March 8, 2010

Birth of Edwin Percy Whipple

Edwin Percy Whipple (that's E. P. Whipple to his readers) was born March 8, 1819. He got his feet wet as a critic for the Philadelphia-based Graham's Magazine for a time before joining the Literary World as a correspondent to the Duyckinck brothers. Ultimately, as historian Perry Miller noted, he became "Boston's most popular critic."

In fact, by the end of his life he was one of the most prolific critics and essayists in the United States. His diverse work led him to write introductions to Charles Dickens ("A Tale of Two Cities is one of the most thrilling narratives in the whole range of the literature of fiction."), to oversee the publication of the speeches of Daniel Webster, to become a trustee of the Boston Public Library, and to collaborate with publisher James T. Fields on a massive compendium of the history of British poetry. He was popular and hung out with all the literary greats; Whipple dedicated a book to John Greenleaf Whittier ("the people's poet" and "loyal friend") and even served as a pallbearer for Nathaniel Hawthorne (who he advised in naming one of his novels) upon his death in 1864.

But, Whipple had one major problem, one which tends to haunt even the best of critics: personal bias. When others made fun of Boston as a "mutual admiration society," they were likely referring to Whipple (and Fields, but that's a different story). Boston became a world where critics, editors, and writers often offered to scratch one's back for a scratch in return. Much of it was innocent, of course, and done without malice; many of these Bostonians were sincere friends, after all. Such is the case of the Saturday Club, of which Whipple was a member.

The Saturday Club met once a month beginning in 1855 at the Parker House (now the Omni Parker Hotel) for extravagant meals — and equally extravagant conversation. The group included writers, philosophers, historians, and scientists, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson's son Edward later wrote a history of the Saturday Club and its members, noting about Whipple (apparently without irony!): "No other member of the Saturday Club has ever been more loyally felicitous in characterizing the literary work of his associates." In other words, any Bostonian was guaranteed a good review from Boston critic E. P. Whipple.

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