ANDREW JACKSON DOWNING was born at New-burgh, upon the Hudson, on the spot where he always lived and which he always loved more than any other, on the 30th of October, 1815. His father and mother were both natives of Lexington, Massachusetts, and, upon their marriage, removed to Orange County, New York, where they settled, some thirty or forty miles from New-burgh. Presently, however, they came from the interior of the county to the banks of the river. The father built a cottage upon the highlands of Newburgh, on the skirts of the town, and there his five children were born. He had begun life as a wheelwright, but abandoned the trade to become a nurseryman, and after working prosperously in his garden for twenty-one years, died in 1822.
Andrew was born many years after the other children. He was the child of his parents' age, and, for that reason, very dear. He began to talk before he could walk, when he was only nine months old, and the wise village gossips shook their heads in his mother's little cottage, and prophesied a bright career for the precocious child. At eleven months that career manifestly began, in the gossips' eyes, by his walking bravely about the room: a handsome, cheerful, intelligent child, but quiet and thoughtful, petted by the elder brothers and sister, standing sometimes in the door, as he grew older, and watching the shadows of the clouds chase each other over the Fishkill mountains upon the opposite side of the river; soothed by the universal silence of the country, while the constant occupation of the father, and of the brother who worked with him in the nursery, made the boy serious, by necessarily leaving him much alone.
* This memoir is from the pen of George William Curtis, one of the best-known and wisest literary men of his day, and an intimate personal friend of Mr. Downing. It was written in 1853 for the collection of "Rural Essays," edited by Mr. Curtis.
In the volume of "Rural Essays" appears also another tribute from another literary celebrity of the day in the form of a letter to Mr. Down-ing's friends by Miss Friedrika Bremer. It has been thought best to omit this letter from the present edition, but students and lovers of Downing should not fail to search it out and read it. — F. A. W.
In the little cottage upon the Newburgh highlands, looking down upon the broad bay which the Hudson river there makes, before winding in a narrow stream through the highlands of West Point, and looking eastward across the river to the Fishkill hills, which rise gradually from the bank into a gentle mountain boldness, and northward, up the river, to shores that do not obstruct the horizon, - - passed the first years of the boy's life, thus early befriending him with one of the loveliest of landscapes. While his father and brother were pruning and grafting their trees, and the other brother was busily at work in the comb factory, where he was employed, the young Andrew ran alone about the garden, playing his solitary games in the presence of the scene whose influence helped to mould his life, and which, even so early, filled his mind with images of rural beauty. His health, like that of most children born in their parents' later years, was not at all robust. The father, watching the slight form glancing among his trees, and the mother, aware of her boy sitting silent and thoughtful, had many a pang of apprehension, which was not relieved by the ominous words of the gossips that it was "hard to raise these smart children," - - the homely modern echo of the old Greek fancy, "Whom the gods love die young".
The mother, a thrifty housekeeper and a religious woman, occupied with her many cares, cooking, mending, scrubbing, and setting things to rights, probably looked forward with some apprehension to the future condition of her sensitive Benjamin, even if he lived. The dreamy, shy ways of the boy were not such as indicated the stern stuff that enables poor men's children to grapple with the world.
Left to himself, his will began to grow imperious. The busy mother could not severely scold her ailing child; but a sharp rebuke had probably often been pleasanter to him than the milder treatment that resulted from affectionate compassion, but showed no real sympathy. It is evident, from the tone in which he always spoke of his childhood, that his recollections of it were not altogether agreeable. It was undoubtedly clouded by a want of sympathy, which he could not understand at the time, but which appeared plainly enough when his genius came into play. It is the same kind of clouded childhood that so often occurs in literary biography, where there was great mutual affection and no ill feeling, but a lack of that instinctive apprehension of motives and aims, which makes each one perfectly tolerant of each other.
When Andrew was seven years old, his father died, and his elder brother succeeded to the management of the nursery business. Andrew's developing tastes led him to the natural sciences, to botany and mineralogy. As he grew older he began to read the treatises upon these favorite subjects, and went, at length, to an academy at Montgomery, a town not far from Newburgh, and in the same county. Those who remember him here, speak of him as a thoughtful, reserved boy, looking fixedly out of his large, dark brown eyes, and carrying his brow a little inclined forward, as if slightly defiant. He was a poor boy, and very proud. Doubtless that indomitable will had already resolved that he should not be the least of the men that he and his schoolfellows would presently become. He was shy, and made few friends among the boys. He kept his own secrets, and his companions do not remember that he gave any hint, while at Montgomery Academy, of his peculiar power. Neither looking backward nor forward, was the prospect very fascinating to his dumb, and probably a little dogged, ambition. Behind were the few first years of childhood, sickly, left much alone in the cottage and garden, with nothing in those around him (as he felt without knowing it) that strictly sympathized with him; and yet, as always in such cases, of a nature whose development craved the most generous sympathy: these few years, too, cast among all the charms of a landscape which the Fishkill hills lifted from littleness, and the broad river inspired with a kind of grandeur; years, which the universal silence of the country, always so imposing to young imaginations, and the rainbow pomp of the year, as it came and went up and down the river-banks and over the mountains, and the general solitude of country life, were not very likely to enliven. Before, lay a career of hard work in a pursuit which rarely enriches the workman, with little apparent promise of leisure to pursue his studies or to follow his tastes. It is natural enough, that in the midst of such prospects, the boy, delicately organized to appreciate his position, should have gone to his recitations and his play in a very silent — if not stern — manner, all the more reserved and silent for the firm resolution to master and not be mastered. It is hard to fancy that he was ever a blithe boy. The gravity of maturity came early upon him. Those who saw him only in later years can, probably, easily see the boy at Montgomery Academy, by fancying him quite as they knew him, less twenty or twenty-five years. One by one, the boys went from the academy to college, or into business, and when Andrew was sixteen years old, he also left the academy and returned home.