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The Life of George Ticknor by T. S. Perry

It is a long time since a more interesting biography has been published than this of Mr. Ticknor. No American book of the same kind can be compared with it, and very few have appeared in England that give the reader as varied glimpses of society and as many details in regard to interesting people as may be found in these two entertaining volumes. Its fullness in this respect is what makes the charm of the book. Mr. Ticknor's life was a long one: from his youth he saw a great deal of the best society both of this country and of Europe, and he always had the custom of recording the impressions made upon him by the people he met. Hence this Life, which is for the most part made up of extracts from his letters and journals, is almost an autobiography, but an autobiography, one might almost say, without a hero, in which the writer keeps himself in the background and gives his main attention to other people. The editors have, however, given a full account of those parts of his life of which his own record is but brief.

He was born in Boston in 1791. His father, to judge from his letters, which are full of sensible advice, was a man of more than common ability, and he very carefully trained his son to put his talents to their best use. He had no stubborn material for his hands, for even in his youth Mr. Ticknor showed many of those traits which most clearly marked him in after life; among others, an intelligent, unimaginative, but also unmalicious observation of his kind for his relaxation, and for his work in life warm devotion to the study of letters. How scanty were the opportunities in this way at that period may be seen from his difficulties in getting any knowledge of German after his graduation from Dartmouth College, and when he had just given up his brief practice of the law. His teacher was an Alsatian, who knew his own pronunciation was bad; he was able to borrow a grammar from Mr. Everett, but he had to send to New Hampshire for a dictionary; and the only book he had to read was a copy of Werther belonging to John Quincy Adams, then in Europe, which he managed to borrow from the gentleman who had Mr. Adams's books under his care at the Athenæeum. This was in 1814, and already he had made up his mind to go to Germany and profit by the advantages offered by the universities of that country. With regard to the education he had already acquired, it is evident that he had learned more by private study than by following the courses of the college which had given him a degree. But before visiting other countries he determined to make himself familiar with his own, and for that purpose he made a journey to Washington and Virginia, seeing on his way, at New York, one of the earliest ships of war moved by steam, and in Philadelphia meeting John Randolph, whom he describes carefully in one of his letters to his father. At Washington he dined with President Madison, who was in considerable anxiety at the time (January 21, 1815) about the fate of New Orleans. He gives a dreary picture of the state festivities. The President, he says, "sometimes laughed, and I was glad to hear it, but his face was always grave. He talked of religious sects and parties, and was curious to know how the cause of liberal Christianity stood with us, and if the Athanasian creed was well received by our Episcopalians.... He talked of education and its prospects, of the progress of improvement among us, and once or twice he gave it a political aspect, though with great caution." In Virginia he visited Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, and this eminent man seems to have taken a great fancy to his young visitor, who gave his father a full account of his host and his ways. The details are too long to quote, but those who turn to the book will find that Mr. Ticknor began early to observe people, and that, although his descriptions, even in his youth, show a lack of imagination, they are yet made lifelike by his patient, unwearying elaboration of details. How full, for instance, is his account of Lord Jeffrey, written to one of his friends in 1814. Such letters have gone out of fashion now, when it is more frequent to sum up the characters of our visitors in epigrams than in long essays, as Mr. Ticknor has here done. This first star, who in comparison with many of Mr. Ticknor's later acquaintances was one of very modest magnitude, made his unexpected, comet-like appearance in Boston on his way to New York to marry an American woman. It is easy to believe what Mr. Ticknor says in his long account of him, that "while he flatters by his civility those who are little accustomed to attention from his superiors, he disappoints the reasonable expectations of those who have received the homage of all around them until it has become a part of their just expectations and claims."

In April, 1815, Mr. Ticknor set sail for England in company with his friend Edward Everett, and at the end of four weeks they arrived at Liverpool, just in time to hear of Napoleon's escape from Elba. There was at least one man in England who was pleased with that turn of fate, and that was Dr. Parr, whom Mr. Ticknor stopped to see on his way to London, and who told his young guest, "I should not think I had done my duty if I went to bed any night without praying for the success of Napoleon Bonaparte." Lord Byron, it should be added, on hearing the news of Waterloo, said, "I am d——d sorry for it.... I didn't know but I might live to see Lord Castlereagh's head on a pole. But I suppose I sha'n't now." Of this last-named admirer of Bonaparte, Mr. Ticknor saw a good deal during his stay in England. Byron was then a newly-married man, and on better terms with the world at large than he was at other times of his life. His American visitor recorded that he "found his manners affable and gentle, the tones of his voice low and conciliating, his conversation gay, pleasant and interesting in an uncommon degree."

