Howells Calls on Emerson, and Describes Longfellow

by Edwin Watts Chubb

In 1860 William Dean Howells, now one of the foremost literary influences in the English-speaking world, was a young man writing for the Ohio State Journal of Columbus. Several of his poems had been kindly received and published by the Atlantic Monthly, so that the young lady from New England who screamed with surprise at seeing the Atlantic on a western table and cried, "Why, have you got the Atlantic Monthly out here?" could be met with, "There are several contributors to the Atlantic in Columbus." The several were Howells and J.J. Piatt. But to be an accepted contributor to the Atlantic was not enough. Howells must see the literary celebrities of New England. Emerson and Bayard Taylor he had seen and heard in Columbus, but Longfellow, Hawthorne, Lowell, Holmes, and Whittier were the literary saints at whose shrine he wished to burn the sacred incense of his adoring soul.

From Hawthorne he received a card introducing him to Emerson. Emerson was then about sixty, although nothing about him suggested an old man. After some conversation on general topics, Emerson began to talk of Hawthorne, praising Hawthorne's fine personal qualities. "But his last book," he added, reflectively, "is mere mush." This criticism related to the Marble Faun. Of course, such a comment shocked Howells, whose sense of literary values was much keener than Emerson's. "Emerson had, in fact," writes Howells, "a defective sense as to specific pieces of literature; he praised extravagantly, and in the wrong place, especially among the new things, and he failed to see the worth of much that was fine and precious beside the line of his fancy."

Then Emerson made some inquiry about a Michigan young man who had been sending some of his poetry to Emerson. Howells was embarrassed to be obliged to say that he knew nothing of the Michigan poet. Later Emerson asked whether he had become acquainted with the poems of Mr. William Henry Channing. Howells replied that he knew them only through the criticism of Poe.

"Whose criticisms?" asked Emerson.

"Poe's," replied Howells.

"Oh," Emerson cried after a thoughtful moment, "you mean the jingle man!"

This was a moment of confusion and embarrassment for Howells. Had the vituperative pen of Poe ever thrown off more stinging criticism than that? "The jingle man!"

Emerson turned the conversation to Howells himself and asked him what he had written for the Atlantic. Howells replied, and Emerson took down the bound volumes and carefully affixed Howells' initials to the poems. "He followed me to the door, still speaking of poetry, and as he took a kindly enough leave of me, he said one might very well give a pleasant hour to it now and then." This was a shock to Howells. "A pleasant hour!" Howells was intending to consecrate all time and eternity to it, and here is the Sage of Concord coolly speaking of poetry as though it were some trifling diversion, like billiards or whist.

Later in life when Howells resided in Cambridge he had abundant opportunity to become acquainted with Longfellow, whom in Literary Friends and Acquaintance he calls the "White Mr. Longfellow."

"He was the most perfectly modest man I ever saw, ever imagined, but he had a gentle dignity which I do not believe any one, the coarsest, the obtusest, could trespass upon. In the years when I began to know him, his long hair and the beautiful beard which mixed with it were of iron-gray, which I saw blanch to a perfect silver, while that pearly tone of his complexion, which Appleton so admired, lost itself in the wanness of age and pain. When he walked, he had a kind of spring in his gait, as if now and again a buoyant thought lifted him from the ground. It was fine to meet him coming down a Cambridge street; you felt that the encounter made you a part of literary history, and set you apart with him for the moment from the poor and mean. When he appeared in Harvard Square, he beatified if not beautified the ugliest and vulgarest looking spot on the planet outside of New York. You could meet him sometimes at the market, if you were of the same provision-man as he, for Longfellow remained as constant to his tradespeople as to any other friends. He rather liked to bring his proofs back to the printer himself, and we often found ourselves together at the University Press, where The Atlantic Monthly used to be printed. But outside of his own house Longfellow seemed to want a fit atmosphere, and I love best to think of him in his study, where he wrought at his lovely art with a serenity expressed in his smooth, regular, and scrupulously perfect handwriting. It was quite vertical, and rounded, with a slope neither to the right nor left, and at the time I knew him first, he was fond of using a soft pencil on printing paper, though commonly he wrote with a quill. Each letter was distinct in shape, and between the verses was always the exact space of half an inch. I have a good many of his poems written in this fashion, but whether they were the first drafts or not I cannot say; very likely not. Towards the last he no longer sent the poems to the magazines in his own hand, but they were always signed in autograph.

"I once asked him if he were not a great deal interrupted, and he said, with a faint sigh, Not more than was good for him, he fancied; if it were not for the interruptions, he might overwork. He was not a friend to stated exercise, I believe, nor fond of walking, as Lowell was; he had not, indeed, the childish associations of the younger poet with the Cambridge neighborhoods; and I never saw him walking for pleasure except on the east veranda of his house, though I was told he loved walking in his youth. In this and in some other things Longfellow was more European than American, more Latin than Saxon. He once said quaintly that one got a great deal of exercise in putting on and off one's overcoat and overshoes....

"He was patient, as I said of all things, and gentle beyond all mere gentlemanliness. But it would have been a great mistake to mistake his mildness for softness. It was most manly and firm, and of course, it was braced with the New England conscience he was born to. If he did not find it well to assert himself, he was prompt in behalf of his friends, and one of the fine things told of him was his resenting some things said of Sumner at a dinner in Boston during the old pro-slavery times; he said to the gentlemen present that Sumner was his friend, and he must leave their company if they continued to assail him.

"But he spoke almost as rarely of his friends as of himself. He liked the large, impersonal topics which could be dealt with, on their human side, and involved characters rather than individuals. This was rather strange in Cambridge, where we were apt to take our instances from our environments. It was not the only thing he was strange in there; he was not to that manner born; he lacked the final intimacies which can come only of birth and lifelong association, and which make the men of the Boston breed seem exclusive when they least feel so; he was Longfellow to the friends who were James, and Charles, and Wendell to one another. He and Hawthorne were classmates at college, but I never heard him mention Hawthorne; I never heard him mention Whittier or Emerson. I think his reticence about his contemporaries was largely due to his reluctance from criticism: he was the finest artist of them all, and if he praised he must have praised with the reservations of an honest man. Of younger writers he was willing enough to speak. No new contributor made his mark in the magazine unnoted by him, and sometimes I showed him verse in manuscript which gave me peculiar pleasure. I remember his liking for the first piece that Mr. Maurice Thompson sent me, and how he tasted the fresh flavor of it and inhaled its wild new fragrance."