CHAPTER XXII. JAMES T. FIELDS.
The old "corner book-store" at the intersection of Washington and School Streets, in the city of Boston, is one of the most notable places in the New England metropolis. The memory of the oldest inhabitant can not recall a time when this corner was not devoted to its present uses; and around it, in the long years that have passed since the first book merchant first displayed his wares here, there have gathered a host of the most interesting, as well as the most brilliant, souvenirs of our literary history. Here were sold, in "the days that tried men's souls," those stirring pamphlets that sounded the death-knell of British tyranny in the New World; and it was from this old corner that the tender songs of Longfellow, the weird conceptions of Hawthorne, the philosophic utterances of Emerson, first found their way to the hearts of the people.
In 1884, the corner book-store was kept by Carter & Bendee, and was then the leading book-house in Boston. One morning in that year there entered the office of the proprietors a young lad from New Hampshire, who stated that he came to seek employment in their service. His bright, intelligent appearance was in his favor, scarcely less than the testimonials which he brought, vouching for his integrity and industry. His application was successful, and he entered the service of Messrs. Carter & Bendee, being given the lowest clerkship in the establishment and a salary barely sufficient to support him.
This lad was James T. Fields. He was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on the 30th of December, 1820. His father was a captain in the merchant service, and died when the boy was only four years old, leaving him to the care and guidance of one of the best of mothers. He was educated at the common schools of the city, and was thence transferred to the high school. He exhibited a remarkable fondness for study, and at the early age of thirteen graduated at the high school, taking the first honors of his class. He was regarded as one of the best classical scholars in the institution, and during his course took several prizes in Latin and Greek composition. Unusual abilities as a poet were also manifested very early, and when but twelve years old he wrote a poem in blank verse, which attracted the attention of the late Chief Justice Woodbury, then Governor of New Hampshire, who was so much surprised and gratified to find such talent in so young a boy, that he earnestly advised him to endeavor to complete his studies at Harvard University. This, indeed, was the chief desire of the boy, but a collegiate education required means which he could not command, and he was forced to go out into the world to seek his fortune. Having secured a good elementary education, however, he was resolved that he would not abandon his efforts to acquire knowledge. All his leisure time, after going to Boston to live, was devoted to reading and study. While neglecting no duty in his business, he gave the hours which most boys devote to amusement to severe mental labor. Young as he was, he was ambitious.
He knew that knowledge was power, especially in the community in which he lived, and he was resolved that this power should be his. The result is plainly seen in his subsequent career. Although deprived of the advantages of a collegiate course, Mr. Fields has more than made up that deficiency by his faithful labors, and there are few men in New England to-day possessed of more varied and extensive mental accomplishments than he. Upon going to Boston he promptly identified himself with the Mercantile Library Association of that place, availing himself of its advantages, and exerting all the influence of which he was possessed to insure its success. When but eighteen years old, he was chosen to deliver an anniversary poem before the association. The value of the compliment will be better appreciated by the reader when it is stated that the oration upon that occasion was pronounced by Edward Everett. His industry in his business duties was great. He entered the house of Carter & Bendee with the determination to rise in it. He worked faithfully, and was the first at his post in the morning, and the last to leave it at night. When the style of the firm was changed to Allen & Ticknor, he was promoted to a more important place. He proved himself from the first one of the most valuable and trustworthy assistants in the house, and his merits were promptly recognized. From the lowest place in the house, he worked his way up steadily until he became the manager of the establishment. Each promotion brought with it an increase of salary. Knowing well that "a penny saved at present is a pound gained in future" to a young man striving to rise in the world, he practiced the most conscientious economy. He made himself thoroughly acquainted with every detail of the publishing trade; and although, of late years, he has had the supervision more especially of the literary department of his large business, there are few publishers in this country more intimate with the business and mechanical branches of their trade.
In 1846, just twelve years after his entrance into the house, his clerkship came to an end, and he became a partner in the establishment, the style of the firm being Ticknor & Fields. He took an active share in the business; and while full credit must be given to Mr. Ticknor for the extraordinary success which the firm enjoyed, it can not be denied that Mr. Fields' share in this work was very great, and fully equal to that of his partner. His acknowledged literary abilities won him friends among the most gifted writers of the country, and these naturally sought his assistance in presenting their works to the world. Their friendship induced an intelligent confidence in his literary taste and mercantile integrity, and it was a decided gain for them to secure one so generally esteemed and trusted as their publisher. Young writers, still struggling for fame, felt that in submitting their works to his inspection they would receive the patient examination of not only a conscientious reader, but of one whose own literary abilities rendered him unusually competent for the task. The public generally learned to share this confidence in his literary judgment. And so it came to pass that the imprint of Ticknor & Fields was universally accepted as a sufficient guarantee of the excellence of any book, and rarely failed to insure its success. Naturally, the house was proud of this confidence, and it is pleasant to record that they have never abused it. There is, perhaps, no other publishing firm in the Union whose catalogue is so free from objectionable or worthless publications as that issued by this house.