Of the older men, he saw Dr. Rees, editor of the Encyclopædia, who had dined with Dr. Johnson and John Wilkes at Dilly's—not at the first dinner probably, for Boswell gives a list of the guests which does not include his name, but doubtless at the second, in 1781. Dr. Rees said that Wilkes won his way to Johnson's heart not, as Boswell reports, by his wit, but by the grossest flattery; and he added that Johnson always courted Boswell more than any one else, that he might be exhibited to posterity in a favorable light. A mere list of the names of the people he saw during this short stay in England will show how full of interest this part of his diary is. Campbell, Gifford, West, Sir Humphry Davy he saw most frequently, but no one so often as he did Byron. His penchant for "lions" always led him to prefer the lordliest among them.

It was a great change from the excitement and succession of novelties of London to the monotonous routine of Göttingen, where he arrived, after a journey of about five weeks, early in August, 1815. Göttingen at that time was the seat of the leading German university. It has never been full of distracting temptations: indeed, it is a town which seems to have been so arranged that the student should find in study alone relief from its manifold discomforts. The advantages it possessed were very great, and they were fully appreciated by the young American, who came from what in comparison was almost an intellectual wilderness to the rich stores of learning this university contained. It was at this time that he fairly began serious literary study and laid the foundation of his extensive knowledge of books. In one of his vacations he made a little tour in Germany, visiting Goethe, who made a characteristic speech about Byron's recent separation from his wife—namely, that in its circumstances and the mystery involving it it was so poetical that if Byron had invented it he could hardly have found a more fortunate subject for his genius.

After another winter in Göttingen he set out for Paris, which city he reached early in April, 1817. One of the first things he did was to go to the theatre, where he saw Talma and Mademoiselle Mars play together. But stronger tastes drew him more frequently into the best society that capital afforded him. One of the persons he was most anxious to meet was Madame de Staël, but although he presented his letters, her illness prevented her seeing him for some time, and her daughter, the Duchesse de Broglie, received him in her mother's stead. It was there that he met Humboldt, of whom he has recorded that he "sleeps only when he is weary and has leisure, and if he wakes at midnight he rises and begins his work as he would in the morning. He eats when he is hungry, and if he is invited to dine at six o'clock, this does not prevent him from going at five to a restaurant, because he considers a great dinner only as a party of pleasure and amusement. But all the rest of the time, when he is not in society, he locks his door and gives himself up to study, rarely receiving visits but those which have been announced the day previous, and never, I believe, refusing these." These habits are not commonly supposed to promote longevity. Before he left Paris Madame de Staël was able to see him, and with her he had an interesting conversation in which she said of America, "Vous êtes l'avant garde du genre humain, vous êtes l'avenir du monde," and made two or three brilliant speeches, at which he noticed her glow of animation. At the same place he also met Chateaubriand and Madame Récamier, between whom he sat at dinner. The romantic reader will be disappointed with his meagre statements here, which hardly bring these two people more distinctly before us than are Solomon and the queen of Sheba. We read that Madame Récamier's figure was fine, her mild eyes full of expression, and her arm and hand beautiful, her complexion fair, her expression cheerful and her conversation vivacious; of Chateaubriand, that he was a short man with a dark complexion, black hair and eyes, and a marked countenance; but exacter details of their characteristics or mutual relations are wholly wanting. While it is to be remembered that we who read Mr. Ticknor's diary and letters have also read a great many other letters that have given us much more knowledge about Madame Récamier than her companion at that dinner could have had, it is yet fair to say that in general the book contains no traces of acute observation or quick social sensibility, but is rather marked by the faithfulness of his report of the more obvious incidents that occurred when he met these interesting people. This does not diminish the value of the book: it should only prepare the reader to find the anecdotes constituting the really important part of it, with but little sign of any study of character, and of little sympathetic insight into the feelings of others.

He remained in Paris until September, working hard at the languages and literatures of France and Italy, and neglecting no opportunity to improve himself. At that date he started for Geneva on his way to Italy, crossing the Alps by the Simplon. At Venice he again saw Byron, who was busy, or professed to be, with a plan of visiting this country. Thence he made his way south to Rome and Naples, spending most of the winter in the former city among very interesting people, such as Bunsen, Niebuhr and Madame de Humboldt. In the spring of 1818 he went to Spain, and it is interesting to notice how much more vivacious his journal becomes with his entrance into that country. It seems to have been with real enjoyment that he changed the ease of his earlier journeyings for the hardships of traveling in this comfortless land; and although the inns were miserable, the fare uncertain and meagre at the best, and there were many other afflictions to vex the tourist, he evidently enjoyed this expedition to the full. On his way from Barcelona to Madrid he had for companions a painter of repute and two officers, and to these he used to read aloud Don Quixote, and, he says, "I assure you this was a pleasure to me such as I have seldom enjoyed, to witness the effect this extraordinary book produces on the people from whose very blood and character it is drawn.... All of them used to beg me to read it to them every time we got into our cart—like children for toys and sugar-plums." In Madrid he studied carefully the language and literature, his tastes and opportunities leading him to lay the solid foundation of what was to be the main work of his life. The society that he met here was mainly that of the foreign diplomatists, but, agreeable as it was, it did not distract him from his studies or from his observation of the people among whom he was placed. In a letter to this country he said, "What seems mere fiction and romance in other countries is matter of observation here, and in all that relates to manners Cervantes and Le Sage are historians; for when you have crossed the Pyrenees you have not only passed from one country and climate to another, but you have gone back a couple of centuries in your chronology, and find the people still in that kind of poetical existence which we have not only long since lost, but which we have long since ceased to credit on the reports of our ancestors."

