Washington DC – Books And Libraries

BUSH-BEARDED Walt Whitman, making his daily round of the Washington military hospitals up on the hills that we now call Mount Pleas-ant, with his pockets filled with short, sharpened lead pencils and paper with which he supplied the burning desire on the part of the wounded to write home—what a fascinating picture is conjured up!

He would sit down beside one after another, talk with them, use all of his will power to radiate strength, and on leaving for another cot he would quietly hand the precious material for writing out of his deep coat-pockets. Somehow, this offers the kindliest and loftiest side of his character, and simple as it is, it is one of the noblest of Washing-ton’s memories of literary folk.

And Whitman wrote “Captain! My Captain!”

The words ring like the tolling of great bells. They thrill—they tear the heart down to the terrible close of “Lying cold and dead.”

Walt Whitman was the poet for the great national tragedy of Lincoln’s death: no other American poet has ever reached this height.

The great events in the city of Washington seem readily to cast somber shadows. The poem in which pleasant Quaker Whittier rose to a first quality and expressed the feeling of the entire North, is his measured denunciation of Webster. “Ichabod” was a sort of handwriting on the wall in its impressiveness.

Yet by no means all of the literary influences of Washington have been tragic, for one of the most delightful, most cheerful, most humorous figures of fiction came out of Washington environment. In Washington life, Mark Twain saw Colonel Sellers! The creation of Colonel Sellers was so intimate a triumph of insight that you may still see the immortal character, shabby, hopeful, broad-brimmed, string-tied, black-clad, wandering about the lobbies of the minor hotels and the corridors of Congress.

An association of Hawthorne with Washington came literally through London, where he met the future President Buchanan, then Minister to Great Britain, and was inexpressibly shocked and mortified to see, in the presence of British dignitaries standing about, our representative at the Court of St. James, calmly take out a flaming bandanna and tie a knot in the corner as a jog to official memory.

Buchanan, as President, still lives in Washington memory as a fine, old gentleman with a frilled shirt, thanks to his portrait painter, and to a niece whose costumes and manner carried her high in English society. But the quiet writer of New England suffered; and he wrote formally in his journal that Mr. Buchanan told him that he was shortly to re-turn to the United States; and Hawthorne added that it could not be from political aspirations but “from an old man’s natural desire for rest.” But the very next year Buchanan was elected President!

Concord, Hawthorne’s home, sent to Washington at the time of the Civil War, a young girl who was destined to become one of the most beloved writers of the country, Louisa May Alcott. She came from her quiet home and she worked as a nurse and the country was stirred by her sketches of hospital life. Undoubtedly the tragedies among which she lived in the hospitals opened her great heart and developed her insight. Julia Ward Howe found inspiration for “Mine Eyes have seen the glory of the Coming of the Lord” through a Washington visit and going out to see the camps in Virginia; and she expressed a thrill of intense emotion.

William Dean Howells, New Englander by adoption, made his entry into literature by way of President Lincoln. As the son of a Middle West news-paper editor, he was chosen to write the campaign life of the candidate—the first of the many lives of Lincoln—and as appreciation received the consul-ship in Venice, where he reveled in sunshine and romance for the four years of the Civil War. Fifty years later, at the opening of the Great War, when too old himself to fight, he was an active leader among belligerents.

Joel Barlow, that remarkable man in his remarkable estate of Kalorama, seems to have been the first poet of any importance who made Washington his field, doing so on the grand scale. There are two ways of living the literary life in Washington: a few have found it possible to choose the grand style with practical permanency —Barlow, Henry Adams, John Hay, Mrs. Larz Anderson, Thomas Nelson Page. The others have lived from modest to poor, from the small home to the “bo’din’ house” so characteristic a feature of Washington life. Of this class, few have aimed at a more than temporary home here. But practically every literary man and woman comes to the capital for at least a time.

Within a few years of Barlow’s “Columbiad,” which was an epic poem of large size, elaborately published, inspired by the national history and its early heroes, Barlow’s contemporary poet, Timothy Dwight, the great President of Yale, inspired by the burning of Washington, wrote feelingly of that event. Yet in spite of all this the English poet Keats wrote to his brother George in America, in 1818, expressing the profound hope that one of his American-born nephews should be the first American poet! and he puts his hope into rhyme, with its: “Little child o’ th’ western wild.”

