My Literary Passions, by William Dean Howells

XXV. De Quincey, Goethe, Longfellow

Another author who was a prime favorite with me about this time was De Quincey, whose books I took out of the State Library, one after another, until I had read them all. We who were young people of that day thought his style something wonderful, and so indeed it was, especially in those passages, abundant everywhere in his work, relating to his own life with an intimacy which was always-more rather than less. His rhetoric there, and in certain of his historical studies, had a sort of luminous richness, without losing its colloquial ease. I keenly enjoyed this subtle spirit, and the play of that brilliant intelligence which lighted up so many ways of literature with its lambent glow or its tricksy glimmer, and I had a deep sympathy with certain morbid moods and experiences so like my own, as I was pleased to fancy. I have not looked at his Twelve Caesars for twice as many years, but I should be greatly surprised to find it other than one of the greatest historical monographs ever written. His literary criticisms seemed to me not only exquisitely humorous, but perfectly sane and just; and it delighted me to have him personally present, with the warmth of his own temperament in regions of cold abstraction; I am not sure that I should like that so much now. De Quincey was hardly less autobiographical when he wrote of Kant, or the Flight of the Crim–Tartars, than when he wrote of his own boyhood or the miseries of the opium habit. He had the hospitable gift of making you at home with him, and appealing to your sense of comradery with something of the flattering confidentiality of Thackeray, but with a wholly different effect.

In fact, although De Quincey was from time to time perfunctorily Tory, and always a good and faithful British subject, he was so eliminated from his time and place by his single love for books, that one could be in his company through the whole vast range of his writings, and come away without a touch of snobbishness; and that is saying a great deal for an English writer. He was a great little creature, and through his intense personality he achieved a sort of impersonality, so that you loved the man, who was forever talking-of himself, for his modesty and reticence. He left you feeling intimate with him but by no means familiar; with all his frailties, and with all those freedoms he permitted himself with the lives of his contemporaries, he is to me a figure of delicate dignity, and winning kindness. I think it a misfortune for the present generation that his books have fallen into a kind of neglect, and I believe that they will emerge from it again to the advantage of literature.

In spite of Heine and Tennyson, De Quincey had a large place in my affections, though this was perhaps because he was not a poet; for more than those two great poets there was then not much room. I read him the first winter I was at Columbus, and when I went down from the village the next winter, to take up my legislative correspondence again, I read him more than ever. But that was destined to be for me a very disheartening time. I had just passed through a rheumatic fever, which left my health more broken than before, and one morning shortly after I was settled in the capital, I woke to find the room going round me like a wheel. It was the beginning of a vertigo which lasted for six months, and which I began to fight with various devices and must yield to at last. I tried medicine and exercise, but it was useless, and my father came to take my letters off my hands while I gave myself some ineffectual respites. I made a little journey to my old home in southern Ohio, but there and everywhere, the sure and firm-set earth waved and billowed under my feet, and I came back to Columbus and tried to forget in my work the fact that I was no better. I did not give up trying to read, as usual, and part of my endeavor that winter was with Schiller, and Uhland, and even Goethe, whose ‘Wahlverwandschaften,’ hardly yielded up its mystery to me. To tell the truth, I do not think that I found my account in that novel. It must needs be a disappointment after Wilhelm Meister, which I had read in English; but I dare say my disappointment was largely my own fault; I had certainly no right to expect such constant proofs and instances of wisdom in Goethe as the unwisdom of his critics had led me to hope for. I remember little or nothing of the story, which I tried to find very memorable, as I held my sick way through it. Longfellow’s “Miles Standish” came out that winter, and I suspect that I got vastly more real pleasure from that one poem of his than I found in all my German authors put together, the adored Heine always excepted; though certainly I felt the romantic beauty of ‘Uhland,’ and was aware of something of Schiller’s generous grandeur.

Of the American writers Longfellow has been most a passion with me, as the English, and German, and Spanish, and Russian writers have been. I am sure that this was largely by mere chance. It was because I happened, in such a frame and at such a time, to come upon his books that I loved them above those of other men as great. I am perfectly sensible that Lowell and Emerson outvalue many of the poets and prophets I have given my heart to; I have read them with delight and with a deep sense of their greatness, and yet they have not been my life like those other, those lesser, men. But none of the passions are reasoned, and I do not try to account for my literary preferences or to justify them.

I dragged along through several months of that winter, and did my best to carry out that notable scheme of not minding my vertigo. I tried doing half-work, and helping my father with the correspondence, but when it appeared that nothing would avail, he remained in charge of it, till the close of the session, and I went home to try what a complete and prolonged rest would do for me. I was not fit for work in the printing~office, but that was a simpler matter than the literary work that was always tempting me. I could get away from it only by taking my gun and tramping day after day through the deep, primeval woods. The fatigue was wholesome, and I was so bad a shot that no other creature suffered loss from my gain except one hapless wild pigeon. The thawing snow left the fallen beechnuts of the autumn before uncovered among the dead leaves, and the forest was full of the beautiful birds. In most parts of the middle West they are no longer seen, except in twos or threes, but once they were like the sands of the sea for multitude. It was not now the season when they hid half the heavens with their flight day after day; but they were in myriads all through the woods, where their iridescent breasts shone like a sudden untimely growth of flowers when you came upon them from the front. When they rose in fright, it was like the upward leap of fire, and with the roar of flame. I use images which, after all, are false to the thing I wish to express; but they must serve. I tried honestly enough to kill the pigeons, but I had no luck, or too much, till I happened to bring down one of a pair that I found apart from the rest in a softy tree-top. The poor creature I had widowed followed me to the verge of the woods, as I started home with my prey, and I do not care to know more personally the feelings of a murderer than I did then. I tried to shoot the bird, but my aim was so bad that I could not do her this mercy, and at last she flew away, and I saw her no more.

The spring was now opening, and I was able to keep more and more with Nature, who was kinder to me than I was to her other children, or wished to be, and I got the better of my malady, which gradually left me for no more reason apparently than it came upon me. But I was still far from well, and I was in despair of my future. I began to read again — I suppose I had really never altogether stopped. I borrowed from my friend the bookbinder a German novel, which had for me a message of lasting cheer. It was the ‘Afraja’ of Theodore Mugge, a story of life in Norway during the last century, and I remember it as a very lovely story indeed, with honest studies of character among the Norwegians, and a tender pathos in the fate of the little Lap heroine Gula, who was perhaps sufficiently romanced. The hero was a young Dane, who was going up among the fiords to seek his fortune in the northern fisheries; and by a process inevitable in youth I became identified with him, so that I adventured, and enjoyed, and suffered in his person throughout. There was a supreme moment when he was sailing through the fiords, and finding himself apparently locked in by their mountain walls without sign or hope of escape, but somehow always escaping by some unimagined channel, and keeping on. The lesson for him was one of trust and courage; and I, who seemed to be then shut in upon a mountain-walled fiord without inlet or outlet, took the lesson home and promised myself not to lose heart again. It seems a little odd that this passage of a book, by no means of the greatest, should have had such an effect with me at a time when I was no longer so young as to be unduly impressed by what I read; but it is true that I have never since found myself in circumstances where there seemed to be no getting forward or going back, without a vision of that fiord scenery, and then a rise of faith, that if I kept on I should, somehow, come out of my prisoning environment.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/howells/william_dean/my_literary_passions/chapter25.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38