Friends of early life

LEAVING his Lombardy Street residence one pleasant day in 1859, William Whitehead may have headed for the stone bridge spanning Mill Brook, the stream that in his childhood marked the northern limit of the town of Newark. Crossing the ancient bridge he would have bent his course to the northeast, near the once sylvan shores of the Passaic. By the foot of present-day Gouverneur Street he found a seat, perhaps on a rock or log, and with a pad and pencil sketched the scene above.

Whitehead had gone purposely to capture this view. The peaked octagonal structure at its center, plainly historic, stood in the path of a swiftly industrializing city, and would not last to the end of the following decade. Whitehead couldn’t have known that he had produced the best, if not the only, contemporary visual representation we have. But the significance of this spot to American literary history, at least to its less fastidious side, was not lost on him. Visiting the site now, in his fiftieth year, he was also returning to one of the happiest scenes of his youth.

Reflecting on a limited and often indifferent schooling, Whitehead would probably admit that his lifelong appetite for literature and learning grew from the friendships he developed, more than from any formal instruction. He could point to many attachments formed with schoolmates who grew up to become leaders in business, finance and politics, including two future mayors of Newark.1 But worldly accomplishments were not the only or even the principal standard by which he valued his acquaintances. More than a few female friends also had a part in his development, and it’s perhaps to them above all that he owed the passion for letters that would enrich his later years.

Newark and its neighborhood. Peter Maverick thoughtfully provided his location (to the right of the large X) when engraving this map in 1812.

Of the writers who captivated young Whitehead’s circle of friends, most are regarded as minor figures today, but their prolific pens dominated the early nineteenth century’s rapidly expanding market for literature. They included English versifiers Letitia Elizabeth Landon, known as L.E.L., Felicia Hemans and the Irish poet Thomas Moore. The dissemination of these authors’ works linked the British Isles and America with bonds of taste and sentiment, even as memories of their former political ties were fading.

Moore, touring the United States as a young man in 1804, recoiled from the “barrenness” of American society “in intellect, taste, and all in which heart is concerned.” But “I believe I must except the women from this denunciation,” he conceded. It was Newark tradition that Moore had once been a guest at the old Ogden homestead overlooking Mill Creek, even that he had indited love ballads to some of Newark’s local beauties. As if to uphold that honor, Whitehead with his female friends inscribed poem after poem by Moore in the notebooks circulating among them.2

Nowhere did Newark’s literary pageant play out more vividly than at Mount Pleasant, an old mansion and grounds overlooking the placid Passaic. They were bequeathed to Gouverneur Kemble by his uncle Isaac Gouverneur. Though largely an absentee owner, Kemble opened the house to fellow members of the Nine Worthies, or, as their leading light Washington Irving called them, the Lads of Kilkenny. A club of young bachelors seeking refuge from respectability in the countryside above Newark, the Lads could not but “enliven its solitude by their madcap pranks and juvenile orgies.”3

Antics at Mount Pleasant blended the factual with the spurious. All members of this fraternity save Irving had nicknames; the exception suggests Irving was their source. Reimagining the ancestral house, they dubbed it Cockloft Hall after a fictitious family of that name. Tales of their revels and excesses coalesced into the Salmagundi series: its first installment, appearing in January 1807, won for Irving, then a twenty-four-year-old lawyer, wide and enduring fame as an American satirist.

The depictions of Cockloft Hall, the setting for many of these escapades, were just believable enough to be believed: walls hung with portraits of “portly well fed looking gentlemen, and gentlewomen,” rooms jammed with massive antique furniture, each piece crowned with “enormous China punch-bowls,” made the whole mansion seem a temple to conviviality. The Salmagundi stories, however absurd, came to be accepted as plausible. Old Pindar Cockloft had a fishpond blasted out of the rock just steps from the fish-filled Passaic because “there was nothing, he said, like having things to one’s self.” The adjacent summer-house, the peculiar building sketched by Whitehead in 1859, was arranged with all its windows facing inland, and a cellar beneath it dug “for some incomprehensible purpose, which remains a secret to this day.”4

Whitehead can be said to have done his part to perpetuate the legends of Salmagundi. An exchange of letters with the 74-year-old Irving prompted the observation to members of the New Jersey Historical Society that Cockloft Hall, at least in some form, was still standing and occupied. Whitehead’s sketch of the summer-house, done the following year, was adapted by an English engraver to adorn a new edition of Irving’s work after his death. (The original drawing was donated to the Historical Society in 1862.) The renewal of interest in the Salmagundi tales contributed, no doubt, to the decision to create a New Jersey shrine to Irving at the 1864 New York Metropolitan Fair, with a replica of the summer-house as its centerpiece.5

Peter Maverick, in an 1826 portrait

But Whitehead’s attraction to Cockloft Hall had its personal side too. The setting for the exploits of a previous generation of literati was also a playground enjoyed and fondly remembered by Whitehead, who cavorted there with many friends, particularly the older daughters of master engraver Peter Maverick.

