Strangers to Us All Lawyers and Poetry

James H. Perkins

Massachusetts & Ohio

William Turner Coggeshall, The Poets and Poetry of the West: With Biographical and Critical Notices 167-169 (Columbus, Ohio: Follett, Foster and Company, 1860):

JAMES HANDASAYD PERKINS, the youngest child of Samuel G. Perkins and Barbara Higginson, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, July thirty-one, 1810. His early life was spent in mercantile pursuits, but stocks and trade were not congenial to his tastes, and as soon as he was at liberty to act for himself; he abandoned them. He felt that devotion to ledgers and exile from study, would convert him into a mere copying machine. He longed for more earnest and congenial intercourse than could be sustained with his companions amidst the excitement of business. Nor did he feel conscious that he possessed the love of money-making which is the prerequisite of worldly success. His eyes gradually opened to the true character of competitive commerce. This filled him first with dismay, then with disgust. For a time he became a complete cynic. The spectacle of hollow conventional customs, the pride of the opulent and the cringing concessions of the needy, with the fawning flattery that vitiates the courtesies of fashionable life, awakened in his heart a feeling of sad contempt. He grew plain and blunt in his speech, careless in his dress, utterly neglectful of etiquette, reserved, almost morose in manner, and solitary in his ways.

In 1832 he determined to come to the West to seek his fortune, and in February of that year arrived in Cincinnati. While making arrangements for the selection of a farm, he became interested in the study of the law, and entered the office of Timothy Walker as a student. In the language of his friend, Win. H. Channing, "The genial atmosphere of the Queen City presented a delightful contrast to the frigid and artificial tone of Boston society. In the place of fashionable coldness, aristocratic hauteur, purse-pride ostentation, reserve, non-committalism, the tyranny of cliques, and the fear of leaders, he found himself moving among a pleasant company of hospitable, easy, confiding, plain-spoken, cheerful friends, gathered from all parts of the Union, and loosed at once by choice and promiscuous intercourse, from the trammels of bigotry and conventional prejudice. He breathed for once freely, and felt with joy the blood flowing quick and warm throughout his spiritual frame. He caught, too, the buoyant hopefulness that animates a young, vigorous, and growing community, and mingled delightedly with groups of high-hearted, enterprising men, just entering upon new careers, and impelled by the hope of generous service in the literary, professional, or commercial life."

Mr. Perkins was admitted to the bar in the spring of 1834, and early in the following winter was married to Sarah H. Elliott, a lady whose tastes and character were in admirable contrast to his own, thus furnishing a basis for a rare intellectual harmony, which proved an unfailing spring of happiness and improvement during his subsequent life. His commencement in the practice of law revealed a high order of legal talent, and argued the most brilliant personal success. But he remained only a short time in the harness of jurisprudence. He found the practice of law entirely different from the pure and delightful excitement of the study, and soon abandoned it in utter disgust. His reasons for this step were the bad effects of a sedentary life upon his health, the depressing intellectual influence of the drudgery of the profession, and his repugnance to the common standard of morality prevailing at the bar. He now applied himself with great energy to the uncertain profession of literature, engaging largely in editorial labors, and frequently contributing to several important periodicals. He wrote poems, tales and essays for the Western Monthly Magazine, edited by James Hall, and was, in the early part of the year 1834, the editor of the Saturday Evening Chronicle, which, in the winter of 1835, he purchased and united with the Cincinnati Mirror, edited and published by Gallagher and Shreve. He was one of the editors of the Mirror for about six months. Thomas H. Shreve, who was a fellow-student as well as a fellow-editor at that time, in a sketch of Mr. Perkins, said:
He was in the habit of coming into the office early in the morning, and, without any preliminaries, would proceed to his table, and write as if he had just stepped out a moment before. It was one of his characteristics, I think, to do what he designed doing at once, for he was a true economist of time, and acted while persons generally would be getting ready to act. He would frequently turn round and ask my opinion of some subject on which he happened to be writing. A conversation, perhaps a controversy, would ensue. His object was not so much to ascertain my opinions, as to place his own mind in a condition to act sufficiently. When our talk was ended, he would resume his writing.
I remember well his appearance in the Inquisition.* His speeches in that society were always truly admirable. The logic, the wit, the sunny humor, the raillery, were alike irresistible. The same wide resources of mind that he subsequently displayed in the pulpit were exhibited in the Inquisition debates, and we all felt that when we had him as an opponent we had much to fear. I remember, too, his lectures on "Fishes" and "Insects," before the Mechanics' Institute. They embodied the most graceful and witching blending together of humor and science I ever listened to. I shall never forget his account of the ant-lion, which convulsed every one present. Had Mr. Perkins devoted himself to humorous literature, he would have stood at the head of American writers in that line. Indeed, as a humorist, original and gentle, he could scarcely be excelled. But so well developed were all the faculties of his mind, that, notwithstanding the prominence of his humor when compared with the humor of others, it only balanced his other faculties.

