Meeting a Reverse or Two: The Americanization of Edward Bok Chapter 20

With the hitherto unreached magazine circulation of a million copies a month in sight, Edward Bok decided to give a broader scope to the periodical. He was determined to lay under contribution not only the most famous writers of the day, but also to seek out those well-known persons who usually did not contribute to the magazines; always keeping in mind the popular appeal of his material, but likewise aiming constantly to widen its scope and gradually to lift its standard.

Sailing again for England, he sought and secured the acquaintance of Rudyard Kipling, whose alert mind was at once keenly interested in what Bok was trying to do. He was willing to co-operate, with the result that Bok secured the author’s new story, William the Conqueror. When Bok read the manuscript, he was delighted; he had for some time been reading Kipling’s work with enthusiasm, and he saw at once that here was one of the author’s best tales.

At that time, Frances E. Willard had brought her agitation for temperance prominently before the public, and Bok had promised to aid her by eliminating from his magazine, so far as possible, all scenes which represented alcoholic drinking. It was not an iron-clad rule, but, both from the principle fixed for his own life and in the interest of the thousands of young people who read his magazine, he believed it would be better to minimize all incidents portraying alcoholic drinking or drunkenness. Kipling’s story depicted several such scenes; so when Bok sent the proofs he suggested that if Kipling could moderate some of these scenes, it would be more in line with the policy of the magazine. Bok did not make a special point of the matter, leaving it to Kipling’s judgment to decide how far he could make such changes and preserve the atmosphere of his story.

From this incident arose the widely published story that Bok cabled Kipling, asking permission to omit a certain drinking reference, and substitute something else, whereupon Kipling cabled back: “Substitute Mellin’s Food.” As a matter of fact (although it is a pity to kill such a clever story), no such cable was ever sent and no such reply ever received. As Kipling himself wrote to Bok: “No, I said nothing about Mellin’s Food. I wish I had.” An American author in London happened to hear of the correspondence between the editor and the author, it appealed to his sense of humor, and the published story was the result. If it mattered, it is possible that Brander Matthews could accurately reveal the originator of the much-published yarn.

From Kipling’s house Bok went to Tunbridge Wells to visit Mary Anderson, the one-time popular American actress, who had married Antonio de Navarro and retired from the stage. A goodly number of editors had tried to induce the retired actress to write, just as a number of managers had tried to induce her to return to the stage. All had failed. But Bok never accepted the failure of others as a final decision for himself; and after two or three visits, he persuaded Madame de Navarro to write her reminiscences, which he published with marked success in the magazine.

The editor was very desirous of securing something for his magazine that would delight children, and he hit upon the idea of trying to induce Lewis Carroll to write another Alice in Wonderland series. He was told by English friends that this would be difficult, since the author led a secluded life at Oxford and hardly ever admitted any one into his confidence. But Bok wanted to beard the lion in his den, and an Oxford graduate volunteered to introduce him to an Oxford don through whom, if it were at all possible, he could reach the author. The journey to Oxford was made, and Bok was introduced to the don, who turned out to be no less a person than the original possessor of the highly colored vocabulary of the “White Rabbit” of the Alice stories.

“Impossible,” immediately declared the don. “You couldn’t persuade Dodgson to consider it.” Bok, however, persisted, and it so happened that the don liked what he called “American perseverance.”

“Well, come along,” he said. “We’ll beard the lion in his den, as you say, and see what happens. You know, of course, that it is the Reverend Charles L. Dodgson that we are going to see, and I must introduce you to that person, not to Lewis Carroll. He is a tutor in mathematics here, as you doubtless know; lives a rigidly secluded life; dislikes strangers; makes no friends; and yet withal is one of the most delightful men in the world if he wants to be.”

But as it happened upon this special occasion when Bok was introduced to him in his chambers in Tom Quad, Mr. Dodgson did not “want to be” delightful. There was no doubt that back of the studied reserve was a kindly, charming, gracious gentleman, but Bok’s profession had been mentioned and the author was on rigid guard.

When Bok explained that one of the special reasons for his journey from America this summer was to see him, the Oxford mathematician sufficiently softened to ask the editor to sit down.

Bok then broached his mission.

“You are quite in error, Mr. Bok,” was the Dodgson comment. “You are not speaking to the person you think you are addressing.”

For a moment Bok was taken aback. Then he decided to go right to the point.

“Do I understand, Mr. Dodgson, that you are not ‘Lewis Carroll’; that you did not write Alice in Wonderland?”

