A PERSONAL RETROSPECT OF AMERICAN AUTHORSHIP
BY W. D. HOWELLS, 1900
It seems to me that if one is to write such a book as this at all, one cannot profitably do so without a frankness concerning one's self as well as others which might be misunderstood. But I wish to make of my own personality merely a background which divers important figures are projected against, and I am willing to sacrifice myself a little in giving them relief. I will try to show them as they seemed to me, and I shall not blame any one who says that they are not truly represented; I shall only claim that I have truly represented their appearance, and I shall not claim that I could fully conceive of them in their reality.
[Howells visited Concord in 1860 on his first trip to New England from his native Ohio. The following constitutes pages 47-66 of his account, written in 1900, and follows his visits with Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes.]
I MUST HAVE lingered in Boston for the introduction to Hawthorne which Lowell had offered me, for when it came, with a little note of kindness and counsel for myself such as only Lowell had the gift of writing, it was already so near Sunday that I stayed over till Monday before I started. I do not recall what I did with the time, except keep myself from making it a burden to the people I knew, and wandering about the city alone. Nothing of it remains to me except the fortune that favored me that Sunday night with a view of the old Granary Burying-ground on Tremont Street. I found the gates open, and I explored every path in the place, wreaking myself in such meagre emotion as I could get from the tomb of the Franklin family, and rejoicing with the whole soul of my Western modernity in the evidence of a remote antiquity which so many of the dim inscriptions afforded. I do not think that I have ever known anything practically older than these monuments, though I have since supped so full of classic and medieval ruin. I am sure that I was more deeply touched by the epitaph of a poor little Puritan maiden who died at sixteen in the early sixteen-thirties than afterwards by the tomb of Caecilia Metella, and that the heartache which I tried to put into verse when I got back to my room in the hotel was none the less genuine because it would not lend itself to my literary purpose, and remains nothing but pathos to this day.
I am not able to say how I reached the town of Lowell, where I went
before going to Concord, that I might ease the unhappy conscience I had
about those factories which I hated so much to see, and have it clean for
the pleasure of meeting the fabricator of visions whom I was authorized
to molest in any air-castle where I might find him. I only know that I
went to Lowell, and visited one of the great mills, which with their whirring spools, the ceaseless flight of their shuttles, and the bewildering sight and sound of all their mechanism have since seemed to me the death of the joy that ought to come from work, if not the captivity of those who tended them. But then I thought it right and well for me to be standing by,
"With sick and scornful looks averse,"
while these others toiled; I did not see the tragedy in it, and I got my pitiful literary antipathy away as soon as I could, no wiser for the sight of the ingenious contrivances I inspected, and I am sorry to say no sadder. In the cool of the evening I sat at the door of my hotel, and watched the long files of the work-worn factory-girls stream by, with no concern for them but to see which was pretty and which was plain, and with no dream of a truer order than that which gave them ten hours' work a day in those hideous mills and lodged them in the barracks where they rested from their toil.
I wonder if there is a stage that still runs between Lowell and Concord, past meadow walls, and under the caressing boughs of way-side elms, and through the bird-haunted gloom of woodland roads, in the freshness of the summer morning? By a blessed chance I found that there was such a stage in 1860, and I took it from my hotel, instead of going back to Boston and up to Concord as I must have had to do by train. The journey gave me the intimacy of the New England country as I could have had it in no other fashion, and for the first time I saw it in all the summer sweetness which I have often steeped my soul in since. The meadows were newly mown, and the air was fragrant with the grass, stretching in long winrows among the brown bowlders, or capped with canvas in the little haycocks it had been gathered into the day before. I was fresh from the affluent farms of the Western Reserve, and this care of the grass touched me with a rude pity, which I also bestowed on the meagre fields of corn and wheat; but still the land was lovelier than any I had ever seen, with its old farmhouses, and brambled gray stone walls, its stony hillsides, its staggering orchards, its wooded tops, and its thick-brackened valleys. From West to East the difference was as great as I afterwards found it from America to Europe, and my impression of something quaint and strange was no keener when I saw Old England the next year than when I saw New England now. I had imagined the landscape bare of trees, and I was astonished to find it almost as full of them as at home, though they all looked very little, as they well might to eyes used to the primeval forests of Ohio. The road ran through them from time to time, and took their coolness on its smooth hard reaches, and then issued again in the glisten of the open fields.
I made phrases to myself about the scenery as we drove along; and yes,
I suppose I made phrases about the young girl who was one of the inside
passengers, and who, when the common strangeness had somewhat worn off,
began to sing, and sang most of the way to Concord. Perhaps she was not
very sage, and I am sure she was not of the caste of Vere de Vere, but
she was pretty enough, and she had a voice of a birdlike tunableness, so
that I would not have her out of the memory of that pleasant journey if
I could. She was long ago
an elderly woman, if she lives, and I suppose she would not now point out her fellow-passenger if he strolled in the evening by the house where she had dismounted, upon her arrival in Concord, and laugh and pull another girl away from the window, in the high excitement of the prodigious adventure.
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