“Who Was Peter Parley?,” by Francis Parsons (from The Friendly Club and Other Portraits. Hartford, CT: Edwin Valentine Mitchell, 1922. pp. 109-119)
If your great-grandmother were living, dear reader, she would be appalled at your ignorance in propounding this question. Everybody knew the identity of “Peter Parley.” In his day his name was as familiar a nom de plume as Mark Twain. He was, of course, Samuel G. Goodrich. And who—alas for the question!—was Samuel G. Goodrich?
A fitful tongue of leaping flame;
A giddy whirlwind’s fickle gust,
That lifts a pinch of mortal dust;
A few swift years, and who can show
Which dust was Bill, and which was Joe?”
He does not deserve to be forgotten. Born at Ridgefield, Connecticut, in 1793, he died at New York City in 1860. For twenty-four hours his body lay in state in St. Bartholomew’s Church where crowds passed his bier and at Southbury,
Connecticut, where he was buried, groups of children preceded the coffin and strewed flowers in its path.
It was a fitting and touching ceremony, for all his life he had been the friend of children. It was almost entirely for them that he wrote his two hundred books, of which he estimated, five years before his death, that seven million copies had then been sold, including, we assume, those editions that had been translated into nearly every modern language, even Greek and Persian.
Rummage among the top shelves of any old library and you will be pretty sure to discover some of these almost forgotten volumes—Parley’s “Tales of the Sea,” “Tales About the Sun, Moon and Stars,” tales about New York, about ancient Rome, about Great Britain, about animals, about almost everything in this interesting world and outside of it. Of his “Natural History” George Du Maurier says—“last, but not least of our library, was Peter Parley’s ‘Natural History,’ of which we knew every word by heart,” and a writer in the “Congregationalist” a quarter of a century ago ventured the opinion, “We have no doubt, were it needed, that 1,000 aged people could rise and repeat the
widely famous lines, ‘The world is round and, like a ball, seems swinging in the air.’ ”
You will find as a frontispiece for some of these well worn books a picture of a kindly old gentleman in a cocked hat, with a crutch and a gouty foot, his pockets bulging with good things for children. This was the mythical “Peter Parley,” and Goodrich tells an amusing story of how, during a visit in the South, his host’s little grandson, after cautiously inspecting the visitor who had been introduced to him as Peter Parley, took his grandfather aside and warned him that the guest must be an imposter, for his foot wasn’t bound up and he didn’t walk with a crutch.
Perhaps in your search on the dusty shelves you will be fortunate enough to find a copy of Goodrich’s verses entitled “The Outcast, and Other Poems,” printed in 1841, or an odd number of “The Token,” an “annual,” which Goodrich published from 1828 till 1842 and in which were first given to the world some of the early productions of such young literary sparks as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
During the course of an eventful life Goodrich came into relations more or less intimate with
many famous people. A few of them, beside those just mentioned, were Daniel Webster (who had a great admiration for his writings), James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Whittier, Jefferey, founder and editor of the Edinburgh Review, Sir Walter Scott and Lockhart his son-in-law and biographer. Goodrich was an eye-witness in Paris of the Revolution of ’48 and he draws a vivid portrait of the third Napoleon on the eve of the Coup d’Etat. His daughter tells of an informal celebration in Florence, planned in his honor by Charles Lever, at which there were present the Brownings, the Tennysons, (she liked Frederic the best) the Storys, Gibson and Powers the sculptors, Lowell, Lamartine, Longfellow, Trollope, Buchanan Read and others—surely a brilliant company of which to be the center.
In London he was present at the ceremonies attendant upon the return of Byron’s body from Greece. He heard Clay, Calhoun, John Randolph and other celebrities of the day speak in the Senate. He was a guest at levees at the White House and gives a dramatic account of a meeting there between Jackson and John Quincy Adams on the night of the former’s defeat for
the presidency by the latter. He saw John Marshall presiding over the Supreme Court. He presents a minute description of President Monroe whom he encountered both at Washington and also at Hartford during a ceremony at the School for the Deaf, and whose personal appearance he thought far from prepossessing. In fact, there are few persons who attained distinction during the first half of the nineteenth century of whom the reader will not find an entertaining and graphic sketch in Goodrich’s “Recollections of a Life Time.”
It is a book well worth reading for not only is it written in an amusing and racy style and enlivened by anecdote and delightful comment, but it is a historic review of the politics, literature, international relations and social life of the time, put together by a writer eminently qualified for the task. We are chiefly concerned, however, with Goodrich’s picture of life in the old town a century ago.
He came here as a youth of seventeen in 1811 and Hartford was his home, though he was frequently absent in Europe and elsewhere, till 1826 when he moved to Boston.
