Going to the Theatre with Longfellow: The Americanization of Edward Bok Chapter 5

When Edward Bok stood before the home of Longfellow, he realized that he was to see the man around whose head the boy’s youthful reading had cast a sort of halo. And when he saw the head itself he had a feeling that he could see the halo. No kindlier pair of eyes ever looked at a boy, as, with a smile, “the white Mr. Longfellow,” as Mr. Howells had called him, held out his hand.

“I am very glad to see you, my boy,” were his first words, and with them he won the boy. Edward smiled back at the poet, and immediately the two were friends.

“I have been taking a walk this beautiful morning,” he said next, “and am a little late getting at my mail. Suppose you come in and sit at my desk with me, and we will see what the postman has brought. He brings me so many good things, you know.”

“Now, here is a little girl,” he said, as he sat down at the desk with the boy beside him, “who wants my autograph and a ‘sentiment.’ What sentiment, I wonder, shall I send her?”

“Why not send her ‘Let us, then, be up and doing’?” suggested the boy. “That’s what I should like if I were she.”

“Should you, indeed?” said Longfellow. “That is a good suggestion. Now, suppose you recite it off to me, so that I shall not have to look it up in my books, and I will write as you recite. But slowly; you know I am an old man, and write slowly.”

Edward thought it strange that Longfellow himself should not know his own great words without looking them up. But he recited the four lines, so familiar to every schoolboy, and when the poet had finished writing them, he said:

“Good! I see you have a memory. Now, suppose I copy these lines once more for the little girl, and give you this copy? Then you can say, you know, that you dictated my own poetry to me.”

Of course Edward was delighted, and Longfellow gave him the sheet as it is here:

Let us, then, be up and doing,
with a heart for any fate,
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

Henry W. Longfellow

Then, as the fine head bent down to copy the lines once more, Edward ventured to say to him:

“I should think it would keep you busy if you did this for every one who asked you.”

“Well,” said the poet, “you see, I am not so busy a man as I was some years ago, and I shouldn’t like to disappoint a little girl; should you?”

As he took up his letters again, he discovered five more requests for his autograph. At each one he reached into a drawer in his desk, took a card, and wrote his name on it.

“There are a good many of these every day,” said Longfellow, “but I always like to do this little favor. It is so little to do, to write your name on a card; and if I didn’t do it some boy or girl might be looking, day by day, for the postman and be disappointed. I only wish I could write my name better for them. You see how I break my letters? That’s because I never took pains with my writing when I was a boy. I don’t think I should get a high mark for penmanship if I were at school, do you?”

“I see you get letters from Europe,” said the boy, as Longfellow opened an envelope with a foreign stamp on it.

“Yes, from all over the world,” said the poet. Then, looking at the boy quickly, he said: “Do you collect postage-stamps?”

Edward said he did.

“Well, I have some right here, then,” and going to a drawer in a desk he took out a bundle of letters, and cut out the postage-stamps and gave them to the boy.

“There’s one from the Netherlands. There’s where I was born,” Edward ventured to say.

“In the Netherlands? Then you are a real Dutchman. Well! Well!” he said, laying down his pen. “Can you read Dutch?”

The boy said he could.

“Then,” said the poet, “you are just the boy I am looking for.” And going to a bookcase behind him he brought out a book, and handing it to the boy, he said, his eyes laughing: “Can you read that?”

It was an edition of Longfellow’s poems in Dutch.

“Yes, indeed,” said Edward. “These are your poems in Dutch.”

“That’s right,” he said. “Now, this is delightful. I am so glad you came. I received this book last week, and although I have been in the Netherlands, I cannot speak or read Dutch. I wonder whether you would read a poem to me and let me hear how it sounds.”

So Edward took “The Old Clock on the Stairs,” and read it to him.

The poet’s face beamed with delight. “That’s beautiful,” he said, and then quickly added: “I mean the language, not the poem.”

