Moncure Daniel Conway.

Autobiography, memories and experiences online

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appearance in the capitol was to listen to his successor's arraign-
ment of the Fugitive Slave Law for which he (Webster) was
chiefly responsible.

I sometimes met General Winfield Scott. In 1852 he had
been a Whig candidate for the presidency, on a platform of
the suppression of any further discussion of the slavery question.
For this he had been much ridiculed North and South. My
cousin Daniel said in his Richmond Examiner that Scott's first
name was originally " Wingfield," but the " g " had been dropped
for the more mihtary "Winfield." Mayor Seaton, at whose
house I used to meet him, thought him rather garrulous, but he
was a striking figure. To all who knew the old gentleman it must
have been appalling that at the beginning of the Union war the
armies of the United States should have been under the command
of this aged general ; and yet I now have to credit him with
the wisdom of having advised against the defence of Fort
Smnter. Had his advice been followed, the war might have
been avoided.

There was never much hterary abihty in G)ngress. Daniel
Webster gained credit for learning by his legal argument on the
Girard bequest founding a college from which ministers of reUgion



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MONCURE D. CONWAY. 185

were excluded. But I was informed that all the historical know-
ledge in it was supplied to him by a learned Methodist, Rev. W. B.
Edwards. Longfellow said that Simmer recalled to him the his-
toric speakers in Parliament, but the senator used to be ridiculed
for his Latin quotations. Congressman Upham, who wrote the
valuable monograph on Salem Witchcraft, impressed me — ^he
attended my church — as a fine literary intellect entombed in
polities.

Outside Congress there was a good deal of intellectual activity
of the scientific kind.. Lieutenant Maury and Professor Espy,
and at the Smithsonian Institution Professors Henry and Baird,
gave Washington a fijie reputation in that direction. School-
craft's researches were interesting all countries in the aborigines.
Th« best feature of Washington was the courses of lectures given
at the Smithsonian, not limited to science, which enabled us to
hear eminent educators from various parts of the country. For
modem American history we had George Washington Parke
Custis, who compiled all the fictions about General Washington
which historians fijid so impregnable. Custis was the man, I
have reason to believe, who told Jared Sparks that the fine Mar-
mion portrait of Betty Lewis was his grandmother ; and to this
day the portrait of Washington's sister in Sparks appears as that
of his wife ! " Grace Greenwood," as yet more celebrated for
her beauty than her writings, and Mrs. Southworth, were devoting
themselves to Uterature. I remember one man, George Wood>
a government clerk, who aspired to literary distinction. He
wrote " Peter Schlemihl m America " and " The Modem Pilgrim.''
I reviewed one of his books for the Intelligencer, and Mr. Seaton
persuaded me to make it less severe. Wood heaped coals of fire
on me by writing in praise of my sermons.

The handsomest man in the Senate was Salmon P. Chase,
afterwards Chief Justice. I heard Dr. McClintock say : " People
who suppose the anti-slavery men wicked ought to get a look at
that heavenly face of Senator Chase." The face was always
serene and fairly represented the man. Nothing could ruffle him,
and the pro-slavery senators gave up trying to irritate him. He
had reached his opinions by careful study of the Constitution,
and on any question that arose concerning laws relating to slavery
his statement was final. He was a good clear speaker, but never



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i86 THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF

rhetorical. He was more interesting in conversation than in
debate, but went little into society.

Dr. and Mrs. Gamaliel Bailey of the National Era had estab-
lished in Washington a brilliant salon. At their soirees there were
alwa}^ distinguished guests from abroad, and " Grace Green-
wood " was on these occasions quite equal to any of those French
dames whose salons have become historic. The Bailey entertain-
ments were of more importance in furthering anti-slavery senti-
ment in Washington than has been appreciated. The anti-
slavery senators were rarely met there, with the exception of
Hale ; but their ladies often came. A good many repre-
sentatives attended. Two North-CaroHnians, Goodloe and
Helper, virtually exiled, found welcome and sympathy there.
Nothing in Washington was more brilliant than the Bailey
soir/e. The bright and pretty ** Yankee " ladies got up the-
atricals, charades, tableaux, and the White House receptions
were dull in comparison.

