It's evening, and I'm debating with myself whether I want to write this now, as the second entry of the day, or wait until tomorrow. Since what I want to share happened today, however, I'll do it now.
As I continued to gradually key in the book reviews written by Mathew Franklin Whittier (myself in the 19th century) for the 1845 New York "Daily Tribune," signed with a star, I came across a review of a children's book in the Feb. 5 edition. Mathew expresses his opinion that the trend of talking down to children, in such books, is a mistake. Then, he has the whim to tell us what he read as a child; and suddenly, we have a description of what is probably the same winter as was featured, by his brother, poet John Greenleaf Whittier, in the poem "Snow-Bound." It was "Snow-Bound," published in 1866, which made JGW famous. Fans and historians studying him, are all about this poem, and every detail described in it.
So this new information would be precious, to them. But I can't share it with them. I've met some of these folks connected with the Whittier legacy, incognito, and found them charming. But I didn't dare reveal who I was, and more importantly, who I believe myself to be. I have written to them, openly, and been given the cold shoulder. In person, they were very warm, because they didn't know who I was. I don't blame them, I'm just saying--my hands are tied. The reason my hands are tied, is that if I try to share this information, their first question is going to be, "How do you know this is Mathew Franklin Whittier writing this description?" And there we go.
So I will have to keep this to myself, aside from mentioning it in this blog, and giving the full description in my sequel, "Mathew Franklin Whittier in his own world."
I can tell you this much: Mathew, at age eight, was either reading, or having read to him (but more likely the former, based on how it's worded), some very sophisticated adult literature. An encyclopedia of natural history running to several volumes, and clearly written at the high school or college level (I know, because you can see it on Archive.org); the ancient Greek epic poems; and daily British publications from the early 1700's, which included both homespun philosophy, and humor. These latter were clearly Mathew's first influences for the type of writing he did throughout his adult career.
In "Snow-Bound," which depicts the family seated in front of the kitchen hearth, the entire scene is very social. But Mathew is barely mentioned in this poem. Mathew's own account, on the other hand, suggests he had taken one of these books and gone off by himself. There is no mention of the rest of the family; there is only the magical cabinet being opened, with its two shelves of books, and a description of them. To some extent, one can say it's context--Mathew was sharing, in the review, what he grew up reading. But there is nothing about these books being read as a family. There is no mention of the family, at all. It's my feeling that he never felt he fit in that family. Some people experience their family that way. It's unfathomable, I suppose, to those of us who have grown up in a close family. But some people feel like, "How did I ever get thrown in with these people?"
This, of course, wouldn't fit very well with JGW's hit, "Snow-Bound." Hence, I suppose, Mathew hardly being mentioned in the poem. It's not that he was so much of a rebel, or acted so badly, that it was "better not to say anything at all." It's because he substantially wasn't in that family. That's what I think, and what I've thought for some time. Now, I have some suggestive confirmation of it.
Coming so soon after Mathew became aware that Edgar Allan Poe was claiming his poem, "The Raven,"--and knowing that Poe also claimed to have been a child prodigy--this personal reference may have been deliberate. Or, if not deliberate--given that he was writing anonymously, and no-one would ever know who this referred to--it suggests personal context, inasmuch as Mathew's claim to be a childhood prodigy was legitimate, while Poe's strikes me as being self-created.
Something else interesting emerged in this snippet. I have noticed that when Mathew wants to hide his identity from the public--or, from the enemies of Abolition, who might be after him because of his work for this cause--he throws some monkey wrench into his self-description. But it's hard to prove. In this case, it's more obvious. I know that the single asterisk, or star, is his pseudonym. I also know that it is Mathew, writing these reviews under that signature. So there is no question of his authorship. In this brief account of his childhood, he places it in the middle of a particularly harsh winter, on his eighth birthday. There is, actually, no reason to place it on any particular date, because he is talking about what he read as a child--and that makes it an out-of-context reference. (No actual memorable event on this date is forthcoming in the account--he just arbitrarily places his description on his birthday.) Mathew's actual birthday was July 18, in the middle of summer. So he has done this quite deliberately; and here, we have proof that he would do it. That, in turn, means that where he has done this "identity dodge" elsewhere, my identification of the writer as Mathew is now far more plausible. In other words, we have caught him at this subterfuge red-handed, in this instance; so where I have suspected him of doing it, writing under other pseudonyms, we have a precedent.
There is some question, once again, as to whether he would choose the book, which was then read by an older family member; or whether he would pick it out and read it, himself. Either way, this is pretty advanced stuff for an eight-year-old. But if he read these books himself, we would have evidence that he was, indeed, a child prodigy.
This is important, I suppose, for "bragging rights." I, too, was precocious as a child, one of those "little adults" with a big vocabulary for my age. I wasn't reading this kind of material at age eight, though. On the other hand, I wasn't exposed to it. I was in the top reading group in third grade; I blew the top off the verbal portion of the standardized tests, and bombed on the math portion, in fifth grade. I was reading science fiction by age 13 or so; and by 15, I was trying to develop my own philosophy which would explain everything. The basis of it was the theory that consciousness arose from the perception of a discrepancy, and from trying to resolve that discrepancy. It attempted to chart the interaction of three aspects of mind: the conscious, the unconscious, and emotions. And when I say "chart," I vaguely recall that I actually attempted to chart them within myself. Not too bad for a kid.
Of course, I never told anyone. Who would you tell? For the matter of that, who would you tell that you called the Pleiades your "Question Mark," because it represented the mysteries you were desperately trying to understand?
Again, if Mathew was reading such advanced works as an eight-year-old, that's bragging rights--but what's more important is that it renders the literary claims I've made for him plausible. I've already shared that I have him publishing some pretty sophisticated stuff, like a doggerel (a letter to a cousin, in verse) containing two separate layers of meaning, and satirical essays on how not to write poetry (the latter signed "Trismegistus") at age 15. Not just publishing in the local paper, like his older brother did--this is in a major Boston literary newspaper, the New-England Galaxy--as a regular contributor.*
The reason that my claims for Mathew's authorship of a couple of famous works strike people as being absurd, is that they don't know who he was, nor what he was capable of. I've been trying to set this right, but then, who's reading it?
Moving back and forth between Kubler-Ross's stage of loss (i.e., death, but it's the same stages), I think I'm in acceptance. These are stages of rejection. I am rock-solid that I've accomplished something significant. I am okay with nobody acknowledging it. It's all timing, anyway.
Too bad about the John Greenleaf Whittier legacy-keepers. Actually, Mathew cited a number of tid-bits from his childhood, over the years. I was able to share just one with the caretaker for his family home, not saying where I got it from. He enjoyed hearing it, and said it sounded plausible (a story about Mathew's uncle). The rest I will just have to leave in my books for posterity.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
*An interesting fact I've discovered in my research, is that when Mathew became the associate editor for the New York "Constellation" in 1830, at age 18, he boosted his brother's career by reprinting John Greenleaf's poetry from the local Haverhill, Mass. paper there in New York City. You will certainly never see this in the official Whittier legacy--if it was ever known, it was purged long ago. Interestingly, one of JGW's poems he reprinted was called "The Raven."
Music opening this page: "The Children's Waltz" by The Free Design,
from the children's album, "Sing for Very Important People"