Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Samuel Sewall in Salem

It is 360 years since the birth of Samuel Sewall, a Massachusetts judge who took part in the Salem witch trials but who later, famously, publicly apologised for doing so. He also published one of the first tracts calling for the abolition of slavery. He kept a diary for most of his life, which is considered a valuable social and historical record of life in Massachusetts before the American Revolution, though, frustratingly, it says little about the witch trials.

Sewall was born at Bishop Stoke, Hampshire, on 28 March 1652 but emigrated with his family to Newbury, Massachusetts, when only still young. He studied at Harvard, and then married Hannah Hull, from a wealthy family. Together they had many children. He began working as a merchant, but, in 1681, took a position running a printing press.

In 1692, he was appointed to the Court of Oyer and Terminer and was involved with the Salem witch trials. Later, he recanted his role during the trials, and publicly apologised. In 1700, he published The Selling of Joseph which argued against slavery, and earmarked him as one of the earliest of abolitionists. In 1717, he was appointed chief justice of Massachusetts. That same year, Hannah died and Sewall married twice more before his own death in 1730. For more biographical information see the The History Junkie website, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or Wikipedia.

From the age of 21 until the year before he death, Sewall kept a journal. It was first published in three volumes in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society between 1879 and 1882, all of which are freely available at Internet Archive. Sewall’s diary is considered a unique insight into the life of a pious Puritan, and an important historical record documenting the early days of the Massachusetts community. A modern edition was edited by Mel Yazawa and published in 1998 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux as The Diary and Life of Samuel Sewall.

Here are some extracts from around the time of the Salem witch trials (with a few of the original editor’s notes).

11 April 1692
‘Went to Salem, where, in the Meeting-house, the persons accused of Witchcraft were examined; was a very great Assembly; ’twas awfull to see how the afflicted persons were agitated. Mr Noye pray’d at the beginning, and Mr Higginson conclude. [In the margin], Va, Va, Va, Witchcraft.’

[‘The references to the terrible paroxysm of delusion and cruelty connected with the subject of witchcraft in Salem village are not so frequent in Mr Sewall’s Journal as we should have expected to find them, but the {missing word} which he has made indicate his profound belief in the reality of the alleged enormity while the proceedings were going on, and subsequently, when the spell of the delusion was broken, his penitence and deep contrition for the share he had had in them.’]

19 September 1692
‘About noon, at Salem, Giles Corey was press’d to death for standing Mute; much pains was used with him two days, one after another, by the Court and Capt. Gardner of Nantucket who had been of his acquaintance: but all in vain.’

20 September 1692
‘Now I hear from Salem that about 18 years agoe, he was suspected to have stampd and press’d a man to death, but was cleared. Twas not remembred till Ane Putnam was told of it by said Corey’s Spectre the Sabbath- day night before the Execution.’

‘The Swan brings in a rich French Prize of about 300 Tuns, laden with Claret, White Wine, Brandy, Salt, Linen Paper, &c’

21 September 1692
‘A petition is sent to Town in behalf of Dorcas Hoar, who now confesses: Accordingly an order is sent to the Sheriff to forbear her Execution, notwithstanding her being in the Warrant to die to morrow. This is the first condemned person who has confess’d.’

[‘One of the most deplorable concurrences of the delusion, which so enthralled the minds and spirits of the community at this time, was the seemingly irrefutable confirmation of the reality of the alleged complicity with the Evil One, found in the confessions of so many accused persons. There were at least fifty-five, whose names are known to us, who gave this assurance of the guilt charged upon them, which was effectively used to stiffen the credulity of those who were most earnest in the work of prosecution, and to refute the doubts of those who were of a “Sadducean spirit.” Confession insured immunity from trial or imprisonment or execution.’]

26 October 1692
‘A Bill is sent in about calling a Fast, and Convocation of Ministers, that may be led in the right way as to the Witchcrafts. The season and manner of doing it, is such, that the Court of Oyer and Terminer count themselves thereby dismissed. 29 Nos. and 33 Yeas to the Bill. Capt. Bradstreet and Lieut. True, Wm. Huchins and several other interested persons there, in the affirmative.’

