There was work as well as play: the boys la bored manfully at clearing the woods of black- walnut, oak, and hickory, and at planting corn, melons, and interminable rows of sweet-potatoes. In all, the father was comrade and inspiration. The son tells how famously they got on driving the cow out to the new home, talking of the way side things so beautiful in the beautiful autumnal day, all panoplied in the savage splendor of its painted leaves, and of the poems and histories so dear to the boy who limped barefooted by his father s side, with his eye on the cow and his mind on Cervantes and Shakespeare, on The Man 13 The glory that was Greece, And the grandeur that was Rome.
Innumerable reminiscences, unmistakable in their sincerity, reveal the sensi tive and reflective qualities of his temper.
Of such is the memory of a rare moment that came to him when returning with his brother from an evening errand to some neighbor s: "The shadows fell black from the trees upon the smooth sward, but every; other place was full of the tender light in wliich all forms were rounded and softened ; the moon hung tranced in the sky. We scarcely spoke in the shining soli tude, the solitude which for once had no terrors for the childish fancy, but was only beautiful.
This perfect beauty seemed not only to liberate me from the fear which is the prevailing mood of childhood, but to lift my soul nearer and nearer to the soul of all things in an exquisite sympathy.
Such moments never pass ; they are ineffaceable ; their rapture immortalizes; from them we know that whatever perishes there is something in us that cannot die, that divinely regrets, divinely hopes. That fine old custom was in the Howells family an institution, the Book of Worship and the Heavenly Arcana being displaced on week-day evenings by the Eng- 9 My Year in a Log-Cabin , p.
His education was completed in the printing-office, the exactions of the trade standing him in lieu of school discipline. His formal schooling was irregular in the ex treme, and he set but little value on it. Few men have been so completely self-educated as he. His earliest memory was of a sort of dame school in a private house. Then he came under the tutelage of a master, who gave instruction in the basement of a church. Here he disgraced himself in spell ing and arithmetic, but displayed a proficiency in geography which he long after confessed to have lost.
As a reward for his attainments in that useful science, he received a history of Lexington, Massachusetts, which flattered him immensely, although he was vaguely disappointed in the book. At a private school known as the Academy, he studied what was then called philosophy, gather ing valuable bits of information from the pictures, learning, for example, that "you could not make a boat go by filling her sail from bellows on board.
He later attended a district, or public school, where the teacher led the life of an executioner, and where he "lived in an anguish of fear. The Man 15 He even essayed a tragedy in the meter of The Lady of the Lake, one of the books his father had read aloud to the family. The plot, based upon the history of Julius Caesar, as recounted by Gold smith, featured the tyrannical teacher in the role of the great dictator, and was intended to afford the school-boy conspirators with an opportunity to wreak their vengeance in a sufficiently bloody manner.
The piece, its author informs us, was never acted, owing to some difficulty about the hayloft. His real masters, not only during boyhood but for long after, were the authors he came to know. His early reading was a kind of worship, the adoration of one god after another, the denial of one creed in order to subscribe to the next.
The simple annals of his youth are made golden by books, ever more books. Only one who has felt in some measure the same transport can share with him his ecstasies over a box of imported volumes with their saffron-colored paper covers: "The paper and the ink had a certain odor which was sweeter to me than the perfumes of Araby. The look of the type took me more than the glance of a girl, and I had a fever of longing to know the heart of the book, which was like a lover s passion. Goldsmith s histories of Greece and Borne were precious mines of knowledge; The Deserted Village became an established favorite at the readings by the home fireside; and The Vicar of Wakefield re mained for him 1 1 one of the most modern novels ; that is to say, one of the best.
He first heard the story from his father, who some time later presented him with the book, "the most wonderful and delightful book in the world," 18 two stout little volumes in calf, destined to become his inseparable companions. In fact, he could remember no time during his boyhood when he was not reading them, and in his fifties he found that in what formed the essential greatness of the work, it seemed to him greater than ever. What forms its greatness is its "free and simple design, "My Literary Passions , p. The Man 17 where event follows event without the fettering control of intrigue, but where all grows naturally out of character and conditions.
The Life of Goldsmith he very much pre ferred to the more authoritative one by Forster, finding in it, so closely were those genial tempers allied, a "deeper and sweeter sense of Gold smith. Meanwhile, he had been rapidly losing interest in having things read to him, coming to read more and more himself, so that he could let his fancy roam at leisure. He was beginning to read with a literary sense, that is, he explains, with a sense of the author.
