Wednesday, June 27, 2012

James Alexander Houston (1819-1849)

Houston wrote for the Washington Union and National Era under the pseudonym "John Smith the Younger." According to the richly detailed biographical sketch in The Phonographic Magazine Volume 8 (May 15, 1894), Houston was born in Ireland, earned a medical degree in Scotland, and in America became an expert in shorthand, working for a time as chief stenographer for the U. S. Senate. His career in journalism included a stint as editor of the New York Herald. Altogether a remarkable person, Houston unfortunately died young at the age of thirty.

From "Literary Gossip" under Correspondence of The National Era, May 27, 1847. Letter from New York dated May 24, 1847 and signed, "JOHN SMITH THE YOUNGER"; found at Accessible Archives:
"Omoo," the new work of Mr. Melville , the author of "Typee," has met with a very rapid sale. Already five thousand copies have been disposed of, and it is probable that twenty or thirty thousand additional copies will be needed to supply the increasing demand. It is a very spirited, vigorous, and amusing narrative of sea life and adventures in the South Sea islands; but it is not equal to "Typee." The latter is one of the most fascinating books which has ever been composed full of the most splendid imagery and enchanting description. Herman Melville stands, in my opinion, in the very first rank of American writers. He writes without affectation, and therefore he writes powerfully and well.
In Douglass and Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style (New Bedford: Spinner Publications, 2005), Robert K. Wallace cites the passage above and identifies "John Smith the Younger" as James A. Houston. As Wallace observes, Houston's
"praise of Typee has been overlooked by Melville scholars (as has much of the response of the National Era to Melville in general).” -- Douglass and Melville

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