’Sconset-born Charles Frederick Briggs: Early New York Novelist and Editor

One hundred and sixty-three years ago, a novelist and magazine writer building a literary career in New York City wrote a poignant letter to his Nantucket cousin, Mrs. Martha Jenks:

I do not know if I have a reader in the Island. . . . I have no claims, to be sure, on the sympathies of anybody in the Island and I fear that I shall never be able to accomplish anything to make my townspeople overanxious to claim me for one of their brethren. (New York Public Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts)

When Briggs wrote to Mrs. Jenks on March 4, 1845, he was at both a difficult and an exciting moment in his life. His first child, a son born after eight years of marriage, had just died in early infancy. He told Mrs. Jenks, who must have also known his Nantucket born wife, Deborah Rawson, that his “whole nature underwent a change at the sight of [his] boy’s face,” continuing that “I have never since seen anybody in tears but I could sit and weep with them.” But just at this tender personal moment, Briggs was also launching an ambitious editorial venture, The Broadway Journal, in which he set a high standard for intelligent political, artistic, and social commentary. The Broadway Journal, a weekly, had a brief two-year life in the tumultuous pre-Civil War period, as it sought to navigate a political alternative, a “broadway,” between North and South. To this end, Briggs drew on ties of friendship with Northern abolitionists like his friend James Russell Lowell, but also enlisted as coeditor the talented, if troublesome, Southerner, Edgar Allan Poe. The Broadway Journal respected international copyright before there was such a law, publishing only original material: essays on art and literature, domestic and foreign correspondence, architectural commentary, engravings, reviews of books and magazines. Although it went aground on the rocks of national politics, The Broadway Journal engaged the major ideas of its time and place, from the annexation of Texas to the feminism of Margaret Fuller. It was Briggs’s first powerful editorial contribution to the development of an American literature.

He had already established himself as a comic novelist with the 1839 publication of his double-decker satire, The Adventures of Harry Franco. A picaresque story of a rural boy who sets out for the big city to repair his family’s fortune, The Adventures of Harry Franco recapitulates, in part, Briggs’s own history. His father, Jonathan Briggs (1768–1853), was a well-established Nantucketer engaged in the China trade, whose ships were seized in the War of 1812, resulting in his bankruptcy and imprisonment for debt. The Nantucket Historical Association’s genealogical records show several pages of related Briggs, Coffin, and Rawson family members, testifying to old and deep local roots. Like his brothers, Charles Briggs went to sea in his early youth, reflecting in his first novels his experience of two merchant voyages, one to South America and the other to Liverpool. We know he was still abroad in1824, as he later reported to James Russell Lowell that he traveled from Liverpool to London to buy an early copy of the last canto of Byron’s Don Juan. Evidently he was no ordinary tar, although he told Mrs. Jenks he had grown up “without a soul caring if [he] knew his letters.”

Whatever his literary ambitions might have been, he put his efforts in the late 1830s into supporting a wife, Deborah Rawson, a first cousin he married on May 16, 1836, on Nantucket. Deborah Rawson’s mother was Lydia Briggs, a sister of Charles’s father, Jonathan. Lydia Briggs married Abel Rawson (1764–1840), who later moved to Brooklyn and then Princes Bay, Staten Island, where he was the keeper of the Beacon Light. In Charles Briggs’s second novel, The Haunted Merchant (1843), a tale of moral and economic turmoil, Abel Rawson is portrayed as the salty, shrewd old Captain Clearman, who lives in a Staten Island cottage with his daughter Fidelia, doubtless a literary tribute to Briggs’s wife.

When he responded to Mrs. Jenks’s letter in 1845, Charles Briggs had gained some recognition in New York City for his novelistic achievements and had regularly begun to contribute stories and sketches to the Knickerbocker or New York Monthly, a magazine that published Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper and the prestige of which was equivalent in its time to today’s New Yorker. With the addition of editorial work and the placement of his articles in a wide variety of journals and newspapers, Briggs was able to leave his partnership in the wholesale grocer’s firm of Ransom, Briggs & Mather behind him. He later used a grocer’s metaphor when he claimed to have lost track of much of his early literary work, which he had “hidden under a bushel.” If the infant mortality of the period robbed him of his first child, the growing city adopted him eagerly into its intellectual and literary life.

