Chapters From a Life


Chapters from a Life was published in McClure's Magazine, December, 1895.

Has it not been said that once in a lifetime most of us succumb to the particular situation against which we have cultivated the strongest principles? If there be one such, among the possibilities to which a truly civilized career is liable, more than another objectionable to the writer of these words, the creation of autobiography has long been that one.

Yet, for that offence, once criminal to my taste, I find myself hereby about to become indictable; and do set my hand and seal, on this day of the recall of my dearest literary oath, in this year of eminent autobiographical examples, one thousand eight hundred and ninety-five.

"There is ——, who has written a charming series of personal reminiscences, and —— ——, and ——.

"You might meet your natural shrinking by allowing yourself to treat especially of your literary life; including, of course, whatever went to form and sustain it."

"I suppose I might," I sigh. The answer is faint; but the deed is decreed. Shall I be sorry for it?

It is a gray day, on gray Cape Ann, as I write these words. The fog is breathing over the downs. The outside steamers shriek from off the Point, as they feel their way at live of noon, groping as though it were dead of night, and stars and coast-lights all were smitten dark, and every pilot were a stranger to his chart.

A stranger to my chart, I, doubtful, put about, and make the untried coast.

At such a moment, one thinks wistfully of that fair, misty world which is all one's own, yet on the outside of which one stands so humbly, and so gently. One thinks of the unseen faces, of the unknown friends who have read one's tales of other people's lives, and cared to read, and told one so, and made one believe in their kindness, and affection and fidelity for thirty years. And the hesitating heart calls out to them: Will you let me be sorry? Thirty years! It is a good while that you and I have kept step together. Shall we miss it now? If you will care to hear such chapters as may select themselves from the story of the story-teller,—you have the oldest right to choose, and I, the happy will to please you if I can.

The lives of the makers of books are very much like other people's in most respects, but especially in this: that they are either rebels to, or subjects of, their ancestry. The lives of some literary persons begin a good while after they are born. Others begin a good while before.

Of this latter kind is mine.

It has sometimes occurred to me to find myself the possessor of a sort of unholy envy of writers concerning whom our stout American phrase says that they have "made themselves." What delight to be aware that one has not only created one's work, but the worker! What elation in the remembrance of the battle against a commercial, or a scientific, or a worldly and superficial heredity; in the recollection of the tug with habit and education, and the overthrow of impulses setting in other directions than the chosen movement of one's own soul!

What pleasure in the proud knowledge that all one's success is one's own doing, and the sum of it cast up to one's credit upon the long ledger of life! To this exhilarating self-content I can lay no claim. For whatever measure of what is called success has fallen to my lot, I can ask no credit. I find myself in the chastened position of one whose literary abilities all belong to one's ancestors.

It is humbling—I do not deny that it may be morally invigorating—to feel that whatever is "worth mentioning" in my life is no affair of mine, but falls under the beautiful and terrible law by which the dead men and women whose blood bounds in our being control our destinies.

Yet, with the notable exception of my father, I have less than the usual store of personal acquaintance with the "people who most influenced me." Of my grandfather, Moses Stuart, I have but two recollections; and these, taken together, may not be quite devoid of interest, as showing how the law of selection works in the mind of an imaginative child.

I remember seeing the Professor of Sacred Literature come into his dining-room one morning in his old house on Andover Hill which was built for him, and marked the creation of his department in the early days of the seminary history. He looked very tall and imposing. He had a mug in his hand, and his face smiled like the silver of which it was made.

The mug was full of milk, and he handed it ceremoniously to the year-old baby, his namesake and grandson, my first brother, whose high-chair stood at the table.

Then, I remember—it must have been a little more than a year after that—seeing the professor in his coffin in the front hall; that he looked taller than he did before, but still imposing; that he had his best coat on—the one, I think, in which he preached; and that he was the first dead person I had ever seen.

Whenever the gray-headed men who knew him used to sit about, relating anecdotes of him—as, how many commentaries he published, or how he introduced the first German lexicon into this country (as if a girl in short dresses would be absorbingly interested in her grandfather's dictionaries!)—I saw the silver mug and the coffin.

Gradually the German lexicon in a hazy condition got melted in between them. Sometimes the baby's mug sat upon the dictionary. Sometimes the dictionary lay upon the coffin. Sometimes the baby spilled the milk out of the mug upon the dictionary. But for my personal uses, the Andover grandfather's memoirs began and ended with the mug and the coffin.

