September 11, 2014

Davidson: But your fame shall never die

The Battle of Lake Champlain during the War of 1812 took place on September 11, 1814. Many of the sailors who were killed during that military engagement were buried in a mass grave on Crab Island, just outside the town of Plattsburgh, New York.

About eight years later, the young Plattsburgh-born poet Lucretia Maria Davidson traveled across Lake Champlain in a steamboat and saw Crab Island. Remembering the dead that remained interred and unmarked there, the 14-year old poet wrote "Reflections, on Crossing Lake Champlain in the Steamboat Phoenix":

Islet on the lake's calm bosom,
    In thy breast rich treasures lie;
Heroes! there your bones shall moulder,
    But your fame shall never die.

Islet on the lake's calm bosom,
    Sleep serenely in thy bed;
Brightest gem our waves can boast,
    Guardian angel of the dead!

Calm upon the waves recline,
    Till great Nature's reign is o'er;
Until old and swift-winged time
    Sinks, and order is no more.

Then thy guardianship shall cease,
    Then shall rock thy aged bed;
And when Heaven's last trump shall sound,
    Thou shalt yield thy noble dead!

Davidson was already sick with the tuberculosis that would kill her about two years writing the above poem. She was 16. Her sincere interest in poetry, coupled with her young innocence, lent credence to the belief that her tuberculosis inspired her to have a strong poetic sensibility. Her supporters after her death included Samuel F. B. Morse and Catharine Maria Sedgwick each of whom assisted with posthumous publications of her work.

September 5, 2014

Cooper and Wyandotté: Merciful Providence!

With the last of his Leatherstocking novels two years behind him, James Fenimore Cooper turned to another historical period for his novel Wyandotté, or, The Hutted Knoll: the American Revolution. Published on September 5, 1843, Wyandotté was not the first of Cooper's books set in that era, though it had been some twenty years since his previous books The Spy (1821) and Lionel Lincoln (1825)

The action of Cooper's book takes place in a remote valley in Otsego County (where Cooper lived much of his life), a bit removed from the main events of the period. Despite not focusing on famous real events, the author couched his story in reality; as he noted in his preface, the stories he told in this book were "distinctive in many of their leading facts, if not rigidly true in the details." He noted his concern about the proliferation of American Revolution related stories which were quickly becoming more legend than truth because of "pseudo-patriotism." Cooper warned, "Nothing is really patriotic, however, that is not strictly true and just." He was particularly concerned about the hard-line distinction between "good guy" Revolutionaries and "bad guy" Tories, which he intended to complicate. Here is how one Tory breaks the news of the rebellion to his family in the novel:

"Merciful Providence!" exclaimed Mrs. Willoughby—"What can you mean, my son?"

"I mean, mother, that civil war has actually commenced in the colonies, and that the people of your blood and race are, in open arms, against the people of my father's native country—in a word, against me."

"How can that be, Robert? Who would dare to strike a blow against the king?"

"When men get excited, and their passions are once inflamed, they will do much, my mother, that they might not dream of, else."

"This must be a mistake! Some evil-disposed person has told you this, Robert, knowing your attachment to the crown."

"I wish it were so, dear madam; but my own eyes have seen—I may say my own flesh has felt, the contrary."

In fact, the Willoughbys are somewhat torn in deciding their allegiance in the novel. Part of Cooper's sympathy for Tories and those who were loyal to England during the Revolution may have been personal: some of his ancestors were counted among that group. Several reviews of Wyandotté focused on whether or not the history in the book was accurate.

August 26, 2014

Death of Tucker: not the worst

Nathaniel Beverley Tucker lived a varied life before his death on August 26, 1851, just shy of his 67th birthday. Born in Chesterfield County, Virginia, and several men in his family rose to prominence in politics, education, and the law. He served during the War of 1812 before moving to the Missouri Territory and earning the rank of judge. He outlived two of his three wives by the time he began working at his alma mater, the College of William and Mary. By the 1830s and 1840s, he was already espousing a form of secession that allowed state sovereignty.

