George William Bagby.

Selections from the miscellaneous writings of Dr. George W. Bagby (Volume 1) online

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prove, in general, its reckless method. His inter-
course with the editor of the Examiner gave him ma-
terial for the sketch published shortly after the war,,
entitled, "John M. DanieUs Latch-Key" Besides
his work on the papers mentioned, Bagby wrote bril-
liant articles for the Southern Illustrated News, and
was every way useful. It would be impossible to
trace all the currents and varieties of his labors
during these years, from his solid logic for the cause
contributed to the London Index, after Thompson's
departure for Europe, to the news letters, bristling
with poignant paragraphs, which he sent to the
Selma Times, the Columbus Sun, and many other
Southern papers.

These labors, viewed through the calm vista of the
long after-time, afford two occasions of thought.
Despite all the heroism, and the wonder and the
magnitude of their contribution to the cause of Con-
federate independence, these letters, covering the
whole broad scope of history, principle, argument,
appeal, justice and persuasion, failed, just as the
sword of the great Lee failed in the field. Then, as
to the personal consequences, the collapse of the


cause, in which he trusted as he did in the gospel of
God, broke his heart as it did that of the Commander.
Of these, and of many like deaths, the image of the
Irish poet is startling in the truth of its realization :
the crack of the chords, on the mute harp hanging
at midnight, on the tapestry of Tara :

"And freedom now so seldom wakes,

The only throb she gives,
Is when some heart indignant breaks,
To show that still she lives /"


The success of Dr. Bagby before and during the
war well justified his seeking to pursue in New York
a journalistic and literary career. His disability in
this line, by reason of the loss in part of his eye-
sight, induced him to enter the lecturing field, in
which a rich reception and a bountiful harvest
awaited him. More than that, his choice of a new
profession involved his return to Virginia, now made
doubly dear to him in that, in 1863, he had espoused
Miss Parke Chamberlayne, of Richmond, daughter
of Dr. Lewis W. Chamberlayne, who represented in
her own person at least two of the noble lines of
Normans whose shields are suspended in Battle Ab-
bey the lines of Chamberlayne and of D'Aubigny
[Dabney] ; illustrious English and Yirginian lineages.
Let the laurel of honor to this lady of love and grace
be deferred to a later page, while we deal at present
with the fortunes of the lecturer, and the turn that
was given to the tide of his life by this new venture.

The profession was not wholly fresh to him, a*


himself relates. ''Previous to the war he had been
fairly successful with his lecture entitled, ' An Apol-
ogy for Fools,' but in the winter of 18 65-' 6, his lec-
ture on i Bacon and Greens, or the Native Virginian,'
fairly took the city of Richmond by storm, and was
as great a success throughout Virginia and Maryland."
His next essay, "The Disease Called Love," is
perhaps the most popular of all his lectures, with old
and young. In addition to these was another lecture,
entitled " Women-Folks," and one on the " Virginia
Negro," which was only faulty in its depth of truth.
Its delivery in New York at once drew the partisan
line, which renders fair judgment not only impos-
sible, but undesirable. Nobody really wanted to
know the actual state of the case, and the preacher of
truth allowed himself to be discouraged and repulsed
by the first chill reception which he suffered. It is
stated that Mr. Moses P. Handy, then employed on
the Tribune, left word with Mr. Winter, the Tribune
critic, to give the lecturer a good notice; but the
message went astray, and Winter was very wintry,
even disparaging in a flippant way the lecturer's air
and bearing. This was not very refreshing to a spe-
cialist who had given twenty years to the mastery of
his theme; but more than the particular miscarriage
was the conviction, for which it gave occasion, that the
North did not really desire to know the status of the
South or the condition of the negro, but preferred to
keep him as an unsolved factor, to be made use of,
pro or con., as the necessities of a sectional party
might seem to require.


So from North back to South, in obedience to the
law of nature, the strayed son of Virginia drifted.
Virginia was his natural and magnetic home, and
here lay the line and here sat the spring of his duty
during the period of reconstruction, in whose pro-
cesses, so far as relates to the factors of real historic
greatness, he had no sort of faith, while as to the
progress and speedy realization of material wealth
and power he was ready to approve himself an ear-
nest worker and a firm believer.