The other grandfather was not distinguished as a scholar; he was but an orthodox minister of ability and originality, and with a vivacious personal history. Of him I knew something. From his own lips came thrilling stories of his connection with the underground railway of slavery days; how he sent the sharpest carving-knife in the house, concealed in a basket of food, to a hidden fugitive slave who had vowed never to be taken alive, and whose master had come North in search of him. It was a fine thing, that throbbing humanity, which could in those days burst the reformer out of the evangelical husk, and I learned my lesson from it. ("Where did she get it?" conservative friends used to wail, whenever I was seen to have tumbled into the last new and unfashionable reform.)

From his own lips, too, I heard the accounts of that extraordinary case of house-possession of which (like Wesley) this innocent and unimaginative country minister, who had no more faith in "spooks" than he had in Universalists, was made the astonished victim.

Night upon night I have crept gasping to bed, and shivered for hours with my head under the clothes, after an evening spent in listening to this authentic and fantastic family tale. How the candlesticks walked out into the air from the mantelpiece, and back again; how the chairs of skeptical visitors collected from all parts of the country to study what one had hardly then begun to call the "phenomena" at the parsonage at Stratford, Connecticut, hopped after the guests when they crossed the room; how the dishes at the table leaped, and the silver forks were bent by unseen hands, and cold turnips dropped from the solid ceiling; and ghastly images were found, composed of underclothing proved to have been locked at the time in drawers of which the only key lay all the while in Dr. Phelps's pocket; and how the mysterious agencies, purporting by alphabetical raps upon bed-head or on table to be in torments of the nether world, being asked what their host could do to relieve them, demanded a piece of squash pie.

From the old man's own calm hands, within a year or two of his death, I received the legacy of the written journal of these phenomena, as recorded by the victim from day to day, during the seven months that this mysterious misfortune dwelt within his house.

It may be prudent to say, just here, that it will be quite useless to make any further inquiries of me upon the subject, or to ask of me—a request which has been repeated till I am fain to put an end to it—for either loan or copy of these records for the benefit of either personal or scientific curiosity. Both loaning and copying are now impossible, and have been made so by family wishes which will be sacredly respected. The phenomena themselves have long been too widely known to be ignored, and I have no hesitation in making reference to them.

[pg 51] ELIZABETH STUART PHELPS, HER MOTHER, AND HER INFANT BROTHER. AFTERWARDS PROFESSOR M. STUART PHELPS. ELIZABETH STUART PHELPS, HER MOTHER, AND HER INFANT BROTHER. AFTERWARDS PROFESSOR M. STUART PHELPS. Perhaps it is partly on account of the traditions respecting this bit of family history that I am so often asked if I am a spiritualist. I am sometimes tempted to reply in grammar comprehensible to the writers of certain letters which I receive upon the subject:

"No; nor none of our folks!"

How the Connecticut parson on whom this mysterious infliction fell ever came out of it not a spiritualist, who can tell? That the phenomena were facts, and facts explicable by no known natural law, he was forced, like others in similar positions, to believe and admit. That he should study the subject of spiritualism carefully from then until the end of his life, was inevitable.

But, as nearly as I can make it out, on the whole, he liked his Bible better.

Things like these did not happen on Andover Hill; and my talks with this very interesting grandfather gave me my first vivid sensation of the possibilities of life.

With what thrills of hope and fear I listened for thumps on the head of my bed, or watched anxiously to see my candlestick walk out into the air!

But not a thump! Not a rap! Never a snap of the weakest proportions (not explicable by natural laws) has, from that day to this, visited my personal career. Not a candlestick ever walked an inch for me. I have never been able to induce a chair to hop after me. No turnip has consented to drop from the ceiling for me. Planchette, in her day, wrote hundreds of lines for me, but never one that was of the slightest possible significance to me, or to the universe at large. Never did a medium tell me anything that ever came to pass; though one of them once made a whole winter miserable by prophesying a death which did not occur.

Being destitute of objections to belief in the usefulness of spiritualistic mystery,—in fact, by temperament, perhaps inclining to hope that such phenomena may be tamed and yoked, and made to work for human happiness,—yet there seems to be something about me which these agencies do not find congenial. Though I have gone longing for a sign, no sign has been given me. Though I have been always ready to believe all other people's mysteries, no inexplicable facts have honored my experience.

