James Gates Percival

Samuel Griswold Goodrich, in Recollections of a Lifetime (1857) 2:129-41.

MY DEAR C******

I am glad to find, by your recent letter, that you approve of my hasty sketches of the men I have seen and known — even though they are not all of that general celebrity which creates, in advance, an interest in their behalf. No doubt the portrait of a man, whose renown has filled our ears, is more gratifying than one which merely presents the lineaments of an unknown, unheard-of individual. Yet every picture which is life-like — which possesses an obvious verisimilitude — is pleasing, especially if it seems to represent a type of some class of men, which we have seen in life. It is mainly upon this principle that the fictitious heroes and heroines of romance, interest us as deeply as even the celebrities of history. As I describe things I have seen, I hope my delineations may have s much seeming truth as to amuse you, even though they possess only that interest which attaches to all true pictures of humanity. I say this, not as an introduction, especially suited to this chapter, for I am now going to speak of names that are familiar to you: I make these reflections upon your letter, only as a precaution against any criticisms you may offer upon the less pretentious miniatures scattered through these pages.

The news comes, even while I write, that Percival, the poet, is dead! Yes — one by one, those I have known and cherished, are falling around me. Few of my early acquaintances are left, and I am but a lingerer among the graves of early friendship and love!

James Gates Percival was a native of Berlin, the residence of my family, and I knew him well. His father was a physician — a man of ability, and of resolute and energetic character. His mother was by nature of a susceptible and delicate organization, and she seems to have imparted to her son these qualities, with a tendency to excessive mental development. He early manifested a morbid shyness and shrinking sensitiveness, which his father sought to cure by harsh measures. On one occasion he put the child behind him on horseback, and rode into the thickest of a sham fight, during a regimental muster. The result was, that the boy was almost thrown into convulsions.

Dr. Percival died when James was still young, and after a time his mother married a respectable farmer of the village by the name of Porter. The young Percival made extraordinary progress in his studies, but was little understood by those around him. He entered college at the age of sixteen, and speedily attracted attention by his acquisitions and his compositions. At this period he was often at my father's house, in Berlin, and being subject to paroxysms of great depression of spirits, he deeply excited the interest of my mother. Although, on the whole, he pursued his education with avidity and ambition, yet he often wandered forth in lonesome places, nursing a moody melancholy and at one period, he actually contemplated suicide. From this he was diverted — mainly, I believe, by my mother's timely counsel and other kindly offices.

About this time he was frequently in the society of a beautiful and accomplished young lady of the neighborhood; he botanized with her in the fields, and poetized with her in the library, and at last he thought himself in love. Months thus ran pleasantly on, when one day he made up his mind to give her a delicate hint of his condition. He did so, I believe, in verse. The young lady replied in plain prose, that she was engaged, and was speedily to be married! The poet came to the conclusion that this was a deceitful world, and wrote Byronic verses. In 1820 he published a volume of poems, including the first part of his Prometheus.

Having studied medicine, he went to South Carolina the same year, and established himself at Charleston, as a physician. He told me afterward, that, at the end of some months, he had one patient, afflicted with sore lips. He prescribed a dose of salts, gratis, and this was a pretty fair example of his practice.

"I had got my name up for writing verses," said he, "and found myself ruined."

"How so?" said I.

"When a person is really ill, he will not send for a poet to cure him," was his answer.

Having little else before him, he directed his attention to literature, and published the first number of his Clio, 1822. Soon after, he returned to the North, and produced some miscellanies in prose and verse. At this period, he had excited a deep interest in the public mind, as well by his writings as his somewhat eccentric life and manners. The melancholy which pervaded his poetry, with fugitive pieces of great feeling and tenderness, together with a certain wildness in his air and manner, rendered him an object of general curiosity, and in many cases of deep sympathy. Of all this he seemed unconscious, and walked the world like one who neither accepted nor desired its friendship.

In the spring of 1823, I was walking up Broadway in New York, and met him. I had been intimate with him for several previous years, having often seen him at my fathers house; but I now observed, that on seeing me, he turned aside, and evidently sought to avoid me. This was what I expected, for such was his habit of shrinking shyness, that it embarrassed him to meet even an old friend. I put myself in his way, and, after a few words of recognition, perceiving something more than usually downcast in his appearance, I asked him what was the occasion of it. At first he denied that any thing had happened, but at length, with some reluctance, he told me he had been making a tour to the North, and was out of money. His trunk was consequently detained on board the packet in which he had come down from Albany!

