Friday, January 2, 2015

The Gentleman with Green Glasses.

A LEGEND OF SWEET AUBURN.

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This story, whose author is not mentioned, was printed in The Memorial for 1828, one of those gift books that flourished in the early to middle nineteenth century. Ghost stories and other horrors of the supernatural were popular at Christmas, but this one is much more humorous than horrible. It does show us, however, that some of the attitude toward the old Puritans that later produced Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter was already operative in 1828.

There is a beautiful eminence, a mile’s distance from Harvard University, covered with a rich woody growth, near the foot of which flows the Charles River freed from the broad marshes which destroy its beauty at the village of Cambridge. The greatest attraction of this hill is the fine prospect it commands, which is unequalled by any other in the vicinity of Boston. From the top of a ladder, which some kind person has placed against a tree at its summit, a wide and beautiful panorama is visible. In front lies the village of Cambridge and the walls of Harvard; farther on are seen the spires of Boston and of its suburbs, and the windings of the river may be traced where its waters are invisible, by the half concealed roofs of the villages along the banks; a little to the left is Fresh Pond surrounded by its thick woods of pine, and directly below you lies the broad piece of woodland of which the hill itself forms a part. This beautiful spot is much visited by the students of the neighboring University, who have given it the appellation of Sweet Auburn.

It was on a fine day in autumn that I sought this place, with a friend, on a shooting expedition. Our sport was successful, and when we had filled our bags, we sat upon the grass to rest ourselves before we returned to Cambridge. Before us was a large piece of land destitute of trees, and covered with heaps of sand. As the soil around was quite good, I could not help wondering at the barrenness of this spot; my friend was silent for a moment, and then said,

“I remember an old story which assigns a strange cause for the appearance of these sand-heaps; will you hear it?”

“With all my heart,” said I eagerly; and, after arranging ourselves very comfortably with our backs against a large tree he thus began:

“The circumstance which I am about to relate happened so long ago, that the exact date cannot now be settled. It was, however, in the good old times of witchcraft and sorcery; when dreams and visions and presentiments were universally allowed to be very common and natural events; and when a man who should presume to doubt the existence of an apparition might expect to be made a ghost himself as a punishment for his incredulity. Harvard College was at that time under the dominion of a good old orthodox President, who believed as sincerely in witchcraft as in St. Athanasius’s creed. In fact the Prince of the powers of the air had been making very strenuous efforts to gain over new subjects to his dominion.

Several old women were strongly suspected of having made a league with him, inasmuch as they kept white cats, and some of them had been heard mumbling over to themselves a strange gibberish which sounded like nothing which should come from the mouth of a good Christian. Several children too had complained of having pins run into them, a circumstance which settled the question at once, and proved, beyond a doubt, the intervention of the Devil. In this distress the ministers, deacons, and antidiabolists of all kinds had met together, and after a great many speeches and motions, decided unanimously on burning, as confirmed witches, all the old women in New England who kept a cat, or a broomstick. This had some effect, inasmuch as not a woman over fifty would dare to sweep their houses, or keep even a kitten to defend them against the inroads of the rats.

The community of the mice flourished, but the broom-makers were starved.

Great was the reputation of the President in these unhappy times as an opposer of the Adversary of souls. He it was who proposed the decisive measure of burning the old woman; he it was who prayed loudest against the devices of the Evil One. It was generally believed that Satan durst challenge the an- gel Gabriel to single combat, sooner than attempt to corrupt one of the souls under the President’s charge.

It happened about this tune that the President was invited to accompany a fishing party from Boston, who were going on an excursion down the harbour.

The day was fixed, and great preparations were made. The best boat that could be procured was provided with lines and bait, together with good hams, and a few dozen of old wine, to promote a reasonable degree of cheerfulness, and save the party from the imputation of acceding to the fasts and austerity of the abhorred papists.

“Wife,” said the President on the morning appointed for the party, “I shall not go to-day.”

“Not go, President, and why not? the day is fair, and the wind is fair, and how can they leave you behind?”

“They must depart without me,” rejoined he solemnly; “In my last night’s sleep, a vision came unto me, in the form of a tall thin gentleman with green glasses, a tye wig, black silk breeches, with large buckles in his shoes. He stood by my bed and said, ‘to-morrow thou wilt be upon the waves, but I will be busy with the lambs of thy flock.’ So saying, he gradually diminished into the form of a sucking pig. Leaving me motionless with terror, and with heavy drops of sweat upon my brow.”

“I fear you ate too much of that pig last night,” said the good woman affectionately, “I thought then that you would have the night-mare.”

