Carl Schurz 1829-1906

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Carl Schurz 1829-1906
by William Dean Howells
From Harper's Weekly, May 26, 1906, p. 728.


By W. D. Howells

If one wished to verify the fact that a great man receives at the end of a life touching either side of the Psalmist's limit a fair, though perhaps not full, appreciation of his work and character, he could not do better than read the articles in the New York papers on Carl Schurz the day after his death. His character, to be sure, had the simplicity which mates with greatness, and his work the openness of honesty, but whatever was more recondite in either was instantly judged with an intelligence the more notable because it is supposed the effect of years, and the more years the better. History is invoked to this office by the academic fancy, but it cannot be denied that journalism discharged it well. The verdict given was not only fair, but after a long career in which the runner had often dealt heroic blows right and left, it was not only dispassionate, it was as kind as it was just.

He whose hand was stilled forever had a claim to this tenderness which was felt most by those knowing him best, but which could hardly fail measurably to avouch itself to those knowing him at all, or knowing him merely by hearsay. He must always have been, in the innumerable encounters of experience, what he has openly shown himself in his latest message, by far his greatest message, to the world, a man tender, even when apparently least regardful, of other men; an affectionate nature, in fine, though never a weak one. The newspapers joined as with one voice in calling him an idealist, meaning their highest praise by that; and it was not necessary for them to connote that he was as far as possible from being a sentimentalist. If he believed well of mankind, he expected, he exacted almost as much as he hoped of it; and where it did not justify his belief, there was where his severity came in. It is too easy to say that this was the feminine touch in his make-up; most men are born of women, especially great men; and the mothers of the race are nearly always present in the natures of the sons.

If you had Carl Schurz's acquaintance at all, and I have a notion that this did not voluntarily extend or continue much beyond the large bounds of his friendship, you could not fail of some expression of this quality in him. You found him more expressive, when it came to matters of feeling, than the born American, often far less the true American, is. He could say things which the faint, remote touch of an accent, or an alien rhythm, saved from being of the wrong effect; he could be affectionate in words without seeming in any wise affected, as the born American could not, or might think he could not. Once, in speaking of President Hayes, himself a man of a like noble and gentle make, he said, kindling from the remembrance of their relations, at once official and intimate, “I loved that man!”

In things of the soul, as we used to call it, and we have yet no new word for it, he was apt to be, even to my meagre observation, very direct, very promptly candid. At a house whose site is now buried deep under the towering shape of a skyscraper, where sometimes we used to meet at dinner, there was once long talk, over the cigars and coffee in the host's library, about the soul, and its mystical share in mortality and its potentialities of immortality. It was talk which in that company you wished never to end; almost at moments we seemed to arrive, and there was a high consolation in even failing to arrive, in drifting close along the coasts of the unknowable, and then drifting off again without touching land. This talk remained always vividly if not definitely in my mind; if it had been more definite it might not have been so vivid; and years afterwards in another talk I recurred to it and asked abruptly, but apparently, from his reply, not irrelevantly, whether he believed if a man died he should live again. He answered the question which, explicit or tacit, is always at the bottom of all hearts: “I don't know. All I can say is that I should be very unhappy if I thought I should not.

Still another time, the talk was almost a monologue of his about battle, upon some question of it from us civilians, and I know nothing, outside of Tolstoy, which seemed more truly to impart the psychology of the soldier's experience. Like all other soldiers whom I have heard speak of it, he abhorred war; and the whole generous nature of the man, as we all know, rose sublimely against that war of ours which he last saw but was no part of. He seemed to me always essentially humane; and as long as the force, or the field of action, remained to him, he did not lose his innate optimism. He never wholly lost it, but as age and the want of opportunity forbade him the exercise of his faith in men, there possibly crept upon him something of the pessimism which we are subject to if we must let our sympathies lie idle. If he loved his kind, however, as I think he did to the last, he also liked to realize that his kind loved him; and it was inexpressibly touching to be told at his door, the day before he died, that in the interval in which he was heroically holding death off by shear courage, he wished to know who came to ask for him; he wanted their cards brought to his bed, and their names read off to him.

I find myself writing of him as if I had known him from frequent meetings, but I suppose I really never saw him above ten or twelve times. I take it, therefore, that it was not merely my inveterate habit of observance that was employed with him, but that there was always something very positive, however involuntary, in his fashion of imparting himself. For one thing, you knew where to find him always, and that was the right place. Your instinct prophesied, after any signal event, that he must and would feel and think justly and clearly of it, and so, in your rare encounters, there was no time lost. I myself in my literary quality wasted little or none of it in trying to reach him in his historical quality of German revolutionist, Western politician, Northern general, American statesman, New York editor. I knew that these were all his genuine and characteristic phases, and no mere masks; and that a thousand deeds and words bore witness of his intense vitality in each. But underneath them all, and in his heart of hearts, I was always divining him poet. He had lived one of the greatest and most beautiful romances, and you could not be in his presence without knowing it, unless you were particularly blind and deaf. It kindled in his eyes; it trembled in his clear, keen, yet gentle voice; it shone in his smile; it sounded in his laugh, which his youth had never died out of.

It was known to his friends for several years that he was writing his autobiography; but not till I read the first chapters of that masterwork did I realize how great a contribution he was making to history and to art in it. I have no doubt that it will remain his chief monument, and that all his other actions, achievements, qualities, will show there like the inscriptions of some perfect shaft of marble or some speaking relief of bronze. There is no more important or delightful form of literature than that which has chosen this great man to be one of its most admirable exponents.

He was, to my knowledge, not a person much, or at all, given to boasting of his democracy. Perhaps he thought that evident enough in what he had done and been since he had become so much more an American than so many that were born so. But it must have been with a glow of joy that all who believe the highest possible of the lowliest conditions to find in those opening pages of his life-story the poem of humanity which the history of our own great men has made classic. It will not be well for the world when its best are its best born. Conquest, slavery, the subjection of the peoples, can still sometimes come from the palace; but the cottage is oftenest the home of the genius which is to help the race. Some men, the meaner sort, wish to forget the past as they climb out of their obscurity; but the nobler sort no more forget that they boast of their simple origin, their poor beginnings, which are forever dear to them. Carl Schurz, who was born to do such splendid things in so many sorts, owns his plebian birth and hard-won way with the same frankness and tenderness as if these were not the things prosperity and success teach us to be ashamed of. Other chapters of the autobiography, as we have seen them, eclipse its opening passages in thrilling interest and historic importance, but none lead so directly from the heart of the writer to the heart of the reader. He reveals in them once more the familiar secret of the sweetness in the heart of simplicity, and the noble pride which may thrive on humble circumstance. The self-evident truths of the Declaration affirm themselves anew in his tale, and the Republic is born again, as it is wherever a true Republican is born.

This fighter for freedom in two worlds, this just advocate, this honest politician, this conscientious journalist, this wise statesman, lived into all the honor that a man could well wish, and he had the peculiar, the almost unique tribute paid him by those who imagine themselves born the rulers of such men as he, in the tacit acknowledgment of authority in his native land that his resistance to authority was manful and righteous. But he has done himself far greater honor, rendered himself loftier distinction by his fidelity to the tradition which seems the American tradition only because it is so familiar to us, but which time and again is the experience of the world everywhere. There is Washington and there is Hamilton, gently born and gently bred, but somehow the heart turns rather to Franklin and to Lincoln as of more hope for the common men “God made so many of.”

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).