- Historic Sites
Two Gentlemen From Newburyport
The eccentric Timothy Dexter finally found a sympathetic biographer in his fellow townsman, novelist John Marquand
April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
Newburyport, Massachusetts—the modest seaport town at the mouth of the Mcrrimack River—is immoderately rich in social history. Under the name of “Yankee City,” Newburyport has been the subject of an intensive sociological study by W. Lloyd Warner and his associates, published in five volumes which picture the subtle division of its inhabitants into grades of class and status. The son of an old Newburyport family, John P. Marquand, remained until his death last July the nation’s most effective novelist of manners and customs, of social aspiration and decline. And Newburyport, too, was once the home of an extraordinary individual named “Lord’ Timothy Dexter, in whom sudden wealth and prominence worked to produce an exceptional extravagance of character—a man Mr. Marquand has described as “one of the greatest eccentrics so far produced in America.”
Dexter is fascinating in himself, but he was particularly fascinating to John P. Marquand. Lord Timothy was the subject of his two only works of non fiction, one of them published in 1925, before The Late George Apley had established Marquand’s reputation as a novelist, the second in 1960, the very last volume he wrote. Marquand returned to Dexter out of dissatisfaction with his first effort—“it embarrasses me to pick it up again”—and out of a concern for achieving balanced historical judgment. In many ways, no one could be better qualified for the task than a novelist like Marquand, in whose pages his own times live with an accuracy and understanding which future historians well may envy. Yet increasingly he had come to realize how remote was the Newburyport of today from the town he had grown up in, and how infinitely more remote, therefore, we now are from the Newburyport of Hex tcr’s day. His last book was an effort to feel his way back through his own past to the past of Revolutionary America. It is a meditation on the impossibility of ever knowing exactly how history felt to those who lived it, and in the process of writing about him Dexter became, for the author, something far more than a famous eccentric.
Eccentric he no doubt was. Newburyport’s first real family fortunes, like those of the Tracys and the Jacksons, were made through privateering in the early days of the Revolution. Timothy Dexter, a leather-worker of small wealth and low status, rose with the town’s general prosperity, and forcsightcdly invested his gains in government securities then selling for below their face value. Later, when Alexander Hamilton reformed the monetary system and refunded the foreign and domestic national debt at par, Dexter overnight became a man of substance. Always an individualist, and temperamentally unprepared for the high station in which he found himself, he now became a local character. He addressed vigorous, ill-spelt letters to the Newburyport Impartial Herald . He published an equally odd and original book, called A Pickle for the Knowing Ones; or, Plain Truths in a Homspun Dress , full of meandering observations on his own life and times. “I—I—me J Dexter of N Port,” he wrote to the newspaper, his favorite forum, “Desires Any man or men on the gloube to Exseeds me as to what I have rote in my Litte! book …” Evenings ha was rarely sober, his family life became a shambles, and soon he had attracted a crew of odd-hall companions—including his own poet laureate. Eventually he purchased the Jackson mansion, filled the grounds with statues of historical figures he admired (sec next page), and held there—in splendid ceremony—a rehearsal of his own funeral.
Even in his own time, the Dexter legend was larger than life-size. People called him “Lord,” and he accepted the title, laughing a little both at himself and those who laughed at him. “Ime the first Lord in the younited States of Amcrcay,” he wrote, “f don’t dcsier the sound but to pleas the peopel at Large—Let it gou to brak the way—it dus for A sortment to help a good Lafe …” Sometimes it was difficult to know who was laughing loudest. Dexter kept a lion in his back yard, but he charged nincpcncc admission. It was said that he had sent shiploads of coal to Newcastle and of warming pans to the West Indies, but the coal arrived during a miners’ strike and the wanning pans wert converted into ladles for sugar-processing while Dexter reaped the profits. For years after his death, the children of Newburyport are supposed to have chanted a little rhyme: