Burton Jesse Hendrick.

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

. (page 5 of 32)
Online LibraryBurton Jesse HendrickThe Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I → online text (page 5 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

William D. Howells, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich as the head of this famous
periodical. This meant that he had reached the top of his profession. He
was now forty-three years old.

No American publication had ever had so brilliant a history. Founded in
1857, in the most flourishing period of the New England writers, its
pages had first published many of the best essays of Emerson, the second
series of the Biglow papers as well as many other of Lowell's writings,
poems of Longfellow and Whittier, such great successes as Holmes's
"Autocrat of the Breakfast Table," Mrs. Howe's "Battle Hymn of the
Republic," and the early novels of Henry James. If America had a
literature, the _Atlantic_ was certainly its most successful periodical
exponent. Yet, in a sense, the _Atlantic_, by the time Page succeeded to
the editorship, had become the victim of its dazzling past. Its recent
editors had lived too exclusively in their back numbers. They had
conducted the magazine too much for the restricted audience of Boston
and New England. There was a time, indeed, when the business office
arranged the subscribers in two classes - "Boston" and "foreign";
"Boston" representing their local adherents, and "foreign" the loyal
readers who lived in the more benighted parts of the United States. One
of its editors had been heard to boast that he never solicited a
contribution; it was not his business to be a literary drummer! Let the
truth be fairly spoken: when Page made his first appearance in the
_Atlantic_ office, the magazine was unquestionably on the decline. Its
literary quality was still high; the momentum that its great
contributors had given it was still keeping the publication alive;
entrance into its columns still represented the ultimate ambition of the
aspiring American writer; but it needed a new spirit to insure its
future. What it required was the kind of editing that had suddenly made
the _Forum_ one of the greatest of English-written reviews. This is the
reason why the canny Yankee proprietors had reached over to New York and
grasped Page as quickly as the capitalists of the _Forum_ let him slip
between their fingers.

Page's sense of humour discovered a certain ironic aspect in his
position as the dictator of this famous New England magazine. The fact
that his manner was impatiently energetic and somewhat startling to the
placid atmosphere of Park Street was not the thing that really signified
its break with its past. But here was a Southerner firmly entrenched in
a headquarters that had long been sacred to the New England
abolitionists. One of the first sights that greeted Page, as he came
into the office, was the angular and spectacled countenance of William
Lloyd Garrison, gazing down from a steel engraving on the wall. One of
Garrison's sons was a colleague, and the anterooms were frequently
cluttered with dusky gentlemen patiently waiting for interviews with
this benefactor of their race. Page once was careless enough to inform
Mr. Garrison that "one of your niggers" was waiting outside for an
audience. "I very much regret, Mr. Page," came the answer, "that you
should insist on spelling 'Negro' with two 'g's'." Despite the mock
solemnity of this rebuke, perennial good-nature and raillery prevailed
between the son of Garrison and his disrespectful but ever sympathetic
Southern friend. Indeed, one of Page's earliest performances was to
introduce a spirit of laughter and genial coöperation into a rather
solemn and self-satisfied environment. Mr. Mifflin, the head of the
house, even formally thanked Page "for the hearty human way in which you
take hold of life." Mr. Ellery Sedgwick, the present editor of the
_Atlantic_, has described the somewhat disconcerting descent of Page
upon the editorial sanctuary of James Russell Lowell:

"Were a visitant from another sphere to ask me for the incarnation
of those qualities we love to call American, I should turn to a
familiar gallery of my memory and point to the living portrait that
hangs there of Walter Page. A sort of foursquareness, bluntness, it
seemed to some; an uneasy, often explosive energy; a disposition to
underrate fine drawn nicenesses of all sorts; ingrained Yankee
common sense, checking his vaulting enthusiasm; enormous
self-confidence, impatience of failure - all of these were in him;
and he was besides affectionate to a fault, devoted to his country,
his family, his craft - a strong, bluff, tender man.

