previous next

XVI. Horace Elisha Scudder.

It has been generally felt, I think, that no disrespect was shown to John Fiske, when the New York Nation headed its very discriminating sketch of him with the title “John Fiske, Popularizer” ; and I should feel that I showed no discourtesy, but on the contrary, did honor to Horace Elisha Scudder, in describing him as Literary Workman. I know of no other man in America, perhaps, who so well deserved that honorable name; no one, that is, who, if he had a difficult piece of literary work to do, could be so absolutely relied upon to do it carefully and well. Whatever it was,--compiling, editing, arranging, translating, indexing,--his work was uniformly well done. Whether this is the highest form of literary distinction is not now the question. What other distinction he might have won if he had shown less of modesty or self-restraint, we can never know. It is true that his few thoroughly original volumes show something beyond what is described in the limited term, workmanship. But that he brought such workmanship up into the realm of art is as certain as that we may call the cabinet-maker of the Middle Ages an artist. [204]

Mr. Scudder was born in Boston on October 16, 1838, the son of Charles and Sarah Lathrop (Coit) Scudder, and died at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on January 11, 1902. He was a graduate of Williams College, and after graduation went to New York, where he spent three years as a teacher. It was there that he wrote his first stories for children, entitled “Seven little people and their friends” (New York, 1862). After his father's death he returned to Boston, and thenceforward devoted himself almost wholly to literary pursuits. He prepared the “Life and letters of David Coit Scudder,” his brother, a missionary to India (New York, 1864); edited the “Riverside magazine” for young people during its four years existence (from 1867 to 1870); and published “Dream children” and “Stories from my Attic.” Becoming associated with Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, he edited for them the Atlantic Monthly from 1890 to 1898, preparing for it also that invaluable Index, so important to bibliographers; he also edited the “American Commonwealths” series, and two detached volumes, “American poems” (1879) and “American prose” (1880). He published also the “Bodley books” (8 vols., Boston, 1875 to 1887); “The Dwellers in five Sisters' Court” (1876); “Boston town” (1881); “Life of Noah Webster” (1882); “A History of the [205] United States” for schools (1884); “Men and letters” (1887) ; “Life of George Washington” (1889); “Literature in School” (1889); “Childhood in literature and art” (1894), besides various books of which he was the editor or compiler only. He was also for nearly six years (1877-82) a member of the Cambridge School Committee; for five years (1884-89) of the State Board of Education ; for nine years (1889-98) of the Harvard University visiting committee in English literature; and was at the time of his death a trustee of Williams College, Wellesley College, and St. John's Theological School, these making all together a quarter of a century of almost uninterrupted and wholly unpaid public service in the cause of education. After May 28, 1889, he was a member of the American Academy, until his death. This is the simple record of a most useful and admirable life, filled more and more, as it went on, with gratuitous public services and disinterested acts for others.

As a literary workman, his nicety of method and regularity of life went beyond those of any man I have known. Working chiefly at home, he assigned in advance a certain number of hours daily as due to the firm for which he labored; and he then kept carefully the record of these hours, and if he took out a half hour for [206] his own private work, made it up. He had special work assigned by himself for a certain time before breakfast, an interval which he daily gave largely to the Greek Testament and at some periods to Homer, Thucydides, Herodotus, and Xenophon; working always with the original at hand and writing out translations or commentaries, always in the same exquisite handwriting and at first contained in small thin note-books, afterwards bound in substantial volumes, with morocco binding and proper lettering. All his writings were thus handsomely treated, and the shelves devoted to his own works, pamphlet or otherwise, were to the eye a very conservatory and flower garden of literature; or like a chamberful of children to whom even a frugal parent may allow himself the luxury of pretty clothes. All his literary arrangements were neat and perfect, and represented that other extreme from the celebrated collection of De Quincey in Dove Cottage at Grasmere, where that author had five thousand books, by his own statement, in a little room ten or twelve feet square; and his old housekeeper explained it to me as perfectly practicable “because he had no bookcases,” but simply piled them against the walls, leaving here and there little gaps in which he put his money. [207]

In the delicate and touching dedication of Scudder's chief work, “Men and letters,” to his friend Henry M. Alden, the well-known New York editor, he says: “In that former state of existence when we were poets, you wrote verses which I knew by heart and I read dreamy tales to you which you speculated over as if they were already classics. Then you bound your manuscript verses in a full blue calf volume and put it on the shelf, and I woke to find myself at the desk of a literary workman.” Later, he says of himself, “Fortunately, I have been able for the most part to work out of the glare of publicity.” Yet even to this modest phrase he adds acutely: “But there is always that something in us which whispers I, and after a while the anonymous critic becomes a little tired of listening to the whisper in his solitary cave, and is disposed to escape from it by coming out into the light even at the risk of blinking a little, and by suffering the ghostly voice to become articulate, though the sound startle him. One craves company for his thought, and is not quite content always to sit in the dark with his guests.”