The only personal prophecy ever strictly fulfilled in my life was—I am not certain whether I ought to feel embarrassed in [pg 52] alluding to it—made by a gipsy fortune-teller. She was young and pretty, the seventh child of a seventh child, and she lived in a Massachusetts shoe-town by the name of Lynn. And what was it? Oh, but you must excuse me.

The grandfather to whom these marvels happened was not, as I say, a literary man; yet even he did write a little book—a religious tale, or tract, after the manner of his day and profession; and it took to itself a circulation of two hundred thousand copies. I remember how Mr. James T. Fields laughed when he heard of it—that merry laugh peculiar to himself.

"You can't help it," the publisher said; "you come of a family of large circulations."

One day I was at school with my brother,—a little, private school, down by what were called the English dormitories in Andover.

I was eight years old. Some one came in and whispered to the teacher. Her face turned very grave, and she came up to us quietly, and called us out into the entry, and gently put on our things.

"You are to go home," she said; "your mother is dead." I took my little brother's hand without a word, and we trudged off. I do not think we spoke—I am sure we did not cry—on the way home. I remember perfectly that we were very gayly dressed. Our mother liked bright, almost barbaric colors on children. The little boy's coat was of red broadcloth, and my cape of a canary yellow, dyed at home in white-oak dye. The two colors flared before my eyes as we shuffled along and crushed the crisp, dead leaves that were tossing in the autumn wind all over Andover Hill.

When we got home they told us it was a mistake; she was not dead; and we were sent back to school. But, in a few weeks after that, one day we were told we need not go to school at all; the red and yellow coats came off, and little black ones took their places. The new baby, in his haggard father's arms, was baptized at his mother's funeral; and we looked on, and wondered what it all meant, and what became of children whose mother was obliged to go to heaven when she seemed so necessary in Andover.

At eight years of age a child cannot be expected to know her mother intimately, and it is hard for me always to distinguish between the effect produced upon me by her literary success as I have since understood it, and that left by her own truly extraordinary personality upon the annals of the nursery.

My mother, whose name I am proud to wear, was the eldest daughter of Professor Stuart, and inherited his intellectuality. At the time of her death she was at the first blossom of her very positive and widely-promising success as a writer of the simple home stories which took such a hold upon the popular heart. Her "Sunnyside" had already reached a circulation of one hundred thousand copies, and she was following it fast—too fast—by other books for which the critics and the publishers clamored. Her last book and her last baby came together, and killed her. She lived one of those rich and piteous lives such as only gifted women know; torn by the civil war of the dual nature which can be given to women only. It was as natural for her daughter to write as to breathe; but it was impossible for her daughter to forget that a woman of intellectual power could be the most successful of mothers.

From an early photograph. "Everybody's mother is a remarkable woman," my father used to say when he read overdrawn memoirs indited by devout children; and yet I have sometimes felt as if even the generation that knows her not would feel a certain degree of interest in the tact and power by which this unusual woman achieved the difficult reconciliation between genius and domestic life.

In our times and to our women such a problem is practical, indeed. One need not possess genius to understand it now. A career is enough.

The author of "Sunnyside," "The Angel on the Right Shoulder," and "Peep at Number Five," lived before women had careers and public sympathy in them. Her nature was drawn against the grain of her times and of her circumstances; and where our feet find easy walking, hers were hedged. A child's memories go for something by way of tribute to the achievement of one of those rare women of the elder time whose gifts forced her out, but whose heart held her in.

I can remember no time when I did not understand that my mother must write books because people would have and read them; but I [pg 54] cannot remember one hour in which her children needed her and did not find her.

My first distinct vision of this kind of a mother gives her by the nursery lamp, reading to us her own stories, written for ourselves, never meant to go beyond that little public of two, and illustrated in colored crayons by her own pencil. For her gift in this direction was of an original quality, and had she not been a writer she must have achieved something as an artist.

Perhaps it was to keep the standards up, and a little girl's filial adoration down, that these readings ended with some classic—Wordsworth, I remember most often—"We are Seven," or "Lucy Gray."

