As an illustrator, Abbey combined daintiness with a fair measure of dramatic feeling for the pose. A modicum of old Benjamin West’s tendency to the grandiose would have done Abbey no harm; but if his imagination balked at the higher flights often attained by Gustave Dore, and sometimes by Elihu Vedder, yet there is a charm in his sobriety, there is something which compels our respect in the workmanlike method, in the evidences of thoroughness which appeared in all he wrought. Some of his Shakespeare figures linger in the memory like that of Iago as played by Edwin Booth, or that of Rosalind as played by Modjeska.
—Charles de Kay
Edwin A. Abbey was born in Philadelphia (not of his own choosing) in the year Eighteen Hundred Fifty-two. His parents were blessed in that they had neither poverty nor riches. Their ambition for Edwin was that he should enter one of the so-called Learned Professions; but this was not to the boy’s taste. I fear me he was a heretic through prenatal influences, for they do say that he was a child of his mother. This mother’s mind was tinted with her Quaker associations until she doubted the five points of Calvinism and had small faith in the Thirty-nine Articles. She was able to think for herself and act for herself; and as she perceived that the preachers were making a guess, so she discovered that doctors with bushy eyebrows, who wore dogskin gloves in Summer and who coughed when you asked them a question–gaining time to formulate a reply–didn’t know much more about measles, mumps, chicken-pox and whooping-cough than she did herself. Philadelphia has always had a plethora of Medical Journals and dogmatic doctors. Living in Philadelphia and having had a little experience with doctors, Mrs. Abbey let them severely alone and prescribed the pediluvium, hop-tea, sulphur and molasses and a roll-up in warm blankets for everything–and with great success. Beyond this she filled the day with work and kept everybody else at work. The moral of Old Deacon Buffum, “Blessed is the man who has found some one to do his work,” had no place in her creed. To her, every one had his work that no other could do, and every day had its work which could not be done any other day, and success and health and happiness lay in doing well whatever you attempted.
Having eliminated two of the Learned Professions from her ambitions for her boy, the Law was left as the only choice.
To be a Philadelphia lawyer is a proud and vaulting ambition. Philadelphia lawyers are exceedingly astute, and are able to confuse the simplest propositions, thus hopelessly befogging judge and jury. On the banks of the Schuylkill all jurors are provided with dice so as to decide the cases with perfect justice–small dice for little cases and large dice for big ones. Philadelphia lawyers carry green bags full of briefs, remarkable for everything but brevity; also statutes, recognizances, tenures, double-vouchers, fines, recoveries, indentures, not to mention quiddities, quillets, quirks and quips. Philadelphia lawyers have high foreheads and many clients. Lawyers are educated men, looked up to and respected by all–this was the Abbey idea. Of course, it will be observed that it was an idea that could be held by people only who had viewed lawyers from a safe distance.
Fortunately for the Abbeys, they had really no more use for the lawyers than they had for the two other Learned Professions. Their idea of a lawyer was gained from seeing one pass their house every morning at nine forty-five, for ten years. He wore a high hat, and carried a gold-headed cane in one hand and a green bag in the other. He lived on Walnut Street, below Ninth in a three-story house with white marble steps and white shutters, tied with black strips of bombazine in token of the death of a brother who passed out in infancy.