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An essay by George William Curtis

Joseph Wesley Harper

Title:     Joseph Wesley Harper
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

Often during the long and sorrowful days of the war, as the Easy Chair wound its slow way to its corner, it heard a quiet greeting, and, looking up, saw a friend standing aside upon the steps, calm, unhurried, and the greeting was followed by the significant and challenging question, "Well?" The tone was tender and tranquil, and conveyed all the meaning of many words: "Where are we now? What will come of this last news? How, when, and where will the bitter struggle end?" Then stepping out upon one of the bridges that connect the tower of the staircase with the various floors of the huge buildings in which this MAGAZINE is prepared, the Easy Chair and its friend conversed. There was a singular sagacity and justice in all that the calm friend said, and the most truculent opponent of the cause to which his hopes and faith were given would have heard nothing acrid or exasperating from his lips, even in the darkest hour of the struggle. As they parted and the Easy Chair resumed its way, it was with a soothed and cheerful conviction that whatever might happen to states and nations, nothing could shake the power of steadfast, manly character.

During the same day or any other, if it chanced to move into some other part of the buildings, whether in the artists', the engravers', or the editor's room; in the bindery, the press-rooms, the folding-rooms, the composing-rooms, or in the counting-room, the Easy Chair encountered that same friendly, serene presence which had yet its voice of authority upon occasion, but which seemed to pervade all the rooms like sunshine. And upon all who met him that friend made the same impression. To every one, editor, printer, errand-boy, unknown visitor, or distinguished guest, he was so simply courteous and kind that he controlled without commanding; and in other days, when he had been the head of the most turbulent work-room, he had kept the peace without an oath or a blow. It was the man, not his clothes or his condition, that this man regarded. It was as natural for him to stop in the street and talk with an old black woman whom he knew as with the most renowned author whose works he published. When Oliver Goldsmith lay in his coffin the poor women who had known him sat weeping upon the stairs of the house. And so when this true gentleman died, even the old pie-woman who sells cakes and apples through the buildings left her traffic for a day, and, clad in her sad best, stood, tearful at his funeral.

It was not strange, therefore, that when the fire of twenty years ago seemed to have destroyed everything and to have ruined him and his partners, the quality of the man appeared reflectively in the feeling that was shown towards him by those who see us all without disguise. When the misfortune was supposed to be complete the domestics in his family assembled, apparently by a common feeling, to consider how they could express their sympathy; and as he returned home at evening he was met by one of them whom they had chosen, to tell him that they had all agreed to continue their service at reduced wages, or for no wages at all, until he should recover from the heavy loss. "I stood everything very well up to that time," he said to a friend who tells the story to the Easy Chair, and who had asked him if it were true, "but that broke me down." And the tears were in his eyes as he said it.

Of course every one who, during the last forty-five years, has been familiar with this publishing house, knows that the Easy Chair is speaking of Joseph Wesley Harper, the third of the four brothers by whom the house was founded, and who recently died in the sixty-ninth year of his age. He was so truly modest, he avoided publicity so unostentatiously, that the Easy Chair almost feels as if it were doing wrong to mention him here with praise; so hard is it to believe that his eyes will not rest upon these lines with all the old kind appreciation. But it is a sermon or a poem which none of us can spare, the life of a man who in very great prosperity kept not only the true heart of a child, but the humble heart that owned no inferior. We are judged usually by our public successes, by the esteem of distinguished persons. But the real test of character is the feeling of those before whom we play no part. What does the nurse in the nursery think of us, or the porter in the store, or the butcher-boy? If a man's children confide in him, if all whom he employs at home or in his business feel that he is full of thought and sympathy for them as for brethren, if those who meet him perceive the charm of his urbanity, and as they draw nearer and know him better, honor and love him more and more, we can be very sure that he has the noblest human qualities, whose influence will be a possession to us forever.

Such was the friend whom for so many years in its little labors upon these pages the Easy Chair has constantly seen, and whom it will see no more; and as it meditates, not sadly, but with the sober cheerfulness which his own serene faith in the divine order could not but inspire, upon that good life now peacefully ended, it feels how truly Wesley Harper will always be remembered by those who knew him well.

"The wise who soar but never roam,
True to the kindred points of heaven and home."

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Joseph Wesley Harper