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XVIII. James Elliot Cabot

Our late associate, Elliot Cabot, of whom I have been appointed to write a sketch, was to me, from my college days, an object of peculiar interest, on a variety of grounds. He was distantly related to me, in more than one way, through the endless intermarriages of the old Essex County families. Though two years and a half older, he was but one year in advance of me in Harvard College. He and his chum, Henry Bryant, who had been my schoolmate, were among the early founders of the Harvard Natural History Society, then lately established, of which I was an ardent member; and I have never had such a sensation of earthly glory as when I succeeded Bryant in the responsible function of Curator of Entomology in that august body. I used sometimes in summer to encounter Cabot in the Fresh Pond marshes, then undrained, which he afterwards described so delightfully in the Atlantic Monthly in his paper entitled “Sedge birds” (xxiii, 384). On these occasions he bore his gun, and I only the humbler weapon of a butterfly net. After we had left college, I looked upon him with envy as one of [234] the early and successful aspirants to that German post-collegiate education which was already earnestly desired, but rarely attained, by the more studious among Harvard graduates. After his return, I was brought more or less in contact with him, at the close of the “Dial” period, and in the following years of Transcendentalism; and, later still, I was actively associated with him for a time in that group of men who have always dreamed of accomplishing something through the Harvard Visiting Committee, and have retired from it with hopes unaccomplished. Apart from his labors as Emerson's scribe and editor, he seemed to withdraw himself more and more from active life as time went on, and to accept gracefully the attitude which many men find so hard,--that of being, in a manner, superseded by the rising generation. This he could do more easily, since he left a family of sons to represent in various forms the tastes and gifts that were combined in him; and he also left a manuscript autobiography, terse, simple, and modest, like himself, to represent what was in its way a quite unique career. Of this sketch I have been allowed to avail myself through the courtesy of his sons.

James Elliot Cabot was born in Boston June 18, 1821, his birthplace being in Quincy Place, upon the slope of Fort Hill, in a house [235] which had belonged to his grandfather, Samuel Cabot, brother of George Cabot, the well-known leader of the Federalists in his day. These brothers belonged to a family originating in the Island of Jersey and coming early to Salem, Massachusetts. Elliot Cabot's father was also named Samuel, while his mother was the eldest child of Thomas Handasyd Perkins and Sarah Elliot; the former being best known as Colonel Perkins, who gave his house and grounds on Pearl Street toward the foundation of the Blind Asylum bearing his name, and also gave profuse gifts to other Boston institutions; deriving meanwhile his military title from having held command of the Boston Cadets. Elliot Cabot was, therefore, born and bred in the most influential circle of the little city of that date, and he dwelt in what was then the most attractive part of Boston, though long since transformed into a business centre.

His summers were commonly spent at Nahant, then a simple and somewhat primitive seaside spot, and his childhood was also largely passed in the house in Brookline built by Colonel Perkins for his daughter. Elliot Cabot went to school in Boston under the well-known teachers of that day,--Thayer, Ingraham, and Leverett. When twelve years old, during the absence of his parents in Europe, he was sent to a boarding-school [236] in Brookline, but spent Saturday and Sunday with numerous cousins at the house of Colonel Perkins, their common grandfather, who lived in a large and hospitable manner, maintaining an ampler establishment than is to be found in the more crowded Boston of to-day. This ancestor was a man of marked individuality, and I remember hearing from one of his grandchildren an amusing account of the scene which occurred, on one of these Sunday evenings, after the delivery of a total abstinence sermon by the Rev. Dr. Channing, of whose parish Colonel Perkins was one of the leading members. The whole theory of total abstinence was then an absolute innovation, and its proclamation, which came rather suddenly from Dr. Channing, impressed Colonel Perkins much as it might have moved one of Thackeray's English squires; insomuch that he had a double allowance of wine served out that evening to each of his numerous grandsons in place of their accustomed wine-glass of diluted beverage, and this to their visible disadvantage as the evening went on.

Elliot Cabot entered Harvard College in 1836 as Freshman, and though he passed his entrance examinations well, took no prominent rank in his class, but read all sorts of out-of-the-way books and studied natural history. He was also [237] an early reader of Carlyle's “Sartor Resartus,” then just published; and was, in general, quite disposed to pursue his own course in mental culture. He belonged to the Hasty Pudding Club and to the Porcellian Club, but spent much time with his classmates, Henry Bryant and William Sohier, in shooting excursions, which had then the charm of being strictly prohibited by the college. The young men were obliged to carry their guns slung for concealment in two parts, the barrels separated from the stock, under their cloaks, which were then much worn instead of overcoats. This taste was strengthened by the example of Cabot's elder brother, afterwards Dr. Samuel Cabot, an ornithologist; and as the latter was then studying medicine in Paris, the young men used to send him quantities of specimens for purposes of exchange. Dr. Henry Bryant is well remembered in Boston for the large collection of birds given by him to the Boston Natural History Society.

Soon after his graduation, in 1840, Elliot Cabot went abroad with the object of joining his elder brother in Switzerland, visiting Italy, wintering in Paris, and returning home in the spring; but this ended in his going for the winter to Heidelberg instead, a place then made fascinating to all young Americans through the [238] glowing accounts in Longfellow's “Hyperion.” They were also joined by two other classmates,--Edward Holker Welch, afterwards well known in the Roman Catholic priesthood, and John Fenwick Heath, of Virginia, well remembered by the readers of Lowell's letters. All of these four were aiming at the profession of the law, although not one of them, I believe, finally devoted himself to its practice. Migrating afterwards to Berlin, after the fashion of German students, they were admitted to the University on their Harvard degrees by Ranke, the great historian, who said, as he inspected their parchments, “Ah! The high School at Boston!” which they thought showed little respect for President Quincy's parchment, until they found that “Hoch Schule” was the German equivalent for University. There they heard the lectures of Schelling, then famous, whom they found to be a little man of ordinary appearance, old, infirm, and taking snuff constantly, as if to keep himself awake. Later they again removed, this time to Gottingen, where Cabot busied himself with the study of Kant, and also attended courses in Rudolph Wagner's laboratory. Here he shared more of the social life of his companions, frequented their Liederkranze, learned to fence and to dance, and spent many evenings at students' festivals. [239]

Cabot sums up his whole European reminiscences as follows: “As I look back over my residence in Europe, what strikes me is the waste of time and energy from having had no settled purpose to keep my head steady. I seem to have been always well employed and happy, but I had been indulging a disposition to mental sauntering, and the picking up of scraps, very unfavorable to my education. I was, I think, naturally inclined to hover somewhat above the solid earth of practical life, and thus to miss its most useful lessons. The result, I think, was to confirm me in the vices of my mental constitution and to cut off what chance there was of my accomplishing something worth while.”

In March, 1843, he finally left Gottingen for home by way of Belgium and England, and entered the Harvard Law School in the autumn, taking his degree there two years later, in 1845. Renewing acquaintance with him during this period, I found him to be, as always, modest and reticent in manner, bearing unconsciously a certain European prestige upon him, which so commanded the respect of a circle of young men that we gave him the sobriquet of “Jarno,” after the well-known philosophic leader in Goethe's “Wilhelm Meister.” Whatever he may say of himself, I cannot help still retaining [240] somewhat of my old feeling about the mental training of the man who, while in the Law School, could write a paper so admirable as Cabot's essay entitled “Immanuel Kant” ( “Dial,” IV, 409), an essay which seems to me now, as it then seemed, altogether the simplest and most effective statement I have ever encountered of the essential principles of that great thinker's philosophy. I remember that when I told Cabot that I had been trying to read Kant's “Critique of pure reason” in an English translation, but could not understand it, he placidly replied that he had read it twice in German and had thought he comprehended it, but that Meiklejohn's translation was beyond making out, so that I need not be discouraged.

After graduating from the Law School, he went for a year into a law office in Boston, acting as senior partner to my classmate, Francis Edward Parker, who, being a born lawyer, as Cabot was not, found it for his own profit to sever the partnership at the end of a year, while Cabot retired from the profession forever. His German training had meanwhile made him well known to the leaders of a new literary enterprise, originating with Theodore Parker and based upon a meeting at Mr. Emerson's house in 1849, the object being the organization [241] of a new magazine, which should be, in Theodore Parker's phrase, “the ‘Dial’ with a beard.” Liberals and reformers were present at the meeting, including men so essentially diverse as Sumner and Thoreau. Parker was, of course, to be the leading editor, and became such. Emerson also consented, “rather weakly,” as Cabot says in his memoranda, to appear, and contributed only the introductory address, while Cabot himself agreed to act as corresponding secretary and business manager. The “Massachusetts Quarterly Review” sustained itself with difficulty for three years,showing more of studious and systematic work than its predecessor, the “Dial,” but far less of freshness and originality,--and then went under.

