Portrait by Sarah Miriam Peale circa 1823
|Born||August 25, 1793|
Portland, Maine, United States
|Died||June 20, 1876 (aged 82)|
Portland, Maine, United States
|Resting place||Western Cemetery |
Portland, Maine, United States
|Pen name||Somebody, M.D.C. |
A New Englander Over-Sea
|Occupation||Writer, critic, editor, activist, lawyer, lecturer, entrepreneur|
John Neal (August 25, 1793 – June 20, 1876) was an American writer, critic, editor, lecturer, and activist. Considered both eccentric and influential, he delivered speeches and wrote magazine essays, novels, poems, and short stories between the 1810s and 1870s in the United States and Great Britain, championing American literary nationalism and regionalism in their earliest stages. Neal advanced the development of American art, advocated for early feminist causes, advocated the end of slavery and racism, and helped establish the American gymnastics movement.
A pioneer of colloquialism and natural diction, John Neal is the first author to use "son-of-a-bitch" in a work of fiction. He attained his greatest literary achievements between 1817 and 1835, during which time he was central to American literature's evolution from the British influences dominant in works of founding American authors James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, whom he derided, to the new voices of American Renaissance authors Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman, all of whom he influenced. His feminist advocacy advanced the ideas of predecessors Mary Wollstonecraft, Catharine Macaulay, and Judith Sargent Murray while laying groundwork for successors Sarah Moore Grimké, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Margaret Fuller.
Neal lived all but eighteen years of his life in Portland, Maine, though a large proportion of his life's work he achieved between his early twenties and early thirties in Baltimore, Maryland, and London, England. In Baltimore he founded his law and literary careers and in London he became the first American to be published in British literary journals. A largely self-educated man, he attended no schools after the age of twelve, though he passed the bar exam to start practicing law in his early twenties and was awarded an honorary masters degree in his early forties. Neal's work history includes varied employment and self-employment before pursuit of a career as an author and attorney, simultaneous careers that lasted sixty and forty years, respectively. By old age Neal had earned comfortable wealth and community standing through varied business investments, arts patronage, and civic leadership.
Received by his contemporaries and remembered by historians as an uncontrolled genius, he was classified for generations as a secondary transitional figure in American literary history, though twenty-first century scholarship has reassessed his work and influence in light of earlier historians' prejudices. Despite a formidable list of historically superlative achievements, John Neal is an author without a masterpiece.Rachel Dyer is considered his best novel, "Otter-Bag, the Oneida Chief" and "David Whicher" his best short stories, and The Yankee his most influential periodical creation.
John Neal and his twin sister Rachel were born in Portland, Maine on August 25, 1793, the only children of parents John Neal and Rachel Hall Neal. The senior John Neal, a school teacher, died a month after their birth, after which the senior Rachel Neal set up her own school, took in boarders, and relied on assistance from the siblings' unmarried uncle James Neal and others in their Quaker community, offering Neal a childhood of "genteel poverty". Neal attended his mother's school, a Quaker boarding school in neighboring Windham, and public school in Portland. Neal claimed his lifelong struggle with a short temper and quarrelsome nature originated in public school, at which he was bullied and physically abused by bullies and the schoolmaster.
Neal's full time employment as an adolescent and teenager in Portland haberdasheries and dry goods shops taught him lessons in salesmanship and dishonest business practices like passing off counterfeit bills[a] and misrepresenting merchandise quality. Laid off multiple times for business failure resulting from US embargoes against British imports, Neal traveled through Maine as an itinerant penmanship instructor, watercolor instructor, and miniature portrait artist. At seventeen years-old in 1811, he answered an ad for employment with a dry goods shop in Boston and moved to the larger city.
In Boston he once again achieved successful self-employment, this time exploiting supply chain constrictions caused by the War of 1812 to make quick profits smuggling goods between Boston and Baltimore, eventually establishing a business partnership with poet/lawyer John Pierpont and Pierpont's brother in-law. They established stores in Boston, Baltimore, and Charleston, South Carolina before the recession following the War of 1812 upended the firm and left Pierpont and Neal bankrupt in Baltimore in 1815. Though the "Pierpont, Lord, and Neal" dry goods store chain proved to be short-lived, Neal's relationship with Pierpont grew into the closest and longest-lived friendship[b] of his life.
Neal's experience going into business full-time in Portland, Maine at the age of twelve and riding out the multiple economic booms and busts that eventually left him in Baltimore at age twenty-two made him a proud and ambitious young man who viewed reliance on his own talents and resources as the key to his recovery and future success.
Bankrupt with a failed business, John Neal took to writing, first as a hobby, then as a means to pay expenses while studying law between 1816 and 1820. He was The Portico?s second-most prolific – albeit unpaid – contributor of poems, essays, and literary criticism between 1816 and 1818. He took over as editor for the last issue. In 1816, Neal joined with the journal's founder, Dr. Tobias Watkins, Pierpont, and four other men to co-found the Delphian Club, a social group closely associated with the journal.
While writing his earliest poetry, novels, and essays he was studying law as an apprentice in the office of William H. Winder, a fellow Delphian. In 1816 Neal "began to cast about for something better to do—something, at least, that would pay better; and, after considering the matter for ten minutes or so, determined to try [his] hand at a novel," which became Keep Cool, published in 1817.[c] Fewer than seventy novels had been published by Americans and few of those had been financially successful. Neal was nevertheless inspired by Pierpont's 1816 financial success with "The Airs of Palestine" and encouraged by the reception of his initial submissions to The Portico. He resolved that "there was nothing left for me but authorship, or starvation, if I persisted in my plan of studying law. This was in spite of the fact that the US in 1816 "had not more than half a dozen authors; and of these, only Washington Irving had received more than enough to pay for the salt in his porridge."