Among Briggs’s first contributions to the Knickerbocker was a series of sketches called “Gimcrackery,” a once popular term for fanciful notions or showy, insubstantial articles. This modest title identified a variety of ambitious prose pieces, fictional, autobiographical, or descriptive that appeared irregularly. “Gimcrack the Fifth” (December 1839) displays Briggs’s wholehearted engagement with the world of the city. The narrator of “A Ride in an Omnibus” travels down Broadway to Bowling Green in a “long white carriage, drawn by four horses of as many colors, and with a figure of Minerva painted upon its central panel.” Along the way the driver is challenged by a rival line and the journey becomes a wild Swiftian race past city landmarks, interfered with by old market women, pigs, charcoal wagons, butcher carts, and overloaded drays. By contrast, “Gimcrack the Sixth” (March 1840) is devoted to Siasconset, Briggs’s beloved birthplace. Briggs retells the story of Thomas Macy’s banishment from Salisbury, Massachusetts, for the crime of sheltering four Quakers in a storm, his founding of a settlement on Nantucket, the hospitality of the native Indians, and the development of the whaling industry. The settlers established a summer retreat in Siasconset:

But how unlike all other summer retreats and watering places! It rises in the midst of ocean, with neither a green tree nor a towering rock to divide the attention, or entice the eye from contemplating the grandeur of the wild waste of waters spread out around it. The hoarse roar of the breakers continually dashing against the shore makes a nobler symphony than was ever heard within the walls of a cathedral, and awakening within the soul a vague feeling of sublimity, rebukes and puts to flight all mean and trivial thoughts. One of those wooden gimcracks, with its Grecian porticoes and Venetian blinds, that disfigure all other places of summer resort in the twenty-four states, would look like an impertinence here; and luckily no enterprising individual has yet seen proper to build such an incubus on the fair fame of Siasconset. The little houses that are ranged along the cliff, with a green avenue running between them, are the most modest and unpretending edifices that civilized men ever reared for their accommodation. And here may be seen and felt all those gentle graces which adorn and distinguish cultivated minds, without any of those external affectations and incumbrances, which accompany them in other places. Pride and luxury are exotics that cannot take root where there is so little of the blandishments of Nature, or the achievements of art to distract the mind from the contemplation of its Maker. And here, by common consent, men and women throw aside all useless restraints and cold formalities and intermingle with each other like brethren appointed to one common lot, and who are joint heirs to one heritage.

Briggs’s ’Sconset story ends with a paean to cod chowder, the correct recipe for which developed into a significant New York dispute with political and religious overtones. Briggs returned to the pages of the Knickerbocker in a letter signed by a fictional Nantucket Quaker, Hezediah Starbuck (July 1840), objecting to the chaudiere of a wealthy New York merchant. The eminent cultural historian Perry Miller disentangles the threads of this Nantucket-centered quarrel in his book The Raven and the Whale: The War of Words and Wits in the Era of Poe and Melville (1956).

As he was establishing himself as a literary man, Briggs nurtured two important friendships. He came to know the painter William Page as a result of his eager support of American artists, reviewing them in Park Benjamin’s New World. He joined in the founding of the Apollo Association in 1839, which provided exhibition space and a forum for the discussion of American art; in1839 it became the American Art- Union and Briggs served on its Committee of Management, writing its annual reports in 1843 and 1844.

In the early 1840s Briggs moved to Staten Island, where his father-in-law had preceded him. Page introduced him to James Russell Lowell, who went there to seek eye treatment from the renowned Dr. Samuel Mackenzie Elliott. Lowell became Briggs’s most intimate friend and correspondent; the surviving body of correspondence among the three men has provided biographers with many details of their lives. In those years, in addition to his fiction and his art criticism, Briggs helped found the Copyright Club in order to persuade Congress to enact legislation that would protect American writers.

