I've obtained employment up here in Portland, so my research expeditions will be far less frequent. But yesterday, I was able to hit two local historical libraries--the "Portland Room" of the Portland Public Library; and the Brown Library, connected with the Maine Historical Society, just down the street. As mentioned earlier, the Public Library sits directly atop the ground where Mathew and Abby once lived, as she was dying of consumption in the winter of 1840/41 (unless they had removed to Bucksport, which is also a possibility given the scant historical record). They had a room, or a suite at "Whittier's," the American House Hotel just off Market Square (now Monument Square), between Elm Street and Preble Street (pronounced, as I have learned, "Prebble.")
I have historical photographs and etchings of that space, and yesterday I thought to take one from roughly the same vantage point. Before I post this entry, I'll add in some comparison images, below. The first image is the American House burning down in 1852, and the second and third images are from after that time. In these, the second building on the left is the Mercantile Library Association, where Mathew met with the Portland Spiritualist Association in 1856/57.
Now, I have resolved that whatever new experiences, and whatever new information--including historical information--that I obtain in this new phase of my research, I will resist the temptation to revise my existing e-book, "Mathew Franklin Whittier in his own words." Even if the new information proves me wrong in some regard. The perfectionist in me resists that mightily--but one has to stop somewhere, and this was the clear and obvious demarcation point.
I made significant "hits" in both libraries. In the Portland Room, I obtained, on microfilm, the 1874 volume for the Portland "Transcript." Mathew had been submitting work to the "Transcript" since the early 1840's, when it was under the editorship of one Charles P. Ilsley. I would have to look up the exact date--well, let's see if I can find it quickly--it looks like it was 1849 when Edward Elwell, a brilliant man who came from a line of sea captains, took over the helm, so to speak. My subjective reaction to Elwell's portrait was that he was a personal friend, but I was able to find almost nothing about his personal life. He was the author of several books, including a very helpful one about "Portland and Vicinity" (from which I have taken the night-time scene, above), but I couldn't even find an example of his signature, no less his personal papers.
As for the 1874 "Transcript," it seems that I might have had a researcher go through this year for me, but I didn't have anything of Mathew's for that year (the publication years began in April, for some reason). He had been living and working in Boston since 1861; but he still wrote occasionally for that paper. He would cover select lectures for the Mercantile Library Association (as I have determined through extensive research--they were all unsigned); he would occasionally write something under his long-time secret pseudonyum, a "star" or asterisk; and once in awhile he would write a faux letter to the editor for his long-standing humorous series, as the back-woods character "Ethan Spike." Spike was a bigotted ignoramus who was such a buffoon, that he somehow became likable despite himself. He was a caricature of eveything Mathew--a liberal--disliked, and yet, sometimes he emerged as Mathew's own "shadow." His experiences were often drawn from Mathew's own life (past or present). Thus, in a particular sense he was autobiographical.
I was hoping to find a "Spike" letter that had escaped my attention previously, and I wasn't disappointed. Spike has been attending "anniversaries," which is to say, meetings, of various religious denominations, and because they all disagree, he was confused on the entire subject. This reflects what I had earlier surmised, that at this point in his life, Mathew, himself, was questioning his faith--as were many people during this era, when Darwin's theory of evolution had, as scientist Alfred Russel Wallace put it, "thrown a bomb of the most deadly power" into the "authoritative nonsense and superstitions of Clericalism." Spike then goes into some detail about his visit to an 1874 feminist convention, where he inadvisably suggests that perhaps women should remain in their own "spear," i.e., sphere. This is Mathew in his maturity, at the height of his powers with this series, which began in 1846. But he had written in this style even earlier, going back, as I have discovered, to 1829! So here, he has fine-tuned his technique for over 40 years--and in my opinion, it's one of his best. I'll reproduce it in full, below.
