Journalist, Lincoln Biographer Josiah Gilbert Holland Remembered in Northeast Minneapolis

Holland Neighborhood in Northeast Minneapolis is unique in many ways, starting with the name itself.  The neighborhood is named for the late great Holland School, which had roots dating back the original Holland, a one-room schoolhouse where Northeast children learned their ABC’s and good citizenship until construction in 1886 of a handsome three-story school at 17th and Washington was replaced in 1969, only to be closed in 2000.  Though the proud story of Holland School needs to be told, the connection is here is that the Neighborhood still bears the name.

About the name “Holland.”  Forget the images of Dutch settlers, wooden shoes and tulips.  Holland School and Holland Neighborhood share as a namesake one Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881), American novelist, editor, essayist, biographer and poet. Though lost in the dust of the nation’s literary history today, Holland was famous in his day and a logical choice for founders of Holland School eager to embrace this nation’s literary accomplishments, particularly Holland’s infamous biography of Abraham Lincoln.

A New Englander by birth, Josiah Gilbert Holland grew up in a family that both poor and pious.  After an unsuccessful attempt to establish a medical practice in Springfield, Massachusetts, he took a teaching position in Richmond, Virginia and later Vicksburg Mississippi.    In 1850 he returned to Massachusetts where he become an editor of the Springfield Republican newspaper.  His literary career began with publication in book form of a collection of essays he had written during the 1850’s and early 1860’s.   He proceeded to write well-received historic novels and essays which he published under the pseudonym Timothy Titcomb.

Holland’s name and fame went viral after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It is said that Holland arrived in Springfield, Illinois, within days of Lincoln’s assassination.   For reasons that are not clear he was selected to deliver the eulogy for Lincoln in the President’s home state.  In that eulogy Holland brilliantly captured the essence of the President in these words:  “From the first moment of his (Lincoln’s) introduction to national notice, he assumed nothing but duty…I do not think that it ever occurred to Mr. Lincoln that he was a ruler.  More emphatically than any of his predecessors did he regard himself as the servant of the people.”

Based on the public endorsement of Holland’s eulogy, the journalist was soon selected to write a biography of the President.  In short order Holland produced a monumental biography of the beloved leader.  He hailed Lincoln’s military expertise and named him “ the liberator of a race”.  He also described Lincoln as “unattractive in person, awkward in deportment, unrestrained in conversation, a story-lover and story-teller, much of the society around him held him in ill-disguised contempt.”  The greatness of Lincoln, he said, “lay in how the contempt never seemed to generate in him a feeling of revenge, or stir him to thoughts of bitterness.”

Holland’s work was – and in some circles is – recognized as a “landmark” work, “the first of any substantial length as a biography, the first with any aspirations to comprehensiveness, and a best seller of 100,000 copies that was published in several languages.”  In fact, Holland had never met Lincoln, a fact he turned into a positive, suggesting that he created the first life of the “inner Lincoln.”

The biography of Lincoln stirred a mighty controversy when the fact checkers of the 1860’s discounted Holland’s depiction of Lincoln as a deeply devout Christian whose ethics were based on Christian principles.  Some observers of the era also suggest that the mid-Westerners of Lincoln’s home area were not enthused about a writer from the East presuming to analyze the forces that influenced the President.  In the long-term Holland’s research into Lincoln’s ancestry and early life, based in large part by first-hand accounts of relatives who knew the Lincoln family, add a unique perspective to the public’s understanding of the assassinated president.

In spite of the critics, Holland’s biography of Lincoln sold 100,000 copies to readers around the globe.  Those who enjoy stories of Lincoln’s life, particularly those who know something of the Holland connection, will enjoy a scholarly article entitled “Holland’s Informants: The construction of Josiah Holland’s Life of Abraham Lincoln.”  The text of this intriguing story is available online.  The first chapter of Holland’s The Life of Abraham Lincoln (1866) is also available online through Wikisource.

In 1868, while his biography of Lincoln was still selling well in spite of the critics, Holland traveled to Europe.  The tour proved life changing when on that trip he met and established a working relationship with Russell Smith.  Together they conceived the idea of starting a magazine, the nucleus of a plan they eventually shared with established publisher Charles Scribner.  The result was the 1870 publication of Scribner’s Monthly (later Century Magazine), edited by Josiah Gilbert Holland.

An interesting story about Holland’s personal life concerns the friendship he and his wife Elizabeth Luna Chapin Holland formed with the poet Emily Dickinson.   The couple visited Dickinson’s home at Amherst many times; the record of their frequent correspondence suggests a close friendship.  It is said that “what Emily Dickinson most admired in Holland was that he was ‘so simple, so believing’ and made God seem ‘so sunshiny.’”

Though during his lifetime Holland’s books sold more than a half million volumes, Holland the writer is lost in the annals of 19th Century literati.  Still, in the late 1880’s, when Holland School was the educational hope of Northeast families, Holland’s was a household word.  His works were on library shelves and in countless homes.  No doubt the educators and political leaders who had the privilege of naming public buildings deliberated at length the challenge to select just the right namesake for the new school building in Northeast.  Who better than a renowned journalist and historian whose major work honored the beloved President?

Little did they know in 1866 that, though Holland School, known for preparing generations of Northeasters, would be no more – but that the name of Holland would be honored in the vitality of the 21st Century Holland Neighborhood, thriving as it is today at the epicenter of the Northeast Arts community.

Holland would likely enjoy the timeliness of the message, if not the chauvinism, of this quoted from his poem Wanted:

God give us men.  The time demands

Strong minds, great hearts, true faith, and willing hands;

Men whom the lust of office does not kill;

Men whom the oils of office cannot buy;

Men who possess opinions and a will;

Men who have honor; men who will not lie;

Men who can stand before a demagogue

And dam his treacherous flatteries without winking;

Tall men, sun-crowned, who live above the fog

In public duty and in private thinking.

 

     

 

 

 

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