29 January 1693
‘A very sunshiny, hot, thawing day. Note. Just as we came out of the Meetinghouse at Noon, Savil Simson’s Chimny fell on fire, and blaz’d out much, which made many people stand gazing at it a pretty while, being so near the Meetinghouse.’

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Goethe in shirtsleeves

One of Germany’s greatest literary figures, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, died 180 years ago today. His diaries, written throughout his life and later published in 13 volumes, have never appeared in English translations - with one exception. In 1999, Oxford University Press published The Flight to Italy, an eight-week diary written when Goethe was 37. Although no great claims are made for the book, the translator - T. J. Reed - says it shows Goethe ‘in shirtsleeves, moving not posing’.

Goethe was born in 1749 in Frankfurt to a lawyer and the mayor’s daughter, and was educated in Leipzig and Strasbourg. By 1771, he had returned to Frankfurt and was working as a lawyer. His first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, was published in 1774. The following year, he made a trip to Switzerland, and then went to work in Weimar for Duke Charles Augustus. Over the years, he was given various administrative duties, ranging from finance to roads and from military matters to mining issues. Occasionally he gave readings to the Duke and guests.

Goethe was an inveterate inquirer, studying widely, not least human biology (he discovered the human inter-maxillary bone) and philosophy. The duke ennobled Goethe, and eventually released him from day-to-day governmental duties (although he remained at the centre of Weimar’s cultural life) allowing him to focus on writing. In September 1786, he embarked on a long tour of Italy, not returning until 1788.

In 1789, Goethe began a relationship with Christiane Vulpius although, scandalously, they did not marry until 1806, after she had borne him a son. From the 1790s, Goethe wrote widely on arts and literature, especially in his own journal Propyläen, and he developed a firm friendship with Friedrich Schiller. His most famous poem, Faust, an epic drama, was published in two parts, the first in 1808, and the second after his death on 22 March 1832. His other major works, include the novel Elective Affinities and The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister. Further biographical information is readily available at Wikipedia, Your Dictionary or the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Goethe kept a diary for most of his life. This was published by Böhlau in 13 volumes between 1887 and 1919, but almost none of it has been translated for publication into English. In the 1920s, Hugo K. Schilling, an American scholar of German who wrote a thesis on the diaries (discussed in Proceedings and List of Members of the Modern Language Association of America), explained the genesis of Goethe’s diary writing: ‘His diaries were private documents, they saw the light but late and are practically unknown to the public; even students of Goethe generally use them for reference only, and few ever read the thirteen volumes of them in the Weimar edition continuously in their entirety. Yet they alone [of all Goethe’s writings] give first impressions, fresh and vivid, recorded spontaneously and naturally with no interfering thought of ultimate publication in their original form. Goethe’s earliest attempt at something like a diary resulted in the Ephemerides of his Strassburg student days, a jumble of undated miscellaneous memoranda of no particular interest except as they throw light upon his extensive reading. Five years later he kept a fragmentary daily record of his first trip to Switzerland.’

The only diary of Goethe’s that seems to have appeared in English is The Flight to Italy: Diary and Selected Letters, translated by T. J. Reed, and published by Oxford University Press (OUP) in 1999. ‘This,’ OUP says, ‘is the authentic day-to-day record of the first eight weeks of freedom as Germany’s greatest poet heads for the Italy he has been yearning to see since childhood and finds himself in a new world of warmth and light. Leaving behind the difficulties of a decade in Weimar, the burden of administration, a difficult love-affair, and the frustration of not having time to work on his literary projects, he discovers himself again as a sensuous being and an artist. Goethe’s fresh and spontaneous notes, sometimes dashed down at crowded tables in primitive Italian inns, bring together art and nature, Antiquity and the Renaissance, aesthetics and science, observations of climate, rocks, plants and the Italian people, in an unpremeditated mixture through which the poet’s mature vision of the natural and human world can be seen taking shape. Never before translated into English, this diary brings us close to a great European writer at a turning-point of his life.’

