Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The First in the East

Last Sunday, D. and I made a pilgrimage to Newburyport, Massachusetts. It's a nice little town, but I would have felt no great compulsion to go there so soon after arriving in Sandy Bay except that it was the place where one of my literary favorites, Lord Timothy Dexter, lived, worked and wrote.



Before I tell his story -- in some cases, in his own words -- I should emphasize that being a fan of Dexter's writing does not mean I chose to emulate him. As you'll soon find out, that would be near-impossible. What I admire is what might best be called his "spirit." He was a self-made (partially) man with a large ego and a desire to Be Somebody. Sadly for him, he was also what used to be called a "crank," and thus was almost universally despised by all who knew him.

In fact, what drew me to Dexter was the total story, not just his writing.... 

Born in 1748, he started out as a farm laborer, then became an apprentice tanner. After completing his apprenticeship, he engaged in what he called "spekellation," buying worthless Revolutionary War-era "Continental" currency with the view that the U.S. government would offer an exchange for dollars, which they did. That allowed him to finance a shipping business; he sent ships laden with odd cargoes hither and yon without any apparent planning on his part, often with astonishing success. At one point he bought up all the whalebone he could find; strangely enough, his cornering of the market coincided with the increasing popularity of women's corsets, which needed whalebone for stays. From this deal alone, he earned more than a "tun" of silver.

By the time he was 25, Dexter had moved to Newburyport, bought a mansion, and married Elizabeth Frothingham, a wealthy widow. While he accumulated a fortune, he was unable to become part of the local high society, and indeed left town for a time in disgust, settling on a large estate in New Hampshire. He returned, bought another mansion on High Street, and began to write letters to the local newspaper.

His literary ambitions thus sparked, he then proceeded to write a book. A Pickle For the Knowing Ones; or Plain Truths in a Homespun Dress. This was first published in 1798, and has been available in one edition or another ever since. (My own copy, a gift from D., a replica of the 1848 edition, is currently available at obscure bookstores.)

Rather than describe his writing, it seems better to put a few lines here, beginning at the start of the book with Dexter's own explanation of his "royal" status, combined with the announcement that he would soon be establishing a museum at his High Street home:

IME the first Lord in the younited States of A mericary Now of Newburyport it is the voise of the peopel and I cant Help it and so Let it goue Now as I must be Lord there will foller many more Lords pretty soune for it dont hurt A Cat Nor the mouse Nor the son Nor the water Nor the Eare then goue on all is Easey Now bons broaken all is well all in Love Now I be gin to Lay the corner ston and the kee ston with grat Remembrence of my father Jorge Washington the grate herow 17 sentreys past before we found so good a father to his shildren and Now gone to Rest1 Now to shoue my Love to my father and grate Caricters I will shoue the world one of the grate Wonders of the world in 15 months if now man mourders me in Dors or out Dors such A mouserum on Earth will annonce O Lord thou knowest to be troue fourder hear me good Lord I am A goueing to Let or shildren know Now to see good Lord what has bin in the world grat wase back to owr forefathers

It will not have escaped anyone's attention that the author's spelling is hit-or-miss, his capitalization is erratic, and punctuation is nonexistent. This may help explain why Pickle is not to be found in the world's great libraries. And yet, beyond eye-strain, his "style" adds a certain charm to the book.

Note also that "now man" "mourdered" Dexter, not "in Dors and out Dors," and what would come to be known as "Dexter's Mouseum" -- by him, at any rate -- was indeed at least partially completed:

Aside from four carved lions and two effigies of  Lord Timothy Dexter himself, the wooden statues included familiar American heroes such as Washington, Jefferson, John Jay and other Dexterian favorites such as "Loues 16" and "the grate bonepartey." One statue represented a corn planter for reasons known only to Dexter....

Did Dexter's book achieve his intended purpose ("I wans to make my Enemys grin in time Lik A Cat over A hot pudding and goue Away and hang there heads Doun Like a Dogg bin After sheep gilty")? We will never know. He did go on to expound on other matters before completing the final page, including excoriation of the town leaders in Newburyport for not sending enough watchmen on patrol. He also included dissertations on colleges and "preasts" (disliking both), verbally attacked his "dafter's" suitor, one Abraham Bishop -- they were, apparently married for a time -- and complained about his wife, whom he dubbed "the Ghost."

By the time one has read through all 32 pages of Pickle, one thing is clear, even if Dexter's words and thoughts are not: as a writer, the man was unique. His style is instantly recognizable, and attempting to emulate it is folly. One might copy, for example, Clive Cussler; all that is required is to forget all you learned about the English Language after the age of six or so. Other writers' styles can be faked by ignoring words of more than three syllables and all rules of logic or, conversely, by never using words of less than three syllables and searching the far corners of the dictionary for esoteric verbiage. None of that helps to unlock the key to Lord Dexter.

Before I close -- and there will be a Part Two, in which I lay down a little more history and discuss Timothy and Me (and, of course, D.) -- I should also note that one of the "revised" editions of Pickle that appeared during Dexter's lifetime had an appendix from the author that shows a sensitivity rare in authors, then and now:

fouder mister printer the Nowing ones complane of my book the fust edition had no stops I put in A Nuf here and thay may peper and solt it as they plese”
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About the title of this post: In a not-at-all-rare burst of what I'd call honesty -- and others would, I guess, call unwarranted arrogance -- Timothy Dexter described himself as "First in the East, First in the West and Greatest Philosopher in the Western World." Even while saying so, he laid down a challenge to prove him wrong:

I --- I --- me T Dexter of N Port Desires Any man or men on the gloube to Exseede me as to what I have Rote in my Littel book, and what I can Rite Consarning Nater and the sole and the frame of man … I am the old plane Tim to see any felosofer in the world

3 comments:

Justfly said...

I had some catching up to do on your blog! So you are on the East Coast now??!! We rock here on the east coast!

John0 Juanderlust said...

No way to emulate that style. Immolate, maybe.
His story is too much. I love it that the guy may have actually been brilliant. That could only be inferred from his success in business, not through his writing.
He does may you think--it takes many minutes of thought to decipher a sentence/paragraph/ whatever a unit of his prose is called.

Great post. I feel like I know Lord T , now.

John0 Juanderlust said...

make you think. Not may.
It rubbs off. I beeter goue