It is certain that I very early had the conviction that a mother was a being of power and importance to the world; but that the world had no business with her when we wanted her. In a word, she was a strong and lovely symmetry—a woman whose heart had not enfeebled her head, but whose head could never freeze her heart.

I hardly know which of those charming ways in which I learned to spell the word motherhood impressed me most. All seemed to go on together side by side and step by step. Now she sits correcting proof-sheets, and now she is painting apostles for the baby's first Bible lesson. Now she is writing her new book, and now she is dyeing things canary-yellow in the white-oak dye—for the professor's salary is small, and a crushing economy was in those days one of the conditions of faculty life on Andover Hill. Now—for her practical ingenuity was unlimited—she is whittling little wooden feet to stretch the children's stockings on, to save them from shrinking; and now she is reading to us from the old, red copy of Hazlitt's "British Poets," by the register, upon a winter night. Now she is a popular writer, incredulous of her first success, with her future flashing before her; and now she is a tired, tender mother, crooning to a sick child, while the MS. lies unprinted on the table, and the publishers are wishing their professor's wife were a free woman, childless and solitary, able to send copy as fast as it is wanted. The struggle killed her, but she fought till she fell.

In these different days, when,

"Pealing, the clock of time

Has struck the Woman's Hour,"

I have sometimes been glad, as my time came to face the long question which life puts to-day to all women who think and feel, and who care for other women and are loyal to them, that I had those early visions of my own to look upon.

When I was learning why the sun rose and the moon set, how the flowers grew and the rain fell, that God and heaven and art and letters existed, that it was intelligent to say one's prayers, and that well-bred children never told a lie, I learned that a mother can be strong and still be sweet, and sweet although she is strong; and that she whom the world and her children both have need of, is of more value to each, for this very reason.

I said it was impossible to be her daughter and not to write. Rather, I should say, impossible to be their daughter and not to have something to say, and a pen to say it.

The comparatively recent close of my father's life has not left him yet forgotten, and it can hardly be necessary for me to do more than to refer to the name of Austin Phelps to recall to that part of our public which knew and loved him the quality of his work.

"The Still Hour" is yet read, and there are enough who remember how widely this book has been known and loved, and how marked was the literary gift in all the professor's work.

It has fallen to me otherwise to say so much of my peculiar indebtedness to my father, that I shall forbid myself, and spare my [pg 56] reader, too much repetition of a loving credit which it would not be possible altogether to omit from this chapter.

He who becomes father and mother in one to motherless children, bears a burden which men shirk or stagger under; and there was not a shirking cell in his brain or heart.

As I have elsewhere said: "There was hardly a chapter in my life of which he was not in some sense, whether revealed or concealed, the hero."

"If I am asked to sum in a few words the vivid points of his influence, I find it as hard to give definite form to my indebtedness to the Christian scholar whose daughter it is my honor to be, as to specify the particulars in which one responds to sunshine or oxygen. He was my climate. As soon as I began to think, I began to reverence thought and study and the hard work of a man devoted to the high ends of a scholar's life. His department was that of rhetoric, and his appreciation of the uses and graces of language very early descended like a mantle upon me. I learned to read and to love reading, not because I was made to, but because I could not help it. It was the atmosphere I breathed."

"Day after day the watchful girl observed the life of a student—its scholarly tastes, its high ideals, its scorn of worldliness and paltry aims or petty indulgences, and forever its magnificent habits of work."

"At sixteen, I remember, there came to me a distinct arousing or awakening to the intellectual life. As I look back, I see it in a flash-light. Most of the important phases or crises of our lives can be traced to some one influence or event, and this one I connect directly with the reading to me by my father of the writings of De Quincey and the poems of Wordsworth. Every one who has ever heard him preach or lecture remembers the rare quality of Professor Phelps's voice. As a pulpit orator he was one of the few, and to hear him read in his own study was an absorbing experience. To this day I cannot put myself outside of certain pages of the laureate or the essayist. I do not read; I listen. The great lines beginning:

"'Thanks to the human heart by which we live,

Thanks to its tenderness, its joys and fears;'

the great passage which opens: 'Then like a chorus the passion deepened,' and which rises to the aching cry: 'Everlasting farewells!... Everlasting farewells!' ring in my ears as they left his lips."

For my first effort to sail the sea of letters, it occurs to me that I ought to say that my father's literary reputation cannot be held responsible.

