List Of Contents | Contents of In the Wilderness, by Charles Dudley Warner
< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

was a sufficient system, so long as it was not disturbed by external
skepticism.  When the outer world came to him, perhaps he had about
as much to give to it as to receive from it; probably more, in his
own estimation; for there is no conceit like that of isolation.

Phelps loved his mountains.  He was the discoverer of Marcy, and
caused the first trail to be cut to its summit, so that others could
enjoy the noble views from its round and rocky top.  To him it was,
in noble symmetry and beauty, the chief mountain of the globe.  To
stand on it gave him, as he said, "a feeling of heaven up-h'isted-
ness."  He heard with impatience that Mount Washington was a thousand
feet higher, and he had a childlike incredulity about the surpassing
sublimity of the Alps.  Praise of any other elevation he seemed to
consider a slight to Mount Marcy, and did not willingly hear it, any
more than a lover hears the laudation of the beauty of another woman
than the one he loves.  When he showed us scenery he loved, it made
him melancholy to have us speak of scenery elsewhere that was finer.
And yet there was this delicacy about him, that he never over-praised
what he brought us to see, any more than one would over-praise a
friend of whom he was fond.  I remember that when for the first time,
after a toilsome journey through the forest, the splendors of the
Lower Au Sable Pond broke upon our vision,--that low-lying silver
lake, imprisoned by the precipices which it reflected in its bosom,--
he made no outward response to our burst of admiration: only a quiet
gleam of the eye showed the pleasure our appreciation gave him.  As
some one said, it was as if his friend had been admired--a friend
about whom he was unwilling to say much himself, but well pleased to
have others praise.

Thus far, we have considered Old Phelps as simply the product of the
Adirondacks; not so much a self-made man (as the doubtful phrase has
it) as a natural growth amid primal forces.  But our study is
interrupted by another influence, which complicates the problem, but
increases its interest.  No scientific observer, so far as we know,
has ever been able to watch the development of the primitive man,
played upon and fashioned by the hebdomadal iteration of "Greeley's
Weekly Tri-bune."  Old Phelps educated by the woods is a fascinating
study; educated by the woods and the Tri-bune, he is a phenomenon.
No one at this day can reasonably conceive exactly what this
newspaper was to such a mountain valley as Keene.  If it was not a
Providence, it was a Bible.  It was no doubt owing to it that
Democrats became as scarce as moose in the Adirondacks.  But it is
not of its political aspect that I speak.  I suppose that the most
cultivated and best informed portion of the earth's surface--the
Western Reserve of Ohio, as free from conceit as it is from a
suspicion that it lacks anything owes its pre-eminence solely to this
comprehensive journal.  It received from it everything except a
collegiate and a classical education,--things not to be desired,
since they interfere with the self-manufacture of man.  If Greek had
been in this curriculum, its best known dictum would have been
translated, "Make thyself."  This journal carried to the community
that fed on it not only a complete education in all departments of
human practice and theorizing, but the more valuable and satisfying
assurance that there was nothing more to be gleaned in the universe
worth the attention of man.  This panoplied its readers in
completeness.  Politics, literature, arts, sciences, universal
brotherhood and sisterhood, nothing was omitted; neither the poetry
of Tennyson, nor the philosophy of Margaret Fuller; neither the
virtues of association, nor of unbolted wheat.  The laws of political
economy and trade were laid down as positively and clearly as the
best way to bake beans, and the saving truth that the millennium
would come, and come only when every foot of the earth was subsoiled.

