The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Caroline Gilman/Autobiography

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MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY.


I am asked for some “particulars of my literary and domestic life.” It seems to me, and I suppose at first thought, it seems to all, a vain and awkward egotism to sit down and inform the world who you are. But if I, like the Petrarchs, and Byrons, and Hemanses, greater or less, have opened my heart to the public for a series of years, with all the pulses of love and hatred and sorrow so transparently unveiled, that the throbs may be almost counted, why should I or they feel embarrassed in responding to this request? Is there not some inconsistency in this shyness about autobiography?

I find myself, then, at nearly sixty years of age, somewhat of a patriarch in the line of American female authors—a kind of Past Master in the order.

The only interesting point connected with my birth, which took place October 8th, 1794, in Boston, Mass., is that I first saw the light where the Mariners’ Church now stands, in the North Square. My father, Samuel Howard, was a shipwright, and to my fancy it seems fitting, that seamen should assemble on the former homestead of one who spent his manhood in planning and perfecting the noble fabrics which bear them over the waves. All the record I have of him is, that on every State thanksgiving day he spread a liberal table for the poor, and for this I honour his memory.

My mother descended from the family of the Brecks, a branch of which is located in Philadelphia as well as in Boston, and which, by those who love to look into such matters, is traced, as far as I have heard, to 1703 in America.

The families of 1794 in the North Square, have changed their abode. Our pastor, the good Dr. Lathrop, minister of the “Old North,” then resided at the head of the Square—the Mays, Reveres, and others, being his neighbours.

It appears to me, that I remember my baptism on a cold November morning, in the aisle of the old North, and how my minister bent over me with one of the last bush-wigs of that century, and touched his finger to my befrilled little forehead: but being only five weeks old, and not a very precocious babe, I suppose I must have learned it from oral tradition.

I presume, also, I am under the same hallucination, when I see myself, at two years of age, sitting on a little elevated triangular seat, in the corner of the pew, with red morocco shoes, clasped with silver buckles, turning the movable balusters, which modern architects have so unkindly taken away from children in churches.

My father died before I was three years old, and was buried at Copp’s Hill. A few years since, I made a pilgrimage to that most ancient and interesting cemetery, but its grass-covered vaults revealed to me nothing of him.

My mother, who was an enthusiastic lover of nature, retired into the country with her six children, and placing her boys at an academy at Woburn, resided with her girls in turn at Concord, Dedham, Watertown, and Cambridge, changing her residence, almost annually, until I was nearly ten years old, when she passed away, and I followed her to her resting-place, in the burial-ground at North Andrews.

Either childhood is not the thoughtless period for which it is famed, or my susceptibility to suffering was peculiar. I remember much physical pain. I recollect, and I think Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, describes the same, a deep horror at darkness, a suffocation, a despair, a sense of injury when left alone at night, that has since made me tender to this mysterious trial of youth. I recollect also my indignation after a chastisement for breaking some china, and in consequence I have always been careful never to express anger at children or servants for a similar misfortune.

In contrast to this, come the memories of chasing butterflies, launching chips for boats on sunny rills, dressing dolls, embroidering the glowing sampler, and the soft maternal mesmerism of my mother’s hand, when, with my head reclined on her knee, she smoothed my hair, and sang the fine old song

“In the downhill of life.”

As Wordsworth says in his almost garrulous enthusiasm,

“Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
 Fostered alike by beauty and by fear;
 Much favoured in my birth-place.”

I say birth-place, for true life is not stamped on the spot where our eyes first open, but our mind-birth comes from the varied associations of childhood, and therefore may I trace to the wild influences of nature, particularly to those of sweet Auburn, now the Cambridge Cemetery, the formation of whatever I may possess of the poetical temperament. Residing just at its entrance, I passed long summer mornings making thrones and couches of moss, and listening to the robins and blackbirds.

The love of the beautiful then was quite undeveloped in social life; the dead reposed by roadside burial-grounds, the broken stone walls of which scarcely sheltered the sod which covered them. Now all is changed in those haunts of my childhood, and perchance costly monuments in Mount Auburn have risen on the sites of my moss-covered thrones.

