Piecing Together the Pieces of a Tale.

What matters even more is that a Southern woman’s generosity in the face of her own starvation—“You can have the honey, but please, please don’t break my jar”—ricochets through the ages together with the Union soldiers’ noble act of harming neither the old woman nor her treasured wedding jar.

In Remembrance of Mary “Polly” Conner Slaughter (August 17, 1806-April 10, 1891)

1.  Relic, n. [1] Something kept as a remembrance, souvenir, or memorial; a historical object relating to a particular person, place, or thing; a memento.

-“Luther’s…apartment…contains his portrait, bible, and other relics.”

Piecing together the pieces of a tale is never easy. Like shards from a broken vessel, the pieces are rough edged and resist coming together again. Yet, with loving care, a craftsman can piece together the pieces, yielding—once again and for all eternity—remembrances of that which was.

May the piecing of these pieces bring forth such a tale.

2.  Marriage, n. The action, or an act, of getting married; the procedure by which two people become husband and wife.

–“Euery Minister shall keepe a faithful…Record…of all Christnings, Marriages, and deaths.”   

On Thursday, August 11, 1825, Mary “Polly” Conner (daughter of John David “Daniel” Conner and Lucy Fox Robertson) married Martin Slaughter (son of John Slaughter and Mary Handy). They exchanged vows at home in Elamsville, Patrick County, Virginia. Mary was eighteen, just a week shy of nineteen. Martin was twenty-three, just a few weeks shy of twenty-four. Mary’s father, an elder in the Primitive Baptist Church, gave surety, he performed the marriage ceremony, and he filed the minister’s return.

The marriage license and the return survive.

3.  Infare, n. A feast or entertainment given on entering a new house; esp. at the reception of a bride in her new home.

―“The day after the wedding is the infare … the company is less numerous, and the dinner is commonly the scraps that were left at the wedding-feast.”

The next day, Polly and Martin had their infare. It is not known who attended. Polly and Martin were country people: she, a housewife; he, a farmer and later a minister. What is known is that Polly wore a special infare dress on that Friday reception in their new home. It was dark brown muslin, with an empire waist. Richly patterned in small bright red and orange oak leaves with tan acorns, it was perfect for a heavy-harvest reception.  From the high neckline down to the waist were small black, ivory buttons. At the end of the long sleeves, the same. The dress shows Polly to have been tall, full bosomed, and thin waisted.

The infare dress survives.

4.  Jar, n. A vessel of earthenware, stoneware, or glass, without spout or handle (or having two handles), usually more or less cylindrical in form. Orig. used only in its eastern sense of a large earthen vessel for holding water, oil, wine, etc.

―“At the dore there is a great iarre of water, with a…Ladle in it, and there they wash their feete.”

Also surviving is one marriage gift: a five-gallon stoneware jar, ovoid in shape, with two side “pocket” handles just below the rim. The handwritten note taped to the bottom of the jar authenticates the occasion. The jar itself also confirms the time period. Its thick, rolled rim and its cobalt-glazing are typical of such jars made between 1750 and 1820, more likely closer to 1820. The jar itself weighs twenty-seven pounds. When filled with water, it weighs seventy-five pounds.

The jar survives.

5.  Civil War, n. War between the citizens or inhabitants of a single country, state, or community.

―“The Civil War and Reconstruction represent … an attempt on the part of the Yankee to achieve by force what he had failed to achieve by political means.”

 According to the Federal Census taken on August 1, 1860, Martin Slaughter was 57; Polly, 53. They had four children living with them at home: Judith D., age 25, Martha Jane, age 16; Lavina, age 13; and Dicie Laroma, age 9. (They had six other children, no longer living at home, and thus, not enumerated on the Census: a son, John W. and five daughters: Mary Elizabeth, Lucinda Lucy, Emilia Ann “Millie”, Nina, and Rosina Lee.) Their real estate was listed with a value of $1,300 (equivalent to $456,300, using today’s economic status calculator) and their personal property was valued at $3,000 (equivalent to $1,053,000, again using today’s economic status calculator). According to family lore, “Martin Slaughter gave each of his daughters at the time of their marriage $800 in gold and a fine horse. His wealth was in gold coins, and it was thought his coins were buried near his spring when he died.” By the time of that census, Martin was a Primitive Baptist minister as well as a farmer.

The next year, 1861, the Civil War began with the Battle of Fort Sumter, April 12-14. Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861, becoming the seventh state to join the Confederate States of America.  On April 19, Company D (formerly the Lafayette Guard, Petersburg) enlisted in the 12th Virginia Infantry.  It reorganized on May 1, 1862, supplementing its roster with conscripts from Patrick County. John W. Slaughter (Martin and Polly’s son) enlisted and became one of Virginia’s 155,000 men who joined the Confederate Army. He fought in the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31 and June 1, Henrico County), and he fought in the Battle of Malvern Hill (July 1, Henrico County). On July 20, 1862, John died of pneumonia at a field hospital in Falling Creek, Chesterfield County, Virginia. 

John W. Slaughter joined the ranks of 624,511 soldiers (Confederate and Union combined) who did not survive.

As the Civil War continued, it could not hit Martin and Polly Slaughter any harder than it had hit them in death, but it could hit them—and other Virginians—closer and closer to home.  Because of Virginia’s strategic proximity to the north and because the state housed the Confederacy’s capital, Richmond, by 1864 major Union campaigns throughout the state with ongoing raids aimed at diminishing food and water supplies, left Virginians facing a level of famine they had never faced before.

Despite their economic status, Martin and Polly Slaughter were not spared from the food crisis. At one point during this period in the War, so the tale goes, Polly was at home alone, as Union soldiers approached. 

Did she hear the sound of thunderous horse?  A “hello” from the yard?  A knock at the door?  Did they enter her home? 

What look was in her eyes? Fear? Confidence? Defiance? How did the soldiers see her?  Old?  (She was 60.) Vulnerable? Motherly?

The Union troops demanded food. 

