Our Illustrious Alexander Gordon Now Joins the Ranks of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville!

We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night tonight
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?
—Robert Frost, “The Star-Splitter”

I have been looking and looking at the contents of the two envelopes that I finally mustered up enough courage to open last week!

I hoped to find a word.

I hoped to find a phrase.

I hoped to find an allusion.

I hoped to find something—anything—known to be by Alexander Gordon that matches precisely something—anything—in The Humourist essays that I have attributed to him.

I identified Gordon as the author on August 8, 2013, at the Charleston Library Society in my presentation, “Colonial Charleston’s Biggest Literary Mystery Is Solved.”  I anchored my claim to a preponderance of evidence found in the essays after I had given them an ever-so-close reading. I laid out the evidence out point by point in the presentation, but the main thrusts are as follows:

  • The Humourist essays show extensive knowledge of the classics, of languages, of literature, and of drawing and painting. So, too, did Alexander Gordon.
  • The Humourist essays show extensive knowledge of theater and drama. So, too, did Alexander Gordon.
  • The Humourist essays show extensive knowledge of history and “the antients.” So, too, did Alexander Gordon.
  • The Humourist essays disclose insider information about the workings of the South Carolina General Assembly. Gordon was the Clerk.
  • The Humourist essays often mention “constables.” Gordon served as a constable.
  • The Humourist essays include references to Egyptian mummies.  Gordon had written two essays on Egyptian mummies.

Since last week I have spent my research hours—yes, I do allocate blocks of time for research—looking at the documents in those two envelopes. I have NOT even begun to finish the task. Historical documents are not easily read. I have been skimming and scanning, in much the same way that researchers always skim and scan.

I confess that so far I have not found any exact words or phrases in these documents that line up precisely with anything in The Humourist essays. (Allusions, perhaps.) I have found excellent supporting evidence and excellent additional information about Gordon, and I will get to that anon.  It’s simply that I have not found the sought-after exact match. Yet. I’m still looking.

I further confess that I am reminded of Brad McLaughlin, the hugger-mugger farmer in Robert Frost’s poem “The Star-Splitter.” Having failed at farming, Brad burned his house down, took the insurance proceeds, and bought himself a telescope “To satisfy a lifelong curiosity / About our place among the infinities.”

So, out of a house and out of a farm, Brad turned to another occupation so that he would have the leisure of stargazing! Occasionally a neighbor joined him:

Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,

Said some of the best things we ever said.

The two of them spent a lot of time looking! But by the end of the poem, the speaker—presumably Brad’s neighbor—confesses:

We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night tonight
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?

How different from the way it ever stood?

I—and you, too, dear follower— have looked and looked and looked,  but where am I with my Alexander Gordon research! Do I know any more now that I did in 2013 when I identified him as the author of the Humourist essays?

Probably not, at least in terms of having discovered additional evidence to seal my already tight claim.

But I have found information that makes my knowledge of Alexander Gordon more rich and more robust.

Since last week, I have been looking at the two letters from “Chindonax Britanicus” (William Stukeley, antiquarian best known, perhaps, for his investigations of Stonehenge) to “Galgacus” (Alexander Gordon. Stukeley and Gordon were lifelong friends. And, indeed, it was Stukeley who, in his diary entry of May 28, 1758, credited  Alexander Gordon for a detailed account of the natural history of South Carolina that  had been read at the Royal Society that same day.  However, Stukeley was mistaken, as I discovered! The true author was the naturalist Alexander Garden, also of South Carolina. (See my A Correction to Alexander Gordon’s Canon, 256 Years after a Mistake Was Made!)

Be that as it may, the two letters that I have been looking at are intriguing to say the least. In the September 25, 1723, letter, Stukeley alludes to the fact that Gordon might have been on the “brink” of marriage:

Methinks I see the foundation of Chateaugordon a laying while Signior walks gravely among the workmen–measuring out the length of the gallery, disposing of the drawings, the basso relievos & the likes into the proper pannels.

Stukeley continues with:

Or perhaps his leading Lady spouse by the arm and drawing a ground line for a fountain, a shady walk, an alcove where he is to sit in a summer evening with Horace, Milton, Tasso & the like. I suppose there is to be a fine vista to some Grampian Mountain, Roman Camp, etc., & here the descendants of the Gordonian Race are to be depicted round the dining room like olive branchyes.

