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Alexander Wilson


Quoted through the courtesy of the Author and of Doubleday, Page & Company, publishers, from "The School," the second chapter of James Lane Allen's The Kentucky Warbler

FOREWORD.-The scene is a classroom in one of the high schools of Kentucky in 1916; an exchange professor is standing before the pupils ready to address them; the sunshine of an April morning enters at the windows, slanting across the faces of the pupils, and there is a sound in the air of distant bird song. Webster, the Kentucky boy whose vision of Wilson and the Kentucky warbler is told on the preceding page, is among the pupils, far back near a window, as though with a wish to jump out and be free.

The lecturer's subject is the life of Alexander Wilson, but first he tells of George Eliot's Silas Marner and his life as a weaver in Raveloe, England, for two reasons, to enforce the picture of Wilson as a poor Scotch weaver and to put emphasis on the great power of seeing which Wilson possessed in contrast with Silas Marner who saw only his thread and shuttle and loom. The following quotation is the story of Alexander Wilson, as the lecturer told it, and it is great pleasure to be allowed to present it in the very beautiful prose of James Lane Allen, the author, carrying his keenness of understanding, his appreciation of both human nature and nature, and his sympathy.


AM going to speak to you boys about a boy who never reached high school. I want you to watch how that boy's life first seen in the distance through mist and snow and storm as a faint glimmering spark, rudely blown upon by the winds of misfortune, endangered and all but ready to go out-I want you to watch how that endangered spark of a boy's life slowly begins to brighten in the distance, to grow stronger, and finally to draw nearer and nearer until at last it shines as a great light about you here in this very place. Watch, I say, how a troubled ray, low on life's horizon, at last becomes a star in the world of men, high fixed and resplendent-to be seen by human eyes as long as there shall be human eyes to see anything. . . .

"Now, about the period that George Eliot paints the life of her poor English weaver there lived, not in merry England but in Bonnie Scotland-and to be bonnie is not to be merry-there lived in the little town of Paisley, in the west of Scotland, a man by the name of Alexander Wilson, a poor illiterate distiller. He had a son-the boy I am to tell you about.

"... The boy's father and mother opened before him the two main hon

oured roads of Scottish life [that of a physician and that of a minister] and bade him choose. He chose neither, for he was self-willed and wavering, and did not know his own mind or his own wish. He did know that he would not take the roads his parents pointed out; as to them he was a roadless boy.

"His mother died when he was quite young, a stepmother stepped into a stepmother's place, and she quickly decided with Scotch thrift. A third Scottish road should be opened to the boy and into that he should be pushed and made to go: he must be put to trade. Accordingly, when he was about eleven years old, he was taken from school and bound as an apprentice to a weaver; we lament child labour now: it is an old lament.

"The boy hated weaving as, perhaps, he never hated anything else in his life and in time he hated much and he hated many things. He seems soon to have become known as the lazy weaver. Years afterward he put into bitter words a description of the weaver: 'A weaver is a poor, emaciated, helpless being, shivering over rotten yarn and groaning over his empty flour barrel.' Elsewhere he called the weaver a scare

crow in rags. He wrote a poem entitled Groans from the Loom.

"Five interminable years of those groans and all his eager, wild, headstrong, liberty-loving boyhood was ended: gone from him as he sat like a boy-spider with a thread passing endlessly into a web. During these interminable years, whenever he lifted his eyes from his loom and looked ahead, he could see nothing but penury and dependence and loneliness-his loom to the end of his life.

"Five years of this imprisonment and then he was eighteen and his own master; and the first thing he did was to descend from the loom, take a pack of cloth upon his shoulders and go wandering away among the hills and valleys and lakes of Scotland-free at last like a young deer in the heather. He said of himself that from that hour when his eyes had first opened on the light of grey Scotch mountains, the world of nature had called him. He did not yet know what the forest and the life of the forest meant or would ever mean; he only knew that there he was happy and at home.

"Thus, like Silas Marner, he became a poor weaver and peddler but not with Silas Marner's eyes. Seldom in any

human head has the mechanism of vision been driven by a mind with such power and eagerness to observe. And he had the special memory of the eye. There are those of us who have the special memory of the ear or of taste or of touch. He had the long, faithful recollection of things seen. With this pair of eyes during the next several years he traversed on foot three-fourths of Scotland. . .

"But though he followed one after another well nigh all the roads of Scotland, he could find in all Scotland no road of life for him. It is true that certain misleading paths beckoned to him, as is apt to be true in every life. Thus he had conceived a great desire to weave poetry instead of cloth, to

weave music instead of listening to the noise of the loom: he had his flute and his violin. But what he accomplished with poetry and flute and violin were obstacles to his necessary work and rendered this harder. The time he gave to them made his work less: the less his work, the less his living; the less his living, the more his troubles and hardships.

"Robert Burns was just then the idolised poet of Scotland, a new sun shining with vital splendour into all Scottish hearts. Friends of the young weaver and apparently the young weaver himself thought there was room in Scotland for another Burns. Some of his poems were published anonymously and the authorship was attributed to Burns. That was bad for him, it made bad worse. Wilson greatly desired to know the rustic poet-king of Scotland. The two poets met in Edinburgh and were to become friends. Then Burns published Tam O'Shanter.

