Philip Van Doren Stern Quotes
“In the early summer of 1846 he moved his family to a cottage in Fordham, which was then far out in the country. He was ill and Virginia was dying, so that he was in no condition to do much work. As a result, their meagre income vanished; when winter game they even lacked money to buy fuel. A friend who visited the cottage wrote a description of Virginia's plight:
There was no clothing on the bed... but a snow white spread and sheets. The weather was cold, and the sick lady had the dreadful chills that accompany the hectic fever of consumption. She lay on the straw bed, wrapped in her husband's great-coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat on her bosom. The wonderful cat seemed conscious of her great usefulness. The coat and the cat were the sufferer's only means of warmth...
A public appeal for funds was made in the newspapers -- an act which Poe, of course, resented. But Virginia was beyond all human aid. She died on January 30, 1847, and her death marked the end of the sanest period in her husband's life. He plunged into the writing of a book-length mystical and pseudo-scientific work entitled Eureka, in which he set forth his theories of the universe. He intended it as a prose poem, and as such is should be judged, rather than as a scientific explanation of matters beyond it's author's ken.”
“Wouldn’t do what?” George asked sullenly. “What you were thinking of doing.” “How do you know what I was thinking?” “Oh, we make it our business to know a lot of things,” the stranger said easily. George wondered what the man’s business was. He was a most unremarkable little person, the sort you would pass in a crowd and never notice. Unless you saw his bright blue eyes, that is. You couldn’t forget them, for they were the kindest, sharpest eyes you ever saw. Nothing else about him was noteworthy.”
“My father, Philip Van Doren Stern, was shaving on Saturday morning, February 12, 1938, while he explored the idea for the story The Greatest Gift—which became the basis for the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. The idea had come from a dream he had during the night. As he wrote in his notes: “The idea came to me complete from start to finish—a most unusual occurrence, as any writer will tell you, for ordinarily a story has to be struggled with, changed around and mixed up.” In contrast to his other writings, mainly on history, he said that the idea for The Greatest Gift had emerged full blown, and he had never considered changing it. What he had to do, he said, was to learn to write it.”
“The Song of the Camp
Far away in the piny woods,
Where the dews fall heavy and damp,
A soldier sat by the smoldering fire,
And sang the song of the camp.
It is not to be weary and worn,
It is not to feel hunger and thirst,
It is not the forced march, not the terrible fight,
That seems to the solider the worst;
But to sit through the comfortless hours,
The lonely, dull hours that will come,
With his head in his hands, and his eyes on the fire,
And his thoughts on visions of home;”
“I understand right enough,” the stranger said slowly. “I just wanted to make sure you did. You had the greatest gift of all conferred upon you—the gift of life, of being a part of this world and taking a part in it. Yet you denied that gift.” As the stranger spoke, the church bell high up on the hill sounded, calling the townspeople to Christmas vespers. Then the downtown church bell started ringing.”
“You must not build your hopes on peace on account of the United States going into a war with England. She will be very loathe to do that, notwithstanding the bluster of the Northern papers. Her rulers are not entirely mad, and if they find England is in earnest, and that war or a restitution of their captives must be the consequence, they will adopt the latter. We must make up our minds to fight our battles and win our independence alone. No one will help us. We require no extraneous aid, if true to ourselves. But we must be patient. It is not a light achievement and cannot be accomplished at once.
I wrote a few days since, giving you all the news, and have now therefore nothing to relate. The enemy is still quiet and increasing in strength. We grow in size slowly but are working hard.
Affectionately and truly,
R. E. Lee”
“Jimmy Stewart wrote to my father on December 31, 1946, “More important than anything, thank you for giving us that idea, which I think is the best one that anyone has had for a long time. It was an inspiration for everyone concerned with the picture to work in it, because everyone seemed to feel that the fundamental story was so sound and right, and that story was yours, and you should be justly proud of it.”
