To be well-born is half of the battle of life; and to have an
environment which helps the life of the child and the youth is a good
fraction of the other half. So that the man whose parentage and whose
education are good is fortunate above his fellows, and well-assured of a
successful issue to his life. Heredity and early environment–these are
what the scientists call them–are as the building and the rigging of
the ship. The best sailing-master can do little with an ill-built,
ill-rigged vessel. There is much in the stock from which William
Hamilton Gibson came, much in his education and early association, which
explains his life and the way in which he lived it. He was born in Sandy
Hook, Newtown, Connecticut, in a region where the lower Berkshire
mountain-ranges break into irregular and crowded hills, green,
picturesque, and restful. He has himself left a charming description of
the old home and its immediate surroundings, in the chapter called
“Summer” in “Pastoral Days.”

“Hometown (Sandy Hook), owing to some early faction, is divided into two
sections, forming two distinct towns. One Newborough (Newtown), a
hilltop hamlet, with its picturesque long street, a hundred feet in
width, and shaded with great weeping elms that almost meet overhead; and
the other, Hometown proper (Sandy Hook), a picturesque little village in
the valley, cuddling close around the foot of a precipitous bluff, known
as Mt. Pisgah. A mile’s distance separates the two centers. The old
homestead is situated in the heart of Hometown, fronting on the main
street. The house itself is a series of after-thoughts, wing after wing,
gable after gable having clustered around the old nucleus as the growth
of new generations necessitated new accommodation. Its outward aspect is
rather modern, but the interior with its broad open fireplace and
accessories in the shape of crane and firedogs, is rich with all the
features of typical New England; and the two gables of the main roof
enclose the dearest old garret imaginable…. Looking through the dingy
window between the maple-boughs, my eye extends over lawns and
shrubberies three acres in extent,–a little park, overrun with paths in
every direction, through ancient orchard and embowered dells, while far
beyond are glimpses of the wooded knolls, the winding brook, and meadows
dotted with waving willows, and farther still, the undulating farm.”

In such a spot Gibson was born October the fifth, 1850. His father was
originally a Boston man, who finally removed to Brooklyn, though
maintaining the home in the country, at Newtown.

The Gibson ancestry is one of no little interest, embracing as it does,
in various branches, some of the most distinguished names in Eastern
Massachusetts. The first American bearer of the name was John Gibson of
Cambridge, whose coming to this country was at least as early as 1634,
and who died in Cambridge in 1694 at the age of ninety-three years. His
descendants remained for the most part in Massachusetts for several
generations. Thomas Gibson of Townsend, Massachusetts, the grandfather
of William Hamilton, by marriage with Frances Maria Hastings brought
into the family line the famous Dana family, a connection of which his
descendants were justly proud. The original Dana ancestor was also a
Cambridge settler, Richard by name, who married Anne Bullard. His
grandson, by his son Daniel (who married Naomi Crosswell), was Mr.
Justice Richard Dana, whose death in 1772 deprived the patriots of those
stormy days of one of their foremost and ablest leaders. Justice Dana
was unquestionably at the head of the Massachusetts bar, an authority on
the precedents in American cases more quoted by Story than any other
pleader of his time. He is one of the figures in Hawthorne’s sketch,
given in his “Grandfather’s Chair,” of the episode in the drama of
pre-Revolutionary agitation, when Andrew Oliver made oath to take no
measures to enforce the Stamp Act. One of his brothers was Francis Dana,
Chief Justice of Massachusetts, and ambassador to Russia, whose wife was
Elizabeth Ellery, and whose son Richard Henry left a name always
honorable in the history of American letters. Richard Dana’s daughter
Lydia married John Hastings, a descendant of both the famous John
Cottons of Boston renown. Their daughter Frances M., married to Thomas
Gibson, was the mother of Edmund Trowbridge Hastings Gibson, and
grandmother of William Hamilton Gibson. It is no wonder that the latter
should write to an inquiring friend:

“You ask whether I am a New Englander. Let me set your heart at rest by
telling you that I am a way-back Puritan. The race has been petering out
from old John Cotton down through a long list of historical men whom I
am glad to own as ancestors. (I don’t count some of the earlier Lords
and Ladies to whom I trace my lineage–they are a pretty bad lot to my
thinking.) I honor the humble names of several of my progenitors who
lived and died in the love and respect of their fellow men, and have
some reason to feel a little pride in being able to allude to Justice
Richard Dana, of Massachusetts, as my great-great-grandfather, and a
lineage which embraces the names of Washington Allston, Ellery Channing,
and others equally noble and worthy; and now it has come down to me in
this branch of the family. Yes, I am New England to the _core_. No other
place on earth will ever be so near and dear or carry me to loftier
mountain tops.”

From the old country home and its surroundings the lad of ten years went
to a school which was probably as well-adapted to his temper and tastes
as any which could have been selected. At any rate it was a school to
which he became profoundly attached, and whose master he was to count
among the dearest and closest friends of a lifetime. The “Gunn School,”
or the “Gunnery,” as it came to be called, was one of the famous
institutions of this country, a school which left its indelible mark
upon many a boy whose maturity was to be eminent and useful in the
national life. It was a school unique in its theory and without rivals
in its practice. Its founder and head was Frederick W. Gunn, a native of
Washington, Connecticut, where he spent his life, did his great and good
work, and died in a ripe old age. He was a man of rare character and
gifts. Large-hearted and large-minded, with a religious and ethical
nature of the most positive kind, he was a man predestined to influence
others, and mold the lives of youth. Though he was an “abolitionist” in
days when that term carried with it intensest odium and social
proscription, and a dissenter from conventional orthodoxy in a time
when to differ from established standards was to write one’s self down
an “infidel,” he was a successful teacher, and made and maintained a
series of schools, which finally grew into the noble “Gunnery,” a term
at first used by the boys facetiously, but so apt and so happy as to be
officially adopted as the title of the school. One of his old pupils,
writing of the character of the institution, says:

“When Mr. Gunn called the school which his genius had established ‘a
home for boys’ he stated the simple and exact truth…. Mr. and Mrs.
Gunn both had the parental instinct so strong that they really took to
their hearts each individual boy, and brooded over him as if he were
their own flesh and blood.”

This home-school and school-home in one was conducted as a miniature
republic; its aim was all-round, symmetrical character; its method grew
out of the hearty, wholesome, honest, and loving nature of its head; its
spirit was justice and love. Perhaps it was not a school where “marks”
counted for a great deal; and the drill in books may not have been as
severe and systematic as in some institutions. But the boy who went to
the “Gunnery” was pretty sure to imbibe some notions of honor, justice,
kindliness, and obedience which he never forgot. As one of the old
pupils writes:

“We recall an era of uncurbed freedom in a spot

[Illustration: _The Gunnery_

_Washington, Connecticut_]

hallowed by home affections without home effeminacies; where every bad
trait of a boy was systematically assailed and every good trait
strengthened, so far as might be, so as to take its final place in an
enduring character and robust manhood.”

Gibson himself has given a tender and vivid picture of the school which
played so large a part in his life, in the pages of “Pastoral Days”:

“How lightly did I appreciate the fortunate journey when, twenty summers
ago, I followed this road for the first time, when a boy of ten years,
on my way to an unknown village, I looked across the landscape to the
little spires on that distant hill! Little did I dream of the six years
of unmixed happiness and precious experience that awaited me in that
little Judea! I only knew that I was sadly quitting a happy home on my
way to ‘boarding-school’–a school called the Snuggery, taught by a Mr.
Snug, in a little village named Snug Hamlet, about twenty miles from

“There are some experiences in the life of every one which, however
truthful, cannot be told but to elicit the doubtful nod or the warning
finger of incredulity. They were such experiences as these, however,
that made up the sum of my early life in that happy refuge called in
modern parlance a ‘boarding-school’–a name as empty, a word as weak and
tame in its significance, as poverty itself; no doubt abundantly
expressive in its ordinary application, but here it is a mockery and a
satire. This is not a ‘boarding-school’; it is a _household_, whose
memories moisten the eye and stir the soul; to which its scattered
members through the fleeting years look back as to a neglected home,
with father and mother dear, whom they long once more to meet as in the
tenderness of boyhood days; a cherished remembrance which, like the
‘house upon a hill, cannot be hid,’ but sends abroad its light unto many
hearts who in those early days sought the loving shelter; a bright star
in the horizon of the past, a glow that ne’er grows dim, but only
kindles and brightens with the flood of years. Yes, yes; I know it
sounds like a dash of sentiment, but words of mine are feeble and
impotent indeed when sought for the expression of an attachment so fond,
of a love so deep.”

Most delightfully, too, does he blend an account, in the same chapter,
of a return to the old school, in later years, and a picture of the
characteristic life of that school as it lies in the memories of many
successive generations of boys who passed through its scenes:

“It is eight o’clock, and the Snuggery is hushed in the quiet of the
study hour, and as we look through the windows we see the little groups
of studious lads bending over their books. Turning a corner on the
piazza, we are confronted with a tall hexagonal structure at its
farther end. This is the Tower, the lower room of which is consecrated
to the cozy retirement of Mr. and Mrs. Snug. The door leading to the
porch is open, and, as if awakening from a nap in which the past fifteen
years have been a dream, I listen to the same dear voice. I approach
nearer. Under the glow of a student’s lamp I look upon the beloved face,
the flowing hair and beard now silvered with the lapse of years–a face
of unusual firmness, but whose every line marks the expression of a
tender, loving nature, and of a large and noble heart. Near him another
sits–a helpmeet kind and true, cherished companion in a happy, useful
life. Into her lap a nestling lad has climbed; and as she strokes the
curly head and looks into the chubby face, I see the same expression as
of old, the same motherly tenderness and love beaming from the large
gray eyes.

“Mr. Snug is leaning back in his easy-chair, and two boys are standing
up before him; one of them is speaking, evidently in answer to a

‘I called him a galoot, sir.’

‘You called George a galoot, and then he threw the base-ball club at
you–is that it?’

‘Yes, sir,’ interrupted George; ‘but I was only playing, sir.’

‘Yes,’ resumed the voice of Mr. Snug, ‘but that club went with
considerable force, and landed over the fence, and made havoc in Deacon
Farish’s onion-bed; and that reminds me that the deacon’s onion-bed is
overrun with weeds. Now, Willie,’ continued Mr. Snug, after a moment’s
hesitation, with eyes closed, and head thrown back against the chair,
‘Saturday morning–to-morrow, that is–directly after breakfast, you go
out into the grove and call names to the big rock for half an hour.
Don’t stop to take breath; and don’t call the same name twice. Your
vocabulary will easily stand the drain. You understand?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And, George,’ continued Mr. Snug, with deliberate, easy intonation,
‘to-morrow morning, at the same time, you present yourself politely to
Deacon Farish, tell him that I sent you, and ask him to escort you to
his onion-bed. After which you will go carefully to work and pull out
all the weeds. You understand, sir?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And then you will both report to me as usual.’ And with a pleasant
smile, which was reflected in both their faces, the erring youngsters
were dismissed. Before the door has closed behind them we are standing
in the doorway. Here I draw the curtain; for who but one of its own
household could understand a welcome at the Snuggery?”

