BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH BY THOMAS R. LOUNSBURY
The county of Franklin in Northwestern Massachusetts, if not rivaling in certain ways the adjoining Berkshire, has still a romantic beauty of its own. In the former half of the nineteenth century its population was largely given up to the pursuit of agriculture, though not under altogether favorable conditions. Manufactures had not yet invaded the region either to add to its wealth or to defile its streams. The villages were small, the roads pretty generally wretched save in summer, and from many of the fields the most abundant crop that could be gathered was that of stones.
The character of the people conformed in many ways to that of the soil. The houses which lined the opposite sides of the single street, of which the petty places largely consisted, as well as the dwellings which dotted the country, were the homes of men who possessed in fullness many of the features, good and bad, that characterized the Puritan stock to which they belonged. There was a good deal of religion in these rural communities and occasionally some culture. Still, as a rule, it must be confessed, there would be found in them much more of plain living than of high thinking. Broad thinking could hardly be said to exist at all. By the dwellers in that region Easter had scarcely even been heard of;
Christmas was tolerated after a fashion, but was nevertheless looked upon with a good deal of suspicion as a Popish invention. In the beliefs of these men several sins not mentioned in the decalogue took really, if unconsciously, precedence of those which chanced to be found in that list. Dancing was distinctly immoral; card-playing led directly to gambling with all its attendant evils; theatre-going characterized the conduct of the more disreputable denizens of great cities. Fiction was not absolutely forbidden; but the most lenient regarded it as a great waste of time, and the boy who desired its solace on any large scale was under the frequent necessity of seeking the seclusion of the haymow.
But however rigid and stern the beliefs of men might be, nature was there always charming, not only in her summer beauty, but even in her wildest winter moods. Narrow, too, as might be the views of the members of these communities about the conduct of life, there was ever before the minds of the best of them an ideal of devotion to duty, an earnest all-pervading moral purpose which implanted the feeling that neither personal success nor pleasure of any sort could ever afford even remotely compensation for the neglect of the least obligation which their situation imposed. It was no misfortune for any one, who was later to be transported to a broader horizon and more genial air, to have struck the roots of his being in a soil where men felt the full sense of moral responsibility for everything said or done, and where the conscience was almost as sensitive to the suggestion of sin as to its actual accomplishment.
It was amidst such surroundings that Charles Dudley Warner was born on the 12th of September, 1829. His birthplace was the hill town of Plainfield, over two thousand feet above the level of the sea. His father, a farmer, was a man of cultivation, though not college-bred. He died when his eldest son had reached the age of five, leaving to his widow the care of two children. Three years longer the family continued to remain on the farm. But however delightful the scenery of the country might be, its aesthetic attractions did not sufficiently counterbalance its agricultural disadvantages. Furthermore, while the summers were beautiful on this high table land, the winters were long and dreary in the enforced solitude of a thinly settled region. In consequence, the farm was sold after the death of the grandfather, and the home broken up. The mother with her two children, went to the neighboring village of Charlemont on the banks of the Deerfield. There the elder son took up his residence with his guardian and relative, a man of position and influence in the community, who was the owner of a large farm. With him he stayed until he was twelve years old, enjoying all the pleasures and doing all the miscellaneous jobs of the kind which fall to the lot of a boy brought up in an agricultural community.
The story of this particular period of his life was given by Warner in a work which was published about forty years later. It is the volume entitled “Being a Boy.” Nowhere has there been drawn a truer or more vivid picture of rural New England. Nowhere else can there be found such a portrayal of the sights and sounds, the pains and pleasures of life on a farm as seen from the point of view of a boy. Here we have them all graphically represented: the daily “chores” that must be looked after; the driving of cows to and from the pasture; the clearing up of fields where vegetation struggled with difficulty against the prevailing stones; the climbing of lofty trees and the swaying back and forth in the wind on their topmost boughs; the hunting of woodchucks; the nutting excursions of November days, culminating in the glories of Thanksgiving; the romance of school life, over which vacations, far from being welcomed with delight, cast a gloom as involving extra work; the cold days of winter with its deep or drifting snows, the mercury of the thermometer clinging with fondness to zero, even when the sun was shining brilliantly; the long chilling nights in which the frost carved fantastic structures on the window-panes; the eager watching for the time when the sap would begin to run in the sugar-maples; the evenings given up to reading, with the inevitable inward discontent at being sent to bed too early; the longing for the mild days of spring to come, when the heavy cowhide boots could be discarded, and the boy could rejoice at last in the covering for his feet which the Lord had provided. These and scores of similar descriptions fill up the picture of the life furnished here. It was nature’s own school wherein was to be gained the fullest intimacy with her spirit. While there was much which she could not teach, there was also much which she alone could teach. From his communion with her the boy learned lessons which the streets of crowded cities could never have imparted.
At the age of twelve this portion of his education came to an end. The family then moved to Cazenovia in Madison county in Central New York, from which place Warner’s mother had come, and where her immediate relatives then resided. Until he went to college this was his home. There he attended a preparatory school under the direction of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which was styled the Oneida Conference Seminary. It was at this institution that he fitted mainly for college; for to college it had been his father’s dying wish that he should go, and the boy himself did not need the spur of this parting injunction. A college near his home was the excellent one of Hamilton in the not distant town of Clinton in the adjoining county of Oneida. Thither he repaired in 1848, and as he had made the best use of his advantages, he was enabled to enter the sophomore class. He was graduated in 1851.
