January 11, 2013

Birth of Taylor: preposterous mementos

"If I were called upon to single out of my thirty years' recollections of Bayard Taylor," wrote Richard Henry Stoddard in his 1893 book Recollections, Personal and Literary, "the one above all others by which I should prefer to remember him, it would be the night on which we celebrated his fortieth birthday (January 11, 1865)."

By the age of 40, Taylor had already published about 10 books, had traveled throughout the United States, Europe, and beyond, outlived his first wife, remarried, built a home in Pennsylvania, and serve his country as a diplomat in Russia. To celebrate his birthday, Stoddard and others looked to the recent celebration of William Cullen Bryant's 70th birthday, the proceedings of which were printed in book form by the Century Club. "I resolved to burlesque that account," Stoddard recalled, and friends sought the "most absurdly appropriate (or inappropriate)" gifts and tokens to present as "preposterous mementos." Stoddard continues his account:

I imagined the decoration of Bayard Taylor's chambers, the gathering of his friends, and wrote letters of regret from those who could not be present, but who somehow happened to be present in spite of their letters. The reading of these missives and sundry copies of verse, and the bestowal of our mementos, provoked more furi than had ever before, or has ever since, distinguished our Taylor nights. It was not so much that they were comical in themselves (though they were) as that we were willing to fool and to be fooled to the top of our bent. The table was in a roar till long after midnight.

On January 11, 1825, 40 years before that party, Bayard Taylor was born in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Though he was his parents' fourth child, he was the first to survive past infancy. Raised as a Quaker, he had been named after a Delaware senator, taking that man's last name as his first. As a boy, he already exhibited the need to explore which defined his adult life (and his writing career). But, as he clarified in his book At Home and Abroad (1859), it wasn't a desire merely to walk that inspired him:

In looking back to my childhood, I can recall no such instinct of perambulation; but on the contrary, the intensest desire to climb upward—so that without shifting the circle of my horizon, I could yet extend it, and take in a far wider sweep of vision. I envied every bird that sat swinging upon the topmost bough of the great, century-old cherry tree; the weather-cock on our barn seemed to me to whirl in a higher region of the air; and to rise from the earth in a balloon, was a bliss which I would almost have given my life to enjoy.


  1. These letters of regret are held in Cornell's Rare Manuscript Collection. They are as hysterical now as when Stoddard wrote them. Even the august silence of the reading room couldn't keep me from chuckling as I read them this fall.

  2. Good to hear! I, for one, am of the mind that 19th century humor is still funny.