The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 109/Reviews and Literary Notices
REVIEWS AND LITERARY NOTICES.
Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln. The Story of a Picture. By F. B. Carpenter. New York: Hurd and Houghton.
The grandeur which can survive proximity was peculiarly Abraham Lincoln's. Had that great and simple hero had a valet,—it is hard to conceive of him as so attended,—he must still have been a hero even to the eye grown severe in dusting clothes and brushing shoes. Indeed, first and last, he was subjected to very critical examination by the valet-spirit throughout the world; and he seems to have passed it triumphantly, for all our native valets, North and South, as well as those of the English press, have long since united in honoring him.
We see him in this book of Mr. Carpenter's to that advantage which perfect unaffectedness and sincerity can never lose. It is certainly a very pathetic figure, however, that the painter presents us, and not to be contemplated without sadness and that keen sense of personal loss which we all felt in the death of Abraham Lincoln. During the time that Mr. Carpenter was making studies for his picture of the President signing the Emancipation Proclamation, he was in daily contact with him,—saw him in consultation with his Cabinet, at play with his children, receiving office-seekers of all kinds, granting many favors to poor and friendless people, snubbing Secession insolence, and bearing patiently much impertinence from every source,—jesting, laughing, lamenting. It is singular that, in all these aspects of his character, there is no want of true dignity, though there is an utter absence of state,—and that we behold nothing of the man Lincoln was once doubted to be, but only a person of noble simplicity, cautious but steadfast, shrinking from none of the burdens that almost crushed him, profoundly true to his faith in the people, while surveying the awful calamity of the war with
"Anxious, pitying eyes,
As if he always listened to the sighs
Of the goaded world."
We have read Mr. Carpenter's book through with an interest chiefly due, we believe, to the subject; for though the author had the faculty to observe and to note characteristic and striking things, he has not the literary art to present them adequately. His style is compact of the manner of the local reporters and the Sunday-school books. If he depicts a pathetic scene, he presently farces it by adding that "there was not a dry eye among those that witnessed it," and goody-goody dwells in the spirit and letter of all his attempts to portray the religious character of the President. It is greatly to his credit, however, that his observation is employed with discretion and delicacy; and as he rarely lapses from good taste concerning things to be mentioned, we readily forgive him his want of grace in recounting the incidents which go to form his entertaining and valuable book.
Inside: a Chronicle of Secession. By George F. Harrington. New York: Harper and Brothers.
The author of this novel tells us that it was written in the heart of the rebellious territory during the late war, and that his wife habitually carried the manuscript to church with her in her pocket, while on one occasion he was obliged to bury it in the ground to preserve it from the insidious foe. These facts, in themselves startling, appear yet more extraordinary on perusal of the volume, in which there seems to be nothing of perilous value. Nevertheless, to the ill-regulated imagination of the Rebels, this novel might have appeared a very dangerous thing, to be kept from ever seeing the light in the North by all the means in their power; and we are not ready to say that Mr. Harrington's precautions, though unusual, were excessive. It is true that we see no reason why he should not have kept the material in his mind, and tranquilly written it out after the war was over.
Let us not, however, give too slight an idea of the book's value because the Preface is silly. The story is sluggish, it must be confessed, and does not in the least move us. But the author has made a very careful study of his subject, and shows so genuine a feeling for character and manner that we accept his work as a faithful picture of the life he attempts to portray. Should he write another fiction, he will probably form his style less visibly upon that of Thackeray, though it is something in his favor that he betrays admiration for so great a master even by palpable imitation; and we hope he will remember that a story, however slender, must be coherent. In the present novel, we think the characters of Colonel Juggins and his wife done with masterly touches; and General Lamum, politician pure and simple, is also excellent. Brother Barker, of the hard-shell type, is less original, though good; while Captain Simmons, Colonel Ret Roberts, and other village idlers and great men, seem admirably true to nature. Except for some absurd melodrama, the tone of the book is quiet and pleasant, and there is here and there in it a vein of real pathos and humor.
Royal Truths. By Henry Ward Beecher. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.
We imagine that most readers, in turning over the pages of this volume, will not be greatly struck by the novelty of the truths urged. Indeed, they are very old truths, and they contain the precepts which we all know and neglect. Except that the present preacher was qualified to illustrate them with original force and clearness, he might well have left them untouched. As it is, however, we think that every one who reads a page in the book will learn to honor the faculty that presents them. It is not because Mr. Beecher reproves hatred, false-witness, lust, envy, and covetousness, that he is so successful in his office. We all do this, and dislike sin in our neighbors; but it is his power of directly reproving these evils in each one of us that gives his words so great weight. He of course does this by varying means and with varying effect. Here we have detached passages from many different discourses,—not invariably selected with perfect judgment, but affording for this reason a better idea of his range and capacity. That given is not always of his best; but, for all this, it may have been the best for some of those who heard it. In the changing topics and style of the innumerable extracts in this volume, we find passages of pure sublimity, of solemn and pathetic eloquence, of flower-like grace and sweetness, followed by exhortations apparently modelled upon those of Mr. Chadband, but doubtless comforting and edifying to Mrs. Snagsby in the congregation, and not, we suppose, without use to Mrs. Snagsby in the parlor where she sits down to peruse the volume on Sunday afternoon. For according to the story which Mr. Beecher tells his publishers in a very pleasant prefatory letter, this compilation was made in England, where it attained great popularity among those who never heard the preacher, and who found satisfaction in the first-rate or the second-rate, without being moved by the arts of oratory. Indeed, the book is one that must everywhere be welcome, both for its manner and for its matter. The application of the "Truths" is generally enforced by a felicitous apologue or figure; in some cases the lesson is conveyed in a beautiful metaphor standing alone. The extracts are brief, and the point, never wanting, is moral, not doctrinal.
