1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sumner Lincoln Fairfield

John Neal, "Mr. S. L. Fairfield" The Yankee [Portland] 1 (30 January 1828) 33-34.



We have been debating with ourselves, at intervals, for two or three weeks (a much longer time than we ever debated about any thing before) whether we should give the following extracts from the "FREE PRESS AND REPOSITORY" of Virginia, a place in our paper. And at last, painful though it is on some accounts to our own feelings, and painful as we know it must be to the individual spoken of, we have concluded to do so. And these are our reasons — our duty to the public; our regard for the reputation of our country, as well as for that of our literary brotherhood; and the hope — that by giving a medicine which must either kill or cure, we may save a young man whom nothing else can save.

It would appear that Mr. Fairfield, who has certainly made some very tolerable poetry in his day, (though not much) has been depredating year after year upon the best and holiest feelings of the public, in the great commonwealth of literature; and that he still pursues the same path, notwithstanding all that has been said to him (by our self) and of him (by others), and notwithstanding all that he has suffered, and caused others to suffer, on his account.

If such misbehaviour had occurred merely in his youth, or been persevered in for a short period of his life, or only in our immediate neighbourhood (for Mr. F. has travelled in this part of the country too) it would be another affair. But when we know that he has followed the same course, for several years, and that he still persists in it, every where — and every where alike — at home and abroad — what are we to do? Is it not high time a stop were put to his career? Is it not worth our while to try what a little wholesome truth publicly administered may do for a man, whose moral constitution is so dreadfully out of repair, and who is so wholly destitute of shame as to be inaccessible to private admonition? He will not be much surprised, we dare say, at our undertaking the job after what we threatened to do in England, (before Mr. E—, a gentleman whose name we do not choose to write at full length, if it can be avoided); nor after what we knew of him in that country; nor will be expect us to do it by halves, now that we have undertaken it — knowing what we know of his behaviour to La Fayette and others, to say nothing of ourselves, during his brief stay on the other side of the Atlantic.

We never knew Mr. F. — or to throw off all disguise, I never knew Mr. Fairfield in this country, nor had I ever heard of him (though it appears I had met with a puppyish review of some of his bad poetry in the BOSTON LITERARY GAZETTE) before he called upon me in London; with a letter which he had begged, after his arrival, of Mr. John Miller, the publisher, along with one to Mr. Campbell, the poet. — Mr. Miller, one of the kindest hearted men alive, was not at all to blame in the affair, though he has regretted it, and had much reason to regret it since; for Mr. F. had come charged with letters to him from people in America, most of whom we have the charity to believe did not know the man they were furnishing with credentials, though it may be that they knew him well; that he had spunged them out of all their pocket-money before, and that they were glad to get rid of him — with a letter to their friend Mr. Miller.

I soon found from what Mr. F. said at this interview, that if he spoke the truth (and he probably did, for the truth appears to have been most to his advantage) he had acted like a fool in coming to England — and so I told him. He was pennyless, friendless, and would have been hopeless, if he had been acquainted with the literature of the day, or had a thimble full of common sense; or if he had not been accustomed to live anyhow and anywhere, by his depredations upon the charity and sympathy of people that were strangers to him. To add to the folly and madness of the undertaking, he had brought his mother with him, — a very good mother, we dare say, and a very good tutor for such a son, though about as unfit for travelling over Europe as any live creature could well be — to share what? Why — a prospect of bread and water for two; for though he had fifty times as much vanity as he could well stagger under, he was very soon brought to perceive., that even he had no right to hope for anything more; and that, after all, his home had better "continue to be" among strangers.

It was to that good mother of his however, that he was chiefly indebted for the sympathy he met with while he was abroad. It looked so divine — such filial and devoted affection; it would be such a pity for such a son to suffer even for such folly, when, if he suffered; his poor mother must suffer too — that every body was ready to give him a lift; and I among the rest; for the truth is, that I had the power of putting him in a way to support himself, provided he would follow my advice. But he would not; he knew so much more of the world than I did, and particularly of London; he thought so much better of himself than I possibly could; he was so sure that Mr. Campbell would be glad to publish anything he might furnish, though he could not write prose, and poetry had been a drug for nobody knows how long; he met with so many accidents, and so many escapes and was robbed, or runaway with so often; he had such a knack of "managing" people (Editors, &c. by bothering them in person with his papers and reading them aloud in company, and keeping up a continual fire at proprietors and publishers through the two-penny post) that after remonstrating with him, over and over again about the folly of his conduct, I gave up in despair.

