A Knickerbocker Pepys
( Originally Published 1918 )
A Knickerbocker Pepys—The Span of a Life—A Man of Many Responsibilities—Storm and Stress—Political Protestations—Hone and the Journalists—Contemporary Impressions of Bryant and Bennett—Hone and the Men of Letters—The Ways of British Lions.
THERE is one kind of immortality that is not so much a matter of amount and quality of achievement as of the particular period of achievement. That, for example, of Samuel Pepys.
Pepys, living in the turbulent, densely populated London of our time, and recording day by day the events coming under his observation, would probably have his audience of posterity limited to a little circle of venerating descendants who would certainly bore the neighbours. It is quite easy to picture the members of that circle in the year 1998, or 2024. " Listen to what Grandpapa's Diary says of the awful Zeppelin raids of February, 1917," or, "But Greatgrandpapa, who had just finished his walk in the Park, and was passing Downing Street when the news came, etc." " Ii est fatiguant," whispered Mr. St. John of General Webb at one of the dinners in " Henry Esmond," " avec sa trompette de Wynandael." That persistent blowing of the " trompette " of grandpapa would likewise be voted " fatiguant." " Grandpapa! A plague upon their grandpapa! "
It needed the smaller town, the more limited age, the greater intimacy of life, to make Pepys's Diary the vivid human narrative that it has been for so many years.
And as with the Pepys of seventeenth century London; so with the chronicler of events day by day in the New York of the first half of the nineteenth century. If there was a Knickerbocker Pepys it was Philip Hone, who in the span of his life saw his city expand from twenty-five thousand to half a million, and whose diary has been described as one of the most fascinating personal documents ever penned.
There is a little thoroughfare far downtown called Dutch Street. It runs from Fulton to John Street. There Philip Hone was born on the 25th of October, 1780, and there he passed his boyhood in a wooden house at the corner of John and Dutch Streets which his father bought in 1784. After a common school education, he became, at seventeen years of age, a clerk for an older brother whose business as an auctioneer consisted mainly in selling the cargoes brought to New York by American merchantmen. Two years as a clerk, and then Philip was made a partner. The firm prospered, and by 1820, the future diarist, though only forty years old, had become a rich man. With the best years of his mature life before him, with a wish to see the world and a desire for self-improvement, he re-tired from business, and in 1821, made his first journey to Europe, sailing from New York on the " James Monroe." When he returned, he bought a house on Broadway, near Park Place, on the exact spot now occupied by the Woolworth Building, for which he paid twenty-five thousand dollars. There is extant an old print of the house, showing also the American Hotel on the corner, and another residence, the ground floor of which was occupied by Peabody's Book Shop. On the block below, where the Astor House was built later, were the homes of John G. Coster, David Lydig, and J. J. Astor. It was one of the most magnificent dwellings of the town, and there Hone entertained not only the distinguished men of New York, but also such Americans of country-wide fame as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Harrison Gray Otis; and such old-world visitors as Charles Dickens, Lord Morpeth, Captain Marryat, John Galt, and Fanny Kemble. He had children growing up—his marriage to Catherine Dunscomb had taken place in 1801, when he was in his twenty-second year—and for the benefit of the young people his was practically open house. Public and private honours were thrust upon him. An assistant alderman from 1824 to 1826, in the latter year he was appointed Mayor. (The Mayor was not elected until 1834.) William Paulding had preceded him in the office, and William Paulding succeeded him in 1827. But the Hone administration was long remembered on account of its civic excellence and its social dignity. For more than thirty years he served gratuitously the city's first Bank of Savings, which was established in 1816, and in 1841 he became its president. Governor of the New York Hospital, trustee of the Bloomingdale Asylum, founder of the Clinton Hall Association, and of the Mercantile Library, trustee of Columbia College, of the New York Life Insurance and Trust Company, president of the American Exchange Bank, and of the Glen-ham Manufacturing Company, vice-president of the Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, of the American Seamen's Fund Society, of the New York Historical Society, of the Fuel Saving Society, a director in the Matteawan Cotton and Machine Company, the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, the Eagle Fire Insurance Company, the National Insurance Company, a member of the Chamber of Commerce, a manager of the Literary and Philosophical Society, of the Mechanic and Scientific Association, a founder and a governor of the Union Club, and a vestryman of Trinity Church—the wonder is that he found time to write in his Diary at all. According to Bayard Tuckerman, who edited the Diary and wrote the Introduction to it, an ordinary day's work for Hone was " to ride out on horseback to the Bloomingdale Asylum, to return and pass the afternoon at the Bank for Savings, thence to attend a meeting of the Trinity Vestry, or to preside over the Mercantile Library Association." " He was never," said Mr. Tuckerman, " voluntarily absent from a meeting where the interest of others demanded his presence, and many were the good dinners he lost in consequence." Again: " He had personal gifts which extended the influence due to his character. Tall and spare, his bearing was distinguished, his face handsome and refined ; his manners were courtly, of what is known as the ` old school his tact was great—he had a faculty for saying the right thing. In his own house his hospitality was enhanced by a graceful urbanity and a ready wit."
