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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
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 nineteenthcentury 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.’ ”
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… .
“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.
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 185Os, 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 185Os 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 twentythird 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.
Gradually, however, the humanitarian superseded the lawyer. The slavery system, Strong charged in 1856, told three million people that they had no legal rights, no right to improve themselves morally or intellectually, that they were and would remain “three millions of brutes .” Strong still insisted that slaveholders were “infinitely better than their system,” but, he added, “It strikes me that this institution—slavery as it exists at the South with all its ‘safeguards’ and ‘necessary legislation’—is the greatest crime on the largest scale known in modern history; taking into account the time it has occupied, the territory it covers, the number of its subjects, and the civilization of the criminals. It is deliberate legislation intended to extinguish and annihilate the moral being of men for profit; systematic murder, not of the physical, but of the moral and intellectual being; blasphemy, not in word, but in systematic action against the Spirit of God which dwells in the souls of men to elevate, purify, and ennoble them.”
At this juncture Strong’s irritation with the South, steadily mounting since the Mexican War, hardened into hatred. For him the South had always been the nursery of violence and lawlessness, but he had regarded Southerners as more comical than sinister, especially the gasconading “great nation of South Carolina,” always “restless and vituperative.” After Preston Brooks’s caning of Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate, Strong denounced the so-called chivalry of that “retrograde civilization” as “a race of lazy, ignorant, coarse, sensual, swaggering, sordid, beggarly barbarians” and thereafter reserved his choicest epithets for the “nigger-breeders” and “woman-floggers.” By 1861 the New York gentleman who had defended the Fugitive Slave Law, who had declared John Brown justly hanged, who once doubted that blacks were worth saving, found himself on the fringes of the abolitionist camp.
Out of the welter of fascinating detail Strong crammed into his diary between 1861 and 1865, four themes are dominant: his work on the United States Sanitary Commission, which brought him close to battlefields and hospitals; his response to the war on the civilian front; his changing attitude toward the Negro; and his running commentary on Abraham Lincoln.
Soon after “this treasonable inflammation— secessionitis ,” as Strong called it—erupted into war, he donated money to equip a regiment and joined a projected rifle corps, but he judged himself too old and too nearsighted to fight. He was to find his most useful role as a civilian soldier on the United States Sanitary Commission, organized in June 1861 to safeguard the health of the Union troops in camp and on the field.
Diary entries during the next few years reveal how very real the war had become for him. He visited hospitals filled with mangled soldiers who lay “on straw, in their bloody stiffened clothes.” He captured the pulsating chaos of Grant’s headquarters and the surrounding landscape in an almost Homeric vision: “Looking still farther, you make out dimly through the yellow dustsaturated air the outline of a long series of pavilion hospitals, where 6,000 sick and wounded men (too sorely hurt or too ill to be on transportation) are stifling as they breathe the sluggish, heavy current of dust that keeps pouring in upon them. High up against the blue sky stand great columns of coppery dust, hardly moving and shifting their vague outlines slowly; like thunderheads as a storm blows up.”
Or again, still obsessed by the dust, he adds painterly detail: “Every horse raises a convoluted cloud of ropy smoke that comes up to his belly and steals away behind him for half a mile. A drove of cattle or a mule-train creates a fog so dense that in passing them this afternoon, our leaders were invisible. Though our teamster knew the ground perfectly, he had to stop within a mile of City Point, on the boundless area of naked yellow dust limited only by the circumambient haze and traversed by wagon ruts in every direction, and ask which way City Point lay… .”
Strong welcomed these excursions into the battle area. What discouraged and exhausted him were the snarl-ups behind the lines. Harassed by incompetence and skulduggery and enraged by pigheaded bureaucrats, cowards, and crooks, Strong poured his frustrations into his diary. When read in retrospect, his observation that between April 13, 1861, and May 29, 1865, “We have lived a century of common life” is almost an understatement.
It seems nothing short of remarkable, then, that a man so engrossed in the great battles and their consequences and ridden by family and business anxieties would have found time even to glance at the scenes behind the war. That he did so is a tribute to his skill and industry, but the real reason, of course, was that Strong saw the war as a vast totality, its civilian and military aspects in constant interaction.
