BECAUSE 1876 marked the hundredth anniversary of American independence, in that year a group of patriotic Philadelphians erected some of the conventionally atrocious buildings used for expositions, jammed them full of sundry displays, and announced the Centennial. The nine million visitors who thronged the grounds were delighted with the sight of machines and their products and with the sound of florid patriotic songs and spread eagle oratory. The point made by most of the perspiring orators was that the United States was a very fine country.
Yet many a citizen would have been pleased to admit, even in that jubilant hour, that America had several things of which to be ashamed. Citizens might not have agreed on details, but the general conclusion of most Americans would have been that something was wrong. People were still talking of "Boss" Tweed and the Fisk Gould fracas. Jesse James was still at large, and so was Brigham Young; the God fearing folk of the seventies were inclined to class both heroes together and to suggest, in cracker box conclaves, that each should be hung. There had been a riot in Hamburg. Custer's gallant band had been massacred in a woeful fashion by the Indians, and the noble red men, having escaped to Canada, looked across the border and derisively thumbed their noses at the United States. Another matter for indignant discussion was the championing of an American poet by a group of English literary men, who claimed that he was ill and in need. But the man, as several critics pointed out, was a rank fake. His name was Walt Whitman.
Furthermore, marching clubs, led in torchlit night parades by brass bands, shouted to the world that if Rutherford B. Hayes was elected President the nation would be as badly off as it had been under Grant, or (in case the marchers happened to be Republicans) that Samuel Jones Tilden's election would blot out the results of the Civil War and put the Ku Klux Klan into power. Another party, the Greenbackers, was sure that either Hayes or Tilden would send the nation to the dogs. Their leader, Peter Cooper, after making a fortune in iron and glue, had decided to save the poor people by becoming President. Later, Tilden was to be jockeyed out of the Presidency by political hokus pokus.
To add to the general uneasiness, a Prohibition Reform Party had been started, and in Ohio, a number of determined women were entering saloons and embarassing bartenders and bibbers by praying earnestly with them. The custom, it was feared, might spread.
It was a climactic year of the period Mr. Seitz has felicitously styled "the Dreadful Decade." The age called for a singer, and a worthy lyricist responded, lifting a voice in praise of the Centennial, the Temperance Movement, Peter Cooper, the Chicago fire, George Washington, the Civil War, and other timely topics. The nation listened to her solemn songs -- and doubled up with laughter. In the person of Julia A. Moore, the Dreadful Decade found its poet laureate.
Her rise to fame was sudden. She had been born Julia A. Davis, in
Plainfield, Michigan, in 1847. Three other children had followed her, two
sisters and a brother. Because her mother was an invalid, Julia had the task of
managing the family, a task which became a harder one when, in 1857, the family
moved to a hundred acre farm near Algoma. Still, the young woman had time to
attend school, some two miles from the farm, about half the time, and to write
songs which she proudly described as "sentimental." The deaths of neighbors,
stories she read in her histories and in newspapers, heroic gossip of Civil War
deeds, and her own happy memories supplied her with subjects. The year 1876
found her married to a farmer named Moore, living humbly in a plain farm house
near Edgerton, about to embark on the task of rearing a family of her own. More
significant, from the standpoint of American literary history, was the fact
that the year also found her preparing to issue, in honor of the nation's
Centennial, a volume of her poems, the first book from the pen of "The Sweet
Singer of Michigan."
In due time, the book issued from the press, modestly bound in paper covers, and adorned, more or less, with an engraving of the countenance of the author. The publisher, J. F. Ryder, of Cleveland, Ohio, sent copies to reviewers, accompanied by letters which said:
Dear Sir -- Having been honored by the gifted lady of Michigan, in being entrusted with the publication of her poems, I give myself the pleasure of handing you a copy of the same, with my respectful compliments.The critics read, marvelled, and wrote reviews which either frankly asserted that the book was a milepost in the history of bad poetry or which ironically praised the work as a masterpiece. One who reads the reviews finds them almost as pleasing as the book itself, for they are typical compositions of a school of rough American humor which began to come to fruition in 1876 when Mark Twain published Tom Sawyer. They made the most of the appearance of the engraving of the author. Bill Nye, starting his newspaper career in Wyoming, wrote:
It will prove a health lift to the overtaxed brain; it may divert the despondent from suicide. It should enable the reader to forget the "stringency," and guide the thoughts into pleasanter channels . . . It must be productive of good to humanity.
