A Native Author Called Roe by Edward Payson Roe
Two or three years ago the editor of "Lippincott's Magazine" asked me, with many others, to take part in the very interesting "experience meeting" begun in the pages of that enterprising periodical. I gave my consent without much thought of the effort involved, but as time passed, felt slight inclination to comply with the request. There seemed little to say of interest to the general public, and I was distinctly conscious of a certain sense of awkwardness in writing about myself at all. The question, Why should I? always confronted me.
When this request was again repeated early in the current year, I resolved at least to keep my promise. This is done with less reluctance now, for the reason that floating through the press I meet with paragraphs concerning myself that are incorrect, and often absurdly untrue. These literary and personal notes, together with many questioning letters, indicate a certain amount of public interest, and I have concluded that it may be well to give the facts to those who care to know them.
It has been made more clear to me that there are many who honestly do care. One of the most prized rewards of my literary work is the ever-present consciousness that my writings have drawn around me a circle of unknown yet stanch friends, who have stood by me unfalteringly for a number of years. I should indeed be lacking if my heart did not go out to them in responsive friendliness and goodwill. If I looked upon them merely as an aggregation of customers, they would find me out speedily. A popular mood is a very different thing from an abiding popular interest. If one could address this circle of friends only, the embarrassment attendant on a certain amount of egotism would be banished by the assurance of sympathetic regard. Since, from the nature of circumstances, this is impossible, it seems to me in better taste to consider the "author called Roe" in an objective, rather than in a friendly and subjective sense. In other words, I shall try to look at him from the public point of view, and free myself from some predisposition in his favor shared by his friends. I suppose I shall not succeed in giving a colorless statement of fact, but I may avoid much special pleading in his behalf.
Like so many other people, I came from a very old family, one from which there is good proof of an unbroken line through the Dark Ages, and all ages, to the first man. I have never given any time to tracing ancestry, but have a sort of quiet satisfaction that mine is certainly American as far as it well can be. My forefathers (not "rude," to my knowledge) were among the first settlers on the Atlantic seaboard. My paternal and maternal grandfathers were stanch Whigs during the Revolution, and had the courage of their convictions. My grandmother escaped with her children from the village of Kingston almost as the British entered it, and her home was soon in ashes. Her husband, James Roe, was away in the army. My mother died some years before I attained my majority, and I cannot remember when she was not an invalid. Such literary tendencies as I have are derived from her, but I do not possess a tithe of her intellectual power. Her story- books in her youth were the classics; and when she was but twelve years of age she knew "Paradise Lost" by heart. In my recollections of her, the Bible and all works tending to elucidate its prophecies were her favorite themes of study. The retentiveness of her memory was very remarkable. If any one repeated a verse of the New Testament, she could go on and finish the chapter. Indeed, she could quote the greater part of the Bible with the ease and accuracy of one reading from the printed page. The works of Hugh Miller and the Arctic Explorations of Dr. Kane afforded her much pleasure. Confined usually to her room, she took unfailing delight in wandering about the world with the great travellers of that day, her strong fancy reproducing the scenes they described. A stirring bit of history moved her deeply. Well do I remember, when a boy, of reading to her a chapter from Motley's "Dutch Republic," and of witnessing in her flushed cheeks and sparkling black eyes proof of an excitement all too great for one in her frail health. She had the unusual gift of relating in an easy, simple way what she read; and many a book far too abstruse and dull for my boyish taste became an absorbing story from her lips. One of her chief characteristics was the love of flowers. I can scarcely recall her when a flower of some kind, usually a rose, was not within her reach; and only periods of great feebleness kept her from their daily care, winter and summer. Many descendants of her floral pets are now blooming in my garden.
My father, on the other hand, was a sturdy man of action. His love for the country was so strong that he retired from business in New York as soon as he had won a modest competence. For forty-odd years he never wearied in the cultivation of his little valley farm, and the square, flower-bordered garden, at one side of which ran an unfailing brook. In this garden and under his tuition I acquired my love of horticulture--acquired it with many a backache--heartache too, on days good for fishing or hunting; but, taking the bitter with the sweet, the sweet predominated. I find now that I think only of the old-fashioned roses in the borders, and not of my hands bleeding from the thorns. If I groaned over the culture of many vegetables, it was much compensation to a boy that the dinner-table groaned also under the succulent dishes thus provided. I observed that my father's interest in his garden and farm never flagged, thus proving that in them is to be found a pleasure which does not pall with age. During the last summer of his life, when in his eighty-seventh year, he had the delight of a child in driving over to my home in the early morning, long before I was up, and in leaving a basket of sweet corn or some other vegetable which he knew would prove his garden to be ahead of mine.
My father was very simple and positive in his beliefs, always openly foremost in the reform movements of his day and in his neighborhood, yet never, to my knowledge, seeking or taking any office. His house often became a station of the "underground railroad" in slavery times, and on one night in the depth of winter he took a hotly-pursued fugitive in his sleigh and drove him five miles on the ice, diagonally across the Hudson, to Fishkill, thence putting the brave aspirant for freedom on the way to other friends. He incurred several risks in this act. It is rarely safe to drive on the river off the beaten tracks at night, for there are usually air-holes, and the strong tides are continually making changes in the ice. When told that he might be sent to jail for his defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law, he quietly answered, "I can go to jail." The thing he could not do was to deny the man's appeal to him for help. Before the war he was known as an Abolitionist--after it, as a Conservative, his sympathy with and for the South being very strong. During the draft riots in 1863 the spirit of lawlessness was on the point of breaking out in the river towns. I happened to be home from Virginia, and learned that my father's house was among those marked for burning on a certain night. During this night the horde gathered; but one of their leaders had received such empathetic warning of what would happen the following day should outrages be perpetrated, that he persuaded his associates to desist. I sat up that night at my father's door with a double-barrelled gun, more impressed with a sense of danger than at any other time in my experience; he, on the contrary, slept as quietly as a child.
