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The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I online

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Gildersleeve, splendid scholar that he is!" he wrote to a friend in
North Carolina. "He makes me grow wonderfully. When I have a chance to
enjoy Æschylus as I have now, I go to work on those immortal pieces with
a pleasure that swallows up everything." To the extent that Gildersleeve
opened up the literary treasures of the past - and no man had a greater
appreciation of his favourite authors than this fine humanist - Page's
life was one of unalloyed delight. But there was another side to the
picture. This little company of scholars was composed of men who aspired
to no ordinary knowledge of Greek; they expected to devote their entire
lives to the subject, to edit Greek texts, and to hold Greek chairs at
the leading American universities. Such, indeed, has been the career of
nearly all members of the group. The Greek tragedies were therefore read
for other things than their stylistic and dramatic values. The sons of
Germania then exercised a profound influence on American education;
Professor Gildersleeve himself was a graduate of Göttingen, and the
necessity of "settling hoti's business" was strong in his seminar.
Gildersleeve was a writer of English who developed real style; as a
Greek scholar, his fame rests chiefly upon his work in the field of
historical syntax. He assumed that his students could read Greek as
easily as they could read French, and the really important tasks he set
them had to do with the most abstruse fields of philology. For work of
this kind Page had little interest and less inclination. When Professor
Gildersleeve would assign him the adverb [Greek: prin], and direct him
to study the peculiarities of its use from Homer down to the Byzantine
writers, he really found himself in pretty deep waters. Was it
conceivable that a man could spend a lifetime in an occupation of this
kind? By pursuing such studies Gildersleeve and his most advanced pupils
uncovered many new facts about the language and even found hitherto
unsuspected beauties; but Page's letters show that this sort of effort
was extremely uncongenial. He fulminates against the "grammarians" and
begins to think that perhaps, after all, a career of erudite scholarship
is not the ideal existence. "Learn to look on me as a Greek drudge," he
writes, "somewhere pounding into men and boys a faint hint of the beauty
of old Greekdom. That's most probably what I shall come to before many
years. I am sure that I have mistaken my lifework, if I consider Greek
my lifework. In truth at times I am tempted to throw the whole thing
away. . . . But without a home feeling in Greek literature no man can lay
claim to high culture." So he would keep at it for three or four years
and "then leave it as a man's work." Despite these despairing words Page
acquired a living knowledge of Greek that was one of his choicest
possessions through life. That he made a greater success than his
self-depreciation would imply is evident from the fact that his
Fellowship was renewed for the next year.

But the truth is that the world was tugging at Page more insistently
than the cloister. "Speaking grammatically," writes Prof. E.G. Sihler,
one of Page's fellow students of that time, in his "Confessions and
Convictions of a Classicist," "Page was interested in that one of the
main tenses which we call the Present." In his after life, amid all the
excitements of journalism, Page could take a brief vacation and spend
it with Ulysses by the sea; but actuality and human activity charmed him
even more than did the heroes of the ancient world. He went somewhat
into Baltimore society, but not extensively; he joined a club whose
membership comprised the leading intellectual men of the town; probably
his most congenial associations, however, came of the Saturday night
meetings of the fellows in Hopkins Hall, where, over pipes and steins of
beer, they passed in review all the questions of the day. Page was still
the Southern boy, with the strange notions about the North and Northern
people which were the inheritance of many years' misunderstandings. He
writes of one fellow student to whom he had taken a liking. "He is that
rare thing," he says, "a Yankee Christian gentleman." He particularly
dislikes one of his instructors, but, as he explains, he is "a native of
Connecticut, and Connecticut, I suppose, is capable of producing any
unholy human phenomenon." Speaking of a beautiful and well mannered
Greek girl whom he had met, he says: "The little creature might be taken
for a Southern girl, but never for a Yankee. She has an easy manner and
even an air of gentility about her that doesn't appear north of Mason
and Dixon's Line. Indeed, however much the Southern race (I say race
intentionally: Yankeedom is the home of another race from us) however
much the Southern race owes its strength to Anglo-Saxon blood, it owes
its beauty and gracefulness to the Southern climate and culture. Who
says that we are not an improvement on the English? An improvement in a
happy combination of mental graces and Saxon force?" This sort of thing
is especially entertaining in the youthful Page, for it is precisely
against this kind of complacency that, as a mature man, he directed his
choicest ridicule. As an editor and writer his energies were devoted to
reconciling North and South, and Johns Hopkins itself had much to do
with opening his eyes. Its young men and its professors were gathered
from all parts of the country; a student, if his mind was awake, learned
more than Greek and mathematics; he learned much about that far-flung
nation known as the United States.