The story of Philip Hone's life is substantially the story of the town from 1780 till 1851. When he first saw the light in Dutch Street, there were but twenty thousand persons for the occupying British troopers to keep in order. When, after his return from Europe in the early '20s he bought on Broadway in the neighbourhood of City Hall Park, that was the centre of fashionable residence.
But by 1837 trade was claiming the section, and Hone sold out and built himself a new home, this time at the corner of Broadway and Great Jones Street. He saw the residence portion of the city go beyond that point, saw it grope up Fifth Avenue as far as Twentieth Street. The first entry in the Diary bears the date of May 18, 1828; the last of April 30, 1851, just four days before his death. That last entry shows that he felt that the end was near at hand. " Has the time come? " he asks, and then quotes seven stanzas from James Montgomery's " What is Prayer? ", adding four stanzas of his own.
Just eleven months to a day before the last entry, under date of May 30, 1850, Hone commented on the swiftly changing aspect of the city. To him the renovation of Broadway seemed to be an annual occurrence. If the houses were not pulled down they fell of their own accord. He wrote: " The large, three-story house, corner of Broadway and Fourth Street, occupied for several years by Mrs. Seton as a boarding-house, fell today at two o'clock, with a crash so astounding that the girls, with whom I was sitting in the library, imagined for a moment that it was caused by an earthquake. Fortunately the workmen had notice to make their escape> No lives were lost and no personal injury was sustained.
We are prone to regard the Civil War as an affair of the sixties. Hone was one of those who perceived the threat of it thirty years before.
Always a bitter political opponent of Jackson, there was one occasion when he was loud in his applause. The South Carolina Convention had passed a number of resolutions regarded by Hone as rank treason, and the beginning of rebellion. The President had dealt with the matter in a proclamation, of which the diarist wrote December 12, 1832: " Very much to the surprise of some, and to the satisfaction of all our citizens, we have a long proclamation of President Jackson, which was published in Washington on the 12th. inst., and is in all our papers this day. It is a document addressed to the nullifiers of South Carolina, occasioned by the late treasonable proceedings of their convention. The whole subject is discussed in a spirit of conciliation, but with firmness and decision, and a determination to put down the wicked attempt to resist the laws. On the constitutionality of the laws which the nullifiers object to, and their right to recede from the Union, this able State paper is full and conclusive. The language of the President is that of a father addressing his wayward children, but determined to punish with the utmost severity the first open act of insubordination. As a composition it is splendid, and will take its place in the archives of our country, and will dwell in the memories of our citizens alongside of the farewell address of the ` Father of his Country.' It is not known which of the members of the cabinet is entitled to the honour of being the author; it is attributed to Mr. Livingston, the Secretary of State, and to Governor Cass, the Secretary of War. Nobody, of course, supposes it was written by him whose name is subscribed to it. But who-ever shall prove to be the author has raised to himself an imperishable monument of glory. The sentiments, at least, are approved by the President, and he should have the credit of it, as he would have the blame if it were bad ; and, possessing these sentiments, we have reason to believe that he has firmness enough to do his duty.
" I say, Hurrah for Jackson, and so I am willing to say at all times when he does his duty. The only difference between the thorough-going Jackson man and me is, that I will not ` hurrah ' for him right or wrong. And I think that Jackson's election may save the Union."
