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Theodore Winthrop's Writings

On an accessible book-shelf in my library, stand side by side four volumes
whose contents I once knew by heart, and which, after the lapse of twenty
years, are yet tolerably distinct in my memory. These are stoutly bound in
purple muslin, with a stamp, of Persian design apparently, on the centre
of each cover. They are stained and worn, and the backs have faded to a
brownish hue, from exposure to the light, and a leaf in one of the volumes
has been torn across; but the paper and the sewing and the clear bold type
are still as serviceable as ever. The books seem to have been made to
last,--to stand a great deal of reading. Contrasted with the aesthetically
designed covers one sees nowadays, they would be considered inexcusably
ugly, and the least popular novelist of our time would protest against
having his lucubrations presented to the public in such plain attire.
Nevertheless, on turning to the title-pages, you may see imprinted, on the
first, "Fourteenth Edition"; on the second, "Twelfth Edition"; and on the
others, indications somewhat less magnificent, but still evidence of very
exceptional circulation. The date they bear is that of the first years of
our civil war; and the first published of them is prefaced by a
biographical memoir of the author, written by his friend George William
Curtis. This memoir was originally printed in the _Atlantic Monthly_, two
or three months after the death of its subject, Theodore Winthrop.

For these books,--three novels, and one volume of records of travel,--came
from his hand, though they did not see the light until after he had passed
beyond the sphere of authors and publishers. At that time, the country was
in an exalted and heroic mood, and the men who went to fight its battles
were regarded with a personal affection by no means restricted to their
personal acquaintances. Their names were on all lips, and those of them
who fell were mourned by multitudes instead of by individuals. Winthrop's
historic name, and the influential position of some of his nearest
friends, would have sufficed to bring into unusual prominence his brief
career and his fate as a soldier, even had his intrinsic qualities and
character been less honorable and winning than they were. But he was a
type of a young American such as America is proud to own. He was high-
minded, refined, gifted, handsome. I recollect a portrait of him published
soon after his death,--a photograph, I think, from a crayon drawing; an
eloquent, sensitive, rather melancholy, but manly and courageous face,
with grave eyes, the mouth veiled by a long moustache. It was the kind of
countenance one would wish our young heroes to have. When, after the
catastrophe at Great Bethel, it became known that Winthrop had left
writings behind him, it would have been strange indeed had not every one
felt a desire to read them.

Moreover, he had already begun to be known as a writer. It was during
1860, I believe, that a story of his, in two instalments, entitled "Love
on Skates," appeared in the "Atlantic." It was a brilliant and graphic
celebration of the art of skating, engrafted on a love-tale as full of
romance and movement as could be desired. Admirably told it was, as I
recollect it; crisp with the healthy vigor of American wintry atmosphere,
with bright touches of humor, and, here and there, passages of sentiment,
half tender, half playful. It was something new in our literature, and
gave promise of valuable work to come. But the writer was not destined to
fulfil the promise. In the next year, from the camp of his regiment, he
wrote one or two admirable descriptive sketches, touching upon the
characteristic points of the campaigning life which had just begun; but,
before the last of these had become familiar to the "Atlantic's" readers,
it was known that it would be the last. Theodore Winthrop had been killed.

He was only in his thirty-third year. He was born in New Haven, and had
entered Yale College with the class of '48. The Delta Kappa Epsilon
Fraternity was, I believe, founded in the year of his admission, and he
must, therefore, have been among its earliest members. He was
distinguished as a scholar, and the traces of his classic and
philosophical acquirements are everywhere visible in his books. During the
five or six years following his graduation, he travelled abroad, and in
the South and West; a wild frontier life had great attractions for him, as
he who reads "John Brent" and "The Canoe and the Saddle" need not be told.
He tried his hand at various things, but could settle himself to no
profession,--an inability which would have excited no remark in England,
which has had time to recognize the value of men of leisure, as such; but
which seems to have perplexed some of his friends in this country. Be that
as it may, no one had reason to complain of lack of energy and promptness
on his part when patriotism revealed a path to Winthrop. He knew that the
time for him had come; but he had also known that the world is not yet so
large that all men, at all times, can lay their hands upon the work that
is suitable for them to do.

