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effect usually began on the humour of a particular locality and
gradually extended their range. Miss Marietta Holley as
'Josiah Allen's Wife" from up-state New York has for more
than forty years applied shrewd observation and the homeliest
common sense to the popular amusements and fashionable
problems of the day. My Opinions and Betsy Bobbett's (1873)
and Samantha at Saratoga (1887) established her reputation as
a keen deviser of ludicrous incidents and impossible social blun-



Newspaper Comedians 27

ders. James Montgomery Bailey (' "The Danbury News Man")
and Robert Jones Burdette ("The Hawkeye Man") attained a
more than local vogue as newspaper comedians, Bailey excelling
in quaintly exaggerated pictures of familiar domestic occur-
rences, Burdette in the unexpected collocation of dissimilar
ideas. Edgar Wilson Nye ("Bill Nye"), once of TheLaramie
[Wyoming] Boomerang, was also fond of surprising turns of
phrase, but his most characteristic vein lay in a sort of affected,
zealous idiocy. No better example of his manner is available
than one already selected by a skilled hand :

The condition of our navy need not give rise to any serious ap-
prehension. The yard in which it is placed at Brooklyn is en-
closed by a high brick wall affording it ample protection. A man
on board the Atlanta at anchor at Brooklyn is quite as safe as he
would be at home . The guns on board the A tlanta are breechloaders ;
this is a great improvement on the old-style gun, because in former
times in case of a naval combat the man who went outside the
ship to load the gun while it was raining frequently contracted
pneumonia. *

The lecture platform gave both Nye and Burdette an oppor-
tunity to display at best advantage their comical solemnity,
and much of their notoriety rose from their public appearances.
Nye especially was fortunate in his collaborators, touring at
one time with Mark Twain and again with James Whitcomb
Riley 2 and Eugene Field.

The last named, greatest of newspaper paragraphers and in
his own right something more, qualified as a Middle Westerner
by his birth in St. Louis (1850) and by his New England an-
cestry and bringing up. After three years in three colleges, a
trip to Europe, and an early marriage, he served his apprentice-
ship to journalism on several Missouri papers. From The
Denver [Colorado] Tribune his first humorous skit, The Tribune
Primer (1882), was reprinted. The best years of his life were
spent in Chicago as contributing editor to The Chicago Record.
In his daily column of "Sharps and Flats" appeared his most
characteristic verse, 3 tales, and miscellaneous paragraphs, later

J Quoted by S. Leacock, American Humour, Nineteenth Century, vol. Ixxvi, p.

453-

2 See Book III. Chao. x. * See Book II, Chap. xxm.



28 Minor Humorists

collected to form A Little Book of Western Verse (1889), A
Little Book of Profitable Tales (1889), and other volumes. He
was still in the prime of life and at the height of his celebrity as
a household poet, humorist, and lecturer, when he wrote in the
assumed character of a veteran bibliomaniac : " I am aweary and
will rest a little while; lie thou there, my pen, for a dream a
pleasant dream calleth me away." A few weeks later (4
November, 1895) death visited the writer as he slept.

Field's best known pieces of verse and prose exploiting
sentimental and pathetic themes, especially Christmas festivi-
ties and the deaths of little children, emerge from a background
of humorous writing illustrated by the rank and file of his con-
tributions to "Sharps and Flats." The waggery of his natural
bent finds unmixed expression in the early and unsuccessful
book, Culture's Garland; Being Memoranda of the Gradual Rise oj
Literature, Art, Music and Society in Chicago and other Western
Ganglia (1887), which engagingly blends the atmosphere of
cultivation, so long anticipated by Chicagoans, with whiffs
from the very real and ever-present stockyards. Only a few
gleams of wit, however, relieve the profitable sentimentality of
the later Tales.

A better balanced expression of his undeniable personal
charm is to be found in A Little Book of Western Verse, virile
and funny in the ballads of the miners' camp on Red Hoss
Mountain; otherwise "Western" only as it exemplifies a readi-
ness to try anything once. 1 Among many lullabies, Christ-
mas hymns, and lyrics of infant mortality, the playful side of
Field's genius is sufficiently represented by imitations of Old
English ballads, echoes of Horatian themes, a few rollicking
nursery songs, and much personal, political, and literary gossip
cleverly versified. A bit of flippancy like The Little Peach of
Emerald Hue goes to show that Field's humour could on occa-
sion conquer the sentimental strain in him. But only too often
his children die from the fatal effects of contact with the angels.

