|Texts and Contexts|
This afternoon I’m going to focus on the 1864 diary of the nineteenth-century American poet John Reuben Thompson, as well as on the geographic and historic contexts of that diary.1 I first encountered John Reuben Thompson while doing research for a book on the American Civil War, in which he played a remarkable, though largely forgotten, literary role. Thompson was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1823, and he subsequently graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in chemistry in 1842 and a law degree in 1845. He’s remembered today, if he’s remembered at all, primarily as a minor southern poet and, as of 1847, as the twenty-four-year-old owner and editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, the leading literary journal of the southern United States during a thirty year period from 1834-1864. Several years earlier, Edgar Allan Poe had contributed regularly to the Messenger, becoming editor in 1835 and making the journal famous. Those familiar with the reception history of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) may recognize Thompson as the author of the unequivocally negative review of that novel, printed in the Messenger under the title “The Southern View of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’.”
But John Reuben Thompson’s reputation as man of letters wasn’t confined to Richmond or to the North American side of the Atlantic. In 1853 he met William Thackeray, who was touring the States on his first visit and who came to Richmond at Thompson’s request. Thackeray and Thompson took to each other immediately, with their friendship giving Thompson one more reason to visit Europe the following year. It was during this 1854 trip, undertaken primarily as a long rest from work at the Messenger, that Thompson saw London for the first time, and it was in London that several years later he kept the diary, now housed in Special Collections here at UVA.
But first a quick digression. Upon returning to the United States from his 1854 trip, Thompson wrote a book about his travels, entitled Across the Atlantic; or, Sketches of English and Continental Travel, which carries the date 1857 on its title page. The second chapter of this book is entitled “Leaves from London,” and readers of this fourteen-page chapter will recognize it immediately as a fairly conventional specimen of nineteenth-century Anglo-American travel literature, one written no doubt with Charles Dickens’s 1842 contribution to the genre, American Notes for General Circulation, in mind.2 The tone is light, chatty, witty, and urbane, or at least as urbane as a well-educated American could sound on his first trip abroad. Thompson’s picture of London opens with descriptions of rail travel from Liverpool in which the tourist predominates, employing a vocabulary that rarely rises above words such as “wonderful,” “delightful,” “lively.” He also indulges in a little transatlantic rivalry and nationalistic bragging, commenting that “Nothing but a most absurd prejudice against novelties, especially such as come from the United States, can have operated to prevent the introduction of our cars, so superior in all respects to the preposterous old coach bodies that are still used upon the English lines.” In passages such as this one, it’s hard not to hear a response to the negative aspects of Dickens’s representation of America (Dickens stopped in Richmond during his 1842 trip), and Thompson sounds like someone with a score to settle when he fires off this linguistic comparison between Britain and the United States: “Much has been said by tourists, of slang in the United States. I feel no desire, certainly, to say anything en revanche, but it is not extravagant in me to declare that I heard more slang on my return from Epsom than I ever heard before in all my life.”
I’ve made this small introductory digression about Across the Atlantic in order to set the stage for the diary.3 Thompson’s earlier foray into travel writing provides a startling and instructive contrast to his representation of London in 1864, for when he returns in that year, ten years after his first trip, he comes not as a chatty tourist but as a man with a different and much more serious mission.
Between 1854 and 1864 North America erupted in war. Among the many aspects of that war that continue to haunt and obsess me is the complicated and ambivalent role played in it by Britain. There’s a lot more to say on this subject than I have time for, so I’ll abbreviate by quoting a single sentence published in the London Times in 1862, the second year of the war: “The Civil War in the United States affects our people more generally even than the Indian Mutiny.”4
In that same year, 1862, a man named Henry Hotze began publishing a Confederate propaganda newspaper in London. The paper was called the Index, it had its office at 13 Bouverie Street (on the other side of Fleet Street from Dr. Johnson’s Gough Square), and it existed for one and only one purpose: to persuade Britain to recognize the Confederate States of America as an independent nation and to intervene in the war on behalf of the South. Beginning with the May 12, 1864, issue, the weekly newspaper, which consisted of sixteen pages and cost sixpence, published this self-description on its masthead: “The Index was established in May 1862, in the darkest hour of Confederate fortunes, by earnest friends of Southern Independence, with the distinctly expressed object of being the representative, in English journalism, of a gallant and struggling people appealing to the world not only for political, but still more for moral recognition. . . . The chief and almost the sole difficulty has been, and is still, the callous indifference of the British Government on the one hand, and, on the other, the perplexity to the European mind, of the unsolved and unprecedented problems involved in the management and education of four millions of the African race, intermingled with a population of the highest Caucasian type. . . . The Index does not claim to be neutral, but it claims to be independent in the highest sense of that word.”