In 1818 Neal published his only bound poetry collection, Battle of Niagara, a Poem, without Notes; and Goldau, or the Maniac Harper.[d] He wrote the poems while laboring sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, for more than four months on an index for six years of weekly publications of Hezekiah Niles's Weekly Register magazine, which Niles admitted was "the most laborious work of the kind that ever appeared in any country." In 1819 Neal published the never-produced play Otho: a Tragedy, in Five Acts and took a job as editor of the Federal Republican and Baltimore Telegraph. He also took over work that year from fellow Delphian Paul Allen, getting paid by the page to fulfill chapter subscriptions for Allen's History of the American Revolution that Allen was unable to fulfill. Neal's contribution accounts for about three quarters of the book. This prodigious literary output earned him the moniker of "Jehu O'Cataract" from his Delphian Club associates. By these means Neal was able to pay his expenses while studying law between for four years. He passed the bar and start practicing law in Baltimore in 1820.
Neal's final years in Baltimore were his most productive as a novelist. He published Logan, A Family History in 1822. In 1823 he published three novels: Seventy-Six, Randolph, and Errata; or, the Works of Will. Adams. Not only did he write and publish novels faster in this period than any other in his life, but the public reception of Seventy-Six propelled him to a status as James Fenimore Cooper's chief rival as the leading American novelist. In reaction to insults against William Pinkney published in Randolph just after Pinkney died, his son Edward Coote Pinkney challenged Neal to a duel. Having established himself six years earlier as an outspoken opponent of dueling, Neal refused and the two engaged in a battle of printed words in the fall of that year.
John Neal's last four years (1820-1823) in Baltimore became socially turbulent in other ways. He quit the Delphian Club suddenly in 1820 after their rejection of his nomination for an honorary member and Society of Friends excommunicated him the same year for his participation in a street brawl. He also became "weary of the law—weary as death" feeling that he spent those years in "open war, with the whole tribe of lawyers in America." "Ironically...at precisely the moment when [Neal] was endeavoring to establish himself as the American writer, Neal was also alienating friends, critics, and the general public at an alarming rate." By the fall of 1823 Neal was ready to leave Baltimore and the catalyst was a dinner party with an English friend who quoted Sydney Smith's 1820 then-notorious remark, "in the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" Whether it had more to do with Smith or Pinkney, Neal took less than a month after that dinner date to settle his affairs in Baltimore and secure passage on a ship bound for England on December 15, 1823.
John Neal's relocation to London figured into three professional goals that guided him through the 1820s: to supplant Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper as the leading American literary voice, to bring about a new distinctly American literary style, and to reverse the British literary establishment's disdain for American writers. He followed Irving's precedent of using temporary residence in London to exploit England's larger literary market, achieve greater legitimacy in the United States, earn greater royalties, publish in a higher quality print format, and attract more attention by reviewers. London publishers had already pirated Seventy-Six and Logan, but Neal hoped those companies would pay him to publish Errata and Randolph if he was present to negotiate. They refused.
Neal brought enough money to survive for only a few months on the assumption that "if people gave any thing [sic] for books here, they would not be able to starve me, since I could live upon air, and write faster than any man that ever lived." His financial situation had become desperate when William Blackwood asked Neal to become a regular contributor to Blackwood's Magazine For the next year and a half, Neal made his living writing for Blackwood's.
His first Blackwood's article, a profile on the 1824 candidates for US president, was the first article by an American to appear in a British literary journal and was quoted and republished widely throughout Europe. His greatest contribution to the magazine was the "American Writers" series that critiqued 100 American authors (including himself) in alphabetical order under the pen name Carter Holmes, an English traveler persona. This series represents the first history ever written of American literature and was republished as a collection in 1937.Blackwood's also became a platform for his earliest written works on gender and women's rights, the first of which attracted the attention of Joanna Baillie[e] in October 1824. The articles declared intellectual equality of men and women, critiqued gendered social relations, and called for women's suffrage.William Blackwood and Sons also published Brother Jonathan 1825, but the back-and-forth over manuscript revisions soured the relationship and Neal was sent adrift in London once again with no source of income.
After a short time earning much less than what he earned at Blackwood's writing articles for other periodicals, thirty-two year-old John Neal met seventy-seven year-old utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham offered him rooms at his Hermitage and a position as his personal secretary. Neal spent the next year and a half writing for Bentham's Westminster Review and through this association he claims to have recruited both Bentham and John Stuart Mill to the cause of women's rights.
In the spring of 1827 Bentham financed Neal's return to the US. He left England having caught the attention of the British literary elite and published the novel he brought with him, yet having failed to achieve international fame with the new great American novel, he was no longer Cooper's chief American rival.
Returning from England in June 1827, John Neal intended to settle in New York City to restart his law career and break into the magazine editing business. While visiting his mother and sister in Portland, Maine, he decided to settle there instead to spite community members protesting his return. The upset Portlanders were offended by his derision of prominent citizens in the semi-autobiographical Errata, the way he depicted New England dialect and habits in Brother Jonathan, and his criticism of American writers in Blackwood's Magazine. Among the more vocal critics of Neal's "American Writers" series was a young William Lloyd Garrison, who in 1825 said "We cannot express sufficiently, our Indignation at this renegade's base attempt to assassinate the reputation of this country" Residents posted broadsides,  engaged in verbally and physically violent exchanges with Neal in the streets, and conspired to block his admission to the bar association. Neal was resolved: "Verily, verily,' said I, 'if they take that position, here I will stay, till I am both rooted and grounded—grounded in the graveyard, if nowhere else."
Shortly after moving back to Portland, Maine in 1827 he opened Maine's first gym using Friedrich Jahn's Turnen model he learned from German refugee Carl Voelker in London. While still in England in 1826, Neal published articles on German gymnastics in the American Journal of Education and urged Thomas Jefferson to include a gymnastics school at the University of Virginia. Neal is the first American founder of a public gymnasium in the United States,[f] at which he taught boxing, fencing, and other gymnastics activities to his students, including his cousin, Neal Dow. The gym had an all-White membership, many of whom identified with the abolition movement. In 1828, all but two other members rejected new Black members Neal sponsored to join; the racist decision caused disillusionment in Neal, and he left the gym shortly thereafter. The same year he started gymnasiums in nearby Saco and at Bowdoin College.
