Sidney H. Morse (1833-1903)

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  • The Start: Young People’s Magazine of Art and Literature [c. 1894]
  • The Radical

SIDNEY H. MORSE.

Brief Sketch of His Life, His Work and His Character.

(For Portrait, see Frontispiece.)

BY JAMES B. ELLIOTT.

THOMAS PAINE’S philosophy appealed to patriots and poets; his classical features attracted the painter and sculptor. The great Romney painted his portrait, and Sharpe engraved the same in England. Charles W. Peale, the American artist of the Revolution, painted his portrait, in 1777, for the president of the Continental Congress; but it remained for an American sculptor to give permanence in marble to the features of Paine for a pedestal in Independence Hall, to commemorate the centennial of the Declaration of Independence.

That sculptor, Sidney H. Morse, was born in Rochester, N. Y., Oct. 3, 1833. Early in life he went to Connecticut to enter the marble business with an uncle, and it was there that his artistic tendencies got their first encouragement. He learned to cut and carve in marble. He became a Unitarian minister, receiving his degrees from Antioch College.

His work for Rationalism is given by Horace Traubel in the Conservative, from which the following extracts are taken.

“In the latter sixties Morse edited The Radical. What The Dial was to Transcendentalism, The Radical was to Free Religion. Some of the very men who helped make The Dial famous gave what they could with their pens and influence to make The Radical a success. Morse did not qualify his own faith. He contributed his goods and his labor, cent and blood. His faith outlasted his labor, his labor outlasted his money. When his money was gone, The Radical passed in its checks. But the five or six years of its formal life conferred an immortality. ……

“Think of the cluster of men and women who helped Morse with The Radical. Think of Emerson, Alcott, Weiss, Johnson, Wasson, Lydia Maria Child. Of such was the kingdom of this Free Religious heaven. ……

“Morse was born for a free lancer. He tried the liberal church for a while but the experiment was a failure. He succeeded Moncure D. Conway in a Cincinnati ministry which is now forgotten. Later on he occupied a pulpit in Haverhill. While there he started The Radical. While running The Radical he gave up the pulpit. After the disappearance of The Radical Morse went into sculpture, having studios first in Boston and then in Quincy. In the years that followed Morse produced a number of notable works, including a head of Emerson which Emerson’s family and a very large proportion of his friends regard as the best Emerson in plaster. Morse went to Washington in 1886 or 1887 to make a statuette of Cleveland for a Boston house. ……

“Morse is a transcendentalist. But he is also of this earth more or less earthy. He has the sort of philosophy which grounds itself in hearts as they are, and which sympathizes with man in his actual struggles of the flesh. ….

“Nobody knows Morse. He is practically dead before his death. Morse is the sort of man the world can formally forget. But without such men the world would miss the best grade of its treasure. ……

“Morse’s literary faculty was always remarkable. He was the author of the famous Phillip letters printed at two different periods in The Irish World. He wrote the “Chips from my Studio” in Benjamin Tucker’s Radical Review, which lived only a year. Afterward he wrote for Liberty, for Unity, for The Conservator, and here and there miscellaneously in the daily papers. All his writing is of perfected texture. He never was a man given to the polemic vein. He can be critical. He can even be severe. But he cannot deny his love. ……

“Morse’s prevailing humor is one of easy friendliness. He leaves himself wherever he goes. In Philadelphia and Chicago he visited all about the poorer sections. He made himself the dear friend of children. He put books into their hands. He sketched on their walls. He felt himself at home by making the homes he visited more homelike for all. He never knew how to use money. He never seemed to need money. He never got down in the mouth. He even welcomed adversity. The farmers in the Northwest wished him to settle up their way. They claimed him. They volunteered to take care of him. The pleasure of having him about was better than a fresh air fund. In the world sense Morse took care of everybody but himself. He fed everybody but himself. He would starve himself to feed others. This is not figurative. It is a literal fact. All his friends have deplored his worldlessness. Yet they are proud of him.

