The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XIII. Later Essayists
§ 2. Donald Grant Mitchell
The two volumes, Reveries of a Bachelor (1850) and Dream Life (1851), which Mitchell, as a young writer, issued under the pseudonym of Ik Marvel, are volumes that strike the same chords whose artistically modulated music resounds in so much of Irving, to whom the latter volume was dedicated; while in The Lorgnette, or Studies of the Town (1850) we have a series of papers directly modelled on Salmagundi. These sketches, despite the facile manner of their kindly satire, belong in the topical realm of ephemera, and are of interest mainly to the historical critic, who, harking back to the days of The Spectator and The Tatler, finds in them another nexus between English and American literature. Not so, however, can we dismiss Reveries of a Bachelor and Dream Life. Their hold on the affections of later generations is secure despite that naïve sentimentality frequently displayed by American literature in the period just preceding the Civil War. Both these books present a series of pictures in the imaginary life of their author, and there is a general adherence to the concept of life as a succession of the seasons. This parallel does not, however, lead into paths of wintry regret. We find even December logic taking on a golden hue in such a sentence as this from the Reveries: “Affliction has tempered joy, and joy adorned affliction. Life and all its troubles have become distilled into a holy incense rising ever from your fireside—an offering to your household Gods.” “And what if age comes”—Mitchell writes further on, in the vein of Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra.—“What else proves the wine? It is but retreating towards the pure sky depths.” The note of joy in the springtime of life, the accent of sympathy for young griefs as well as young loves, echo from these charming pages; while the ingenuousness of Ik Marvel’s sentiments is embedded in an old-fashioned form of sentimental phraseology which brings a smile to the lips of the sophisticated critic. But after all it is the smile in the reader’s heart that attests the lasting human appeal of both the Reveries and Dream Life. These books were written while their author was still in his twenties, and they have the immaturity, both of technique and philosophy, which precedes the labour of the craftsman and the experiences of the man; yet they have also, with the aroma of youth, that even subtler fragrance—the gift of the gods to all who comprehend the value of the dreaming hour.
There are two elements in these works secondary in interest only to the major themes of love, sorrow, and ambition. One is the immediate affection for nature, nowhere more beautifully expressed than in this springtime picture: “The dandelions lay along the hillocks like stars in a sky of green.” The other note is of love for old books. These themes are repeatedly found in Mitchell’s later writings; and My Farm of Edgewood (1863)—Edgewood was his country home near New Haven —began a series of volumes among the earliest of a steadily increasing department of American literature revolving around agricultural and rural themes.
Mitchell’s own experiences with the soil of his native Connecticut are, in My Farm of Edgewood, recounted with the seriousness of the scientific farmer and the grace of the man of letters. In Wet Days at Edgewood (1865) his pleasant discourse ranges from ancient country poets to the latest practical studies of soil cultivation; while in the yet later volume Rural Studies, with Hints for Country Places (1867) he continues in confidential mood to the widening circles of those readers whose love for country life his own writings had in no small measure developed. Thus Mitchell figures in a very personal way in the large group of American writers on nature, and deserves recognition as an influential pioneer in directing, with the urbanity of the scholar, the attention of his countrymen to non-urban delights. This point is emphasized because, all told, American essayists have, in their treatment of nature, covered an exceptionally wide range, and approached this theme, both as to style and interpretation, in ways that repay the most interested study: Audubon, the important naturalist, indulging in exaggerated poetical rhetoric in acquainting us with the habits of birds; Emerson and Thoreau, not impervious to the interest of nature’s details, yet winning from them the highest spiritual sustenance for the world of men; Agassizand Warner and Mabie and Burroughs and John Muir, approaching each according to his temperament and qualifications this ever bountiful theme. From some of these authors we derive knowledge concerning animal life and plant life; from others, messages of the intimate relationship between human life and the great world of nature. But Mitchell, in his Edgewood writings, stands as one whose main interest sprang from the soil itself.
Towards the end of his long life, Mitchell wrote four volumes on English Lands, Letters, and Kings (1890), and two on American Lands and Letters (1897–99). Here are many shrewd observations concerning his contemporaries, as well as pungent estimates, often mingled with humour, of the writings and character of earlier authors; but these books, with their wealth of pictures, were intended for the public at large, and cannot be considered as original contributions to critical literature. In them we have the somewhat obvious fruit of his travels, experiences, and readings, but in a manner that has less flavour than the gleanings of travel, published in far younger days, such as A New Sheaf from the Old Fields of Continental Europe (1847). Those earlier descriptive papers and legends, so immediately related to Irving’s Tales of a Traveller, are more in accord with Mitchell’s fame as the author of the Reveries and Dream Life, and through them Mitchell is most pleasantly affiliated with many other American essayists—Emerson, Bryant, Bayard Taylor, Curtis—who made their travels the basis of a great body of work that varies from the decorous pace of well-phrased description to graceful flights of fancy and even to soarings of the creative imagination.