“The night-mare, woman!” answered he sternly, “it was a vision; and a presentiment of some evil, which hangeth over our community to-day, and which will fall upon the flock when the shepherd is removed, weigheth heavily upon my mind.”

“Heaven forbid!” ejaculated the wife, “but if I was you, I would not give up the sail for twenty gentlemen in green glasses!”

“The day is most certainly one of uncommon beauty and the sea-air must be fresh and wholesome. I know not when I can enjoy such pleasant society again; but then the vision, the vision yet might not that have arisen from a too free participation in the good things of the board? Truly I am in a grievous dilemma, though methinks there is somewhat in this south wind, that hath a pleasant smell.”

The arguments of the flesh were weighty, and the President departed on his way. In the mean time the students were not idle. Long before the day of the excursion they had heard of the preparations for it, and heard moreover that their President was to be of the party; several of them, therefore, determined to amuse themselves in his absence by raising the devil. Mistake me not. I do not use the phrase in the metaphorical sense of the present day; I do not mean that they were to raise the devil as that operation would probably be effected by the present inhabitants of the University, by drinking Willard’s punch, and breaking the tutors’ windows or Jemmy Reed’s gigs; these more aspiring youths, intended to have a personal interview with the old Father of Evil himself.

What was to be the subject of their conversation I know not. Whether they wished for political information as to the differences between Great Britain and her colonies or to learn the location of Captain Kidd’s treasure, or merely to pass an hour or two in the society of a distinguished stranger, I am utterly unable to decide. As however most persons at that time were prejudiced against such interviews, they determined to go to some retired spot, and accord ingly chose these woods, which were then known by the Indian name Pottyskhotty­hotch­zcklng­nxouan, or some other word of as easy pronunciation; it had I remember six consonants to every vowel.

The names of these young men were Dick Jeffreys, Joe Quirk, and John Wilder. Dick was a hair- brained fellow but very courageous, and I believe the principal reason of his joining in the adventure was to show that he feared neither man nor devil.

Joe was more cautious and cunning; his design in seeking the interview was to wheedle the Old One out of some of his hidden treasures. Wilder had no determined character, or rather, he had a character of a common kind. He was always ready enough to get into difficulty, but as he seemed to do this from pure good nature and good fellowship, and without the slightest degree of guile, he was generally pardoned when detected, and told to “do so no more, lest a worse thing should happen to him,” which threat never prevented him from getting into the next scrape that was proposed. Bold as they all were, they could not resist a little tremor when they entered the wood, and began to arrange the apparatus for their enterprise.

They began by marking out a round space, of about five feet in diameter, where they took up the sods, placed in the middle an inverted cross, and lighted a fire before it of sticks covered with a bituminous substance. They then killed a cock and laid it dripping with its blood on the fiercely blazing fire, and betook themselves to a circle which they had drawn with a sword at a little distance.

Not a word was said while this was doing, and when every thing was arranged, they waited in breathless expectation for some terrible apparition.

Nothing, however, appeared. It was a beautiful day at the end of June, and a mild south wind wafted to- wards them the smoke from their unhallowed sacrifice.

“Are you sure Joe,” at length exclaimed Jeffreys, “that you have done every thing as the old hag com- manded?”

“Every thing,” returned he.

“Not quite every thing,” said a voice from behind them. They turned, and beheld a tall thin gentleman with green glasses, a tye wig, black silk breeches, with large buckles in his shoes.

“Don’t be alarmed my young friends,” continued he, “I see what you are about, and I think I can be of some assistance to you. Come out of your circle and I will show you the way to effect what you desire.”

“That’s your sort, my old friend!” said Dick, and was just stepping out of the circle, when Joe Quirk caught him by the arm.

“Stop a moment Jeffreys,” said he, “I wish to have a little conversation with this gentleman before we leave this place. What is it we must do, and who are you yourself?” said he turning to the gentleman in green glasses.

“I must decline answering your last question,” returned he, “it ought to be sufficient for you that I can be of service to you. As to the other, all that you will have to do, will be to sign this paper,” taking one from his pocket, “with a little of your blood, and all your wishes will be fulfilled.” So saying he hand- ed them the paper with a polite bow.

“I’ve a great idea, old gentleman,” said Dick, “that you are the devil himself.”

“You’re not far from it,” answered he with a still lower bow.

“And if I had come out of the circle just now——”

“I could not have answered for the consequences,” interrupted the other with a smile. “But,” he continued, “if you will do me the favour to look over that paper, you will find that my terms are very reasonable.”

Jeffreys hastily cast his eye over the paper, “hereby promise”—“right and title to his soul”—“on con- dition”—“supply of money”—“long credit”—“Well, Sir,” turning to the green glass gentleman, “what would be the consequence of our refusing to comply with these conditions?”

