Literary men and women of Somerville.

By David Lee Maulsby.1
after accepting the invitation of the Somerville Historical Society to address it upon the men and women of this city who have been writers, I found it necessary to draw some lines of limitation about the subject. To treat, even inadequately, all of our fellow-citizens that have issued their thoughts in print would be a greater undertaking than a single hour could see completed. It has seemed wise, therefore, to mark a boundary of demarcation between the dead and the living, and to confine this paper to those Somerville authors that are no longer our flesh-and-blood companions. Thus we shall avoid the embarrassment of selection among present-day writers, and shall also have a subject that is clearly defined, and of moderate extent.

One further limitation has seemed proper. There are two persons of distinction who have lived in Somerville, but who can hardly be included among her literary men. I mean Governor Winthrop and Edward Everett. Neither is literary, in the strictest sense of the word, though both have left books behind them. And in any event their connection with the city seems so remote or so accidental that they may well be dismissed from a paper of this kind, after mere mention.

There is another group of men who stand upon the threshold [2] of literary work, in having published one or more books, but who fail of entrance into the class we are to consider by reason of the more practical character of their writing. Dr. Luther V. Bell is an example of this class, with his book upon ‘The Ventilation of Schoolhouses.’ Another is Colonel Herbert E. Hill, a Vermonter, who fought in the Civil War, and afterward removed to Somerville, where he resided until his death in 1892. It was he who is responsible for the frowning cannon upon Central Hill. Again Colonel Hill showed his generosity and patriotism by the two monuments which he erected on Virginia battlefields, one of them bearing the inscription: ‘Committed to the care of those once a brave foe, now our generous friends.’ Colonel Hill has left two addresses on patriotic and historical subjects. Then there is the ex-librarian, John S. Hayes, whose noble work in making our public library more efficient is gratefully remembered. Mr. Hayes gave two notable addresses, one on ‘The Public Library and the State,’ the other containing valuable historical information, and delivered at the laying of the cornerstone of the Winter-hill Congregational church. The work of these three men is worthy of cordial appreciation, and is semi-literary in character. If more detailed consideration is given to the names that are to follow, there is no derogation of the value of other sorts of service, only the recognition of literature as in some sense detached from immediately practical ends,—as in a measure itself constituting its own end.

Among the literary men of Somerville, General Douglas Frazar combines the distinction of being both man of affairs and author. His family goes back to William Bradford through his mother, and to John Alden through his father. Although prepared for Harvard, Mr. Frazar chose to go to sea. His father's desire took him to Paris to study the French language, and the Civil War, when it came, drew him into its service; but the main currents of his being set toward the ocean, and it was only through special inducements that his employment, especially in his latter years, was ashore. He was constantly reading and writing, even on board ship. When in business in China, he was correspondent of the Boston Traveler. After his marriage, [3] he wrote for the Youth's Companion and Harper's, not to speak in detail of his several lectures and translations.

Mr. Frazar's first book was on ‘Practical Boat Sailing.’ The value of this standard treatise is proved by its reappearance in French, German, and Spanish. So much for the practical side. ‘Perseverance Island’ (1884) is a work of juvenile fiction, popular in England, as well as in America. This book out-Crusoes Crusoe. Its hero is cast upon one of the unknown islands of the Pacific, with no friendly well-stored wreck at hand. With almost nothing but his hands and his scientific knowledge, the lonely sailor makes tools and house, gunpowder, bricks, a water wheel, a blast-furnace, even a sub-marine boat and a flying machine. Rich in real estate and in discovered gold, this modern Selkirk is properly rescued at last. ‘The Log of the Maryland’ (1890), in the guise of fiction, is in effect an account of one of Captain Frazar's own voyages. The routine and adventures of a long ocean journey are faithfully told. The sea-fight with Chinese pirates, with which the story closes, bristles with excitement.

Perhaps Mr. Frazar's books are as remarkable for their varied knowledge as for any one quality, though they are interesting, as well. In his active life as a sailor, and in his excursions into French and English literature, he gathered the facts and the readiness of expression which stood him in good stead as an author.

An earlier writer is Isaac F. Shepard, who lived in Somerville and Cambridge. He published much. Besides being editor of the Christian Souvenir, and contributing to the Christian Examiner, the list of his writings includes: a poem on ‘The Seventy-first Anniversary of Leicester Academy, Massachusetts,’ August 7, 1835; a poem on ‘The Will of God,’ printed about 1837; a volume of poems, ‘Pebbles From Castalia,’ 1840; a ‘Fourth-of-July Address,’ given in West Killingly, Conn., 1856.

Mr. Shepard appears to have been a fluent writer of English. His tale, ‘Lewis Benton,’ published in 1842, shows considerable facility of expression. It is a temperance story, picturing the deterioration of a well-meaning and able man through a failure [4] to abstain entirely from the use of liquor. The little volume in which this tale appears is a quaint example of book-making two generations ago. The wood-cuts are especially noteworthy in their crude simplicity, and suggest comparison with the consummate art of our contemporary magazines.