"The Paisley weaver by this time had such conceit of himself as a poet that he wrote Burns a caustic letter, telling him the kind of poem Tam O'Shanter should and should not be. Burns replied, closing the correspondence, ending the brief friendship and leaving the weaver to go back to his loom. It was a terrible rebuff, and left its mark on an already discouraged man.

"Next Wilson wrote an anonymous poem, so violently attacking a wealthy manufacturer on behalf of his poor brother weavers, that the enraged merchant demanded the name of the writer and had him put in prison and compelled him to stand in the public cross of Paisley and burn his poem.

"Darker, bitterer days followed. He shrank away to a little village even more obscure than his birthplace. There, lifting his eyes, again he looked all over Scotland: he saw the wrongs and sufferings of the poor, the luxury and oppression of the rich: he blamed the British government for evils inher


ent in human nature and for the imperfections of all human society: turned against his native country and at heart. found himself without fatherland.

"Then that glorious vision which has opened before so many men in their despair, disclosed itself: his eyes turned to America. . . . In America he thought all roads were open, new roads were being made for human lives; that should become his country. One autumn he saw in a newspaper an advertisement that an American merchantman would sail from Belfast the following spring and he turned to weaving and wove as never before to earn his passage money. At this time he lived on one shilling a week! . . . When spring came, with the earnings of his loom he walked across Scotland to the nearest port. When he reached Belfast every berth on the vessel had been taken: he asked to be allowed to sleep on the deck and was accepted as a passenger.

The port was to be Philadelphia but he seems to have been so impatient to set foot on the soil of the New World that he left the ship at New Castle, Delaware. He had borrowed from a fellow-passenger sufficient money to pay his expenses while walking to Philadelphia thirty-four miles away; and with this in his pocket and his fowling-piece on his shoulder he disappeared in the July forests of New Jersey. The first thing he did was to kill a red-headed wood-pecker which he declared to be the most beautiful bird he had ever seen.

"I do not find any word of his that he had ever killed a bird in Scotland during all his years of wandering. Now the first event that befell him in the New World was to go straight to the American woods and kill what he declared to be the most beautiful bird he had ever seen. This might naturally have been to him a sign of his life-road. But he still stood blinded in his path, with not a plan, not an idea, of what


he should be or could be: he had not yet read the handwriting on the wall within himself.

"His first years in the New World were more disastrous than any in Scotland, for always now he had the loneliness and dejection of a man who has rejected his own country and does not know that any other country will accept him. A fellow Scot, in Philadelphia, tried him at copper-plate printing. He quickly dropped this and went back to the old dreadful work of weaving-he became an American weaver and went wandering through the forests of New Jersey as a peddler: at least peddling left him free to roam the forests. Next he tried teaching but he himself had been taken from school at the age of eleven and must prepare himself as one of his own beginners. He did not like this teaching experiment in New Jersey and migrated to Virginia. Virginia did not please him and he remigrated to Pennsylvania. There he tried one school after another in various places and finally settled on the outskirts of Philadelphia: here was his last school, for here was the turning point of his life.

"I wish I had time to describe for you the school-house with its surroundings, for the place is to us now a picture in the early American life of a great man-all such historic pictures are invaluable. Catch one glimpse of it: a neat stone school-house on a sloping green; with grey old white oaks growing around and rows of stripling poplars and scattered cedar trees. A road ran near and not far away was a little yellow-faced cottage where he lived. The yard was walled off from the road and there were seats within and rosebushes and plum trees and hop-vines. On one side hung a sign-board waving before a little roadside inn; on the other a blacksmith shop with its hammering. Not far off stood the edge of the great forest 'resounding with the songs of warblers.' In the depths of it

was a favourite spot-a secret retreat for him in Nature.

"There then you see him: no longer a youth but still young; every road he had tried closed to him in America as in Scotland: not a doctor, not a minister, not a good poet, not a good flutist, not a good violinist, not a copper-plate engraver, not a willing weaver, not a willing peddler, not a willing schoolteacher-none of these. No idea yet in him that he could ever be anything. A homeless self-exile, playing at lonely twilights on flute and violin the loved airs of rejected Scotland.

"Now it happened that near his school was a botanical garden owned by an American naturalist. The American, seeing the stranger cast down by his aimless life, offered him his portfolio of drawings and suggested that he try to draw a landscape, draw the human figure. The Scotch weaver, the American school-teacher, tried and disastrously failed. As a final chance the American suggested that he try to draw a bird. He did try: he drew a bird. He drew again. He drew again and again. He kept on drawing. Nothing could keep him from drawing. And there at last the miracle of power and genius, so long restless in him and driving him aimlessly from one wrong thing to another wrong thing, disclosed itself as dwelling within his eyes and hands. His drawings were so true to life, that there could be no doubt: the road lay straight before him and ran clear through coming time toward eternal fame.1

"All the experience which he had been unconsciously storing as a peddler in Scotland now came back to him as guiding knowledge. The marvelous memory of his eye furnished its discipline: from early boyhood through sheer love he had unconsciously been studying birds in nature, and thus during all these wretched years had been laying up as a youth the foundation of his lifework as a man.

