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Gossip About Portsmouth Writers

GOssip about Portsmouth NH Authors on

Here’s a lost classic for people who truly love the backstory. Writers were the rock stars of the later 19th century. CA Hazlett, a Portsmouth librarian, went behind the scenes in 1915 to tell personal tales about Thaxter, Aldrich, Fields, Shillabre, Jewett, Foss and many others. Think of it as E! entertainment gossip from back in the days when people actually read books.



SEE ALSO our Poetry and Famous People scetions

Reminiscences of Portsmouth Authors
By C. A. Hazlett
From Granite Monthly, March 1915

For nearly a century it has been my privilege to know the majority of authors who were natives or residents of the "Old Town by the Sea." This title was selected by Thomas Bailey Aldrich in 1874 for a contribution to Harper’s Monthly and in 1883 it was published with additions in book form. The list of Portsmouth poets is a long one, for in 1864 my high school master, Aurin M. Payson, in connection with the poet, Albert Laighton, compiled and issued the "Poets of Portsmouth." Forty natives of Portsmouth were considered worthy of having their verses inserted. Alphabetically the book included Aldrich, Brewster, Fields, Kimball, Laighton and Shillaber, all of whom I knew and will mention unpublished incidents concerning them, and also of the later authors Albee, Foss, Hackett and Thaxter.

Local gossipConcerning Thomas Bailey Aldrich, there is sufficient material to cover many pages. It was mainly in his later years that I knew and had correspondence with him while he was living in New York and Boston. Aldrich spent his summers in Portsmouth in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In 1868 he was giving all his spare time here in writing the story of "The Bad Boy" which had and still has a great sale and has been translated into several foreign languages. When traveling in Russia, Aldrich noticed a small boy engrossed in a book and asking his guide to ascertain the title was told it was a translation of a "Story of a Bad Boy." The book made Rivermouth and Portsmouth famous. It had many local allusions, in nearly all of which he was an active participant; the stage-coach incident, however, being an exception, for the ex-mayor William H. Sise told me that Aldrich was not one of the bad boys who burned the coach. Mayor Sise each year observed the third of July by ordering and eating ice cream in the same shop where he and others celebrated the burning of the coach.

I find in the Portsmouth Journal of October 28, 1854, that the editor, C. W. Brewster, in his review of Aldrich’s first book of poems "The Bells" wrote – "Seven years ago a lad of ten summers handed me a poetic address to his friends in Portsmouth, which was juvenile but far in advance of one his age." Aldrich’s acknowledgement of the notice in a letter in my possession wrote—"I was much amused at your reminiscence of my first verse. They came back to me like restored parts of an old painting. It seems years ago that I climbed your office stairs, manuscript in hand, and had my poetry published "on my own hook." I had not thought of it for six years. It is perhaps a little singular, my rhyming faculty deserted me and did not return for several years. I thank you for your indulgent notice of "The Bells." This letter shows that Aldrich was more precocious than his biographer, Ferris Greenslet, was aware of, for he fixed the date of Aldrich’s contribution to the Journal four years later with the publication of "Sonbonio," which I find printed in the Portsmouth Journal of June 21, 1851, followed the same year by the "Atkinson House," reprinted in the Rambles about Portsmouth.

At the age of nineteen Aldrich composed the most famous of his early poems, "Baby Bell," at the time of the death of a child in his Aunt Frost’s family. It was written on the backs of bills of lading while unloading a vessel in New York owned by his uncle Frost, and when re-written, the manuscript was declined by several magazines and finally published in the Journal of Commerce. Yet it seems to have swept through the country like a piece of important news. It was reprinted in the poet’s corner of the provincial press and it is hard to find one of those quaint scrap books that our grandmothers kept that does not contain a copy.


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