The Literati of New York/No. I/N. P. Willis
Whatever may be thought of Mr. Willis's talents, there can be no doubt about the fact that, both as an author and as a man, he has made a good deal of noise in the world — at least for an American. His literary life, in especial, has been one continual émeute; but then his literary character is modified or impelled in a very remarkable degree by his personal one. His success (for in point of fame, if of nothing else, he has certainly been successful) is to be attributed, one-third to his mental ability and two-thirds to his physical temperament — the latter goading him into the accomplishment of what the former merely gave him the means of accomplishing.
At a very early age Mr Willis seems to have arrived at an understanding that, in a republic such as ours, the mere man of letters must ever be a cipher, and endeavored, accordingly, to unite the éclat of the littérateur with that of the man of fashion or of society. He "pushed himself," went much into the world, made friends with the gentler sex, "delivered" poetical addresses, wrote "scriptural" poems, traveled, sought the intimacy of noted women, and got into quarrels with notorious men. All these things served his purpose — if, indeed, I am right in supposing that he had any purpose at all. It is quite probable that, as before hinted, he acted only in accordance with his physical temperament; but be this as it may, his personal greatly advanced, if it did not altogether establish his literary fame. I have often carefully considered whether, without the physique of which I speak, there is that in the absolute morale of Mr. Willis which would have earned him reputation as a man of letters, and my conclusion is, that he could not have failed to become noted in some degree under almost any circumstances, but that about two-thirds (as above stated) of his appreciation by the public should be attributed to those adventures which grew immediately out of his animal constitution.
He received what is usually regarded as a "good education" — that is to say, he graduated at college; but his education, in the path he pursued, was worth to him, on account of his extraordinary savoir faire, fully twice as much as would have been its value in any common case. No man's knowledge is more available, no man has exhibited greater tact in the seemingly casual display of his wares. With him, at least, a little learning is no dangerous thing. He possessed at one time, I believe, the average quantum of American collegiate lore — "a little Latin and less Greek," a smattering of physical and metaphysical science, and (I should judge) a very little of the mathematics — but all this must be considered as mere guess on my part. Mr. Willis speaks French with some fluency, and Italian not quite so well.
Within the ordinary range of belles lettres authorship, he has evinced much versatility. If called on to designate him by any general literary title, I might term him a magazinist — for his compositions have invariably the species of effect, with the brevity which the magazine demands. We page 197 may view him as a paragraphist, an essayist, or rather "sketcher," a tale writer and a poet.
In the first capacity he fails. His points, however good when deliberately wrought, are too recherchés to be put hurriedly before the public eye. Mr. W. has by no means the readiness which the editing a newspaper demands. He composes (as did Addison, and as do many of the most brilliant and seemingly dashing writers of the present day,) with great labour and frequent erasure and interlineation. His MSS., in this regard, present a very singular appearance, and indicate the vacillation which is, perhaps, the leading trait of his character. A newspaper, too, in its longer articles — its "leaders" — very frequently demands argumentation, and here Mr. W. is remarkably out of his element. His exuberant fancy leads him over hedge and ditch — anywhere from the main road; and, besides, he is far too readily self-dispossessed. With time at command, however, his great tact stands him instead of all argumentative power, and enables him to overthrow an antagonist without permitting the latter to see how he is overthrown. A fine example of this "management" is to be found in Mr. W.'s reply to a very inconsiderate attack upon his social standing made by one of the editors of the New York "Courier and Inquirer." I have always regarded this reply as the highest evidence of its author's ability as a masterpiece of ingenuity, if not of absolute genius. The skill of the whole lay in this — that, without troubling himself to refute the charges themselves brought against him by Mr. Raymond, he put forth his strength in rendering them null, to all intents and purposes, by obliterating, incidentally and without letting his design be perceived, all the impression these charges were calculated to convey. But this reply can be called a newspaper article only on the ground of its having appeared in a newspaper.
As a writer of "sketches," properly so called, Mr. Willis is unequaled. Sketches — especially of society — are his forte, and they are so for no other reason than that they afford him the best opportunity of introducing the personal Willis — or, more distinctly, because this species of composition is most susceptible of impression from his personal character. The degagé tone of this kind of writing, too, best admits and encourages that fancy which Mr. W. possesses in the most extraordinary degree; it is in fancy that he reigns supreme: this, more than any one other quality, and, indeed, more than all his other literary qualities combined, has made him what he is.* It is this which gives him the originality, the freshness, the point, the piquancy, which appear to be the immediate, but which are, in fact, the mediate sources of his popularity.