And Page did not confine his work exclusively to the curriculum. He
writes that he is regularly attending a German Sunday School, not,
however, from religious motives, but from a desire to improve his
colloquial German. "Is this courting the Devil for knowledge?" he asks.
And all this time he was engaging in a delightful correspondence - from
which these quotations are taken - with a young woman in North Carolina,
his cousin. About this time this cousin began spending her summers in
the Page home at Cary; her great interest in books made the two young
people good friends and companions. It was she who first introduced Page
to certain Southern writers, especially Timrod and Sidney Lanier, and,
when Page left for Johns Hopkins, the two entered into a compact for a
systematic reading and study of the English poets. According to this
plan, certain parts of Tennyson or Chaucer would be set aside for a
particular week's reading; then both would write the impressions gained
and the criticisms which they assumed to make, and send the product to
the other. The plan was carried out more faithfully than is usually the
case in such arrangements; a large number of Page's letters survive and
give a complete history of his mental progress. There are lengthy
disquisitions on Wordsworth, Browning, Byron, Shelley, Matthew Arnold,
and the like. These letters also show that Page, as a relaxation from
Greek roots and syntax, was indulging in poetic flights of his own; his
efforts, which he encloses in his letters, are mainly imitations of the
particular poet in whom he was at the moment interested. This
correspondence also takes Page to Germany, in which country he spent the
larger part of the summer of 1877. This choice of the Fatherland as a
place of pilgrimage was probably merely a reflection of the enthusiasm
for German educational methods which then prevailed in the United
States, especially at Johns Hopkins. Page's letters are the usual
traveller's descriptions of unfamiliar customs, museums, libraries, and
the like; so far as enlarging his outlook was concerned the experience
does not seem to have been especially profitable.

He returned to Baltimore in the autumn of 1877, but only for a few
months. He had pretty definitely abandoned his plan of devoting his life
to Greek scholarship. As a mental stimulus, as a recreation from the
cares of life, his Greek authors would always be a first love, as they
proved to be; but he had abandoned his early ambition of making them his
everyday occupation and means of livelihood. Of course there was only
one career for a man of his leanings, and, more and more, his mind was
turning to journalism. For only one brief period did he again listen to
the temptations of a scholar's existence. The university of his native
state invited him to lecture in the summer school of 1878; he took
Shakespeare for his subject, and made so great a success that there was
some discussion of his settling down permanently at Chapel Hill in the
chair of Greek. Had the offer definitely been made Page would probably
have accepted, but difficulties arose. Page was no longer orthodox in
his religious views; he had long outgrown dogma and could only smile at
the recollection that he had once thought of becoming a clergyman. But a
rationalist at the University of North Carolina in 1878 could hardly be
endured. The offer, therefore, fortunately was not made. Afterward Page
was much criticized for having left his native state at a time when it
especially needed young men of his type. It may therefore be recorded
that, if there were any blame at all, it rested upon North Carolina. He
refers to his disappointment in a letter in February, 1879 - a letter
that proved to be a prophecy. "I shall some day buy a home," he says,
"where I was not allowed to work for one, and be laid away in the soil
that I love. I wanted to work for the old state; it had no need for it,
it seems."


[Footnote 1: From "The Southerner," Chapter I. The first chapter in this
novel is practically autobiographical, though fictitious names have been

[Footnote 2: "The Rebuilding of Old Commonwealths." (1902.)]

[Footnote 3: "The Southerner," Chapter I.]




