The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book II/Chapter III

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The Cambridge History of American Literature by George Frisbie Whicher
Book II, Chapter III: Early Essayists

§ 1. The Periodical Essay in America.[edit]

IN anticipating Dr. Johnson’s advice to fashion his prose style on the model of Addison, Franklin anticipated also the practice of American essay-writers for more than a generation. Like Franklin’s Dogood Paper, the first essays printed in colonial newspapers were written with a conscious moral purpose. With some spice of wit Timothy Dwight and John Trumbull collaborated in an imitation of The Spectator in 1769–70, and between 1785 and 1800 nearly a hundred series of light periodical essays were contributed to various New England journals.[1] Those of the better sort like the “Neighbour” of The Massachusetts Spy or the “Metabasist” in The Farmer’s Journal of Danbury, Connecticut, when not discussing politics, filled their columns with grave moralizing or racy satire on manners. They were widely copied and recopied by other paper, and a few such as Noah Webster’s Prompter and Mrs. Judith Murray’s Gleaner attained the distinction of separate publication by reason either of their plain common sense or their studied correctness. In general, the imitation of English models resulted in feeble literary replicas, or in strange patchworks of Yankee homespun with Addisonian finery.

During the first decade of the nineteenth century nearly every literary device and favourite character in the long line of British essayists was reproduced in this country. Isaac Bickerstaff owned an American cousin in Launcelot Langstaff of Salmagundi, memories of I’Espion turc were evoked by Wirt’s Letters of a British Spy, and Goldsmith’s Lien Chi Altangi dropped a small corner of his mantle on Irving’s Mustapha Ruba-Dub Kheli Khan and S. L. Knapp’s Shahcoolen. The shade of Johnson dictated the titles of The Traveller, The Rural Wanderer, The Saunterer, and The Loiterer, and such editorial pseudonyms as Jonathan Oldstyle, Oliver Oldschool, and John Oldbug were significant of the attempt to catch the literary tone of the previous age. But the essay of manners, a product of leisurely urban life, was not easily adapted to the environment of a sparsely settled, bustling young republic. “Perhaps, indeed” wrote the Rev. David Graham of Pittsburg, “it is impossible to give interest and standing popularity, to a periodical essay paper, constructed upon the model of the British Essayist, in an infant country.”[2] Even in the populous cities “where the inhabitants amount of several thousand” there was little interest in the art of living. Reprehensible luxury and eccentric characters were hard to discover. But by dint of persistent attempts the essay of manners was made to grow in the new soil.

§ 2. Joseph Dennie.[edit]

Perhaps the most successful “American Addison” was Joseph Dennie (1768–1812), who was “reasonably tinged with literature” while resisting a Harvard education, and after a short trial of the law, devoted his desultory talents to periodical writing until his death. He kindled the first sparks of a reputation by the Farrago essays, contributed to various country newspapers, but his Tablet, a hopeful weekly paper devoted to belles lettres, failed to set Boston ablaze. Yankee readers objected to his exercises in the manner of Goldsmith and Addision as “sprightly rather than moral”. While a law-student, Dennie had supplemented his income by reading sermons in unsupplied churches, and now to gain a hearing he fitted each of his lucubrations with a text and tempered his sentiments ostensibly for the pulpit. The Lay Preacher, commenced in 1795, won immediate applause. Seven years later John Davis, the traveller, declared it the most widely read work in American, and its popularity contributed largely to the author’s success as editor, first of The Farmer’s Weekly Museum at Walpole, New Hampshire, and finally of that notable literary gazette, the Philadelphia Port Folio.

Though Dennie collaborated with his friend Royall Tyler in a melange of light prose and verse “From the Shop of Messrs. Colon & Spondee,” which later developed into a series of “Author’s Evenings” reminiscent of men and books, his scattered writings were never collected or even completely identified, and his reputation must rest almost entirely upon The Lay Preacher. In these papers he sometimes dallied with a trifling subject, or to the indignation of severe critics applied a sacred text to the discussion of Mrs. Radcliffe’s romances, or gave free rein to his eccentric humour in denouncing French innovations. But in the main he preserved a solemn front, dimming his wit with sobriety, as in the following extract from “Watchman, what of the night?”

