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Biographical Sketch of Thomas Bailey Aldrich

medalcolorizedtba.jpgBAD BOY TOM 

In his day, Aldrich was best known for his lyrical and romantic poetry, but his verse is now considered only among the most minor of poets. His reputation stands almost entirely on one bold American novel. This bio comes from an early 20th century collection.




NOTE: This essay appeared as the introduction to the affordable "Riverside" edition of "The Story of a Bad Boy". It was part of a series of popular titles reprinted by Houghton Miflin at the turn of the 20th century (no date given in book). Despite the lengthy sentences and wordy prose, it offers a good overview of the life and works of the Portsmouth, NH born author and editor. Although Mark Twain once noted that his friend Aldrich wrote only "six good poems," most of those poems too have passed out of the canon of American literature studied today. Only the author’s inventive bad boy book stands today, albeit shakily, as a significant work of American literature. -- JDR

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About Thomas Bailey Aldrich

The pleasant town of "Rivermouth" has become familiar to thousands who have never seen the old New Hampshire seaport where Thomas Bailey Aldrich was born, November 11, 1836. He first, with many vivid and loving touches, depicted its elm-shaded streets, spacious old-fashioned dwellings, decaying warehouses, and crumbling wharves, haunted by a faint spicy odor – the ghost of the dead West India trade – in The Story of a Bad Boy, which we have the best authority for regarding as substantially autobiographical. In this delightful history is given as spirited and living a picture of its author’s boyhood as could be desired. Taken in infancy to Louisiana, where his father had business interests, he returned to his grandfather’s house in Portsmouth to pass his school days, and there, in 1852, when he was preparing to enter Harvard College, he received the news of his father’s death in New Orleans. This loss changed his purpose, and he accepted a position in the banking-house of an Uncle in New York.

But already the boy’s aspirations were literary rather than commercial, and his earliest verses, after the manner of their kind, had appeared in the Poets’ Corner of a local newspaper. Even during the three years he remained in his uncle’s office, he became known as a not infrequent contributor to journals and magazines, and in 1855 he definitely connected himself with the New York Evening Mirror. From 1856 to 1859 he was assistant editor of the Home Journal, then under the charge of Mr. N.P. Willis, who gave to the work his youthful associate a kindly appreciation and encouragement that the latter always held in grateful remembrance. In the early part of the Civil War he was for a time attached to Blenker’s Division, Army of the Potomac, as a newspaper correspondent.

He brought out several volumes of verse during these years, the earliest, The Ballad of Baby Bell and Other Poems, having been issued when the author was but twenty. Always his own severest critic, he was peculiarly merciless in dealing with his juvenile poems; and in examining this little book and its immediate successors, but few verses will be found that have appeared in later collections.

In 1865, Mr. Aldrich married, and removed to Boston to take charge of Every Saturday, a new weekly established by Ticknor & Fields, of which he remained editor until 1874. In the first year named, an edition of his poems was brought out by the same publishers, in one of their little blue and gold volumes, a guise in which for a season nearly all American poets of repute were presented to the public, and it was no mean distinction for so young a writer to appear thus in company with the best names of the best period of American literature. Several of the verses in this volume, including Friar Jermome’s Beautiful Book, were first printed in the Atlantic Monthly, to which Mr. Aldrich had been a contributor since 1860.

In 1869, The Story of a Bad Boy appeared as a serial in Our Young Folks, a juvenile magazine published by Ticknor & fields. Of the vitality and truthfulness of the portrait of a healthy, happy, unspoiled boy, enthusiastic readers, old as well as young, have always been eager to testify. In writing, the author expressed his disbelief in the colorlessly perfect and docile youth, who then usually figured in narratives of this sort, -- nowadays we are glad that Tom Bailey is not an invincible hero of a series of impossible adventures, or the general care-taker and adviser of his household. The genuine naturalness of the story, its pleasant humor, and its fine literary quality give it a perennial freshness, and have made it popular in many lands remote from its native New England.



Up to this time Mr. Aldrich may be said to have been known only as a poet, but during the succeeding ten years he was to win wide recognition as a story-writer and a novelist. It was then that much began to be said and written about the excellence of the American short story, praises that must have been in no small part inspired by the publication of such little masterpieces as Miss Mehetabel’s Son, A Rivermouth Romance, and Marjorie Daw, the last in especial, by its potent it elusive charm, gaining an instant popularity, exceptional in its extent and, it may be added, in its enduring quality. It gave name to a collection of sketches and stories published in 1873; and the same year appeared a new volume of verse, Cloth of Gold, followed three years later by Flower and Thorn. Prudence Palfry, its author’s first novel, was issued in 1874. The others are The Queen of Sheba (1877) and the Stillwater Tragedy (1880). A later volume of short stories, Two Bites at a Cherry and Other Tales was brought out in 1893, and another, A Sea Town and Other Matters, appeared in 1902. In these works, whether novel, story or sketch, we find that easy readableness which comes only from infinite pains on the part of the writer, a lucid style, free alike from mannerisms and affectations, and with a quite individual charm, naturalness of movement, and above all, a quiet but pervasive and spontaneous humor, with touches of simple and unforced pathos.