“He described the theme in this way: “It’s a Wonderful Life sums up my philosophy of film making. First, to exalt the worth of the individual. Second, to champion man—plead his causes, protest any degradation of his dignity, spirit, or divinity. And third, to dramatize the viability of the individual—as in the theme of the film itself . . .There is a radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see, and to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look.”5 Nearly seventy years after The Greatest Gift was written”
“Then came on a thaw for three or four days, with really warm weather, when everything melted; when the streams burst their bonds; when the earth became soft until it seemed to have no bottom and mud reigned supreme. It was everywhere; the roads were almost impassable and it was difficult to haul the rations to camp from the station. A detail of seventy-five was made from the Seventeenth to assist the brigade wagons back to camp.
It was a cheerless task. The heavy army wagons came toiling laboriously along; many became stalled in the mud, the wheels sunken below the hubs, horses straining, the drivers cursing and lashing the poor animals, while a dozen men pushed at each wheel, all and everything covered with the liquid mire; such was December in Virginia.
The Christmas of 1862 was cheerless indeed; the weather was frightful, and a heavy snowstorm covered everything a foot deep. Each soldier attempted to get a dinner in honor of the day, and those to whom boxes had been sent succeeded to a most respectable degree, but those unfortunates whose homes were outside the lines had nothing whatever delectable partaking of the nature of Christmas. Well! it would have puzzled [anyone] to furnish a holiday dinner out of a pound of fat pork, six crackers, and a quarter of a pound of dried apples. We all had apple dumplings that day, which with sorghum molasses were not to be despised.
Some of the men became decidedly hilarious, and then again some did not; not because they had joined the temperance society nor because they were opposed to the use of intoxicating liquors, but because not a soul invited them to step up and partake. One mess in the Seventeenth did not get so much as a smell during the whole of the holidays; and a dry, dismal old time it proved.
We read in the Richmond papers of the thousands and thousands of boxes that had been passed en route to the army, sent by the ladies of Richmond and other cities, but few found their way to us. The greater part of them were for the troops from the far South who were too distant from their homes to receive anything from their own families. The Virginians were supposed to have been cared for by their own relatives and friends; but some of them were not, as we all know.”
“By Lawrence Van Alstyne
December 24, 1863
As tomorrow is Christmas we went out and made such purchases of good things as our purses would allow, and these we turned over to George and Henry for safe keeping and for cooking on the morrow. After that we went across the street to see what was in a tent that had lately been put up there. We found it a sort of show. There was a big snake in a showcase filled with cheap looking jewelry, each piece having a number attached to it. Also, a dice cup and dice. For $1.00 one could throw once, and any number of spots that came up would entitle the thrower to the piece of jewelry with a corresponding number on it.
Just as it had all been explained to us, a greenhorn-looking chap came in and, after the thing had been explained to him, said he was always unlucky with dice, but if one of us would throw for him he would risk a dollar just to see how the game worked. Gorton is such an accommodating fellow I expected he would offer to make the throw for him, but as he said nothing, I took the cup and threw seventeen. The proprietor said it was a very lucky number, and he would give the winner $12 in cash or the fine pin that had the seventeen on it. The fellow took the cash, like a sensible man. I thought there was a chance to make my fortune and was going right in to break the bank, when Gorton, who was wiser than I, took me to one side and told me not to be a fool; that the greenhorn was one of the gang, and that the money I won for him was already his own. Others had come by this time and I soon saw he was right, and I kept out. We watched the game a while, and then went back to Camp Dudley and to bed.
Christmas, and I forgot to hang up my stocking. After getting something to eat, we took stock of our eatables and of our pocket books, and found we could afford a few things we lacked. Gorton said he would invite his horse jockey friend, James Buchanan, not the ex-President, but a little bit of a man who rode the races for a living. So taking Tony with me I went up to a nearby market and bought some oysters and some steak. This with what we had on hand made us a feast such as we had often wished for in vain. Buchanan came, with his saddle in his coat pocket, for he was due at the track in the afternoon. George and Henry outdid themselves in cooking, and we certainly had a feast. There was not much style about it, but it was satisfying. We had overestimated our capacity, and had enough left for the cooks and drummer boys. Buchanan went to the races, Gorton and I went to sleep, and so passed my second Christmas in Dixie.