If he disliked Jackson on account of his policies, he seemed to dislike journalists regardless of their political creeds. To his eyes they were a pestilential crew. Here is the first glimpse of Bryant, the great William Cullen Bryant, who as a mere boy had penned the beautiful " Thanatopsis." It is of the date of April 20, 1831. " While I was shaving this morning at eight o'clock, I witnessed from the front window an encounter in the street nearly opposite, between William C. Bryant and William L. Stone, the former one of the editors of the Evening Post, and the latter the editor of the Commercial Advertiser. The former commenced the attack by striking Stone over the head with a cow-skin; after a few blows the men closed, and the whip was wrested away from Bryant and carried off by Stone." Here and there are flung expressions of admiration for Bryant's verse, but the tone is of one speaking of the cleverness of a trained lizard. Thirteen years intervened between the first and the last Bryant entry. In February, 1844, Nicholas Biddle, the great financier, died. Something that Bryant wrote roused Hone's wrath. Here is his comment of February 28: ".Bryant, the editor of the Evening Post, in an article of his day, virulent and malignant as are usually the streams which flow from that polluted source, says that Mr. Biddle ` died at his country-seat, where he passed the last of his days in elegant retirement, which, if justice had taken place, would have been spent in the penitentiary.' This is the first instance I have known of the vampire of party-spirit seizing the lifeless body of its victim before its interment, and exhibiting its bloody claws to the view of mourning relatives and sympathizing friends. How such a black-hearted misanthrope as Bryant should possess an imagination teeming with beautiful poetical images astonishes me; one would as soon expect to extract drops of honey from the fangs of the rattlesnake."
But this was kindly tolerance compared to his attitude towards the elder Bennett. The latter apparently came under Hone's notice in January, 1836, and the first mention in the Diary reads: " There is an ill-looking, squinting man called Bennett; formerly connected with Webb in the publication of his paper, who is now editor of the Herald, one of the penny papers which are hawked about the streets by a gang of trouble-some, ragged boys, and in which scandal is retailed to all who delight in it, at that moderate price. This man and Webb are now bitter enemies, and it was nuts for Bennett to be the organ of Mr. Lynch's late vituperative attack upon Webb, which Bennett introduced in his paper with evident marks of savage exultation." To that famous masked ball given by the Brevoorts on the evening of February 24, 1840, in their house at Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue Hone went attired as Cardinal Wolsey. He forgot to tell of the romance of the night, the elopement of Miss Barclay and young Burgwyne, devoting his space to the expression of his resentment over the presence at the affair of an emissary of Ben-nett. "Whether the notice they " (the guests) "took of him" (the "Herald " reporter), "and that which they extend to Bennett when he shows his ugly face in Wall Street, may be considered approbatory of the dirty slanders and unblushing impudence of the paper they conduct, or is in-tended to purchase their forbearance towards themselves, the effect is equally mischievous." Again, date of June 2, 1840: " The punishment of the law adds to the fellow's notoriety, and personal chastisement is pollution to him who undertakes it. Write him down, make respectable people withdraw their support from the vile sheet, so that it will be considered disgraceful to read it, and the serpent will be rendered harm-less." In the entry of February 14, 1842, Ben-nett is : " The impudent disturber of the public peace, whose infamous paper, the Herald, is more scurrilous, and of course more generally read, than any other." September 2, 1843, Hone records that: " Bennett, the editor of the Herald, is on a tour through Great Britain, whence he furnishes lies and scandal for the infamous paper which has contributed so much to corrupt the morals and degrade the taste of the people of New York." In one of the last entries of the Diary, a few months before Hone's death, allusion is made to a personal attack on the editor by the defeated candidate of the Locofoco party for the District-Attorneyship. " I should be well pleased to hear of this fellow being punished in this way, and once a week for the remainder of his life, so that new wounds might be inflicted before the old ones were healed, or until the fellow left off lying; but I fear that the editorial miscreant in this case will be more benefited than injured by this attack."
A man of literary tastes, or at least a man who wished to be regarded as one of bookish inclinations, Hone seems never to have had any great liking for men of letters as such. All of the gifted and unhappy Poe's life in New York came within the period of the Diary, but in it is to be found not a single mention of his name. There was no place at the Hone table for the shabby, impossible genius. There was an impassable gulf between the well-ordered household facing the City Hall Park, or at the Broadway and Great Jones Street corner, and the humble Carmine Street lodging, or the Fordham Cottage. Early references to Fenimore Cooper, whom Hone first met at an American dinner to Lafayette in Paris in 1831, are gracious enough, for the creator of Leather-Stocking . was a personage, and it suited Hone to stand well with personages. But when, seven years later, Cooper returned to the United States after his long stay abroad, and incurred the displeasure of his fellow-countrymen, Hone was quite ready to join in the hue and cry.
