The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

IX. Minor Humorists

§ 6. Eugene Field

The lecture platform gave both Nye and Burdette an opportunity to display at best advantage their comical solemnity, and much of their notoriety rose from their public appearances. Nye especially was fortunate in his collaborators, touring at one time with Mark Twain and again with James Whitcomb Riley and Eugene Field.

The last named, greatest of newspaper paragraphers and in his own right something more, qualified as a Middle Westerner by his birth in St. Louis (1850) and by his New England ancestry and bringing up. After three years in three colleges, a trip to Europe, and an early marriage, he served his apprenticeship to journalism on several Missouri papers. From The Denver [Colorado] Tribune his first humorous skit, The Tribune Primer (1882), was reprinted. The best years of his life were spent in Chicago as contributing editor to The Chicago Record. In his daily column of “Sharps and Flats” appeared his most characteristic verse, tales, and miscellaneous paragraphs, later collected to form A Little Book of Western Verse (1889), A Little Book of Profitable Tales (1889), and other volumes. He was still in the prime of life and at the height of his celebrity as a household poet, humorist, and lecturer, when he wrote in the assumed character of a veteran bibliomaniac: “I am aweary and will rest a little while; lie thou there, my pen, for a dream—a pleasant dream—calleth me away.” A few weeks later (4 November, 1895) death visited the writer as he slept.

Field’s best known pieces of verse and prose exploiting sentimental and pathetic themes, especially Christmas festivities and the deaths of little children, emerge from a background of humorous writing illustrated by the rank and file of his contributions to “Sharps and Flats.” The waggery of his natural bent finds unmixed expression in the early and unsuccessful book, Culture’s Garland; Being Memoranda of the Gradual Rise of Literature, Art, Music and Society in Chicago and other Western Ganglia (1887), which engagingly blends the atmosphere of cultivation, so long anticipated by Chicagoans, with whiffs from the very real and ever-present stockyards. Only a few gleams of wit, however, relieve the profitable sentimentality of the later Tales.

A better balanced expression of his undeniable personal charm is to be found in A Little Book of Western Verse, virile and funny in the ballads of the miners’ camp on Red Hoss Mountain; otherwise “Western” only as it exemplifies a readiness to try anything once. Among many lullabies, Christmas hymns, and lyrics of infant mortality, the playful side of Field’s genius is sufficiently represented by imitations of Old English ballads, echoes of Horatian themes, a few rollicking nursery songs, and much personal, political, and literary gossip cleverly versified. A bit of flippancy like The Little Peach of Emerald Hue goes to show that Field’s humour could on occasion conquer the sentimental strain in him. But only too often his children die from the fatal effects of contact with the angels.

In his more ambitious pieces Field not infrequently falls into an over-refinement and false simplicity of style. When not too consciously doing his best, however, nothing could been more effortless than the easy play of his wit. One thrust at a gang of politicians junketing at their constituents’ expense deserves to be recalled as a fair example of his skill:

  • BLUE CUT, TENN., May 2, 1885.—The second section of the train bearing the Illinois Legislature to New Orleans was stopped near this station by bandits last night. After relieving the bandits of their watches and money, the excursionists proceeded on their journey with increased enthusiasm.