That “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was first published in so Southern sympathizing a city, is one of the remarkable bits of Washingtonian book lore. It appeared here serially and did not instantly at-tract such attention as its after history warranted.

Yet not far from that time Owen Meredith, who was here in connection with the British Embassy, then on H Street, wrote “Lucile” which, now for-gotten, was for years read by everybody.

Newspaper correspondents have always been a feature of Washington life, and old-timers liked to say that the one that attracted most widespread attention through his letters to New York was the dandified N. P. Willis.

Ben Perley Poore was not only for years noted as a correspondent, he being gifted with a remarkable sense of news value and readiness of expression, but he was also never at rest from turning out some compilation or reminiscences.

One who was really much more important than Willis was the woman who wrote under the pseudonym of “Gail Hamilton,” whose fame and influence were nation-wide. “Carp.” sent out for years a succession of highly interesting letters. And it ought to be remembered, credit ought to be given for it, that correspondents such as these and others of their general period, profoundly felt their sense of responsibility to the nation and stood absolutely for truth and good Americanism. They kept Americans up to the mark, they handled no propaganda, they had keen eyes, cleverness and humor, and their readers profited by it all.

That was a time when newspaper rivals were in the habit of saying cutting things regarding one another. When one of them flamboyantly wrote that he had “a keen rapier to prick all fools and knaves, ” one older in the harness retorted that his friends had better take it away for he might hurt himself.

Among correspondents of recent years have been Frances E. Leupp, Irvin S. Cobb, Samuel C. Blythe ; and then one remembers that among the most recent of Washington correspondents was that man of many activities, William Jennings Bryan.

A large part of the American literary horizon was filled some years ago by the voluminous novels of Mrs. E. D. N. Southworth, and the low frame house, set against the sidewalk and fairly overhanging the canal and the Potomac, in which she wrote and died, is still standing in Georgetown, on Prospect Street. When she went there to live, it was a neighborhood of convent gardens. It is now shabby but it still looks over the valley at the green Virginia hills.

Two distinguished women who as novelists remained always in close touch with Washington were Francis Hodgson Burnett and Mrs. Burton Harrison; both of them have had homes here and both wrote of the city.

Two recent successful authors, associated with Washington, have used the city as a scene. Sinclair Lewis wrote “Main Street” and used closing scenes in it drawn from the life of the crowds of young women who came here for government office work, during the Great War. He pictured the cramped quarters of their lives and the curious mixtures from vastly different kinds of life, from different strata, and from different States, and the loneliness and weariness of it all. Temple Bailey has written in Washington for years such popular, cheerful books as “A Tin Soldier” and “The Trumpeter Swan,” picturing the happy, sunny sides of Washington life in her happy, sunny way.

Among the most charming of the literary associations of Washington is Irving’s regard for it. This was apparently caused by Irving’s having been born at the very close of the Revolutionary War, that he was named for George Washington, that as a small boy he was patted on the shoulder by Washington, and given a few friendly words. Always thereafter he felt pleasantly drawn to the city which Washington founded, and his presence aided materially in making a fine atmosphere. When the Government sent him as Minister to Spain, it was fully recognized that there could not be a better representative; and Irving was able to turn the appointment into literary experience. In Washington, Irving seemed always to be on hand to meet the best and ablest among visitors. He met Dickens here and he met Thackeray.

Pleasant it is to remember at least one bon mot connected with him, while in this city. It was told by President Monroe’s daughter. Thackeray and Washington Irving were introduced by her, and the conversation turned to a new book in which, as Irving told, the heroine walked for miles in her stockings in the rain. At which Thackeray re-marked that it was “shoeicidal.”

Dickens did not like Washington. The place was not attractive to him. It was an unkempt village. It was rough. Along the Potomac were tidal meadows. Its few good buildings were lost, to him, among the rough and tumble. All this was what he was looking for and therefore what he found and described. He, in turn, in spite of his genius, is spoken of in the memoirs of the time as an over-dressed cockney.

Thackeray was of different order. For him, Washington put its best foot foremost. He in turn recognized what was best in the America of that period: its large proportionate number of able, educated and even cultured people. He would not write critically of the country. He wrote little of it even in personal letters. The one thing that really interested him and in regard to which he wrote extravagantly—mostly to women friends—from every city he visited, was the money he was making. The box-office returns gave him the key for appreciation. His contribution the day after leaving Washington in 1856 was a letter to a woman friend in England, declaring that owing to his profits here he expected to lay up, by the time he was fifty—twenty thousand pounds!

Among other English celebrities, James Bryce is associated only with the British Embassy, for al-though he wrote importantly regarding our Commonwealth it was not while he was Ambassador. John Morley, much though he has written on a wide variety of subjects, made no impression with any comments he may have given, with the exception of his one interesting declaration, grouping Niagara Falls and Theodore Roosevelt as two great natural forces!

The White House itself has been in recent years busied with the publishers. American Presidents have had royalties of their own!—publishers’ royalties. The many serious books written by Roosevelt and by Wilson make an imposing shelf. Yet Roosevelt’s personal taste seems to have gone, largely, toward humor among authors. He loved to call writers to his table at the White House and joyfully wrote a letter to the author whenever he liked a book. He cordially invited Mr. Dooley to visit him and wrote: “Dooley, especially when he writes about Teddy Rosenfelt, has no more interested and amused reader than said Rosenfelt him-self.”

Roosevelt wrote gravely of John Hay at the time of his death: “His `Life of Lincoln’ is a monument, and of its kind, ‘His Castilian Days’ is perfect.” Did John Hay ever tell him that the publishers would not touch the Castilian book till he, the author, paid for publications What a contrast between this and the almost unexampled sum paid in advance for his “Life of Lincoln.”

Always and easily one drifts back to thoughts of long-ago literary times. One thinks of Oliver Wen-dell Holmes coming down to Washington and Antietam to look for his wounded son; profoundly anxious, but noting from the car window for an article for the Atlantic, an interesting point regarding near and far objects moving fast or slow. That same son of his is here now, on the Supreme Bench. One wonders what he would write if he could be here now—the keen little doctor—and see his son sitting gowned among the judges. The man who could say all he did about old Governor Hancock “all cock-ahoop” would see things with a keen eye here now!

Hawthorne wrote from Washington with some good words about Lincoln, but with, on the whole, such savage criticism that his publishers would not make public this part of his writing until years after both Lincoln and Hawthorne were dead. According to Hawthorne, Lincoln had been permitted by fate to “fling his lank personality into the chair of State.” He wrote of his “awkwardness, his uncouthness.” “His coat and pantaloons were unbrushed,” and his hair had “apparently been acquainted with neither brush nor comb that morning”; and he felt sure that Lincoln had worn no night cap ! With the presence of Buchanan’s bandanna and the absence of Lincoln’s night-cap, the fastidious Hawthorne was easily shocked. How-ever, even Hawthorne condescendingly admitted that Lincoln had a sort of tact and wisdom and that “his physiognomy, as coarse a one as you would meet in the length and breadth of the States, is redeemed, illumined, softened, and heightened, by a kindly though serious look out of his eyes and an expression of homely sagacity.”

Another case of delayed publication had to do in a heart-breaking way with Thomas Nelson Page, and it probably affected the literary output of his entire life. The best of his literary work has been the two superb short stories, “Meh Lady” and “Marse Chan.” “Meh Lady” was accepted by the Century some forty years or more ago and held in the editorial pigeon-hole for a dozen years : it never seeming for all that time, to the editor, to be worth while, in comparison to many an ordinary story. It was finally put in to fill a gap, and instantly became recognized as one of the greatest American triumphs of fiction. But the depressing delay must have influenced Page’s ambition and his life.

An interesting literary figure of long ago was Father Pise, for a time chaplain of the United States Senate, a friend of Henry Clay, a very goodlooking young priest, a poet of Italian parentage. He be-longed over at old St. Joseph’s, still existent in Greenwich Village, New York, and was so popular that he preached to standing room. A rich young woman of Washington made Father Pise an offer of marriage, whereupon he quietly advised her “to give her heart to God, her money to the poor, and her hand to the man who asked for it.”