Let us, however, return to the novels. They appear to have been written
about 1856 and 1857, when their author was twenty-eight or nine years old.
Of the order in which they were composed I have no record; but, judging
from internal evidence, I should say that "Edwin Brothertoft" came first,
then "Cecil Dreeme," and then "John Brent." The style, and the quality of
thought, in the latter is more mature than in the others, and its tone is
more fresh and wholesome. In the order of publication, "Cecil Dreeme" was
first, and seems also to have been most widely read; then "John Brent,"
and then "Edwin Brothertoft," the scene of which was laid in the last
century. I remember seeing, at the house of James T. Fields, their
publisher, the manuscripts of these books, carefully bound and preserved.
They were written on large ruled letter-paper, and the handwriting was
very large, and had a considerable slope. There were scarcely any
corrections or erasures; but it is possible that Winthrop made clean
copies of his stories after composing them. Much of the dialogue,
especially, bears evidence of having been revised, and of the author's
having perhaps sacrificed ease and naturalness, here and there, to the
craving for conciseness which has been one of the chief stumbling-blocks
in the way of our young writers. He wished to avoid heaviness and
"padding," and went to the other extreme. He wanted to cut loose from the
old, stale traditions of composition, and to produce something which
should be new, not only in character and significance, but in manner of
presentation. He had the ambition of the young Hafiz, who professed a
longing to "tear down this tiresome old sky." But the old sky has good
reasons for being what and where it is, and young radicals finally come to
perceive that, regarded from the proper point of view, and in the right
spirit, it is not so tiresome after all. Divine Revelation itself can be
expressed in very moderate and commonplace language; and if one's thoughts
are worth thinking, they are worth clothing in adequate and serene attire.

But "culture," and literature with it, have made such surprising advances
of late, that we are apt to forget how really primitive and unenlightened
the generation was in which Winthrop wrote. Imagine a time when Mr. Henry
James, Jr., and Mr. W. D. Howells had not been heard of; when Bret Harte
was still hidden below the horizon of the far West; when no one suspected
that a poet named Aldrich would ever write a story called "Marjorie Daw";
when, in England, "Adam Bede" and his successors were unborn;--a time of
antiquity so remote, in short, that the mere possibility of a discussion
upon the relative merit of the ideal and the realistic methods of fiction
was undreamt of! What had an unfortunate novelist of those days to fall
back upon? Unless he wished to expatriate himself, and follow submissively
in the well worn steps of Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope, the only
models he could look to were Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Foe, James
Fenimore Cooper, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. "Elsie Venner" had scarcely made
its appearance at that date. Irving and Cooper were, on the other hand,
somewhat antiquated. Poe and Hawthorne were men of very peculiar genius,
and, however deep the impression they have produced on our literature,
they have never had, because they never can have, imitators. As for the
author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," she was a woman in the first place, and, in
the second place, she sufficiently filled the field she had selected. A
would-be novelist, therefore, possessed of ambition, and conscious of not
being his own father or grandfather, saw an untrodden space before him,
into which he must plunge without support and without guide. No wonder if,
at the outset, he was a trifle awkward and ill-at-ease, and, like a raw
recruit under fire, appeared affected from the very desire he felt to look
unconcerned. It is much to his credit that he essayed the venture at all;
and it is plain to be seen that, with each forward step he took, his self-
possession and simplicity increased. If time had been given him, there is
no reason to doubt that he might have been standing at the head of our
champions of fiction to-day.

But time was not given him, and his work, like all other work, if it is to
be judged at all, must be judged on its merits. He excelled most in
passages descriptive of action; and the more vigorous and momentous the
action, the better, invariably, was the description; he rose to the
occasion, and was not defeated by it. Partly for this reason, "Cecil
Dreeme," the most popular of his books, seems to me the least meritorious
of them all. The story has little movement; it stagnates round Chrysalis
College. The love intrigue is morbid and unwholesome, and the characters
(which are seldom Winthrop's strong point) are more than usually
artificial and unnatural. The _dramatis personae_ are, indeed, little more
than moral or immoral principles incarnate. There is no growth in them, no
human variableness or complexity; it is "Every Man in his Humor" over
again, with the humor left out. Densdeth is an impossible rascal; Churm, a
scarcely more possible Rhadamanthine saint. Cecil Dreeme herself never
fully recovers from the ambiguity forced upon her by her masculine attire;
and Emma Denman could never have been both what we are told she was, and
what she is described as being. As for Robert Byng, the supposed narrator
of the tale, his name seems to have been given him in order wantonly to
increase the confusion caused by the contradictory traits with which he is
accredited. The whole atmosphere of the story is unreal, fantastic,
obscure. An attempt is made to endow our poor, raw New York with something
of the stormy and ominous mystery of the immemorial cities of Europe. The
best feature of the book (morbidness aside) is the construction of the
plot, which shows ingenuity and an artistic perception of the value of
mystery and moral compensation. It recalls, in some respects, the design
of Hawthorne's "Blithedale Romance,"--that is, had the latter never been
written, the former would probably have been written differently. In spite
of its faults, it is an interesting book, and, to the critical eye, there
are in almost every chapter signs that indicate the possession of no
ordinary gifts on the author's part. But it may be doubted whether the
special circumstances under which it was published had not something to do
with its wide popularity. I imagine "John Brent" to have been really much
more popular, in the better sense; it was read and liked by a higher class
of readers. It is young ladies and school-girls who swell the numbers of
an "edition," and hence the difficulty in arguing from this as to the
literary merit of the book itself.