The serious force and learning characteristic of the National
Era could hardly prepare one to find in Dr. Bailey the elegant
and polished gentleman that he was. He was the last man
that one might imagine facing the mob that destroyed his printing-
press in Cincinnati. I do not wonder that the mob gathered for
similar violence in Washington had quailed before his benign
coimtenance and calm good-natured address to them. Mrs.
Bailey, a tall, graceful, and intellectual woman, possessed all the
nerve necessary to pass through those ordeals, while at the same
time her apparent rSle was that of introducing yoimg ladies into
Washington society and shining as the centre of a refined social
circle.

I did not write for the National Era, but when I could spare
time from my sermons wrote for the National Intelligencer, which
reached my own people, as the Era did not. Pa5mient was never
thought of, as I contributed only what I wished to have pub-
lished — ^barring, of course, theology and slavery. I wrote several
reviews, one of these being of Longfellow's " Hiawatha '* (fall of
1855), which brought me a grateful note from the poet. I possess
no copy of my review, but my memory is that I had read up the
aboriginal legends. At any rate, when soon after Longfellow
was accused of appropriating the stories along with the metre



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MONCURE D. CONWAY. 187

of " Kalewala," the Finnish epic, I was able to defend him. Long-
fellow, in a note of December 3, 1855, said : —

I wrote you a few da)^ ago to thank you for your generous article
on " Hiawatha," and now I must write again to thank you still more
for coming so swiftly to my rescue in this onslaught of " T. C. P.,"
whose chief motive for publishing his "astounding discovery" seems
to be to inform the world that he has read ** Kalewala."

It is really too abject and pitiful, and one does not want to waste
time upon it. Still, I am greatly obliged to you for saying what you
did, and as you may not have the Indian books at hand I enclose the
refutation of the charges touching Hiawatha's birth and departure.
I can do the same if necessary with each and every legend, though
of course not with the detail of the working up.

Longfellow also sent his copy of " Kalewala." " T. C. P."
I never identified.*

It was a satisfaction to be entirely relieved of all those relics
of " extreme unction " which make so important a part of Metho-
dist ministry. Of course, I visited my friends when they were
ill, but it was not as a minister.

One morning a middle-aged lady called on me and said that
her husband had been taken ill as they were passing through
Washington, and the doctor thought he might die. They were
unacquainted in the city. She was herself an Episcopalian,
but her husband was a freethinker, and would certainly not
receive an orthodox clergyman. She earnestly desired that he
should be visited by some minister of religion, and as he was
more friendly to Unitarians than to others, she asked if I would
call. I said that I would see him if she was sure that my visit
would be well received by the sufferer, and not excite his resent-
ment. She promised to converse with him, and I would learn
at the door whether I would be welcome. Their lodging was

* In one of his letters LongfeUow sent me an extract from one he had
from Emerson, which says : "I find this Indian poem very wholesome,
sweet and wholesome as maize, very proper and pertinent for us to read,
and showing a kind of manly sense of duty in the poet to write. The
dangers of the Indians are that they are reaUy savage, have poor, smaU,
sterile heads, no thoughts, and you must deal very roundly with them,
and find them in brains ; and I blamed your tenderness now and then,
as I read, for accepting a legend or a song when they have too little to
give."



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1 88 THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF

near my church, and when I called the lady took me into the
invalid's room. In the bed I saw a handsome man of about sixty
with a look of keen intelligence. I perceived that he was on
the defensive. His wife, he said, desired him to see me, and
for her sake he agreed, but was afraid it was not fair to me, as
he had no beUef whatever in Christianity. I told him there was
no need for such fear, as it made no difference to me whether he
was a Christian or not. He then smiled and related that several
preachers had tried to convert him, and he had said to the last
one, " The man who teUs me that the Bible is as great a book as
Shakespeare is a fool.'' When he saw that I was not shocked by
this he became very affable. I think that one of his reasons for
receiving me was that he feared an orthodox funeral in case of
death. His case improved, however, and he was able to reach
liis distant home. I have regretted in later years my loss of
memoranda concerning the name and address of the family.