“Morse went about lecturing. He had lectures on Whitman, Carlyle, Emerson and others, which, while more or less reminiscent, were also in a high degree historic and abstract. He would lecture for money. He would lecture without money. He was also always busy with his clay. And as long as he was able to do so he gave away duplicates of his plasters lavishly. All over the country are households in which such gifts are treasured. Once, while in Chicago, he started a monthly for children. It only lived through two inimitable issues. ……

“I found Morse the other night mentally unshaken. He has met his disasters with serene courage. Morse never has had any quarrel with fate. Even when disasters left him in deep shadows he has just as sweetly argued against dispair. He is one of the most indomitable spirits of our history. He has never organised his forces. He has never done the greatest work that he has always seemed about to do. But the elements of that greatness have always existed and have always kept alive in his friends the air of pleasant expectation.

“Morse is of the type of the new democrat. The new democrat is always at home first of all to himself. Then he is at home to all others. Morse is a man who has never lived with closed doors. …. Morse survives his compeers. When you meet him you find yourself within hailing distance of Emerson, Whitman, and the rest of his illustrious kinsmen. ….

“Morse died at San Mateo, Florida, February 18,1903. The best of him is left behind as well as taken along.”

His body was buried at Richmond, Indiana.

Morse made busts of the following Rationalists and reformers: Paine (see frontispiece to May Review), Jefferson, Theo. Parker, Lincoln, Grant, McKinley, Browning, Emerson, Longfellow, Holmes, Whitman, Susan B. Anthony, Lucreta Mott etc.

3515 Wallace St., Philadelphia, Pa.

Source: The Humanitarian Review. 3, 7 (July, 1905) 255-258.

Sidney Morse: The Best of Him

A few years ago Sidney Morse was among the active workers of the world. Yesterday he went south, to Florida, a broken old man, looking for health. If I mention Morse to the current generation I am met with a shrug of the shoulders. That shrug disposes of Morse’s reputation but does not dispose of Morse.

In the latter sixties Morse edited The Radical. What The Dial was to Transcendentalism The Radical was to Free Religion. Some of the very men who helped make The Dial famous gave what they could with their pens and influence to make The Radical a success. Morse did not qualify his own faith. He contributed his goods and his labor, cent and blood. His faith outlasted his labor, his labor outlasted his money. When his money was gone The Radical passed in its checks. But the five or six years of its formal life conferred an immortality. And this Sidney Morse was The Radical. Today Morse is very sick, gone way down to Florida, perhaps to die.

There are people yet living to whom The Radical was once a familiar fact. There are younger people who have dug underneath superficial to real history and discovered its significance. But to most of those even who are off on current pioneer lines doing the chores of reform The Radical is hardly a cipher.

Think of the cluster of men and women who helped Morse with The Radical. Think of Emerson, Alcott, Weiss, Johnson, Wasson, Lydia Maria Child. Of such was the kingdom of this Free Religious heaven. The Radical had no successor. Morse says that Emerson once came into the office to renew his subscription. “My wife,” explained Emerson, “does not approve of The Radical. She stands up for Jesus. I, too, stand up for Jesus, but in a different way. And I love The Radical because it is the first of its kind.” The Radical was true to its name and true to that name in the best spirit. It conducted no offensive propaganda. Yet it did not equivocate. In the moods and tenses of a rather checkered after career Morse never has shifted off this early ground or cheapened the luster of his first renown by any treachery of speculation or habit.

Morse was born for a free lancer. He tried the liberal church for a while but the experiment was a failure. He succeeded Moncure Conway in a Cincinnati ministry which is now forgotten. Later on he occupied a pulpit in Haverhill. While there he started The Radical. While running The Radical he gave up the pulpit. After the disappearance of The Radical Morse went into sculpture, having studios first in Boston and then in Quincy. In the years that followed Morse produced a number of notable works, including a head of Emerson which Emerson’s family and a very large proportion of his friends regard as the best Emerson in plaster. Morse went to Washington in 1886 or 1887 to make a statuette of Cleveland for a Boston house. This was to have been only a brief excursion. But Morse never returned to Boston. He completed the Cleveland. For ten days he was in Washington perfecting his sketches. This was one of the happiest periods of his life. He started back towards Boston but was sidetracked. He came to me in Camden, intending a visit of a few days. Whitman was still alive. Morse had personally long known Whitman. “Why,” he asked me, “shouldn’t I remain in Camden long enough to make a few rough sketches of Whitman?” He stayed. One of the sketches resulting stands with us for the most vivid Whitman that has been done in clay. Its dignity and power are impressive. The artists criticise this head. But in its lifelikeness it stands untouched and almost unrivalable.

