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By William Dean Howells
Authors, American American literature – 19th century – History and criticism
A Belated Guest (from Literary Friends and Acquaintance)
William Dean Howells
A BELATED GUEST
It is doubtful whether the survivor of any order of things finds compensation in the privilege, however undisputed by his contemporaries, of recording his memories of it. This is, in the first two or three instances, a pleasure. It is sweet to sit down, in the shade or by the fire, and recall names, looks, and tones from the past; and if the Absences thus entreated to become Presences are those of famous people, they lend to the fond historian a little of their lustre, in which he basks for the time with an agreeable sense of celebrity. But another time comes, and comes very soon, when the pensive pleasure changes to the pain of duty, and the precious privilege converts itself into a grievous obligation. You are unable to choose your company among those immortal shades; if one, why not another, where all seem to have a right to such gleams of this ’dolce lome’ as your reminiscences can shed upon them? Then they gather so rapidly, as the years pass, in these pale realms, that one, if one continues to survive, is in danger of wearing out such welcome, great or small, as met ones recollections in the first two or three instances, if one does one’s duty by each. People begin to say, and not without reason, in a world so hurried and wearied as this: “Ah, here he is again with his recollections!” Well, but if the recollections by some magical good—fortune chance to concern such a contemporary of his as, say, Bret Harte, shall not he be partially justified, or at least excused?
My recollections of Bret Harte begin with the arrest, on the Atlantic shore, of that progress of his from the Pacific Slope, which, in the simple days of 1871, was like the progress of a prince, in the universal attention and interest which met and followed it. He was indeed a prince, a fairy prince in whom every lover of his novel and enchanting art felt a patriotic property, for his promise and performance in those earliest tales of ’The Luck of Roaring Camp’, and ’Tennessee’s Partner’, and ’Maggles’, and ’The Outcasts of Poker Flat’, were the earnests of an American literature to come. If it is still to come, in great measure, that is not Harte’s fault, for he kept on writing those stories, in one form or another, as long as he lived. He wrote them first and last in the spirit of Dickens, which no man of his time could quite help doing, but he wrote them from the life of Bret Harte, on the soil and in the air of the newest kind of new world, and their freshness took the soul of his fellow—countrymen not only with joy, but with pride such as the Europeans, who adored him much longer, could never know in him.
When the adventurous young editor who had proposed being his host for Cambridge and the Boston neighborhood, while Harte was still in San Francisco, and had not yet begun his princely progress eastward, read of the honors that attended his coming from point to point, his courage fell, as if he had perhaps, committed himself in too great an enterprise. Who was he, indeed, that he should think of making this
“Dear son of memory, great heir of fame,”
his guest, especially when he heard that in Chicago Harte failed of attending a banquet of honor because the givers of it had not sent a carriage to fetch him to it, as the alleged use was in San Francisco? Whether true or not, and it was probably not true in just that form, it must have been this rumor which determined his host to drive into Boston for him with the handsomest hack which the livery of Cambridge afforded, and not trust to the horse—car and the local expressman to get him and his baggage out, as he would have done with a less portentous guest. However it was, he instantly lost all fear when they met at the station, and Harte pressed forward with his cordial hand—clasp, as if he were not even a fairy prince, and with that voice and laugh which were surely the most winning in the world. He was then, as always, a child of extreme fashion as to his clothes and the cut of his beard, which he wore in a mustache and the drooping side—whiskers of the day, and his jovial physiognomy was as winning as his voice, with its straight nose and fascinating thrust of the under lip, its fine eyes, and good forehead, then thickly crowned with the black hair which grew early white, while his mustache remained dark the most enviable and consoling effect possible in the universal mortal necessity of either aging or dying. He was, as one could not help seeing, thickly pitted, but after the first glance one forgot this, so that a lady who met him for the first time could say to him, “Mr. Harte, aren’t you afraid to go about in the cars so recklessly when there is this scare about smallpox?” “No, madam,” he could answer in that rich note of his, with an irony touched by pseudo—pathos, “I bear a charmed life.”
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