For an answer the tutor rose, went into another room, and returned with a book which he handed to Bok. “This is my book,” he said simply. It was entitled An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, by C. L. Dodgson. When he looked up, Bok found the author’s eyes riveted on him.

“Yes,” said Bok. “I know, Mr. Dodgson. If I remember correctly, this is the same book of which you sent a copy to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, when she wrote to you for a personal copy of your Alice.”

Dodgson made no comment. The face was absolutely without expression save a kindly compassion intended to convey to the editor that he was making a terrible mistake.

“As I said to you in the beginning, Mr. Bok, you are in error. You are not speaking to ‘Lewis Carroll.'” And then: “Is this the first time you have visited Oxford?”

Bok said it was; and there followed the most delightful two hours with the Oxford mathematician and the Oxford don, walking about and into the wonderful college buildings, and afterward the three had a bite of lunch together. But all efforts to return to “Lewis Carroll” were futile. While saying good-by to his host, Bok remarked:

“I can’t help expressing my disappointment, Mr. Dodgson, in my quest in behalf of the thousands of American children who love you and who would so gladly welcome ‘Lewis Carroll’ back.”

The mention of children and their love for him momentarily had its effect. For an instant a different light came into the eyes, and Bok instinctively realized Dodgson was about to say something. But he checked himself. Bok had almost caught him off his guard.

“Very well, Sir Arthur,” suggested Bok; “with your consent, I will rectify both the inaccuracy and the injustice. Write out a correct version of ‘The Lost Chord’; I will give it to nearly a million readers, and so render obsolete the incorrect copies; and I shall be only too happy to pay you the first honorarium for an American publication of the song. You can add to the copy the statement that this is the first American honorarium you have ever received, and so shame the American publishers for their dishonesty.”

“I am sorry,” he finally said at the parting at the door, “that you should be disappointed, for the sake of the children as well as for your own sake. I only regret that I cannot remove the disappointment.”

And as the trio walked to the station, the don said: “That is his attitude toward all, even toward me. He is not ‘Lewis Carroll’ to any one; is extremely sensitive on the point, and will not acknowledge his identity. That is why he lives so much to himself. He is in daily dread that some one will mention Alice in his presence. Curious, but there it is.”

Edward Bok’s next quest was to be even more disappointing; he was never even to reach the presence of the person he sought. This was Florence Nightingale, the Crimean nurse. Bok was desirous of securing her own story of her experiences, but on every hand he found an unwillingness even to take him to her house. “No use,” said everybody. “She won’t see any one. Hates publicity and all that sort of thing, and shuns the public.” Nevertheless, the editor journeyed to the famous nurse’s home on South Street, in the West End of London, only to be told that “Miss Nightingale never receives strangers.”

“But I am not a stranger,” insisted the editor. “I am one of her friends from America. Please take my card to her.”

This mollified the faithful secretary, but the word instantly came back that Miss Nightingale was not receiving any one that day. Bok wrote her a letter asking for an appointment, which was never answered. Then he wrote another, took it personally to the house, and awaited an answer, only to receive the message that “Miss Nightingale says there is no answer to the letter.”

Bok had with such remarkable uniformity secured whatever he sought, that these experiences were new to him. Frankly, they puzzled him. He was not easily baffled, but baffled he now was, and that twice in succession. Turn as he might, he could find no way in which to reopen an approach to either the Oxford tutor or the Crimean nurse. They were plainly too much for him, and he had to acknowledge his defeat. The experience was good for him; he did not realize this at the time, nor did he enjoy the sensation of not getting what he wanted. Nevertheless, a reverse or two was due. Not that his success was having any undesirable effect upon him; his Dutch common sense saved him from any such calamity. But at thirty years of age it is not good for any one, no matter how well balanced, to have things come his way too fast and too consistently. And here were breaks. He could not have everything he wanted, and it was just as well that he should find that out.

In his next quest he found himself again opposed by his London friends. Unable to secure a new Alice in Wonderland for his child readers, he determined to give them Kate Greenaway. But here he had selected another recluse. Everybody discouraged him. The artist never saw visitors, he was told, and she particularly shunned editors and publishers. Her own publishers confessed that Miss Greenaway was inaccessible to them. “We conduct all our business with her by correspondence. I have never seen her personally myself,” said a member of the firm.

Bok inwardly decided that two failures in two days were sufficient, and he made up his mind that there should not be a third. He took a bus for the long ride to Hampstead Heath, where the illustrator lived, and finally stood before a picturesque Queen Anne house that one would have recognized at once, with its lower story of red brick, its upper part covered with red tiles, its windows of every size and shape, as the inspiration of Kate Greenaway’s pictures. As it turned out later, Miss Greenaway’s sister opened the door and told the visitor that Miss Greenaway was not at home.