As I have said this was not Morse’s first encounter with Whitman. He was always plastering, writing or lecturing Whitman. In all his peregrinations Whitman was a companion figure. He had made a Whitman while he had his studio at Quincy. But no one had been satisfied with this, Morse least of all. And while Morse was in Camden he kept a diary of his Mickle street experiences. A portion of this furnished a chapter for In Re Walt Whitman, the memorial volume produced by Whitman’s executors in 1893. During his stay in Philadelphia Morse was professionally connected with the Ethical Society there as the head of its class in modelling.

Morse is a transcendentalist. But he is also of this earth more or less earthy. He has the sort of philosophy which grounds itself in hearts as they are and which sympathizes with man in his actual struggles of the flesh. His ultimate is not the flesh. But he sees the connection between wage lists and the spirit. In politics he is antigovernmental. In economics he is communistic. In religion he is comparative. In behavior he is spontaneous without being grotesque.

Nobody knows Morse. He is practically dead before his death. Morse is the sort of man the world can formally forget. But without such men the world would miss the best grade of its treasure. Men less eloquent have reputations for eloquence. Men less thoughtgivers are known for their thought. Men whose fingers have spoiled more clay are known as sculptors. How do you account for this? Morse can be quoted and taken for his betters. I know such men everywhere. They serve to show how thin and vapid reputation can be. If reputation misses such men what can reputation intrinsically be worth?

Morse’s literary faculty was always remarkable. He was the author of the famous Phillip letters printed at two different periods in The Irish World. He wrote the Chips from my Studio in Benjamin Tucker’s Radical Review, which lived only a year. Afterward he wrote for Liberty, for Unity, for The Conservator, and here and there miscellaneously in the daily papers. All his writing is of perfected texture. He never was a man given to the polemic vein. He can be critical. He can even be severe. But he cannot deny his love.

Whitman said to me of Morse: “If his is not genius it is the stuff out of which genius is made.” Morse is always other-worldly. He never seems equal to the providences of the mud. He has a spendthrift spirit. Yet his very prodigality is what makes Morse Morse and what gives his character its backbone and allurement.

Morse came to Camden by the way. But he never got to Boston. Instead of going north he went west. But he did not go west until after a stay of nearly a year in Philadelphia. From Philadelphia he travelled to Richmond, Indiana, where his mother lived. And from Indiana he finally found his way to Chicago. About two years ago he turned back east, settling in Buffalo, when he suffered his physical breakdown.

Morse’s prevailing humor is one of easy friendliness. He leaves himself wherever he goes. In Philadelphia and Chicago he visited all about the poorer sections. He made himself the dear friend of children. He put books into their hands. He sketched on their walls. He felt himself at home by making the homes he visited more homelike for all. He never knew how to use money. He never seemed to need money. He never got down in the mouth. He even welcomed adversity. The farmers in the northwest wished him to settle up their way. They claimed him. They volunteered to take care of him. The pleasure of having him about was better than a fresh air fund. In the world sense Morse took care of everybody but himself. He fed everybody but himself. He would starve himself to feed others. This is not figurative. It is a literal fact. All his friends have deplored his worldlessness. Yet they are proud of him.

Morse went about lecturing. He had lectures on Whitman, Carlyle, Emerson and others, which, while more or less reminiscent, were also in a high degree historic and abstract. He would lecture for money. He would lecture without money. He was also always busy with his clay. And as long as he was able to do so he gave away duplicates of his plasters lavishly. All over the country are households in which such gifts are treasured. Once, while in Chicago, he started a monthly for children. It only lived through two inimitable issues.

