April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
The eccentric Timothy Dexter finally found a sympathetic biographer in his fellow townsman, novelist John Marquand
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:
Dexter is a smart old man; Try and catch him if you can.
Dexter, as W. Lloyd Warner might have put it, was “up ward mobile.” Some inner warp and tension gave him the energy to leap spectacularly above his station, a rise that was one day to become commonplace in the “younited States of Aniercay,” but was a new thing then. Hc was not wholly equal to it, and his wits somewhat deserted him. But the more John P. Marquand meditated on the matter, the less certain he was that Dexter’s oddness was the sum of the story. Not only was Lord Timothy less of a fool than he let on, he may have seemed more natural in his own time than he docs in ours. It was Federal America—that “bizarre but often beautiful historical climate,” as Marquant! calls it —which made him what he was. Newburyport was a boom town. Few of the riche were not nouveau , and gentility was everywhere a recent acquisition. Nothing disappears inore quickly, and nothing is harder for the historian to reconstruct, than the sense of historical normality, of what was usual and what was exceptional. As Alarquand looked back at the Newburyport of his own youth, and put down on paper this matchless portrait of its sights and sounds and smells, he saw it was in many ways closer to Dexter’s than either is to the present—a vanished world, indescribable to someone who has not experienced it—and the thought was borne in on him that “the essence is always lost; in the end the dead past will bury its dead.”
And so John Marquant! wrote, in his last book, what might almost be the graceful bow across the years of one Newburyport gentleman to another, so far apart in birth and breeding, so far apart in time. It was almost as though the novelist of manners had not wanted to depart before saying that in the end rank and class count for less than we imagine, and that even in his own town’s most gaudy and disreputable citizen something inner, human, and unique resided.
The memory of Lord Dexter and his works , mild not be so vivid as it is il a publisher had not been so enterprising as to bring out an engraving of Lord Dexter’s house and grounds in 1810, four years after the owner’s demise. This aquatint has always been a treasured item in Newburyport and among other collectors of Americana. Luckily for the Dexter legend, but also because curiosity regarding the late citizen was already becoming intense, a lithographic copy was published between 1838 and 1850. …
The print is a detailed elevation of the house and grounds of the Dexter property as they existed in His Lordship’s lifetime. … A high arch has been erected before [the] door, on which stand the three figures of the Presidents of the United States: General Washington in the center, flanked by Messrs. Adams and Jefferson. There are other arches to right and left, that support figures of lions and soldiers. Then among these main decorations, rising above small trees and shrubbery, appear a profusion of tall columns, each one a base for some other figure, here an Indian, there a goddess or a famous statesman. …
In the year 1801 … Mr. Dexter evolved, assuredly with the help of a handful of his better-educated admirers, a plan for constructing for the benefit of the world at large a museum containing the life-sized figures of men and women famous in mythology and history. … At first the wooden personages were to be as follows: “The g presidents, Doctor Franklin John hen Cock, and Mr. hamelton and Ronflons king and John Jca—a grenadars on the top of the hons, I Lions below; IEagel is on the Coupulow, one Lamb to lay down with one of the Lions—one younecorne, one Dogg, Adclam and Eave in the Garden—one horse. The houll is not concluded as yet—Dexter’s Mouseum.” …
Several of Lord Dexter’s more thoughtful contemporaries, in reviewing this supreme piece of exhibitionism, have held it as the final proof of a mental disorder. … Jt is difficult not to agree that Mr. Dexter was very confused, but … there is unexpected lucidity in his actions. It can be that his plan was pun of a commercial scheme. …he was a heavy investor in that modern project, the Essex-Merrimack toll bridge. … Dexter, in his anxiety to improve High Street, displayed an intense desire to get more traffic moving along this thoroughfare, which was the way to his Esscx-Mcrrimack Bridge. If he could make his house and grounds a wonder that would attract travelers journeying north, it would increase bridge tolls and defray the expenses of his decorations. He always possessed, in his most depressed moments, the instincts of a showman.