The five years from 1878 to 1883 Page spent in various places, engaged,
for the larger part of the time, in several kinds of journalistic work.
It was his period of struggle and of preparation. Like many American
public men he served a brief apprenticeship - in his case, a very brief
one - as a pedagogue. In the autumn of 1878 he went to Louisville,
Kentucky, and taught English for a year at the Boys' High School. But he
presently found an occupation in this progressive city which proved far
more absorbing. A few months before his arrival certain energetic
spirits had founded a weekly paper, the _Age_, a journal which, they
hoped, would fill the place in the Southern States which the very
successful New York _Nation_, under the editorship of Godkin, was then
occupying in the North. Page at once began contributing leading articles
on literary and political topics to this publication; the work proved so
congenial that he purchased - on notes - a controlling interest in the new
venture and became its directing spirit. The _Age_ was in every way a
worthy enterprise; in the dignity of its make-up and the high literary
standards at which it aimed it imitated the London _Spectator_. Perhaps
Page obtained a thousand dollars' worth of fun out of his investment; if
so, that represented his entire profit. He now learned a lesson which
was emphasized in his after career as editor and publisher, and that was
that the Southern States provided a poor market for books or
periodicals. The net result of the proceeding was that, at the age of
twenty-three, he found himself out of a job and considerably in debt.

He has himself rapidly sketched his varied activities of the next five

"After trying in vain," he writes, "to get work to do on any newspaper
in North Carolina, I advertised for a job in journalism - any sort of a
job. By a queer accident - a fortunate one for me - the owner of the St.
Joseph, Missouri, _Gazette_, answered the advertisement. Why he did it,
I never found out. He was in the same sort of desperate need of a
newspaper man as I was in desperate need of a job. I knew nothing about
him: he knew nothing about me. I knew nothing about newspaper work. I
had done nothing since I left the University but teach English in the
Louisville, Kentucky, High School for boys one winter and lecture at the
summer school at Chapel Hill one summer. I made up my mind to go into
journalism. But journalism didn't seem in any hurry to make up its mind
to admit me. Not only did all the papers in North Carolina decline my
requests for work, but such of them in Baltimore and Louisville as I
tried said 'No.' So I borrowed $50 and set out to St. Joe, Missouri,
where I didn't know a human being. I became a reporter. At first I
reported the price of cattle - went to the stockyards, etc. My salary
came near to paying my board and lodging, but it didn't quite do it. But
I had a good time in St. Joe for somewhat more than a year. There were
interesting people there. I came to know something about Western life.
Kansas was across the river. I often went there. I came to know Kansas
City, St. Louis - a good deal of the West. After a while I was made
editor of the paper. What a rousing political campaign or two we had!
Then - I had done that kind of a job as long as I cared to. Every
swashbuckling campaign is like every other one. Why do two? Besides, I
knew my trade. I had done everything on a daily paper from stockyard
reports to political editorials and heavy literary articles. In the
meantime I had written several magazine articles and done other such
jobs. I got leave of absence for a month or two. I wrote to several of
the principal papers in Chicago, New York, and Boston and told them that
I was going down South to make political and social studies and that I
was going to send them my letters. I hoped they'd publish them.

"That's all I could say. I could make no engagement; they didn't know
me. I didn't even ask for an engagement. I told them simply this: that
I'd write letters and send them; and I prayed heaven that they'd print
them and pay for them. Then off I went with my little money in my
pocket - about enough to get to New Orleans. I travelled and I wrote. I
went all over the South. I sent letters and letters and letters. All the
papers published all that I sent them and I was rolling in wealth! I had
money in my pocket for the first time in my life. Then I went back to
St. Joe and resigned; for the (old) New York _World_ had asked me to go
to the Atlanta Exposition as a correspondent. I went. I wrote and kept
writing. How kind Henry Grady was to me! But at last the Exposition
ended. I was out of a job. I applied to the _Constitution_. No, they
wouldn't have me. I never got a job in my life that I asked for! But all
my life better jobs have been given me than I dared ask for. Well - I was
at the end of my rope in Atlanta and I was trying to make a living in
any honest way I could when one day a telegram came from the New York
_World_ (it was the old _World_, which was one of the best of the
dailies in its literary quality) asking me to come to New York. I had
never seen a man on the paper - had never been in New York except for a
day when I landed there on a return voyage from a European trip that I
took during one vacation when I was in the University. Then I went to
New York straight and quickly. I had an interesting experience on the
old _World_, writing literary matter chiefly, an editorial now and then,
and I was frequently sent as a correspondent on interesting errands. I
travelled all over the country with the Tariff Commission. I spent one
winter in Washington as a sort of editorial correspondent while the
tariff bill was going through Congress. Then, one day, the _World_ was
sold to Mr. Pulitzer and all the staff resigned. The character of the
paper changed."