In his more ambitious pieces Field not infrequently falls
into an over-refinement and false simplicity of style. When not
too consciously doing his best, however, nothing could seem

1 " I want to dip around in all sorts of versification, simply to show people that
determination and perseverance can accomplish much in this direction." S.
Thomoson, Eugene Field, vol. ii., p. 120.



Eugene Field 29

snore effortless than the easy play of his wit. One thrust at a
gang of politicians junketing at their constituents' expense
deserves to be recalled as a fair example of his skill :

BLUE CUT, TENN., May 2, 1885. The second section of the
train bearing the Illinois Legislature to New Orleans was stopped
near this station by bandits last night. After relieving the bandits
of their watches and money, the excursionists proceeded on their
journey with increased enthusiasm. 1

Political sarcasms like the foregoing, though frequently
employed, have ordinarily been powerless to influence either
the character of American politics or the fortunes of any par-
ticular politician. On the contrary, they have had, like Ford
jokes, a certain advertising value, being considered less marks
of discontent than the banter of satisfaction with which healthy
Americans accompany their doings. Most unusual, therefore,
is the spectacle of the national frame of mind changed in
consequence of the work of a humorist. Yet that result may
fairly be claimed for the "Dooleys" written by Finley Peter
Dunne during the Spanish-American War. The American
public, conscious of a chivalrous mission in the war, uncertain
of the strength of the adversary, and angry at the bustling in-
competence and greedy profiteering at home, lost its sense of
humour. Its regeneration from the slough of perfervid earnest-
ness was accelerated by the cool remarks of the Irish saloon-
keeper of Archey Road, Chicago. As Mr. Dooley commented
on the great charge of the army mules at Tampa with reflec-
tions on other jackasses, pictured the Cuban towns captured by
war-correspondents and the Spanish fleet sunk by dispatch
boats, celebrated General Miles's uniform and the pugnacity of
"Cousin George Dooley" (Admiral Dewey), the national fever
cooled, and the nation, realizing its superfluous power, burst
into saving laughter.

"We're a gr-reat people," said Mr. Hennessy, earnestly.
"We ar-re," said Mr. Dooley. "We ar-re that. An' th'
best iv it is, we know we ar-re."

Mr. Dooley for some years continued to give his opinions
on the men and affairs of peace with a shrewdness that recalls

1 S. Thompson, Eugene Field, vol. ii., p. 204.



30 Minor Humorists

the pungent insight of Josh Billings and makes him one of the
most quotable writers. Americans of the present generation
are not likely to forget some of his sayings, least of all the re-
mark of Father Kelly :

"Hogan," he says, "I'll go into th' battle with a prayer book in
wan hand an' a soord in th' other," he says; " an' if th' wurruk calls
f'r two hands, 'tis not th' soord I'll dhrop," he says.

When not busied with comments on current events, Mr.
Dooley sometimes had leisure to relate incidents of the life
about him in the gas-house district. As an interpreter of the
city, however, he yields to Sydney Porter ("O. Henry"). 1
The O. Henry story is the last word in deft manipulation, but as
a humorist Porter is not deeply philosophical. His neat situa-
tions, surprising turns, and verbal cleverness show a refinement
upon the methods of predecessors, indeed, but not a new comic
attitude. Unsurpassed in daring extravaganza when he can
give himself completely to gaiety, he becomes immediately
sober in the presence of thought or sentiment. In these re-
spects he represents the norm of recent American humour at a
high pitch of technical perfection, and his death in 1910 may
fittingly be taken as the close of the period. Just at present,
judicious Americans are importing their best current humour
from Canada.