If you have the good of your fellow creatures at heart, and would contribute your mite towards putting them in the way to finding this little volume, the thanks of a grateful people (including authoress and publisher) would be yours.
If a sufficient success should attend the sale of this work, it would be our purpose to complete the Washington monument.
. . . the Muse was getting in its work . . . even while Julia was a little nut brown maid trudging along to school with bare feet that looked like the back of a warty toad. In my visions I see her now standing in front of her teacher's desk, soaking the first three joints of her thumb in her rosebud mouth, and trying to work her off toe into a knot hole in the floor, while outside, the turtle dove and the masculine Michigan mule softly coo to their mates.Having disposed of the author's body, they turned to her poems, and wrote with wild enthusiasm. Said the Rochester Democrat of the book, "Shakespeare, could he read it, would be glad that he was dead . . . If Julia A. Moore would kindly deign to shed some of her poetry on our humble grave, we should be but too glad to go out and shoot ourselves tomorrow." The Chicago Tribune asserted: "Mrs. Moore's fame . . . will live as it deserves in the memories of men. Joaquin Miller can hardly survive the test of competition." The Hartford Daily Times ejaculated: "To meet such steady and unremitting demands on the lachrymal ducts one must be provided, as Sam Weller suspected Job Trotter was, 'with a main, as is allus let on.' . . . We believe in the Sweet Singer of Michigan. To this author, manifestly all things are possible." The Danbury News pointed out that "each page" of this book "is a coal of fire on the altar of poesy." The author, said The Connecticut Post, had "presented a collection the like of which has never tested the strength of type before . . . well calculated to lift the broken heart, though unmercifully shattered; rare food for the lunatic . . . " The Post critic offered some ingenious hypotheses concerning some of the author's cryptic lines. The Pittsburg Telegraph called Mrs. Moore the Great American Poet and tried to insult her by putting her in the same class with Walt Whitman. In the opinion of a writer on The Worcester Daily Press the poet was one "who reaches for the sympathy of humanity as a Rhode Islander reaches for a quahaug, clutches the tendrils of the soul as a garden rake clutches a hop vine, and hauls the reader into a closer sympathy than that which exists between a man and his undershirt."
A portrait of the author appears . . . There are lines of care about the mouth -- that is, part way . . . Lines of care will do anything . . . reasonable, but they can't reach around the North Park without getting fatigued. These lines look . . . as though the author had lost a good deal of sleep trying to compose obituary poems. The brow is slightly drawn, too, as though her corns might be hurting her. Julia wears her hair plain, like Alfred Tennyson and Sitting Bull. It hangs down her back in perfect abandon and wild profusion, shedding bear's oil over the collar of her delaine dress, regardless of expense.
From coast to coast, newspapers printed long reviews in which the comic men used Mrs. Moore's poems as springboards. The humorists were well qualifield for their task of publicity. Be it said to their credit that, almost without exception, they saw the joke involved and cheerily passed it on with the solemn manners of a literary Charlie Chaplin. And each quoted many of the choicest lines in the songs. As a result, in 1878, when the author published a few new poems she was able to preface them with seventy-four pages of notices such as the above, which she apparently believed commendatory, and to assert of the book that, "Although some of the newspapers speak against it, its sale has steadily progressed. Thanks to the Editors that has spoken in favor of my writings; may they ever be successful . . . The Editors that has spoken in a scandalous manner, have went beyond reason . . . "
Thanks, indeed, to these editors the work passed, apparently, through
three editions, all of which sold well. The Sweet Singer of Michigan Salutes
the Public, as it was first styled, or The Sentimental Song Book, as
it was later known, was one of the poetic "best sellers" of the time. When,
however, in 1878, a new work, called A Few Words to the Public With New and
Original Poems by Julia A. Moore, fluttered in its paper covers from the
presses, the rage was over, and this defense of Mrs. Moore and this new
collection of excellent poems apparently did not find the market they deserved.
