Art and Literature (previous segment)
Art and Literature (cont.)
Concerning Springfield on the side of letters, it may be said that a highly intelligent old society, growing less as time went on, had a certain old culture from the libraries, often small, but always choice, of books which had stood the test of trial in England. For a long time this culture gave a tone to the social gatherings, and it is but recently that this has markedly changed - before it had simply lingered, without development. We have now the culture of the great library, where everything can be obtained for reading, but where as a matter of fact it is not so much cultivation of the mind and exaltation of the soul that is the object of reading, as it is the acquirement of information. The Chautauqua idea is really dominant, and it develops a clear intelligence of facts without that old-fashioned training of thought which resulted from acquaintance with masterpieces of literature, such as came over here from England in the days when we had no writers or publishers of anything except political pamphlets and religious tracts, and all our literate furniture was of the greater and lesser periods from the Elizabethan classics to the Restoration production. Then our forefathers and foremothers thought with the noble English version of the Bible, with Milton, with Bacon and Shakespeare, or with Addison and Pope, with Dryden and Goldsmith and Dean Swift. Such are the books that are found in the ancient collections. Later we had Scott and Burns, Crabbe and Bloomfield, Young's "Night Thoughts" and Pollock's "Course of Time." Blair's "Grave," and the poems of James Montgomery; Cowper and Gray and the works of Flavius Josephus, "that learned Jew." It was really a slur to call Josephus so, as if Jews were not vastly more learned than all the rest. But not to go further, it was from such meaty food that the thought of New England was developed, and in the little Pynchon settlement of Springfield as elsewhere.
Now we have many a club, of women or of men, who are esteemed to have a literary outlook on life; and indeed their number is so great that it is impossible that some intellectual result should not come from all these admirable voluntary associations, the the rich treasures of the city library to draw from. But they read Browning and Tennyson, Walt Whitman and Emerson; or in prose still Emerson and also Thoreau; Herbert Spencer is read more than Kant or Hegel, sometimes Aristotle or even Plato is ventured on; and John Fiske or Edward Bellamy is endeavored. Thus we get more serious year by year. Still it cannot be said that Springfield has developed a true literary or philosophical society. It waits for the fusion of diverse elements.
It is well to turn from this general consideration to the history of letters in the city and its vicinity, which is necessarily the record of those individuals who have themselves formed or represented literature.
In letters, as in arts, the possession of Springfield is in the labors of those who have come here, rather than those who were born here. But that is the fact with relation to the great centers of literature. What was London in Elizabeth's day but a field that received Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, and their peers? What has New York been, or Boston? though the Hub has had more native growths than most other cities, especially in the old days. Even Concord had few native authors, perhaps none beside Thoreau, for Emerson, Hawthorne, Sanborn, Alcott, the other famous men of Concord, were all born elsewhere - Emerson in Boston, Hawthorne in Maine, Sanborn in New Hampshire, Alcott in Connecticut. They were all immigrants so far as Concord was concerned. So why should Springfield differ? As Schiller expressed it in one of his parables:
It was the mountain springs that fed
The fair green plain's amenities.
Our first literary work was by the original immigrant, the pioneer and founder, William Pynchon; and it may be too much to class "The Meritorious Price of Man's Redemption" with real literature, for assuredly Charles Lamb would have put it among his "Biblia a biblia" - books which are no books. Yet it hit a psychologic moment, and was burned in Boston by the Puritan authorities, though its heresy was small in proportion to what has been thought since. It was Springfield's first distinction in the way of opinion, and it made the settlement of Agawam famous in England for a short time. The "Simple Cobbler of Aggawam," also famous in England, was not of this locality; he belonged to the Pennacook region, for "Agawam" was a common Algonquin word.
Literature in this community really began with the Springfield Republican, long the most famous institution of the town, which early devoted columns and pages to that phase of human life, and gradually enlisted the services of many a writer afterward noted, and some eminent. The first of Springfield's essentially literary figures was Josiah Gilbert Holland, who was born in Belchertown, but here entered upon his career as a moralist, novelist and poet. His local historical romance of the Puritan days, "The Bay Path" was written here; and here also he made that characteristic New England poem, "Bittersweet," centering on the Thanksgiving feast; and the idyl of "Kathrina," by "the winding and willow-fringed Connecticut." It was as an editor of the Republican that he began his essential calling as preacher, especially seen in his three series of "Timothy Titcomb" letters to young folks, which were rather of moral than literary merit; and for that paper he wrote his "History of Western Massachusetts," the first effort at the subject since Hubbard made his collections. Also he wrote "Letters to the Joneses" and "Gold Foil," - all advices as to the conduct of life which were wholesome, and did much good among the class of people for whom they were meant. Nor should it be forgotten that Dr. Holland wrote the first "Life of Abraham Lincoln," to appear after the great man's death, - a triumph of real newspaper enterprise and rushing labor, and notwithstanding errors from insufficient knowledge, still an interesting book. Holland's second novel, "Miss Gilbert's Career," deserves a place among novels truly illustrative of old Massachusetts life; it gave us one character, "Cheek" the stage driver; and one word, "jasm," which expresses the inexpressible personal force of the Yankee. The subsequent career of Doctor Holland, as editor of Scribner's Monthly (since become the Century), his addition of several novels to the list of fiction, "Sevenoaks" the best. his further poems, and his growth into an authoritative place; - in all these Springfield may take a just share of pride.
But while Holland first definitely brought to the Republican that literary flavor which became an irrefragable tradition, the determining force was Samuel Bowles, the master-mind that set the model for concise and pointed newspaper writing, with proportion, without waste, which other and metropolitan journals have followed in such a degree as they may. He also gave to the day's literature, at the time when they were needed, the first books about the great West, journeying to the Pacific coast by stage and producing "Across the Continent," "The Parks of Colorado," "Our New West" and "The Pacific Railroad - Open." But his calling was not that of letters, - he had his own work to do, and in the course of it introduced to their first public a good many notable persons, such as Bret Harte, who signed his California letters "F. B. H."; the humorist "John Paul," who under his proper name of Charles Henry Webb wrote two choice volumes of lyrics - the last, "With Lead and Line," containing several stirring verses which first appeared in the Republican; Rose Terry Cooke, a writer of New England general stories worthy to rank with Mrs. Stowe's, and far better than Miss Wilkins ever wrote; Julia D. Whiting, in the same class and level; "Octave Thanet" (Miss French), an excellent story-teller; Katherine Lee Bates, professor in Wellesley college; Edwin Morton, a remarkable but too reticent poet; the scholarly essayist, A. W. Stevens; and so many more that the list would become tedious.
One of the most remarkable men of letters who began his career on the Republican staff was Edward King, the Parisian, who was born in Middlefield, the son of a Methodist minister of the same name. He came to Springfield a youth of seventeen, went to Paris as correspondent of the Republican, at the exposition of 1867, and wrote that brilliant book of sketches of life called "My Paris." He made the journey of the southern states for Scribner's Monthly, and his articles were gathered into "The New South." His novels include "Helen Bell," "A Gentle Savage," "Kentucky's Love" and "Joseph Zalmonah," and his poems "Echoes from the Orient" and "A Venetian Lover" - and he wrote the interesting book, "Europe in Storm and Calm," which Charles A. Nichols published twenty years ago. Because for so many years King was a well-known figure here, and for the fact that his early life was of the contributive countryside, it is well to recall so much of the life of the brilliant and too early vanishing man of real talent. He died in New York in 1896.
Next installment: Springfield on the Side of Letters (cont.)