Paul Leicester Ford
( Originally Published 1907 )
IN 1876, when Paul Leicester Ford was eleven years old, he published " The Webster Genealogy," a genealogy of Noah Webster, with notes and corrections of his own. When he was seventeen he published "Websteriana, a catalogue of books by Noah Webster, collated from the library of Gordon L. Ford." At nineteen he also became the author of " Bibliotheca Chaunciana : a list of the writings of Charles Chauncy," the second president of Harvard College.
So much, at least, Ford accomplished be-fore he was out of his 'teens. Yet, considering his environment, this record is not a matter of wonder. Ford's father was Gordon L. Ford, a successful lawyer, a diligent student of American history, and, in the great Greeley's day, publisher of the New York Tribune ; and, which is more to the point, the collector and owner of one of the largest and richest private libraries in the United States. Little beyond these facts is known by those who had not the privilege of Gordon Ford's acquaintance. Mr. Lindsay Swift speaks of him as "an idealist of the type which does not readily pursue other than the highest ends, and which cannot throw open the reserves of its nature."
Paul was born on March 23, 1865. On his mother's side he is descended from Governor Bradford of Plymouth Colony, the author of the precious manuscript in the State House at Boston. On this side, too, he is the great-great-great-grandson of the aforementioned Chauncy and the great-grandson of the aforementioned Webster, the lexicographer, and the grandson of Professor Fowler of Amherst College. Paul's brother, Worthington Chauncy Ford, by the way, is already famous, though in a quieter way, as a statistician and publicist.
Paul was a delicate child ; his very delicacy gave him the opportunity to cultivate, under extremely favorable circumstances, his endowment of strong mental faculties. He was educated in his father's library. It is said that the Ford house, which stood in Clark Street, Brooklyn, was fairly walled with books. At the time these books were transferred to the New York Public Library their number was given out as one hundred thousand. The library itself was a room some fifty feet square. There the Ford boys were educated under the supervision of their cultured parents.
Ford is by nature a student; and under his father's guidance this disposition was sedulously cultivated. As a child he learned to set type, and as a child, also, he assisted his father in historiographical work. The father and the two sons established the Historical Printing Club, issuing books and pamphlets relating to American history and bibliography. This club was maintained until after the father's death. Among its products were the papers to which we have already referred.
Mr. Lindsay Swift has written an interesting description of the famous bibliographical arena in which Ford developed his genius. The description, of course ante-dates the memorable transfer. The room, "over fifty feet square, and reached from the main floor by a short flight of steps," he says, " is well but not glaringly lighted by a lantern at the top, while the sides, with the exception of a few small windows, of no great utility owing to the tallness of surrounding buildings, are fully taken up with books to the height of eight feet. The floor is covered in part by large rugs ; the walls and ceilings are of serious tint ; a fireplace is opposite the entrance ; while sofas of most dissimilar pattern and meant seemingly to hold any burden but a human one, are placed ' disposedly' about ; chairs, easy but not seductive, are in plenty, but like the sofas give notice that here is a government not of men but of books—here is no library built for the lust of the flesh and pride of the eye, but for books and for those who use them. I cannot suppose that those smitten of bibliophily would thrill over the Ford library, since it exists for the practical and virile, although it is, in parts, exceedingly choice. Roughly classified to suit the easy memories of the owners, it presents an appearance urbane and unprecise rather than military and commanding. At irregular intervals loom huge masses of books, pamphlets, papers, proof-sheets and engravings in cataclysmic disorder and apparently suspended in mid air, like the coffin of the False Prophet, but, in fact, resting on tables well hidden by the super-incumbent piles. In this room the father slowly accumulated this priceless treasure, mostly illustrative of American history and its adjuncts, thereby gratifying his own accurate tastes and hoping, as we may suppose, that his children would ultimately profit by his foresight." No doubt the father had such a hope, and before he died he lived to enjoy the fullest realization of it. At any rate, that room was Paul Ford's college, and, later, his literary workshop.
It might dull the reader's interest to enter into a detailed account of all the early work that Ford did in his father's library, but we may say that between 1886 and 1896 he published more than twenty pamphlets and books bearing on American historiography and bibliography, besides the bulk of " The Writings of Thomas Jefferson." As evidence of his prodigious capacity for energy, we offer the list of works which he published in the single year 1889: " The Franklin Bibliography : a list of books written by or relating to Benjamin Franklin," " List of Some Briefs in Appeal Cases Which Relate to America Tried Before the Lords Commissioners of Appeals of Prize Cases of His Majesty's Privy Council, 1736-1758," " Check-List of American Magazines Printed in the Eighteenth Century," " Check-List of Bibliographies, Catalogues, Reference Lists, and Lists of Authorities of American Books and Subjects," " Some Materials for a Bibliography of the Official Publications of the Continental Congress for 1774," " The Ideals of the Republic ; or Great Words from Great Americans," and " Who was the Mother of Franklin's Son?"