Reading between the lines of the OUP promotional blurb, no great claims are made for this diary. Although there are occasional glimpses of Goethe the writer, most of the text is nothing more than a fairly ordinary travel diary, describing places visited. Also, while most of the entries in the text are dated like a diary, they read more like letters to someone rather than musings to oneself. In his introduction, Reed says Goethe ‘had no high opinion of this little document’, and that it is a wonder ‘he never destroyed it as he did so many of his other papers once they had helped him construct his mature retrospect’. (Goethe had used the diary to write a book about the whole trip - Italian Journey - which was translated into English by W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer, and published by Penguin in 1970.)

Nevertheless, Reed continues, ‘the diary is a book in its own right, all the more so for being informal, colloquial, impressionistic, under-punctuated, unpolished, with loose ends showing and changes of mind not tidied away. It is Goethe in shirtsleeves, moving not posing.’

8 September 1786
‘Reached the Brenner, virtually forced to stop at what is an ideal place for a rest. My first act is to tell you all the good things of the day just past. It was the kind of day you can savour in the memory for years. Left Mittelwald at 6, clear sky, a keen wind blowing, and the kind of cold only allowed in February. The near slopes dark and covered in spruce, the grey limestone cliffs, the highest white peaks against the beautiful blue of the sky made exquisite, constantly changing pictures.

Near Scharnitz you get into the Tyrol and the border is closed with a rampart that seals off the valley and joins up with the mountains. It looks very fine. One one side the cliff is fortified, on the other it just goes steeply up.

At Seefield by half-past 8. From there the route gets steadily more interesting. Up to this point it went over the hills that you climb out of Benedict Bayern, now you get nearer to the valley of the Inn and look down into Intzingen. The sun was high and hot. The clothes I brought with me - a jerkin with sleeves and an overcoat - that were meant for all seasons, had to be changed, and they often are 10 times in a day.

Near Cirl the route drops into the Inn valley. The situation is indescribably lovely and with the heat-haze high up it was magnificent. I only managed to dash down a sketch, the driver hadn’t been to Mass yet and was in a hurry to get to Innsbruck, it was the Nativity of the Virgin.

Now it’s down the Inn valley all the way, past the immense steep limestone face of the Martin Wall. At the point where Emperor Max is said to have got himself cragfast, I reckon I could probably get up and down without an angel’s help, though it would still be a criminally risky undertaking.

Innsbruck lies in a splendid position, in a broad rich valley between high rock walls and mountains. I felt like stopping there for today, but something inside wouldn’t let me rest.

The innkeeper’s son was Soller to a T. So I’m gradually coming across the characters I’ve invented.

It’s the Virgin’s Nativity. The people are all dressed up, looking healthy and prosperous, and making a pilgrimage to Wilten a quarter of an hour outside the town. I left Innsbruck at 2 and at half-past seven was here.’

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Yeats very charming

Isabella Augusta Persse Gregory, an Irish playwright and key figure in the Irish Literary Revival, sometimes nicknamed the Celtic Twilight, was born 160 years ago today. For about ten years, from the death of her much older husband to the flowering of her own literary talent, she kept a diary which is written in a staccato style and thus often dull; but, it is revealing about herself, and her political/literary circle which included W. B. Yeats and Horace Plunkett.

Isabella was born on 15 March 1852 at Roxborough House, near Loughrea in County Galway. Aged 28 she married Sir William Henry Gregory, a 63 year old widower, who was an MP, a former Governor of Ceylon, and a trustee of the National Gallery. They lived in London, where she met famous writers and painters of the day, and they spent their summers at Gregory’s estate, Coole Park, in Galway. They had one child, Robert, born in 1881 who died while serving as a pilot in the First World War.

