J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

John Trumbull: “this weird urchin”

Last week I shared a portrait of John Trumbull (1750-1831), the author of M’Fingal and Connecticut jurist. He was a child prodigy, according to the biographical introduction to the 1820 collection of his work (which he apparently wrote himself):
Being an only son, and of a very delicate and sickly constitution, he was of course the favorite of his mother. She had received an education superior to most of her sex, and not only instructed him in reading, from his earliest infancy, but finding him possessed of an extraordinary memory, taught him all the hymns, songs and other verses, with which she was acquainted.

His father’s small library consisted mostly of classical and theological books. The Spectator and Watts’ Lyric Poems were the only works of merit in the belles-lettres, which he possessed. Young Trumbull not only committed to memory most of the poetry they contained, but was seized with an unaccountable ambition of composing verses himself, in which he was encouraged by his parents.
Trumbull appears to have offered more detail in 1788 to the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles (shown above), who took detailed notes on their conversation, eventually published in his Extracts from the Itineraries and Other Miscellanies:
Aet. [i.e., age] 2, began [New England] Primer & learned to read in half a year without School. Mother taught him all the Primer Verses & Watts’ Children’s Hymns before read.

Aet. 4. Read the Bible thro’—before 4. About this time began to make Verses. First Poetry, Watts’ Lyrics, & could repeat the whole—& only poetical Book he read till Aet. 6.

Aet. 5. Attempted to write & print his own Verses—Sample large hugeous Letters. This first attempt of writg. by himself—& before writg. after Copy. Scrawls.

Aet. 6. In Spring began to learn Latin & learnd half Lilly’s Grammar before his Father knew it—catchg. it as his Father was instructg. [William] Southmayd: same Spring as six y. old. Learned Quae genus by heart in a day. Tenacious Memory.

Aet. 9. On a Wager laid—to commit to memo. one of Salmon’s Pater Nosters in a quarter of an Hour—he effected it—recitg. by Memo. the Pater Noster in Hungarian and Malebar: & retains it to this day. I heard him repeat the Hunga.
In 1897 Moses Coit Tyler added this anecdote in The Literary History of the American Revolution, 1763-1783, citing Trumbull’s manuscripts:
Emulous, no doubt, of the laurels of the heavenly and much desired Watts, he began at about the age of four to make verses for himself, as much as possible in the true Wattsian manner; but not having as yet advanced so far in learning as to be able to write, he could only preserve these valuable productions by storing them away in his memory.

At five, being still unable to write, he hit upon the device of transcribing his verses by imitating printed letters. His first attempt of this kind consisted of four stanzas of an original hymn, and his “scrawl of it filled a complete sheet of paper.” Having perceived a want of connection between the third and the fourth lines of one of his stanzas, this weird urchin was greatly perplexed thereby; but “after lying awake some nights,” meditating upon the problem, he finally solved it by the proper verbal corrections.
So what do you do with a boy like that?

TOMORROW: Take him to Yale, of course.

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