The characters in books were ceasing to affect him as real persons, although he had mo ments of intimacy with Ulysses for he had at last read Pope s Homer. He had become ac quainted with Scott s prose, too, by this time; but it never became a passion. One is tempted, associating his coldness toward Scott s romances "My Literary Passions The fact is, he be came passionately enamoured of purling brooks, finny tribes, enameled meads, fleecy cares, feath ered choirs, and aerial audiences. He essayed an infinite number of imitations, most of which never reached completion. However seriously the ardent swains and their Dresden china shepherdesses may have been taken in their day, the modern reader is not tempted to confuse their Arcadia with any quarter of the habitable globe.
Like the extravaganza in the theatre, they may be relished, not as the piece de resistance, but as dainty confections after the feast by those who are, as Howells was wont to say, "in the joke of it. After the one winter in Columbus, the family moved to Ashtabula, in the northeastern part of the state.
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It was the next removal, however, from Ashtabula to the county seat at Jefferson, that inaugurated for the literary youth a period of further enlightenment, a period from which he dated his interest in contemporary writers, and in periodicals, and during which he read his first literary criticism.
His reading was turned in new directions largely through the influence of a series of personal friendships, some of them fortunately with men older than he, and of different tastes and ideals. The first important event of this period was his suddenly, without notice or reason, 22 giv ing his heart to Shakespeare ; and although Irving, Goldsmith, and Cervantes kept their old altars, the worship of the new divinity "went to heights and lengths that it had reached with no earlier idol.
As Goldsmith is our con temporary by virtue of his inherent purity, as Cervantes is modern and realistic in his spacious form, unhampered by the trivialities of plot, so Shakespeare is one with us in his matchless indi vidualizing of character, in his mingling of tears and joy, just as we find them mingled in life, and in the humor that pervades his work. Thus Howells describes his first impression of the real ity of Shakespeare s world : " There I found a world appreciable to experi ence, a world inexpressibly vaster and grander than the poor little affair that I had only known a small obscure corner of, and yet of one quality with it, so that I could be as much at home and citizen in it as where I actually lived.
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There I found joy and sorrow mixed, and nothing abstract or typical, but everything standing for itself and not for some other thing. Then, I suppose it was the interfusion of humor through so much of it, that made it all precious and friendly. He obe diently made his farewells to Pope, but he could not find it in his heart to like Spenser.
For Chaucer he came to have a personal attachment, finding him very like Cervantes in "a certain sweet and cheery humanity. The Man 21 He became acquainted with Dickens through an old English organ builder, and revelled with de light in the pages of that fascinating story-teller, who then " colored the parlance of the English- speaking race, and formed upon himself every minor talent attempting fiction. It is helplessly ele mental, but it is not the less grandly so, and if it deals with the simpler manifestations of charac ter, character affected by the interests and pas sions rather than the tastes and preferences, it certainly deals with the larger moods through them.
His view of the world and of society, though it was very little philosophized, was in stinctively sane and reasonable, even when it was most impossible. In fact, his absorption in literature as divorced from life reached its culmination during the period of his infatuation with Thackeray Thackeray, of all novelists "the most thoroughly and profoundly imbued with literature, 29 who speaks in ink, as he expresses it, not in blood, as do Dickens and Tolstoi. With his air of looking down on the highest, and confidently inviting you to be of his company in the seat of the scorner, he is irresistible ; his very confession that he is a snob, too, is balm and solace to the reader who secretly admires the splendors he affects to despise.
His sentimentality is also dear to the heart of youth, and the boy who is dazzled by his satire is melted by his easy pathos. Then, if the boy has read a good many other books, he is taken with that abundance of literary turn and allusion in Thackeray; there is hardly a sentence but re minds him that he is in the society of a great literary swell, who has read everything, and can mock or burlesque life right and left from the literature always at his command. The Man 23 to him in his own simple love of the good for his patronage of the unassuming virtues.
It is so pleasing to one s vanity, and so safe, to be of the master s side when he assails those vices and foi bles which are inherent in the system of things, and which one can contemn with vast applause so long as one does not attempt to undo the con ditions they spring from. Browning and Tennyson he came to know at the age of eighteen, soon after the inevitable nervous breakdown, during which he consoled himself with being a martyr to literature. Tennyson became such another passion as Longfellow, but nothing of Browning except The Ring and the Book seems to have made any great appeal to him.
In the spring he refused an offer of a thousand dollars a year as city editor of the Gazette, fear ing that his time for reading would be curtailed. This act of devotion was soon to cause him regret, when he came to realize the vital connection be tween literature and experience. For the hour of the supreme passion was at hand, the passion that was to liberate him forever. It was time for the Spanish idols to be placed in temporary retire ment, their shrines occupied; by German gods. He was at last to learn at the feet of Heine that his ideal of literature was false.
