Although Portsmouth faded as a commercial and social capital soon after 1800, it survived as a literary legend thanks largely to a few influential men. Amazingly, three of the first four editors of the popular Atlantic Monthly had local connections. James T. Fields, a Portsmouth native, took the reigns of The Atlantic in 1861 from James Russell Lowell. Fields handed the post to William Dean Howells, who summered at Kittery Point. Howells passed it on to "Bad Boy" author and poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich.
So I’ve always imagined JT Fields (1817-1881) to be one of those stuffy literary types. Like our friend BP Shillaber, he moved to Boston as a teenager and entered the publishing business. Fields had an uncanny ability to tell which authors had commercial potential. As a partner in the firm Ticknor and Fields (later Houghton & Mifflin), he published and befriended top British writers like Dickens, Wordsworth, DeQuincy and Thackery. In the United States he was friendly with Hawthorne, Longfellow, Holmes, Stowe, Emerson, Twain, Whittier, and just about everybody in who made it big in American letters.
Yet according to the accounts I’ve read recently, James T. Fields was a vivacious, approachable and downright funny guy. He had every reason not to be. His father, a "much respected" Portsmouth shipmaster died at sea when James and his brother were young. His mother forbade them from going near the docks, and banned James from attending a Sunday sailing trip with a group of his Portsmouth classmates. The students and his teacher were all killed on the field trip. Later Fields was engaged to a Boston girl who died. When he married her sister, she died soon after.
Somehow Fields, a dedicated Unitarian, kept his sense of balance. He once wrote that his literary aspirations started when, after the death of another friend, he was loaned a box of books belonging to the deceased boy. Fields said he spent many of his early days reading in a window seat at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. Financially successful, he eventually married his soul mate Annie Fields, also a writer and editor, who was an intimate friend of Seacoast poets Celia Thaxter and Sarah Orne Jewett.
Financially successful, Fields retired from editing and spent his
twilight years writing and lecturing. Thumbing through old copies of
Harper’s New Monthly magazine the other day, I bumped into the
following poem published in 1880, the year before Field’s death. It
appears that the affable Mr. Fields kept his humor right to the end. --
THE LUCKY HORSESHOE
By James T. Fields
A FARMER travelling with his load
But dire ill-fortune soon began
Next spring a great drought baked the sod,
One morn, demoralized with grief,
While thus dismayed o’er matters wrong
The farmer turned the horseshoe round,
From Harper's New Monthly magazine
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