Still living in Richmond, during the first years of the war, John Reuben Thompson had been writing regular letters for the Index, letters which were then smuggled through the Union naval blockade and published, unsigned, under the heading “Letter from Richmond.” Before he returned to London in 1864, about twenty-five letters of Thompson’s had been published, but the events and catastrophes of 1864, without question the bloodiest year in that bloody war, called for more direct involvement with the Index and its mission. On June 22nd he left Richmond, and he reached London almost six weeks later, on August 1st, having sailed to Liverpool by way of Wilmington, North Carolina; Bermuda; and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Fortunately for us, he kept a regular diary in a very legible hand, and approximately 125 pages of it have to do directly with London in 1864. In 1888 and 1901 extracts of the diary appeared in magazines, but the whole diary has never been published.5
Thompson’s diary is rich with details and observations of his life in London. Having established himself on August 3rd at 17 Savile Row, which he identifies as “the old residence of Sheridan” and which now wears a blue plaque identifying it as the residence of architect George Basevi (1794-1845), Thompson managed to balance work and recreation in a wide variety of ways. During the late summer and autumn of 1864, while London was digesting the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth installments of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, the Confederate apologist busied himself at the Bouverie Street office of the Index writing both leaders and notes there, as well as regularly visiting the printer’s office to read proof. (Bear in mind that back in the States during this period Union General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta, thereby securing reelection for Lincoln, and made his famous March to the Sea, ending at Savannah, Georgia.)
But when he isn’t working for the Confederacy, Thompson is making the most of London. Traveling extensively on foot, by coach, by boat on the Thames, and by what he refers to as both the “Subterranean” and “Subterraneous” Railway (which lands him at Baker Street at one point), he does and sees and visits and attends and meets. He goes to the Regent’s Park Zoo, the British Museum, an exhibit of Holman Hunt’s pictures, the Crystal Palace, Covent Garden, Hampton Court, Madame Tussaud’s, Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, the Whitbread’s brewery, Greenwich, and the Kensal Green tomb of his friend Thackeray, who died the previous year. He goes to the theater frequently, naming the Princess’s, Drury Lane, the Adelphi, the New Royalty, St. James’s, Her Majesty’s, and the Olympic theaters, where he sees, sometimes more than once, Henry IV, Macbeth, Ixion, and The Streets of London. He notes current events in London, such as a “terrible explosion of powder mills at 1/4 to 7 a.m. at Erith below London on the Thames” (October 1st entry) or the return of the murderer Franz Müller: “Great excitement among the lower classes occasioned by the arrival of Muller, the murderer, sent back from New York” (September 17th entry).6
Of course, Thompson also comments almost daily on the weather of London: “Rainy day as usual, by showers” (September 13th); “Sun made a sickly effort to shine about 2 o’clock” (October 28th); “Very fine autumn day, but far inferior to our glorious fall weather in Virginia” (November 4th); “Raining and wretched beyond description” (November 23rd); “Densest fog I almost ever saw” (December 9th; he includes a newspaper clipping); “Quite cold and snowing hard” (December 18th; includes another clipping). Finally, throughout all his daily rounds and amusements, Thompson records again and again that he eats oysters, of which he must have been extraordinarily fond. In fact, he eats so many oysters, it’s a wonder his diary doesn’t sound more like the young James Boswell’s London Journal.