“We’ve no food left; we’ve no animals left; we’ve nothing left,” she told them. “Look all you want—there’s nothing here. All I have is a jar of honey in the spring house. You can have the honey, but please, please don’t break my jar.”

The troops advanced to the spring house and devoured the honey.

Did Polly watch as they went on their way?  Did she rush to the spring house to check on her jar?

Poignantly, it had been spared.

The jar survives.

6.  Gravestone, n. A stone placed over a grave, or at the entrance of a tomb; in later use also applied to an upright stone at the head or foot of a grave, bearing an inscription.

―“Cast the shadows of the gravestones on the silent graves.”

Martin Slaughter died on May 7, 1884, age 82, and was buried in the Slaughter family cemetery in Elamsville. He had carved his own soapstone grave marker:

Dear children and companion too I leave you all in God’s care. I hope we will meet in heaven above when parting and mourning is no more. Blessed are the dead that died in the Lord.

Polly died 7 years later on April 10, 1891, “Age 84Y, 7M, 24D”, and was buried beside her husband.

Their stones survive.

7.  Lineage, n. Lineal descent from an ancestor; ancestry, pedigree.

―“The quiet and lowly spirit of my mother’s humble lineage.”

One daughter born to Martin and Polly plays a pivotal role in this tale. Her name was Martha, and she married John H. Adams. Two children born to Martha and John play roles in this tale as well.  One daughter, Cora Belle Martha “Sweety” Delilah Adams, married Pierce Ulysses Witt; another daughter, Jo Ann Adams, married George Harbour. To Sweety and Pierce was born Bertha Pearl and to Jo Ann and George was born Clara.

As first cousins, Clara and Pearl were close and best friends until marriage and relocation separated them. After more than fifty years they were reunited when, in 1980, I took Bertha Pearl—my mother—back home to Patrick County, Virginia, to visit Clara. Although it was the first time that I had met my second cousin, it seemed that Clara and I had known one another forever.  For more than a decade thereafter, mom and I made annual pilgrimages “back home” to see Cousin Clara. Through listening to all the stories that kept the two of them up until the early hours of morning, the lineage that my mom had shared with me as a child took on a richness and a life that had been missing before.

It was during one of those visits that Clara told me the story of Mary “Polly” Conner Slaughter’s encounter with the Union soldiers who took her honey but spared her honey jar.  This was the moment when, in my mind, I helped Polly lift the jar filled with honey—far heavier than the 75 pounds if filled with water—and take it to the spring house.

It was during one of those visits that Clara opened up a brown paper bag and pulled out Polly Slaughter’s infare dress. This was the moment when I clasped the dress, I touched the muslin, saw the vivid red and orange leaves, and rubbed each and every button. This was the moment, even if fleeting, when I took her hand—her eyes level with mine at 5’ 8”—and danced around the room as I imagine she had danced with many of her guests at the feast she and Martin hosted after their marriage.

It was during one of those visits that Clara showed me the large charcoal-on-paper portrait of Polly Slaughter, still in its original frame though painted over with gold radiator paint.  This was the moment when I saw Polly’s penetrating eyes, saw the firm resolve in her face, and understood why the Union soldiers spared her jar.

It was during one of those visits—much later, when Clara was exceedingly ill and close to death—that I went to visit her alone and found more pieces to the tale.  I did not look forward to that visit, I was not certain whether she would be up for company, and I dreaded those awkward silences that punctuate conversations with the sick and dying. But I knew that I had to go to say goodbye. So, I took along some photographs of my Christmas tree from the holidays just ended.  Nearly touching the Cathedral ceiling, the tree was a gorgeous sight to behold, certain to prompt conversation.  And it did.

As Clara looked at one photograph in particular, one that offered up a closer view of my living room, she raised herself up in bed, saying to her daughter, “Why, Iris, looky here.  Brent’s got a whole navigation of crocks just like the one Great, Great Grandma Slaughter had.  You go find her crock and bring it on in here to show Brent.”

Iris came back in a few minutes, proudly holding a five-gallon stoneware crock. 

“Now, Brent,” Clara said in a low, weak voice, hardly above a whisper, “that’s the jar that Great, Great Grandma Slaughter got on her wedding day.  That’s the jar she always kept her honey in.  That’s the jar the Union soldiers spared.”

I was thrilled and flabbergasted at the same time. Thrilled, knowing that the honey jar still survived.  Flabbergasted, wondering why Clara had not shown me that honey jar during one of my many visits “back home” in search of relics.

8.  Mantel, n. A shelf formed by the projecting surface of a mantelpiece.

―“Above the mantle a painting by Gordon Smith…seemed full of an energy to break free.”

Clara died on November 28, 2000. Not long after, Iris called me and wanted to know what I thought Polly Slaughter’s honey jar was worth and whether I was interested in buying it.  I knew, of course, that it was a family relic of inestimable value, but as a collector of Virginia stoneware pottery, I knew, too, what the jar would fetch at auction. I offered Iris a more-than-fair market price, and she accepted.

The jar is ovoid in shape with “pocket” handles. Its base and rolled rim have the same diameter:  6 1/2 inches. It is 14 inches tall, and it is 10 ½ inches across the middle.

The jar is in my kitchen, resting securely on the mantel above the fireplace.

It continues to survive.

9.  Portrait, n. A drawing or painting of a person, often mounted and framed for display, esp. one of the face or head and shoulders.

―“Fixing his starting eyes upon a portrait of Dr. Enfield which hung over the chimney.”

When I bought the jar, Iris sweetened the deal by giving me the framed portrait of Polly Slaughter.  It measures 15 x 30 inches.  A restoration specialist removed the gold radiator paint, revealing the original ornate composition frame of plaster, wood, and gold leaf.

The charcoal-on-paper portrait is head and shoulders. Polly looks to be around 60 or so. No doubt she sat for it just after the Civil War ended. Her hair is parted in the middle. Whether it is pulled back into a bun cannot be determined because her head is covered by an indoor, ruffle-edged bonnet, tied beneath her chin. Her dress has a small plaid pattern with a high neckline and lace collar. She’s wearing a solid black cape, typical of the period.

