The Gospel According to Brewster
Portsmouth history bible flies again
A few years ago I announced a bit piously that I would bring the "complete works" of Charles W. Brewster to the Internet. Let me qualify that. The demure editor of the "Portsmouth Journal" produced over 2,000 volumes of his weekly newspaper in the mid-19th century. During his 43 years on the job, legend says, Brewster was on hand every Friday night and put to bed all but about a dozen issues himself.
Forget those 2000 periodicals. What I meant was less noble. The goal is to digitize a mere 149 of the author's essays into e-text. They fill two volumes called "Brewster's Rambles About Portsmouth" published the year of his death in 1869. Hardly a day goes by without a local historian quoting these tomes. They are the "bible" of Portsmouth history buffs, the best of Brewster's half century of work excerpted from his newspaper column. Combined the two weighty books add up to 827 pages.
The biblical comparison is apt. Brewster was a God-fearing church-going father of eight well-adjusted kids, and it is not by accident that his books read like the King James version of the old and new testaments. They are filled with excruciatingly long passages of local genealogy -- this Pickering begat that Pickering and this Wentworth begat that one. Brewster could trace his own ancestors right up the gangplank of the Mayflower. (But not so, says a gemealogist! See Footnote at bottom of page.) His was an era of revived interest in history and he spent many joyous hours in the Portsmouth Athenaeum and among the city records, climbing every family tree he could find. The result is often a gold mine for genealogists, and a giant snooze for the rest of us.
I didn't know this years back when I made my bold promise. Like most, I had merely dabbled in Brewster, at first just scanning some of the coolest essays onto the Web. There is one essay about witchcraft and the Rock-throwing Devil. There's one about slavery and the Negro Court. Each brittle page went into the scanner where the software translated the text into my word processor. New technology doesn't much like old brown books in elegant typefaces, so every page also had to be reread and corrected by hand. I added titles to the numbered essays, then emailed the text to our webmaster Tim Dubuque. Tim turned the ancient words into modern html web pages from his home office in Stratham. My father, who is 76 and lives in Bedford, then registered the "key words" for each essay with search engines so readers around the world can find them on the Net.
And that's how it went for perhaps the first dozen Rambles. Then I hit a few really dull ones and the wheels of progress bogged down. Like its holy counterpart, The Rambles is a book of laws. In Brewster #9, for example, the author decided to list the names of every single male inhabitant of Portsmouth from the tax roles of 1678. In the very next essay he offered us the complete seating plan for the Old Meeting House from 1693. Another lists all 497 men who signed a loyalty oath in 1776 and the 31 suspected Tories who didn't. We dutifully ran them online for hard-core historians, but the thrill was gone.
Over the next couple of years we published only a few more Rambles. Then lo and behold, an angel appeared in the e-firmament. We know her only as Jeannie-ology. She lives in Plainwell, Michigan and runs a web site dedicated to people descended from the Brewster family tree. If we would send her a copy of "Brewster's Rambles", she promised via e-mail, she would take over the arduous transcription process. And ye verily, she did. Copies of the rambles began appearing in my email box on a regular basis. This week, in a burst of work that would make Job jealous, Jeannie-ology completed the first volume -- all 83 essays.
Now Tim, dad and I are playing catch-up. This week we dumped a dozen chapters onto the Internet and still we are almost 40 essays behind. Our guardian angel has flown on to Volume 2. I've always had poor eyesight and now, with the digital text, the computer reads the essays aloud to me. It's a kind of modern miracle. Via a robotic voice and the efforts of Jeannie-ology, I'm rediscovering the genius of my old mentor Charles Brewster.
Like the Holy Bible he so admired, Brewster's volumes swarm with fascinating characters. This week I learned about "Shepherd" Ham of Middle Street (Ramble # 41) whose unkempt horses ran loose downtown. Then there was "Doctor" Joseph Moses (Ramble #36), an irreverent hard-drinking carpenter who lived on the corner of Congress and Fleet. Once when the doctor finished a shingling job early, he was asked to bring by his bottle for a free drink of booze. Instead of his usual flask, the carpenter showed up with a five-gallon jug. From then on, townspeople referred to all large containers as "a Dr. Moses bottle."
Tasty Portsmouth anecdotes and colorful character sketches are hidden all throughout the great book like Easter eggs. In the next chapter (Ramble #37) we are treated to the story of Dr. Moses' grandson Samuel, a barber with hereditary wit and passion for liquor. This slightly edited selection is classic Brewster:
Mr. Hill soon coming in to get shaved, remarked to Mr. Moses, "This is a fine cod."
"Cod--cod! why sir, that is a cusk."
"No, it's certainly a cod."
"A bottle of spirit on it," said Mr. Moses, "and we will leave it to the first man who comes in."
"Agreed," said Mr. Hill, confident in his correctness. Now enters the companion, as though it was his first appearance, wishing them good morning.
"What fish is this?" asked Mr. Moses.
"This is a cusk-- and capital eating it is too." The treat was paid by Mr. Hill, and the joke, as well as the spirit, was enjoyed by the confederates.
This story reads like a vaudeville comedy skit, although vaudeville was still to be invented. It also has the shape of a biblical parable, or an anti-parable, since the sinner goes unpunished. Despite his own intense personal piety, Brewster the writer was not about to ruin a good story just to make a moral point.
Yet for very patient readers, Brewster makes his private passions known. He mourns for the poor shoplifter stripped and beaten in Market Square by order of the law. He wonders at the wisdom of the Native American sagamore who lived in peace on Sagamore Creek. He is a primary source for stories of black history, local women, immigrants, children and the poor. He worries over broken tombstones and dilapidated historic homes.
But I could go on like this all day, and there are still so many Rambles yet to post online. We'll close today's sermon with a poignant tale from the Book According to Brewster: Chapter 35. In this ramble down Vaughan Street, Brewster laments the loss of famous old buildings, now forgotten. On the street too was an old pear tree near the house where Daniel Webster once lived and where citizens hung the king's tax collector George Meserve in effigy. Today the whole street and house and school and tree are gone, razed by urban renewal - now the parking lot of the Parade Mall.
But how much pleasure that pear tree gave in its long life, Charles Brewster says. For generations school children stretched across the fence and darted fearfully into the yard to taste the forbidden fruit.
It's a parable all right, and from a man who stood his ground, scarcely
leaving the streets of downtown Portsmouth in all the days of his life.
Brewster calculated that, without ever leaving the city, he had walked
at least once around the world. He had seen, rooted here by the sea,
everything he could ever want. And he left, in his time, a bumper crop
of stories for all those courageous enough to steal into his yard, grab
the fruit, and drink the juice of life. Amen.
To read BREWSTER'S RAMBLES online click here
By J. Dennis Robinson
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