Strong expected a protracted war. For all of the North’s advantage in numbers, wealth, and mechanical skills, he seriously questioned the government’s ability ever to “subjugate these savage millions of the South.” The dreary repetition of military defeats and diplomatic disappointments during the next two years fueled his apprehensions, and he could feel only a bitter consolation in the thought that Northern adversities were a divine prescription for national sickness. The country had to pay for its years of “selfish devotion to prosperous, easy money-making.” But this acceptance of God-administered tribulation did not inhibit him from raging at the Copperheads and Peace Democrats or the antidraft rioters whose rampage of burning and killing in July 1863 he describes in all its ugliness and horror. “I begin to doubt,” he writes early in that year, “whether the Northern people, with so large a percentage of false, cowardly, despicable sympathizers with Rebellion now prepared to intrigue against our national life, to bow down to the bullies of the South and to uphold nigger-breeding as the noblest of duties, can be saved, ought to be saved, or is worth the trouble of saving.”
He suffered through periods of even denser pessimism before the tide turned, but almost half-consciously he began to detect signs that the providential medicine was working. Given the “great mass of selfishness, frivolity, invincible prejudice … indifference to national life,” could Americans muster sufficient determination “to fight on through five years of taxation, corruption, and discouragement”? Strong finally decided that they could. Indeed, some of his own prejudices had melted in the holocaust. Not only had the war turned him into an abolitionist, but he, who had once scoffed at “nigger-lovers,” had now become a champion of the black race.
Until the war actually started, Strong had professed to be bored by the “irrepressible nigger. … no doubt he is a man and a brother, but his monopoly of attention is detrimental to the rest of the family.” Not what he called the “sorrows of Sambo” but his dislike of the South made him a reluctant champion of the black, and early in the war he advocated, if only for expediency’s sake, putting “bayonets in Negro hands.” What seemed to have turned him from a lukewarm apologist into an ardent defender of the blacks were the atrocities committed against them—“the most peaceable, sober, and inoffensive of our poor”—during the New York City draft riots, and the heroism of their troops in the field. By 1863 the canting anti-Negro talk of the Northern Democrats had provoked this scathing rejoinder: “‘Modern physiology, my dear sir, has, as you must be aware, demonstrated the essential inferiority of the black race and proved it to be anthropoid rather than human.’ Certainly. Why not? The Negro can be taught reading and writing and the first four rules of arithmetic, to be sure, and he is capable of keeping a hotel. He can fight like a hero and live and die like a Christian. But look at his facial angle, sir, and at the peculiarities of his skeleton, and you will at once perceive that his place is with the chimpanzee and the gorilla, not with man. Physical science is absolutely infallible, you know. No matter what the Church, or the Bible, or human instincts, or common sense may seem to say on any subject, physical science is always entitled to overrule them. It’s very true that the science of 1863 has reversed or modified about 250,000 of the decisions it gave twenty years ago, but that makes no difference.” A year later he emotionally recorded his feelings as the first New York black regiment, “armed, drilled, truculent, and elate,” marched down Broadway.
He raged at the antidraft rioters and the ugliness and horrors of their rampage.
It is a testament to the strength of Strong’s conversion that during the early days of Reconstruction when former abolitionists deplored the “prospect of Negro sovereignty” in the South, he attributed the ordinary person’s color prejudice to the common association of blacks with menial occupations. Knowing nothing about black professional men in the British West Indies who held their own, Americans couldn’t conceive of the black “helping to regulate our national finances and our foreign relations.” It did not occur to them that the black’s alleged “unfitness for legislation … is caused by the tyrannous wrong to which he and his progenitors have been subjected … by the atrocious system of slavery.”
As might be expected, Strong, who favored emancipation in 1861, approved of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. At the beginning of his administration, Lincoln had few enthusiastic supporters among the Eastern gentry, and Strong himself periodically wavered in his allegiance. Lincoln seemed to Strong, as to others, too vacillating, too undignified, too much the shrewd Western clown. In the dark days of the war, Strong no longer laughed at “Honest Old Abe’s grotesque genial Western jocosities,” but although he doubted from time to time that Lincoln was “the style of goods we want just now,” he never completely lost faith in this “lank and hard-featured” man.
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 soundhearted, 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 selfcritical 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 wellmeaning, 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.