For many years, and of late increasingly so, the city of Washington has attracted great numbers of scientific and historic investigators, through her library facilities and scientific societies and foundations. The Cosmos Club is the special gathering ground for this life, a club occupying the two ad-joining houses of the Madisons and Mark Hanna in Lafayette Square. This abundant scientific life has had much to do with keeping up the standard and the number of bookstores of the city. The bookstores are real bookstores, not novelty shops disguised by a name, and customers find the stocks full and those in charge conversant with what they are selling. This is remindful that in early days the city had a bookshop, Taylor’s, where readers congregated to discuss books much as they did in the Old Corner Book Store in Boston. The shop was on Pennsylvania Avenue and the proprietor always kept his show-window curtains drawn so the light would not fade the bindings. He also had a bust of Sir Walter Scott over his door; and likely enough he did not know that Scott, kind-hearted man that he was and friend of Washington Irving, so allowed the animosity of war to curdle his blood that on learning of the burning of Washington by the British he wrote: “It was our business to have given them a fearful memento that the babe unborn should have remembered”: rather blood-thirsty for the romance-loving Scotchman !

A large white stone building at the junction of Massachusetts and New York Avenues, where there are also other thoroughfares entangling about the park-like area in which it is built, is the Public Library of the District of Columbia. It is one of the busiest of libraries and its average of books is highly chosen; it is a library of dignified, well-managed usefulness. It is of recent establishment and its use is the more marked because of the presence in the city of the greatest of all American libraries, the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress is within a great palatial building of the style of the Italian Renaissance. It stands on level land at no great distance from the Capitol, and facing it with no other building between. It is nearly five hundred feet in frontage. It is three great stories in height and of architecture that at once draws the attention. Next to the Capitol itself and the White House, it is by far the building which visitors most desire to see. Perhaps it was in expectation of this popular interest that the building was not given the usual solemnity of a library but the gorgeousness of a palace.

By law there must be two copies sent here of every book published in America, and in this building is the copyright office for the country. To this large total are added rare publications and manuscripts from all parts of the world. Every attention is given to readers of research and they come from near and far to profit by the wonderful opportunities of such a library of reference. And always there is some important librarian at hand, ready to give advice and privileges.

The building is topped by a dome of black copper with gold-leaf panels. There are, in all, some two thousand windows with those near the books hermetically sealed to keep out dust. But the memorable features of the building are the grand staircase and the rotunda. The grand staircase, about which is lavished the gorgeousness of glowing mural paintings, a riot of symbolism and color, the great areas of soft mosaic, the glow of rich Italian marbles, pillar after pillar, arcade beyond arcade, the gleam of bronze—all mark an effort to outdo anything else that ever was done. The architect sought to outdo the Venetian glories of the Doge’s staircase, the Roman splendor of Raphael’s Stanzia, and to out-shine the fading glories of Fontainebleau. Seldom have architects had such an opportunity. And who shall say they have not achieved an American result !

It is the great quiet rotunda that is the heart of the building, with its solemnity, its bookishness, its obvious usefulness as the center for readers and reading, walled in by hidden and tributary masses of books, rising tier on tier, its galleries and alcoves all grouped about the central, busy, working desk of many librarians.

The library is primarily for the use of Congress-men, and whatever they ask for must be promptly gathered. All sorts of requests come, for there are are all sorts of Congressmen. One day there came a demand for “all that the library can send on the subject of Free Trade,” and this seems to have marked the record for quantity on any one order. Not infrequently come requests for anecdotes with which to illustrate some speech and they are likely to specify a dozen or a score!

Unceasingly busy in gathering scientific material and scientific books from all parts of the world is an institution known by name to every American, the Smithsonian. And the amazing fact is that the founder was an Englishman. And still another amazing fact is that although he never saw this country, his tomb is here.

He was a son of the mighty Duke of Northumberland. But as Bernard Shaw expresses it in one of his plays, any one may be the son of a duke but the important point is, was his mother the duchess

The son of the duchess, in this case, was that white-horsed Earl Percy, who led reinforcements to the British at Lexington, and who throughout the terrible retreat bravely exposed himself and his great inheritance of title to the shots of the sharp-shooting farmers. He had chosen the white horse which so drew the fire of the Americans—its color is remembered in eastern Massachusetts to this day—because of an ancient association of the Northumberland family with a white horse.

