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Poet Foss Spoke for the Common Man

 

Foss in Portsmouth  

Sam Walter Foss still has no biographer. His books are long out of print (although now available on Google Books). But thanks to an unpublished article by his high school chum, E. Scott Owen, now archived at the Portsmouth Public Library, we have a rare snapshot of the artist as a young man.  

Foss lived with his family, Owen wrote, in a small farm by Gosling Road, near the present day Newington Mall. He walked three miles to school and back each day, to attend school in the ancient brick building near the modern post office on Daniel Street. He was stocky, deeply tanned, slightly stooped, and wore his curly hair “brushed smooth.  

Although Foss was witty and likeable, he was neither a scholar, nor a leader. His life was too busy for girls, Owen tells us. The minute school ended each day at 1:30 pm, Foss hiked up his unfashionably “high tide trousers” and trudged home to the family farm. His school chum remembers only seeing him angry once, when another boy swore at him. Foss was distinguished, not by his features or deeds, but by his total honesty and dogged determination to go to college.  

E. Scott Owen recalls an early humorous essay that Foss wrote and read aloud to his classmates at Portsmouth High. It mocked the Portsmouth school “Growlers,” who spent so much time complaining about others, that they accomplished nothing themselves. It was a theme Foss often returned to in his later poetry. But when selected to pen “something poetical” for commencement, Foss wrote a bland and forgettable farewell ode.  

Only two of the 19 Portsmouth High graduates from the class of 1877 went on to advanced schooling. At that time, public schools were not adequate preparation for college. Foss got his Latin and Greek the next year at a prep school in Tilton, NH, before going on to Brown University, where he worked his way through and was again, likeable, but unremarkable. When he consistently came up with “C” level work, his Portsmouth teacher reportedly said, “My boy, you know you want to be on good terms with both ends of the class.”  Foss was the ultimate common man even then.  

But for Sam Walter Foss, being average was something to be proud of. Average men and women were uncorrupted, hard working, good-humored and resilient, he wrote. The poet’s job, Foss believed, was to speak in an authentic voice that everyone could understand. His mission was not to use language to confuse or impress, but to use it like a bullhorn to call common people to step up and perform great deeds. Foss ends his poem ‘The Man from the Crowd” this way:  

       We are waiting for you there --- for you are the man!
      Come up from the jostle as soon as you can;
      Come of from the crowd there, for you are the man –
      The man who comes up from the crowd!  

 

Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes books on local history that are available in selected bookstores and on Amazon.com. His history column appears every other Monday in the Portsmouth Herald and can also be seen online exclusively on Robinson’s history Web site at SeacoastNH.com.

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