TO MR. BROOKFIELD
September 16, 1849
Have you read Dickens? Oh, it is charming! Brave Dickens! "David
Copperfield" has some of his prettiest touches, and the reading of the
book has done another author a great deal of good.
There are certain good old ladies in every community who wear perennial
mourning. They attend every funeral, carrying black-bordered
handkerchiefs, and weep gently at the right time. I have made it a point
to hunt out these ancient dames at their homes, and, over the teacups, I
have discovered that invariably they enjoy a sweet peace—a happiness with
contentment—that is a great gain. They seem to be civilization's
rudimentary relic of the Irish keeners and the paid mourners of the
And there is just a little of this tendency to mourn with those who mourn
in all mankind. It is not difficult to bear another's woe—and then there
is always a grain of mitigation, even in the sorrow of the afflicted, that
makes their tribulation bearable.
Burke affirms, in "On the Sublime," that all men take a certain
satisfaction in the disasters of others. Just as Frenchmen lift their hats
when a funeral passes and thank God that they are not in the hearse, so do
we in the presence of calamity thank Heaven that it is not ours.
Perhaps this is why I get a strange delight from walking through a
graveyard by night. All about are the white monuments that glisten in the
ghostly starlight, the night-wind sighs softly among the grassy mounds—all
else is silent—still.
This is the city of the dead, and of all the hundreds or thousands who
have traveled to this spot over long and weary miles, I, only I, have the
power to leave at will. Their ears are stopped, their eyes are closed,
their hands are folded—but I am alive.
One of the first places I visited on reaching London was Kensal Green
Cemetery. I quickly made the acquaintance of the First Gravedigger, a rare
wit, over whose gray head have passed full seventy pleasant summers. I
presented him a copy of "The Shroud," the organ of the American
Undertakers' Association, published at Syracuse, New York. I subscribe for
"The Shroud" because it has a bright wit-and-humor column, and also for
the sweet satisfaction of knowing that there is still virtue left in
The First Gravedigger greeted me courteously, and when I explained briefly
my posthumous predilections we grasped hands across an open grave (that he
had just digged) and were fast friends.
"Do you believe in cremation, sir?" he asked.
"No, never; it's pagan."
"Aye, you are a gentleman—and about burying folks in churches?"
"Never! A grave should be out under the open sky, where the sun by day and
the moon and stars——"
"Right you are. How Shakespeare can ever stand it to have his grave walked
over by a boy choir is more than I can understand. If I had him here I
could look after him right. Come, I'll show you the company I keep!"
Not twenty feet from where we stood was a fine but plain granite block to
the memory of the second wife of James Russell Lowell.
"Just Mr. Lowell and one friend stood by the grave when we lowered the
coffin—just two men and no one else but the young clergyman who belongs
here. Mr. Lowell shook hands with me when he went away. He gave me a
guinea and wrote me two letters afterward from America; the last was sent
only a week before he died. I'll show 'em to you when we go to the office.
Say, did you know him?"
He pointed to a slab, on which I read the name of Sydney Smith. Then we
went to the graves of Mulready, the painter; Kemble, the actor; Sir
Charles Eastlake, the artist. Next came the resting-place of
Buckle—immortal for writing a preface—dead at thirty-seven, with his
history unwrit; Leigh Hunt sleeps near, and above his dust a column that
explains how it was erected by friends. In life he asked for bread; when
dead they gave him a costly pile of stone.
Here are also the graves of Madame Tietjens; of Charles Mathews, the
actor; and of Admiral Sir John Ross, the Arctic explorer.
"And just down the hill aways another big man is buried. I knew him well;
he used to come and visit us often. The last time I saw him I said as he
was going away, 'Come again, sir; you are always welcome!'
"'Thank you, Mr. First Gravedigger,' says he; 'I will come again before
long, and make you an extended visit.' In less than a year the hearse
brought him. That's his grave—push that ivy away and you can read the
inscription. Did you ever hear of him?"
