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Finally, he kept until his latest years, a pocket diary in which he jotted down phrases that pleased his ear, anecdotes or apt quotations, and notes for his speeches.
His diaries from 1879 onward contained many jottings for his book which he intended at first as a kind of memento for his friends, but when he saw it seriously and respectfully reviewed as it was in a number of papers, he resolved to enlarge it, and publish it regularly. The first edition (1882) consisted of only 81 pages and contained only 116 "noted persons”; the second edition (1887) had 187 pages and contained examples of the self-consciousness of 171 notables. This was so well received and met with such generous praise both from the reviewers and from his friends that he was inspired to prepare a third edition for which he left many notes, a revised Preface, Introduction, and Conclusion. All three of the prefaces or introductions are modest:“I have taken," says the first, "some leaves from my scrap-book, with extracts from various authors, showing both well-founded and ill-founded ambition to be held in remembrance by posterity.” And the notes for the third say, these “examples ... have been compiled with less labor than amusement, for which no more credit is asked than was called for by old Montaigne, who said, 'I have only made a nosegay of culled flowers, and have brought nothing of my own but the thread that ties them.'”
Those who turn to the book to-day will find it, as the readers of the first edition did forty years ago, a diverting and entertaining compilation which runs over a wide range of human history. The first edition began with Montaigne and ended with Sir Walter Scott, but the second followed in the main a chronological order, beginning with the ancients, but giving Saint Paul the place of honor, before Demosthenes and the rest of the great Greeks. A taste of the quality of the book may be had by his paragraphs on Ethan Allen,
Owen Lovejoy, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Burke, and George IV of England. As a Vermonter he could hardly fail to include the man who took Fort Ticonderoga of whom he says:
On the Sunday following the capture, Parson Dewey, in his long prayer, thanked the Lord for the great deliverance. “Parson Dewey! Parson Dewey!" was heard in a whisper by those sitting near Allen; but the clergyman was too much absorbed in his own thoughts to notice interruptions, and only continued to · thank'the “Great Deliverer.” “Parson Dewey!" was then heard all over the church by every one except the preacher. Allen could stand it no longer, and shouted in his stentorian voice, “Parson Dewey, just mention that I was there!”
Morrill's inclusion of Owen Lovejoy, the Abolitionist, in this list is a tribute to one of the friends and causes of his youth:
Owen Lovejoy once told me, before he was in Congress, that when he preached a poor sermon he never let it out; for as likely as not half his congregation might call it very good.
To Dr. Johnson he gave more space in the book than to almost any other of the "noted persons" and conveyed a kindly view of the brusque old lexicographer:
The hold that Johnson has on the esteem of mankind, after the lapse of a century, proves that he was no unreal giant, but a hater of shams, and ever striving after the eternal verities, although unquestionably indebted to Boswell for his highest fame. He could not endure undeserved praise, and knew well enough that his tragedy of “Irene" added neither to his literary fame nor to the sum of his real merits. When a gentleman by the name of Pot was reported as having said that it was the finest tragedy of modern times,” Johnson at once replied, “If Pot says so, Pot lies”; and that verdict the public has never reversed. Goldsmith really touched Johnson in his most vulnerable point when he said, "He makes his little fishes talk like whales.”
The closing paragraph about Burke, whom Morrill considered the most eminent of British statesmen, has the brevity of wit:
Single-speech Hamilton once had Burke for his private secretary and afterwards twitted him of being taken from a garret. “In that way," proudly retorted Burke, “I let myself down to you.” And one can conceive the satisfaction which the Vermont Republican found in his brief, epitaph-like passage about George IV:
George the Fourth was dissolute, and false in all things, and having nothing upon which even personal vanity could be truthfully supported, he strangely claimed to have been present at the Battle of Waterloo. This claim often taxed the politeness of the Duke of Wellington, who could only say in reply to his recollections, “I have often heard Your Majesty say so."
The volume ends with a brief Conclusion full of the mild and tolerant philosophy which Morrill had applied for forty years to public and private affairs:
Vanity is very closely allied to the virtues, since a vain or proud man may be often kept on a high moral plane, above doing a mean thing, because it elevates his reputation among those whose good opinion is most to be valued. The spur to acquire a good name often keeps the work of men at their best, mindful of the upright and downright; pushing the pulpit and the bar to higher effort and eloquence; making the soldier brave in battle, the politician more of a patriot, and the statesman less willing “to give up to party what was meant for mankind.”
