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Chapter 7: romance, poetry, and history

Moving in and out of the Transcendentalist circles, in that great generation preceding the Civil War, were a company of other men — romancers, poets, essayists, historians — who shared in the intellectual liberalism of the age, but who were more purely artists in prose and verse than they were seekers after the unattainable. Hawthorne, for example, sojourned at Concord and at Brook Farm with some of the most extreme types of transcendental extravagance. The movement interested him artistically and he utilized it in his romances, but personally he maintained an attitude of cool detachment from it. Longfellow was too much of an artist to lose his head over philosophical abstractions; Whittier, at his best, had a too genuine poetic instinct for the concrete; and Lowell and Holmes had the saving gift of humor. Cultivated Boston gentlemen like Prescott, Motley, and [144] Parkman preferred to keep their feet on the solid earth and write admirable histories. So the mellow years went by. Most of the widely-read American books were being produced within twenty miles of the Boston State House. The slavery issue kept growling, far away, but it was only now and then, as in the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, that it was brought sharply home to the North. The “golden forties” were as truly golden for New England as for idle California. There was wealth, leisure, books, a glow of harvest-time in the air, though the spirit of the writers is the spirit of youth.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, our greatest writer of pure romance, was Puritan by inheritance and temperament, though not in doctrine or in sympathy. His literary affiliations were with the English and German Romanticists, and he possessed, for professional use, the ideas and vocabulary of his transcendental friends. Born in Salem in 1804, he was descended from Judge Haw. thorne of Salem Witchcraft fame, and from a long line of sea-faring ancestors. He inherited a morbid solitariness, redeemed in some measure by a physical endowment of rare strength and beauty. He read Spenser, Rousseau, and the Newgate Calendar, [145] was graduated at Bowdoin, with Longfellow, in the class of 1825, and returned to Salem for thirteen brooding lonely years in which he tried to teach himself the art of story-writing. His earliest tales, like Irving's, are essays in which characters emerge; he is absorbed in finding a setting for a preconceived “moral” ; he is in love with allegory and parable. His own words about his first collection of stories, Twice-told tales, have often been quoted: “They have the pale tint of flowers that blossomed in too retired a shade.” Yet they are for the most part exquisitely written. After a couple of years in the Boston Custom-House, and a residence at the socialistic community of Brook Farm, Hawthorne made the happiest of marriages to Sophia Peabody, and for nearly four years dwelt in the Old Manse at Concord. He described it in one of the ripest of his essays, the Preface to Mosses from an Old Manse, his second collection of stories. After three years in the Custom-House at Salem, his dismissal in 1849 gave him leisure to produce his masterpiece, The Scarlet letter, published in 1850. He was now forty-six. In 1851, he published The House of the seven Gables, the Wonder-book, and The snow-image, and other tales. In 1852 came The [146] Blithedale romance, a rich ironical story drawn from his Brook Farm experience. Four years in the American Consulate at Liverpool and three subsequent years of residence upon the Continent saw no literary harvest except carefully filled notebooks and the deeply imaginative moral romance, The Marble Faun. Hawthorne returned home in 1860 and settled in the Wayside at Concord, busying himself with a new, and, as was destined, a never completed story about the elixir of immortality. But his vitality was ebbing, and in May, 1864, he passed away in his sleep. He rests under the pines in Sleepy Hollow, near the Alcotts and the Emersons.

It is difficult for contemporary Americans to assess the value of such a man, who evidently did nothing except to write a few books. His rare, delicate genius was scarcely touched by passing events. Not many of his countrymen really love his writings, as they love, for instance the writings of Dickens or Thackeray or Stevenson. Everyone reads, at some time of his life, The Scarlet letter, and trembles at its passionate indictment of the sin of concealment, at its agonized admonition, “Be true! Be true!” Perhaps the happiest memories of Hawthorne's readers, as of Kipling's [147] readers, hover about his charming stories for children; to have missed The Wonder-book is like having grown old without ever catching the sweetness of the green world at dawn. But our public has learned to enjoy a wholly different kind of style, taught by the daily journals, a nervous, graphic, sensational, physical style, fit for describing an automobile, a department store, a steamship, a lynching party. It is the style of our day, and judged by it Hawthorne, who wrote with severity, conscience, and good taste, seems somewhat oldfashioned, like Irving or Addison. He is perhaps too completely a New Englander to be understood by men of other stock, and has never, like Poe and Whitman, excited strong interest among European minds.

Yet no American is surer, generation after generation, of finding a fit audience. Hawthorne's genius was meditative rather than dramatic. His artistic material was moral rather than physical; he brooded over the soul of man as affected by this and that condition and situation. The child of a new analytical age, he thought out with rigid accuracy the precise circumstances surrounding each one of his cases and modifying it. Many of his sketches and short stories and most of his [148] romances deal with historical facts, moods, and atmospheres, and he knew the past of New England as few men have ever known it. There is solid historical and psychological stuff as the foundation of his air-castles. His latent radicalism furnished him with a touchstone of criticism as he interpreted the moral standards of ancient communities; no reader of The Scarlet letter can forget Hawthorne's implicit condemnation of the unimaginative harshness of the Puritans. His own judgment upon the deep matters of the human conscience was stern enough, but it was a universalized judgment, and by no means the result of a Calvinism which he hated. Over-fond as he was in his earlier tales of elaborate, fanciful, decorative treatment of themes that promised to point a moral, in his finest short stories, such as The ambitious Guest, the gentle boy, young Goodman Brown, the snow image, the great stone face, Drowne's Wooden image, Rappacini's daughter, the moral, if there be one, is not obtruded. He loves physical symbols for mental and moral states, and was poet and Transcendentalist enough to retain his youthful affection for parables; but his true field as a story-teller is the erring, questing, aspiring, shadowed human heart. [149]