He often practiced close economy in order to give his sons a good education. The one act of my life which I remember with unalloyed pride and pleasure occured while I was at boarding-school in Vermont, preparing for college. I learned through my mother that my father had denied himself his daily newspaper; and I knew well how much he would miss it. We burned wood in the large stone seminary building. Every autumn great ranks of hard maple were piled up, and students who wished to earn a little money were paid a dollar a cord for sawing it into three lengths. I applied for nine cords, and went at the unaccustomed task after study hours. My back aches yet as I recall the experiences of subsequent weeks, for the wood was heavy, thick, and hard as bone. I eventually had the pleasure of sending to my father the subscription price of his paper for a year. If a boy reads these lines, let me assure him that he will never know a sweeter moment in his life than when he receives the thanks of his parents for some such effort in their behalf. No investment can ever pay him better.
In one of my books, "Nature's Serial Story," my father and mother appear, slightly idealized.
Toward the close of my first year in Williams College a misfortune occurred which threatened to be very serious. Studying by defective light injured my eyes. They quickly became so sensitive that I could scarcely endure lamplight or the heat of a stove, only the cold out-door air relieving the pain; so I spent much time in wandering about in the boisterous weather of early spring in Williamstown. At last I became so discouraged that I went to President Hopkins and told him that I feared I must give up the purpose of acquiring an education. Never can I forget how that grand old man met the disheartened boy. Speaking in the wise, friendly way which subdued the heart and strengthened the will, he made the half-hour spent with him the turning-point of my life. In conclusion, he advised me to enter the Senior class the following fall, thus taking a partial course of study. How many men are living to-day who owe much of the best in their lives to that divinely inspired guide and teacher of youth!
I next went to another man great in his sphere of life--Dr. Agnew, the oculist. He gave my eyes a thorough examination, told me that he could do nothing for them; that rest and the vigor acquired from out-door life would restore them. He was as kind and sympathetic in his way as the college president, and charged but a trifle, to relieve me from the sense of taking charity. Dr. Agnew's words proved correct; and the following autumn I entered the class of '61, and spent a happy year. Some of my classmates were very kind in reading aloud to me, while Dr. Hopkins's instruction was invaluable. By the time I entered Auburn Theological Seminary, my eyes were quite restored, and I was able to go through the first year's course of study without difficulty. In the summer of 1862 I could no longer resist the call for men in the army. Learning that the Second New York (Harris's Light) Cavalry was without a chaplain, I obtained the appointment to that position. General Kilpatrick was then lieutenant-colonel, and in command of the regiment. In December, 1862, I witnessed the bloody and disastrous battle of Fredericksburg, and can never forget the experiences of that useless tragedy. I was conscious of a sensation which struck me as too profound to be merely awe. Early in the morning we crossed the Rappahannock on a pontoon bridge and marched up the hill to an open plain. The roar of the battle was simply terrific, shading off from the sharp continuous thunder immediately about us to dull, heavy mutterings far to the right and left. A few hundred yards before us, where the ground began to slope up to the fatal heights crowned with Confederate works and ordnance, were long lines of Union batteries. From their iron mouths puffs of smoke issued incessantly, followed by tremendous reverberations. Back of these batteries the ground was covered with men lying on their arms, that they might present a less obvious target. Then a little further to the rear, on the level ground above the bluff, stood our cavalry. Heavy guns on both sides of the river were sending their great shrieking shells back and forth over our heads, and we often "ducked" instinctively when the missile was at least forty feet above us. Even our horses shuddered at the sound.
I resolved to learn if the men were sharing in my emotions--in brief, what effect the situation had upon them--and rode slowly down our regimental line. So vivid was the impression of that long array of awed, pallid faces that at this moment I can recall them distinctly. There were strange little touches of mingled pathos and humor. Meadow-larks were hemmed in on every side, too frightened to fly far beyond the rude alarms. They would flutter up into the sulphurous air with plaintive cries, then drop again into the open spaces between the troops. At one time, while we were standing at our horses' heads, a startled rabbit ran to us for cover. The poor little creature meant a dinner to the fortunate captor on a day when a dinner was extremely problematical. We engaged in a sharp scramble, the prize being won by the regimental surgeon, who kindly shared his game with me.
General Bayard, commanding our brigade, was mortally wounded, and died like a hero. He was carried to a fine mansion near which he had received his injury. Many other desperately wounded men were brought to the spacious rooms of this abode of Southern luxury, and the surgeons were kept busy all throught the day and night. It was here I gained my first experience in hospital work. This extemporized hospital on the field was so exposed as to be speedily abandoned. In the morning I recrossed the Rappahannock with my regiment, which had been ordered down the river on picket duty. Soon after we went into winter quarters in a muddy cornfield. In February I resigned, with the purpose of completing my studies, and spent the remainder of the term at the Union Theological Seminary of New York. My regiment would not get another chaplain, so I again returned to it. In November I received a month's leave of absence, and was married to Miss Anna P. Sands, of New York City. Our winter quarters in 1864 were at Stevensburg, between the town of Culpeper and the Rapidan River. During the pleasant days of late February several of the officers were enjoying the society of their wives. Mrs. Roe having expressed a willingness to rough it with me for a week, I sent for her, and one Saturday afternoon went to the nearest railroad station to meet her. The train came, but not my wife; and, much disappointed, I found the return ride of five miles a dreary one in the winter twilight. I stopped at our colonel's tent to say to him and his wife that Mrs. Roe had not come, then learned for the first time very startling tidings.