K Ibid. The Man 25 that though it may be ingenious and surprising to dance in chains, it is neither pretty nor use ful. He met many people in Columbus society with whom he could talk literature to his full content; a world of amusement not hitherto enjoyed was thrown open to him ; and his friendship with J. Piatt ripened into intimacy. It was in collaboration with Piatt that in the following year he formally began his literary career. But of more service in his ad vancement than the Poems of Two Friends, which they produced between them, was a campaign life of Lincoln.
This work won for him the post of United States Consul to Venice, enabling him to spend the four years of our Civil War in that peaceful city, studying the Italian language and literature. Before going abroad, he employed the imme diate proceeds of his book in making a visit to the East, approaching New England by way of Niag ara and the Canadian rivers and cities where he was to lay the scene of his first fictions.
The young litterateur was by this time confirmed in the ways of hero-worship, and recalling how truly this was the Augustan age of New England let ters, we can imagine the raptures with which this " passionate pilgrim from the West approached his holy land. Longfellow was in the fulness of his world- wide fame, and in the ripeness of the beau tiful genius which was not to know decay while life endured.
Emerson had emerged from the popular darkness which had so long held him a hopeless mystic, and was shining a lambent star of poesy and prophecy at the zenith. Hawthorne, the exquisite artist, the unrivalled dreamer, whom we still always liken this one and that one to, whenever this one or that one promises greatly to please us, and still leave without a rival, with out a companion, had lately returned from his long sojourn abroad, and had given us the last of the incomparable romances which the world was to have perfect from his hand.
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Doctor Holmes had surpassed all expectations in those who most admired his brilliant humor and charming poetry by the invention of a new attitude if not a new sort in literature. The turn that civic affairs had taken was favorable to the widest recognition of Whittier s splendid lyrical gift; and that heart of fire, doubly snow-bound by Quaker tradition and Puritan environment, was penetrating every gen erous breast with its flamy impulses, and fusing all wills in its noble purpose.
Stowe, who far outfamed the rest as the author of the most re nowned noyeliever written, was proving it no acci dent or miracle by the fiction she was still writ ing. The Man 27 prestige, played the good angel. His welcome and his friend ship through succeeding years not only color the "Studies of Lowell " but shed their glow over the whole of Howells retrospect of American author ship. It is saying a great deal to suggest that in a gallery of portraits such as compose the Literary Friends and Acquaintance f Lowell s is the most distinguished.
Longfellow 40 is certainly a more beautiful figure, but there is a charm of intimacy in which without intrusion we are made to see Lowell with pipe and slippers, in which without gossip he is almost literally made to live. In this characteristic lies the peculiar felicity of the book as a whole, and I wonder whether we have another volume of literary remi niscence so happy in its kind.
The ego looms large ; yet was ever egoism so modest, so faithful to its illuminative purpose I And was candor ever so delicate, so fearful of conveying the unintended slight or giving a wound! One hazards nothing in predicting for such a record a life at least as 39 For a selection from correspondence showing Lowell s some times undiscriminating fondness for his prot4g6, see an article on "Lowell and Howells" in Harper s Weekly , The Norsemen, in the days of their stormy and reluctant conversion, used always to speak of Christ as the White Christ, and Bjornson said in his letter, Give my love to the White Mr.
Before linking his destiny with the patriciate of Boston and Cambridge, however, he lived the Ital ian years. Of these, he has given account in the chapter "Roundabout to Boston " of the Literary Friends and Acquaintance, and in My Literary Passions, but chiefly, of course, in the golden book Venetian Life.
Notwithstanding the fascina tion of Dante and mediaeval Italy, his interest turned more and more toward the observation of men and books of the day. And, discovering the weakness of Italian fiction as a record of contem porary life, he devoted himself eagerly to the drama.
Literature and Life, by William Dean Howells
Of all the dramatists, he loved Goldoni best, and never ceased to regard him as the first of the realists ; for although he lived in the eight eenth century, he lived to fight hand-to-hand with eighteenth-century romanticism. He wrote editorials for different papers, mostly for the Times and the Tribune, and some time in November accepted a salaried position on the Nation, which had been using his Italian ma terial.
The following year he w r ent to Boston as assistant editor to James T. Fields on the Atlantic Monthly. The Man 29 age of thirty-five, its editor-in-chief. Each of these years of editorial promotion was signalized by a corresponding advance in his reputation as an author.
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