The Scarlet letter, for instance, is a study of a universal theme, the problem of concealed sin, punishment, redemption. Only the setting is provincial. The story cannot be rightly estimated, it is true, without remembering the Puritan reverence for physical purity, the Puritan reverence for the magistrate-minister — differing so widely from the respect of Latin countries for the priest — the Puritan preoccupation with the life of the soul, or, as more narrowly construed by Calvinism, the problem of evil. The word Adultery, although suggestively enough present in one of the finest symbolical titles ever devised by a romancer, does not once occur in the book. The sins dealt with are hypocrisy and revenge. Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, and Roger Chillingworth are developing, suffering, living creatures, caught inextricably in the toils of a moral situation. By an incomparable succession of pictures Hawthorne exhibits the travail of their souls. In the greatest scene of all, that between Hester and Arthur in the forest, the Puritan framework of the story gives way beneath the weight of human passion, and we seem on the verge of another and perhaps larger solution than was actually worked out by the logic of succeeding events. But though the [150] book has been called Christless, prayerless, hopeless, no mature person ever reads it without a deepened sense of the impotence of all mechanistic theories of sin, and a new vision of the intense reality of spiritual things. “The law we broke,” in Dimmesdale's ghostly words, was a more subtle law than can be graven on tables of stone and numbered as the Seventh Commandment.

The legacy of guilt is likewise the theme of The House of the seven Gables, which Hawthorne himself was inclined to think a better book than The Scarlet letter. Certainly this story of old Salem is impeccably written and its subtle handling of tone and atmosphere is beyond dispute. An ancestral curse, the visitation of the sins of the fathers upon the children, the gradual decay of a once sound stock, are motives that Ibsen might have developed. But the Norseman would have failed to rival Hawthorne's delicate manipulation of his shadows, and the no less masterly deftness of the ultimate mediation of a dark inheritance through the love of the light-hearted Phoebe for the latest descendant of the Maules. In The Blithedale romance Hawthorne stood for once, perhaps, too near his material to allow the rich atmospheric effects which he prefers, and in spite of the unforgetable [151] portrait of Zenobia and powerful passages of realistic description, the book is not quite focussed. In The Marble Faun Hawthorne comes into his own again. Its central problem is one of those dark insoluble ones that he loves: the influence of a crime upon the development of a soul. Donatello, the Faun, is a charming young creature of the natural sunshine until his love for the somber Miriam tempts him to the commission of murder: then begins the growth of his mind and character. Perhaps the haunting power of the main theme of the book has contributed less to its fame than the felicity of its descriptions of Rome and Italy. For Hawthorne possessed, like Byron, in spite of his defective training in the appreciation of the arts, a gift of romantic discernment which makes The Marble Faun, like Childe Harold, a glorified guide-book to the Eternal City.

All of Hawthorne's books, in short, have a central core of psychological romance, and a rich surface finish of description. His style, at its best, has a subdued splendor of coloring which is only less wonderful than the spiritual perceptions with which this magician was endowed. The gloom which haunts many of his pages, as I have said elsewhere, is the long shadow cast by our mortal [152] destiny upon a sensitive soul. The mystery is our mystery, perceived, and not created, by that finely endowed mind and heart. The shadow is our shadow; the gleams of insight, the soft radiance of truth and beauty, are his own.

A college classmate of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow summed up the Portland boy's character in one sentence: “It appeared easy for him to avoid the unworthy.” Born in 1807, of Mayflower stock that had distinguished itself for bravery and uprightness, the youth was graduated from Bowdoin at eighteen. Like his classmate Hawthorne, he had been a wide and secretly ambitious reader, and had followed the successive numbers of Irving's Sketch book, he tells us, “with ever increasing wonder and delight.” His college offered him in 1826 a professorship of the modern languages, and he spent three happy years in Europe in preparation. He taught successfully at Bowdoin for five or six years, and for eighteen years, 1836 to 1854, served as George Ticknor's successor at Harvard, ultimately surrendering the chair to Lowell. He early published two prose volumes, Hyperion and Outre-mer, Irvingesque romances of European travel. Then came, after ten years of teaching and the death [153] of his young wife, the sudden impulse to write poetry, and he produced, “softly excited, I know not why,” The Reaper and the Flowers, a Psalm of death. From that December morning in 1838 until his death in 1882 he was Longfellow the Poet.