But while fond of study he had all these years been doing something besides studying. The means of the family were limited, and to secure the education he desired, not only was it necessary to husband the resources he possessed, but to increase them in every possible way. Warner had all the American boy’s willingness to undertake any occupation not in itself discreditable. Hence to him fell a full share of those experiences which have diversified the early years of so many men who have achieved success. He set up type in a printing office; he acted as an assistant in a bookstore; he served as clerk in a post-office. He was thus early brought into direct contact with persons of all classes and conditions of life.
The experience gave to his keenly observant mind an insight into the nature of men which was to be of special service to him in later years. Further, it imparted to him a familiarity with their opinions and hopes and aspirations which enabled him to understand and sympathize with feelings in which he did not always share.
During the years which immediately followed his departure from college, Warner led the somewhat desultory and apparently aimless life of many American graduates whose future depends upon their own exertions and whose choice of a career is mainly determined by circumstances. From the very earliest period of his life he had been fond of reading. It was an inherited taste. The few books he found in his childhood’s home would have been almost swept out of sight in the torrent, largely of trash, which pours now in a steady stream into the humblest household. But the books, though few, were of a high quality; and because they were few they were read much, and their contents became an integral part of his intellectual equipment. Furthermore, these works of the great masters, with which he became familiar, set for him a standard by which to test the value of whatever he read, and saved him even in his earliest years from having his taste impaired and his judgment misled by the vogue of meretricious productions which every now and then gain popularity for the time. They gave him also a distinct bent towards making literature his profession. But literature, however pleasant and occasionally profitable as an avocation, was not to be thought of as a vocation. Few there are at any period who have succeeded in finding it a substantial and permanent support; at that time and in this country such a prospect was practically hopeless for any one. It is no matter of surprise, therefore, that Warner, though often deviating from the direct path, steadily gravitated toward the profession of law.
Still, even in those early days his natural inclination manifested itself. The Knickerbocker Magazine was then the chosen organ to which all young literary aspirants sent their productions. To it even in his college days Warner contributed to some extent, though it would doubtless be possible now to gather out of this collection but few pieces which, lacking his own identification, could be assigned to him positively. At a later period he contributed articles to Putnam’s Magazine, which began its existence in 1853. Warner himself at one time, in that period of struggle and uncertainty, expected to become an editor of a monthly which was to be started in Detroit. But before the magazine was actually set on foot the inability of the person who projected it to supply the necessary means for carrying it on prevented the failure which would inevitably have befallen a venture of that sort, undertaken at that time and in that place. Yet he showed in a way the native bent of his mind by bringing out two years after his graduation from college a volume of selections from English and American authors entitled “The Book of Eloquence.” This work a publisher many years afterward took advantage of his later reputation to reprint.
This unsettled period of his life lasted for several years. He was resident for a while in various places. Part of the time he seems to have been in Cazenovia; part of the time in New York; part of the time in the West. One thing in particular there was which stood in the way of fixing definitely his choice of a profession. This was the precarious state of his health, far poorer then than it was in subsequent years. Warner, however, was never at any period of his life what is called robust. It was his exceeding temperance in all things which enabled him to venture upon the assumption and succeed in the accomplishment of tasks which men, physically far stronger than he, would have shrunk from under-taking, even had they been possessed of the same abilities. But his condition, part of that time, was such that it led him to take a course of treatment at the sanatorium in Clifton Springs. It became apparent, however, that life in the open air, for a while at least, was the one thing essential. Under the pressure of this necessity he secured a position as one of an engineering party engaged in the survey of a railway in Missouri. In that occupation he spent a large part of 1853 and 1854. He came back from this expedition restored to health. With that result accomplished, the duty of settling definitely upon what he was to do became more urgent. Among other things he did, while living for a while with his uncle in Binghamton, N. Y., he studied law in the office of Daniel S. Dickinson.
In the Christmas season of 1854 he went with a friend on a visit to Philadelphia and stayed at the house of Philip M. Price, a prominent citizen of that place who was engaged, among other things, in the conveyancing of real estate. It will not be surprising to any one who knew the charm of his society in later life to be told that he became at once a favorite with the older man. The latter was advanced in years, he was anxious to retire from active business. Acting under his advice, Warner was induced to come to Philadelphia in 1855 and join him, and to form subsequently a partnership in legal conveyancing with another young man who had been employed in Mr. Price’s office. Thus came into being the firm of Barton and Warner. Their headquarters were first in Spring Garden Street and later in Walnut Street. The future soon became sufficiently assured to justify Warner in marriage, and in October, 1856, he was wedded to Susan Lee, daughter of William Elliott Lee of New York City.
But though in a business allied to the law, Warner was not yet a lawyer. His occupation indeed was only in his eyes a temporary makeshift while he was preparing himself for what was to be his real work in life. Therefore, while supporting himself by carrying on the business of conveyancing, he attended the courses of study at the law department of the University of Pennsylvania, during the academic years of 1856-57 and 1857-58. From that institution he received the degree of bachelor of law in 1858--often misstated 1856--and was ready to begin the practice of his, profession.
