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3/22/19

Of course I am writing entries too often, but this will also function as a date marker, because it provides some small evidence for past-life emotional memory. I first encountered writer John Townsend Trowbridge, in a mention that he had written a poem about John Greenleaf Whittier's childhood, called "A Story of the Barefoot Boy." The title is a reference to a poem by Whittier, himself, called "The Barefoot Boy"; and this story was told to him by Whittier's brother, i.e., Mathew Franklin Whittier. That story had to do with both brothers attempting to climb by taking turns stepping up into each other's cupped hands, an obvious impossibility. Trowbridge wrote it as having the moral that "brothers" should help raise each other up. He intended, as I recall, to read it at Whittier's 70th birthday party--the same for which Mathew induced Samuel Clemens to read his story (revised by Clemens to be set in California), which poked mischievous fun at the honored guests, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Mathew was also personally acquainted with these men, and has mentioned, specifically, that he was personal friends with Holmes.

The story could not have been as Trowbridge represented it, because the brothers were five years apart in age. It had to have been Mathew's idea, say, at age five, with his brother playing along (or egging him on) at age 10. Perhaps realizing this is the real reason why Trowbridge never read his poem at the birthday party.

I learned that Mathew lived near Trowbridge's home in Arlington, Mass. in the 1860's. I also learned that Trowbridge attended Mathew's funeral. But a careful reading of Trowbridge's autobiography, "My Own Story: With Recollections of Noted Persons," contained only a brief mention of Mathew in a footnote, regarding the incident of being told the story of John Greenleaf Whittier's childhood. I felt, however, looking at his middle-aged portrait, a strong and personal friendship. I was never able to reconcile this discrepancy; but I tentatively, and sadly, concluded that Mathew must have naively made more of it than Trowbridge did.

Now, when I keyed in the last of the adventure stories, published under the name of Mathew's plagiarist, Francis Durivage, in the Dec. 22, 1849 "Flag of Our Union," I found that on the same page was a humorous sketch by "Paul Creyton." This is the pseudonym used by Trowbridge, usually for his own adventure stories. Trowbridge was also a very fine poet, a fellow-Spiritualist, and a mystic--but at least some of his poetry was signed with his own name. He is not, so far as I'm aware, known for the type of humorous sketches, complete with Yankee dialect, which were Mathew's forte.

That's precisely what we have on this page (along with Mathew's adventure story)--but, to my eye, it's more than that. This is a personal tribute to Mathew, written in Mathew's own style--and it is based on a true-to-life humorous story that Mathew told him, when he was a young man living in boarding houses in New York City. (We know he did so, because he has mentioned it in numerous poems, sketches, essays, etc.)

The introduction to this story reads as follows:

Charley H--, the subject of ths sketch--and an intimate friend of ours, by the way--was not only fond of a good joke, but he was as dry a joker himself as it has ever been our good fortune to meet. he delighted in all sorts of jokes, and such was his passion for the class called practical jokes, that he wouold spend both time and money, hand-labor and brain-labor, and put himself on the greatest trouble and inconvenience, for the bare pleasure of seeing and perpetrating a little fun.

There is a great deal of evidence that Mathew loved jokes and puns; and at least a couple of pieces of evidence showing that he loved practical jokes (like the one he pulled at his brother's 70th birthday party).

Now, there is an alternative interpretation, and that is that what I have interpreted, in this low-resolution image, as "Charley H---," was really "Charley Il---." If so, it could stand for editor and author Charles Parker Ilsley, who was also a personal friend of Mathew's. I don't think so, because it would have to have been mistakenly printed as "II---." There is at least one other example of the cross-bar on the capital letter "H" being lost in this low-res copy:

 

Requesting a hi-res photo of the original could clear up this mystery.

A few more words about Mathew and Trowbridge, while I'm here. Writing in Lucerne, Switzerland as "Quails," Mathew mentioned detailed carvings of, among other things, animals, only half an inch long. On Ebay, I won a little box within a somewhat larger box, containing tiny half-inch-long carvings of what appeared to be deer, on Ebay. It was advertised as having belonged to John Greenleaf Whittier, and indeed, there is a signed note in the bottom of the larger box from Whittier's official biorapher, Samuel Pickard--also Mathew's son-in-law--authenticating it. But these are not deer--they are chamois. And they must be relatively uncommon, as I could find no reference to such carvings on the internet. Mathew must have purchased them, in 1851, as a Christmas present for his sister, Elisabeth. At her death they would have gone to her brother, John Greenleaf Whittier; hence, to his niece, Elizabeth Pickard; then, to Samuel Pickard, and from there, to John Townsend Trowbridge (who was also friends with the Pickards, being younger than Mathew). Trowbridge knew how to carve, and may have carved the outer box. He did have a room dedicated to momentos of this sort. The seller told me he had purchased it in an estate sale in, or near, Arlington, Mass. (where Trowbridge lived).

Trowbridge is said to have been lifelong personal friends with Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber, creator of the "Mrs. Partington" character, and editor/proprietor of the "Carpet-Bag." If I am not mistaken, he also had a financial investment in the "Carpet-Bag," and he was one of its regular contributed. As was Mathew Franklin Whittier, on all counts.

When Mathew was forced due to ill health to retire from the Boston Custom House, his brother put a certain amount of funds at his disposal. Mathew thanked his brother, but tried to dip into it as little as possible. I got the past-life memory "hit" that his brother was primarily the front-man for this fund, and that the money came from Mathew's friends, including and especially Trowbridge.

Trowbridge had the life that Mathew could have had, if he had kept away from controversial subjects. Trowbridge was anti-slavery, and wrote on this subject, but he didn't stick his neck out as far, or as frequently, as Mathew did all of his career. Trowbridge did get in trouble when he was babysitting a Washington, D.C. paper for an editor-friend, and wrote a relatively mild editorial against the Fugitive Slave Law. The piece, published in this conservative region of the country, almost sunk the paper. He also wrote "Cudjo's Cave," as I recall, an anti-slavery novel. But Mathew wrote scathing, anonymous satire against both slavery and the military mentality. Mathew and his beloved Abby were shunned, threatened, and forced to live in marginal housing. They lost both children, and then Abby died of consumption and/or heartache after the death of their second child. Mathew was forced to write anonymously all his life, under dozens of different pseudonyms, which left him open to rampant plagiarism of his works, and short-circuited his chance at fame.

Trowbridge was happily married with a family, an estate, wealth, and some degree of fame. When he wrote his autobiography, it was an account of his friendships and acquaintances with the literati of the time. Again, Mathew was barely mentioned.

Mathew may have requested anonymity in everybody's memoirs, including Trowbridge's. It certainly looks that way. Shillaber broke his promise, only to the extent of referring exclusively to Mathew's one publicly known character, "Ethan Spike," calling him a genius. Edward Elwell, editor of the Portland "Transcript," appears to have kept that promise so literally, that when he lectured about the genre that Mathew founded in America, he left Mathew out of it altogether; and never even mentioned him in his diary (at least, the portion I was able to access, beginning in 1864).

And yet--if this story was, as it clearly appears, written about Mathew and in tribute to his style, Trowbridge is avowing a close friendship--just as I remembered.

Best regards,

Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.

 

Music opening this page: "Sultans of Swing," by Dire Straits,
from the album, "Dire Straits"

 

   

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