I crammed too many examples into the previous entry, so I'm saving this for tomorrow, i.e., the 30th. This is a story about a tone-deaf deacon, in a small-town Congregationalist church. The introduction indicates that it probably wasn't written by the man it's generally attributed to (the person introducing it points out that that man is Catholic, so it's highly unlikely). But the real author isn't identified. I think it's Mathew Franklin Whittier, and I'll give my reasons in a minute. But first, I want you to notice his attitude. If he is upset about the wrong attribution, he doesn't let it show. He just says, "it is good, let it be whose it may."
My feeling is that Mathew generally adopted this philosophy, because he was very confident in his abilities--and because he had written so many good sketches. Just taking deacon sketches alone, he probably had written 20 or 30 of them. Let me do a quick digital search, in the background, with the word "deacon" in all of my digitized copies of Mathew's works, and see what number I come up with. Some of these may be references, say, in an essay, or a poem--but most will be humorous sketches featuring deacons
It's still running...
Removing some obvious ones from the count, I got 73. If I take Mathew's character "Ethan Spike" out of the mix (these would be references to a deacon, but not stories about one), I get 57. So, I was probably right, at least 30.
Mathew was contributing heavily to the Boston "Weekly Museum" in 1849. This piece appears in the Nov. 11, 1849 edition.
Appearing in the story is a young lady with an exceptional voice and singing talent, who obviously has had private training. She is given the name "Mary." Abby (Mathew's first wife, four years younger) wrote a story about an exceptional little orphan Irish girl named Mary Mahony, which obviously carries more than a little autobiography. If the girl was Abby--who took her studies very seriously (and herself a bit seriously, too, in youth), this might be her. She and Mathew very likely attended the small Congregationalist church in their neighborhood in East Haverhill, Mass. (This, desite the fact that Mathew was raised Quaker, and she was probably raised Catholic--because this was an anti-slavery church.) It was a minister of that church who married them in 1836.
The style of this piece bothers me just a bit--and I can't say why, exactly. It is Mathew's style, and yet...for one thing it's considerably longer than most of Mathew's stories. It's as though someone has lengthened it.
Mathew has written elsewhere on this same subject of tone-deafness. One of his sketches is called "No Ear for Music"; except in this case, it was an allegory for a person (namely, Albert Pike, I believe), who had no "music in his soul," i.e., who was unable to write his own poetry, and was unethical.
The jury is still out on this one. If it has been reworked by someone, then I will never feel quite right about it. But with all these clues bearing on the question, I think that Mathew Franklin Whittier wrote it; or, alternatively, wrote the original. And if so, it is very likely based on real-life events.
One of Mathew's stories--written under "Quails"*--features a deacon who attempts to sing a song as part of the church service, beginning with the line, "I love to steal away," but who, try as he may, cannot get the right pitch. With each attempt he repeats the words, "I love to steal," until the minister interrupts him: "Seeing our brother's propensities, let us pray!" Very likely, this was the same deacon.
I have keyed this story in roughly; but because proofreading is a separate stage, I prefer to give you a link to the pdf original. There are two or three typos in here, naturally, but they're relatively harmless.
I am struck, again, with the description of the soloist--I really do think this is Abby. Keep in mind that she had been given a private French tutored education, as well as being taught at home by her mother, who is said to have been "brilliant." She was also reticent, something of a loner, and very likely would have been quite nervous standing up in front of even this small congregation. She was probably, what, 11 years old at the time. Again, she took her studies very seriously. And never mind "for a country girl," she was a prodigy, as I've said many times. Here, Mathew would have been wryly repeating the qualified praise she received from the Boston girls.
So this almost certainly identifies the author as Mathew. Because there isn't a child prodigy in every country church. Anyway, it's a great story. My feeling? This was meant to be Mathew's "deacon story masterpiece," the one he really worked on the hardest. I think Mathew probably felt very frustrated, underneath his seeming nonchalance, that it was claimed for someone else. Abby wrote a story about "Mary of the Valley," which is also clearly semi-autobiographical--these two are evidently her earliest prose works--and here, Mary marries "Diffident Jim." Mathew was "Diffident Jim," and from this we see that he kept a cool exterior about things that were probably churning inside him.
There is one other clue, and this one may have been deliberate. In the introduction, Mathew has pointed out, in so many words, that Mr. D'Wolf cannot be the author, because he is Catholic. Note the line, "I will tell thee." This is Quaker speech. Very early in his literary career, Mathew would occasionally slip and use it. Perhaps the story was originally written then; or perhaps Mathew has inserted it, to tell the discerning reader that it was, in fact, written by a Quaker. (If so, that narrows the field considerably.)
