Pepys’s Ghost (1899)

In this strangest of diaries, the author and adventurer Edwin Emerson Jr voices one year in his life through the mouth of Samuel Pepys. London of the 1660s meets New York of 1898. It sounds a bizarre union, and it is, but to give Emerson his dues he does have a fair bit in common with the famous English chronicler. Both are connoisseurs of books, theatre, humour, amour and drinking:

What with good sack, ale, wine, and all manner of drink, we all mighty frolicksome and nothing to stay us, but we must have more of each until all were dancing and leaping merrily with rag, tag, and bobtail, dashing wine everywhere, soyling each the other’s shirte.

This latter-day Pepys visits the theatre to watch and opine on productions of Faust and As You Like It. He converses and cavorts with various literary lights most of whom no longer shine brightly to a twenty-first century reader. Nor in fact did they to contemporary readers, for Emerson deems it necessary to explain many of them in footnotes: “Robert G. Ingersoll, noted lawyer and infidel”; “Hutchinson Hapgood, journalist and miscellaneous writer.” The book is at its most enjoyable when Emerson forgets about high society and imagines instead how old Samuel Pepys would fare in fin-de-siècle NYC:

In comes my cozen James, and he must have it for me to ride on his new-fashioned machine made of two wheels all a-tilt and saddled. Then he sustaining and I bestriding the pesky thing did we venture forth on the high road, I sweating over my whole body and pulling forward now this leg, now that, till he with a loud outcry overturned me where the road was most dirty.

New York is about as noisy as Pepys’ London: full of laughter, swearing, and barking at the annual exhibition of prize dogs in Madison Square Garden. The narrative has all the energy of its bon vivant author, who is never shy of revealing the personal:

My Birthday — To-day am I entering on my thirtieth yeare, and so lay long in the morning, hugging my bed, with high resolves how I must turn all things to a better accounting. My wife up early, and anon bestoweth upon me a rich gowne for to stay at home in, the skirts whereof fall to mine ankles, warm and cozy withal, and a noble cake, wherefore she did demand toll of twenty-nine kisses, one for each of my years, and so we bussed one another right heartily.

In April, Pepys joins the Rough Riders cavalry unit to play his part in the Spanish-American War. There he meets his commander and a future president: “‘Ha,’ quoth Colonell Roosevelt gritting his teeth. ‘Thou here. What can I do for thee?’ Then did I tell him how I was still bent on following his standard, whereat he did show his teeth and laugh.”

After the conflict, in which Emerson has also operated as a secret agent for the US Military Information Bureau, he becomes a soldier of fortune in Panama and South America, though that is not covered in Pepys's Ghost. Nor is the fact that some decades later, when in his sixties, Emerson would become a champion of National Socialism in America. An ignominious phase in a clearly extraordinary life.

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