Charles Carleton Coffin Part 10

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It was one of the great disappointments of Carleton's life that, on returning from his journey around the world, he was not made, as he had with good reason fully expected to be made, chief editor of the _Boston Journal_. We need not go into details of the matter, but suffice it to say, that Carleton was not one to waste time in idle regrets. Indeed, his was a character that could be tested by disappointments, which, in his life, were not a few. Instead of bitterness, came the ripened fruit of patience and mellowness of character.

His renewed acquaintance with the region west of the Mississippi, which he had made during his recent trip across the continent, only whetted his appet.i.te for more seeing and knowing of the future seat of America empire. He accepted with pleasure a commission to explore the promising regions of Minnesota and Dakota, and to give an account especially of the Red River Valley.

Already, in 1858, he had written and published, at his own expense, a pamphlet of twenty-three pages, ent.i.tled "The Great Commercial Prize,"

Boston, A. Williams & Co. It cost him fifty dollars, then a large sum for him, from which the advantage accrued to the nation at large. It was addressed to every American who values the prosperity of his country. It was "An inquiry into the present and prospective commercial position of the United States, and a plea for the immediate construction of a railroad from Missouri River to Puget Sound." It opens with a review of the great events in the world which have had a direct and all-important bearing upon the United States. Hitherto, since the modern mastery of the ocean through the mariner's compa.s.s and the science of navigation, the Atlantic had been the domain of sea power. The Pacific was in future to be the scene of greater opportunities and grander commercial developments. With China and j.a.pan entering the brotherhood of nations, and Russia extending its power towards the Pacific, "five hundred millions of human beings were henceforth to be reached by the hand of civilization." The countries and continents bordering the greatest of oceans were animated with new ideas of progress. On our own western, California, Oregon, and Was.h.i.+ngton were awaiting the touch of industry to yield their riches.

As a reader of the signs of the times, Carleton pointed out the great changes which were to take place in the thoroughfares of trade and travel. Instead of civilization depending for its communication with India, China, and j.a.pan, by pa.s.sages around the southern capes of the two continents, the paths of water and land traffic were to be directly from China, Russia, and j.a.pan to northern America. Noticing that England had made herself the world's banking-house, he saw that the time had come when the United States (which he believed to be potentially, at least, a larger and a n.o.bler England) must stretch out her left hand, as well as her right, for the grasping of the world's prizes. He pointed out the wonderful openings along the sh.o.r.e, providing harbors at the mouths of the two great river systems on the Pacific Coast, those of the Sacramento and the Columbia.

Carleton urged that "A railroad to Puget Sound, constructed immediately, alone will take the key of the Northwest from the hands of the nations which stand with us in the front rank of power."

Important as the railway to San Francisco was, it would not yield the prize. To his vision it was even then perfectly clear, as to all the world it has been since the Chino-j.a.panese war of 1894-95, that the chief American staple which China and j.a.pan needs is cotton, though machinery, petroleum, and flour are in demand. After giving facts, statistics, and well-wrought arguments, he wrote: "Again we say it is easy for America to lay its hand upon the greatest prize of all times, to make herself the world's workshop,--the world's banker. Shall England or the United States control the northwestern section of the continent and the trade of the Pacific?"

Over a decade later on, in 1869, Carleton revelled in the opportunity of being once more the herald and informer concerning regions ready to welcome the plough, the machine-shop, the home, the church, the school, and the glories of civilization. He spent several months mostly in the open air and chiefly on horseback, though often on foot and in vehicles of various descriptions, camping out under the stars, or accepting such rough accommodation as was then afforded in regions where palace cars, elegant hotels, and comfortable homes are now commonplaces. His letters to the _Journal_ were breezy and sparkling.

They diffused the aroma of the Western forests and prairies, while marked with that same wealth of graphic detail, spice of anecdote, lambent humor, and garnish of a conversation which delighted the readers of his correspondence from the army and from the older seats of empire in Asia and in Europe. Carleton's literary photographs were the means of moving many a young and adventurous couple from their homes in the East to the frontier, and of firing the ambition of many a lad and la.s.s to seek their fortune west of the Mississippi. Since California was settled and the Pacific Coast occupied even at scattered points, our frontiers, strange as it may seem, have not been at the eastern or western ends, but on the middle of the country.

