Norwood, Preface

June 19, 2015

I’m working on a transcription of Henry Ward Beecher’s (pretty bad) 1867 novel, Norwood.  It’s long.  Really, really long.  So I’ll be posting chapters here—appropriate, because it originally appeared serialized in the New York Ledger, famous for employing Fanny Fern to write for $100 per column.

It’s a regional novel, set in New England.  We have colorful New England characters, young lovers, the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln.  And a lot of conversation, as characters make speeches to each other on spiritual and intellectual matters and greenhouses and whatever else comes to mind.  (And, it’s really, really long:  I’m on chapter 31, and we’re just coming up on the halfway mark.)


Before the Civil War, I had for several years been a regular contributor to the NEW YORK LEDGER. During that great conflict I had almost entirely ceased writing for it. But when the war was closed, I was not unwilling to seek rest or relaxation from the exhausting excitement of public affairs, by turning my mind into entirely new channels of thought and interest.

In this mood I received Mr. Bonner’s proposal to write a story for the LEDGER. Had it been a request to carve a statue or build a man-of-war, the task would hardly have seemed less likely of accomplishment. A very moderate reader, even, of fictions, I had never studied the mystery of their construction. Plot and counterplot, the due proportion of parts, the whole machinery of a novel, seemed hopelessly outside of my studies. But after-considerations came to my relief. I reflected that any real human experience was intrinsically interesting; that the life of a humble family for a single day, even if not told as skilfully as Wordsworth sung the humble aspects of the natural world, or as minutely faithful as Crabbe depicted English village-life, could hardly fail to win some interest. The habit of looking upon men as the children of God, and heirs of immortality, can hardly fail to clothe the simplest and most common elements of daily life with importance, and even with dignity. Nothing is trivial in the education of the King’s Son!

By interesting my readers, if I could, in the ordinary experiences of daily life among the common people, not so much by dramatic skill as by a subtle sympathy with Nature, and by a certain largeness of moral feeling, I hoped to inspire a pleasure which, if it did not rise very high, might, on that account, perhaps, continue the longer. I had rather know that one returned again and again to parts of this most leisurely narrative, than that he devoured it all in a single passionate hour, and then turned away from it sated and forgetful.

I can only wish that all who use the pen might fall into hands as kind, as considerate, and as forbearing, as I have. Norwood was mostly written in Peekskill. there is not a single unpleasant memory connected with it. It was a summer-child, brought up among flowers and trees.

When the last sheet of the manuscript of Norwood was ready for the press, I sent the following letter with it:

“MY DEAR MR. BONNER:—You have herewith the last line of Norwood. I began it reluctantly, as one who treads an unexplored path. But as I went on, I took more kindly to my work, and now that it is ended I shall quite miss my weekly task.

“My dear old father, after his day of labor had closed, used to fancy that in some way he was so connected with me that he was still at work; and on one occasion, after a Sabbath-morning service, some one in a congratulatory way said to the venerable and meek old patriarch:

“ ‘Well, Doctor, how did you like your son’s sermon?’

“ ‘It was good—good as I could do myself.’ And then, with an emphatic pointing of his forefinger, he added, ‘If it hadn’t been for me, you’d never have had him!’

“If any body likes Norwood, my dear and venerable Mr. Bonner, you can poke him with your finger and say, ‘If it hadn’t been for me, you would never have had it.’ ”

No one can imagine how true is the last paragraph of the letter above. To all the other pleasant associations or Norwood, Mr. Bonner has, by his more than fraternal kindness, added the highest and most enduring charm of a generous friendship.


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