Correspondence of Rhoda Waterbury and G. W. Clinton
Edited by P. M. Eckel
Res Botanica
Missouri Botanical Garden
May 10, 2006
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Correspondence of

Rhoda Waterbury and G. W. Clinton

1865 - 1867

 

Edited by P. M. P.O. Box 299, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, Missouri, 63166‑0299; and Research Associate, Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo, New York, 14204. Email: mailto:patricia.eckel@mobot.org

 

May 1866

Vol.3 No. 57 [M 172]

 

                                    Warsaw May 7th, 1866

 

My Dear mentor,

 

I shall not allow you to accuse yourself of such harsh things, or if you do I shall not believe them. I know just how it is, you have enough to do to tire two men besides your own domestic affairs and then condemn yourself because you can not do everything. You need relaxation and you must have it and we have the thing nicely fixed for a grand time at Silver Lake when you come, and as to the time I must tell you all about it. Before your last came my brother had made arrangements to take our dear Allies body from the cemetery here to Mt. Hope Rochester where they have a family lot, on Saturday of this week, that is the 12th, my birthday too, and as he has written the friends there to meet us at the depot, it will be better to go, and then the Saturday after will be a little later in the season and quite as likely to be pleasant, but remember we will wait your convenience, if that will not do, this sad trip to Rochester is all we now think of for the remainder of the term to take our Saturdays, but I am anxious to see you, and am so fearful I shall be disappointed again that I am rather in a hurry. And if possible you must come down on Friday so that we can take an early start on Saturday, we are about eight miles from the Lake. We are to have a party of four, my brother and one of his pupils. Yourself and one of yours, that’s Prof. Dam..., Judge Comstock’s eldest daughter, Judge Clinton, and Rhoda Waterbury. Judge Comstock’s carriage horses & driver.

 

There now just see how awkwardly I have arranged those names, well I suppose the way to remedy such would be to have my mental operations more systematically arranged, which I fear is a hopeless task. Now of course we do not want a rainy day for it, so we shall depend upon you to say when, and watch the clouds before you start, though my sister says “never mind if it rains I shall get the more visit,” and I am sure she needs cheering she most of any of us poor child, she has grown very thin and weak under her affliction, and did I not know our family constitution I should fear she might slip away from us, and join the children beyond the river, some spring days. For fear you will not make time for recreation unless I urge it upon you I send you a little rush that we have named whether currently we want you to decide. I have one or two sedges, and I might wait until you come but guess I will send them. I do hope this fine spring day is cheering to the “invalid wife”, how I do pity those who cannot enjoy the open air, and ramble the fields as I do, my sister says that is living to me, the sort of life I only endure because I must, maybe it is so, mere existence is a pleasure to me when I can feel the fresh air all about me. I sometimes fear that when freed from the body I shall not have that definite consciousness of existence that I now have that it will be near a dream state, and it troubles me. I know faith says, ”because I live ye shall live also,” and I wish I could put all these questionings aside, but I cannot always. Mr. Peck has enlisted my little nephew (and I may say the whole family here) in collecting bugs, flies, beetles, &c. for specimens to assist in the completion of his new work on Entomology. We have some amusing times, we put them to sleep in Chlorophorm and some of the big ones wake up after a good nap sometimes and go marching about the house, we have never found them awake after the second nap though. What a favorite man must have been with Heaven that the Father fitted up such a magnificent abode for him and gave him just the faculties to enjoy it all, but why did He make these microscopic insects so beautiful I wonder, when so few see them?

 

I feel quite sure you are feeling better today for the weather is quite springlike. Now don’t forget to let us know immediately what you think of our plan and all about it. You need not take much time just a few lines you know will do, though I relish a long letter so much I know I ought not to ask it of you.

 

Hoping to see you soon

 

    I remain still your disciple

 

            Rhoda Waterbury

 

Hon. G. W. Clinton

 

P.S. The plant we think may be Luzula pilosa, Willd.

 

Recd May 9

 

 

Again the seemingly macabre juxtaposition of death and life, both the birthday and the attempt to get Clinton to perform. We are to believe that even the grieving mother, in danger of death herself, and who will soon lose her son, seems to be encouraging Rhoda’s ambiguous behavior.

 

Clinton was born April 21, 1807, which would make him 59 years old in 1866. Rhoda’s birthday would come only a few weeks after Clinton’s.