Although Mathew had been a teetotaler in the 1850's, once he moved to Boston, he became trapped in a dead-end job and a loveless, practical third marriage. His legacy, as it seemed, would be lost, and he himself was already viewed as a has-been. Being surrounded by friends who drank, it appears he took up the bottle again during these years. I feel that he got himself into a program of some kind in his last 2-3 years, but aside from the fact that it would have been a practical necessity given his poor health, I have so far found no evidence for this.
The character, Ethan Spike, was always a drinker, even right on through Mathew's long period of sobriety. So it is tricky to discern when Mathew was drinking, just based on this series.
Now, as said, I had never found anything of Edward Elwell's personal papers--including in these two libraries. But it so happens that someone donated the fifth volume of his diary to the Brown Library a couple of years ago, i.e., after I had queried them. This one started in 1869, and ran to 1875. What I knew of Elwell's relationship (or lack thereof) with Mathew, during this period, came from a lecture he had given to one "Fraternity Club," within a publication called, if I remember it correctly, the "Fraternity Papers." The lecture had to do with the use of humorous dialect in creative writing, and specifically local dialect. This was Mathew's forte--in fact, a case can be made that Mathew was the originator of this genre, in New England. In 1829, Mathew appears to have create a caricature, or exaggerated tribute, of the work of a British author; and one can already clearly see "Ethan Spike" in these early efforts. So far as I know, none of the other contenders--not even Seba Smith, whose "Major Jack Downing" is generally cited by historians as the first--go back this early.
And Mathew's work remained one of the best, if not the best, in style and representation of the local dialect and idioms, while his content was far more insightful, as philosophy and psychology. In any lecture about this genre, Mathew's "Ethan Spike" should have been front-and-center. Mathew's authorship of this character was kept secret until it was, as it appears, exposed in 1857. But by 1874, it would have been common knowledge. It was openly referenced by famous psychic Andrew Jackson Davis, who wrote about their 1854 meeting in 1868. And of all the people who would have known this, Elwell was the first, because the "Ethan Spike" series had put his paper, the "Transcript," on the map for many years. When a new volume was about to commence, Elwell would brag on "Spike" as the exclusive property of his paper; others would call him a "genius," and when the editors of other papers praised the "Transcript," they would be sure to add, "Ethan Spike writes for it."
But in his lecture for the Fraternity Club, Elwell completely ignores Mathew, and Ethan Spike. Instead, he cites James Russell Lowell's "Biglow Papers" as the gold standard in this genre. But Lowell, writing for the Boston "Courier" in mid-1846, was responding to, and imitating, "Ethan Spike," which at this time was being published in the ultra-liberal Boston "Chronotype." And if you go back to Mathew's earlier series along similar lines, he had been writing in this style for many years.
In this diary, what I found was that Elwell hardly seems to know Mathew, at all. And the seeming proof of that occurs in the entry for Nov. 23, 1875. Samuel Pickard (you may recall him from my previous entry), had come on board the "Transcript" as an associate editor (I have the exact date in the diary). He came from a wealthy family, and his brother Charles had bought an interest in the paper, on the condition (as it appears) that Samuel be given a job there. Newspapers were always hard-pressed financially--but Elwell made sure he retained editorial control of the paper (that, also, is proven in one of the entries). Here, on the 23rd, Elwell briefly mentions:
Was told to-day by Charles that Sam Pickard intended to marry in the Spring a Miss Whittier, niece, I think, of the poet.
This is nothing short of bizarre--because if Mathew had been personal friends with Elwell--and there is evidence indicating that they did, at least, know each other personally--he surely would have known of Mathew's children from his second marriage, Charles (who later worked for the paper), Lizzie, and Allie. It was Lizzie whom Samuel married.
I have logically explored all the possibilities at length, in the diary I intend to draw from for my second book. Let me try to summarize them as succinctly as I can.