No feature of the “Gunnery” life is more interesting to the old scholar
or to outsiders than the ingenious and effective punishments invented by
Mr. Gunn for the less serious and still important offenses inevitable
in such a community. He made early application of the principles so
earnestly defended in Herbert Spencer’s “Education” and contrived to
“make the punishment fit the crime” in a manner worthy of W. S.
Gilbert’s famous “Mikado.” His memorialist, enlarging on this phase of
the “Gunnery” life, thus enumerates “the grotesque punishments which Mr.
Gunn visited on petty offenses in his school and family”:

“A boy of uncommon diffidence might be sent to call on some village
spinster or, worse yet for the blushing youngster, on some comely
village lass. A youth too boisterous would be dismissed for a four-mile
walk, ordered to hold a chip in his mouth for an hour, or to run a dozen
times around the church on the Green, sounding the tin dinner-horn at
each corner in rotation. Two small boys caught fighting were often
ordered to sit, one in the other’s lap, taking turns thus for an hour or
two. Pounding a log with a heavy club was a favorite panacea for
superfluous energy in the family sitting-room. Once a mischievous
youngster was seen sprinkling a dog’s face with water at the tank behind
the Gunnery. The master, who had a tender spot in his heart for animals,
stole up behind the offender and ducked him liberally, to give him, as
he said afterward, an inkling of the feelings of the dog. At the Gunnery
it used to be a custom to allow a boy to take the anniversary of his
birth as a holiday, and a too clever lad was detected by Mr. Gunn
celebrating thus his third birthday within a single year. The next
genuine anniversary of the boy’s birth came on a Saturday, which the
recusant celebrated by hugging a tree for several hours while his
schoolmates enjoyed the regular school holiday. A resident of Washington
tells how, years ago, he found at the fork of two roads and hugging a
sign-post in anything but sentimental fashion a youth whose only reply
to questions was, ‘I’m a poor miserable sinner,’ that being the formula
of penance which the master had prescribed. A dozen lads some twenty
years ago were caught raiding the bough-apple trees of the neighbors.
Mr. Gunn made them draw up a formal address of apology, bear it in
procession to each of the amazed owners of the trees, read it on their
knees, and pray forgiveness. A single truant once caught committing the
same offense in the orchard of a poor widow was sent to work all day
picking up stones in one of her fields.

“Actual wickedness was severely punished by Mr. Gunn, sometimes in the
good, old-fashioned way; but his motive in inflicting for minor faults
the odd penalties here alluded to seemed to be to take cognizance of the
error in a manner that would sufficiently incommode the culprit without
hurting his self-respect or leaving an angry smart. The boy appreciated
the fact that ‘he stood corrected’; but he also appreciated the
humorous side of the penalty. Those who revisited Washington after
leaving school sought no familiar haunt with more interest than the
shrines to which they had made penitential pilgrimages under
orders–Kirby Corners, a gentle jog around the square; the old sawmill
in the hollow, which, visited at night, was weird and ghostly enough to
sober the wildest urchin; Moody Barn, as redolent of pleasant memories
as of new-mown hay; and, for more serious faults, distant ‘Judd’s

* * * * *

“He insisted on neatness and order, and often a family meeting was
called and made a court of inquiry over a bit of paper found on the
lawn, or a peanut-shuck on the stairs. Once there was a question as to
the history of several pieces of orange-peel in the grass in front of
the house. The forty boys were summoned and made to stand in a row on
the long piazza. Mr. Gunn called upon each one to state what he knew
about the orange-peel, and at the end of the investigation he formed the
dozen or more culprits into file, the tallest at the head, and made them
march in solemn procession about the yard until they had picked up all
the offending scraps, and then to the pig-sty to deposit them in their
proper place.”

There is a delightful paragraph in a letter which Gibson wrote home to
his brothers, in which he tells in a boy’s quaint way of one of these
ingenious penalties which was visited on himself.

“One day I and two other boys eat some walnuts in church in the meeting
time. Mr. Gunn found it out. He made us three boys take the rest of our
walnuts up to the minister. We did so and the minister gave us his
thanks for the walnuts, and asked us if we would not have some supper,
for it was supper time. We refused and left. He told us not to eat any

But Mr. Gunn could administer as sharp reprimands to parents and older
folk as he could to the boys who were his pupils. There is a plaintive
letter from Gibson to his father, growing yellow now, with age, in which
the heart of the little boy is uncovered, and his longing for letters
from home is touchingly revealed. And the fatherly, warm-hearted teacher
had evidently read it, and his soul burned within him. So he wrote upon
the back page of the little note the following admonitory words, which
must have elicited a letter by return mail:

“MY DEAR SIR: It seems to me if I had such a dear little son as Willie
Gibson, sent away from home to a boarding school, and thrown upon the
cold charities of the world, so proverbially heartless and selfish as
the ministers say it is, I would require one of the clerks to write to
him once or twice a quarter. Willie is happy in his present relations,
but somewhat anxious about the friends he left behind him. He presumes
his parents are well, not having seen their names in the papers, but
would feel more sure if he heard from them. Willie is a dear little
fellow, just as good as he can be. Should you think it best to write to
him, direct care of F. W. Gunn, Washington, Conn.”!

These are words like rifle bullets!

Of course the students of child psychology will be interested to learn
whatever is worth knowing concerning the appearance, in embryo, of the
man Gibson in the boy of this period. There is satisfaction for such
investigators and there is disappointment as well. There are many
intimations, at this period, of the man that is to be. There are traces
of peculiarities which wholly disappeared with the years. There were
aptitudes and tastes appearing in the school-days at the Gunnery, which
no reprimands and no discouragements could subdue; and there were
shortcomings and faults which the years were destined utterly to efface.
It certainly seems strange to find Mr. Gunn writing to the boy’s mother,
“Willie has not yet learned to be spontaneously industrious. I know he
will come to it. He improves”; and again to his father, “Willie insists
that he is getting along finely in his studies, that he studies very
hard, and is doing well. But you must accept this with some grains of
allowance for a boy’s favorable judgment of himself. He does not learn
as fast as I wish to have him. I think his tendency to take on fat
hinders his power of industrious, persevering application; he is
getting to be quite a big fellow, and I urge him a good deal.” When one
remembers that the most marked of all his traits as a man was the fierce
and enthusiastic zeal with which he worked, consuming the powers of a
robust physique in his zest for toil, one is moved to be very patient
with the unpromising side of a child’s nature. It may take a great while
to become “spontaneously industrious”; but Gibson’s experience shows how
needless it is to be despondent because a boy does not work with a man’s
spirit. Sufficient unto the age are the traits thereof.

But in other ways, the schoolboy was forecasting the traits of the
mature man. There is a mournful letter preserved out of these years, in
which the little fellow writes his father after receiving a reprimand
for illustrating his letters with pen-and-ink pictures. His inborn
faculty would exhibit itself, and the home letters were filled with
funny and interesting sketches. But that did not seem to the parental
mind a wise use of writing materials. So the embryo artist was warned to
curb his passion for illustration. He wrote a few penitent lines in
response. “Next comes about the writing. I own that I am very foolish in
putting those pictures in my letters, and I won’t do it any more. I
never put them in only to the letters home.” Vain promise! It was one
more attempt to drive out nature with a pitchfork; and was as
unsuccessful–as it deserved to be. The artist-impulse was straining
and struggling within him already and was bound to assert itself more
and more vigorously till it should triumph in his life-work.

So, too, there appeared in these early days the passionate love of
nature which was to be a controlling element in his later years. Botany
was one of the studies which he insisted upon taking up under Mr. Gunn’s
teaching. There was a little family controversy over the matter, growing
out of the mother’s fear that the really practical things would be
neglected in this passion for nature-study. It sounds strange enough, at
this distance in time, with all the light of the boy’s later life, to
read the mother’s anxious words:

“We wish [Mr. Gunn] to judge and direct in all these things, but I was
afraid your own wish and the way I spoke to you about the delight of
studying Botany, might have led you to speak so positively in choosing
it, that he would suppose it was by our direction. If you really do take
up Botany you must expect to find that it is not all play either. There
are hard things to remember, and you must make up your mind to work at
them bravely and perseveringly if you are determined to make them

A little sentence later in the same letter shows the bent of the boy.
His mother, referring to a recent visit of his father to the school,

“I was afraid when your father told me how he found you in the calamus
swamp, that you would be sick.”

That tells an interesting story of boyish passion for plants. And so do
the little fellow’s letters home. Very early in his life at the Gunnery
he wrote to his father:

“I get along in my studies in Botany very well indeed, and he has
described two or three plants, one of which was Marsh-marigold or the
Cowslip. He has analyzed the cherry blossom”; and Mr. Gunn wrote a
footnote to the same letter saying: “He seems delighted with Botany and
makes close observations.” This quality of his mind, cropping out in its
earliest essays, appears again and again in these juvenile letters. They
are well worth quoting, as early witnesses to the attentive eye, the
retentive memory, the descriptive power which were part of his natural
and congenital outfit for his life-work. One of them divides its pages
between art and natural history:

“My paints have given me a great deal of fun. I bought a blank book and
copied several pictures in it out of my ‘Harris’s Insects,’ and I also
painted them, some from the description and some from the plates. I have
one page of beetles, another page of butterflies, etc., etc. I guess
when I get it done it will be ‘_betterish nische_.’ Everybody comes to
me lately to have

[Illustration: _William Hamilton Gibson_

_Age, 13_]

me draw and paint them a valentine, which of course I do for some of
them. I wish that in your next letter you would send me a couple of
paint brushes, for the hairs of mine keep coming out all the while.

“That same feeling has come over me that I used to have last summer when
I was after bugs and butterflies. The other day, it came very strong and
I went out to look for cocoons, and I looked and looked, but saw
nothing, and gave it up entirely, but as I was coming on my way into the
house I saw some small pear-trees and I thought that I would look on
them and I did, and saw a bunch of leaves. I looked and saw there was a
Cecropia cocoon done up in them which made me feel like an eagle darting
at her prey. I grabbed the prize and kept it and have got it yet. We
have got a new minister which I told you about. I showed it to him and
he told me to call and see him and bring it to him and he then asked me
if any boy had a microscope. I told him yes (for Commodore has got a
Craig’s Microscope) and the next evening Commodore and I took my
‘Harris’s Insects’ and showed it to him. He was much pleased with it and
is going to get one. We did not make a very long call, but it was a nice

Another letter to his mother enlists her help in his entomological

“I have just found an Imperial moth worm on a maple-tree. Will you
please look on one of the small apple-trees in the orchard near the
place where the arbor used to be, and on that row of small apple-trees,
there is a tree on which I put a Cecropia worm for myself, which may be
found by its effects under the tree. I think a great deal of it or I
wouldn’t write about it. Have you found any worms yet? I wish that I was
there to look about for them, or I wish that there was somebody there
who would look after them for me, for it is such a splendid place for
them. The boys are leaving from here, very fast, and we all will leave
in 13 days more….

“P. S. That worm that I told you about on the apple-tree, if very large,
must be taken off and put into a box with fresh apple leaves every day;
if small, do the same.”

A letter which he wrote in 1865 bears witness to the trait which his
teacher had already noted–his careful observation. He made pen-and-ink
drawings to make clear what flower he was trying to identify, which was
plainly the false foxglove.

“I have been out in several places and have stuck in as much as ten
stakes in different places where those beautiful scarlet or crimson
lilies grow and when the stalk has gone I will take them up. Saturday I
intend to go out in search of some more. There are plenty of them, and
sometimes I see them two or three on one stalk.