It was a plain, heavy slab placed horizontally, and the ivy had so run
over it that the white of the marble was nearly obscured. But I made out
WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY
Born July 18, 1811
Died Dec. 24, 1863
ANNE CARMICHAEL SMYTH
Died Dec. 18, 1864, aged 72—his mother
by her first marriage
The unpoetic exactness of that pedigree gave me a slight chill. But here
they sleep—mother and son in one grave. She who gave him his first caress
also gave him his last; and when he was found dead in his bed, his mother,
who lived under the same roof, was the first one called. He was the child
of her girlhood—she was scarcely twenty when she bore him. In life they
were never separated, and in death they are not divided. It is as both
Thackeray was born in India, and was brought to England on the death of
his father, when he was six years of age. On the way from Calcutta the
ship touched at the Island of Saint Helena. A servant took the lad ashore
and they walked up the rocky heights to Longwood, and there, pacing back
and forth in a garden, they saw a short, stout man.
"Lookee, lad, lookee quick—that's him! He eats three sheep every day and
all the children he can get!"
"And that's all I had to do with the Battle of Waterloo," said "Old Thack,"
forty years after. But you will never believe it after reading those
masterly touches concerning the battle, in "Vanity Fair."
Young Thackeray was sent to the Charterhouse School, where he was
considered rather a dull boy. He was big and good-natured, and read novels
when he should have studied arithmetic. This tendency to "play off" stuck
to him at Cambridge—where he did not remain long enough to get a degree,
but to the relief of his tutors went off on a tour through Europe.
Travel as a means of education is a very seductive bit of sophistry.
Invalids whom the doctors can not cure, and scholars whom teachers can not
teach, are often advised to take "a change." Still there is reason in it.
In England Thackeray was intent on law; at Paris he received a strong bent
toward art; but when he reached Weimar and was introduced at the Court of
Letters and came into the living presence of Goethe, he caught the
infection and made a plan for translating Schiller.
Schiller dead was considered in Germany a greater man than Goethe living,
as if it were an offense to live and a virtue to die. And young William
Makepeace wrote home to his mother that Schiller was the greatest man that
ever lived and that he was going to translate his books and give them to
No doubt there are certain people born with a tendency to infectiousness
in regard to certain diseases; so there are those who catch the literary
mania on slight exposure.
"I've got it," said Thackeray, and so he had.
He went back to England and made groggy efforts at Blackstone, and
Somebody's Digest, and What's-His-Name's Compendium, but all the time he
scribbled and sketched.
The young man had come into possession of a goodly fortune from his
father's estate—enough to yield him an income of over two thousand dollars
a year. But bad investments and signing security for friends took the
money the way that money usually goes when held by a man who has not
"Talk about riches having wings," said Thackeray; "my fortune had pinions
like a condor, and flew like a carrier-pigeon."
When Thackeray was thirty he was eking out a meager income writing poems,
reviews, criticisms and editorials. His wife was a confirmed invalid, a
victim of mental darkness, and his sorrows and anxieties were many.
He was known as a bright writer, yet London is full of clever,
unsuccessful men. But in Thackeray's thirty-eighth year "Vanity Fair" came
out, and it was a success from the first.
In "Yesterdays With Authors," Mr. Fields says: "I once made a pilgrimage
with Thackeray to the various houses where his books had been written; and
I remember when we came to Young Street, Kensington, he said, with mock
gravity, 'Down on your knees, you rogue, for here "Vanity Fair" was
penned; and I will go down with you, for I have a high opinion of that
little production myself.'"
Young Street is only a block from the Kensington Metropolitan
Railway-Station. It is a little street running off Kensington Road. At
Number Sixteen (formerly Number Thirteen), I saw a card in the window,
"Rooms to Rent to Single Gentlemen."
I rang the bell, and was shown a room that the landlady offered me for
twelve shillings a week if I paid in advance; or if I would take another
room one flight up with a "gent who was studying hart" it would be only
eight and six. I suggested that we go up and see the "gent." We did so,
and I found the young man very courteous and polite.
He told me that he had never heard Thackeray's name in connection with the
house. The landlady protested that "no man by the name o' Thack'ry has had
rooms here since I rented the place; leastwise, if he has been here he
called hisself by sumpthink else, which was like o'nuff the case, as most
ev'rybody is crooked now'days—but surely no decent person can blame me for
I assured her that she was in no wise to blame.
From this house in Young Street the author of "Vanity Fair" moved to
Number Thirty-six Onslow Square, where he wrote "The Virginians." On the
south side of the Square there is a row of three-storied brick houses.
Thackeray lived in one of these houses for nine years. They were the years
when honors and wealth were being heaped upon him; and he was worldling
enough to let his wants keep pace with his ability to gratify them. He was
made of the same sort of clay as other men, for his standard of life
conformed to his pocketbook and he always felt poor.
From this fine house on Onslow Square he moved to a veritable palace,
which he built to suit his own taste, at Number Two Palace Green,
Kensington. But mansions on earth are seldom for long—he died here on
Christmas Eve, Eighteen Hundred Sixty-three. And Charles Dickens, Mark
Lemon, Millais, Trollope, Robert Browning, Cruikshank, Tom Taylor, Louis
Blanc, Charles Mathews and Shirley Brooks were among the friends who
carried him to his rest.
To take one's self too seriously is a great mistake. Complacency is the
unpardonable sin, and the man who says, "Now I'm sure of it," has at that
moment lost it.
Villagers who have lived in one little place until they think themselves
great, having lost the sense of proportion through lack of comparison, are
generally "in dead earnest."
Surely they are often intellectually dead, and I do not dispute the fact
that they are in earnest. All those excellent gentlemen in the days gone
by who could not contemplate a celestial bliss that did not involve the
damnation of those who disagreed with them were in dead earnest.
Cotton Mather once saw a black cat perched on the shoulder of an innocent,
chattering old gran'ma. The next day a neighbor had a convulsion; and
Cotton Mather went forth and exorcised Tabby with a hymn-book, and hanged
gran'ma by the neck, high on Gallows Hill, until she was dead.
Had the Reverend Mr. Mather possessed but a mere modicum of humor he might
have exorcised the cat, but I am sure he would never have troubled old
gran'ma. But alas, Cotton Mather's conversation was limited to yea, yea,
and nay, nay—generally, nay, nay—and he was in dead earnest.
In the Boston Public Library is a book written in Sixteen Hundred
Eighty-five by Cotton Mather, entitled, "Wonders of the Invisible World."
This book received the endorsement of the Governor of the Province and
also of the President of Harvard College. The author cites many cases of
persons who were bewitched; and also makes the interesting statement that
the Devil knows Greek, Latin and Hebrew, but speaks English with an
accent. These facts were long used at Harvard as an argument in favor of
the Classics. And when Greek was at last made optional, the Devil was
supposed to have filed a protest with the Dean of the Faculty.
The Reverend Francis Gastrell, who razed New Place, and cut down the
poet's mulberry-tree to escape the importunities of visitors, was in dead
earnest. Attila, and Herod, and John Calvin were in dead earnest. And were
it not for the fact that Luther had lucid intervals when he went about
with his tongue in his cheek he surely would have worked grievous wrong.
Recent discoveries in Egyptian archeology show that in his lifetime Moses
was esteemed more as a wit than as a lawmaker. His jokes were posted upon
the walls and explained to the populace, who it seems were a bit slow.
Job was a humorist of a high order, and when he said to the wise men, "No
doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you," he struck
twelve. When the sons of Jacob went down into Egypt and Joseph put up the
price of corn, took their money, and then secretly replaced the coin in
the sacks, he showed his artless love of a quiet joke.
Shakespeare's fools were the wisest and kindliest men at court. When the
master decked a character in cap and bells, it was as though he had given
bonds for the man's humanity. Touchstone followed his master into exile;
and when all seemed to have forsaken King Lear the fool bared himself to
the storm and covered the shaking old man with his own cloak. And if
Costard, Trinculo, Touchstone, Jaques and Mercutio had lived in Salem in
Sixteen Hundred Ninety-two, there would have been not only a flashing of
merry jests, but a flashing of rapiers as well, and every gray hair of
every old dame's head would have been safe so long as there was a striped
leg on which to stand.
Lincoln, liberator of men, loved the motley. In fact, the individual who
is incapable of viewing the world from a jocular basis is unsafe, and can
be trusted only when the opposition is strong enough to laugh him into
In the realm of English letters, Thackeray is prince of humorists. He
could see right through a brick wall, and never mistook a hawk for a
hernshaw. He had a just estimate of values, and the temperament that can
laugh at all trivial misfits. And he had, too, that dread capacity for
pain which every true humorist possesses, for the true essence of humor is
In all literature that lives there is mingled like pollen an indefinable
element of the author's personality. In Thackeray's "Lectures on English
Humorists" this subtle quality is particularly apparent. Elusive,
delicate, alluring—it is the actinic ray that imparts vitality.