On the face of it, this entry would seem to stand as proof that Elwell either didn't know Mathew personally, or didn't know him very well. Reinforcing this view, is the fact that he is not mentioned anywhere else in this fifth volume of the diary. Elwell visits Boston, but never sees Mathew. He does attend the Peace Jubilee, as did Mathew; he bumps into Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber, Mathew's former editor for the 1851/53 humor magazine, the Boston "Carpet-Bag"; he mentions the book that Shillaber is working on--a book that incorporates some of Mathew's own writing--but never mentions Mathew's contribution. It had to have been "Partingtonian Patchwork," published in 1873, though the entry sounds as though it was just being published. In this work, Shillaber apparently draws from Mathew's personal life, creating something of a caricature of him, as "Blifkins the Martyr" (i.e., a martyr in his second marriage). Perhaps Shillaber didn't let on what his source was for his material. But in any case, Mathew seems to be entirely absent from Elwell's personal life, and his diary.
They had friends in common. In 1843, Mathew belonged to a debate society in Portland called the Pnyxian Club. Another member of that club was prominent city patron, Nathaniel Deering. He was somewhat older than Mathew, and I immediately felt, upon seeing his image, that he had been a mentor, and had helped Mathew get through his first year of grief after losing his beloved first wife, Abby. But Deering also fancied himself a writer. He was a special fan of "Ethan Spike from Hornby," and even went so far as to attempt a few of his own sketches based on the series. But his were nothing short of awful. Still, when a really nice guy who is fabulously wealthy (he subsequently donated a huge portion of his estate to the City), writes a tribute, you try to think of something kind to say about it.
I was amused to see that when Deering, now an old man, brought some of his unpublished poetry to Elwell, Elwell reacted in much the same way.
So Mathew was close friends with Shillaber and with Deering, as I have deterimined, and Elwell knew them both also, but there is no indication that Elwell and Mathew had a direct connection.
But in 1861, when Mathew left Portland to work in Boston, the "Transcript" printed a brief tribute to him, identifying him as both the "brother of the poet" John Greenleaf Whittier, and also as the author of "Ethan Spike." It praised him with the pun, "none are wittier." So Elwell knew who it was that had been helping to put his paper on the map of American literary newspapers for so many years.
I also learned that Elwell was a regular member of the "Fraternity Club"--and that he gave this same lecture, about dialect in American literature, repeatedly for various organizations. So he committed this aggregious slight not only once, before his own club, but multiple times.
This is a researcher's nightmare--especially when my past-life emotional recognition for Elwell's portrait was so strong, as a personal friend.
What the hell is going on?
Shillaber did something very similar in his memoirs, regarding Mathew's contribution to the "Carpet-Bag." There, Shillaber calls him the originator of the genre, but only cites his work as "Ethan Spike." This, in itself, is a blantant contradiction, inasmuch as Seba Smith's "Major Jack Downing" was launched in Jan. 1830, while Mathew's "Ethan Spike" first appeared in Jan. 1846. But Shillaber should have known better--and, in fact, he did. He must have been let in on Mathew's secret, his earlier works, which means they had to have been close personal friends. In fact, they were both Spiritualists, and Mathew appears to have confided in Shillaber regarding his ongoing love for his first wife, Abby, and their spirit contacts. I say that, because Shillaber mildly lampooned Mathew in this regard, also, in the "Carpet-Bag," styling him as "The Sensitive Man," and reproducing Mathew's poetry to her, verbatim, with his own mock-serious introductions. Mathew contributed, as I have determined, as many as four pieces under different pseudonyms for each weekly edition of the "Carpet-Bag," as well as being a silent financial partner in the venture, but Shillaber only mentions "Ethan Spike," which comprises a fraction of his total output for that paper.
Mathew's most popular work for the "Carpet-Bag" was written under the umbrella pseudonym of "Trismegistus"--a name that Mathew had used twice in his early career. But Shillaber attributes "Trismegistus" and his spin-offs to a career school teacher and principal, Benjamin Drew. I was able to get into Drew's diary, and there's no way this bland-vanilla fellow wrote this saucy and radical body of work. He has two of the poems that were signed "Trismegistus" in the "Carpet-Bag" in his diary, where he claims them as his own. But there are no entries for the entire period when he was supposedly writing for the paper; and he doesn't mention it, at all. And he is not shy about citing his accomplishments.
