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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Edward Eggleston (1837–1902)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
EDWARD EGGLESTON was born at Vevay, Indiana, December 10th, 1837. His father was a native of Amelia County, Virginia, and was of a family which migrated from England to Virginia in the seventeenth century, and which became one of much distinction in the State. A brief biography of Mr. Eggleston lately published affords some information as to his early years. He was a sufferer from ill health as a child. He had repeatedly to be removed from school for this cause, and he spent a considerable part of his boyhood on farms in Indiana, where he made acquaintance with that rude backwoods life which he has described in ‘The Hoosier Schoolmaster’ and other stories. An important incident of his youth was a visit of thirteen months which he paid to his relations in Virginia in 1854. This opportunity of making acquaintance under such favorable circumstances with slave society, must have been of great value to one who was to make American history the chief pursuit of his life. In 1856 he went to Minnesota, and there lived a frontier life to the great improvement of his health. The accounts we have of him show him to have had the ardent and energetic character which belongs to the youth of the West. When not yet nineteen years old he became a Methodist preacher in that State. Later, ill health forced him again to Minnesota, where with the enthusiasm of a young man he traveled on foot, shod in Indian moccasins, in winter and summer preaching to the mixed Indian and white populations on the Minnesota River.  1
  Mr. Eggleston’s literary career began, while he was still preaching, with contributions to Western periodicals. Having written for the New York Independent, he was offered in 1870 the place of literary editor of that paper, and the following year became its editor-in-chief. He was afterwards editor of Hearth and Home, to the columns of which journal he contributed ‘The Hoosier Schoolmaster,’ a story that has been very popular. He wrote a number of other novels, ‘The End of the World,’ ‘The Mystery of Metropolisville,’ ‘The Circuit Rider,’ ‘Roxy,’ etc. In January 1880, while on a visit to Europe, he began to make plans for a ‘History of Life in the United States.’ He had always had a strong taste for this subject, a keen natural interest in history being evident here and there in his stories. His historical researches were carried on in many of the chief libraries of Europe and the United States. A result of these studies was the thirteen articles on ‘Life in the Colonial Period’ published in the Century Magazine. These, however, were but preliminary studies to the work which he intended should be the most important of his life. The first volume of this work, ‘The Beginners of a Nation,’ was published in 1896.  2
  This work does not pretend to be a particular account of colonial history. It is an attempt rather to describe the colonial individual and colonial society, to state the succession of cause and effect in the establishment of English life in North America, and to describe principles rather than details,—giving however as much detail as is necessary to illustrate principles. The volume of 1896 contains chapters on ‘The James River Experiments’ and ‘The Procession of Motives’ which led to colonization. Book ii. of this volume is upon the Puritan migration, and has chapters on the rise of Puritanism in England, on the Pilgrim migration, and the great Puritan exodus. Book iii. receives the name of ‘Centrifugal Forces in Colony Planting,’ and contains accounts of Lord Baltimore’s Maryland colony, of Roger Williams, and the ‘New England Dispersions,’ by which is meant the establishment of communities in Connecticut and elsewhere. In the sketch of Lord Baltimore, the courtier and friend of kings, we have a striking contrast with the type of men who led the Puritan migrations. There were odd characters in those days; and a court favorite and worldling who, after having feathered his nest, is willing to make two such voyages to Newfoundland as his must have been, and to spend a winter there, all out of zeal for the establishment of his religion in the Western wilds, is certainly a person worthy of study.  3
  The play of the forces that produced emigration, and their relations to the migrations, are described very clearly by the author. People did not emigrate when they were happy at home. Thus, Catholic emigration was small under Laud, when English Catholics were beginning to think that the future was theirs; just as Puritan emigration, vigorous under Laud, dwindled with the days of the Puritan triumph in England. We have in ‘The James River Experiments’ a good example of the writer’s method. The salient and significant facts are given briefly, but with sufficient fullness to enable the reader to have a satisfactory grasp of the matter; and where some principle or general truth is to be pointed out, the author sets this forth strongly. For instance, in describing the motives of colonization in Virginia, he shows how these motives were in almost all cases delusions; how a succession of such delusions ran through the times of Elizabeth and James; and how colonization succeeded in the end