Friday, April 6th, 2012...9:30 am
You’ve Got Mail: “These long dyings are dreadful”
Grief overcame members of the Twenty-eighth Congregational Society of Boston as Deacon Samuel Joseph May read aloud a letter from their ailing minister, the Unitarian abolitionist Theodore Parker: “I shall not speak to you to-day; for this morning, a little after four o’clock, I had a slight attack of bleeding in the lungs or throat.” A few days later, on 27 January 1859, John R. Manley, the clerk of the Society, delivered from the desk Parker’s farewell letter to the congregation. “Alas for you and for America that he is for the present stricken down!” exclaimed Ralph Waldo Emerson, who also spoke that day. Obeying his doctors’ orders (“medical men bade me be silent, and flee off for my life to a more genial clime”), Parker sailed from New York on 8 February for the Caribbean with his wife Lydia and a few friends. After a three-month sojourn there, his entourage embarked for London, later traveling through Paris and Combes Varin in Switzerland before arriving in Rome that winter.
Parker’s final days in Italy are well documented in John Weiss’ Life and Correspondence of Theodore Parker (1864). Manley’s annotated copy of this two-volume work, inscribed to him by Parker’s widow, was acquired by Houghton Library in 2000. Laid into the second volume are three autograph letters from Parker to Manley, including one sent from Rome on 14 April 1860, believed to be among the last he ever wrote. In the letter, he announces his intention to travel to Florence in a vettura, a four-wheeled carriage. With the eye of a naturalist he describes the ill effects of an unseasonably cold winter on the countryside: “The whole Lombard plain is brown as a cigar, not a spire of new grass, nobody remembers such a season, & all men fear bad crops, famine &.” He ruminates on the failing health of “poor Mrs. Flint,” a mutual friend: “I sometimes doubt the wisdom of that science which spread death over 2 or 3 years, which might have been condensed by nature into a few weeks or days. These long dyings are dreadful. … I like Mr. Bradlie’s mode of departure – prompt & business like.”
A considerable part of the letter deals with his outstanding literary obligations to the Benevolent Fraternity of Churches and recent articles. In closing, he tells Manley of the “admirable bust” of him by expatriate American sculptor William Wetmore Story, then residing in Rome, and of the kindness of his friend and attendant physician, Dr. Appleton.
Parker left the Eternal City on 21 April, but his condition worsened over the five-day excursion to Florence. “Having arrived at Florence, it happened as he had foreseen and predicted,” wrote another travelling companion, the Swiss geologist Edward Desor, “Overcome by the fatigues of the journey, he had but one desire, to rest. He reached his bed, never more to quit it.” At Parker’s bedside, Miss Frances Power Cobbe remembered him saying “in a wandering mood … ‘I have something to tell you―there are two Theodore Parkers now. One is here dying in Italy, the other I have planted in America. He will live there, and finish my work.’” On 10 May 1860 Parker succumbed to tuberculosis, the illness that claimed his patriot-grandfather, Captain John Parker, who led the militia on Lexington Green, 19 April 1775. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Florence, less than a year before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter.
This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.
[Thanks to Peter Accardo, Coordinator of Programs, for contributing this post.]