“But, pardon me, has not Miss Greenaway returned? Is not that she?” asked Bok, as he indicated a figure just coming down the stairs. And as the sister turned to see, Bok stepped into the hall. At least he was inside! Bok had never seen a photograph of Miss Greenaway, he did not know that the figure coming down-stairs was the artist; but his instinct had led him right, and good fortune was with him.

He now introduced himself to Kate Greenaway, and explained that one of his objects in coming to London was to see her on behalf of thousands of American children. Naturally there was nothing for the illustrator to do but to welcome her visitor. She took him into the garden, where he saw at once that he was seated under the apple-tree of Miss Greenaway’s pictures. It was in full bloom, a veritable picture of spring loveliness. Bok’s love for nature pleased the artist and when he recognized the cat that sauntered up, he could see that he was making headway. But when he explained his profession and stated his errand, the atmosphere instantly changed. Miss Greenaway conveyed the unmistakable impression that she had been trapped, and Bok realized at once that he had a long and difficult road ahead.

Still, negotiate it he must and he did! And after luncheon in the garden, with the cat in his lap, Miss Greenaway perceptibly thawed out, and when the editor left late that afternoon he had the promise of the artist that she would do her first magazine work for him. That promise was kept monthly, and for nearly two years her articles appeared, with satisfaction to Miss Greenaway and with great success to the magazine.

The next opposition to Bok’s plans arose from the soreness generated by the absence of copyright laws between the United States and Great Britain and Europe. The editor, who had been publishing a series of musical compositions, solicited the aid of Sir Arthur Sullivan. But it so happened that Sir Arthur’s most famous composition, “The Lost Chord,” had been taken without leave by American music publishers, and sold by the hundreds of thousands with the composer left out on pay-day. Sir Arthur held forth on this injustice, and said further that no accurate copy of “The Lost Chord” had, so far as he knew, ever been printed in the United States. Bok saw his chance, and also an opportunity for a little Americanization.

This argument appealed strongly to the composer, who made a correct transcript of his famous song, and published it with the following note:

“This is the first and only copy of “The Lost Chord” which has ever been sent by me to an American publisher. I believe all the reprints in America are more or less incorrect. I have pleasure in sending this copy to my friend, Mr. Edward W. Bok, for publication in The Ladies’ Home Journal for which he gives me an honorarium, the only one I have ever received from an American publisher for this song.

“Arthur Sullivan.”

At least, thought Bok, he had healed one man’s soreness toward America. But the next day he encountered another. On his way to Paris, he stopped at Amiens to see Jules Verne. Here he found special difficulty in that the aged author could not speak English, and Bok knew only a few words of casual French. Finally a neighbor’s servant who knew a handful of English words was commandeered, and a halting three-cornered conversation was begun.

Bok found two grievances here: the author was incensed at the American public because it had insisted on classing his books as juveniles, and accepting them as stories of adventure, whereas he desired them to be recognized as prophetic stories based on scientific facts—an insistence which, as all the world knows, has since been justified. Bok explained, however, that the popular acceptance of the author’s books as stories of adventure was by no means confined to America; that even in his own country the same was true. But Jules Verne came back with the rejoinder that if the French were a pack of fools, that was no reason why the Americans should also be.

The argument weighed somewhat with the author, however, for he then changed the conversation, and pointed out how he had been robbed by American publishers who had stolen his books. So Bok was once more face to face with the old non-copyright conditions; and although he explained the existence then of a new protective law, the old man was not mollified. He did not take kindly to Bok’s suggestion for new work, and closed the talk, extremely difficult to all three, by declaring that his writing days were over.

But Bok was by no means through with non-copyright echoes, for he was destined next day to take part in an even stormier interview on the same subject with Alexander Dumas. Bok had been publishing a series of articles in which authors had told how they had been led to write their most famous books, and he wanted Dumas to tell “How I Came to Write ‘Camille.'”

To act as translator this time, Bok took a trusted friend with him, whose services he found were needed, as Dumas was absolutely without knowledge of English. No sooner was the editor’s request made known to him than the storm broke. Dumas, hotly excited, denounced the Americans as robbers who had deprived him of his rightful returns on his book and play, and ended by declaring that he would trust no American editor or publisher.