"Chaplain," said the colonel, "we are going to Richmond to-morrow. We are going to wade right through and past everything in a neck- or-nothing ride, and who will come out is a question."
His wife was weeping in her private tent, and I saw that for the first time in my acquaintance with him he was downcast. He was one of the bravest of men, yet now a foreboding of evil oppressed him. The result justified it, for he was captured during the raid, and never fully rallied after the war from the physical depression caused by his captivity. He told me that on the morrow General Kilpatrick would lead four thousand picked cavalry men in a raid on Richmond, having as its special object the release of our prisoners. I rode to the headquarters of the general, who confirmed the tidings, adding, "You need not go. Non-combatants are not expected to go."
It was most fortunate that my wife had not come. I had recently been appointed chaplain of Hampton Hospital, Virginia, by President Lincoln, and was daily expecting my confirmation by the Senate. I had fully expected to give my wife a glimpse of army life in the field, and then to enter on my new duties. To go or not to go was a question with me that night. The raid certainly offered a sharp contrast with the anticipated week's outing with my bride. I did not possess by nature that kind of courage which is indifferent to danger; and life had never offered more attractions than at that time. I have since enjoyed Southern hospitality abundantly, and hope to again, but then its prospect was not alluring. Before morning, however, I reached the decision that I would go, and during the Sunday forenoon held my last service in the regiment. I had disposed of my horse, and so had to take a sorry beast at the last moment, the only one I could obtain.
In the dusk of Sunday evening four thousand men were masked in the woods on the banks of the Rapidan. Our scouts opened the way by wading the stream and pouncing upon the unsuspecting picket of twenty Confederates opposite. Then away we went across a cold, rapid river, marching all that night through the dim woods and openings in a country that was emphatically the enemy's. Lee's entire army was on our right, the main Confederate cavalry force on our left. The strength of our column and its objective point could not remain long unknown.
In some unimportant ways I acted as aid for Kilpatrick. A few hundred yards in advance of the main body rode a vanguard of two hundred men, thrown forward to warn us should we strike any considerable number of the enemy's cavalry. As is ever the case, the horses of a small force will walk away from a much larger body, and it was necessary from time to time to send word to the vanguard, ordering it to "slow up." This order was occasionally intrusted to me. I was to gallop over the interval between the two columns, then draw up by the roadside and sit motionless on my horse till the general with his staff came up. The slightest irregularity of action would bring a shot from our own men, while the prospect of an interview with the Johnnies while thus isolated was always good. I saw one of our officers shot that night. He had ridden carelessly into the woods, and rode out again just before the head of the column, without instantly accounting for himself. As it was of vital importance to keep the movement secret as long as possible, the poor fellow was silenced in sad error as to his identity.
On we rode, night and day, with the briefest possible halts. At one point we nearly captured a railroad train, and might easily have succeeded had not the station and warehouses been in flames. As it was, the train approached us closely, then backed, the shrieking engine itself giving the impression of being startled to the last degree.
On a dreary, drizzling, foggy day we passed a milestone on which was lettered, "Four miles to Richmond." It was still "on to Richmond" with us what seemed a long way further, and then came a considerable period of hesitancy, in which the command was drawn up for the final dash. The enemy shelled a field near us vigorously, but fortunately, or unfortunately, the fog was so dense that neither party could make accurate observations or do much execution.
For reasons that have passed into history, the attack was not made. We withdrew six miles from the city and went into camp.
I had scarcely begun to enjoy much-needed rest before the Confederates came up in the darkness and shelled us out of such quarters as we had found. We had to leave our boiling coffee behind us--one of the greatest hardships I have ever known. Then followed a long night-ride down the Peninsula, in driving sleet and rain.
The next morning the sun broke out gloriously, warming and drying our chilled, wet forms. Nearly all that day we maintained a line of battle confronting the pursuing enemy. One brigade would take a defensive position, while the other would march about five miles to a commanding point, where it in turn would form a line. The first brigade would then give way, pass through the second, and take position well to the rear. Thus, although retreating, we were always ready to fight. At one point the enemy pressed us closely, and I saw a magnificent cavalry charge down a gentle descent in the road. Every sabre seemed tipped with fire in the brilliant sunshine.
In the afternoon it became evident that there was a body of troops before us. Who or what they were was at first unknown, and for a time the impression prevailed that we should have to cut our way through by a headlong charge. We soon learned, however, that the force was a brigade of colored infantry, sent up to cover our retreat. It was the first time we had seen negro troops, but as the long line of glistening bayonets and light-blue uniforms came into view, prejudices, if any there were, vanished at once, and a cheer from the begrimed troopers rang down our line, waking the echoes. It was a pleasant thing to march past that array of faces, friendly though black, and know we were safe. They represented the F.F.V.'s of Old Virginia, we then wished to see. On the last day of the march my horse gave out, compelling me to walk and lead him.
On the day after our arrival at Yorktown, Kilpatrick gave me despatches for the authorities at Washington. President Lincoln, learning that I had just returned from the raid, sent for me, and I had a memorable interview with him alone in his private room. He expressed profound solicitude for Colonel Dahlgren and his party. They had been detached from the main force, and I could give no information concerning them. We eventually learned of the death of that heroic young officer, Colonel Dahlgren. Although partially helpless from the loss of a leg, he led a daring expedition at the cost of his life.
I expressed regret to the President that the object of the raid had not been accomplished. "Pick the flint, and try it again," said Mr. Lincoln, heartily. I went out from his presence awed by the courage and sublime simplicity of the man. While he gave the impression that he was bearing the nation on his heart, one was made to feel that it was also large enough for sympathy with all striving with him in the humblest way.
