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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Theodore Winthrop (1828–1861)

THE FIGURE of Theodore Winthrop was a heroic one in the opening days of the American War of the Rebellion. He bore a historic name; his character was chivalric; his literary talent, just beginning to express itself, was brilliant; he died young and bravely at the head of his column, fighting for what he deemed the right. Here were all the elements for hero-making. Small wonder that his books, posthumously published, were eagerly bought and read. To read them now is to realize what an unusual gift in him was quenched untimely. The work was tentative, of promise rather than full performance. But it is worth remembrance; it calls for recognition.

Theodore Winthrop was born in New Haven, September 22d, 1828; a direct descendant of John Winthrop, early governor of Connecticut. He was graduated from Yale University when twenty years of age, and was a notable student, winning prizes and greatly admired of his fellows. From graduation to the outbreaking of war—more than a dozen years—his life was a roving one, his activity varied. His health was delicate, and at first he traveled much abroad; then entered an Eastern counting-house; went to Panama in the employment of the Pacific Steamship Company; and later made a tour of California and Oregon, extending it to Vancouver’s Island and Puget Sound, and visiting the Hudson’s Bay Company’s stations. He was often ill, but the rough nomadic life seemed the tonic for his restoration. Again he tried the counting-room, only to be off soon on some adventurous expedition. In spite of his uncertain health, he was an athlete, skillful on horseback and in all outdoor sports.

In 1855 he studied law, and was admitted to the bar; trying St. Louis first, then settling in New York. He threw himself with ardor into the Fremont campaign, and was active in making speeches among the Pennsylvania working-folk,—an occupation he liked far better than practicing his profession, for which he had little taste. Thus the war found him unsettled, unproved: a man with a strong instinct for action, and a love for unconventional and wild life; a keen observer, who had seen much, and from his college days had been fond of writing.

Here was an unusual equipment for a literary man. The war seemed to his friends to be his opportunity: certainly he himself welcomed its call to deeds. As George William Curtis said in a sympathetic biographical sketch, “Theodore Winthrop’s life, like a fire long smoldering, suddenly blazed up into a clear bright flame and vanished.” On settling in New York, he had joined the crack Seventh Regiment. In April 1861 he went with it to the front. General Butler made him his military secretary and aide. At Big Bethel, on June 10th, in the flush of his manhood, he fell with his face to the enemy, a beautiful young leader.

While in camp, Winthrop was contributing to the Atlantic Monthly admirably graphic papers on his war experiences: he began to draw public attention as a writer. He left a large amount of manuscript, and his books appeared in rapid succession after his death: ‘Cecil Dreeme’ in 1861; ‘John Brent,’ ‘Edwin Brothertoft,’ and ‘The Canoe and the Saddle’ in 1862; ‘Life in the Open Air and Other Papers’ in 1863. The two novels first named proved the most popular: ‘Cecil Dreeme’ reached its seventeenth edition by 1864, ‘John Brent’ its fourteenth. The latter is unquestionably his strongest work. Winthrop has fine qualities as a story-maker. The light and shade in human existence is dramatically rendered in his fiction. He gives his readers plot and action in plenty; writing in crisp, idiomatic, vigorous English. In such a book as ‘John Brent’ there is an open-air wholesomeness that is infectious. That tale of the Western plains, with its heroic men and horses, its knightly rescue of woman in distress, its thrilling ride for love and life, is one of the breeziest imaginable. It is thoroughly American in tone and atmosphere; and had the merit, in its day especially, of delineating Western scenes and characters with sympathy and skill, at a time when the West was almost virgin soil to literature. In ‘Cecil Dreeme’ the drama is enacted in the city, and it is dark and gruesome, running into melodrama: the story seems less mature. Yet it has unquestionable power and charm.

Winthrop is always the poet and idealist, interested in character on its spiritual side,—this tendency being healthily blended with the objective narrative interest of plot. One feels in reading his vital stories that in his early death American literature suffered a genuine loss. ‘The Life and Poems of Theodore Winthrop,’ edited by his sister, appeared in 1884.