Letter from CHARLES ELIOT NORTON to GEORGE PERKINS MARSH, dated April 19, 1864.
My dear Sir
I have had the pleasure of receiving within a few days past your two letters of the
14 & 29 March. I am exceedingly obliged to you for
the trouble you have taken concerning the Benv. da Imola, and
I hope to give you no more in the matter. -- I could not expect to get a better
transcript of the Comment than that which Nannucci made for
Lord Vernon, hardly indeed so good a one,--and acting on
the information you have gained for me I shall now try, through a friend in England,
either to get the loan of Lord Vernon's manuscript or a copy of it. Will you be good
enough, if there should be a fit oppportunity, to offer to Sir
James Lacaita my thanks for his kindness in writing to Lord Vernon on my
behalf. -- It is getting rather late to accomplish what Lowell & I had thought of doing. The carrying through the press
a portion, at least, of the Comment in season to offer it as our contribution to the celebration at Florence next year. But if we fail to do anything of the sort the American zeal in the study of Dante will still, I trust, be represented by a worthy literary work. Longfellow has completed a translation of the D. C. and has begun to print it with the design of finishing the printing in season to send copies of it to Florence in May 1865. The printing, with the very careful revision that Longfellow gives his work, is so slow a process that I doubt whether more than the Inferno or at best that and the Purgatorio will be ready. He has not attempted to render the triple rhyme,--an attempt which must always in English result in a work of ingenuity rather than of poetry,--but he shows in this work the same skill & power which have made his previous translations among the best in the language. He translates line for line, with the most careful avoidance of paraphrase, & the most
scrupulous fidelity to the original. I have no doubt that his translation will supersede all others in English with such readers as wish to understand and get the nearest notion possible of the original;--but Cary's translation will still hold its place with readers who like a 'Dante made easy,' and well Miltonized for the satisfaction of Englishmen. -- Longfellow, although making no concealment of it would rather not have the fact of his being engaged on this work made public for the present.
I wish that you were to be here next Saturday. Our Saturday Club has arranged a little celebration which promises to be very pleasant of Shakespeare's birthday. It has invited twenty guests to join it at dinner, & will collect most of the cleverest men of letters who do not belong to its own number. Bryant, Curtis, & Grant White are coming from New York,--& possibly Mr. Bancroft & old Mr. Verplank.
But whoever may be present we shall yet miss some few who might
[wish] to be with us. I shall hold you in remembrance and desire.
I received last night with great pleasure your new volume, and have read as much of it today as other occupations would allow. Tomorrow I hope for a long spell of reading. I am greatly interested and instructed by what I have read, and am sure that this book will add largely to the already large debt of gratitude which the students of this day owe to you. I am quite safe also in congratulating you on its success & on its usefulness.
I am truly obliged to you for what you say concerning the North
American Review, and I hope to be able to persuade you to write for it in
spite of the hinderances you mention. Undoubtedly the subjects from the discussion
of which you are debarred by your office, are among the most interesting that could
be treated at the present time. But the topic you suggest as in your mind,--a
popular comparative exposition of American & European religious, political
& social institutions,--is hardly surpassed in importance by any
other. Our people need instruction greatly in the nature of the institutions under which they live,--and which are the peculiar expressions of the new conditions of our American civilization. The analogies of history are often very misleading when applied to our circumstances. One of the chief difficulties in the formation of correct opinion, not more in Europe than in our own country, in respect to the character & issues of our war, has arisen from supposing that the same rules apply to such a people as ours & to those of the old world. The principles which underlie our institutions & guide the course of our development are essentially different from those by which the thoughts & actions of men as embodied in institutions have been formed in past times. Such a popular philosophical comparison as you would make would be of essential value in heightening the appreciation by our people of the advantages we enjoy, & of the consequent responsibilities. It would do much toward defining our national character & in defining to strengthen & elevate it. Why
then should you not write for us a series of papers to be collected afterwards into a volume. Although the payment the publishers of the Review are able to make for contributions is not as large as it ought to be, yet it is better than the payment for such work has generally been amongst us. For an article occupying 30 to 40 printed pages the publishers will be glad to pay you $100. -- This would be more than than they pay for the mass of contributions, & they would not wish it reported;--but they feel strongly the value that your writing would add to the Review. I am glad to hear from them that the circulation of the Review is increasing,--and we have good prospect of securing that influence for the Review which such a Journal ought to exert. The next number (July) will contain several very able articles.
You are somewhat more impatient with the course of the Administration, &
with the general condition of affairs with us, than I think you would be were you at
home, & conscious of those unreported currents of moral feeling & opinion which in a great measure determine events & the conduct of individuals. I admit fully the defects of our public men, the entire absence of capacity to lead among them, their indifference to & distrust of the moral element in politics, their consequence [consequent] slowness to perceive & hesitation to use the magnificent opportunities of the present times;--their tremulous feebleness in dealing with the practical problems connected with the destruction of slavery & the dissolution of society in the South;--but although great statesmanship, or even inferior statesmanship based upon ideal politics would have no doubt saved the country much expenditure of life & means, & perhaps have closed the war ere this, I cannot but think that the very evils of which we complain have been most important elements in the process of national education. The faults errors, & sins of our men in authority, of the President, the Cabinet & Congress, have been the means of developing the virtues & the strength of the people. They have done
much to make democracy efficient, and to spread the consciousness of self-government among the people. We as a people are on the whole fortunate in not having leaders; as a people we must educate ourselves into independence & develop out of ourselves consistent, free, democratic, institutions. The delays of the war, its cost & its suffering, are to be counted as blessings. They have tempered enthusiasms into principles, & moral sentiments into convictions. The progress of the war has made manifest the depth of our previous derelictions of duty & confusions of thought; and to correct them is a long, slow, painful process.
