previous next

Literary life in Cambridge.

Horace E. Scudder, editor of the Atlantic Monthly.
A clever Cambridge woman once said to me that when she met a Cambridge man, and was a little at a loss for conversation, she would turn upon him with the question, How is your book coming on? and the question rarely failed to bring forth a voluble answer. Brigadier-generals were no more common in Washington during the war than are authors in Cambridge, but the former carried the title in large letters, the latter often secrete themselves behind some profession or calling not ostensibly literary. It may be a little heretical to assert the fact in a book which celebrates the civic honors of Cambridge, but I am none the less quite sure in my own mind that a large part of the attraction which Cambridge has had in the past for men of letters has been its comparatively village-like character. Authors do not, it is true, prefer to walk on a ten-inch curbstone, or jolt to Boston in an hourly omnibus, yet the disadvantages of a village have had their compensation in the larger leisure, the simpler social life, the roomier homes, which until lately characterized Cambridge. The city, to be sure, is still a way-station from the country to Boston, in the matter of railway accommodations, steam or electric, but the open spaces are closing up, the college people meet more formally, and need more introduction to each other, city habits are forming, and it cannot be long before the conditions which once charmed authors will give way; perhaps by that time authors themselves will be changed in their temper, and will like to live in a hurly-burly of elevated railroads, great apartment houses, and everlasting chatter.

When that time comes, a few belated spirits will look back regretfully to the Cambridge which called itself a young city, but in its traditions was after all an overgrown village, and [68] figures which are as yet but slightly historic will rise to the imagination as bringing the glory of true literature to overshine the town and make it one of those bright spots on the airy globe of the human spirit which is so charted as to make Concord and Ambleside more conspicuous than, let us say, Jersey City and Leeds. That fine, poetic nature who brought his sensitive English conscience to the New England, where the conscience had been more sturdily cultivated, Arthur Hugh Clough, left a tremulous track of light behind him as he tarried awhile in Cambridge, translating Plutarch, laboring and making friends with men with whom he should have continued to live, only he could not well bear transplanting. ‘We are potted plants here in Cambridge,’ said the witty Francis Wharton, explaining to an English visitor that the men of whom he inquired were not natives of Cambridge, but were drawn to it by its university and schools and kindred spirits. Hither came that poet, Forceythe Willson, who flashed forth a few striking war lyrics, but lived almost in obscurity near Simond's Hill; a silent figure, scarcely known even to those neighbors who could best appreciate him. To Cambridge at a later date came another stranger, Elisha Mulford, who brought with him the reputation built upon ‘The Nation,’ that masterly interpretation of our great federal life, hammered out with toil in the silence of his Pennsylvania home after the war for the Union was over; and here he wrought upon that great conception of ‘The Republic of God,’ making in these books two pillars for sustaining the great arch of social philosophy, an arch which he surely would have reared had he lived. He came, as so many others have come, to educate his children, debating long between New Haven, Exeter, and Cambridge, but taking root in the soil here when his choice was made.

Others there have been who found their home here naturally by reason of the convenience of historic printing-houses, and who might easily have worn paths to and from their houses, as they carried forward their scholarly pursuits. For a long time the great lexicographer, Joseph E. Worcester, lived his retired life where now live the family of the late Chauncy Smith. Many still youthful will recall the figure, alert, nervous, and almost furtively shy, of Ezra Abbot, skimming along the walk, his eyes bent on his book, which he read as he walked; the deadly foe of error on the printed page; his own work in construction [69] as faultlessly accurate as his handwriting was unmistakably legible. It requires a somewhat older memory to recall the courtly presence of Charles Folsom, who well deserved the English title of corrector of the press, but whose chastening for the time seemed scarcely joyous to the printer as he waited impatiently for the proof-sheets which Mr. Folsom carried around in his pocket till he could, after long search in the libraries of the neighborhood, relieve them of possible errors of statement. Of the same indefatigable temper in exorcising the black art was George Nichols, for whose aid Lowell stipulated when he undertook to edit ‘The Atlantic Monthly.’ It would be hard to overestimate the value of these two subterranean builders of literature. Their own craft recognized their power; every author whose books passed through their hands blessed them, with occasional lapses, and the reputation which the great printing-offices of Cambridge enjoy is due largely to the standard which these men raised, and to the traditions which they established.

