Sunday, March 25, 2007


An American Methuselah

In the winter issue of Tin House, I have a Lost & Found article on one Lee Meriwether -- not Batwoman, alas, but the young author of a long forgotten and out-of-print 1887 travelogue, A Tramp Trip: How to See Europe on Fifty Cents a Day. The original knapsack college kid -- ok, maybe Bayard Taylor has claim on that title -- Meriwether spurned hotels to sleep on the floors of peasants and craftsmen all the way across Europe, and I found the book to have some wonderfully odd slices of working life from the time:

In Italy he has a glass-eye maker blow white orbs in front of him and then explain why discerning customers demand two sets of glass eyes. ("The pupil is much smaller in daytime than at night, and your fashionable woman would not think of entering a ballroom with the pupils of her eyes of different sizes.")

But the remarkable part for me began after I read Meriwether's book:

What else, I wondered, had this charming young raconteur done? Looking up further titles brought only consternation. There was a newspaper, Meriwether's Weekly, that he ran in the 1880s. A novel, A Lord's Courtship, published in 1900. A jaunty Seeing Europe By Automobile, released in 1911. Okay, that's a good little career for... wait. There's also the sobering Diary of a War Diplomat, released in both the US and France in 1919. A 1930s pamphlet on the New Deal. Fine—a nice long caree... but wait. There's also a presidential campaign biography from 1948. A leaflet of a Kiwanis address from 1965. A...

The guy kept writing, and he kept not dying. When Lee Meriwether was born in 1862, Jefferson Davis dandled him on his knee; he remembered fleeing with his family from Sherman's invading troops. By the time he died in 1966 -- just a year after writing his final memoir -- the Beatles were recording Revolver. Meriwether's grandmother spoke of meeting George Washington, and yet today there are still people alive who remember Lee as an old man.

I had discovered an American Methuselah: quite possibly the only writer whose living memory spans the entire history of the republic.
A roving reporter and diplomat, Meriwether knew Jules Verne and Oscar Wilde; he saw Twain writing Tom Sawyer and witnessed the Nuremberg rally.

This is a man who lived so long that he read one of his own novels with surprised delight, because in the intervening sixty years since publication he'd forgotten the ending.

He lived so long that he had to write and then republish his memoir at least four times; I have found one copy, signed by the old gent himself, dating to just a year before his death. By the point he was personally selling copies from his home. The next year, a Times obituary would put an admiring final touch on a long and extraordinary life.

And as far as I can tell, nobody's written a word about Meriwether since.

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