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The Greatest Diarist
George Templeton Strong was not a public man, and he is not widely known today. But for forty years he kept the best diary—in both historic and literary terms—ever written by an American.
March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
This reflection was as untrue as it was characteristic. In his quiet and unobtrusive way, Strong had outstandingly served his city and country, but shy and self-distrusting, he had invariably saddled himself with backbreaking and unrewarding jobs—vestryman, trustee, treasurer, secretary—that left him dissatisfied. His diary provided an outlet for his ambivalent feelings toward himself and toward his contemporaries—friends, acquaintances, public figures, artists—whom he shrewdly assessed. The prevailing note in all references to himself down to his final illness is comic self-disparagement and rueful introspection. He scolds himself for worrying over trifles and anticipating the worst, concedes his silly scruples and want of energy. But his diaries contain not a shred of self-pity or false modesty. Strong knew his own worth; neither the wealthy nor the famous dazzled his moral vision. Like Hawthorne, with whom he had much in common, he was a sensitive detector of humbug, and just as Hawthorne buried his dangerous thoughts in allegories and parables, so Strong—the Columbia College trustee and Trinity Church dignitary—confined his tirades and denigrations to the privacy of his diary.
In his diary, Strong emerges from a priggish adolescence into a troubled maturity.
The four published volumes are pervaded by a conservatism that links Strong with two other New Yorkers, Alexander Hamilton and the influential New York jurist James Kent. Strong might have doubled for James Fenimore Cooper’s American Gentleman. Throughout his life he distrusted universal suffrage, ridiculed reformers and philanthropists, and loathed what he referred to as “scum” or the “canaille.” His antipathies (always a good measure of a man) make up an enormous and various list. They include the Irish—usually described as filthy, bestial, and drunken—and any of the Mediterranean immigrants. “A dirty Irishman is bad enough,” the eighteen-year-old diarist noted in 1838, “but he’s nothing comparable to a nasty French or Italian loafer.” The French speak a “dirty dialect,” and Paris is “a maleficent blowhole of poisonous gas.” “We certainly do not want these bloodthirsty little blackmuzzled Cubans as fellow citizens,” he exclaims in 1873, and he is glad that the Latin requirement will keep the “little scrubs (German Jew boys mostly)” out of the Columbia law school. Add to this list spiritualists, abolitionists (until 1860), organ grinders, Yankees (with significant exceptions), politicians, mosquitoes, Unitarians, Southerners, Democrats, and transcendentalists, together with assorted “spooneys,” “loafers,” “blackguards,” and “snobs” (Strong’s favorite epithets of abuse), and you have a fair sample of his dislikes.
Taken out of context and read in sequence, these slurs and prejudices make Strong sound like a crusty bigot. But Strong, who never spared himself, was always undercutting his own biases and finding redeeming features in the groups or people he energetically insulted. If he fulminated against Hibernian mobs, he could personally intervene in behalf of an Irishwoman in a “paroxysm of mania” after watching her husband and three children die of cholera. The “hook-nosed and black-whiskered” Jews praying in the synagogue, he noted, “took a hearty and zealous part in the services and roared out their unintelligible responses with good will and strength of lungs. I like that. In our church it looks too much like going to heaven by proxy.”
In fact, Strong reserved his most devastating criticism for the people of “vast wealth, weak minds, and no resources within themselves,” and he echoed Tocqueville’s prediction that a “commercial aristocracy which is mean enough anywhere” would in the United States “be a fluctuating mushroom aristocracy and the meanest the world has seen yet.” Murderous millionaires, however respectable, whose steamships exploded, scalding to death scores of passengers, whose factories collapsed on top of unprotected operatives, deserved hanging. Much as Strong loathed the lawless rabble, his compassion overwhelmed his conservatism. Thus, after remarking on the English gentry in 1851 who cultivated their minds “while men and women and children in multiplying thousands lie rotting alive, body and soul at once, in those awful catacombs of disease and crime,” he cries out: “Yet we [in New York] have our Five Points, our emigrant quarters, our swarms of seamstresses to whom their utmost toil in monotonous daily drudgery gives only bare subsistence, a life barren of hope and of enjoyment; our hordes of dock thieves, and of children who live in the streets and by them. No one can walk the length of Broadway without meeting some hideous troop of ragged girls, from twelve years old down, brutalized already almost beyond redemption by premature vice, clad in the filthy refuse of the rag-picker’s collections, obscene of speech, the stamp of childhood gone from their faces, hurrying along with harsh laughter and foulness on their lips that some of them have learned by rote, yet too young to understand it; with thief written in their cunning eyes and whore on their depraved faces, though so unnatural, foul, and repulsive in every look and gesture, that that last profession seems utterly beyond their aspirations....