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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Thomas Wharton (1859–1896)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Owen Wister (1860–1938)
 
AS one looks back upon the life of Thomas Wharton, the good name of those from whom he sprung, the distinction which after many years of promise he had begun to win for himself, it grows clearer than ever that a talent of a rare kind, with rare advantages of inheritance, is lost to American letters; a talent of charm, of grace, of winning fancy, that in these literal, half-ugly days can ill be spared. With many honorable generations in his blood, Thomas Wharton came by right to pluck, subtlety, humor, and brilliant powers of acquisition. Among Philadelphia lawyers, the names of both his father and grandfather remain traditional for scholarship. One other birthright—namely, length of days—might have been his; and persuaded that it was to be, he labored steadily, cheerfully, and in no haste; believing that success would come to him all the more ripe and sure for his patience. But even middle age was denied him. Born August 1st, 1859, he died April 6th, 1896, full of plans and work, letters from theatre managers and composers in his desk, books and plays in his mind beyond what was signed for by actual contract at the moment; a man of thirty-seven but at heart forever a boy, with his eyes beholding the first visions of worldly reward.  1
  Three periods he knew: a beginning full of hope, a middle full of struggle undaunted and courageous disappointment, and a brief end when the rays of true recognition began to shine upon him.  2
  Before he was fifteen, he brought home from his first year at Hellmuth College, near London, Ontario, five prizes; and to crown these, the medal given that year by the Governor-General for the highest average marks. In those days he also scribbled copiously, verse and prose, but verse the more; and his art with words was already light and happy far beyond the common. He first appeared in print then, with an ode of Horace put into English verse; and at twenty-one he was in the Atlantic Monthly with more verses, entitled ‘Archæology.’ By inheritance a scholar, but himself robust in fiber, fond of swimming, and of cricket, and of life, he did not sustain his prize-winning eminence at the University of Pennsylvania. There he was graduated in 1879; with no array of honors, but like his father, knowing and loving well the things that he knew. From all the shelves—Attic, Augustan, Romance, Renaissance, through Shakespeare, Molière, and Heine, to Mark Twain—he pulled the books down and rejoiced in them. His knowledge of what man has written mellowed his judgment, seasoned his imagination, and preserved him from those errors of taste and theory that waylay so many genuine but half-educated talents in our country.  3
  The law was Thomas Wharton’s hereditary, logical, but inappropriate choice of career. After a few years his talent revolted, the inevitable crushed the conventional, and he became out-and-out writer. In 1888 he went upon the editorial staff of the Philadelphia Times, and was Sunday editor when he died. Dangerous for the clever ignorant, it was beneficent for him, this swift journalism,—compelling the scholar to be himself, to take up his scholarship and walk. Until now, neither his matter nor his manner had been quite his own. To look at his articles and stories in Lippincott’s Magazine and in Puck, and especially his clever novels, ‘A Latter-Day Saint’ and ‘Hannibal of New York,’ is to see a genuine gift often misdirected. From the novels turn to ‘Bobbo,’ and in a flash the true final Wharton stands revealed. This is what the gods made him for: weaver of fancies, rainbow-colored whims, dreams away from the jangle of life, through which life’s pathos and humor and tenderness should delicately play. Had the word gem with us Americans not been thumbed out of all critical meaning, ‘Bobbo’ should be called a gem. Its light completely radiates from a form complete.  4
  Wharton attained this through newspaper work, and side work of verses and fantastic texts for operas. The newspaper made him master of his scholarship instead of being mastered by it, and set free his fancy. From Charlemagne’s paladins, from the teocalli of Montezuma, from Paris streets as Villon knew them, he brought fancies, and more fancies, verse and prose ever finer tempered,—the spontaneity shining even brighter through the chiseled language. It is wholesome knowledge that he was a civilized college-bred American, dwelling quiet at home; that cultivation made valuable his gift; that he did not believe rawness to be symptom of originality. Certainly, for our pleasure and his rare example, we can ill spare him. So many of us seem born mere observers, with all the note-making apparatus—but no wings!  5
 
 
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