In 1828 Neal established The Yankee monthly magazine with himself as editor, and continued publication through the end of 1829. He used its pages to vindicate himself to fellow Portlanders, critique American art and drama, host a discourse on the nature of New Englander identity, and uplift new literary voices like John Greenleaf Whittier, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Neal also wrote for and edited many other American magazines between the late 1820s and the mid 1840s.
Though he published Rachel Dyer in 1828, Authorship[g] in 1830, and The Down-Easters in 1833, these novels were all reworkings of writing done in England. He focused instead on writing tales like "Otter-Bag, the Oneida Chief" (1829), "The Haunted Man" (1832), "David Whicher" (1832), and "The Squatter" (1835) that played a pivotal role in shaping the relatively new short story genre between the late 1820s and the mid 1830s.
The height of Neal's involvement with American magazines also overlaps with his stint as a traveling lecturer between 1829 and 1848. This period of juggling literary, activist, athletic, legal, artistic, social, and business pursuits is captured by Fanny Appleton Longfellow: "John Neal gave me great amusement with his racy, head-over-heels speeches. His mind seems at the boiling-over point always and froths out at every pore of his face and tongue. Introduced a dozen people to me as one would mow grass." Neal's law apprentice in 1833 described,
He was in a strange-shaped jacket, with a vest of his own form and fashion, for he has all things made according to his notions, dictating to tailors, furniture-makers, house-builders, book-binders, cooks and milliners also... He was over careful and very neat in his person, but not a fop or a dandy, for they follow fashions, and he sets all at defiance. Neal was then alternately talking with a lot of men who were boxing and fencing, for he was a boxing-master, and fencing-master too, and as a printer's devil came in, crying "copy, more copy," he would race with a huge swan's quill, full gallop, over sheets of paper as with a steam-pen, and off went one page, and off went another, and then a lesson in boxing, the thump of glove to glove, then the mask, and the stamp of the sandal, and the ringing of the foils.
After the 1830s Neal became increasingly occupied with managing real estate development, investments in the insurance industry, an inherited granite quarry, developing railroad connections to Portland, and other business interests. No longer reliant on writing as a source of income, he turned his attention to patronizing the arts, pushing civic improvements like Portland's first sidewalks, uplifting artists and writers through constructive criticism, and active citizenship in Portland, Maine. He retired from his law practice in 1860.
Many of his literary contemporaries in larger cities and early historians mistook Neal's change in focus as a disappearance. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1845 of "that wild fellow, John Neal...he surely has long been dead, else he never could keep himself so quiet."James Russell Lowell in 1848 claimed "John Neal...has wasted in Maine the sinews and cords of his pugilist brain."
Though Neal pursued romantic and sexual interests as a younger man in Baltimore, he did not start his own family until he returned to Portland, Maine. He married his second cousin Eleanor Hall in 1828 and together they had five children, though Neal outlived two of them. Neal raised his children in the house he built in 1836 on State Street of granite from his inherited quarry. Also in 1836 he received an honorary masters degree from Bowdoin College, the same institution at which Neal scraped together a living as a self-employed teenage penmanship instructor and that later educated the more economically privileged Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
At the urging of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and other friends, John Neal returned to novel writing in the 1850s, publishing True Womanhood in 1859. His last books include an autobiography titled Wandering Recollections of a Somewhat Busy Life (1869), a collection of pieces for and about children titled Great Mysteries and Little Plagues (1870), and a guidebook for his hometown titled Portland Illustrated (1874).
By 1870 in his old age, he had amassed a comfortable fortune, valued at $80,000.[i] His last appearance in the public eye was likely an 1875 syndicated article from the Portland Advertiser about an eighty-one year-old Neal physically overpowering a man in his early twenties who was smoking on a non-smoking streetcar. Neal died on June 20, 1876 and was buried in the Neal family plot in Portland, Maine's Western Cemetery.
John Neal's body of literary work spans almost sixty years from the end of the War of 1812 to a decade following the Civil War. His writing both reflects and challenges shifting American ways of life over those years, though he achieved his major literary accomplishments between 1817 and 1835. He started his career as an American reading public was just beginning to emerge, working immediately and consistently within the nation's developing "complex web of print culture." His efforts to subvert the influence of the British literary elite and to develop a rival American literature were largely credited to his successors until more recent twenty-first century scholarship. John Neal is considered an influential American literary figure with no masterpiece of his own.
In defiance of the comparatively rigid moralism and sentimentality of his American predecessors/contemporaries Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, Neal's early novels between the late 1810s and 1820s depict dark, conflicted Lord Byron-inspired heroes of great intellect and morals who often do not exhibit the physical strength and beauty conventionally associated with those personal qualities. But departing from Byron, Neal's brand of Romanticism reflects an aversion for self-criticism and revision, relying instead on "nearly automatic writing" to build his brand, enhance the commercial viability of his works, and craft a new American literature. As a pioneer of "talk[ing] on paper" or "natural writing," Neal was "the first in America to be natural in his diction" and his work represents "the first deviation from...Irvingesque graciousness." Neal declared that he "never shall write what is now worshipped under the name of classical English" which was "the deadest language I ever met with or heard of."
Neal's voice was one of many calling for American literary nationalism following the War of 1812, but Neal felt other American writers' work relied too much on British conventions of authorship to frame American phenomena. He claimed that "to succeed...[the American writer] must resemble nobody...[he] must be unlike all that have gone before [him]" and issue "another Declaration of Independence, in the great Republic of Letters" by using peculiarly American characters, settings, historical events, and manners of speech in literature. This was a "caustic assault" on British literary elites imagined as an aristocrats writing for personal amusement, in contrast to American authors as middle class professionals plying a commercial trade for sustenance. By mimicking the common and sometimes profane language of his countrymen in fiction, Neal hoped to appeal to a broader readership of minimally educated book buyers, thereby guaranteeing the existence of an American national literature by ensuring its economic viability.