“Do you know what the large trumpet-creeper is that has very large
flowers of a red color? One used to grow at the east end of the back
piazza up against the side of the house. Well, there is a flower of the
same shape and kind of a beautiful yellow color, but it grows like a
primrose; on one stalk there are over 20 flowers of about an inch and a
half in length. The tops of the buds seem to be lapped over each other,
and when there are blossoms they look very pretty. I am going to try and
get it for you, but I don’t know whether it has seed or not. I suppose
not. Nevertheless, I’ll try and get it for you, for it is very pretty.

“In a garden up here there is a kind of ‘Columbine,’ very large, of two
kinds, purple and white and _very large_. I am welcome to all the seed
that I want. I don’t know whether you want any or not, but nevertheless
I’ll get you a lot.

“Here I must stop. I remain

“Your aff. son WILLIE.”

The boy was fortunate in his mother, whose fine nature, trained tastes,
and Christian spirit moved and moulded the best there was in him. Her
letters to the little pupil are models of maternal sympathy, and reflect
very vividly the boy’s strong passion for living things and the study of
them. One of her characteristic messages went to him in 1862, and
reveals her own interest in the pursuits which were delighting her
children and which were destined to mean so much to the boy she was
writing to:

“How are your friends and dear companions, the worms? I missed them very
much after you had gone, and often found myself stepping carefully and
looking down to the right and the left in crossing the upper hall,
expecting to see some green or brown thing crawling about. The great
drawer I gave you, we call ‘the worm drawer’ yet, and I don’t know as I
shall ever open it comfortably again. The peaceable and innocent rolls
of linen and sewing lie in it now, just as they used before you had it,
but sometimes I forget and open the one under it cautiously, expecting
to see some of your treasures dropped through again, on my things. Henry
and Julie are making collections now also, and Cottie brought home, the
other day, the finest, largest specimen I ever saw, of the sort you
called ‘Polyphemus’? It was of immense size, and a very bright healthy
color, both in its body and in those little tufts that stud it all over.
He laid it away very carefully, and left it in peace a few days, and
yesterday, behold it had spun a cocoon in its box as large as a
butternut, and as strong as linen, of a beautiful reddish brown. We
shall expect the moth with great interest. The children are too
impatient to hurry up business with their worms. They are forever
opening the boxes, and lifting and handling the creatures, so that I
should think the poor things would despair of ever getting a chance to
set their houses in order, at all.”

His relations with his mother were always close and sympathetic. She was
a rare nature, refined and cultivated, with a strong literary bent and
deep religious feeling. She wrote not a little, contributing to the
pages of “The Christian Union” and other publications. She scrupulously
kept all the boy’s letters from his schooldays forward through the
years. One of the cherished mementos of her life was a little manuscript
volume, which bears the inscription: “I leave this book to my son
William.” It is a record of her study of the Bible, her grapple with the
great problems of ethical and theological thought, prayers in which she
has uttered the aspirations of a reverent spirit insistently seeking
light through all the confusion and shadow of modern speculation,
comment upon the great books which were stirring Christendom and
sounding the note of the new thought about Christ and Christianity. To
read them is to discover the sources of the son’s deep reverence and
broad, unconventional religious life. It is to feel anew the unconscious
power of motherhood in shaping the ductile spirit of childhood, and to
be certain that the light of such a spirit was a very pillar of fire to
the soul of her son.

It was between the years 1866 and 1868 that the great crisis of young
Gibson’s life occurred; and a series of influences and incidents befell,
which were decisive in settling the great questions of his life-work and
of the spirit in which he would undertake it.

The latter of the two was the first to be decided. It was at this period
of his life that the boy experienced one of those changes in
disposition, which was like the awakening or the sudden unfolding of the
real self, hitherto hidden under apparently opposite traits. While he
was at the Gunnery, Gibson had troubled the soul of his teacher, as we
have seen, because he had not, as Mr. Gunn put it, “learned to be
spontaneously industrious.” But during the years immediately following,
while he was yet at the Polytechnic, he “came to himself.” He had been
an easy-going boy, rather indolent in habit, or at least deficient in
the power of industrious, persevering application. But now he began to
show a love of work, to love it for its own sake, to plan it, and to
seek it of his own volition. He took a vigorous hold upon his studies at
the Polytechnic. He found a new delight, as well as a sustained,
deep-seated interest in his drawing. He took up a new pursuit, to which
he devoted his spare hours to such good purpose that he mastered it in
astonishingly little time, and carried it to a high point of skill.
Chancing to see some wax-flowers made by an expert of his time in
Brooklyn, he promptly decided that the art was one which he could
master. After some essays of his own, he put himself under the
instruction of this teacher, who soon told the boy that he could teach
him no more. There are some wonderful stories floating down from those
days concerning the work he did in this medium, so fine in its imitative
perfection as to deceive the very elect. One, in particular, is to the
effect that a cluster of blossoms which he had modeled and carried, as a
gift, to Mr. Beecher’s home, stood upon a table in a little vase when
Mrs. Beecher saw it for the first time. She took up the vase, and,
raising it to inhale the fragrance which it promised, had crushed the
delicate work before she discovered the illusion. Apocryphal or not, the
story shows the impression his work made upon his early admirers.

But the time had come which was to put his earnestness and force to the
test. His father’s death in 1868 had made it necessary that he should
hasten to choose a career and begin his self-support. Few young men are
“called” to any special work in life; fewer still “elect,” of their own
free will, the thing they will do because it is the thing they must do,
beyond a doubt. And Gibson began by showing himself no different from
other youth; he was to discover his distinction later. For no particular
reason, save that it was suggested to him by a business friend and
adviser of whom he sought counsel, he took up life-insurance, and became
an agent for a leading company of his time. It gives one a strange
feeling of incongruity to read the little business card, bearing the
title of the “Home Life Insurance Company,” announcing “Wm. H. Gibson,
General Agent, 103 Fulton Street, Brooklyn,” with “Office hours, 9 to
10.” One thinks of Nathaniel Hawthorne in the custom-house at Salem; of
Charles Lamb at his clerk’s desk in East India House; and experiences a
deep sense of relief that this new genius had the grace and the strength
to escape from an uncongenial pursuit and follow the urgings of his own
spirit. The business had no attractions for the boy. He wanted to draw.
He was yearning after open fields and wide horizons. There was a craving
in his nature which was at once an outcry for a life of self-utterance
by the means and methods of art, and a protest against a life spent in
what is called, with cool disparagement of other pursuits, “business.”
The young man felt that the one career would mean self-expression, with
all its joy, its power, its peace; while the other would be a
self-repression, continual, galling, paralyzing. He was born to be a
student of nature and to tell her story to the men and women who had not
his endowment. The hour had come in which he was to decide whether he
could heed his call, believe in himself, choose the path which invited
him to labors that fitted his nature, and dare all its difficulties for
the sake of being true to his own soul. The situation was not new. It is
no unusual thing for young men to waver between such rival purposes. But
the interest of such a crisis never wanes. It is always a trial of the
real stuff and fiber of the individual. It is an experience which the
youth must bear alone. But the gain belongs to all men when the decision
is made which seals a life to devotion to its own highest ideal.

There is nothing to record the inward struggle of those days, save the
quick resolve which he made, and the abrupt turn in his purpose. In the
course of his calls to solicit business he chanced upon an acquaintance
who was a draughtsman, and found him engaged in drawing upon the block.
Gibson watched him a while, and forgot his errand in the sight of this
congenial work. As he told a friend, years afterward: “After looking on
for a few moments, I decided that I could do such work as well as he. I
learned where the blocks could be bought and went off immediately to
invest in a quantity of the material. From that moment I abandoned
everything else, and set to work at drawing.” This was in truth the
Rubicon of his life. In the decision it marks, young Gibson yielded to
his own most honorable ambitions. He elected what was probably the
harder way, if we count discouragements of one sort and another, the
dampening predictions of the critical and experienced, the warnings and
dissuasions of his best friends. Even in a financial way, it meant
straitened circumstances, hard work for small pay, and years of the most
strenuous effort, before he could obtain the recognition which meant a
market for his wares. By so much the more must we esteem his courage,
his faith in himself, his willingness to pay the high price of toil and
patient waiting for the success which came at last.

One hardly does justice to the boldness of the young man’s resolve until
he remembers that Gibson was proposing to begin his career as an artist
with nothing but his native genius as a warrant of success. He was
wholly lacking in training, as later days would understand it. He had
studied art in no school. He had received the teaching of no
master-artist. All that he could do was what he had worked out for
himself. It would seem almost audacious, even reckless, for a young man
to rush into the field of illustration with no more preparation either
to fit him to do intelligent work or to discover to himself whether he
really possessed abilities which would make his venture worth while.
Untaught and unpractised, save in the desultory

[Illustration: _William Hamilton Gibson_

_Age, 17_]

way of a boy’s attempts to express his own ideas with the pencil, he
made up his mind that he could and that he would do as good artistic
work as anybody. The intrepidity of youth is either ridiculous or it is
sublime. Perhaps we must let events decide which it is. In this case the
years made Gibson’s daring spirit seem the truest courage. Yet one holds
his breath as he thinks of this boy boldly walking into the offices of
the Harper Brothers, with his drawings on wood, to offer them for sale.

It is small wonder that they did not find acceptance in this exacting
quarter. Gibson, armed with a letter of introduction to the Harpers, had
gone to one of the firm, who turned him over to Charles Parsons, the
head of the art department. It was arranged that he should have two
weeks’ trial, to test his capacity. At the end of that time Mr. Parsons
said to him, in substance, “I do not see that you will ever succeed in
an artistic career. I advise you to drop it at once, and go into some
other pursuit. I do not feel justified in recommending you to go on.”
This judgment was as kindly in intention as it was candid in tone. It
was the verdict of a cool-headed critic as well as an honest friend. It
ought to have put an end to Gibson’s aspirations. It is the joy of all
his friends to remember how he met this rebuff. He insisted that he
should go on; he knew what he could do, and he meant to show other
people. Nothing could deter, nothing could discourage him. “Very well,”
said Mr. Parsons, “whatever you do, do your best; and show me your work
from time to time.”

So Gibson turned from the doors which afterward opened to him so
eagerly, and traveled on in search of appreciation and a market. He
found both at the hands of John G. Shea, then of Frank Leslie’s house,
who bought his drawings for “The Chimney Corner” and “The Boys’ and
Girls’ Weekly.” “I began to pay my way,” said Gibson in a newspaper
interview, “as soon as I met him. It was he who first suggested to me
that I might furnish text with my drawings; and then I received double
pay.” Soon after this he began to furnish botanical drawings for “The
American Agriculturist.” His work was so acceptable that he was invited
to take a desk in the offices of the publication, and he here became
acquainted with J. C. Beard, Jr., with whom he had a life-long
friendship. An opportunity occurring to furnish drawings for botanical
articles in Appleton’s “Encyclopædia,” Gibson undertook the task; and
when this led to a disagreement with the manager of the “Agriculturist,”
he and Beard left the paper and took a room by themselves, in John
Street. Here the orders began to come in, besides what they were doing
for Leslie and Appleton, from various lithographers. The young men led a
happy life, full of hard work, good fellowship, ambitious plans. Gibson
was absorbed in his pursuits. He shrank from nothing because it was
hard or because it was humble. He turned his pencil to whatever would
afford him training and whatever would bring him honest returns. He was
ready to do all sorts of “odds and ends” of illustration. He had great
facility in producing puzzles of every description, especially those
depending on illustration. One entire notebook is filled with
suggestions for riddles, puzzles, rebuses, anagrams, which he worked out
or had in reserve.

