Portrait of Augustus Hemenway

Canton Local History Blog

Patty Ryburn, Local History Librarian at the Canton Public Library, will periodically share her research into town history, library history and genealogy.  Feel free to email her any questions you may have at caill@ocln.org!

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Feb 14

Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907)

Posted on February 14, 2020 at 3:31 PM by Patty Ryburn

Born in 1836 in Portsmouth, NH, Thomas Bailey Aldrich was the only child of Elias Taft Aldrich and Sarah Abba Bailey--both parents descendents of families deeply rooted in Colonial New England.  After his father’s business ventures took the small family first to New York and then to New Orleans, they returned to Portsmouth in 1849 when Thomas was 13 years old and lived with his maternal grandfather, Thomas D. Bailey.  It was here that the young Aldrich intended to prepare for entry to Harvard but when Thomas’ father Elias died of cholera the year of the family’s return to Portsmouth, suddenly limited financial circumstances intruded on young Thomas’ future education and plans to study at Harvard under Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were scuttled.  

Aldrich then turned his early interest in poetry, literature and journalism into gainful employment--more a priority than was previously anticipated.  As a young boy, he had read and been inspired by Tennyson, John Keats and Longfellow and so he applied that early influence and his own passion for writing to creating a body of work that would come to include poetry and prose as well as a display of his skills in criticism and editing.  Aldrich’s talents were multiple and varied and he would prove to be a prolific writer.  

In 1852 at approximately 16 years of age, Thomas relocated with his mother to New York into the employment of his uncle, Charles Frost, whose business office perhaps only reinforced to him that his skills and interests lay elsewhere.  He submitted work to various newspapers and magazines--some of his poetry having already appeared in contemporary periodicals--and in New York City’s vigorous literary scene of the time he befriended and worked alongside other up-and-coming artists and literary figures such as William Dean Howells, Bayard Taylor, Edwin Booth and Walt Whitman.  Publication of his first collection of romantic poems in 1855 proved to be a turning point for Aldrich; the poem “The Ballad of Baby Bell” was particularly well received and it was this attention as an accomplished writer that allowed him to leave the business world behind, embrace his natural talents and during the latter half of the 1850’s, direct more attention into his chosen field.

Aldrich’s subsequent positions as he worked his way up in the literary and publishing world included junior literary critic, sub-editor, and associate editor.  He was on staff for a New York newspaper during the Civil War and as their war correspondent, became that day’s version of an embedded journalist. While his work dictated that he live in New York City, in time he grew weary of the bohemian lifestyle and alternately traveled between NYC, Boston and Portsmouth, writing prolifically all the while and submitting and publishing his first novel as well as poetry and short stories.  

Eventually Aldrich moved to Boston where he was employed at Ticknor & Fields, a publishing company that would in time become a part of modern-day Houghton Mifflin.  T&F published the popular eclectic weekly magazine Every Saturday; there well-known New England authors surrounded Aldrich--who had by now become one of the country’s respected poets--among them James Russell Lowell, Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Greenleaf Whittier.  In 1865 Aldrich married Lillian Woodman, with whom he would have twin sons, and of his new life in Boston, he remarked, “Though I am not genuine Boston, I am Boston-plated.”  

Visiting Portsmouth frequently and spending summers there was one benefit of living in Boston and it proved to be a most beneficial one. Aldrich’s best-selling book of 1870, The Story of a Bad Boy--a fictionalized recollection of Thomas’ youthful adventures during the years spent living at his grandfather’s NH house--was the product of this era.  The book’s literary influence as the first realistic portrayal of an American boy as juvenile hero (a departure from the era’s standards of high morality) is said to have made such an impression that another author friend of Aldrich’s, Mark Twain, chose to model the protagonist he also named Tom in a similar story written years later--a character we have since come to know quite well as Tom Sawyer.  Thus the “bad boy’s book” subgenre of nineteenth-century American literature came into being.

Aldrich’s accomplishments and abilities did not go unnoticed and after some time writing exclusively for The Atlantic Monthly, in 1881 he was named its editor.  The Atlantic, the premier literary publication of the period, flourished under his leadership and Aldrich continued to add to his personal body of work including the Canton-referenced 1883 novel From Ponkapog to Pesth.  By then the Aldrich's circle of Boston friends included literary and political notables and prominent members of the business world including Henry L. Pierce, the former mayor of Boston and Baker Chocolate Co. executive, whose Ponkapoag estate was purportedly left to Aldrich upon his death after a close friendship sustained over two plus decades.  

At that sprawling home in Canton’s “countryside” Aldrich continued to write and publish his work after having resigned from The Atlantic in 1890 due to tensions with publisher Henry Houghton.  He wrote creatively and corresponded with his many friends including Twain; the Aldrichs also occasionally went abroad for restorative European vacations and spent time with their twin sons.

Son Charles Aldrich developed tuberculosis in 1901 and as was common in that day, sought treatment at the “Cure Cottages” of Saranac Lake, NY where his father built houses for both him and the rest of the family.  Charles died from the disease in 1904, at 34 years of age, coinciding with the conclusion of his father’s writing productivity. The Aldrichs left NY and returned to Boston where Thomas died only a few years later in 1907 at age 70, his last words recorded as “In spite of it all, I am going to sleep; put out the lights.“

Aldrich’s widow Lillian would eventually come to write her memoir, the companion volume to Thomas’ 1908 biography which was authored by Ferris Greenslet.  Crowding Memories was published exactly one hundred years ago in 1920.  Aldrich’s grandfather’s house (once called the “Nutter House”) passed out of the family for a period of time, but was later re-purchased and renovated by his widow.  Having served in the 1880’s as Portsmouth’s first hospital, it became the first historic house museum in that seaport town and one of the first in the country to be period-specific restored.  Now more than a century since his passing, it has become known as Strawbery Banke’s Aldrich Memorial and currently welcomes visitors to both house and garden.