Tucker was also a published author who published three novels and contributed to periodicals, particularly several essays in the pages of the Southern Literary Messenger. One of his works, The Partisan Leader: A Tale of the Future, was set in the "future" of 1849 when it was published in 1836 and, according to some, correctly predicted the birth of the Confederacy. Certainly, Tucker had been advocating for secession for years: "Disunion is not the worst of possible evils," he once claimed, and suggested breaking up the states be an open discussion.

From the dialogue of a character in his novel George Balcombe (1836):

"...It is only by blunders that we learn wisdom. You are too young to have made many as yet. God forbid, that when you shall have made as many as I have, you should have profited as little by them. But it will not be so. You take the right plan to get the full benefit of all you make. I am not sure," continued he, " that we do not purchase all our good qualities by the exercise of their opposites. How else does experience of danger make men brave? If they were not scared at first, then they were brave at first. If they were scared, then the effect of fear upon the mind has been to engender courage. Virtue, indeed, may be formed by habit. But who has a habit of virtue 1 very few. The rest have to arrive at virtue by the roundabout road of crime and repentance; as if a man should follow the sun around the earth to reach a point but a few degrees east of that from which he started. But it is God's plan of accomplishing his greatest end, and must be the best plan."

August 22, 2014

Birth of Paulding: homebred feeling

James Kirke Paulding's main goal in literature was to promote the United States, its history, its people, and its ideals. "Mr. Paulding's writings are distinguished for a decided nationality," summed up one contemporary editor, who noted all his characters were distinctly American.

Born in Dutchess County in New York on August 22, 1778, he was the son of William Paulding, who had assisted financially with the American Revolution. Another family member was involved with the capture of John André. His first literary effort, however, was less lofty: "in a frolicsome mood" he joined with his friend Washington Irving to produce the satirical Salmagundi (beginning in 1807). That humorous periodical, however, laid the groundwork for his more purposeful satire, The Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan during a period in which English critics were particularly harsh in commenting on American culture (Paulding's personification of Great Britain had "a devilish, quarrelsome, overbearing disposition, which was always getting him into some scrape or other").

In fact, Paulding began experimenting with a variety of literary forms: satire, poetry, novels, drama, and biography. Perhaps because he was writing so early in American literary history, at a time without significant competition, he became fairly well known as a man of letters. He was also named Secretary of the Navy in 1838.

Nineteenth century critics seemed truly to admire Paulding, in part because of his connection to Irving. One contemporary noted "his affection for the democratical institutions of his country" was easily seen in his work and, further, his writing style was not "polished" but expressed "boldly and carelessly, without paying too nice a regard to the decrees of taste, and the canons of criticism." Some accounts suggest he never modified his rough drafts or preplanned his plots, preferring spontaneity in his work.

Perhaps that lack of polish explains the excessive length of his ambitious poem The Backwoodsman (1818), an early rallying cry for Americanism in literature. As he says in his preface, his hope was to invite young authors to focus their attentions to home and the United States. He cast away the legendary writers of the past like Homer, who represented an uncivilized age. Following this "humble theme" of nationalism, the poem evokes the landscape, history, and character of the United States as a source of literary inspiration. Further, though Paulding admits that art and poetry have not been the focus in this new country, he looks forward to the day when American culture overtakes European culture as superior:

Neglected Muse! of this our western clime,
How long in servile, imitative rhyme,
Wilt thou thy stifled energies impart,
And miss the path that leads to every heart?
How long repress the brave decisive flight,
Warm'd by thy native fires, led by thy native light?
Thrice happy he who first shall strike the lyre,
With homebred feeling, and with homebred fire;
He need not envy any favour'd bard,
Who Fame's bright meed, and Fortune's smiles reward;
Secure, that wheresoe'er this empire rolls,
Or east, or west, or tow'rd the firm fixed poles,
While Europe's ancient honours fade away,
And sink the glories of her better day,

