The greatest gifts

John Lewis Krimmel, Country frolic and dance, 1820.

LOWER latitudes and warmer climes than William Whitehead had previously known defined his nineteenth full winter, and each of the nine that followed. On its face this decade of residence in the South answered no maverick yearning for wild frontiers; it sprang instead from Whitehead’s trusted role in the business concerns of his family, spun from modest banking and commercial activities in New Jersey into maritime trade in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

Whitehead’s father, who initially and firmly opposed his youngest son’s departure, at last relented, but eighteen-year-old William seems to have felt himself a castaway that first winter, exiled from his parents’ hearth and his friends’ embraces.1

Two years later, family interests yielded in some measure to national ones when he took command of the Key West custom house. But attachment to his native soil proved too strong for a Southern sojourn to become permanent. In six of the ten years at Key West, Whitehead seized the opportunity or necessity of a return to the North, which enabled a rekindling of affections and connections as well as a respite from the less congenial Florida summers. Throughout the year his thoughts were never far from former haunts; even on Key West the history of New Jersey was an avocation, destined to occupy him even more in decades to come.

While wintering in southern latitudes, Whitehead was not altogether spared nature’s wrath. On his way to spend Christmas in Cuba in 1829, he narrowly avoided shipwreck in the Bahamas–whether from a storm or a skipper’s inattention he does not reveal. To assume his custom house duties the next winter he took passage on a cramped and languid schooner, and on Christmas Eve rode out a storm for fourteen hours off the Carolinas. As the tempest gave way to calm seas and clear skies the next morning, Whitehead and his fellow sufferers endeavored to mark the holiday “as merrily as circumstances would admit.”2 But the voyage as a whole seemed endless, its trials past counting.

Winter on land was tempestuous as well. Its adversities meant that the long December nights afforded little time for hibernation. A week before Christmas 1832, one of Key West’s original proprietors and a mentor to Whitehead died unexpectedly while visiting the island as his guest. Three days after this misfortune, the custom house was imperiled by a fire that according to one report “would unquestionably have destroyed the whole city” had there been the slightest whisper of a breeze.3

Whitehead’s appointment as collector of customs, renewable at the turning of each year, was at least twice placed in jeopardy: once by a misdirected letter erroneously heralding his replacement, and once by a challenge from a disaffected office seeker.4 Factionalism in Key West society, as in Florida and the nation at large, sowed the seeds of worry, and in December 1835 Whitehead ended his first year as editor of the town’s weekly newspaper with a two-sided pledge: to continue “candidly stating his own sentiments, although they may be at variance with those of a portion of the community,” but otherwise to keep its pages “as free from controversy as possible.”5

In the winter of 1835-36 the menace of real war loomed as well, with hostilities between the U.S. Army and Florida Seminole bands threatening to spread from the peninsula to the Keys. Major Francis L. Dade and his troops, garrisoned on Key West for most of the previous year, boarded ship in mid-December on a mission that would lead them, by way of modern-day Tampa, to ambush and annihilation.6

At a time of such trouble, as Key West entered what would prove its darkest winter of the Seminole war, the 25-year-old Whitehead took pen in hand to indite for its weekly broadsheet a brief meditation on the holiday season. He began with a remark he ascribed to “some Poet of the old world, that had he the making of a nation’s ballads, he would yield willingly to any one the privilege of making its laws.”7

The comment, often cited though seldom in its original context, first appeared in printed form more than a century earlier, as part of a remembered or imagined conversation on the power of art to shape a people’s values and character, both for good and for ill.8 It served Whitehead, however, as preliminary to his reflections on the delight that artists must feel, either from having brought happiness to their contemporaries, or “from having shed a ray of light and joyousness upon the pathway of care and anxiety destined to be trodden by those who are to follow us.”9

Perhaps in a concession to the middlebrow stamp of his readership, or in the hope of smoothing somewhat his own “pathway of care,” he declined to dwell on the high-minded thinkers we may presume the poet Shelley meant, when he proclaimed poets and philosophers “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Rather, Whitehead called up “the spirits of our forefathers,” those nameless ancestors who left “such pleasing mementoes of their having existed”: songs, stories, dances, sports, merry pranks, traditions so connected in the popular mind with Christmastime.

Whitehead imagined our departed forebears “looking upon their posterity” much as they had in their declining years, remembering with pleasure “the gayeties, the joys, which the season brought when ‘life with them was new’,” while at the same time “the young, wrapped in the present, are but too well disposed to seize enjoyment as it flies, to allow such an occasion for the exercise of all the light feelings of their hearts to pass unappropriated.” As befits an editor, Whitehead refrained from a lengthy discourse: “We have no intention,” he wrote, interrupting the reverie, “of writing an essay on the subject.”

Trusting “such sublunary feelings are compatible with spiritual existence,” he made his concluding prayer a wholly secular one. Its words seem an apt valediction to the departing year, and to the fifth year of these explorations:

The bright days of man’s existence are but few, and it behooves him to profit by them all. Let, therefore, the Christmas gambols be hailed with unclouded brows, and with cheerful hearts let young and old enjoy the innocent and happy festivities that derive their greatest attraction from an interchange of the best and most social feelings of our nature.

Copyright © 2021-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Whitehead sought consolation in poetry during his first winter on Key West: see my earlier post The parting hour.

[2] Transcription of an unpublished memoir under the title “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830,” of which copies are 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; page 78 of the transcription contains the reference.

[3] Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 16 January 1833 2:4, reprinting an item from the New-York commercial advertiser.

[4] Key West (Fla.) gazette 2 November 1831 2:4, 21 December 1831 2:3; W. A. Whitehead, Key West, 3 December 1834, to Levi Woodbury, Secretary of the Treasury, National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 56, Department of the Treasury, Applications for Appointments as Custom Service Officers, 1833-1910, Box 40, Entry 247.

[5] The enquirer (Key West, Fla.) 5 December 1835 3:1.

[6] Reporting the demise of Major Dade, Whitehead wrote: “He was highly esteemed here, where he had been stationed for several months, both as a gentleman and officer, and the loss society has sustained from his death is deeply deplored.” “The Indians!!! Horrible intelligence from the seat of war,” Key West (Fla.) inquirer 16 January 1836 2:2.

[7] “Christmas,” Key West inquirer 26 December 1835 2:4.

[8] The dialogue was the work of Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, an opponent of Scots submission to the will of the English parliament. Its narrator states: “I said, I knew a very wise man so much of Sir Chr—s sentiment, that he believed if a man were permitted to make all the Ballads, he need not care who should make the Laws of a Nation.” An account of a conversation concerning a right regulation of governments for the common good of mankind. In a letter to the Marquis of Montrose, the Earls of Rothes, Roxburg, and Hadington, from London the 1st of December, 1703 (Edinburgh 1704) 10.

[9] “Christmas.”

Image: John Lewis Krimmel, Country frolic and dance, 1820. Watercolor over pencil and ink. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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