1 See Book III, Chap. VL



CHAPTER X

Later Poets

IN the expanding, heterogeneous America of the second half
of the nineteenth century, poetry lost its clearly defined
tendencies and became various and experimental. It did
not cease to be provincial ; for although no one region dominated
as New England had dominated in the first half of the century,
the provincial accent was as unmistakable, and the purely
national accent as rare, as before. The East, rapidly becoming
the so-called "effete East," produced a poetry to which the
West was indifferent; the West, still the West of "carnivorous
animals of a superior rank," produced a poetry that the culti-
vated classes of the East regarded as vulgar. In a broad way it
may perhaps be said that the poetry of this period was dedicated
either to beauty or to "life " ; to a revered past, or to the present
and the future; to the civilization of Asia and Europe, or to the
ideals and manners of America, at least the West of America.
The virtue of the poetry of beauty was its fidelity to a noble
tradition, its repetition, with a difference, of familiar and justly
approved types of beauty; its defect was mechanical repetition,
petty embellishment. The virtue of the poetry of "life" was
fidelity to experience, vitality of utterance ; its defect, crudity,
meanness, insensitiveness to fineness of feeling and beauty of
expression. Where the poets are many and all are minor it is
difficult to make a choice, but on the whole it seems that the
outstanding poets of the East were Emily Dickinson, Aldrich,
Bayard Taylor, R. H. Stoddard, Stedman, Gilder, and Hovey;
and of the West, Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, Sill, Riley, and
Moody. '

None of these has gained more with time than has Emily

1 For the South, see Book III, Chap. iv.



32 Later Poets

Dickinson. Despite her defective sense of form, which makes
her a better New Englander than Easterner, she has acquired a
permanent following of discriminating readers through her
extraordinary insight into the life of the mind and the soul.
This insight is that of a latter-day Puritan, completely divorced
from the outward stir of life, retiring, by preference, deeper and
deeper within. Born in 1830 at Amherst, Massachusetts, she
lived there all her life, and in 1886 died there. The inwardness
and moral ruggedness of Puritanism she inherited mainly
through her father, Edward Dickinson, lawyer and treasurer of
Amherst College, a Puritan of the old type, whose heart, accord-
ing to his daughter, was "pure and terrible." Her affection for
him was so largely compounded with awe that in a sense they
were strangers. ' ' I have a brother and sister, ' ' she wrote to her
poetical preceptor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson 1 ; "my
mother does not care for thought, and father, too busy with his
briefs to notice what we do. He buys me many books, but
begs me not to read them, because he fears they jiggle the mind.
They are religious, except me. ' ' Of course, she too was religious,
and intensely so, breathing as she did the intoxicating air of
Transcendentalism. In person she described herself as "small,
like the wren; and my hair is bold like the chestnut burr; and
my eyes, like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves."
"You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and
a dog large as myself." These, and not her family, were actually
her companions, together with a few books and her own soul.
She had an alert introspection that brought her more than the
wealth of the Indies. There is no better example of the New
England tendency to moral revery than this last pale Indian-
summer flower of Puritanism. She is said literally to have
spent years without passing the doorstep, and many more
years without leaving her father's grounds. After the death
of her parents, not to mention her dog Carlo, she retired
still further within herself, till the sounds of the everyday
world must have come to her as from a previous state of
existence.

"I find ecstacy in living," she said to Higginson, and spoke
truly, as her poems show. In an unexpected light on orchards,
in a wistful mood of meadow or wood-border held secure for a

1 See Book III. Chap. xni.



Emily Dickinson 33

moment before it vanished ; in the few books that she read
her Keats, her Shakespeare, her Revelation; in the echoes, ob-
scure in origin, that stirred within her own mind and soul, now a
tenuous melody, now a deep harmony, a haunting question,
or a memorable affirmation ; everywhere she displayed some-
thing of the mystic's insight and joy. And she expressed her
experience in her poems, forgetting the world altogether, intent
only on the satisfaction of giving her fluid life lasting form, her
verse being her journal. Yet the impulse to expression was
probably not strong, because she wrote no poems, save one or
two, as she herself asserts, until the winter 1861-62, when she
was over thirty years old. In the spring of 1862 she wrote a
letter to Higginson beginning, "Are you too deeply occupied to
say if my verse is alive ? The mind is so near itself it cannot see
distinctly, and I have none to ask." Discerning the divine
spark in her shapeless verse, he welcomed her advances, and
became her "preceptor," loyally listened to but, as was in-
evitable, mainly unheeded. Soon perceiving this, Higginson
continued to encourage her, for many years, without trying to
divert her lightning-flashes. In "H. H." Helen Hunt Jack-
son, x herself a poetess of some distinction, and her early school-
mate at Amherst -she had another sympathetic friend, who,
suspecting the extent of her production, asked for the post of
literary executor. At length, in 1890, a volume edited by
Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd was published, Poems by
Emily Dickinson, arranged under various heads according to
subject. The book succeeded at once, six editions being sold
in the first six months ; so that a second series, and later a third,
seemed to be justified. From the first selection to the third,
however, there is a perceptible declension.

