Friday, April 29, 2016

Photo of the Day: Horace Greeley Bust, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn

When I visited Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn a year and a half ago, I had no plan for how to maximize my time. I didn’t know, for instance, that shuttle tours operate only at certain times and days. As this is a megalopolis of the dead, with more than half a million “permanent residents” in their final resting place, I would have to get around on foot, and though a map I got near the center’s entrance helped me some, it seemed to collapse distances. Finding a grave would be a matter of serendipity.

The one you see here was among the most dramatically situated, on a hill in Section 35, Lot 2344—one of the highest points in the whole sprawling cemetery. How appropriate: the man in this 12-ft.-high green bust that I photographed, newspaper editor Horace Greeley, possessed not only a lofty vision for his readers, but also for himself in the life of the country. He was more successful in achieving the former view than the latter.

Greeley is often credited with a famous saying that epitomized Americans’ movement across the continent: "Go west, young man, go west." His actual advice, though essentially the same, was not as pithy: "If any young man is about to commence in the world with little in his circumstances to prepossess him in favor of one section above another, we say to him publicly and privately, Go to the West; there your capacities are sure to be appreciated and your industry and energy rewarded." It goes to show, I guess, that even an editor may need editing.

I have been looking to write about Greeley and his final resting place for a while, and now I have a ready excuse: this month marks the 175th anniversary of his newspaper, the New York Tribune. Hiring top talent (including leading literary figures of the time such as Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, and Richard Hildreth), and adding editorials and commentaries, Greeley created a “penny paper” affordable for the working class. That enabled the Tribune to reach a circulation of more than a quarter of a million, fulfilling the ambition he had proclaimed to the wife of a clergyman friend of his: that it would be “a power in the land.”

One cause after another absorbed Greeley’s interest: workers’ rights, women’s rights, scientific farming, free distribution of government lands, and Irish nationalism. But, coming to feel that journalism wasn’t enough to shape the nation’s debates, he longed to be part of the political arena. A three-month stint in Congress as a Whig in the 1848-49 term only whetted his interest. Over the next 24 years, he ran three times for Congress, twice for the U.S. Senate, and once for the Presidency. He lost every race.

What bedeviled him was the same issue that vexed the nation: slavery. He was simultaneously an abolitionist and a pacifist who believed that the South had a right to secede; then a supporter of war and immediate emancipation; then, as Northern forces temporarily stalled in 1863 and 1864, a backer of peace negotiations with the Confederates. Abraham Lincoln bore patiently with his constant offers of unsolicited advice and hot-and-cold attitudes. “I do not suppose I have any right to complain," the President remarked wryly. "Uncle Horace agrees with me pretty often after all; I reckon he is with us at least four days out of seven."

In 1872, Greeley came as close as he ever could to real power by being nominated for President by both the Democratic and Liberal Republican parties. His campaign brought catastrophe on him in multiple forms. Backers of President Ulysses S. Grant pointed to Greeley’s vacillating support of the war as evidence of his unsteadiness of purpose, and cited multiple aspects of his appearance and personality (e.g., oversized boots, rumpled trousers, a battered hat, and a white overcoat jammed with papers) as proof of his extreme eccentricity. In the election that November, Greeley was soundly trounced in the Electoral College.

Just before the election, Greeley’s wife died. Within a few weeks of his crushing defeat at the polls, he also lost control of the Tribune to Whitelaw Reid. The cumulative effect of all of this was so devastating that Greeley first suffered a complete breakdown, then died a month after the election. 

Such was Greeley’s eminence that after his death, his opponents felt obliged to honor him. President Ulysses Grant, who had defeated him in the election of 1872, attended his funeral, and the committee formed to create his memorial was headed by Thurlow Weed, a onetime ally who had fallen out with Greeley when this New York state Whig political boss did not secure for him the party nomination for U.S. Senate in 1854.

The Greeley sculpture, unveiled in December 1876, was created by Charles Calverley, who also fashioned busts in Green-Wood Cemetery of sewing-machine inventor Elias Howe and “Precious Georgie,” a four-year old boy who died of scarlet fever. The Greeley bust anchors the family plot in Green-Wood. You have to hope that Greeley finds more serenity here than those closest to him would have provided the editor during his life: only two of his seven children lived to adulthood, and his wife experienced so many nervous ailments and neglected the household so much that he was obliged to sleep closer to his city office.

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