What better training could a journalist ask for than this? Page was only
twenty-eight when these five years came to an end; but his life had been
a comprehensive education in human contact, in the course of which he
had picked up many things that were not included in the routine of Johns
Hopkins University. From Athens to St. Joe, from the comedies of
Aristophanes to the stockyards and political conventions of Kansas
City - the transition may possibly have been an abrupt one, but it is not
likely that Page so regarded it. For books and the personal relation
both appealed to him, in almost equal proportions, as essentials to the
fully rounded man. Merely from the standpoint of geography, Page's
achievement had been an important one; how many Americans, at the age of
twenty-eight, have such an extensive mileage to their credit? Page had
spent his childhood - and his childhood only - in North Carolina; he had
passed his youth in Virginia and Maryland; before he was twenty-three he
had lived several months in Germany, and, on his return voyage, he had
sailed by the white cliffs of England, and, from the deck of his
steamer, had caught glimpses of that Isle of Wight which then held his
youthful favourite Tennyson. He had added to these experiences a winter
in Kentucky and a sojourn of nearly two years in Missouri. His Southern
trip, to which Page refers in the above, had taken him through
Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana; he had visited
the West again in 1882, spending a considerable time in all the large
cities, Chicago, Omaha, Denver, Leadville, Salt Lake, and from the
latter point he had travelled extensively through Mormondom. The several
months spent in Atlanta had given the young correspondent a glimpse into
the new South, for this energetic city embodied a Southern spirit that
was several decades removed from the Civil War. After this came nearly
two years in New York and Washington, where Page gained his first
insight into Federal politics; in particular, as a correspondent
attached to the Tariff Commission - an assignment that again started him
on his travels to industrial centres - he came into contact, for the
first time, with the mechanism of framing the great American tariff. And
during this period Page was not only forming a first-hand acquaintance
with the passing scene, but also with important actors in it. The mere
fact that, on the St. Joseph _Gazette_, he succeeded Eugene Field - "a
good fellow named Page is going to take my desk," said the careless
poet, "I hope he will succeed to my debts too" - always remained a
pleasant memory. He entered zealously into the life of this active
community; his love of talk and disputation, his interest in politics,
his hearty laugh, his vigorous handclasp, his animation of body and of
spirit, and his sunny outlook on men and events - these are the traits
that his old friends in this town, some of whom still survive,
associate with the juvenile editor. In his Southern trip Page
called - self-invited - upon Jefferson Davis and was cordially
received. At Atlanta, as he records above, he made friends with that
chivalric champion of a resurrected South, Henry Grady; here also he
obtained fugitive glimpses of a struggling and briefless lawyer, who,
like Page, was interested more in books and writing than in the humdrum
of professional life, and who was then engaged in putting together a
brochure on _Congressional Government_ which immediately gave him a
national standing. The name of this sympathetic acquaintance was Woodrow

[Illustration: Walter H. Page in 1876, when he was a Fellow of Johns
Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.]

[Illustration: Basil L. Gildersleeve, Professor of Greek, Johns Hopkins
University, 1876-1915]

Another important event had taken place, for, at St. Louis, on November
15, 1880, Page had married Miss Willia Alice Wilson. Miss Wilson was the
daughter of a Scotch physician, Dr. William Wilson, who had settled in
Michigan, near Detroit, in 1832. When she was a small child she went
with her sister's family - her father had died seven years before - to
North Carolina, near Cary; and she and Page had been childhood friends
and schoolmates. At the time of the wedding, Page was editor of the St.
Joseph _Gazette_; the fact that he had attained this position, five
months after starting at the bottom, sufficiently discloses his aptitude
for journalistic work.