August 19, 2014

Birth of Goodrich: instead of wickedness

In the western part of the State of Connecticut, is a small town by the name of Ridgefield. This title is descriptive, and indicates the general form and position of the place. It is, in fact, a collection of hills, rolled into one general and commanding elevation. On the west is a ridge of mountains, forming the boundary between the States of Connecticut and New York; to the south the land spreads out in wooded undulations to Long Island Sound; east and north, a succession of hills, some rising up against the sky, and others fading away in the distance, bound the horizon. In this town, in an antiquated and rather dilapidated house of shingles and clapboards, I was born on the 19th of August, 1793.

Thus Samuel Griswold Goodrich explains his own birth on August 19, 1793, in his Recollections of a Lifetime (1857). He was one of ten children (only eight of whom survived past infancy) and was raised in near poverty. His father, a minister, made only $400 a year. As such, young Goodrich was mostly self-educated. He later became a bookseller and publisher.

In the literary world, Goodrich is perhaps most well-known for founding and editing the annual gift book The Token — which published the writings of Nathaniel Parker Willis, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among others — as well as the Peter Parley series of educational anecdotes for children. Peter Parley's book featured an elderly gentleman telling stories about history, geography, biography, science, and other miscellaneous topics. The series proved both popular and lucrative; he later recalled his optimism: "Well, thought I, if this goes on I may yet rival Mother Goose!"

Goodrich's self-education proved his greatest inspiration for the future. As a boy, he read Robinson Crusoe, the Bible, natural history, and biographies. Looking back as an adult, he believed it was all a positive influence on him. It was through this background, he writes,

...that I first formed the conception of the Parley Tales— the general idea of which was to make nursery books reasonable and truthful, and thus to feed the young mind upon things wholesome and pure, instead of things monstrous, false, and pestilent: that we should use the same prudence in giving aliment to the mind and soul, as to the body; and as we would not give blood and poison as food for the latter, we should not administer cruelty and violence, terror and impurity, to the other. In short, that the elements of nursery books should consist of beauty instead of deformity, goodness instead of wickedness, decency instead of vulgarity.

August 13, 2014

Bunner's Nine Cent-Girls: Catch the difference?

New York author Henry Cuyler Bunner certainly had a good sense of humor, becoming assistant editor then full editor of the comic weekly magazine Puck. It was in that magazine, in its August 13, 1890 issue, that he published his short story "The Nine Cent-Girls." "The Nine-cent Girls?" asked the character Jack Winfield. "No," responded his friend Richard Cutter, "the Nine Cent-Girls. Catch the difference?"

The two men are jilted, or at least unsuccessful, lovers. Winfield vows to get a wife soon, despite being stuck in the "girlless wilderness" of a ranch in Montana. His friend tells him about the town of Tusculum, New York, which is nearly overrun with women (as all the men move to New York City to make their mark). The Nine Cent-Girls are sisters who each look like the face of the Indian lady on the little red cent, "the neatest and most artistic coin that the United States government has ever struck."

Despite being resigned never to marry, Cutter is deputed to visit the girls on behalf of the ranchers. But, when he calls at their home in Tusculum, he learns that the patriarch had died and no male relative had assumed a similar head of household role for them. "The whole scheme [is] busted," Cutter thinks. Still, somehow, he convinces the eldest of the women, Euphrosyne, to bring the whole group to the ranch in Montana. Euphrosyne, apparently in her 30s, is too old to get married herself, but she thinks it would be good for her sisters. Accordingly, she sells the house and prepares to go West.

Illustration by S. B. Griffin, 1891
On the train ride, he is self-conscious that he might be doing something wrong. Fellow passengers wonder about the man leading the nine similar-looking women (all wearing the same outfit): one thinks they are a baseball team, another a minstrel group. When those assumptions are proven wrong, other gossip spreads, and Euphrosyne changes her mind: "Nine young unmarried women can not go West with a young man — if you had heard what people were saying all around us in the cars — you don't know." Cutter sheepishly notes that if only a married woman were leading the group, it might be different. She agrees, and he admits he has taken a fancy to one of the girls.