"Genius builds with lavish magnificence and inconceivable swiftness; and hardly had he succeeded with his first drawings before he had wrought out a monumental plan: to turn himself free as soon as possible into the vast, untravelled forest of the North American. continent and draw and paint its birds. Other men, he said, would have to found the cities of the New World and open up its country. His study was to be the lineaments of the owl and the plumage of the lark: he had cast in his lot with Nature's green magnificence untouched by man.

"For a while he must keep on teaching in order to live: he taught all day. often after night, barely had time to swallow his meals, at the end of one term tells us he had as large a sum as fifteen dollars. Often he coloured his first drawings by candle light, drew and painted birds without knowing what they were. Drawing and painting by candle light!-but now he had within himself the risen sun of a splendid enthusiasm. That sun kindled his school-boys. They found out what he wanted and helped. wanted and helped. One boy brought him a large basketful of crows. Another caught a mouse in school and contributed that-the incident is worth quoting by showing that the boy preferred a mouse to a school-book.

"Take one instance of the energy with which he was now working and worked for the rest of his life: he wished to see Niagara Falls, and to lose no time while doing it he started out one autumn through the forest to walk to the Falls and back, a short trip for him of over twelve hundred miles. He reached home 'mid the deep snows of winter with no soles to his boots. What of that? On his way back he had shot two strange birds in the valley of the Hudson! of the Hudson! For ten days-ten days, mind you!—he worked on a drawing of these and sent it with a letter to Thomas Jefferson. You may as yet have thought of Jefferson only as

1 The naturalist was William Bartram. Wilson wrote to him in 1805, "They [his bird drawings] may yet tell posterity that I was honored with your friendship, and that to your inspiration they owe their existence."


one of America's earliest statesmen: begin now to think of him as one of the first American naturalists. And if you wish to read a courteous letter1 from an American President to a young stranger, go back to Jefferson's letter to the Scotch weaver who sent him the drawing of a jaybird.

"Pass rapidly over the next few years. He has made one trip from Maine down the Atlantic Seaboard to the South. He has returned and is starting out again to cover the vast interior basin of the Mississippi Valley: he is to begin at Pittsburgh and end at New Orleans.


1 This letter is given in full in Vol. I, pp. liiliii. 1828 edition of American Ornithology; or Natural History of the Birds of the United States. By Alexander Wilson.

explored wilderness of the Mississippi Valley.

"Wondrous experiences were his: from the densely wooded shores there would reach him as he drifted down, the whistle of the red bird-those first spring notes so familiar and so welcome to us on mild days toward the last of February. Away off in dim forest vallevs, between bold headlands, he saw the rising smoke of sugar camps. At other openings on the landscape grotesque log cabins looked like doghouses under impending mighty mountains. His rapidly steered skiff passed flotillas of Kentucky arks heavily mak

"Now you see that he is coming ing their way southward, transporting nearer-nearer to you here. men and women and children—the moving pioneers of the young nation: the first river merchant-marine of the new world; carrying horses and plows to clearings yet to be made for homesteads in the wilderness; transporting mill-stones for mills not yet built on any wilderness stream.

"... It is the twenty-fourth of February: the river, swollen with the spring flood, is full of white masses of moving ice. . . . They warned him of his danger, urged him to take a rower, urged him not to go at all. Those who risked the passage of the river floated down on barges called Kentucky arks or in canoes hollowed each out of a single tree, usually the tulip tree, which you know is very common in our Kentucky woods. But to mention danger was to make him go to meet it. He would have no rower, had no money to hire one, had he wished one. He tells us what he had on board: in one end of the boat some biscuit and cheese, a bottle of cordial given him by a gentleman in Pittsburgh, his gun and trunk and overcoat; at the other end himself and his oars and a tin with which to bail out the skiff, if necessary, to keep it from sinking and also to use as his drinking-cup to dip from the river.

"That February day-the swollen, rushing river, the masses of white ice -the solitary young boatman borne away to a new world on his great work: his heart expanding with excitement and joy as he headed toward the un

"He records what to us now sounds incredible, that on March fifth he saw a flock of parrakeets. Think of parrakeets on the Ohio River in March! Once he encountered a storm of wind and hail and snow and rain, during which the river foamed and rolled like the sea and he had to make good use of his tin to keep the skiff bailed out till he could put in to shore. The call of wild turkeys enticed him now toward the shore of Indiana, now toward the shore of Kentucky, but before he reached either they had disappeared. His first night on the Kentucky shore he spent in the cabin of a squatter and heard him tell tales of bear-treeing and wildcat-hunting and wolf-baiting. All night wolves howled in the forests near by and kept the dogs in an uproar; the region swarmed with wolves and wildcats black and brown.'

“On and on, until at last the skiff reached the rapids of the Ohio at Louisville and he stepped ashore and sold his frail saviour craft which, at start

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