Sir Gregory died in 1892, after which time Isabella became more interested in Irish affairs, learning Irish and the Hiberno-English dialect of Kiltartan. In 1896, she met Yeats and, with him, collected Kiltartan folklore. With Yeats and Edward Martyn, she helped established the Irish Literary Theatre (later, this became the Abbey Theatre Company, and Lady Gregory its manager). She published books of poetry, translations of short plays, and then began to write her own plays, the first of which was Twenty Five. Many others - such as Spreading the News and The Workhouse Ward - followed.

Although in the 1920s she was probably the most performed playwright in Irish theatres, it was also a difficult time for her. During the Irish Civil War, she was physically threatened and Roxborough House was burned. In 1926, she discovered that she had cancer. She remained at Coole Park, though it was sold to the government, until her death in 1932. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, A Celebration of Women Writers, or FemBio.

Starting in 1892, Lady Gregory kept a diary. This was only published fairly recently, in 1996, by Colin Smythe, Gerards Cross, in an edition edited and introduced by James Pethica: Lady Gregory’s Diaries - 1892-1902.

Written in staccato style, the diary lists people met, places visited, etc. and most of it is not much of a read. That said, though, it is revealing about Lady Gregory’s own transformation from a relatively young widow to a central figure in the Irish Literary Revival, and provides interesting glimpses of those in her social circle - literary types like Yeats, Robert Browning, Lord Tennyson and Henry James; painters such as John Everett Millais; and politicians such as the Irish unionist Horace Plunkett.

The diary peters out after 1901. Pethica says: ‘The process of keeping the diary may have itself contributed significantly to the process of artistic self-discovery for her, in her early years of widowhood providing her with an unrecognised creative forum at a time when aspirations to write were generally unfocussed, and in later years serving more self-consciously as record of her own remaking as a literary figure. Her success in finding a new creative focus indeed probably largely accounts for her abandonment of the diary, as she was becoming too busy, and was now sufficiently secure of her part in the Irish literary world, to feel the need to keep a record of the important events she was participating in.’

14 February 1897
‘Westminster Abbey - Eyton - Dinner here - W. B. Yeats - Sir H. H. & Lady Johnston - Sophie Lyall - Alfred Cole - Barry O’Brien - Sir A. Clay - Very pleasant, at least I enjoyed it myself very much, liking them all - & they got on well - An argument at dinner as to who Conan Doyle had meant in a speech the night before by “the greatest man this century has produced.” B. O’Brien was for Napoleon, Sir H. Darwin - Yeats for Goethe - A. Cole stirring them all up - but as none wd agree on the premisses, I had to intervene at last -’

17 February 1897
‘Dined Leckys - Sat next to Lord Loch - who had been to hear Cecil Rhodes examined by the [South African] Committee [investigating the Jameson Raid] - & thinks he came badly out of it - his answers not straight & he had not even read the Blue books - & Lord L. is very down upon Miss Flora Shaw who seems to have precipitated the revolution - Have had 2 bicycling lessons at the Queen’s Club - The first simple torture, like sitting on a skate balanced on a cartwheel - I felt as if the machine was an “infernal” one - trying to compass my destruction - The 2nd, sat more comfortably - but can’t yet get the balance -’

28 February 1897
‘[. . .] Yeats very charming, I feel quite proud of my young countryman [. . .]’

21 March 1897
‘Got to church, & had a quiet afternoon typing from Froude - only the Birchs - Dinner, Rt. Hon. Horace Plunkett [an Anglo-Irish unionist, MP, and an agricultural reformer], Mr Barry O’Brien, W. B. Yeats - some very interesting talk - Mr O’Brien arrived first - & said he wd be so glad to meet Mr Plunkett - as all sections of Nationalists of late have been agreeing that he is the only possible leader to unite all parties - Yeats, just back from Dublin, corroborates this - He has been trying to reconcile conflicting committees re the ’98 Centenary [events to mark the centenary of the 1798 uprising] - but there is a great deal of squabbling - He says “every man who has time on his hands & a little industry has a secret society of his own” - Then Mr Plunkett came & we went up to dinner - a little tentative conversation at first - Then Mr Plunkett [said] his grudge against Parnellism is that Parnell so mastered & dominated his followers as to crush national life instead of developing it, as has happened when there has been a national awakening in other countries [. . . Mr O’Brien] says “I would make Mr Horace Plunkett our leader & follow him” - Yeats agrees enthusiastically & says “we all want it” - Mr Plunkett reddens & is evidently touched, tho’ his quiet restrained manner is unchanged - Yeats asks him how far he would go - he says, to a large measure of local Government - but not seperation - & not yet Home Rule they are not ready for it. [. . .]