I do not say that Orson Phelps was the product of nature and the Tri-
bune: but he cannot be explained without considering these two
factors.  To him Greeley was the Tri-bune, and the Tri-bune was
Greeley; and yet I think he conceived of Horace Greeley as something
greater than his newspaper, and perhaps capable of producing another
journal equal to it in another part of the universe.  At any rate, so
completely did Phelps absorb this paper and this personality that he
was popularly known as "Greeley" in the region where he lived.
Perhaps a fancied resemblance of the two men in the popular mind had
something to do with this transfer of name.  There is no doubt that
Horace Greeley owed his vast influence in the country to his genius,
nor much doubt that he owed his popularity in the rural districts to
James Gordon Bennett; that is, to the personality of the man which
the ingenious Bennett impressed upon the country.  That he despised
the conventionalities of society, and was a sloven in his toilet, was
firmly believed; and the belief endeared him to the hearts of the
people.  To them "the old white coat"--an antique garment of
unrenewed immortality--was as much a subject of idolatry as the
redingote grise to the soldiers of the first Napoleon, who had seen
it by the campfires on the Po and on the Borysthenes, and believed
that he would come again in it to lead them against the enemies of
France.  The Greeley of the popular heart was clad as Bennett said he
was clad.  It was in vain, even pathetically in vain, that he
published in his newspaper the full bill of his fashionable tailor
(the fact that it was receipted may have excited the animosity of
some of his contemporaries) to show that he wore the best broadcloth,
and that the folds of his trousers followed the city fashion of
falling outside his boots.  If this revelation was believed, it made
no sort of impression in the country.  The rural readers were not to
be wheedled out of their cherished conception of the personal
appearance of the philosopher of the Tri-bune.

That the Tri-bune taught Old Phelps to be more Phelps than he would
have been without it was part of the independence-teaching mission of
Greeley's paper.  The subscribers were an army, in which every man
was a general.  And I am not surprised to find Old Phelps lately
rising to the audacity of criticising his exemplar.  In some
recently-published observations by Phelps upon the philosophy of
reading is laid down this definition: "If I understand the necessity
or use of reading, it is to reproduce again what has been said or
proclaimed before.  Hence, letters, characters, &c., are arranged in
all the perfection they possibly can be, to show how certain language
has been spoken by the, original author.  Now, to reproduce by
reading, the reading should be so perfectly like the original that no
one standing out of sight could tell the reading from the first time
the language was spoken."

This is illustrated by the highest authority at hand: I have heard as
good readers read, and as poor readers, as almost any one in this
region.  If I have not heard as many, I have had a chance to hear
nearly the extreme in variety.  Horace Greeley ought to have been a
good reader.  Certainly but few, if any, ever knew every word of the
English language at a glance more readily than he did, or knew the
meaning of every mark of punctuation more clearly; but he could not
read proper.  'But how do you know?' says one.  From the fact I heard
him in the same lecture deliver or produce remarks in his own
particular way, that, if they had been published properly in print, a
proper reader would have reproduced them again the same way.  In the
midst of those remarks Mr. Greeley took up a paper, to reproduce by
reading part of a speech that some one else had made; and his reading
did not sound much more like the man that first read or made the
speech than the clatter of a nail factory sounds like a well-
delivered speech.  Now, the fault was not because Mr. Greeley did not
know how to read as well as almost any man that ever lived, if not
quite: but in his youth he learned to read wrong; and, as it is ten
times harder to unlearn anything than it is to learn it, he, like
thousands of others, could never stop to unlearn it, but carried it
on through his whole life."

Whether a reader would be thanked for reproducing one of Horace
Greeley's lectures as he delivered it is a question that cannot
detain us here; but the teaching that he ought to do so, I think,
would please Mr. Greeley.

The first driblets of professional tourists and summer boarders who
arrived among the Adirondack Mountains a few years ago found Old
Phelps the chief and best guide of the region.  Those who were eager
to throw off the usages of civilization, and tramp and camp in the
wilderness, could not but be well satisfied with the aboriginal
appearance of this guide; and when he led off into the woods, axe in
hand, and a huge canvas sack upon his shoulders, they seemed to be
following the Wandering Jew.  The contents--of this sack would have
furnished a modern industrial exhibition, provisions cooked and raw,
blankets, maple-sugar, tinware, clothing, pork, Indian meal, flour,
coffee, tea, &c.  Phelps was the ideal guide: he knew every foot of
the pathless forest; he knew all woodcraft, all the signs of the
weather, or, what is the same thing, how to make a Delphic prediction
about it.  He was fisherman and hunter, and had been the comrade of
sportsmen and explorers; and his enthusiasm for the beauty and
sublimity of the region, and for its untamable wildness, amounted to
a passion.  He loved his profession; and yet it very soon appeared
that he exercised it with reluctance for those who had neither
ideality, nor love for the woods.  Their presence was a profanation
amid the scenery he loved.  To guide into his private and secret
haunts a party that had no appreciation of their loveliness disgusted
him.  It was a waste of his time to conduct flippant young men and
giddy girls who made a noisy and irreverent lark of the expedition.
And, for their part, they did not appreciate the benefit of being

< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

Other sites: