Eugene Field by Edwin Watts Chubb

The general public will always remember Eugene Field as the author of Little Boy Blue, the many friends of Field, in addition to their memory of him as the charming poet of childhood, will always think of him as the irrepressible prince of merry-makers. To perpetrate a joke Field spared neither labor nor his friends. Many of his pranks were mere whimsicalities, innocent pleasantries that hurt no one. He would spend three hours in illustrating a letter to a friend, filling the letter with gossipy trivialities and using six different kinds of ink to make it look grotesque.

During the last years of Field's too brief life he was importuned so frequently for the facts concerning his career that he printed a brief biography or Auto-Analysis, as he called it. This contains a generous portion of fiction mingled with some fact. He begins his autobiography with:

"I was born in St. Louis, Mo., September 3, 1850.... Upon the death of my mother (1856), I was put in the care of my (paternal) cousin, Miss Mary Field French, at Amherst, Mass.

"In 1865 I entered the private school of Rev. James Tufts, Monson, Mass., and there fitted for Williams College, which institution I entered as a freshman in 1868. Upon my father's death, in 1869, I entered the sophomore class of Knox College, Galesburg, Ill., my guardian, John W. Burgess, now of Columbia College, being then a professor in that institution. But in 1870 I went to Columbia, Mo., and entered the State University there, and completed my junior year with my brother. In 1872 I visited Europe, spending six months and my patrimony in France, Italy, Ireland, and Italy. In May, 1873, I became a reporter on the St. Louis Evening Journal. In October of that year I married Miss Julia Sutherland Comstock (born in Chenango Co., N.Y.), of St. Joseph, Mo., at that time a girl of sixteen. We have had eight children—three daughters and five sons."

This is not all of the autobiography. There are about a thousand words more. The reason Field attended three collegiate institutions is that his mischievous pranks made him persona non grata to the college authorities. In after years the old historian of Knox College wrote: "He was prolific of harmless pranks and his school life was a big joke."

The gay irresponsibility of Field is early illustrated in the reckless manner in which he spent "six months and his patrimony" in Europe. In 1872 Field received $8,000, the first portion of his patrimony. He proposed to a young friend, Comstock, the brother of Julia, whom he later married, that they go to Europe. Field offered to bear all the expenses of the trip. They went and for six months they had a glorious time. Soon the money was gone; he telegraphed for more; was obliged to sell the odd curios he had gathered to pay his way home. This expenditure of his money in a trip abroad is not so unprofitable a venture as it appears. The elder Field had left a fortune valued at $60,000; Eugene's share was to be about $25,000. In two years he spent about $20,000. His brother Roswell, more prudent, lived for several years on his share but finally, owing to the depreciation of real estate values, saw his fortune dwindle away. He is said to have envied the shrewdness of Eugene in spending his money when he had it.

Field had the highest respect for womankind. In his Auto-Analysis he writes: "I am fond of companionship of women, and I have no unconquerable prejudice against feminine beauty. I recall with pride that in twenty-two years of active journalism I have always written in reverential praise of womankind." This respect for womankind, however, did not prevent him from playing pranks upon his wife. On their wedding journey he delighted to tease his young Julia by ordering at Delmonico's "boiled pig's feet à la St. Jo." A few years later a quartet was accustomed to meet at Eugene's home. Field did not sing with the quartet but as a fifth member acted as reader or reciter in their little entertainments. Eugene delighted to tease his wife by walking into the parlor when the quartet was practicing at his home and saying: "Well, boys, let us take off our coats and take it easy; it's too hot." When this was done, Eugene would blaze forth in the brilliancy of a red flannel undershirt, with white cuffs and collar pinned to his shirt.

When Carl Schurz was making his senatorial campaign in Missouri, Field was sent with the party to report the meetings. Field, although greatly admiring Schurz, took great delight in misreporting Schurz, whose only comment would be: "Field, why will you lie so outrageously?" One evening when a group of German serenaders had assembled in front of the hotel to do honor to Schurz, Field rushed out and pretending to be Schurz, addressed them in broken English. At another time, at a political meeting, Field suddenly stepped out to the front and began:

"Ladies and Shentlemen: I haf such a pad colt dot et vas not bossible for me to make you a speedg to-night, but I haf die bleasure to introduce to you my brilliant chournalistic friendt Euchene Fielt, who will spoke you in my blace."

While in Denver Field worked upon the Tribune. Over his desk hung,—"This is my busy day," and on the wall,—"God bless our proofreader, He can't call for him too soon." In his office he kept an old bottomless black-walnut chair. Across its yawning chasm he would carelessly thrown old newspapers. As it was the only unoccupied chair in the room, the casual visitor would drop unsuspectingly into the trap. The angry subscriber who had come to wreak vengeance upon the writer of irritating personalities could not withstand the apparently sincere apologies which Field lavished upon his victim. It was so humiliating to a man of Field's sensibilities to be obliged to receive such important visitors in an office whose very furniture indicated the poverty of the newspaper.

In 1883 Field moved to Chicago, where the rest of his life was passed. Mr. Stone, one of the proprietors of The News, had gone to Denver to have a personal interview with Field, whose work had attracted attention in the newspaper world. Field stipulated that he was to have a column a day for his own use. The Chicago public soon was attracted by the brilliant versatility of the writer of "Sharps and Flats," the title of the column written by Field.

Some months after Field had moved to Chicago he concluded that the general public ought to know that he had arrived. It was a cold morning in December. "So he arrayed himself in a long linen duster, buttoned up from knees to collar, put an old straw hat on his head, and taking a shabby book under one arm and a palm-leaf fan in his hand, he marched all the way down Clark Street, past the City Hall, to the office. Everywhere along the route he was greeted with jeers or pitying words, as his appearance excited the mirth or commiseration of the passers-by. When he reached the entrance to the Daily News office he was followed by a motley crowd of noisy urchins whom he dismissed with a grimace and the cabalistic gesture with which Nicholas Koorn perplexed and repulsed Antony Van Corlear from the battlement of the fortress of Rensellaerstein. Then closing the door in their astonished faces, he mounted the two flights of stairs to the editorial rooms, where he recounted, with the glee of the boy he was in such things, the success of his joke."

Field had execrable taste in dress and he knew it. Consequently he enjoyed presenting neckties to his friends. His biographer, Slason Thompson, who worked in the same newspaper office, separated only by a low thin partition, relates that in the afternoon about two o'clock Field would stick his head above the partition and say,—"Come along, Nompy, and I'll buy you a new necktie," and when Thompson would decline the offer, Field would mildly respond, "Very well, if you won't let me buy you a necktie, you must buy me a lunch," and off to the coffee-house they would march, where the bill would be paid by Thompson, for Field was indeed through life the gay knight he styled himself, sans peur and sans monnaie.