At night the regiment came back, hungry as wolves. The officers mostly went out for a supper, but Gorton and I had little use for supper. We had just begun to feel comfortable. The regiment had no adventures and saw no enemy. They stopped at Baton Rouge and gave the 128th a surprise. Found them well and hearty, and had a real good visit. I was dreadfully sorry I had missed that treat. I would rather have missed my Christmas dinner. They report that Colonel Smith and Adjutant Wilkinson have resigned to go into the cotton and sugar speculation. The 128th is having a free and easy time, and according to what I am told, discipline is rather slack. But the stuff is in them, and if called on every man will be found ready for duty. The loose discipline comes of having nothing to do. I don’t blame them for having their fun while they can, for there is no telling when they will have the other thing.
From Diary of an Enlisted Man by Lawrence Van Alstyne. New Haven, Conn., 1910.”
“The stranger had a queer, quaint, and remarkable aspect. A great fur cap of the richest and darkest sable covered his head. An immense greatcoat, trimmed with the same choice fur, reached to his knees. The fur collar of his coat was upturned to cover his face. Long top boots, liked and trimmed with fur, covered his feet. In his hand he carried a black valise. At first sight we surmised that he might be a messenger from the Emperor of Russia. But on the other hand, his black valise looked suspicious.
At the thought, an imaginary odor of phosphorus filled the room. Was there an infernal machine in that black valise? So prompt are the operations of the mind that but a second or two had elapsed before we had framed, weighed, and dismissed them all, and were courteously asking the stranger to state his business.
Santa Clause Visits the New York Herald Office
(Christmas Eve 1864)”
“Skating and dancing are the only two forms of recreative exercise within the reach of the gentler sex, the former being infinitely more healthful than the latter, from the fact that the rapid motion through a clear, bracing atmosphere, incident to skating, quickens the circulation and introduces the pure oxygen of nature into the system, instead of the noxious gases of the ballroom, where the atmosphere is redolent of carbonic acid, frivolous tittle tattle, eau de cologne, insipid small talk, cutaneous exhalations, and simpering stupidity. The contrast, too, between the social surroundings of the skating pond and the ballroom is equally in favor of the outdoor recreation.
But there is one circumstance which tends to give skating the precedence over any other amusement, and that is the privilege a gentleman enjoys of imparting instruction in the art to his fair companion. To intervene, just in the critical moment, between her departure from the perpendicular and her assumption of the horizontal is to enjoy a combination of duty and pleasure not often within reach, and no relation is more calculated to produce tender attachments than that of pupil and tutor under such circumstances. In fact, the exercise not only brings roses to the cheeks, and imparts buoyancy to the spirits, but weaves nets to catch Cupid, and makes cages to retain him.
From The New York Herald, December 24, 1864.”
“Could it be possible?—as by the match with which Stuyvesant and I lighted our cigars, we saw my watch—ten o’clock!
“Stuyvesant,” I whispered, “we are in for an adventure sure enough. I don’t know exactly where we are, but the horses are about used up, and I’m frozen.”
He turned and boldly told the party our situation, trying to make it out as a jolly good joke. The ladies did not appreciate it, except little Lucy. She did not say much, but evidently thought it a most delightful experience of romantic reality. Adelaide and Mrs. Grayson were really alarmed, and I am pretty sure that as we drove on again, I heard Cousin Daisy repeating parts of Eastman’s Snow Storm:
“But cold and dead by the sunken log,
Are they who came from the town.”
