James Thomas Fields was the publisher of Our Young Folks , an American children’s magazine, which in 1870 first published three poems by Edward Lear, including “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” (see the previous post: Lear Illustrated in America).
Voyages and Travels abound in my friend’s library, and among them Edward Lear’s beautifully illustrated works are conspicuously represented. Everybody knows the “Nonsense Book” of this tricksy spirit, but his books of travel have been neglected in America. Perhaps, however, his fun has produced greater effects everywhere than his learning.
When a prominent English statesman, some years ago, completely disabled by the cares and fatigues of his great office, consulted Sir Henry Holland, the Court Physician, as to what course he should adopt to regain his health and vigor, Sir Henry, with profound wisdom, told the Chancellor to go down to Brighton for a month, and take only one book with him. “Shall it be Homer?” asked the scholar and statesman of the physician. “By no means,” said the doctor. “The volume I recommend is Edward Lear’s ‘Book of Nonsense,’ one of the healthiest works ever written in the kingdom.” “And who is Edward Lear?” inquired the man of state affairs. “Sir,” said the physician, “I am amazed at your question! Edward Lear, sir, is the biographer of ‘that globular person of Hurst,’ of ‘that uneasy old man of the West,’ of ‘that courageous young lady of Norway,’ or ‘that morbid old man of Vesuvius,’ and others of the like distinction.” The statesman retired with his one book to the seacoast, and came back to Downing Street at the end of his vacation a wiser and a healthier man, it is said.
I happen to know Edward Lear very well, and am glad to have the opportunity of commending this gentleman’s comic books everywhere. He is a great, broad-shouldered, healthy Englishman, who spends a large portion of his valuable time in making children, especially, happy. He is the classmate and much-loved friend of Alfred Tennyson (whose beautiful poem to E.L. means Edward Lear); and if you chanced, a few years back, to go to Farringford about Christmas-time, you would have been likely to find a tall, elderly man, in enormous goggles, down on all-fours on the carpet, and reciting, in the character of a lively and classical hippopotamus, new nonsense-verses to a dozen children, amid roars of laughter,–a very undignified position, certainly, for one of the best Greek scholars of Europe, for a landscape-painter unrivalled anywhere, and the author of half a dozen learned quartos of travels in Albania, Illyria, Calabria, and other interesting countries! But what a delight he is personally to the juniority of England wherever he is known! A few years ago he was obliged to build a cottage in Ravenna, in Italy, and live there a portion of the year, in order to get time for painting and study; for when he is in London the little people, whom he passionately loves and cannot live without, run after him, as they did after the Pied Piper of Hamelin, to that extent he has no leisure for his profession. When it is known that the delightful old fellow is on his way back to England for the holidays, many of the castles and other great residences are on the alert with invitations to secure him for as much time as he can give them. Generation of children have clustered about him in different Christmas seasons. He dedicates his first “Book of Nonsense” “To the great-grandchildren, gran-nephews, and grand-nieces of the thirteenth Earl of Derby, the greater part of the book having been originally composed for their parents.” Prime favourite as he is among the Argyles and the Devonshires, he has an immense clientèle among the poor and overworked peasantry of various countries. Having been a traveller so many years, and so conversant with the languages of the Continent, he is just as much at home with his fun and his wide goggles in the mountain-passes of Switzerland and Spain as he is in the great houses of England. Long life to Edward Lear, and continued success to his ministry of good-nature about the world! He promised, not long ago, he would come to America before he got too old to see our country; and I hope, some day not far distant, to see him, so full of genial wit and drollery, cutting up his harmless and healthful antics for the amusement of the boys and girls of America. One of his sayings, at least, deserves immortality: “This world will never grow old,” he said, “so long as it has little children and flowers in it.” (pp. 52-6.)
Fields had published another book of essays, Yesterdays with Authors (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1871 ) with chapters on Wordsworth, Dickens and Thackeray, but nothing on Lear.
In 1879-1880 Lear and Fields were still writing to each other quite regularly; a letter of 15 October 1879, in which Lear enclosed “Mr and Mrs Discobbolos”, also contained a semi-serious complaint about “a serious misfortune” (the building of a hotel in front of his house) that “has happened to the well known Artist & Author, Edward Lear,” which, having been published in some American newspapers, cost him John Addington Symonds‘s friendship (see Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear, 2004, pp. 243-4 ). Noakes does not say, but it seems obvious that Fields, clearly an enthusiastic admirer, was responsible for divulging it; a fact which did not put an end to their correspondence, as testified by a letter of 18 January 1880 in which Lear again discusses his plan to build a new villa (Noakes, p. 244 note 2).