Maverick had moved his engraving business and family from New York to Newark the year before Whitehead’s birth, settling on a farm along the road north to Belleville. He brought with him his New Jersey-born wife Mary and four daughters: Emily, Maria Ann, Lavinia and Cornelia. Over the next dozen years Mary would bear him ten more children, almost all of them girls. The Maverick daughters went to school with Whitehead, but on Saturday afternoons all were at liberty to enjoy a “happy communion” poring over the pictures that passed through Maverick’s shop. These moments awakened sensibilities that Whitehead, in old age, was pleased to say “have lingered with me through life and added much to my happiness.” Some of that happiness was due to the location of the Mavericks’ home close to, if not identical with, the grounds of Cockloft Hall.6

Peter Maverick employed several apprentices in his busy shop, one of whom, Asher B. Durand, would far surpass him in artistic renown. The Maverick girls also helped and, though much of their work went uncredited and unnoticed, Emily and Maria Ann, the two oldest, attained a level of skill in drawing, engraving and the new art of lithography that led to fine pieces issued in their own names. That the young Whitehead honed some of his artistic skills in this environment is not an unreasonable assumption.7

His notebooks show that, even after Peter Maverick’s return to New York in 1820 and the migration of Whitehead’s own family to Perth Amboy in 1823, an intimacy persisted that had been nurtured in the shadow of Cockloft Hall. Both Maria Ann and Lavinia Maverick contributed poems to their friend William’s journals, which he would carry as keepsakes even as far as Key West. Once married and resettled in the north, Whitehead would renew a bond with Cornelia, the nearest in age of Maverick’s first four daughters and a kindly woman by all accounts, although she made no known mark in the family business.8

Washington Irving, the year before he died, confessed to Whitehead that he took pleasure in the remembrance “of early days, and of social meetings at an old mansion on the banks of the Passaic.” After what he must have sensed was his final parting from that mansion’s hospitable owner, Gouverneur Kemble, Irving was overcome by emotion and heard to exclaim, “That is my friend of early life … one of the noblest beings that ever was created. His heart is pure gold.”9

William Whitehead, too, could treasure a renewal of youthful ties, so often denied us by the cruel workings of time.

Copyright © 2019 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] The future mayors, Beach Vanderpool and William Rankin, are two of more than a dozen classmates named in Whitehead’s account of his school years; many others would become prominent citizens. “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830.” A transcription of this memoir is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; pages 5, 6 and 8 of the transcription contain the references.

[2] John Russell, ed. Memoir, journal, and correspondence of Thomas Moore (2 vols. London and Boston 1853) 1:159, 167. The notebooks in question are three manuscript volumes, mainly in Whitehead’s hand, held by the Key West Art and Historical Society.

[3] Pierre M. Irving, The life and letters of Washington Irving (4 vols. New York 1864) 1:166.

[4] “Launcelot Langstaff, Esq.” [Washington Irving], “Cockloft Hall,” in William Irving, James Kirk Paulding and Washington Irving, Salmagundi; or, the whim-whams and opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and others (New York: G. P. Putnam 1860) 290-2.

[5] Irving’s letter to William A. Whitehead, dated Sunnyside 8 February 1858, is preserved at the New Jersey Historical Society (Manuscript Group 31) and was printed in the Society’s Proceedings ser. 1, 8:3 (1858) 120. In it, Irving welcomed his recent election to the Society as an honorary member, but said that he had not the time to commit his memories of Salmagundi days to writing. With a footnote in the Proceedings Whitehead corrected Irving’s assumption that, of the old mansion, “scarce a trace remains.” The 1860 Putnam edition of Salmagundi used Whitehead’s illustration of the summer-house, engraved by James Duthie. For the 1864 New York fair see Barbara Finney, “Washington Irving’s Cockloft Summerhouse. Literature transformed into architecture,” Nineteenth century 26:1 (Spring 2006) 23-28.

[6] Peter Maverick occupied a variety of residences north of Newark, detailed in the classic study of Stephen DeWitt Stephens, The Mavericks. American engravers (New Brunswick, N.J. 1950) 38-45. But, judging from Whitehead’s testimony, at least one such place was omitted by Stephens. Whitehead’s memoir at this point seems to have been garbled in the transcription, which reads: “They lived at first in the house of late years occupied now by Mr. Daniel Dodd, on the corner of Rector Street and Park Place and subsequently given undying celebrity under the name of Cockloft Hall….” “Childhood and youth” 13. The address on Park Place suggests a brief stay in the town proper, perhaps when the Mavericks first arrived from New York. A colorful story signed “K.W.,” certainly informed if not written by Whitehead, makes the fact of a Maverick sojourn at Cockloft Hall quite evident: “this place was occupied for a short time by a gentleman who then stood high in his profession as an engraver, whose interesting family of ten or eleven children, all girls but one, were my chosen companions; and my voice has been joined with theirs, time and again, in making the old hall resound with mirth, as boisterous as any that ever echoed within it at the time of the ‘Cocklofts.'” “Washington Irving’s ‘Cockloft Hall’,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 30 November 1859 2:2.

[7] “Asher Durand who has attained to great eminence as a Painter, was at one time in Mr. Maverick’s employment, superintending, if I mistake not, the painting department, and was himself an engraver.” “Childhood and youth” 14. Association with the Mavericks also inspired Whitehead, while a student at Newark Academy, to take twice-weekly drawing lessons given by a certain Mr. Barker. The results contributed “much to my own satisfaction and the pleasure of others.” “Childhood and youth” 13.

[8] For Cornelia Maverick Townsend see “Childhood and youth” 13-14; Stephens, The Mavericks 77-78.

[9] Irving to Whitehead (note 6); The life and letters of Washington Irving 4:290.

Images: Summer-house: William Irving, James Kirk Paulding and Washington Irving, Salmagundi; or, the whim-whams and opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and others (New York: G. P. Putnam 1860), frontispiece. I. H. Eddy, Map of the country thirty miles round the city of New York, 1812, engraved by P. Maverick, Newark, N. Jersey (detail). John B. Neagle, Peter Maverick, oil on canvas, Newark Museum.
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