Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Colonel Greene Dies of Apoplexy"

Travel and holidays have delayed my acknowledgment of a welcome reappearance from my anonymous Texan correspondent. Regular readers may remember posts about two unsigned postcards that I received in late 2012, both bearing a Dallas postmark and choice quotes from A Dance to the Music of Time. Still a welcome mystery more than a year later, they were joined in early December by a new communication, one that expanded both my correspondent's epistolary and literary ranges: a printout of the obituary of Colonel Jacob L. Greene that was published in the Hartford Courant on March 30, 1905.

Who is Colonel Greene, you ask? Well, that's essentially the question that my correspondent is hinting I should have asked back in November when I shared a story Mark Twain told about him in his autobiography. Twain makes good sport of Greene's style of public speaking, which he explains was smooth to the point of barren dullness:
His speech was always like that--perfectly smooth, perfectly constructed; and when he had finished, no listener could go into court and tell what it was he had said. It was a curious style. It was impressive--you always thought, from one comma to another, that he was going to strike something presently, but he never did.
Greene, my correspondent would have us know, was more impressive than Twain's joking might imply. The obituary opens by identifying him as the president of the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company (surely the perfect job for a dull speaker, no?), but when the obituary delves into his earlier life, the story begins to get more impressive: his paternal great-grandfather was "a man of staunch character" who served as a lieutenant in the Revolutionary army, in which his maternal great-grandfather served as a general. Greene himself, meanwhile, was born in Maine, attended "the Michigan University," which at the time was newly opened and tuition-free, and became a lawyer just before the outbreak of the Civil War. "The blood of a noble ancestry burned within him," explains the Courant, "impelling the consecration of himself to the Union cause." He enlisted as a private, then advanced to lieutenant before being laid out for a full year by illness. Strength restored, he took a position under General Custer and served with "distinguished gallantry" in the battle of Trevellyan Station, where he was captured on June 11, 1864. While a prisoner at Charleston, he was among the Union soldiers forced by their captors into the path of Union shells. Eventually he was paroled, but he wasn't officially exchanged until April 8, 1865, the day before Lee's surrender. He served another full year before resigning his commission and embarking on his career as a life insurance executive.

More germane to Twain's story, however, is what comes next in the obituary:
Colonel Greene had made many public addresses. He was the orator of the day at the Grant Memorial exercises in this city and his address was pronounced a fine example of eloquence and power. . . . He had talked before Hartford audiences and elsewhere on topical subjects and on many occasions when his oratorical efforts were of the highest order. He was ever ready to speak in the interests of the poor and oppressed and always took a high stand for personal and civic morality. He was a graceful speaker and a polished writer. . . . and always acquitted himself to the satisfaction of those interested, and the great pleasure of his audience.
Which, set in the balance against Twain's depiction of a smooth-flowing river of boredom, makes me think that perhaps there's a middle ground: It's likely Greene was as good a speaker as the Courant claims, yet still wasn't up to Twain's standard. We can't all be Mark Twain, after all.

I'll close the way any sensible public speaker should do: with thanks to the person who brought me here. Hope it's a pleasant winter down there in Dallas, sir or madam. Keep the correspondence coming!

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