The work in which he best achieves the purpose last stated is undoubtedly the collection of papers called by the inexpressive phrase “Men and letters” ; a book whose title was perhaps a weight upon it, and which yet contained [208] some of the very best of American thought and criticism. It manifests even more than his “Life of Lowell” that faculty of keen summing up and epigrammatic condensation which became so marked in him that it was very visible, I am assured, even in the literary councils of his publishers, two members of which have told me that he often, after a long discussion, so summed up the whole situation in a sentence or two that he left them free to pass to something else. We see the same quality, for instance, in his “Men and letters,” in his papers on Dr. Mulford and Longfellow. The first is an analysis of the life and literary service of a man too little known because of early death, but of the rarest and most exquisite intellectual qualities, Dr. Elisha Mulford, author of “The nation” and then of “The Republic of God.” In this, as everywhere in the book, Mr. Scudder shows that epigrammatic quality which amounted, whether applied to books or men, to what may be best described as a quiet brilliancy. This is seen, for instance, when, in defending Mulford from the imputation of narrowness, his friend sums up the whole character of the man and saves a page of more detailed discussion by saying, “He was narrow as a cafion is narrow, when the depth apparently contracts the sides” (page 17). So in [209] his criticism called “Longfellow and his art,” Scudder repeatedly expresses in a sentence what might well have occupied a page, as where he says of Longfellow, “He was first of all a composer, and he saw his subjects in their relations rather than in their essence” (page 44). He is equally penetrating where he says that Longfellow “brought to his work in the college no special love of teaching,” but “a deep love of literature and that unacademic attitude toward his work which was a liberalizing power” (page 66). He touches equally well that subtle quality of Longfellow's temperament, so difficult to delineate, when he says of him: “He gave of himself freely to his intimate friends, but he dwelt, nevertheless, in a charmed circle, beyond the lines of which men could not penetrate” (page 68). These admirable statements sufficiently indicate the rare quality of Mr. Scudder's work.

So far as especial passages go, Mr. Scudder never surpassed the best chapters of “Men and letters,” but his one adequate and complete work as a whole is undoubtedly, apart from his biographies, the volume entitled “Childhood in literature and art” (1894). This book was based on a course of Lowell lectures given by him in Boston, and is probably that by which he himself would wish to be judged, at least up to the time of his excellent biography of Lowell. [210] He deals in successive chapters with Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Mediaeval, English, French, German, and American literary art with great symmetry and unity throughout, culminating, of course, in Hawthorne and analyzing the portraits of children drawn in his productions. In this book one may justly say that he has added himself, in a degree, to the immediate circle of those very few American writers whom he commemorates so nobly at the close of his essay on “Longfellow and his art,” in “Men and letters” : “It is too early to make a full survey of the immense importance to American letters of the work done by half-a-dozen great men in the middle of this century. The body of prose and verse created by them is constituting the solid foundation upon which other structures are to rise; the humanity which it holds is entering into the life of the country, and no material invention, or scientific discovery, or institutional prosperity, or accumulation of wealth will so powerfully affect the spiritual well-being of the nation for generations to come” (page 69).

If it now be asked what prevented Horace Scudder from showing more fully this gift of higher literature and led to his acquiescing, through life, in a comparatively secondary function, I can find but one explanation, and that a most interesting one to us in New England, as [211] illustrating the effect of im mediate surroundings. His father, so far as I can ascertain, was one of those Congregationalists of the milder type who, while strict in their opinions, are led by a sunny temperament to be genial with their households and to allow them innocent amusements. The mother was a Congregationalist, firm but not severe in her opinions; but always controlled by that indomitable New England conscience of the older time, which made her sacrifice herself to every call of charity and even to refuse, as tradition says, to have window curtains in her house, inasmuch as many around her could not even buy blankets. Add to this the fact that Boston was then a great missionary centre, that several prominent leaders in that cause were of the Scudder family, and the house was a sort of headquarters for them, and that Horace Scudder's own elder brother, whose memoirs he wrote, went as a missionary to India, dying at his post. Speaking of his father's family in his memoir, he says of it, “In the conduct of the household, there was recognition of some more profound meaning in life than could find expression in mere enjoyment of living; while the presence of a real religious sentiment banished that counterfeit solemnity which would hang over innocent pleasure like a cloud” (Scudder's “Life of David Coit Scudder,” page 4). By one bred in [212] such an atmosphere of self-sacrifice, that quality may well be imbibed; it may even become a second nature, so that the instinctive demand for self-assertion may become subordinate until many a man ends in finding full contentment in doing perfectly the appointed work of every day. If we hold as we should that it is character, not mere talent, which ennobles life, we may well feel that there is something not merely pardonable, but ennobling, in such a habit of mind. Viewed in this light, his simple devotion to modest duty may well be to many of us rather a model than a thing to be criticised. [213]

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 Places (automatically extracted)
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.
1889 AD (4)
1898 AD (2)
1894 AD (2)
1887 AD (2)
1884 AD (2)
1882 AD (2)
January 11th, 1902 AD (1)
1890 AD (1)
May 28th, 1889 AD (1)
1881 AD (1)
1880 AD (1)
1879 AD (1)
1877 AD (1)
1876 AD (1)
1875 AD (1)
1870 AD (1)
1867 AD (1)
1864 AD (1)
1862 AD (1)
October 16th, 1838 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: