Edward William Bok > The Americanization of Edward Bok > 6. Phillips Brooks’s Books and Emerson’s Mental Mist

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Edward William Bok (1863–1930). The Americanization of Edward Bok. 1921.


VI. Phillips Brooks’s Books and Emerson’s Mental Mist


NO one who called at Phillips Brooks’s house was ever told that the master of the house was out when he was in. That was a rule laid down by Doctor Brooks: a maid was not to perjure herself for her master’s comfort or convenience. Therefore, when Edward was told that Doctor Brooks was out, he knew he was out. The boy waited, and as he waited he had a chance to look around the library and into the books. The rector’s faithful housekeeper said he might when he repeated what Wendell Phillips had told him of the interest that was to be found in her master’s books. Edward did not tell her of Mr. Phillips’s advice to “borrow” a couple of books. He reserved that bit of information for the rector of Trinity when he came in, an hour later.   1
   “Oh! did he?” laughingly said Doctor Brooks. “That is nice advice for a man to give a boy. I am surprised at Wendell Phillips. He needs a little talk: a ministerial visit. And have you followed his shameless advice?” smilingly asked the huge man as he towered above the boy. “No? And to think of the opportunity you had, too. Well, I am glad you had such respect for my dumb friends. For they are my friends, each one of them,“ he continued, as he looked fondly at the filled shelves. “Yes, I know them all, and love each for its own sake. Take this little volume,” and he picked up a little volume of Shakespeare. “Why, we are the best of friends: we have travelled miles together—all over the world, as a matter of fact. It knows me in all my moods, and responds to each, no matter how irritable I am. Yes, it is pretty badly marked up now, for a fact, isn’t it? Black; I never thought of that before that it doesn’t make a book look any better to the eye. But it means more to me because of all that pencilling.   2
   “Now, some folks dislike my use of my books in this way. They love their books so much that they think it nothing short of sacrilege to mark up a book. But to me that’s like having a child so prettily dressed that you can’t romp and play with it. What is the good of a book, I say, if it is too pretty for use? I like to have my books speak to me, and then I like to talk back to them.   3
   “Take my Bible, here,” he continued, as he took up an old and much-worn copy of the book. “I have a number of copies of the Great Book: one copy I preach from; another I minister from; but this is my own personal copy, and into it I talk and talk. See how I talk,” and he opened the Book and showed interleaved pages full of comments in his handwriting. “There’s where St. Paul and I had an argument one day. Yes, it was a long argument, and I don’t know now who won,” he added smilingly. “But then, no one ever wins in an argument, anyway; do you think so?   4
   “You see,” went on the preacher, “I put into these books what other men put into articles and essays for magazines and papers. I never write for publications. I always think of my church when something comes to me to say. There is always danger of a man spreading himself out thin if he attempts too much, you know.”   5
   Doctor Brooks must have caught the boy’s eye, which, as he said this, naturally surveyed his great frame, for he regarded him in an amused way, and putting his hands on his girth, he said laughingly: “You are thinking I would have to do a great deal to spread myself out thin, aren’t you?”   6
   The boy confessed he was, and the preacher laughed one of those deep laughs of his that were so infectious.   7
   “But here I am talking about myself. Tell me something about yourself?   8
   And when the boy told his object in coming to Boston, the rector of Trinity Church was immensely amused.   9
   “Just to see us fellows! Well, and how do you like us so far?”   10
   And is the most comfortable way this true gentleman went on until the boy mentioned that he must be keeping him from his work.   11
   “Not at all; not at all,” was the quick and hearty response. “Not a thing to do. I cleaned up all my mail before I had my breakfast this morning.   12
   “These letters, you mean?” he said, as the boy pointed to some letters on his desk unopened. “Oh, yes! Well, they must have come in a later mail. Well, if it will make you feel any better I’ll go through them, and you can go through my books if you like. I’ll trust you,” he added laughingly, as Wendell Phillips’s advice occurred to him.   13
   “You like books, you say?” he went on, as he opened his letters. “Well, then, you must come into my library here at any time you are in Boston, and spend a morning reading anything I have that you like. Young men do that, you know, and I like to have them. What’s the use of good friends if you don’t share them? There’s where the pleasure comes in.”   14
   He asked the boy then about his newspaper work: how much it paid him, and whether he felt it helped him in an educational way. The boy told him he thought it did; that it furnished good lessons in the study of human nature.   15
   “Yes,” he said, “I can believe that, so long as it is good journalism.”   16
   Edward told him that he sometimes wrote for the Sunday paper, and asked the preacher what he thought of that.   17
   “Well,” he said, “that is not a crime.”   18
   The boy asked him if he, then, favored the Sunday paper more than did some other clergymen.   19
   “There is always good in everything, I think,” replied Phillips Brooks. “A thing must be pretty bad that hasn’t some good in it.” Then he stopped, and after a moment went on: “My idea is that the fate of Sunday newspapers rests very much with Sunday editors. There is a Sunday newspaper conceivable in which we should all rejoice—all, that is, who do not hold that a Sunday newspaper is always and per se wrong. But some cause has, in many instances, brought it about that the Sunday paper is below, and not above, the standard of its weekday brethren. I mean it is apt to be more gossipy, more personal, more sensational, more frivolous; less serious and thoughtful and suggestive. Taking for granted the fact of special leisure on the part of its readers, it is apt to appeal to the lower and not to the higher part of them, which the Sunday leisure has set free. Let the Sunday newspaper be worthy of the day, and the day will not reject it. So I say its fate is in the hands of its editor. He can give it such a character as will make all good men its champions and friends, or he can preserve for it the suspicion and dislike in which it stands at present.”   20
   Edward’s journalistic instinct here got into full play; and although, as he assured his host, he had had no such thought in coming, he asked whether Doctor Brooks would object if he tried his reportorial wings by experimenting as to whether he could report the talk.   21
   “I do not like the papers to talk about me,” was the answer; “but if it will help you, go ahead and practise on me. You haven’t stolen my books when you were told to do so, and I don’t think you’ll steal my name.”   22
   The boy went back to his hotel, and wrote an article much as this account is here written, which he sent to Doctor Brooks. “Let me keep it by me,” the doctor wrote, “and I will return it to you presently.”   23
   And he did, with his comment on the Sunday newspaper, just as it is given here, and with this note: [figure]   24
   As he let the boy out of his house, at the end of that first meeting, he said to him:   25
   “And you’re going from me now to see Emerson? I don’t know,” he added reflectively, “whether you will see him at his best. Still, you may. And even if you do not, to have seen him, even as you may see him, is better, in a way, than not to have seen him at all.”   26
   Edward did not know what Phillips Brooks meant. But he was, sadly, to find out the next day.   27
   A boy of sixteen was pretty sure of a welcome from Louisa Alcott, and his greeting from her was spontaneous and sincere.   28
   “Why, you good boy,” she said, “to come all the way to Concord to see us,” quite for all the world as if she were the one favored. “Now take your coat off, and come right in by the fire.”   29
   “Do tell me all about your visit,” she continued.   30
   Before that cozey fire they chatted. It was pleasant to the boy to sit there with that sweet-faced woman with those kindly eyes! After a while she said: “Now I shall put on my coat and hat, and we shall walk over to Emerson’s house. I am almost afraid to promise that you will see him. He sees scarcely any one now. He is feeble, and—” She did not finish the sentence. “But we’ll walk over there, at any rate.”   31
   She spoke mostly of her father as the two walked along, and it was easy to see that his condition was now the one thought of her life. Presently they reached Emerson’s house, and Miss Emerson welcomed them at the door. After a brief chat Miss Alcott told of the boy’s hope. Miss Emerson shook her head.   32
   “Father sees no one now,” she said, “and I fear it might not be a pleasure if you did see him.”   33
   Then Edward told her what Phillips Brooks had said.   34
   “Well,” she said, “I’ll see.”   35
   She had scarcely left the room when Miss Alcott rose and followed her, saying to the boy: “You shall see Mr. Emerson if it is at all possible.”   36
   In a few minutes Miss Alcott returned, her eyes moistened, and simply said: “Come.”   37
   The boy followed her through two rooms, and at the threshold of the third Miss Emerson stood, also with moistened eyes.   38
   “Father,” she said simply, and there, at his desk, sat Emerson—the man whose words had already won Edward Bok’s boyish interest, and who was destined to impress himself upon his life more deeply than any other writer.   39
   Slowly, at the daughter’s spoken word, Emerson rose with a wonderful quiet dignity, extended his hand, and as the boy’s hand rested in his, looked him full in the eyes.   40
   No light of welcome came from those sad yet tender eyes. The boy closed upon the hand in his with a loving pressure, and for a single moment the eyelids rose, a different look came into those eyes, and Edward felt a slight, perceptible response of the hand. But that was all!   41
   Quietly he motioned the boy to a chair beside the desk. Edward sat down and was about to say something, when, instead of seating himself, Emerson walked away to the window and stood there softly whistling and looking out as if there were no one in the room. Edward’s eyes had followed Emerson’s every footstep, when the boy was aroused by hearing a suppressed sob, and as he looked around he saw that it came from Miss Emerson. Slowly she walked out of the room. The boy looked at Miss Alcott, and she put her finger to her mouth, indicating silence. He was nonplussed.   42
   Edward looked toward Emerson standing in that window, and wondered what it all meant. Presently Emerson left the window and, crossing the room, came to his desk, bowing to the boy as he passed, and seated himself, not speaking a word and ignoring the presence of the two persons in the room.   43
   Suddenly the boy heard Miss Alcott say: “Have you read this new book by Ruskin yet?”   44
   Slowly the great master of thought lifted his eyes from his desk, turned toward the speaker, rose with stately courtesy from his chair, and, bowing to Miss Alcott, said with great deliberation: “Did you speak to me, madam?”   45
   The boy was dumfounded! Louisa Alcott, his Louisa! And he did not know her! Suddenly the whole sad truth flashed upon the boy. Tears sprang into Miss Alcott’s eyes, and she walked to the other side of the room. The boy did not know what to say or do, so he sat silent. With a deliberate movement Emerson resumed his seat, and slowly his eyes roamed over the boy sitting at the side of the desk. He felt he should say something.   46
   “I thought, perhaps, Mr. Emerson,” he said, “that you might be able to favor me with a letter from Carlyle.”   47
   At the mention of the name Carlyle his eyes lifted, and he asked: “Carlyle, did you say, sir, Carlyle?”   48
   “Yes,” said the boy, “Thomas Carlyle.”   49
   “Ye-es,” Emerson answered slowly. “To be sure, Carlyle. Yes, he was here this morning. He will be here again to-morrow morning,” he added gleefully, almost like a child.   50
   Then suddenly: “You were saying——”   51
   Edward repeated his request.   52
   “Oh, I think so, I think so,” said Emerson, to the boy’s astonishment. “Let me see. Yes, here in this drawer I have many letters from Carlyle.”   53
   At these words Miss Alcott came from the other part of the room, her wet eyes dancing with pleasure and her face wreathed in smiles.   54
   “I think we can help this young man; do you not think so, Louisa?” said Emerson, smiling toward Miss Alcott. The whole atmosphere of the room had changed. How different the expression of his eyes as now Emerson looked at the boy! “And you have come all the way from New York to ask me that!” he said smilingly as the boy told him of his trip. “Now, let us see,” he said, as he delved in a drawer full of letters.   55
   For a moment he groped among letters and papers, and then, softly closing the drawer, he began that ominous low whistle once more, looked inquiringly at each, and dropped his eyes straightway to the papers before him on his desk. It was to be only for a few moments, then! Miss Alcott turned away.   56
   The boy felt the interview could not last much longer. So, anxious to have some personal souvenir of the meeting, he said: “Mr. Emerson, will you be so good as to write your name in this book for me?” and he brought out an album he had in his pocket.   57
   “Name?” he asked vaguely.   58
   “Yes, please,” said the boy, “your name: Ralph Waldo Emerson.”   59
   But the sound of the name brought no response from the eyes.   60
   “Please write out the name you want,” he said finally, “and I will copy it for you if I can.”   61
   It was hard for the boy to believe his own senses. But picking up a pen he wrote: “Ralph Waldo Emerson, Concord; November 22, 1881.”   62
   Emerson looked at it, and said mournfully: “Thank you.” Then he picked up the pen, and writing the single letter “R” stopped, followed his finger until it reached the “W” of Waldo, and studiously copied letter by letter! At the word “Concord” he seemed to hesitate, as if the task were too great, but finally copied again, letter by letter, until the second “c” was reached. “Another ‘o,’” he said, and interpolated an extra letter in the name of the town which he had done so much to make famous the world over. When he had finished he handed back the book, in which there was written: [figure]   63
   The boy put the book into his pocket; and as he did so Emerson’s eye caught the slip on his desk, in the boy’s handwriting, and, with a smile of absolute enlightenment, he turned and said:   64
   “You wish me to write my name? With pleasure. Have you a book with you?”   65
   Overcome with astonishment, Edward mechanically handed him the album once more from his pocket. Quickly turning over the leaves, Emerson picked up the pen, and pushing aside the slip, wrote without a moment’s hesitation: [figure]   66
   The boy was almost dazed at the instantaneous transformation in the man!   67
   Miss Alcott now grasped this moment to say: “Well, we must be going!”   68
   “So soon?” said Emerson, rising and smiling. Then turning to Miss Alcott he said: “It was very kind of you, Louisa, to run over this morning and bring your young friend.”   69
   Then turning to the boy he said: “Thank you so much for coming to see me. You must come over again while you are with the Alcotts. Good morning! Isn’t it a beautiful day out?” he said, and as he shook the boy’s hand there was a warm grasp in it, the fingers closed around those of the boy, and as Edward looked into those deep eyes they twinkled and smiled back.   70
   The going was all so different from the coming. The boy was grateful that his last impression was of a moment when the eye kindled and the hand pulsated.   71
   The two walked back to the Alcott home in an almost unbroken silence. Once Edward ventured to remark:   72
   “You can have no idea, Miss Alcott, how grateful I am to you.”   73
   “Well, my boy,” she answered, “Phillips Brooks may be right: that it is something to have seen him even so, than not to have seen him at all. But to us it is so sad, so very sad. The twilight is gently closing in.”   74
   And so it proved—just five months afterward.   75
   Eventful day after eventful day followed in Edward’s Boston visit. The following morning he spent with Wendell Phillips, who presented him with letters from William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, and other famous persons; and then, writing a letter of introduction to Charles Francis Adams, whom he enjoined to give the boy autograph letters from his two presidential forbears, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, sent Edward on his way rejoicing. Mr. Adams received the boy with equal graciousness and liberality. Wonderful letters from the two Adamses were his when he left.   76
   And then, taking the train for New York, Edward Bok went home, sitting up all night in a day-coach for the double purpose of saving the cost of a sleeping-berth and of having a chance to classify and clarify the events of the most wonderful week in his life!   77


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