Starting in the late 1820s, Neal shifted his focus from nationalism to regionalism in response to the rise of Jacksonian populism in the US by showcasing and contrasting coexisting regional and multicultural differences within the United States. The essays and stories in his magazine The Yankee "lays the groundwork for reading the nation itself as a collection of voices in conversation...ask[ing] readers to decide for themselves how to manage the multiple and contending sides of a federal union." To preserve variations in American English he feared may disappear under Jacksonian nationalism, he used colloquial, regional dialects in his writing and was one of the first American writers to do so.
John Neal used literary criticism in magazines and prefaces to his novels throughout his writing career to encourage desired changes in the field and to uplift new writers. As an American literary nationalist, he called for "faithful representations of native character" in literature that utilize the "abundant and hidden sources of fertility in their own beautiful brave earth...in the northern, as well as the southern Americas." His "American Writers" essay series in Blackwood's Magazine is remembered as the earliest written history of American literature, and was reprinted as a collection in 1937. Neal dismissed almost all of the 100 authors he critiqued in that series as derivative of their English predecessors, referring to Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, and James Fenimore Cooper, respectively, as copies of William Godwin, Oliver Goldsmith, and Sir Walter Scott."
John Neal used his role as critic, particularly in the pages of his Portland, Maine-based magazine The Yankee, to draw attention to newer writers in whose work he saw promise. John Greenleaf Whittier, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow all received their first substantial sponsorship or praise in the magazine's pages. Neal felt there were "fifty or a hundred...to whom I had foretold their destiny...all of whom...having become more or less distinguished. Of course, therefore, my opinion was thought worth having, and my predictions prophecy." Whittier expressed the weight of Neal's critical opinion when he submitted poetry for review: "I have just written something for your consideration...if you don't like it, say so privately; and I will quit poetry, and everything also of a literary nature." Neal's early encouragement of Poe was his most historically impactful and likely influenced Poe to quit poetry in favor of short stories. Poe said they were "the very first words of encouragement I ever remember to have heard" and that "I am young—not yet twenty—am a poet—if deep worship of all beauty can make me one."
Poe expressed desire to acknowledge his first champion by dedicating Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems to Neal, but the critic assured Poe that Neal's mixed reputation would be an injury to both poet and the volume. Poe instead applied the dedication to only the individual poem "Tamerlane." After Poe's death two decades later, Neal defended his legacy against attacks in Rufus Wilmot Griswold's unsympathetic obituary of Poe, labeling Griswold "a Rhadamanthus, who is not to be bilked of his fee, a thimble-full of newspaper notoriety."
John Neal first ventured into art criticism within his 1823 novel Randolph, in which he communicated his opinions on art through the thin veil of the novel's protagonist, and that later earned him recognition as America's first art critic. Though he continued work in this field at least as late 1869, his chief impact and involvement outside his immediate geographic sphere was in the 1820s. Neal around this time regularly visited Rembrandt Peale's art museum, courted his daughter Rosalba Carriera Peale, and sat for portraits with his niece Sarah Miriam Peale.
Though Neal's role as an art critic at this time was overshadowed by his other vocations in literature and law, he was the first American to critique art effectively. He didn't receive this recognition until twentieth century, being overlooked as early as 1834 in William Dunlap's History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States. Dunlap makes no mention of Neal or the direct predecessor to Dunlap's work, Neal's 1829 essay "Landscape and Portrait-Painting" in The Yankee.
After Neal had accumulated sufficient wealth and influence toward the middle of the nineteenth century, Neal began patronizing and uplifting artists in the Portland, Maine area. Painter Charles Codman and sculptor Benjamin Paul Akers both became steadily patronized as a result of Neal's encouragement, patronage, and connections. Neal also helped guide the work and careers of Franklin Simmons, John Rollin Tilton, and Harrison Bird Brown. Bird became Portland's most successful artist of the nineteenth century.
John Neal's approach to critiquing art in the early 1820s was intuitive and disdain for connoisseurship, which he viewed as aristocratic and incompatible with American democratic ideals. He also was influenced by August Wilhelm Schlegel's Course of Lectures in Dramatic Art and Literature and Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses, though by the middle of the decade he broke with those tenets by favoring landscapes over history painting and focusing more on trades painting. Reynolds's approach would remain dominant in both the US and England until John Ruskin's Modern Painters in 1843, though Neal's 1829 "Landscape and Portrait-Painting" article in The Yankee anticipated many of those Ruskinesque changes by distinguishing between "things seen by the artist" and "things as they are."
Comparatively constant is Neal's taste for bold, unlabored approaches to painting that utilize "an offhand, free, sketchy style, without high finish." The same could be said of what Dickson described as Neal's "fantastic mixture of common sense and absurdity, of intelligent observation and dross" that portrays Neal the art critic as "melodramatic, addicted to exaggeration, superficial, inconsistent, ill-informed, naive." These descriptors apply less to his last essays on art, a two-part series in The Atlantic Monthly in 1868 and 1869 that conspicuously lack the qualities of Neal's boastful, confident, and passionate style in the 1820s.
The bulk of John Neal's poetry was published in The Portico while studying law in Baltimore. His only bound collection of poems is Battle of Niagara, A Poem, without Notes; and Goldau, or the Maniac Harper, published in 1818. Though "Battle of Niagara" brought him little fame or money, it is considered the best poetic description of Niagara Falls up to that time. Poems by Neal are also featured in Specimens of American Poetry edited by Samuel Kettell (1829), The Poets and Poetry of America edited by Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1850), and American Poetry from the Beginning to Whitman edited by Louis Untermeyer (1931).
John Neal authored two plays, neither of which were ever produced on stage: Otho: A Tragedy, in Five Acts (1819) and Our Ephraim, or The New Englanders, A What-d'ye-call-it?—in three Acts (1835).
Otho, written in verse and heavily inspired by the works of Lord Byron, was considered dense by John Pierpont, who said it needed "a sky-light or two" cut into it. It was also described as "at once both mystifying and trite." Neal brought the script with him to London with plans to revise it and have it produced for the stage while he was there (1824–1827), but he never achieved this goal.
