Page images

number more than ten times ten thousand, and instead of a king to serve, they have for leader and lover that man of God and the people, Lincoln, the martyr. On their rolls shine the heroic names without regard to such paltry distinctions as rank or state. Among them are no officers, no privates! In the bivouacs of Heaven they are all alike Immortals. Of such are Ellsworth, Baker, Wadsworth, Sedgwick and MacPherson. Of such, also, are our own Hackleman, Gerber, Tanner, Blinn, and Carroll, and that multitude of our soldiers who, victims of war, are now" at the front," while we are waiting “in reserve.'




[Address by Charles Dudley Warner, critic, novelist, man of letters (born in Plainfield, Mass., September 12, 1829; died in Hartford, Conn., October 20, 1900), delivered at a meeting of the Unitarian Club of New York, held in memory of George William Curtis, November 14, 1892.]

MR. CHAIRMAN:-We all loved him. This is about what I would like to say and about the sum and substance of it all. I should not like to stand here for criticism, if that were necessary, with a knife in my hand even if it were a gilt-edged one. To-night I feel only a great emotion of gratitude that I knew him, and that I had in some measure the privilege of his confidence in certain things. You have had a very complete setting forth of what Mr. Curtis was, and the estimation in which he was held, not only by his own religious body, to which he was such an honor, but by the country at large; and I have been asked to say something about him on his literary side.

Mr. Curtis was born with a literary gift. That is a very distinct gift. I do not think it is ever simulated by anybody; and if anybody does get, by advertisement, a little reputation of that kind, it does not last long after the advertisements have grown cold and been paid for. Mr. Curtis was born, as I judge from his early sketches, something of a dreamer. He liked to lounge about the Providence wharf and smell the inolasses, rum, and other things that came from foreign coasts. He always saw the foreign coasts, and never lost sight of them.

He saw them when he came into the large and practical affairs of life. There was that dreaminess in the boy, I judge, and I suppose that is what made him go to Brook Farm. There must have been something peculiar in a youth of that age which should lead him into such a purely roseate and humanitarian experiment as that idylic attempt to live by the work of one's own hands-milking and things of that kind-at Brook Farm. If the cows had been always liberal, and the soil had been a little better, I think the experiment might have succeeded. Mr. Curtis went from there, fortunately for him, with apparently a very inadequate school training, to Europe, for four years. Europe was his university; and to a poor man, with such high ideals as that boy had, it was probably the best university that he could have had; because he saw the best there; he evidently consorted with the best people, and he got out of history the best that was to be learned, both for warning and inspiration. The first that the world knew of him was after his return from Europe, when the first fruits of his culture were laid before the public in a little volume called “Nile Notes of Howadji.” We did not then know-most of us-what a howadji was: but the Notes were so entirely delightful, and such a perfect continuation of the life which we all hope to lead somewhere in our “ Arabian Nights,” that we judged that a howadji must be a most agreeable and charming person. You will remember that he went by the name of Howadji Curtis for a long time; and we all recognized it. There grew up (I do not know how-of course it was in the man) in the public mind everywhere a certain notion of a very cultivated, dainty, chivalrous, and yet manly person, out of those "Nile Notes." Those Notes are not critical; they are not archæological, but much what the “ Arabian Nights" entertainers might themselves have spun about the things in Egypt which please the fancy, and do not appear even to satiate.

But after Mr. Curtis came back and began to live the life of this country, his attention was almost immediately attracted to a state of things here which received evidently more attention at that time than it would command now. I should say that it would take about forty persons at that time to produce the impression upon Mr. Curtis's mind which it needs four hundred now to produce. That was


[ocr errors]

about the proportion of social impression which he had : and out of that impression came, in the first place, a very startling indictment, called “Our Best Society," which was followed by the delineation of one of the most charming women of antiquity, Mrs. Potiphar. There grew out of that “The Potiphar Papers." I was looking them over the other day (I had remembered them in my time as being on the whole rather a genial satire), and I was surprised, when I came to read them again, to find how much of a very decided sincerity and earnestness there was in them. There is no mincing matters at all in them. If you read them by the light of to-day you will find that in them things are called by their right names, and the bad is held up to retribution without any mincing at all.

About the same time, however, and almost contemporary with these papers, began to appear a series of as delightful sketches of a life that we all would like to lead, or at least ought to like to lead, as we have ever had in this country; these sketches conveyed a notion of the idylic life of “Prue and I.” Now, the noticeable thing about them was not that the style was charming, but that here was the first evidence that he had the divine gift. The style, the charm, was there. It was the same that we saw afterwards when he entered the field as a lecturer. It was grace; it was witchery; it was the last thing that we want in the orator or the lecturer. It was not that alone in “Prue and I”; but here was a statement made under playful aspect, that after all there was something better than money, something better than fine equipage; that on the whole it was just as well to see Aurelia go out in her fine clothes and her beautiful attire, as it was to go yourself-provided you hadn't the money. There was a most exquisite and beautiful gospel of common life in those early sketches; and you will notice the characteristic of them—which was the characteristic of everything of that day—and I was surprised when I came to think about it-it was their democracy, their absolute democracy. Our good friends who did not like civil service reform (unless they had the arrangement of it entirely within themselves used to sneer a good deal at Mr. Curtis as being non-American, and a dude, and I do not know what else—and it is not necessary to repeat the fine phrases. But there was the beginning of the man and he never changed in that respect from being the most intensely American and democratic writer of that day! You must remember that that was a day of sentimentality. If you will look back to the time from 1840 onward to 1850, you will be as much pleased as delighted, perhaps, with the amount of gush that we contrived to get out, in that period. It was a mawkish, sentimental era, almost altogether. You all remember about the old garret, and the rain on the roof, and the old yellow letters that the woman got out of the old garret, and the baby—why the baby was harder work than anything else—and the baby's shoes, the little shoes that you all know: why, we gushed and cried all over the place, about the baby's shoes, for a long time. They were not real tears; nobody pretended that they were; but we wanted something to cry about, and so we cried about those things. That was the era of extreme sentiment and gush,-or what would now be called “swash.” In that era Mr. Curtis struck that perfectly pure and strong American note.

There was one thing to be said about those papers. I had remembered them as delicate satire. Mr. Curtis was a master of irony in his later years; with the most exquisite irony he used to cut off the heads of these fellows here in New York, and they never found it out. Some of them think they are alive now. They believe that a man is alive long after he has forfeited public esteem. Mr. Curtis had a most exquisite irony, but in those early papers it was not so fine; it was so downright, so sledgehammery, that it could not be mistaken. Most noticeable. was the change that came as he went along in life, as he grew in years, and grew in mastery of his weapon until he Howered out in those papers in Harper's “Monthly," which he continued for thirty years, and which, whenever the occasion required, were very masterpieces in delicate satire, and good-humored irony, which is always the best sort, because men hate much more to be laughed at than to be sworn at.

I cannot of course go into any criticism of Mr. Curtis's work. I hold literature in great esteem in the great places in the world, because I think it is the most important thing we have, believing as I do, and as you know, that the most


« PreviousContinue »