The Flickering Fame of
What is the price of fame
in Furby-Lewinsky land?
Beware all ye who lusteth after fame and glory, for today's exalted Furby is tomorrow's discarded Power Ranger. Case in point: Thomas Bailey Aldrich, arguably the best known writer in Portsmouth history.
Once one of America's superstars, Aldrich was rated seventh out of 40 top male writers by an 1884 literary magazine reader poll, outranking Bret Harte, Henry James, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. Today his name recognition falls miles below famous monikers like Lewinsky, Flowers, Tripp, Jones, Willey and the entire cast of Gilligan's Island. So what happened?
Thomas Bailey Aldrich was best known as a poet, in an era when people read poetry. Born in Portsmouth in 1836, Tom was just 19 when he tasted his first intoxicating six-pack of fame. Like his contemporary Oliver Wendell Holmes, who penned the popular poem "Old Ironsides" at an early age, Aldrich hit a nerve with readers. His "Ballad of Baby Bell" was a romantic tale of an infant's death.
By this time Aldrich, whose father was a salesman, had moved around the country. His family ended up in New Orleans, then back in Portsmouth, then off to New York City when Tom's father died suddenly. Unable to attend Harvard as planned, "Baby Bell" was Aldrich's ticket out of his uncles' New York warehousing business. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the hottest poet of the time, liked young Aldrich's work. The Boston literary crowd liked him too, and a prestigious publishing house took him on.
It happened fast. Suddenly Aldrich was hanging with the big names -- poets like Emerson, Whittier, Lowell and Browning, Whistler the painter, Edwin Booth the actor. It was Booth, eventually reviled as the brother of Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth, who introduced Aldrich to his wife and lifelong companion. (To his credit, Aldrich never abandoned his friend Booth when public opinion did, and wrote the inscription on Booth's tomb.) In her chatty 1920 memoir, "Crowding Memories," Mrs. Aldrich recalled their social life among the Boston literati, entertaining the likes of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charles Dickens, who read aloud his new book "A Christmas Carol."
For all his popular volumes of romantic verse, most of it saccharin to modern taste, Aldrich barely survives today as a minor poet, and would likely have faded away, except for the summer of 1868. That summer the then-famous poet returned as usual to Portsmouth from Boston to vacation at his grandfather's house on Court Street where he had lived during his teen years. Aldrich was about to become the father of twins, the "jocund sprites" he later called them, and his brain must have been swirling with memories, dreams and fears.
Out of it all came pure, funny autobiographical fiction like no one had ever seen. "A Story of a Bad Boy" was serialized in "Our Young Folks" juvenile magazine the next year, was an instant best-seller novel in 1869 and is still in print to this day. America's top literary critic William Dean Howells (who coincidentally summered in nearby Kittery Point, Maine and was Aldrich's friend) praised the work to the skies. Aldrich, he wrote, had literally invented the American novel.
What Aldrich did was simply tell stories of a mischievous Portsmouth teenager who got in a lot of trouble, but was really not too bad. Until this time, books for and about boys, tended to be moralistic, examples of good behavior. Young Tom Bailey, however, got into fist fights, he snuck out his window on a rope, he set off old cannons down by the Piscataqua River, he fought in snowball battles, danced around bonfires like a madman, courted a young girl, rowed to an island and set a stagecoach on fire in the middle of Market Square. America loved it.
Critics are still writing about the phenomenon that followed. Fresh from the horrific Civil War, American men had been denied their boyhood. Aldrich, a Civil War veteran, gave it back to them, even helping to "invent" the concept of childhood, some say. Thomas Bailey Aldrich is credited with kicking off a chain of "boy books" that lead from Huckleberry Finn to the Hardy Boys, maybe even to "Freak the Mighty" and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles -- the former written about Portsmouth, the latter created in Dover.
A young writer named Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, immediately connected with Aldrich in 1871 and they became close friends. Twain never failed to credit "Tom Bailey" as the seed for his "Tom" Sawyer and Huck Finn stories a dozen years later. In fact, Samuel Clemens was among the famous writers who eulogized Aldrich at the Portsmouth Music Hall in 1907.
In a final bit of irony, literary critics note that, while Aldrich's poetry was trampled by realism, his realistic adolescent fiction kicked off a whole new genre. Aldrich booted the football to his friend Mark Twain, who ran the "bad boy" idea for the touchdown.
Aldrich wrote a lot more fiction and a lot more poetry before he died in 1907. His little guide to historic Portsmouth, "An Old Town by the Sea," is still readable and quite accurate 130 years after it first appeared. He eventually got an honorary degree from Harvard, was published in a dozen languages, and edited the prestigious "Atlantic Monthly" for a decade. But mostly, his legacy dangles from the pubic thread of adolescent tales that tumbled from his pen at Grandfather Nutter's house, now on display in Strawbery Banke Museum.
The house has been restored to resemble the era Aldrich described in his book. Opened in 1908, the Thomas Bailey Aldrich Memorial was among the first historic house museums of its kind in the country. Thousands visited what newspapers called the "shrine" within months of the dedication. But though he will always be loved in Portsmouth, Aldrich's fame waned in his elder years and plummeted after his death.
By the turn of the century, America had had its fill of gossamer verse and carefully crafted romantic rhyme. Romance was dead. Realism was in. So round and round we all go in the fickle whirlpool of fame. Some great names float, some sink like stones, while most bob helplessly in the trendy ooze of history.
© 1998 SeacoastNH.com
Photo of Aldrich at 19 from "Crowding Memories" by Mrs. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Houghton & Mifflin, 1920
For more information on this topic:
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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