Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A young man in New York

The Diary of George Templeton Strong. A Young Man in New York, 1835-1849 (Vol. 1).  Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas, eds.

Every book on the American Civil War that isn't strictly military history seems to cite the third volume of George Templeton Strong's diary, which covers the years 1860-1865.  Some of the military histories do as well.  Even if Strong hadn't played a key role in the Sanitary Commission, meeting with President Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Union military leaders, his diary would still give us a day to day record of life in New York City during the war - a city with strong Democratic, pro-south tendencies, where riots broke out in 1863 over the draft.

I read the Civil War diary a couple of years ago, and I finally got around to getting the first through interlibrary loan earlier this month.  Each volume apparently has the same introduction, with an overview of Strong's life and career as a lawyer.  The introduction also explains how the diary was discovered, edited, and published in 1952.  I believe if it were to be re-edited and re-published today, it would be a very different diary.  The editors state right off the bat that "Many interesting personal entries, dealing with the diarist's family circle, have been left out; but these would make another kind of story."  Well, yes, and it would be a more complete story of George Templeton Strong the human being, as well as a better social history.  I've noticed this before in diaries edited by men, like William Plomer's edition of the diaries of Rev. Francis Kilvert.  The editors also provide biographical notes only on the male characters; not even footnotes identify many of the women.

Strong began his diary in October of 1835, when he was a fifteen-year old sophomore at Columbia College.  I found the first years a bit dull, a record of classes and college pranks in which GTS generally didn't join.  Then, suddenly, as with Trollope's' North America, GTS found his voice.  I think he would have been great company - with a strong sense of humor, an acridly entertaining turn of phrase, a love of books, a deep faith.  Counterbalancing that, he was completely unsympathetic to African Americans, free or slave, with a frequent and contemptuous use of the "N" word.  He also had nativist tendencies, especially towards Irish immigrants, though the excesses of the "Know Nothings" turned him away from nativist politics.  His attitude toward women was typically paternalistic.  An outline of his ideal woman's characteristics includes "talent for obedience, and submission to conjugal authority," and his wife Ellen is frequently referred to as "Little Ellie," at least in the first two years after their 1847 marriage.  On the other hand, he nursed her personally through the still-born birth of their first child and her collapse from puerperal fever, which must be credited to him as righteousness.

I can't help but like him, and I'm anxiously awaiting the next volume, which covers the critical years of 1850-1859.  I look forward to watching this turbulent decade unfold through his eyes.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!