My wife joined me in Washington, and few days later accompanied me to the scene of my new labors at Hampton Hospital, near Fortress Monroe. There were not many patients at that time (March, 1864) in the large barrack wards; but as soon as the Army of the Potomac broke through the Wilderness and approached our vicinity, transports in increasing numbers, laden with desperately wounded men, came to our wharf. During the early summer the wooden barracks were speedily filled, and many tent wards were added. Duty became constant and severe, while the scenes witnessed were often painful in the last degree. More truly than on the field, the real horrors of war are learned from the long agonies in the hospital. While in the cavalry service, I gained in vigor daily; in two months of hospital work I lost thirty pounds. On one day I buried as many as twenty-nine men. Every evening, till the duty became like a nightmare, I followed the dead-cart, filled up with coffins, once, twice, and often thrice, to the cemetery. Eventually an associate chaplain was appointed, who relieved me of this task.
Fortunately, my tastes led me to employ an antidote to my daily work as useful to me as to the patients. Surrounding the hospital was much waste land. This, with the approval of the surgeon in charge, Dr. Ely McMillan, and the aid of the convalescents, I transformed into a garden, and for two successive seasons sent to the general kitchen fresh vegetables by the wagon-load. If reward were needed, the wistful delight with which a patient from the front would regard a raw onion was ample; while for me the care of the homely, growing vegetables and fruit brought a diversion of mind which made life more endurable.
One of the great needs of the patients who had to fight the winning or losing battle of life was good reading, and I speedily sought to obtain a supply. Hearts and purses at the North responded promptly and liberally; publishers threw off fifty per cent from their prices; and I was eventually able to collect, by gift and purchase, about three thousand volumes. In gathering this library, I provided what may be distinctly termed religious reading in abundance; but I also recognized the need of diversion. Long wards were filled with men who had lost a leg or an arm, and who must lie in one position for weeks. To help them get through the time was to help them to live. I therefore made the library rich in popular fiction and genial books of travel and biography. Full sets of Irving, Cooper, Dickens, Thackeray, Scott, Marryat, and other standard works were bought; and many a time I have seen a poor fellow absorbed in their pages while holding his stump lest the jar of a footstep should send a dart of agony to the point of mutilation. My wife gave much assistance in my hospital duties, often reaching and influencing those beyond me. I recall one poor fellow who was actually six months in dying from a very painful wound. Profanity appeared to be his vernacular, and in bitter protest at his fate, he would curse nearly every one and everything. Mrs. Roe's sympathy and attentions changed him very much, and he would listen quietly as long as she would read to him. Some of the hospital attendants, men and women, had good voices, and we organized a choir. Every Sunday afternoon we went from ward to ward singing familiar hymns. It was touching to see rough fellows drawing their blankets over their heads to hide the emotion caused by words and melodies associated, in many instances, with home and mother.
Northern generosity, and, in the main, convalescent labor enabled me to build a large commodious chapel and to make great improvements in the hospital farm. The site of the hospital and garden is now occupied by General Armstrong's Normal and Agricultural Institute for Freedmen, and the chapel was occupied as a place of worship until very recently. Thus a noble and most useful work is being accomplished on the ground consecrated by the life-and-death struggles of so many Union soldiers.
In 1865 the blessed era of peace began, bringing its many changes. In October the hospital became practically empty, and I resigned. The books were sent to Fortress Monroe for the use of the garrison, and I found many of them there long years after, almost worn out from use.
After a little rest and some candidating for a church, I took a small parish at Highland Falls, about a mile from West Point, New York, entering on my labors in January, 1866. In this village my wife and I spent nine very happy years. They were full of trial and many cares, but free from those events which bring the deep shadows into one's life. We soon became engaged in building a new stone church, whose granite walls are so thick, and hard-wood finish so substantial that passing centuries should add only the mellowness of age. The effort to raise funds for this enterprise led me into the lecture-field and here I found my cavalry-raid and army life in general exceedingly useful. I looked around for a patch of garden-ground as instinctively as a duck seeks water. The small plot adjoining the parsonage speedily grew into about three acres, from which eventually came a book entitled "Play and Profit in my Garden."
Up to the year 1871 I had written little for publication beyond occasional contributions to the New York "Evangelist," nor had I seriously contemplated a literary life. I had always been extremely fond of fiction, and from boyhood had formed a habit of beguiling the solitary hours in weaving crude fancies around people who for any reason interested me. I usually had a mental serial running, to which I returned when it was my mood; but I had never written even a short story. In October, 1871, I was asked to preach for a far uptown congregation in New York, with the possibility of a settlement in view. On Monday following the services of the Sabbath, the officers of the church were kind enough to ask me to spend a week with them and visit among the people. Meantime, the morning papers laid before us the startling fact that the city of Chicago was burning and that its population were becoming homeless. The tidings impressed me powerfully, waking the deepest sympathy. I said to myself, "Here is a phase of life as remarkable as any witnessed during the war." I obeyed the impulse to be on the scene as soon as possible, stated my purpose to my friends, and was soon among the smoking ruins, finding an abiding-place with throngs of others in a partially finished hotel. For days and nights I wandered where a city had been, and among the extemporized places of refuge harboring all classes of people. Late one night I sat for a long time on the steps of Robert Collyer's church and watched the full moon through the roofless walls and shattered steeple. There was not an evidence of life where had been populous streets. It was there and then, as nearly as I can remember, that the vague outlines of my first story, "Barriers Burned Away," began to take form in my mind. I soon returned home, and began to dream and write, giving during the following year such hours as could be withdrawn from many other duties to the construction of the story. I wrote when and where I could--on steamboats, in railway cars, and at all odd hours of leisure, often with long breaks in the work of composition, caused by the pressure of other affairs, again getting up a sort of white heat from incessantly dwelling upon scenes and incidents that had become real to me. In brief, the story took possession of my mind, and grew as naturally as a plant or a weed in my garden.
