Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Fulton's Folly

In the summer of 1807, Sarah Gratz was visiting Isaac and Reyna Moses at their country home Mt. Liston, located on the east side of Manhattan Island on the North River.

She reports to Rebecca in July that a "wonderful explosion . . .drew thousands to the battery all on a rainy day." The noise, on the other side of the island from Mt. Liston, was probably caused by Robert Fulton's tests of torpedoes, one of his inventions, in New York harbor. It took three tries for a torpedo to hit the derelict boat which was the target, and the experiment was deemed less than a success.

Undeterred, Fulton turned to another of his projects, the steamboat. Sarah states that "on Wednesday next he starts a boat by steam and has promised to carry half the fashionables of New York to Albany in the course of six hours." Her words must have been based on gossip because Fulton made his trial run up to Albany on August 14, with a skeleton crew, the "fashionables" not wanting to take any unnecessary chances. The voyage took 32 hours. (Compare that to the five days of Rebecca's and Sarah's voyage up the Hudson by sailboat in 1804.) Fulton had succeeded in inventing the first commercially viable steamboat. Unfortunately, since the public had no confidence in the new invention, hardly anyone noticed. Perhaps from Mt. Liston Sarah could see the ship going up the North River, but if she did there is no record of it.

Steamboats were soon plying the Hudson on a regular basis and were very popular. In 1814 Eliza Fenno Verplanck would write of the luxuries she had enjoyed on the steamship Fulton, including a good berth, although she did complain of the lack of air in her cabin. Sloops did not disappear immediately though. Eliza wrote again in 1814 of taking a sloop downstream; sailing with the current made the older mode of travel more reliable. And using the wind and the current to power the boat must have made travel under sail much cheaper.

(Sarah's letter is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society; Eliza's are in the Fenno-Hoffman Collection, the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What Was Wrong with Solomon Moses Anyway?

(This narrative began with "Rachel Gratz," the post of April 20, 2010.)

On June 26, 1806, Solomon Moses wrote that this day "unites me to Rachel Gratz, a Treasure,"
certainly a highly suitable sentiment for a groom. We have heard from Sarah and Rebecca, but sadly there is little of Sol's writings which survive, and I want to give him a chance to be, if only briefly, more than the object of his sisters-in-laws' disdain.

In reality though, Sol was probably one of those Rebecca wrote of in 1800 when she referred to men who had "least to boast" of in the way of superiority but were unaware of their deficiency. (See the post for April 13, 2010.) The evidence presented here is truly anecdotal: the first story indicates Sol's sense of male entitlement which leads him to voice his disapproval of Rebecca's activities, and the second, his robust narcissism. (How Sarah Gratz would have liked that term if it had been available to her!)

In 1807 Rebecca and her close friend Gertrude Ogden Meredith decided to have a formal exchange of letters on the subject of Judaism and Christianity. Solomon heard about the plan and let it be known that he disapproved. His letter, or more likely Rachel's conveying his thoughts on the matter, does not survive, but Rebecca's response suggests that Sol thought that Gertrude was trying to convert her to Christianity. Rebecca defended her friend, "Mrs. M. is a sincere religionist and approaches with awe all sacred things. The testimonials of our divine inheritance are treated by her with the reverence they are entitled to and I should think myself very unworthy of my hope [her emphasis] of future rewards were I less liberal in my sentiments towards the Christian faith whose doctrines have purified the hearts of some of our best and most beloved friends." She does Sol the courtesy of giving him a serious response where other women (Sarah, for instance) would have told him to mind his own business. Ironically, in 1822 Sol and Rachel would name their new baby daughter Gertrude after Mrs. Meredith in honor of their long friendship and in gratitude for the Merediths' having named one of their daughters Miriam after Rachel's mother.

In 1808, Harriet Fenno Rodman, Rachel's best friend, was dying of tuberculosis in New York. Rachel, five months pregnant, was in no condition to go to her, and given Rachel's emotional nature, even if she had been well, she would have been more of a burden than a help in the sickroom. Rebecca volunteered to nurse their friend and wrote nearly every day, giving in her letters to Rachel a classic description of the final stages of the disease.

When Harriet died, Rebecca wrote to her sister Sarah and, instead of to Rachel, sent a letter to Sol. She obviously thought that the two of them would decide when and how to best tell Rachel.
It didn't work out that way.

Here is Sarah's description of what happened: "Sol received his letter early in the morning and after breakfast as he was going to his store, mentioned [that Harriet had died] as he would any other piece of intelligence. Not feeling himself on this occasion, he was unconscious what a stab he was inflicting in the heart of her he loved. She shrieked and fell, and in that situation I found her apparently lifeless. We assisted her to bed and I continued with her all day." The incident had no lasting physical effects on Rachel or her baby. Although Sarah carefully includes a reference to Sol's love of Rachel, she also makes it clear that this love is not so central to his being as the narcissism which prevented him from realizing the effect her best friend's death would have on his highly emotional wife.

Two anecdotes are not very much -- and that in itself says something about Rebecca's relationship with Solomon Moses. Although she lived in the same neighborhood with Rachel and Sol throughout their married life and raised their children after Rachel's death, Rebecca would rarely so much as mention Sol in her correspondence.

(Rebecca's comment on male superiority is from a letter in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress. The other letters quoted here are from the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, the American Philosophical Society.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Rebecca Writes to Sally

(See the post entitled "Rachel Gratz" for the beginning of this narrative thread.)