The days were full of hope and determination. He had no doubts about his
ultimate success. He was a firm believer in himself. And he knew he had
found the work he loved and into which he could throw his whole
abounding life. It is a fine picture of a brave young fellow facing a
difficult career with the buoyant hopes of youth and the confidence of a
really strong nature. He was only nineteen when he wrote to the young
girl to whom he had already given his heart: “This work perfectly
fascinates me. It has always been my choice; it always will be. I shall
never be happy if I have to abandon it. I look forward to it with
delight and enthusiasm…. I do not allow myself to be too sanguine. I
expect difficulties, trials, disappointments. I am willing to work, use
all my energy, brave all manner of disappointments if in the end that
future which we so often picture to one another can be realized.”

Another letter, a few months later, tells the story of hard work and
increasing care, in apology for delay in writing to his mother. It also
introduces the matter of one of his largest commissions up to this time,
and shows how certainly he was making his way:

“Mother, I think of you just as much as ever, but I am so busy that when
evening comes my natural dislike to letter writing is increased tenfold
by fatigue. I wish I could give some correct idea of the amount of work
that I do, and of how continually I am occupied. I am dreadfully busy,
and last week and week before I worked at the office evening after
evening until nearly eight, very seldom leaving before seven. You may
perhaps form some idea when I tell you that I have got work on hand now
(all in a hurry, as fast as I can do it) amounting to over $1,000.00
(one thousand dollars). It is all from Appleton & Co. and $840.00 of it
is in one commission. It consists of twelve drawings on stone, each
stone measuring nearly four feet by three, and weighing about four
hundred pounds. I agreed to do the drawings on each stone for $70.00
which amounts as above. I have commenced and finished one stone
satisfactorily, and commenced another to-day. It takes five men to bring
the stone to my office and it is the largest size that can be used on a
power press. A ‘tremendous job’ people call it, and don’t see ‘how on
earth I manage to get at all these things.’ I believe I told you
something about it. You remember that I heard of the intention of the
Appletons to publish some mammoth botanical charts, and as it was rather
in my line I went and saw Mr. Appleton about it. He asked me if I could
draw on stone. I told him ‘yes,’ as if I had done it all my life, and
gave him my estimate. It was an estimate calculated to pay me well, and
I felt sure by previous inquiry that it was as low as he could get it
done elsewhere. It resulted as I expected and the entire job was turned
over to me.”

The sequel to that story is given in one of his frank, confidential
letters to his mother, meant only for her eye, and therefore full of
such a self-expression as he would have made to no one else. It answers
still further the question as to how he came to get this particular
commission in a way which reveals again his boldness and faith in
undertaking new and untried work:

“N. Y., _Jan. 22, 1872_.


“I have stopped short in my work for the purpose of writing a few
lines to you, as more time has already elapsed since you last heard
from me than I had expected to allow. Everything goes on as
smoothly as I could desire; of course there are ripples
occasionally but they only tend to make the intervening success and
prosperity more serene by contrast.

“I still continue as busy as ever only more so. The stone work is
the principal employment, at present, and I have given from the
start immense satisfaction. You remember that in my last ‘long
letter’ I spoke of commencing on the second stone the following
day. Well I did so and finished on the next day after, not spending
quite two days on it. That week I realized $170.00 for work which I
did all myself. The Appletons were surprised more than I can tell
you when I informed them of the completion of the second stone, and
would scarcely believe that I had done it myself. When they came to
see the proof they were even more pleased than they were with the
first. The third stone was then sent to my office on the next
_Saturday afternoon_. Monday morning following it had not a mark on
it and before I left for home that very evening it was completely
finished, thus making $70 in one day. On the next morning I went up
to the Appletons’ and notified Mr. A. that his third stone for the
charts was finished and in a playful way that I wished he would
please send for it and let me have the next. ‘Why,’ said he, ‘I
told them to take it to you last Saturday afternoon.’ ‘Well,’ said
I, they _did_ bring me one last Saturday afternoon and that is the
one that I have finished and wish you to take away.’ I wish you
could have seen the expression of mingled surprise and incredulity
which covered his face. ‘Why,’ said he, ‘have you done it
yourself?’ ‘Yes,’ I returned, ‘I commenced it and finished it
yesterday.’ He received the intelligence rather with hesitation at
first and finally as I had expected, took the course of questioning
whether there was really $70.00 worth of work on them. He was very
coy in his manner of doing it but I saw well enough through it all.
He put such questions as these, ‘Well, you are doing them much
quicker than you expected aren’t you? There is not quite so much
work on them as you expected, is there? You thought at first that
there would be a week’s time on each stone you remember?’ You see
the style of query he used. To all these I admitted that they had
become much more easy for me than I had expected, that I was
hurrying them up because I knew that they were in a great hurry for
the work. I reminded them that my estimate was the lowest that they
could obtain in the city and said if I had the faculty of working
fast that I ought to be remunerated for it, etc. ‘But,’ said he,
‘there is quite a wide difference between a week and a day and it
seems that you did the last one in a day.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘so I
did, but I will spend a week at them hereafter.’ This made him
laugh heartily, and he drew me a check for $70.00 on the spot and
told me that he was glad I was doing them so fast and that the firm
were more than pleased, thinking my work far ahead of the original,
etc. The fourth stone I finished this Monday having commenced it on
Saturday last. It has been taken away this morning; the fifth one
is now on my desk ready for me to proceed. It is a beautiful
surface to draw upon, and I enjoy the work very much. I certainly
have the faculty of drawing very fast. Several artists have seen my
drawings on the stone and several lithographers also, and they all
tell me frankly (after they have been really convinced that I have
drawn one in a day or even two days) that there is not another man
in the city that could do it and no one that could do it better.
The most reasonable time which the Appletons could find elsewhere
was a week and this amongst lithographers who had drawn upon stone
all their lives. The printers of my lithographic work say that they
never printed neater work in their lives and that my drawings all
print very brightly.”

It was about these days that he made his first original work, a little
composition now treasured and carefully preserved. He wrote about it to
his mother:

“Week before last I took to Mr. Bunce a little bit of sunset effect
in the form of a sketch which I did in fifteen minutes, in India
ink and white. Beard admired it ever so much, and just for fun I
took it to Bunce as a sort of specimen of ‘original design.’ To my
surprise he admired it so much that he gave me a block, and told me
to put it on the wood by all means, for the ‘Journal.’ It is very
simple in composition, being drawn in a circle with the foreground

[Illustration: _The Road to Hide-and-Seek Town_

_First Composition, 1873_]

open. On the right is a hillside with a few tall trees; on the left
another slope, more distant. The extreme distance is composed of a
village with church-spire, trees, etc., standing out against a
brilliant sunset sky which shows through the trees. In the extreme
foreground is a traveler, or farmer, wending his way homeward; his
figure is almost a silhouette and his shadow is cast upon the road.
It is my first attempt at a design. My head is ‘chuck full of
them,’ but I cannot get a chance to use them I am so busy.”

Other letters covering this period are full of interest. They show the
heart of the young fellow, his frank delight in his own success, and in
the approval which his work begins to receive. He was much elated over
the success of an engraving he made for the “Aldine”:

“NEW YORK, _Feb. 2, 1872_.


“I have just a few moments’ spare time which I will improve by
writing a short letter or note to you.

“Concerning my picture, all the artists of the establishment
admired the effect and recognized the ‘excellent copy’ of Inness’
style and handling. They all seem to think that the picture is
rather unnatural in its intensity but that the effect is wonderful.
Well, it was yesterday that I brought it over. I had cut it out of
the paper on which I drew it and pasted it neatly on a large piece
of white stiff photograph board. Its appearance was thus greatly
improved, as it had a margin of nearly six inches all around it. At
noon time I took the sketch down to the ‘Aldine.’ I saw Mr. Sutton,
the proprietor. He held the sketch off from him, looked at it
through his hand, and pronounced it magnificent. I of course told
him that it was a copy. He asked me if he had not met me before. I
told him ‘yes’; that one year ago I came to him with my first
drawings on wood, and that he did a great deal to encourage me at
the time. He remembered me, remembered my little drawings and
described both of them to me–told me that I had a _tremendous_ eye
for color, and he had noticed it when I first went to him. He said,
‘When you were here a year ago I told you to come to me when you
began to do original work, did I not?’ I answered yes and told him
a little of my experience since that time. Well we had a nice
little talk and it ended in his giving me a large full page block
with the order to put it on wood and he said that I must bring him
some more sketches. I am to correct Inness’ unfinished style and
make a more finished picture than the original is, as a painting.
When it is done I will probably receive from 50 to 60 dollars for

“I begin it next week and as I cannot give Roberts’ time to it and
will have to work evenings, will probably not finish it for two
weeks or so.”

In the fall of this year he had a commission from the Appletons to
visit Rhode Island on a sketching tour. It was his first attempt at
anything of just this sort, and he was evidently nervous over his
responsibilities. But his unfailing courage served him once more, and
his naïve account of the trip and of the reception of its fruits is
preserved in a letter to his mother:

“BROOKLYN, N. Y., _Sept. 23/72_.


“I returned from my trip on Thursday, but did not wish to write you
immediately as I hoped to be able to send you more encouraging news
by waiting a day or so. Many were the disadvantages which I labored
under during all the time while I was away, being almost sick
constantly. Nevertheless I worked through it all, hard and
faithfully, and the result is ‘a perfect success,’ far exceeding my
greatest anticipations. It was a very important period in my
business career, and I felt the necessity of working _hard_, and,
truth to say, I was confident of success, but not to any such
degree as that with which I have met.

“My commission included Providence and Suburbs: Pawtucket;
Providence Bay; Narragansett Bay; Rocky Point and Narragansett
Pier, all of which I visited and sketched. During the first week I
remained at the Central Hotel, Providence, where I had quite a
pleasant room. It being the first time of my being sent upon work
of this kind I was ignorant as to what would be expected of me and
of course was much worried and anxious, and the one thing which
troubled me most has been the one of all others which has made me
so successful. Each day, (with my camp seat, umbrella and
materials,) I would start out either on foot or in the cars,
traveling nearly until evening and in no case did I bring home with
me more than three sketches, and this number only once. It was this
scarcity in my number of sketches that caused me to worry, but I
still felt that what I had got were good; all through the day would
I pass by little bits of landscape that I thought would compose
rather prettily, but nevertheless I made up my mind (as I was not
to be gone long) to sketch only such bits as I knew would be
particularly attractive, and of course it would take nearly the
whole day before I could find and sketch more than two. I imagined
that this was a very small number, but did not see how I could do
much better, as it took a great deal of time to walk about and
select the prettiest views. Well, I worked on in this way for the
whole week, and at the end of it I never realized more happily the
fact that ‘seven times two made fourteen’ and I thought that if I
could go home with twenty-eight sketches it would be certainly well
enough as far as the number was concerned. But, again I was very
much in doubt as to the merit of my sketches and as the other
cause of anxiety was now partially removed, this took its place and
troubled me. The next circumstance took the spirits right out of me
and made me about sick. It commenced to rain and kept it up
constantly until I left, and it was the meanest, wetest, rain that
I ever knew of, and when it didn’t actually rain it ‘fogged’ and
drizzled which was nastier yet. The blank sheet of my drawing paper
would have been the best sketch of landscape during those days, as
I could see scarcely more than this would represent. Even in the
rain I went out and made a few sketches of places already decided
upon and finally left Providence in disgust, on my way home down
Narragansett Bay. I stopped over night at Rocky Point where I made
two sketches, leaving for Newport on the following day (Tuesday).
On Wednesday I went to Narragansett Pier when I also made two or
three sketches, thence homeward.