At any rate, she seems to have published no more poetry. The author, like
Herman Melville, lapsed into a long period of silence, broken only in her last
years when she published Sunshine and Shadow, a romance of the
Revolution, in 1915. And when Mrs. Moore died at her home near Manton,
Michigan, in June, 1920, so thoroughly was she forgotten that her death created
hardly a stir; even the World Almanac, which did not hesitate to record
the death of "the world's heaviest woman," had nothing to say of the end of the
life of the Sweet Singer of Michigan.
As anyone who gazes through the pages which follow can see with half an eye, Mrs. Moore deserved a better fate. It was to save her from the clutch of unwarranted oblivion that this book, which represents an attempt to collect all of her published poems, was prepared. Read without any thought of their historical setting, her songs endure the test of true literature by charming the reader. Considered against the background which made them possible, they present an interesting and vivid picture of a forgotten period in America's past.
One who wishes to know what the common Americans were singing at that time will find excellent hints in the tunes assigned for the musical rendition of many of Mrs. Moore's songs. John Robinson dies quite gracefully to the air of "The Drunkard;" the Page boys march to war and back to the tune of 'The Fierce Discharge;" Grand Rapids is celebrated to the music of "Bright Alfaretta;" and the Temperance Reform Clubs carry on their glorious work in accompaniment to the dubious tune "Perhaps." "Three Grains of Corn," "The Major's Only Son," "The Texas Rangers" and many another favorite were embellished by Julia's words. In many a song, the influence of the Irish "Come All Ye" is very evident; this type of music probably inspired two of the Singer's most famous lines:
In Philadelphia, the departure of a child is a circumstance which is not more surely followed by a burial than by the accustomed solacing poetry in the Public Ledger . . . There is an element about some poetry which is able to make even physical suffering and death cheerful things to contemplate and consummations to be desired. The element is present in the mortuary poetry of the Philadelphia degree of development.G. Washington Childs, A. M., it appears, was the Philadelphia exponent of obituary art; when The Sweet Singer appeared, the Hartford Daily Times accused Childs of stealing inspiration from Mrs. Moore. In 1870, however, Mark Twain was able to quote an excellent obituary poem by M. A. Glaze, on the deaths of Samuel and Catharine Belknip's children, clipped, Clemens swore, from a country newspaper.
They got him out and emptied him;Common report has it that this poem was inspired by Mrs. Moore's poems, and in Following the Equator Clemens confessed that The Sweet Singer had brought him joy for twenty years. The book, he holds, "has the same deep charm for me that the Vicar of Wakefield has, and I find in it the same subtle touch -- the touch that makes an intentionally humorous episode pathetic and an intentionally pathetic one funny." But there is no reason to suppose that Mrs. Moore, any more than any other great mortuary songster of her day, was the direct inspiration. In Following the Equator, Mark Twain attributes to Mrs. Moore a hilarious poem of his own, which he quotes. But that, excellent parody though it is, is another matter.
Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.
Lighten the gloom. Do not mourn over the departed, but rather take a joyous view of death, which, after all, Mr. Slimmer, is, as it were, but the entrance to a better life . . . Touch the heart strings of the afflicted with a tender hand, and endeavor, for instance, to divert their minds from contemplation of the horrors of the tomb . . . And at the same time combine elevated sentiment with such practical information as you can obtain from the advertisement. Throw a glamour of poesy, fir instance, over the commonplace details of the everyday life of the deceased. People are fond of minute descriptions.The description, be it noted, might well be applied to Mrs. Moore's songs of death. The obituary poet wrote best on the deaths of children. The death of the sheriff's daughter inspired this lay:
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