* As, by metaphysicians and in ordinary discourse, the word fancy is used with very little determinateness of meaning, I may be pardoned for repeating here what I have elsewhere said on this topic. I shall thus be saved much misapprehension in regard to the term—one which will necessarily be often employed in the course of this series.
"Fancy," says the author of "Aids to Reflection," (who aided reflection to much better purpose in his "Genevieve") — "fancy combines — imagination creates." This was intended and has been received as a distinction, but [column 2:] it is a distinction without a difference — without a difference even of degree. The fancy as nearly creates as the imagination, and neither at all. Novel conceptions are merely unusual combinations. (The mind of man can imagine nothing which does not really exist; if it could, it would create not only ideally but substantially, as do the thoughts of God. It may be said, "We imagine a griffin, yet a griffin does not exist." Not the griffin, certainly, but its component parts. It is no more than a collation of known limbs, features, qualities. Thus with all which claims to be new, which appears to be a creation of the intellect — all is re-soluble into the old. The wildest effort of the mind cannot stand the test of this analysis.
Imagination, fancy, fantasy and humour, have in common the elements combination and novelty. The imagination is the artist of the four. From novel arrangements of old forms which present themselves to it, it selects such only as are harmonious; the result, of course, is beauty itself — using the word in its most extended sense and as inclusive of the sublime. The pure imagination chooses, from either beauty or deformity, only the most combinable things hitherto uncombined; the compound, as a general rule, partaking in character of sublimity or beauty in the ratio of the respective sublimity or beauty of the things combined, which are themselves still to be considered as atomic — that is to say, as previous combinations. But, as often analogously happens in physical chemistry, so not unfrequently does it occur in this chemistry of the intellect, that the admixture of two elements will result in a something that shall have nothing of the quality of one of them — or even nothing of the qualities of either. The range of imagination is thus unlimited. Its materials extend throughout the universe. Even out of deformities it fabricates that beauty which is at once its sole object and its inevitable test But, in general, the richness of the matters combined, the facility of discovering combinable novelties worth combining, and the absolute "chemical combination" of the completed mass, are the particulars to be regarded in our estimate of imagination. It is this thorough harmony of an imaginative work which so often causes it to be undervalued by the undiscriminating, through the character of obviousness which is superinduced. We are apt to find ourselves asking why it is that these combinations have never been imagined before.
Now, when this question does not occur, when the harmony of the combination is comparatively neglected, and when, in addition to the element of novelty, there is introduced the sub-element of unexpectedness — when, for example, matters are brought into combination which not only have never been combined, but whose combination strikes us as a difficulty happily overcome, the result then appertains to the fancy, and is, to the majority of mankind, more grateful than the purely harmonious one — although, absolutely, it is less beautiful (or grand) for the reason that it is less harmonious.
Carrying its errors into excess — for, however enticing, they are errors still, or nature lies — fancy is at length found infringing upon the province of fantasy. The votaries of this latter delight not only in novelty and unexpectedness of combination, but in the avoidance of proportion. The result is, therefore, abnormal, and, to a healthy mind, affords less of pleasure through its novelty than of pain through its incoherence. When, proceeding a step farther, however, fancy seeks not merely disproportionate but incongruous or antagonistic elements, the effect is rendered more pleasurable by its greater positiveness; [page 198, bottom:] there is a merry effort of truth to shake from her that which is no property of hers, and we laugh outright in recognizing humour.The four faculties in question seem to me all of their class; but when either fancy or humour is expressed to gain an end, is pointed at a purpose — whenever either becomes objective in place of subjective, then it becomes, also, pure wit or sarcasm, just as the purpose is benevolent or malevolent.
In tales page 198(written with deliberation for the magazines), he has shown greater constructiveness than I should have given him credit for had I not read his compositions of this order — for in this faculty all his other works indicate a singular deficiency. The chief charm even of these tales, however, is still referable to fancy.