Duty, as well as inclination, urges the Lay Preacher to sermonize, while others slumber. To read numerous volumes in the morning, and to observe various characters at noon, will leave but little time, except the night, to digest the one or speculate upon the other. The night, therefore, is often dedicated to composition, and while the light of the paly planets discovers at his desk the Preacher, more wan than they, he may be heard repeating emphatically with Dr. Young,

“Darkness has much Divinity for me.”

He is then alone, he is then at peace. No companions near, but the silent volumes on his shelf, no noise abroad, but the click of the village clock, or the bark of the village dog. The Deacon has then smoked his sixth, and last pipe, and asks not a question more, concerning Josephus, or the Church. Stillness aids study, and the sermon proceeds.[3]

In reality, however, Dennie was as fond of conviviality as Steele, and as elegant in dress as Goldsmith. His literary pose had little in common with his actual habits of composition, as described by a former printer’s devil of The Farmer’s Museum:

One of the best of his Lay Sermons was written at the village tavern, directly opposite to the office, in a chamber where he and his friends were amusing themselves with cards. It was delivered to me by piece-meal, at four or five different times. If he happened to be engaged in a game, when I applied for copy, he would ask some one to play his hand for him, while he could “give the devil his due.” When I called for the closing paragraph of the sermon, he said, “Call again in five minutes.” “No,” said Tyler, “I’II write the improvement for you.” He accordingly wrote the concluding paragraph, and Dennie never saw it till it was in print.[4]

No trace of the “nights of mirth and mind” that he shared with “Anacreon” Moore, none of the ready puns that Irving learned to dread, can be found in the pious columns of The Lay Preacher. The wonder is, not that Dennie should be forgotten, but that, writing so evidently against the gain, he should have achieved his extraordinary vogue.

Among many young lawyers who found time to use their pens while waiting for briefs, Dennie is historically important as one of the first to adopt literature as a profession. Others who continued to write as an avocation were easily allured into religious or political controversy, for the renown of the Federalist papers was yet new. So Royall Tyler, author of several plays and a series of periodical observations entitled Trash, besides a waggish account of Dennie’s first appearance at the bar, became more a chief justice and less a man of letters after the publication of his novel, The Algerine Captive, in 1797.[5] David Everett, now barely remembered as the author of

You’d scarce expect one of my age
To speak in public on the stage,

wrote essays called Common Sense in Dishabille for The Farmer’s Museum, but his inclination for belles lettres soon yielded to a maturer passion for writing political leaders and commentaries on the Apocalypse. Only the hardiest political writings could survive the frost of piety in New England.

§ 3. William Wirt.[edit]

Literary essays in the South were almost neglected in the general enthusiasm for forensic and pulpit oratory, or when written, reflected the formal style of public speeches. The most persistent essayist was William Wirt (1772–1834), who commenced lawyer with “a copy of Blackstone, two volumes of Don Quixote, and a volume of Tristram Shandy,” gave sufficient attention to the first item of his library to become Attorney-General of the United States, and left as his chief literary monument a biography of Patrick Henry. The Letters of a British Spy, first printed in the Richmond Argus for 1803, justly gained him a reputation as a critic and master of eloquence.[6] A temperateness, discernment, and sincerity unusual in the journalism of the day marked his observations on Virginia society and his strictures on the style of public men, and his descriptive powers, best illustrated in the stricking picture of the Blind Preacher, elevated the Spy at once into the class of “elegant native classical literature.” Later in conjunction with friends Wirt wrote ten essays, collected as The Rainbow, dealing with sundry political and social questions. These, like The Old Bachelor, in which he set himself to follow more closely the admired model of Addison, were too thickly studded with florid passages, oratorical climaxes, and didactic fulminations. Wirt’s natural charm of manner survived only in his playful private letters.[7] Nothing of permanent mark came from the facile pen of William Crafts, editor of the Charleston Courier, and the ornate prose of Hugh Swinton Legare is that of the scholar rather than of the familiar essayist.

