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Tales from Bohemia   By: (1867-1906)

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One crisp evening early in March, 1887, I climbed the three flights of rickety stairs to the fourth floor of the old "Press" building to begin work on the "news desk." Important as the telegraph department was in making the newspaper, the desk was a crude piece of carpentry. My companions of the blue pencil irreverently termed it "the shelf." This was my second night in the novel dignity of editorship. Though my rank was the humblest, I appreciated the importance of a first step from "the street." An older man, the senior on the news desk, had preceded me. He was engaged in a bantering conversation with a youth who lolled at such ease as a well worn, cane bottomed screw chair afforded. The older man made an informal introduction, and I learned that the youth with pale face and serene smile was "Mr. Stephens, private secretary to the managing editor." That information scarcely impressed me any more than it would now after more than twenty years' experience of managing editors and their private secretaries.

The bantering continued, and I learned that the youth cherished literary aspirations, and that he performed certain work in connection with the dramatic department for the managing editor, who kept theatrical news and criticisms within his personal control.

Suddenly a chance remark broke the ice for a friendship between the young man and me which was to last unbroken until his untimely death. Stephens wrote the Isaac Pitman phonography! Here had I been for more than three years wondering to find the shorthand writers of wide awake and progressive America floundering in what I conceived to be the Serbonian bog of an archaic system of stenography. Unexpectedly a most superior young man came within my ken who was a disciple of Isaac Pitman. Furthermore, like myself, he was entirely self taught. No old shorthand writer who can look back a quarter of a century on his own youthful enthusiasm for the art can fail to appreciate what a bond of sympathy this discovery constituted. From that night forward we were chosen friends, confiding our ambitions to each other, discussing the grave issues of life and death, settling the problems of literature. Notwithstanding his more youthful appearance, my seniority in age was but slight. Gradually "Bob," as all his friends called him with affectionate informality, was given opportunities to advance himself, under the kindly yet firm guidance of the managing editor, Mr. Bradford Merrill. That gentleman appreciated the distinct gifts of his young protégé, journalistic and literary, and he fostered them wisely and well. I remember perfectly the first criticism of an important play which "Bob" was permitted to write unaided. It was Richard Mansfield's initial appearance in Philadelphia as "Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde," at the Chestnut Street Theatre on Monday, October 3, 1887.

After the paper had gone to press, and while Mr. Merrill and a few of the telegraph editors were partaking of a light lunch, the night editor, the late R.E.A. Dorr, asked Mr. Merrill "how Stephens had made out."

"He has written a very clever and very interesting criticism," Mr. Merrill replied. "I had to edit it somewhat, because he was inclined to be Hugoesque and melodramatic in describing the action with very short sentences. But I am very much pleased, indeed."

That was the beginning of Bob's career as a dramatic critic, a career in which he gained authority and in which his literary faculties, his felicity of expression and soundness of judgment found adequate scope.

In the following two or three years the cultivation of the field of dramatic criticism occupied his time to the temporary exclusion of his ambition for creative work. He and I read independently; but our tastes had much in common, though his preference was for imaginative literature. Meanwhile I was writing short stories with plenty of plot, some of which found their way into various magazines; but his taste lay more in the line of the French short story writers who made an incident the medium for portraying a character... Continue reading book >>

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