A STUDY IN HEREDITY AND CONTRADICTIONS
With Portraits, Views and Fac-Simile Illustrations
Published, December, 1901
Charles Scribner's Sons
BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION
Not as other memoirs are written would Eugene Field, were he alive, have this study of his life. He would think more of making it reflect the odd personality of the man than rehearse the birth, development, daily life, and works of the author. If he had undertaken to write his own life, as was once his intention, it would probably have been the most remarkable work of fiction by an American author that ever masqueraded in the quaker garments of fact. From title-page to colophon—on which he would have insisted—the book would have been one studied effort to quiz and queer (a favorite word of his) the innocent and willing-to-be-deluded reader. "Tell your sister for me," I recall his saying, "what a kind, good, and deserving man I am. How I love little children and [with a dry chuckle] elderly spinsters. Relate how I was born of rich yet honest parents, was reared in the 'nurture and admonition of the Lord,' and, according to the bent of a froward youth, have stumbled along to become the cynosure of a ribald age."
Field's idea of a perfect memoir was that it should contain no facts that might interfere with its being novel and interesting reading both to the public and its subject. He set little store by genius, as he tells us in one of his letters, and less by "that nonsense called useful knowledge." His peculiar notions as to the field of biography were once illustrated in one he furnished to a New York firm, which proposed a series of biographies of well-known newspaper writers. It was arranged that Field and William E. Curtis, the noted Washington correspondent, should write each the other's biography for the series. Mr. Curtis executed his sketch of Field in good faith; Field's sketch of Mr. Curtis was a marvel of waggish invention. Through an actor of the same name who some years before made quite a reputation as Samuel of Posen, he traced Mr. Curtis's birth back to Bohemia, and carried him at an early age to Jerusalem, where Curtis was said to have laid the foundations of his fame and fortune peddling suspenders. Later he sold newspapers on the streets, and, by practicing the shrewd and self-denying habits of his race, quickly became the owner of the paper for which he worked, which was called the New Jerusalem Messenger, the recognized organ of the New Jerusalem Church.
Mr. Curtis's progressive tendencies, according to Field, quickly involved him in trouble with the government; his paper was suppressed, and he was banished from Jerusalem. When the special firmin of the Sultan expelling Mr. Curtis from Turkish dominions was published, it caused a great sensation in Chicago, where the Church of the New Jerusalem was very strong, and created an immediate rivalry between William Penn Nixon, editor of the Inter Ocean, and Melville E. Stone, editor of the Morning News, to secure his services. Mr. Nixon sent him a cablegram in Hebrew which was written by a Hebrew gentleman to whom Nixon sold old clothes, while Mr. Stone's cablegram was prepared by his father, the Rev. Mr. Stone, and was expressed in scriptural phraseology which was not understood in Jerusalem as well as it was at Galesburg, where Mr. Stone was then professor of the Hebrew language and literature. Curtis accepted the offer couched in the language of the Hebrew vender of old clothes and became a member of the editorial staff of the Inter Ocean. His first effective work on that newspaper was to convert Jonathan Young Scammon, then its owner, to the New Jerusalem faith (Mr. Scammon, whose real name was John, was the most prominent Swedenborgian in Chicago). Mr. Scammon was so grateful for his conversion from infidelity that in a moment of religious exaltation he raised Mr. Curtis's salary from $18 to $20.
And thus the biography of Mr. Curtis proceeded along lines that gave the truth a wide berth, for Field held, with the old English jurists, that the greater the truth the greater the libel.
At one time in our association Field, as seriously as he could, entertained the thought of furnishing me with materials for an extended sketch of his life, and I still have several envelopes on which the inscription "For My Memoirs" bears witness to that purpose. But after serving as a source of eccentric and roguish humor for several months, the idea was suffered to lapse, only to be revived in suggestive references as he consigned some bit of manuscript to my care or criticism. Any study of Field's life and character based on such materials as he thus furnished would have been absolutely misleading. It would have eliminated fact entirely and substituted the most fantastic fiction in its stead. It would have built up a grotesque caricature of a staid, church-going, circumspect citizen and author instead of the ever-fascinating bundle of contradictions and irresponsibility Field was to his legion of associates and friends.
There were two Fields—the author and the man—and it is the purpose of this study to reproduce the latter as he appeared to those who knew and loved him for what he was personally for the benefit of those who have only known him through the medium of his writings. In doing this it is far from my intention and farther from my friendship to disturb any of the preconceptions that have been formed from the perusal of his works. These are the creations of something entirely apart from the man whose genius produced them. His fame as an author rests on his printed books, and will endure as surely as the basis of his art was true, his methods severely simple, and his spirit gentle and pure. In his daily work the dominant note was that of fun and conviviality. It was free from the acrimony of controversy. He abominated speech-makers and lampooned political oracles. He was the unsparing satirist of contemporary pretense, which in itself was sufficient to account for the failure of the passing generation of literary critics to accord to him the recognition which he finally won in their despite from the reading public. Neither a sinner nor a saint was the man who went into an old book-store in Chicago and bewildered the matter-of-fact dealer in old editions with the inquiry, "Have you an unexpurgated copy of Hannah More's 'Letters to a Village Maiden'?"
Everything Field wrote in prose or verse reflects his contempt for earth's mighty and his sympathy for earth's million mites. His art, like that of his favorite author and prototype, Father Prout, was "to magnify what is little and fling a dash of the sublime into a two-penny post communication." Sense of earthly grandeur he had little or none. Sense of the minor sympathies of life—those minor sympathies that are common to all and finally swell into the major song of life—of this sense he was compact. It was the meat and marrow of his life and mind, of his song and story. With unerring instinct Field, in his study of humanity, went to the one school where the emotions, wishes, and passions of mankind are to be seen unobscured by the veil of consciousness. He was forever scanning whatever lies hidden within the folds of the heart of childhood. He knew children through and through because he studied them from themselves and not from books. He associated with them on terms of the most intimate comradeship and wormed his way into their confidence with assiduous sympathy. Thus he became possessed of the inmost secrets of their childish joys and griefs and so became a literary philosopher of childhood.
"In wit a man, in simplicity a child," nothing gloomy, narrow, or pharisaical entered into the composition of Eugene Field. Like Jack Montesquieu Bellew, the editor of the Cork Chronicle, "his finances, alas! were always miserably low." This followed from his learning how to