Percival had some patrimony, and though his means were narrow, they might have been sufficient for his comfort, with good management. But common sense — in the economy of life — was, unhappily, not one of his endowments. When he was about fifteen years old, his friends gave him fifty dollars, mounted him on a horse, and told him to ride till he had spent half his money, and then turn about and come home — thinking him competent to fulfill this simple programme. He rode on for two or three days, when he found that the horse's back was sadly galled. Shocked at what seemed an inhumanity — for his feelings were exquisitely tender — he resolved immediately to return. He would not mount the animal, for this would but aggravate its misery; so he set out on foot, and led the creature behind him. The saddle, however, still irritated the wound, and Percival, taking it from the animal's back, threw it over his own shoulder, and thus trudged home. I was familiar with this and other similar anecdotes. Thus knowing his imbecility in the common affairs of life, it did not surprise me to find him now without money, and in a state of complete bewilderment as to what should be done.

I gave him ten dollars, which he received and put into his pocket, making no reply — for such was his undemonstrative habit and manner. I asked him to dine with me the next day at the City Hotel, to which he agreed. I invited Mr. Cooper — the novelist — to meet him, and he came. It is not easy to conceive of two persons more strongly contrasting with each other. As they sat side by side at the table, I noted the difference. Mr. Cooper was in person solid, robust, athletic: in voice, manly; in manner, earnest, emphatic, almost dictatorial — with something of self-assertion, bordering on egotism. The first effect was unpleasant, indeed repulsive, but there shone through all this a heartiness, a frankness, which excited confidence, respect, and at last affection.

Percival, on the contrary, was tall and thin, his chest sunken, his limbs long and feeble, his hair silken and sandy, his complexion light and feminine, his eye large and spectral, his whole air startled, his attitudes shy and shrinking, his voice abashed and whispering. Mr. Cooper ate like a man of excellent appetite and vigorous digestion: Percival scarce seemed to know that he was at the table. Cooper took his wine as if his lip appreciated it: Percival swallowed his, evidently without knowing or caring whether it was wine or water. Yet these two men conversed pleasantly together. After a time Percival was drawn out, and the stores of his mind were poured forth as from a cornucopia. I could see Cooper's gray eye dilate with delight and surprise.

I had a design in bringing these two men together, and this was to have a handsome edition of Percival's poems published for his benefit, and under such influences as to make it profitable to him. The matter was talked over between us and before we parted, it was all arranged. I at once drew up a prospectus, and had it printed. I wrote a contract between Percival and the publisher, Charles Wiley, and had it duly signed. Mr. Cooper took the prospectus in hand, and aided by the powerful assistance of Mr. Bronson, Percival's college classmate, the subscription was actively pushed. The fairest ladies of New York gave a helping hand, and before I left the city, three hundred subscribers were secured. Provision had also been made for Percival's immediate comfort; lodgings were furnished, and he was forthwith to prepare the copy for the promised volume. I returned to Hartford, but in a fortnight, got a letter asking me if I knew what had become of our poet? Some weeks passed, during which time he was among the missing. At last it was discovered that he had been annoyed by a fiddling Frenchman, near his room, and had fled to New Haven. There he had entered into another contract for the publication of his poems!

It required some weeks to disentangle the affair from all these difficulties. At last, however, after many delays and annoyances, the copy was furnished, and the book printed. At that time I was on the point of going to Europe. I delayed a fortnight to get a perfect copy, so that I might take it with me — in order to secure its publication in England, for Percival's benefit. At last I departed, having obtained the unbound sheets of a single copy. I sailed from New York in the packet ship Canada — Percival accompanying me in the steamboat Nautilus, from Whitehall, to the vessel, which lay out in the stream. I believe he regarded me as one of his best friends, but as we shook hands, and I bade him farewell, he said coldly, "Good-by" — his pale and spectral countenance showing not a ray of emotion.

Soon after reaching London, however, I received a copy of the New York Commercial Advertiser, dated Nov. 17, 1823, in which I read the following — there being a small P." in ink, at the bottom. I copy it from the file of the New York Spectator of Nov. 17, 1823 — then edited by W. L. Stone.

"The Canada. — We never saw a ship spread her broad wings to the breeze and go out to sea in finer style than did the ship Canada yesterday. We received this morning the following effusion from a gentleman who accompanied a friend on board, and had watched the vessel from the steamboat till she was lost in the blue distance, and have no doubt that our friends will recognize the author.

The gallant ship is out at sea,
Proudly o'er the water going;
Along her sides the billows flee,
Back in her wake a river flowing.
She dips her stem to meet the wave,
And high the toss'd foam curls before it
As if she felt the cheer we gave,
She takes her flight,
Where the sea looks bright,
And the sun in sparkles flashes o'er it.

