The earthly career of this man has terminated, and, as public journalists, it is needful that we should have something to say of one who has been more widely associated with the literature of the country, and with literary persons, than any one left to us. We shall say little of the experience of Mr. Griswold, painful as it was, and as full of sorrows to himself as to others. "Tread lightly upon the ashes of the dead," is a humane and Christian-like proverb. Creatures of harmony are not often born into the world. Plato was the gift of the ages, Christ of the eternities; and as yet the earth is burdened with discordant children who see wisdom and goodness as "through a glass darkly." No one is evil without knowing pain; no one is weak without the pangs of weakness.
That Rufus W. Griswold was a weak and ill-judging man, no one will deny. As a man, there was much in him to regret; but those who knew something of his last lonely years, his bed of solitary and uncheered suffering, will feel for him only pity, as one who was made to atone deeply for all the mistakes of his life. He left three children, and we much doubt if either of them were with him in his last moments.
As a literary man, we will now speak of him. At the time that Rufus W. Griswold commenced his compilations of the “Authors of America,” which he continued in various ways for a period of nearly twenty years, our writers were comparatively little known at home or abroad. Old models were so much in vogue that a truly home and original product stood little chance of recognition. The country had not recovered, nor has it yet recovered, from the colonial taint; we were not prepared to honor what was indigenous; the resources of the people had been exhausted in the struggle for our independence. Then followed a period of comparative repose, in which the commercial, agricultural and educational capabilities of our institutions began to develop themselves, and we were once more thrown back by the aggressions of England, which produced the war of 1812.
Our success then threw the people into ecstasies of self-laudation. Twice had we, poor and few in numbers as we were, rebuked the pride of the haughtiest nation upon earth. Our literature necessarily became of the political and patriotic stamp. Now and then, a man or woman, of so large a life and of such carefulness of aim that he shot upon the wing, produced a book or a poem, to be read only by the few—an offering of the head and the heart, showing how very vital we are as a nation; but our envious foes, without sympathy for our struggles, without charity for our poverty, and without knowledge of the far-spreading intelligence of the growing masses, asked tauntingly, “Who reads an American book?”
We wish to God Americans wrote less, and did more work which should overwrite the ages with national deeds of justice and enlightenment better than any musty tomes or sounding hymns, and which should be as palpable books as any preserved by the hands of the typographer. Jesus wrote no books, and yet “never man spake as this man;” and the simple writing, when “he stooped down and wrote with his finger upon the ground,” conveyed a diviner lesson of human charity than any record engraved upon marble.
Prior to the researches of Griswold, our people were unacquainted with the richness of material scattered up and down the country through the periodicals of the day. The learned professors of our colleges were often men of no mean genius, and did not fail to enthuse the minds of their pupils with a love for literature and art—which found expression, here and there, as opportunity afforded. Hence, there were some few names that had become household through the newspapers, which gave a corner to the poets always. Several attempts had been made to consolidate our literature, but with little success. Kettell’s “Lives of the Poets” was probably the best, till Mr. Griswold astonished the country by his “Poets of America,” revealing to them a treasury of rare and unknown beauty.
Instantly a new impulse was given to the minds of thinkers, readers and writers, and we saw at once that a world of power was opening to the country through the ennobling and harmonizing influences of art. Here was a collection of persons, comparatively little known, whose souls were replete with delicate conceptions, which had found expression through the harmonies of verse. We learned to know, and to love and honor our prophets as we should. We learned a reverence for the divine art, the truest expression of the all-beautiful afforded to earth; and thought the work unquestionably stimulated into existence a perfect hot-bed of weakly, precocious plants, it did people and country good. That the work was faulty, none will deny. Many names enjoy, through the writings of Mr. Griswold, a popularity which time will fail to indorse; but, as a whole, it was well and generously done; and the numerous works of the kind which followed—most of them mere resumes of those of Dr. Griswold—attest the success of his undertaking, and the popularity of a subject made so by his efforts alone.
We have reason to be grateful to him, as Americans, for what he did for literature. He was untiring in his researches, and sought for the beauties of an author with as much avidity as critics of less fineness of intuition look for faults. That his judgment was not always to be trusted, is not much to say of one who did so much that was trustworthy. That he was capricious, and allowed his personal predilections and prejudices to sway him, is most true, for he had the whims of a woman coupled with a certain spleen which he took no pains to conceal; yet was he weakly placable, and could be diverted from some piece of mischief or malice by an appeal to his generosity--by some expression of wit or outbreak of indignation. Had he lived in England, for instance, where the child of genius is received, with all his faults and infirmities, simply and kindly as the bearer of sacred vessels, Mr. Griswold would have found his career one of more kindness and sympathy.
In our own country, we exact yeoman service of all, and we have little pity for the shortcomings of the gifted. We have poetry on a vast scale, but we do not like that it should leave the world much behind it; and hence we should be quite sure to tackle the heavenly-winged Pegasus to the plow, and compel him to the furrow with the commonest dog of the team.
Mr. Griswold was in the habit of going about with bits of criticism in his pocket, and scraps of poetry which he had picked up; and these he would read and comment upon. He had the laugh of a child, and was strangely unable to see the world as an arena for forms, ceremonies and proprieties; hence his freakishness, and mistakes and errors had always something incomplete and childish about them. He should have been shut in a library, with some protective spirit to direct him, for he could not understand the world, nor how it should be met; hence, some few loved this man with a deep and abiding love, which tells of much that was noble and beautiful within him--others pursued him with hatred and malice, which shows that his sphere was one of power in some way; and in all this, the man was utterly ignorant of himself, and of what the world had a right to demand of him.
At last, some bloody respect.
Thanks, yet again, to Undine of the "World of Poe", who posted excerpts from this notice on her blog here to commemorate my passing, thereby alerting me to this obituary's existence.