Saturday, January 22, 2005


Have a Pickle.

For any NPR listeners pulling their hair out trying to find a copy of Timothy Dexter's berserk unpunctuated memoir A Pickle for the Knowing Ones: it's been out of print for a while, and old 19th century reprints easily go for $200 apiece. So put down those wallets for a moment. I've never seen an original 1802 edition for sale, but I imagine it would go for many thousands now.

But! There is an online transcription by a Newburyport history teacher who occasionally dresses up as Lord Dexter for public events. Also, there is a way to get a really great-looking old copy of Pickle. Here's the thing: it's inside another book. The once-famous novelist John Marquand -- he won a Pulitzer for 1949 novel The Late George Apley -- also happened to be from Dexter's hometown of Newburyport MA, and he wrote not one but two books on his favorite local loon. His 1925 Lord Timothy Dexter actually contains an appendix with the Pickle in its glorious entirety. Because Marquand is a once-famous-now-forgotten author, it means that his books are plentiful and cheap. You can find Lord Timothy Dexter for five or ten bucks at many used books sites, and it's got a beautiful 1920s jacketless binding -- by far the cheapest and most handsome form of the Pickle to be had.

Also not to be overlooked: Marquand's 1960 memoir Timothy Dexter Revisited. Also out of print and plentiful in the used-book stacks. It's a gem. On the surface, he goes back to his earlier work from 35 years before, finds it wanting, and completely rewrites it. But Revisited is really an elegy on the passing of time in Newburyport, and how all the familiar landmarks and routines of daily life from Dexter's era, still visible during Marquand's youth in the 1890s, were inexorably disappearing under the tide of modern life.

In the opening days of the 20th century, the 17 year-old Marquand and his cousin retrace Dexter's walk from Newburyport to Boston:

We decided to begin the walk at night, since at that time the road would be nearly deserted. It would surely be highly dangerous to take such a walk at present. Eliminating the probability of being killed by a truck or motor car, there would remain the certainty of being stopped by the police. The hour we selected was midnight, and two of us made it in, I imagine, bettertime than Timothy Dexter. I recall sitting down in Salem to a breakfast of of oatmeal, cream and coffee and momentarily blacking out when the heavy food hit my stomach.... My cousin twitted me about the Salem mishap until we reached a point near Lynn, where we stopped at a small store that sold candy and soft drinks. Here I took a malicious delight in watching him, after he had drunk a glass of Moxie, turn ashen, stagger to the rear of the store and collapse on a trestle table, upon which the owner had been making candy.

They reach the Hotel Lenox in Boston after 12 hours of walking; but what stays with Marquand are the first minutes of their walk and realizing that, with darkness to cover the passage of time, his town's looming old buildings suddenly looked just as they had 100 years before... new, slumbering, full of promise.

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