We pushed on for another half hour, which seemed a whole night time, and then pulled up before a farmhouse, in which the inmates were a long while under blankets. A rascally cur screeched and yelped at us. That, however, and our united voices calling for about ten minutes, aroused someone, for we heard a sash frostily resist lifting, and a male nightmare full voice say, “What in the devil do you want?”
Stuyvesant asked for the necessary information, and we learned that we were twelve miles from our destination and four from the nearest village. The window dropped with a bang, but the word reached me, too, something like “jam,” or “slam,” or “ram.”
“Ho! Halloo!” sang out Stuyvesant in alarm, “where in the mischief are you driving, Earnest? Here we are over the runners in a drift.”
The fact is, I had my eyes on a dark, irregular building just ahead, and I was trying to make out if it was a poorhouse or a jail.”
“. . . and so we arrived at a ford that of course we couldn’t cross.
To crown it all, it was raining. Captains Denegre and Tucker went off in the gathering darkness through mud ankle-deep, reappearing with news of a house somewhere into which we might be taken. Whatever failed us in those days, it was not Virginian hospitality! The good people whose home we invaded seemed more than pleased to receive us, and next morning betimes started us again “On to Richmond.” By that time all Christmas cheer had gone out of us. To reach a ferry, where there was only a tiny makeshift of a skiff, we and the mules wearily took up the burden of life again, plodding five miles through sloughs and hopeless mud, up perpendicular hills and down again, till every bone ached and philosophy ceased to be a virtue.
Once more on the shores of classic Pamunkey, liquid mud flowing everywhere, in prospect a crossing, two by two, in a miserable egg-shell made of slimy planks, the bottom quite under water! The crowning feat of our expedition was, on reaching the other shore, all vehicles failing, to take heart of grace and walk six miles, in a downpour, to the nearest station of the railway. If it is asked what were our notions of perfection, I would answer that in those days we were sustained by what Cervantes styled “the bounding of the soul, the bursting of laughter, and the quicksilver of the five senses.”
From Recollections Grave and Gay by Mrs. Burton Harrison. Scribners, New York, 1911.”
December 25, 1861
My Dear Daughter:
Having distributed such poor Christmas gifts as I had to those around me, I have been looking for something for you. Trifles even are hard to get these war times, and you must not therefore expect more. I have sent you what I thought most useful in your separation from me and hope it will be of some service. Though stigmatized as “vile dross,” it has never been a drug with me. That you may never want for it, restrict your wants to your necessities. Yet how little will it purchase! But see how God provides for our pleasure in every way. To compensate for such “trash,” I send you some sweet violets that I gathered for you this morning while covered with dense white frost, whose crystals glittered in the bright sun like diamonds, and formed a brooch of rare beauty and sweetness which could not be fabricated by the expenditure of a world of money.
May God guard and preserve you for me, my dear daughter! Among the calamities of war, the hardest to bear, perhaps, is the separation of families and friends. Yet all must be endured to accomplish our independence and maintain our self-government. In my absence from you I have thought of you very often and regretted I could do nothing for your comfort. Your old home, if not destroyed by our enemies, has been so desecrated that I cannot bear to think of it. I should have preferred it to have been wiped from the earth, its beautiful hill sunk, and its sacred trees buried rather than to have been degraded by the presence of those who revel in the ill they do for their own selfish purposes.
I pray for a better spirit and that the hearts of our enemies may be changed. In your homeless condition I hope you make yourself contented and useful. Occupy yourself in aiding those more helpless than yourself. Think always of your father.
“In the midst of this scene of enjoyment, a solitary horseman rode up to the house, dismounted and entered--a tall soldierly looking man in uniform of a captain of infantry. Seeing that we were a private party and believing himself to be an intruder, he was about to beat a retreat, but we pressed him to join us, and after some hesitation he consented to do so. He introduced himself as Captain Atkins of Wheat's battalion and told us that the battalion was on picket duty, and he on the grand round, and had come out of his way to warm himself by the hospital fireside of the tavern. Learning from him that Major Wheat was on the line, Meade and I started off in search of him. We found him at his headquarters, a fly tent under a tree at the crossroad, and it required no great deal of eloquence to induce him to join our dinner party.
