Thoreau vs. Strong on organ grinders
The two greatest American diaries of the 19th century, in my opinion, were written by Henry David Thoreau and George Templeton Strong.
The two men were near-contemporaries. Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837 and kept his Journal from that year until 1861, the year before his death at the age of 44. Strong graduated from Columbia in 1838. His diary, begun in 1835 when he was an undergraduate, came to an end with his death in 1875.
Each man spent most of his life in his hometown, but while Thoreau was a naturalist and a solitary walker, Strong was a man about town: a lawyer, an Episcopal vestryman, a trustee of Columbia College, and during the Civil War a founder of the Union League and treasurer of the Sanitary Commission, which provided medical aid to wounded soldiers.
The difference in Thoreau’s and Strong’s attitudes toward Italian organ grinders is telling. Both were lovers of music, but while Thoreau was so music-starved that he visited telegraph poles on windy days to listen to them vibrate, Strong was a frequent attendee at concerts and operas, and for several years the president of the New York Philharmonic Society. Naturally enough, his taste in music was somewhat more discerning.
Henry David Thoreau
May 27, 1851
I saw an organ-grinder this morning before a rich man’s house, thrilling the street with harmony, loosening the very paving-stones and tearing the routine of life to rags and tatters, when the lady of the house shoved up a window and in a semiphilanthropic tone inquired if he wanted anything to eat. But he, very properly it seemed to me, kept on grinding and paid no attention to her question, feeding her ears with melody unasked for. So the world shoves up its window and interrogates the poet, and sets him to gauging ale casks in return. It seemed to me that the music suggested that the recompense should be as fine as the gift. It would be much nobler to enjoy the music, though you paid no money for it, than to presume always a beggarly relation. It is after all, perhaps, the best instrumental music that we have.
George Templeton Strong
November 23, 1855, Friday
I must ascertain whether the mighty bug-destroyer Lyons has no modification of his cockroach powder that will exterminate organ-grinders. We suffer peculiarly here, for the street is very quiet, and they play all round the square before they leave it and are more or less audible at each successive station. I have been undergoing the performances of one of the tribe for an hour and a half and have heard “Casta Diva,” “Ah, Non Giunge,” the first chorus of Ernani, and some platitude from the Trovatore languidly ground out six times each. It makes me feel homicidal. If Abel had gone about with hand organs, I shouldn’t censure Cain so very harshly. There goes “Casta Diva” for the seventh time!