The city when he arrived was, he says, “a small commercial town, of four thousand inhabitants, dealing in lumber and smelling of molasses and Old Jamaica—for it had still some trade with the West Indies …. There was a high tone of general intelligence and social respectability about the place, but it had not a single institution, a single monument that marked it as even a provincial metropolis of taste, in literature, art, or refinement.” In this latter respect things were changed before he left. Trinity (then Washington) College, the American School for the Deaf, the Retreat for the Insane and other philanthropic and educational institutions were established during his residence in the provincial capital.
On his arrival he worked as a clerk in a dry goods store, and his intimate friend was George Sheldon, “favored clerk” in the “ancient and honored firm” of Hudson & Goodwin, publishers of the “Connecticut Courant,” Webster’s Spelling Book, and much besides. Mr. Goodwin, of this firm, he describes as “a large, hale, comely old gentleman, of lively mind and cheerful manners. There was always sunshine in his bosom and wit upon his lip. He turned his hand to vari-
ous things, though chiefly to the newspaper, which was his pet.His heaven was the upper loft in the composition room; setting type had for him the sedative charms of knitting work to a country dame.”
At the home of his uncle, Senator Chauncey Goodrich, he met all the prominent members of the famous “Hartford Convention,” which finds in him a vigorous defender against the charge of unpatriotism.
During the War of 1812 he served at New London as a member of a Hartford artillery battery, a sort of corps d’elite, under the command of Captain Nathan Johnson, a well known lawyer who afterward became general of militia. Though he was for a few brief moments under the bombardment of the British ships that were blockading Decatur, Biddle and Jones in the Thames, his service was bloodless and he narrates it with humor and gusto.
He began his career as a publisher in partnership with Sheldon whose early death terminated that enterprise. Goodrich himself, however, here published by subscription the poems of John Trumbull, whom he knew well, eight volumes of the Waverly novels, then arousing
intense interest, and several school books and “toy books,” as he calls them, for children. He was a leading member of a literary club which included Bishop J.M. Wainwright, Isaac Toucey, William M. Stone, Jonathan Law and S.H. Huntington.
Another literary “cotery,” of which Mrs. Sigourney was the presiding genius, met generally at Daniel Wadsworth’s home. Some of the poems and papers read at the first of these clubs were published by Goodrich in a short-lived periodical called “The Round Table.”
We find gossipy sketches of Jeremiah Wadsworth, Dr. Cogswell and his deaf and dumb daughter Alice, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Theodore Dwight, the poets Brainard and Percival, Dr. Strong, pastor of the “Middle Brick” (the Center) Church, Colonel John Trumbull, the artist and his beautiful wife, who was supposed to be the daughter of an English earl but about whose lineage there was an impenetrable mystery. Many others of the old Hartford characters live again in these pages which furnish us what is doubtless a very accurate, as well as a very charming impression of the social life of the old town one hundred years ago.
But the great world called the future “Peter Parley” and his ambitions and love of variety drew him away from the place of his earliest literary experience to foreign residence and travel and to the little brown house that he afterward built at Jamaica Plain. Later in life he returned again to Europe and for two years was American Consul at Paris.
He had his failures as well as his successes, his days of financial losses, as well as of affluence. He experienced, too, his periods of feeble health. But he possessed the courage that ancestry like his often seems to breed and one cannot fail to accord a hearty tribute to the resolution with which, in an impaired physical condition, he set himself, like Mr. Clemens, to overcome adversity with hard work, with his pen.
His Parley books were the outgrowth of two impulses or characteristics—his innate love of children and his personal rebellion on the one hand against the dull school books of his boyhood and on the other against what he considered such ridiculous and deleterious old fairy stories as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Jack the Giant Killer.” He did not think the climax of “Little Red Riding Hood” was healthy reading
for children and he did not at all approve of Jack the Giant Killer’s morals. In his opinion there was no particular sense in the Mother Goose jingles.
And so he tried to give children, in the guise of perfectly proper but at the same time interesting stories and verses, the information and a good deal of the education they required. He may have carried his theory to some extremes, but he was one of the first among us to realize that with children effective educational methods must take into consideration the securing at the outset of interest and attention.
What extraordinary success he achieved has already been intimated. Yet it is pathetic to note that he himself was the first to acknowledge the fact that his fame would be temporary. “I have written too much,” he says at the height of his reputation, “and have done nothing really well. You need not whisper it to the public, at least until I am gone; but I know, better than anyone can tell me, that there is nothing in this long catalogue [of his books] that will give me a permanent place in literature.”
Yet it is safe to say that as long as the human mind loves to dip into the past and to re-create
in familiar surroundings the scenes and people of long ago his “Recollections of a Life Time” will have its readers. And many of us would cheerfully relinquish any hope of immortal memory could we be assured of the love of the countless children to whom “Peter Parley’ was a dear friend and companion.