an ancestress of Charles Norton. His mother, Mrs. Caroline (Eliot) Norton, had also her ancestry among the most cultivated families in New England, the name of Eliot having been prominent for successive generations in connection with Harvard College. His parents had a large and beautiful estate in Cambridge, and were (if my memory serves me right) the one family in Cambridge that kept a carriage,--a fact the more impressed upon remembrance because it bore the initials “A. & C. N.” upon the panels, the only instance I have ever seen in which the two joint proprietorships were thus expressed. This, and [123] the fact that I learned by heart in childhood Wordsworth's poem, “The White Doe of Rylstone, or The Fate of the Nortons,” imparted to my youthful mind a slight feeling of romance about the Cambridge household of that name, which was not impaired by the fact that our parents on both sides were intimate friends, that we lived in the same street (now called Kirkland Street), and that I went to dancing-school at the Norton house. It is perhaps humiliating to add that I disgraced myself on the very first day by cutting off little Charlie's front hair as a preliminary to the dancing lesson.

The elder Professor Norton was one of the most marked characters in Cambridge, and, although never a clergyman, was professor in the Theological School. It was said of him by George Ripley, with whom he had a bitter contest, that “He often expressed rash and hasty judgments in regard to the labors of recent or contemporary scholars, consulting his prejudices, as it would seem, rather than competent authority. But in his own immediate department of sacred learning he is entitled to the praise of sobriety of thought and profoundness of investigation” (Frothingham's “Ripley,” 105). He was also a man of unusual literary tastes, and his “Select journal of foreign periodical literature,” although too early discontinued, took distinctly [124] the lead of all American literary journals up to that time.

The very beginning of Charles Norton's career would seem at first sight singularly in contrast with his later pursuits, and yet doubtless had formed, in some respects, an excellent preparation for them. Graduating at Harvard in 1846, and taking a fair rank at graduation, he was soon after sent into a Boston counting-house to gain a knowledge of the East India trade. In 1849 he went as supercargo on a merchant ship bound for India, in which country he traveled extensively, and returned home through Europe in 1851. There are few more interesting studies in the development of literary individuality than are to be found in the successive works bearing Norton's name, as one looks through the list of them in the Harvard Library. The youth who entered upon literature anonymously, at the age of twenty-five, as a compiler of hymns under the title of “Five Christmas hymns” in 1852, and followed this by “A book of hymns for young persons” in 1854, did not even flinch from printing the tragically Calvinistic verse which closes Addison's famous hymn, beginning “The Lord my pasture shall prepare,” with a conclusion so formidable as death's “gloomy horrors” and “dreadful shade.” In 1855 he edited, with Dr. [125] Ezra Abbot, his father's translations of the Gospels with notes (2 vols.), and his “Evidences of the Genuineness of the Gospels” (3 vols.). Charles Norton made further visits to Europe in 1855-57, and again resided there from 1868 until 1873; during which time his rapidly expanding literary acquaintanceships quite weaned his mind from the early atmosphere of theology.

Although one of the writers in the very first number of the “Atlantic Monthly,” he had no direct part in its planning. He wrote to me (January 9, 1899), “I am sorry that I can tell you nothing about the primordia of the ‘Atlantic.’ I was in Europe in 1856-57, whence I brought home some Mss. for the new magazine.” It appears from his later statement in the Anniversary Number that he had put all these manuscripts by English authors in a trunk together, but that this trunk and all the manuscripts were lost, except one accidentally left unpacked, which was a prose paper by James Hannay on Douglas Jerrold, “who is hardly,” as Norton justly says, “to be reckoned among the immortals.” Hannay is yet more thoroughly forgotten. But this inadequate service in respect to foreign material was soon more than balanced, as one sees on tracing the list of papers catalogued under Norton's name in the Atlantic Index.

To appreciate the great variety and thorough [126] preliminary preparation of Norton's mind, a student must take one of the early volumes of the Atlantic Monthly and see how largely he was relied upon for literary notices. If we examine, for instance, the fifth volume (1860), we find in the first number a paper on Clough's “Plutarch's Lives,” comprising ten pages of small print in double columns. There then follow in the same volume papers on Hodson's “Twelve years of a Soldier's life in India,” on “Friends in council,” on Brooks's “Sermons,” on Trollope's “West Indies and the Spanish main,” on “Captain John Brown,” on Vernon's “Dante,” and one on “Model Lodging-houses in Boston.” When we remember that his “Notes of travel and study in Italy” was also published in Boston that same year, being reviewed by some one in a notice of two pages in this same volume of the “Atlantic,” we may well ask who ever did more of genuine literary work in the same amount of time. This was, of course, before he became Professor in the college (1874), and his preoccupation in that way, together with his continuous labor on his translations of Dante, explains why there are comparatively few entries under his name in Atlantic Indexes for later years. Again, he and Lowell took charge of the North American Review in 1864, and retained it until 1868, [127] during which period Norton unquestionably worked quite as hard as before, if we may judge by the collective index to that periodical.