Her eyes penetrate, watch, follow all around the room wherever I go, and, I like to think, protect.

It seemed fitting that I hang Polly’s portrait above the mantel, just above the jar that she owned. There, she stands guard over the jar that she so treasured from the day of her marriage, all through the Civil War, and all the way until her death.      

10.  Survival, n. Something that continues to exist after the cessation of something else, or of other things of the kind; a surviving remnant.

–“What are they But names for that which has no name, Survivals of a vanished day?”

The survival of the portrait alone does not matter. Without the tale, it’s just one more family portrait that can be found in any antique shop. The survival of the infare dress alone does not matter. Without the tale, it’s just a rag in a brown paper sack. The survival of the honey jar alone does not matter. Without the tale, it’s like one of many that can be found throughout Virginia and the South.

What matters are the women who held in trust Polly’s jar, her dress, her portrait, and her tale and passed them on for generation after generation after generation.

What matters is the woman who posed for that portrait. What matters is the woman who wore that dress. What matters is the woman who owned that jar.

What matters even more is that a Southern woman’s generosity in the face of her own starvation—“You can have the honey, but please, please don’t break my jar”—ricochets through the ages together with the Union soldiers’ noble act of harming neither the old woman nor her treasured wedding jar.

What matters is piecing together the pieces of a tale. 


[1] Throughout this tale, the word definitions along with quotations supporting the definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Happy July 4th!

As we celebrate our Nation’s independence, I pause simply to reflect and to share with you a classic American poem that you no doubt know but may have forgotten.

(I will publish my regular weekly post tomorrow!)

Concord Hymn

by

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sung

at the

Completion

of the

Battle Monument

July 4, 1837

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

   Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood

   And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;

   Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;

And Time the ruined bridge has swept

   Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,

   We set today a votive stone;

That memory may their deed redeem,

   When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare

   To die, and leave their children free,

Bid Time and Nature gently spare

   The shaft we raise to them and thee.

Wrapping My Head Around Age

Age is a matter of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. 

(Ascribed to the Mark Twain)

Come on now. Tell the truth. Are you aware of your age? Do you feel your age?

I know. I know. You could really nail me on that question. It’s far too vague.

I agree. But, after all, talking about age is always vague, and it’s sometimes downright uncomfortable if not painfully disquieting.

I’m guessing that you immediately thought about your chronological age.

That’s a solid and smart place to begin, but it’s only one type of age.

What about your appearance age?

Or your biological age?

Or your psychological age?

Do you have an awareness of those ages? Are they all in sync? How do you feel about those different ages when you think about yourself?

While you’re processing those thoughts–don’t think too hard or too long, though; spontaneity works as well with that question as it does with maneuvering life itself–let me toss out some other ways that we can look at or avoid our age.

Let’s start with life stages. I like a fast pace, so we’ll skip right over prebirth, birth, infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, and late childhood.

Let’s move right on to subsequent stages, the ones that matter most to me and this post.

You probably know them all already, but in case not, I’ll toss them out with a word associated with each stage.

Adolescence (12-20): passion. Early adulthood (20-35): enterprise. Midlife (35-50): contemplation. Mature adulthood (50-80): benevolence. Late adulthood (80+): wisdom. And death/dying: life.

In case you’re wondering–and I certainly hope that you are–I fall into the “mature adult” stage. It’s great being in a stage with 30 years to fool around with, whether I’m 50 looking toward 80 or 80 looking back at 50. And it’s great knowing that I am benevolent. (I knew that already. But reinforcement always works well.) More important, “mature adult” is far more melodious to my ears than the ageist “Sweetie” or “Dearie” that I and other mature adults suffer far too often by far too many people who should know far better.

With those life stages behind us, let’s have some linguistic fun. Let’s explore some single words for each decade of our lives.

Brace yourself. They’re dreadful words. Just dreadful, especially when they’re all hanging out in the same place together all at the same time. Any one of them makes me scratch my balding pate, trying to figure out who on earth would use such words in regular talking or in regular writing. (Don’t tell anyone, but I just checked. The terms that I just dissed–and am about to diss more fully–are used in the medical field. I might have known it. But, again, don’t tell.)

I’ll start with the one coined most recently. 1991. Supercentenarian–110 years or older.

Then Centenarian–100 or more. I like that one a lot, especially since I completed an Estimated Longevity Test a few days ago. It was free. So why not? I didn’t even have to give an email address. It calculated the results right on the spot. According to the test–which, btw, seemed medically well-grounded and super scientific–I should live to be 105. Imagine that! I’ll take it, especially if it comes with good health, a sharp mind, good spirits, and faithful family and friends lifting me up. (I had to pause here to correct a plethora of typos. Glasses go hand in hand with aging and I’ve had my multi-focal lenses since midlife. OMG. I wonder whether I made typos on the Estimated Longevity Trst and that’s why ut told me that I wuld live to be 501. I’m absolutly sur thet I did knot.)

I’ll combine the next two. Nonagenarian–90s–and Octogenarian–80s. I lump them together because when people ask me my age, I sometimes tell them that I’m 88. At other times, I tell them that I’m 98. It just depends on my mood and how much I need to be pumped up. I love looking at them as they look at me. They smile. They beam. Then they declare, “My goodness, Professor Kendrick! You sure don’t look that old. And to think that you still manage to teach. How on earth do you do it?”

What an ego trip those comments give me, all because of my playful exaggeration. Of course, I still teach. Of course, I don’t look 98 or 88–well, hopefully I don’t–because I’m a Septuagenarian–70s. I exaggerate my age for a very good and highly legitimate reason. When I tell folks that I’m 74, I get puzzled looks or no comments at all. What can I say? I’ve left folks looking puzzled and speechless more than once in my life. Trust me. It never had anything to do whatsoever with my age.

Then we have Sexagenarian–60s–and Quinquagenarian–50s.

Oddly enough, the terms Quadragenarian–40s–and Tricenarian–30s–are not in common usage. Somehow that strikes me as an affront to both groups.