— John Neal, Our Ephraim, 1834
Our Ephraim was commissioned in 1834 by actor James Henry Hackett, who asked Neal to "squat right down & in your ready style in two or three days conjure me together something 'curious nice.'" Hackett rejected the play upon receipt as unsuitable for production: too many roles requiring rural Maine accents, unrealistic set requirements, and too much scheduled improvisation. The play nevertheless represents "a significant advance in early American theatrical realism." Neal published the play serially in five issues of The New-England Galaxy in 1835.
Neal's most noteworthy work of theatrical criticism is a five-installment essay "The Drama" published in the August 1829 issue of his magazine The Yankee. Complaining of what he saw as stilted dialogue in contemporary theatre, Neal contended that "when a person talks beautifully in his sorrow, it shows both great preparation and insincerity" and urged that playwrights should, "avoid poetry whenever the characters are much in earnest." Sixty years later William Dean Howells was considered innovative for saying the same thing.
John Neal played a pivotal role in developing the relatively new genre of the short story between the late 1820s and the mid 1830s, though he continued publishing in this genre through the middle of the following decade. "Otter-Bag, the Oneida Chief" (1829) and "David Whicher," (1832) are considered his best short stories and "The Haunted Man" (1832) is recognized as the first work of fiction to use psychotherapy as a basis for a story. The two stories "overshadow the less inspired efforts of his more famous contemporaries and add a dimension to the art of storytelling not to be found in Irving and Poe, rarely in Hawthorne, and rarely in American fiction until Melville and Twain decades later (and Faulkner a century later) began telling their tales." Ironically, "David Whicher" was published anonymously and authorship was not attributed to Neal until the 1960s.
Like his magazine essays and lectures, Neal's stories challenged American socio-political phenomena that grew in the period leading up to and including Andrew Jackson's terms as US president (1829-1837): manifest destiny, empire building, Indian removal, consolidation of federal power, citizenship increasingly connected to race, and restrictions on women imposed by the Cult of Domesticity. "David Whicher" in particular challenged a body of popular literature that converged in the 1820s around a "divisive and destructive insistence on frontiersman and the Indian as implacable enemies." Neal wrote "David Whicher" particularly in response to "The Indian Fighter" by Timothy Flint, reprinted in the same gift book two years earlier. His stories in this period also used humor and satire to address social and political phenomena, most notably "Courtship" (1829), "The Utilitarian" (1830), "The Young Phrenologist" (1836), "Animal Magnetism" (1839), and "The Ins and the Outs" (1841).
With the exception of True Womanhood (published 1859), John Neal published all of his novels between 1817 and 1833. The first four he wrote and published in Baltimore, Maryland: Keep Cool (1817), Logan (1822), Seventy-Six (1823), Randolph (1823), and Errata (1823). He wrote Brother Jonathan in Baltimore, but revised and published it in England in 1825. He published Rachel Dyer (1828), Authorship[j] (1830), and The Down-Easters (1833) while living in Portland, Maine, but they are all reworkings of content he largely wrote while in England.
Neal's first novel, Keep Cool, made Neal "the first in American to be natural in his diction" and the "father of American subversive fiction." Generally regarded as a failure, the book shows that "the gulf between Neal's prophetic vision of a native literature and his own capacity to fulfill that vision is painfully apparent."
— John Neal, Seventy-Six, 1823
Seventy-Six is considered one of Neal's most readable novels to a modern audience. When it was released in 1823, Neal was at the height of his prominence, being at the time the chief rival of leading American author, James Fenimore Cooper. Inspired by Cooper's The Spy, Neal based the story on historical research compiled a few years earlier while helping his friend Paul Allen write his History of the American Revolution.Seventy-Six was criticized at the time for its use of profanity and is recognized today as being the first work of American fiction to use the phrase "son-of-a-bitch."
Rachel Dyer: a North American Story (1828) is widely considered to be John Neal's most successful fictional work and his most readable novel to a modern audience. Along with Brother Jonathan and The Down-Easters, it portrays a remarkable amount of peculiar American folkways, accents, and slang and was referenced about 100 years later by the compilers of the Dictionary of American English. Like many of John Neal's early novels, it is a historical fiction, this one being set during the Salem witch trials. Rachel Dyer was the first hardcover novelized version of this story and influenced the use of witchcraft in multiple poems and stories by John Greenleaf Whittier and in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novels The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables.
|The Portico||Final issue: June, 1818||Baltimore, MD|
|Federal Republican and Baltimore Telegraph||February — July, 1819||Baltimore, MD|
|The Yankee||January, 1828 — August 13, 1828||Portland, ME|
|The Yankee and Boston Literary Gazette||August 20, 1828 — December, 1829||Boston, MA|
|The New-England Galaxy||January — December, 1835||Boston, MA|
|The New World||January — April, 1840||New York, NY|
|Brother Jonathan||May — December, 1843||New York, NY|
|Portland Transcript||June 10 — July 8, 1848||Portland, ME|
John Neal's first two positions as a magazine editor in 1818-1819 for The Portico and the Federal Republican and Baltimore Telegraph came to him through fellow members of the Delphian Club in Baltimore: Dr. Tobias Watkins and Paul Allen. Neal's longest stint as magazine editor was for The Yankee, which he founded only a few months after returning from London in 1827. It ran under that name until, for financial reasons, it merged with a Boston paper and was renamed The Yankee and Boston Literary Gazette. It merged with the New-England Galaxy when it ceased publication at the end of 1828.