New York and Philadelphia were comparatively free from the blight of theology and the bane of eloquence, though the latter city seems to have suffered from a constitutional profundity which even Dennie could not entirely overcome. It gave to the world nothing better than the Didactics of Robert Walsh. The commercial interests of Manhattan could claim little attention from young men of wit and spirit, but leisure and a society both cosmopolitan and congenial afforded them ample opportunity and provocation for literary jeux d’esprit. When the busy savant, Samuel Latham Mitchill, presided at the Sour Krout crowned with cabbage leaves or burlesqued his own erudition in jovial speeches at the Turtle Club, what wonder if Irving and the “lads of Kilkenny” found time to “riot at Dyde’s on imperial champagne” or to sally out to Kemble’s mansion on the Passaic—the original of Cockloft Hall—for a night of high fun and jollification. Dr. Mitchill’s Picture of New York, with a wealth of geological and antiquarian lore travestied in the first parts of the ‘Knickerbocker’ History, records the numerous landmarks and traditions of the city. Corlaer’s Hook was then something more than a memory, Hell Gate was still a menace to navigation, the Collect was not all filled up, and the tolls levied at Kissing Bridge formed a standing jest. In such an environment the tradition of Steele and Goldsmith culminated not unworthily with Salmagundi, a buoyant series of papers ridiculing the follies of 1807. Thereafter imitation of Addison could no further go. Moreover, in announcing with mock gravity their intention “simply to instruct the young, reform the old, correct the town, and castigate the age” the authors of Salmagundi exposed the prevailing overearnestness of the grim guardians of public virtue and taught their readers to except entertainment as well as instruction from writers of the essay.

§ 4. James Kirke Paulding.[edit]

James Kirke Paulding (1779–1860), Washington Irving’s chief assistant in this youthful venture, shared with his collaborator a love of English letters, a vivid recollection of the New York of their boyhood, and a keen eye for odd whim-whams and curiosities of character. So closely akin were they in spirit that to identify completely the contributions of either writer would be a hopeless task, but the papers known to have been written wholly or in large measure by Paulding indicate that his part in the undertaking was not inferior to Irving’s. Nor was Paulding less a master of a graceful and vivacious style, formed by his boyish reading of The Citizen of the World. It was he who first sketched the characters of the Cockloft family, and in the case of “Mine Uncle John” he took the likeness of a real uncle as deftly as Irving portrayed the lively Mrs. Cooper in Sophie Sparkle or the fastidious Joseph Dennie in Launcelot Langstaff. Aunt Charity, who “died of a Frenchman,” was apparently a joint production. The two writers might have acquired from Steele and his successors the art of drawing crotchety characters, if not the fondness for detecting them, but the inevitable urban setting of the British essays afforded few models for such studies of nature as the “Autumnal Reflections” of the seventeenth Salmagundi paper. There Paulding—who undoubtedly had a hand in it—discovered a happy talent for combining gentle melancholy with landscape description which remained one of the most attractive elements in his varied writings. Almost the only quotable passages in his pretentious poem, The Back-woodsman,[8] have to do with wild and romantic scenery, and when in 1819 he revived the name, though not the sparkle of Salmagundi, the serious admonitory air of his continuation was sometimes freshened by vignettes of the Hudson valley or the frontier. After the second series of “Old Sal,” Paulding wrote few essays except the unremarkable Odds and Ends contributed in his old age to The Literary World, but in his Letters from the South, in his tales and novels,[9] and even in his prose satires he found opportunities to manifest his delight in American scenes. Unlike Irving, he never travelled, and the beauties of his native land remained in his eyes unrivalled.

While the author of Bracebridge Hall and the Alhambra was cultivating his cosmopolitan fancy in many lands, Paulding grew more and more intensely local. In accepting the cares of a family and of official position—he was eventually Secretary of the Navy under Van Buren—he lessened his opportunities to develop his literary talent, and at the same 1819 increased his desire to exalt the glory of American letters. Unusually sensitive to the faults of his fellow-countrymen, he too often went out of his way to rail at primogeniture, lotteries, French fashions, paper money, and the charities of “those venerable married ladies, and thrice venerable spinsters, who go about our cities like roaring lions, doing good.” When in such works as in Merry Tales of the Three Wise Men of Gotham (1826), and the New Mirror for Travellers (1828), he undertook to quiz political or fashionable failings, his irony was not infrequently more severe than just. The same objection may be applied with double force to the acrimonious squibs which he hurled at British critics who dared sneer at American innovations.[10] Like many of his contemporaries Paulding could not refrain from using his stylus as a dagger whenever patriotically aroused, and he lost no opportunity to flaunt the merits of republican institutions before the ‘crowned heads’ of Europe. He may best be remembered as an author whose faults and virtues combined to make him exclusively and eminently national.