His outward life, like Hawthorne's, was barren of dramatic incident, save the one tragic accident by which his second wife, the mother of his children, perished before his eyes in 1861. He bore the calamity with the quiet courage of his race and breeding. But otherwise his days ran softly and gently, enriched with books and friendships, sheltered from the storms of circumstance. He had leisure to grow ripe, to remember, and to dream. But he never secluded himself, like Tennyson, from normal contacts with his fellowmen. The owner of the Craigie House was a good neighbor, approachable and deferential. He was even interested in local Cambridge politics. On the larger political issues of his day his Americanism was sound and loyal. “It is disheartening,” he wrote in his Cambridge journal for 1851, “to see how little sympathy there is in the hearts of the young men here for freedom and great ideas.” But his own sympathy never wavered. [154] His linguistic talent helped him to penetrate the secrets of alien ways of thought and speech. He understood Italy and Spain, Holland and France and Germany. He had studied them on the lips of their living men and women and in the books where soldier and historian, priest and poet, had inscribed the record of five hundred years. From the Revival of Learning to the middle of the nineteenth century, Longfellow knew the soul of Europe as few men have known it, and he helped to translate Europe to America. His intellectual receptivity, his quick eye for color and costume and landscape, his ear for folk-lore and ballad, his own ripe mastery of words, made him the most resourceful of international interpreters. And this lover of children, walking in quiet ways, this refined and courteous host and gentleman, scholar and poet, exemplified without self-advertisement the richer qualities of his own people. When Couper's statue of Longfellow was dedicated in Washington, Hamilton Mabie said: “His freedom from the sophistication of a more experienced country; his simplicity, due in large measure to the absence of social selfconsciousness; his tranquil and deep-seated optimism, which is the effluence of an unexhausted soil; his [155] happy and confident expectation, born of a sense of tremendous national vitality; his love of simple things in normal relations to world-wide interests of the mind; his courage in interpreting those deeper experiences which craftsmen who know art but who do not know life call commonplaces; the unaffected and beautiful democracy of his spirit-these are the delicate flowers of our new world, and as much a part of it as its stretches of wilderness and the continental roll of its rivers.”

Longfellow's poetic service to his countrymen has thus become a national asset, and not merely because in his three best known narrative poems, Evangeline, Hiawatha, and The Courtship of miles Standish, he selected his themes from our own history. The building of the ship, written with full faith in the troubled year of 1849, is a national anthem. “It is a wonderful gift,” said Lincoln, as he listened to it, his eyes filled with tears, “to be able to stir men like that.” The Skeleton in Armor, a ballad of the French Fleet, Paul Revere's Ride, the Wreck of the Hesperus, are ballads that stir men still. For all of his skill in story-telling in verse-witness the Tales of a Wayside Inn-Longfellow was not by nature a dramatist, and his trilogy now published under the title of Christus, [156] made up of The divine tragedy, the golden legend, and New England tragedies, added little to a reputation won in other fields. His sonnets, particularly those upon Chaucer, Milton, the Divina Commedia, a Nameless grave, Felton, Sumner, nature, My books, are among the imperishable treasures of the English language. In descriptive pieces like Keramos and The Hanging of the Crane, in such personal and occasional verses as The Herons of Elmwood, the Fiftieth birthday of Agassiz, and the noble Morituri Salutamus written for his classmates in 1875, he exhibits his tenderness of affection and all the ripeness of his technical skill. But it was as a lyric poet, after all, that he won and held his immense audience throughout the Englishspeaking world. Two of the most popular of all his early pieces, The Psalm of life and Excelsior, have paid the price of a too apt adjustment to the ethical mood of an earnest moment in our national life. We have passed beyond them. And many readers may have outgrown their youthful pleasure in Maidenhood, the rainy day, the bridge, the day is done, verses whose simplicity lent themselves temptingly to parody. Yet such poems as The Belfry of Bruges, Seaweed, the fire of Driftwood, the Arsenal at Springfield, My lost youth, [157] The children's hour, and many another lyric, lose nothing with the lapse of time. There is fortunately infinite room for personal preference in this whole matter of poetry, but the confession of a lack of regard for Longfellow's verse must often be recognized as a confession of a lessening love for what is simple, graceful, and refined. The current of contemporary American taste, especially among consciously clever, half-trained persons, seems to be running against Longfellow. How soon the tide may turn, no one can say. Meanwhile he has his tranquil place in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. The Abbey must be a pleasant spot to wait in, for the Portland boy.

Oddly enough, some of the over-sophisticated and under-experienced people who affect to patronize Longfellow assume toward John Greenleaf Whittier an air of deference. This attitude would amuse the Quaker poet. One can almost see his dark eyes twinkle and the grim lips tighten in that silent laughter in which the old man so much resembled Cooper's LeatherStocking. Whittier knew that his friend Longfellow was a better artist than himself, and he also knew, by intimate experience as a maker of public opinion, how variable are its judgments. [158]

Whittier represents a stock different from that of the Longfellows, but equally American, equally thoroughbred: the Essex County Quaker farmer of Massachusetts. The homestead in which he was born in 1807, at East Haverhill, had been built by his great-great-grandfather in 1688. Mount Vernon in Virginia and the Craigie House in Cambridge are newer than this by two generations. The house has been restored to the precise aspect it had in Whittier's boyhood: and the garden, lawn, and brook, even the door-stone and bridlepost and the barn across the road are witnesses to the fidelity of the descriptions in Snow-bound. The neighborhood is still a lonely one. The youth grew up in seclusion, yet in contact with a few great ideas, chief among them Liberty. “My father,” he said, “was an old-fashioned Democrat, and really believed in the Preamble of the Bill of Rights which reaffirmed the Declaration of Independence.” The taciturn father transmitted to his sons a hatred of kingcraft and priestcraft, the inward moral freedom of the Quaker touched with humanitarian passion. The spirit of a boyhood in this homestead is veraciously told in The Barefoot boy, School-days, snow-bound, Ramoth Hill, and Telling the Bees. It was a chance [159] copy of Burns that revealed to the farmer lad his own desire and capacity for verse-writing. When he was nineteen, his sister sent his Exile's Departure to William Lloyd Garrison, then twenty, and the editor of the Newburyport free Press. The neighbors liked it, and the tall frail author was rewarded with a term at the Haverhill Academy, where he paid his way, in old Essex County fashion, by making shoes.