Not yet come into the world when this little book was published, our next author gives the impression of having been a young man when he left the world. Lewis Cass Flanagan was born in Somerville in 1850, and died at North Weymouth in 1900. He was graduated from the Franklin grammar school. Later, though practicing pharmacy, he showed much interest in parliamentary law, conducting a class in this subject at the Young Men's Christian Association of Boston. He was also a student of forestry. Early in life he manifested a taste for literary composition, publishing many articles in prose and poetry in the Cambridge and Somerville papers.

Mr. Flanagan attended the Unitarian church in this city, and wrote a number of prose essays for the meetings of the Unity Club. Selections from his writings were published after his death, under the title, ‘Essays in Poetry and Prose.’ Among the prose essays is one containing curious information on ‘Some Minor Poets of America.’ Another treats at length the career of Miss Kemble, the actor. A third describes the gray pine of New England. But the most original of the printed prose writings are the burlesque fables. These are whimsical in character, and point a moral, sometimes severe, as often gay. One of the very shortest is as follows—–

XXXI.—the Ant and the Elephant.

An Ant, meeting an Elephant, exclaimed: “Sirrah! Fellow, one of us must turn out.” “One of us must indeed turn out,” replied the Elephant, as he lifted his foot to advance. Whereupon the Ant ran nimbly to one side, and thus escaped crushing.

“I find it best to humor these characters,” said the Ant to herself, as the Elephant passed by; and then, picking up her burden, she regained the highway and continued on her journey.

Impudence with discretion does fairly well.


Among the poems is a plaintive song of ‘The Wild Rose.’ Almost the only poem of a sentimental cast celebrates an experience while the author was journeying homeward from California by way of the Isthmus of Panama. He had met a fair stranger on board ship, but now the parting must come. Surely there is a touch of Whittier in the following lines—–

And that was all. The dream is o'er;
     No word from lip or pen;
Her smiling eyes I'll see no more,
     Nor hear her voice again.

Sometimes the past will come to me
     On mem'ry's grateful tide;
I sail again the western sea,
     And she is by my side.

The day has melted like a dream
     Beyond the billow's crest,
And softly now the moonbeams stream
     Across the ocean's breast.

The night wind sounds a soothing dirge
     Around the corded poles,
And, stretching far, the phosphor surge
     In chastened splendor rolls. . . . .

Back from the swiftly gliding hull
     There gleams a pathway white,
O'er which through all the day the gull
     Has winged his silent flight.

Now with the scene comes gently forth
     The music from her mouth;
Tis gone, and I am in the North,
     And she is in the South.

The column of Pencillings in the Somerville Journal has long attracted the attention of exchange editors throughout the country. Particularly in the South and West, papers make liberal use of the mingled fun and wisdom to be found in this [6] treasury. The originator of Pencillings was George Russell Jackson, who in 1877, after twelve years of newspaper experience, began to write for the Journal. He conducted the department until 1884, meanwhile contributing to the paper comical police reports, which were a feature of interest. Mr. Hayden speaks of Mr. Jackson as a born humorist, the peer of any in his native power. He not only wrote fun by the yard, but he overflowed with it in private conversation. Such writing has an evanescent quality, making quotation hazardous. But the following quatrains are not untimely—–

When icy blasts come from the pole,
     And redden nose and chin,
Then happy is the man whose coal
     Is safely in the bin.

On second thoughts, when from the pole
     Come blasts that chill us through,
Then happy is the man whose coal
     Is in and paid for, too.

Not infrequently Mr. Jackson uttered a wise maxim in the midst of his jokes, as: ‘The man who always says what he thinks should think well what he says.’ Again, ‘The man who knows that he doesn't know everything, knows something.’ So said Socrates.

Mr. Jackson contributed to the Boston Courier, the Boston Commercial Bulletin, the New York Independent, and the Atlantic Monthly. He wrote many songs, and was the author of a popular opera-cantata, called ‘The Cranberry Pickers.’ He died December 9, 1898, aged fifty-eight years.

As a means of preparing for an easy transition a little later from the men to the women writers of Somerville, let us speak of the Munroe family. Edwin Munroe, of Scotch descent, married Eliza (?) Fowle, of Lexington. Three children of these parents, a brother and two sisters, have intimate relation with the literary history of Somerville. These are Edwin Munroe, who married Nancy Thorning, Eliza Ann Munroe, who married Rev. Henry Bacon, and Martha Fowle Munroe, who married Rev. Elbridge [7] Gerry Brooks. The son of the last-named marriage is known to all residents of Somerville, and to many throughout the land.