In 1881, as successor to Mr. W. D. Howells, Mr. Aldrich became editor of the Atlantic Monthly, in which so much of his best work had first appeared, a charge which he resigned in 1890. In the early years of his Boston residents, he had established a country home at Ponkapog a village whose rural charms are pleasantly touched upon in Our New Neighbors. For two years, during the absence of Mr. Lowell, he had been the tenant of Elmwood. In 1875 he had made a somewhat extensive European tour, destined to be the first of many similar wanderings, and sojourns. It was from the earlier vivid impressions of certain places, which use had not yet made over-familiar, that the agreeable travel sketches collected in From Ponkappog to Pest (1883) were written. Later journeys were of still larger scope, including two visits to Russia of which traces may be found in his poems. Freedom from his editorial charge brought larger opportunities for travel, and in 1894-95 he made a journey round the world.

Always loyal to his birthplace, in An Old Town by the Sea (1893) he gives a picturesque description of the Portsmouth of history and tradition, as well as his own reminiscences of such survivals of old life as still remained in his boyhood. His later volumes of poetry were Mercedes and Later Lyrics (1883), Mercedes being a play in two acts, genuinely dramatic in form and spirit; Wyndham Towers (1889), an Elizabethan story in verse, full of the atmosphere of the time, and containing passages of rare beauty, one of which, the song, "Sweetheart, Sigh No More," is as charming a reproduction of the lyric of England’s lyric age as these latter days are likely to give us; The Sister’s Tragedy (1890); Unguarded Gates (1895); Judith and Holfernes (1896); and Judith of Bethulia, a tragedy in four acts (1904). This last, Mr. Aldrich’s second piece of stage work, was produced at the Tremont Theatre, Boston, by Miss Nance O’Neil in 1904, and subsequently performed in our principal cities. His last prose volume was Ponfapog Papers, a collection of short sketches published in 1903.

The degree of Master of Arts was confirmed upon Mr. Aldrich by Yale (1881) and by Harvard University (1896); and that of Doctor of Letters by Yale (1901) and by the University of Pennsylvania (1905).

We may confidently predict that it is as a poet, and especially as a lyric poet, that Mr. Aldrich will be longest remembered. Some of his briefer poems, in which the beauty of the thought is equaled, by the exquisite form of the verse that gives it life, lines which once read always linger always in the memory, must be among the things which remain. Thoroughly of New England as he was, he had the French feeling for literary form, the French grace and lightness of touch, qualities which have helped to make his vers de societe easily the best in our literature. Having the true artist’s reverence for his craft, he had little tolerance for careless ill-considered workleast of all for any of his own that he found wanting. Popular favor never saved such delinquents from suppression, a course whose wisdom for the years, if not for the day, cannot be doubted.

In November, 1906, Mr. Aldrich celebrated the seventieth anniversary of his birth, and the appreciation’s and eulogies written upon that occasion united in Marveling at the wonderful combination in his work of a purely poetic quality and a perfection of workmanship. To quote from one of them: "Aldrich belongs with the makers of pure song; the Herricks and Lovelaces, in whom American poetry has not been rich."

Aldrich’s last poem was written in honor of the centenary of Longfellow’s birth, and when his own death followed so closely after, on March 19, 1907, in Boston, there seemed a peculiar significance and appropriateness in reading those lines at the service held in his memory: --

"Above his grave the grass and snow
Their soft antiphonal strophes write:
Moonrise and daybreak come and go:
Summer by summer on the height
The thrushes find melodious breath.
Here let no vagrant winds that blow
Across the spaces of the night
Whisper of death.

They do not die who leave their thought
Imprinted on some deathless page.
Themselves may pass; the spell they wrought
Endures on earth from age to age.
And thou whose voice but yesterday
Fell upon charmed listening ears
Thou shalt not know the touch of years;
Thou holdest time and chance at bay.
Thou livest in thy living word
As when its cadence first was heard.
O gracious Poet and be benign
Beloved presence! Now as then
Thou standest by the hearths of men.
Their fireside joys and griefs are thine;
Thou speakest to them of their dead,
They listen and are comforted.
They break the bread and pour the wine
Of life with thee, as in those days
Men saw thee passing on the street
Beneath the elms – O reverend fact
That walk in far celestial ways!"

Transcribed and presented online as a service of, the independent web site of local history and culture since 1997.


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