He had little more formal schooling than this, was too poor to enter college, but had what he modestly called a “knack at rhyming,” and much facility in prose. He turned to journalism and politics, for which he possessed a notable instinct. For a while he thought he had “done with poetry and literature.” Then in 1833, at twenty-six, came Garrison's stirring letter bidding him enlist in the cause of Anti-Slavery. He obeyed the call, not knowing that this new allegiance to the service of humanity was to transform him from a facile local verse-writer into a national poet. It was the ancient miracle of losing one's life and finding it. For the immediate sacrifice was very real to a youth trained in quietism and non-resistance, and well aware, as a Whig journalist, of the ostracism visited upon the active [160] Abolitionists. Whittier entered the fight with absolute courage and with the shrewdest practical judgment of weapons and tactics. He forgot himself. He turned aside from those pleasant fields of New England legend and history to which he was destined to return after his warfare was accomplished. He had read the prose of Milton and of Burke. He perceived that negro emancipation in the United States was only a single and immediate phase of a universal movement of liberalism. The thought kindled his imagination. He wrote, at white heat, political and social verse that glowed with humanitarian passion: lyrics in praise of fellow-workers, salutes to the dead, campaign songs, hymns, satires against the clergy and the capitalists, superb sectional poems like Massachusetts to Virginia, and, more nobly still, poems embodying what Wordsworth called “the sensation and image of country and the human. race.”

Whittier had now “found himself” as a poet. It is true that his style remained diffuse and his ear faulty, but his countrymen, then as now uncritical of artistic form, overlooked the blemishes of his verse, and thought only of his vibrant emotion, his scorn of cowardice and evil, his [161] prophetic exaltation. In 1847 came the first general collection of his poems, and here were to be found not merely controversial verses, but spirited Songs of labor, pictures of the lovely Merrimac countryside, legends written in the mood of Hawthorne or Longfellow, and bright bits of foreign lore and fancy. For though Whittier never went abroad, his quiet life at Amesbury gave him leisure for varied reading, and he followed contemporary European politics with the closest interest. He emerged more and more from the atmosphere of faction and section, and, though he retained to the last his Quaker creed, he held its simple tenets in such undogmatic and winning fashion that his hymns are sung today in all the churches.

When The Atlantic monthly was established in 1857, Whittier was fifty. He took his place among the contributors to the new magazine not as a controversialist but as a man of letters, with such poems as Tritemius, and Skipper Ireson's Ride. Characteristic productions of this period are My Psalm, Cobbler Keezar's vision, Andrew Rykman's Prayer, the Eternal Goodness — poems grave, sweet, and tender. But it was not until the publication of Snow-bound in 1866 that hitter's [162] work touched its widest popularity. He had never married, and the deaths of his mother and sister Elizabeth set him brooding, in the desolate Amesbury house, over memories of his birthplace, six miles away in East Haverhill. The homestead had gone out of the hands of the Whittiers, and the poet, nearing sixty, set himself to compose an idyll descriptive of the vanished past. No artist could have a theme more perfectly adapted to his mood and to his powers. There are no novel ideas in Snow-bound, nor is there any need of them, but the thousands of annual pilgrims to the old farmhouse can bear witness to the touching intimacy, the homely charm, the unerring rightness of feeling with which Whittier's genius recreated his own lost youth and painted for all time a true New England hearthside.

Whittier was still to write nearly two hundred more poems, for he lived to be eighty-five, and he composed until the last. But his creative period was now over. He rejoiced in the friendly recognition of his work that came to him from every section of a reunited country. His personal friends were loyal in their devotion. He followed the intricacies of American politics with the keen [163] zest of a veteran in that game, for in his time he had made and unmade governors and senators.

“The greatest politician I have ever met,” said James G. Blaine, who had certainly met many. He had an income from his poems far in excess of his needs, but retained the absolute simplicity of his earlier habits. When his publishers first proposed the notable public dinner in honor of his seventieth birthday he demurred, explaining to a member of his family that he did not want the bother of “buying a new pair of pants” --a petty anecdote, but somehow refreshing. So the rustic, shrewd, gentle old man waited for the end. He had known what it means to toil, to fight, to renounce, to eat his bread in tears, and to see some of his dreams come true. We have had, and shall have, more accomplished craftsmen in verse, but we have never bred a more genuine man than Whittier, nor one who had more kinship with the saints.

A few days before Whittier's death, he wrote an affectionate poem in celebration of the eightythird birthday of his old friend of the Saturday Club, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. This was in 1892. The little Doctor, rather lonely in his latest years, composed some tender obituary verses [164] at Whittier's passing. He had already performed the same office for Lowell. He lingered himself until the autumn of 1894, in his eighty-sixth year-The last Leaf, in truth, of New England's richest springtime.

“No, my friends,” he had said in The Autocrat of the Breakfast table, “I go (always, other things being equal) for the man who inherits family traditions and the cumulative humanities of at least four or five generations.” The Doctor came naturally by his preference for a “man of family,” being one himself. He was a descendant of Anne Bradstreet, the poetess. “Dorothy Q.,” whom he had made the most picturesque of the Quincys, was his great-grandmother. Wendell Phillips was his cousin. His father, the Rev. Abiel Holmes, a Yale graduate, was the minister of the First Church in Cambridge, and it was in its “gambrel-roofed” parsonage that Oliver Wendell was born in 1809.

Know old Cambridge? Hope you do.-
Born there? Don't say so! I was,too.