The same can be said of Vicenarian–20s–and Denarians–10 to 19.

All that I can say is this. Perhaps it’s not an affront after all that those terms are not in common usage for those age groups. I should know. When I was someone in those age groups, I wouldn’t have wanted to be called those things either, any more than I would want to be called a Septuagenarian now. I mean, come on. Who wants to be called something that the person doing the calling can’t even pronounce, let alone spell.

I warned you nine paragraphs ago that these terms were dreadful. Candidly, they ended up being more dreadful than I ever dreaded that they would be dreadful.

Nonetheless, I suppose those terms might come in handy from time to time to add an aere distinctionis to what, in reality, are downright insults. And we might just get away with it. Let’s see.

“He’s an old geyser” might morph into “He’s a sexagenarian geyser.” That might even be mistaken for sexy.

“She’s just an old broad” might become “She’s just an octogenarian broad.”

Truthfully, though–and I am all about truth and transparency–I’m not sure that either insult works any better, all garbed and garbled in Latin as they are.

No doubt, you’re still pondering your varying awarenesses of your various ages.

In case you’re wondering what I’m pondering–Please tell me that you are wondering. You are, right?–let me tell you that it’s not my age.

Actually, I’ve never pondered my age because I’ve never had a clear awareness of my age at any age.

I guess you might call me an Age Chameleon. (Go ahead. I’ve been called far worse.) How old I “feel”–regardless of how I slice it and dice it–changes based on those who are around me.

When I was a kid, surrounded by older folks, I felt wise beyond my years.

Now that I’ve grown up to be one of those older folks who surrounded me when I was young, I feel like one of the younger kids who surround me now that I am older. (I know what you’re thinking, and you can just stop it right now. I have not become my own grandpa.)

Let me explain. When I’m teaching traditional, right-out-of-high-school students, I feel exactly like I felt in my late teens. Independent. Not averse to risks. Extraverted. Romantic. Confident that a full lifetime lies ahead. Confident that my full head of hair will always be full. I like feeling like that. 

Sometimes–especially since I teach in a community college–I have some students who have been out of high school for a while. With them, I feel exactly like I felt in my twenties: strong bones, strong muscles, ready to run life’s marathons, and ready to make lots of moves– career or otherwise. I like feeling like that, too.

Sometimes, my students are in their thirties, and, around them, I feel just as I felt then: hitting some high notes in my career; thinking about settling down. Or maybe they’re in their forties, making me feel as I felt then: climbing toward career peaks; reaching financial security; discovering the power of progressive lenses.

Hopefully, you’re getting my point. I see myself pretty much the same age as those with whom I interact.

Dare I tell you the truth? Of course, I will. I always do. I interact with me more than I interact with anyone else in the entire world. And in those interactions, I feel just as I felt when I was 27. Unstoppable. I feel that way, that is, until I walk past a mirror. I hate mirrors because they shatter the unreality of my 27-year old self. I do not blush at all to tell you that I have considered removing all the mirrors in my home, but if I did, how on earth would I manage to comb the hair (that I have less and less of) or check to see that all the wispy strands (that I have more and more of) are in place?

But let me bring me and you back to my point before you and I both drift off to parts unknown.

I like the fact that I am an Age Chameleon. I think that it might be a blessing in disguise.

It gives me the best of all the ages. Potential. Hope. Vitality. Playfulness. Imagination. Ingenuity. Passion. Enterprise. Contemplation.

Toss in to that fantabulous mix two more things. Benevolence. Wisdom.

I don’t mind at all that I am not aware of my age and that it doesn’t matter to me.

Here’s the way I see it. As I work at wrapping my head around age, maybe–just maybe–I’ll end up wrapping my head around life.

The Final Drive

“Knocking? No. Pinging? No. Tapping? Yes. Tapping. A rhythmic tapping, tapping, tapping, growing louder and louder and louder as I climbed my mountain, homeward. Neighbors stared. Dogs ran. This was a palpable noise that required reckoning.”

My two-door Jeep Wrangler was a substantial investment. I took good care of it, hoping that it would last forever. I felt that it deserved the longevity that I desired, so I came up with a fool-proof, sure-fire plan.

I read the owner’s manual carefully and repeatedly.  

I vowed: never skip scheduled service appointments.

I pledged: always review the maintenance and service checklists, always review the safety checklists, and always review the fluids checklist.

Easy promises for something worth so much. Right?

I swore to review faithfully all the other checklists. Tires—pressure, tread, spare, jack/tools. Lights—headlights, hazard lights, park lights, and fog lights.

I even swore that I would check all the general things that need periodic checking: hoses, filters, batteries, and belts.

My fool-proof plan worked well.

My Wrangler aged over the years, but gracefully so.  

Fading headlights didn’t matter much since I don’t drive a lot at night anyway.

Failing sound systems mattered more. Silence is golden for some, but not for me. I figured out with great speed how to jerry-rig my iPod to a Bluetooth speaker. Voila! I had perfect surround-sound gospel music wherever I went.

The miles crept up and up and up. I couldn’t turn back the odometer, but I couldn’t stand to look at it either. So I opted to use just the trip-odometer to track single, solitary journeys. Those lower numbers comforted. But, in the back of my head, I was mindful that the real engine mileage was getting higher and higher.

And then came the day when I forgot to recharge my jerry-rigged sound system. Alas! No music.  

For once, I heard internal sounds, and they were not what I expected. I had never heard such reverberations before.

Knocking? No. Pinging? No. Tapping? Yes. Tapping. A rhythmic tapping, tapping, tapping, growing louder and louder and louder as I climbed my mountain, homeward. Neighbors stared. Dogs ran. This was a palpable noise that required reckoning.  

My local mechanic figured that heavier oil with an additive would reduce the friction and lower the noise. His concoction became a new part of my old plan to keep the Wrangler going.

Sadly, the remedy didn’t last long. The tapping grew louder and louder, even after I recharged my sound system and regained my soul music. I knew that it was time for my Wrangler to go back to the dealership, back to the manufacturer.

