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The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 08, No. 50, December, 1861 online

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realities has been attributed by some to their habit of visiting so many
interiors - of men and of their houses - whose swell-fronts are pervious
to the sincerity of pain. We never see a doctor's chaise anchored at a
door but we imagine the doctor taking in freight up-stairs. In these
days he is beginning to receive more than he gives. Let no sarcastic
person allude to doctors' fees. We mean that the physician, whose
humanity and intelligence are broad diplomas, on presenting which the
doors of hearts and houses open with a welcome, enters into the choicest
field of his education and research, where his tender observation walks
the wards of thought, feeling, and motive, to amass the facts of health
and suffering, to be refined at the true drama of pathos, to be ennobled
by the spectacle of fair and lofty spiritual traits, to be advised of
the weaknesses which he learns to touch lightly with his caustic, while
his knowing and friendly look deprecates all excess of pain. It is a
school of shrewdness, gentleness, and faith.

But a rich subject is here, altogether too wide for a book-notice, and
worthy of deliberate, but enthusiastic treatment. Dr. John Brown of
Edinburgh has consulted his own interior, and frequented those of
his diocese, to some purpose. The pieces in this volume, which the
publishers have selected from the two volumes of "Horae Subsecivae,"
omitting the more professional papers, are full of humor, tenderness,
and common sense. They betray only occasionally, in a technical way,
that the author is a disciple, as well as admirer, of Sydenham, and his
own countryman, Cullen. But they overflow with the best specifics of the
healing art, shrewdness, independence, nice observation; they have a
woman's kindness and a man's sturdiness. They honor human nature not the
less because the writer knows how to manage it, to raise a smile at its
absurdities, to rally, pique, and guide it into health and good-humor.
He is very clever with the edge-tools in his surgeon's-case; he whips
you out an excrescence before you are quite aware that he meditated
an operation, and you find that he had chloroformed you with a shrewd
writer's best anaesthetic, a humorous and genial temper.

There is a great deal of nice writing here. Happy words come at a call
and occupy their inevitable places. Now and then a Scotch word, with a
real terrier phiz and the best qualities of "black and tan," gives the
page a local flavor which we should not like to miss. But the writing
is not provincial. There is Scotch character everywhere: the keenness,
intensity, reverence, shaggy humor, sly fun, and just a touch of the
intolerance. The somewhat literal regard for Scripture, the awe, and the
unquestioning, childlike way of being religious, with the independence
of Kirk and Sessions and National Establishments, all belong to the best
intelligence of Edinburgh. But the literary felicity, the scholarship,
the various reading, the cultivated appreciation of books, men, and
systems, while they make us admire - as a good many bright volumes
printed in Edinburgh have done before - the mental power and refinement
which that most picturesque of Northern cities nourishes, do still
belong to the great commonwealth of letters, remind us not of wynds and
closes, and run away from the littleness of time and place.

If the reader would understand the difference between the sentimental
and the pathetic treatment of a subject, let him see in "Rab and his
Friends" how the pen of Dr. Brown follows the essential lines of that
most pure and tender of all stories. In doing so he has given us a new
creation in Ailie Noble. Not a line can be effectively added to that
ideal narrative of a true history, not a word can be pushed from its
place. The whole treatment is at once delicate, incisive, tender,
reserved, and dramatic. And after reading it, - with or without tears,
according to your capacity for dogged resistance to a distended
lachrymal duct, - you will be conscious of bearing away a sweet and
subduing impression, like that which a rare friend can sometimes give,
which lingers many days.

Let nobody omit to read the "Letter to John Cairns, D.D.," because he
does not care for J.C. or know who he is. It contains some reminiscences
by Dr. Brown of his father, a noted clergyman, of whose life and
character Dr. Cairns had prepared a memoir. In this, and in the Essay
upon Dr. Chalmers, Dr. Brown shows his capacity to observe and
portray human moods and characteristics. There are his usual literary
excellences, brought to the service of a keen and faithfully reporting
eye, and his fine humane qualities, his tenderness, reverence, and
humor.

This volume is one of the best ventures of the literary year.


_Cecil Dreeme_. By THEODORE WINTHROP. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 16mo.

In the death of Major Winthrop, at the promising commencement of his
military career, the nation lost one of its purest, noblest, and most
capable spirits. His industry, sagacity, and intrepidity all rested on a
firm basis of fixed principle and deep enthusiasm; and had he lived, we
have little doubt that both his moral and practical power would have
been felt among the palpable forces of the country. In the articles he
contributed to this magazine, describing his brief military experience,
every reader must have recognized the singular brightness of his mind
and the singular joyousness of his courage. Powers which, in meditation,
worked at the bidding of pensive or melancholy sentiments, seemed to
be braced by action into unwonted healthiness and hilarity; and had he
survived the experience of the present war, there can be little doubt
that his intellect and imagination would, by contact with events, have
been developed to their full capacity, and found expression in literary
works of remarkable power.