Gallantly as she cuts her way—
And now in distance far is fleeting,
There are some on hoard whose hearts are gay,
And some whose hearts are wildly beating.
Loud was the cheer her seamen gave,
As back they sent our welcome cheering—
Many a hand was seen to wave,
And some did weep
And fondly keep
Their gaze intent, when out of hearing.

They have parted, and now are far at sea—
Heaven send them fine and gentle weather!
They parted not for eternity—
Our hands shall soon be link'd together!
The sea was smooth and the sky was blue,
And the tops of the ruffled waves were glowing—
As proudly on the vessel flew
Like the feather'd king
On his balanced wing,
To a distant land o'er the ocean going.

I knew Percival too well to feel hurt at his cool good-by — nevertheless, it was a pleasure to have this evidence of his feeling and his friendship. On reaching London, I made a contract with John Miller for the publication of the poems in two volumes 12mo — half the profits to go to the author. I also wrote for it a brief biographical notice. A very handsome edition soon appeared, and attracted some attention, but excited no enthusiasm in London. On the whole, the publication was a failure. The edition of one thousand copies was not sold, but I subsequently induced Miller to send to Percival one hundred copies, as his share of the proceeds. This was all he ever received from the English edition.

After my return to America, I frequently met Percival, but never under circumstances which renewed our intimacy. Indeed, by this time he had become confirmed in his habits of abstraction in life and manner, which rendered it difficult to enter into his thoughts or feelings. He even seemed misanthropical, and repelled, as an offense, every thing that jealousy could suspect to be either interested or intended as a gratuity or a favor. There were many persons ready — nay desirous — to render him efficient service, but they did not know how to approach him.

In 1824 he was appointed assistant surgeon in the United States army, and professor of chemistry in the Military Academy at West Point. This station he soon abandoned, being disgusted, as he told me, with one part of his duty — which was to examine recruits, by inspection of their persons, and ascertaining their weight, height, &c. About this time he was employed and liberally paid by Mr. Samuel Walker, of Boston, in editing an extensive edition of "Elegant Extracts," both in verse and in prose; and afterward in editing Malte Brun's large Geography, adding thereto numerous useful notes. About this period he was also engaged in assisting Dr. Webster, in preparing his quarto dictionary. In 1836, he received from Connecticut a government appointment to assist in a geological survey of the State. He entered upon this duty, and his report was published in 1842. In 1852, he received a similar appointment for the State of Wisconsin, and made his first report in 1855. He was still engaged in this duty, when his career was suddenly terminated by death, which took place at Hazelgreen, in the State of Wisconsin, May, 1856.

With all the knowledge I possess of Dr. Percival's life and character, he is still, to me, somewhat of an enigma. That he was a man of powerful imagination and an intellect of great capacity, is manifest: his poems prove the one — his amazing acquisitions, the other. That his understanding was even of larger scope and measure than his fancy, is, I think, apparent, for he not only had a vast range of knowledge — precise and reliable obedient to recollection as the stores of a cyclopedia — yet his powers of combination, his judgment, were of the very first order. This was evinced, not only in his connection with Dr. Webster's Dictionary, already alluded to, by the nice discrimination he displayed in philological inquiries, and the exactitude with which he rendered the shadings of sense and meaning, in giving the definitions of words, but in the larger and grander surveys of geology — the largest and grandest of practical sciences. Such compass and such precision of knowledge — such power of exact as well as vast combination — are indeed marvelous. When we consider him in this aspect, and at the same time remember that thirty years ago he was captivating the world with his imaginative effusions, we have indeed a character of remarkable and almost contradictory elements.

Yet it must be added that, on the whole, his life was a complete shipwreck. He lived to excite admiration and wonder; yet in poverty, in isolation, in a complete solitude of the heart. He had not, I think, a single vice; his life was pure, just, upright. How then did he fail? The truth seems to be, that he was deficient in that sympathy which binds man to man, and hence he was an anomaly in the society among which he dwelt — a note out of tune with the great harmony of life around him. He was a grand intellect, a grand imagination, but without a heart. That he was born with a bosom full of all love and all kindness, we can not doubt; but the golden bowl seems to have been broken, almost at the fountain. By the time he was twenty, he began to stand aloof from his fellow-man. I think he had been deeply injured — nay ruined — by the reading of Byron's works, at that precise age when his soul was in all the sensitive bloom of spring, and its killing frost of atheism, of misanthropy, of pride, and scorn, fell upon it, and converted it into a scene of desolation. The want of a genial circle of appreciation, of love and friendship, around his early life, left this malign influence to deepen his natural shyness into a positive and habitual self-banishment from his fellow-man. Such is the sad interpretation I put upon his career.