The Language of Flowers. Edited by Miss Ildrewe. Boston: De Vries, Ibarra, & Co.
Margaret Fuller said that everybody liked gossip, and the only difference was in the choice of a subject. A bookful of gossip about flowers—their loves and hates, thoughts and feelings, genealogy and cousinships—is certainly always attractive. Who does not like to hear that Samphire comes from Saint-Pierre, and Tansy from Athanasie, and that Jerusalem Artichokes are a kind of sunflower, whose baptismal name is a corruption of girasole, and simply describes the flower's love for the sun? Does this explain all the Jerusalems which are scattered through our popular flora,—as Jerusalem Beans and Jerusalem Cherries? The common theory has been that the sons of the Puritans, by a slight theological reaction, called everything which was not quite genuine on week-days by that name which sometimes wearied them on Sundays.
It is pleasant also to be reminded that our common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) dates back to Achilles, who used it to cure his wounded friend, and that Mint is simply Menthe, transformed to a plant by the jealous Proserpine. It is refreshing to know that Solomon's Seal was so named by reason of the marks on its root; and that this root, according to the old herbalists, "stamped while it is fresh and greene, and applied, taketh away in one night, or two at the most, any bruse, black or blew spots gotten by falls, or woman's wilfulness in stumbling upon their hasty husband's fists, or such like." It was surely a generous thing in Solomon, who set his seal of approbation upon the rod, to furnish in that same signet a balm for injuries like these.
This pretty gift-book is the first really American contribution to the language of flowers. It has many graceful and some showy illustrations; its floral emblems are not all exotic; and though the editor's appellation may at first seem so, a simple application of the laws of anagram will reveal a name quite familiar, in America, to all lovers of things horticultural.
The American Annual Cyclopædia and Register of Important Events of the Year 1865. New York: D. Appleton & Co.
Several articles in this volume give it an unusual interest and value. The paper on Cholera is not the kind of reading to which one could have turned with cheerfulness last July, from a repast of summer vegetables and hurried fruits; nor can that on Trichinosis be pleasant to the friend of pork; but they are both clearly and succinctly written, and will contribute to the popular understanding of the dangers which they discuss.
The Cyclopædia, however, has its chief merit in those articles which present resumés of the past year's events in politics, literature, science, and art. The one on the last-named subject is less complete than could be wished, and is written in rather slovenly English; but the article on literature is very full and satisfactory. A great mass of biographical matter is presented under the title of "Obituaries," but more extended notices of more distinguished persons are given under the proper names. Among the latter are accounts of the lives and public services of Lincoln, Everett, Palmerston, Cobden, and Corwin; and of the lives and literary works of Miss Bremer, Mrs. Gaskell, Hildreth, Proudhon, etc. The article on Corwin is too slight for the subject, and the notice of Hildreth, who enjoyed a great repute both in this country and in Europe, is scant and inadequate. Under the title of "Army Operations," a fair synopsis of the history of the last months of the war is given; and, as a whole, the Cyclopædia is a valuable, if not altogether complete, review of the events of 1865.
History of the Atlantic Telegraph. By Henry M. Field, D. D. New York: Charles Scribner & Co.
Why Columbus should have been at the trouble to sail from the Old World in order to find a nearer path to it, as our author states in his opening chapter, he will probably explain in the future edition in which he will chastise the occasionally ambitious writing of this. His book is a most interesting narrative of all the events in the history of telegraphic communication between Europe and America, and has the double claim upon the reader of an important theme and an attractive treatment of it. Now that the great nervous cord running from one centre of the world's life to the other is quick with constant sensation, the wonder of its existence may fade from our minds; and it is well for us to remember how many failures—involving all the virtue of triumph—went before the final success. And it cannot but be forever gratifying to our national pride, that, although the idea of the Atlantic telegraph originated in Newfoundland, and was mainly realized through the patience of British enterprise, yet the first substantial encouragement which it received was from Americans, and that it was an American whose heroic perseverance so united his name with this idea that Cyrus W. Field and the Atlantic cable are not to be dissociated in men's minds in this or any time.
Our author has not only very interestingly reminded us of all this, but he has done it with a good judgment which we must applaud. His brother was the master-spirit of the whole enterprise; but, while he has contrived to do him perfect justice, he has accomplished the end with an unfailing sense of the worth of the constant support and encouragement given by others.
The story is one gratifying to our national love of adventurous material and scientific enterprise, as well as to our national pride. We hardly know, however, if it should be a matter of regret that neither on the one account nor on the other are we able to receive the facts of the cable's success and existence with the effusion with which we hailed them in 1858. Blighting De Sauty, suspense, and scepticism succeeded the rapture and pyrotechnics of those joyful days; and in the mean time we have grown so much that to be electrically united with England does not impart to us the fine thrill that the hope of it once did. Indeed, the jubilation over the cable's success seems at last to have been chiefly on the side of the Englishmen, who found our earlier enthusiasm rather absurd, but who have since learned to value us, and just now can scarcely make us compliments enough.