As he entered his forties, then, Briggs had established a pattern of creative work, the bread-and-butter literary labor of editing and reviewing, and the contribution of time and energy to social and political activities. This pattern persisted throughout his life; when we look back at his achievement we see evidence of this three-part commitment so valuable in the years of emerging national culture. As he observed the growing city, he drew on his self-education in eighteenth century satire and Dickensian narrative to write humorously, but critically, of social behavior. He reserved his severest criticism for the wealthy, whose false values result in imitative art and architecture. His second novel, The Haunted Merchant, was projected as one of ten stories to be told by bankrupt merchants. Briggs’s concern with economic upheaval must be understood against the background of financial turmoil that stretched from the aftermath of the Revolution to the scandals of the post-Civil War period.

Fulfilling his intention to contrast the “soft hands” and the “hard hands” of this world, Briggs published a third novel in 1844, based on his boyhood experience as a merchant sailor. Working a Passage (1844,1846) tells of a wealthy youth sent abroad by his parents to avoid the cholera epidemic in New York. When the financial insecurities of the period caused the withdrawal of his funds, the young man must work his way home from Europe, experiencing firsthand the “inequalities of civilized life, where one portion of the people are privileged to live without work and the other portion are doomed to work without living.” Briggs’s description of the exploitation of sailors, highlighted at this time by the Somers tragedy (1842) when three sailors were hanged without benefit of civil trial, provided a model to his younger contemporary, Herman Melville, who later devoted White-Jacket (1849) to exploring some of the same themes.

In 1846 Briggs composed an autobiographical contribution to The Missionary Memorial, a fund-raising venture in which other literary figures also participated. “The Winds” takes the reader back to childhood in ’Sconset:

When a very small boy, I used to climb to the top of high hills for the pleasure of reveling in the fresh breeze as it flew by; and my first dream of freedom was the open sea, where there was nothing between me and the winds. Many a time have I wished myself one of the dwarf cedars that fringed the bleak hill at the back of my father’s house—the winds seemed to take such delight in rustling through them. Many a winter’s night in my boyhood have I heard the nor’westers arousing in the forest, roaring and screeching among their dry branches, and wished myself among them.

There is even a recollection of family involvement in the China trade in this carefully composed recollection. Briggs writes:

A relative brought me from Canton, a few years since, a cage full of Java sparrows. There were a dozen of the beautiful creatures; and he had been at infinite pains to preserve them during a long voyage, sharing his water with them when he was on short allowance. I appreciated his kindness, but I could have killed him for his cruelty. Poor little prisoners! I looked at them with tears in my eyes, and as soon as I got the cage in my possession, I took them upon the housetop and opening the door of their bamboo prison, let them go where they pleased.

In his verbal portrait of his friend in “A Fable for Critics,” Lowell sought to capture Briggs’s mixture of tender-hearted feeling and satirical energy:

His manner’s as hard as his feelings are tender
And a sortie he’ll make when he means to surrender.

With the loss of The Broadway Journal to Poe, his coeditor turned political rival, Briggs found employment at the New York Mirror in 1847, inventing a fictional foreign correspondent he named Ferdinand Mendes Pinto after a character in William Congreve’s 1695 play Love for Love. Pinto’s name, a play on its Portuguese origins, had become an epithet for liar. Briggs formed his character as a newspaper correspondent modeled after his literary contemporaries Nathaniel Parker Willis and Margaret Fuller, both of whom were sending letters home from Europe to American newspapers, mocking Willis’s veneration for European aristocracy and Margaret Fuller’s egotism, Briggs complicated the satire by introducing an antislavery theme. The original “ugly American,” Pinto reveals his native racism as he repeatedly encounters Frederick Douglass in the great homes of European aristocrats. Finally, defending his country’s “peculiar institution,” he spends the night lost in a Scottish bog. Lowell thought the antislavery satire in the eighteen Pinto letters (1846–47) too good to be lost, but they were never published as an independent volume.

His energies as a satirist aroused by Pinto’s success in the Mirror, Briggs focused his energies on fiction again. His fourth and final novel, The Trippings of Tom Pepper (1847–50), is the story of an innocent Cape Cod orphan in search of his lost father. It follows Tom Pepper into a series of misadventures motivated by the admonition of his benefactor to tell the truth always, no matter how inconvenient. The cruelties and deceptions of social life shape the comic plot until it reaches its apogee in Tom’s attendance at a New York literary soiree. There, under transparent pseudonyms, the New York literati are revealed as a group of posturing fools whipped into a fracas by “Austin Wicks,” Briggs’s stand-in for Poe.