When wit plays skittles with dulness, dulness gets revenge by taking wit
at his word. Vast numbers of people taking Thackeray at his word consider
him a bitter pessimist.
He even disconcerted bright little Charlotte Bronte, who went down to
London to see him, and then wrote back to Haworth that "the great man
talked steadily with never a smile. I could not tell when to laugh and
when to cry, for I did not know what was fun and what fact."
But finally the author of "Jane Eyre" found the combination, and she saw
that beneath the brusk exterior of that bulky form there was a woman's
Thackeray has told us what he thought of the author of "Jane Eyre," and
the author of "Jane Eyre" has told us what she thought of the author of
"Vanity Fair." One was big and whimsical, the other was little and
sincere, but both were alike in this: their hearts were wrung at the sight
of suffering, and both had tears for the erring, the groping, and the
A Frenchman can not comprehend a joke that is not accompanied by grimace
and gesticulation; and so M. Taine chases Thackeray through sixty solid
pages, berating him for what he is pleased to term "bottled hate."
Taine is a cynic who charges Thackeray with cynicism, all in the choicest
of biting phrase. It is a beautiful example of sinners calling the
righteous to repentance—a thing that is often done, but seldom with
The fun is too deep for Monsieur, or mayhap the brand is not the yellow
label to which his palate is accustomed, so he spews it all. Yet Taine's
criticism is charming reading, although he is only hot after an aniseed
trail of his own dragging. But the chase is a deal more exciting than most
men would lead, were there real live game to capture.
If pushed, I might suggest several points in this man's make-up where God
could have bettered His work. But accepting Thackeray as we find him, we
see a singer whose cage Fate had overhung with black until he had caught
the tune. The "Ballad of Boullabaisse" shows a tender side of his spirit
that he often sought to conceal. His heart vibrated to all finer thrills
of mercy; and his love for all created things was so delicately strung
that he would, in childish shame, sometimes issue a growl to drown its
rising, tearful tones.
In the character of Becky Sharp, he has marshaled some of his own weak
points and then lashed them with scorn. He looked into the mirror and
seeing a potential snob he straightway inveighed against snobbery. The
punishment does not always fit the crime—it is excess. But I still contest
that where his ridicule is most severe, it is Thackeray's own back that is
bared to the knout.
The primal recipe for roguery in art is, "Know Thyself." When a writer
portrays a villain and does it well—make no mistake, he poses for the
character himself. Said gentle Ralph Waldo Emerson, "I have capacity in me
for every crime."
The man of imagination knows those mystic spores of possibility that lie
dormant, and like the magicians of the East who grow mango-trees in an
hour, he develops the "inward potential" at will. The mere artisan in
letters goes forth and finds a villain and then describes him, but the
artist knows a better way: "I am that man."
One of the very sweetest, gentlest characters in literature is Colonel
Newcome. The stepfather of Thackeray, Major Carmichael Smyth, was made to
stand for the portrait of the lovable Colonel; and when that all-round
athlete, F. Hopkinson Smith, gave us that other lovable old Colonel he
paid high tribute to "The Newcomes."
Thackeray was a poet, and as such was often caught in the toils of
doubt—the crux of the inquiring spirit. He aspired for better things, and
at times his imperfections stood out before him in monstrous shape, and he
sought to hiss them down.
In the heart of the artist-poet there is an Inmost Self that sits over
against the acting, breathing man and passes judgment on his every deed.
To satisfy the world is little; to please the populace is naught; fame is
vapor; gold is dross; and every love that has not the sanction of that
Inmost Self is a viper's sting. To satisfy the demands of the God within
is the poet's prayer.
What doubts beset, what taunting fears surround, what crouching sorrows
lie in wait, what dead hopes drag, what hot desires pursue, and what
kindly lights do beckon on—ah! "'tis we musicians know."
Thackeray came to America to get a pot of money, and was in a fair way of
securing it, when he chanced to pick up a paper in which a steamer was
announced to sail that evening for England. A wave of homesickness swept
over the big boy—he could not stand it. He hastily packed up his effects
and without saying good-by to any one, and forgetting all his engagements,
he hastened to the dock, leaving this note for the kindest of kind
friends: "Good-by, Fields; good-by, Mrs. Fields—God bless everybody, says