He was born at Mount Tabor near Danby, Vt. He graduated at Williams College in 1857 and at the Andover Theological Seminary in 1860. Though he was licensed to preach, he chose other fields of endeavor.
From 1863 to 1869 he was managing editor of Harper's Weekly, and in the latter year became editor of Harper's Monthly. In 1863-64, he lectured before the Lowell Institute, Boston, on "The Structure of Paganism." He was known as a classical student of large acquirements, particularly in connection with Greek literature and thought; and his first literary ventures were two articles contributed to the Atlantic on the Eleusinian Mysteries.
His personality pervaded Harper's Magazine during his long editorial service, which was unobtrusive but distinctive. He deigned to recognize the novice and to encourage the best kind of Americanism. He collaborated with A.H. Guernsey in the preparation of Harper's Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion (1862-65). His publications include a poem, The Ancient Lay of Sorrow (1872), two profound metaphysical essays, God in His World (1890, published anonymously), and A Study of Death (1895), both extensively read and enthusiastically received by critics, and Magazine Writing and the New Literature (1908). He married Ada Foster Murray on 22 February 1900 in Metuchen, New Jersey. His stepdaughter, Aline Murray Kilmer, was a published poet and wife of (Alfred) Joyce Kilmer, author of the famous "Trees" poem. With William Dean Howells he edited numerous collections of stories by American writers. He was an early member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
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