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Gossip About Portsmouth Writers


  SEACOAST WRITERS CHAT (continued)

In my collection of autograph letters is one from Aldrich of recent date deciding the location and occupancy of his birthplace. A slight error corrected by his wife shows he was but a few weeks old when he was moved from what is now known as the "Laighton House" down the same street to the house named by him the "Nutter House." This house was owned by his grandfather Thomas D. Bailey (Grandfather Nutter) where Aldrich spent the latter part of his boyhood days until he entered his uncle’s office in New York City as a Clerk. The house was purchased by his family and friends constituting the incorporated association known as "The Thomas Bailey Aldrich Memorial" and restored with the old Bailey furniture and household effects as nearly as possible in appearance as when he lived in it. Fortunately, different members of the family retained the contents of the house and generously restored them.

GossipIn the fireproof building erected on the premises are stored his personal effects, and a rare collection of books that it was my pleasure and benefit to aid in cataloging. The majority of the volumes were presented and inscribed by the authors. I recall two inscriptions: That of Helen Keller, "From a bad girl to a bad boy," and a characteristic one by Mark Twain, "From your only friend." There are many bound volumes of manuscripts just as they were corrected for printing in the Atlantic Monthly during the years Aldrich was its editor. Also over a thousand letters from prominent authors, all card catalogued. In separate volumes are bound the letters he received from Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes and Whittier. Ten thousand dollars was contributed by friends to purchase and restore the building, and an average of 2,500 visitors each years pays the running expenses. It is the most complete gathering of personal property of any American author. It was a notable gathering of famous authors that made addresses at the dedication of the buildings in June, 1908, of whom there have past away Mark Twain, R. W. Gilder of the Century, and T. W. Higginson. Of those who wrote me as unable to attend, the banker-poet, Stedman, Professor Norton, Mrs. Phelps, and others have joined the majority. Mr. Henry M. Alden, Editor of Harper’s Magazine wrote me: " I am always with those who with love and admiration honor the memory of one who in prose and poetry was the most finished artist in literature" ; and Mark Twain said in his unique address: "For combined sociability and humorous pleasantness no man was Aldrich’s peer; he was always witty and always brilliant if there any one present capable of striking his flint at the right angle."

The poems "Baby Bell" and "The Piscataqua River" are the only ones of his early poems that he allowed in his later editions. He was a severe critic, for he purchased at auction prices and destroyed every copy of one of his books, "Poems of the Year," published in 1861.

Governor Ichabod Goodwin presented me with a letter addressed to him by Aldrich offering his services at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. It came too late for the governor to grant the commission and later Aldrich went to the front as a correspondent for The Tribune, where he gathered his material for his "War Sketches," "Quite So" and "The White Feather," and his poems, "Fredericksburg" and "Shaw Memorial Ode."

Aldrich preceded me by about a dozen years, but nearly all the characters he introduced in his prose works lingered about our native town making his books more real and life-like. I met daily with Nickey Newman, the town crier and vendor of newspapers and Beadle’s Dime Novels. His real name was Edward and not Nicholas as Aldrich had first printed and I know the gambler Watson, the "Gov. Dorr" of Aldrich’s sketch of "The Friend of My Youth" and the skillful way the "Governor" captured a five-dollar bill from Aldrich was very characteristic. Then there was Sol. Holmes, the colored barber on Congress Street, and Wibird Penhallow, earning a living wheeling groceries to the homes of purchasers in his sky-blue wheelbarrow to the delight of small boys who ordered him from the sidewalks, unaware that in his prosperous days he compiled and published that rare volume, the first Directory of Portsmouth. Only one of the bad boys who helped steal and burn the stage-coach resides here and only a few of his schoolmates are here to identify the shores and islands of the Piscataqua where he located in word-pictures his Rivermouth heroes and heroines.

One original story about Aldrich was told to me by his cousin at the dedication supper. He finished the last lines of "The Bad Boy" in Pinckney Street, Boston, September 16, 1868. The next day the family was doubled by the birth of Aldrich’s twin boys. Grandfather Nutter, notwithstanding his framed letter in the Memorial House to the bride, was adverse to Aldrich’s selection of his wife, whom he had been told was a pretty New York belle, claiming she would be too extravagant for a man depending on his pen for his income. When the letter came announcing the twins his comment was "Just her extravagance."

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