Friday, May 29, 2015



I’ve always had an interest in reading biographies of famous people, but it didn’t take me too many years to realize that these books, by nature, are only the opinion of a single writer. That’s when I started to read the notes and the bibliographies and these soon became as interesting as the book itself. This na├»ve reader had just “discovered” an author’s finest source material. 
As I, back in the day of inter-library loan, began to pursue these leads, I discovered the most exciting material of all, letters and diaries. The language isn't always easy for a modern reader. Eighteenth Century language has a circuitous, verbose style which tends to disguise the emotional thrust of the message. From these letters and journals, however, a voice still speaks; the past enters our present in a breath-taking way.

Here’s one which paints a picture of the realities of 18th Century travel, of an Albany still forested, as the Marquis de Chastellux describes a Revolutionary War winter visit to General Schuyler’s mansion.

It was a difficult question to know where I should cross the Hudson…for it was neither sufficiently frozen to pass over the ice, nor free enough from flakes to venture it in a boat. …I was only twenty miles from Albany; so that after a continued journey through a forest of fir trees, I arrived at one o’clock on the banks of the Hudson…A handsome house half way up the bank opposite the ferry seemed to attract my attention and to invite strangers to stop at General Schuyler’s, who is proprietor as well as architect…The sole difficulty therefore consisted of passing the river. While the boat was making its way with difficulty through the flakes of ice, which we were obliged to break as we advanced…”

Envision this world—so green, so cold! All you have between you and Old Man Winter is wool, felt and hide, and your feet and hands are continually numb. The Hudson flows like slate under an only single shade-up grayscale sky. A twinkle of snow sinks into the surface. The pines hiss, and the wind picks up as we are ferried across the water, the drifting ice striking the boat and icy droplets of water strike our face.  
I get inspiration from this stuff! Here’s another, a charming (and alarming) view into the life of Mozart, a musician on the English leg of his “world” tour, aged eight years and five months:
“Witness as I myself of most of these extraordinary facts, I must own that I could not help suspecting his father imposed with regard to the real of the boy, thou he had not only a most childish appearance, but likewise had all the actions of the stage of life.
For example, whilst he was playing to me, a favorite cat came in, upon which he immediately left his harpsichord, nor could we bring him back for a considerable time.

He would also run about the room with a stick between his legs by way of a horse. ..” 

~Daines Barrington, 28 September 1769, report to the Secretary of the Royal Society in London 

I was happy to read that the little boy was allowed to have time with a favorite cat, that Leopold Mozart (“Papa”) didn’t play the martinet and order Wolfgang straight back to the piano. Like little boys today playing with cars, little Mozart would, in his imagination, ride horses.

I’m thinking, really excellent ones, matched, of course, maybe white or dappled gray…

Sometimes these surviving letters say a great deal about kinks in personality, some not so pleasant, things you’d rather wish your subject hadn’t said, something a writer has to ponder and work to understand. Sometimes, when this happens, you may have to rewrite an entire character.  

It’s understandable—not to snoopy writers and historians, of course— that wives of men judged ‘famous” by their contemporaries often burned and bowdlerized their husband’s surviving letters—all and any they could lay their hands on.  In deference to those wives, whose spirits have been so forthcoming to their humble servant, here is a brief sample of something I'd rather not have read:

“Received December 22 of Alexander Hamilton six hundred dollars on account of a sum of one thousand dollars due me.”  ~James Reynolds

This is a receipt for the first part of the blackmail Hamilton would pay for his adultery with Reynolds’ wife Maria. She must have been a hot number, because talk about shooting yourself in the foot—this particular bad move just about takes the cake, both politically and personally! As I’ve studied his wife, Betsy Schuyler, I’ve grown to have the profoundest respect for her. She was a woman of convictions, the kind which helped her survive fifty years beyond the death of her husband. For me, she's become the  embodiment of the word "lady."  

Here's a happier excerpt (a flirtatious double entendre) from Nov 19, 1798, some years after his infidelity, sent by Hamilton to his wife:  "I am always happy My Dear Eliza when I can steal a few moments to sit down and write to you.  You are my good genius; of that kind which the ancient Philsophers called a familiar; and you know very well that I am glad to be in every way as familiar as possible with you."
And last, a charming diary entry, one from James McHenry, of later Fort McHenry fame, about Revolutionary War evenings while quartered with the rest of Washington’s ADC’s upon a substantial Pennsylvania household.
“Eight miles from Moors & 25 from Philadelphia. Head-quarters at Jonathan Fells (Doylestown). A raining evening. The company within doors includes a pretty, fullfaced, youthfull, playfull lass and a Family of Quakers meek and unsuspicious. Hamilton thou shalt not tread on this ground. I mark it for my own.”
This tells me that the recreational behavior of army officers/staff hasn’t changed a whole lot over the course of the last 250 years. It brings us, readers and writers,  closer to a world that is, in many ways, technically and socially, alien.  We no longer have to trust ourselves to a small ferry in sketchy winter conditions in order to cross the Hudson and arrive at the warmth, food and good company of the big house, but down at the core, we humans remain the same.

~~Juliet Waldron
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