The young brother, whose mother was not the duchess, felt his position bitterly. He had no right to the name of Percy or Northumberland, so in his intensity of bitterness he took the name of Smith-son, Smith’s son, as if he were a nobody.

In his will, he described himself as “Son to Hugh, Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth heiress of the Hungerfords of Studley, and niece of Charles the Proud Duke of Somerset “—unusual details to make public but showing how he grasped at family pride. Through his mother he traced his lineage back to Henry VII. and collaterally to Lady Jane Grey. “The best blood of England flows in my veins, but this avails me not he wrote. His mother’s husband’s name was Macie and for many years the son, at Oxford and in traveling about Europe, used the name of James Lewis Macie. He was thirty-five years old, this man of mystery, be-fore he found that Smithson was a Northumberland name, and assumed it.

His bent was strongly toward science, his specialties being mineralogy and geology. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society and went from country to country, from city to city, Rome, Geneva, Paris, Florence, Genoa. He died self-exiled in Genoa, a rich man, in 1829. He had had money left him from various sources, one of which made him think it right to offer a chance of it to a nephew, or any child of the nephew, “legitimate or illegitimate” as he bitterly expressed it.

But he had reasons for being sure that the nephew would not live and so he wrote the following strange boast as he planned the future of his fortune:

“My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and the Percys are extinct and forgotten.”

It seems almost incredible, but it is literally true, that before giving all his money to America he had decided to give it to the Royal Society. But being a man easily embittered he was angered when the Royal Society refused to publish one of his scientific papers; hence the sending of his fortune for this building on the Washington Mall.

For he wrote his will, in 1826, declaring. “I bequeath the whole of my fortune to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

He died at Genoa in 1829, and almost a million dollars became available for the institution in America, much of the money coming as literal gold sovereigns.

Remembering the gloomy old castle of Alnwick, the seat of the Northumberlands, one at the same time remembers the pseudo-medieval towers and windows of the Smithsonian Institution, built in 1855. The giver of this romantic and remarkable bequest to the United States was buried in Genoa. But in 1902, the Italian government needed the burying-ground and ordered the bodies removed. On which President Roosevelt—of course it was Roosevelt!—had the body brought to America, sending a modern man of science, Alexander Graham Bell, to escort the body and thus do honor to the man who with his strange bequest did so much for American science.

So the bitterly unhappy Smithson came to the United States after all, and his body was placed in a tomb of classical shape in a room just by the entrance of the Smithsonian Building.

The Smithsonian shifts its gatherings consider-ably, sending many articles to the National Museum, which is under its control, and sending many of its books to the Library of Congress. Just at present, the Smithsonian building, from which important expeditions are sent throughout the world and which is the center of scientific investigation in America, has a scholarly but rather empty air, and in fact there is only one exhibit of popular interest, the curious statue of George Washington that was made by Greenough long ago for the Capitol, and which has gradually been tucked more and more out of sight after being looked upon as an epoch-making work. The Smithsonian has other quiet corners that might take in a few more of the city’s statues to advantage!

Greenough put Washington in a classic chair and left his honored form almost unclad above the waist —although Washington was always one of the most particular of men as to his clothes. Congress had commissioned Greenough to make a “full-length pedestrian”: and this was the result.

At first it was proudly placed out in front of the Capitol as the greatest triumph of American art; but Greenough’s craftsmanship unconsciously seems to fit the unfair jibe of Tom Moore on Washington himself, lines written years before, when the Irish poet was visiting the city and failed to make an impression. “Nature designed him for a hero’s mold, but e’er she cast him let the stuff run cold,” wrote Moore; and somehow this absurd heroic-sized statue makes one think of it, for the half-clad man sits sandal-shod, stiff and ponderous, with one arm pointed aloft in Jove-like heaviness. No wonder the peasants of Italy prostrated themselves in worship as the statue was slowly dragged along the vineyard-bordered roads to the sea-coast by many yoke of Tuscan oxen.