The Birth of a New Passion

[This is taken from Eugene Field's The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac.]

Robinson Crusoe





When I was thirteen years old I went to visit my Uncle Cephas.  My grandmother would not have parted with me even for that fortnight had she not actually been compelled to.  It happened that she was called to a meeting of the American Tract Society, and it was her intention to pay a visit to her cousin, Royall Eastman, after she had discharged the first and imperative duty she owed the society.  Mrs. Deacon Ranney was to have taken me and provided for my temporal and spiritual wants during grandmother’s absence, but at the last moment the deacon came down with one of his spells of quinsy, and no other alternative remained but to pack me off to Nashua, where my Uncle Cephas lived.

This involved considerable expense, for the stage fare was three shillings each way: it came particularly hard on grandmother, inasmuch as she had just paid her road tax and had not yet received her semi-annual dividends on her Fitchburg Railway stock.  Indifferent, however, to every sense of extravagance and to all other considerations except those of personal pride, I rode away atop of the stage-coach, full of exultation.  As we rattled past the Waite house I waved my cap to Captivity and indulged in the pleasing hope that she would be lonesome without me.  Much of the satisfaction of going away arises from the thought that those you leave behind are likely to be wretchedly miserable during your absence.

My Uncle Cephas lived in a house so very different from my grandmother’s that it took me some time to get used to the place.  Uncle Cephas was a lawyer, and his style of living was not at all like grandmother’s; he was to have been a minister, but at twelve years of age he attended the county fair, and that incident seemed to change the whole bent of his life.  At twenty-one he married Samantha Talbott, and that was another  blow to grandmother, who always declared that the Talbotts were a shiftless lot.  However, I was agreeably impressed with Uncle Cephas and Aunt ‘Manthy, for they welcomed me very cordially and turned me over to my little cousins, Mary and Henry, and bade us three make merry to the best of our ability.  These first favorable impressions of my uncle’s family were confirmed when I discovered that for supper we had hot biscuit and dried beef warmed up in cream gravy, a diet which, with all due respect to grandmother, I considered much more desirable than dry bread and dried-apple sauce.

Aha, old Crusoe!  I see thee now in yonder case smiling out upon me as cheerily as thou didst smile those many years ago when to a little boy thou broughtest the message of Romance!  And I do love thee still, and I shall always love thee, not only for thy benefaction in those ancient days, but also for the light and the cheer which thy genius brings to all ages and conditions of humanity.

My Uncle Cephas’s library was stored with a large variety of pleasing literature.  I did  not observe a glut of theological publications, and I will admit that I felt somewhat aggrieved personally when, in answer to my inquiry, I was told that there was no “New England Primer” in the collection.  But this feeling was soon dissipated by the absorbing interest I took in De Foe’s masterpiece, a work unparalleled in the realm of fiction.

I shall not say that “Robinson Crusoe” supplanted the Primer in my affections; this would not be true.  I prefer to say what is the truth; it was my second love.  Here again we behold another advantage which the lover of books has over the lover of women.  If he be a genuine lover he can and should love any number of books, and this polybibliophily is not to the disparagement of any one of that number.  But it is held by the expounders of our civil and our moral laws that he who loveth one woman to the exclusion of all other women speaketh by that action the best and highest praise both of his own sex and of hers.

I thank God continually that it hath been my lot in life to found an empire in my heart—no cramped and wizened borough wherein one jealous mistress hath exercised her petty tyranny, but an expansive and ever-widening continent divided and subdivided into dominions, jurisdictions, caliphates, chiefdoms, seneschalships, and prefectures, wherein tetrarchs, burgraves, maharajahs, palatines, seigniors, caziques, nabobs, emirs, nizams, and nawabs hold sway, each over his special and particular realm, and all bound together in harmonious cooperation by the conciliating spirit of polybibliophily!

Let me not be misunderstood; for I am not a woman-hater.  I do not regret the acquaintances—nay, the friendships—I have formed with individuals of the other sex.  As a philosopher it has behooved me to study womankind, else I should not have appreciated the worth of these other better loves.  Moreover, I take pleasure in my age in associating this precious volume or that with one woman or another whose friendship came into my life at the time when I was reading and loved that book.

The other day I found my nephew William swinging in the hammock on the porch with his girl friend Celia; I saw that the  young people were reading Ovid.  “My children,” said I, “count this day a happy one.  In the years of after life neither of you will speak or think of Ovid and his tender verses without recalling at the same moment how of a gracious afternoon in distant time you sat side by side contemplating the ineffably precious promises of maturity and love.”