In industry and consequent fruitfulness, it is not too much to say that Elbridge Streeter Brooks is the leading writer among those who, in life and death, have been identified with the city of Somerville. He has written biography, fiction, and history, to the number of more than forty volumes. His first book was a biography of Rev. Elbridge Gerry Brooks, dedicated to the author's mother,—‘whose loyal and loving aid made more effective the life-work of my father.’ Many of the volumes by Mr. Brooks have attained a wide popularity, and so have met his cherished wish, that his works in the public library might show, in their well-worn binding, the sign that they had been often and vigorously handled. The kind of writing in which Mr. Brooks excels is a mingling of historic fact with playful imagination. Take, for example, ‘The Century Book of Famous Americans,’ of which the Somerville library owns four copies, all bearing the marks of use. What could be more fascinating to the young people, for whom primarily this book was written, than to be transported from Boston to Quincy and Plymouth, from New York to Philadelphia, then to Virginia and Kentucky, thence hurried to the early homes of Lincoln and of Grant, regaled all along the way with bits of story about the men who have made these places famous? Here is no dull guide-book or chart of dates and battles, but a lively conversation among an uncle and the five boys and girls he is piloting,—talk rendered vivid and readable by the running question and commentary of these young Americans, in the vital and unstudied language of the present day. No wonder the book is issued under the auspices of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. No wonder twenty thousand copies were sold in three months after publication. There surely is no easier, because no more interesting, way in which to become acquainted with the leading facts in our country's history.

Into the so-called fiction written by Mr. Brooks historic fact enters almost unawares, just as in books whose main interest is [8] historical there occurs a distinct imaginative element. One book, ‘Wood Cove Island,’ is a stirring story of a contest between two opposing factions, the good boys and girls on one side, and the bad boys on the other, to gain and keep possession of a small island, made worth fighting for by the presence of an old scow, altered into a feudal castle by rude carpentry and youthful imagination. On this fictional background appear Professor Longfellow of Harvard, as a summer visitor, and his friend Charles Sumner, both of whom advise the combatants, without interfering with them. Any boy should like this book. Again, read ‘Historic Girls,’ or ‘Historic Boys,’ if you would get a vivid series of true pictures of widely separated ages, with differing customs, but the same child-nature persisting through all. Or dip into ‘Storied Holidays’ to find some scene of childhood, grave or gay, set in the festivities of Christmas, St. Valentine's Day, or Midsummer Eve.

Throughout the works of Mr. Brooks there is earnest effort to make the historic parts correct as to fact, and also as to accessories of costume, architecture, and language. There is danger, intrinsic in such undertaking, that the learning shall appear artificial and pedantic. But the author recognizes this hazard, and, while not ‘writing down’ to his young readers, provides against it. It would be difficult to find a better blending of dry events and ever-living human nature than in some of his sketches. It is their truth to history that makes the writings of Mr. Brooks respected by older readers, who, as well as the young, are at the same time attracted and held by the play of a cheerful and unwaning fancy.

Another member of the Munroe household will introduce us to our women writers, the second main division of the subject. Mrs. E. A. Bacon-Lathrop came to Somerville from Lexington in childhood. She married a Universalist minister,—Rev. Henry Bacon,—who was the first editor of the Universalist and Ladies' Repository, in 1832. On his death in 1856, his wife at once took up the editorial work that her husband laid down, and from July, 1856, until July, 1860, she ably conducted the magazine along religious lines. On the publisher's desire to render the Repository [9] of greater secular interest, Mrs. Bacon resigned her editorship, although her occasional contributions to the magazine continued. The Repository contains many examples of verse from the pen of Mrs. Bacon, and a few examples of her prose. We may perhaps best say that the Repository itself is the monument of her labors. But through life her pen was busy. As a child, she made experiments in composition. When her husband died, Mrs. Bacon published an extended ‘Memoir’ of him; also she contributed to The Rose of Sharon, an annual, in the fashion of those days, with miscellaneous contents and steel engravings. Her letters, written from abroad in 1867, are described as very entertaining. A little book, called ‘Only a Keepsake,’ privately printed during her life, contains some of her poems. Here are a few lines about April—–

Life! life! 't is singing in the rills
     And piping in the meadows,
Tis bursting from the gray old trees
     That cast their ghostly shadows.
The rose's stem is flushed with red,
     With green is streaked the willow,
And green the little grasses shoot
     Where lay the snowy pillow.

And here are a few on a more intimate subject-her son, going to the war—

He stands before me tall and fair,
The sunlight dancing on his hair,
His stalwart arm to me he shows,
His broad breast heaves with manly throes.

Was it for this I gladdened so
To see him up from boyhood grow?
For this I read him many a tale
Of brave old warriors clad in mail?

This son, Henry, was wounded in the second battle of Bull Run, and, being discharged from the army, devoted himself to art abroad. [10]

Mrs. Bacon was married to Rev. Thomas L. Lathrop, a Unitarian minister, in 1862. She died April 7, 1900, shortly after the death of her second husband. Those who knew her say that she was a gentlewoman of the old school, in the best sense of the term. A small oil painting by her son Henry shows her with refined and gentle face, her dark hair crowned with a small cap, sitting with hands quietly folded, as if in a habitual attitude of reverie.

[To be continued.]

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