It is to be noticed, however, that his papers in the “North American” are not merely graver and more prolonged, but less terse and highly finished, than those in the “Atlantic” ; while in the development of his mind they show even greater freedom of statement. He fearlessly lays down, for instance, the following assertion, a very bold one for that period: “So far as the most intelligent portion of society at the present day is concerned, the Church in its actual constitution is an anachronism. Much of the deepest and most religious life is led outside its wall, and there is a constant and steady increase in those who not only find the claims of the Church inconsistent with spiritual liberty, but also find its services ill adapted to their wants. . . . It becomes more and more a simple assemblage of persons gathered to go through with certain formal ceremonies, the chief of which consists in listening to a man who is seldom competent to teach.” It must be remembered that the expression of such opinions to-day, when all his charges against the actual Church may be found similarly stated by bishops and doctors of divinity, must have produced a very different impression when [128] made forty years ago by a man of forty or thereabouts, who occupied twenty pages in saying it, and rested in closing upon the calm basis, “The true worship of God consists in the service of his children and devotion to the common interests of men.” It may be that he who wrote these words never held a regular pew in any church or identified himself, on the other hand, with any public heretical organization, even one so moderate as the Free Religious Association. Yet the fact that he devoted his Sunday afternoons for many years to talking and Scripture reading in a Hospital for Incurables conducted by Roman Catholics perhaps showed that it was safer to leave such a man to go on his own course and reach the kingdom of heaven in his own way,

Norton never wrote about himself, if it could be avoided, unless his recollections of early years, as read before the Cambridge Historical Society, and reported in the second number of its proceedings, may be regarded as an exception. Something nearest to this in literary self-revelation is to be found, perhaps, in his work entitled “Letters of John Ruskin,” published in 1904, and going back to his first invitation from the elder Ruskin in 1855. This was on Norton's first direct trip to Europe, followed by a correspondence in which Ruskin writes to [129] him, February 25, 1861, “You have also done me no little good,” and other phrases which show how this American, nine years younger than himself, had already begun to influence that wayward mind. Their correspondence was suspended, to be sure, by their difference of attitude on the American Civil War; but it is pleasant to find that after ten months of silence Ruskin wrote to Norton again, if bitterly. Later still, we find successive letters addressed to Norton-now in England again — in this loving gradation, “Dear Norton,” “My dearest Norton,” “My dear Charles,” and “My dearest Charles,” and thenceforth the contest is won. Not all completed, however, for in the last years of life Ruskin addressed “Darling Charles,” and the last words of his own writing traced in pencil “From your loving J. R.”

I have related especially this one touching tale of friendship, because it was the climax of them all, and the best illustration of the essential Americanism of Norton's career.

He indeed afforded a peculiar and almost unique instance in New England, not merely of a cultivated man who makes his home for life in the house where he was born, but of one who has recognized for life the peculiar associations of his boyhood and has found them still the best. While Ruskin was pitying him for [130] being doomed to wear out his life in America, Norton with pleasure made his birthplace his permanent abode, and fully recognized the attractions of the spot where he was born. “What a fine microcosm,” he wrote to me (January 9, 1899), “Cambridge and Boston and Concord made in the 40's.” Norton affords in this respect a great contrast to his early comrade, William Story, who shows himself in his letters wholly detached from his native land, and finds nothing whatever in his boyhood abode to attract him, although it was always found attractive, not merely by Norton, but by Agassiz and Longfellow, neither of whom was a native of Cambridge.

The only safeguard for a solitary literary workman lies in the sequestered house without a telephone. This security belonged for many years to Norton, until the needs of a growing family made him a seller of land, a builder of a high-railed fence, and at last, but reluctantly, a subscriber to the telephone. It needs but little study of the cards bearing his name in the catalogue of the Harvard Library to see on how enormous a scale his work has been done in this seclusion. It is then only that one remembers his eight volumes of delicately arranged scrap-books extending from 1861 to 1866, and his six volumes of “Heart of Oak” [131] selections for childhood. There were comparatively few years of his maturer life during which he was not editor of something, and there was also needed much continuous labor in taking care of his personal library. When we consider that he had the further responsibility of being practically the literary executor or editor of several important men of letters, as of Carlyle, Ruskin, Lowell, Curtis, and Clough; and that in each case the work was done with absolute thoroughness; and that even in summer he became the leading citizen of a country home and personally engaged the public speakers who made his rural festals famous, it is impossible not to draw the conclusion that no public man in America surpassed the sequestered Norton in steadfastness of labor.

