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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
Strong’s first audience with Lincoln took place in October 1861. “Decidedly plebeian,” he noted. “Superficially vulgar and a snob. But not essentially. He seems to me clear-headed and sound-hearted, though his laugh is the laugh of a yahoo, with a wrinkling of the nose that suggests affinity with the tapir and other pachyderms; and his grammar is weak.” The Lincoln he continued thenceforth to believe in was the author of the First Inaugural (“There’s a clank of metal in it”), the “sensible, straightforward, honest old codger,” whose integrity more than compensated for his rusticity, the Rebels’ “gorilla despot” whose greatness of character restored national unity. After Lincoln’s assassination Strong’s tribute, as self-critical as it was heartfelt, obliterated any reservations he may have had about an uncouth Western lawyer: “What a place this man, whom his friends have been patronizing for four years as a wel-lmeaning, sagacious, kind-hearted, ignorant, old codger, had won for himself in the hearts of the people! What a place he will fill in history! I foresaw most clearly that he would be ranked high as the Great Emancipator twenty years hence, but I did not suppose his death would instantly reveal—even to Copperhead newspaper editors—the nobleness and the glory of his part in this great contest. It reminds one of the last line of Blanco White’s great sonnet, ‘If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?’ Death has suddenly opened the eyes of the people (and I think of the world) to the fact that a hero has been holding high place among them for four years, closely watched and studied, but despised and rejected by a third of this community, and only tolerated by the other two-thirds.”
Strong was too much a partisan to soften his stand toward the defeated South. Like many others, he saw something providential in the assassination, as if God had declared his servant unfit for the war’s harsh aftermath. “Perhaps,” Strong speculated, “the murdered President’s magnanimity would have been circumvented and his generosity and goodness abused by rebel subtlety and falsehood to our lasting national injury.” His bursts of vindictiveness against the South, however, were less significant than his belief throughout and after the war years that the issues of the Great Rebellion transcended mere sectional animosities, that the Civil War was “a struggle of two hostile and irreconcilable systems of society for the rule of this continent.” In such a contest the import of the event dignified the participants. The generals on both sides would be better known in 1963 than the famous captains of the past, “not as greater generals, but as fighting on a larger field and in a greater cause than any of them.”
His final entry said, “I have been improving the wrong way, like bad fish in warm weather.
From 1865 until his death in 1875, Strong’s diary declined in intensity, if not in interest. The Franco-Prussian War, the Tweed scandals, the Beecher-Tilton affair, the impeachment proceedings against Andrew Johnson, and the upheavals of Reconstruction provoked some of his most trenchant comments, but his real interests narrowed down to Trinity Church, whose comptroller he became in 1872; Columbia University, which he helped start on the path to intellectual eminence; and his beloved musical societies. Ill health plagued him in the last few years of his life, when he could have enjoyed the leisure a busy and onerous law practice had long denied him. The final diary entry is characteristic: “I have been improving the wrong way, like bad fish in warm weather. One day last week, I had a woeful day of headache, nausea, and malaise, which left me weak as a sea anemone at low water. Since then, there has been no improvement.” He died on July 21, 1875.
“His tastes and inclinations,” read the obituary in the New York Daily Herald, “led him rather to literature and arts than to law, and he was chiefly known among his friends for his attainments in elegant literature....He was not the author of any extensive literary work, and seldom appeared in print.” Not until Allan Nevins edited Strong’s diaries in 1952, some four and a half million words set down in “a minute hand...beautifully regular, fine-lined, and clear,” did it become known just how much of a writer Strong was.
“It is a rule never to be forgotten,” Dr. Johnson once observed, “that whatever strikes strongly should be described while the first impression remains fresh in the mind.” Strong’s diary remains fresh and spontaneous because he stamped his personality on the events he recorded while they were still plastic and palpitating and because his hard, specific details hint of a larger reality. He is selective. He possesses what Boswell called “a talent for abridging” without which no one could keep a proper “journal of life.” A good journal, Boswell thought, could be likened to “portable soup, which a little bit being dissolved in water will make a large good dish.” Strong’s portable soup is exceptionally nutritious for sipping historians, particularly the connoisseurs who know the idiosyncrasies of the cook. But any reader will take pleasure in this nineteenth-century correspondent who wrote his day-to-day history for a distant posterity.