In those days every young man of ability and ambition was counseled to go West and grow up with the country, and was not unfrequently disposed to take that course of his own accord. Warner felt the general impulse. He had contemplated entering, in fact had pretty definitely made up his mind to enter, into a law partnership with a friend in one of the smaller places in that region. But on a tour, somewhat of exploration, he stopped at Chicago. There he met another friend, and after talking over the situation with him he decided to take up his residence in that city. So in 1858 the law-firm of Davenport and Warner came into being. It lasted until 1860. It was not exactly a favorable time for young men to enter upon the practice of this profession. The country was just beginning to recover from the depression which had followed the disastrous panic of 1857; but confidence was as yet far from being restored. The new firm did a fairly good business; but while there was sufficient work to do, there was but little money to pay for it. Still Warner would doubtless have continued in the profession had he not received an offer, the acceptance of which determined his future and changed entirely his career.
Hawley, now United States Senator from Connecticut, was Warner’s senior by a few years. He had preceded him as a student at the Oneida Conference Seminary and at Hamilton College. Practicing law in Hartford, he had started in 1857, in conjunction with other leading citizens, a paper called the Evening Press. It was devoted to the advocacy of the principles of the Republican party, which was at that time still in what may be called the formative state of its existence. This was a period in which for some years the dissolution had been going on of the two old parties which had divided the country. Men were changing sides and were aligning themselves anew according to their views on questions which were every day assuming greater prominence in the minds of all. There was really but one great subject talked about or thought about. It split into opposing sections the whole land over which was lowering the grim, though as yet unrecognizable, shadow of civil war. The Republican party had been in existence but a very few years, but in that short time it had attracted to its ranks the young and enthusiastic spirits of the North, just as to the other side were impelled the members of the same class in the South. The intellectual contest which preceded the physical was stirring the hearts of all men. Hawley, who was well aware of Warner’s peculiar ability, was anxious to secure his co-operation and assistance. He urged him to come East and join him in the conduct of the new enterprise he had undertaken.
Warner always considered that he derived great benefit from his comparatively limited study and practice of law; and that the little time he had given up to it had been far from being misspent. But the opening which now presented itself introduced him to a field of activity much more suited to his talents and his tastes. He liked the study of law better than its practice; for his early training had not been of a kind to reconcile him to standing up strongly for clients and causes that he honestly believed to be in the wrong. Furthermore, his heart, as has been said, had always been in literature; and though journalism could hardly be called much more than a half-sister, the one could provide the support which the other could never promise with certainty. So in 1860 Warner removed to Hartford and joined his friend as associate editor of the newspaper he had founded. The next year the war broke out. Hawley at once entered the army and took part in the four years’ struggle. His departure left Warner in editorial charge of the paper, into the conduct of which he threw himself with all the earnestness and energy of his nature, and the ability, both political and literary, displayed in its columns gave it at once a high position which it never lost.
At this point it may be well to give briefly the few further salient facts of Warner’s connection with journalism proper. In 1867 the owners of the Press purchased the Courant, the well-known morning paper which had been founded more than a century before, and consolidated the Press with it. Of this journal, Hawley and Warner, now in part proprietors, were the editorial writers. The former, who had been mustered out of the army with the rank of brevet Major-General, was soon diverted from journalism by other employments. He was elected Governor, he became a member of Congress, serving successively in both branches. The main editorial responsibility for the conduct of the paper devolved in consequence upon Warner, and to it he gave up for years nearly all his thought and attention. Once only during that early period was his labor interrupted for any considerable length of time. In May, 1868, he set out on the first of his five trips across the Atlantic. He was absent nearly a year. Yet even then he cannot be said to have neglected his special work. Articles were sent weekly from the other side, describing what he saw and experienced abroad. His active connection with the paper he never gave up absolutely, nor did his interest in it ever cease. But after he became connected with the editorial staff of Harpers Magazine the contributions he made to his journal were only occasional and what may be called accidental.
When 1870 came, forty years of Warner’s life had gone by, and nearly twenty years since he had left college. During the latter ten years of this period he had been a most effective and forcible leader-writer on political and social questions, never more so than during the storm and stress of the Civil War. Outside of these topics he had devoted a great deal of attention to matters connected with literature and art. His varied abilities were fully recognized by the readers of the journal he edited.
But as yet there was little or no recognition outside. It is no easy matter to tell what are the influences, what the circumstances, which determine the success of a particular writer or of a particular work. Hitherto Warner’s repute was mainly confined to the inhabitants of a provincial capital and its outlying and dependent towns. However cultivated the class to which his writings appealed—and as a class it was distinctly cultivated—their number was necessarily not great. To the country at large what he did or what he was capable of doing was not known at all. Some slight efforts he had occasionally put forth to secure the publication of matter he had prepared. He experienced the usual fate of authors who seek to introduce into the market literary wares of a new and better sort. His productions did not follow conventional lines. Publishers were ready to examine what he offered, and were just as ready to declare that these new wares were of a nature in which they were not inclined to deal.
But during 1870 a series of humorous articles appeared in the Hartford Courant, detailing his experiences in the cultivation of a garden. Warner had become the owner of a small place then almost on the outskirts of the city. With the dwelling-house went the possession of three acres of land. The opportunity thus presented itself of turning into a blessing the primeval curse of tilling the soil, in this instance not with a hoe, but with a pen. These articles detailing his experiences excited so much amusement and so much admiration that a general desire was manifested that they should receive a more permanent life than that accorded to articles appearing in the columns of newspapers, and should reach a circle larger than that to be found in the society of the Connecticut capital. Warner’s previous experience had not disposed him to try his fortunes with the members of the publishing fraternity. In fact he did not lay so much stress upon the articles as did his readers and friends. He always insisted that he had previously written other articles which in his eyes certainly were just as good as they, if not better.
