The Greatest Diarist

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Who was George Templeton Strong, and why single out for special attention a conservative and supercilious New York lawyer who is remembered chiefly, if at all, for a diary he kept between the years 1835 and 1875? A civil leader and much esteemed man of affairs, he took an active part in the educational and cultural life of his turbulent city and served with distinction on the United States Sanitary Commission during the Civil War. But he never occupied top positions, never coveted the limelight, had no special influence on, important people. He died without national lamentation in his fifty-fifth year.

The details of his personal life are not particularly unusual. He was born in New York on January 26, 1820. He graduated from Columbia College in 1838, and when he was twenty-eight, he married Ellen Ruggles. They produced three sons, John Ruggles, George Templeton, Jr., and Lewis Barton. He was a good alumnus to Columbia and co-founded its law school. He passionately loved music, and he supported the city’s musical organizations. He was a reliable member of the Trinity Church congregation.

So much for the skeleton outline of a brief and seemingly uneventful life. The diary constitutes the flesh and blood and brain of the man who lived it. What his contemporaries could not have suspected, and what we have yet to acknowledge even after the publication in 1952 of Strong’s magnificently edited diary, is the loss to American letters when his eminent-lawyer father virtually pushed his son (enamored of literature, the fine arts, and science) into the “wilderness” of the law.

Strong’s diary is an astonishing literary achievement as well as a treasure trove for pillaging historians. To see him merely as a colorful eyewitness of his times, a source for pungent quotations, is grossly to undervalue him. He also happens to be the most readable and brilliant of the nineteenth-century American diarists (the “diary” being distinguished from the less topical “commonplace book” or “journal” kept by introspective Yankees like Emerson and Thoreau), a kind of novelist manqué, a satirist and humorist of high order, and an alert reporter in the tradition of Pepys, his self-acknowledged prototype. His unmatchable forty-year commentary on wars, scandals, books, concerts, fires, fads, riots, social events, politics, and personalities reveals, as the critic P. A. Spaulding said, the “minor but unmistakeable share of genius” that marks the work of the authentic diarist.

Strong’s diary is not only the richest and most informative day-to-day account of American life in the nineteenth century but also the candid autobiography of a representative type—the New Yorker as gentleman, the Federalist-Whig conservative tinctured with the prejudices of a class that Edith Wharton was later to anatomize. A classic example of the inner-directed man, Strong emerges from a priggish and precocious adolescence (the diary begins in his fifteenth year) into a troubled maturity. As he registers the vibrations of his times, he holds himself up to self-examination, revises or abandons some of his firmly held opinions, and stubbornly clings to cherished biases. His diary is at once the story of a man’s education and an illustration of how public events can temper or dissolve convictions. The great event of Strong’s lifetime was the Civil War. During the years immediately preceding it, and the war years themselves, he came to terms with himself and his country.

Taking a hard look at himself on his fiftieth birthday, in 1870, Strong gloomily wrote: “Fifty years ago this day, January 26, 1820, was born at No. 50 Franklin Street, in the city of New York, a squalling brat, whose babyhood—being both croupy and colicky—required special vigilance and occasional anxiety and care worthy a better cause. The amount expended on him in doctor bills, druggist bills, and catnip tea might probably have been better invested. At compound interest it would have swollen into a small fortune by this time. This blessed baby has now drifted through nearly his whole life without praiseworthy service to church or state or appreciable benefit to anybody. He has manufactured good resolutions by the cartload, but they have proved an inferior article. He will probably continue to the end a more or less ‘respectable’ and decorous dunce and drone. Perhaps he may think himself lucky if he gets through without falling below even that standard. The alms-house is always visible in ‘the middle distance.’ ”