THOMAS NELSON PAGE first came into national prominence seventeen years ago through the publication by The Century Magazine of the short story called “Marse Chan.” He received eighty dollars for the story.
A few years ago, in conversation with Mr. Frank G. Carpenter, the author related the incidents which led to the writing of ” Marse Chan.” At the bottom was a letter which a friend had shown him. ” This letter,” said Mr. Page, ” was from an illiterate girl in Georgia to her soldier sweetheart. The letter was poorly written and poorly spelled, but full of pathos. The girl had, it seems, trifled with the man, but after he had left for the war she had realized her great love for him and written to him. She wrote : ‘ I know I have treated you mean. I ain’t never done right with you all the time. When you asked me to marry you, I laughed, and said I wouldn’t have you, and it makes me cry to think you are gone away to the war. Now, I want you to know that I love you, and I want you to git a furlow and come home and I’ll marry you.’ With a few words of affection the letter closed, but a postscript was added : ‘ Don’t come home without a fur-low, for unless you come home honorable I won’t marry you.’ This letter was received by the soldier only a few days before the battle of Seven Pines, and after he was shot it was found in his breast pocket, just over his heart. The pathos of it struck me so forcibly that out of it came the story of ‘ Marse Chan.’ ”
Thomas Nelson Page was thirty-one when ” Marse Chan” appeared, and at that time his shingle was new outside his office in Richmond. Mr. Page was born in Hanover County, Virginia, on April 23, 1853, and is consequently now in his forty-ninth year. A description of the house in which he was born Oakland, it was called may be found in Two Little Confederates. On both sides he is a lineal descendant of Gen. Thomas Nelson, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. It has been said that there is scarcely an old family in all Virginia to which the author is not related in some degree. One of his cousins is the Princess Troubetskoy, Amélie Rives before her marriage, whose first husband was John Armstrong Chauler. At the time of the birth of Thomas the Pages were comparatively wealthy, but later, during the war, they lost most of their wealth. Thomas’s first reading lessons, in the Waverley novels, were given him by an aunt, who also taught him to read the Episcopal prayer-book. His education was interrupted by the outbreakof the war, for his father accepted a commission in the Confederate army. Occasionally the boy visited his father in camp, when the troops were on the road from Oakland to Richmond. Once he witnessed a bombardment. Happily, he was old enough to appreciate the gossip of the war which passed around the negro cabins.
Like all the slaveholders, the Pages were much reduced in riches when the war ended, but, nevertheless, at the age of six-teen, Thomas was sent to Washington and Lee University. Of his college days he once said :
“My standing was not high. I don’t know that I had much ambition to be one of the first honor men. At any rate, I got no medals of any kind. I suppose I was a fair average student, but I hear that I devoted myself more to outside reading than to my studies. I was a member of the literary society, and for a time was the editor of the college paper. Contrary to the usual custom, I wrote short articles instead of long essays, and from this got the nick-name of
The Short-Article Editor.’ I wrote, I suppose, much for the pleasure of seeing myself in print. I was very bashful in those days, and I know that I trembled when I first got up to speak in the literary society. I had a chum at college who is now one of the most famous lawyers of the country. He excels as a debater. He was also bashful, and during our college days he joined with me in a method of improving our oratorical powers. We would get together in a room, and, having closed the doors, would debate with each other, upon some question. One would stand on one side of the table and one on the other and we would declaim away, each having a fifteen minutes’ speech and a like time for answers. This practice helped me materially in my work as a lawyer.”
After his graduation from Washington and Lee University, Mr. Page secured employment as a teacher in a private school in Kentucky, not far from Louisville. There he taught for a year, and he says that he enjoyed it very much. He kept his pen at work steadily. The influential paper in the part of the country where he was teaching, was, of course, The Louisville Courier-Journal. The young teacher was intensely interested in Ik Marvel’s books, and he wrote some essays in imitation of Marvel and sent them to the Courier-Journal. They were rejected. From what he has said since, their rejection was not a source of much discouragement to him.
At the end of a year the rebuffed essayist returned to his home in Virginia, and, soon after, deciding to study law, he entered the law school of the University of Virginia. Greatly to his credit, he got his degree in a year. Meantime, however, he kept up his interest in literature. While at the University of Virginia he contributed to the college paper. It was also his habit, while at home, to write stories on slates for the entertainment of his friends, and erase the stories after he had read them. At school, too, he began to write stories in the negro dialect, and he continued this practice in his law office in Richmond. At his office he wrote the first of his works accepted by the magazines, a poem called ” Une’ Gabe’s White Folks,” which was published in Scribner’s in 1876. He received fifteen dollars for it. He was very proud of that unpretentious check. Later he wrote a historical article relating to the centennial celebration in old Yorktown, and then he sent out his first story, Marse Chan.” It was paid for promptly, but, like many another story sent to the magazines, particularly stories from unknown authors, it remained unpublished for several years. Finally, overcome by impatience, the author wrote to ascertain what had be-come of it, and shortly afterward he received a proof of it. With its publication in 1884 came instant popularity.
But at no time previous to his moving to Washington was literature first in Page’s mind. In the beginning, at Richmond, he wrote only at night, when his day’s work was done ; and for a time he actually ceased writing fiction entirely lest it might interfere with the practice of his profession. For, as a matter of fact, he has been a very successful lawyer. Six months after he had settled down in Richmond he was able to support himself with his earnings at the bar, and during the eighteen years which followed, that is, up to the time of his settling down in Washington, his income was chiefly from law.
So, it was some time before ” Marse Chan ” was succeeded by ” Meh Lady,” “Une” Edinburg’s Drowndin’,” Polly ” and ” Ole’ Stracted.” It was said in those days that the stories were like variations on a single theme ; but we are inclined to agree with the critic who said : ” For this we feel no disposition to quarrel with Mr. Page, being eager to hear the tale as often as he may find ways to tell it, and grateful to him for such beautiful and faithful pictures of a society now become portion and parcel of the irrevocable past.” To Mr. Page and his equally delightful contemporary, Mr. Joel Chandler Harris, the reading public is indebted for no small number of the most charming features of American literature.
It may please those who enjoy particulars to know that the popular writer regards ” Uno’ Edinburg’s Drowndin’,” which was first to follow ” Marse Chan,” as his best picture of Virginia life. Mr. Page, in 1886, married Miss Anne Seddon Bruce, the daughter of Charles Bruce of Charlotte County, Virginia, largely for whose entertainment he had written his early stories ; and before the death of Mrs. Page in 1888 Mr. Page had written ” Meh Lady ” and had published ” In Ole Virginia,” a collection of his works, all in dialect.
In those days, by the way, his work was often compared by the critics with the work of Mr. Harris. Perhaps the fairest comparison was made by Mr. Coleman, who admired the two authors quite equally.
Mr. Page,” said the critic, ” enjoys the reputation of having written the most exquisite story of the war that has yet appeared (‘ Marse Chan “). In comparison with the works of Joel Chandler Harris, though both authors deal with the negro, the one in no wise interferes with the proper appreciation of the other. In Uncle Remus Mr. Harris has given us the truer insight into the character of the type to which he belongs, while the venerable family servant is somewhat idealized by Mr. Page, and, moreover, is made to tell a story possessing a value and interest of its own not entirely dependent upon the personality of the narrator and his race peculiarities. In the matter of dialect, Mr. Page has the advantage, though this may be due, in part, to the difference between the Virginia negro and his brother of Georgia.”
The Virginian has portrayed the sweeter side of the old slavery days, in direct contrast to Mrs. Stowe’s picture of the harsher side. In the master he has delineated forbearance, confidence, protection ; in the slave, respect, devotion and fidelity. With-out a scruple he has felt constrained to make one of his characters say of the days before the war : ” Dem wuz good oie times, mars-ter de bes’ Sam ever see ! De wuz, in fac’ ! Niggers did n’ hed nothin’ ‘t all to do jes’ hed to ‘ten’ to de feedin’ an’ cleanin’ de hosses, an’ doin’ what de marster tell ’em to do ; an’ when dey wuz sick, dey had things sent ’em out de house, an’ de same doctor came to see ’em whar ‘ten’ to de white folks when dey wuz poly. Dyah war n’ no trouble nor nuthin.”
A few years ago Mr. Page was asked if he wrote rapidly. ” Yes and no,” he replied. ” I write the first draft as rapidly as I can and then go over it very carefully in the revision. I try to simplify my writings as much as possible. The more simple it is, I think, the better it is. I find, however, that the revision often takes away the spirit from the first draft. I lay away the manuscript, and looking at it several weeks later, I can see that the first draft is truer to nature than the more stilted revision. I think I do more careful work now than I have done in the past. My ideal is far above anything I have ever done, and I sometimes despair of approaching it. There is one thing I do, however, which I think is a good plan for any writer. That is, I always give the best I have in me to the story which I am writing. I do not save anything which I think might perhaps be of use to me in the future. The cream, if you could use that expression, always goes to the present.”
In 1891 the author of ” Marse Chan ” left Richmond and went to New York to succeed Charles Dudley Warner in the conduct of The Drawer” in Harper’s Monthly, Mr. Warner succeeding Mr. How-ells, who at that time left Harper’s for the Cosmopolitan, in the conduct of The Study.” That same year Mr. Page appeared as a public reader. Two years later he married Mrs. Henry Field of Chicago, a granddaughter of Governor Barbour of Virginia, and since then, for the most part, he has lived and worked in Washington. By far his most ambitious work is Red Rock,” a novel which has done much to affect favorably the old attitude of the North toward the South.
Not many of our writers rest their fame on fewer works.