"Edwin Brothertoft," though somewhat disjointed in construction, and jerky
in style, is yet a picturesque and striking story; and the gallop of the
hero across country and through the night to rescue from the burning house
the woman who had been false to him, is vigorously described, and gives us
some foretaste of the thrill of suspense and excitement we feel in reading
the story of the famous "Gallop of three" in "John Brent." The writer's
acquaintance with the history of the period is adequate, and a romantic
and chivalrous tone is preserved throughout the volume. It is worth noting
that, in all three of Winthrop's novels, a horse bears a part in the
crisis of the tale. In "Cecil Dreeme" it is Churm's pair of trotters that
convey the party of rescuers to the private Insane Asylum in which
Densdeth had confined the heroine. In "Edwin Brothertoft," it is one of
Edwin's renowned breed of white horses that carries him through almost
insuperable obstacles to his goal. In "John Brent," the black stallion,
Don Fulano, who is throughout the chief figure in the book, reaches his
apogee in the tremendous race across the plains and down the rocky gorge
of the mountains, to where the abductors of the heroine are just about to
pitch their camp at the end of their day's journey. The motive is fine and
artistic, and, in each of the books, these incidents are as good as, or
better then, anything else in the narrative.

"John Brent" is, in fact, full enough of merit to more than redeem its
defects. The self-consciousness of the writer is less noticeable than in
the other works, and the effort to be epigrammatic, short, sharp, and
"telling" in style, is considerably modified. The interest is lively,
continuous, and cumulative; and there is just enough tragedy in the story
to make the happy ending all the happier. It was a novel and adventurous
idea to make a horse the hero of a tale, and the manner in which the idea
is carried out more than justifies the hazard. Winthrop, as we know, was
an ideal horseman, and knows what he is writing about. He contrives to
realize Don Fulano for us, in spite of the almost supernatural powers and
intelligence that he ascribes to the gallant animal. One is willing to
stretch a point of probability when such a dashing and inspiring end is in
view. In the present day we are getting a little tired of being brought to
account, at every turn, by Old Prob., who tyrannizes over literature quite
as much as over the weather. Theodore Winthrop's inspiration, in this
instance at least, was strong and genuine enough to enable him to feel
what he was telling as the truth, and therefore it produces an effect of
truth upon the reader. How distinctly every incident of that ride remains
stamped on the memory, even after so long an interval as has elapsed since
it was written! And I recollect that one of the youthful devourers of this
book, who was of an artistic turn, was moved to paint three little water-
color pictures of the Gallop; the first showing the three horses,--the
White, the Gray, and the Black, scouring across the prairie, towards the
barrier of mountains behind which the sun was setting; the second
depicting Don Fulano, with Dick Wade and John Brent on his back, plunging
down the gorge upon the abductors, one of whom had just pulled the trigger
of his rifle; while the third gives the scene in which the heroic horse
receives his death-wound in carrying the fugitive across the creek away
from his pursuers. At this distance of time, I am unable to bear any
testimony as to the technical value of the little pictures; I am inclined
to fancy that they would have to be taken _cum grano amoris_, as they
certainly were executed _con amore_. But, however that may be, the
instance (which was doubtless only one of many analogous to it) shows that
Winthrop possessed the faculty of stimulating and electrifying the
imagination of his readers, which all our recent improvements in the art
and artifice of composition have not made too common, and for which, if
for nothing else, we might well feel indebted to him.


Julian Hawthorne

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