Our residence was nearly opposite Governor Gerry’s, and we were frequent visitors there. One evening I saw a small book on the recessed window-seat of their parlour. It was Gesner’s Death of Abel; I opened it, spelt out its contents, and soon tears began to flow. Eager to finish it, and ashamed of emotions so novel, I screened my little self so as to allow the light to fall only on the book, and, while forgotten by the group, I also forgetting the music and mirth that surrounded me, I shed, at eight years, the first preluding tears over fictitious sorrow.

It was formerly the custom for countrypeople in Massachusetts to visit Boston in throngs on election day, and see the Governor sit in his chair on the Common. This pleasure was promised me, and a neighbouring farmer was good enough to offer to take me to my uncle Phillips’s. Therefore, soon after sunrise, I was dressed in my best frock, and red shoes, and with a large peony called a ’lection posey, in one hand, and a quarter of a dollar in the other, I sprang with a merry heart into the chaise, my imagination teeming with soldiers, and sights, and sugar-plums, and a vague thought of something like a huge giant sitting in a big chair, overtopping everybody.

I was an incessant talker when travelling, therefore the time seemed short when I was landed, as I supposed, at my uncle Phillips’s door, and the farmer drove away. But what was my distress at finding myself among strangers! Entirely ignorant of my uncle’s direction, I knew not what to say. In vain a cluster of kind ladies tried to soothe and amuse me with promises of playmates and toys; a sense of utter loneliness and intrusion kept me in tears. At sunset, the good farmer returned for me, and I burst into a new agony of grief. I have never forgotten that long, long day with the kind and hospitable, but wrong Phillipses. If this statement should chance to be read and remembered by them, at this far interval, I beg them to receive the thanks which the timid child neglected to give to her stranger-friends.

I had seen scarcely any children’s books except the Primer, and at the age of ten, no poetry adapted to my age; therefore, without presumption, I may claim some originality for an attempt at an acrostic on an infant, by the name of Howard, beginning—

How sweet is the half opened rose!
Oh, how sweet is the violet to view!
Who receives more pleasure from them,

Here it seems I broke down in the acrostic department, and went on—

Than the one who thinks them like you?
Yes, yes, you re a sweet little rose,
That will bloom like one awhile;
And then you will be like one still,
For I hope you will die without guile.

The Davidsons, at the same age, would, I suppose, have smiled at this poor rhyming, but in vindication of my ten-year-old-ship I must remark, that they were surrounded by the educational light of the present era, while I was in the dark age of 1805.

My education was exceedingly irregular, a perpetual passing from school to school, from my earliest memory. I drew a very little, and worked the “Babes in the Woods” on white satin, in floss silk; my teacher and my grandmother being the only persons who recognised in the remarkable individuals that issued from my hands a likeness to those innocent sufferers.

I taught myself the English guitar at the age of fifteen from hearing a schoolmate take lessons, and ambitiously made a tune, which I doubt if posterity will care to hear. By depriving myself of some luxuries, I purchased an instrument, over which my whole soul was poured in joy and sorrow for many years. A dear friend, who shared my desk at school, was kind enough to work out all my sums for me (there were no black-boards then), while I wrote a novel in a series of letters, under the euphonious name of Eugenia Fitz Allen. The consequence is that, so far as arithmetic is concerned, I have been subject to perpetual mortifications ever since, and shudder to this day when any one asks me how much is seven times nine.

I never could remember the multiplication table, and, to heap coals of fire on its head in revenge, set it to rhyme. I wrote my school themes in rhyme, and instead of following “Beauty soon decays,” and “Cherish no ill designs,” in B and C, I surprised my teacher with—

“Beauties in vain their pretty eyes may roll,
Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul.”

My teacher, who at that period was more ambitious for me than I was for myself, initiated me into Latin, a great step for that period.

The desire to gratify a friend induced me to study Watts’s Logic. I did commit it to memory conscientiously, but on what an ungenial soil it fell! I think, to this day, that science is the dryest of intellectual chips, and for sorry quibblings, and self-evident propositions, syllogisms are only equalled by legal instruments, for which, by the way, I have lately seen a call for reform. Spirits of Locke, and Brown, and Whewell, forgive me!

About this period I walked four miles a week to Boston to join a private class in French.

The religious feeling was always powerful within me. I remember, in girlhood, a passionate joy in lonely prayer, and a delicious elevation, when with upraised look, I trod my chamber floor, reciting or singing Watts’s Sacred Lyrics. At sixteen I joined the Communion at the Episcopal Church in Cambridge.

