Friday, August 14, 2015

‘Child among children,’ Eugene Field, snuffed out by massive heart attack at 45

Eugene Field, who will be remembered for such children’s classics as “Little Boy Blue,” “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” “The Sugar-Plum Tree,” and “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,” was described in his obituary as “tall and slender, blonde, impulsive, cheerful, fond of genial companions, devoted to his family, a scholar among scholars, and a child among children.” He was an avid doll collector and an irrepressible prankster who loved dressing in outlandish costumes and making faces at small children when no one was looking. He may also have had a streak of latent pedophilia, evidenced by privately issued bits of erotica, including “Only A Boy,” a prose piece in which a twelve-year-old lad is seduced with graphic detail by a woman in her thirties.

This complex “Poet of Childhood,” as he became known, was born in 1850 in St. Louis and always claimed two birth dates—September 2 and 3—so that if friends forgot the first one, they could remember him on the second.  His father, Roswell, was the lawyer who unsuccessfully represented fugitive slave Dred Scott in his quest for freedom. Eugene’s mother died when he was six, and he and his younger brother were sent to school in Amherst, Massachusetts. He entered Williams College, which he left after eight months, then enrolled at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he lasted a year, and finally wound up at the University of Missouri. A fellow student described him as “an inattentive, indifferent student, making poor progress in the studies of the course—a genial, sportive, song-singing, fun-making companion.” Needless to say, Field’s abundant conviviality and penchant for pranks resulted in his early departure from Missouri without a degree.

In 1872 he inherited $8,000 from his father’s estate (the equivalent of about $160,000 today), and he took off for Europe, where he spent almost a year touring England, France, Germany, and Italy, purchasing loads of curios and having a splendid time. He returned to St. Louis, broke and desperately in need of income. In short order he found both a job, as a newspaperman on the St. Louis Journal, and a wife, Julia Sutherland Comstock, with whom he had eight children, three of whom died in childhood.

One of Field’s colleagues observed that he was not much of a success as a reporter, “for his fancy was more active than his legs and he was irresistibly disposed to save the latter at the expense of the former.” Among his journalistic duties was theatre criticism, and Field is still remembered for a review of the actor Creston Clarke as King Lear in which he wrote, “Mr. Clarke played the King all evening as though under constant fear that someone else was about to play the Ace.”

Despite his perceived laziness, Field’s journalistic career prospered. He soon became managing editor of the Kansas City Times, and then was lured to the Denver Tribune, and finally to the Chicago Daily News, where he had a deal that, according to the New York Times, allowed him to write “when, upon what subject, and at such length as he chose.” His column, “Sharps and Flats,” became a popular satirical critique of Chicago society.  Field also began to write sentimental stories and verse for and about children, on which his fame now rests.

A popular lecturer, he was planning to go to Kansas City for a reading of his works on Monday, November 4, 1895.  On the previous Saturday, he felt ill with headache and stomach distress, and he remained in bed all day. A doctor was summoned and found he had a slight fever, but thought little of it. Field did not feel much better on Sunday, although he cheerfully entertained several visitors, one of whom he told, “It is a lovely day, but this is the season of the year when things die, and this fine weather may mean death to a thousand people. We may hear of many deaths tomorrow.”  Field retired and slept soundly until dawn, in the room he shared with one of his sons. At about 5:00 a.m., his son heard him groan, put out his hand to check on him, and found him dead, of an apparent massive heart attack. Field was forty-five years old.

At his funeral in Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, the Reverend Frank Bristol described Field’s religious views this way: “I have said of my dear friend that he had a creed. His creed was love. He belonged to a church—the church of the common brotherhood of man….Ever was he putting into his verses those ideas of the living God, the blessed Christ, the ministering angels of immortal love, the happiness of heaven.” Field was buried at Graceland Cemetery, but was reinterred in 1926 by his son-in-law at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Kenilworth, Illinois.

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