I think the half-himiorous remark of that man about Shake-
speare had a serious effect upon me. I was still backward in
my appreciation of Shakespeare. I had seen several of the
tragedies on the stage, but never performed by great actors,
and though I read the plays they did not appear to be related
to me. I have an impression that Emerson's chapter on Shake-
speare in " Representative Men " had misdirected me with regard
to the poet himself. " It must even go into the world's history
that the best poet led an obscure and profane Ufe, using his
genius for the pubhc amusement." I remember a criticism I
had made on some writings of Goethe that seemed to me C5mically
worldly, and Emerson sa3ang, "For the present you desire
quaUty rather than quantity." It was indeed so ; my head was
so crowded with the problems of existence that no room was left
for any poet imacquainted with the forms in which those problems
appealed to me. Meantime, however, I was playing too — " pluck-
ing light hopes and joys from every stem " — ^without dreaming
that every flower in the pretty garden contained a sweet secret.
But that gentleman in Washington, who with what he supposed
his dying words placed Shakespeare above the Bible, made me
study the poet more carefully. I find it impossible, however, at
seventy to estimate what I derived from Shakespeare in those
early years. I cannot help projecting into my first serious



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MONCURE D. CONWAY. 189

acquaintance with those works the cumulative experience related
to them. Shakespeare represents to me supremely the test of
all genius ; namely, that its work anticipates the stages of Ufe.
His work can never be precisely re-read ; every time I make the
attempt I find that in the interval some new thoughts and
experiences, however unconscious, have touched my eyes and
reveal imsuspected thoughts and depths in the page.

An important event in 1855 was the appearance of Walt
Whitman's " Leaves of Grass." Emerson spoke of the book at ^
his house, and suggested that I should call on the new poet. I
read the poem with joy. Democracy had at length its epic. It
was prophetic of the good time coming when the vulgar herd
should be transformed into noblemen. The portrait in the book
was that of a working man, and if one labourer could so flower,
genius was potential in all. That Walt was posing as one of a
class to which he did not belong was not realised by me even after
his own intimation of it, as related in my subjoined letter to
Emerson (sent me by his son) : —

Washington, September 17, 1855.

My dear Mr. Emerson, — I immediately procured the " Leaves
of Grass " after hearing you speak of it. I read it on board the
steamer Metropolis on my way to New York the evening after see-
ing you, and resolved to see its author if I could while I was in the
city. As you seemed much interested in him and his work, I have
taken the earliest moment which I could command since my return
to give you some account of my visit.

I found by the directory that one Walter Whitman lived fearfully
far (out of Brooklyn, nearly), on Ryerton Street, a short way from
Mjnie Avenue. The way to reach the house is to go down to Fulton
Street Ferry, after crossing take the Fulton and Myrtle Avenue car,
and get out at Ryerton Street. It is one of a row of small wooden
houses with porches which all seem occupied by mechanics. I
didn't find him there, however. His mother directed me to Rome's
Printing Office (comer of Fulton and Cranberry Streets), which is
much nearer, and where he often is.

I found him reviewing some proof. A man you would not have
marked in a thousand ; blue striped shirt, opening from a red throat ;
and sitting on a chair without a back, which, being the only one, he
offered me, and sat down on a round of the printer's desk himself.
His manner was blunt enough also, without being disagreeably so.



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igo THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF

I told him that I had just spent an evening with you, and that
what you had said of him and the perusal of his book had resulted
in my call. He seemed very eager to hear from you and about you,
and what you thought of his book. He had once seen you and heard
you in the lecture-room, and was anxious to know all he could
of your life, yet not with any vulgar curiosity, but entire frank-
ness. I told him of the occasions in which Mr. Bartol and others
had attempted to read it in company and failed, at which he seemed
much amused.

The likeness in the book is fair. His beard and hair are greyer
than is usual with a man of thirty-six. His face and eyes are inter-
esting, and his head rather narrow behind the eyes ; but a thick
brow looks as if it might have absorbed much. He walked with
me and crossed the Ferry ; he seemed " hail fellow " with every
man he met, all apparently in the labouring class. He says he
is one of that class by choice ; that he is personally dear to some
thousands of such in New York, who " love him but cannot make
head or tail of his book." He rides on the stage with the driver,
stops to talk with the old man or woman selling fruit at the street
comer ; and his dress, etc., is consistent with that.