 

“I do hope this fine spring day is cheering to the “invalid wife”, how I do pity those who cannot enjoy the open air, and ramble the fields as I do ...,” the attribution of invalidity to Laura Clinton née Spencer is Clinton’s own and is, considering the context of Clinton’s behavior back in Buffalo, a way of leading the sturdy Rhoda on through postures requiring pity. As stated earlier, Clinton treated his male correspondents the same way.

 

The foursome is to include her brother of the Warsaw Academy, Judge Comstock’s young daughter, Judge Clinton and Rhoda in Judge Comstock’s equipage. Apparently, from other outings of young women accompanied by older males, it is rendered a socially acceptable event if the company goes to an older, respectable woman’s house for tea afterwards - hence Rhoda’s married sister. As for Ms. Comstock: “... not another thing did I dream of all night but your visit and Miss Comstock and the mosses, for don’t I know she is pretty and young about half as old as I am, oh dear! you don’t know how jealous a woman can be even at my advanced age, but there is one comfort in it she will grow old too if she lives, and I shall not let you flirt with her at all for am I not schoolmarm and she only a schoolgirl?” (letter of May 1886).

 

While Rhoda is carting a corpse off to Rochester, Clinton will be picnicking with the young women from the Buffalo Female Academy on Goat Island (see below). There is probably a Waterbury plot in Mount Hope to this day, or else one for the Dawn family.

 

There is a Silver Lake State Park just east of a line between Warsaw and Silver Springs in Wyoming County, a little west of Letchworth State Park. The Lake is fed by Oatka Creek and is oriented in the same north-south direction as the Finger Lakes. “Silver Lake, in Castile, (the principal body of water,) is 3 mi. long and about 1/2 mi. wide.” (French p. 710).

 

 

Vol. 3. No. 81 [M 149]

 

                                    Warsaw, Saturday evening

                                       [May 1866]

 

My Dear Mentor,

 

Yours reached me last evening, and if you really knew how much it troubled me, not another thing did I dream of all night but your visit and Miss Comstock and the mosses, for don’t I know she is pretty and young about half as old as I am, oh dear! you don’t know how jealous a woman can be even at my advanced age, but there is one comfort in it she will grow old too if she lives, and I shall not let you flirt with her at all for am I not schoolmarm and she only a schoolgirl? And then those fine new mosses I think I was conscious of a stronger feeling of jealousy on that score than all for not one new one have I found this spring. I am not handsome, I don’t know much, and I don’t suppose I really have anything attractive about me and I am really ashamed I am so selfish. Now I do hope you will have done pitying [Job] by next Friday, June 1st. but I am somewhat fearful you will not for I know when one has reached that “crisis” as they say at the Water Cure there seems to be almost no end to it, but we shall go on and expect you just the same and please drop us a line in the middle of the week that we may have our dinner baskets all ready on Friday for we must start early and pic-nic it for dinner or we should lose half the fun. I did not wonder when I read your last that you stamped it with extra postage. I shall keep that letter, envelope and all, that when I grow to be a very old lady I may perhaps send it to that “little rogue” who created such a sensation and so “overwhelmed” my mentor with patriarchal honor, dear me! I feel older than you for I have a nephew a head taller than I am who kisses and pets me as if I was his mother, but I think it is going to be a great affliction not to see ones grand children, for the present I am content.

 

Ah! my good mentor, you would give Judge [C. = Comstock?] excellent advice, about keeping away from discussions and agitation, in regard to the country, by following your example; do I not remember a speech before a convention, or something of that nature, in Albany, where some body took a different view of the case from part of his party? (thank God) and have I not stoutly defended my good friend within the last two months because I knew his love for his country so well. I think we sometimes fancy we will rest and wait for Time and Providence and yet as soon as the time comes for action we cannot rest yet I too feel that nothing but a “true Christian spirit” can restore order to our poor distracted country. I am glad you have faith in the President. I feel so uncertain when I see the true men lose faith in the administration, you know me poor creature can’t judge for ourselves independently and am obliged to give my faith to somebody else .. I know so little.

Do you know I sometimes think in our correspondence my letters have the confidence of little experience yours the cautious uncertainty of mature wisdom? You never told me whether the little sedge I sent you was named correctly, but never mind next week I shall know if - ah what sunshine there is in the anticipation.