"Cecil Dreeme" is one of several novels he wrote before the war broke
out, and it conveys a striking impression of his genius and disposition.
The utmost sensitiveness and delicacy of moral sense were combined in
him with a rough delight in all the manifestations of manly strength;
and these two tendencies of his nature are fitly embodied and
exquisitely harmonized in the characters of Cecil Dreeme and Robert
Byng. They are opposites which by their very nature are necessarily
attracted to each other. The obstacle to their mental and moral union
is found in a third person, Densdeth, in whom manly strength and genius
have been corrupted by selfishness and sensuality into the worst form
of spiritual evil. This person is simply abhorred by Cecil, while Byng
finds in him something which tempts appetite, piques curiosity, develops
sensuous feeling, and provokes pride, as well as something which excites
moral disgust and loathing. Byng's distrustful love for Emma Denman
admirably represents this stage of his moral experience.

Densdeth is undoubtedly the central character of the book. It proves
its creator to be a true spiritual as well as physical descendant of
President Edwards; and not even his ancestor has shown more vividly the
"exceeding sinfulness of sin." Densdeth is one of those evil natures
in whom delight in evil pleasures has subsided into a delight in evil
itself, and a desire to communicate it to others. He has the diabolical
power of calling out the latent evil in all natures with whom his own
comes in contact, and he corrupts, not so much by example, as by a
direct communication of the corrupt spiritual life of his individual
being. He is an accomplished devil, wearing the guise of a New-York man
of fashion and fortune, - a devil such as tempts every person thrown into
the vortex of our daily commonplace life. Every pure sentiment, noble
aspiration, and manly instinct, every natural affection, gentle feeling,
and religious principle, is tainted by his contaminating companionship.
He infuses a subtle skepticism of the reality of goodness by the mere
magnetism of his evil presence. Persons who have been guarded against
the usual contrivances by which the conventional Devil works his wonders
find themselves impotent before the fascinations of Densdeth. They
follow while they detest him, and are at once his victims and his
accomplices. In those whose goodness, like that of Cecil Dreeme, is
founded on purity of sentiment and strength of principle, he excites
unmitigated abhorrence and strenuous opposition; but on all those whose
excellence is "respectable" rather than vital, who are good by the
felicity of their circumstances rather than the force of their
conscience, he exercises a fascination almost irresistible. To
everybody, indeed, who has in him any latent evil not overbalanced by
the habitual performance of positive duties, Densdeth's companionship
is morally blighting. The character, fearful in its way as the
Mephistopheles of Goethe, is represented with considerable artistic
skill.

Though the most really prominent person in the drama, he is, in the
representation, kept in the background, - a cynical, sneering, brilliant
demi-devil, who appears only when some plot against innocence is
beginning its wiles or approaching its consummation.

The incidents of the novel occur in some of the best-known localities
of New York. Nobody can mistake Chuzzlewit Hotel and Chrysalis College.
Every traveller has put up at the first and visited some literary
or artistic friend at the second. Indeed, Winthrop seems to have
deliberately chosen the localities of his story with the special
purpose of showing that passions almost as terrible as those which are
celebrated in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles may rage in the
ordinary lodging-houses of New York. He has succeeded in throwing an
atmosphere of mystery over places which are essentially commonplace;
and he has done it by the intensity with which he has conceived and
represented the internal thoughts, struggles, and emotions of the men
and women by whom these edifices of brick and stone are inhabited.

Though a clear narrator, when the story required clear narration,
Winthrop perfectly understood the art of narrating by implication and
allusion. He paints distinctly and minutely, not omitting a single
detail, when the occasion demands such faithful representation of real
facts and localities; but he has also the power of flashing his meaning
by suggestive hints which the most labored description and explication
could not make more effective. He makes the mind of the reader work
sympathetically with his own in building up the idea he seeks to convey.
Crimes which are nameless are mutually understood by this refined
communion between author and reader. The mystery of the plot is not
directly explained, but each party seems to bring, as in private
conversation, his individual sagacity to bear upon the right
interpretation.

The style of the book is admirable. It is brief almost to abruptness.
The words are few, and are crammed with all the meaning they can hold.
There is not a page which does not show that the writer is an economist
of expression, and desirous of conveying his matter with the slightest
possible expenditure of ink. Charles Reade himself does not condense
with a more fretful impatience of all circumlocution and a profounder
reliance on the absolute import of single words.

We might easily refer to particular scenes from this book, illustrative
of the author's descriptive and representative powers. Among many which
might be noticed, we will allude to only two, - that in which Cecil is
revived from his "sleep of death," and that in the opera-house, where
Byng is apprised of the guilt of Emma Denman. Nobody can read either
without feeling that in the disastrous fight of Great Bethel we lost a
great novelist as well as a chivalrous soldier and a noble man.

* * * * *


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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 08, No. 50, December, 1861 → online text (page 20 of 20)