Nicest place that was ever seen-
Colleges red and Common green.

So he wrote, in scores of passages of filial devotion, concerning the village of his boyhood and the [165] city of Boston. His best-known prose sentence is: “Boston State House is the hub of the Solar system.” It is easy to smile, as indeed he did himself, at such fond provinciality, but the fact remains that our literature as a whole sadly needs this richness of local atmosphere. A nation of restless immigrants, here today and “moved on” tomorrow, has the fibres of its imagination uprooted, and its artists in their eager quest of “local color” purchase brilliancy at the cost of thinness of tone, poverty of association. Philadelphia and Boston, almost alone among the larger American cities, yield the sense of intimacy, or what the Autocrat would call “the cumulative humanities.”

Young Holmes became the pet and the glory of his class of 1829 at Harvard. It was only in 1838 that their reunions began, but thereafter they held fifty-six meetings, of which Holmes attended fifty and wrote poems for forty-three. Many of “the Boys” whom he celebrated became famous in their own right, but they remain “the Boys” to all lovers of Holmes's verses. His own career as a poet had begun during his single year in the Law School. His later years brought him some additional skill in polishing his lines and a riper human [166] wisdom, but his native verse-making talent is as completely revealed in Old Ironsides, published when he was twenty-one, and in The last Leaf, composed a year or two later, as in anything he was to write during the next half-century. In many respects he was a curious survival of the cumulative humanities of the eighteenth century. He might have been, like good Dr. Arbuthnot, an ornament of the Augustan age. He shared with the English Augustans a liking for the rhymed couplet, an instinctive social sense, a feeling for the presence of an imaginary audience of congenial listeners. One still catches the “Hear! Hear!” between his clever lines. In many of the traits of his mind this “Yankee Frenchman” resembled such a typical eighteenth century figure as Voltaire. Like Voltaire, he was tolerant-except toward Calvinism and Homeopathy. In some of the tricks of his prose style he is like a kindlier Sterne. His knack for vers de societe was caught from Horace, but he would not have been a child of his own age without the additional gift of rhetoric and eloquence which is to be seen in his patriotic poems and his hymns. For Holmes possessed, in spite of all his limitations in poetic range, true devotion, patriotism, humor, and pathos. [167]

His poetry was in the best sense of the word “occasional,” and his prose was only an incidental or accidental harvest of a long career in which his chief duty was that of a professor of anatomy in the Harvard Medical School. He had studied in Paris under sound teachers, and after some years of private practice won the appointment which he held, as active and emeritus professor, for forty-seven years. He was a faithful, clear, and amusing lecturer, and printed two or three notable medical essays, but his chief Boston reputation, in the eighteen-fifties, was that of a wit and diner-out and writer of verses for occasions. Then came his great hour of good luck in 1857, when Lowell, the editor of the newly-established Atlantic monthly, persuaded him to write The Autocratof the Breakfast table. It was the public's luck also, for whoever had been so unfortunate as not to be born in Boston could now listen — as if across the table — to Boston's best talker. Few volumes of essays during the last sixty years have given more pleasure to a greater variety of readers than is yielded by The Autocrat. It gave the Doctor a reputation in England which he naturally prized, and which contributed to his triumphal English progress, many years later, recorded pleasantly in [168] Our hundred days. The Professor at the Breakfast table and The poet at the Breakfast table are less successful variations of The Autocrat. Neither professors nor poets are at their best at this meal. Holmes wrote three novels-of which Elsie Venner, a somewhat too medical story, is the best remembered-memoirs of his friends Emerson and Motley, and many miscellaneous essays. His life was exceptionally happy, and his cheery good opinion of himself is still contagious. To pronounce the words Doctor Holmes in any company of intelligent Americans is the prologue to a smile of recognition, comprehension, sympathy. The word Goldsmith has now lost, alas, this provocative quality; the word Stevenson still possesses it. The little Doctor, who died in the same year as Stevenson, belonged like him to the genial race of friends of mankind, and a few of his poems, and some gay warm-hearted pages of his prose, will long preserve his memory. But the Boston which he loved has vanished as utterly as Sam Johnson's London.

James Russell Lowell was ten years younger than Holmes, and though he died three years before the Doctor, he seems, for other reasons than those of chronology, to belong more nearly to the [169] present. Although by birth as much of a New England Brahmin as Holmes, and in his later years as much of a Boston and Cambridge idol, he nevertheless touched our universal American life on many sides, represented us worthily in foreign diplomacy, argued the case of Democracy with convincing power, and embodied, as more perfect artists like Hawthorne and Longfellow could never have done, the subtleties and potencies of the national temperament. He deserves and reveals the closest scrutiny, but his personality is difficult to put on paper. Horace Scudder wrote his biography with careful competence, and Ferris Greenslet has made him the subject of a brilliant critical study. Yet readers differ widely in their assessment of the value of his prose and verse, and in their understanding of his personality.

The external facts of his career are easy to trace and must be set down here with brevity. A minister's son, and descended from a very old and distinguished family, he was born at Elmwood in Cambridge in 1819. After a somewhat turbulent course, he was graduated from Harvard in 1838, the year of Emerson's Divinity School address. He studied law, turned Abolitionist, wrote poetry, married the beautiful and transcendental [170] Maria White, and did magazine work in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. He was thought by his friends in the eighteen-fifties to be “the most Shakespearian” man in America. When he was ten years out of college, in 1848, he published The Biglow papers (First Series), A Fable for critics, and The vision of Sir Launfal. After a long visit to Europe and the death of his wife, he gave some brilliant Lowell Institute lectures in Boston, and was appointed Longfellow's successor at Harvard. He went to Europe again to prepare himself, and after entering upon his work as a teacher made a happy second marriage, served for four years as the first editor of The Atlantic, and helped his friend Charles Eliot Norton edit The North American review. The Civil War inspired a second series of Biglow papers and the magnificent Commemoration Ode of 1865. Then came volume after volume of literary essays, such as Among My books and My study windows, and an occasional book of verse. Again he made a long sojourn in Europe, resigned his Harvard professorship, and in 1877 was appointed Minister to Spain. After three years he was transferred to the most important post in our diplomatic service, London. He performed his duties with [171] extraordinary skill and success until 1885, when he was relieved. His last years were spent in Elmwood, the Cambridge house where he was born, and he was still writing, in almost as rich a vein as ever, when the end came in 1891.

Here was certainly a full and varied life, responsive to many personal moods and many tides of public feeling. Lowell drew intellectual stimulus from enormously wide reading in classical and modern literatures. Puritanically earnest by inheritance, he seems also to have inherited a strain of levity which he could not always control, and, through his mother's family, a dash of mysticism sometimes resembling second sight. His physical and mental powers were not always in the happiest mutual adjustment: he became easily the prey of moods and fancies, and knew the alternations from wild gaiety of spirits to black despair. The firm moral consistency of Puritanism was always his, yet his playful remark about belonging in a hospital for incurable children had a measure of truth in it also.

Both his poetry and his prose reveal a nature never quite integrated into wholeness of structure, into harmony with itself. His writing, at its best, is noble and delightful, full of human charm, [172] but it is difficult for him to master a certain waywardness and to sustain any note steadily. This temperamental flaw does not affect the winsomeness of his letters, unless to add to it. It is lost to view, often, in the sincerity and pathos of his lyrics, but it is felt in most of his longer efforts in prose, and accounts for a certain dissatisfaction which many grateful and loyal readers nevertheless feel in his criticism. Lowell was more richly endowed by nature and by breadth of reading than Matthew Arnold, for instance, but in the actual performance of the critical function he was surpassed in method by Arnold and perhaps in inerrant perception, in a limited field, by Poe.

It was as a poet, however, that he first won his place in our literature, and it is by means of certain passages in the Biglow papers and the Commemoration Ode that he has most moved his countrymen. The effectiveness of The present crisis and Sir Launfal, and of the Memorial Odes, particularly the Ode to Agassiz, is likewise due to the passion, sweetness, and splendor of certain strophes, rather than to the perfection of these poems as artistic wholes. Lowell's personal lyrics of sorrow, such as The Changeling, the first Snowfall, after the Burial, have touched many hearts. [173] His later lyrics are more subtle, weighted with thought, tinged with autumnal melancholy. He was a most fertile composer, and, like all the men of his time and group, produced too much. Yet his patriotic verse was so admirable in feeling and is still so inspiring to his readers that one cannot wish it less in quantity; and in the field of political satire, such as the two series of Biglow papers, he had a theme and a method precisely suited to his temperament. No American has approached Lowell's success in this difficult genre: the swift transitions from rural Yankee humor to splendid scorn of evil and to noblest idealism reveal the full powers of one of our most gifted men. The preacher lurked in this Puritan from first to last, and the war against Mexico and the Civil War stirred him to the depths.

His prose, likewise, is a school of loyalty. There was much of Europe in his learning, as his memorable Dante essay shows, and the traditions of great English literature were the daily companions of his mind. He was bookish, as a bookman should be, and sometimes the very richness and whimsicality of his bookish fancies marred the simplicity and good taste of his pages. But the fundamental texture of his thought and feeling [174] was American, and his most characteristic style has the raciness of our soil. Nature lovers like to point out the freshness and delicacy of his reaction to the New England scene. Thoreau himself, whom Lowell did not like, was not more veracious an observer than the author of Sunthina in the Pastoral line, Cambridge thirty years ago, and My garden acquaintance. Yet he watched men as keenly as he did “laylocks” and bobolinks, and no shrewder American essay has been written than his On a certain Condescension in Foreigners. Wit and humor and wisdom made him one of the best talkers of his generation. These qualities pervade his essays and his letters, and the latter in particular reveal those ardors and fidelities of friendship which men like Emerson and Thoreau longed after without ever quite experiencing. Lowell's cosmopolitan reputation, which was greatly enhanced in the last decade of his life, seemed to his old associates of the Saturday Club only a fit recognition of the learning, wit, and fine imagination which had been familiar to them from the first. To hold the old friends throughout his lifetime, and to win fresh ones of a new generation through his books, is perhaps the greatest of Lowell's personal felicities. [175]

While there are no other names in the literature of New England quite comparable with those that have just been discussed, it should be remembered that the immediate effectiveness and popularity of these representative poets and prose writers were dependent upon the existence of an intelligent and responsive reading public. The lectures of Emerson, the speeches of Webster, the stories of Hawthorne, the political verse of Whittier and Lowell, presupposed a keen, reflecting audience, mentally and morally exigent. The spread of the Lyceum system along the line of westward emigration from New England as far as the Mississippi is one tangible evidence of the high level of popular intelligence. That there was much of the superficial and the spread-eagle in the American life of the eighteen-forties is apparent enough without the amusing comments of such English travellers as Dickens, Miss Martineau, and Captain Basil Hall. But there was also genuine intellectual curiosity and a general reading habit which are evidenced not only by a steady growth of newspapers and magazines but also by the demand for substantial books. Biography and history began to be widely read, and it was natural that the most notable productiveness in historical [176] writing should manifest itself in that section of the country where there were libraries, wealth, leisure for the pursuits of scholarship, a sense of intimate concern with the great issues of the past, and a diffusion of intellectual tastes throughout the community. It was no accident that Sparks and Ticknor, Bancroft and Prescott, Motley and Parkman, were Massachusetts men.