But the real interest of this diary, at least in my judgment, has to do with the people Thompson meets. It’s in this social context that business and pleasure converge, since the point of his trip across the Atlantic was to persuade people of the virtues of the Confederate States of America. Since he was not only a skillful writer but by all accounts also a sparkling conversationalist, Thompson was exactly the right man for the job. Two meetings stand out in particular, one with Tennyson and one, described at great length, with Carlyle. I’ll sketch these meetings briefly, and then I’ll close with a quick look at some poetry.
Tennyson’s name appears more than once in Thompson’s 1864 diary, making its entrance in the October 8th entry, which records a visit to the poet and anthologist Francis Turner Palgrave at 5 York Gate, Regent’s Park: “Saw some very rare & beautiful drawings, and a copy of the first draught of the ‘Idylls of the King,’ of Tennyson, of which the whole edition printed was suppressed by the author.” When Thompson finally meets Tennyson, however, notice what he chooses to record in his entry of November 24th: “Spent the evening at the house of Mr. Woolner, sculptor, 29 Welbeck Street, Cavendish Square, with Tennyson, the Poet Laureate . . . a quiet, simple-mannered man, who smoked a pipe and drank hot punch with us, and talked much of the American War, which he deplored, and the yankees whom he detested.” Although we can’t know for sure to what extent Tennyson tailored his negative statements about the northern United States expressly for Thompson, this entry shows that the Confederate wasn’t calling on the literary lions of Victorian London for the sole purposes of flattering them and talking literary shoptalk. He had other business on his mind.
Meanwhile, Thompson’s narration of his first evening with “the great Thomas Carlyle at 58 Cheyne Row—Chelsea” mixes the political with other matters more evenly. This narration in the October 14th entry, which runs to four manuscript pages (Oct14A, Oct14B, Oct14C, Oct14D), is the jewel of the diary. Thompson records that Carlyle “burst into a beautiful tribute to Sir Christopher Wren”; that he pronounced John Stuart Mill’s “book on Liberty the greatest nonsense he ever read”; and that “he expressed himself very despondingly of the future of Great Britain—feared it was in its decadence—that there were very few honest men left, and that too much money would be the ruin of the Land.” This entry also includes talk about the American war, and when it comes it presents a more complex picture than that of the Tennyson entry: “Mr. Carlyle inquired about the Confederacy[,] its resources, its army, its supplies of food, its powder, and read us a letter from R. W. Emerson in which the Yankee philosopher declared that the struggle going on in America was the great Battle of Humanity. Mr. Carlyle said he could make no sense of this at all.”
What a moment: the Sage of Chelsea reading a letter from the Sage of Concord to a cultural ambassador of the Confederacy. Unlike Tennyson, Carlyle could not claim to detest all Yankees, since he and Emerson had been devoted, if not always fond, correspondents for thirty years, and in many ways Carlyle had much more in common, at least intellectually, with Emerson than he did with John Reuben Thompson. But Carlyle also thought the American Civil War a very foolish thing and said so in a biting essay entitled “Shooting Niagara,” which so upset Walt Whitman. When Emerson claims that the war is the great Battle of Humanity, he is thinking specifically about the emancipation of slaves and the abolition of slavery, both causes Carlyle thought deeply unworthy of the deaths of so many white men. Ironically enough, although he does not say so, the Confederate Thompson might well have found himself closer to Emerson in his attitude toward the war. For him, too, the war was the great Battle of Humanity, although in thinking so he would have identified the rights of white southerners rather than black slaves as what hung in the balance. In this quickly sketched triangle of Emerson-Carlyle-Thompson, we have a revealing image of the deeply tangled attractions and repulsions that characterized both Victorian transatlantic literary relations and wartime Anglo-American foreign relations.
