Εικόνες σελίδας
PDF
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση

justify an attempt to blazon abroad his name or perpetuate his memory. And next, such a book is necessarily an imposition upon the public; for those who buy it from their love of biography, with the impression that it is a good book, get cheated ; and those who read it to find out what it is, provided they are persons of intelligence and good judgment, are very likely to get vexed that they have thrown away their time as well as their money. Or if, for the sake of making an interesting volume, a tame character be metamorphosed under the biographer's hand, into something which it never was and never could be, why here again there is manifest deception; and no wise man wishes to be gratified by receiving falsehood as truth. And last of all, we think this sort of book-making objectionable on the ground that it is fitted to inspire the sober and reflecting with a disrelish for biography in general; and that in consequence of this, many a gem in this department of literature will be comparatively overlooked because its brilliancy is obscured by the immense quantity of rubbish into which it is thrown.

While, therefore, we have no lack of interest in well executed biography, where the subject is worthy of such a notice, we acknowledge that there is nothing specially attractive to us in the announcement of the biography of an individual of whom we have never heard ; and hence, when we took up the life of Ebenezer Porter Mason, we should probably have never looked beyond the title-page, if the name of Professor Olmsted had not caught our eye-a name which would be regarded by every body as a sufficient pledge that the book was worth reading. And we had not advanced far in it, before we ceased to feel the need of the biographer's name to carry us forward ; and when we had read it once we read it again; and now, upon the most sober view we can take of it, we feel justified in saying that the character which it delineates is in some respects among the most remarkable that have come within our knowledge. The book is well written of course—is characterized throughout by good taste, good judgment, and good feeling, but we are sure that Professor Olmsted will agree with us that it derives its highest interest from the remarkable facts which it details. We subjoin an outline of the life of this youthful prodigy, not as a substitute for the book itself, but as an inducement to our readers to possess themselves of the work, as exhibiting a more ex

traordinary development of some of the faculties than almost any to be found on record.

Ebenezer Porter Mason was born at Washington, Connecticut, December 7, 1819; and we presume was named for the excellent Dr. Porter, who was formerly minister of that parish, and subsequently Professor and President of the theological institution at Andover. His father was the Rev. Stephen Mason, Dr. Porter's successor as minister of the parish in which he was born. In his very infancy, his precocious powers began to discover themselves; and he was scarcely less distinguished from other infants, than in childhood he was distinguished from other children, and in more advanced youth from other young men. His powers of observation especially began to develope themselves at what would seem an almost incredibly early period; and his father states that “he had seen him while a little creeper on the carpet, before he could walk, amusing himself with an examination of colors, textures and configurations; and seemingly to find exquisite delight in the graceful coils of a hair, and in the variety of changes which his little fingers could effect in its appearance." His fondness for books began to discover itself before he was yet two years old, and even at that early period, he evinced his love of knowledge, by finding matter for inquiry in almost every object that came under his observation. His parent, however, aware of his unusual precocity, with great good judgment, forbore to basten the development of his powers, in the hope that a more leisurely growth might better subserve not only the consistency of his intellectual character, but the vigor of his physical constitution. .

At the age of about three, this interesting child was visited with one of the greatest of all earthly calamities—the loss of an excellent mother. This loss, however, it pleased a kind Providence in a great measure to make up, by the kindness of another mother, and especially by the assiduous and devoted attentions of a beloved aunt, Mrs. Harriet B. Turner, who had much to do with his intellectual and moral training, who followed him through life with an affection truly maternal, and who ministered to his last wants before he went down into the valley of death.

From the time he was eight years old he was much under the care of Mrs. Turner, whose residence was in Richmond, Virginia ; and it is chiefly from the memoranda which she has furnished, that his biography, especially through the period of his childhood, has been made out. The book must be read before any adequate idea of his capabilities at this early period can be formed : our limits only permit us to say that he had gained a thorough knowledge of the steam-engine, that his play-things were globes and philosophical instruments, that he could calculate, especially in fractions, with astonishing facility, and that he had a perfect passion for that most sublime of all sciences, the science of astronomy.

During his residence at the South, his remarkable powers attracted the attention of many distinguished individuals, and especially of the late excellent Dr. John H. Rice, who expressed the highest admiration of his genius, and the deepest interest in his future welfare. But notwithstanding all the attention that he excited, and all the caresses that were lavished upon him, he lost nothing of the simplicity and modesty appropriate to childhood. He was a child in his appearance, and in dutiful respect towards his superiors; but in his aspirations, and to a great extent in his pursuits, he was a man.