It will thus be obvious that at nearly middle age, and in obedience to an impulse, I was launched as an author; that I had very slight literary training; and that my appearance as a novelist was quite as great a surprise to myself as to any of my friends. The writing of sermons certainly does not prepare one for the construction of a novel; and to this day certain critics contemptuously dismiss my books as "preaching." During nearly four years of army life, at a period when most young men are forming style and making the acquaintance of literature, I scarcely had a chance to read at all. The subsequent years of the pastorate were too active, except for an occasional dip into a favorite author.
While writing my first story, I rarely thought of the public, the characters and their experiences absorbing me wholly. When my narrative was actually in print, there was wakened a very deep interest as to its reception. I had none of the confidence resulting from the gradual testing of one's power or from association with literary people, and I also was aware that, when published, a book was far away from the still waters of which one's friends are the protecting headlands. That I knew my work to be exceedingly faulty goes without saying; that it was utterly bad, I was scarcely ready to believe. Dr. Field, noted for his pure English diction and taste, would not publish an irredeemable story, and the constituency of the New York "Evangelist" is well known to be one of the most intelligent in the country. Friendly opinions from serial readers were reassuring as far as they went, but of course the great majority of those who followed the story were silent. A writer cannot, like a speaker, look into the eyes of his audience and observe its mental attitude toward his thought. If my memory serves me, Mr. R. R. Bowker was the earliest critic to write some friendly words in the "Evening Mail;" but at first my venture was very generally ignored. Then some unknown friend marked an influential journal published in the interior of the State and mailed it so timely that it reached me on Christmas eve. I doubt if a book was ever more unsparingly condemned than mine in that review, whose final words were, "The story is absolutely nauseating." In this instance and in my salad days I took pains to find out who the writer was, for if his view was correct I certainly should not engage in further efforts to make the public ill. I discovered the reviewer to be a gentleman for whom I have ever had the highest respect as an editor, legislator, and honest thinker. My story made upon him just the impression he expressed, and it would be very stupid on my part to blink the fact. Meantime, the book was rapidly making for itself friends and passing into frequent new editions. Even the editor who condemned the work would not assert that those who bought it were an aggregation of asses. People cannot be found by thousands who will pay a dollar and seventy-five cents for a dime novel or a religious tract. I wished to learn the actual truth more sincerely than any critic to write it, and at last I ventured to take a copy to Mr. George Ripley, of the New York "Tribune." "Here is a man," I thought, "whose fame and position as a critic are recognized by all. If he deigns to notice the book, he will not only say what he thinks, but I shall have much reason to think as he does." Mr. Ripley met the diffident author kindly, asked a few questions, and took the volume. A few weeks later, to my great surprise, he gave over a column to a review of the story. Although not blind to its many faults, he wrote words far more friendly and inspiring than I ever hoped to see; it would seem that the public had sanctioned his verdict. From that day to this these two instances have been types of my experience with many critics, one condemning, another commending. There is ever a third class who prove their superiority by sneering at or ignoring what is closely related to the people. Much thought over my experience led to a conclusion which the passing years confirm: the only thing for a writer is to be himself and take the consequences. Even those who regard me as a literary offender of the blackest dye have never named imitation among my sins.
As successive books appeared, I began to recognize more and more clearly another phase of an author's experience. A writer gradually forms a constituency, certain qualities in his book appealing to certain classes of minds. In my own case, I do not mean classes of people looked at from the social point of view. A writer who takes any hold on popular attention inevitably learns the character of his constituency. He appeals, and minds and temperaments in sympathy respond. Those he cannot touch go on their way indifferently; those he offends may often strike back. This is the natural result of any strong assertion of individuality. Certainly, if I had my choice, I would rather write a book interesting to the young and to the common people, whom Lincoln said "God must love, since He made so many of them." The former are open to influence; the latter can be quickened and prepared for something better. As a matter of fact, I find that there are those in all classes whom my books attract, others who are repelled, as I have said. It is perhaps one of the pleasantest experiences of an author's life to learn from letters and in other ways that he is forming a circle of friends, none the less friendly because personally unknown. Their loyalty is both a safeguard and an inspiration. On one hand, the writer shrinks from abusing such regard by careless work; on the other, he is stimulated and encouraged by the feeling that there is a group in waiting who will appreciate his best endeavor. While I clearly recognize my limitations, and have no wish to emulate the frog in the fable, I can truthfully say that I take increasing pains with each story, aiming to verify every point by experience--my own or that of others. Not long since, a critic asserted that changes in one of my characters, resulting from total loss of memory, were preposterously impossible. If the critic had consulted Ribot's "Diseases of Memory," or some experienced physician, he might have written more justly. I do not feel myself competent to form a valuable opinion as to good art in writing, and I cannot help observing that the art doctors disagree wofully among themselves. Truth to nature and the realities, and not the following of any school or fashion, has ever seemed the safest guide. I sometimes venture to think I know a little about human nature. My active life brought me in close contact with all kinds of people; there was no man in my regiment who hesitated to come to my tent or to talk confidentially by the campfire, while scores of dying men laid bare to me their hearts. I at least know the nature that exists in the human breast. It may be inartistic, or my use of it all wrong. That is a question which time will decide, and I shall accept the verdict. Over twelve years ago, certain oracles, with the voice of fate, predicted my speedy eclipse and disappearance. Are they right in their adverse judgment? I can truthfully say that now, as at the first, I wish to know the facts in the case. The moment an author is conceited about his work, he becomes absurd and is passing into a hopeless condition. If worthy to write at all, he knows that he falls far short of his ideals; if honest, he wishes to be estimated at his true worth, and to cast behind him the mean little Satan of vanity. If he walks under a conscious sense of greatness, he is a ridiculous figure, for beholders remember the literary giants of other days and of his own time, and smile at the airs of the comparatively little man. On the other hand, no self-respecting writer should ape the false deprecating "'umbleness" of Uriah Heep. In short, he wishes to pass, like a coin, for just what he is worth. Mr. Matthew Arnold was ludicrously unjust to the West when he wrote, "The Western States are at this moment being nourished and formed, we