Samuel C. Taylor journal  1863; 1890
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Collection Scope and Content Note

The Taylor journal is a single, 3/4 leather-bound volume in two sequential parts, the first dated 1863, the second, 1890. The journal is probably a transcript made in 1890 or 1891 from the original, based on the style of binding and paper, and the continuity in handwriting and pen between the two dated parts. The 1863 portion, 260 pages long, takes the form of almost daily journal entries from the time of Taylor's departure from Philadelphia on February 16th, through his stay in Memphis, until his return to Philadelphia on May 16th, and is uniformly well written and interesting. It is a far more polished piece of writing than many journals, and may have been corrected or embellished at the time of its transcription. At its best, Taylor's prose has the feeling of Mark Twain's exuberant descriptions of life on the Mississippi, leavened with the cynical undercurrents of Melville's Confidence Man., and though it is brief, covering only a four months' residence, the journal is a valuable social record of life in wartime Memphis as seen by a person come to take advantage of the quick money to be made. Taylor has a preference for the "colorful" aspects of life in Memphis, and includes vivid descriptions of the shoddy accommodations, the venality and corruption, rampant violence and crime, and of soldiers, prostitutes, rebels, drunks and rowdies. Throughout, he displays an eye for the telling detail, a good sense of humor, and an unerring flair for making a good story out of difficult circumstances.

Among the several highlights in the journal is an excellent description of the steamboat trip to Memphis, during which a "Jewish" swindler/gambler managed to con his way out of several tight spots by his using his wits and his finesse with cards. Once in Memphis, Taylor provides memorable descriptions of the city in all its war-time depravity, and vivid accounts of long lines of ragged, worn-out soldiers marching in to town, of murder, robbery and charlatanism, of prostitutes and drunks shouting and shooting in the streets, and of the characters, like himself, who have descended on the city to turn a quick profit, legally or illegally. Taylor was somewhat less accomplished in his poetry, though his poem about life in Memphis during the war is an amusing, sarcastic look at the closet secessionists of the city, Memphis' cheerless, malattired women, crime, and the amusement he occasionally found, including listening to the "darkies" singing. One quatrain summarizes his attitudes well: "What an awfull place to live in / Now I'll stop or freighten you (sic) / Yet upon my word of honor / What I've written you is true" (p. 106).

Taylor's attitude toward Jews, synonymous with swindling merchants in his mind, and African-Americans is highly stereotyped. He is, however, somewhat sympathetic toward slaves and freedmen even as he is willing to have a laugh at their expense. In Memphis, he attended a religious service for freedmen delivered by a mulatto preacher named Revels. Taylor was genuinely moved by the sermon, and seems to have agreed with its message. He is also somewhat sympathetic with the "contrabands" he sees being trampled by Union soldiers, or boating up river, half-dressed and hungry to a mission in Missouri. In general, though, Taylor is inclined toward a cynical view of strangers, and is always on his guard for the cons and crooks that were abundant in Memphis.

The 1890 portion of the Taylor journal consists of seven humorous essays, which are highly stereotypical, possibly semi-fictional, depictions of life in the south. They include:

  • "Sketches from the South," (Chattanooga, April 3, 1890: p. 263-268)
  • "A Kentucky Wheelman," (Louisville, Ky., April 20, 1890: p. 269-271)
  • "A Hodoo Doctor" (Birmingham, Ala., April 30, 1890: p. 272-275)
  • "The Negro Drill Workers" (Memphis, Tenn., May 2, 1890: p. 276-279)
  • "The Georgia Cracker, The Alabama Razor Back" (Atlanta, Ga., May 10, 1890: p. 280-284)
  • "New Orleans, La." (May 20, 1890, New Orleans: p. 285-293)
  • "Pensacola, Florida" (September 20, 1890, Pensacola: p. 293-295)

These essays are the interesting products of a talented writer, who, though sympathetic observer of southern society, is nevertheless mired in the ingrained attitudes and prejudices of his day. In the first essay, Taylor discusses the phenotype of African-Americans and the several "clases or sets" that comprise the African-American community in the South, from the rich, to the merchants, mechanics, drill men, tramps and the "poor old uncle." "The hoodoo doctor" and "The Negro drill workers" are somewhat longer essays along the same lines, and are written as first hand experiences. In "A Kentucky wheelman" and "The Georgia cracker, the Alabama razorback," Taylor turns his eye to the poor white community in the deep South, and paints a dismal view of the state of their culture. Essays 3, 4, and 5 also include crude, pen and ink illustrations of the subjects of the essay.

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