Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Turbulent Fifties - the 1850s, that is

The Diary of George Templeton Strong, The Turbulent Fifties, 1850-1859  (Vol. 2).   Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas, eds.

This, as you will have deduced, is the second volume in the series of George Templeton Strong's diaries, published in 1952. I posted about the first volume back on April 27th, and I was very excited to get the next volume.  I was much less excited by the time I finished it.

I expected "The Turbulent Fifties" to focus on the rising political tensions in the United States over slavery, as the old Whig party fell apart, as the new Republican party formed to oppose the extension of slavery into the new territories being formed.  Strong did record these events, including his own conversion to the Republican Party.  Though there is not one single mention of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, we do get the furious debate over Kansas, the attack on Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate, John C. Fremont's selection as the first Republican presidential candidate, and John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.  We also get detailed entries on the Panic of 1857, which make uncomfortable reading in these uncertain economic times.

On the increasingly dominant issue on the decade, Strong parsed slavery more than once: he didn't believe slave-owning a sin; like Anthony Trollope he believed the slaves might not be capable of life as freed peoples; he believed the Constitution and the laws protected slavery where it existed.  But on the other hand he believed that slavery was evil in its effects on both master and slave, especially in the separation of slave families, and that it should be prohibited from expansion into the territories.

However, much of the volume is focused on different kinds of conflict: in the Episcopal Church, particularly the Diocese of New York; and in Columbia College.  Strong served on the vestry of Trinity Church in New York, and the vestry meetings were very well-documented.  Strong was also a Trustee of Columbia, a position he valued greatly, and he documented countless board and committee meetings, as well as fights over curriculum and faculty appointments. Nevins and Halsey, both on the faculty at Columbia University at the time they were editing the diary, were clearly very interested in the history of the proto-university.

The diary also includes many entries on music.  Strong, who had an organ built for his home, was passionate about music, and he attended every opera, concert and musical performance he could.  He had strong opinions, consistently praising Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms but dismissing other composers such as Verdi.  It was a bit startling to realize that Strong could only have heard music performed live, and unplugged (unamplified).  No wonder he attended some performances three nights in a row, hearing the same music each time.

The endpapers of this volume include a facsimile copy of one page of the diary.  It is clear from that how much was excised in the editing.  I can just decipher one charming entry about his wedding anniversary and the "Sevres china tea set" he got at Tiffany's that afternoon. He was waiting for a chance to sneak it onto Ellen's dressing table to surprise her.  That didn't make it into the published diary - who knows what else was sacrificed, so that we could know more about the fight over a chemistry professor at Columbia?  At least the birth of two sons and his parents' deaths - all in that decade - made the cut.

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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!