"Those were the decorous days of the old tradition, and Page's
entrance into the 'atmosphere' of Park Street has taken on the
dignity of legend. There were all kinds of signs and portents, as
the older denizens will tell you. Strange breezes floated through
the office, electric emanations, and a pervasive scent of tobacco,
which - so the local historian says - had been unknown in the
vicinity since the days of Walter Raleigh, except for the literary
aroma of Aldrich's quarantined sanctum upstairs. Page's coming
marked the end of small ways. His first requirement was, in lieu of
a desk, a table that might have served a family of twelve for
Thanksgiving dinner. No one could imagine what that vast, polished
tableland could serve for until they watched the editor at work.
Then they saw. Order vanished and chaos reigned. Huge piles of
papers, letters, articles, reports, books, pamphlets, magazines,
congregated themselves as if by magic. To work in such confusion
seemed hopeless, but Page eluded the congestion by the simple
expedient of moving on. He would light a fresh cigar, give the
editorial chair a hitch, and begin his work in front of a fresh
expanse of table, with no clutter of the past to disturb the new
day's litter.

"The motive power of his work was enthusiasm. Never was more
generous welcome given to a newcomer than Page held out to the
successful manuscript of an unknown. I remember, though I heard the
news second hand at the time, what a day it was in the office when
the first manuscript from the future author of 'To Have and To
Hold,' came in from an untried Southern girl. He walked up and
down, reading paragraphs aloud and slapping the crisp manuscript
to enforce his commendation. To take a humbler instance, I recall
the words of over generous praise with which he greeted the first
paper I ever sent to an editor quite as clearly as I remember the
monstrous effort which had brought it into being. Sometimes he
would do a favoured manuscript the honour of taking it out to lunch
in his coat-pocket, and an associate vividly recalls eggs, coffee,
and pie in a near-by restaurant, while, in a voice that could be
heard by the remotest lunchers, Page read passages which many of
them were too startled to appreciate. He was not given to
overrating, but it was not in his nature to understate. 'I tell
you,' said he, grumbling over some unfortunate proof-sheets from
Manhattan, 'there isn't one man in New York who can write
English - not from the Battery to Harlem Heights.' And if the faults
were moral rather than literary, his disapproval grew in emphasis.
There is more than tradition in the tale of the Negro who,
presuming on Page's deep interest in his race, brought to his desk
a manuscript copied word for word from a published source. Page
recognized the deception, and seizing the rascal's collar with a
firm editorial grip, rejected the poem, and ejected the poet, with
an energy very invigorating to the ancient serenities of the

"Page was always effervescent with ideas. Like an editor who would
have made a good fisherman, he used to say that you had to cast a
dozen times before you could get a strike. He was forever in those
days sending out ideas and suggestions and invitations to write.
The result was electric, and the magazine became with a suddenness
(of which only an editor can appreciate the wonder) a storehouse of
animating thoughts. He avoided the mistake common to our craft of
editing a magazine for the immediate satisfaction of his
colleagues. 'Don't write for the office,' he would say. 'Write for
outside,' and so his magazine became a living thing. His phrase
suggests one special gift that Page had, for which his profession
should do him especial honour. He was able, quite beyond the powers
of any man of my acquaintance, to put compendiously into words the
secrets of successful editing. It was capital training just to hear
him talk. 'Never save a feature,' he used to say. 'Always work for
the next number. Forget the others. Spend everything just on that.'
And to those who know, there is divination in the principle. Again
he understood instinctively that to write well a man must not only
have something to say, but must long to say it. A highly
intelligent representative of the coloured race came to him with a
philosophic essay. Page would have none of it. 'I know what you are
thinking of,' said Page. 'You are thinking of the barriers we set
up against you, and the handicap of your lot. If you will write
what it feels like to be a Negro, I will print that.' The result
was a paper which has seemed to me the most moving expression of
the hopeless hope of the race I know of.