I am quite sure after talking with him that there is much in all
this of what you might call '* playing Providence a httle with the
baser sort " (so much to the distress of the Rev. Vaughan's nerves).
... I could see that he had some books, if only a bottle-stick like
Alton Locke to read them by ; though he told me I thought too
much of books. But I came off delighted with him. His eye can
kindle strangely, and his words are ruddy with health. He is clearly
his Book, and I went off impressed with the sense of a new city on
my map, viz., Brooklyn, just as if it had suddenly risen through the
boiling sea.

After reading the " Leaves of Grass," Emerson wrote to the
author an enthusiastic letter, greeting him " at the beginning of
a great career.'* Whitman at once printed an edition prefaced
with Emerson's letter. Emerson said that if he had known his
letter would be published he might have qualified his praise.
" There are parts of the book," he said, " where I hold my nose
as I read. One must not be too squeamish when a chemist
brings him to a mass of filth and says, ' See, the great laws are
at work here also ' ; but it is a fine art if he can deodorise his
illustration. However, I do not fear that any man who has eyes
in his head will fail to see the genius in these poems. Those are



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MONCURE D. CONWAY. 191

terrible eyes to walk along Broadway. It is all there, as if in an
auctioneer's catalogue."

Emerson did not complain seriously of the publication of
his letter ; it was not marked private, and appeared so carefully
written that Walt considered it, as he said to me, " a serious
thing that might be fairly printed.*' He did not, however,
print any more of the edition containing it, and that second
edition is rare. The incident made no difference in Emerson's
friendliness towards the author, whom he welcomed cordially in
Concord.

Walt Whitman did not wonder that Emerson and his Boston
circle should sniff at his plain-spoken inclusion in his poetry,
to use his words, " of every process, every concrete object,
every human or other existence, not only considered from the
point of view of all, but of each." He told me with a smile
that he had heard of his poems being offered for sale by a vendor
of obscene books. My own feeling after twice reading " Leaves
of Grass" was that his pantheistic inspiration had come from
Emerson, and his style as well as his broadness mainly from the
Bible. He had been reared among Quakers, had heard l^Uas
Hicks preach, and the Quaker way of spirituaUsing everything
in the Bible explained to me the refrains of psalms and Solomonic
songs in " Leaves of Grass."

My sister had been with me on this summer excursion, and
I left her at the Metropolitan Hotel with a lady friend while I
went to visit Walt. But I had read these young ladies select
passages from the poem, and they had curiosity to see him. So
I invited him to early dinner at our hotel next day, and he came
in baize coat and chequered shirt, in fact, just like the portrait
in his book. The ladies were pleased with him ; his manners were
good, and his talk entertaining.

Walt Whitman told me that I was the first who had visited
him because of his book. On my second visit, during the smnmer
of 1857, ^^ was not at home, but I found him at the top of a hill
near by Isdng on his back and gazing on the sky. It was Sunday
morning, and he promptly agreed to a ramble. We first went to
his house, where I talked a few moments with his mother, a plain,
pleasant old lady, not so grey as her son, and whose dark eyes had
an apprehensive look. It was a small frame house. He took



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192 THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF

me to his little room, with its cot and poor furniture, the only
decoration being two engravings, one of Silenus and the other of
Bacchus. What he brought me up there to see was the barren
soUtude stretching from beneath his window towards the sea.
There were no books in the room, and he told me he had very few,
but had the use of good hbraries. He possessed, however, a
complete Shakespeare and a translation of Homer. He had
received a conmion school education, and had been brought up
in the Democratic party. He used to attend the gatherings of
leading men in Tammany Hall in the days when its chief was the
excellent John Fellowes. But he left the party when the Fugitive
Slave Law was enacted, and then wrote his first poem, " Blood-
money," never published.

We passed the day "loafing" on Staten Island, where we
found groves and soUtary beaches now built over. We had a
good long bath in the sea, and I perceived that the reddish tanned
face and neck of the poet crowned a body of lily-like whiteness
and a shapely form.

Walt Whitman said to me as we parted, " I have not met
anyone so charged with my ideas as you." The ideas had at-
V tracted me less than the style, because of its marvellous resemb-
lance not only to bibUcal but to ancient Persian poetry which
I was reading in the " Desatir " and other books which I found
he had never heard of. It seemed like the colours of dawn re-
appearing in the simset.