“I came home with about twenty-two sketches. All here at the house
thought them beautiful. Mr. Beard was perfectly surprised at their
beauty and Mr. Bunce at Appleton’s pronounced them one of the ‘best
lots of sketches he has yet had’ and complimented me on my ‘perfect
success.’ He was very much pleased indeed, and admired them all,
and gave vent to his admiration with loud praise; he called old and
young Appleton and several other gentlemen to see them, all of whom
pronounced them ‘very fine.’ I expected then that he would look
them over and select about five of the prettiest for me to put on
the wood. This was the most that I thought he would select. Mr.
Beard, when I asked him, said that he thought they would select
about five, as in other cases they had only taken about that number
out of an equivalent stock of sketches. Judge of my complete
surprise to see him select and count fifteen of them saying that he
would have them all drawn for the ‘Picturesque America.’ This left
only about six of the lot which he did not want, and he
complimented me on the choice of my selections, saying ‘Generally a
lot of sketches will come in, and I will look them over and reject
two thirds of them, on account of the subjects not being
interesting, the artists sketching whatever they come across that
looks “pretty” and not hunting for the most interesting alone.’
This is the amount of what he said to me and finished it up by
telling me that all of mine were of interest and composed well,
which was the very thing I studied for and which most troubled me
on account of the time it took and the consequent small number of
my sketches. Mr. Bunce was perfectly delighted, and if I please him
as well in my drawings on the wood, he will probably wish to send
me off again, when I will in all probability receive ‘$40.00 per
week and expenses.’ He gave me four large blocks nearly ‘full page’
to start on and the rest

[Illustration: _William Hamilton Gibson_

_Age, 23_]

will come along as fast as I want them; and will amount to about
$400 worth of work. Besides this I have plenty of work from Filmer,
in a hurry, another very large job from Appleton (on stone), stacks
of work for Leslie and plenty else besides, scarcely knowing where
to begin. My bill to D. App. & Co. for my trip was considerably
over $100, which they paid without a word not even wishing an item.

“It does seem rather strange to me that whatever I undertake to do,
always ends in success, and in _unexpected success_. To be sure it
is done by hard work and I do not see why any one cannot succeed
who will put their shoulder to the wheel, be ambitious and full of
resolution to surmount all difficulties. So far I have not made a
failure, and one reason has been that I have not attempted a thing
to which I did not feel equal. I am thankful that I do succeed, and
I recognize, through all my experience in business, and in my
efforts to advance, the ever present help and guidance of a good
and kind Providence.”

On the 29th of October, 1873, he was married to Miss Emma L. Blanchard
of Brooklyn. The occasion was made the more interesting by the marriage
of his sister Juliet, and the double service was performed by Mr.
Beecher. In the following spring he made a sketching trip to Washington,
D. C., making pictures for “Picturesque America.” He was now doing good
work and receiving constant employment. He says of the Washington
sketches, especially having in mind a “combination” which included many
of the public buildings:

“BROOKLYN, _Apr. 19, 1874_.


“I am only going to write you a few lines to-night (which by the
way has generally been my expressed intention every time I have
written) and for fear that I may possibly overstep that intention I
have selected a larger sheet of paper than usual, and expect at
least to confine the limits of my letter therein.

“Mr. Bunce was very much pleased with my rendering of a difficult
subject, and one which had worried him considerably. I took him the
drawing yesterday, and received another commission from him, more
work for the ‘Picturesque America.’ My drawings will already appear
under three heads, viz.: ‘Providence and Suburbs,’ ‘Connecticut
Shore,’ and ‘Washington and Mt. Vernon,’ and now there is still
another to be added. I am to proceed immediately with Brooklyn and
Prospect Park, and expect to begin my sketching to-morrow, of
course being paid as I am usually, for my time. The series will not
be very extensive, probably a combination or two with a few small
separate pictures. I hope that this new work will not interfere
with my intended visit with you during arbutus season. I will try
and manage so as to bring my work up there for I hope to spend
three or four days with you. _Be sure and let us know_ when the
arbutus is in bloom.”

In the fall of 1876 Gibson published through James Miller a book for
boys, of which a fuller word will be said later in these pages. It bore
the title, alluring to any boy, “The Complete American Trapper; or the
Tricks of Trapping and Trap-Making.” It was republished by two other
firms, and still has a market.

These were the years of apprenticeship and study. The young man’s art
class was his own studio. His course of study was determined by the
business needs of those who employed him. His chief instructor was
himself. The years went quickly by. A trip to the Adirondacks in 1875,
another to Philadelphia to sketch the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 were
the chief incidents of the next two years. The Philadelphia enterprise
was under the patronage of Harper Brothers. For at last he had secured
the approval he had coveted so much, and was able to win his way into
the publications of this house on his own merits. From time to time he
had shown his work to Mr. Parsons, who admitted his progress and
acknowledged his growing promise. At last he received an order to
illustrate an article in conjunction with his friend Beard. Other work
followed, and he was a recognized contributor to the Harpers’

But the work which probably made his “calling and election sure” was his
masterly illustration of an article written by Mrs. Helen S. Conant,
entitled “Birds and Plumage.” Gibson had suggested the article,
furnishing the idea and proposing as a title “The Plumage of Fashion.”
He did not secure the commission to write the text: his abilities as a
writer had not been demonstrated, and he himself was diffident about
them. But he received the order for sixteen illustrations, into which we
may well believe he threw his whole strength. The initial design
attracted marked attention and drew out unstinted praise. It was a
full-page picture of a peacock’s feather. It gave the article instant
success. The press was enthusiastic in commending it. The August number
of “Harper’s Magazine” for 1878 may be said to have marked a new epoch
in American illustration; and young Gibson’s work led all the rest. The
reserved and refrigerated criticism of the “Nation” was relaxed almost
to the point of enthusiasm: “The remarkable series of birds drawn on the
block by Mr. William H. Gibson is more obviously than the imitations
just mentioned the result of the engraver’s skill and unwearied
patience. The cut of the peacock feather, for instance, which introduces
the paper on ‘Birds and Plumage,’ must impress even the uninitiated with
its rare and costly character, whether regarded as a design or as an
engraving. Mr. Gibson has evidently studied his subjects with great care
and succeeded in portraying them, both in action and in repose, in a
graceful and life-like manner, with instructive accessories.” The
“Christian Union,” always careful and conservative, said: “Upon this
article, which has been a long time in preparation, the publishers have,
it is understood, laid out an unprecedentedly large sum of money.
Certainly Mr. Gibson’s graceful pencil has given them the worth of it.
No better work, it is safe to say, has ever appeared in the pages of the

But best and most conclusive of all the words of praise which this
drawing elicited, were those of Mr. Charles Eliot Norton, in a personal
letter to the young artist:

“CAMBRIDGE, _Nov. 8, 1878_.

“DEAR SIR: I am much obliged to you for your note, for it gives me
an opportunity which I have desired, to express to you my
admiration of the skill and beauty of the design of the peacock’s
feather, so excellently cut on wood by Mr. King. It is not merely
subtle and refined execution which is shown in the piece, but a
poetic feeling for the quality and charm of the feather itself and
for its value in composition. Your feather ought to be as well
known as Rembrandt’s shell or Hollar’s furs. For you and Mr. King
in your joint work have succeeded in suggesting the splendor, the
play, the concentration of color, the bewildering multiplicity of
interlacing curves, the elastic spring and vitality of every fiber,
and have given the immortality of art to one of the purely
decorative productions of nature. I shall look for your new work
with great interest.

“I am very desirous to see a proof of your feathers on soft India
paper. If I can find some proper paper here I shall be tempted to
send it to you. But paper suitable for such work is not easily

All this was said of the youth who six years before had been pronounced
without even the promise of ability! Surely he had a right to be proud
of his triumph. He had fairly won his spurs. Henceforth there was no
doubt of his standing as one of the first of American illustrators.

From this time forward, Gibson’s success as an artist was assured. And
not very long after, he was induced to try his hand at authorship, with
results quite as convincing. During the summer of 1878 he spent his
vacation, in company with his wife, in the old homes at Newtown and at
Washington, Connecticut. Returning to the city in the autumn, and
recounting his delightful experiences to Mr. Alden, the editor of
“Harper’s Magazine,” the latter insisted that Gibson should put them
into an article which he should also illustrate. But even with the
practice which he had given himself, in the brief articles he had
furnished with many of his drawings, he distrusted his own capacity for
literary work. He had no such innate sense of power to write as made him
so confident with his pencil. He demurred at the proposition; but Mr.
Alden was firm and persistent. “Write it just as you have told it to
me,” was his encouraging word. His suggestion was followed, and in the
August number of the monthly appeared an affectionate sketch of the old
boyhood homes, under the title, which was but a thin disguise,
“Hometown and Snug Hamlet.” It proved an instant success. The note
struck was genuine and pleasing. The illustrations won the public eye.
The canny editor suggested a similar article which should cover the
winter phases of country life in the same vein. It was prepared, and
appeared in the number for March, 1880; and had a reception as
enthusiastic as his former venture. The idea of completing the cycle of
the seasons was inevitable, and in June there followed the article on
“Spring-Time,” which was pronounced “the most attractive paper” of this
number of the magazine, whose “rhythmic prose” was not less highly
commended than its illustrations, which another critic called “almost as
good as spring itself.” In November the series was rounded out with “An
Autumn Pastoral,” which led a reviewer to say “Mr. Gibson is a great
artist, and has a great future before him.”

In 1879 he furnished illustrations for E. P. Roe’s “Success with Small
Fruits,” which appeared serially in “Scribner’s Magazine,” and which
opened the way to an intimate friendship with the author. He made the
designs for the poems of the Goodale sisters, “In Berkshire with the
Wild-flowers.” But these were mere incidents in the work he was turning
off, for half the firms in New York City, and on all sorts of subjects
having to do with nature, with animal life, with flowers, and with
fruits. In the spring he made a visit to “Roeland” to sketch, and he
divided his August vacation between Connecticut and the White
Mountains, where he gathered material for a year’s hard work. He busied
himself, too, with work in water color, steadily keeping his ideals in
mind, and his own art-training in hand.