The mutual friend explained the new copyright conditions and declared that Bok intended to treat the author honorably. But Dumas was not to be mollified. He launched forth upon a new arraignment of the Americans; dishonesty was bred in their bones! and they were robbers by instinct. All of this distinctly nettled Bok’s Americanism. The interpreting friend finally suggested that the article should be written while Bok was in Paris; that he should be notified when the manuscript was ready, that he should then appear with the actual money in hand in French notes; and that Dumas should give Bok the manuscript when Bok handed Dumas the money.

“After I count it,” said Dumas.

This was the last straw!

“Pray ask him,” Bok suggested to the interpreter, “what assurance I have that he will deliver the manuscript to me after he has the money.” The friend protested against translating this thrust, but Bok insisted, and Dumas, not knowing what was coming, insisted that the message be given him. When it was, the man was a study; he became livid with rage.

“But,” persisted Bok, “say to Monsieur Dumas that I have the same privilege of distrusting him as he apparently has of distrusting me.”

And Bok can still see the violent gesticulations of the storming French author, his face burning with passionate anger, as the two left him.

Edward Bok now sincerely hoped that his encounters with the absence of a law that has been met were at an end!

Rosa Bonheur, the painter of “The Horse Fair,” had been represented to Bok as another recluse who was as inaccessible as Kate Greenaway. He had known of the painter’s intimate relations with the ex-Empress Eugenie, and desired to get these reminiscences. Everybody dissuaded him; but again taking a French friend he made the journey to Fontainebleau, where the artist lived in a chateau in the little village of By.

A group of dogs, great, magnificent tawny creatures, welcomed the two visitors to the chateau; and the most powerful door that Bok had ever seen, as securely bolted as that of a cell, told of the inaccessibility of the mistress of the house. Two blue-frocked peasants explained how impossible it was for any one to see their mistress, so Bok asked permission to come in and write her a note.

This was granted; and then, as in the case of Kate Greenaway, Rosa Bonheur herself walked into the hall, in a velvet jacket, dressed, as she always was, in man’s attire. A delightful smile lighted the strong face, surmounted by a shock of gray hair, cut short at the back; and from the moment of her first welcome there was no doubt of her cordiality to the few who were fortunate enough to work their way into her presence. It was a wonderful afternoon, spent in the painter’s studio in the upper part of the chateau; and Bok carried away with him the promise of Rosa Bonheur to write the story of her life for publication in the magazine.

On his return to London the editor found that Charles Dana Gibson had settled down there for a time. Bok had always wanted Gibson to depict the characters of Dickens; and he felt that this was the opportunity, while the artist was in London and could get the atmosphere for his work. Gibson was as keen for the idea as was Bok, and so the two arranged the series which was subsequently published.

On his way to his steamer to sail for home, Bok visited “Ian Maclaren,” whose Bonnie Brier Bush stories were then in great vogue, and not only contracted for Doctor Watson’s stories of the immediate future, but arranged with him for a series of articles which, for two years thereafter, was published in the magazine.

The editor now sailed for home, content with his assembly of foreign “features.”

On the steamer, Bok heard of the recent discovery of some unpublished letters by Louisa May Alcott, written to five girls, and before returning to Philadelphia, he went to Boston, got into touch with the executors of the will of Miss Alcott, brought the letters back with him to read, and upon reaching Philadelphia, wired his acceptance of them for publication.

But the traveller was not at once to enjoy his home. After only a day in Philadelphia he took a train for Indianapolis. Here lived the most thoroughly American writer of the day, in Bok’s estimation: James Whitcomb Riley. An arrangement, perfected before his European visit, had secured to Bok practically exclusive rights to all the output of his Chicago friend Eugene Field, and he felt that Riley’s work would admirably complement that of Field. This Bok explained to Riley, who readily fell in with the idea, and the editor returned to Philadelphia with a contract to see Riley’s next dozen poems. A little later Field passed away. His last poem, “The Dream Ship,” and his posthumous story “The Werewolf” appeared in The Ladies’ Home Journal.

A second series of articles was also arranged for with Mr. Harrison, in which he was to depict, in a personal way, the life of a President of the United States, the domestic life of the White House, and the financial arrangements made by the government for the care of the chief executive and his family. The first series of articles by the former President had been very successful; Bok felt that they had accomplished much in making his women readers familiar with their country and the machinery of its government. After this, which had been undeniably solid reading, Bok reasoned that the supplementary articles, in lighter vein, would serve as a sort of dessert. And so it proved.

