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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Dr. John Brown (1810–1882)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
JOHN BROWN, the son of a secession-church minister, was born in Biggar, Lanarkshire, Scotland, September 22d, 1810, and died in Edinburgh, May 11th, 1882. He was educated at the Edinburgh High School and at the University, and graduated in medicine in 1833. For a time he was a surgeon’s assistant to the great Dr. Syme, the man of whom he said “he never wasted a drop of ink or blood,” and whose character he has drawn in one of his most charming biographies. When he began to practice for himself he gradually “got into a good connection,” and his patients made him their confidant and adviser. He was considered a fine doctor too, for he had remarkable common-sense, and was said to be unerring in diagnosis.  1
  Dr. Brown did not, as is commonly believed, dislike his profession; but later on he took a view of it which seemed nonprogressive, and his success as a writer no doubt interfered with his practice. His friend Professor Masson draws a pleasant picture of him when he first settled in practice, as a dark-haired man with soft, fine eyes and a benignant manner, the husband of a singularly beautiful woman, and much liked and sought after in the social circles of Edinburgh. This was partly owing to the charm of his conversation, and partly to the literary reputation he had achieved through some articles on the Academy exhibition and on local artists. Though he had little technical training, he had an eye for color and form, an appreciation of the artist’s meaning, and an instinct for discovering genius, as in the case of Noel Paton and David Scott. He soon became an authority among artists, and he gave a new impulse to national art.  2
  He contributed largely to the North British Review. In 1855 he published ‘Horæ Subsecivæ,’ which contained, among medical biography and medico-literary papers, the immortal Scotch idyl, ‘Rab and his Friends.’ Up to this time the unique personality of the doctor, with its delightful mixture of humor and sympathy, was known only to his own circle. The appearance of ‘Rab and his Friends’ revealed it to the world. Brief as it is in form, and simple in outline, Scotland has produced nothing so full of pure, pathetic genius since Scott.  3
  Another volume of ‘Horæ Subsecivæ’ appeared two years after, and some selections from it, and others from unpublished manuscript, were printed separately in the volume entitled ‘Spare Hours.’ They met with instant and unprecedented success. In a short time ten thousand copies of ‘Minchmoor’ and ‘James the Doorkeeper’ were sold, fifteen thousand copies of ‘Pet Marjorie,’ and ‘Rab’ had reached its fiftieth thousand. With all this success and praise, and constantly besought by publishers for his work, he could not be persuaded that his writings were of any permanent value, and was reluctant to publish. In 1882 appeared a third volume of the ‘Horæ Subsecivæ,’ which included all his writings. A few weeks after its publication he died.  4
  The Doctor’s medical essays, which are replete with humor, are written in defense of his special theory, the distinction between the active and the speculative mind. He thought there was too much science and too little intuitive sagacity in the world, and looked back longingly to the old-time common-sense, which he believed modern science had driven away. His own mind was anti-speculative, although he paid just tributes to philosophy and science and admired their achievements. He stigmatized the speculations of the day as the “lust of innovation.” But the reader cares little for the opinions of Dr. Brown as arguments: his subject is of little consequence if he will but talk. By the charm of his story-telling these dead Scotch doctors are made to live again. The death-bed of Syme, for instance, is as pathetic as the wonderful paper on Thackeray’s death; and to-day many a heart is sore for ‘Pet Marjorie,’ the ten-year-old child who died in Scotland almost a hundred years ago.  5
  As an essayist, Dr. Brown belongs to the followers of Addison and Charles Lamb, and he blends humor, pathos, and quiet hopefulness with a grave and earnest dignity. He delighted, not like Lamb “in the habitable parts of the earth,” but in the lonely moorlands and pastoral hills, over which his silent, stalwart shepherds walked with swinging stride. He had a keen appreciation for anything he felt to be excellent: his usual question concerning a stranger, either in literature or life, was “Has he wecht, sir?”—quoting Dr. Chalmers; and when he wanted to give the highest praise, he said certain writing was “strong meat.” He had a warm enthusiasm for the work of other literary men: an artist himself, he was quick to appreciate and seize upon the witty thing or the excellent thing wherever he found it, and he was eager to share his pleasure with the whole world. He reintroduced to the public Henry Vaughn, the quaint seventeenth-century poet; he wrote a sympathetic memoir of Arthur Hallam; he imported ‘Modern Painters,’ and enlightened Edinburgh as to its merits. His art papers were what Walter Pater would call “appreciations,”—that is to say, he dwelt upon the beauties of what he described rather than upon the defects. What he did not admire he left alone.  6
  As the author of ‘Rab’ loved the lonely glens on Minchmoor and in the Enterkin, or where Queen Mary’s “baby garden” shows its box-row border among the Spanish chestnuts of Lake Monteith, so he loved the Scottish character, “bitter to the taste and sweet to the diaphragm”: “Jeemes” the beadle, with his family worship when he himself was all the family; the old Aberdeen Jacobite people; Miss Stirling Graham of Duntrune, who in her day bewitched Edinburgh; Rab, Ailie, and Bob Ainslie. His characters are oddities, but are drawn without a touch of cynicism. What an amount of playful, wayward nonsense lies between these pages, and what depths of melancholy under the fun! Like Sir Walter, he had a great love for dogs, and never went out unaccompanied by one or two of them. They are the heroes of several of his sketches.  7
  Throughout the English-speaking world, he was affectionately known as Dr. John Brown of Edinburgh. He stood aloof from political and ecclesiastical controversies, and was fond of telling a story to illustrate how little reasoning went to forming partisans. A minister catechizing a raw plowboy, after asking the first question, “Who made you?” and getting the answer “God,” asked him, “How do you know that God made you?” After some pause and head-scratching, the reply came, “Weel, sir, it’s the clash [common talk] o’ the kintry.” “Ay,” Brown added, “I’m afraid that a deal of our belief is founded on just ‘the clash o’ the kintry.’”  8
 
 
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