Mathew, as I have determined, would often try to mentor aspiring writers, and would freely share his portfolio with them. Some of them would steal his work and publish it under their own names. This allowed them to gain a foothold in the literary world the fast way, by cheating. I have proven that no less a figure than famous comic writer, Charles Farrar Browne--who has been called the first stand-up comedian--got his start by reworking one of Mathew's pieces, when he was a printer's assistant for the "Carpet-Bag." So it appears that Drew did this, as well, and even lied to his own diary about it. Diaries were often shared with family members in that era, so if you wanted to gain favor with your wife, or children, this was one way to do it. This wasn't the first instance of this practice, or similar practices, I ran across in my research.
But, logically, what does Mathew's treatment at the hands of these two editors, Shillaber and Elwell, have in common? That they kept mum about Mathew's work for their respective papers. Elwell said nothing at all, not even in his diary, and certainly not in his favorite lecture; Shillaber only admitted what was publicly known.
I have quite a bit of evidence that Mathew kept his authorship of literally hundreds of works, under dozens of pseudonyms, secret. He didn't even tell his brother, John Greenleaf Whittier, or his daughter, Lizzie Pickard. I can speculate as to the reasons--partly, I think, it was a promise he had made to Abby, before he died. The Victorian ideal was to avoid fame at all costs--even if your work was being stolen as a result. And I have evidence showing that this did irk Mathew, though he tried to make light of it.
I think that Mathew committed "legacy suicide,"* swearing his editors to secrecy. To honor his request, both Elwell and Shillaber simply bypassed Mathew's contributions--even in their diary and memoir, respectively.
This is the only logical explanation that makes sense, unless Elwell and Mathew had such a falling-out, that Elwell "disowned" him and refused to mention him in any context whatsoever. When I wrote "Mathew Franklin Whittier in his own words," I thought this was possible, if Elwell had encouraged Samuel Pickard's romance with Mathew's daughter, Lizzie. But now, from the entry I've quoted, above, I see this isn't the answer. Pickard had determined to marry Lizzie before Elwell had even gotten wind of it, from Samuel's brother, Charles.
That's where I have to leave it. Sometimes you just have to say, this is the evidence, and I can't make sense of it. As promised, what follows is Mathew's "Ethan Spike" letter for the Fourth of July edition of the Portland "Transcript," 1874.
ETHAN AT THE ANNIVERSARIES.
Boston, June, 1874.
I hev bin attendin the anniversaries. They've got all kinds here--assorted sizes calculated for all tastes. You can hev eenjest about anything you want. Ar you for good sound old brimstone? here it is--and you can bathe your weary soul in its cheerful doctrines--heated like a Turkish bath, according to your taste. Then, followin out this moslem device, right round the corner you can hev a plunge inter "free religion," wich being composed of successive concave, convex and concrete layers of highly sublimated vacancy, is soothin, arter the parbilin experience at tother shop. That wonderful sooperstructer, the mind, arter these strongly contrasted treatments, is left in that happy condition mentioned in the second volume of what dye call him's great work on theology. "Sometimes you think one way, sometimes another, then more times you are of the same opinion."
For myself, arter runin the religious conventions, I couldn't tell whether I was a trinitarian, unitarian or shakin quaker. I took a leetle somthin warm to settle my idees--probably I didn't take enough--leastwise a sinful perliseman, wich I felt moved to convert, failed to comprehend my pints and led me home.
I vacilated about for a day or two between high church, low church and no church at all. Now a Hivite, then a Gadite, a Hitite or a Shoomanite--everything by turns and nothin long. Previous to undergoin this bout, I supposed myself grounded in faith, though I don't remember now what was the nater of that faith, ef I ever did--probably suthin in the nater of doxology or sich.