Beside all this, I never knew where to find him; nor did anybody else that I had interested in his behalf; he seldom staid in the same lodgings above a week, and when he left them, he always took especial care not to leave his address, and to go into some part of the neighborhood of London (as Hammersmith) where nobody would think of looking for him; and where, if I found him out and paid him a visit, it was generally at the cost of half a day, to say nothing of coach hire, and other matters. If I ever heard from him at all, it was (by the help of his mother) to say that he had been robbed or murdered in the street, or was dreadfully sick, or in a state of starvation; and yet if I went in person to relieve their misery, or to hunt them up, I was sure to find them both in comfortable quarters, or "doing" before a slow fire.

At last a stop was put to my sympathy; for I found him deliberately preparing an article for publication in an English Magazine; the original of which very article had been published before in a Baltimore newspaper! I could not believe him serious at first, although he was reading it aloud in company, and before a gentleman who was too good a belles-lettres scholar not to perceive that the thing was worthless, besides being untrue; for he had been in America, and the paper purported to give a faithful account of the language of people on the Kennebec river, though half the words were pilfered from the lowest English farces, and none of the rest were American.

But perceiving at last that he was serious, and that he was too much of a fool — or knave — to see that he would cheat the publishers, and ruin himself at last, if he succeeded — I told him plainly in the presence of the gentleman alluded to above, that the paper itself was worthless, and untrue; that it most undoubtedly had grown out of some personal quarrel, and that if I knew of its being offered to any publisher for sale, I would expose him. And yet, after all, that very paper in substance (if I may judge by what I hear) was afterwards sold to Mr. F's friend, Mr. John Miller himself — who took it in pure charity, and published it in the EUROPEAN MAGAZINE; a journal which had given a sort of pledge respecting this country in the very outset of its career — having engaged me as a contributor — and was under the necessity of dealing with somebody in the shape of a North American correspondent; for I (owing to circumstances not worth telling here) had refused to write another page for it.

I never saw Mr. Fairfield after this, but I learnt enough to be heartily ashamed of him as my countryman; to say nothing of him as a literary brother and poet — for I found that notwithstanding all my caution, he (and his mother) had contrived to get more or less money from almost everybody I had made him acquainted with, and even from people whom he had met with at a dinner table, to which he had been invited by my desire. I had been very careful not to introduce him to anybody, in such a way as to lead to deception. I would tell his story — so far as I was acquainted with it, leaving others to judge for themselves; but saying, in every case, substantially this, "He is a countryman of mine. I think well of him. He has written some very good poetry, and by and by, may be able to write, some pretty good prose. Meanwhile I would have him learn to depend upon himself. He must be made to work; he must be cured of poetry; he must be taught to feel how desperate his condition would be here, but for the greatest good luck in the world. He shall not starve, nor shall his good mother, while they are within my reach; but I insist upon your neither lending nor giving him money, or at least, not without consulting me beforehand. On no other terms will I introduce him to you; for I do not choose to levy contributions for a countryman of whom I know so little, however worthy he may appear, upon every good natured stranger that may fall in his way; nor upon every friend of my country who may be curious to get a peep at a full grown man, who has had the folly to come three thousand miles, with not half so many farthings in the wide world, and with his mother on his arm, to seek his fortune as a writer among the literati of the metropolis of the British empire."

I pass over what followed (together with a multitude of particulars, which if he do not reform, I may hereafter put before the public) and come to the catastrophe. I had not seen Mr. F. for about a month I believe I thought he had gone back, in some way or other, to America — when I was told, by a most liberal-hearted, gentlemanly Englishman, to whom I had introduced him, with due care, that he (Mr. F.) was going to La Grange, mother and all, to pay a visit to general La Fayette! This was too much; and having ascertained that the young man was quite serious, I wrote the general (whom I had never seen) and told him what I knew of Mr. F's behavior, and authorised him to lay my letter before Mr. Fairfield himself. The result, if there had been any hope of Mr. F's reformation, I should have withhold from the public; but as the matter now stands, I have no choice left. — l have a duty to perform, and that duty shall be performed to the uttermost.

