Two men who, with knowledge and sympathy and money, did much to further the growth of literature and art in New York in the seventies, were Josiah Gilbert Holland and Roswell Smith, founders, with the senior Charles Scribner, of the joint stock company known in its early years as Scribner & Co. The chief object of the company at first was the publication of Scribner’s Monthly, the magazine which on the sale of the Scribner interests to Roswell Smith in 1881 became The Century and the company publishing it “The Century Company.” The new name was the suggestion of Dr. Holland’s associate editor, Richard Watson Gilder, and the thought came to him from the Century Club, of which he was a member. The home of the Club was at that time in Fifteenth Street just off Union Square, next door to the house occupied by the Gilders, that interesting dwelling created by Stanford White from a stable which Mr. and Mrs. Gilder made a center of art and literature and hospitality for many years.
The two men Dr. Holland and Roswell Smith were singularly alike in many of their traits, both strongly, almost sternly religious, both desirous of doing good in the world and of helping along their fellow men by what used to be known as “precept and example.” Dr. Holland had been an associate of the elder Samuel Bowles on that sterling newspaper, the Springfield Republican, and he was also a writer of poetry and semi-religious essays intended for the uplift of young people. His poetry was written in the days when long poems, whole books of a single poem, were in order, the days of Mrs. Browning’s “Aurora Leigh” and not so many years after Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” and “Don Juan,” but a million years from the latter in their “lesson.” His characters were distinctly good, home-loving people, sweet women and noble-hearted men.
The present writer never passes the little parsonage of the Presbyterian Church at Riverdale on the automobile road to Yonkers, without thinking of Dr. Holland’s “The Mistress of the Manse,” the scene of which was laid in that house. Others of his poems were “Bitter Sweet” and “Kathrina, Her Life and Mine in a Poem”great sellers they were. “The Spoon River Anthology” and Masefield’s “Dauber” of our day cannot touch them in popularity. His “Plain Talks on Familiar Subjects” and the works which he wrote under the pseudonym of Timothy Titcomb had a great popular sale. The “Nation” well said of Dr. Holland: “He had the immense advantage of keeping on a plane of thought just above that of a vast multitude of readers, each one of whom he could touch with the hand and raise a little upward.” Dr. Holland wrote too a life of Lincoln, and even now, when a fifty-foot shelf would not take in all the biographies of the great emancipator, Dr. Holland’s book holds its own.
Roswell Smith was a business man of high ideals and broad vision. His uncle, Roswell C. Smith (after whom he was called, but in later years he dropped the middle name), was an author of school books, and “Smith’s Arithmetic” and “Smith’s Geography” will be remembered by some older readers. It is said that the sale of “Smith’s Grammar” was surpassed only in sales of text books by Noah Webster’s famous spelling book. The young Roswell passed his later boyhood years in the home of his uncle and doubtless bookmaking got into his blood then. When he grew up the West called, as it called so many young men. He went to Lafayette, Indiana, and into the law office of Henry L. Ellsworth, retired Commissioner of Patents (he had been the first Commissioner and was known as “the father of the Patent Office”). Roswell Smith married Mr. Ellsworth’s daughter, practiced law, bought profitable real estate, and at forty turned his eyes toward the East and fixed his mind on buying a newspaper.
But first he would make the “grand tour” with his family. Knowing Dr. Holland, they decided to go to Europe together. “I must tell you,” said Dr. Holland before starting, “that one of my idiosyncrasies is always being exactly on time.” “Then,” replied his friend, “I fear we cannot get on together, for I am always half an hour ahead.”
One moonlight night they stopped in a walk and leaned over the parapet of a bridge at Geneva, and with the rushing Rhone as an accompaniment, Dr. Holland told Roswell Smith his plan for a new American magazine, one which should really develop American Art and American Literature and which should be the vehicle of his own little preachments to people young and old. It seemed to Roswell Smith far better than his own idea of buying a newspaper; yes, he would join in the enterprise, his time and his money should be dedicated to it. In a few days he returned to New York with a letter of introduction to Charles Scribner, who had been Dr. Holland’s publisher, and very soon the new company was launched, Mr. Smith and Dr. Holland dividing sixty per cent. of the stock between them, the Scribner book firm taking the other forty per cent. Mr. Scribner’s “Hours at Home” was merged in the new venture, the first number of which appeared in November, 1870.
American literature at that time was at a low ebb. Harper’s was the leading magazine and its great success was built on the fact that it was the acknowledged medium for the appearance of the work of the great English novelists of the day first appearing seriallyDickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Trollope, Charles Reade. No notable fiction was being produced in America. The day of Poe and Irving and Cooper and Hawthorne had passed and they had no successors. The new Scribner’s Monthly was forced to turn to the foreign George Macdonald and Mrs. Oliphant for its first year’s serials, but its conductors began at once to encourage American fiction writers to produce novels, and American artists to draw illustrations which were both good art and interesting embellishments. The day of “The Fair Penitent” and “The Bandit’s Bride,” engraved on steel was over. Bret Harte wrote his first novel, “Gabriel Conroy,” for the new magazine ; George W. Cable was discovered in New Orleans by Edward King, going through the South-ern States gathering material for his “Great South” papers, discussing the agricultural and economic growth of the country south of Mason and Dixon’s line since the war. King sent some of the young cotton clerk’s work to Dr. Holland, and presently all the literary world was reading those exquisite stories of New Orleans which later became Cable’s book, “Old Creole Days.” “Fanny Hodgson” was another early Scribner’s Monthly writer ; the world has known her long as Frances Hodgson Burnett. Thomas Nelson Page began to send in his work to the magazine, and it was soon not only a success itself but as was said at the time, “it made a success of Harper’s too.” Mr. Alden, editor of Harper’s, wrote to a friend that Scribner’s Monthly had had the effect on them of a fast horse driven alongside one’s buggyyou just had to whip up.
Dr. Holland lived on the west side of Park Avenue near Thirty-eighth Street ; Mr. Roswell Smith at 54 East 54th Street. There were young people in both families, much entertaining was done, and Dr. Holland’s home became a Mecca for the literary lights of the time. There were other houses too which attracted them. On Saturday nights one went to the home of Miss Mary L. Booth, editor of Harper’s Bazar. It was at the corner of Park Avenue and Fifty-ninth Streeta barren waste of a district it was tooand in that big, simply furnished parlor at Miss Booth’s one met Frank R. Stockton and Mary Mapes Dodge, Stedman and Stoddard and Edgar Fawcett. Sometimes the hostess’s cousin, Edwin Booth, came insad and gloomy he was then, given to standing by himself, with folded arms, in a corner, talking little.
The wife of Professor Botta had frequent “literary” receptions, as had “Aunt Fanny” Barrow, a writer of children’s books, and Mr. Clapp of E. P. Dutton & Co., who lived in these days on Thirty-fourth Street just off Broadway.
Both Roswell Smith, at the business end of the office, and Dr. Holland at the literary end, were men of great squareness in dealing with authors and artists. They paid well, often more than was asked. When General Grant wrote his war articles for the Century, he was to have five hundred dollars each for the foura good price at the timebut Mr. Smith sent him an extra check for $2,000 when the last article came in. He paid George Kennan for his epoch-making articles on the Siberian prisons, much more than had been agreed on. And the founders of “The Century” (and “St. Nicholas” was added to the enterprise in 1873) were fortunate in some of their helpers; especially Richard Watson Gilder and Alexander W. Drake, who lifted high the banner of good American art and kept it high for the forty years that they were privileged to work together.
But that is another story and a later one.