Biography of a Hasheesh Eater


by Dave Gross

IV. Into Bohemian New York

The Hasheesh Eater was published when Ludlow was twenty-one years old, a recent graduate who had taken a job as a teacher of English and the classics at Watertown Academy. "I had determined, for the year to come, to be independent for a support of all aid save my own exertions. Entire self-sustenance was a very dear project with me."

Self-sustenance and independence from his family, we can imagine, since things were still tense at home. A cousin of Fitz Hugh wrote to her brother around this time "[h]ow glad I am that I board here, instead of at Uncles.... it is awful when Fitz is at home. I should think that they would be sorry when he comes and glad when he goes away. he is all the time disputing, and he contradicts his Father every word he says. he is so impudent, that I should think Uncle would turn him out of the house."

The Hasheesh Eater was a success, going through a few printings in short order, and Ludlow, although he published both the book and his earlier article "The Apocalypse of Hasheesh" anonymously, was able to take advantage of the book's notoriety. Harper's New Monthly Magazine wrote that:

Unequal to De Quincey in literary culture and in the craft of book-making, the author of this work compares favorably with him in the passion for philosophical reflection, in the frankness of his personal revelations, and in perternatural brilliancy of fancy. In point of compact and orderly method in the narration of his story he has a decided advantage over De Quincey. The comparative merits of hasheesh and opium as a stimulant to the intellect and the source of wild, imaginative dreams, may be learned from a comparison of the two volumes.... The experience of the author in its use is here frankly and fully related, in a narrative which is equally rich in psychological illustration and in imaginative vision.
Ludlow stayed only briefly at Watertown, soon moving on to study the law under William Curtis Noyes (himself a lawyer who had begun his legal studies at the age of fourteen in the offices of Fitz Hugh's uncle Samuel). Noyes was, as well as an accomplished legal scholar, a firm temperance advocate who gave speeches regularly on the subject. Although Ludlow's studies enabled him to pass the bar exam in New York in 1859, he never practiced law, instead deciding to pursue a literary career.

The late 1850s marked a changing of the guard in New York City literature. Old guard literary magazines like The Knickerbocker and Putnam's Monthly were fading away, and upstarts like the Atlantic Monthly, The Saturday Press, and Vanity Fair were starting up.

While still working on his legal studies, Ludlow took on a position as an associate editor at the new Vanity Fair, a magazine which at the time resembled Punch in tone, filled with short jokes, puns, lighthearted verse and cartoons. It was probably through the Vanity Fair staff that Ludlow was introduced to "the first organized Bohemia of America," centered around Pfaff's beer cellar on Broadway in New York City (where the Vanity Fair staff regularly met) and Saturday night gatherings at Richard Henry Stoddard's home on Tenth Street.

This scene attracted the likes of Walt Whitman, Fitz James O'Brien, Bayard Taylor, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Edmund Clarence Stedman, and Artemus Ward. As one commentator put it, "If the New England authors, serene upon their transcendental heights, taught the virtues of plain living and high thinking, the frequenters of Pfaff's believed as potently in high thinking and hard drinking." Ludlow, however, also belonged to the "Century Association," which attracted the more respectable, less bohemian, literary talent in the city.

Bayard Taylor, whose published reminiscences of his own extreme hashish experience "had moved [Ludlow] powerfully to curiosity and admiration" a few months before Ludlow began experimenting with the drug, must have had much to discuss with him. Taylor's wife wrote later that the Ludlow "belonged to our inner coterie."

Ludlow and Stedman were also particularly close. When Stedman performed a beyond-the-call-of-journalism act of bravery when covering the first Battle of Bull Run, a friend wrote to him that "we're all proud of you. Ludlow just cried when he read of your brave thing with the flag."

Stedman was impressed with Ludlow's writing, working to get him a job at the New York World and hoping at another point to lure him to Washington, D.C., so the city "would not meet with the fate of Sodom for want of three virtuous men and tobacco-smokers. Fitz-Hugh sends me his last story. He has talent enough for anything, and a heart as noble as native sunshine can make it." Stedman later included the "The Hour and the Power of Darkness" chapter of The Hasheesh Eater in his A Library of American Literature.

