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Book Review


Bruce, H. Addington, "Moncure D. Conway's Autobiography." Current Literature 38 (Jan. 1905): 43.

Moncure D. Conway's Autobiography

There cannot well be two opinions concerning the value of the autobiography* which Moncure Daniel Conway has given to the world from the peaceful retirement of his declining years. Brought in the course of a long and busy life into intimate contact with the first minds of the age, he has enjoyed unusual facilities for observing the tendencies and developments of the last fifty years in the realms of religious, political, scientific, literary, and artistic thought, and has himself been an active participant in history-making events of the period. In American, he has known the Virginia and Maryland of antebellum days, the Concord and Harvard of Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau and Aggassiz, the Washington and Cincinnati of the eve of the Civil War. In Europe, he has studied at close range the intellectual giants of the Victorian era, and has been an interested spectator of the unification of Italy, the Franco-Prussian War, the welding of the German Empire, and the birth of the Third Republic. Apart from what he has seen, his career contains elements of high interest, involving as it does a striking story of spiritual evolution. Moncure Conway to-day stands as one of the foremost representatives of religious free though. The steps by which he progress to this view-point from the orthodoxy to which he was born and bred are revealed here with a scrupulous self-searching that makes this one of the most remarkable contributions to the literature of introspection that we have received of recent years, just as in its wealth of recollection and reminiscence it throws many a luminous side-light on the history of the past half-century.

Undoubtedly the most potent influence in the shaping of Moncure Conway's life was Ralph Waldo Emerson. The chance perusal of an essay by the Sage of Concord was the immediate cause of his entering the ministry. And when he found himself unable longer to subscribe to the doctrines of his Church, it was to Emerson he turned, sending an appeal that evoked a letter stimulating the young Virginian to leave home and place himself under the guidance of the teachers of the Divinity School at Harvard, a step causing a breach with his father that it required years to close. Arriving at Cambridge in February, 1853, it was not until May that he visited Emerson, feeling "shy about invading the 'spot that is sacred to though and God.'" The warmth of his greeting overwhelmed him. "Emerson met me at the front door, welcome beaming in his eyes, and took me into his library. He remembered receiving a letter from me two or three years before. On learning that I was at the Divinity School, and had come to Concord simply to see him, he called from his library door, 'Queeny!' Mrs. Emerson came, and I was invited to remain some days. I had, however, to return to college that evening, and though I begged that his day should not be interfered with, he insisted on my passing the afternoon with him." Later in the day they took a walk around Walden Pond, and visited the ruins of the shanty Thoreau and built. "When we were in a by-way among the bushes Emerson suddenly stopped and exclaimed 'Ah! There is one of the gods of the wood!' I looked and saw nothing; then turned to him and followed his glance, but still beheld nothing unusual. He was looking along the path before us through a thicket. 'Where?' I asked. 'Did you see it?' he said, now moving on. 'No, I saw nothing - what was it?' 'No matter,' said he gently. I repeated my question, but he still said smilingly, 'Never mind, if you did not see it.' I was a little piqued, but said no more.
...Perhaps the sylvan god I had missed was a pretty snake, a squirrel, or other little note in the symphony of nature. ... That evening I sat in my room in Divinity Hall as one enriched, and wrote: 'May 3. The most memorable day of my life: spent with Ralph Waldo Emerson!'"

Only two days later Emerson returned the call. Thus began a lifelong friendship, and, for young Conway, his "instruction in the supremacy of the present hour." Emerson's influence never lost its hold of him, as is clearly testified by the abundance of his references to the poet-philosopher. Of his life at Harvard and of religious and social Cambridge and Boston, Mr. Conway has much to say, always with the kindly, sympathetic touch which, with one or two notable exceptions, is characteristic of these memoirs. Among his instructors Agassiz appears to have left the most abiding impression.

Agassiz, it appears, gave a lecture every year at Concord, where he was always the guest of the Emersons. "On one such occasion," writes Mr. Conway, "I remember listening to a curious conversation between Agassiz and A. Bronson Alcott - who lived and moved in a waking dream. After delighting Agassiz by repudiation the theory of the development of man from animals, he filled the professor with dismay by equally decrying ferocious and poisonous beasts. When Agassiz asked who could have created them, Alcott said they were the various forms of human sin. Man was the first being created. And the horrible creatures were originated by his lusts and animalisms. When Agassiz, bewildered, urged that geology proved that the animals existed before man, Alcott suggested that man might have originated them before his appearance in his present form. Agassiz, having given a signal of distress. Emerson came to the rescue with some reconciling discourse on the development of life and thought, with which the professor had to be content, although there was a soupçou of Evolutionism in every word our host uttered."