If I am ever taken seriously, myself, I will have reclaimed these works for him. There are worse ways to spend a decade or so, even if I'm not his reincarnation (which I am).
By the way, in my current part-time eldercare job, I work with an elderly gentleman whom I could swear is one of these deacons, reincarnated. Precisely what karma is involved, such that I now assist him in his final infirmities, I don't know. But I had wondered, when I moved here to Portland, whether I would run into any old karmic connections. (I would describe him in more detail, but ethics and HIPPA regulations preclude it.)
Finally, I have said that Mathew always wrote in two layers--the obvious layer for entertainment, and a deeper philosophical layer. My Guru, Meher Baba, has indicated (to paraphrase, because I can't find the quote) that people fool themselves by taking their weaknesses as virtues. As a result, they are locked in. Here, Mathew explores the same dynamic. The deacon has equated singing with praying--and praying is a virtue, therefore, he has the right to sing in church. We all do some variation of this--all of us. So this is a teaching story, as almost all of Mathew's stories are. Mathew believed he had once been a "Jewish high priest" in a past life--or so I gather, from several clues he has dropped. These are rabbi's teaching stories. He is just picking up an old talent, and running with it in 19th-century New England, where there was a robust story-telling tradition.
Now, here is an example of intuitive detective work. In the October 22, 1847 edition of the New York "Mirror," is a brief review, or really just a recommendation, of the upcoming edition of "Columbian Magazine." I wouldn't think anything of it, except that it is signed with a single asterisk--and I know this is Mathew's signature. I should mention, here, that Henry Ward Beecher is said to have contributed articles to the "Independent" in the 1850's under the same signature--but this is too early, and the wrong paper. And Mathew was living and writing in New York City at this time.**
The announcement reads:
The Columbian Magazine--Edited by John Inman and West--Published by Ormsby and Hackett, 116 Fulton street.
The November number of this, the most popular of the three-dollar monthlies, opens with three very praiseworthy steel engravings--all fine designs well executed: although the last is, upon the whole, the best of the three. It is intended as a fashion-plate--as an illustration of Lady's Riding Costume for the month, but is, in fact, a well-drawn and well grouped picture, embracing a lady, a gentleman and a horse. "The Schoolmaster returning Home" is perhaps intended as a sly hit at the well-known schoolmaster who has been so long abroad. "The Little Hero" which stands No. I., in the series, is a popular subject--a boy protecting his little brothers from a wolf. The contributors are, in general, by such authors as Mrs. Osgood, (whose vein of graceful pathos seems inexhaustible,) Mrs. C.H. Butler, Mr. Sloman, Miss Russell, John Inman, Rev. J.N. Danforth. T. S. Arthur, and William Wallace. The critical notices are, as usual, racy and judicious, although brief. *
Note that "William Wallace" is listed last, although his contribution--a poem--isn't last. Reading this briefest of reviews, I had the sudden feeling of something being afoot. Mathew wasn't contributing regularly to the "Evening Mirror." There must be something in this issue of "Columbian Magazine." He is leaving a signpost, for anyone in the future who has figured out his "star" signature. I thought, maybe there is one of his own pieces in it. As it turns out, I was close. Here is what he wanted us to see. He didn't write it, but it touched him very deeply, as he had gone through the same experience of losing Abby to consumption.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
*The Boston "Weekly Museum," August 3, 1850. During this period, Mathew was in-between assignments (presumably, as a traveling postal inspector). Being laid-over in Boston, he submitted a series of humorous sketches under "Quails," in lieu of his usual travel letters.
**I know that Mathew heard Beecher speak in April of 1849, because he reported having done so for the first time, to the Boston "Chronotype," in one of his letters signed "X.F.W." There, Mathew is favorably impressed, and devotes a lengthy paragraph to describing Beecher. Very likely they met after the talk; and if during one of their subsequent meetings, Mathew revealed the symbolism behind his asterisk signature--which he had used on occasion since the early 1830's--Beecher might have been intrigued. Perhaps Beecher asked permission to use it in one particular paper, which Mathew would have granted. The asterisk, to Mathew, was a star representing his soul in heaven--just as Abby had apparently picked out two stars in heaven to represent their souls, together. Thus, a convention which historians connect with Henry Ward Beecher, actually would have originated with Abby Poyen.
Music opening this page: "Little Bit Me, Little Bit You,"
by Neil Diamond,
peformed live by Eric Johnson, from the "Anaheim" DVD