“Wynken, Blynken and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
Into a sea of dew.”
Eugene Field lived a short life, but his legacy has endured for nearly 150 years. The Missouri native became known as the country’s first columnist and the “poet of childhood.” He left behind an impressive compilation of writings that are known around the world, with few people realizing that Missouri was part of his early influences.
THE EARLY YEARS
Eugene Field was born in September of 1850 in St. Louis to a family with East Coast roots. Eugene’s father, Roswell, played an important role in American history as the attorney for the Scott family in the Dred Scott legal case that played out in court in the city of St. Louis. Field’s mother died when Eugene was young, and he was sent to live in Massachusetts with a cousin. His father died when Eugene was a teenager.
After his father’s death, Eugene bounced around to several colleges, ending up at the University of Missouri–Columbia. The legacy he left at the university was not so much that of a scholar but rather that of a practical joker, and he dropped out without attaining a college degree. Eugene’s education came from life experiences; in large part from a European trip he took soon after his father’s estate was settled. Formal schooling eluded him, but his unique look at life as a “Road Scholar” made him a star of his day.
RISE TO FAME
Field began his journalistic career as a reporter for the St. Louis Evening Journal at the age of 23. He took the job in part to make some extra money while he waited for his fourteen-year-old girlfriend, Julia Comstock, to turn sixteen so they could marry. After the marriage, he spent the next decade moving around the Show Me State writing for a number of publications, including the St. Joseph Gazette, St. Louis Times-Journal, and Kansas City Times. His editorial and gossipy writings were popular in every city in which he worked, but the readers were unaware of who the author really was.
Field left Missouri in 1881 for a job in Colorado at the Denver Tribune where his column was again very popular. Two years later, he took a job at the Chicago Daily News where he had free reign to write about any topic he chose in a column called “Sharps and Flats.” The column became a “must read” for audiences, and Field finally found a city where he could plant his roots.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
“Sharps and Flats” was such a hit that Field became known as “America’s First Columnist” (aka, “The Father of the Personal Newspaper Column”). He became more of a local celebrity than a newspaper writer, especially when he wrote about the actors of the day. His insight into their lives made the stars seem more real to the readers. That column is often regarded as a precursor to the celebrity media culture we have today. In addition to actors, Chicagoans were also passionate about their sports heroes. Field took the same approach to writing about the sports stars, humanizing them for the readers and giving himself the reputation as one of baseball’s biggest fans.
Many people think of Field solely as a children’s author, despite the fact that children’s literature was but a small part of his writings. His poems have stood the test of time and are still widely read today, including “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” “The Duel,” and “Little Boy Blue.”
Field died in his sleep from a heart attack in 1895 at the age of 45. He lived a short life, but he left a legacy as a great Missourian, an amazing children’s poet, and America’s first newspaper columnist.
*The Eugene Field House Historic Site is open to the public on Broadway in south St. Louis.
*A large number of schools across the Midwest are named in his honor.
*He and his wife had eight children, five of whom reached adulthood.