It being made my duty in June, 1904, to read a poem before the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa, I was tempted to include a few verses about individual graduates, each of which was left, according to its subject, for the audience to guess. The lines referring to Norton were as follows:--

There's one I've watched from childhood, free of guile,
His man's firm courage and his woman's smile.
His portals open to the needy still,
He spreads calm sunshine over Shady Hill.

[132] The reference to the combined manly and womanly qualities of Norton spoke for itself, and won applause even before the place of residence was uttered; and I received from Norton this recognition of the little tribute:--

Ashfield, 2 July, 1904.
My dear Higginson,--Your friendly words about me in your Phi Beta poem give me so much pleasure that I cannot refrain from thanking you for them. I care for them specially as a memorial of our hereditary friendship. They bring to mind my Mother's affection for your Mother, and for Aunt Nancy, who was as dear an Aunt to us children at Shady Hill as she was to you and your brothers and sisters. What dear and admirable women! What simple, happy lives they led! No one's heart will be more deeply touched by your poem than mine.

One most agreeable result of Norton's Cambridge boyhood has not been generally recognized by those who have written about him. His inherited estate was so large that he led a life absolutely free in respect to the study of nature, and as Lowell, too, had the same advantage, they could easily compare notes. In answer to a criticism of mine with reference to Longfellow's poem, “The herons of Elmwood,” on my theory that these herons merely flew over Elmwood and only built their nests in what were [133] then the dense swamps east of Fresh Pond, he writes to me (January 4, 1899): “I cannot swear that I ever saw a heron's nest at Elmwood. But Lowell told me of their nesting there, and only a few weeks ago Mrs. Burnett told me of the years when they had built in the pines and of the time of their final desertion of the place.” To this he adds in a note dated five days later: “As to the night-herons lighting on pines, for many years they were in the habit of lighting and staying for hours upon mine and then flying off towards the [Chelsea] beach.” This taste accounts for the immense zest and satisfaction with which Norton edited a hitherto unknown manuscript of the poet Gray's on natural history, with admirable illustrations taken from the original book, seeming almost incredibly accurate from any but a professional naturalist, the book being entitled, “The Poet Gray as a Naturalist with Selections from His Notes on the Systema Naturae of Linnaeus with Facsimiles of Some of his Drawings.”

In the Charles Eliot Norton number of the “Harvard graduates' magazine” commemorating his eightieth birthday, Professor Palmer, with that singular felicity which characterizes him, says of Norton: “He has been an epitome of the world's best thought brought to our own doors and opened for our daily use.” Edith [134] Wharton with equal felicity writes from Norton's well-known dwelling at Ashfield, whose very name, “High Pasture,” gives a signal for what follows:

Come up — come up; in the dim vale below
The autumn mist muffles the fading trees,
But on this keen hill-pasture, though the breeze
Has stretched the thwart boughs bare to meet the snow,
Night is not, autumn is not-but the flow
Of vast, ethereal and irradiate seas,
Poured from the far world's flaming boundaries
In waxing tides of unimagined glow.

And to that height illumined of the mind
He calls us still by the familiar way,
Leaving the sodden tracks of life behind,
Befogged in failure, chilled with love's decay--
Showing us, as the night-mists upward wind,
How on the heights is day and still more day.

But I must draw to a close, and shall do this by reprinting the very latest words addressed by this old friend to me; these being written very near his last days. Having been away from Cambridge all summer, I did not know that he had been at Cambridge or ill, and on my writing to him received this cheerful and serene answer, wholly illustrative of the man, although the very fact that it was dictated was sadly ominous:-- [135]

Shady Hill, Cambridge, Mass., 6 October, 1908.
My dear Higginson,--Your letter the other day from Ipswich gave me great pleasure. ...

It had never occurred to me that you were associated with Ipswich through your Appleton relatives. My association with the old town, whose charm has not wholly disappeared under the hard hoof of the invader, begins still earlier than yours, for the William Norton who landed there in 1636 was my direct ancestor; and a considerable part of his pretty love story seems to have been transacted there. I did not know the story until I came upon it by accident, imbedded in some of the volumes of the multifarious publications of our historical society. It amused me to find that John Norton, whose reputation is not for romance or for soft-heartedness, took an active interest in pleading his brother's cause with Governor Winthrop, whose niece, Lucy Downing, had won the susceptible heart of W. N.

My summer was a very peaceful and pleasant one here in my old home till about six weeks ago, when I was struck down . . . which has left me in a condition of extreme muscular feebleness, but has not diminished my interest in the world and its affairs. Happily my eyes are still good for reading, and I have fallen back, as always on similar occasions, on Shakespeare and Scott, but I have read one or two new books also, the best of which, and a book of highest quality, is the last volume of Morley's essays. [136]

But I began meaning only to thank you for your pleasant note and to send a cheer to you from my slower craft as your gallant three-master goes by it with all sails set . ...

Always cordially yours, C. E. Norton.


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