With Washington Irving it was another matter. But who could have failed to feel genial towards the quiet, scholarly, altogether charming gentleman of Sunnyside? Also the legs of Irving fitted well and often under the Hone mahogany, and the part of the author that was perceptible above the table gave a flavour and dignity to the board. Somehow we see Hone's cheeks puffed out with pride as he chronicles : " My old friend, Washington Irving, who visits his native country after an absence of seventeen years. I passed half an hour with him very pleasantly." " I have devoted nearly the whole day to Washington Irving." " Irving and I left them and came to town to meet friends whom I had engaged to dine with me." " Washington Irving acquainted me with a circumstance, etc." " We next visited Washington Irving, who lives with his sister and nieces on the bank of the river." Any one who reads the Diary can see that Hone thoroughly approved of Irving. But just what, in his heart of hearts, did Irving think of Hone?
The Diary gives some significant glimpses of Charles Dickens in America. In 1842 New York welcomed the Englishman riotously. Washington laughed at New York for doing too much and went to the other extreme. John Quincy Adams gave the Dickenses a dinner at which Hone was a guest. " Some clever people were invited to meet them " is the way the ingenuous Hone puts it. " They (Dickens and Mrs. Dickens) " came, he in a frock-coat, and she in her bonnet. They sat at table until four o'clock, when he said: ` Dear, it is time for us to go home and dress for dinner.' They were engaged to dine with Robert Greenhow at the fashionable hour of half-past five! A most particularly funny idea to leave the table of John Quincy Adams to dress for a dinner at Robert Greenhow's ! " Hone referred to the visitors as " The Boz and Bozess," and described the author of " Pickwick " as "a small, bright-eyed, intelligent-looking young fellow, thirty years of age, somewhat of a dandy in his dress, with ` rings and things and fine array,' brisk in his manner, and of a lively conversation "; and Mrs. Dickens as " a little, fat, English-looking woman, of an agreeable countenance, and, I should think, ` a nice person.' "
Dickens was not the only British author of those days to kindle the flames of American resentment. Almost all who came to our shores seemed to possess the faculty of " getting a rise " out of Yankee sensibilities. Captain Marryat was one of the offenders. At a dinner in Toronto he gave an injudicious toast. Thereupon the town of Lewistown, Maine, built a huge bonfire on the shore directly opposite Queenstown and destroyed all the " Midshipman Easys," "Peter Simples," " Japhets," and " Jacob Faithfuls " that could be obtained. Hone commented sensibly on the affair in his Diary for May 5, 1838. " Captain Marryat, I dare say, made a fool of himself (not a very difficult task, I should judge, from what I have seen of him) ; but the Lewistownians have beaten him all to smash, as the Kentuckians say. How mortified he must have been to hear that his books had been burned after they were paid for! " A year before Marryat had dined at the Hone house in New York and the host wrote: " The lion, Captain Marryat, is no great things of a lion, after all. In truth, the author of ` Peter Simple ' and ` Jacob Faithful ' is a very every-day sort of a man. He carries about him in his manner and conversation more of the sailor than the author, has nothing student-like in his appearance, and savours, more of the binnacle lamp than of the study." And again, six months after the Lewistown flare-up : " It would have been better for both parties if the sailor author had been known on this side of the Atlantic only by his writings . . . he has evidently not enjoyed the benefits of refined society, or intercourse with people of literary talents."
The Knickerbocker Pepys grew mellower as he advanced in years. There is a marked change in the tone of the Diary dating from the very time when he himself suffered financial reverses. It was the test of the man that misfortune did not embitter him, but made him more kindly in his judgments of those about him. The smug self-satisfaction belonged to the early days. In the closing years of his useful life there was but one thing that disturbed him greatly. He foresaw the Deluge that was to come. December 12, 1850, was his last Thanksgiving. He wrote : " The annual time-honoured Thanksgiving-day through-out the state. No nation, ancient or modern, ever had more causes for thanksgiving, and reasons to praise the Author of all good, than the people of the United States. Yet there are many, at the present time, ignorant and unworthy of the blessings they enjoy, who would throw all things into confusion, break up the blessed Union which binds the States, and should bind the individuals forming their population; who would destroy the harmony, and condemn the obligations, of Constitution and law. Factionists, traitors, madmen —the Lord preserve us from the unholy influence of such principles ! "