In the summer of 1835, Mr. Perkins engaged with two or three friends in a manufacturing enterprise at Pomeroy, Ohio. Active exercise kept him in health, and for a few months he was contented at Pomeroy, superintending and planning for a large company of workmen; but the enterprise was not remunerative, and, in the autumn of 1837, Mr. Perkins abandoned it and returned to Cincinnati. He projected several books, but the following year completed only a series of critical and historical articles for the New York Quarterly, and the North American Review. In January, 1838, he delivered an address before the Ohio Historical Society, at Columbus, on "Subjects of Western History." He immediately afterward projected "The Annals of the West," which, as William H. Channing has said, is "a work whose accuracy, completeness, thoroughness of research, clear method, and graceful perspicuity of style show his admirable qualifications for an historian."

In articles on "Early French Travelers in the West," "English Discoveries in the Ohio Valley," "Fifty Years of Ohio," "The Pioneers of Kentucky," "The NorthWestern Territory," and on "The Literature of the West," Mr. Perkins exhibited not only penetrating analysis, sound judgment, and regard for truth, but liberal foresight, and abiding faith.

In 1839 Mr. Perkins became Minister-at-large to the poor of Cincinnati. He gave his best powers of mind and body, with earnest devotion, to the numerous duties that office required, and instituted benevolent enterprises from which the poor of Cincinnati now derive protection and consolation. Peculiar gifts of sympathetic presentiment, and of eloquent speech, together with Christian feeling and purpose, manifested by Mr. Perkins as Mlinister-at-large, led the Unitarian Society of' Cincinnati, in 1841, to invite him to become its pastor. He accepted. He did not, however, forego literary pursuits, and he manifested wise and active interest in public education, visiting schools and delivering lectures, criticising old and suggesting new methods. Especially did he demonstrate the wisdom of better education for girls than either public or private schools then usually afforded.

In 1844 Mr. Perkins was chosen President of the Cincinnati Historical Society, then organized. In 1849, when the Ohio and Cincinnati Historical Societies were united, he became Vice President and Recording Secretary. Although his most intimate friends assured him that he had remarkable gifts as a preacher, though his church was always crowded when he preached, though he had good reason to believe that his sermons were not without practical usefulness, Mr. Perkins was never satisfied with his pastoral relation, and, in 1847, resigned it. His resignation was not accepted. The leading members of the Society conferred with him, and at their request, under changes of organization, which he deemed important, he withdrew his resignation, and remained in the pastoral charge of the Unitarian Church until his death, which took place suddenly on the fourteenth of December, 1849.

I often heard Mr. Perkins preach, in the later years of his ministry, and I can fully indorse what William Greene of Cincinnati has said of him:

Some of his noblest efforts have been upon commonplace occurrences, not twenty-four hours old at the time, when he would astonish us with his amazing powers of statement and analysis, or by the inculcation of some most impressive lesson which they suggested. Nor was any considerable part of his power in any thing that was merely oratorical; for his manner, though always earnest, was always simple. He had no tricks of imposing form, as too many have, to eke out deficiency or inanity of substance. He felt that every event in the development of humanity, of whatever grade in the scale of merely factitious standards, was, in solemn reality, an essential part of the Providence of God, and as such, of highest moment in the proper estimate of man. Acting, thinking, and speaking under this conviction to others, with the application of his extraordinary intellectual power in enforcing his thoughts, he gave to ordinary experiences a commanding interest. To him was conceded, by judicious minds, that authority which is due only to unpretending and assured wisdom, united with the spirit of disinterested benevolence. Every one felt that his word was true, and his advice considerate and well matured. This distinction gave him a sway over public opinion, which, at the same time that it devolved upon him the weightiest responsibilities for the public good, he did not fail to apply, and with gratifying success, to the most honorable and useful ends.