This truth I hold to be self-evident. No sane man, of good moral principles, can--even with the support of a little sperit and water--undergo a Boston anniversary campaign and feel hisself able to read his title clear to mansions in the skies, or to any other real or personal estate of that nater. I speak from experience. In a theological pint of view, I am demoralized and my morals more or less onsettled. However, under advice of a catholic friend I providentially met, I am counting beads, wich, with other stimulative exercises, he thinks will set me up agin in two weeks. If not, I suppose, from what he says, I shalal have to go on a pilgrimage.
Perhaps my heftiest experience was with the wimmin's sufferins. In that orgust assembly I was foolish enough to venter a few feeble remarks illustrative of my views of the sitooation and ever since I wish I hadn't.
I gin it as my idee that wimmin hed a spear wich they'd orter keep into, and when she climbs or breaks through the fence, providentially built round the spear, should be treated like any other breechy critter--
"Why" * * "Will the gent tell us what he means by his spears?" blandly enquired a sharp nosed and chined lady, with her dress hung straight from shoulder to heel.
"Wot is spears?" says I.
"Aye," says she.
"Spears," says I, "is--I think--that is, I calkerlate eenjest about everybody knows what constitute spears, and--"
"And it is very evident," interrupts she, "that the gent is not one of the eenjest everybodys he mentions, and that it is exceedin doubtful ef he knows anything. I respectfully propose that he proceed to dry up!"
And I proceeded, glad to get off so easily, as this eminent pillar and champion of the down trodden sects really looked vicious and capable of doing me bodily harm.
So my feeble remarks was onspoken and will so continer forever, for I was so onjointed by the assault that I have never been able to recall even the heads of that remarkable effort. I may venter to observe, however, that I think they was suthin in the nater of a Crusher!
Of course, the strong-minded one improved the occasion. She said wimmen hed no spear, wanted none, would not be shut up into one at no price. Remarked that the hull boundless continent was hern, and would like to see the ordashus man--here she looked wicked at me--wich would try to put a narrer Utiker onto her. She also called me a maskerline gander! I tried to leave, but she fixed me, like a ancient marriner, with her glitterin eye, (she had but only one) and I sot like a chipmunk afore the jaws of a streaked snake, whilst she slung Joan de Aker, Queen Lizabeth, Abigail Folsom and a complete assortment of distinguished females at my unprotected head.
Hoping to molify my inemy, during a temporary lull in her eloquence, I deferentially remarked that, though personally onacquainted, I had the highest possible respect for all of these ladies, and begged through her to convey to each my distinguished regards; to wich the strong one answered, "Scat!--get out!!"
I reely do wish I'd hed the sense to hev scatted or even got. Contrary I went on to apologize for bein a man. Wished an onskrewtable providence hed sot me up on feminine principles and indowed me with graceful crimmerline instead of these hateful trowsis--but at mention of that attrocious and omnentionable garment the hull assembly united in a shrill scream, to wich a fust class cat concert would hev ben second fiddle. Similarly at the same time, my arch inemy commenced a rapid flank movement on my right, while another, evidently equally gifted, menaced my left centre, and I fell back in disorder. Yet even then, my retreat might hev bin a dignified one but for a circumstance no gineral can always guard agin.
Those acquainted with war will readily understand that, obliged to keep your eye on the inemy, this manoover must be executed backerds, wich, so to speak, leaves yer rear guard onkivered, and it is perhaps needless to say, I fell!" An advance picket, consisting of a spitoon and umbriller rack, was what did it.
Bein down I thought I wouldn't get up just then, and concluded my retreat through the door in a posish favorable for "leap frog," had any of the inemy felt inclined for that graceful and healthy game.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
*Yesterday, while talking to Abby about this, I got the impression from her that just as one's body isn't really one's own to destroy--rather, it belongs to God--just so, one's legacy is not one's own to destroy. This is why it is now a karmic necessity for me to return and work so hard to reinstate what I had once so carefully hidden.
Music opening this page, "Gem," by Eric Johnson,
from the album, "Up Close"