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The Agony and the Ecstasy of James Kennard Jr

Early wheelchairHISTORY MATTERS

Joint by joint abandoned him, beginning with his knees, then his elbows, writes and fingers. Slowly writer James Kennard Jr. was transformed from a vibrant young man into a crippled figure seemingly carved from stone. Yet he continued to write and remain joyous. His story is as inspriting today as it was in 19th century Portsmouth, NH.


On the morning of July 28th, 1847, after years of unspeakable agony, poet James Kennard, Jr. of Portsmouth enjoyed a few blissful hours without pain. Then at age 32, he died peacefully.

"Annie," he told his sister shortly before his death, "I have been very happy and am glad to live, but this is buying life hard. If I must give three such days as the last, for another year of life, I would rather go at once."

One posthumous masterpiece

kennard01James Kennard wrote one book. A collection of his essays and poems appeared two years after his death. Assembled as a memorial by his friends, the leather-bound hardcover was "printed for private circulation". Selections from the Writings of James Kennard, Jr. is a book so rare that, today, not a single copy is for sale on the Internet. The Portsmouth Athenaeum has three. The Harvard Divinity School has one.

Similar vanity books of this era are often painful to read. Published out of sympathy or to raise funds for an invalid writer, they tend to be cloying, self-pitying volumes filled with badly written religious poetry. James Kennard, however, was the exception to the rule. His poems are often lively, original, and well-crafted. His "Ballad of Jack Ringbolt", for example, is about an old Portsmouth sailor whose body, weighed down with chains, is buried at sea. Suddenly the shrouded corpse rises from the water, bursts into flames, and disappears over the horizon.

Disgusted by the institution of slavery, Kennard published an 1845 essay in which he proposed that African Americans in the South were "our only truly national poets". Superstar poets Walt Whitman and John Greenleaf Whittier made note of Kennard’s essay, which is still debated today. By 1845, Kennard was so crippled that his body, according to philosopher Francis Bowen, was "almost unmoveable as if carved out of a rock".

Although he could move only his wrist and a few fingers of one hand, James continued to write for publication and corresponded prolifically. Finally unable to move at all, he whispered to friends, who transcribed his words. "You will doubtless be astonished at the alteration of my handwriting," James joked in a letter to a friend. Yet his work remained so good, and his attitude was so kindly, positive and cheerful, that a contemporary critic called him "a Christian hero".

Readers can judge for themselves, the writings of James Kennard, Jr. His only volume is now digitized and available online at no cost from Google Books. But it is his life, ultimately, that gives us a window into the unbeatable nature of the human spirit.



The devil’s leg

Although an avid reader, young Jim Kennard was more active than studious. His father, a ship captain, was often away from home. At 15 James took a job as a junior clerk in a local dry-good store, but within a year his right knee grew stiff and lame. With an "invincible desire" to see Florida, James finally convinced his parents to let him travel south to Jacksonville and later South Carolina in hopes of a cure. It was here that he saw the horrors of slavery. The climate seemed to help, but when he returned to Portsmouth, the pain in his leg grew worse. James wrote to a friend that "dark visions of amputated limbs and cork legs haunted me, both asleep and awake".

kennard02While a patient at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1837, James and his doctor decided that the only release from constant pain was to remove his leg. Once the decision was made, James found himself filled with inner peace. "I feel no fear at all at the prospect before me." he wrote home. "I have no wish to put off the evil day."

Fearing that his parents might be overly stressed by his coming operation, James moved his surgery date forward a week without telling them. Rev. Andrew Peabody, minister at Portsmouth’s Unitarian Church, penned a dramatic memoir of his friend’s life. At this point, Peabody says: "He then took his last walk with the doomed limb, and quietly submitted to the knife." When the operation was over, he notified his family.

In a short story simply called "My Leg", James Kennard wrote about a young lame man being tempted by the devil. The character comes very close to selling his soul in exchange for release from pain. But as the story ends, the narrator cuts off his own leg and casts it away -- casting out the Devil in the bargain.

A life of constant pain

"I think the knee has been of service to me in many other ways," James wrote in a letter. "It, at least, has kept me from a deal of wickedness and dissipation, has given me time to reflect, and to form serious resolutions. I am content. "

There was a brief respite, even a burst of hope. After returning to Portsmouth, James decided to become a doctor. To be "useful" to society, he contributed weekly essays and poems to his friend Charles Brewster, editor of the Portsmouth Journal, but always under a pseudonym. One anonymous poem entitled "What Shall I Ask in Prayer?" was so popular it was circulated nationally. A literary magazine in Boston began publishing his work regularly. A career was born.