"Page was generous in his coöperation. He never drew a rigid line
about his share in any enterprise, but gave and took help with each
and all. A lover of good English, with an honest passion for things
tersely said, Page esteemed good journalism far above any
second-rate manifestation of more pretentious forms; but many of us
will regret that he was not privileged to find some outlet for his
energies in which aspiration for real literature might have played
an ampler part. For the literature of the past Page had great
respect, but his interest was ever in the present and the future.
He was forever fulminating against bad writing, and hated the
ignorant and slipshod work of the hack almost as much as he
despised the sham of the man who affected letters, the dabbler and
the poetaster. His taste was for the roast beef of literature, not
for the side dishes and the trimmings, and his appreciation of the
substantial work of others was no surer than his instinct for his
own performance. He was an admirable writer of exposition,
argument, and narrative - solid and thoughtful, but never dull. . . .
I came into close relations with him and from him I learned more of
my profession than from any one I have ever known. Scores of other
men would say the same."

But the fact that a new hand had seized the _Atlantic_ was apparent in
other places than in the _Atlantic_ office itself. One of Page's
contributors of the _Forum_ days, Mr. Courtney DeKalb, happened to be in
St. Louis when the first number of the magazine under its new editor
made its appearance. Mr. DeKalb had been out of the country for some
time and knew nothing of the change. Happening accidentally to pick up
the _Atlantic_, the table of contents caught his eye. It bore the traces
of an unmistakable hand. Only one man, he said to himself, could
assemble such a group as that, and above all, only Page could give such
an enticing turn of the titles. He therefore sat down and wrote his old
friend congratulating him on his accession to the _Atlantic Monthly_.
The change that now took place was indeed a conspicuous, almost a
startling one. The _Atlantic_ retained all its old literary flavour, for
to its traditions Page was as much devoted as the highest caste
Bostonian; it still gave up much of its space to a high type of fiction,
poetry, and reviews of contemporary literature, but every number
contained also an assortment of articles which celebrated the prevailing
activities of men and women in all worth-while fields of effort. There
were discussions of present-day politics, and these even became
personal dissections of presidential candidates; there were articles on
the racial characters of the American population: Theodore Roosevelt was
permitted to discuss the New York police; Woodrow Wilson to pass in
review the several elements that made the Nation; Booker T. Washington
to picture the awakening of the Negro; John Muir to enlighten Americans
upon a national beauty and wealth of which they had been woefully
ignorant, their forests; William Allen White to describe certain aspects
of his favourite Kansas; E.L. Godkin to review the dangers and the hopes
of American democracy; Jacob Rüs to tell about the Battle with the Slum;
and W.G. Frost to reveal for the first time the archaic civilization of
the Kentucky mountaineers. The latter article illustrated Page's genius
at rewriting titles. Mr. Frost's theme was that these Kentucky
mountaineers were really Elizabethan survivals; that their dialect,
their ballads, their habits were really a case of arrested development;
that by studying them present-day Americans could get a picture of their
distant forbears. Page gave vitality to the presentation by changing a
commonplace title to this one: "Our Contemporary Ancestors."

There were those who were offended by Page's willingness to seek
inspiration on the highways and byways and even in newspapers, for not
infrequently he would find hidden away in a corner an idea that would
result in valuable magazine matter. On one occasion at least this
practice had important literary consequences. One day he happened to
read that a Mrs. Robert Hanning had died in Toronto, the account
casually mentioning the fact that Mrs. Hanning was the youngest sister
of Thomas Carlyle. Page handed this clipping to a young assistant, and
told him to take the first train to Canada. The editor could easily
divine that a sister of Carlyle, expatriated for forty-six years on
this side of the Atlantic, must have received a large number of letters
from her brother, and it was safe to assume that they had been carefully
preserved. Such proved to be the fact; and a new volume of Carlyle
letters, of somewhat more genial character than the other collections,
was the outcome of this visit[4]. And another fruit of this journalistic
habit was "The Memoirs of a Revolutionist," by Prince Peter Kropotkin.
In 1897 the great Russian nihilist was lecturing in Boston. Page met
him, learned from his own lips his story, and persuaded him to put it in
permanent form. This willingness of Page to admit such a revolutionary
person into the pages of the _Atlantic_ caused some excitement in
conventional circles. In fact, it did take some courage, but Page never
hesitated; the man was of heroic mould, he had a great story to tell, he
wielded an engaging pen, and his purposes were high-minded. A great book
of memoirs was the result.

