Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Talks with Thackeray

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Talks with Thackeray

By Orville Dewey (1794–1882)

[Born in Sheffield, Mass., 1794. Died there, 1882. From Autobiography and Letters of Orville Dewey, D.D. 1884.]

THACKERAY came to Washington while I was there. He gave his course of lectures on the “English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century.” His style, especially in his earlier writings, had one quality which the critics did not seem to notice; it was not conventional, but spun out of the brain. With the power of thought to take hold of the mind, and a rich, deep, melodious voice, he contrived, without one gesture, or any apparent emotion in his delivery, to charm away an hour as pleasantly as I have ever felt it in a lecture. What he told me of his way of composing confirms me in my criticism on his style. He did not dash his pen on paper, like Walter Scott, and write off twenty pages without stopping, but, dictating to an amanuensis,—a plan which leaves the brain to work undisturbed by the pen-labor,—dictating from his chair, and often from his bed, he gave out sentence by sentence, slowly, as they were moulded in his mind.

Thackeray was sensitive about public opinion; no writer, I imagine, was ever otherwise. I remember, one morning, he was sitting in our parlor, when letters from the mail came in. They were received with some eagerness, of course, and he said, “You seem to be pleased to have letters; I am not.”—“No?” we said.—“No. I have had letters from England this morning, and they tell me that ‘Henry Esmond’ is not liked.”

This led to some conversation on novels and novel-writing, and I ventured to say: “How is it that not one of the English novelists has ever drawn any high or adequate character of the clergyman? Walter Scott never gave us anything beyond the respectable official. Goldsmith’s Dr. Primrose is a good man, the best we have in your English fiction, but odd and amusing rather than otherwise. Then Dickens has given us Chadband and Stiggins, and you Charles Honeyman. Can you not conceive,” I went on to say, “that a man, without any chance of worldly profit, for a bare stipend, giving his life to promote what you must know are the highest interests of mankind, is engaged in a noble calling, worthy of being nobly described? Or have you no examples in England to draw from?” This last sentence touched him, and I meant it should.

With considerable excitement he said, “I delivered a lecture the other evening in your church in New York, for the Employment Society; would you let me read to you a passage from it?” Of course I said I should be very glad to hear it, and added, “I thank you for doing that.”—“I don’t know why you should thank me,” he said; “it cost me but an hour’s reading, and I got $1,500 for them. I thought I was the party obliged. But I did tell them they should have a dozen shirts made up for me, and they did it.” He then went and brought his lecture, and read the passage, which told of a curate’s taking him to visit a poor family in London, where he witnessed a scene of distress and of disinterestedness very striking and beautiful to see. It was a very touching description, and Thackeray nearly broke down in reading it.