It does not appear that at this early period, he was the subject of any very strongly marked religious impressions; and yet we find that he was a most diligent and interested attendant on the Sabbath school, and was foremost in bis zeal for acquiring a knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Indeed his father remarks that “the clearness and strength of his intellectual faculties, were no less perceptible in his biblical than in his mathematical investigations; and while he fully believed in the inspiration of the Bible and the doctrines which it contains, his faith was not merely a prejudice, but a sober, enlightened conviction.

In 1829, the Rev. Mr. Mason removed from Washington to Nantucket, where he was settled over a congregational church. Shortly after this, his son returned from the South, and went to live again under the parental roof. A letter addressed to his aunt shortly after his arrival at his new home, containing an account of his first impressions of Nantucket, is preserved in the memoir; and any person who has ever visited that singular spot, will, in reading the letter, be struck with a description entirely true to his recollections, and will marvel when he considers that it came from the pen of a little boy but ten years of age.

His residence at Nantucket continued for about two years; during which period he enjoyed the best advantages for intellectual culture, not only from his connection as a pupil with an excellent school, but from his constant intercourse with parents and other friends who had formed a proper estimate of his powers, and were earnestly bent upon his improvement. The memoir introduces several interesting facts illustrative of the rapidity and extent of his acquirements at this time, and shows that he had already become at home in profound investigations. But with the strength of his reasoning faculty, he gave evidence also at this early period of a vigorous and brilliant imagination; for though it does not appear that he wrote much poetry, he wrote some, which, if he had been nothing but a poet, would have given him a reputation. His “ Farewell to Nantucket” and some other pieces, are conceived and executed with inimitable tenderness and beauty, and show that he was as capable of soaring among the stars for the indulgence of a luxuriant fancy as for purposes of scientific investigation.

In the autumn of 1832, Mr. Mason sent his son to an excellent school that had been established at Ellington, Conn., under the superintendence of Judge Hall. Here he continued nearly two years, his mind rapidly unfolding, and giving new promise of the highest intellectual distinction. Some of his compositions while at Ellington, both in poetry and prose, are given us by his biographer; and they so far exceed any thing which his age might lead us to expect, that one might well require the most ample testimony to be satisfied of their genuineness.

On leaving Ellington, young Mason returned to his paternal residence at Nantucket, and became an assistant teacher in the school in which he had formerly been a pupil. Shortly after this, his father finding his labors as a minister at Nantucket too severe for his constitution, resigned his pastoral charge in that place, and removed with his family to Collinsville, a small manufacturing village on Farmington river. His son passed the ensuing summer with his friends in Richmond ; and in the following August was admitted a member of the Freshman class in Yale College. His examination on that occasion attracted the attention of the professors who conducted it, and satisfied them that he possessed a mathematical genius of the highest order.

Our limits do not permit us to go minutely into the history of his college life. It is a history of lofty aspirings and wonderful acquisitions, on the one hand, and of struggles wit

poverty and disease on the other. Scarcely had he joined college, before Professor Olmsted discovered that his ruling passion was for astronomy, and that he had no common genius for the pursuit to which his inclination prompted himn; and notwithstanding the delicacy which the professor has observed in bis biography, it is manifest that young Mason found in him a friend and a father, as well as a professor ; and that it was especially owing to his fostering care and attention that his wonderful genius for astronomy was so rapidly and successfully developed. In the progress of his college course, we find him here making a long series of the most accurate and difficult observations upon the heavenly bodies, and there constructing telescopes of great power, and bringing out the most exquisite astronomical drawings—and all this in connexion with the ordinary routine of college studies. With a frail constitution at best, it was to be expected that his nightly watchings of the stars, with the necessarily attendant exposures persevered in for years, would affect his health; and accordingly, we find that at several different periods of his college life, disease seemed to be making its inroads upon his constitution; and there were signs which he overlooked, which yet announced to his anxious friends that he was probably destined to a premature grave. In addition to this, the unexpected failure of some pecuniary resources to which he had been permitted to look, subjected him to great embarrassment, and obliged him to make the most vigorous efforts to sustain himself to the close of his college course ; but through the kindness of his excellent friend, Professor Olmsted, he was furnished with employment more congenial to his taste, by which he was enabled to continue in college, and relieved in some measure from the painful reflection of being dependent on charity. Before he left college, bis attainments in astronomy were such as to command the respect of the first astronomers of the country; and the results of many of his observations have been carefully treasured up to be trans

notwithstanding his eager pursuit of this branch, he was highly accomplished in general literature, and not unfrequently invoked with much success the favor of the muses.

Shortly after he was graduated he visited Philadelphia, where he had an opportunity of making the acquaintance of many distinguished men of science, from which he derived a

SECOND SERIES, VOL. IX. NO. 1. 18

« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »