Biography of Eugene Field, 1850-1895

Biographical Sketch by Wendi Capehart

When I was a young child, sometimes my father would not pay our electricity bill and the power would go out. My mother didn't want us to worry, so she would tell us she turned the power off on purpose and it was a popcorn party night. We would pop popcorn on the gas stove and sit in a room lit by candles eating popcorn, telling stories, and sometimes reciting poems. Usually they would be the poems of James Whitcomb Riley, but sometimes we heard some of Eugene Field's poems, too. Wynken, Blynken, and Nod was a favourite, often recited as the candles were blown out and we were sent to bed.

Eugene Field was born in Missouri in 1850, and lived there until he was six years old, when his mother died. His father, was a busy lawyer who was part of a team of lawyers working on an very important legal case in America's history. Dred and Harriet Scott, Black Americans held in slavery, had sued the courts for their freedom. The case took ten years to work through the courts, and the lawyers who took their case agreed to work on it for free. The case had already been going on for 8 or 9 years when Eugene's mother died.

Unable to care for the boys by himself, Roswell Field sent Eugene and his brother Roswell to Vermont to be reared by their older spinster cousin and her mother. They were strict but loving, and he was fond of them, but of course, he deeply missed his mother and felt that separation all his life.

Puritan New England and Eugene, a free spirited lad who liked to play practical jokes and thought of himself as the grasshopper of Aesop's fable, often clashed. But when he grew up Eugene admitted that he was grateful to New England and his relatives for "pounding me with the Bible and the Spelling-Book."

Eugene did not do well in school, so his cousins sent him to Mr. Tufts, a private tutor who ran a small boys' school. Mr. Tufts was a very forgiving man. He not expel Eugene even when Eugene egged the boys on to build a fort with a hidden moat around it. He then got Mr. Tufts to chase them to their secret fortress so he would fall in, nearly neck deep in mud and muck.

Eugene did not do well at college. His father died, and he dropped out. Then he tried two more colleges, but he would rather play pranks than study. He painted the college president's house in the college colours, and he set off the school canons at midnight, and finally gave up college altogether. He used some of his inheritance to travel Europe with a close friend (who would become his brother-in-law). They played and had a grand time, buying bits of art and souvenirs that they then had to sell in order to have enough money to return home again after six months, with a poodle named McSweeney! His brother, Roswell, was able to live for seven years on the same amount Eugene had squandered in six months. But sometimes, Roswell said, he thought Eugene had been the wiser of the two after all.

Eugene finally found work as a journalist. He married Julia, his friend's little sister, and for the rest of their lives, Eugene had all of his employers send the money he earned directly to Julia, because he knew he would spend it unwisely.They loved each other dearly, and had 8 children together. Two died in infancy, and their oldest child died at 13.

Field was not a very good journalist. He liked to fix up his stories so they would be more amusing and more interesting. He was a good opinion writer and columnist for the same reason that he was a poor journalist. He knew how to write in ways that amused his readers, while often making sharp points hidden beneath the humour. He worked as an editor and columnist for several newspapers in the Midwest, until he moved to Chicago and worked for a paper there until his death.

He loved to read, and among his favourite books even as an adult included a book of stories about King Arthur, an old book of English ballads, Marco Polo's "Travels," several collections of fairy tales, including those by the Grimm brothers, and Hans Christian Andersen's stories. He thought that reading good books made him a better writer.

He never stopped playing practical jokes. There were only two chairs in his office. One was his own, the other was large wooden chair which had no bottom. He would toss a pillow or blanket over the spot where a seat might be and visitors would find themselves suddenly sprawling as they sat down and fell part way through the chair.

In the newspaper office where he worked in Chicago, it was his custom to leave a pair of slippers in his office. When he arrived at work he removed his jacket and shoes, tolled up his pant legs and sleeves, loosened his suspenders, put on his slippers, and propped his feet up his desk to write, using his knees for a writing desk. This sounds mildly eccentric to us, but to his contemporaries it was bewildering. Remember that dress was very conventional at this time.

He loved to compose in colored inks. In those times, colored inks were used in ink pots, and most people who switched colours would use a new pen for each new colour. Field preferred to use his ancient flannel coat as a pen-wiper, so it was dabbled all over with streaks of brightly coloured ink. One of his co-workers called it his Joseph's coat.

He published a book he called The New England Primer in which he gave such advice as telling children to pat the wasp, eat wormy apples, put mud in the baby's ears, and play certain pranks on their father (pranks which, the author intimated, might make it a question as to when the children would again eat their meals sitting down).

He liked to make rude, startling, or scary faces at children when he thought no adults were looking.

He began publishing his poetry only after he became a successful newspaper editor and columnist.

It is odd to think that a man who made faces at children to make them cry was known for such seemingly sentimental poetry as Little Boy Blue and was called the Children's Poet, but others have pointed out that his most sentimental poems are really from a parents' point of view, not the child's. Some people think that in his most sentimental poems we can see the heart of a boy who never got over missing his mother.

He had always liked to play with words, making up new ones, creating silly ballads and rhymes about his friends, and about the men who came to court his sisters-in-law. He had always been a man of whimsical ides, and half a child himself. Poetry was an outlet for his wordplay and whimsy. It was also a way to support his family after his death, because he had learned he would probably not live to see all his children grow up.

Field buckled down to work and wrote and published several books in a row. And, like other poets of the time, such as Dunbar and Riley, at last he succumbed to entreaties to perform for pay on the public speaking platform. It was exhausting, but he made more money from one performance than he did from several columns.

He continued to write his columns as well, but he worked less often at the office. He would write his columns from home, and then send his son into town to deliver them at the newspaper office.

Eugene Field died at his home on Lake Michigan in early November, 1895. He was forty-five years old. He left behind his wife and five surviving children, two of whom were not much more than babies. He was so beloved by so many, that they had to be turned away from the funeral, and the church building was filled to capacity.

He had once said he really did not love all children, just his own. Yet in the last period of his life, often in the evenings the neighbor-hood children would gather in his yard and he would entertain them with fanciful stories of marvelous creatures which resembled, at first, the birds, crickets, and other inhabitants of local woods and gardens. But his creatureswere creatures of the imagination, his descriptions included real words nobody else would have used with children, and brand new words nobody had heard before because he made them up. You will find words like these in his poetry, too. It doesn't matter. You don't have to know precisely what they all mean. American writer and book-seller Denise Chávez wrote an essay about her childhood among books and stories in which she mentions the Dinkey bird poem. She says that "I never knew what an amfalula tree was, and yet I did. I knew other, brighter and better worlds existed out there -- worlds imagined and longed for."

Eugene Field's poems are poems of childhood, children, love, laughter, loss, and imagination. Let them give you glimmerings of imagined worlds of your own.


Eugene Field, a Study in Heredity and Contradictions by Slason Thompson, volumes one and two

Eugene Field in his Home By Ida Comstock Below, W. O. Comstock

The Gay Poet: The Story of Eugene Field, by Jeannette Covert Nolan, published in 1945

From a 1923 Anderson Galleries catalog, 88 pages listing the contents of Eugene Field's library: "The library of the late Eugene Field: to be sold by order of his widow, Mrs. Julia Sutherland Field: Tuesday and Wednesday evenings December eighteenth, nineteenth at eight-fifteen o'clock."

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