Mr. Sedgwick refers above to Page's editorial fervour when Miss Mary
Johnston's "Prisoners of Hope" first fell out of the blue sky into his
Boston office. Page's joy was not less keen because the young author was
a Virginia girl, and because she had discovered that the early period of
Virginia history was a field for romance. When, a few months afterward,
Page was casting about for an _Atlantic_ serial, Miss Johnston and this
Virginia field seemed to be an especially favourable prospect.
"Prisoners of Hope" had been published as a book and had made a good
success, but Miss Johnston's future still lay ahead of her. With Page to
think meant to act, and so, instead of writing a formal letter, he at
once jumped on a train for Birmingham, Alabama, where Miss Johnston was
then living. "I remember quite distinctly that first meeting," writes
Miss Johnston. "The day was rainy. Standing at my window I watched Mr.
Page - a characteristic figure, air and walk - approach the house. When a
few minutes later I met him he was simplicity and kindliness itself.
This was my first personal contact with publishers (my publishers) or
with editors of anything so great as the _Atlantic_. My heart beat! But
he was friendly and Southern. I told him what I had done upon a new
story. He was going on that night. Might he take the manuscript with him
and read it upon the train? It might - he couldn't say positively, of
course - but it might have serial possibilities. I was only too glad for
him to have the manuscript. I forget just how many chapters I had
completed. But it was not quite in order. Could I get it so in a few
hours? In that case he would send a messenger for it from the hotel.
Yes, I could. Very good! A little further talk and he left with a strong
handshake. Three or four hours later he had the manuscript and took it
with him from Birmingham that night."

Page's enterprising visit had put into his hands the half-finished
manuscript of a story, "To Have and to Hold," which, when printed in the
_Atlantic_, more than doubled its circulation, and which, when made into
a book, proved one of the biggest successes since "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Page's most independent stroke in his _Atlantic_ days came with the
outbreak of the Spanish-American War. Boston was then the headquarters
of a national mood which has almost passed out of popular remembrance.
Its spokesmen called themselves anti-imperialists. The theory back of
their protest was that the American declaration of war on Spain was not
only the wanton attack of a great bully upon a feeble little country: it
was something that was bound to have deplorable consequences. The
United States was breaking with its past and engaging in European
quarrels; as a consequence of the war it would acquire territories and
embark on a career of "imperialism." Page was impatient at this kind of
twaddle. He declared that the Spanish War was a "necessary act of
surgery for the health of civilization." He did not believe that a
nation, simply because it was small, should be permitted to maintain
indefinitely a human slaughter house at the door of the United States.
The _Atlantic_ for June, 1898, gave the so-called anti-imperialists a
thrill of horror. On the cover appeared the defiantly flying American
flag; the first article was a vigorous and approving presentation of the
American case against Spain; though this was unsigned, its incisive
style at once betrayed the author. The _Atlantic_ had printed the
American flag on its cover during the Civil War; but certain New
Englanders thought that this latest struggle, in its motives and its
proportions, was hardly entitled to the distinction. Page declared,
however, that the Spanish War marked a new period in history; and he
endorsed the McKinley Administration, not only in the war itself, but in
its consequences, particularly the annexation of the Philippine Islands.

Page greatly enjoyed life in Boston and Cambridge. The _Atlantic_ was
rapidly growing in circulation and in influence, and the new friends
that its editor was making were especially to his taste. He now had a
family of four children, three boys and one girl - and their bringing up
and education, as he said at this time, constituted his real occupation.
So far as he could see, in the summer of 1899, he was permanently
established in life. But larger events in the publishing world now again
pulled him back to New York.


[Footnote 4: "Letters of Thomas Carlyle to his Youngest Sister." Edited
by Charles Townsend Copeland. Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1899.]