After this campaign of correspondence, Carleton returned home and wrote that little book which has been so widely read, both in the East and in the West, ent.i.tled "The Seat of Empire." It was published in 1870 by Fields & Co., of Boston. It had eight pages of introduction, with a map of the territory yet to be settled. It was a volume of 232 pages, 16mo, and was ill.u.s.trated. For many years afterwards, amid the hundreds of letters received from grateful readers of his books, none seemed to give Carleton more pleasure than those from readers who had become settlers. This little book had indeed come to many as a revelation of the promised land. The contagion reached even to Mrs.

Coffin's brothers, one of whom, with a nephew of Carleton, became a pioneer farmer in the Red River Valley in Dakota.

Another pathfinder, a literary as well as military pioneer in opening this n.o.ble region to civilization, was the warm friend of Carleton and of the writer, General Henry B. Carrington, of the United States regular army, and author of that standard authority, "Battles of the American Revolution." During the Civil War, General Carrington had been stationed in Indiana, where he was the potent agent in spoiling the treasonable schemes of the Knights of the Golden Circle, and in n.o.bly seconding Governor Morton in holding the State true to the Union. The war over, he served on the Western plains until 1868, and then wrote "Absaraka, the Home of the Crows," which was a score of years afterwards republished under the t.i.tle of "Absaraka, the Land of Ma.s.sacre." General Carrington was afterwards one of the active members of Shawmut Church. With his fine scholarly and literary tastes, he made a delightful companion.

Any well-told narrative of the exploration, conquest, and civilization of a country, with a history which has helped to make the pageant and procession of human achievement so rich, is, when fully known, of thrilling interest. How grand is the story of the Aryans in India, of the first historic invaders of j.a.pan, of the Roman advance into northern Europe, of the making of Africa and of western America in our own times! Even the culture-epoch of the North American Indians, as written by Longfellow, in his "Song of Hiawatha," is as fascinating as a fairy tale.

Carleton, believing himself and his country to be "in the foremost files of time" and "the heirs of all the ages," came, saw, and wrote of our empire in the Northwest, with an intoxication of delight.

Furthermore, he believed that those who came after him would see vastly more of this part of the earth replenished and subdued. Yet the conquest for which he longed was not to be with blood. His hope and his purpose were intensely ethical and spiritual. His vision was of the triumph of peace, law, order, religion. He urged emigrants looking beyond the Mississippi, or the Rockies, to go in groups, and take with them "the moral atmosphere of their old homes." He advocated the opening of a school the first week and a Sunday school the first Sunday following the arrival of such a colony at its destination. Even a bare, new home, cramped and poor, he suggested, might be to them the type of a better one in more prosperous years, and of the Home beyond, so that, from the beginning, "on Sabbath morning, swelling upward on the air, sweeter than the lay of the lark among the flowers, will ascend the songs of the Sunday school established in their new home.

Looking forward with ardent hope of the earthly prosperous years, they would look still beyond to the heavenly, and sing:

'My heavenly home is bright and fair; Nor pain nor death can enter there.'"

In j.a.pan's long and brilliant roll of benefactors and civilizers, no names s.h.i.+ne more gloriously than those of the Openers of Mountain paths,--of men, priests or laymen, who, by showing the way, surmounting the dangers and difficulties, revealed and made accessible great s.p.a.ces of land for home and harvest field. The Hebrew prophet speaks eloquently of those who "raise up the foundation of many generations," and of those called "the restorer of the paths to dwell in." In this glorious company of the world's benefactors, Carleton's name is written indelibly. Even "far-sighted" men deemed the project of a railway to Puget Sound "visionary," when Carleton's pamphlet was published. He lived to see it a reality.



Steeped in the ancestral lore of New England, a student of the origins of this country, a reader of, and thinker upon, the records of the past, having seen history in its making, and, as it were, in the very furnace and crucibles of war, having traversed the globe along the line of its highest civilizations, having watched at the cradle of our own n.o.bler empire in the great West, Carleton determined to write for the young people of this nation the story of liberty, and of liberty's highest expression, "The American People and Their Government."

