Accompanying this volume, is a brief autobiography. In circulating Mr. Arthur's "Sketches of Life and Character," the publisher met so frequently with an expressed desire to know something of one whose writings had made him a general favorite, that he was led to solicit a personal sketch, to go with a new collection of his writings. It is but due to the author to say, that his concurrence in the matter was not without considerable reluctance. From this sketch it will be seen that Mr. Arthur is a self-made man, and that he has gained his present enviable position through long and patient labor, and against the pressure of much that was adverse and discouraging. In his elevation he has this pleasing reflection, that in seeking to gain a high place for himself, he has dragged no one down, but rather, sought to carry along, in his upward way, all who could be induced to go with him.
In compliance with the earnest request of the publisher of this volume, I have, with a reluctance that I find it difficult to overcome, consented to furnish a brief sketch personal to myself. Although my name has been constantly appearing for some twelve or fifteen years, yet I have lost none of that shrinking from notoriety and observation which made me timid and retiring when a boy. The necessity to write as a means of livelihood, and to write a great deal, has brought me so frequently before the public, that I have almost ceased to think about the matter as anything more than an ordinary occurrence; but, now, when called upon to write about myself, I find that the edge of a natural sensitiveness is quite as keen as ever. But, I will call the feeling a weakness, and try to repress it until I have finished my present task.
I was born in the year 1809, near Newburgh, Orange County, New York; and my eyes first opened on the beautiful scenery of the Hudson. My earliest recollection is of Fort Montgomery, some six miles below West Point, on the river, where my parents resided for a few years previous to 1817. In the Spring of that year, they removed to Baltimore, which became my place of residence until 1841, when I came to Philadelphia, where I have since lived.
My early educational advantages were few. There were no public schools in Maryland when I was a boy, and, as my father had a large family and but a moderate income, he could afford to send his children to school only for a limited period. He knew the value, however, of a good education, and did all for us in his power. Especially did he seek to inspire his children with a regard for Christian truth, and, both by precept and example, to lead them into the practice of such things as were honest and of good. In all this, he was warmly seconded by a mother who still survives; and for whom, it is but just to say, that her children feel the tenderest regard — and well may they do so, for they owe her much.
At school, I was considered a very dull boy. My memory was not retentive, and I comprehended ideas and formulas expressed by others in a very imperfect manner. I needed a careful, judicious, and patient teacher, who understood the character of my mind, and who was able to come down to it with instruction in the simplest and clearest forms; thus helping me to think for myself and to see for myself. Instead of this, I was scolded and whipped because I could not understand things that were never explained.
As, for instance, a slate and pencil were placed in my hands after I had learned to read, upon which was a sum in simple addition for which I was required to find an answer. Now, in the word, "Addition," as referring to numbers, I saw no meaning. I did not comprehend the fact, in connection with it, that two and two made four. True, I had learned my "Addition Table," but, strangely enough, that did not furnish me with any clue towards working out the problem of figures set for me on my slate. I was then in my ninth year; and I can remember, to this day, with perfect distinctness, how utterly discouraged I became, as day by day went by, and still I had not found a correct result to any one of my sums, nor gained a single ray of light on the subject. Strange as it may seem, I remained for several months in simple addition, before I knew how to sum up figures, and then the meaning of addition flashed, in a sudden thought upon my mind, while I was at play.
I had no trouble after that. During the next week, I escaped both scolding and "belaboring" (a favorite phrase of my teacher's), and then passed on to subtraction. Five minutes devoted to an explanation, in some simple form, of what "Addition" meant, would have saved me the loss of months, to say nothing of the pain, both mental and bodily, that I suffered during the time.
With such a mind and such a teacher, it is no wonder that I made but little progress during the few years that I went to school. Beyond reading and writing, Arithmetic and English Grammar included the entire range of my studies. As for Arithmetic, I did not master half the common rules, and Grammar was to my mind completely unintelligible.
In the end, my teacher declared that it was only wasting time and money to send me to school, and advised my father to put me out to a trade. This was done. I left home and entered upon an apprenticeship shortly after passing my thirteenth year.
If I found it extremely difficult to comprehend ideas as expressed in ordinary written forms, I was not without thoughts of my own. I had an active mind, and soon after entering upon my apprenticeship the desire for knowledge became strong. As food for this was supplied, even though in a stinted measure, the desire gained strength, and I began a system of self-education that was continued for years afterwards. Of course, the system was a very imperfect one. There was no one to select books for me, nor to direct my mind in its search after knowledge. I was a humble apprentice boy, inclined from habit to shrink from observation, and preferring to grope about in the dark for what I was in search off — rather than intrude my wants and wishes upon others. Day after day I worked and thought, and night after night I read and studied — while other boys were seeking pleasure and recreation. Thus, through much discouragement, the years passed by; and thus time went on, until I attained the age of manhood, when, defective sight compelled me to give up the trade I had been acquiring for over seven years.
Beyond this trade, my ability to earn a living was small. My efforts at self-education had been guided by no definite aims in life. I had read, studied and thought, more to gratify a desire for knowledge than to gain information with the end of applying it to any particular use. The consequence was, that on reaching manhood, I entered the world at a great disadvantage. My trade, to learn which I had spent so many years, could not be followed, except at the risk of losing my sight, which had failed for the three preceding years with such rapidity, that I was now compelled to use glasses of strong magnifying power. I had but slight knowledge of figures, and was not, therefore, competent, to take the situation of a clerk.
At this point in my life, I suffered from great discouragement of mind. Through the kind offices of a friend, a place was procured for me in a counting room, at a very small salary, where but light service was required, and where I found but few opportunities for acquiring a knowledge of business. Here I remained for over three years, almost as much shut out from contact with the business world as when an apprentice, and with plenty of time on my hands for reading and writing, which I improved.
The necessity for a larger income caused me to leave this place, and accept of one in which a higher ability was required. In 1833 I went to the West as agent for a Banking Company; but the institution failed and I returned to Baltimore, out of employment. During all this time, I was devoting my leisure moments to writing, not that I looked forward to authorship as a trade — nothing could have been more foreign to my thoughts. I continued to write, as I had begun, prompted by an impulse that I felt little inclination to resist.
At this point in my life, I was induced, in association with a friend who was as fond of writing as myself, to assume the editorial charge of a literary paper. And here began, in earnest, my literary labors, that have since continued with only brief periods of intermission.
As an author, I have never striven for mere reputation — and have never sought to make a name. Circumstances, over which I had little control, guided my feet, and I walked onward in the path that opened before me, not doubting but that I was in the right way. If other employment had offered; if I had received a good business education, and been able, through that means, to have advanced myself in the world, I would, like thousands of others who had an early fondness for literary pursuits, soon have laid aside my pen and given to trade the best energies of my mind.
But divine Providence guided my feet into other paths than these. They were rough and thorny at times, and I often fainted by the way; yet renewed strength ever came when I felt the weakest. If my earnest labor has not been so well rewarded in a monetary sense, as it might have been had I possessed a business education at the time of my entrance upon life — my reward in another sense has been great. Though I have not been able to accumulate wealth, I have gained what wealth alone cannot give: a wide-spread acknowledgment that in my work I have done moral good to my fellow men. This acknowledgment comes back upon me from all directions, and I will not deny that it affords me a deep interior satisfaction. Could it be otherwise? And with this heart-warming satisfaction, there arises ever in my mind a new impulse, prompting to still more earnest efforts in the cause of Christian morality.
My choice of temperance themes has not arisen from any experience in my own person of the evils of intemperance, but from having been an eye and ear witness to some of the first results of the temperance movement, and seeing, in the cause, one worthy the best efforts of my pen. The temperance cause I recognized as a good cause, and I gave it the benefit of whatever talent I possessed. And I have the pleasant assurance, from very many who have had better opportunities to know than myself, that my labor has not been in vain. Thus much I have ventured to write of myself. Beyond this, let my works speak for me. I can say no more.
Timothy Shay Arthur, Philadelphia, May, 1850.