For nearly twenty years Mr. Perkins had been subject to a sudden rush of blood to the head, which produced distressing vertigo, at times impairing his sight and producing the deepest despondency; and within five or six years previous to his decease, he had suffered so severely from palpitation of the heart, that in consequence of this accumulation of ills, his reason had occasionally been wandering for short periods. On the day of his death, a paroxysm of this kind was produced by the supposed loss of his two boys, one nine, the other seven years of age, who had gone from their home on Walnut Hills, to Cincinnati. After a most fatiguing and anxious search, that was finally relinquished in despair, Mr. Perkins walked (four miles) to Walnut Hills, and arrived at his house, which his children had reached before him, in a state of intense excitement and complete exhaustion. He was restless and nervous to a degree never before witnessed by his family, and near evening he remarked that he would take a walk to calm his nerves, but would not be gone long. He was never seen again, by either his family or friends. About six o'clock P. M., as was afterward ascertained, he went on board the Jamestown ferry-boat, with arms folded and eyes downcast. He was not seen to leave the boat, and it is supposed that, when not observed, threw himself overboard and was drowned. This distressing event cast the deepest gloom over the city of his adoption. Notwithstanding the most strenuous efforts were made for the recovery of the remains of the deceased, they were never discovered.

I saw Mr. Perkins, at the corner of Fourth and Sycamore streets, Cincinnati, when he was in quest of his children. The painful, despairing look he gave an omnibus conductor, of whom he inquired in vain for tidings, I can never forget.

Mr. Channing has said truly of Mr. Perkins:

Faultless, or wholly freed from the evils of temperament, training, caprice, indulgence, habit, Mr. Perkins confessedly was not; but progressive, aspiring, humble, honest, centrally disinterested, he undeniably was. The utmost impulse of his will was right. His eye was single. He had chosen the good as his law. His life was to seek the inspiration of Divine Love, and to make his thoughts and acts a fitting medium for its transmission. . . . With unconscious ease, from boyhood upward, he had poured forth verses; but the true poet was to him in so sublime a sense a prophet, that he was never willing to class himself among that chosen band. In a lecture on Polite Literature, in 1840, he asks, "What is it that makes a work poetical? I answer, it is that in it which awakens the sense of the divine-appealing to the heart through some form of sublimity, or beauty-some holy emotion—some association of heavenly affections with common experience. The poetic element is that which lifts us to the spiritual world. It is a divine essence, that makes human speech poetry. The two grand powers of the poet are, first, that of perceiving what awakens a sense of the divine; and second, that of expressing what is poetical in such words and by such style as to give its true impression. These two powers may exist apart. A critic may feel when the sense of the divine is awakened, but he cannot be a poet without the inventive imagination that can give to it a local embodiment and a name. Poetry is not rhyme or verse merely; but it is that chord in the human heart which sends forth harmony when struck by the hand of nature, that essential spirit of beauty which speaks from the soul, in the highest works of sculpture or painting, which gives eloquence to the orator, and is heard as the voice of God." It was in his eloquence as an orator, that his own poetic genius most appeared.

Biographical Sketch


James H. Perkins, The Memoir and Writings of James Handasyd Perkins (Cincinnati: Trueman & Spofford / Boston: Wm. Crosby & H.P. Nichols, 1851)(W.H. Channing ed.)

_____________ (ed.), Annals of the West: Embracing a Concise Account of Principal Events which Have Occurred in the Western States & Territories, from the Discovery of the Mississippi Valley to the Year 1850 (St. Louis: James R. Albach, 1847)(2nd ed., 1850; enlarged by J.M. Peck)(revised title: "to the year 1856"; Pittsburgh: W.S. Haven Book & Job Printer, 1857)