New York City, with its vibrant literary scene and its cosmopolitan attitudes, was a boon to Ludlow. "It is a bath of other souls," he wrote. "It will not let a man harden inside his own epidermis. He must affect and be affected by multitudinous varieties of temperament, race, character. He avoids grooves, because New York will not tolerate grooviness. He knows that he must be able, on demand, to bowl anywhere over the field of human tastes and sympathies."

New York was also tolerant of iconoclasts, and people with just the sort of notoriety Ludlow had cultivated. "No amount of eccentricity surprises a New-Yorker, or makes him uncourteous. It is difficult to attract even a crowd of boys on Broadway by an odd figure, face, manner, or costume. This has the result of making New York an asylum for all who love their neighbor as themselves, but would a little rather not have him looking through the key-hole."

Once, he and two friends of similar build and looks purchased identical gaudy suits, caps and canes. "We looked enough alike to be triplets; and as we surveyed ourselves darkly reflected in shop windows we found this resemblance so charmingly odd that we couldn't help chuckling at the inevitable sensation destined to be caused by our brilliant freak." Alas, as they walked around downtown New York, "Nobody looked at us. Nobody was in the least astonished at us. We were disgusted."

He "began to suspect that any gentleman possessing an income which permitted the support of such a lofty animal, might keep a giraffe for saddle exercise on the Fifth Avenue without attracting burdensome attention or getting more than three lines in the 'City Items' of the Tribune the morning after he took his first airing."

The late 1850s and early 1860s found Ludlow in just about every literary quarter of New York. He wrote for, among many others, the Harper's publications (Weekly, Monthly and Bazar), the New York World, Commercial Advertiser, Evening Post, and Home Journal, and for Appleton's, Vanity Fair, Knickerbocker, Northern Lights, the Saturday Press, and the Atlantic Monthly.

George William Curtis, the editor of Harper's New Monthly Magazine, remembered that Ludlow "seemed scarcely more than a boy" when he started writing for the magazine.

George William Curtis, the editor of Harper's New Monthly Magazine at the time, remembered Ludlow as "a slight, bright-eyed, alert young man, who seemed scarcely more than a boy," when he came in for a visit. At this time, Ludlow was still considering the law as a profession, and had in his office been using his creative talents to write up imaginary cases while awaiting real ones. Curtis tried to convince Ludlow that the literary life was a difficult one, but Ludlow, with his "hopeful, frolicsome bearing," was not dissuaded.

Curtis introduced Ludlow to the princes of the Harper publishing family, as an upcoming literary talent who, before his twenty-fifth birthday, would have his first book go through several printings, and would place more than ten stories in Harper's publications, some of which were printed serially and spanned several issues.

A revealing letter has been preserved from this period. In early 1859, Ludlow wrote to Fletcher Harper about an advance of sixty dollars he received, to explain why he had been unable to produce the promised stories:

I... fully expected to fulfil my promise, to the letter. I had hardly made it however, before the nervous ailment, of which I am now, thank God, nearly cured, resulted in a congested state of the brain, which has lasted up to a week ago with continual pain and part of the time much danger.... I am but twenty-two years now - I have had somewhat of illness and of bad habits in stimulus-using to fight on my way up into a more successful and untiring career. The Water Cure and my will have utterly conquered my habits of stimulus - not even tobacco do I trouble now - and my health is fast becoming thoroughly re-settled...
Ludlow would on several occasions during his life attend a "Water Cure," both as a remedy for serious illness, and as a way of lessening the terrors of drug withdrawal (although he bitterly said at one point that "In hydropathic institutions cure of any thing more serious than a tooth-ache takes at the least several years"). He describes a visit to the cure in a fictional account:
"Utterly weary - world-weary, self-weary - was I when I set my foot languidly on the threshold of the moist place of cure. I fled to the water literally because I was sick of the earth.... So I gathered up enough vitality to get there; and after that evening, for fifteen days, I knew nothing more of the world popularly called "sane."
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