Off I drove.

It only took an hour for the diagnosis: faulty hydraulic lifters. My heart sank.

It rose again, though, when I heard the recommended fix: replace the lifters.  We all believed the old Wrangler still had lots of miles ahead.   

It took hours to get the job done. One led to two; two led to three; three led to four; and four led to saddened faces.

Yes. The lifters had been replaced, but the repair hadn’t worked. The problem was deeper. The whole engine had aged, had given away.

That was it. Finis!

Little did I know—when I drove my Wrangler back to the dealership, back to the maker—that I would not drive it again.

I emailed a friend about my dilemma.

“Does this mean your poor Wrangler is in the shop getting that rattle fixed? Or worse …???” she probed.

“Worse,” I answered. “It looks like the engine is shot.”

“Awww, I’m sorry. Wranglers are sort of human, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” I mused. “Both are wrangling for the final drive.”

The Power of Consistency and Persistence

‘Tis true there is much to be done […] but stick to it steadily, and you will see great Effects, for constant Dropping wears away Stones, and by Diligence and Patience the Mouse ate in two the Cable; and little Strokes fell great Oaks, as Poor Richard says in his Almanack, the Year I cannot just now remember.

Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard Improved (1758)

A few years ago, I bought a new indoor bike. I had to. The axle on my old bike snapped, just like that. I wasn’t surprised: I had biked 20 to 30 miles on it every day—seven days a week—for the previous eight years.

I was surprised, however, by the total mileage: 73,000. Actually, I was stunned. If I had biked from West Quoddy Head (Maine) to Point Arena (California)—the two most distant points within the mainland United States—it would have been 2,892 miles. Round trip: 5,784 miles. I had biked from sea to shining sea and all the way back again, the equivalent of 13 times. 

Incredible. Impossible. Yet, I did it, even though I had never intended to do so. All that I had set out to do was to bike regularly—no, faithfully, every day, seven days a week. 

I’ve been thinking about other things that I have done regularly.

Like the $25 Series E Savings Bonds that I started purchasing bi-weekly in the 1960s when I was in college and kept purchasing for decades. When the time came to buy my first home, I was surprised by my investment. Actually, I was stunned. I had a down payment for a row house in the shadow of the United States Capitol. My own piece of the American Dream.

Incredible. Impossible. Yet, I did it, even though I had never intended to do so. All that I had set out to do was to save regularly—no, faithfully, every other week. 

Or what about the pocket change I started saving daily when my niece/goddaughter was born? That first year, pennies. The next, pennies and nickels. Then, pennies, nickels, and dimes. Pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters followed. Finally, all of my pocket change. I saved it regularly—no, faithfully, every day, seven days a week. Seventeen years later, when it came time for Minnie to go to college, it was time for me to take all of my coffee cans—chock-full of daily pocket change—to the bank. I was surprised. Actually, I was stunned. The total? Nearly $10,000, not nearly enough for even one year’s tuition, but certainly more than enough for textbooks, computers, cell phones, and even a $500 Series EE Savings Bond. A future as bright as a shiny new penny.

I shared these examples and my essay-in-progress with my students. One emailed me later, “I think your essay would be marvelous. Your three examples are kind of unbelievable, but, of course, anyone could bike 13 times round trip across America or save up a down payment for a house or start a college fund if they tackled those goals a little bit at a time, fairly regularly.”

Yes, Bonnie: that’s my point, precisely. Anyone can achieve any goal—regardless of how impossible or how incredible it may seem—simply by tackling it a little bit at a time regularly and faithfully.  

Anyone can.

Anyone.

Thank You, Dear Readers!

” If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

We have all grappled with the age-old question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

No doubt, a physicist would answer with a resounding, “Yes. The existence of sound is objective and does not depend on its being heard.”

On the other hand, some philosophers might take a contrary view, arguing that sound is subjective, existing only in our minds.

I started thinking about that brain teaser late last night when I should have been sleeping. Instead of sleeping, however, I decided to look at the blog statistics for last year to see the extent to which it was an objective or a subjective entity! I guess I wanted some kind of evidence that the blog mattered even if I had not been as faithful to myself and to my readers last year as I wish that I had been.

I ended up with a confirmation. “You’re reading my blog! Therefore, it is! Therefore, I am!”

There! That settles it! It certainly settled it enough last night for me to lie down and sleep peacefully right through the night!

The blog’s statistics for last year make a far stronger showing than I had expected. Let me share some highlights.

Last year, the blog had 3,940 visitors. Twenty-five percent of those were from the United States. Seventy-five percent were from 40 other countries. I am delighted–simply delighted–to have such an international readership!

My most visited post last year was “Serendepity on Sullivan’s Island” going all the way back to 2013. I’m still pondering why that post would be so popular! No doubt, it’s because it deals with Edgar Allan Poe. The second most visited was “In Praise of Fruitcake.” No doubt because it is a recent post. No doubt, too, because folks wanted to see what claims I would make in praise of fruitcake! And, as an educator, it pleases me, of course, to see that my “Philosophy of Teaching” is another popular read.

Dear readers–whoever you are and wherever you are–I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for continuing the journey! Thank you for continuing to read my blog! You continue to mean the world to me!

Moving ahead in 2022, I have lots and lots of ideas tumbling around in my head–hopefully being polished and smoothed–headed your way, hopefully on a more regular basis!

As a teaser, I will share with you that one of the forthcoming posts will be a full exploration of what I will declare to be the Great American Novel. It is not Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. It is not Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It is not Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It is not F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I could continue to dismiss many other contenders, but I won’t. Let me say, simply, that it is a recent novel–one that has received considerable international acclaim–one that will be acclaimed, right here in this blog, to be the Great American Novel!

Hopefully, that teaser alone will keep you coming back for more!

The Gift that None Could See

The children’s poem below, by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, was first published in Wide Awake, Vol. 14, No. 1 (January 1882). May it awaken your trusting, childlike heart!

And how, although no earthly good
  Seems into thy lot to fall,
Hast thou a trusting child-like heart,
  Thou hast the best of all.