“In that case, Sir, I should be at liberty to work my pleasure on your bodies.”

“What has given you such a right?” asked Quirk.

“You put yourselves into my power, when you formed a compact with me by inverting the cross, and performing the other parts of your incantation. Your circle, young gentlemen is of no service, not being completely drawn. Now though I should take great pleasure in the dissection of your several bodies, yet I am willing to act honourably with you. I therefore offer you this chance of escape by signing this paper.”

“ I’ll be d——d if I sign it!” exclaimed Dick.

“True—but you will probably be d——d whether you sign it or not. I will leave you,” he continued, taking out an elegant gold repeater, “for a little while, to consider of my proposal.” So saying he turned away, and disappeared in the bushes.

“A pretty scrape we’re in,” said Wilder, “and how are we to get out of it?”

“What hinders us,” said Quirk, “from making the best of our way to the Colleges now he is away?”

“We can but try it,” returned Dick springing forwards, but he was suddenly caught by the arm.

“No, no my friends,” said the tall gentleman who had stepped forward, “I beg you will be in no hurry, and earnestly desire you to decide as soon as possible, whether you will accept my offer or not, as I have some urgent business, a few moments hence, on the southern shore of Cochin China.”

“We will not accept it,” they all exclaimed immediately.

“And is this your final answer? Recollect the horrible death to which I can subject you, and the long and happy life which you can enjoy if you agree to ray proposal.”

“We are decided,” answered they faintly, “and put our trust in a merciful God.”

“Then take the consequences of your obstinacy,” exclaimed he, fiercely springing towards them, but a voice was heard behind,

“Conjuro te sceleratissime, in nomine Dei, abire ad tuum locum,” and the figure of the President stalked from the thicket with a huge folio Polyglot Bible under his arm.

The tall gentleman turned as blue as indigo, but did not move. “Depart from me ye cursed into everlasting fire,” shouted the President, waving the Bible in the air.

The devil saw that it was no use in attempting to contend with the President, and went off in a clap of thunder, carrying with him all the soil of the place on which they were standing. The cause of his doing this I do not exactly understand; probably it was from mere rage and disappointment, and done for the same reason that a child, or a servant, slams the door after him, when he has been refused any request.

The cause of the President’s seasonable advent was soon explained. It seems that he was so disturbed by his presentiments after the boat had got under way, that he desired to be set on shore immediately, and notwithstanding the remonstrances of his companions persisted in returning directly to Cambridge. There he found a young man waiting for him, to whom the secret of the devil-raising had been communicated, which had weighed so heavily on his mind, that he at length determined to disclose it. As soon as the President heard this he set off on foot, with nothing but a Polyglot Bible, to contend with his Satanic Majesty, and by making all possible dispatch, arrived in time to save the lads who were about to be delivered over to be buffetted.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Salmagundi

This irregular paper burst into New York from nowhere in 1807, and it was immediately obvious that the young United States had never seen anything like it. “The sensation produced by this whimsical miscellany,” wrote Rufus Wilmot Griswold, “is described by the ‘old inhabitants’ as exceeding any thing of the kind ever known in New York. Its amusing ridicule of the ignorance and vulgarity of British tourists, and of all sorts of foreign adventurers and home pretenders, with its occasional dashes of graceful sentiment, captivated the town and decided the fortunes of its authors.”

The first number set the tone for the rest—a tone of winking overconfidence, pointed sarcasm, and occasionally ju­venile humor (would anyone much over college age give his characters names like Launcelot Langstaff and Pindar Cockloft?).

As for the authors, they were three young men of distinct talent. One of them, Washington Irving, would go on to be America’s first writer of international repute. James Kirke Paulding would never equal Washington Irving’s success; but he was funnier than Irving, and his style is perhaps more distinctively American. (Ten years later, he attempted a revival of Salmagundi on his own, which was not as successful as the original.) The third was Washington Irving’s older brother William, who did not pursue a literary life, and died fairly young a little more than a decade later. His memory lived on in the name of James K. Paulding’s son, William Irving Paulding—an indication of what close friends the Irvings and Pauldings were.

If this paper had accomplished nothing else, it would have earned its place in history by attaching the name “Gotham” to New York City. But the fact that the name stuck shows us that the paper had influence. It gave us Americans a glimpse of limitless possibilities; at a time when the United States had no native literary culture to speak of, Salmagundi suggested a future in which American writers had no need to bow down before English models.