In July, 1899, the publishing community learned that financial
difficulties were seriously embarrassing the great house of Harper. For
nearly a century this establishment had maintained a position almost of
preëminence among American publishers. Three generations of Harpers had
successively presided over its destinies; its magazines and books had
become almost a household necessity in all parts of the United States,
and its authors included many of the names most celebrated in American
letters. The average American could no more associate the idea of
bankruptcy with this great business than with the federal Treasury
itself. Yet this incredible disaster had virtually taken place. At this
time the public knew nothing of the impending ruin; the fact was,
however, that, in July, 1899, the banking house of J.P. Morgan & Company
practically controlled this property. This was the situation which again
called Page to New York.

In the preceding year Mr. S.S. McClure, whose recent success as editor
and publisher had been little less than a sensation, had joined forces
with Mr. Frank N. Doubleday, and organized the new firm of Doubleday &
McClure. This business was making rapid progress; and that it would soon
become one of the leading American publishing houses was already
apparent. It was perhaps not unnatural, therefore, that Mr. J. Pierpont
Morgan, scanning the horizon for the men who might rescue the Harper
concern from approaching disaster, should have had his attention drawn
to Mr. McClure and Mr. Doubleday. "The failure of Harper & Brothers,"
Mr. Morgan said in a published statement, "would be a national
calamity." One morning, therefore, a member of the Harper firm called
upon Mr. McClure. Without the slightest hesitation he unfolded the
Harper situation to his astonished contemporary. The solution proposed
was more astonishing still. This was that Mr. Doubleday and Mr. McClure
should amalgamate their young and vigorous business with the Harper
enterprise and become the active managers of the new corporation. Both
Mr. McClure and Mr. Doubleday were comparatively young men, and the
magnitude of the proposed undertaking at first rather staggered them. It
was as though a small independent steel maker should suddenly be invited
to take over the United States Steel Corporation. Mr. McClure,
characteristically impetuous and daring, wished to accept the invitation
outright; Mr. Doubleday, however, suggested a period of probation. The
outcome was that the two men offered to take charge of Harper & Brothers
for a few months, and then decide whether they wished to make the
association a permanent one. One thing was immediately apparent; Messrs.
Doubleday and McClure, able as they were, would need the help of the
best talent available in the work that lay ahead. The first man to whom
they turned was Page, who presently left Boston and took up his business
abode at Franklin Square. The rumble of the elevated road was somewhat
distracting after the four quiet years in Park Street, but the new daily
routine was not lacking in interest. The Harper experiment, however, did
not end as Mr. Morgan had hoped. After a few months Messrs. Doubleday,
Page and McClure withdrew, and left the work of rescue to be performed
by Mr. George Harvey, who, curiously enough, succeeded Page, twenty-one
years afterward, in an even more important post - that of ambassador to
the Court of St. James's. The one important outcome of the Harper
episode, so far as Page was concerned, was the forming of a close
business and personal association with Mr. Frank N. Doubleday. As soon
as the two men definitely decided not to assume the Harper
responsibility, therefore, they joined forces and founded the firm of
Doubleday, Page & Company. Page now had the opportunity which he had
long wished for; the mere editing of magazines, even magazines of such
an eminent character as the _Forum_ and the _Atlantic Monthly_, could
hardly satisfy his ambition; he yearned to possess something which he
could call his own, at least in part.

The life of an editor has its unsatisfactory aspect, unless the editor
himself has an influential ownership in his periodical. Page now found
his opportunity to establish a monthly magazine which he could regard as
his own in both senses. He was its untrammelled editor, and also, in
part, its proprietor. All editors and writers will sympathize with the
ideas expressed in a letter written about this time to Page's friend,
Mr. William Roscoe Thayer, already distinguished as the historian of
Italian unity and afterward to win fame as the biographer of Cavour and
John Hay. When the first number of the _World's Work_ appeared Mr.
Thayer wrote, expressing a slight disappointment that its leading
tendency was journalistic rather than literary and intellectual. "When
you edited the _Forum_," wrote Mr. Thayer, "I perceived that no such
talent for editing had been seen in America before, and when, a little
later, you rejuvenated the _Atlantic_, making it for a couple of years

Online LibraryBurton Jesse HendrickThe Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I → online text (page 5 of 32)