 

It is a beautiful moonlight evening and it is so quiet here in my brothers little library I feel just like writing sentimentally but it will never do I have passed the “transitional” state, and belong to the generation that is now on the stage of action doing the heavy work of the world. You don’t know how old I feel since my last birth day two weeks since. We spent it at Mt. Hope putting out plants around the graves of the pets there. I remarked that it was my birth day and gave my age to one of our friends a younger lady, and she seemed so shocked that I was so old and expressed it so innocently that I think I was impressed with it. Well it is going to be fine to lay off our working dresses and go in to ... the better country with the great King our elder brother pretty soon, and I would not go back if I could, for a beautiful sentiment see June No. “Our Young Folks” 344th page at the middle of the page. Is not “that which feeds the beauty of the lily and the radiance of the leaf” the God of Nature or the part of Deity which we commune with through His works? yet “blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” I must be thinking aloud again! what a letter! forgive me,

 

                            Your disciple still,

 

                                    Rhoda Waterbury

 

Hon. G. W. Clinton

 

Recd. May 28

 

 

It is possible here that Clinton is referring to the birth of a grandson at this time. Rhoda states that she will keep his correspondence and will send it after many years to Clinton’s grandson. This raises the curious issue of Clinton’s justification for keeping Rhoda’s letters. If there is anything sinister in Rhoda’s intention to give to the grandson her correspondence (poor grandmother Clinton) Clinton has readily retaliated by keeping hers as part of the major collection of his correspondence to be curated for over a century by the people of the city of Buffalo. It seems a contradiction to threaten Clinton with exposure when she has already done so, in anticipation, to at least the botanists associated with the State Herbarium.

 

Rhoda’s unusual expectation that she could command Clinton’s attention against the headwind of Miss Comstock’s youth and beauty belies most people’s ordinary experience and lends her an inexplicable naiveté. Even C. F. Austin, in his letter quoted above, made the stipulation that youth and beauty on Rhoda’s part were the appropriate requirements to suit the tone of the insinuations made in her letter to him. One might almost think that Rhoda actually was incapable of understanding the ordinary or “typical” interpretation of her intentions and feelings. My suggestion is that Rhoda saw herself as no woman any ordinary woman would see herself as.

 

The characterization of Rhoda’s mourning and flirting together as “macabre” may be an anachronism for in many cultures, past and present, such as in France and in Mexico on All Saint’s Day, visiting the graves, primarily of ones ancestors, was a somber and beautiful celebration with special floral displays and prepared foods. Rhoda’s family’s visitation of her ancestors in Andes, Delaware Co., is just such a picnic excursion.

 

Andrew Johnson was the President of the new Union, and was facing severe opposition to his intent to continue Abraham Lincoln’s post-bellum policies of reconciliation of the South against the Radical Republicans in Congress. These Republicans would nearly succeed in impeaching him. While Congress was in retirement during the second half of 1865, Johnson pardoned all who would take an oath of allegiance. It was necessary, however, for former leaders of the Confederacy and men of wealth, such as the botanist-mycologist Henry Ravenel of South Carolina, to obtain special Presidential pardons - policies decried by the Republicans in session in 1866.

 

“Our Young Folks” was a journal, published by Messrs. Fields, Osgood & Co., edited by Howard M. Ticknor and Lucy Larcom. In 1866, when this letter was written, an installment of “A Summer in Leslie Goldthwaite’s Life” came out, by Mrs. Adeline D. T. Whitney, perhaps in the “June No.” This number must have included Chapter 8, entitled Sixteen and Sixty. In it is the most astonishing description of a “Miss Craydocke’s room”, who appears to be a old spinster, whose room seems to be a description of Rhoda’s own room back in Schoharie. The quote is “But in the midst grows silently the century-plant of the soul, absorbing to itself hourly that which feeds the beauty of the lily and the radiance of the leaf, - waiting only for the hundred years of shrouding to be over!” It is almost as if Rhoda had been miming this story where a botanist-gentlewoman-spinster is depicted in her previous letters. It is a particularly gorgeous form of composition that Rhoda may describe as “sentimental” in style.

 

“She had everything pretty about her, this old Miss Craydocke. How many people do, that have not a bit of outward prettiness themselves!”, from Chapter 8.

 

“Blessed are the Pure in Heart, for they shall see God” Saint Matthew 5.8.