April 24, 2010

Death of James T. Fields

James T. Fields changed the business of American publishing. More than serving as a publisher or literary agent, however, Fields was a close friend of all of his writers, fostered their work, and often made helpful (or sometimes unhelpful) suggestions. When he died on April 24, 1881, he was only 63 years old; he was soon buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Condolences from around the country (and the world) poured in to his widow, Annie Adams Fields.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson called him "the best and most sympathetic literary counselor I ever had." Harriet Beecher Stowe noted that "he did habitually and quietly more good to everybody he had to do with than common." Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that, "Very rarely, if ever, has a publisher enjoyed the confidence and friendship of so wide and various a circle of authors." Critic Edwin Percy Whipple told of how Fields was fond of teasing his friends but never to the point of offending them. "His wildest freaks of satire never inflicted a wound," he wrote, and "when he laughed at the expense of one of his companions, the laugh was always heartily enjoyed and participated in by the object of his mirth."

In addition to letters, there were many poetic tributes, including "Auf Wiedersehen" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and "In Memory" by John Greenleaf Whittier. One of the most touching came from the minor writer Parke Godwin, mostly known as a journalist. He wrote to Mrs. Fields in particular:

I cannot wish thee comfort in this hour
  Of life's supremest sorrow; for I know,
By aching memories, how little power
  The best words have to mitigate a woe,
With which, in its own bitterness alone,
  The heart, amid the silences, must deal.
But here, where ocean makes eternal moan,
  Along its melancholy shores, I feel
How mightier than nature's loudest voice
  Is that soft word, which to the ruler said,
Amidst his desolated home, 'Rejoice!
  Thy dear one sleepeth: think not he is dead:'
All death is birth, from out a turbid night,
Into the glories of transcendent light.

The year before her husband's death, Mrs. Fields opened their home to Sarah Orne Jewett for part of the winter and their vacation home for part of the summer, establishing a life-long "friendship." About a year after Mr. Fields's death, Jewett and the widow Fields moved in together. Their "Boston marriage" seemed very public, and was not criticized; it is unclear how close their relationship was.

*The image of Fields, above, is taken from the web site of author Matthew Pearl, who's first novel - The Dante Club - included a fictionalized Fields as a main character. Fields has a more minor role in Pearl's most recent novel, The Last Dickens.


  1. Hello Rob,

    Quick question: Weren't the fathers of Fields and Nathaniel Hawthorne sea captains who died at a somewhat-early age re their sons' lives?

  2. Yes, you are right! I've been reading Fields's 1849 collection, Poems, and the majority of them are sea-related in some way. Hawthorne, on the other hand, seems to exclusively write about land-locked topics, with few exceptions. Surprising, considering he grew up in Salem as the son of a sea captain.

  3. Rob,

    Your response re Fields's and Hawthorne's respective subject matters (water/earth) is intriguing astrologically (albeit in a quite general way), as Fields was a sun-sign Capricorn (earth sign), writing about water; and Hawthorne a Cancer (water sign) writing about earth. I say this lightly, because a person's astrological chart is a complex piece of work, certainly NOT defined by sun-sign alone. But in short, "water nurtures earth."

    I hope this entry isn't too "wifty" for your wonderfully informative, scholarly blog, but if so, no problem; as the popular adage goes, "If in doubt, leave it out."