The subject division adopted by her editors serves well
enough: Life, Love, Nature, Time and Eternity. A mystical
poetess sequestered in a Berkshire village, she naturally con-
cerned herself with neither past nor present, but with the things
that are timeless. Apparently deriving no inspiration from the
war to which Massachusetts, including her preceptorial colonel,
gave itself so freely, she spent her days in brooding over the
mystery of pain, the true nature of success, the refuge of the
tomb, the witchcraft of the bee's murmur, the election of love,

1 See also Book III, Chaps, vi and XI.



34 Later Poets

the relation of deed to thought and will. On such subjects she
jotted down hundreds of little poems.

Though she had an Emersonian faith that fame, if it be-
longed to her, could not escape her, she cared nothing at all
about having it; like not a few Transcendentalists, she might
have written on the lintels of her door-post, Whim. That was
her guiding divinity, Whim in a high sense : not unruliness, for
all her impishness, but complete subjection to the inner dictate.
She obeyed it in her mode of life, in her friendships, in her
letters, in her poems. It makes her poetry eminently spontane-
ous as fresh and artless as experience itself in spite of the
fact that she was not a spontaneous singer. The ringing bursts
of melody that are characteristic of the born lyrical poet, such
as Burns, she was incapable of; but she had insight, and intense,
or rather tense, emotion, and expressed herself with an eye
single to the truth. Something she derived from her reading,
no doubt, from Emerson, the Brownings, Sir Thomas Browne;
but rarely was poet less indebted. From her silent thought she
derived what is essential in her work, and her whole effort was
to state her findings precisely. She could not deliberately
arrange her thoughts; "when I try to organize," she said, "my
little force explodes and leaves me bare and charred." If she
revised her work, as she did industriously, it was to render it
not more attractive but truer.

Her poems are remarkable for their condensation, their
vividness of image, their delicate or pungent satire and irony,
their childlike responsiveness to experience, their subtle feeling
for nature, their startling abruptness in dealing with themes
commonly regarded as trite, their excellence in imaginative
insight and still greater excellence in fancy. Typical is such a
poem as that in which she celebrates the happiness of a little
stone on the road, or that in which she remarks with gleeful
irony upon the dignity that burial has in store for each of us
coach and footmen, bells in the village, "as we ride grand
along." Emily Dickinson takes us to strange places; one never
knows what is in store. But always she is penetrating and
dainty, both intimate and aloof, challenging lively thought on
our part while remaining, herself, a charmingly elfish mystery.
Her place in American letters will be inconspicuous but secure.

Also born a New Englander, Thomas Bailey Aldrich re-



Aldrich 35

mained essentially a New Englander all his days. It is true
that he never sympathized with the occupations of the New
England mind in his time, and that his dedication of his art to
beauty is not in the tradition of that "reformatory and didac-
tic" section, and that, on the other hand, New York left its
metropolitan imprint on nearly all his work. Yet most of his
career belongs to New England, and he himself liked to say
that if he was not genuine Boston he was at least Boston-
plated; nor is it quite fanciful to assert that his somewhat pain-
ful artistic integrity is largely a re-orientation of New England
principle and thoroughness. In him, Puritan morality, afte-
passing through Hawthorne, half artist and half moralist, be-
comes wholly artistic.

Aldrich 's Salem was Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the
"Rivermouth" of The Story of a Bad Boy, sleepy, elm-shaded,
full of traditions, bordered by the ocean, where he spent many
an hour, as he wrote reminiscently, " a little shade wandering
along shore, picking up shells, and dreaming of a big ship to
come and carry him across the blue water." Three years of
his boyhood he lived in New Orleans, imbibing sights and moods
quite other than those of the North Shore boy, travelling, too,
up and down the Mississippi and receiving impressions never
to be forgotten. A professed and hot-headed Southerner, he
returned to Portsmouth to prepare for college, but, on the death
of his father, gave up Harvard and went to New York at the age
of seventeen, where he entered upon a career as counting-room
clerk, contributor to periodicals, and assistant editor of the
Home Journal under N. P. Willis. 1 During these early years
he published several volumes of poems. The first, The Bells
(1855), does little more than indicate his juvenile masters
Chatterton, Keats, Tennyson, Longfellow, Poe, Willis, among
whom Tennyson is perhaps the most important in the light of
his later work. The fourth, The Ballad of Babie Bell, and Other
Poems (1859), marks his first success Babie Bell itself he wrote
when but nineteen. Then came the war, and adventurous war
correspondence, but Aldrich was by nature nearly as timeless as
Hawthorne, and in 1862 returned to his versecraft by no means
transformed. Two or three of his poems, including The Shaw
Memorial Ode, show the influence of war idealism, but most of
* See Book II, Chap. ui.