Mr. Conway's sojourn in Massachusetts had other consequences than a liberalizing of his thought on religious questions. His belief in this institution of slavery, a belief innate and confirmed by early training and environment, waned until, long before he received his call to the Unitarian Church at Washington, he was ready to take a firm stand for abolition. He was in Boston at the time of Anthony Burns rendition, and on July 4, 1854, attended the annual gathering of the abolitionists in Framingham Grove. He tells us that Garrison made of that July Fourth a day of judgment. "That day I distinctly recognized that the antislavery cause was a religion; that Garrison was a successor of the inspired axe-bearers - John the Baptizer, Kuther, Wesley, George Fox. But as I could not work with Lutheran, Methodist or Quaker, I could not join the Anti-Slavery Society. There was a Calvinistic accent in that creed about the 'covenant with death and agreement with hell.' Slavery was not death, nor the South hell. I did not care about the Constitution, and my peace principles inclined me to a separation between sections that hated each other. Yet I knew good people on both sides. I also believed that slavery was to be abolished by the union of all hearts and minds opposed to it - those who believed emancipation potential in the Constitution, as well as the Constitution burners."

Venturing to visit his home town shortly after his removal to Washington, he found that his abolition sentiments had receded him, and he was virtually expelled by his irate fellow-townsmen. His position in regard to slavery also cost him his church in Washington, but it was not long before he was invited to fill a pulpit in Cincinnati. Interesting as are his reminiscences of life in these cities, there is space for but one quotation. Passing through the market-place of Cincinnati one evening in 1859, Mr. Conway paused on the edge of a crowd listening to a political speech. "Something about the speaker, and some words that reached me led me to press nearer. I asked the speaker's name and learned that it was Abraham Lincoln.

"Browning's description of the German professor, 'Three parts sublime to one grotesque,' was applicable to this man. The face had a battered and bronzed look without being hard. His nose was prominent and buttressed a strong and high forehead; his eyes were high-vaulted, and had an expression of sadness; his mouth and chin were too close together, the cheeks hollow. On the whole, Lincoln's appearance was not attractive until one heard his voice, which possessed variety of expression, earnestness, and shrewdness in every tone. The charm of his manner was that he had no manner; he was simple, direct, humorous. He pleasantly repeated a mannerism of his opponent 'This is what Douglas calls his gur-reat perinciple'; but the next words I remember were these: 'Slavery is wrong.'"

Only a few months later and the Cincinnati preacher, in company with Channing, was at the White House urging upon President Lincoln immediate emancipation of the slave. In this cause Mr. Conway went lecturing through the Middle States, assumed editorial charge, with Frank B. Sanborn, of "The Commonwealth," and finally journeyed to England in the hope of shaping public opinion in favor of the North. In England he was destined to make his home, succeeding William J. Fox as pastor of South Place Chapel in London, and occupying the pulpit there for more than twenty-years. From the outset he found himself a welcome guest of the high-minded. One of the first upon whom he called, in connection with the mission that had brought him to England, was Carlyle, and their acquaintance ripened into a comradeship that lasted until Carlyle's death. As Emerson is the most prominent figure in the first volume of these reminiscences, so is Carlyle ever in the foreground of the second. If the memory of the Lion of Chelsea requires any rehabilitation it assuredly finds it in these pages. In the chapter detailing Froude's relations with Carlyle, and the passage dealing with the domestic relations of Carlyle and his wife as seen by one who had at all times entry into the Carlyle home, we have what may well be accounted a final word in the luckless controversy provoked by Fourde. With the latter Mr. Conway was also on terms of the closest intimacy, declaring that Froude's friendship was one of the highest charms of his London life, and we clearly perceive the regret with which he found it necessary to correct Froude's "errors." His explanation of the unfortunate position taken by Froude deserves citiation:

*AUTOBIOGRAPHY: MEMOIRS AND EXPERIENCES. By Moncure D. Conway. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston. $6.00


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