A more successful enterprise in which he was meanwhile enlisted was a trip to Lake Superior with Agassiz, in 1850, when Cabot acted as secretary and wrote and illustrated the published volume of the expedition,--a book which was then full of fresh novelties, and which is still very readable. Soon after his return, he went into his brother Edward's architect office in Boston to put his accounts in order, and ultimately became a partner in the business, erecting various buildings.

He was married on September 28, 1857, [242] to Elizabeth Dwight, daughter of Edmund Dwight, Esq., a woman of rare qualities and great public usefulness, who singularly carried on the tradition of those Essex County women of an earlier generation, who were such strong helpmates to their husbands. Of Mrs. Cabot it might almost have been said, as was said by John Lowell in 1826 of his cousin, Elizabeth Higginson, wife of her double first cousin, George Cabot: “She had none of the advantages of early education afforded so bountifully to the young ladies of the present age; but she surpassed all of them in the acuteness of her observation, in the knowledge of human nature, and in her power of expressing and defending the opinions which she had formed.” 1 Thus Elliot Cabot writes of his wife: “From the time when the care of her children ceased to occupy the most of her time, she gradually became one of the most valuable of the town officials, as well as the unofficial counselor of many who needed the unfailing succor of her inexhaustible sympathy and practical helpfulness.”

Cabot visited Europe anew after his marriage, and after his return, served for nine years as a school-committee-man in Brookline, where he resided. He afterwards did faithful duty for six [243] years as chairman of the examining committee of Harvard Overseers. He gave for a single year a series of lectures on Kant at Harvard University, and for a time acted as instructor in Logic there, which included a supervision of the forensics or written discussions then in vogue. The Civil War aroused his sympathies strongly, especially when his brother Edward and his personal friend, Francis L. Lee, became respectively Lieutenant-Colonel and Colonel of the 44th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Elliot Cabot himself enlisted in a drill club, and did some work for the Sanitary Commission. He also assisted greatly in organizing the Museum of Fine Arts and in the administration of the Boston Athenaeum.

Though a life-long student, he wrote little for the press,--a fact which recalls Theodore Parker's remark about him, that he “could make a good law argument, but could not address it to the jury.” He rendered, however, a great and permanent service, far outweighing that performed by most American authors of his time, as volunteer secretary to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a task which constituted his main occupation for five or six years. After Emerson's death, Cabot also wrote his memoirs, by the wish of the family,--a book which will always remain the primary authority on the [244] subject with which it deals, although it was justly criticised by others for a certain restricted tone which made it seem to be, as it really was, the work of one shy and reticent man telling the story of another. In describing Emerson, the biographer often unconsciously described himself also; and the later publications of Mr. Emerson's only son show clearly that there was room for a more ample and varied treatment in order to complete the work.

Under these circumstances, Cabot's home life, while of even tenor, was a singularly happy one. One of his strongest and life-long traits was his love of children,--a trait which he also eminently shared with Emerson. The group formed by him with two grandchildren in his lap, to whom he was reading John Gilpin or Hans Andersen, is one which those who knew him at home would never forget. It was characteristic also that in his German copy of Kant's “Critique of pure reason,” already mentioned, there were found some papers covered with drawings of horses and carts which had been made to amuse some eager child. Akin to this was his strong love of flowers, united with a rare skill in making beautiful shrubs grow here 2nd there in such places as would bring out the lines and curves of his estate at Beverly. Even during the last summer [245] of his life, he was cutting new little vistas on the Beverly hills. His sketches of landscape in water-color were also very characteristic both of his delicate and poetic appreciation of nature and of his skill and interest in drawing. In 1885, while in Italy, he used to draw objects seen from the car window as he traveled; and often in the morning, when his family came down to breakfast at hotels, they found that he had already made an exquisite sketch in pencil of some tower or arch.

His outward life, on the whole, seemed much akin to the lives led by that considerable class of English gentlemen who adopt no profession, dwelling mainly on their paternal estates, yet are neither politicians nor fox-hunters; pursuing their own favorite studies, taking part from time to time in the pursuits of science, art, or literature, even holding minor public functions, but winning no widespread fame. He showed, on the other hand, the freedom from prejudice, the progressive tendency, and the ideal proclivities which belong more commonly to Americans. He seemed to himself to have accomplished nothing; and yet he had indirectly aided a great many men by the elevation of his tone and the breadth of his intellectual sympathy. If he did not greatly help to stimulate the thought of his time, he helped distinctly to enlarge [246] and ennoble it. His death occurred at Brookline, Massachusetts, on January 16, 1903. He died as he had lived, a high-minded, stainless, and in some respects unique type of American citizen. [247]

1 Lodge's George Cabot, 12, note.

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