In the fall of 1880, the four papers which had appeared in “Harper’s
Magazine” were collected and published in a sumptuous volume, entitled
“Pastoral Days.” It was a book which yesterday would have been called
“epoch-making”; to-day it would only be called “record-breaking.” The
simple truth about it is that it really touched the high-water mark in
the history of nature-illustration by means of wood-engraving. It was
everywhere hailed as exhibiting the very best work of its kind ever
achieved. The praise which fell to Gibson himself was twofold; for it
was an enthusiastic recognition of his talent both as author and as
artist. His engravers were applauded for the skill and spirit with which
they interpreted his designs. His publishers were commended for the
unstinted generosity which had balked at no pains or cost. Even the
printer received a curtain-call. For the “Evening Post” with great
discrimination insisted that much of the success of the work was due to
“another artist, whose name is nowhere given. That artist’s name is
David Lewis and he passes his days in the press-room of Harper Brothers,
amid the clatter of the printing-machines, engaged in the grimy work of
his office.” The “Evening Mail” expressed the unanimous verdict of art
circles when it declared: “Writers on art spoke of the days of Bewick
with a sort of despair, as though no one like him might ever be expected
again. It has been reserved for the United States to show that wood has,
for the purposes of engraving, capacities of which Bewick never dreamed,
and to produce a school of artists who in treating landscape, at least
upon wood, have surpassed everything on the other side of the ocean. In
the first rank of these artists stands Mr. William Hamilton Gibson.” The
London “Times” in a long notice spoke of his having “the rare gift of
feeling for the exquisitely graceful forms of plant life and the fine
touch of an expert draughtsman which enable him to select and to draw
with a refinement which few artists in this direction have ever shown.”
Even the “Saturday Review” in a notice a column and a half in length,
confessing its ignorance of Mr. Gibson and his work, declared that his
drawings were so full of delicate fancy and feeling, and his writing so
skilful and graceful, that it hoped “to hear more of him soon, in either
function or both.” In hardly more than two years from the time of his
first illustrations Gibson had made his way to the very front rank of
the world’s illustrators. His position was truly of his own achieving;
and he never fell back from the eminence he had so fairly won. His
friend Mr. Charles N. Hurd of the Boston “Transcript” does the
situation no more than simple justice in a letter written upon reading
the “Saturday Review” article:



“BOSTON, _May 18, 1881_.


“I congratulate you from the very bottom of my heart on the
magnificent article on ‘Pastoral Days’ in the Saturday Review,
which, you will see by the papers I send, I have copied into the
Transcript. Nothing could have been more gracefully done, and then,
in the Saturday Review, one of the very hardest to please of all
the British journals! Why, my dear fellow, they never said half so
much before of any literary American, living or dead. And there
isn’t an ‘if’ in the whole article! I feel as rejoiced about it as
if I had some personal share in the glory. If you haven’t a right
now to carry your chin high on Broadway then nobody in New York
has. I tell you, it’s a great thing to be appreciated; to get
praise where you feel that it rests wholly and altogether upon the
merits of your work, and has in it no spark of flattery. I can
imagine how long the way home seemed that night, and how happy you
two were in reading over what the two-thousand-mile-away critic had
written. It is worth a good many years’ hard pulling to have one
such day.”

One great and decisive reason why he moved on so steadily was his
constant ambition to improve upon what he had done. One might easily be
misled by the tone of his confidential letters to his mother and others
into thinking him overconfident in himself, and a little puffed up by
his quick and overwhelming success. But the thought would be absolutely
unfair. He was not vain; he was never self-satisfied; he never rested in
what he had achieved. After the rousing reception of “Pastoral Days,” he
could write to Colonel Gibson in quiet Fryeburg: “I have just finished
the last of my White Mountain illustrations–four months’ work–and am
beginning a new series of original articles which shall ‘knock spots’
out of all past work. You ask in a previous letter, ‘Can you beat
“Pastoral Days”’? Good gracious! The book is so full of shortcomings to
me that I wonder at the astonishing appreciation of it. There are a few
illustrations in it that I hardly expect to improve very much upon; but
as to the average excellence I can ‘see it’ and ‘go a hundred better.’
Perhaps the result will not be as popular. Can’t tell. But I can do
better work.” That was the key-note of his life. To do something better
next time was the rule of his endeavor. To do something different each
time, to turn some new page, follow some new trail, record some new
traits of his favorite world, was another characteristic of his
purposes. And it kept him from becoming repetitious and tiresome, as he
repeatedly piqued curiosity with his novel enterprises in nature-study.

In the late summer of 1880 he spent six weeks in sketching among the
White Mountains, whence he went to Williamstown, Massachusetts, for
another six weeks of rest. He came home laden with sketches and with
photographs, which were at once utilized in making the illustrations for
Drake’s “Heart of the White Mountains.” He worked at these with
diligence, as we have seen, never a day, apparently, passing without its
picture; but it was far into the following spring before the series was
finished. The volume was issued in 1881, but before its appearance he
was well along with the text and the illustrations for the new articles
in the magazine, in the same vein as “Pastoral Days.” In expanded form
they were published in the fall of 1882 under the title “Highways and
Byways.” It would have seemed improbable that the reception given to his
first volume could be repeated. Novelty does so much with Americans to
arouse enthusiasm, and they are so quick to compare the later with the
former effort, that it might have been predicted that a second volume
striking the same note as Gibson’s first success would not be so warmly
praised. But the public liked the note, and it pronounced the new book
better than the old. The press notices of ’82 and ’83 are in the same
strain of unaffected admiration and delight as those of two years
before. Perhaps he had most reason to be proud of the approval the new
book won from the staid London “Academy” and from Mr. Philip Gilbert
Hamerton’s “Portfolio.” The former, though a little late in discovering
him was ingenious in its sweeping approval. “Fancy to yourself” said the
“Academy,” “a Thoreau who has read both Darwin and Ruskin, and who has
learned to use the pencil of Birket Foster. To this add the finest
workmanship of the American school of wood-engraving, and all the luxury
of the richest paper and the clearest type, and you may form some idea
of the handsome book now before us. At first it attracted only by the
rare delicacy of its drawings, which reproduce with unrivaled truth the
exquisite tracery of vegetation, and the ‘ebon and ivory’ of Nature’s
shadows. But when we discovered that the artist is also the author, we
began to read; and we found ourselves unable to stop till we got to the
end.” “We feel that we have here far more than in most American books, a
genuine product of the soil.” Mr. Hamerton credits the new book with “a
love of nature that is Wordsworthian in its reverence, the close and
patient observation of an artist, the peculiar humor of a genial
American in the study of men and things.” To such expressions as these,
Mr. George William Curtis, voicing the sentiment of his own countrymen,
said of him: “Mr. William Hamilton Gibson’s reputation as one of the
first of modern artists for wood-engraving, is established and secure.”
“It is hard to believe that the blended softness, vigor, and
individuality of the art could go further than in the illustrations of
this choice volume.”

He had found time during the year for no little study and work in
water-color, and even began to essay painting in oils. Despite a long
illness of eight months he contributed to several exhibitions and
finished a number of new pictures. His goal was always to be a painter.
In all the heat of his endeavor and the intoxication of his success he
never forgot his ideals, never slackened his march toward the highest
art in the most approved forms and mediums.

In May, 1883, his first child was born, and he was soon writing to “Dear
Mother Gunn,” in answer to her importunate inquiries, all about the
new-comer. “Hamilton Gibson then is his name I understand, though not a
gift from me, but simply because I have not the heart to refuse anything
to my precious wife just now. So she has christened him as above in
spite of much foreboding on my part, as to the probable curtailment of
his cognomen among the contemporaneous specimens of his genus in the
days which will soon be upon us. I have waited so long for this little
angel to come, that I hardly dare realize to the full the happiness
which has befallen me lest I awake in bitterness to find it all a
tantalizing dream…. But ere long I suppose the reality will be brought
home to me more effectually,–a few hours’ perambulating in the ‘wee
sma’ hours’ every night for a week or two would dispel all doubts or
fears, and place the experience on the basis of solid prosaic reality.
At present writing, however, I can truthfully say, as every antecedent
pa has done, that he is the best baby alive, quiet, absorbent, and
somnolent to a degree of perfection which leaves nothing to be desired.
Only last night, after taking his meal, (at least that is what I
understand they feed him on) he was placed upon his pillow at ten
o’clock and slept like a chrysalis till half-past five this morning.
During the day to be sure he is not quiescent for quite so long a
period, as then nature seems to ‘abhor the vacuum’ more than ever.”

The year 1883 was devoted to the illustration of E. P. Roe’s “Nature’s
Serial Story,” a work into which he entered with heartiness and
sympathy. Much time, too, was given to the preparation of the “Memorial”
of Mr. Gunn, a volume issued under the direction of an association of
his old pupils, commemorative of his striking personality and of the old
days in the school at Washington. This book was finely illustrated by
the hand of his loving pupil, who also wrote the introduction which was
to have been written by Mr. Beecher, whose death occurred while the

[Illustration: _God’s Miracle_

_By permission of the Curtis Publishing Company_]

work was in progress. The summer vacation was spent, as usual, in hard
work, the scene of his labors being in the White Mountains, at Lake
George, ending with two weeks in Washington, where he took many
photographs and made many sketches for the “Memorial.” There was much
painting in water-color for exhibitions here and there, with many sales
at good prices. From time to time in 1885 and 1886 he furnished more of
the charming articles which the public had learned to look for and to
love. “Harper’s Magazine” for October, 1886, contained a surprise and a
new delight to his readers in the shape of the famous “Back-Yard
Studies,” in which he challenged the belief of the average man, and even
astonished himself with the story of the variety of wild-flowers which
he found growing in his city yard. A friend had expressed a longing to
study wild flowers, but felt that there was no hope of gratifying
herself as long as she lived in the city. Gibson advised her to utilize
her back-yard, and ventured the guess that he could gather twenty-five
different species of plants in his grass-patch, as the harvest of the
seed sown by the breezes, the insects, and occasional birds. The next
morning he made a count, and was himself surprised to see his “finds”
running up to a total of sixty-four different species. The description
of his wild garden in these sordid and unromantic surroundings made him
new friends and strengthened his old ones in the assurance that he
would never fail them in nature-wisdom or originality of vein. For he
showed, as he himself maintained, how the back-yard “may become a means
of grace, and with its welcome, peaceful symbols of the woodside and the
hay-field, the wood-path, pasture, and the farmyard, serve to reawaken
and console the latent yearnings of our unfortunate metropolitan exile.”
In the fall of 1886 the new volume appeared, to greet a larger public
than ever, enthusiastic in its praise and appreciation. One of his
reviewers linked his name most happily with some of the favorites of an
earlier day. “At the Christmas season of the last generation there was a
general anticipation of a new holiday book from Dickens and Thackeray,
and the expectation was rewarded year after year. We are coming to
cherish the same hope of a Christmas book from William Hamilton Gibson.”
With equal fitness this writer assigned him that place which the popular
consensus had now begun to allot him, saying, “Mr. Gibson must take his
place, as an acute and delightful observer of nature, with Gilbert
White, and Henry Thoreau, and John Burroughs.” His niche was secure, his
right to it now unquestioned; and all qualified judges saw that he had
in himself a quality quite his own, a temperament, a gift, a
qualification to sound his own note and deliver a fresh message.

The next months ensuing Gibson spent in working up material for the
illustration of a series of papers prepared by Mr. Charles Dudley
Warner and Mrs. Rebecca Harding Davis, descriptive of life and nature in
the South. In March, 1886, he had left New York to join Mr. Warner in
New Orleans. They made a tour, two months in length, covering Georgia,
Alabama, and Louisiana, in which he took over five hundred photographs
and accumulated much material in notes and sketches. A bright and
picturesque letter to his wife gives a fine reminiscence of this
delightful trip.


“_May 12/86_.