In Briggs’s obituaries, commentators claimed that the harsh satire of Tom Pepper brought Briggs’s novel-writing career to a scandalous end. But this view fails to take in the scope of Briggs’s literary ambitions. Thinking of himself as a Swiftian satirist, he did not confine his creative work to the novel but developed vernacular forms like the fictional newspaper letter for artistic purposes. This aspect of his literary production makes him a forerunner of the humorists Artemis Ward, Josh Billings, Petroleum Nasby, and Mark Twain, just as his novelistic material prepared the way for that other lover of Nantucket, Herman Melville.

In the twenty-seven years left to him after he published Tom Pepper, Briggs continued to perform prodigious literary service to the emerging national culture of the United States. His greatest contribution was the editorship of Putnam’s Monthly (1853–55), arguably the most outstanding periodical of the nineteenth century. Today, Putnam’s is known for publishing Melville’s famous stories “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “The Encantadas,” “Israel Potter,” and “The Lightning Rod Man”; and Thoreau’s “An Excursion to Canada.”

In the mid-1850s Briggs began to write the annual introductions to Trow’s New York City Directory, summarizing his adopted city’s growth for twenty-five years. He assisted Henry J. Raymond in establishing The New York Times and worked as financial editor of the Brooklyn Union.

In his last years, he returned to creative work as a valued writer for The Independent, which had a circulation of more than 300,000 in 1877. In his series of fictional letters by “Elder Brewster of Brewsterville, Massachusetts,” Briggs comments on the political scene during the Hayes–Tilden election; he makes post-Civil War race prejudice the last target of his social satire, reintroducing Frederick Douglass here as the marshal of the District of Columbia thirty years after his appearance in the Pinto letters. Undoubtedly, Briggs kept his eye on the illustrious antislavery orator who began his career at an antislavery convention in Nantucket in 1841.

Briggs’s eighth and last letter from Brewsterville, his paradigm for the postwar North, ran in The Independent on June 28, 1877, alongside its author’s obituary. Briggs died of a heart attack, having put in a full day at his writing desk. He and his wife and daughter, Charlotte Briggs, are buried in the Moravian Cemetery at New Dorp, Staten Island. Charlotte Briggs gave her father’s letters to Lowell to the Houghton Library at Harvard. The disposition of Briggs’s books and manuscripts is not known, but more information may be gathered as a result of next year’s Verney Fellowship.

In 1853, at the zenith of his literary career and influence, Briggs provided three poems he had written earlier to an anthology entitled Seaweeds from the Shores of Nantucket. With contributors identified only by initials, three of the poems are by C.F.B.

“The Harper” is a charming refrain poem set on the beach at Coatue, following a Wordsworthian harper who celebrates the return of spring, with its flowers and fleece. Briggs remembers shearing and the folk associated with it on his native island:

Soon as the Harper old appeared,
A ring was formed, a space was cleared;
Three ladies, clad in spotless white,
Three gentlemen, all dandies quite,
Impatient for the dance, are seen
On the brown-sward, some call it green.
No light fantastic toes belong
To any of the joyous throng,
They’re all prepared to reel it strong;
The Harper rosins well his bow,
His very catgut’s in a glow,
With tu I can’t and tu I can,
All the way to shearing pen.

In a pair of sonnets, Briggs writes of his yearning, from “off island,” for a return to childhood in “the fairest spot in this fair world of ours.” The first eight lines of “Siasconset” serve as the epigraph to this brief introduction to a writer/editor who made his way in the great metropolis without forgetting the beauties and values of his native place. Here are the final six lines, asserting his lifelong loyalty:

O pebbly beach! O Sankoty! O Sea!
And ye whose names are linked with these, how oft
In mid-day musings and in midnight dreams,
In visions bright, have ye been seen by me,
When my free spirit has been borne aloft!
And when I rhyme, shall ye not be my themes?

Bette s. Weidman teaches in the department of English at Queens College of the City University of New York and is the NHA’s 2008 Verney Fellow.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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