Charles Stearns Wheeler (1816-1843)

In the last two numbers of “The Dial” were printed letters from Heidelberg on German books and authors, and especially concerning philosophical writings. These were written by Charles Stearns Wheeler, who was living in Germany in order to perfect his studies in preparation for his chosen profession as a clergyman. He was born in Lincoln, Mass., the son of a farmer, and grandson of Dr. Charles Stearns, for fifty years the Lincoln minister, December 19, 1816. He was educated in the town schools and labored on his father’s farm. Concerning this period of his life, he wrote: “Whenever I came through Cambridge [which was only a few miles from his home, in the direction of Boston] on my way to market, I used to make a point of taking a long look at the College buildings. And if I had any enthusiasm for anything it was to listen to stories about their inmates. To be one of so happy a crew was a lot too blessed for me. As I could not give up wishing it was mine, I was allowed to prepare for college.” He entered Harvard in 1833. He has been described as being quite simple and unsophisticated in his manners, full of eager curiosity and an abounding health and cheerfulness, which lent a constant smile to his ruddy face. “Rigidly exact in his compliance with college rules and duties,” says one of his college mates, “he never seemed to have an idle moment; so he easily met all the requirements of his instructors and held his own as a scholar with those whose previous opportunities of preparation had been less interrupted and desultory. He sustained a high rank all through his college course and took the second honor of his class at graduation. Without any very brilliant natural endowments, Wheeler was a signal example of what can be accomplished by sturdy, cheerful diligence, and an untiring devotion to duty. He was a man of fixed principles and great purity of character, whose steady aim seemed always to be self-improvement and the acquisition of knowledge.”

Wheeler graduated from Harvard in 1837, after which he taught in a boys’ school for a time. He was then made a tutor in Greek in the college, which position he held from 1838 to 1842; and he gave instruction in the department of history. In 1838 and 1839 he aided Emerson in editing the four volumes of Carlyle’s “Miscellanies” published in Boston. In his letter to Carlyle, Emerson made frequent mention of the diligent aid given him by Wheeler in the proof-reading. Soon after, Wheeler edited an edition of Herodotus with notes, which was received with much favor, and was adopted as a text-book in the college. In 1842 he edited the poems of Tennyson in two volumes, published in Boston, and noticed in the third volume of “The Dial,” page 273, by Margaret Fuller. At this period, 1841-42, Wheeler built or hired from a farmer a hut on the shores of Flint’s Pond, half-way from Lincoln to Concord, in which he lived for some months. Here he was visited by Thoreau, who was a member of his college class, and with whom two or three years before he had camped-out on the shores of Lincoln Pond. The suggestion of his own experiment on the shores of Walden Pond doubtless came to Thoreau from Wheeler.

Concerning this episode in Wheeler’s life the following account has been given by Ellery Channing, in a letter to Frank B. Sanborn: “Stearns Wheeler built a ‘shanty’ on Flint’s Pond for the purpose of economy, for purchasing Greek books and going abroad to study. Whether Thoreau assisted him to build this shanty I cannot say, but I think he may have; also that he spent six weeks with him there. As Thoreau was not too original and inventive to follow the example of others, if good to him, it is very probable this undertaking of Stearns Wheeler, whom he regarded (as I think I have heard him say) a heroic character, suggested his own experiment on Walden. I believe I visited this shanty with Thoreau. It was very plain, with bunks of straw, and built in the Irish manner. I think Wheeler was as good a mechanic as Thoreau, and built his shanty for his own use. The object of these two experiments was quite unlike, except in the common purpose of economy. It seems to me highly probable that Wheeler’s experiment suggested Thoreau’s, as he was a man he almost worshiped. But I could not understand what relation Lowell had to this fact, if it be one. Students in all parts of the earth have pursued a similar course from motives of economy, and to carry out some special study. Thoreau wished to study birds, flowers, and the stone age, just as Wheeler wished to study Greek. And Mr. Hotham [a theological student who lived in a cabin by Walden, in 1869-70] came next, from just the same motive of economy (necessity) and to study the Bible. The prudential sides of all three were the same.”

In the summer of 1842 Wheeler was able to carry out a long contemplated plan of study in Germany. In writing to Carlyle, on July 1 of that year, Emerson said: II Stearns Wheeler, the Cambridge tutor, a good Grecian, and the editor, you will remember, of your American editions, is going to London in August probably, and on to Heidelberg. He means, I believe, to spend two years in Germany and will come to see you on his way; a man whose too facile . and good-natured manners do some injustice to his virtues, to his great industry and real knowledge. He has been corresponding with your Tennyson, and editing his poems here.”

After he was established in Heidelberg, Wheeler sent three or four letters to Emerson, which were published in “The Dial.” He also sent Schelling’s introductory lecture in Berlin, delivered in November, 1841. This was translated by Frederic H. Hedge. In the spring of 1843 Wheeler was attacked by gastric fever, of which he died at Rome, on June 13. He was but twenty-six years of age, and yet he was recognized by those who knew him as a man of much promise. A tradition of his scholarship yet lingers, and he has been highly praised by Emerson and others. When there came the first report of Wheeler’s death, Thoreau wrote to Emerson: “I should be slow to believe it. He was made to work very well in this world. There need be no tragedy in his death.” When the report was fully confirmed Thoreau wrote to his sister: “I think that Stearns Wheeler has left a gap in the community not easy to be filled. Though he did not exhibit the highest qualities of the scholar, he promised, in a remarkable degree, many of the essential and rarer ones; and his patient industry and energy, his reverent love of letters, and his proverbial accuracy, will cause him to be associated in my memory even with many venerable names of former days. It was not wholly unfit that so pure a lover of books should have ended his pilgrimage at the great book-mart of the world. I think of him as healthy and brave, and am confident that if he had lived, he would have proved useful in more ways than I can describe. He would have been an authority on all matters of fact, and a sort of connecting link between men and scholars of different walks and tastes. The literary enterprises he was planning for himself and friends remind me of an older and more studious time. So much, then, remains for us to do who survive.” In conveying the news of Wheeler’s death to Thoreau, Emerson wrote : “You will have read and heard the sad news, to the little village of Lincoln, of Stearns Wheeler’s death. Such an overthrow to the hopes of his parents made me think more of them than of the loss the community will suffer in his kindness, diligence, and ingenuous mind.” A class-mate, John Weiss, wrote a poetical tribute to his friend, in which he said:

“Near Leipsic’s book-fair well book’d Wheeler lies;
Native to him the scholar’s high emprize.
Hill earliest books he plough’d from Lincoln’s soil,
Found sermons in its stones; there farmer’s toil
Toughened his sinews into mind, and made
His purpose steadfast.”

 

The monument erected to Wheeler’s memory in Mount Auburn contained on one side this tribute: .. He was four years an able and faithful instructor in Harvard University. To the learning of the scholar he added the piety of the Christian. Ardent and indefatigable, in a short life he did the work of many years. Simple in manners, pure in heart, affectionate in disposition, he was beloved by all who knew him. His remains, restored to his native land, rest here.”

Wheeler was the first to die of the attendants upon the meetings of the transcendental club and of the contributors to “The Dial;” and his youth, together with the promise his life had given of scholarly attainments, endeared his memory to those who had known him most intimately. He was often spoken of with pathetic tenderness.

—George Willis Cooke, A Historical
and Biographical Introduction to the Dial
(Cleveland: Rowfant Club, 1902) v. 2, pp. 161-165