It so chanced that about this time Henry Ward Beecher came to Hartford to visit his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Warner was invited to meet him. In the course of the conversation the articles just mentioned were referred to by some one of those present. Beecher’s curiosity was aroused and he expressed a desire to see them. To him they were accordingly sent for perusal. No sooner had he run through them than he recognized in them the presence of a rare and delicate humor which struck a distinctly new note in American literature. It was something he felt which should not be confined to the knowledge of any limited circle. He wrote at once to the publisher James T. Fields, urging the production of these articles in book form. Beecher’s recommendation in those days was sufficient to insure the acceptance of any book by any publisher. Mr. Fields agreed to bring out the work, provided the great preacher would prefix an introduction. This he promised to do and did; though in place of the somewhat more formal piece he was asked to write, he sent what he called an introductory letter.
The series of papers published under the title of “My Summer in a Garden” came out at the very end of 1870, with the date of 1871 on the title-page. The volume met with instantaneous success. It was the subject of comment and conversation everywhere and passed rapidly through several editions. There was a general feeling that a new writer had suddenly appeared, with a wit and wisdom peculiarly his own, precisely like which nothing had previously existed in our literature. To the later editions of the work was added an account of a cat which had been presented to the author by the Stowes. For that reason it was given from the Christian name of the husband of the novelist the title of Calvin. To this John was sometimes prefixed, as betokening from the purely animal point of view a certain resemblance to the imputed grimness and earnestness of the great reformer. There was nothing in the least exaggerated in the account which Warner gave of the character and conduct of this really remarkable member of the feline race. No biography was ever truer; no appreciation was ever more sympathetic; and in the long line of cats none was ever more worthy to have his story truly and sympathetically told. All who had the fortune to see Calvin in the flesh will recognize the accuracy with which his portrait was drawn. All who read the account of him, though not having seen him, will find it one of the most charming of descriptions. It has the fullest right to be termed a cat classic.
With the publication of “My Summer in a Garden” Warner was launched upon a career of authorship which lasted without cessation during the thirty years that remained of his life. It covered a wide field. His interests were varied and his activity was unremitting. Literature, art, and that vast diversity of topics which are loosely embraced under the general name of social science—upon all these he had something fresh to say, and he said it invariably with attractiveness and effect. It mattered little what he set out to talk about, the talk was sure to be full both of instruction and entertainment. No sooner had the unequivocal success of his first published work brought his name before the public than he was besieged for contributions by conductors of periodicals of all sorts; and as he had ideas of his own upon all sorts of subjects, he was constantly furnishing matter of the most diverse kind for the most diverse audiences.
As a result, the volumes here gathered together represent but a limited portion of the work he accomplished. All his life, indeed, Warner was not only an omnivorous consumer of the writings of others, but a constant producer. The manifestation of it took place in ways frequently known to but few. It was not merely the fact that as an editor of a daily paper he wrote regularly articles on topics of current interest to which he never expected to pay any further attention; but after his name became widely known and his services were in request everywhere, he produced scores of articles, some long, some short, some signed, some unsigned, of which he made no account whatever. One looking through the pages of contemporary periodical literature is apt at any moment to light upon pieces, and sometimes upon series of them, which the author never took the trouble to collect. Many of those to which his name was not attached can no longer be identified with any approach to certainty. About the preservation of much that he did—and some of it belonged distinctly to his best and most characteristic work—he was singularly careless, or it may be better to say, singularly indifferent.
If I may be permitted to indulge in the recital of a personal experience, there is one incident I recall which will bring out this trait in a marked manner. Once on a visit to him I accompanied him to the office of his paper. While waiting for him to discharge certain duties there, and employing myself in looking over the exchanges, I chanced to light upon a leading article on the editorial page of one of the most prominent of the New York dailies. It was devoted to the consideration of some recent utterances of a noted orator who, after the actual mission of his life had been accomplished, was employing the decline of it in the exploitation of every political and economic vagary which it had entered into the addled brains of men to evolve. The article struck me as one of the most brilliant and entertaining of its kind I had ever read; it was not long indeed before it appeared that the same view of it was taken by many others throughout the country. The peculiar wit of the comment, the keenness of the satire made so much of an impression upon me that I called Warner away from his work to look at it. At my request he hastily glanced over it, but somewhat to my chagrin failed to evince any enthusiasm about it. On our way home I again spoke of it and was a good deal nettled at the indifference towards it which he manifested. It seemed to imply that my critical judgment was of little value; and however true might be his conclusion on that point, one does not enjoy having the fact thrust too forcibly upon the attention in the familiarity of conversation. Resenting therefore the tone he had assumed, I took occasion not only to reiterate my previously expressed opinion somewhat more aggressively, but also went on to insinuate that he was himself distinctly lacking in any real appreciation of what was excellent. He bore with me patiently for a while. “Well, sonny,” he said at last, “since you seem to take the matter so much to heart, I will tell you in confidence that I wrote the piece myself.” I found that this was not only true in the case just specified, but that while engaged in preparing articles for his own paper he occasionally prepared them for other journals. No one besides himself and those immediately concerned, ever knew anything about the matter. He never asserted any right to these pieces, he never sought to collect them, though some of them exhibited his happiest vein of humor. Unclaimed, unidentified, they are swept into that wallet of oblivion in which time stows the best as well as the worst of newspaper production.