“I have just returned from a trip in the outlying country to find
your two letters awaiting me. Since leaving New Orleans I have been
gadding about the country north, east, south and west, and am not
yet done. The Téche country is mightily interesting if one can only
live through it. The days come and go and are filled with
enjoyment, but as to the night no man knoweth what may be in store
for him. My hotel experiences would interest you, but I cannot
write them. I left New Orleans with a Mr. William King as a
companion, a young man who knows the country thoroughly and whose
company Mr. Warner recommended I should request, as Warner was
obliged to leave for the north. By the time we reach New Orleans
again about five days hence, we shall have traveled together over
one thousand miles of the Téche and other Louisiana territory. The
weather has been charming, no hot weather which has not been
deliciously tempered by the never failing breeze from the gulf.
Cool breezy nights.

“We have driven for a whole day over a prairie peopled with all
sorts of wild things in the way of birds. Meadow larks, plover,
snipe, white and blue herons, buzzards, egrets, many birds so tame
that they could easily be killed by a cut of my whip. We drove
through acres and acres of blue flag in blossom, and for miles
pursued the shaded roads through dense woods draped in the
ever-present festoons of moss–in this country seen in its fullest
perfection, every tree being laden with it, hanging like heavy
trailing curtains, sometimes twenty feet in length. The effect in a
breeze is indescribably beautiful. The Téche Country is the
paradise of Louisiana, and comes as a welcome contrast to the filth
and squalor of the city of New Orleans with which I was so
nauseated. To-night we leave for the Averys’. We shall arrive there
to-night and I anticipate a fine time visiting Jefferson’s Island
and making trips up the various bayous. We shall try to get away
from there Friday evening in time to get the steamer ‘Iberia’ here
by which we shall return, through a sail of about 300 miles by
lake, bayou, and Mississippi River to New Orleans. Thereat I shall
spend about three days and then start for the homeward trip,
stopping over at Mobile for a day or so. I will be home about June
1 as I originally approximated.

“Of course you know that I am anxious to be at home again. The only
way that I can keep my spirits is to throw my mind into the work
and interest myself with my surroundings. In the main my health has
been good, in fact, excellent, in spite of starvation cookery and
God-forsaken hostelries which anywhere else under heaven would be
considered good material for bonfires and their proprietors hung.

“A beautiful country and full of interest, if, forsooth, one might
exist without a stomach. Everything is Creole–Creole cows, Creole
milk, Creole eggs–even the ‘niggers’ are Creoles, and all speak
French. My limited vocabulary of pure Parisian French has stood a
heavy drain and has occasionally precipitated upon my hearers
consequences which I feared would prove serious;–item–Night
before last we stopped in a hamlet of shanties and at last found
the ‘Hotel,’ kept by a talkative, voluble French idiot and his
wife. The only guest bed in the shebang I occupied, and Mr. King
slept on a mattress on the floor in another room. I was tired and
suffering from an attack of nervous dyspepsia, from the greasy grub
which I had been forced to eat in the face of starvation
(everything here even a boiled egg is taught to swim in hot fat,
and is only rescued therefrom by the famished boarder, who
sometimes is obliged to bolt it after scraping off the congealed
lard). It was with difficulty that I could get to sleep on the
night in question, owing to my indisposition, together with a
certain nervous apprehension as to the census of my immediate
surroundings. I had barely dropped off into a snooze when I was
startled by the movement of the window shutter near my bed, when
looking, I observed a mule who was making a meal of a table-cloth
near my bed. Once more after lying awake an hour I had begun to
congratulate myself on prospects of slumber, when a shrill piercing
note of a mocking-bird struck up its piccolo in the dead of night,
another and another joined in the chorus, and kept this up for an
hour before it dawned upon me that the birds were in cages on the
farther side of the very partition of my room. On which discovery
you may perhaps imagine how the limited French vocabulary at my
command was exhausted and reinforced, but to no purpose. I raved
and swore in Dutch, French, and Pidgeon English and was at length
compelled to yell my colored servant (driver, servant, and
interpreter) from his slumbers and make him translate a short
address to the French idiot (who snorted in blissful sleep in
concert with his spouse in another quarter of the shanty) to the
effect that the offending birds be immediately chucked out of
doors, beheaded, or strangled. The shrieking trio was finally
removed to the rear but my sleep was ruined for that night. Only
toward morning after dawn had just begun to lighten the east did I
begin to feel drowsy, but at this point the ‘moqueurs’ were again
restored to their original places and I was compelled to have them
again removed, and by this time Monsieur and Madame were up and
about preparing our morning ‘grease’ which they seemed to be doing
by sheer force of lungs and belaboring of pans and kettles.

“At breakfast I drank the proprietor’s health.

“‘Monsieur, votre santé! Votre hospitalité est magnifique! Votre
table est bien gré! Votre moqueur–! _Ah! Votre moqueur!_ (a pause
with dramatic enthusiasm, then continuing) vous procurez deux,
trois, quatre plus moqueurs! et votre hôtel est perfection!’

“This eloquent outburst greatly amused the Madame, but the old man
seemed ‘busting’ with suppressed emotion, which probably, had he
then been in pocket for his bill, would have shown some outward

“We left this place for the day and after settling the bill, we
told them that we would leave our satchels until we returned in the
evening, whereupon ‘la madame’ through my interpreter, asked me if
she should prepare a meal for us for evening. I asked her in reply
if she would cook anything I wished, to order. She replied ‘Oui!
anything I can get.’ Whereupon I ordered ‘_three moqueurs on
toast_!’ much to her discomfiture, and she grumbled to herself as
she left us, which grumble being translated would signify, ‘My God!
three mocking birds! that feast would cost you thirty dollars!’”

The rest of the year was spent in working up the material thus gathered,
and much of the following winter and spring. The summer of 1887 was
passed in Washington, Connecticut, where, as a note in his journal tells
us, he “spent a very busy season. Made many drawings for two prospective
articles on ‘Midnight Rambles’ and ‘Insect Botanists,’ besides many
flower-studies and a number of water-colors. Very busy on the ‘Memorial’
volume to Mr. Gunn. Made a large number of drawings for botany.” The
last remark refers to a large scheme which now possessed his teeming
brain, a plan to write an illustrated botany. He never dropped his
purpose,–indeed, abandoned plans were unknown in his life-history,–and
before his death he had accumulated over 1500 drawings toward such a
work. There have been many such undertakings put forth, successful and
valuable. But it is impossible to think without a pang of the wonderful
work he would have made out of his accurate knowledge and his matchless

The “Memorial” was published in 1887, and he went on with the articles
and the water-colors, busy all the time, and always laying out work in
advance of his swiftest execution. The spring of 1888 brought the
opportunity for a trip to Europe, which included a tour in Great
Britain, France, Holland, and Switzerland, with a fortnight in London
and another in Paris. His camera and his pencil were both busy, but the
new experiences made only an episode in his busy life. He was interested
in all the art he saw, and the life of the people appealed to him there,
as it did at home. A letter describing his impressions of Holland shows
the spirit in which he traveled and the things he elected to see.

“Since last writing you I have enjoyed a week (or more I fear) of rare
incident and experience, my days being so full and my evenings so tired
that I have failed again in my good intentions as to frequency of

“I hurried your last letter into the mail and am somewhat in doubt
whether it reached the Queenstown post in time. Since that writing we
(which means a party of Van Ingen, Willis, Roberts, McGrath, Dunthorne
and myself) have visited successively Flushing, Rotterdam, The Hague,
Dordrecht, Scheveningen, Amsterdam and Brussels. Of course our visit has
been brief as the period of time represented has been but four days. The
picture galleries have received most of our attention at these places,
but at Dordrecht and Scheveningen we found the living pictures
unmatched by any in the respective art exhibitions. Dort is a perfect
treasure of a place, pictorially considered, and I shall live in hopes
of revisiting it in the future more at my leisure and with an eye to
‘material.’ You would have been charmed with the quaintness of this old
Dutch village with its Venice-like canals, its queer inhabitants, its
hundreds of wind-mills and picturesque old boats. We hired a boat and
guide and rowed for hours upon one of these meandering waterways–under
arched bridges beneath which we had to stoop; beneath overhanging
balconies bright with flowering plants and with an occasional saucy or
coquettish face half disclosed between the Venetian blinds at the
windows, occasionally with a giggle accompaniment or a handkerchief
manœuvered in a manner which would have done credit to a French or
Spanish coquette. The little Dutch ‘yongen’ or Deutscher ‘pups’ saluted
us with questionable slang or with stones or what-not, at every private
quay or alley-way opening on the canal and altogether our turnout with
its noisy exclamatory cargo was a great center of attraction to
contiguous neighborhoods whose windows were usually filled with curious
spectators mostly on a broad grin of Dutch proportions and typical
comeliness, and ’tis true occasionally relieved by a disclosure which
our Scotch friend Roberts assured us was ‘bonny’ and which commentary I
was pleased to verify, and which moreover was the signal of a chorus of
‘ah’s’ from our bateau that would have done credit to a West Brighton
populace at the ‘busting’ of a rocket. Our trip was occasionally varied
by a landing at some quaint quay or alley, and a rummaging visit to some
musty old bric-a-brac den or junk shop. The streets were of the queerest
in architecture and life–queer old women with brass headgear and huge
sabots or wooden shoes, and voices like a fog-horn, peddling their green
goods, their eggs, milk or whatever, their treasures suspended from
yokes, and borne with apparent pleasure. I have bought one of their huge
brass milk cans and a few other of their distinguishing paraphernalia
for our front parlor over the mantel–(a part of the foregoing was
penned late last night but I was so utterly tired that I had to quit in
the midst of a sentence which I presume you can detect by examination).
I am in the same condition to-night (Friday, May 25th), having spent
seven mortal hours on my feet in the ‘Louvre’ to say nothing of the
exhaustion which the visit has brought to the other end of my person.
Yesterday I was seven hours at the Salon, viewing the miles of pictures
and occasionally imagining myself in a harem or in a feminine quarter of
a Turkish bath by mistake. I shall go again to-morrow, as I did not see
one half of the bathers yesterday and besides there are a few landscapes
that I want to get a peep at, if the fleshly charmers will only give a
fellow half a chance. 5000 pictures!!! to say nothing of about three
acres of statuary!

“I shall spend a week here at Paris and shall then leave for
Switzerland, including Chamounix, Interlaken, Rigi, Lucerne, &c.,
returning after about a week’s trip direct to London there to spend the
few days prior to my return. I shall sail with Van Ingen on the
‘Adriatic’ June 13th and shall be most happy to be with my loved ones
again. How truly do we measure time by voluminousness of incident. Our
Holland trip of 4 days seemed like a month and it seems a half year
since I left you in New York. In my hours–say rather moments–of repose
I am homesick and my tired feeling adds to the nostalgia. Mr. Van Ingen
and McGrath left me in my tracks to-day, and the way I am dispensing my
hybrid French to the natives hereabouts is a case of wilful persecution.
But I get along better than I would have supposed. I have raked up my
old vocabulary and with a reinforcement of grins, gesticulations and
shrugs, it is surprising how quickly my victim succumbs. Once in a while
it is true I chance upon an ass who don’t catch on, but as a rule I
manage to make my patient comprehend my intentions. Everything thus goes
well until _he_ starts in, and the average Frenchman can pronounce three
words at once with most facile ease and evident delight. I generally
wait until he has run through his dictionary from Alfred to Omaha and
then inform him that I haven’t understood a word that he has been
saying and beg of him to begin again and go slow. When he comprehends
that he is to be remunerated by _time_, and not by the _job_, and turns
out words instead of mush, his lingo is not half so overpowering or so
enigmatical. I had the honor to compliment a waiter to-day upon his
excellent French when indulged in moderation, bringing a touching
parable to my rescue, likening his ‘escargot’ speech to my dish of small
isolated boiled potatoes and his ‘chemin du fer’ French to my ‘haricot’
much to his delight and comprehension.”