Then his left leg went lame and the devastating pain returned. James lost the use of his elbows and wrists and became so sensitive to the pain that he could no longer ride in his "wheeled chair" or be carried up and down stairs at home. Confined to his "couch of pain" he read, consumed volumes of literature, and wrote. With only the use of two or three fingers in his right hand, he wrote essays and poems and letters and prayers --- until his eyes went. First one eye, then the other became so sensitive to light that the young author had to live in almost total darkness in his upstairs room. Friends helped out willingly, his mother and his sister too, reading and transcribing his work. And then it was his ears, stinging so badly that any voice above a whisper was like the crash of the North Church bell. The sound of carriages passing by on the street below was almost more than he could bear. "To see how I live," he wrote to a friend, "Just shut up your eyes, chop off your hands, and try it."




Slipping into darkness

Two years before his own death, James’ mother died and his father grew constantly ill. The crippled poet, wracked with seizures, coughing and inflamed joints, and unable to move or feed himself, was left to the care of his sisters and friends -- and to an ever-faithful nurse. Among his poems is a loving ode to "Nancy", in reality, Nancy Sherburne was an elderly unschooled cook who became a godsend to the dying poet. Andrew Peabody describes Nancy reverently.


"She lifted him as if he had been an infant, and with a grasp as gentle as it was firm. There were frequently times, when even the adjustment of his pillows by a less skilful hand than hers would have given him excruciating torture, and the hour- long process by which alone he could be conveyed from his bed to his chair, a process as delicate as if his frame had been strung with threads of glass, demanded more than a common man's strength, and all of a woman's love."

To the astonishment of all, no matter how difficult life became, James Kennard never complained. His darkened room was constantly filled with friends who came, one wrote, not out of sympathy, but to be uplifted by his conversation and wit and unflagging optimism. Refusing to dwell on his own condition, James kept abreast of his friend’s activities and offered endless encouragement and advice. Despite a stabbing pain in his one remaining eye (as if the "socket was filled with red hot iron") he would ask to have his shade lifted so he could see the face of a visitor.

After he had gone blind, while dictating to his sister, James joked to a friend: "I intend soon to commence writing my life, and expect to become as renowned as Milton, and to get more for my book, to be entitled, 'The Life of an Invalid,' than he did for his Paradise Lost, to say nothing of the fame."

Proof of the immortal soul

"Yet we have never known a happier person," Rev. Peabody wrote. "A word of discontentment, murmuring, or repining never escaped him. His countenance, though thin and wan, bore no trace of grief or care, but to the very last wore an expression, not only of serenity, but even of joyousness"

Soon after the posthumous publication of Selected Writings in 1849, philosopher Frances Bowen discovered Peabody’s moving memoir of the late Portsmouth poet. Lecturing in the factory city of Lowell, MA, Bowen referred to James Kennard as proof of the immortality of man. The Materialists, Bowen argued, had dissected one human body after another in search of the human soul -- and found nothing. But James Kennard, trapped in a body that was little more than a torture chamber, still lived his life for the good of others and the glorification of God. If the soul could thrive inside James and remain pure, Bowen argued, it could survive anything. Rev. Peabody of Portsmouth described his friend this way:

"Never did the spirit achieve a more entire conquest over the body, never can the independence of the soul on the mortal frame have been more fully manifested, never can more of heaven have been witnessed on earth."

James objected to paintings that depicted Death as a frightening monster on a horse or as a hooded skeleton carrying a scythe. Death, he wrote in his poems, is nothing to fear. Death "watches over each struggling spirit" and then, tenderly, plucks the "ripened soul" like a flower, he wrote. James Kennard, according to one Christian writer, exhibited a perfect example of "submissive cheerfulness". And his book should be "broadcast over the land, in a cheap form, for the instruction and edification of all".

Not wishing to upset his friends by his own death, James Kennard’s last wish was that no lengthy obituary about him should appear in the Portsmouth Journal. Honoring his request, his friend Charles Brewster printed only a single line, listing the poet’s date of birth, followed by the date that his tortured soul was finally set free.


Copyright © 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of the award-winning regiona history web site His column appears every other Monday in the Portsmouth Herald.

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