Gradually Messrs. Ticknor & Fields became the recognized publishers of a large number of the leading writers of this country and of Great Britain. In their catalogue we find the names of Longfellow, Bryant, Whittier, Holmes, Aldrich, Agassiz, Beecher, Alice Gary, Cummins, Dana, Emerson, Hawthorne, Gail Hamilton, Lowell, Parton, Saxe, Sprague, Stowe, Bayard Taylor, Thoreau, and Tuckerman, in American literature; and in English literature, the names of Browning, Dickens, George Eliot, Mrs. Jameson, Kingsley, Owen Meredith, Charles Reade, and Tennyson. With their English authors they maintain the pleasantest relations, recognizing their moral right to their works, and paying them a fair royalty upon the sales of their books. Of their relations with their American authors, a popular periodical says:
"There are no business men more honorable or generous than the publishers of the United States, and especially honorable and considerate toward authors. The relation usually existing between author and publisher in the United States is that of a warm and lasting friendship, such as now animates and dignifies the intercourse between the literary men of New England and Messrs. Ticknor & Fields.... The relation, too, is one of a singular mutual trustfulness. The author receives his semi-annual account from the publisher with as ablute a faith in its correctness as though he had himself counted the volumes sold."
In 1865, the firm removed from the old corner stand to a new and elegant establishment on Tremont Street, near the Common, and in the same year Mr. Howard Ticknor, who had succeeded his father in the business, withdrew from it. New partners were admitted, and the style of the firm became Fields, Osgood & Co., Mr. Fields still remaining at the head of the house.
The new book store is one of the handsomest and most attractive in the country. The store proper is eighty feet deep by fifty feet wide, and is fitted up handsomely in hard wood.
There is no paint about it, every piece of wood in use presenting its natural appearance. On the right in entering are the book shelves and counters, and on the opposite side the desks devoted to the magazine department. At the rear are the counting rooms and the private office of Mr. J.R. Osgood, the active business man of the concern. The second story is elegantly and tastefully fitted up. It contains the luxurious private office of Mr. Fields, in which are to be seen excellent likenesses of his two dearest friends, Longfellow and Dickens; and the parlor of the establishment, which is known as the Author's Room. This is a spacious and handsomely-appointed room, whose windows, overlooking the Common, command one of the prettiest views in New England. It is supplied with the leading periodicals of the day, and choice volumes of current literature. Here one may always find one or more of the "gifted few," whose names are familiar to the reader; and frequent reunions of the book-making fraternity are designed to be held here, under the genial auspices of the literary partner of the house.
It is not often that men win success in both literature and mercantile life. Good authors have usually made very poor business managers, and vice versa; but the subject of this memoir, besides winning a great success as a merchant, and that in one of the most hazardous branches of mercantile life, has also won an enviable reputation as a man of letters. His poems have made him well known, both in this country and in England. Besides the poems recited before various literary associations, he has published two volumes of fugitive pieces. The first appeared in 1843, while he was still a clerk, and the second in 1858. His poems abound in humor, pathos, and a delicate, beautiful fancy. One of his friends has said of him:
"Little of the sad travail of the historic poet has Mr. Fields known. Of the emaciated face, the seedy garment, the collapsed purse, the dog-eared and often rejected manuscript, he has never known, save from well-authenticated tradition. His muse was born in sunshine, and has only been sprinkled with the tears of affection. Every effort has been cheered to the echo, and it is impossible for so genial a fellow to fail of an ample and approving audience for whatever may fall from his lip or pen."
The following lines, from his second volume, will serve as a specimen of the "homely beauty" of Mr. Fields' muse, though it hardly sets forth all his powers:
She came among the gathering crowd
A maiden fair, without pretense,
And when they asked her humble name,
She whispered mildly, "Common Sense."
Her modest garb drew every eye,
Her ample cloak, her shoes of leather;
And when they sneered, she simply said,
"I dress according to the weather."
They argued long and reasoned loud,
In dubious Hindoo phrase mysterious;
While she, poor child, could not pine
Why girls so young should be so serious.
They knew the length of Plato's beard,
And how the scholars wrote in Laturn;
She studied authors not so deep,
And took the Bible for her pattern.
And so she said, "Excuse me, friends,
I feel all have their proper places,
And Common Sense should stay at home
With cheerful hearts and smiling faces."
Mr. Fields has been a frequent contributor to his own periodicals, his latest effort being a paper devoted to personal recollections of Charles Dickens, which was published in the "Atlantic Monthly" soon after the death of the great master.
He has made several extended tours throughout Europe, where he has enjoyed social advantages rarely opened to travelers. One of his friends says that, in his first visit to the Old World, "he passed several months in England, Scotland, France, and Germany, visiting the principal places of interest, and forming most delightful and profitable intimacies with the most distinguished literateurs of the day. He was a frequent guest at the well-known breakfasts of the great banker-poet of 'The Pleasures of Memory' and of 'Italy,' and listened or added his own contributions to the exuberant riches of the hour, when such visitors as Talfourd, Dickens, Moore, and Landor were the talkers." He also formed a warm friendship with Wordsworth, and, during his stay in Edinburgh, with Professor Wilson and De Quincey. The writings of the last-named author were published by Ticknor and Fields, in eighteen volumes, and were edited by Mr. Fields, at the author's own request.
Mr. Fields is now in his fiftieth year, but shows no sign of age, save the whitening of his heavy, curling beard. He is still young and active in mind and body. He is of medium height, and well proportioned, with an erect carriage. Polished and courteous in manner, he is easily accessible to all. To young writers he is especially kind, and it is a matter of the truest pleasure to him to seek out and bring to notice genuine literary merit. He has a host of friends, and is widely popular with all classes.