The printing-houses have been neighbors to the university, and the university has been the mother or foster-mother of authors. And yet one hazards a doubt if the enlargement of the university, and the specializing of its functions, is not less favorable to pure literature than was the old-time college, with its high regard for humane scholarship. At any rate, as we note the two most eminent American men of letters connected with Harvard, it is difficult not to feel that they belonged rather with the old college than with the new university. Still, the present is never in true perspective, and 1896 may yet read as interestingly as 1836, when Longfellow came to Cambridge, or 1855, when Lowell took service in the college. No town or city can ever be barren in the world of literature which has two such names as these on its roll of honor, and can hold within its bounds two such shrines as Craigie House and Elmwood. There is indeed a double wealth of association about Craigie House which so heaps up the memory of patriot and of poet as to make each contribute to the other's fame. The spaciousness of the house, with its large outlook across the reserved ground of the Longfellow Garden to the broad marshes where flows the river he celebrated in song, fitly accompanies the fame of a man who was catholic in his taste, and so universal in his poetic sympathy as to miss appreciation chiefly from those who wish better bread than can [70] be made of fine wheat. During his lifetime, Longfellow made Cambridge as Emerson made Concord, the port to which all craft put in that sailed over the seas of literature. His name is identified with the place, and the pages of his diary are set thick with the names of men and women who lifted the knocker on his door. And now that he has gone, pilgrims continue their visit to the shrine.

Scarcely less fit is the homestead of Lowell, set in an aviary grove, withdrawn from too close contact with the world, yet with paths which led Lowell into those nooks of life from which he drew sure knowledge of men and nature. ‘Do you not wish to go to Egypt?’ a fellow-townsman asked the poet exiled at the court of St. James, ‘and see the work of Rameses?’ He replied: ‘I would much rather see Ramsay's in Harvard Square.’ The attachment that Lowell bore to the town of his birth and best life finds expression in his verse and in that delightful paper on ‘Cambridge Thirty Years Ago.’ He looked with some misgiving on the changing aspect of the town he loved, but he added to its true metropolitanism by his own close association with it. It is a pleasant witness to the appreciation of poetic values, that the builder of a new house in the neighborhood of Elmwood changed her plans when she found that she was about to cut down one of the willows under which Lowell had sung. The spreading chestnut of Longfellow's song fared worse at the hands of official road-straighteners.

I have hinted at a few of the names among the dead that give distinction to Cambridge as a home of literature. It would be invidious to distinguish among the living, nor is it prudent, for though some names could be mentioned that may safely now be added to the roll of honor in American letters, who knows what names there are which need but a little more time to carry them into higher niches than now are occupied? The alcove in the library which holds the books of Cambridge authors is but a beginning of our literary treasure-house, for in spite of the heterodoxy which I displayed when I began to write, I am a firm believer in the contagion of literature, and though Cambridge becomes more urban with each decade, there is that about a bookish community which stimulates literary endeavor. Moreover, the constant accession of fresh nature through the addition of young scholars to the university serves to keep alive that spirit of enthusiasm, of devotion to high ideals, of [71] regard for the kingdom of spirit on which literature thrives. The social life of a university town, besides, takes color from the strong infusion of university blood. Literature and scholarship have a natural kinship with modest living, and as the scholar will put books before meat, so a great university is by all its traditions a protest against the indulgence of the flesh. A society in which a university is planted cannot so easily make riches the measure of social rank, and Cambridge thus will still attract the lovers of a literary life, who value in society the coin which is struck from the same mint as that they carry about with them in their empty pockets.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1896 AD (1)
1855 AD (1)
1836 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: