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My Boyhood Dreams


The dreams of my boyhood? No, they have not been realised. For all who
are old, there is something infinitely pathetic about the subject which
you have chosen, for in no greyhead's case can it suggest any but one
thing--disappointment. Disappointment is its own reason for its pain:
the quality or dignity of the hope that failed is a matter aside. The
dreamer's valuation of the thing lost--not another man's--is the only
standard to measure it by, and his grief for it makes it large and great
and fine, and is worthy of our reverence in all cases. We should
carefully remember that. There are sixteen hundred million people in the
world. Of these there is but a trifling number--in fact, only thirty-
eight millions--who can understand why a person should have an ambition
to belong to the French army; and why, belonging to it, he should be
proud of that; and why, having got down that far, he should want to go on
down, down, down till he struck the bottom and got on the General Staff;
and why, being stripped of this livery, or set free and reinvested with
his self-respect by any other quick and thorough process, let it be what
it might, he should wish to return to his strange serfage. But no
matter: the estimate put upon these things by the fifteen hundred and
sixty millions is no proper measure of their value: the proper measure,
the just measure, is that which is put upon them by Dreyfus, and is
cipherable merely upon the littleness or the vastness of the
disappointment which their loss cost him. There you have it: the measure
of the magnitude of a dream-failure is the measure of the disappointment
the failure cost the dreamer; the value, in others' eyes, of the thing
lost, has nothing to do with the matter. With this straightening out and
classification of the dreamer's position to help us, perhaps we can put
ourselves in his place and respect his dream--Dreyfus's, and the dreams
our friends have cherished and reveal to us. Some that I call to mind,
some that have been revealed to me, are curious enough; but we may not
smile at them, for they were precious to the dreamers, and their failure
has left scars which give them dignity and pathos. With this theme in my
mind, dear heads that were brown when they and mine were young together
rise old and white before me now, beseeching me to speak for them, and
most lovingly will I do it. Howells, Hay, Aldrich, Matthews, Stockton,
Cable, Remus--how their young hopes and ambitions come flooding back to
my memory now, out of the vague far past, the beautiful past, the
lamented past! I remember it so well--that night we met together--it was
in Boston, and Mr. Fiends was there, and Mr. Osgood, Ralph Keeler, and
Boyle O'Reilly, lost to us now these many years--and under the seal of
confidence revealed to each other what our boyhood dreams had been: reams
which had not as yet been blighted, but over which was stealing the grey
of the night that was to come--a night which we prophetically felt, and
this feeling oppressed us and made us sad. I remember that Howells's
voice broke twice, and it was only with great difficulty that he was able
to go on; in the end he wept. For he had hoped to be an auctioneer.
He told of his early struggles to climb to his goal, and how at last he
attained to within a single step of the coveted summit. But there
misfortune after misfortune assailed him, and he went down, and down, and
down, until now at last, weary and disheartened, he had for the present
given up the struggle and become the editor of the Atlantic Monthly.
This was in 1830. Seventy years are gone since, and where now is his
dream? It will never be fulfilled. And it is best so; he is no longer
fitted for the position; no one would take him now; even if he got it,
he would not be able to do himself credit in it, on account of his
deliberateness of speech and lack of trained professional vivacity;
he would be put on real estate, and would have the pain of seeing younger
and abler men intrusted with the furniture and other such goods--goods
which draw a mixed and intellectually low order of customers, who must be
beguiled of their bids by a vulgar and specialised humour and sparkle,
accompanied with antics. But it is not the thing lost that counts, but
only the disappointment the loss brings to the dreamer that had coveted
that thing and had set his heart of hearts upon it, and when we remember
this, a great wave of sorrow for Howells rises in our breasts, and we
wish for his sake that his fate could have been different. At that time
Hay's boyhood dream was not yet past hope of realisation, but it was
fading, dimming, wasting away, and the wind of a growing apprehension was
blowing cold over the perishing summer of his life. In the pride of his
young ambition he had aspired to be a steamboat mate; and in fancy saw
himself dominating a forecastle some day on the Mississippi and dictating
terms to roustabouts in high and wounding terms. I look back now, from
this far distance of seventy years, and note with sorrow the stages of
that dream's destruction. Hay's history is but Howells's, with
differences of detail. Hay climbed high toward his ideal; when success
seemed almost sure, his foot upon the very gang-plank, his eye upon the
capstan, misfortune came and his fall began. Down--down--down--ever
down: Private Secretary to the President; Colonel in the field; Charge
d'Affaires in Paris; Charge d'Affaires in Vienna; Poet; Editor of the
Tribune; Biographer of Lincoln; Ambassador to England; and now at last
there he lies--Secretary of State, Head of Foreign Affairs. And he has
fallen like Lucifer, never to rise again. And his dream--where now is
his dream? Gone down in blood and tears with the dream of the
auctioneer. And the young dream of Aldrich--where is that? I remember
yet how he sat there that night fondling it, petting it; seeing it recede
and ever recede; trying to be reconciled and give it up, but not able yet
to bear the thought; for it had been his hope to be a horse-doctor. He
also climbed high, but, like the others, fell; then fell again, and yet
again, and again and again. And now at last he can fall no further. He
is old now, he has ceased to struggle, and is only a poet. No one would
risk a horse with him now. His dream is over. Has any boyhood dream ever
been fulfilled? I must doubt it. Look at Brander Matthews. He wanted
to be a cowboy. What is he to-day? Nothing but a professor in a
university. Will he ever be a cowboy? It is hardly conceivable. Look
at Stockton. What was Stockton's young dream? He hoped to be a
barkeeper. See where he has landed. Is it better with Cable? What was
Cable's young dream? To be ring-master in the circus, and swell around
and crack the whip. What is he to-day? Nothing but a theologian and
novelist. And Uncle Remus--what was his young dream? To be a buccaneer.
Look at him now. Ah, the dreams of our youth, how beautiful they are,
and how perishable! The ruins of these might-have-beens, how pathetic!
The heart-secrets that were revealed that night now so long vanished, how
they touch me as I give them voice! Those sweet privacies, how they
endeared us to each other! We were under oath never to tell any of these
things, and I have always kept that oath inviolate when speaking with
persons whom I thought not worthy to hear them. Oh, our lost Youth--God
keep its memory green in our hearts! for Age is upon us, with the
indignity of its infirmities, and Death beckons!

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