The book that moved me most, in our
stay of six months at Ashtabula, was then beginning
to move the whole world more than any other book has
moved it. I read it as it came out week after
week in the old National Era, and I broke my heart
over Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as every one else did.
Yet I cannot say that it was a passion of mine like
Don Quixote, or the other books that I had loved intensely.
I felt its greatness when I read it first, and as
often as I have read it since, I have seen more and
more clearly that it was a very great novel.
With certain obvious lapses in its art, and with an
art that is at its best very simple, and perhaps primitive,
the book is still a work of art. I knew this,
in a measure then, as I know it now, and yet neither
the literary pride I was beginning to have in the
perception of such things, nor the powerful appeal
it made to my sympathies, sufficed to impassion me
of it. I could not say why this was so.
Why does the young man’s fancy, when it lightly
turns to thoughts of love, turn this way and not that?
There seems no more reason for one than for the other.
Instead of remaining steeped to the
lips in the strong interest of what is still perhaps
our chief fiction, I shed my tribute of tears, and
went on my way. I did not try to write a story
of slaver, as I might very well have done; I did not
imitate either the make or the manner of Mrs. Stowe’s
romance; I kept on at my imitation of Pope’s
pastorals, which I dare say I thought much finer,
and worthier the powers of such a poet as I meant
to be. I did this, as I must have felt then, at
some personal risk of a supernatural kind, for my
studies were apt to be prolonged into the night after
the rest of the family had gone to bed, and a certain
ghost, which I had every reason to fear, might very
well have visited the small room given me to write
in. There was a story, which I shrank from verifying,
that a former inmate of our house had hung himself
in it, but I do not know to this day whether it was
true or not. The doubt did not prevent him from
dangling at the door-post, in my consciousness, and
many a time I shunned the sight of this problematical
suicide by keeping my eyes fastened on the book before
me. It was a very simple device, but perfectly
effective, as I think any one will find who employs
it in like circumstances; and I would really like
to commend it to growing boys troubled as I was then.
I never heard who the poor soul was,
or why he took himself out of the world, if he really
did so, or if he ever was in it; but I am sure that
my passion for Pope, and my purpose of writing pastorals,
must have been powerful indeed to carry me through
dangers of that kind. I suspect that the strongest
proof of their existence was the gloomy and ruinous
look of the house, which was one of the oldest in
the village, and the only one that was for rent there.
We went into it because we must, and we were to leave
it as soon as we could find a better. But before
this happened we left Ashtabula, and I parted with
one of the few possibilities I have enjoyed of seeing
a ghost on his own ground, as it were.
I was not sorry, for I believe I never
went in or came out of the place, by day or by night,
without a shudder, more or less secret; and at least,
now, we should be able to get another house.