The fact then is, that Mr. Sumner L. Fairfield, accompanied by his mother, when they were both destitute, had the impudence to go over to Paris, apply to General La Fayette for relief, under pretence of their relationship to his old companion in arms General Lincoln; and that, their whole expenses while they were at Paris and elsewhere, travelling and seeing the sights, were either paid by General La Fayette (to whom our donation as it is called, has been about as heavy a tax as could well have been laid upon the heart of a generous man) or by other Americans, or, not paid at all. — At Havre, the landlady's bill was not paid; for though Mr. F. denied himself nothing that he had a fancy to, and lived in the best way, and drank the best wines, and called for whatever he wanted with an air, and presumed to be dissatisfied (as a friend of La Fayette,) with anything short of the best; yet when the bill came to be settled, instead of paying it, he sent his mother to the landlady, who was a New York woman, and therefore partial to Americans; and his mother pulling out two five frank pieces, (about one dollar and eighty cents) told her that was all they had on earth; but then, they been dreadfully disappointed to be sure in France; were well off in their own country; and would take care to send the amount of the bill by the first packet, after their return. — The landlady pitying their deplorable condition — and hearing them say so much about La Fayette, told them they were welcome to what they had.

Nay, the very passages home were not paid for; they were given to Mr. F. and his mother, in consequence of their supposed relationship, or acquaintanceship with La Fayette; and I have reason to believe that the passages out were never paid for — nay, I am satisfied they were not; for I was told so, by a person who appeared to know the fact, from authority. — The result of all which is, that Sumner L. Fairfield and his mother have been travelling for years, not only all over this country, but to England and France, (and they would have made the tour of Europe, if they had not been checked by me) at the cost of those who thought well of literature here, and well of America abroad.

And now, let us ask, if we have done more than we ought, in arraigning such a man before the rest of the American people? If so, we should be glad to know what our duty is, in every such affair. As for Mr. F. himself, he knows us well enough to know that we never should have taken him to task from any personal feeling — or he would have heard from us before; notwithstanding his "defence" of us, in some New York paper; which defence we have never met with, but have heard of as being a very barefaced and well managed puff. J. N.

The following is the paper alluded to above.

TO THE PUBLIC.

"A wandering poet (and, it is wished it were not necessary to add, a wandering vagabond,) named SUMNER LINCOLN FAIRFIELD, lately took a flight, (not of imagination,) from Harpers-Ferry, Va. after having abused the confidence of several of the citizens, and having contracted sundry debts. Among the debts left unpaid, is his boarding bill for nearly a month (his wife and himself) with a widow of that place. He had been teaching there for several weeks, and had collected, under the plea which a temporary sickness gave him, the tuition money due for that period, and in one case a whole quarter's pay in advance for two scholars. During his whole peregrination in this part of the century, he exhibited a recklessness of character, an unblushing extravagance, and an ingratitude of conduct towards his benefactors; which evince an entire dereliction of principle, and a heart unsusceptible of generous or honorable emotions. By means of the testimonials which he had obtained from o number of gentlemen who were actuated by liberal feelings towards him, he may take a further unpoetical license, and cause others to remember his talent for deception, which is not inferior to his talent for composition.

In short, he is lazy, ill tempered, conceited, ungrateful, and malignant; as the undersigned has good cause to know. The loss of more than 50 dollars by him will serve to show the folly of prematurely confiding in a man of plausible pretensions.

In order that those gentlemen who have misplaced their confidence, and others who may come within time theatre of his wanderings, way be aware of his real character, it is deemed a dimly thus publicly to announce him to the world, lest silence might be considered a participation in his impositions.

JOHN S. GALLAHER.

Oct. 17, 1827.

On the 21st of Nov. following, another communication appeared in the same paper, speaking of Mr. F. as "a wretch who, not satisfied with eating the bread of charity, and leaving his benefactors to pay his debts, impudently talks of resorting to the laws for the support of his reputation.

"What I have asserted in my first notice of Fairfield," continues the editor, "I can establish by incontrovertible testimony. His baseness towards others can also be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt. He is now venting his gall, through the columns of the Philadelphia Souvenir, upon a generous hearted benefactor, who furnished him with food and shelter in his wretchedness, and with money for his travelling expenses. Let those who now nourish him, remember that they are cherishing a reptile, who is a stranger to gratitude, and who will avail himself of the first opportunity to repay their kindness with baseness.

"Even at the very time I was exerting myself to get him situated with a respectable school at Harpers-Ferry, expending both time and money upon him, furnishing even raiment for his body, be was endeavoring to stab my reputation."

All of which we, (the Editor of the YANKEE) believe, not from what we know of Mr. Gallaher, for he is a stranger to us; but from what we know of Mr. Fairfield who is not.