[In early May, with the lockdown closing in around us a bit, my sons and I took a daytrip up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where we walked around the historic waterfront area (masked and at a social distance from fellow visitors, natch). This week I’ll highlight a handful of histories from this multi-layered New England community, leading up to a special post on other NE historic daytrips!]
On two stages to and the broader meanings of a 19th century Renaissance life.
To quote the waterfront historic marker dedicated to him (from which I first learned about him, natch), Thomas P. Moses (1808-1881) “was born near Sagamore Creek in Portsmouth and became the town’s leading musician and poet during the 1830s and 1840s. A book of poems and essays was locally published in 1849 as well as a colorful ‘autobiography’ in 1850 that insulted all his ‘enemies.’” (Not for lack of trying, I can’t find an online version of, or even any further info online about, that latter book, to my eternal regret.) Without having had the chance to read either of those books yet, it nonetheless seems quite likely to me that these literary works of Moses’ were inspired in part by the Transcendentalists, whose Concord focal point was not too far from Portsmouth and who often combined multiple literary genres in the same works (and certainly in the same moments and careers) as Moses apparently did. But on the other hand (or rather at the same time), the autobiography sounds quite a bit like Edgar Allan Poe, who was the era’s master at coming after his perceived enemies in print.
Whatever the inspiration for this burst of literary productivity and publication, it was apparently short-lived, as (to quote the marker once more) “from the 1850s on he transformed himself into one of Portsmouth’s most interesting Victorian painters and cultural entrepreneurs.” In yesterday’s post I highlighted one of Moses’ most famous individual paintings, an 1870 rendition of the 1864 Civil War naval Battle of Cherbourg. Indeed, as you might expect from a Portsmouth painter, many of Moses’ work focused on nautical scenes and subjects, including the three featured on that historic marker: American Ship Entering Portsmouth Harbor (1850s); Coming from the Navy Yard, Portsmouth (1867); and The Schooner Charles Carroll (1875, and his last Portsmouth painting “before he left the city to teach music at an academy in Marietta, South Carolina). Unlike the Cherbourg painting, those works—like most of Moses’ paintings, it seems—depicted Portsmouth subjects, and Portsmouth itself; that is, while his focus is often on ships, Moses consistently situates those ships within the Portsmouth landscape, making his paintings an important part of the historical record of the city overall and its waterfront spaces in particular.
A published author, a prolific painter, and a talented even musician to get a job teaching at a music academy—Moses was clearly a Renaissance man (or rather Renaissance person—I want always to be clear that the concept can apply to anyone). But so what, you might ask? Sure, it’s impressive when someone is talented enough in different arenas to leave a legacy of work (published and otherwise) across them. But beyond appreciating them as individuals (which is never a bad thing and indeed one goal of many of my blog posts and public scholarly pieces), does that kind of breadth have collective or social significance? I would argue that it does, in a couple distinct and equally important ways. For one thing, it means that these individual figures can help us better remember many different sides to their cultures and communities, which is to my mind one consistent, overarching purpose of any contributions to our collective memories. And for another, figures like Moses can help inspire us to consider how we might contribute to multiple sides to our own moment and society. I’m not suggesting we all have to publish, paint, and perform (my trombone-playing was never anywhere near my writing, and the less said about my visual artwork the better). Just that, as with academic disciplines and departments, in the wider world the boundaries between forms are far less clear, and far less worth worrying about.
Next Portsmouth post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other historic sites or daytrips you’d highlight?
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