University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Rossiter Johnson

Volume XVI · Winter 1961 · Number 2
Rossiter Johnson

"I have almost accomplished many things toward which I cherished an ambition; but Fate -- what a convenient word! -- has usually halted me at the 'almost mark' and has impressed upon me the idea that I was born to be an almoster. Yet for this I can find two comforts-history tells me into what excellent and all but illustrious company I am thrown, and though I have accomplished few or none of my best designs, yet I find it worth something to have dreamed them."

So wrote Rossiter Johnson, editor, author, poet, lexicographer, lecturer, and historian, modestly summarizing his ninety-one years of achievement in an unpublished, uncompleted autobiography contained in two manuscript volumes entitled The Gossip of a Lifetime. These were recently placed on deposit in the Special Collections Department at Rush Rhees Library by the Rochester Historical Society.

On January 27, 1840, ten years before that legendary "coach-load of professors" from Hamilton arrived in Rochester with their "philosophical apparatus" and founded the University of Rochester by setting up shop in a Main Street hotel, Rossiter Johnson, a future alumnus of the Class of 1863, was born to schoolteacher Reuben Johnson and his wife, the former Almira Alexander, in a house on Frank Street. Early influences affecting his youth on Frank Street pervaded his long and satisfying life. His neighbors included two physicians, two master printers, a congressman, a musician, a botanist, a painter, and an astronomer, all notably successful in their fields. It was here that he learned the rudiments of the printer's trade, and in this general area of the city that he so keenly enjoyed the boyhood adventures which later became the substance of two of his best-known works: a novel, Phaeton Rogers, and an essay, The Grandest Playground in the World.

Prevented by family circumstances from studying law as he had planned, Johnson entered the University of Rochester and soon after graduating joined the reportorial ranks of the Rochester Democrat. He toiled diligently for four years in close association with chief editor Robert Carter, who had come to Rochester via New York City and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and whose skills and character he greatly admired. Carter had, in 1843, at the age of twenty-four, devised and edited with James Russell Lowell, the monthly Pioneer, a good but ill-fated publication which included among its contributors Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Elizabeth Barrett. However, as much as he enjoyed his work as immediate assistant to his friend and advisor, there was an interval during the four years when, feeling that in exchange for the long hours and lack of vacations, there was too "little yeast in my modest salary," he went to Cambridge to proofread for the University Press.

To the young Rochesterian who had, in addition to his newspaper chores, some published poetry to his credit and a genuine interest in all things literary, his firsthand contact with the work of members of the so-called "Boston group" lent a romantic aura to the otherwise prosaic proofreading. There was, for example, a fascination attached to the mere handling of a manuscript by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Nevertheless, within a few months, the old lure of the newspaper office brought him back to Rochester and the Democrat where he remained until an opportunity presented itself which would raise him one rung on the career ladder, provide sufficient economic security for marriage, and lead eventually to greener literary fields. Johnson saw no need for temporizing; on May 20, 1869, he married Helen Louise, daughter of Dr. Asahel C. Kendrick, Munro Professor of Greek at the University, and took her to Concord, New Hampshire, where he became editor of a Republican organ, The Statesman.

Until now, Johnson's literary life had divided itself into three orderly, four-year chapters, only one of which had taken him away from his beloved Rochester. Reflecting in later years on the past course of his career, he once commented that, had he stayed with the newspaper in his native city, he might have succeeded to its editorial helm but in so doing would have missed the myriad experiences and friendships of his life in metropolitan New York. From the day he decided to leave, his vocation assumed what he termed the "migrant worker complexion" of a literary calling in that era. Whenever an encyclopedia, a dictionary, or an anthology was to be compiled or revised, an office was set up, and a staff assembled for the particular project at hand. When the job was completed, writers and editors moved on to another task in another place. So it was that, in 1873, the Johnsons journeyed to Manhattan. Their arrival coincided with Dr. George Ripley's search for an associate editor for a revision of the American Cyclopaedia, published by Appleton and Company a decade before. Dr. Ripley, who had founded and led the Brook Farm experiment for the six years of its existence and later was, for many years, literary editor of the New York Tribune, was described by Johnson as a "profound scholar and topnotch editor, an impressive presence," and, at times, "a verbal Vesuvius." He and Charles A. Dana, who had originated the series, were co-editors. Of Mr. Dana, the impression given is that of a scholarly, even-tempered, "wide-minded" man, a rapid, yet accurate thinker, an unerring judge of literary values, knowledgeable in many fields, and passionately fond of poetry. To Johnson this man, who had been a disciple of Ripley and the transcendental philosophy at Brook Farm, was the "most brilliant journalist" of his time. Happily, too, Robert Carter who had left the Democrat to become editor of Appleton's Journal, was now to move from that post to third position on the staff of the new cyclopaedia. An integrated, smooth-running organization was assured. Its success was attested by the kind words of critics.

During long winters in the Granite State, Johnson had originated and minutely edited a series of famous stories which, because of the book-trade depression, was held for two years by James R. Osgood and Company, then released, one book a month, under a separate title but as a volume of the Little Classics. So well was each received that together they constituted a valuable property for permanent publishing. Yet, despite their outstanding success, three reputable New York publishers admitted that, had they been given the chance, they would not have risked producing such a series because never in their experience had a collection of short stories proved profitable. The author replied that such publishers could improve their profits by learning the difference "between shoveling and editing."

The Little Classics did much to enhance their originator's reputation and led indirectly to his editing a series of book-length classics which may well have been the forerunner of present-day pocket editions. Johnson was convinced of a genuine need on the part of many readers, interested primarily in plot, for condensed versions of the literary masterpieces. He believed that most novels (Scott's particularly) could be reduced nearly one-half, without omitting anything that was essential to the story.

His first effort, a condensation of several of Sir Walter Scott's novels, he planned to call a Skipper's Edition of Scott but the publisher insisted that to most people a "skipper" was a ship's navigator and that the title would suggest only a book to help a skipper pass the time whenever his ship was becalmed. To Johnson's dismay,Condensed Classics was the publisher's choice. About half the reviews were favorable, but those critics opposed were violent, indignant and horrified and "one might infer that I was about to garble the writing of the Apostle, Paul."

By July, 1879, the "migrant worker aspect" of their profession had forced the Johnsons to move from Montclair, New Jersey, to Staten Island. A short while later they returned to New York City.

In the ensuing twenty-five years, Dr. Johnson was a familiar figure on the Manhattan literary scene, accomplishing a prodigious amount of work and garnering three honorary degrees (A.M. in 1873, Ph.D. in 1888, and LL.D. in 1893) from his alma mater, the University of Rochester. During this period, he wrote a dozen original volumes of history, fiction, essays, and verse and edited a number of histories, cyclopedias, anthologies, and other reference books. He edited the Annual Cyclopaedia, 1883-1902; the Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 1886-1889; the Standard Dictionary, 1892-1894; an authorized History of the Columbian Exposition, 1898; and the Universal Cyclopaedia, 1900-1904. In 1882 he wrote A History of the French War, A History of the War Between the United States and Great Britain in 1812-1815; and was associated with Charles A. Dana in the compilation of Fifty Perfect Poems. His Short History of the War of Secession was published in 1888. Other titles among his works are Three Decades, 1895; The End of a Rainbow, an American Story, 1892; The World's Great Books (40 vol.), 1898-1901; Alphabet of Rhetoric, 1903; Author's Digest (20 vol.), 1908.

Perusing clippings found in the manuscript volumes, one gathers that when Dr. Johnson was not wielding his editorial pencil, he was enjoying a busman's holiday by penning letters to the editors of several Manhattan newspapers. In their columns he expressed his views on a variety of timely topics. These ranged from simplified spelling, which he said could, at best, save only a single line of type in an average length book, to the declaration by three eminent writers that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent. John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, and H. G. Wells, who had come from England expressly to observe the famous trial, stated the opinion to which Johnson took exception.

His remarks concerning our national defense could well have been written by one of today's political columnists. He spoke of the United States as "the choicest slice of the great melon" and warned ". . . it behooves us never to forget for a moment what a temptation it presents to predatory passion without. The poor near-sighted souls who are clamoring to have it stripped of all means of defense while the earth's co-tenants, far and near, have not buried their bloody hatchets nor spiked their monster guns, know not what they call for. A nation may possess all the implements and material advantages of the most advanced science and invention, and still be a nation of savages because it has no conscience and no conception of the value of truth, faith and morality."

When the Authors' Club, of which Johnson was an officer for fourteen years, needed money for new quarters, he devised and co-edited the Liber Scriptorum, a book of original and exclusive essays, stories, and poems, each autographed by the contributing member. An edition, strictly limited to 251 copies, was printed in 1893 on handmade, imperishable paper and sold for one hundred dollars a copy. A profit of $10,500 was realized by the club. Credit again accrued to the Rochesterian for originating the idea of a sale of autographed works of members of the Authors' Club for the benefit of Belgian war orphans. The resultant $4,000, enough to buy 40,000 bottles of milk, was sent to Dr. Henry Van Dyke, a member of the club and at that time United States Minister at Brussels, for dispersal.

