How many times within the century—nay, within its last quarter—has the world of letters seen a foremost place taken by an author coming from some Nazareth whence nothing was expected, and bringing sheaves reaped in home fields richer and more beautiful than any standing orderly in the public lands, their growth watched and known from blade to ear? The answer would be a recitation of the names of the most brilliant and original of general historians; of the sailor who has given the navy its proper place in the conception of human activity; the studious youth who sounded the depths of ward and State political corruption; the quiet banker, whose dying fingers clung to his pen until he had conquered a competence for his dear ones; the boy who, quietly assuming the man’s burden of independence, made himself, all unaided, a world power with which rulers and rebels must reckon. One and all have been unexpected and unheralded, none more completely than Miss Mary Johnston, whose first book came to Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Co. from Birmingham, Ala., with no introduction but its own merit, and was promptly accepted, although the title, with which the rejected suspect that publishers’ readers begin and end their labors, was altered, “Prisoners of Hope,” (Zachariah, ix., 12) being substituted.
In both style and substance the book revealed its author as unspoiled by the trivialities and commonplace of miscellaneous reading, with a mind bent upon noble and beautiful things, unstirred by discontent with the world or with the time, untortured by thirst for notoriety or for applause, quietly assured of position, and working with serenity upon beloved and familiar topics, and happily bringing them into artistic correlation. Dates and names it did not furnish; that minuteness of exposition is given only to Shakespeare as interpreted by Mr. Ignatius Donnelly, and it was from other sources that a few were gleaned. The planter, the soldier, the legislator, the minister, are found in the direct line of Miss Johnston’s male progenitors, which begins in 1727, with Peter Johnston, Virginian settler, whose lands included the site of Hampden Sydney, his gift to the cause of learning. His son Andrew was educated at this college, and became a planter like his father, but his grandson, John Nash Johnston, became a minister, not a Presbyterian as might have been expected from the family connection with Hampden Sydney, but a Baptist, and he espoused Miss Eliza Ogilvie Bell, the daughter of a Scottish minister of the same denomination. Their son, Miss Johnston’s father, adopted the law as his profession, but leaving it for arms at the outbreak of the civil war, has since been concerned in business enterprises of many sorts. While building the Georgia Pacific Railroad, some thirteen years ago, he found it convenient to live in Birmingham, Ala., and has remained there.
Miss Johnston was born in Buchanan, Botetourt County, Va., her mother belonging to one of the many Scotch-Irish families of West Virginia, the Alexanders of Moorefield, and she will complete her twenty-ninth year Nov. 21, 1899. There are five younger children, and since her mother’s death nine years ago, she has been at the head of the household, her writing being, to use her own phrase, fancy work to be picked up at odd moments when nothing more pressing engages her attention. Among the family legends which may at such times press upon her to give them literary form is the story of the burning of her home during Hunter’s raid in 1864; the history of that ancestor on the maternal side who helped to close the gates of Londonderry; of the great-uncle who was one of Light Horse Harry’s lieutenants, and of his brother, captured by the Shawnees and kept among them for a while; of the great-great-grandfather, Nash, of Templeton Manor, who fought them in 1758, when they outdid themselves in cruelty, and was delegate to the Richmond Convention and member of the Virginia House of Delegates. For woodland scenery, she can draw upon her own memories, for the town in which she was reared was remote from any railway, with nothing more modern than a stage coach and a canalboat to connect it with the world, and she and her sisters explored the woods and climbed the hills and traced the streams of the neighborhood, and knew them intimately. At home, she studied and read, blessedly unconscious of books written for children, strengthening her mind by contact with mature authors, and not trammeled by any course of study. The library and the forest “made a lady of their own,” but four years in New York have given her acquaintance with cities, and balanced her well-stored mind.
Thus equipped, it is not strange that her book and “To Have and to Hold,” her story now publishing in The Atlantic, should be both strong and finished, for she had had nothing to unlearn; she had not been compelled to expend her powers upon the avoidance of triviality acquired by contact with the lower forms of literature, and she had no “mission” and no “views.” “Life,” she has just said in her Atlantic story, “is like one of those endless Italian corridors, painted, picture after picture, by a master hand, and man is the traveler through it, taking his eyes from one scene but to rest them upon another. Some remain a blur in his mind; some he remembers not; for some he has but to close his eyes and he sees them again, line for line, tint for tint, the whole spirit of the piece.” The true author, the artifex, sees all the pictures in the lives of his characters with this same vision of the Claude Lorraine glass, and can place it before the duller eyes of the multitude in such words as to make them fancy that they, too, have the gift. Such an author Miss Johnston is proving herself to be.