36 Later Poets

his best work apparently owes nothing to the incitements of
those stirring days. To him, indeed, the victory of 1865 meant
not Appomatox but marriage, an excellent editorial position in
Boston, and the publication of his collected poems in the re-
nowned Blue and Gold series of Ticknor and Fields an event
in Boston, as Bliss Perry remarks, equivalent to election to the
French Academy.

In New York he had been associated with the foremost
writers of the "school" there most intimately with Bayard
Taylor, the Stoddards, Stedman, William Winter, and Fitz-
James O'Brien. These and other members of the group agreed
in condemning Boston and respectability in general, and es-
pousing beauty and an enfranchised moral life. Yet their
freedom was one of manners rather than of morals; even the
Bohemians headed by the satiric Henry Clapp who fore-
gathered at Pfaff's below the pavement at 647 Broadway and
gave free rein to their impulses, seem to have had the usual
impulses of the Hebraizing Anglo-Saxon if not of the Puritan.
Aldrich was not a Bohemian of any type ; nor was he by tempera-
ment a Manhattan journalist, but rather a gently mirthful
New Englander, who felt eminently at home in the company of
Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, and others whom he met through
Fields, and who preferred the "respectable" social standing of
a knight of the pen in Boston to the incomplete Bohemianism of
New York. For nine years he edited Ticknor and Fields's
Every Saturday, while in the next room Fields and William
Dean Howells edited The Atlantic Monthly; then, upon How-
ells's resignation in 1881, he entered upon a nine-years' edi-
torship of the Atlantic. Travel was an item of importance
in these later years. He wandered through Spain, one of his
old castles in the air, and through the rich Orient, where his
poetic fancy was always at ease, and he travelled round the
world twice. Travel, and reading in foreign literature, added
to an attractive cosmopolitanism in his spirit that marks him
off from some of his Boston friends. He retained to the end a
boyishness of disposition that made him personally winning,
together with an intellectual liveliness that earned him a na-
tional reputation as a wit and the friendly admiration of no less
a man than Mark Twain. He died in Boston in 1907.

Aldrich's unfailing good fortune was only a fitting reward



Aldrich 37

for a single-hearted devotion to art that is too rare in the history
of American literature. His faith as an artist was that, while
many fine thoughts have perished through inadequate expres-
sion, even a light fancy may be immortal by reason of its "per-
fect wording." There is here a suggestion of embellishment
that marks the limit of Aldrich 's reach. It was well enough for
him to object to "Kiplingese" and to the negligee dialect of
James Whitcomb Riley, but he himself went to the other ex-
treme in his solicitude for beautiful form. Even more than his
master Tennyson, he loved fine form so ardently that he cared
too little whether the embodied thought was equally distin-
guished. That he realized his danger is indicated by his verses
At the Funeral of a Minor Poet. Some thought the poet's
workmanship, he says,

more costly than the thing
Moulded or carved, as in those ornaments
Found at Mycenas;

and yet in defence it may be said that Nature herself works
thus, lavishing endless patience "upon a single leaf of grass or
a thrush's song"; or, as he puts it in one of his prose papers,
"A little thing may be perfect, but perfection is not a little
thing."

Many of Aldrich's poems, however, have substance enough
to deserve the embalming power of fine form. Their extra-
ordinary neatness, precision, and delicacy, their fascinating
melody, are again and again conjoined with a mood or concep-
tion so subtly .true or so vividly felt that we discern in them the
classic imprint. Latakia, On Lynn Terrace, Resurgam, Sleep,
Frost-Work, Invita Minerva, The Flight of the Goddess, Books and
Seasons, Memory, Enamoured Architect of Airy Rhyme, Palabras
Carinosas, are poems that we may re-read repeatedly with an
ever renewed sense of their beauty. They offer no profound
criticism of life; but much great literature does not. Aldrich's
other work his long narrative poems, of which he regarded



Online LibraryWilliam Peterfield TrentThe Cambridge history of American literature → online text (page 82 of 144)