I had reached (to take a step backwards in the story) the mature age of thirteen. I was a little girl in low-necked gingham dresses, I know, because I remember I had on one (of a purple shade, and incredibly unbecoming to a half-grown, brunette girl) one evening when my first gentleman caller came to see me.

I felt that the fact that he was my Sunday-school teacher detracted from the importance of the occasion, but did not extinguish it.

It was perhaps half-past eight, and, obediently to law and gospel, I had gone upstairs.

The actual troubles of life have never dulled my sense of mortification at overhearing from my little room at the head of the stairs, where I was struggling to get into that gingham gown and present a tardy appearance, a voice distinctly excusing me on the ground that it was past her usual bedtime, and she had gone to bed.

Whether the anguish of that occasion so far aged me that it had anything to do with my first literary undertaking, I cannot say; but I am sure about the low-necked gingham dress, and that it was during this particular year that I determined to become an individual and contribute to the "Youth's Companion."

I did so. My contribution was accepted and paid for by the appearance in my father's post-office box of the paper for a year; and my impression is that I wore high-necked dresses pretty soon thereafter, and was allowed to sit up till nine o'clock. At any rate, these memorable events are distinctly intertwined in my mind.

This was in the days when even the "Companion," that oldest and most delightful of children's journals, printed things like these:

"Why Julia B. loved the Country.

"Julia B. loved the country because whenever she walked out she could see God in the face of Nature."

I really think that the semi-column which I sent to that distinguished paper was a tone or two above this. But I can remember nothing about it, except that there was a sister who neglected her little brothers, and hence defeated the first object of existence in a woman-child. It was very proper, and very pious, and very much like what well-brought-up little girls were taught to [pg 57] do, to be, to suffer, or to write in those days. I have often intended to ask Mr. Ford if the staff discovered any signs of literary promise in that funny little performance.

At all events, my literary ambitions, with this solitary exercise, came to a sudden suspension. I have no recollection of having written or of having wanted to write anything more for a long time.

I was not in the least a precocious young person, and very much of a tomboy into the bargain. I think I was far more likely to have been found on the top of an apple-tree or walking the length of the seminary fence than writing rhymes or reading "solid reading." I know that I was once told by a queer old man in the street that little girls should not walk fences, and that I stood still and looked at him, transfixed with contempt. I do not think I vouchsafed him any answer at all. But this must have been while I was still in the little gingham gowns.

Perhaps this is the place, if anywhere, to mention the next experiment at helping along the literature of my native land of which I have any recollection. There was another little contribution—a pious little contribution, like the first. Where it was written, or what it was about, or where it was printed, it is impossible to remember; but I know that it appeared in some extremely orthodox young people's periodical—I think, one with a missionary predilection. The point of interest I find to have been that I was paid for it.

With the exception of some private capital amassed by abstaining from butter (a method of creating a fortune of whose wisdom, I must say, I had the same doubts then that I have now), this was the first money I had ever earned. The sum was two dollars and a half. It became my immediate purpose not to squander this wealth. I had no spending money in particular that I recall. Three cents a week was, I believe, for years the limit of my personal income, and I am compelled to own that this sum was not expended at book-stalls, or for the benefit of the heathen who appealed to the generosity of professors' daughters through the treasurer of the chapel Sunday-school; but went solidly for cream cakes and apple turnovers alternately, one each week.

Two dollars and a half represented to me a standard of munificent possession which it would be difficult to make most girls in their first teens, and socially situated today as I was then, understand. To waste this fortune in riotous living was impossible. From the hour that I received that check for "two-fifty," cream cakes began to wear a juvenile air, and turnovers seemed unworthy of my position in life. I remember [pg 58] begging to be allowed to invest the sum "in pictures," and that my father, gently diverting my selection from a frowsy and popular "Hope" at whose memory I shudder even yet, induced me to find that I preferred some excellent photographs of Thorwaldsen's "Night" and "Morning," which he framed for me, and which hang in our rooms to-day.

It is impossible to forget the sense of dignity which marks the hour when one becomes a wage-earner. The humorous side of it is the least of it—or was in my case. I felt that I had suddenly acquired value—to myself, to my family, and to the world.

Probably all people who write "for a living" would agree with me in recalling the first check as the largest and most luxurious of life.

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