His most notable historical works are "The True George Washington," which excited so much comment when it appeared in 1896, and " The Many-Sided Franklin," published serially in The Century Magazine a few years ago. Though he may take advantage of moods, he does not wait for moods. They say that Alphonse Daudet was such a man of moods that two months would pass sometimes and leave the paper before him still blank. Ford is Daudet's antithesis in this respect. His pen is always ready. Perhaps this characteristic is one of the advantages of pursuing diverse interests. Yet, notwithstanding the immense amount of literature which he has produced already, the New Yorker is as painstaking as one of those Japanese artists who will labor for years on a single vase. Once, when half-way through a book, he discovered that he was reaching the wrong conclusion, so he destroyed what he had done and began again. Only a writer with a heroic disregard of time and effort, and with a sincere purpose and unlimited zeal, would make such a sacrifice. It is what we should expect of every master-craftsman, yet we fear that the deed is uncommon enough.
Mr. Ford's high reputation as a novelist was established by The Honorable Peter Stirling." Much of the success of the novel was due without doubt to the report that the hero of it was none other than the Hon. Grover Cleveland. Technically the story has only a slight value ; or perhaps it is fairer to say that its literary merit rises and falls. There are passages that drag; there are clumsy passages ; there are amusing unrealities ; and there are scenes photographic in their portrayal of metropolitan life. Then, again, the broad theme naturally interested the public — that great led and leading mass of humanity with its mercurial temper and shifting whims and deep sympathies. The strength and the weakness of the book — its literary dimness and its popular attractiveness — are illustrated in Stirling's speech at the Coldman trial.
" The event of the trial came, however, when Peter summed up. He spoke quietly, in the simplest language, using few adjectives and no invectives. But as the girl at the Pierce's dinner had said : ' He describes things so that one sees them.' He told of the fever-stricken cows, and he told of the little fever-stricken children in such a way that the audience sobbed ; his clients almost had to be ordered out of court ; the man next Dummer mopped his eyes with his handkerchief ; the judge and jury thoughtfully covered their eyes (so as to think better) ; the reporters found difficulty (owing to the glary light) in writing the words, despite their determination not to miss one ; and even the prisoner wiped his eyes in his sleeve. Peter was unconscious that he was making a great speech; great in its simplicity, and great in its pathos. He afterward said that he had not given it a moment's thought and had merely said what he felt. Perhaps his conclusion indicated why he was able to speak with the feeling he did. For he said :
"' This is not merely the case of the State versus James Goldman. It is the case of the tenement-house children against the inhumanity of man's greed.' "
A vivid picture sketched crudely, judged from the artistic view-point; but a picture to touch the heart of the people. This human element in the story, together with the popular idea that the hero was the distinguished statesman now resident in Princeton, made " The Honorable Peter Stirling " one of the most successful books of its day.
In a greater or less degree these merits and defects are reflected in " The Story of an Untold Love " and in " The Great K. & A. Train Robbery," but " Janice Meredith " reveals marked literary improvement. Janice is unquestionably the least artificial of all his female characters. In Janice Meredith," too, the author is on familiar ground. One has only to compare his Washington with the Washington whom Thackeray pictured in The Virginians " to realize fully that while the English novelist was the abler writer the American is the closer student.
It would be absurd for even the author's warmest admirer to set up the claim that "Janice Meredith" is the great American historical novel ; and although some of the friendly critics have vaguely hinted as much, no one, we believe, has boldly gone to the extremity of a proclamation. But it must in all justice be said that the book contains some of the elements which one day will entitle a story to that phenomenal distinction. Notable among these elements are a glowing imaginativeness and a rare faithfulness of historical portraiture.
Mr. Swift has fortunately given us a description of the author with his pen in hand. " A spirit of restlessness takes hold upon Mr. Ford when he is hardest at work," he says, "and he shifts at pleasure from one to another of his several desks or tables. I should imagine that the curiosity hunter of the future who might wish to possess the desk at which or the chair on which the author of ' Peter Stirling' sat when he penned that book, might comfortably fill a storage-warehouse van with new-found joys. Like most good fellows who write, Mr. Ford knows the value of the night and often works to best advantage when honest folk have been long abed." Again, Ford is described as being alive to every issue of the day and of the hour. He is brilliant at conversation, and perhaps more brilliant at controversy, " for," says Mr. Swift, " I can imagine no opposing argument so bristling with facts as to prevent his making a cavalry charge on a whole table of unsympathetic listeners. Life is at its keenest pitch when one is privileged to hear his urgent voice, with no little command withal in its notes, and to see the invincible clearness and dominance in his black-brown eyes."
We can conclude with no happier remark than that, so far as fiction is concerned, at least, Mr. Ford seems destined to win still greater honors than those already in his possession.