It was not a sudden impulse that came to him, it was no accident, but the result of a deliberate purpose. Opportunity and leisure now made the way perfectly clear. He had long been of the opinion that the events of history might be presented vividly to the youthful mind in a series of pictures. He would portray the experiences of individuals whom the reader has been led to regard as persons, and not merely parts of an army, a church, and a government. He believed this was a better method, with young readers at least, than that usually followed by the majority of writers of history. To form his style, he read and re-read the very best English authors. He studied Burke especially, and ascribed to him the strongest single literary influence he had known. Years afterwards, when (like the swords of the j.a.panese steel-smiths, Muramasa and Sanemori, which never would rest quietly in their scabbards, but always kept flying out) Carleton's books were nearly always usefully absent from the shelves, the librarian at Dover, New Hamps.h.i.+re, in surprise made criticism to his face of Carleton's own statement about Burke. She remarked to him that she had not thought of Burke as a model for a person intending to write fiction,--referring, doubtless, to "Winning His Way," and "Caleb Krinkle."

Carleton replied that the strong, fine style of the British author gave him the best possible lesson in presenting a subject. "Whether writing fiction or fact, if the author wished to make and retain an impression on the mind of his reader, let him study Burke." At a particular time, as the chief librarian of a large public library told him, Carleton's books were more largely read than those of any living writer in the world.

"Caleb Krinkle" is a story of American life in which the characters, the habits of thought, and the rich details of daily routine are given with minuteness, accuracy of observation, and genuine sympathy. The landscape is that of New Hamps.h.i.+re, but the outlook is far beyond, for the author's purpose is to sow broadcast the seeds of true dignity, manliness, and republicanism. The hero is a good one, but of no uncommon type.

The young Yankee finds the battle of life hard, but also fights it bravely, and, in good time, conquers. The secondary actor, Dan Dishaway, is a wholly original character, a tin peddler with little education and unpolished manners, but with a loyal heart, and a simple, unconscious character that impressed and influenced the whole village. The teacher of teachers, to him, was his mother. The very foundation of the story is the value of human character, apart from the accidents of birth or position. The plot develops rapidly, and is ill.u.s.trated by exciting incidents of river freshets, s.h.i.+pwreck on one of the great lakes, and a prairie fire. Love is shown to be no respecter of persons, but is found faithful, pure, and delicate, in people who never heard of cosmic philosophy, or the term "altruism,"

who knew not the cla.s.sics, who went sadly astray in grammar. Without direct preaching, the story shows that the way of the transgressor is hard, and that the hardness is not lessened by worldly prosperity.

The critic quickly notices, however, that Carleton is not so successful in his pictures of city life as those of the country.

Nevertheless, in modern days, when the population of Boston consists not of people born there, but chiefly of newcomers from the country, from Canada, or from Europe, Carleton was all the more a helper. An American who has mastered French, even though not perfect in p.r.o.nunciation, may be a better teacher of it than a native.

Bertha Wayland's success in society, and her Boston life, made a very attractive portion of the book to a large number of readers at rural firesides. For who in New England, and still young, does not hope some day to live in sight of the golden dome? In later years, "Caleb Krinkle" was republished, with some revision and in much handsomer form, as "Dan of Millbrook," by Estes and Lauriat, of Boston.

His next work, which still remains the most popular of all, the one least likely to suffer by the lapse of time, and the last probably to reach oblivion, because it appeals to young Americans in the whole nation, is his "Boys of '76." The first lore to which Carleton listened after his infant lips had learned prayer, and "line upon line, and precept upon precept," from the Bible, was from his soldier grandfathers. These around the open fireplace told the story of Revolutionary marches, and camps, and battles. Nothing could be more real to the open-eyed little boy than the narratives related by the actors themselves, especially when he could ask questions, and get full light and explanation.