The book brought him many gratifying letters both from friends and strangers and led to a pleasant exchange of compliments with Miss Kate Sanborn, the clever daughter of his old friend Professor Sanborn, of Dartmouth. In his first edition he had used the phrase “Laurence Sterne, the Beecher of his day," and Miss Sanborn took him to task for it:
Oct. 15, 1883 DEAR MR. MORRILL,
I send my talk on Conceited People to you to-day. It is very incomplete because I had used it as half of a lecture on Vanity
and Insanity as Shadows of Genius. I do not quite like your title. It seems to me that Self-Consciousness is more a studying of one's thoughts and weighing constantly the effect of one's words and actions on the public. A lady is self-conscious as she prinks up a church aisle, but a really great person would hardly do that. I do not see the least similarity between Sterne and Beecher whom you call the American Sterne. Sterne was a scambling(?), coarse-minded parson, hypocritical and affected and over-sentimental. Beecher is so bluff and outspoken like an impulsive giant and with a woman's tenderness. Where do you see the likeness?
Now I honestly desire you to criticize my humble effort. I have no copy and could never scrape these items together again, so please be sure to return it to me. ...
With best regards to all
He took the correction in good part, and in the second edition marked the reference to Beecher for omission.
STRAFFORD, Oct. 16, 1883 DEAR Miss SANBORN:
Many thanks for your unexpected favor of yesterday. I have read the whole of your unpublished notes and had an hour of thorough enjoyment, such as I get in hearing one of Sheridan's comedies, that is, I laughed, not at you, but with you. After your quotation of Sir Fretful from The Critic, you certainly could not sincerely advise me to criticize, could you? And I confess that I do not feel competent to find fault with what has given me so much pleasure. A lecture by you with these notes must be acceptable anywhere. Perhaps I might not agree with you wholly as to the merits of old Sam Johnson. Some of his Lives of the Poets appear to me excellent, and even the ponderous paragraphs of The Rambler, which I read more than fifty years ago, contain some nuggets of pure gold. Some lines also of his London are very quotable. I have a little kindness for the youth who would not accept charity and flung the shoes left at his door, out of the window. But his stilted style, always in cumbrous, mist-clad armor, is atrocious.
You do not like my title (Self-Consciousness of Noted Persons). I am sorry for that, because I cannot change it. My idea was to represent each character in his own words. Looking them all over, it appeared to me that most of them had distinguished ability or genius and had actually won the fame they thought themselves entitled to. It would not do to deny to Cicero, Bonaparte, and Byron great ability, though they were fully conscious of it - and vanity mainly adheres to those who would pass for more than they are worth. If they were vain it was chiefly an honest vanity. Conceit is also usually founded on empty brains. Both vanity and conceit are allied to small matters, something perhaps ridiculous, but do not rise to the dignity of anything great. I stick to “Self-Consciousness” and appeal to your father, even at the expense of showing my conceit. Let me add that I do like your title, the "Shadows of Genius"; if that is it, it is capital.
As to Beecher you are quite right. It was an inadvertence. For the moment I was thinking of Dean Swift's love affairs. Wrong, I confess. I have little time to browse through libraries and I sincerely thank you for giving me so much instruction upon a subject that amused some leisure hours of mine following an adjournment of Congress. I know you must have enjoyed the gathering of so many nuts.
James has gone to Brattleboro and we all leave home in about a week. Mrs. Morrill and Miss Swan send their regards to your father and yourself, and in this do not fail to have me consciously included. The Notes will go back by express. Very sincerely yours
J. S. M. His was a modest literary talent. He possessed neither “the devouring eye and the portraying hand”; neither the torrent of ideas, the wealth of imagery, nor the power of words that marks the master; but he had the love of the suitable phrase, the care for the appropriate epithet, and the willingness to polish his periods that is the stamp of the true artistic spirit. His speeches set no crowds aflame with their eloquence, but they were both listened to and read with a grave and quiet satisfaction by intelligent people. They won the praise of the judicious, and men like President An