Undoubtedly the largest and most significant social welfare project he ever undertook was his founding, with J. Eugene Whitney, of the People's University Extension Society of Greater New York, a nonprofit organization, incorporated in 1898. Its motto, "Help to Self-Help," refers to free classes given underprivileged boys and girls in manual training and domestic economy to prepare them to earn their own living. As early as 1925, fifty-five teachers went to sixty-eight charitable organizations and taught fifty-seven subjects to 100,462 pupils. Dr. Johnson presided over a meeting of the society the day before his ninety-first birthday.

Unceasingly interested in the history of the Genesee country, he was a founder, with Louis Wiley, and first president of the Society of the Genesee. In the year 1897-1898 he assumed the presidency of the New York Association of Phi Beta Kappa.

It is not surprising that so bookish a person as Rossiter Johnson also founded, in 1905, the library at Amagansett, Long Island, the village in which he lived during his retirement and where he died in 1931.

As might be expected, the Rochester author spent a good portion of his space and writing energy in comment on literature and men of letters. His visit to Westminster Abbey led to an expression of his opinion concerning the absence of a niche in the Poets' Corner assigned to Byron whose work he deemed vastly more significant than that of most poets so honored. Extending the idea to other writers, both American and English, Johnson gave vent to his abhorrence of the practice of memorializing authors in stone and brass.

"To my mind, Scott's monument in Edinburgh and Burns' on the Doon are impertinent pleonasms . . . . Mortal remains of Emerson, Hawthorne, Lowell, and Irving rest amid quietude under no mechanical structure that arrogates the privilege of introducing them to the ages. Their published works are their sufficient and appropriate monuments."

Although Robert Carter once praised his assistant's ability to write journalistically by saying he was "not poet enough to hurt him," Dr. Johnson retained and nourished his love of poetry through the many years of his life. On this subject, as on most, his ideas were definite and his remarks uninhibited. He lauded highly Longfellow's painstaking translation of Dante's Divina Commedia but referred to "Excelsior" and "The Village Blacksmith" as "those two ridiculosities." Of two of his favorites he said: "Tennyson affects me as a sweet singer in a gilded cage to hang in a lady's chamber; Browning as a woodman emerging from the forest with his hands full of wild birds, newly caught."

The New York Herald Tribune in 1926 published his answer to Rudyard Kipling's declaration that only twelve authors of the past 2500 years were likely to prove immortal. In it he deplored the fact that of seventeen writers and critics who had expressed their reactions to the statement, three mentioned Walt Whitman and only one, Browning! "And Whitman is to Browning as the cowbell in the pasture is to the carillon in the tower!" In the same article he said, "Milton certainly was a poet of very high rank, but not because of those ten thousand lines of blank verse which abound in absurdities and preposterous attempts at mechanical imagination. It need not be doubted that Paradise Lost is bound for immortality-not in the sense of being read but in the sense of being kept in print. Milton's noble poems were the product of his young and middle manhood; but that which passes conventionally for his masterpiece largely was the drivel of his old age."

Also caustic were his comments on the modern poet who "ignores rhyme and rhythm and cuts up ordinary prose into irregular length." He spoke of "Whitman's amorphous monodies" and the "tediousness" of Nobel prize winner, Tagore. Palgrave's Golden Treasury he compared with Charles A. Dana's Household Book of Poetry"about as a tallow candle would compare with a Drummond light."

Seldom, if ever, was he in agreement with the literary choices of the Nobel Prize committee. "Here again we find the judges running after the meretricious and the ephemeral." He felt that the works of American historians, particularly John B. McMaster, and novelist William Dean Howells, were more deserving of recognition than those of prize winners, Selma Lagerlöf and Björenstjerne Björnson.

From Dr. Johnson's references to his colleagues and friends in the writing world the reader gains a contemporaneous feeling toward a host of literary luminaries. Like most journalists of long experience, he also met or had some contact with a wide range of people outside his field among whom were inventors, military and political leaders, educators, businessmen and entertainers. A sizable section of the second volume of his autobiography is devoted to thumbnail sketches of illustrious and diverse personages.

Interwoven in the colorful tapestry of incidents and ideas, people and places comprising his life are threads of Johnson's philosophy concerning the satisfactions of the journalistic career. Although he wrote that "Compensation of the journalist may be measured in small coins," he found most gratifying the claims of old Rochesterians who told him they "remembered" having "seen" some imaginary event in Phaeton Rogers.

In the Invalid Link which follows we have chosen only Johnson's recollections of local figures.