For an author who would write on the beginnings of the Revolution, no part of our country is so rich in historic sites, and so superbly equipped with libraries, museums, relics, and memorials, as the valley of the Charles River, in Ma.s.sachusetts. In this region lies Boston, where not the first, though nearly the first, blood of the Revolution was shed; where were hung for Paul Revere the lantern-beacons; which was first the base of operations against Bunker Hill; and which afterward suffered siege, and served as the outlet for the Tories to Canada, when Howe and his fleet sailed away. Across the river is the battle-road to Lexington, now n.o.bly marked with monumental stones and tablets, and, further on, Lexington itself, with its blood-consecrated green and inscribed boulder, its museum, and its well-marked historic spots. Beyond is Concord, with its bridge, well-site, and bronze minuteman. From the crest of the green mound on Bunker Hill, at Charlestown, rises the granite monument seen from all the country round. Near to Boston, is Cambridge with its university, Was.h.i.+ngton's elm, and manifold Revolutionary memories; while on the southeast, on the rising ground close at hand, and now part of the munic.i.p.ality itself, are Dorchester Heights, once fortified and bristling with cannon. Within easy reach by rail, water, or wheel, are places already magnetic to the tourist and traveller, because their reputations have been richly enlarged by poet, artist, romancer, and historian. Along the coast, or slightly inland, stood the humble homes of the ancestors of Grant and Lincoln, and but a little further to the southeast is the "holy ground" of Plymouth.

Even more important to the historiographer are the amazing treasures of books and records gathered in the twin cities on the Charles, making a wealth of material for American history, unique in the United States. What wonder, then, that the overwhelming majority of American writers of history have wrought here? Nor need we be surprised that, both in their general tone and in the bulk of their writing, they have portrayed less the real history of the United States than the history of New England,--with a glance at parts adjacent and an occasional distant view of regions beyond.

Graphic, powerful, and popular as are Carleton's books, he does not wholly escape the limitations of his heredity and environment.

Generous as he is, and means to be, to other States, nationalities, and sections in the United States, beyond those in the six Eastern States, the student more familiar with the great constructive forces of the Middle, the Southern, and the Western States, who knows the power of Princeton as well as of Harvard, of Dutch as well as of Yankee, without necessarily contesting Carleton's statements of fact, is inclined to discern larger streams of influence, and to give greater credit to sources and developments of power, and to men and inst.i.tutions west and south of the Hudson River, than does Carleton in his books.

Yet to the millions of his readers, history seemed to be written in a new way. It was different from anything to which they had been accustomed. Peter Parley had, indeed, in his time, created a fresh style of historical narration, which captivated unnumbered readers by its simple and direct method of presenting subjects known in their general outline, but not made of sufficient human or present interest.

These works had suited exactly the stage of culture which the majority of young people in our country had reached when the Parley books were written. It is doubtful, however, whether those same works would have achieved a like success in the last three decades of this century.

Education had been so much improved, schools were so much more general, the development of the press and cheap reading matter was so great, that in the enlargement of view consequent upon the successful issue of the great civil war, a higher order of historical narration was a necessity. He who would win the new generation needed to be neither a professional scholar, a man of research, nor a genius, but he must know human nature well, and be familiar with great national movements, the causes and the channels of power. This equipment, together with a style fas.h.i.+oned, indeed, in the newspaper office, but deepened and enriched by the study of language, of rhetoric, and of masterly literary methods, as seen in the best English prose, made Carleton the elect historian for the new generation, and the educator of the youth of our own and the coming century.

Carleton is a maker of pictures. He turns types into prismatics, and paragraphs into paintings. He lifts the past into the present. The event is seen as though it happened yesterday, and the persons, be they kings or plough-boys, appear as if living to-day. Their hearts, affections, motives, thoughts, are just like those of men and women in our time. Their clothing and way of living may be different, but they are the sort of human beings with which we are acquainted. Better yet, it is not only the men with crowns on their heads, or the women who wear jewelled and embroidered robes, or riders locked up in steel, or men under tonsure or tiara, that did great things and made the world move. Carleton shows how the milk-maid, the wagoner, the blacksmith, the spinster with the distaff, the rower of the boat, the common soldier on foot, the student in his cell, and the peddler with his pack, all had a part in working out the wonderful story.