At the age of eighteen I made another sacrifice in dress to purchase a Bible with a margin sufficiently large to enable me to insert a commentary. To this object I devoted several months of study, transferring to its pages my deliberate convictions.

I am glad to class myself with the few who first established the Sabbath School and Benevolent Society at Watertown, and to say that I have endeavoured, under all circumstances, wherever my lot has fallen, to carry on the work of social love.

* * * *

At the age of sixteen I wrote “Jephthah’s Rash Vow.” I was gratified by the request of an introduction from Miss Hannah Adams, the erudite, the simple-minded, and gentle-mannered author of the History of Religions. After her warm expressions of praise for my verses, I said to her,

“Oh, Miss Adams, how strange to hear a lady, who knows so much, admire me!”

“My dear,” replied she, with her little lisp, “my writings are merely compilations, Jephthah is your own.”;

This incident is a specimen of her habitual humility.

To show the change from that period, I will remark, that when I learned that my verses had been surreptitiously printed in a newspaper, I wept bitterly, and was as alarmed as if I had been detected in man’s apparel.

The next effusion of mine was “Jairus’s Daughter,” which I inserted, by request, in the North American Review, then a miscellany.

A few years later I passed four winters at Savannah, and remember still vividly, the love and sympathy of that genial community.

In 1819 I married Samuel Gilman, and came to Charleston, S. C., where he was ordained pastor of the Unitarian Church

In 1832, I commenced editing the “Rose Bud,” a hebdomadal, the first juvenile newspaper, if I mistake not, in the Union. Mrs. Child had led the way in her monthly miscellany, to my apprehension the most perfect work that has ever appeared for youth. The “Rose Bud” gradually unfolded through seven volumes, taking the title of the “Southern Rose,” and being the vehicle of some rich literature and valuable criticism.

From this periodical I have reprinted, at various times, the following volumes:

“Recollections of a New England Housekeeper;” “Recollections of a Southern Matron;” “Ruth Raymond, or Love’s Progress;” “Poetry of Travelling in the United States;” “Tales and Ballads;” “Verses of a Lifetime;” “Letters of Eliza Wilkinson, during the invasion of Charleston;” also, several volumes for youth, now collected in one, and recently republished, as “Mrs. Gilman’s Gift Book.” The “Poetry of Travelling,” “Tales and Ballads,” and “Eliza Wilkinson,” are out of print. The “Oracles from the Poets,” and “The Sibyl,” which occupied me two years, are of later date.

On the publication of the “Recollections of a New England Housekeeper,” I received thanks and congratulations from every quarter, and I attribute its popularity to the fact that it was the first attempt, in that particular mode, to enter into the recesses of American homes and hearths, the first unveiling of what I may call the altar of the Lares in our cuisine.

I feel proud to say that a chapter in that work was among the first heralds of the temperance movement, a cause to which I shall cheerfully give my later as well as earlier powers.

My ambition has never been to write a novel; in the “Matron” and “Clarissa Packard” it will be seen that the story is a mere hinge for facts.

After the publication of the “Poetry of Travelling,” I opened to a notice in a review, and was greeted with, “This affectation will never do.” It has amused me since to notice how “this affectation” has spread, until we have now the “Poetry of Teaching,” and the “Poetry of Science.”;

My only pride is in my books for children. I have never thought myself a poet, only a versifier; but I know that I have learned the way to youthful hearts, and I think I have originated several styles of writing for them.

While dwelling on the above sketch, I have discovered the difficulty of autobiography, in the impossibility of referring to one’s faults. Perchance were I to detail the personal mistakes and deficiencies of this long era, I might lose the sympathy which may have followed me thus far.

I have purposely confined myself to my earlier recollections, believing that my writings will be the best exponents of my views and experience. It would be wrong, however, for me not to allude, in passing, to one subject which has had a potent influence on my life, I refer to mesmerism or magnetic psychology. This seemingly mysterious agency, has given me relief when other human aid was hopeless, and I believe it is destined, when calmly investigated, to be, under Providence, a great remedial agent for mankind.

My Heavenly Father has called me to varied trials of joy and sorrow. I trust they have all drawn me nearer to him. I have resided in Charleston thirty-one years, and shall probably make my final resting-place in the beautiful cemetery adjoining my husband’s church—the church of my faith and my love.