The party did not break up till 12 - Mr Plunkett going first - Mr O’Brien looked at Yeats when he left & said “We could go fast with that man as leader” - but is a little sad that he doesn’t go in more for Home Rule - yet confesses he is wiser to stick to agricultural co-operation for the present -’

8 April 1899
‘The Jack Yeatses arrived yesterday - He is too good an artist to leave to Devonshire, I want to keep him to Irish things - [Yeats and his wife were living near Dartmouth.]’

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Geyser of emotions

Alice James, brother to the famous writer Henry, died 120 years ago today. Towards the end of her short and unhappy life, she began keeping a diary. Ahough not published until 40 years after her death, it is revered today by some for its portrayal of a woman struggling against social and mental difficulties, and yet, nevertheless, finding her own individual voice.

Alice was born in New York in 1848 into a wealthy and well-educated family. Like her brother Henry, who would go on to become a famous novelist, she spent some of her youth travelling with the family back and forth from New England to Europe. But, while her brothers attended the best schools wherever they went, Alice was only given an education fit for a lady. As a young girl, during the civil war, she sewed bandages; and, as a young woman, she worked as a history teacher. She was very close to another brother, William, a pioneering American psychologist.

James was often ill, diagnosed with hysteria, and was largely cared for by her parents until they both died in 1882. Thereafter, she tried rest cures, electrical massage, as well as travelling to Europe with her close friend Katherine Peabody Loring. Through many of the last troubled years of her life, she was supported by Henry. She died from breast cancer on 6 March 1892. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia and History of American Women.

In 1889, when in London, James began writing a diary, a habit she kept up until her death. Soon after, Katherine Loring produced five copies of the diary and sent them to family members. It was not, though, made more widely available until 1934, when Macmillan published Alice James, her brothers, her journal. In 1964, Dodd, Mead published The Diary of Alice James with an introduction by the Henry James expert Leon Edel. This latter book is widely accepted as the most faithful reproduction of the original diary.

Some consider that the diary made Alice James into a feminist icon, a woman who struggled through illnesses to find her own voice, though this view is not universally held. Her diary, though, is very revealing of her inner self and thoughts, and full of self-analysis. Extracts can be read online at the Serendip website, at the Civil War Women Blog, and at Googlebooks in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The yellow wall-paper.

31 May 1889
‘I think that if I get into the habit of writing a bit about what happens, or rather doesn’t happen, I may lose a little of the sense of loneliness and desolation which abides with me. My circumstances allowing nothing but the ejaculation of one-syllabled reflections, a written monologue by that most interesting being, myself, may have its yet to be discovered consolations. I shall, at least, have it all my own way, and it may bring relief as an outlet to that geyser of emotions, sensations, speculations and reflections which ferments perpetually within my poor old carcass for its sins; so here goes - my first journal!’