The above passages–short excerpts from the letter–are revealing because Stukeley knew Gordon’s interests: Italy, architecture, drawings, vistas, and writers such as Horace, Milton, and Tasso. These interests appear as well throughout The Humourist essays as well.

In the next letter to Gordon, dated November 30, 1723, Stukeley continues to talk about marriage, seemingly in an effort to dissuade Gordon from taking the leap, noting that marriage is not for everyone and that many who had “cast the dice” wished otherwise! Nonetheless, he says to Gordon:

May your spouse arise from the nuptial bed more lovely than the July sunbeams when they play upon the tops of the Caledonian mountains […]

Earlier in the letter, Stukeley also thanks Gordon for his drawings:

I commend you prodigiously for the pains you have taken in searching out & measuring & drawing such an immeasurable parcel of Antiquitys as you give me an account of.

Drawings of antiquities, as I am confident you will recall, play an important role in The Humourist essays.

And, even earlier in the letter, Stukeley makes a special-jewel comment:

Mr. Kirkel gives his service to you & wishes much he had your drawing of Raphael to make a print from.

While I knew that Gordon was an accomplished artist, I did not know until now about his drawing of Raphael. So that knowledge—allusion—may be helpful. I am reminded of a passage from The Humourist essay of December 24, 1753, in which he, too, speaks of Raphael:

If a sign-painter can imagine himself possessed of the finger of a Raphael, that his portraits are surprizing, his pencil bold and animating, and that his figures swell on the canvas and quicken into life, permit him to hug the blest idea, no one suffers for it, no one receives an injury;

While in the midst of looking at the letters, I ventured off into some more general research on Alexander Gordon. Remember: only in an ideal world does research move along smoothly and methodically from points A to B to C to D to Z!  In the real world, research—like writing—is recursive. We often find ourselves at what we believe to be the end of the task when we find ourselves circling back to an earlier point.

And I am glad that I circled back, trying to find out more about Alexander Gordon and William Stukeley. In doing so, I landed upon Iain Gordon Brown’s meticulously researched and well-documented article “Chyndonax to Galgacus: New Letters of William Stukeley to Alexander Gordon,” published in 1987 to commemorate the tercentenary of Stukeley’s birth. Brown includes the two letters that I have discussed briefly as well as a third one. His introduction to the letters is invaluable, especially for some new and detailed information about Alexander Gordon.

I knew—at least I think that I knew (and I may have mentioned it in an earlier post)—that Alexander Gordon had worked in a Custom House in Scotland. Brown’s article, however, provides Gordon’s own views of his “other” occupation. In a letter to his friend and benefactor Sir John Clerk, Gordon writes:

As to the Custome House, I confess if the question was putt to me sincerely, if these matteres sute exactly with my genious and taste, I could not so far hipocrese as not to confess that the keeping talies of Norwegian barrell skews on a bitt of stick or paper, and the retaining the nice number of hemp matts and Almagnia whistles in one’s head, is not the very noblest exercise that a rational creatour may be employd in these so precious hours. ‘Tis a sad thing not to have been born to few riggs … I am observant of Caesar’s due even to the methematicall division of pickled herring. The town is astonished to see one whom they thought un huomo di [Piazza] so far metamorphosed as all at once to drop into salmond barrels, matts of flax, ganging firkins, etc.

Who would have guessed? Alexander Gordon now joins the ranks of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, two other American writers who worked in a Custom House!

Therein lies one of the joys of research: sometimes—without even looking—we land on the unexpected!

6 thoughts on “Our Illustrious Alexander Gordon Now Joins the Ranks of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville!

  1. So, Brad McLaughlin, his neighbor, and the telescope (“And standing at our leisure till the day broke, Said some of the best things we ever said….”) reminds me that Frost might quote today, and he would, if he only could, our own Brother McKendrick, “It’s simply that I have not found the sought-after exact match. Yet. I’m still looking.” It’s in the looking, like life. And we too “will get to that anon….” The blessed search, in whatever quarter one might choose. The passionate search.

  2. I don’t really have anything to contribute to this article, but I just wanted to let you know that, as I read this, I still feel this combination of entertainment and learning that is so rare (and special) to find. I continually look forward to the latest installment of The Wired Researcher — Thank You!

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