The Gift that None Could See

“There are silver pines on the window-pane,
  A forest of them,” said he;
“And a huntsman is there with a silver horn,
  Which he bloweth right merrily.

“And there are a flock of silver ducks
  A-flying over his head;
And a silver sea and a silver hill
  In the distance away,” he said.

“And all this is on the window-pane,
  My pretty mamma, true as true!”
She lovingly smiled; but she looked not up,
  And faster her needle flew.

A dear little fellow the speaker was —
  Silver and jewels and gold,
Lilies and roses and honey-flowers,
  In a sweet little bundle rolled.

He stood by the frosty window-pane
  Till he tired of the silver trees,
The huntsman blowing his silver horn,
  The hills and the silver seas;

And he breathed on the flock of silver ducks,
  Till he melted them quite away;
And he saw the street, and the people pass —
  And the morrow was Christmas Day.

“The children are out, and they laugh and shout,
  I know what it’s for,” said he;
“And they’re dragging along, my pretty mamma,
  A fir for a Christmas-tree.”

He came and stood by his mother’s side:
  “To-night it is Christmas Eve;
And is there a gift somewhere for me,
  Gold mamma, do you believe?”

Still the needle sped in her slender hands:
  “My little sweetheart,” said she,
“The Christ Child has planned this Christmas, for you,
  His gift that you cannot see.”

The boy looked up with a sweet, wise look
  On his beautiful baby-face:
“Then my stocking I’ll hang for the Christ Child’s gift,
  To-night, in the chimney-place.”

On Christmas morning the city through,
  The children were queens and kings,
With their royal treasuries bursting o’er
  With wonderful, lovely things.

But the merriest child in the city full,
  And the fullest of all with glee,
Was the one whom the dear Christ Child had brought
  The gift that he could not see.

“Quite empty it looks, oh my gold mamma,
  The stocking I hung last night!”
“So then it is full of the Christ Child’s gift.”
  And she smiled till his face grew bright.

“Now, sweetheart,” she said, with a patient look
  On her delicate, weary face,
“I must go and carry my sewing home,
  And leave thee a little space.

“Now stay with thy sweet thoughts, heart’s delight,
  And I soon will be back to thee.”
“I’ll play, while you’re gone, my pretty mamma,
  With my gift that I cannot see.”

He watched his mother pass down the street;
  Then he looked at the window-pane
Where a garden of new frost-flowers had bloomed
  While he on his bed had lain.

Then he tenderly took up his empty sock,
  And quietly sat awhile,
Holding it fast, and eying it
  With his innocent, trusting smile.

“I am tired of waiting,” he said at last;
  “I think I will go and meet
My pretty mamma, and come with her
  A little way down the street.

“And I’ll carry with me, to keep it safe,
  My gift that I cannot see.”
And down the street ‘mid the chattering crowd,
  He trotted right merrily.

“And where are you going, you dear little man?”
  They called to him as he passed;
“That empty stocking why do you hold
  In your little hand so fast?”

Then he looked at them with his honest eyes,
  And answered sturdily:
“My stocking is full to the top, kind sirs,
  Of the gift that I cannot see.”

They would stare and laugh, but he trudged along,
  With his stocking fast in his hand:
“And I wonder why ’tis that the people all
  Seem not to understand!”

“Oh, my heart’s little flower!” she cried to him,
  A-hurrying down the street;
“And why are you out on the street alone?
  And where are you going, my sweet?”

“I was coming to meet you, my pretty mamma,
  With my gift that I cannot see;
But tell me, why do the people laugh,
  And stare at my gift and me?”

Like the Maid at her Son, in the Altar-piece,
  So loving she looked, and mild:
“Because, dear heart, of all that you met,
  Not one was a little child.”

O thou who art grieving at Christmas-tide,
  The lesson is meant for thee;
That thou mayst get Christ’s loveliest gifts
  In ways thou canst not see;

And how, although no earthly good
  Seems into thy lot to fall,
Hast thou a trusting child-like heart,
  Thou hast the best of all.

In Praise of Fruitcake

 “From time to time, I savor a slice, but I’m parceling it out ever so rarely and ever so thinly.  I want the magic of this fruitcake to last forever.”

I believe in fruitcakes.1  I know—that’s ridiculous.  Most folks hate fruitcakes because they’re hard and dry and filled with citron and raisins and Lord knows what all.  Most are so bad that jokesters rightfully disparage them as next year’s paperweights or doorstops.

            Obviously, those naysayers never tasted one of my Mom’s fruitcakes.  For time immemorial—seventy years, perhaps longer—she perfected her fruitcake recipe, recording her adjustments religiously.  For one single, seven-pound fruitcake, she uses four pounds of cherries, golden raisins, pineapple, and pecans.  For her batter, she mixes just enough to hold the fruit and nuts together, and it’s rich with a half dozen jumbo eggs, a pound of butter, and a magical blend of lemon juice, vanilla, freshly grated nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice.  And when it comes to fruitcakes, Mom’s no tee-totaler.  Her fruitcakes are redolent with booze.  She soaks the fruit in brandy before baking, and, once her baked cakes have cooled, she nestles them in thick layers of brandied cheesecloth, replenished weekly—starting in August when she bakes her cakes and continuing through Christmas when she gives them away. 

            Mom shared her treasured, secret recipe with me, right after two strokes in quick succession left her paralyzed in both legs and one arm.  She was 92 then.  It was the last year that she made her fruitcakes, from start to finish.

            For the next few years, I made the fruitcakes.  Everyone raved, even Mom. To me, however, something magical seemed missing.

            Then, one year, my oldest sister called, claiming the ritual as hers.  Mom had given her the recipe, too. 

            My sister followed it with precision, but as she started spooning the batter into the tube pan, she broke down in tears.  She phoned Mom, who lived just two houses away. 

            “It’s all mixed,” she sobbed, “but it’s not going in the pan right.” 

            “Audrey, bring it on down here and prop me up in bed.  I’ll show you how to do it.”