Page had now outgrown any Southern particularism with which he may have
started life. He no longer found his country exclusively in the area
south of the Potomac; he had made his own the West, the North - New York,
Chicago, Denver, as well as Atlanta and Raleigh. It is worth while
insisting on this fact, for the cultivation of a wide-sweeping
Americanism and a profound faith in democracy became the qualities that
will loom most largely in his career from this time forward. It is
necessary only to read the newspaper letters which he wrote on his
Southern trip in 1881 to understand how early his mind seized this new
point of view. Many things which now fell under his observant eye in the
Southern States greatly irritated him and with his characteristic
impulsiveness he pictured these traits in pungent phrase. The atmosphere
of shiftlessness that too generally prevailed in some localities; the
gangs of tobacco-chewing loafers assembled around railway stations; the
listless Negroes that seemed to overhang the whole country like a black
cloud; the plantation mansions in a sad state of disrepair; the old
unoccupied slave huts overgrown with weeds; the unpainted and
broken-down fences; the rich soil that was crudely and wastefully
cultivated with a single crop - the youthful social philosopher found
himself comparing these vestigia of a half-moribund civilization with
the vibrant cities of the North, the beautiful white and green villages
of New England, and the fertile prairie farms of the West. "Even the
dogs," he said, "look old-fashioned." Oh, for a change in his beloved
South - a change of almost any kind! "Even a heresy, if it be bright and
fresh, would be a relief. You feel as if you wished to see some kind of
an effort put forth, a discussion, a fight, a runaway, anything to make
the blood go faster." Wherever Page saw signs of a new spirit - and he
saw many - he recorded them with an eagerness which showed his loyalty to
the section of his birth. The splitting up of great plantations into
small farms he put down as one of the indications of a new day. A
growing tendency to educate, not only the white child, but the Negro,
inspired a similar tribute. But he rejoiced most over the decreasing
bitterness of the masses over the memories of the Civil War, and
discovered, with satisfaction, that any remaining ill-feeling was a
heritage left not by the Union soldier, but by the carpetbagger.

And one scene is worth preserving, for it illustrates not only the zeal
of Page himself for the common country, but the changing attitude of the
Southern people. It was enacted at Martin, Tennessee, on the evening of
July 2, 1881. Page was spending a few hours in the village grocery,
discussing things in general with the local yeomanry, when the telegraph
operator came from the post office with rather more than his usual
expedition and excitement. He was frantically waving a yellow slip which
bore the news that President Garfield had been shot. Garfield had been
an energetic and a successful general in the war and his subsequent
course in Congress, where he had joined the radical Republicans, had not
caused the South to look upon him as a friend. But these farmers
responded to this shock, not like sectionalists, but like Americans.
"Every man of them," Page records, "expressed almost a personal sorrow.
Little was said of politics or of parties. Mr. Garfield was President of
the United States - that was enough. A dozen voices spoke the great
gratification that the assassin was not a Southern man. It was an
affecting scene to see weather-beaten old countrymen so profoundly
agitated - men who yesterday I should have supposed hardly knew and
certainly did not seem to care who was President. The great centres of
population, of politicians, and of thought may be profoundly agitated
to-night, but no more patriotic sorrow and humiliation is felt anywhere
by any men than by these old backwoods ex-Confederates."

Page himself was so stirred by the news that he ascended a cracker
barrel, and made a speech to the assembled countrymen, preaching to
responsive ears the theme of North and South, now reunited in a common
sorrow. Thus, by the time he was twenty-six, Page, at any rate in
respect to his Americanism, was a full-grown man.


A few years afterward Page had an opportunity of discussing this, his
favourite topic, with the American whom he most admired. Perhaps the
finest thing in the career of Grover Cleveland was the influence which
he exerted upon young men. After the sordid political transactions of

Online LibraryBurton Jesse HendrickThe Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I → online text (page 3 of 32)