Biography of a Hasheesh Eater


by Dave Gross

X. A writing career continues

There was very little in the field of literature that Ludlow did not feel himself qualified to attempt. Throughout his life he wrote short stories for the magazines of his day, as well as poetry, political commentary, art-, music-, drama-, and literary-criticism, and science and medical writing. As a newspaper writer, he also translated articles from foreign newspapers.

Most of his short stories were light-hearted romances, sprinkled with characters having names like "Mr. W. Dubbleyew," or "Major Highjinks," and generally concerning some sort of semi-ridiculous obstacle which comes between the narrator and the beautiful young woman he's fallen in love with. But occasional stories break from this mold, and some are worth special mention here.

"The Phial of Dread" was one of his earliest, published in October of 1859. It is written as the journal of a chemist who is visited in his laboratory by the insane daughter of an acquaintance, who felt herself pursued by Death. When she got to the lab, she immediately sought out some chemical with which she could kill herself:

We were alone together among the strange poisons, each one of whom, with a quicker or a slower death-devil in his eye, sat in his glass or porcelain sentry-box, a living force of bale. Should it be Hemp? No, that was too slow, uncertain, painful. Morphine? Too many antidotes - too much commonness, ostentation in that. Daturin? I did not like to ask how much of that was certain...
She finally stabs herself in the heart with a knife she finds in the lab. The author of the journal, Edgar Sands, panics, fearing that he will be blamed for the death, and attempts to destroy the body,
...he went calmly to work, with an awful despair in his eyes, and cut the shell of me - the husk I had left - to pieces; as a surgeon would, on a table in the laboratory. These fragments he screwed down into a large retort, and placed in the fiercest of flames, fed with pure oxygen.... I knew that all of me that had been seen on earth was reducing there to its ultimates - I was distilled there by degrees.
Her soul becomes trapped in the vial in which he pours the last drops of this substance, and he in turn is tormented by the presence he sees as a small, tortured woman within the vial. She is, however, able to at one point take over his body with her soul long enough to write the confession from which the above excerpts come. This saves Mr. Sands, when he is eventually found, from capital punishment, but he notes that the last pages of his journal were "written at the first lodging I moved to after I was discharged from Bloomingdale Insane Asylum."

In "The Taxidermist," his sole Knickerbocker story (also printed in Sharpe), a woman who loves the narrator but is too ugly to attract his romantic attention dies only to be reborn in a succession of animal bodies (a bird and a marmoset), each of which comes into the life of the narrator, and then as a more beautiful woman, who becomes his wife. It is a strange story, of mixed horror, romance, and absurdity, and recalls at times the more philosophical discussions of reincarnation from the pages of The Hasheesh Eater.

"The Music Essence," printed at the end of 1861 by The Commercial Advertiser, featured a man who composes an instrument for his deaf wife that translates musical notes into light and colors. This story was certainly inspired by the synesthesia Ludlow experienced during his hashish experiences, of which he wrote that:

The soul is sometimes plainly perceived to be but one in its own sensorium, while the body is understood to be all that so variously modifies impressions as to make them in the one instance smell, in another taste, another sight, and thus on, ad finem. Thus the hasheesh-eater knows what it is to be burned by salt fire, to smell colors, to see sounds, and, much more frequently, to see feelings.
The portion of "John Heathburn's Title" that is most interesting has been reproduced in these web pages. It concerns an opium and alcohol addict who is cured through the patience of a concerned physician, and through a substitution therapy utilizing a cannabis extract. Published in 1864, it represents Ludlow's first published discussion of his role as a physician treating opium addicts.

"The Household Angel" was published over a series of thirteen issues of Harper's Bazar in 1868, and is a soap opera of betrayal, deceit, and more importantly, the descent of a likable protagonist into alcoholism and despair. But more will be said about this later.

Ludlow's sole foray into drama was an adaptation of "Cinderella" which he wrote for the New York Sanitary Fair in 1864, an enormous affair to benefit the National Sanitary Commission in their war-relief efforts. The play was performed entirely by children, under the direction of the wife of General John C. Fremont (and starring their son), and included two shetland ponies in the staging.

It was reported that "[t]he house was filled to its utmost, and many went away, unable to gain admission." The performance raised almost three thousand dollars for the Commission, and received glowing reviews, much better than simple generosity to the play's charitable purpose would warrant.

Of his non-fiction articles, a few also bear mention. His "Through-Tickets to San Francisco: A Prophecy," which was included along with the pieces he published about his trip West in the Atlantic Monthly in 1864, was indeed prophetic, and many of the short, encyclopedia-biographies of Ludlow seem impressed at how closely Ludlow predicted the path of the transcontinental railroad.