The next volume of Warner’s writings that made its appearance was entitled “Saunterings.” It was the first and, though good of its kind, was by no means the best of a class of productions in which he was to exhibit signal excellence. It will be observed that of the various works comprised in this collective edition, no small number consist of what by a wide extension of the phrase may be termed books of travel. There are two or three which fall strictly under that designation. Most of them, however, can be more properly called records of personal experience and adventure in different places and regions, with the comments on life and character to which they gave rise.
Books of travel, if they are expected to live, are peculiarly hard to write. If they come out at a period when curiosity about the region described is predominant, they are fairly certain, no matter how wretched, to achieve temporary success. But there is no kind of literary production to which, by the very law of its being, it is more difficult to impart vitality. Paradoxical as it may seem, it is perfectly true that the greatest hinderance to their permanent interest is the information they furnish. The more full, specific and even accurate that is, the more rapidly does the work containing it lose its value. The fresher knowledge conveyed by a new, and it may be much inferior book, crowds out of circulation those which have gone before. The changed or changing conditions in the region traversed renders the information previously furnished out of date and even misleading. Hence the older works come in time to have only an antiquarian interest. Their pages are consulted only by that very limited number of persons who are anxious to learn what has been and view with stolid indifference what actually is. Something of this transitory nature belongs to all sketches of travel. It is the one great reason why so very few of the countless number of such works, written, and sometimes written by men of highest ability, are hardly heard of a few years after publication. Travels form a species of literary production in which great classics are exceedingly rare.
From this fatal characteristic, threatening the enduring life of such works, most of Warner’s writings of this sort were saved by the method of procedure he followed. He made it his main object not to give facts but impressions. All details of exact information, everything calculated to gratify the statistical mind or to quench the thirst of the seeker for purely useful information, he was careful, whether consciously or unconsciously, to banish from those volumes of his in which he followed his own bent and felt himself under no obligation to say anything but what he chose. Hence these books are mainly a record of views of men and manners made by an acute observer on the spot, and put down at the moment when the impression created was most vivid, not deferred till familiarity had dulled the sense of it or custom had caused it to be disregarded. Take as an illustration the little book entitled “Baddeck,” one of the slightest of his productions in this field. It purports to be and is nothing more than an account of a two weeks’ tour made to a Cape Breton locality in company with the delightful companion to whom it was dedicated. You take it up with the notion that you are going to acquire information about the whole country journeyed over, you are beguiled at times with the fancy that you are getting it. In the best sense it may be said that you do get it; for it is the general impression of the various scenes through which the expedition leads the travelers that is left upon the mind, not those accurate details of a single one of them which the lapse of a year might render inaccurate. It is to the credit of the work therefore than one gains from it little specific knowledge. In its place are the reflections both wise and witty upon life, upon the characters of the men that are met, upon the nature of the sights that are seen.
This is what constitutes the enduring charm of the best of these pictures of travel which Warner produced. It is perhaps misleading to assert that they do not furnish a good deal of information. Still it is not the sort of information which the ordinary tourist gives and which the cultivated reader resents and is careful not to remember. Their dominant note is rather the quiet humor of a delightful story-teller, who cannot fail to say something of interest because he has seen so much; and who out of his wide and varied observation selects for recital certain sights he has witnessed, certain experiences he has gone through, and so relates them that the way the thing is told is even more interesting than the thing told. The chief value of these works does not accordingly depend upon the accidental, which passes. Inns change and become better or worse. Facilities for transportation increase or decrease. Scenery itself alters to some extent under the operation of agencies brought to bear upon it for its own improvement or for the improvement of something else. But man’s nature remains a constant quantity. Traits seen here and now are sure to be met with somewhere else, and even in ages to come. Hence works of this nature, embodying descriptions of men and manners, always retain something of the freshness which characterized them on the day of their appearance.
Of these productions in which the personal element predominates, and where the necessity of intruding information is not felt as a burden, those of Warner’s works which deal with the Orient take the first rank. The two—“My Winter on the Nile” and “In the Levant”—constitute the record of a visit to the East during the years 1875 and 1876.
They would naturally have of themselves the most permanent value, inasmuch as the countries described have for most educated men an abiding interest. The lifelike representation and graphic characterization which Warner was apt to display in his traveling sketches were here seen at their best, because nowhere else did he find the task of description more congenial. Alike the gorgeousness and the squalor of the Orient appealed to his artistic sympathies. Egypt in particular had for him always a special fascination. Twice he visited it—at the time just mentioned and again in the winter of 1881-82. He rejoiced in every effort made to dispel the obscurity which hung over its early history. No one, outside of the men most immediately concerned, took a deeper interest than he in the work of the Egyptian Exploration Society, of which he was one of the American vice-presidents. To promoting its success he gave no small share of time and attention. Everything connected with either the past or the present of the country had for him an attraction. A civilization which had been flourishing for centuries, when the founder of Israel was a wandering sheik on the Syrian plains or in the hill-country of Canaan; the slow unraveling of records of dynasties of forgotten kings; the memorials of Egypt’s vanished greatness and the vision of her future prosperity these and things similar to these made this country, so peculiarly the gift of the Nile, of fascinating interest to the modern traveler who saw the same sights which had met the eyes of Herodotus nearly twenty-five hundred years before.
To the general public the volume which followed—“In the Levant”—was perhaps of even deeper interest. At all events it dealt with scenes and memories with which every reader, educated or uneducated, had associations. The region through which the founder of Christianity wandered, the places he visited, the words he said in them, the acts he did, have never lost their hold over the hearts of men, not even during the periods when the precepts of Christianity have had the least influence over the conduct of those who professed to it their allegiance. In the Levant, too, were seen the beginnings of commerce, of art, of letters, in the forms in which the modern world best knows them. These, therefore, have always made the lands about the eastern Mediterranean an attraction to cultivated men and the interest of the subject accordingly reinforced the skill of the writer.