Bok now devoted his attention to strengthening the fiction in his magazine. He sought Mark Twain, and bought his two new stories; he secured from Bret Harte a tale which he had just finished; and then ran the gamut of the best fiction writers of the day, and secured their best output. Marion Crawford, Conan Doyle, Sarah Orne Jewett, John Kendrick Bangs, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Hamlin Garland, Mrs. Burton Harrison, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Mary E. Wilkins, Jerome K. Jerome, Anthony Hope, Joel Chandler Harris, and others followed in rapid succession.

He next turned for a moment to his religious department, decided that it needed a freshening of interest, and secured Dwight L. Moody, whose evangelical work was then so prominently in the public eye, to conduct “Mr. Moody’s Bible Class” in the magazine—practically a study of the stated Bible lesson of the month with explanation in Moody’s simple and effective style.

The authors for whom the Journal was now publishing attracted the attention of all the writers of the day, and the supply of good material became too great for its capacity. Bok studied the mechanical make-up, and felt that by some method he must find more room in the front portion. He had allotted the first third of the magazine to the general literary contents and the latter two-thirds to departmental features. Toward the close of the number, the departments narrowed down from full pages to single columns with advertisements on each side.

One day Bok was handling a story by Rudyard Kipling which had overrun the space allowed for it in the front. The story had come late, and the rest of the front portion of the magazine had gone to press. The editor was in a quandary what to do with the two remaining columns of the Kipling tale. There were only two pages open, and these were at the back. He remade those pages, and continued the story from pages 6 and 7 to pages 38 and 39.

At once Bok saw that this was an instance where “necessity was the mother of invention.” He realized that if he could run some of his front material over to the back he would relieve the pressure at the front, present a more varied contents there, and make his advertisements more valuable by putting them next to the most expensive material in the magazine.

In the next issue he combined some of his smaller departments in the back; and thus, in 1896, he inaugurated the method of “running over into the back” which has now become a recognized principle in the make-up of magazines of larger size. At first, Bok’s readers objected, but he explained why he did it; that they were the benefiters by the plan; and, so far as readers can be satisfied with what is, at best, an awkward method of presentation, they were content. To-day the practice is undoubtedly followed to excess, some magazines carrying as much as eighty and ninety columns over from the front to the back; from such abuse it will, of course, free itself either by a return to the original method of make-up or by the adoption of some other less-irritating plan.

In his reading about the America of the past, Bok had been impressed by the unusual amount of interesting personal material that constituted what is termed unwritten history—original events of tremendous personal appeal in which great personalities figured but which had not sufficient historical importance to have been included in American history. Bok determined to please his older readers by harking back to the past and at the same time acquainting the younger generation with the picturesque events which had preceded their time.

He also believed that if he could “dress up” the past, he could arrest the attention of a generation which was too likely to boast of its interest only in the present and the future. He took a course of reading and consulted with Mr. Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun, who had become interested in his work and had written him several voluntary letters of commendation. Mr. Dana gave material help in the selection of subjects and writers; and was intensely amused and interested by the manner in which his youthful confrere “dressed up” the titles of what might otherwise have looked like commonplace articles.

“I know,” said Bok to the elder editor, “it smacks a little of the sensational, Mr. Dana, but the purpose I have in mind of showing the young people of to-day that some great things happened before they came on the stage seems to me to make it worth while.”

Mr. Dana agreed with this view, supplemented every effort of the Philadelphia editor in several subsequent talks, and in 1897 The Ladies’ Home Journal began one of the most popular series it ever published. It was called “Great Personal Events,” and the picturesque titles explained them. He first pictured the enthusiastic evening “When Jenny Lind Sang in Castle Garden,” and, as Bok added to pique curiosity, “when people paid $20 to sit in rowboats to hear the Swedish nightingale.”

This was followed by an account of the astonishing episode “When Henry Ward Beecher Sold Slaves in Plymouth Pulpit”; the picturesque journey “When Louis Kossuth Rode Up Broadway”; the triumphant tour “When General Grant Went Round the World”; the forgotten story of “When an Actress Was the Lady of the White House”; the sensational striking of the gold vein in 1849, “When Mackay Struck the Great Bonanza”; the hitherto little-known instance “When Louis Philippe Taught School in Philadelphia”; and even the lesser-known fact of the residence of the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte in America, “When the King of Spain Lived on the Banks of the Schuylkill”; while the story of “When John Wesley Preached in Georgia” surprised nearly every Methodist, as so few had known that the founder of their church had ever visited America. Each month picturesque event followed graphic happening, and never was unwritten history more readily read by the young, or the memories of the older folk more catered to than in this series which won new friends for the magazine on every hand.

Did you happen to miss the previous chapter? Read Chapter 19