Despite the professed allegiance to Benthamian Utilitarianism on its cover and frontispiece, Neal more significantly used The Yankee to reinforce the standing of his hometown and of Northern New England on the national stage, arguing both for the region's merit and for an appreciation of the qualities that differentiate the regions of the US. The sense of American regionalism that John Neal painted in the pages of The Yankee was distinct from that of regionalists to come after him later in the century, "who tended to portray regional spaces in nostalgic or sentimental terms as 'enclaves of tradition' that were posed against an increasingly urban and industrial nation." Instead, "Neal remained committed to imagining regions as dynamic, future-oriented spaces whose identities would—and should—remain elusive." He pursued this goal by publishing profiles of New Englanders and New England lifeways by others in direct conflict with his own, often posing them in conversation with each other in the magazine's pages.The Yankee's greatest impact was uplifting new literary voices such as John Greenleaf Whittier, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Neal's editorship of magazines put him in relationship with other major American literary figures of his time. As editor of The New-England Galaxy in 1835, he published an early story by twenty-five year-old Margaret Fuller, who later hired him to lecture students at her Providence, Rhode Island school and developed an intellectual relationship with him based on their common interests in phrenology, animal magnetism, and clairvoyance. As editor of Brother Jonathan in 1843 he worked with Seba Smith, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, and Nathaniel Parker Willis. One of the magazine's staff writers Neal knew well was Walt Whitman, then in his mid twenties.
Between 1829 and 1848 Neal supplemented his income as a lecturer. Traveling on the lyceum circuit, he covered topics such as "literature, eloquence, the fine arts, political economy, temperance, poets and poetry, public-speaking, our pilgrim-fathers, colonization, law and lawyers, the study of languages, natural-history, phrenology, women's-rights, self-education, self-reliance, and self-distrust, progress of opinion, &c., &c., &c." His first lecture was in Portland, Maine in 1829 on the topic of temperance. His last was titled "Man" and was held at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island in 1848. All but a few of these lectures were written in advance and published afterward to reach a wider audience.
His first lecture on women's rights was spontaneous. He was asked on the spot to address a crowd in Portland, Maine on the subject of freedom on Independence Day 1832. Neal accepted and gave an unprepared speech using the subjects of freedom and American independence from England to attack contemporary institutions as affronts to freedom: enslavement of Black Americans, denial of women's rights to property ownership under coverture, and denial of women's suffrage as taxation without representation – the foundation of American independence from England. Women's rights became a favorite topic of his frequent lecture engagements between 1832 and 1843 throughout the northeastern states. Because they were almost always published afterward and often covered in newspaper reviews, these events broadened Neal's sphere of influence and made his ideas more accessible to readers not necessarily aligned with his views. His oratory style was described by feminist Margaret Fuller in 1837: "Mr. Neal does not argue quite fairly, he uses reason while it lasts, and then, if he gets into a scrape, helps himself out by wit, by sentiment or strings of assertions." Despite this "exaggeration and coxcombry," though, she admired his "magnetic genius," "lion heart," and "sense of the ludicrous."
His most well-attended address was titled "Rights of Women" at New York's City's largest auditorium at the time, the Broadway Tabernacle. Held in 1843, about 3,000 people attended and periodicals like the New-York Tribune and New York Herald provided wide press coverage.
Using magazine articles, short stories, novels, public speaking, political organizing, and personal relationships, John Neal acted throughout his adult life on issues like dueling, temperance, slavery, racism, feminism, and women's rights.
The first socio-political issue to elicit action from John Neal in the public sphere is dueling, which was the subject of his first novel, Keep Cool (1817). The novel portrays the phenomenon as a holdover from an aristocratic era that is immoral, pointless, antidemocratic, and anti-American. His "Essay on Duelling" article for The Portico that same year attacked dueling as a gendered performance and refused to acknowledge it as "the unqualified evidence of manhood." Neal outlined the roles of both men and women in ending dueling, arguing that "woman has most contributed towards the increase of this crime...and she is associated with all our hopes hereafter... She has made man a Duellist for her smile, and she can now change the spirit of opposition to forbearance." As for men, Neal believed that "In his closet every man wishes duelling abolished, and if every man who wishes it sincerely in private would but speak as firmly in publick [sic], it would be abolished."
In his childhood Neal adopted personal convictions against intemperate drinking that he maintained throughout his life, but he did not associate himself with the temperance movement until after he returned to Portland, Maine from London. His first invitation to lecture an audience was for the annual address for the Portland Association for the Promotion of Temperance in 1829.Neal Dow, John Neal's cousin, was a core leader of the national movement toward prohibition policy, and in 1836 Neal engaged in public debates with his cousin, defending moderate wine drinking as an alternative to total abstinence. It was in this period between the late 1830s and late 1840s that Neal became disillusioned with the temperance movement, which had moved away from a focus on moral suasion to enacting prohibition law, with Dow and his followers "instead of regarding the injunction, 'Be temperate in all things,' were furiously intemperate on the subject of temperance; making total abstinence the condition of citizenship, and almost of civilization." Neal remained convinced of "the evils of intemperance... They could not well be exaggerated; the only question was about the remedy."
John Neal is remembered as America's first women's rights lecturer. Starting in 1823 and continuing at least as late as 1869, he used magazine articles, short stories, novels, public speaking, political organizing, and personal relationships to advance feminist issues in the Unites States and England, reaching the height of his influence in this field circa 1843. He declared intellectual equality between men and women, fought coverture, and demanded suffrage, equal pay, and better education for women. He also used his writing to explore the performative nature of gender. Through their association while in London, Neal claimed to have convinced both John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham to take up women's rights issues as well.
Aside from this early attack on coverture in 1823, Neal's early feminist positions were primarily influenced by the written works of Mary Wollstonecraft, particularly A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.Catharine Macaulay and Judith Sargent Murray also influenced Neal. All three viewed poor standards in female education as the root of women's problems. Neal's early feminist essays from the 1820s fill an intellectual gap between these earlier authors and their pre-Seneca Falls Convention successors like Sarah Moore Grimké, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Margaret Fuller. As a male writer insulated from many common forms of attack against female feminist thinkers, Neal's advocacy was crucial in bringing the field back into the mainstream in England and the US.