Salmagundi; or, the Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and others. By William Irving, James Kirke Paulding, and Washington Irving. Printed from the original edition, with a preface and notes by Evert A. Duyckinck. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1860. —This was not included in the “Author’s Revised Edition” of Irving’s works; it had already been included in James K. Paulding’s collected works, and Irving, whose literary reputation stood far above his good friend Paulding’s, may have wished to let Paulding keep whatever advantage he could reap from Salmagundi.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Robert Benchley on Vicente Blasco Ibáñez

We regard Benchley’s assessment of the merits of Ibáñez as sound, and his prediction in the last paragraph as remarkably prescient.

ANTI-IBÁÑEZ

While on the subject of books which we read because we think we ought to, and while Vicente Blasco Ibáñez is on the ocean and can’t hear what is being said, let’s form a secret society.

I will be one of any three to meet behind a barn and admit that I would not give a good gosh darn if a fortune-teller were to tell me tomorrow that I should never, never have a chance to read another book by the great Spanish novelist.

Any of the American reading public who desire to join this secret society may do so without fear of publicity, as the names will not be given out. The only means of distinguishing a fellow-member will be a tiny gold emblem, to be worn in the lapel, representing the figure (couchant) of Spain’s most touted animal. The motto will be “Nimmermehr,” which is a German translation of the Spanish phrase “Not even once again.”

Simply because I myself am not impressed by a book, I have no authority to brand anyone who does like it as a poseur and say that he is only making believe that he likes it. And there must be a great many highly literary people who really and sincerely do think that Señor Blasco’s books are the finest novels of the epoch.

It would therefore be presumptuous of me to say that Spain is now, for the first time since before 1898, in a position to kid the United States and, vicariously through watching her famous son count his royalties and gate receipts, to feel avenged for the loss of her islands. If America has found something superfine in Ibáñez that his countrymen have missed, then America is of course to be congratulated and not kidded.

But probably no one was more surprised than Blasco when he suddenly found himself a lion in our literary arena instead of in his accustomed rôle of bull in his home ring. And those who know say that you could have knocked his compatriots over with a feather when the news came that old man Ibáñez’s son had made good in the United States to the extent of something like five hundred million pesetas.

For, like the prophet whom some one was telling about, Ibáñez was not known at home as a particularly hot tamale. But, then, he never had such a persistent publisher in Spain, and book-advertising is not the art there that it is in America. When the final accounting of the great success of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in this country is taken, honorable mention must be made of the man at the E.P. Dutton & Co. store who had charge of the advertising.

The great Spanish novelist was in the French propaganda service during the war. It was his job to make Germany unpopular in Spanish. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is obviously propaganda, and not particularly subtle propaganda either. Certain chapters might have come direct from our own Creel committee, and one may still be true to the Allied cause and yet maintain that propaganda and literature do not mix with any degree of illusion.

There is no question, of course, that those chapters in the book which are descriptive of the advance and subsequent retreat of the German troops under the eye of Don Marcelo are masterpieces of descriptive reporting. But Philip Gibbs has given us a whole book of masterpieces of descriptive reporting which do not bear the stamp of approval of the official propaganda bureau. And, furthermore, Philip Gibbs does not wear a sport shirt open at the neck. At least, he never had his picture taken that way.

As for the rest of the books that were dragged out from the Spanish for “storehouse” when The Four Horsemen romped in winners, I can speak only as I would speak of “The World’s Most Famous Battles” or “Heroines in Shakespeare.” I have looked them over. I gave Mare Nostrum a great deal of my very valuable time because the advertisements spoke so highly of it. Woman Triumphant took less time because I decided to stop earlier in the book. Blood and Sand I passed up, having once seen a Madrid bull-fight for myself, which may account for this nasty attitude I have toward any Spanish product. I am told, however, that this is the best of them all.

It is remarkable that for a writer who seems to have left such an indelible imprint in the minds of the American people, whose works have been ranked with the greatest of all time and who received more publicity during one day of his visit here than Charles Dickens received during his whole sojourn in America, Señor Blasco and his works form a remarkably small part of the spontaneous literary conversation of the day. The characters which he has created have not taken any appreciable hold in the public imagination. Their names are never used as examples of anything. Who were some of his chief characters, by the way? What did they say that was worth remembering? What did they do that characters have not been doing for many generations? Did you ever hear anyone say, “He talks like a character in Ibáñez,” or “This might have happened in one of Ibáñez’s books”?

Of course it is possible for a man to write a great book from which no one would quote. That is probably happening all the time. But it is because no one has read it. Here we have an author whose vogue in this country, according to statistics, is equal to that of any writer of novels in the world. And as soon as his publicity department stops functioning, I should like to lay a little bet that he will not be heard of again.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

An Early American Review of Constant’s ‘Adolphe’


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From the Analectic Magazine, September, 1817.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Contemporary Review of Hawthorne’s ‘Blithedale Romance’


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From Graham’s Magazine, September, 1852.