W. F. Shippey, C.S.A.”
A Confederate Christmas Story
There was, first, behind the clear crystal pane, a mammoth turkey, so fat that it must have submitted to be killed from sheer inability to eat and move, hung all around with sausage balls and embowered in crisp white celery with its feathered tops. Many a belated housekeeper or father of a family, passing by, cast loving glances at the monster bird, and turned away with their hands on depleted purses and arms full of brown paper parcels. Then there were straw baskets of eggs, white and shining with the delightful prospect of translation into future eggnogs; pale yellow butter stamped with ears of corn, bee hives, and statuesque cows with their tails in an attitude. But these were all substantials, and the principal attraction was the opposition window, where great pyramids of golden oranges, scaly brown pineapples, festoons of bananas, boxes of figs and raisins with their covers thrown temptingly aside, foreign sauces and pickles, cheeses, and gilded walnuts were arranged in picturesque regularity, jut, as it seemed, almost within reach of one’s olfactories and mouth, until a closer proximity realized the fact of that thick plate glass between. Inside it was just the same: there were barrels and boxes in a perfect wilderness; curious old foreign packages and chests, savory of rare teas and rarer jellies; cinnamon odors like gales from Araby meeting you at every turn; but yet everything, from the shining mahogany counter under the brilliant gaslight, up to the broad, clean, round face of the jolly grocer Pin, was so neat and orderly and inviting that you felt inclined to believe yourself requested to come in and take off things by the pocketful, without paying a solitary cent.
I acknowledge that it was an unreasonable distribution of favors for Mr. Pin to own, all to himself, this abundance of good things. Now, in my opinion, little children ought to be the shop keepers when there are apples and oranges to be sold, and I know they will all agree with me, for I well remember my earliest ambition was that my papa would turn confectioner, and then I could eat my way right through the store. But our friend John Pin was an appreciative person, and not by any means forgetful of his benefits. All day long and throughout the short afternoon, his domain had been thronged with busy buyers, old and young, and himself and his assistant (a meager-looking young man of about the dimensions of a knitting needle) constantly employed in supplying their demands.
From the Southern Illustrated News.”
Philip Van Doren Stern
- Date of birth: September 10, 1900
- Died: July 31, 1984
- Born: in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, , The United States.
- Description: Philip Van Doren Stern was an American author, editor, and Civil War historian whose story "The Greatest Gift," published in 1943, inspired the classic Christmas film It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
Philip Van Doren Stern was born in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania into a family of humble means. His Pennsylvania-born father was a traveling merchant of Bavarian descent, who came to Wyalusing from West Virginia with his New Jersey-born wife. Stern grew up in Brooklyn, New York and New Jersey, and graduated from Rutgers University.
After graduating from Rutgers in 1924, Philip Van Doren Stern worked in advertising before switching to a career as a designer and editor in publishing.
He was a historian and author of some 40 books and editor most known for his books on the Civil War that a New York Times obituary called "authoritative" and "widely respected by scholars". As an editor, he worked at Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, and Alfred A. Knopf. He compiled and annotated short story collections and the writings and letters of Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry David Thoreau.
During World War II, he was a member of the planning board of the United States Office of War Information. He was the general manager of Editions for the Armed Services, which resized popular books so Americans serving in the military could store them in the pockets of their uniforms. He compiled and edited many collections and anthologies of short stories, pictorial books, annotations, and books on historical subjects.
Stern edited, compiled, and introduced The Viking Portable Poe in 1945, a compact collection of letters, short stories, poems, and essays by Edgar Allan Poe. Stern wrote the biographical introduction to the collection, selected the contents included, and wrote introductory essays on the varying genres. The collection became a standard single-volume anthology of Poe's works for almost fifty years.