Here, too, was a revelation of hrnnan realms of which my

t knowledge had been mainly academic. Even while among the

humble Methodists, the pious people I knew were apart from

the world, and since then I had moved among scholars or persons

of marked individuality. Except the negroes, I had known

nothing of the working masses. But Whitman — as I have known

these many years — knew as little of the working-class practically

as I did. He had gone about among them in the disguise of their

own dress, and was perfectly honest in his supposition that he

had entered into their inmost nature. The Quaker training

tends to such illusion ; it was so in the case of Thomas Paine, who

V wrote transcendental politics and labelled it " Common Sense."

, With our eagerness to believe in the masses— our masters — ^we

credited them with the idealism which Walt Whitman had



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MONCURE D. CONWAY. 193

imaginatively projected into them, and said, " Unto Democracy
also a child is bom ! This is America's answer to Cariyle ! "
Somebody, probably the author himself, sent the book to Cariyle,
who once said to me, " The main burden of ' Leaves of Grass '
seems to be ' I'm a big man because I Uve in such a big country !• '
But I know of great men who hved in small comers of the world."
The working-men did not read Whitman's book, and fewer of
them than he supposed cared about him personally.

My enthusiasm for " Leaves of Grass " (the only work of
Whitman I ever cared about) was a sign and symptom that
the weight of the world had begun to roll on me. In Methodism
my burden had been metaphysical — a bundle of dogmas. The
world at large was not then mine ; for its woes and wrongs I
was not at all responsible ; they were far from me, and no one
ever taught me that the earth was to be healed except at the
millennium. The only evils were particular ones ; A. was a
drunkard, B. a thief, C. a murderer, D. had a cancer, and so on.
When I escaped from the dogmatic burden, and took the pleasant
rationalistic Christ on my shoulder, he was light as the babe
St. Christopher imdertook to carry across the river. But the new
Christ became Jesus, was human, and all hmnanity came with
him — the world-woe, the temporal evil and wrong. I was com-
mitted to deal with actual, visible, present hells instead of an
invisible one in a possible future. Such was now my contract,
and to bear the increasing load there was no divine vicar. Jesus
was no sacrifice, but an exemplar of self-sacrifice.

The great aim of Methodism was happiness. Conversion was
signalled by the shout of joy, by hymns, ecstasy, while the devil
groaned. But this new faith simimoned the soul to unending
sacrifices, severe duties, the heavy cross never to be laid down.
How smaU a part of my new religion did I learn from those enter-
taining studies at Divinity Hall ! In fact, I was not equal to all
this. I was too young ; half of me was a boy and wanted to
play. I needed a master. But in my own profession who was
there in Washington to look up to ?

The worst thing perhaps in taking up a religion which under
a suj)ematural solemnity deals with affairs of the world is that
the minister must have an opinion on every vast question. It
is expected of him to have his inlet to Omniscience sufficiently



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194 THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF

free to pass judgment on events big enough to receive the attention
of deity. Thus at Washington I had to say something about
the Crimean War. I very earnestly detested all war, but as in
every conflict one side seems less to blame than the other, I
took the side of England warmly. I was misled by several
EngUsh writers in whose judgment I had confidence ; and too
easily, because I was in revolt against the traditional Anglo-
phobia of New England.

In Washington the highest society in rank was accessible
to me, but I was not impressionable in that direction. Methodism,
illustrated by my parents kneeling with the poor in the base-
ment of their house, had implanted in me an ideal of greatness
that consisted in standing by an humble thing. Among those
y^ men in political hfe I could find no hero. I esteemed some,
respected many, but none filled me with enthusiasm. I was
at times present at the receptions of grand officials, but would
not have exchanged for any senatorial or ambassadorial company
an evening with certain families I loved. My heart was not
lonely because I had no hero to worship, but the sweet friends
to whom I looked up in many things looked up to me for guidance
in the great issues of the time. And what guidance could I
give in my twenty-fourth year ?

Of all that swarm of officials, congressmen, officers, not one



Online LibraryMoncure Daniel ConwayAutobiography, memories and experiences → online text (page 18 of 41)