During 1868 Dr. Bagby had an experience of
strictly independent journalism. He established him-
self at Orange Courthouse as the editor of the Na-
tive Virginian, and not only wrote copiously for it,
but in the same style and spirit as well for many
other Virginia journals. He was not idle either in
the lecture business, and even when not engaged in
delivery and composition was always active in col-
lecting, sorting, and recording material, in a system
of scrap-books like that of the late Charles Reade.
In the laboratory of an ever-active and thought-tor-
mented brain these natural ores were painfully and
gradually fused and formed into proportions of
grace, and brave flights of speculation and imagi-
nation which many, even among educated men,
lacked the width of wing to follow. But a new
change was at hand a change that afforded a fresh
illustration of the fidelity of early friendship, which
is, as the love of the Douglas, " tendir and treu."

In 1869, G. C. Walker was elected governor of
Virginia as a liberal Republican ; and under his ad-


ministration, and that of his successors, Gen. James
L. Kemper and Col. F. W. M. Holliday, Hon. James
McDonald served as Secretary of State. Faith-
ful to the tartan blood which he bore, and true to
the obligations of old times; secure too in the sense
of the eminent fitness of his friend, Gen. McDonald
appointed Dr. Bagby assistant secretary, and as such
custodian of the State Library. The duties of the
position, although in a measure confining and irksome,
he discharged with rare fidelity, till he was removed
by the change of State administration. As before,
he had always cultivated letters for their love, so
now again he wooed and sued the muses, for the sake
of the fruit which he hoped they would yield, and for
the redress of public wrongs which he and other Vir-
ginians now felt to be growing grievous. And yet,
I have always thought this political course was only
a minor consequence and incident of his theory of
philosophy and of social statics. Never was there
loyalty to a dead cause such as his since the days of
the Scotch Jacobites; his heart was ever with the
" Charlie over the water," when indeed there was no
king except in his thought. And the aching know-
ledge that he loved a dead dream weighed on him
always, and then broke his heart; and he left other
less consecrated men to face the new world of un-
tried and 'raw conditions, while to himself, as when
the " whole round table was dissolved," was given of
God the freedom of the black-stoled barge, and the
weeping queens, and the comfort of green valleys


and deep peace in the isle of Avillion, beyond the

Little remains to be said of his life. The fact of
its incessant activity is told in the mere catalogue of
the papers to which he contributed and the lectures
lie delivered. One of the very best and brightest of
his creations, about this time, was his satire entitled
" What I Did with my Fifty Millions" an evolu-
tion, wholly original withal, from the lamp of
Alnaschar and the milk-maid of ^Esop, or of Noah
"Webster. I say satire, not ignorant that the word
is not adequate nor accurate, for it was part of the
genius of our friend that he created a school of style
.and theme in letters all his own, with which the
terminology of rhetoric has not much to do.

Another very happy idyl was his " Reminiscences
of Canal Life" in which his loyal love of nature
finds an expression as strong and yet simple as the
mother-longing of a lost child. In Goethe's Renun-
ciants, the highest culture was imaged by the figure
which gazed with folded palms upon the ground.
Such was Bagby's reverence, and such his rapt con-
templation of the garment of God, which shows,
through the drapery of rock and rill, and cloud and
storm and mountain, the august proportions of the
Eternal. Happy was he, after all experience of
doubt and darkness, to find at last in these vast folds
of form the evidence and expression of a Father of
love and light, who comforts and helps the weak-
hearted, and raises up those who fall. In the peace
of this faith he fell asleep, like Stephen, while "all


that sat in the council, looking steadfastly at hira r
saw his face as it had been the face of an angel."

During this period he composed and delivered
several of his best lectures, " The Old Virginia
Gentleman" and " The Virginia Negro" The latter
was intended for delivery North ; but he found, after
a brief but sufficient experience, that the North
thought they knew more of the negro than he did.
Returning, he wrote the most merry and exquisite
of all his creations, "MeekinaeJ Twinses" a fic-
tion founded upon fact. Mr. Meekins acquired in a
week as wide an acquaintance as Mr. Addums in a
dozen years; and the feed sto' in Rocketts had as
good a title to a place in the limbus of genius as
the "Old Curiosity Shop," or the City Mildendo.
Hereabouts also belongs the sketch which has given
him his widest and most graven fame, the sketch of
"JBubenstein at the Piano" which Mr. Watterson
has admitted into his compilation of Southern humor,,
and which is found already in many " Readers." I
am told it has been translated into a German musical
magazine. It has always reminded me, in structure,,
though the themes are wide enough apart, of the
"Dream Fugue" attached to De Quincey's " Vision
of Sudden Death."