only by doing what its projectors had never intended to do. The Jamestown emigrants expected to find a passage to India, to discover gold and silver, to raise wine and silk. But none of these things were done. Wines and silk indeed were raised. It is said that Charles I.’s coronation robe was made of Virginian silk, and Mr. Eggleston tells us that Charles II. certainly wore silk from worms hatched and fed in his Virginian dominions. But these industries, although encouraged to the utmost by government, could not be made to take root. On the other hand, a determined effort was made to discourage the production of tobacco. James I. wrote a book against the culture of that pernicious “weed,” as he was the first to describe it. But the hardy plant held its own and flourished in spite of the royal disfavor. Nor were the colonists more successful in their political intentions. Especially interesting, in view of recent discussions, is the account given of the communistic experiments which belonged to the early history of the American colonies. In Virginia all the products of the colony were to go into a common stock. But after twelve years’ trial of this plan, there was a division of the land among the older settlers. The pernicious character of the system had been demonstrated. “Every man sharked for his own bootie,” says a writer on Virginia in 1609, “and was altogether careless of the succeeding penurie.” The two years of communism in the Plymouth colony was scarcely more successful. Bradford, finding that the matter was one of life and death with the colony, abolished the system, although the abolition was a revolutionary stroke, in violation of the contract with the shareholders.  4
  This idea, that the outcome was to be very different from the intentions, appears not only in the striking chapter on ‘The Procession of Motives,’ but crops up again and again in other parts of the book. Thus, the ill success which attended the government of the colonies from London resulted in the almost unconscious establishment of several independent democratic communities in America. This happened in Virginia and Plymouth. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, however, was self-governing from the start.  5
  But although causes and principles are matters of chief interest with Mr. Eggleston, his book is full of a picturesqueness which is all the more effective for being unobtrusive. The author has not that tiresome sort of picturesqueness which insists on saying the whole thing itself. The reader is credited with a little imagination, and that faculty has frequent opportunity for exercise. It is charmed by the striking passage in which is described the delight of the emigrants of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, when, after having set sail from England, they found themselves upon the open sea for the first time without the supervision, or even the neighborhood, of bosses. We know the sense of freedom which the broad and blue ocean affords to us all; what must have been that feeling to men who had scarcely ever had an hour of life untroubled by the domination of an antagonistic religious authority! Every day, for ten weeks together, they had preaching and exposition. “On one ship,” says Mr. Eggleston, “the watches were set to the accompaniment of psalm-singing.”  6
  The candor and fair-mindedness of this work is one of its special merits. We have an indication of this quality in the author’s refusal to accept the weak supposition, common among writers upon American history, that the faults of our ancestors were in some way more excusable than those of other people. He says in his Preface:—“I have disregarded that convention which makes it obligatory for a writer of American history to explain that intolerance in the first settlers was not just like other intolerance, and that their cruelty and injustice were justifiable under the circumstances.” Other very important characteristics are sympathy, warmth of heart, and moral enthusiasm. Nor is the work wanting in an adequate literary merit. The style, especially in the later chapters, is free, simple, nervous, and rhythmical.  7
  Little has been said of Mr. Eggleston’s novels in the course of these remarks. But the qualities of his historical writing appear in his novels. The qualities of the realistic novelist are of great use to the historian, when the novelist has the thoroughness and the industry of Mr. Eggleston. By the liveliness of his imagination, he succeeds in making history as real as fiction should be. Mr. Eggleston’s novels deserve the popularity they have attained. They are themselves, particularly those which describe Western life, valuable contributions to history. The West, we may add, is Mr. Eggleston’s field. His most recent novel, ‘The Faith Doctor,’ the scene of which is laid in New York, is very inferior to his Western stories. Of these novels probably the best is ‘The Graysons,’ a book full of its author’s reality and warmth of human sympathy; of this book the reader will follow every word with the same lively interest with which he reads ‘The Beginners of a Nation.’ In 1900 Mr. Eggleston published ‘The Transit of Civilization from England to America.’ His death occurred at Lake George, New York, September 3, 1902.  8
 
 
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