September 2, 2010

Field: the West shall know me best

Eugene Field himself is mostly to blame for the confusion over his birth date. He is generally presumed to have been born on September 2, 1850, though he occasionally claimed it was September 3 (both his brother and his father disagreed).

Whatever the date, the future poet started his life in St. Louis, Missouri (the site of his birth is now a historic house and toy museum), though his parents were both from Vermont; his father was the lawyer who defended Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom. At age 6, his mother died and he joined family in Amherst, Massachusetts. He later went to college in Illinois but completed his schooling back in Missouri, the state of his birth on September 2 (or 3), 1850.

Primarily a journalist, Field also wrote a substantial number of poems; many are either humorous or aimed at children. He often wrote of the West and he often tried to express the distinct dialect of Westerners.

His popularity as a writer put him in the circle of people like Julian Hawthorne (son of Nathaniel), Edmund Clarence Stedman and Mark Twain. After Field's death, Twain was present for the unveiling of a historical marker on Field's birthplace in Missouri. Twain later was told that they may have accidentally marked the wrong house. "Never mind," he said. "It is of no real consequence whether it is his birthplace or not. A rose in any other garden will bloom as sweet."

In his poem "The Poet's Metamorphosis," Field writes about a person "of lowly birth," who hopes to fly "to realms beyond these human portals" by writing "songs all the world shall keep repeating." The poem ends:

Methinks the West shall know me best,
  And therefore hold my memory dearer;
For by that lake a bard shall make
  My subtle, hidden meanings clearer.

So cherished, I shall never die;
  Pray, therefore, spare your dolesome praises,
Your elegies, and plaintive cries,
  For I shall fertilize no daisies!

*The pencil drawing above is a self-portrait in profile by Field himself.
*Recommended reading: Eugene Field and His Age (2000) by Lewis O. Saum


  1. Today we celebrated his 160th birthday at The Eugene Field House & St. Louis Toy Museum.

    Thanks so much for remembering him:)

  2. I'm very glad to hear of the birthday celebration out there - I hope to make a visit out there some day!