After these writings, Dr. Bagby made for the
State newspaper, then edited by Capt. John Hamp-
den Chamberlayne, (brother of his wife, and one of
the brightest and best of the knights whose accolade
was given on the two fields of battle and labor), a
trip through Virginia, describing each stage in letters,.


whose power of paint and of thought surpassed any
production of the kind in the history of Virginian,

A like series of letters,, entitled, " New England
Through the Back Door" written for the Baltimore
Sun, gave us a Yankee-land more gracious, fresh and
genial even than the " Hills of the Shatemuc." Then
came desultory writing for many papers. Mr. A.
McDonald, editor of the Lynchburg News, was again,
one of his generous friends to the last ; the Philadel-
phia Weekly Times published one of his.papers; and
his last composition appeared in Harper's Magazine.

After that, death ; not all at once, but by gradual
stages, as of a siege. A sore in the tongue, the re-
sult of his life-long dyspepsia, became a cancer, and
brought on a long and dreadful ordeal of suffering.
He sought the relief of the Healing Springs in vain,
and then, in August of '83, desolate but not despair-
ing, he turned home to die. God is good ; and good
and great not only in His own direct dealings, but in
the means and agents through which He works.
The dying man, the sinking scholar and philosopher,,
the champion, broken and baffled in the work and.
dream of his life, unconscious how that this labor had
been accomplished, not by any great coup, but by
silent and tardy and gradual stages non vi sed scepe
cadendo this warrior, who came home borne on his
shield, found a wife there whose ministrations, de-
vout and profound, chased every form of fear and evil
from his pillow and path of slow and tortured decline-
In Hans Andersen's story, it is the white wings of


the swans that bear their sister across the sea. Here
it was love, clear faith, strong courage, worthy of the
two shields in Battle Abbey, an utter avTo-xgvwfft$, and
above all "the peace of God that passeth all under-
standing," which God blessed and rewarded with that
perfect submission to His will that shall "bring a
man peace at the last," through the direst trial.

The foregoing pages have been written in vain if
they have not conveyed some sense of the writer's
appreciation of Dr. Bagby's genius and moral great-
ness. " There is no man left in Virginia fit to lift
the lid of his inkstand," wrote Dr. Lafferty of him
a true saying. " Never in Virginia letters shall we
see his like again," wrote John Esten Cooke. All
pens, great and small, sought, with the piety of " Old
Mortality," to deepen the inscription of love and
praise on his tomb, and to clear off the grass and
weeds. The most faithful and beautiful of the
tributes paid to his memory was woven from the
heart through the pen of his life-time friend, Gen-
eral James McDonald, who, true fo the habit of his
Highland blood, was the well-trusted comrade of
thirty-odd years, and one of the executors of his lit-
erary remains.*

*Tbe following extracts from the article referred to give the
-writer's ideas of some of the mental and social characteristics of
Dr. Bagby:

"Dr. Bagby was a peculiar man. He was peculiar in the tone
and temper of his unclassified order of genius ; he was peculiar in
ihe ways in which he often looked at things with his mind's eye ;
he was peculiar in his reflections, in his reasonings, in his specula-
tions as to those sublime and mystical matters that come within the


Long time as death was known to be approaching,
its final access was a surprise at last. " Death will
aiot be fooled," he had written in "Blue Eyes:' " He

spheres of both physics and metaphysics. His intellect was
bright and sympathetic and subtle ; and it was strong, and broad,
and deep on occasion too. He was admirable as an analyst in
psychologic science and speculative philosophy. His mind was
not symmetrically disciplined, perhaps, but in certain directions it
was remarkably clear, strong and penetrating. . . . His thoughts
were big and often bold upon broad fields where reason paused
and beckoned backward for genius to bring her lamp and light
the way a little.

u Dr. Bagby was a close and thoughtful observer; a student of
humanity ; a somewhat curious, but philosophic and charitable
searcher into the motives by which men are governed and the
secret springs that actuate them. He was fond of grave and in-
tellectual conversation, and took pleasure in the society of elderly
persons, whom he was much given to questioning with the view
of drawing out their experiences of life and their conclusions on
its puzzles and problems. But while of a naturally serious and
somewhat melancholy temperament, which tendency was
strengthened by habitual ill-health, he often entered heartily into
social diversions and convivialities, and played his full part in
conversational drolleries and interchanges of wit and repartee.

