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An Old Town by the Sea 6

Unknown Portsmouth, NH boy and dog /

Chapter 6 is Aldrich at his best. Here he offers fascinating anecdotes of odd folk from Portsmouth history. It’s not all true, and most of it is stolen from Brewster;s Rambles, but it is terribly entertaining. A hermit, a missing bridegroom and a well-known idiot top the list. We known many who belong here.





Back to Chapter Five
 LEARN MORE about Thomas Bailey Aldrich
SEE PIX of Historic Portsmouth

I DOUBT if any New England town ever turned out so many eccentric characters as Portsmouth. From 1640 down to about 1848 there must have been something in the air of the place that generated eccentricity. In another chapter I shall explain why the conditions have not been favorable to the development of individual singularity during the latter half of the present century. It is easier to do that than fully to account for the numerous queer human types which have existed from time to time previous to that period.

In recently turning over the pages of Mr. Brewster's entertaining collection of Portsmouth sketches, I have been struck by the number and variety of the odd men and women who appear incidentally on the scene. They are, in the author's intention, secondary figures in the background of his landscape, but they stand very much in the foreground of one's memory after the book is laid aside. One finds one's self thinking quite as often of that squalid old hut-dweller up by Sagamore Creek as of General Washington, who visited the town in 1789. Conservatism and respectability have their values, certainly; but has not the unconventional its values also? If we render unto that old hut-dweller the things which are that old hut-dweller's, we must concede him his picturesqueness. He was dirty, and he was not respectable; but he is picturesque -- now that he is dead.

If the reader has five or ten minutes to waste, I invite him to glance at a few old profiles of persons who, however substantial they once were, are now leading a life of mere outlines. I would like to give them a less faded expression, but the past is very chary of yielding up anything more than its shadows.

The first who presents himself is the ruminative hermit already mentioned -- a species of uninspired Thoreau. His name was Benjamin Lear. So far as his craziness went, he might have been a lineal descendant of that ancient king of Britain who figures on Shakespeare's page. Family dissensions made a recluse of King Lear; but in the case of Benjamin there were no mitigating circumstances. He had no family to trouble him, and his realm remained undivided. He owned an excellent farm on the south side of Sagamore Creek, a little to the west of the bridge, and might have lived at ease, if personal comfort had not been distasteful to him. Personal comfort entered into no plan of Lear's. To be alone filled the little pint-measure of his desire. He ensconced himself in a wretched shanty, and barred the door, figuratively, against all the world. Wealth -- what would have been wealth to him -- lay within his reach, but he thrust it aside; he disdained luxury as he disdained idleness, and made no compromise with convention.


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