— John Neal, "Men and Women," 1824
John Neal's first feminist essay, "Men and Women," (1824) recalls the ideas of Macaulay, Murray, and Wollstonecraft about female education, but adds a declaration of intellectual equality between men and women. On education, he said, "Wait until women are educated like men—treated like men—and permitted to talk freely, without being put to shame, because they are women." At that future time, he posited that the greatest of male writers "will be equalled by women." On the subject of intellectual equality, he "maintain[ed] that women are not inferior to men, but only unlike men, in their intellectual properties" and "would have women treated like men, of common sense." Neal wove an insistence of intellectual equality into an even earlier essay in 1817 when he urged women to use "the reason that Heaven has apportioned so equally between her, and her brother" to eliminate the institution of dueling.
Two months after "Men and Women" in 1824, Neal used Blackwood's to make his first call for women's suffrage. Leveraging his magazine The Yankee in 1828 and 1829, he published the essays "Parties and Women," "Capacities of Women," and "Rights of Women," the last of those being his most scathing. Over the 1820s Neal shifted his focus from educational intellectual ideas to political and economic issues like coverture and suffrage.
John Neal's first public speaking experience was before a Baltimore debating society as a young lawyer in 1823. The topic of the debate was slavery, and though Neal was "resolutely and heartily opposed to slavery," he stood to voice an argument ostensibly in support of slavery that interwove the issue with the legal rights of women:
How long [women] shall be rendered by law incapable of acquiring, holding, or transmitting property, except under special conditions, like the slave? Take the best and most comprehensive definition of slavery...and you will be satisfied that one-half of your whole population...are born to slavery, that they live in slavery, and are dying in slavery.
His limited presence on an 1823 Baltimore debate stage aside, Neal's first true lecture to include feminist issues was an Independence Day address in Portland, Maine in 1832. Filling in for a scheduled speaker who never showed, Neal gave an impromptu speech on freedom, declaring that without suffrage, women were victims of the same crime of taxation without representation that was the cause of the Revolutionary War. He connected the topic to an attacks on slavery and coverture as well, prompting a dismissal in the Portland Advertiser that was typical of the age: "The subject was discussed in a very amusing and original manner, but we suspect the fair are well satisfied with their present influence, notwithstanding Mr. Neal's objection that men make all the laws for the other sex, and give them no voice in legislation."
At his most well-attended lecture titled "Rights of Women," Neal spoke before a crowd of around 3,000 people in 1843 at New York City's largest auditorium at the time, the Broadway Tabernacle. He attacked coverture, a timely topic since the speech occurred six years after the first law to grant married women the right to own property in New York was proposed (1836) and five years before New York's model Married Women's Property Act was passed (1848) and subsequently replicated nationwide. He called for women's suffrage, attacking the concept of "virtual representation" in government that opponents argued women enjoyed through men: "Just reverse the condition of the two sexes: give to Women all the power now enjoyed by Men... What a clamour there would be then, about equal rights, about a privileged class, about being taxed without their own consent, and virtual representation, and all that!" Neal also raised the intellectual equality argument and call for female education that he had been making for twenty years:
Steadfast as Death—steady as the everlasting Ocean, in their encroachments, Men have obtained the mastery over Women, not by superior virtue, nor by superior understanding, but by the original accident of superior strength; and after monopolizing all power, have extinguished her ambition, dwarfed her faculties, and brought her up to believe—the simpleton—that she was created only for the pleasure of man.
The "Rights of Women" speech was widely covered, albeit dismissed, by the press, and Neal printed it later that year in the pages of Brother Jonathan magazine, of which he was editor. He used that magazine in 1843 to publish his own essays calling for equal pay and better workplace conditions for women, and to host a printed debate of correspondence on the merits of women's suffrage between himself and Eliza W. Farnham. His short story "Idiosyncrasies," also printed in Brother Jonathan in 1843, explored the male feminist perspective through the narration of a character named Lee:
And so, I began to look about me, and tried for a long while to understand why it was, that women were so changeable, and weak, and frivolous; and having found it in the Institutions of Society, as we men call them, we, the founders, framers, and supporters of those very institutions, which imprison the soul of woman, and set a seal upon her faculties—and seven seals upon the fountain of her thoughts; forbidding her to reason for herself, to enquire for herself, to judge for herself—nay even to believe for herself; and allowing her no share whatever in the glorious birthright we claim, of governing ourselves: Having found the cause, I say, in these institutions, the hand-work of Man, and believing in my heart...that where the evil was, there the remedy must be sought for, I went to work, with a determination to help the first woman I should meet with, having the courage and steadfastness of purpose, needed for such a struggle, up—up—and into the place she had been created for—that of entire companionship with MAN.
Neal became even more prominently involved with the women's suffrage movement in his old age following the Civil War, both in Maine and nationally by supporting Elizabeth Cady Stanton's and Susan B. Anthony's National Woman Suffrage Association and writing for its journal, The Revolution. Stanton and Anthony recognized his work after his death in their History of Woman Suffrage.
Though John Neal represented himself as "resolutely and heartily opposed to slavery" throughout his life, his writings, lectures, and actions against the institution are slim compared to other reform topics like women's rights. The topics of slavery and anti-Black racism did sometimes come out in his attacks on hypocritical behavior. Writing under an assumed English identity for Blackwood's Magazine in London in 1824, Neal inserted this treatment of Southern White Americans in an article otherwise about the peculiarities of North American speech and folkways:
It is a common thing, in the United States, to hear a high-spirited Virginian, or Carolinian, declaiming about Liberty...in the very presence of his own slaves, a part of whom bear an alarming resemblance to the white children of the same family, upon whom they are waiting...in a state of the most abject and pitiable submissiveness—within hearing...of the of the overseer's lash—or the cries of some poor fellow undergoing punishment—and the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, superbly framed, hanging up in front of him...wherein it is proclaimed to all the nations of the earth—that "all men are born free and equal!"