Morse made two bas reliefs of Whitman—one of them from life, during his stay in Camden, and one while he was in Chicago or Buffalo. The first had the value of first hand portraiture. The second was not nearly so effective. He made a memorable head of Elias Hicks while he was in Richmond, I think. A copy of this was sent on to Whitman, who liked it very much. Whitman at the time was writing his essay on Hicks, whom his father had known well. Whitman himself had seen Hicks in his youth on Long Island. When Morse left Camden he left some studies for a sitting figure of Whitman. These clays were neglected and destroyed.

I found Morse the other night mentally unshaken. He has met his disasters with serene courage. Morse never has had any quarrel with fate. Even when disasters left him in deep shadows he just as sweetly argued against despair. He is one of the most indomitable spirits of our history. He has never organized his forces. He has never done the greatest work that he has always seemed about to do. But the elements of that greatness have always existed and have always kept alive in his friends the air of pleasant expectation.

Morse is of the type of the new democrat. The new democrat is always at home first of all to himself. Then he is at home to all others. Morse is a man who has never lived with closed doors. To a man of the world he has seemed entirely out of place in our civilization. But to the prophetminded he has seemed a bit of some future democracy prematurely materialized. When our civilization shall have really solved its problem of how to feed and clothe itself such men as Morse will no longer seem singular.

Morse survives his compeers. When you meet him you find yourself within hailing distance of Emerson, Whitman, and the rest of his illustrious kinsmen.

Morse has gone south looking for life. He may live or die. But there is nothing in life or death to shadow his unquailing optimism. When Morse left Camden to go West I said to Whitman: “Morse is built big and chocked full. I hate to see him go. But he never does really go. The best of him is left behind as well as taken along.”

Morse died at San Mateo, Florida, February eighteenth. The best of him is left behind as well as taken along.

Horace Traubel.


Sidney Morse and Communism

In an otherwise admirable and appreciative tribute to the late Sidney H. Morse, appearing in The Conservator, Horace Traubel says: “In politics he is anti-governmental. In economics he is communistic. In religion he is comparative.” Had Traubel been trying, he could scarcely have done a graver injustice to the object of his eulogy. I know that Morse was anti-governmental in politics, and I am willing to believe that he was comparative in religion, though I should as readily have believed him positive or superlative ; but I indignantly deny that he was communistic in economics. On the contrary, he was a firm believer in private property, and what first drew him to Josiah Warren was Warren’s intense aversion to communism. Morse was compelled by his libertarian philosophy to oppose enforced communism, and by his individualistic temperament to dislike voluntary communism. In matters economic Traubel does not see very clearly himself, and this unfits him for accurate appreciation of the economics of others.” [From Liberty, New York.]

I carried on a pretty active correspondence with Morse from 1877 until his death. I think that in his later years I was far closer to him than was Tucker, though Tucker had the advantage of me through an earlier decade. For nearly the whole of one year, from the spring of 1887 on, Morse was here in Philadelphia, and I was during that time almost in daily contact with him. I was always aware of his individualist philosophy. But I think that in his later life he must have somewhat loosened its rigid formula. I was always communistic myself. And he had always jollied me therefor. But he so often during the period of his residence here said things that appeared to me to be communistic rather than individualistic that on one occasion I asked him : “How do you make that agree with Warren?” “I don’t know that I do,” he answered. “Well,” I said, “you have always quoted Warren, always Warren, and I suppose—” He interrupted me almost testily. “Why should you suppose anything?” he cried. “I thought you believed in the private man and the private dollar and the private house.” “Private man, yes,” he answered, “but private nothing else.” I was puzzled and asked him to give me some more definite notion of his philosophic whereabouts. And then he explained that he expected somebody would live to see a time when “the whole business of private property would be merged in some social fact more capable of taking care of man and his needs.” It was from that incident and others, and from things dropped here and there in his letters to me, that I derived the impression expressed by me in my memorial note on Morse. I have no prejudices on the subject. I would as lief have had Morse the one thing as the other. Whatever Morse did he did for love’s sake. And Morse’s spirit was always safe, whatever happened to Morse’s letter.

Horace Traubel.

  • Horace Traubel, “Sidney Morse: The Best of Him,” The Conservator 14 no. 1 (March, 1903): 8–9.
  • Horace Traubel, “Sidney Morse and Communism,” The Conservator 14 no. 4 (June, 1903): 58.
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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.