hear, on the novels of a native author called Roe." Why could not Mr. Arnold have taken a few moments to look into the bookstores of the great cities of the West, in order to observe for himself how the demand of one of the largest and most intelligent reading publics in the world is supplied? He would have found that the works of Scott and Dickens were more liberally purchased and generally read than in his own land of "distinction." He should have discovered when in this country that American statesmen (?) are so solicitous about the intelligence of their constituents that they give publishers so disposed every opportunity to steal novels describing the nobility and English persons of distinction; that tons of such novels have been sold annually in the West, a thousand to one of the "author called Roe." The simple truth in the case is that in spite of this immense and cheap competition, my novels have made their way and are being read among multitudes of others. No one buys or reads a book under compulsion; and if any one thinks that the poorer the book the better the chance of its being read by the American people, let him try the experiment. When a critic condemns my books, I accept that as his judgment; when another critic and scores of men and women, the peers of the first in cultivation and intelligence, commend the books, I do not charge them with gratuitous lying. My one aim has become to do my work conscientiously and leave the final verdict to time and the public. I wish no other estimate than a correct one; and when the public indicate that they have had enough of Roe, I shall neither whine nor write.
As a rule, I certainly stumble on my stories, as well as stumble through them perhaps. Some incident or unexpected impulse is the beginning of their existence. One October day I was walking on a country road, and a chestnut burr lay in my path. I said to myself, "There is a book in that burr, if I could get it out." With little volition on my part, the story "Opening a Chestnut Burr" took form and was written.
One summer evening, when in New York, I went up to Thomas's Garden, near Central Park, to hear the delicious music he was educating us to appreciate. At a certain point in the programme I noticed that the next piece would be Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and I glanced around with a sort of congratulatory impulse, as much as to say, "Now we shall have a treat." My attention was immediately arrested and fixed by a young girl who, with the gentleman escorting her, was sitting near by. My first impression of her face was one of marvellous beauty, followed by a sense of dissatisfaction. Such was my distance that I could not annoy her by furtive observation; and I soon discovered that she would regard a stare as a tribute. Why was it that her face was so beautiful, yet so displeasing? Each feature analyzed seemed perfection, yet the general effect was a mocking, ill-kept promise. The truth was soon apparent. The expression was not evil, but frivolous, silly, unredeemed by any genuine womanly grace. She giggled and flirted through the sublime symphony, till in exasperation I went out into the promenade under the open sky. In less than an hour I had my story "A Face Illumined." I imagined an artist seeing what I had seen and feeling a stronger vexation in the wounding of his beauty loving nature; that he learned during the evening that the girl was a relative of a close friend, and that a sojourn at a summer hotel on the Hudson was in prospect. On his return home he conceives the idea of painting the girl's features and giving them a harmonious expression. Then the fancy takes him that the girl is a modern Undine and has not yet received her woman's soul. The story relates his effort to beautify, illumine the face itself by evoking a mind. I never learned who was the actual girl with the features of an angel and the face of a fool.
In the case of "He Fell in Love with His Wife," I merely saw a paragraph in a paper to the effect that a middle-age widower, having found it next to impossible to carry on his farm with hired help, had gone to the county poorhouse and said "If there's a decent woman here, I'll marry her." For years the homely item remained an ungerminating seed in my mind, then started to grow, and the story was written in two months.
My war experience has naturally made the picturesque phase of the Great Conflict attractive material. In the future I hope to avail myself still further of interesting periods in American history.
I find that my love of horticulture and outdoor life has grown with the years. I do not pretend to scientific accuracy or knowledge. On the contrary, I have regarded plants and birds rather as neighbors, and have associated with them. When giving to my parish, I bought a place in the near vicinity of the house which I had spent my childhood. The front windows of our house command a noble view of the Hudson, while on the east and south the Highlands are within rifle-shot. For several years I hesitated to trust solely to literary work for support. As I have said, not a few critics insisted that my books should not be read, and would soon cease to be read. But whether the prediction should prove true or not, I knew in any case that the critics themselves would eat my strawberries; so I made the culture of small fruits the second string to my bow. This business speedily took the form of growing plants for sale, and was developing rapidly, when financial misfortune led to my failure and the devotion of my entire time to writing. Perhaps it was just as well in the end, for my health was being undermined by too great and conflicting demands on my energy. In 1878, at Dr. Holland's request, I wrote a series of papers on small fruits for "Scribner's Magazine"--papers that were expanded into a book entitled "Success with Small Fruits." I now aim merely at an abundant home supply of fruits and vegetables, but in securing this, find pleasure and profit in testing the many varieties catalogued and offered by nurserymen and seedsmen. About three years ago the editor of "Harper's Magazine" asked me to write one or two papers entitled "One Acre," telling its possessor how to make the most and best of it. When entering on the task, I found there was more in it than I had at first supposed. Changing the title to "The Home Acre," I decided to write a book or manual which might be useful in many rural homes. There are those who have neither time nor inclination to read the volumes and journals devoted to horticulture, who yet have gardens and trees in which they are interested. They wish to learn in the shortest, clearest way just what to do in order to secure success, without going into theories, whys, and wherefores, or concerning themselves with the higher mysteries of garden-lore. This work is now in course of preparation. In brief, my aim is to have the book grow out of actual experience, and not merely my own, either. As far as possible, well-known experts and authorities are consulted on every point. As a natural consequence, the book is growing, like the plants to which it relates. It cannot be written "offhand" or finished "on time" to suit any one except Dame Nature, who, being feminine, is often inscrutable and apparently capricious. The experience of one season is often reversed in the next, and the guide in gardening of whom I am most afraid is the man who is always sure he is right. It was my privilege to have the late Mr. Charles Downing as one of my teachers, and well do I remember how that honest, sagacious, yet docile student of nature would "put on the brakes" when I was passing too rapidly to conclusions. It has always been one of my most cherished purposes to interest people in the cultivation of the soil and rural life. My effort is to "boil down" information to the simplest and most practical form. Last spring, hundreds of varieties of vegetables and small fruits were planted. A carefully written record is being kept from the time of planting until the crop is gathered.