There are two or three of these works which can not be included in the class just described. They were written for the specific purpose of giving exact information at the time. Of these the most noticeable are the volumes entitled “South and West” and the account of Southern California which goes under the name of “Our Italy.” They are the outcome of journeys made expressly with the intent of investigating and reporting upon the actual situation and apparent prospects of the places and regions described. As they were written to serve an immediate purpose, much of the information contained in them tends to grow more and more out of date as time goes on; and though of value to the student of history, these volumes must necessarily become of steadily diminishing interest to the ordinary reader. Yet it is to be said of them that while the pill of useful information is there, it has at least been sugar-coated. Nor can we afford to lose sight of the fact that the widely-circulated articles, collected under the title of “South and West,” by the spirit pervading them as well as by the information they gave, had a marked effect in bringing the various sections of the country into a better understanding of one another, and in imparting to all a fuller sense of the community they possessed in profit and loss, in honor and dishonor.
It is a somewhat singular fact that these sketches of travel led Warner incidentally to enter into an entirely new field of literary exertion. This was novel-writing. Something of this nature he had attempted in conjunction with Mark Twain in the composition of “The Gilded Age,” which appeared in 1873. The result, however, was unsatisfactory to both the collaborators. Each had humor, but the humor of each was fundamentally different. But the magazine with which Warner had become connected was desirous that he should prepare for it an account of some of the principal watering-places and summer resorts of the country. Each was to be visited in turn and its salient features were to be described. It was finally suggested that this could be done most effectively by weaving into a love story occurrences that might happen at a number of these places which were made the subjects of description. The principal characters were to take their tours under the personal conduct of the novelist. They were to go to the particular spots selected North and South, according to the varying seasons of the year. It was a somewhat novel way of, visiting resorts of this nature; there are those to whom it will seem altogether more agreeable than would be the visiting of them in person. Hence appeared in 1886 the articles which were collected later in the volume entitled “Their Pilgrimage.”
Warner executed the task which had been assigned him with his wonted skill. The completed work met with success—with so much success indeed that he was led later to try his fortune further in the same field and bring out the trilogy of novels which go under the names respectively of “A Little Journey in the World,” “The Golden House,” and “That Fortune.” Each of these is complete in itself, each can be read by itself; but the effect of each and of the whole series can be best secured by reading them in succession. In the first it is the story of how a great fortune was made in the stock market; in the second, how it was fraudulently diverted from the object for which it was intended; and in the third, how it was most beneficially and satisfactorily lost. The scene of the last novel was laid in part in Warner’s early home in Charlemont. These works were produced with considerable intervals of time between their respective appearances, the first coming out in 1889 and the third ten years later. This detracted to some extent from the popularity which they would have attained had the different members followed one another rapidly. Still, they met with distinct success, though it has always been a question whether this success was due so much to the story as to the shrewd observation and caustic wit which were brought to bear upon what was essentially a serious study of one side of American social life.
The work with which Warner himself was least satisfied was his life of Captain John Smith, which came out in 18881. It was originally intended to be one of a series of biographies of noted men, which were to give the facts accurately but to treat them humorously. History and comedy, however, have never been blended successfully, though desperate attempts have occasionally been made to achieve that result. Warner had not long been engaged in the task before he recognized its hopelessness. For its preparation it required a special study of the man and the period, and the more time he spent upon the preliminary work, the more the humorous element tended to recede. Thus acted on by two impulses, one of a light and one of a grave nature, he moved for a while in a sort of diagonal between the two to nowhere in particular; but finally ended in treating the subject seriously.
In giving himself up to a biography in which he had no special interest, Warner felt conscious that he could not interest others. His forebodings were realized. The work, though made from a careful study of original sources, did not please him, nor did it attract the public. The attempt was all the more unfortunate because the time and toil he spent upon it diverted him from carrying out a scheme which had then taken full possession of his thoughts. This was the production of a series of essays to be entitled “Conversations on Horseback.” Had it been worked up as he sketched it in his mind, it would have been the outdoor counterpart of his “Backlog Studies.” Though in a measure based upon a horseback ride which he took in Pennsylvania in 1880, the incidents of travel as he outlined its intended treatment would have barely furnished the slightest of backgrounds. Captain John Smith, however, interfered with a project specially suited to his abilities and congenial to his tastes. That he did so possibly led the author of his life to exhibit a somewhat hostile attitude towards his hero. When the biography was finished, other engagements were pressing upon his attention. The opportunity of taking up and completing the projected series of essays never presented itself, though the subject lay in his mind for a long time and he himself believed that it would have turned out one of the best pieces of work he ever did.
It was unfortunate. For to me—and very likely to many others if not to most—Warner’s strength lay above all in essay-writing. What he accomplished in this line was almost invariably pervaded by that genial grace which makes work of the kind attractive, and he exhibited everywhere in it the delicate but sure touch which preserves the just mean between saying too much and too little. The essay was in his nature, and his occupation as a journalist had developed the tendency towards this form of literary activity, as well as skill in its manipulation. Whether he wrote sketches of travel, or whether he wrote fiction, the scene depicted was from the point of view of the essayist rather than from that of the tourist or of the novelist. It is this characteristic which gives to his work in the former field its enduring interest. Again in his novels, it was not so much the story that was in his thoughts as the opportunity the varying scenes afforded for amusing observations upon manners, for comments upon life, sometimes good-natured, sometimes severe, but always entertaining, and above all, for serious study of the social problems which present themselves on every side for examination. This is distinctly the province of the essayist, and in it Warner always displayed his fullest strength.