Jared Sparks, it is true, inherited neither wealth nor leisure. He was a furious, unwearied toiler in the field of our national history. Born in 1789, by profession a Unitarian minister, he began collecting the papers of George Washington by 1825. John Marshall, the great jurist, had published his five-volume life of his fellow Virginian a score of years earlier. But Sparks proceeded to write another biography of Washington and to edit his writings. He also edited a Library of American biography, wrote lives of Franklin and Gouverneur Morris, was professor of history and President of Harvard, and lived to be seventy-seven. As editor of the writings of Franklin and Washington, he took what we now consider unpardonable liberties in altering the text, and this error of judgment has somewhat clouded his just reputation as a pioneer in historical research. [177]

George Bancroft, who was born in 1800, and died, a horseback-riding sage, at ninety-one, inherited from his clergyman father a taste for history. He studied in Germany after leaving Harvard, turned schoolmaster, Democratic politician and office-holder, served as Secretary of the Navy, Minister to England and then to the German Empire, and won distinction in each of his avocations, though the real passion of his life was his History of the United States, which he succeeded in bringing down to the adoption of the Constitution. The first volume, which appeared in 1834, reads today like a stump speech by a sturdy Democratic orator of the Jacksonian period. But there was solid stuff in it, nevertheless, and as Bancroft proceeded, decade after decade, he discarded some of his rhetoric and philosophy of democracy and utilized increasingly the vast stores of documents which his energy and his high political positions had made it possible for him to obtain. Late in life he condensed his ten great volumes to six. Posterity will doubtless condense these in turn, as posterity has a way of doing, but Bancroft the historian realized his own youthful ambition with a completeness rare in the history of human effort and performed a monumental service to his country. [178]

He was less of an artist, however, than Prescott, the eldest and in some ways the finest figure of the well-known Prescott-Motley-Parkman group of Boston historians. All of these men, together with their friend George Ticknor, who wrote the History of Spanish literature and whose own Life and letters pictures a whole generation, had the professional advantages of inherited wealth, and the opportunity to make deliberate choice of a historical field which offered freshness and picturesqueness of theme. All were tireless workers in spite of every physical handicap; all enjoyed social security and the rich reward of full recognition by their contemporaries. They had their world as in their time, as Chaucer makes the Wife of Bath say of herself, and it was a pleasant world to live in.

Grandson of “Prescott the brave” of Bunker Hill, and son of the rich Judge Prescott of Salem, William Hickling Prescott was born in 1796, and was graduated from Harvard in 1814. An accident in college destroyed the sight of one eye, and left him but a precarious use of the other. Nevertheless he resolved to emulate Gibbon, whose Autobiography had impressed him, and to make himself “an historian in the best sense of the term.” He [179] studied arduously in Europe, with the help of secretaries, and by 1826, after a long hesitation, decided upon a History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. In ten years the three volumes were finished. “Pursuing the work in this quiet, leisurely way, without over-exertion or fatigue,” wrote Prescott, “or any sense of obligation to complete it in a given time, I have found it a continual source of pleasure.” It was published at his own expense on Christmas Day, 1837, and met with instantaneous success. “My market and my reputation rest principally with England,” he wrote in 1838--a curious footnote, by the way, to Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa Address of the year before. But America joined with England, in praising the new book. Then Prescott turned to the Conquest of Mexico, the Conquest of Peru, and finally to his unfinished History of the Reign of Philip II. He had, as Dean Milman wrote him, “the judgment to choose noble subjects.” He wrote with serenity and dignity, with fine balance and proportion. Some of the Spanish documents upon which he relied have been proved less trustworthy than he thought, but this unsuspected defect in his materials scarcely impaired the skill with which this unhasting, unresting [180] painter filled his great canvases. They need retouching, perhaps, but the younger historians are incompetent for the task. Prescott died in 1859, in the same year as Irving, and he already seems quite as remote from the present hour.

His young friend Motley, of Dutch Republic fame, was another Boston Brahmin, born in the year of Prescott's graduation from college. IHe attended George Bancroft's school, went to Harvard in due course, where he knew Holmes, Sumner, and Wendell Phillips, and at Gottingen became a warm friend of a dog-lover and duelist named Bismarck. Young Motley wrote a couple of unsuccessful novels, dabbled in diplomacy, politics, and review-writing, and finally, encouraged by Prescott, settled down upon Dutch history, went to Europe to work up his material in 1851, and, after five years, scored an immense triumph with his Rise of the Dutch Republic. He was a brilliant partisan, hating Spaniards and Calvinists, and wrote all the better for this bias. He was an admirable sketcher of historical portraits, and had Macaulay's skill in composing special chapters devoted to the tendencies and qualities of an epoch or to the characteristics of [181] a dynasty. Between 1860 and 1868 he produced the four volumes of the History of the United Netherlands. During the Civil War he served usefully as American minister to Vienna, and in 1869 was appointed minister to London. Both of these appointments ended unhappily for him. Dr. Holmes, his loyal admirer and biographer, does not conceal the fact that a steadier, less excitable type of public servant might have handled both the Vienna situation and the London situation without incurring a recall. Motley continued to live in England, where his daughters had married, and where, in spite of his ardent Americanism, he felt socially at home. His last book was The life and death of John of Barneveld. His Letters, edited after his death in 1877 by George William Curtis, give a fascinating picture of English life among the cultivated and leisurely classes. The Boston merchant's son was a high-hearted gentleman, and his cosmopolitan experiences used to make his stay-at-home friend, Oliver Wendell Holmes, feel rather dull and provincial in comparison. Both were Sons of Liberty, but Motley had had the luck to find in “brave little Holland” a subject which captivated the interest of Europe and gave the historian international fame. He [182] had more eloquence than the Doctor, and a far more varied range of prose, but there may be here and there a Yankee guesser about the taste of future generations who will bet on The Autocrat, after all.