“Now,” he went on, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do: we’ll strike a bargain. We Yankees are great for bargains, you know. If you will read me ‘The Village Blacksmith‘ you can sit in that chair there made out of the wood of the old spreading chestnut-tree, and I’ll take you out and show you where the old shop stood. Is that a bargain?”

Edward assured him it was. He sat in the chair of wood and leather, and read to the poet several of his own poems in a language in which, when he wrote them, he never dreamed they would ever be printed. He was very quiet. Finally he said: “It seems so odd, so very odd, to hear something you know so well sound so strange.”

“It’s a great compliment, though, isn’t it, sir?” asked the boy.

“Ye-es,” said the poet slowly. “Yes, yes,” he added quickly. “It is, my boy, a very great compliment.”

“Ah,” he said, rousing himself, as a maid appeared, “that means luncheon, or rather,” he added, “it means dinner, for we have dinner in the old New England fashion, in the middle of the day. I am all alone to-day, and you must keep me company; will you? Then afterward we’ll go and take a walk, and I’ll show you Cambridge. It is such a beautiful old town, even more beautiful, I sometimes think, when the leaves are off the trees.

“Come,” he said, “I’ll take you up-stairs, and you can wash your hands in the room where George Washington slept. And comb your hair, too, if you want to,” he added; “only it isn’t the same comb that he used.”

To the boyish mind it was an historic breaking of bread, that midday meal with Longfellow.

“Can you say grace in Dutch?” he asked, as they sat down; and the boy did.

“Well,” the poet declared, “I never expected to hear that at my table. I like the sound of it.”

Then while the boy told all that he knew about the Netherlands, the poet told the boy all about his poems. Edward said he liked “Hiawatha.”

“So do I,” he said. “But I think I like ‘Evangeline‘ better. Still,” he added, “neither one is as good as it should be. But those are the things you see afterward so much better than you do at the time.”

It was a great event for Edward when, with the poet nodding and smiling to every boy and man he met, and lifting his hat to every woman and little girl, he walked through the fine old streets of Cambridge with Longfellow. At one point of the walk they came to a theatrical bill-board announcing an attraction that evening at the Boston Theatre. Skilfully the old poet drew out from Edward that sometimes he went to the theatre with his parents. As they returned to the gate of “Craigie House” Edward said he thought he would go back to Boston.

“And what have you on hand for this evening?” asked Longfellow.

Edward told him he was going to his hotel to think over the day’s events.

The poet laughed and said:

“Now, listen to my plan. Boston is strange to you. Now we’re going to the theatre this evening, and my plan is that you come in now, have a little supper with us, and then go with us to see the play. It is a funny play, and a good laugh will do you more good than to sit in a hotel all by yourself. Now, what do you think?”

Of course the boy thought as Longfellow did, and it was a very happy boy that evening who, in full view of the large audience in the immense theatre, sat in that box. It was, as Longfellow had said, a play of laughter, and just who laughed louder, the poet or the boy, neither ever knew.

Between the acts there came into the box a man of courtly presence, dignified and yet gently courteous.

“Ah! Phillips,” said the poet, “how are you? You must know my young friend here. This is Wendell Phillips, my boy. Here is a young man who told me to-day that he was going to call on you and on Phillips Brooks to-morrow. Now you know him before he comes to you.”

“I shall be glad to see you, my boy,” said Mr. Phillips. “And so you are going to see Phillips Brooks? Let me tell you something about Brooks. He has a great many books in his library which are full of his marks and comments. Now, when you go to see him you ask him to let you see some of those books, and then, when he isn’t looking, you put a couple of them in your pocket. They would make splendid souvenirs, and he has so many he would never miss them. You do it, and then when you come to see me tell me all about it.”

And he and Longfellow smiled broadly.

An hour later, when Longfellow dropped Edward at his hotel, he had not only a wonderful day to think over but another wonderful day to look forward to as well!

He had breakfasted with Oliver Wendell Holmes; dined, supped, and been to the theatre with Longfellow; and to-morrow he was to spend with Phillips Brooks.

Boston was a great place, Edward Bok thought, as he fell asleep.