Although it would be interesting to linger over the passages dealing with Spain, it is perhaps better to turn to his account of leaving it, which he did under the most singular circumstances—namely, as one of a band of contrabandistas. Not that he wore a mask and filled his purse by robbing unoffending travelers; instead, he joined this party of accomplished smugglers, who used to carry on the business of smuggling dollars from Seville to Lisbon and bring back English goods in the same way. For eight days he was in their company, and he says, "I have seldom passed eight more interesting days, for by the very novelty and strangeness of everything—sleeping out every night but one, and then in the house of the chief of our band; dining under trees at noon; living on a footing of perfect equality and good-fellowship with people who are liable every day to be shot or hanged by the laws of their country; indeed, leading for a week as much of a vagabond life as if I were an Arab or a Mameluke,—I came soon to have some of the gay recklessness that marked the character of my companions." This certainly would be a curious episode in the life of any law-abiding citizen, and in Mr. Ticknor's case it was peculiarly astonishing, for his life, this week excepted, could certainly never be called, with any show of justice, "vagabond."

Before returning to America he revisited London and Paris, in this last-named city seeing Talleyrand, of whom an interesting anecdote is recorded. In London he met Sydney Smith, Brougham, Frere; in Scotland, where he made a short tour, he visited Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford; on his way back to London he visited Southey and Wordsworth; and once again in that city he saw Hazlitt, living in Milton's house, and Godwin, who, he said, "is as far removed from everything feverish and exciting as if his head had never been filled with anything but geometry,... When I looked at [him], and saw with what cool obstinacy he adhered to everything he had once assumed, and what a cold selfishness lay at the bottom of his character, I felt a satisfaction in the thought that he had a wife who must sometimes give a start to his blood and a stir to his nervous system." The feeling which betrays itself in this passage makes a still bolder and more amusing exhibit in one that follows: "The true way to see these people was to meet them all together, as I did once at dinner at Godwin's, and once at a convocation or 'Saturday Night Club' at Hunt's, when they felt themselves bound to show off and produce an effect; for there Lamb's gentle humor, Hunt's passion and Curran's volubility, Hazlitt's sharpness and point and Godwin's great head full of cold brains, all coming into contact and agreeing in nothing but their common hatred of everything that has been more successful than their own works, made one of the most curious and amusing olla podridas I ever met. The contrast between these persons ... and the class I was at the same time in the habit of meeting at Sir Joseph Banks's on Sunday evening, at Gifford's, at Murray's Literary Exchange, and especially at Lord Holland's, was striking enough." In regard to the last statement we can feel no doubt, nor is it surprising that Mr. Ticknor found the society of Gifford and his friends more congenial than that of "persons" like Lamb and Hunt.

He reached home June 6, 1819, after an absence of four years, during which time he had seen many "cities and manners," had accomplished himself in the modern languages and literatures, and become well fitted for the position which was awaiting him—that of professor of the French and Spanish languages and of the belles-lettres at Harvard College. These chairs were held by Mr. Ticknor until 1835, during the most active years of his mature life, and the record of what he did is not without importance in the history of education in this country. He had himself profited by the liberal system of the German universities, and he was naturally anxious to introduce such changes into the rather narrow curriculum of Harvard College as should give its students real zeal in their work and greater opportunities for improvement. At the beginning he found himself much hampered by old traditions and a general lack of sympathy with new methods; but he devoted himself earnestly to the task of introducing a course of instruction which should take the place of the dull routine of recitation. To accomplish this he set the example of giving a series of lectures on the literatures and literary histories of France and Spain, and he struggled hard to drive away the old routine from the rest of the college. He wrote a pamphlet containing most urgent and powerful arguments in defence of these amendments, which he proved to be possible by the example of his own success; but he was opposed by the most stubborn conservatism, and his efforts remained almost without apparent result. What he wanted was the abolition of the system of classes; the division of the college into departments; the election of studies by the students; the separation of the students into divisions according to their proficiency; and the opening of the college to those who cared to follow only certain courses without applying for a degree. The first of these changes he forebore to press, but all the others he urged most warmly. He was so far successful that the experiment was tried, but it was considered impracticable for the classes to be divided into sections, and by a vote of the faculty it was determined that the law requiring such division should be repealed: permission was given Mr. Ticknor, however, to continue in the new method if he cared so to do. Naturally, he persisted in his plan, and in his own department he was perfectly successful. When he left the college, although he had not accomplished all he had hoped when he accepted his professorship, he was able to look back upon an honorable and gratifying record so far as the management of his own department was concerned.

