The Greatest Diarist

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Young Strong, aged twenty-two, fears stultification and yearns for “a whaling voyage before, the mast.” He finds nutriment in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus “with all its wildness and all its humbug” while rejecting the power idolatry that underlies the author’s philosophy of history. He defends Coleridge (“after the lion’s dead every ass may take a kick at him”); discovers upon reading Ruskin on architecture “many positions taken that I’ve had a sort of glimmering half-perception of before.”

He relishes the ludicrous aspects of the spiritualist craze that hits America in the early 1850s, yet he characteristically reflects on its social import: “A new Revelation, hostile to that of the Church and the Bible, finding acceptance on the authority of knocking ghosts and oscillating tables, is a momentous fact in history as throwing light on the intellectual calibre and moral tone of the age in which multitudes adopt it.” Ravished by the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, he listens to Wagner’s compositions uncomprehendingly but finds much of them “impressive and splendid,” and “full of  talent.” In 1872 he visits an exhibition and confronts Turner’s Slave Ship: “The heaving sea appears to me to be mere lunacy and so does the foreground with its preposterous fish and the iron manacles that are floating about. But the picture, as a whole, gave me an impression of prodigious genius—of immense power manifested without effort—such as one receives from a Beethoven symphony.”

“I have seen an army smothering in mud before, but never, till now, stifling, in dust.”

It is fortunate that such a complex and reflective man was on hand to observe the events of the 1850s and 1860s. Thanks to geography, social position, and talent, he found himself close to the centers of power (he came to know Lincoln, Seward, Stanton, and Grant among other notables), yet he remained just detached enough, in spite of his occasionally ferocious partisanship, to report these years with some perspective. The entries between the Compromise of 1850 and Lincoln’s assassination make up the most fascinating section of the diary. Alternating between despair and exultation and punctuated by crises and explosive episodes, Strong’s narrative unfolds like a historical novel.

How deliberately he composed his war story it is hard to say. Certainly his manifold duties left him little time for literary polishing. But his long apprenticeship in diary keeping had perfected his technique of swift and personal reporting, and his occasional nods to the as yet unborn indicate that he had his eye cocked on posterity. As early as 1843 he speculated on the value of chronicling small beer for the twenty-third century: “What with novels and newspapers and magazines, the future investigators of the antiquities, manners and customs of the nineteenth century won’t want my help. In all probability they’ll be blinded with excess of light—and die off ingloriously from plethora and over-feeding on the abundant feast that we shall bequeath them and so the race will become extinct.” He was wrong. Diaries like his own and that of Mary Chesnut (his Southern counterpart and author of the only other journal of almost comparable literary quality) enable us, as Strong put it, “in some degree to realize and understand past times and the great men of those times—when the times are worth understanding and the men truly great.”

Strong had envisaged the “possible rupture between North and South on the slavery question” as early as 1848, so the triumph of extremism after Sumter did not catch him unprepared. Like most conservatives, he had deplored the entrance of abolition into politics. Although he considered slavery a vestige of barbarism, he refused to stigmatize it as a sin and wondered whether the rights of “Cuff and Dinah” could be won without destroying the rest of society. By the mid-fifties he was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain his legalistic stance. Slavery was not a wrong per se, he told himself; its iniquities were “probably curable by legislation,” but it degraded and demoralized the South and impeded its material development. Congress had no business trying to interfere with slavery where it existed already. But Congress did possess the power to ban it in the territories.