12 July 1889
‘It’s amusing to see how, even upon my microscopic field, minute events are perpetually taking place illustrative of the broadest facts of human nature. Yesterday Nurse and I had a good laugh, but I must allow that decidedly she ‘had’ me. I was thinking of something that interested me very much, and my mind was suddenly flooded by one of those luminous waves that swept out of consciousness all but the living sense and overpower one with joy in the rich, throbbing complexity of life, when suddenly I looked up at Nurse, who was dressing me, and saw her primitive, rudimentary expression (so common here), as of no inherited quarrel with her destiny of putting petticoats over my head; the poverty and deadness of it contrasted to the tide of speculation that was coursing thro’ my brain made me exclaim, ‘Oh! Nurse, don’t you wish you were inside of me?’ Her look of dismay, and vehement disclaimer - ‘Inside of you, Miss, when you have just had a sick head-ache for five days!’ - gave a greater blow to my vanity than that much-battered article has ever received. The headache had gone off in the night and I had clean forgotten it when the little wretch confronted me with it, at this sublime moment, when I was feeling within me the potency of Bismarck, and left me powerless before the immutable law that, however great we may seem to our own consciousness, no human being would exchange his for ours, and before the fact that my glorious role was to stand for sick-headache to mankind! What a grotesque being I am, to be sure, lying in this room, with the resistance of a thistle-down, having illusory moments of throbbing with the pulse of the race, the mystery to be solved at the next breath, and the fountain of all happiness within me - the sense of vitality, in short, simply proportionate to the excess of weakness. To sit by and watch these absurdities is amusing in its way, and reminds me of how I used to listen to my ‘company manners’ in the days when I had ‘em, and how ridiculous they sounded.

Ah! Those strange people that have the courage to be unhappy! Are they unhappy, by the way?’

12 December 1889
‘I wonder, whether, if I had had any education I should have been more, or less, of a fool than I am. It would have deprived me surely of those exquisite moments of mental flatulence which every now and then inflate the cerebral vacuum with a delicious sense of latent possibilities - of stretching oneself to cosmic limits, and who would ever give up the reality of dreams for relative knowledge?’

26 October 1890
‘William uses an excellent expression when he says in his paper on the ‘Hidden Self’ that the nervous victim ‘abandons’ certain portions of his consciousness. It may be the word commonly used by his kind. It is just the right one at any rate, altho’ I have never unfortunately been able to abandon my consciousness and get five minutes’ rest. I have passed thro’ an infinite succession of conscious abandonments and in looking back now I see how it began in my childhood, altho’ I wasn’t conscious of the necessity until ’67 or ’68 when I broke down first, acutely, and had violent turns of hysteria. As I lay prostrate after the storm with my mind luminous and active and susceptible of the clearest, strongest impressions, I saw so distinctly that it was a fight simply between my body and my will, a battle in which the former was to be triumphant to the end. Owing to some physical weakness, excess nervous susceptibility, the moral power pauses, as it were for a moment, and refuses to maintain muscular sanity, worn out with the straining of its constabulary functions. As I used to sit immovable reading in the library with waves of violent emotion suddenly invading my muscles taking some one of their myriad forms such as throwing myself out of the window, or knocking off the head of the benignant pater as he sat with his silver locks, writing at his table, it used to seem to me that the only difference between me and the insane was that I had not only all the horrors and suffering of insanity but the duties of doctor, nurse, and strait-jacket imposed upon me, too. Conceive of never being without the sense that if you let yourself go for a moment your mechanism will fall into pie and that at some given moment you must abandon it all, let the dykes break and the flood sweep in, acknowledging yourself abjectly impotent before the immutable laws. When all one’s moral and natural stock in trade is a temperament forbidding the abandonment of an inch or the relaxation of a muscle, ’tis a never-ending fight. When the fancy took me of a morning at school to study my lessons by way of variety instead of shirking or wriggling thro’ the most impossible sensations of upheaval, violent revolt in my head overtook me so that I had to ‘abandon’ my brain, as it were. So it has always been, anything that sticks of itself is free to do so, but conscious and continuous cerebration is an impossible exercise and from just behind the eyes my heads feels like a dense jungle into which no ray of light has ever penetrated. So, with the rest, you abandon the pit of your stomach, the palms of your hands, the soles of your feet, and refuse to keep them sane when you find in turn one moral impression after another producing despair in the one, terror in the other, anxiety in the third and so on until life becomes one long flight from remote suggestion and complicated eluding of the multi-fold traps set for your undoing.’