Neal called attention to racist hypocrisy as he saw it among Northern Whites as well. In 1828, he sponsored six Black residents of Portland, Maine to join the gymnasium he had founded there just months earlier. He offered to the all-White membership "that, in their vehement opposition to slavery, they had now a good opportunity for manifesting their sincerity, and of advancing the colored man, at least one step in the social scale." When all but two of the other members voted to restrict the new Black members, Neal published his disappointment in his magazine The Yankee:
The Gymnics of Portland...have voted that colored people are not "persons," and that these words in their constitution "all persons of cleanly habits and good behavior are admitted" means that no colored man, however light colored he be, however well-behaved, or well-educated, can be permitted to exercise with white citizens of our free and equal-community. Hurra for New-England! We have no prejudices here—None but wholesome prejudices, at any rate.
Neal found racism to be pervasive throughout the country. He used his 1833 novel The Down-Easters to demonstrate this understanding by portraying racist behavior among both Northern and Southern Whites.
Despite consensus among Black Mainers around the abolitionist solution to slavery over colonization, Neal supported the American Colonization Society rather than the abolition movement to end slavery. He promoted colonization on his lecture tours and he served as secretary of the Portland Auxiliary of the American Colonization Society, which he helped found in 1833.
While it is likely that Neal believed the pervasiveness of racism would limit the ability of Black Americans to fully achieve equality in the US and relocation would allow them to more effectively self-govern and realize civil rights, Neal also likely felt disinclined to join the abolition movement because of a long-standing feud with one of its leaders, William Lloyd Garrison. The feud started years before either men became involved with anti-slavery organizing efforts and wasn't resolved until after the Civil War. Their first clash was an editorial Garrison published as a nineteen year-old intern, opposing Neal's "American Writers" series on the front page of the Newburyport Herald and warning Neal of a confrontation should he return to the US from England. In the National Philanthropist in 1828 Garrison attacked Neal's writing style and referred to him as a "blockhead" and an "infidel." The feud was not resolved until an 1865 reception for Garrison in Portland, Maine, at which Neal publicly admitted his error in supporting colonization over abolition and declared "I was wrong...and Mr. Garrison was right."
Praise for John Neal, both by his contemporaries and by historians, is often tempered by acknowledgement of his faults. One theme is that Neal failed to focus on any one vocation long enough to achieve great works, as biographer Windsor Daggett claimed: "John Neal was a genius; true it is, he scattered his genius into many channels at a loss." Scholar Fred Lewis Pattee saw Neal "at every point genius, though genius of a type that must be especially defined" with words like "energy and persistence" but also "ignorance colossal." Contemporary Edgar Allan Poe was "inclined to rank John Neal first, or at all events second, among our men of indisputable genius," but in the same paragraph rated his work as "massive and undetailed," "hurried and indistinct," and "deficient in a sense of completeness."Henry Wadsworth Longfellow similarly classified Randolph as "the work of Genius" but in the same paragraph referred to it as "a compound of reason and nonsense—drollery and absurdity—wit and nastiness."
This rhetoric of tempered praise that surrounded Neal in his life led historians to lament his inability to achieve what they saw as the potential of his genius. Biographer Donald A. Sears classified him as "a writer without a masterpiece" who "lived to be eclipsed by writers of lesser genius but greater control of their talents." Daggett said, "He flashed youthful brilliance. He never quite caught up with it or conquered it, and so he sometimes wore the stamp of failure in the minds of his contemporaries." Scholar Alexander Cowie referred to Neal as "the victim of his own lust for words." A more biting and creative critique by Neal's contemporary, James Russell Lowell, was captured in an 1848 poem in which he referred to Neal as "a man who made less than he might have" who was good at "whisking out flocks of comets, but never a star" because he was "too hasty to wait till Art's ripe fruit should drop," and concluded that "could he only have waited he might have been great."
My book itself is only a Preface. And what, after all, is any Life but a preface?—a preface to something better—or worse?
— John Neal, Preface to Wandering Recollections of a Somewhat Busy Life: An Autobiography, 1869
Aside from the encouragement and critique he offered to others, John Neal's creative work had indirect influence on many writers during and after his life. Seba Smith, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are all known to have enjoyed and been influenced by Neal's early poems and novels that were published while they were attending Bowdoin College near Neal's hometown of Portland, Maine. Of these, Smith is most famous for his use of Maine dialect in his "Jack Downing" humor series, which is likely influenced by Neal's use of that dialect in his writings. It is also likely that Edgar Allan Poe developed many of his characteristic traits as a writer under the influence of Neal's articles in The Yankee in the late 1820s.
Many scholars conclude that many of the nation's most defining authors of the mid-nineteenth century American literary renaissance earned their reputations by employing techniques learned from Neal's work earlier in the century, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville. Biographer Benjamin Lease pointed to Neal's comparatively better remembered immediate predecessors, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, as lacking an obvious link to those mid-century masters that Neal clearly demonstrates. He further argued that Neal's ability to influence such disparate figures as Poe and Whitman demonstrates the weight of his work.
Neal left "no single work of fiction which deserves to be revived for its sheer merit" and no books "worth placing on the shelves of any library save as a 'believe it or not' specimen." Without a masterpiece but with undeniable influence, Neal was classified by most twentieth century scholars as a secondary figure in American literary history. Both Lease and Sears in the 1970s classified him as a transitional figure who came after the initial wave of England-imitating American literature of Cooper and Irving but before the great American Renaissance that occurred after Neal had published the bulk of his work.
Twenty-first century scholars have critiqued the twentieth century application of second-class status, placing Neal "Not exactly 'beneath' the 'American Renaissance,'" but rather "scattered across it." Scholars Edward Watts and David J. Carlson contended that Neal was written out of the history of the Renaissance because of his distance from the Boston-Concord, Massachusetts circle and his utilization of popular styles and modes they viewed at a lower artistic level. Ironically, Watts and Carlson also blamed Neal himself for spreading the message so well that his vision of a new American literature had not yet been achieved, which may have led his mid-century successors to believe that they were breaking new ground. Of the same camp, scholar Maya Merlob claimed that the mid-nineteenth century self-styled Renaissance authors engaged with the Romantic style as a disengagement with commercialism, whereas Neal used it to fuel economic returns on his labor. She points to this difference in relationship with their own literature as an explanation for the gulf between the legacies of Neal versus his better-remembered successors.