My methods of work are briefly these: I go into my study immediately after breakfast--usually about nine o'clock--and write or study until three or four in the afternoon, stopping only for a light lunch. In the early morning and late afternoon I go around my place, giving directions to the men, and observing the condition of vegetables, flowers, and trees, and the general aspect of nature at the time. After dinner, the evening is devoted to the family, friends, newspapers, and light reading. In former years I wrote at night, but after a severe attack of insomnia this practice was almost wholly abandoned. As a rule, the greater part of a year is absorbed in the production of a novel, and I am often gathering material for several years in advance of writing.
For manuscript purposes I use bound blankbooks of cheap paper. My sheets are thus kept securely together and in place--important considerations in view of the gales often blowing through my study and the habits of a careless man. This method offers peculiar advantages for interpolation, as there is always a blank page opposite the one on which I am writing. After correcting the manuscript, it is put in typewriting and again revised. There are also two revisions of the proof. While I do not shirk the tasks which approach closely to drudgery, especially since my eyesight is not so good as it was, I also obtain expert assistance. I find that when a page has become very familiar and I am rather tired of it, my mind wanders from the close, fixed attention essential to the best use of words. Perhaps few are endowed with both the inventive and the critical faculty. A certain inner sense enables one to know, according to his lights, whether the story itself is true or false; but elegance of style is due chiefly to training, to a cultivation like that of the ear for music. Possibly we are entering on an age in which the people care less for form, for phraseology, than for what seems to them true, real--for what, as they would express it, "takes hold of them." This is no plea or excuse for careless work, but rather a suggestion that the day of prolix, fine, flowery writing is passing. The immense number of well-written books in circulation has made success with careless, slovenly manuscripts impossible. Publishers and editors will not even read, much less publish them. Simplicity, lucidity, strength, a plunge in medias res, are now the qualities and conditions chiefly desired, rather than finely turned sentences in which it is apparent more labor has been expended on the vehicle than on what it contains. The questions of this eager age are, What has he to say? Does it interest us? As an author, I have felt that my only chance of gaining and keeping the attention of men and women was to know, to understand them, to feel with and for them in what constituted their life. Failing to do this, why should a line of my books be read? Who reads a modern novel from sense of duty? There are classics which all must read and pretend to enjoy whether capable of doing so or not. No critic has ever been so daft as to call any of my books a classic. Better books are unread because the writer is not en rapport with the reader. The time has passed when either the theologian, the politician, or the critic can take the American citizen metaphorically by the shoulder and send him along the path in which they think he should go. He has become the most independent being in the world, good-humoredly tolerant of the beliefs and fancies of others, while reserving, as a matter of course, the right to think for himself.
In appealing to the intelligent American public, choosing for itself among the multitude of books now offered, it is my creed that an author should maintain completely and thoroughly his own individuality, and take the consequences. He cannot conjure strongly by imitating any one, or by representing any school or fashion. He must do his work conscientiously, for his readers know by instinct whether or not they are treated seriously and with respect. Above all, he must understand men and women sufficiently to interest them; for all the "powers that be" cannot compel them to read a book they do not like.
My early experience in respect to my books in the British Dominions has been similar to that of many others. My first stories were taken by one or more publishers without saying "by your leave," and no returns made of any kind. As time passed, Messrs. Ward, Locke & Co., more than any other house, showed a disposition to treat me fairly. Increasing sums were given for successive books. Recently Mr. George Locke visited me, and offered liberal compensation for each new novel. He also agreed to give me five per cent copyright on all my old books published by him, no matter how obtained, in some instances revoking agreements which precluded the making of any such request on my part. In the case of many of these books he has no protection, for they are published by others; but he takes the simple ground that he will not sell any of my books without giving me a share in the profit. Such honorable action should tend to make piracy more odious than ever, on both sides of the sea. Other English firms have offered me the usual royalty, and I now believe that in spite of our House of Mis-Representatives at Washington, the majority of the British publishers are disposed to deal justly and honorably by American writers. In my opinion, the lower House in Congress has libelled and slandered the American people by acting as if their constituents, with thievish instincts, chuckled over pennies saved when buying pirated books. This great, rich, prosperous nation has been made a "fence," a receiver of stolen goods, and shamelessly committed to the crime for which poor wretches are sent to jail. Truly, when history is written, and it is learned that the whole power and statesmanship of the government were enlisted in behalf of the pork interest, while the literature of the country and the literary class were contemptuously ignored, it may be that the present period will become known as the Pork Era of the Republic. It is a strange fact that English publishers are recognizing our rights in advance of our own lawmakers.