As a poet, Mr. Willis is not entitled, I think, to so high a rank as he may justly claim through his prose; and this for the reason that, although fancy is not inconsistent with any of the demands of those classes of prose compositions which he has attempted, and, indeed, is a vital element of most of them, still it is at war (as will be understood from what I have said in the foot note) with that purity and perfection of beauty which are the soul of the poem proper. I wish to be understood as saying this generally of our author's poems. In some instances, seeming to feel the truth of my proposition, (that fancy should have no place in the loftier poesy,) he has denied it a place, as in "Melanie" and his Scriptural pieces; but, unfortunately, he has been unable to supply the void with the true imagination, and these poems consequently are deficient in vigour, in stamen. The Scriptural pieces are quite "correct," as the French have it, and are much admired by a certain set of readers, who judge of a poem, not by its effect on themselves, but by the effect which they imagine it might have upon themselves were they not unhappily soulless, and by the effect which they take it for granted it does have upon others. It cannot be denied, however, that these pieces are, in general, tame, or indebted for what force they possess to the Scriptural passages of which they are merely paraphrastic. I quote what, in my own opinion and in that of nearly all my friends, is really the truest poem ever written by Mr. Willis.
"The shadows lay along Broadway,
'Twas near the twilight tide,
And slowly there a lady fair
Was walking in her pride —
Alone walked she, yet viewlessly
Walked spirits at her side.
"Peace charmed the street beneath her feet,
And honour charmed the air,
And all astir looked kind on her
And called her good as fair —
For all God ever gave to her
She kept with chary care.
"She kept with care her beauties rare
From lovers warm and true,
For her heart was cold to all but gold,
And the rich came not to woo.
Ah, honoured well are charms to sell
When priests the selling do !
"Now, walking there was one more fair —
A slight girl, lily-pale,
And she had unseen company
To make the spirit quail —
'Twixt want and scorn she walked forlorn,
And nothing could avail.
"No mercy now can clear her brow
For this world's peace to pray —
For, as love's wild prayer dissolved in air,
Her woman's heart gave way;
And the sin forgiven by Christ in heaven,
By man is cursed alway."
There is about this little poem (evidently written in haste and through impulse) a true imagination. Its grace, dignity and pathos are impressive, and there is more in it of earnestness, of soul, than in anything I have seen from the pen of its author. His compositions, in general, have a taint of worldliness, of insincerity. The identical rhyme in the last stanza is very noticeable, and the whole finale is feeble. It would be improved by making the last two lines precede the first two of the stanza.
In classifying Mr. W.'s writings I did not think it worth while to speak of him as a dramatist, because, although he has written plays, what they have of merit is altogether in their character of poem. Of his "Bianca Visconti " I have little to say; — it deserved to fail, and did, although it abounded in eloquent passages. "Tortesa" abounded in the same, but had a great many dramatic points well calculated to tell with a conventional audience. Its characters, with the exception of Tomaso, a drunken buffoon, had no character at all, and the plot was a tissue of absurdities, inconsequences and inconsistencies; yet I cannot help thinking it, upon the whole, the best play ever written by an American.
Mr. Willis has made very few attempts at criticism, and those few (chiefly newspaper articles) have not impressed me with a high idea of his analytic abilities, although with a very high idea of his taste and discrimination.
His style proper may be called extravagant, bizarre, pointed, epigrammatic without being antithetical, (this is very rarely the case,) but, through all its whimsicalities, graceful, classic and accurate. He is very seldom to be caught tripping in the minor morals. His English is correct; his most outrageous imagery is, at all events, unmixed.
Mr. Willis's career has naturally made him enemies among the envious host of dunces whom he has outstripped in the race for fame; and these his personal manner (a little tinctured with reserve, brusquerie, or even haughtiness) is by no means adapted to conciliate. He has innumerable warm friends, however, and is himself a warm friend. He is impulsive, generous, bold, impetuous, vacillating, irregularly energetic — apt to be hurried into error, but incapable of deliberate wrong. page 199
He is yet young, and, without being handsome, in the ordinary sense, is a remarkably well-looking man. In height he is, perhaps, five feet eleven, and justly proportioned. His figure is put in the best light by the ease and assured grace of his carriage. His whole person and personal demeanour bear about them the traces of "good society." His face is somewhat too full, or rather heavy, in its lower portions. Neither his nose nor his forehead can be defended; the latter would puzzle phrenology. His eyes are a dull bluish gray, and small. His hair is of a rich brown, curling naturally and luxuriantly. His mouth is well cut; the teeth fine; the expression of the smile intellectual and winning. He converses little, well rather than fluently, and in a subdued tone. The portrait of him published about three years ago in "Graham's Magazine," conveys by no means so true an idea of the man as does the sketch (by Lawrence) inserted as frontispiece to a late collection of his poems. He is a widower, and has one child, a daughter.