"Why, Mr. Cutter!" Miss Euphrosyne cried, "I had no idea that you — you — ever — though of — is it Clytie?
"No," said Mr. Cutter, "it isn't Clytie."
"Is it — is it — " Miss Euphrosyne's eyes lit up with hope long since extinguished, "is it Aurora?"
"No!" Dick Cutter could have been heard three rooms off. "No!" he said, with all his lungs... "It's YOU — Y-O-U! I want to marry you, and what's more, I'm going to!"

Sure enough, they are married an hour later (though it's not stated if the wedding took place on the train or at one of the stops). Despite the odd circumstances behind their marriage, it seems Mr. and Mrs. Cutter are quite happy — and, what's more, the other eight Cent-Girls are soon married too. The author, Henry Cuyler Bunner, was himself married, though Alice Learned Bunner was from neither New York nor Montana; she was from Connecticut (and a published author herself).

August 9, 2014

Meek and Americanism: brilliant with the stars

Alexander Beaufort Meek was 15 years old when he enrolled at the University of Georgia, though he transferred to the new University of Alabama in 1831. He had just turned 30 when he returned to the University of Georgia to give an address to the Phi Betta Kappa and Demosthenian Societies. By then, he was fairly accomplished in the legal world, having been named a probate judge in Alabama. "You have called me back," Meek said in his speech on August 8, 1844, "from a distant home, over a wide interval of years, to the scene of my earliest collegiate life."

Meek took the opportunity to consider the reactions to revisiting a once familiar place: lament for things now gone, excitement over positive change. For Meek, who worked by then both in literature and government, change was important in his native South. Literature and government could be improved and, in turn, could improve the character of the region, as well as the nation as a whole. Writing and the law are not the end goal for mankind, they are the path to follow "to accomplish the great design for which man was created". To grow as a people is to improve constantly over time, always spiraling upward with great deeds and accomplishments, but never satisfied at attaining an end result:

Mankind have learned that governments are somewhat more than games or machines kept in curious motion for the amusement and edification of rulers; and literatures are beginning to be regarded, not as the phantasmagoria of poets and dreamers, the sunset scaffoldings of fancy, but as something very far beyond that. The old secret has come out, that man's immortality has already begun, and, by these things, you are moulding and fashioning him in his destinies forever.

In literature, Meek says, the goal is to focus on "Americanism" (the speech was named "Americanism in Literature"). We must grow in our letters just as we have been experiencing massive population growth. Among his suggestions to improve American writing, he emphasizes it must have national purpose and, more than that, that writing must be as representative as the diversity of the landscape of the entire nation:

Our country has extended her jurisdiction over the fairest and most fertile regions. The rich bounty is poured into her lap, and breathes its influence upon her population. Their capacities are not pent and thwarted by the narrow limits which restrict the citizens of other countries... Such are some of the physical aspects of our country, and such the influence they are destined to have upon our national mind. Very evidently they constitute noble sources of inspiration, illustration and description.

Not just the diversity of the landscape, Meek emphasizes, but the country also has a diversity of people, with ancestry all over the world. Further, the unique version of democracy practiced in the United States offers opportunities of inspiration. Though we have already succeeded with a few great writers, particularly Washington Irving and historian George Bancroft, we continue to look to the future, Meek says, and strive to grow. Meek, of course, will contribute to that Americanism as a poet, historian, and essayist. He concludes:

Let us then abide in the faith that this country of ours, as she is destined to present to the world, the proudest spectacle of political greatness ever beheld, will not be neglectful of the other, the highest interest of humanity, its intellectual ascension ; but that both shall flourish here, in unexampled splendor, with reciprocal benefit, beneath the ample folds of that banner, which shall then float out, in its blue beauty, like a tropical night, brilliant with the stars of a whole hemisphere!