We have seen that his first purely humorous publication of this nature was the one which made him known to the general public. It was speedily followed, however, by one of a somewhat graver character, which became at the time and has since remained a special favorite of cultivated readers. This is the volume entitled “Backlog Studies.” The attractiveness of this work is as much due to the suggestive social and literary discussions with which it abounds as to the delicate and refined humor with which the ideas are expressed. Something of the same characteristics was displayed in the two little volumes of short pieces dealing with social topics, which came out later under the respective titles of “As We Were Saying,” and “As We Go.” But there was a deeper and more serious side of his nature which found utterance in several of his essays, particularly in some which were given in the form of addresses delivered at various institutions of learning. They exhibit the charm which belongs to all his writings; but his feelings were too profoundly interested in the subjects considered to allow him to give more than occasional play to his humor. Essays contained in such a volume, for instance, as “The Relation of Literature to Life” will not appeal to him whose main object in reading is amusement. Into them Warner put his deepest and most earnest convictions. The subject from which the book just mentioned derived its title lay near to his heart. No one felt more strongly than he the importance of art of all kinds, but especially of literary art, for the uplifting of a nation. No one saw more distinctly the absolute necessity of its fullest recognition in a moneymaking age and in a money-making land, if the spread of the dry rot of moral deterioration were to be prevented. The ampler horizon it presented, the loftier ideals it set up, the counteracting agency it supplied to the sordidness of motive and act which, left unchecked, was certain to overwhelm the national spirit—all these were enforced by him again and again with clearness and effectiveness. His essays of this kind will never be popular in the sense in which are his other writings. But no thoughtful man will rise up from reading them without having gained a vivid conception of the part which literature plays in the life of even the humblest, and without a deeper conviction of its necessity to any healthy development of the character of a people.
During the early part of his purely literary career a large proportion of Warner’s collected writings, which then appeared, were first published in the Atlantic Monthly. But about fourteen years before his death he became closely connected with Harper’s Magazine. From May, 1886, to March, 1892, he conducted the Editor’s Drawer of that periodical. The month following this last date he succeeded William Dean Howells as the contributor of the Editor’s Study. This position he held until July, 1898. The scope of this department was largely expanded after the death of George William Curtis in the summer of 1892, and the consequent discontinuance of the Editor’s Easy Chair. Comments upon other topics than those to which his department was originally devoted, especially upon social questions, were made a distinct feature. His editorial connection with the magazine naturally led to his contributing to it numerous articles besides those which were demanded by the requirements of the position he held. Nearly all these, as well as those which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, are indicated in the bibliographical notes prefixed to the separate works.
There were, however, other literary enterprises in which he was concerned; for the calls upon him were numerous, his own appetite for work was insatiable, and his activity was indefatigable. In 1881 he assumed the editorship of the American Men of Letters series. This he opened with his own biography of Washington Irving, the resemblance between whom and himself has been made the subject of frequent remark. Later he became the editor-in-chief of the thirty odd volumes which make up the collection entitled “The World’s Best Literature.” To this he contributed several articles of his own and carefully allotted and supervised the preparation of a large number of others. The labor he put upon the editing of this collection occupied him a great deal of the time from 1895 to 1898.
But literature, though in it lay his chief interest, was but one of the subjects which employed his many-sided activity. He was constantly called upon for the discharge of civic duties. The confidence felt by his fellow-citizens in his judgment and taste was almost equal to the absolute trust reposed in his integrity. The man who establishes a reputation for the possession of these qualities can never escape from bearing the burdens which a good character always imposes. If any work of art was ordered by the state, Warner was fairly certain to be chosen a member of the commission selected to decide upon the person who was to do it and upon the way it was to be done. By his fellow-townsmen he was made a member of the Park Commission. Such were some of the duties imposed; there were others voluntarily undertaken. During the latter years of his life he became increasingly interested in social questions, some of which partook of a semi-political character. One of the subjects which engaged his attention was the best method to be adopted for elevating the character and conduct of the negro population of the country. He recognized the gravity of the problem with which the nation had to deal and the difficulties attending its solution. One essay on the subject was prepared for the meeting held at Washington in May, 1900, of the American Social Science Association, of which he was president. He was not able to be there in person. The disease which was ultimately to strike him down had already made its preliminary attack. His address was accordingly read for him. It was a subject of special regret that he could not be present to set forth more fully his views; for the debate, which followed the presentation of his paper, was by no means confined to the meeting, but extended to the press of the whole country. Whether the conclusions he reached were right or wrong, they were in no case adopted hastily nor indeed without the fullest consideration.
But a more special interest of his lay in prison reform. The subject had engaged his attention long before he published anything in connection with it. Later one of the earliest articles he wrote for Harper’s Magazine was devoted to it. It was in his thoughts just before his death. He was a member of the Connecticut commission on prisons, of the National Prison Association, and a vice-president of the New York Association for Prison Reform. A strong advocate of the doctrine of the indeterminate sentence, he had little patience with many of the judicial outgivings on that subject. To him they seemed opinions inherited, not formed, and in most cases were nothing more than the result of prejudice working upon ignorance. This particular question was one which he purposed to make the subject of his address as president of the Social Science Association, at its annual meeting in 1901. He never lived to complete what he had in mind.