I am not sure that I do not approve that article in Judge Methuen’s creed which insists that in this life of ours woman serves a probationary period for sins of omission or of commission in a previous existence, and that woman’s next step upward toward the final eternity of bliss is a period of longer or of shorter duration, in which her soul enters into a book to be petted, fondled, beloved and cherished by some good man—like the Judge, or like myself, for that matter.

This theory is not an unpleasant one; I regard it as much more acceptable than those so-called scientific demonstrations which would make us suppose that we are descended from tree-climbing and bug-eating simians.  However, it is far from my purpose to enter upon any argument of these questions at this time, for Judge Methuen himself is going to write a book upon the subject, and the edition is to be limited to two numbered and signed copies upon Japanese vellum, of which I am to have one and the Judge the other.

The impression I made upon Uncle Cephas must have been favorable, for when my next birthday rolled around there came with it a book from Uncle Cephas—my third love, Grimm’s “Household Stories.” With the perusal of this monumental work was born that passion for fairy tales and folklore which increased rather than diminished with my maturer years.  Even at the present time I delight in a good fairy story, and I am grateful to Lang and to Jacobs for the benefit they have conferred upon me and the rest of English-reading humanity through the medium of the fairy books and the folk tales they have translated and compiled.  Baring-Gould and Lady Wilde have done noble work in the same realm; the writings of the former have interested me particularly, for together with profound learning in directions which are specially pleasing to me, Baring-Gould has a distinct literary touch which invests his work with a grace indefinable but delicious and persuasive.

I am so great a lover of and believer in fairy tales that I once organized a society for the dissemination of fairy literature, and at the first meeting of this society we resolved to demand of the board of education to drop mathematics from the curriculum in the public schools and to substitute therefore a four years’ course in fairy literature, to be followed, if the pupil desired, by a post-graduate course in demonology and folk-lore.  We hired and fitted up large rooms, and the cause seemed to be flourishing until the second month’s rent fell due.  It was then discovered that the treasury was empty; and with this discovery the society ended its existence, without having accomplished any tangible result other than the purchase of a number of sofas and chairs, for which Judge Methuen and I had to pay.

Still, I am of the opinion (and Judge Methuen indorses it) that we need in this country of ours just that influence which the fairy tale exerts.  We are becoming too practical; the lust for material gain is throttling every other consideration.  Our babes and sucklings are no longer regaled with the soothing tales of giants, ogres, witches, and fairies; their hungry, receptive minds are filled with stories about the pursuit and slaughter of unoffending animals, of war and of murder, and of those questionable practices whereby a hero is enriched and others are impoverished.  Before he is out of his swaddling-cloth the modern youngster is convinced that the one noble purpose in life is to get, get, get, and keep on getting of worldly material.  The fairy tale is tabooed because, as the sordid parent alleges, it makes youth unpractical.

One consequence of this deplorable condition is, as I have noticed (and as Judge Methuen has, too), that the human eye is diminishing in size and fullness, and is losing its luster.  By as much as you take the God-given grace of fancy from man, by so much do you impoverish his eyes.  The eye is so beautiful and serves so very many noble purposes, and is, too, so ready in the expression of tenderness, of pity, of love, of solicitude, of compassion, of dignity, of every gentle mood and noble inspiration, that in that metaphor which contemplates the eternal vigilance of the Almighty we recognize the best poetic expression of the highest human wisdom.

My nephew Timothy has three children, two boys and a girl.  The elder boy and the girl have small black eyes; they are as devoid of fancy as a napkin is of red corpuscles; they put their pennies into a tin bank, and they have won all the marbles and jack-stones in the neighborhood.  They do not believe in Santa Claus or in fairies or in witches; they know that two nickels make a dime, and their golden rule is to do others as others would do them.  The other boy (he has been christened Matthew, after me) has a pair of large, round, deep-blue eyes, expressive of all those emotions which a keen, active fancy begets.

Matthew can never get his fill of fairy tales, and how the dear little fellow loves Santa Claus!  He sees things at night; he will not go to bed in the dark; he hears and understands what the birds and crickets say, and what the night wind sings, and what the rustling leaves tell.  Wherever Matthew goes he sees beautiful pictures and hears sweet music; to his impressionable soul all nature speaks its wisdom and its poetry.  God! how I love that boy!  And he shall never starve!  A goodly share of what I have shall go to him!  But this clause in my will, which the Judge recently drew for me, will, I warrant me, give the dear child the greatest happiness:

“Item.  To my beloved grandnephew and namesake, Matthew, I do bequeath and give (in addition to the lands devised and the stocks, bonds and moneys willed to him, as hereinabove specified) the two mahogany bookcases numbered 11 and 13, and the contents thereof, being volumes of fairy and folk tales of all nations, and dictionaries and other treatises upon demonology, witchcraft, mythology, magic and kindred subjects, to be his, his heirs, and his assigns, forever.”



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