The Art of Storytelling

Every generation has its great storytellers. Some of the most popular authors of the 19th century are still household names: Edgar Allen Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, Lewis Carroll, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While it’s likely you’ve read and enjoyed books by a number of these authors, it’s also possible that your eyes glazed over while trying to slog through some of their works for an English lit class.

Writing styles have changed with the times.  Writers in the 19th century spent more time on elaborate description, which they could well afford to do, as they didn’t have radio, television, video games, or computers competing for their readers’ attention.

My great-great-great grandfather Henry Rogers received an education typical of a boy living on the Ohio frontier in the early 19th century, and likely attended a one-room schoolhouse near his home. If the Rogers family were fortunate enough to own a few books, they would have been precious treasures, kept for many generations. Paper, made of pulverized linen and cotton rags, didn’t yellow or crumble like paper made of wood pulp, which became common in the 1860s.

Correspondence was treasured, carefully written in a flowing Spencerian hand. Recorded words were meant to last, unlike our texts and emails which are often read and discarded within seconds.

Henry Rogers left behind a great gift for future generations: his 1838 journal of travel from Mt. Pleasant, Ohio to New York City, in which he faithfully made entries for 53 days.

leather journalThe journal gave me a chance to get to know my ancestor.  Henry was a literate businessman with diverse interests who commented on landforms and waterways, soils and their agricultural potential, crops, architecture, mills and other forms of industry, transportation facilities and places with tourist appeal.

Though there is much to be learned from Henry’s observations, one of my favorite passages from Henry’s journal details his arrival in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday, August 25, 1838. In this excerpt from the journal, Henry eloquently recounts a drunken barroom brawl and its aftermath:

We got into Columbus at 10 o’clock and soon found Mr. Levi B. Pinney’s residence where we stopped for the day. This day’s travel has been on the National Road, which runs about an east course…As it is my intention to mention all interesting subjects and things that come under my observation, I will endeavor to describe our course while in this place.

Here I will remark that about 3 o’clock there was a most horrid uproar broke out in a grocery (or rather a doggery, for it seemed to be a resort for scoundrels and topers) a man, or a brute in the shape of a man, got quite addled in his upper story and wanted to fight some one or other of the company, the landlord all the while trying to pacify him, all to no purpose. He at length, like a smothered fire, lighted up in a most awful blaze, burst out in a most frightful manner—and he cleared the house instantly of all that was in, both furniture of the house, such as chairs, barrels, pitchers, and tumblers, staving everything to atoms that he got into his hands and it seemed as though the infernal regions was opened and some of the inmates let loose. The fiendish yells that proceeded from the house was terrible for the space of 15 or 20 minutes.

When he emerged from the house with his pack on his back, thinking to make his escape from justice, the crowd was too much exasperated to let the villain go. One more daring than the rest stepped up and gave him a severe blow on the head, and brought him to a settlement. In the meantime the landlord had gone and got the marshal of the city and had him arrested. Just about the time that the fellow knocked him down he was taken before the mayor and fined $5.00 and sentenced to six days imprisonment. We had about this time a delightful shower of rain which cooled the air and laid the dust and rendered it far more agreeable and pleasant.

How would a similar scene be described by someone who observed it today?

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