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 Hamilton Wright Mabie (18461916)
By Charles Dudley Warner (18291900)
His ancestry was of the best, for he came of good New England stock. He was born on the 12th day of September, 1829, in Plainfield, a small Massachusetts village; his father being one of the largest farmers and the owner of the best library in the section. In a characteristic essay Mr. Warner has left a very intimate impression of a New England childhood, and has interpreted the simplicity, domesticity, integrity, and manly independence of the best New England character.
When the time for entering college came, Mr. Warner chose one of the best-known institutions of central New York; a college which has put a distinctive stamp upon a large number of men of ability in different walks of life. Life at Clinton in those days was very simple, and the college endowments were small, but there were competent teachers and there was enthusiasm among the best students for the best things in thought and life.
After his graduation from Hamilton College in 1851, Mr. Warner joined a surveying party and made intimate acquaintance with out-of-doors life in Missouri. This excursion into what was then a comparatively new section of country was succeeded by attendance on the Law department of the University of Pennsylvania. Many American writers have found their way into literature by way of the Law. The sign “W. C. Bryant, Att’y at Law,” once hung on the main street of a New England village, and Lowell humorously declared that to him law meant an office and nothing more. Graduating in 1856, Mr. Warner began the practice of his profession in Chicago, and for four years endeavored to reconcile himself to the work of an uncongenial occupation. At the end of that time, having discovered the real bent of his mind, he wisely gave up the struggle to do work for which he was not adapted, came East and secured a position on the Press of Hartford, Connecticut. In 1867, when the Press was merged in the Courant, he became, with his classmate and friend, Senator Joseph R. Hawley, co-editor and proprietor of a newspaper which soon became one of the foremost journals in the country.
Mr. Warner was indefatigable in whatever he undertook, and his work on the Courant was both enthusiastic and intelligent. From the very beginning he gave his editorial writing the utmost care and thought, and the high standard of literary excellence to which he held himself became the rule of his journal.
A close observer and keen student of men, full of interest in everything characteristic of life in manners, habit, and dress, Mr. Warner was predestined to be a critic of life as well as of books, and, therefore, to be a great traveler. The first of his many long journeys was made in 1868, and his reports of the countries he visited were so full of delicate observation, humorous comment, and charming description that they attracted wide attention. He became, in time, one of the most delightful and popular writers of travel in our literature.
Mr. Warner was also a lover of nature, with the keenest enjoyment of out-of-door life; and it was these tastes, with his charming humor, which first gave him reputation. ‘My Summer in a Garden,’ which was published in 1870, was pervaded by his delightful personality. It had the charm of personal narration, the atmosphere of a New England garden, and an easy flow of witty comment and reflection. It gave its author a wide popular reputation and it marked the beginning of a literary career singularly successful and harmonious. His audience secured and his art thoroughly mastered, Mr. Warner became a prolific writer, and to the year of his death essays, sketches of travel, literary papers, biography, novels, discussions of political, social, and educational questions came from his hand in long and fruitful succession.
It was predestined that he should be the biographer of Irving, for he was in the direct line of succession from the author of ‘The Sketch Book.’ He had the same catholicity of taste, urbanity of manner, and charming combination of sentiment and humor. But he lived in a larger world than that in which Irving worked, and his interests were wider. He cared more for public affairs, and was more deeply concerned with public interests. He was a devout and ardent American, but the America he loved was not the country to which many Americans devote themselves; it was the America of intellectual and spiritual opportunity, of the open door to self-development, of the free, brave, simple, genuine life of self-respecting independence.
Mr. Warner became not only a popular writer, but a high-minded and loyal representative of American literature; standing resolutely and conspicuously for its great importance to the country, for its ethical responsibilities, and for the solidarity of its interests. He was a born lover of the best, and a born hater of the mediocre, the vulgar, and the cheap. A strain of high breeding showed itself in his standards, his ideals, his code of manners. In political, artistic, and social life he resolutely pursued those things which make for honor, for dignity, and for richness of life. He was the unrelenting enemy of everything which lowers the standards of life; no man in our generation has more quietly but more effectively protested against that which is sordid and demoralizing in popular standards of success than Mr. Warner. He was not by nature a novelist, but his observations of social life were so keen, his insight into character so sure, his knowledge of life so broad, that when he took up fiction he put into it a wisdom of experience, a delicacy of characterization, and a justness of judgment, combined with his delightful style, which gave his stories great attractiveness. That which was most noticeable in them, however, was the clear perception of the reflex influence of ethical standards on manners. ‘A Little Journey in the World,’ ‘The Golden House,’ and ‘That Fortune’ were close studies of the deterioration in character and manners which overtakes those who sell themselves for success, and who are corrupted by the material returns of prosperity.
For more than a quarter of a century, during one of the critical periods in the history of the American people, Mr. Warner was a teacher of ethics, of sound taste, of genuine patriotism and of liberal culture, of exceptional influence and importance. He was deeply interested in many movements which had for their object the betterment of conditions of life and the advancement of the spiritual interests of the country. At the time of his death he was President of the American Social Science Association. When the National Institute of Arts and Letters was organized, including in its membership the leading American writers, painters, sculptors, and composers, he became its first President; his position, work, and personal qualities pre-eminently fitting him for the place.
He undertook the laborious work of editing the Library of the World’s Best Literature because he was eager to put into accessible form the best that had been thought and written, and to bring within reach of every American home the inspiration, the resource, and the pleasure which literature in its finest examples offers to every receptive reader. His interest in the work was deep and enthusiastic; he gave time and strength without measure to it, and it was his steadfast endeavor to secure for the Library the co-operation of the foremost students and critics of literature.
Although he had been for more than a year in failing health, Mr. Warner’s death at Hartford, on October 20th, 1900, was a great shock to the wide circle of those who loved and honored him. There were younger men in all parts of the country who owed much to his generous recognition and encouragement; there are innumerable readers to whom he had given stimulus, impulse, and pleasure; and there were many more whom he had served without their knowledge; for he had enriched American life for all time by his fine intelligence, his large and generous aims, his high standards, and the charm of his spirit.