            My sister went down and propped Mom up.  With her one good arm and all the love and courage that she could muster, Mom packed the batter into the pan, pressing it down with the back of a wooden spoon, as only Mom knows how to do.  Then she adorned the top with a ring of brandied, candied fruit flowers, just like always.  Undoubtedly, that fruitcake was her most beautiful, ever, and it tasted just as first-rate as any Mom ever made all by herself. 

            My sister gave me a huge hunk of that love-laden fruitcake—undoubtedly, the best in the world and, sadly, Mom’s last.  I have it wrapped in brandied cheesecloth, and I keep it in the freezer, the same way that Mom always kept one or more fruitcakes, from one year to the next.  From time to time, I savor a slice, but I’m parceling it out ever so rarely and ever so thinly.  I want the magic of this fruitcake to last forever.

1 This essay reflects minor revisions to my essay originally published in 2009 as part of NPR’s “This I Believe.”

Had We but World Enough and Time

Had we but world enough and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

[…]

But at my back I always hear

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near

And yonder before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress” (1681)

People are always asking me questions, and, quite often, the questions relate to my research.

“Are you still working on your Humourist essays?”

“Have you discovered another [Humourist] mystery to tantalize your audience?” 

And just a day or so ago, the same good friend who is always tantalized by mysteries—mine, hers, and others’—quipped in an email:

“Do you know what happens to professors who get too caught up in their mysteries?”

She even shared her response— well, for the sake of accuracy, I must say that she shared response—and I will share it with you anon.

Finally, comes the cruelest question of all that I get asked:

“So, tell, me: when exactly DO you plan to finish your Humourist project and move on to something else?”

I am always glad to answer the questions that are tossed my way—including the cruel ones—and I shall do so right here for the world at large!

Yes, I am still working on my Humourist essays! I am not working on the essays constantly, of course. It is with this project as it is with all research: it lingers, hidden away in the hidden recesses of the mind.  From time to time, it enjoys a rebirth, crying and screaming, demanding that I pay attention to a new idea or a new possibility and that I lay either—or both or something or anything—gently down to rest.

As to the second question, I have NOT found any additional Humourist mysteries to tantalize my audience since I announced that Our Illustrious Alexander Gordon Now Joins the Ranks Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville! Discovering that Gordon (like Hawthorne and Melville) had once worked in a Customs House is pretty tantalizing in and of itself! No? I suppose, however, that in the scheme of this research project, my Colonial Charleston’s Biggest Literary Mystery Is Solved is more tantalizing, and in the overall scheme of things, perhaps it’s as tantalizing as it’s going to get!

Now for that third question about what happens to professors who get too caught up in their mysteries. Well, of course I know what happens: they solve the mysteries, just as I have done! Right? Well, apparently not always. My good friend who posed the question for me to consider went on to share an article about John Kidd, at one time “the greatest James Joyce scholar alive.” Kidd became so caught up in solving the mysteries in Joyce’s Ulysses that he lost his directorship of the James Joyce Research Center, became jobless, “haunted Marsh Plaza at the center of Boston University,” and ultimately disappeared! It’s a fascinating article about a fascinating professor, a fascinating novelist and a fascinating novel! After you finish reading my post—and mind you: not until you have finished—you might want to read The Strange Case of the Missing Joyce Scholar.  It’s a long article, well worth the read, but you will need (or want) to brew yourself a full pot of coffee!

As my good friend knows, I have not disappeared, I am not missing, and I am not jobless. I can only presume that she shared the article with me as an ever-so-subtle caution filled with her ever-so-gleeful, twinkle-eyed, virtual humor! Thank you so much, Bonnie!

The fact of the matter is that I like (for whatever reason) being in Joyce’s good company. I am not certain that I have ever fared so well except perhaps when I was an undergraduate and somehow found myself distinguished as the young student on campus who—all year long—always carried an umbrella! I have no earthly idea what prompted me to do so since it certainly did not rain that much in northern West Virginia. Be that as it may—and it may be nothing more than my feeble recollection—I carried an umbrella around with me often enough that my English Department Chair called me “Lord Chamberlain!”

When she first called me Lord Chamberlain, I had no idea who he was, so I made haste to the library to check the card catalog—yes, when I was an undergraduate, libraries still had card catalogs—to see what I could discover. I discovered just what I was looking for: photos! Lord Neville Chamberlain looked so dapper and so handsome as a young man that I did not mind at all being his transitory namesake, so to speak. Years later when I could conduct research at home or anywhere or everywhere via the Internet, I checked the good Lord out again, discovering this time the political backstory behind his umbrella. And after Bonnie catapulted me— if not mysteriously then certainly miraculously—from James Joyce to Lord Neville Chamberlain, I checked out Chamberlain again and found a delightful BBC radio episode, Prime Ministers’ Props. After you finish reading my post—and mind you: not until you have finished—you might want to check it out, too!

(Let me add here—since one more digression will do no greater harm than that already done—that it was this very same Department Chair who, in response to a question that I wearily asked one day in class—“Please, Dr. Callison, can’t you give us some uplifting stories to read instead of all these depressing ones that you have assigned?”—came back with—to my chagrin and to my classmates’ euphoria—“Yes, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm: let me see what I can do.” I knew nothing about Rebecca or her farm, but I knew that I did not like being called “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” (After all, I was Lord Chamberlain and had my campus reputation to maintain!) So, once again, I made haste to the library to discover the extent of the insult! And, dear reader, if you do not know about Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, perhaps you should make haste to Google and make the discovery on your own, that is after you finish reading my post—and mind you: not until you have finished!)

See how easy it was for me to fool around with my answers to those first three questions? Can you not tell that I did so willingly, cheerfully, and even playfully? Three yesses are in order! In fact, I had great fun!

However, I cannot make the same claims about that fourth question. It’s downright cruel, and it sticks in my craw: exactly when DO you plan to finish your Humourist project and move on to something else. And I can safely say that I am so safe in saying that it sticks in my craw that I will say it again: it sticks in my craw! I say it without hesitation and without fear of offending any of my followers because I am the culprit—I am the one—who perpetually asks that question of myself! (I suspect that many of my readers have wondered the same thing but have been too polite to ask! Thank you very much!)