After 1864 the end of the war came quickly. With the Confederacy defeated and Richmond burned, the Index published its last issue in June 1865. Thompson, however, chose to remain in London, earning money by writing for the Standard, Blackwood’s Magazine, and other publications before returning to Virginia in 1866. Before he left London, however, he published his most famous poem, “Lee to the Rear,” in the May 1866 issue of the New Orleans Crescent Monthly. Placed first by editor John S. Patton in the 1920 edition of Thompson’s Poems, “Lee to the Rear” represents a famous, even legendary, moment in the Battle of the Wilderness, fought in central Virginia on May 5th and 6th, 1864. I’ve talked about this poem at greater length elsewhere, so in closing here I simply want to call attention to the final two stanzas, which I now hear differently in the larger context of Thompson’s mission to London, where he composed the poem:
In the anapestically choreographed pomp of these closing lines, students of the Civil War can hear early versions of what later became more fully elaborated in the American South as the myths of the Lost Cause and the Marble Man. But those who understand the London context in which Thompson wrote the lines, his own intense efforts to persuade Great Britain to rescue the Confederacy having failed, may also hear in them more complicated feelings and a deeper pathos, a pathos in which, from Thompson’s point of view, Fate and British neutrality became too hard to tell apart.
Hushed is the roll of the rebel drum,
The sabres are sheathed, and the cannon are dumb,
And Fate, with his pitiless hand, has furled
The flag that once challenged the gaze of the world;
But the fame of the Wilderness fight abides;
And down into history grandly rides,
Calm and unmoved as in battle he sat,
The grey-bearded man in the black slouched hat.7
1. John Reuben Thompson Journal, 1864, MSS 3400-a, Albert H. Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. I’m grateful for the Library’s permission to reproduce these three diary entries, and for the assistance of Special Collections in producing the digital images of them.
2. Thompson’s connection to Dickens is interesting. Excerpts published from Thompson’s 1865 and 1866 journals (see note 5 below) include the following for May 25, 1865: “While dining at Verey’s, saw Charles Dickens. He looked very little like a gentleman and combed his hair and whiskers, or rather his goatee, at the table. This is the man who ridiculed America!” (Elizabeth C. Stoddard, “Extracts from the Diary of John R. Thompson,” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine 24 [November 1888], 703). Clearly this last sentence refers to Dickens’s criticism of American manners in his American Notes. Other excerpts record that Thompson went to hear Dickens read in public. In John Reuben Thompson (Boston: Twayne, 1979), Gerald M. Garmon lists Dickens among Thompson’s “less intimate friends,” adding that Thompson had come to admire Dickens “after at first thinking him vulgar” (128). For an examination of Dickens’s later attitudes toward the American Civil War, see John O. Waller, “Charles Dickens and the American Civil War,” Studies in Philology 57, 3 (July 1960): 535-548.
3. Across the Atlantic had a most curious fate. One day before it was due to be released, the famous New York fire of 1856 destroyed the bindery of Derby and Jackson at 119 Nassau Street and with it every copy of the book, including the proof sheets; yet a few days after the fire, a printer found in a desk drawer a single unbound copy, which he sent to Thompson and which now belongs to the University of Virginia.
4. August 21, 1862. Quoted in R. J. M. Blackett, Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2000), 4.
5. The textual history of Thompson’s 1864 diary has been clouded by Garmon in John Reuben Thompson. According to a memorandum written by University of Virginia librarian Anne E. H. Freudenberg and dated July 6, 1983, Garmon made up the title “The Unpublished London Diary of John Reuben Thompson,” which he italicizes in his bibliography, implying the consolidation of the 1864 diary and portions of 1865 and 1866 diaries later published by Elizabeth Stoddard in the November 1888 issue of Lippincott’s Magazine and by James Grant Wilson in the November 1901 issue of The Criterion. In fact, the University of Virginia owns only the 1864 diary, although it also owns copies of the excerpts made by Stoddard and Wilson. If the 1865 and 1866 diaries still exist, their locations remain unknown. (Freudenberg’s memorandum appears in the control folder for MS3400-a).
6. See Martin Fido, Murder Guide to London (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986), 142-43.
7. Poems of John R. Thompson, ed. John S. Patton (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920), 3. My earlier remarks on this poem appear in Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle (Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1999), 234-36. I regret that in this discussion I have given the date of publication in the Crescent Monthly as May 1865 rather than 1866. See Joseph Roddey Miller, Jr., “John Reuben Thompson: His Place in Southern Life and Literature,” diss., U of Virginia, 1930, 250.
|TEI markup by Kirk Hastings|