In relating his experience in the pages of this magazine, Mr. Julian Hawthorne said in effect that one of the best rewards of the literary life was the friends it enabled the writer to make. When giving me his friendship, he proved how true this is. In my experience the literary class make good, genial, honest friends, while their keen, alert minds and knowledge of life in many of its most interesting aspects give an unfailing charm to their society. One can maintain the most cordial and intimate relations with editors of magazines and journals if he will recognize that such relations should have no influence whatever in the acceptance or declination of manuscripts. I am constantly receiving letters from literary aspirants who appear to think that if I will use a little influence their stories or papers would be taken and paid for. I have no such influence, nor do I wish any, in regard to my own work. The conscientious editor's first duty is to his periodical and its constituents, and he would and should be more scrupulous in accepting a manuscript from a friend than from a stranger. To show resentment because a manuscript is returned is absurd, however great may be our disappointment.
Perhaps one of the most perplexing and often painful experiences of an author comes from the appeals of those who hope through him to obtain immediate recognition as writers. One is asked to read manuscripts and commend them to publishers, or at least to give an opinion in regard to them, often to revise or even to rewrite certain portions. I remember that during one month I was asked to do work on the manuscripts of strangers that would require about a year of my time. The maker of such request does not realize that he or she is but one among many, and that the poor author would have to abandon all hope of supporting his family if he tried to comply. The majority who thus appeal to one know next to nothing of the literary life or the conditions of success. They write to the author in perfect good faith, often relating circumstances which touch his sympathies; yet if you tell them the truth about their manuscript, or say you have not time to read it, adding that you have no influence with editors or publishers beyond securing a careful examination of what is written, you feel that you are often set down as a churl, and your inability to comply with their wishes is regarded as the selfishness and arrogance of success. The worried author has also his own compunctions, for while he has tried so often and vainly to secure the recognition requested, till he is in despair of such effort, he still is haunted by the fear that he may overlook some genius whom it would be a delight to guide through what seems a thorny jungle to the inexperienced.
In recalling the past, one remembers when he stood in such sore need of friends that he dislikes even the appearance of passing by on the other side. There are no riches in the world like stanch friends who prove themselves to be such in your need, your adversity, or your weakness. I have some treasured letters received after it had been telegraphed throughout the land that I was a bankrupt and had found myself many thousands of dollars worse off than nothing. The kindly words and looks, the cordial grasp of the hand, and the temporary loan occasionally, of those who stood by me when scarcely sane from overwork, trouble, and, worse than all, from insomnia, can never be forgotten while a trace of memory is left. Soon after my insolvency there came a date when all my interests in my books then published must be sold to the highest bidder. It seemed in a sense like putting my children up at auction; and yet I was powerless, since my interests under contracts were a part of my assets. These rights had been well advertised in the New York and county papers, as the statute required, and the popularity of the books was well known. Any one in the land could have purchased these books from me forever. A friend made the highest bid and secured the property. My rights in my first nine novels became his, legally and absolutely. There was even no verbal agreement between us--nothing but his kind, honest eyes to reassure me. He not only paid the sum he had bidden, but then and there wrote a check for a sum which, with my other assets, immediately liquidated my personal debts, principal and interest. The children of my fancy are again my children, for they speedily earned enough to repay my friend and to enable him to compromise with the holders of indorsed notes in a way satisfactory to them. It so happened that most of these creditors resided in my immediate neighborhood. I determined to fight out the battle in their midst and under their daily observation, and to treat all alike, without regard to their legal claims. Only one creditor tried to make life a burden; but he did his level best. The others permitted me to meet my obligations in my own time and way, and I am grateful for their consideration. When all had received the sum mutually agreed upon, and I had shaken hands with them, I went to the quaint and quiet little city of Santa Barbara, on the Pacific coast, for a change and partial rest. While there, however, I wrote my Charleston story, "The Earth Trembled." In September, 1887, I returned to my home at Cornwall-on-the-Hudson, and resumed my work in a region made dear by the memories of a lifetime. Just now I am completing a Southern story entitled "Miss Lou."
It so happens in my experience that I have discovered one who appears willing to stick closer to me than a brother, and even to pass as my "double," or else he is so helplessly in the hands of his publishers as to be an object of pity. A certain "Edward R. Roe" is also an author, and is suffering cruelly in reputation because his publishers so manage that he is identified with me. By strange coincidence, they hit upon a cover for his book which is almost a facsimile of the cover of my pamphlet novel, "An Original Belle," previously issued. The R in the name of this unfortunate man has been furnished with such a diminutive tail that it passes for a P, and even my friends supposed that the book, offered everywhere for sale, was mine. In many instances I have asked at news stands, "Whose book is that?" The prompt and invariable answer has been, "E. P. Roe's." I have seen book notices in which the volume was ascribed to me in anything but flattering terms. A distinguished judge, in a carefully written opinion, is so uncharitable as to characterize the coincidence in cover as a "fraud," and to say, "No one can look at the covers of the two publications and fail to see evidence of a design to deceive the public and to infringe upon the rights of the publisher and author"--that is, the rights of Messrs. Dodd, Mead would be well, as a rule, for other writers to begin with reputable, honorable publishers and to remain with them. A publisher can do more and better with a line of books than with isolated volumes. When an author's books are scattered, there is not sufficient inducement for any one to push them strongly, nor, as in the case above related, to protect a writer against a "double," should one appear. Authors often know little about business, and should deal with a publisher who will look after their interests as truly as his own. Unbusinesslike habits and methods are certainly not traits to be cultivated, for we often suffer grievously from their existence; yet as far as possible the author should be free from distracting cares. The novelist does his best work when abstracted from the actual world and living in its ideal counterpart which for the time he is imagining. When his creative work is completed, he should live very close to the real world, or else he will be imagining a state of things which neither God nor man had any hand in bringing about.