Truthfully, the time has come that I must finish! I don’t have world enough and time. Who does? Right?

And, to be certain, I have committed no crime. Right?

“Wrong!” exclaims a virtual voice! “Have you forgotten your many months of controlled revelations? You were ever so coy in them, and, one might say, just as guilty of a crime as Andrew Marvell’s mistress!”

Coy? Me, coy? Well, perhaps I was slightly coy in those Controlled Revelations wherein—week by week, as I am sure my readers will recall—I revisited the Humourist essays that I had made available already, in toto,  and analyzed the clues therein that led me to identify Alexander Gordon as our beloved Humourist. I suppose that I was shy and modest and firtatious in my attempt to allure my readers and keep them reading! See for yourself. Go back and revisit! Here’s the debut coquettish post that prompted someone to call me coy: Controlled Revelation #1: Classicist. Bibliophile. Historian. Lover of Literature. Painter. Re-read it to see whether the charge that has been levied virtually holds any virtual water whatsoever! Who knows: you might need to re-read all of the controlled posts up to and including the last one—Controlled Revelation #13: The Humourist as Musical Virtuoso! Plus, a Curious Challenge! (Yes, I was coy! And I enjoyed every blissful moment!)

Bliss aside, I have come to the realization that I am finished with my Humourist research, so to speak, and I must wrap things up and move on to other things.

First of all, I have fulfilled my initial goal which was to make the previously unavailable Humourist essays available to the world! I did just that! I’ve just looked at my site’s stats to see the extent of the traffic since launching the blog. The numbers are staggering, especially for such an esoteric topic: Visitors: 2,818; Views: 5,823.

Even more staggering, perhaps, is the array of countries contributing to the traffic: Argentina, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Ecuador, France, India, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and United States.

Clearly, the world at large is more familiar with The Humourist today than ever before, even when the essays were first published in the South Carolina Gazette!

Moreover, at the end of the day (as well as at the beginning), I confess that I am a New Critic in terms of my approach to literature. I am one who can be perfectly happy examining a “work of literature as an aesthetic object independent of historical context and as a unified whole that reflect[s] the unified sensibility of the artist.” Other schools of literary theory abound as well—and you might want to read about them after you finish reading my post—and mind you: not until you have finished. A good place for you to start might be Literary Theory. For me, though, if I must choose from among the various theories, I choose to be what I have chosen to be: a New Critic. The literary work itself is all that matters!

Second, I have fulfilled my secondary goal as well: solving the more-than-two-hundred-years-old literary mystery surrounding the identify of The Humourist. I am convinced that I have found everything that can be found to confirm that Alexander Gordon, Clerk of His Majesty’s Council, is indeed our Humourist, thereby solving what is perhaps the biggest mystery in the annals of American literature.

At this point, then, other scholars—those living and those still to come—must either accept my findings or prove me wrong! It’s that simple. I rest my case. I am willing to put my research out there for public view—as I have done already—and I welcome full and close public scrutiny. 

“What remains?”

Publication.

To be certain, what I have shared and continue to share in this blog constitutes publication, but what I have in mind now is a formal publication, available in print and digital format.

And so my search for a publisher begins! (Who knows: perhaps one will read today’s post and contact me. I would welcome such a query, of course, and I would be glad to pay the virtual postage.)

In the meantime, however, I will be up and doing! In fact, I am in the process of developing a formal book proposal, thus the driving force behind today’s post! Obviously, I will customize the proposal to meet the specific requirements of several publishers whom I will approach with this publication opportunity. Generally, however, the proposal will include:

  • Introductory Discussion, emphasizing the importance of adding the Humourist essays to the formal Colonial American literary canon (as noted by scholars before me) and stressing the fact that the scholarly gap will continue to exist until the essays are published in book form. The discussion will also note that the essays bring Southern perspectives and insights to a literary genre that until now has been deemed the exclusive domain, essentially, of Colonial New England.
  • Deeper Background Discussion of the essays and of Alexander Gordon as their author.
  • Chapter Breakdowns of the proposed book, including highlights of my research identifying Gordon as the author along with a list of the essays, giving a one to two sentence synopsis of each essay.
  • Timeline to Complete the book in accordance with press requirements.
  • Marketing Strategy.
  • Conclusion reiterating the importance of filling the current gap in Colonial American Literature.

Now that I have put my intent to find a publisher in writing, it is a reality, and I must fulfill it! The awesome power of writing never ceases to leave me in awe: now I must go forth with the book proposal simply because the words written here compel me to do so and propel me forward!

Clearly, then, I have begun to wrap things up with my Humourist work.

My blog, needless to say, will continue! I am as wired now as I was when I first started. Actually, I think that I am even more wired!

I have at least three other significant and important projects waiting in the wings. And I do hope that I will have world enough and time to complete them because that’s about how much time that I will need.

“What are those projects?” someone just asked?

Oh, do not dare to ask that question! Well, ask away if you will—and, indeed, you have dared to do so already—but I dare say that you should not expect an answer just now.

I am mindful of Robert Frost’s caution to Sydney Cox in a 1937 letter:

Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet upstairs in the house. Opening the first takes all the pressure off the second.

What I will do, however, is this: I will share my new projects here, one by one as they come into being.

And as I wrap up my Humourist work and morph into this brand new world of new projects and new research, periodically I will share other things with you as well, including (for example) essays in the style of NPR’s This I Believe. As you may know, NPR no longer accepts new essays on their website. But that has not stopped me from continuing to write a goodly number of  “This I Believe” essays, so my blog may very well give me an outlet for them! We shall see.

Times wingèd chariot may be hurrying near as we search for a world that can provide us with world enough and time, and, indeed, deserts of vast eternity may lie yonder before us. But, for now, ideas call us—today, this day, this very day—as dawn unfolds, revealing a whole world of marvelous possibilities.

 

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!