The character and career of Francis Parkman afford curious material to the student of New England's golden age. In the seventy years of his heroic life, from 1823 to 1893, all the characteristic forces of the age reached their culmination and decline, and his own personality indicates some of the violent reactions produced by the over-strain of Transcendentalism. For here was a descendant of John Cotton, and a clergyman's son, who detested Puritanism and the clergy; who, coming to manhood in the eighteen-forties, hated the very words Transcendentalism, Philosophy, Religion, Reform; an inheritor of property, trained at Harvard, and an Overseer and Fellow of his University, who disliked the ideals of culture and refinement; a member of the Saturday Club who was bored with literary talk and literary people; a staunch American who despised democracy as thoroughly as Alexander Hamilton, and thought suffrage a failure; a nineteenth century historian who cared nothing for philosophy, science, [183] or the larger lessons of history itself; a fascinating realistic writer who admired Scott, Byron, and Cooper for their tales of action, and despised Wordsworth and Thoreau as effeminate sentimentalists who were preoccupied with themselves. In Parkman “the wheel has come full circle,” and a movement that began with expansion of self ended in hard Spartan repression, even in inhibition of emotion.

Becoming “enamoured of the woods” at sixteen, Parkman chose his life work at eighteen, and he was a man who could say proudly: “I have not yet abandoned any plan which I ever formed.” “Before the end of the sophomore year,” he wrote in his autobiography, “my various schemes had crystallized into a plan of writing the story of what was then known as the Old French War, that is, the war that ended in the conquest of Canada, for here, as it seemed to me, the forest drama was more stirring and the forest stage more thronged with appropriate actors than in any other passage of our history. It was not till some years later that I enlarged the plan to include the whole course of the American conflict between France and England, or, in other words, the history of the American forest: for this [184] was the light in which I regarded it. My theme fascinated me, and I was haunted with wilderness images day and night.” To understand “the history of the American forest” young Parkman devoted his college vacations to long trips in the wilderness, and in 1846, two years after graduation, he made the epoch-making journey described in his first book, The Oregon Trail. The Conspiracy of Pontiac, a highly-colored narrative in two volumes appearing in 1851, marks the first stage of his historical writing. Then came the tragedy of shattered health, and for fourteen years Parkman fought for life and sanity, and produced practically nothing. He had had to struggle from his college days with an obscure disorder of the brain, aggravated by the hardships of his Oregon Trail journey, and by illconsidered efforts to harden his bodily frame by over-exertion. His disease took many formsinsomnia, arthritis, weakness of sight, incapacity for sustained thought. His biographer Farnham says that “he never saw a perfectly well day during his entire literary career.” Even when aided by secretaries and copyists, six lines a day was often the limit of his production. His own Stoic words about the limitations of his eyesight are [185] characteristic: “By reading for one minutes and then resting for an equal time, this alternate process may gradually be continued for about half an hour. Then, after a sufficient interval, it may be repeated, often three or four times in the course of the day. By this means nearly the whole of the volume now offered has been composed.” There is no more piteous or inspiring story of a fight against odds in the history of literature.

For after his fortieth year the enemy gave way a little, and book after book somehow got itself written. There they stand upon the shelves, a dozen of them-The pioneers of France, The Jesuit in North America, La Salle, The Old Regime, Frontenac, Montcalm and Wolfe, A half-century of conflict-the boy's dream realized, the man's long warfare accomplished. The history of the forest, as Parkman saw it, was a pageant with the dark wilderness for a background, and, for the actors, taciturn savages, black-robed Jesuits, intrepid explorers, soldiers of France-all struggling for a vast prize, all changing, passing, with a pomp and color unknown to wearied Europe. It was a superb theme, better after all for an American than the themes chosen by Prescott and Ticknor [186] and Motley, and precisely adapted to the pictorial and narrative powers of the soldierminded, soldier-hearted author.

The quality which Parkman admired most in men-though he never seems to have loved men deeply, even his own heroes — was strength of will. That was the secret of his own power, and the sign, it must be added, of the limitations of this group of historians who came at the close of the golden age. Whatever a New England will can accomplish was wrought manfully by such admirable men as Prescott and Parkman. Trained intelligence, deliberate selection of subject, skillful cultivation of appropriate story-telling and picturepainting style, all these were theirs. But the “wild ecstasy” that thrilled the young Emerson as he crossed the bare Common at sunset, the “supernal beauty” of which Poe dreamed in the Fordham cottage, the bay horse and hound and turtle-dove which Thoreau lost long ago and could not find in his hut at Walden, these were something which our later Greeks of the New England Athens esteemed as foolishness.

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