Had a part, did I say? No, in Carleton's story he _has_ a part. No writer more frequently and with keener effect uses the historical present. Compare Carleton's straightforward narration and marching chapters with the average British writer of history, and at once we see the difference between chroniclers,--who give such enormous s.p.a.ce to kings, queens and ecclesiastical and military figureheads, almost to the extent (in the eye of the philosophic student, at least) of caricature,--and this modern scribe, to whom every true man is a sovereign, while a king is no more than a man. While well able to measure personalities and forces, to divine causes, and to discern and emphasize in the foreground of his pictures, even as an artist does, the important figure, yet Carleton is never at a loss to do this because the real hero may be of humble birth or in modest apparel.

In travelling, the little child from the car window will notice many things in the landscape and about the houses pa.s.sed, belonging to his lowly world of experience, no higher than the top of a yardstick, to which the average adult is blind. Carleton looked with the child's eye over history's field. He brings before the front lights of his stage what will at once catch the attention of the young people, to whom the deeper things of life may be invisible mystery. Yet, Carleton's books are always enjoyable to the mature man, for he discerns beneath the vivid picturing and simple rhetoric, so pleasing to the child, a practical knowledge and a philosophic depth which shows that the writer is a master of the art of reading men and events as well as of interpreting history.

Mr. Coffin's more serious productions are his arguments before Congressional and State legislative committees; his pamphlets on the labor question, railways, and patents; his addresses before general audiences and gatherings of scientific, commercial, and religiously interested men; his life of Garfield, as well as that of Lincoln; and those voluminous contributions made to the daily or weekly press, and to magazines, and to reviews. Editors often turned to him for that kind of light and knowledge that the public needed when grave issues were before the church, the city, the commonwealth, the nation. In speaking or writing thus, he used a less ornate style, less fervid rhetoric, and spoke or wrote with direct, business-like precision. In a word, he suited his style to the work in hand. But, because he attracted and delighted, while teaching, his young readers, that critic must be blind or unappreciative who cannot see also the purpose of a master mind. The mature intellect of Carleton which animates and informs the pretty stones, educated also up and on to the n.o.bler heights of historical reading.

Strictly speaking, in the light of the more rigid canons of historical knowledge and the research demanded in our days, and when tested by stern criticism, Mr. Coffin was not a historical scholar of the first order. Nor did he make any such pretension. No one, certainly not himself, would dream of ranging his name in the same line with those of the great masters, Prescott, Motley, Bancroft, or Parkman,--men of wealth and leisure, as well as of ability. He painted his pictures without going into the chemistry of colors, or searching into the mysteries of botany, to be absolutely sure as to the cla.s.sification of the fibres which made his canvas. His first purpose was to make an impression, and his second, to fix that impression inerasably on the mind. For this, he trusted largely the work of those who had lived before him, and he made diligent and liberal use of materials already acc.u.mulated. He would paint his own picture after making the drawings and arranging his tints, perspective, lights, and shadows.

Nevertheless, Mr. Coffin was not a man accustomed to take truth at second hand. His own judgment was singularly sane, and he was not accustomed to receive statements and to devour them unflavored by the salt of criticism. Four years of the pursuit of letters amid arms, while pa.s.sion was hottest, and men were too excited to care for the exact truth, had trained this cool-headed scribe to critical treatment of rumors and reports. Furthermore, he knew the value of first authorities and of contemporary writers and eye-witnesses. He discounted much of the writing done after the war in controversy, for political ends, for personal vanity, or to cover up damaged reputations. He knew both the heating and the cooling processes of time. I remember when, about 1890, after he had finished making a set of sc.r.a.p-books of soldiers' letters, reminiscences and newspaper reports of the battles of the war, how heartily he laughed when, with twinkling eyes, he remarked on the tendency of some old soldiers "to remember a good deal that never happened." As his experience with the pen deepened, he became more rigid in his requirements as to the quality of the information which his books gave. Those who have read especially his four later volumes on the war, will note that at the end of each chapter he gives the sources of authority for his statements and judgments. In a word, Carleton was a man who, having mapped the irrigated country and the stream's mouth, resolutely set his face towards the fountains to find them. There is an increasing exactness and care in finish, as his works progressed.

The decade from 1870 to 1880 was a busy one for this author, not only in his home study, in the Boston libraries, but also with the pen and with voice. The formation of the Grand Army of the Republic, and the establishments of Posts all over the country, and especially in the Northern States, created a demand for lectures on the war. The soldiers themselves wished to study the great subject as a whole, while their wives and children and friends were only too glad to support the movement for the gathering of Post libraries, or the collection in the town public libraries of books relating to the war.

The younger generation needed instruction as to causes, as well as to results. Carleton was everywhere a favorite, because of his personality, as well as of his wide and profound acquaintance, from actual observation, of the great movements which consolidated nations.

Years before becoming a war correspondent, Carleton had longed to be an orator who could sway thousands by the magic of his eloquence. More than once, after hearing Edward Everett, Rufus Choate, Wendell Phillips, and such masters of audiences, he would be unable to sleep, so excited was he by what he had heard, and still more by the power evinced in a single mind moving the wills of thousands. In such hours he longed to be a great orator, and thought no sacrifice too great to make in order to achieve success. As his own opportunities for public speaking multiplied, he became a fluent and convincing speaker, with clear ideas, picturesque language, and the power of dramatic ant.i.thesis. He had that gift of making pictures to the mind by which a speaker can turn the ears of his auditors into eyes. His tall form, luminous face, impressive sincerity, and contagious earnestness made delighted hearers, especially among the soldiers, who everywhere hailed him as their defender, their faithful historian, and their steadfast friend. To take the hand of Carleton, after his address or lecture, was a privilege for which men and women strove as a high honor, and which children, now grown men and women, remember for a lifetime.

Nevertheless, in the sound judgment of the critic, Carleton would not be reckoned, as he himself knew well, in the front rank of orators.

Neither in overmastering grace of person, in power of unction, in magnetic conquest of the mind and will, was he preeminent. When, leaving the flowery meadows of description or rising from the table-land of n.o.ble sentiment and inspiring precepts, he attempted to rise in soaring eloquence, his oratorical abilities did not match the grandeur of his thought or the splendor of his diction.

In the course of his career as a speaker, he delivered at least two thousand lectures and addresses on formal occasions, besides unnumbered off hand speeches. Being one of those full men, it was of him that it could be said, _Semper paratus_. On whatever subject he spoke, he was sure to make it interesting. Besides reports of his addresses and orations in the newspapers, several of the most important have been published in pamphlet form. At the centennial celebration at Boscawen, N. H., on the 4th of July, and at the 45th anniversary of the settlement of Rev. Edward Buxton, at the 50th anniversary of the Historical-Genealogical Society of Boston, and at Nantucket, before the Bostonian Society and at the Congregational Clubs, before Press a.s.sociations, Legislative and Congressional Committees, on Social and Labor questions, and at the Congress held in Chicago for the promotion of international commerce between the countries of North and South America, Carleton reached first an audience, and then, through the types, wider circles of readers.



Besides other means of recreation, Carleton was happy in having been from childhood a lover of music. In earlier life he sang in the church choir, under the training of masters of increasing grades of skill, in his native village, at Malden, and in Boston. He early learned to play upon keyed instruments, the melodion, the piano, and the organ, the latter being his favorite. From this great encyclopaedia of tones, he loved to bring out grand harmonies. He used this instrument of many potencies, for enjoyment, as a means of culture, for the soothing of his spirits, and the resting of his brain. When wearied with the monotony of work with his pen, he would leave his study, as I remember, when living in Boston, and, having a private key to Shawmut Church, and dependent on no a.s.sistance except that of the water-motor, he would, for a half hour or more, and sometimes for hours, delight and refresh himself with this organ,--grandest of all but one, in Boston, the city of good organs and organ-makers. Many times throughout the war, in churches deserted or occupied, alone or in the public service, in the soldier's camp-church or meeting in the open air, wherever there was an instrument with keys, Carleton was a valued partic.i.p.ant and aid in wors.h.i.+p.

Charles Carleton Coffin Part 10

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