August 18, 2013

Death of Kennedy: not worth a debate

John Pendleton Kennedy was 74 years old when he died in Rhode Island on August 18, 1870, so the Baltimore newspaper was rounding up when it asked, "Where is the young man of to-day who is so young as John P. Kennedy at seventy-five?" This tribute considered the man's life a model for all Americans who wished to live good lives, calling him: "A man of wealth, he did not labor to acquire untold riches; a man of leisure, he was not an idler, but dedicated his energies to politics and literature."

Kennedy had served under President Millard Fillmore as Secretary of the Navy after time in Congress for his home state of Maryland (and a stint as Speaker of the House of Delegates there). Earlier than that, however, Kennedy was one of the first American writers of note. His novel, Swallow Barn, or A Sojourn in the Old Dominion was published in 1832, and Horse-Shoe Robinson in 1835. The latter, a historical novel, was compared with the works of his contemporary James Fenimore Cooper; one reviewer called the title character "another Leather Stocking." 

Kennedy sent an early draft of Horse-Shoe Robinson to Washington Irving who, despite being asked to keep it secret, was so "tickled with some parts of it" that he read it aloud to friends. The novel is set during the American Revolution and, as the author noted in a preface, was an attempt "to furnish a picture, and embody the feelings of a period of great excitement and difficulty." Set in the Southern provinces, unlike many contemporary histories which focuses on northern battles, the title character makes his way through the Carolinas and Virginia. Much of the novel depicts the difficulty and uncertainty of this contentious time (especially when the main character meets a traitor to the cause).

Kennedy was mostly retired by the mid 1850s and wrote little other than his early novels. In 1870, he was directed by a physician to go north for his health. After a few weeks in Saratoga, he went on to Newport. In a letter from that summer, he wrote to a friend: "The doubt is, whether my trouble is organic or functional, to which i say that at seventy-five or thereabouts, the difference is not worth a debate." At his death, he was buried in Baltimore's Green Mount Cemetery, the same graveyard where lies Southern poets Sidney Lanier and Edward Coote Pinkney.

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