Benjamin Gratz wrote of Rebecca many decades later that she had "devoted [her] life to the service of our beloved family," and there is evidence that the unity and well-being of her family came first for her, even before her devotion to religion, good works and education. Her older sister Sally's dislike of the man whom her younger sister Rachel wanted to marry would certainly have caused a family rift if Rebecca could not have convinced Sally to hold her tongue.

Rachel's letter announcing her love for Sol Moses and asking Rebecca to intercede with Sally probably arrived on a Friday, giving Rebecca the Sabbath to contemplate her words before she could pick up her pen on Saturday night.

Rebecca begins her letter by commiserating with Sally and revealing her own distress at the marriage: "What [you have] experienced...I have conjectured from what is passing in my own [heart]." But Rebecca knows, as Sally does too, that there is no way to stop Rachel: "She loves Sol Moses -- her own hand has written it -- her own enthusiastic style most passionately declared it." The sisters will have to accept Sol graciously. Rebecca understands how hard this will be for Sally but she takes it as a given that Sally's better nature will win out: "You dislike Sol, and have so long found it difficult to disguise your opinion that I fear it will not be an easy task; however the goodness of your heart will teach you to sacrifice prejudice where the happiness of our beloved sister is concerned..."

Here Rebecca differentiates her feelings from Sally's: Sally disliked Sol before there seemed any possibility of his entering their family; Rebecca seems to have had less difficulty with him as someone in their circle but the thought of him married to her sister has disturbed her. Yet she makes a plea for him; she is sure, she says, that he loves Rachel and will try to make her happy. She adds that Sol is respected in New York and "tenderly beloved" in his family. She even echoes one of Sally's sarcastic remarks to bring her sister around, "You have often said that you believe he would make any woman happy who could love him [her emphasis] and if contrary to your expectation our sister is that woman should we not strengthen -- confirm that belief rather than cloud it with doubt and apprehension...?"

Rebecca's struggle to bolster Sol's qualities as a good brother-in-law amounts to faint praise, but she has one comfort to offer her sister.

In a postscript she says, "Revolving all that I have said I fear my letter will make you melancholy. Do not let it have that effect. I am a little given to imaginary whims, and have a curious notion that the little fairy imp Puck has been making free with his juices."

(Both sisters knew their Shakespeare. Rebecca was referring to A Midsummer Night's Dream in which Puck puts the juices of a magical flower into the eyes of the sleeping Titania, the queen of the fairies, so that she will fall in love with the first thing she sees. He then puts an ass's head on the shoulders of the buffoonish weaver Bottom and wakes Titania up. Rebecca was comparing that mismatched couple, Titania and Bottom, with her beautiful sister Rachel and Sol Moses. It is quite the most devastating criticism she would ever write about anyone and something of a revelation: who knew Rebecca had such humor and malice as well as her many, many virtues?)

Rebecca and Sally would offer only their best wishes and congratulations to the happy couple, but they would have the solace of skewering Sol to each other in private.

(The letters quoted here are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, the American Philosophical Society.)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Rachel's Romance

(This narrative began with the post entitled "Rachel Gratz.")

In May 1806, Solomon Moses was in Philadelphia for another prolonged stay when Rebecca, visiting the Hoffman and the Moses families in New York, received a letter from Rachel reporting that M. L. Moses, Solomon's brother, meant to propose to Rebecca at the first opportunity. Knowing that her sister had no interest in marrying him, Rachel advised avoidance. She also informed Rebecca that her information had come from Solomon who knew that M. L.'s proposal would be unwelcome. Sol's thoughtfulness had an effect; in her next letter Rachel wrote, "[He] has secured my everlasting friendship. I think him much improved in every respect."

This statement seems to have caused Rebecca no alarm. She must have been staggered by Rachel's next letter which began, after a short prelude about a sleepless night, "You my beloved Sister shall decide my future...I will give up the man my heart has chosen if you wish it." The man referred to was, of course, Solomon Moses.

After her characteristically dramatic opening, Rachel recapitulated the emotional events of the previous few weeks, saying that Sol's attentions had been of "the most delicate winning kind." As a result, she "felt...greater agitation than any other gentlemen ever occasioned me...every day has increased those feelings and I cannot myself account for this change but I have learned from my heart to love him." The evening before, he had stopped her as she was walking home with a cousin and asked her to walk with him. They were "both embarrassed," she wrote, and when Sol asked if he would ever be happy again? she didn't understand at first. Then she realized that it was she who could make him happy by becoming his wife. She had told him she looked upon his proposal with favor but that she wanted to write Rebecca and receive an answer before they told her family.

Then Rachel comes to the point of the letter. (Despite all the drama at the beginning, both Rebecca and she knew nothing was going to stop her from doing what she wanted.) Rachel was really concerned about Sally's reaction to her engagement to Solomon Moses, probably fearing that her sister's response would be so vitriolic that it would be difficult ever to forgive. She asked that Rebecca break the news since Sally "loves you so much better than she loves me."

What could Rebecca say to Sally to prevent a family rift? And how did Rebecca really feel about Sol as a brother-in-law? Even the quietest and most respectable lives (and blogs) have their cliffhangers.

For more, see "Rebecca Writes to Sally."

(The letter in which Rachel says that Sol had secured her "everlasting friendship" is in the Gratz Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society; the other two letters are from the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, the American Philosophical Society. Thanks to to the Gilbert Stuart blog for the use of the image of the painting of Solomon Moses by Gilbert Stuart. The original is on loan at the Rosenbach Museum and Library.)

(If you would like to learn more about M. L. Moses' attempts to propose to Rebecca, see the post, "Washington Irving, Rebecca Gratz and an Unwanted Suitor," from November 17, 2009.)

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