§ 5. Richard Henry Dana the elder.[edit]

Salmagundi was but one of number of hopeful productions issued by two or three young men in combination or even by literary clubs after the traditional fashion of periodical essays. In 1818–19 a Baltimore society, which claimed Wirt as a member, printed a fortnightly leaflet called The Red Book, containing, besides verse, occasional papers by the future novelist, John Pendleton Kennedy.[11] William Tudor, one of the Monthly Anthology Club of Boston, and first editor of The North American Review, collected his Miscellanies in 1821, and in that and the following year a more original member of the same coterie, the elder Richard Henry Dana,[12] edited and mainly wrote the six numbers of The Idle Man, perhaps the most notable competitor of Irving’s Sketch Book. Much of Dana’s work may be paralleled elsewhere; the half-Shandean meditation on a suitable title for his periodical, the sketches of Ned Fillagree and Bob Brazen and of the whimsical old gentleman and his club, the eulogy of Kean’s acting, and the plea for a more confident and independent criticism of American books—though this last does not lack vehemence—are not essentially different from such stuff as essays were usually composed of. But the papers on “Domestic Life” and the “Musings” on the power of the imagination redeem their triteness of subject by a noble sincerity and depth of poetic insight not unworthy of a prose Wordsworth. Three numbers of The Idle Man are taken up by tales of gloomy intensity which fall within the compass of this chapter only as they illustrate the ease with which the periodical essay might merge with the then unrecognized short story. Not a few contributions in the Miscellanies of Verplanck, Bryant, and Sands (originally published as The Talisman for 1828, 1829, 1830) were made of a descriptive or didactic essay prefixed to a simple tale, and the gleanings from numerous annuals included by the publisher, S. G. Goodrich, in Sketches from a Student’s Window (1841), can hardly be classed except as an indistinguishable compound of essays and stories. In none of these cases are the narratives apologues or character sketches of the sort traditionally associated with the periodical essay.

Dana, though he continued to live in Cambridge, was intimately connected with Bryant and his set. The Idle Man was printed in New York, and it was there, naturally enough, that the vein opened by Irving and Paulding in Salmagundi was most consistently followed by writers of the Knickerbocker group, many of them contributors at one time or another to Colonel Morris’s New York Mirror. From that paper Thedore Sedgwick Fay, better known as the author of sucessful but mediocre novels, clipped enough of his occasional writings to fill two volumes entitled Dreams and Reveries of a Quiet Man (1832). Save for the lively satire of the Little Genius essays and a delicious travesty of Mrs. Trollope, there is little of other than historical interest in Fay’s pictures of New York life. Distinctly in better form are the Crayon Sketches by Williams Cox, an English printer once in the employ of The Mirror. In his fondness for the theatre, his devotion to Scott, and his love of old English scenes and customs, Cox had much in common with Irving. Here too should be mentioned the editors, Park Benjamin of The American Monthly Magazine and Brother Jonathan, poet and miscellaneous writer; Lewis Gaylored Clark of The Knickerbocker Magazine; and his twin brother, Willis Gaylord Clark, a Philadelphia journalist whose “Ollapodiana” papers inherited something of Lamb and anticipated something of Holmes.[13]

§ 6. Nathaniel Parker Willis.[edit]