In 1888 his second son was born, and the happy father writes of the new
baby to Colonel Gibson, excusing himself for not having made him a
visit: “I have found that we cannot always bend circumstances to our
wills, especially when those aforesaid circumstances are materialized in
the shape of bills payable, taxes, insurance, houses, wives (I beg
pardon, _wife_), and babies! Yes, babies! For Hamilton Jr. no longer
runs this establishment; I enclose the counterfeit presentment of a
successor of his who makes us all toe the mark, and bosses the entire
household. Is it possible that his fame has not reached your latitude?
He has his own way hereabouts, and we imagined that the limits of New
England had at least been brought within earshot of his lungs. But he is
a darling, if he does take after his daddy. His name is Dana Gibson;
(not Charles A.) but old Judge Dana, Richard Dana, his ancestor.”

The year 1889 found him busy with the erection of a new story to his
Brooklyn house and his instalment there in a studio which became a
favorite theme for newspaper gossip and description. In Washington, too,
he acquired another studio for his summer days, in the shape of a little
old schoolhouse which was familiar to him in his boyhood. In the autumn
of this year he recorded the idea of a “prospective work ‘Eyes to the
Blind’ to be prepared with a view to book publication. Made proposition
to Harpers who requested me to run the same through the year in ‘Young
People,’ one page each, with about 200 drawings.” This, is of course,
that favorite work which finally took the name of “Sharp Eyes” and
attained such wide popularity. Writing of this new scheme to his friend
Colonel Gibson, in Fryeburg, Maine, he opens his mind and heart in his
own direct and exuberant way. The letter was written in August, 1890.

“This series will run through the year, and you may like to know how it
all came about. Know then that my head gradually got so big with the
muchness of learning that I had to rig up a safety valve of some sort,
or _bust_! This would have been an unpleasant denouement for myself and
especially tough on the immediate surroundings, human or otherwise, and
so I hit upon a plan to put all my goods in the show window and get
credit for a big reinforcement behind the counter! Great scheme! eh!
(that is if they only won’t try to get a look inside!) My note-books,
visible and intangible, have been multiplying from year to year with no
available opportunities of keeping pace with them in my accustomed
magazine facilities. So I concluded to materialize my material in the
form of a dainty book, comprising the more interesting incidents of my
journal, arranging the incidents or episodes chronologically–a timely
item or two for each week in the year, so that the book might serve as a
sort of pictorial reference calendar for the saunterer, affording him at
least some few hints of the rich store of wonders which surround him
unheeded in every field and by every path. I believe there is real true
missionary possibility in such a book as that. My plan completed and a
little material duly prepared I broached the matter to the Harpers. They
jumped at it at once, and much to my astonishment made me the offer to
run it for the entire year of 52 weeks in the ‘Young People,’ an unheard
of thing! and something which I had never dreamed of. By this
arrangement I not only received much more liberal compensation for the
large number of designs than would have been financially possible on the
first basis, but in addition realized generously upon the letter press
which in the original plan would have been furnished gratis on the
customary plan of books paying royalty. In addition to this, inasmuch
as the cost of the entire series would of course be charged to the ‘Y.
P.’ it gave me a bigger margin both in number and scope of the designs,
so that the book as now shaped will be more generously illustrated than
as first planned. The series will end with the Xmas number and will then
begin to take its book form with numerous fresh additions of tail-pieces
and other morceaux, comprising some 300 illustrations. It will not be
issued however until the Christmas of 1891 as I have already on the
press a volume for the coming season.

“The title of this–my fifth book–is ‘Strolls by Starlight and
Sunshine.’ My two midnight articles taking the lead, and followed by my
other magazine papers published during the last two years. ‘Bird-Notes,’
(Harper’s), ‘Bird-Cradles,’ (Scribner’s), ‘Prehistoric Botanists,’
(Century), and ‘Wild Garden,’ (Harper’s), this September (now due).

“You shall see the volume as soon as you are likely to desire it, and
whether you take any stock in it or not you will, I hope, give me credit
of being a well meaning fellow anyhow.

“There! that’s about as big a dose as even your friendship can stand,
and so I’ll come around to my autograph and give you a rest–No–not yet
either! I wonder if you can’t do me a little favor, just for the sake of
old times and in spite of my sins. In addition to all my other work I
have been for years preparing a botany on a new plan, and nearly all the
bloomin’ things that grow in these parts have been victimized in my

“There is one plant, perhaps two, which I remember to have seen and
gathered on the sand at Lovell’s pond, but which I never identified,
which perhaps you could now help me to secure. A little low thing with a
few yellow (or pink) blossoms growing on its extremity, and which I saw
in profusion the last time I visited the spot with you. I am afraid that
the season is too late, or will be when I could receive them from you,
but if you can, after about twelve days, or rather about the date of the
third of September gather the plants for me, enclose them in a tin spice
box, no water, and mail them to me here at Washington, Conn., you will
earn my thanks anew. Plants enclosed in tin boxes, with air-tight
covers, will keep fresh for days–indeed for many days longer than the
same plant would keep in a vase of water.

“And now, my dear friend, au revoir! I sincerely wish that we might meet
again if only to clasp hands and exchange greeting, but until another
year at least it seems improbable. To-morrow I leave to visit friends in
the Adirondacks for two weeks returning here to keep my nose to the
grindstone until November when I return to Brooklyn,

“Good bye, regards to all. W. H. G.”

In season for the holidays in 1890 “Strolls by Starlight and Sunshine”
was ready; and Gibson had another surprise for the nature-lovers in the
chapters on “A Midnight Ramble,” and “Night Witchery.” All he had done
was to take his lantern and wander among the grasses and the
wild-flowers as they slept, and to tell the story of what he saw and
heard. But when he had done with them, his readers all felt, at
second-hand, indeed, but keenly enough, as he himself had done, “We have
explored a new world–a realm which we can look in the face on the
morrow, with an exchange of recognition impossible yesterday.” Edmund
Clarence Stedman, suggesting possible choice of material for the
“Library of American Literature,” said of this article,” I scarcely
believe that you or any one has of late written anything more novel or
more poetic than your espionage in the camp of the flowers at midnight.”

All the next year was devoted to work upon “Sharp Eyes,” which appeared
in the late autumn of 1891. The intent and scope of the book has been
told in the author’s letter to his friend. He puts his purpose
succinctly in a paragraph of the introduction, which he quaintly
entitled “Through My Spectacles”: “‘Sharp Eyes,’ then, is, in brief, a
cordial recommendation and invitation to walk the fields and woods with
me and reap the perpetual harvest of a quiet eye, which Nature
everywhere bestows; to witness with me the strange revelations of this
wild _bal masqué_, to laugh, to admire, to study, to ponder, to
philosophize,–between the lines,–to question, and always to rejoice
and give thanks.”

Meantime, he was hard at work pushing the studies for his botany. With
the sketches he was making for this purpose, he was also making more
water-colors, sending them to the various exhibitions, and arranging
sales of his own. He was at work on new articles for the “Young People”
continuing the unexhausted vein he had opened for these pages. For older
readers he was beginning the articles on the cross-fertilization of
flowers which foreshadowed the wonderful charts and lectures with which
he delighted and informed the whole country. He had begun to lecture
too, and he notes in his journal, July 23, 1891, “At Mrs. Van Ingen’s
suggestion, I have concluded to give a series of ten familiar talks on
Nature, covering botany, entomology, and ornithology, two each week.”
This was the beginning of successive series of lectures, covering four
years. From these home talks his work in this field grew and multiplied.
Soon he was lecturing with these amazing charts before the clubs in New
York, before colleges and schools, and finally before popular audiences.
In the winter of 1893-94, he made the venture of a series of six
lectures in Hardman Hall, New York City, which netted him the handsome
sum of eight hundred and fifty dollars, and drew from the veteran
manager, Major Pond, an expression of wonder: “The news of your success
in Hardman Hall is phenomenal. I can assure you that you are the only
man in the United States who could have done such a business.”

Then the calls began to come from all over the country. The same energy,
industry, and genius which he had put into his painting and his writing
he threw with increasing intensity into this new work. In 1894 he
lectured sixty-four times. His success in the new field was instant and
complete. It was as thoroughgoing with scientific folk as it was with
the children and the plain people. The press had nothing but wonder and
commendations. It was an epoch in the popular presentation of scientific
fact and research unequaled since the days of Agassiz.

But somehow, in the midst of this new interest and the engagements it
brought, he found the time to bring out still another book, as novel and
as fascinating as any of its predecessors; and though it dealt with what
at first sight seemed an unlovely theme, it was perhaps the most
beautiful of his volumes. Promptly on calendar time in 1895 came “Our
Edible Mushrooms and Toadstools,” destined to be the forerunner of a
fungus-literature growing with every year. Its accuracy satisfied the
scientific; its information gratified the popular mind; its
illustrations were a joy to the mushroom-hunters. And his originality
in treatment gave a hint to the publishers which they have been quick to
follow and which they will be sure to follow for many a year to come.

Two more books were to be added to the list of his collected writings,
“Eye Spy,” and “My Studio Neighbors,” both volumes in the same vein as
“Sharp Eyes,” and made up of his magazine articles. But before they were
gathered between covers, he had finished his brief career and had passed
on. The last entry in his journal was made on June 12, 1896, to record,
as did all his brief notes, nothing but a new item of work,–“Lecture,
Holiday House.” He was already in the grip of death. The fierce fires of
a relentless industry had burned his forces to a cinder. Through the
summer days he languished and drooped, yet would not wholly give over
work, nor cease his planning. On the 16th of July, among the hills of
Washington, he suddenly died from apoplexy. His overtaxed frame gave
way, and, at the early age of forty-six, he slept the long sleep of the
body, in the beautiful home he had reared for himself, among those
dearest scenes.

Perhaps there is no more fitting close to this hurried sketch of his
career than a reference to this beautiful home which he made for himself
out of the earnings of his toil, and which seems to have embodied the
desires and the noble purposes of his whole life. It was natural,
inevitable, than he should choose Washington as the site of this new
hearthstone. He located it upon a hillside sloping to the river-valley,
with a long and entrancing outlook to distant southern hills. He left
the wild-flowers to grow undisturbed upon his lawns, and the clumps of
low trees which bore their crimson cones in August gave him the right to
call the new estate “The Sumacs.” Here he planted his house, building
first of all a story of stones gathered from the fields and old walls
round-about. Then a “story-and-a-half,” to use New England phraseology,
a tasteful adaptation of old Yankee architecture, with hip roof and low
studding. Broad piazzas surrounded it, a great hall welcomed the guest,
and inviting rooms with enticing prospects through great windows gave a
sense of comfortable space within. To complete the ideal of a home, the
great fireplace stood ready for the winter backlog, or bore a screen of
boughs in summer and in autumn. How bitter the irony of life, in that as
soon as he had reared this shrine for his domestic affections, amid
scenes for which he had been yearning all his days, imprisoned in the
city, among friends of his boyhood, who loved him as few men are
loved–what a strange and baffling lot was his, to be summoned from it
all, and from the larger future which seemed opening before his eager