After resigning his position in Cambridge he again went abroad in 1835, accompanied by his wife and family. It would take many pages to give the reader an exact account, in however brief a form, of all the interest of this journey. A few notes taken almost at random must suffice. Of Southey, Mr. Ticknor notes: "His conversation was very various, sometimes quite remarkable, but never rich or copious like Wordsworth's, and never humorous or witty. It was rather abundant in matters of fact, and often in that way quite striking and effective." The first winter he spent in Dresden, meeting Tieck frequently, and enjoying the agreeable and highly-cultivated society of the court. The next summer, during a visit to Vienna, he had some interesting conversations with Prince Metternich, which are given in full. The winter of 1836-37 he passed in Rome, finding there Bunsen and Thorwaldsen, whom he had seen on his first visit. The next winter found him in Paris, where he saw Thierry, Lamartine, Thiers, Mignet, Guizot and others. Of Lamartine he says: "Only two things struck me—his complete ignorance of the present English literature, and the strong expression of his poetical faith that the recent improvements in material life, like steam and railroads, have their poetical sides, and will be used for poetical purposes with success." In the spring he crossed to England, where he roamed from one interesting spot to another, seeing every one of whom one cares to hear, and putting down in his journal faithful accounts of all that he saw and heard.

He returned to this country in June, 1838, and began at once to occupy himself busily with the preparation of his History of Spanish Literature. After this book had been published he began to busy himself with a very important scheme—namely, preparing the Public Library of his native city. As soon as Mr. Bates had made his generous gift, which secured the establishment of the library, Mr. Ticknor, with the aid of experts in the different professions, prepared a list of forty thousand books which were needed as the foundation. He was absent in Europe for fifteen months in 1856-57 busy with choosing and buying books for this institution. The debt which the city of Boston owes him is a great one: thanks to his care and energy, the Public Library already has become a most valuable aid to study, and perhaps the best library in the country, besides promising to be one of the few great ones of the world. During his lifetime Mr. Ticknor gave many valuable collections to the library, and in his will he left it his own unique Spanish library and a generous bequest for the further purchase of books. From the first he was quite as generous with his time and knowledge. The diary he kept during his last stay abroad is full of references to his interest in the library and to the constant attention he gave to its affairs. He returned to Boston in September, 1857. The remaining years of his life he spent at home, enjoying the company of his friends, corresponding with those abroad, and encouraging interest in letters in every way. He died in the full possession of his faculties, in his eightieth year, January 26, 1871.

The editors of these memoirs appear to have performed their task with great discretion and good taste. It has probably not been a difficult one, consisting mainly in selecting from abundant and well-ordered material, while suppressing what was too private or too trivial for publication. What they have had to say of Mr. Ticknor's character is expressed with a proper warmth of feeling, but without any extravagance of eulogy. His life, as they justly remark, was distinguished by "an unusual consistency in the framework of mind and character" and "an unusually steady development of certain elements and principles." What he from the first set himself to attain lay within the compass of his capacity as well as of his means and opportunities. Thus he had no external hinderances to contend against, and no inward misgivings to struggle with. No man, we imagine, was ever less troubled with self-dissatisfaction. He felt the limits of his faculties and qualities, if he felt them at all, only as useful and secure defences. Within them there was all the completeness that could be gained by persevering exercise and culture. There is not a page of his journals and letters that does not bear testimony to his earnest, careful and profitable study of men and books, while we doubt if a remark can be found in them that shows either sympathetic insight or subtle discrimination. His intellect had all its resources at command, but it had more of rigor than of vigor, more of formal precision in its methods than of well-directed force in its performances. Hence the semblance exceeded the reality, and it might have been said of him, as it was said of Guizot, "Il impose et il en impose." This biography of him makes, consequently, no appeal to the deeper feelings and awakens no train of higher thought. But it has an interest which, though of an ordinary kind, is scarcely surpassed in degree by that of any similar work; and it forms a worthy memorial of a man whose wide attainments, strict integrity and warm affections endeared him to his intimates and made him respected by all.