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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
“And what am I doing, I wonder? I’m neither scholar nor philanthropist nor clergyman, nor in any capacity a guide or ruler of the people…. But if Heaven will permit and enable me, I’ll do something in the matter before I die—to have helped one dirty vagabond child out of such a pestilential sink would be a thing one would not regret when one came to march out of this world—:and if one looks at FACTS , would be rather more of an achievement than the writing another Iliad ”
The poignancy of this outburst is all the more moving when one remembers that Strong much preferred to collect rocks, look through his microscope, listen to Mozart, and read Dickens than to practice law, and that only fear of want and his Puritan civic sense prevented him from immersing himself completely in the life of the mind.
No doubt his classical and legal education accounted for his attachment to facts and his distrust of the sentimental and rhetorical. It may also explain Strong’s Johnsonian aversion to fine writing, obscurity, and unreality and his disapproval of what he called the “sensation style; that is, a style that aims at astonishing the reader or stimulating his curiosity, and does not seek to convey the writer’s meaning with the maximum of clearness and beauty, which I suppose to be the sole office of language and test of ‘style.’ ”
We expect such a man to incline toward the actualities of daily life, and he did: “(September 30,1848) Thackeray’s Vanity Fair . Not a ‘work of genius,’ as some people call it, by any means, but a remarkable book written on a new principle and likely to have many imitators in this age—the principle being the exclusion of any sort of idealism in character, plot, or catastrophe. Its title is an apt one, ‘a novel without a hero.’ And now that ‘heroism,’ in every sense but the melodramatic, is at a discount, people will naturally feel best satisfied and most at home with a class of fiction that has no characters or features or notions in its structure that rise much above their own experience of the world themselves; they will prefer a Hogarth to all the romantic scene painters in the world. And it is a preference that no one need quarrel with.”
Seven years later he again praises the poetry of the commonplace in language reminiscent of Emerson and Strong’s fellow Manhattanite Walt Whitman: “The poet of A.D. 1855 will have his hands full with the men and women and things of 1855, and has no right to go back to other dead times, ‘revolutionary,’ mediaeval, classical, or patriarchal. His hand and his heart find enough to feel and to do at his own door. There is poetry enough latent in the South Street merchant and the Wall Street financier; in Stewart’s snobby clerk chaffering over ribbons and laces; in the omnibus driver that conveys them all from the day’s work to the night’s relaxation and repose; in the brutified denizen of the Points and the Hook; in the sumptuous star courtesan of Mercer Street thinking sadly of her village home; in the Fifth Avenue ballroom; in the Grace Church contrast of eternal vanity and new bonnets; … and in the future of each and all.”
Strong’s diary incorporated what he sought for in the literature he admired —“the images, objects, subjects, thoughts, manners, and events” of his times. It abounds in dramatically rendered anecdotes, salted by Strong’s special brand of comedy, and in character sketches, probing and succinct. The following entry is Strong’s private obituary of a clergyman whose sermons he had earlier described as “bombastic, hyperbolical, kompomatous, verbose, pleonastic, periphrastic, and preposterous”: “His organic disease made it impossible he should ever preach again; so his power to do mischief to the church on any large scale was ended…. He had considerable ability of a certain kind, and he might have been valuable as a colonel of artillery, as a captain of a whaler, or as chief of police. But he had mistaken his vocation. A few shallow sisters and half-educated brethren were awed by the bow-wow of his oratory. There are silly women, I believe, who … have given him money they could ill spare, for he went begging in all quarters, though his official income and his private means were exceptionally large for a clergyman. But every intelligent listener was disgusted by the superficiality, wordiness, and windiness of his sermons, by his frequent atrocious sins against reverence and decency….”
Had Strong been merely an opinionated literalist, predictably “square” and resistant to any mode or ideal or temperament that jarred his sense of good form, he could be pegged as a period piece, a fine specimen of his class. But behind the starchy vestryman lurked the maverick, drawn to the men who challenged his values and who entertained uncongenial views. Not that he was in advance of his times, for he was too prudent or insufficiently audacious to defy the consensus, but his intelligence and education, his irony, and his abiding curiosity preserved him from fatuity, and his diary betrays an impatience with public truths and safe opinions.