You & I would have had the President long ago secure the abolition of
Slavery; he might no doubt have done it; he would have been supported by the better
men of all the parties;--but I do not feel sure that he could have done so without
awaking such opposition as would have succeeded in making it impossible to carry on
the war to a successful termination. By degrees the men who would have most bitterly
opposed him have been won over to the support of the policy of freedom. A moral
revolution such as is going on with us cannot be hurried
without disaster. There is continual danger of reaction; of Charles II; of the Bourbons. Suppose Mr. Lincoln to have taken high anti-slavery ground two years ago,--and we should have been likely to have the old union between the corrupt & ignorant Democratic party & the Slave holders cemented with a cement that no future efforts could break till we were turned into a Slave-dependency.
Mr. Lincoln is no doubt very slow in arriving at conclusions. He has no rapid
intuitions of truth; but his convictions are the more firm from being attained only
with difficulty. Experience has already taught him so much that we may hope it will
teach him still more. There is no question of his integrity however much there may
be of his judgment. I think you are wrong in supposing him to have been under the
ascendancy of McClellan. The very favor with which McClellan is still regarded by
great numbers of persons is a proof of the President's wisdom in giving him so long
and so full an opportunity to show himself. The letters of McClellan (the most
discreditable letters that a military commander ever addressed to his superiors) are
that he at least did not suppose the President to be under his influence, and was utterly incapable of appreciating his generosity & forbearance.
Now that Mr. Chase has withdrawn from the Presidential struggle, an unfortunate effort is being made to push the claims of Frèmont. It is not likely to have any more serious effect than that of creating some bitterness of feeling on both sides, & of injuring the reputation of the person in whose interest it is made, & who gives sanction to it by his silence. At present no other candidate can run any chance against Lincoln, & if the opening campaign result successfully for our arms Lincoln will undoubtedly be our next President. If, however, we meet with military disaster it is not unlikely that another candidate will be put forward by the nominating Convention.
My Mother, my wife & my sisters desire me to send their kindest regards to Mrs. Marsh & yourself;--& I am, always,
Most sincerely & very gratefullyYoursCharles Eliot Norton.
References in this letter:
Benvenuto Rambaldi da Imola's commentary in Latin on the Divine Comedy was one of the earliest and most valuable discussions of Dante's great work.
Several works by the philologist Vincenzio Nannucci are in Marsh's library.
George John Warren, Baron Vernon (1803-1866), lived mostly in Florence and published numerous Dante texts and commentaries.
Sir James P. Lacaita (1813-1895), educated as a lawyer at Naples, emigrated to England in 1852 but returned to become a member of the first Italian legislature 1861-65.
James Russell Lowell and Norton had first broached the idea of an edition of Benvenuto Rambaldi da Imola's commentary on Dante's Divine Comedy in a letter of May 9, 1863.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy 1865-67.
Henry Francis Cary (1772-1844), educated at Christ Church, Oxford, published his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy in 1805 ("Hell") and 1812 ("Purgatory" and "Paradise").
The Saturday Club, founded in 1854, was the leading literary and intellectual club in Boston in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Among its members were Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Henry James, Sr. It met at the Parker House on the last Saturday of every month.
William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), poet, editor and critic, author of "Thanatopsis" and "To a Waterfowl," was co-owner and co-editor of the New York Evening Post.
George William Curtis (1824-1892), author and reformer, wrote essays for "The Editor's Easy Chair" in Harper's New Monthly Magazine from 1854 until 1892.
Richard Grant White (1821-1885), New York man of letters, wrote music, art, and literary criticism and was well-known as a Shakespeare scholar.
George Bancroft (1800-1891), author of the nine-volume History of the United States, 1834-1874, had been ambassador to Great Britain 1846-49 and was appointed ambassador to Germany in 1867.
Gulian C. Verplanck (1786-1870), writer and New York political leader, was one of the founders, with William Cullen Bryant and others, of the Century Association, a social club dedicated to literature and the fine arts.
Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, 1864.
The North American Review, founded in 1815, was one of the most important American periodicals of the nineteenth century. James Russell Lowell was its editor, with Norton, from 1863 to 1872.
Charles II (reigned 1660-85) assumed the throne of England after the period of the Commonwealth, 1649-1660.
The House of Bourbon, the French royal family, reigned from 1589 until 1792, when Louis XVI was deposed, and again later from 1814-48 under the period of the Restoration.
Salmon P. Chase (1808-1873), U.S. Secretary of the Treasury 1861-64, had sought the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860 and allowed himself to be put foward as Lincoln's rival for the nomination in 1864, a move which prompted Lincoln to remove him from his post. Later the same year Chase was appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
As the Presidential election of 1864 approached, John Charles Frémont allowed himself to be put forward by the Radical Republicans as the Republican candidate, but withdrew his name in September and supported Lincoln's re-election bid.
In March 1864 General Ulysses S. Grant was appointed general in chief of the Union armies and prepared to launch a coordinated offensive against Confederate forces, a move which led to the battles of the Wilderness (early May), Spotsylvania (late May), and Cold Harbor (June).