"He had a fine appreciation of all that was excellent in music
.and art, in acting and oratory, and he delighted in the advance-
ments of science, invention and discovery. He was very ob-
servant of social duties and courtesies, punctual in correspondence,
and regular in visits to friends, and calls on those who had any
claim to such civility. He treasured and was careful to keep
alive old friendships, and was assiduous in little acts of compli-
ment and kindness in which children often shared. He was with-
out vanity or affectation, and without jealousy, as man or author.
He was a genuine lover of nature, and of the repose, simplicity
and ingenuousness of country-life. He was most widely known,
as a humorist and dialect writer ; but his efforts in this way, irre-
sistibly amusing as many of them were, were only the unbend-
ings and diversions of a mind that found its brightest pleasures


will have his dues. Preparation avails nothing,
Item tetigit acu. Aye, he does touch sharply, a&
with a poisoned thorn, piercing to the core. When
no answer, be it ever so faint and feeble, comes from
the lips that have thanked us ; when no turning of
the eye repays in grateful light the hands that
smooth the sunken pillow ; when all is still there, and
no sound shall be there forever, forever! how
burst the fountains, how the waters are unsealed, as
though never a thought of that hour of anguish had
warned us of its coming."*

His end was great peace; his last word "Rest;"
his death-pillow, that brave and tender breast where
ten babes had nestled, and where his own woes had
been softly touched into mental health, and his sigh-
ing soothed into sleep or song. Blessed are the dead
who die in the Lord ; to whom is given the double
promise that they rest while their labor survives to
bless and decorate the world. To our dear dead, the
man of God, Eev. Dr. Peterkin, of St. James's church,
gave all the final consolations and ministrations of

and its normal and most congenial habitat in the upper realms of

.... "It was his great ambition to write a book that would be
an enduring record of all that was distinctive, and, as he be-
lieved, without parallel elsewhere, in the Virginia civilization,
character and life which he had known in his earlier days, and
which culminated in the war and perished with its close. He did
not live to accomplish the desire in the form that he thought, but
he was, unconsciously to himself, accomplishing it all the time,
and in the body of his literary remains, could they be collected,,
the purpose would be found fully executed. ''
* Blue Eyes and Battlewick, Chapter IV.


the faith of Christ ; and his works shall vindicate the
-conservative aspect of justice and truth while the
world turns. The Virginia of the future may be
grander, richer, and stronger than the Virginia, " im-
maculate and immortal," which his love and imagina-
tion touched into all the lines and colors of ideal
perfection ; but it cannot ever and for ever be the
same Virginia, the mother and nurse in classic and
Christian greatness of Washingtons and Lees, of Stu-
arts and Rodeses, and of children humbler in birth
and state, but all as dutiful and dauntless. What-
ever there was that was brightest and sweetest in the
older civilization, in what he queerly called the Vir-
ginia of the "spring and gourd" period, whose seedy
relics are even as an offence in the eyes of the new
generation ; whatever is truest and best and bravest
that survives among the most potent factors and
kindliest influences of the Virginia that is yet to be,
will owe its survival and its vitality to the labor and
love of one to whom more fitly than to most we
may apply the sad consolation, " After life's fitful
fever he sleeps well."

Returning from the funeral of her father, Decem-
ber 1st, 1883, his daughter wrote the following lines,
than which no fitter language could serve for his
^epitaph :

" Ah 1 pitying Saviour, guard and guide,

Receive into thy arms again
His longing spirit, purified

From mortal sin by mortal painl"






THIS lecture was written in the interest of the Virginia Histori-
cal Society. My hope was that its delivery throughout the State
might awaken in our people a just pride in their Past, which, with
all its faults, has had no equal since Greece gave to the world that
splendor which will live when the sun dies. That pride aroused,
I hoped they would, by small individual contributions, revivify
a society representing the history of the oldest and greatest of
American States.