During his later years the rigor of the Northern winter had been too severe for Warner’s health. He had accordingly found it advisable to spend as much of this season as he could in warmer regions. He visited at various times parts of the South, Mexico, and California. He passed the winter of 1892-93 at Florence; but he found the air of the valley of the Arno no perceptible improvement upon that of the valley of the Connecticut. In truth, neither disease nor death entertains a prejudice against any particular locality. This fact he was to learn by personal experience. In the spring of 1899, while at New Orleans, he was stricken by pneumonia which nearly brought him to the grave. He recovered, but it is probable that the strength of his system was permanently impaired, and with it his power of resisting disease. Still his condition was not such as to prevent him from going on with various projects he had been contemplating or from forming new ones. The first distinct warning of the approaching end was the facial paralysis which suddenly attacked him in April, 1900, while on a visit to Norfolk, Va. Yet even from that he seemed to be apparently on the full road to recovery during the following summer.
It was in the second week of October, 1900, that Warner paid me a visit of two or three days. He was purposing to spend the winter in Southern California, coming back to the East in ample time to attend the annual meeting of the Social Science Association. His thoughts were even then busy with the subject of the address which, as president, he was to deliver on that occasion. It seemed to me that I had never seen him when his mind was more active or more vigorous. I was not only struck by the clearness of his views—some of which were distinctly novel, at least to me—but by the felicity and effectiveness with which they were put.
Never, too, had I been more impressed with the suavity, the agreeableness, the general charm of his manner. He had determined during the coming winter to learn to ride the wheel, and we then and there planned to take a bicycle trip during the following summer, as we had previously made excursions together on horseback. When we parted, it was with the agreement that we should meet the next spring in Washington and fix definitely upon the time and region of our intended ride. It was on a Saturday morning that I bade him good-by, apparently in the best of health and spirits. It was on the evening of the following Saturday --October 20th—that the condensed, passionless, relentless message which the telegraph transmits, informed me that he had died that afternoon.
That very day he had lunched at a friend’s, where were gathered several of his special associates who had chanced to come together at the same house, and then had gone to the office of the Hartford Courant. There was not the slightest indication apparent of the end that was so near. After the company broke up, he started out to pay a visit to one of the city parks, of which he was a commissioner. On his way thither, feeling a certain faintness, he turned aside into a small house whose occupants he knew, and asked to sit down for a brief rest, and then, as the faintness increased, to lie undisturbed on the lounge for a few minutes. The few minutes passed, and with them his life. In the strictest sense of the words, he had fallen asleep. From one point of view it was an ideal way to die. To the individual, death coming so gently, so suddenly, is shorn of all its terrors. It is only those who live to remember and to lament that the suffering comes which has been spared the victim. Even to them, however, is the consolation that though they may have been fully prepared for the coming of the inevitable event, it would have been none the less painful when it actually came.
Warner as a writer we all know. The various and varying opinions entertained about the quality and value of his work do not require notice here. Future times will assign him his exact position in the roll of American authors, and we need not trouble ourselves to anticipate, as we shall certainly not be able to influence, its verdict. But to only a comparatively few of those who knew him as a writer was it given to know him as a man; to still fewer to know him in that familiarity of intimacy which reveals all that is fine or ignoble in a man’s personality. Scanty is the number of those who will come out of that severest of ordeals so successfully as he. The same conclusion would be reached, whether we were to consider him in his private relations or in his career as a man of letters. Among the irritable race of authors no one was freer from petty envy or jealousy. During many years of close intercourse, in which he constantly gave utterance to his views both of men and things with absolute unreserve, I recall no disparaging opinion ever expressed of any writer with whom he had been compared either for praise or blame. He had unquestionably definite and decided opinions. He would point out that such or such a work was above or below its author’s ordinary level; but there was never any ill-nature in his comment, no depreciation for depreciation’s sake. Never in truth was any one more loyal to his friends. If his literary conscience would not permit him to say anything in favor of something which they had done, he usually contented himself with saying nothing. Whatever failing there was on his critical side was due to this somewhat uncritical attitude; for it is from his particular friends that the writer is apt to get the most dispassionate consideration and sometimes the coldest commendation. It was a part of Warner’s generous recognition of others that he was in all sincerity disposed to attribute to those he admired and to whom he was attached an ability of which some of them at least were much inclined to doubt their own possession.
Were I indeed compelled to select any one word which would best give the impression, both social and literary, of Warner’s personality, I should be disposed to designate it as urbanity. That seems to indicate best the one trait which most distinguished him either in conversation or writing. Whatever it was, it was innate, not assumed. It was the genuine outcome of the kindliness and broad-mindedness of his nature and led him to sympathize with men of all positions in life and of all kinds of ability. It manifested itself in his attitude towards every one with whom he came in contact. It led him to treat with fullest consideration all who were in the least degree under his direction, and converted in consequence the toil of subordinates into a pleasure. It impelled him to do unsought everything which lay in his power for the success of those in whom he felt interest. Many a young writer will recall his words of encouragement at some period in his own career when the quiet appreciation of one meant more to him than did later the loud applause of many. As it was in public, so it was in private life. The generosity of his spirit, the geniality and high-bred courtesy of his manner, rendered a visit to his home as much a social delight as his wide knowledge of literature and his appreciation of what was best in it made it an intellectual entertainment.
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