Wednesday, February 1, 2012

New Year's Day Diaries (Pen, Pencil, Plectrum)

    We have decided (it was Caroline's suggestion) to consider and celebrate February 1st  as New Year’s Day.

    Traditional Gregorian calendar January 1st follows Christmas much too closely, and invariably the Holiday Season  (which we all hope to find enjoyable, but the measure of joy actually achieved is often in direct proportion to the exhausting efforts made in its pursuit) and Year both end and begin in a confused and spent state.   

       January is usually a mental and emotional struggle, regathering and regrouping, and February’s arrival seems like a twilight respite from a dark, dreamed battle.

    Therefore, around here at least, we’re henceforth assigning to January last-month-of-the-year/ring out the old duties (and thanking its thirty-one days for allowing one extra moment for clean-up and organization) and Starting Over Today

   We believe this system will work much better than the previous one. If last night's New Year's Eve dinner with Jane offers any indication, things augur well for our family and the world. 



    On Monday (an otherwise rotten day), The Assassin’s Cloak, An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists (editors Irene and Alan Taylor, Edinburgh, Canongate Books, 2000), arrived n the mail.   

    Two really fine New Year’s Day selections follow.


William Allingham (1824-89)

    The first is from William Allingham, an Irish poet best known for his poem The Fairies ("Up the airy mountain/Down the rushy glen/We daren't go a-hunting/For fear of little men..."), his literary friendships, and his posthumously published Diaries (1905).   

    February 1, 1867  [London]

        "Tennyson is unhappy from his uncertainty regarding the condition and destiny of man.  Is it is dispiriting to find a great poet with no better grounds of comfort than a common person?  At first it is.  But how should the case be otherwise?  The poet has only the same materials of sensation and thought as ordinary mortals; he uses them better; but to step outside the human limitations is not granted even to him.  The secret is kept from one and all of us. We must turn eyes and thoughts to the finer and nobler aspects of things, and never let the scalpel of Science overbear pen, pencil and plectrum.   A Poet’s doubts and anxieties are more comforting than a scientist’s certainties and equanimities."


George Templeton Strong (1820-75)

    The second, dated ten years earlier, is from George Templeton Strong’s famous Diaries, which were discovered in the 1930s and offer a vivid, charged, and highly personal account of 19th century life.  They are especially valued for their information and observations regarding Civil War-related events, as seen from a Union perspective.  

    Strong was a New York City lawyer (he was associated with the predecessor firm of the venerable Cadawalader Wickersham and Taft) and diarist, and his voluminous (2,250 pages) diary has been compared by the historian Paula Baker to Mary Boykin Chesnut’s parallel southern account of this period, “A Diary From Dixie”.  

    Strong’s pre-Civil War description of life in Manhattan excerpted here paints what seems (from this former prosecutor's perspective) like a contemporary picture of New York City or, especially lately, Philadelphia life.

   February 1, 1857 [New York]

        'An epidemic of crime this winter.  ‘Garrotting ‘ stories abound, some true, some no doubt fictitious, devised to explain the absence of one’s watch and pocketbook after a secret visit to some disreputable place, or to put a good face on some tipsy street fracas.  But a tradesman was attacked the other afternoon in broad daylight at his own shop door in the Third Avenue near Thirteenth Street by a couple of men, one of whom was caught, and will probably get his deserts in the State prison, for life – the doom of two of the fraternity already tried and sentenced.  Most of my friends are investing in revolvers and carry them about at night, and if I expect to have to do a great deal of late street-walking off Broadway, I think I should make the like provision; though it’s a very bad practice carrying concealed weapons.  Moreover, there was an uncommonly shocking murder in Bond Street (No. 31) Friday night; one Burdell, a dentist, strangled and riddled with stabs in his own room by some person unknown who must have been concealed in the room.  Motive unknown, evidently not plunder."

Happy New Year!


  1. This revision of the calendar is a really good idea. "The Holidays" are gratuitously compressed (and I'm compressed by them). I'm going to try it out on Judy.

    My mother introduced me to the diaries of G.T. Strong several years ago. You're right, they often seem quite contemporary. Mid-19th century people have this quality: sometimes entirely up-to-date, other times very far away. I often feel this when reading about the Civil War.

    Did you get my e-mail?

  2. Oscar Wilde's very much this way also. I opened your email this morning and, unfortunately, I can't be in NYC tonight. I'm working on a couple of matters down here that require me to be here through Friday evening. Damn. I'm really sorry. However, to the extent you ever are in town -- with or without much notice -- please let me know. I'm going to send this to your RG address also to make sure you have it. Funny year so far, but I'm working productively on some things. I served as a judge at Swarthmore-hosted inter-collegiate Mock Trial Tournament a couple of weeks ago. That was fun, actually. Curtis P.S. The calendar revision idea is really, really good, I think. One other item borrowed from my family is a new technology idea Jane had, which will make us wildly, wildly rich, I think. Then, like the Kennedys, I'll find a way to donate my house to charity and live in it also. Curtis