Flashes of cleverness, geniality, and quiet humour, however, could not conceal the lack of originality and barrenness of invention that were becoming more and more apparent among the remoter satellites of Geoffrey Crayon. The stream of discursive literature was indeed running dry when Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-61) burst into prominence like a spring freshet, frothy, shallow, temporary, but sweeping all before it. This prince of magazinists, precociously celebrated as a poet even before his graduation from Yale in 1823, and petted by society in this country and abroad, has suffered the fate of other ten days’ wonders. Though the evanescent sparkle and glancing brilliance of his A I’Abri, less extravagantly known by its later title of Letters from under a Bridge, fully deserved Lowell’s praise, though it is possible to understand the popularity of his vivid, vivacious glimpses of European society in Pencillings by the Way and the vogue of his clever “Slingsby” stories in Inklings of Adventure, yet it cannot be denied that Willis too often merited the charges of affectation and mawkishness which we still instinctively associate with the elaborately gilded backs of his many volumes. Unluckily he wrote himself out just at the time when his necessities compelled him to have continous recourse to his pen for a livelihood. His later books sound like a parody of his true manner. It is unnecessary, therefore, to dwell upon the reasons for the decline of his immense reputation; they are obvious.

Nor is it needful to distinguish the paste from the genuine in the composition of the man himself; to defend him from the charge of puppyism by insisting upon his kindliness to younger authors. All that concerns us here is to indicate in what ways Willis inaugurated a temporary but essential phase in the development of the essay and indeed of American letters. The time had come to break with the smooth, dry, elegant style. Willis’s romantic and sentimental ardour influenced more than his choice of subject; it dictated his whole manner. He was the most formless of writers. His eclectic, tentative genius readily expressed itself, and often with great charm, in amorphous informal blends of essay, letter, and story. Fleeting impressions, “dashes at life,” ephemera, “hurry-graphs” were his forte. In an established form like the novel he was never successful. Striving to be original at all costs, he first embellished, then later mutilated the English language, sticking it full of foreign phrase, coined words, and oddities of diction culled from all times and localities. If these things seem intolerable when compared to the sure classic perfection of Irving’s style, we must remember that fluidity is essential to the innovator. Willis followed no tradition, good or bad. That with no guide but his own not infallible taste he should have reached at his best an easy, supple grace of manner, never for a moment tedious, is an evidence of uncommon powers, and even his weaknesses, his not infrequent soft spots, show that at least he was independent of the methods of eighteenthcentury prose.

In this respect Willis has been compared to Leigh Hunt, whom in several ways he certainly resembled, but he was not, like Hunt, an omnivorous reader. The social sense was stronger in him than literary instinct; the merits of his best work are the merits of lively chat. During his European wanderings he learned more from men than from books, and from women most of all. His Diotima was Lady Blessington, whose literary dinners and soirees were duly, in The New York Mirror, dashed at by his free pencil. At Gore House he heard gossip of Byron, saw D’Israeli in action, and met Rogers, Procter, Moore, and Bulwer, men of letters and men of the world. After such models Willis shaped his own career. He luxuriated in drawing-rooms and shone at dinners,

The topmost bright buddle on the wave of The Town.

With his rapid glances into the kaleidoscope of society he combined—for his readers—views of famous places, anecdotes of travel, reflections by the way, descriptions of scenery, and observations on customs and characters, in all a delightfully varied mixture and exactly suited to his tastes and abilities. In America he wrote with the same minuteness and freshness of his rural life and rural neighbours at Glenmary and Idlewild, painted vivid word-pictures of such beauty spots as Nahant or Trenton Falls, or sketched fashionable life at Ballston and Saratoga in the days when those watering places were in their first glory. There where woods and streams were enlivented by flowered waistcoats, pink champagne, and the tinkle of serenades, Willis found a setting for some of his most characteristic writing. Jaunty and impermanent as the society it portrayed, his pages yet contain the most valuable deposit left by what Professor Beers has happily called the “Albuminous Age” of American literature.[14]

§ 7. Henry Theodore Tuckerman.[edit]

A more reserved, though hardly less voluminous writer than Willis, was the critic, biographer, and essayist, Henry Theodore Tuckerman, born in Boston in 1813 and from 1845 until his death in 1871 a resident of New York. As a young man he twice spent a year or two abroad, of which the fruits were an Italian Sketch Book in 1835 and several other volumes of travel. Meanwhile he had been reading widely, studying art, and meeting authors and painters. These things combined with a native fineness of temperament to preserve him from falling into the verbal excesses of Willis. Whatever else Tuckerman lacked, he was not wanting in good taste.

As a critic Tuckerman earned the praise of Irving for his “liberal, generous, catholic spirit.” The solid merits of his Thoughts on the Poets were admired in Germany, where the work was translated. But more popular in this country were Characteristics of Literature and Essays, Biographical and Critical, which illustrate various types of genius by little biographies of representative men. Addison, for instance, appeared—with no reference to Dennie—as the Lay Preacher. Many introductions, magazine articles on literature, and two books on American artists gave evidence of Tuckerman’s critical versatility.

His cosmpolitan training is equally apparent in his familiary eassys. The Optimist (1850) was nearly akin to the miscellaneous reflections sometimes imbedded in his early books of travel. It was followed by The Criterion, more appropriately known in England as The Collector, in 1866. Antiquarian in spirit, fond of mingling bits of book-lore with personal reminiscence, Tuckerman picks his meditative and discriminating way along the byways of literature and life. Authors, Pictures, Inns, Sepulchres, Holidays, Bridges, equally provoke his ready flow of illustrative anecdote and well-chosen quotation. With Longfellow and others, he did much to familiarize the American public with a wide range of literature. His cosmopolitanism, however, though of considerable service to his contemporaries, prevented him from interpreting the America that he knew to other countries or to after times. His pleasantly pedantic essays are no longer either novel or informing. Lowell and Whipple have left him scarcely a corner of his chosen field.

Footnote[edit]

  1. ^  Ellis, H. M. Joseph Dennie and his circle, p. 5I
  2. ^  The Pioneer, consisting of Essays, Literary, Moral and Theological, Pittsburg, 1812. P. 31.
  3. ^  The Lay Preacher (1796), p. 103.
  4. ^  J. T. Buckingham, Specimens of Newspaper Literature (1852), vol. II, p. 197.
  5. ^  See also Book II, Chap. II.
  6. ^  See also Book II, Chap. VI.
  7. ^  An imitation called “The British Spy in Boston” appeared in The Port Folio for 3-24, Nov., and 22 Dec., 1804. An amusing parody of these followed on 26 Jan., 1805.
  8. ^  See also Book II, Chaps, I and XVII.
  9. ^  See also Book II, Chap. V.
  10. ^  See also Book II, Chap. VII.
  11. ^  See also Book II, Chap. I.
  12. ^  See also Book II, Chap. VII.
  13. ^  See also Book II, Chap. V.
  14. ^  See also Book II, Chap. XX.

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See also Bibliography to Book II, Chap. v.

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See also Bibliography to Book II, Chap. II.

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Early Essayists

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See also Bibliographies to Book II, Chaps. I, V, VII.

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Willis, Nathaniel Parker. (1806–1867.) Pencillings by the Way. 3 vols. London, 1835. First complete edition, New York, 1844.

——Inkings of Adventure. 3 vols. London, 1836.

——A l'Abri; or, The Tent Pitched. 1839. Reprinted as Letters from under a Bridge, London, 1840, and under the same title, New York, 1844.

——Loiterings of Travel. 3 vols. London, 1840.

——Dashes at Life with a Free Pencil. 1845.

——Complete Works of N. P. Willis. 1846.

——Rural Letters and Other Records of Thought at Leisure. 1849.

——People I Have Met. 1850.

——Life Here and There. 1850.

——Hurrygraphs. 1851.

——Summer Cruise in the Mediterranean. 1853.

Willis, Nathaniel Parker. Fun Jottings; or, Laughs I have taken a Pen to. 1853.

——Health Trip to the Tropics. 1854.

——Ephemera. 1854.

——Famous Persons and Places. 1854.

——Out Doors at Idlewild; or, The Shaping of a Home on the Banks of the Hudson. 1855.

——The Rag Bag. A Collection of Ephemera. 1855.

——The Convalescent. 1859. Beers, H. A. Nathaniel Parker Willis. Boston, 1885.

Wirt, William. (1772–1834.) Letters of a British Spy. Richmond, 1803.

——The Rainbow: First Series. Originally published in the Richmond Enquirer. Richmond, 1804.

——The Old Bachelor. 2 vols. Richmond, 1810. Kennedy, J. P. Memoirs &hellip of William Wirt. Philadelphia, 1849.

Withington, Leonard. (1789–1885.) The Puritan: A Series of Essays, Critical, Moral, and Miscelleneous. By John Oldbug. 2 vols. Boston, 1836.