Doubtless the picture here drawn of Virginia as she was is
idealized. Purposely so. Not for a moment could any Virginian
say that there was nothing amiss in the old order. Alas ! there
is much amiss in every structure, old or new. Educated at the
North, I was perhaps more keenly alive to the defects of our sys-
tem than almost any Virginian of my time. And so long as the
good Commonwealth lived I did not fail to mix in every panegyric
I wrote and there were several a full proportion of good-na-
tured satire. If I have praised Virginia without stint, I have, in
times past, ridiculed her unsparingly. But our Mother is dead,
and much may be pardoned in a eulogy which would be inex-
cusable were the subject living. I ask no man's pardon for what
must seem to a stranger a most exaggerated estimate of my State
and its people. In simple truth and beyond question there was
in our Virginia country life a beauty, a simplicitj 7 , a purity, an
uprightness, a cordial and lavish hospitality, warmth and grace
which shine in the lens of memory with a charm that passes all
language at my command. It is gone with the social structure
that gave it birth, and were I great, I would embalm it in the
ainber of such prose and verse as has not been written since John
Milton laid down his pen. Only greatness jjan fitly do it.


The lecture is in fact two lectures. With the words, " As were
the sons, so was the mother," the second lecture begins. For
this lecture, which I intended to call simply " Old Virginia,'' there
was in my mind, years ago, ample material, but the thread some-
how became lost, and fearing that I might not live to recover it,
and desiring, too, to say before I died what I have said in the
closing pages, I tacked it on to the first lecture, without much re-
gard to the unities. So let it pass.

MARCH 19, 1877.

HIS house was not jammed down within two
inches and a half of " the main, plain road."
Why ! He held, as his father did before him, that
it was immodest to expose even his house to the pub-
lic gaze. Perhaps he had that lack of curiosity, which,
the newspaper men tell us, is characteristic of the
savage most of us, you know, are descended from
Pocahontas and, at all events, it would never do to
have his headquarters on the very edge of a planta-
tion of 1,000 or 2,000 acres.

What was there to see on the main, plain road ?
Nothing. Morning and evening the boys dashed by
on their colts, hurrying to or from the Academy, so-
called. On Sundays, carryalls, buggies, and wagons,
filled with women-folk and children, in split-bottom
chairs, wended their way to Mt. Zion, a mile or two
further on in the woods. Twice a week the stage
rattled along, nobody inside, a negro in the boot, the
driver and the negro-trader, both drunk, on top.
Once a month the lawyers, in their stick-gigs or
" single-chairs," and the farmers on their plantation
mares, chatting and spitting amicably, with switches
poised in up-and-downy elbows, jogged on to court.


And that was all that was to be seen on the main,
plain road, except the Doctor and the Deputy-sheriff,
with their leggings and saddle-bags.

Tramps there were none, unless you call the county
idiot, who stalked barefoot through the winter snow,
fanning himself industriously the while with a turkey-
wing fan, a tramp. Once a year the peddler, with
his pack, or the plausible oil-cloth table-cloth man,
put in an appearance ; and that was literally all.
Why, even the hares played in the middle of the
lonesome road ! And yet there was a life and ani-
mation along the county roads, especially about the
country taverns, in the good old days (they were
good) which we who remember them sadly miss in
these times of rapid railroad transit.

A stranger would never dream that the narrow
turning out of the main road, scarcely marked by a
rut, led to a habitation better than a charcoal-burner's
shed. But the drivers of the high-swung, bug-back
family carriages of the period knew that turning
"mighty well." So did many gentlemen, old and
young, in all parts of the Commonwealth. " Oak-
lands," " Belleh'eld," " Mt. Airy," whatever it might
be named, was the half-way house to "Cousin Tom's,"
" Uncle Randolph's," or " Grandpa's," twenty or
thirty miles further on. Also it was a convenient
place to spend the night and mend the high-swung
bug-back from Alpha to Omega when on your way
to the White Sulphur, Richmond, or anywhere.
Truth to tell, there was no getting around it; it

Online LibraryGeorge William BagbySelections from the miscellaneous writings of Dr. George W. Bagby (Volume 1) → online text (page 2 of 27)