April 12, 2014

Birth of Ik Marvel: that great land of the Future

Donald Grant Mitchell was born April 12, 1822, in Norwich, Connecticut, but it would be another couple decades before he became better known under the unusual pen name Ik Marvel. The son of a Congregationalist minister, he went on to study at Yale, and delivered his class's commencement oration in 1841. Shortly after graduating, he took a job in Europe but health brought him back to the United States. While overseas, he wrote a series of letters and dispatches about his experiences in Europe which were published in an Albany newspaper. Back in Connecticut, in 1847, he edited those letters and published a book, Fresh Gleanings. He later returned to Europe to serve briefly as Consul to Venice, a job acquired with the help of Nathaniel Hawthorne, then Consul to Liverpool.

Fresh Gleanings marked the beginning of Marvel's long career in writing and journalism that would last until his death in 1908. Much of his life was spent at a house he purchased and named Edgewood; that area in Connecticut is now named for his home. Two books were inspired by his agrarian lifestyle at Edgewood, My Farm of Edgewood (1863) and Wet Days at Edgewood (1865). He also started his own weekly journal, The Lorgnette, which was mostly satirical, also later published as a book. Perhaps better known was his series of "semi-humorous sketches" titled Reveries of a Bachelor, which went through several editions.

In that collection, which he described as "those floating Reveries which have, from time to time, drifted across my brain," he included a sketch titled "Evening." In it, he imagines the Future as a place presided over by Pride and Ambition where "Fame beckons, sitting high in the heavens." He goes on:

The Future is a great land ; a man cannot go round it in a day; he cannot measure it with a bound; he cannot bind its harvests into a single sheaf. It is wider than the vision, and has no end.

Yet always, day by day, hour by hour, second by second, the hard Present is elbowing us off into that great land of the Future. Our souls indeed, wander to it, as to a home-land; they run beyond time and space, beyond planets and suns, beyond far-off suns and comets, until like blind flies, they are lost in the blaze of immensity, and can only grope their way back to our earth, and our time, by the cunning of instinct.

Cut out the Future—even that little Future, which is the Evening of our life, and what a fall into vacuity! Forbid those earnest forays over the borders of Now, and on what spoils would the soul live?

Richard Watson Gilder later said that Ik Marvel was someone that younger authors looked up to. "His literature was not powerful, but serene and delightful," according to Gilder.

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