"If Massa put Guns into our Han's," printed in the April, 1865 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, is a response to Confederate threats to arm their slaves and send them into battle against the North. Ludlow finds this threat ludicrous, and speculates that if the slaves he has met were armed, the Confederacy would have much more to fear than the Union. This article is remarkable because the Civil War, certainly the most traumatic event the United States has yet seen, is rarely mentioned elsewhere in Ludlow's writings.

During the worst days of the war, Ludlow was enjoying the majesty of the untamed West, far away from Gettysburg: "We slept on our blankets... ate buffalo and antelope, and saw the stage come in daily from the seat of war." But the war must have strongly affected him, as it did any other American.

Classmates from Union, like Captain Samuel Newbury, who accompanied Ludlow on an hallucinatory adventure that saw a meadow turn "into a tremendous Asiatic plateau thronged with innumerable Tartars," and Colonel Fredrick Wead, who, when introduced to hashish by Ludlow, "was so delighted with the spell that for several months he made trial of its powers," as well as New York acquaintances such as the poet Fitz-James O'Brien, died in the war.

Among the more interesting of Ludlow's articles was "'E Pluribus Unum'," published anonymously in The Galaxy on the first of November, 1866. It is a review of attempts by pre-relativistic physicists to unify the known forces into a single force. It is occasionally anachronistic, as when Ludlow reviews failed attempts to explain the enormous energy radiated from the sun using classical physics, eventually settling on the heat given off as enormous quantities of meteors collide with the sun as the most likely explanation.

Decades before Einstein, Ludlow mused that "because our only cognitions of matter are cognitions of force, matter in the scientific sense is force."

And it is occasionally visionary, as when Ludlow, decades before Einstein would do the same, abandons the idea of the æther and muses that "[w]e might be allowed to... assert that because our only cognitions of matter are cognitions of force, matter in the scientific sense is force." He does not elaborate, and evidently the article was altered and cut for publication substantially, so we are left to wonder how far he pursued this idea of the equivalency of matter and energy.

One of the last published pieces by Ludlow was written for the New York Tribune, and published early in the year of his death. Probably prompted by his work with destitute opiate addicts, the article, "Homes for the Friendless," advocated the establishment of homeless shelters in New York City, particularly for alcoholics and other drug addicts, noting that the existing shelters served women and children only, and that there was a growing class of homeless men in need of assistance. The idea was enthusiastically endorsed in an editorial by Tribune editor Horace Greeley.

New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley enthusiastically supported Ludlow's call to help New York's homeless men.

The Heart of the Continent, a book-length recounting of his journey west, occupied his writing time on and off for much of Ludlow's life. Its publication was announced as early as 1864, but the book was not in fact released until just a few months before his death in 1870. It was illustrated by etchings based on Bierstadt's studies done during the trip, but Bierstadt's name was removed from the text, replaced with phrases like "one artist companion" and "my artist comrade."

This, along with some more-poignantly changed references (such as the reference to "the indefatigable nursing of the best friend I ever travelled with" in his original Atlantic magazine text which was changed to "the indefatigable nursing of the friend I travelled with" in the book) show that there were still, understandably, hurt feelings over the turn of events since their return from California.

The New York Times was enthusiastic about the book: "We rejoice to see a book of American travel of which we can speak in terms of almost unqualified praise.... We have read many descriptions of the Yosemite Valley, and when it is said that we have found Mr. Ludlow's as fresh and entertaining as if the subject and locality were altogether moved to us, the reader will understand the sort of merit for which this author deserves credit." But this praise was not universal.

The Atlantic Monthly found the book too bulky, and published too late after the events it describes: "Since Mr. Ludlow made his explorations, some ten years ago, the Heart of the Continent has been visited by such numbers of travellers that it is wellnigh as stale and battered as the heart of a coquette entering upon her fifth or sixth season of flirtations..."

Furthermore, of Ludlow's writing style, "the savor is somewhat rank at times, and he throws you in whole collops of sentiment whenever he likes," and makes "himself the hero of most of the adventures narrated." The reviewer did say that "[w]hilst it is too literary at times, it is yet the most artistically written account of the heart of the continent which we have seen; and the style, where it has not been made too good, is very good indeed, - frank and facile." The appendix, in which Ludlow expanded on his analysis of the Mormon settlement in Utah, was "[p]erhaps the most interesting - certainly the solidest and most thoughtful - part of the book..."

Bret Harte, reviewing the book for The Overland Monthly said that "Mr. Ludlow's florid and gorgeous descriptions of natural scenery, atmospheric effects, and the physical influences of Plains life, bear an air of unreality which is quite uncomfortable. The fine writing - of which there is much in the book - is so very fine as to pass into the domain of fiction to one who would think well of the veracity of the writer.... Then, too, the author's vice of style is his constant use of the wildest and least understood words and phrases. If his descriptions have a hasheesh flavor, his simplest language is a marvel of etymological research and gymnastics."

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IX. New York stories Table of Contents XI. The philosophy and spirituality of Fitz Hugh Ludlow


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