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Lost & Found: Paul Collins on Lee Meriwether
It sounds like the stuff of Plotto: A, a footloose young American, stumbles his way into the greatest historical moments of a century and writes about them in his memoirs. In fact this was the life of one Lee Meriwether, “American Methuselah,” prolific author and adventurer, and master of being in the right place at the right time. Paul Collins introduces the indefatigable Meriwether and first book, How to See Europe on 50 Cents a Day: A Tramp’s Trip, in this Lost & Found from our vault.
The best travel writing usually beings with an absurd proposition, so how could I not pick up an attic-sale book subtitled How to See Europe on Fifty Cents a Day? Even in 1886, a fifty-cent daily travel budget to get from Manhattan to Moscow was insane. And yet traveling on almost no money, one Lee Meriwether knocked on workingmen’s doors and crashed on couches all the way across Europe in the primordial act of broke-college-kid-with-a-backpack bravado. He wrote a veritable Lonely Planet guide a century early, back when the planet really was a lonely, unmappable place.
He was a cocky kid from Memphis, a college dropout whose parents refused to give him traveling money to laze about abroad. Fine, he said, I’ll do it on the money in my pocket—a feat which, after a rough initiation into transatlantic budget travel (“The steerage of an Italian steamer is not a paradise,” he drily notes), he cheekily accomplished, walking with a shabby cloak and a wooden staff through Italy, Austria, Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria, Russia, Germany, Belgium, Holland, and England. He was finally more or less forcefully retrieved by his worried parents, who decided that their young smart-ass had made his point quite well by now.
Along the way he compiled a magnificent set of tales. Walking through Rome, he peers through the iron grates of a random window and is startled: “I saw a ghastly array of grinning skeletons, some propped up on sticks, others reclining on couches, others in kneeling posture, a rosary and a prayer-book clutched in their fleshless fingers.” The chamber’s ceiling is lined with finger bones, and the room is lit by skulls supporting wax tapers. Meriwether recovers from his shock enough to knock on the house’s door: it proves to be a Capuchin monastery, where a monk leads him around their charnel sleeping quarters and patiently explains that they are preparing themselves for the rigors of death and judgment. “He seemed to take a delight in tapping the skulls of deceased saints,” Meriwether notes of his host.
Did you know that there were balloon-animal vendors even in 1886? Well, there were: Meriwether watches one entertaining children in Baden-Baden, where “the odd figures flew hundreds of feet over our head like a flying menagerie.” In Kiev he sees an Edison phonograph—and nothing more—set up in a tent as an amazing sideshow attraction worth twelve kopecks. In Italy he has a glass-eye maker blow white orbs in front of him and then explain why discerning customers demand two sets of glass eyes. (“The pupil is much smaller in daytime than at night, and your fashionable woman would not think of entering a ballroom with the pupils of her eyes of different sizes.”) In Austria he travels through a salt mine to row across a vast subterranean lake two thousand feet underground; in a miserable trek through Bulgaria he nearly starves on a diet of grapes and stagnant water, sleeps in the rough, and is tormented by sand fleas. It is a book of wonders—and throughout it all, he pretty much looks like a bum.
A Tramp Trip was a splendid start for a literary career: what else, I wondered, had this charming young raconteur done? But looking up further titles brought only consternation. There was a newspaper, Meriwether’s Weekly, that he ran in the 1880s. A novel, A Lord’s Courtship, published in 1900. A jaunty Seeing Europe by Automobile, released in 1911. Okay, that’s a good little career for… wait. There’s also the sobering Diary of a War Diplomat, released in both the U.S. and France in 1919. A 1930s pamphlet on the New Deal. Fine—a nice long career… but wait. There’s also a presidential campaign biography from 1948. A leaflet of a Kiwanis address from 1965. A …
The guy kept writing, and he kept not dying. When Lee Meriwether was born in 1862, Jefferson Davis dandled him on his knee; he remembered fleeing with his family from Sherman’s invading troops. By the time he died in 1966—just a year after writing his final memoir—the Beatles were recording Revolver. Meriwether’s grandmother spoke of meeting George Washington, and yet today there are still people who remember Lee as an old man.
I had discovered an American Methuselah: quite possibly the only writer whose memory spans the entire history of the republic.
* * *
A roving writer unstruck from mortality, Meriwether stumbled into the great events of history: at an 1876 suffrage convention, Susan B. Anthony hauled him onstage and hailed him to the crowd as their youngest delegate; six decades later, he traveled through a Soviet Union trembling with Stalinist purges. He camped out in Nuremberg to witness its infamous 1937 Nazi Party rally, but was not too surprised by it, for in 1924 he’d sat in the Munich beer hall where Hitler had staged his abortive putsch just months earlier. He was convinced even then that the humiliations of the armistice were creating a monster:
A 30-piece brass band in the beer hall played a march called “Die grosse cannonen”—the big cannon, referring to the Big Berthas which dropped shells in Paris in 1918. “Every man in the band,” said the man next to me, “is a Hitler follower.”
His life has an extraordinary spiraling circularity not even hinted at in his diary entry: Meriwether himself had lived in Paris during those Bertha bombardments.
For all the horrors he witnessed, he always retained a delight and wonder in meeting artists. He came to know Oscar Wilde, and on their first meeting in Memphis in 1882 he asked the touring author what impressed him in the South.
“Your Negroes,” Wilde hazarded. “I’d like to have a picture of a Negro boy with white teeth and red lips, on my desk; it would be a pretty picture.”
“Does the word ‘pretty’ apply to a boy?”
“Not in the ordinary sense,” Wilde replied.
Meriwether would live long enough to dine in 1958 with an elderly Vyvyan Wilde and him about his famous father, whom the old Englishman had not known since infancy. And yet Meriwether had no particular desire to continue aging. “I wish I was ninety again!” he would joke. The prospect of truly great age simply made him recall being on hand in Luxor the day Howard Carter unwrapped the linens from the body within King Tut’s sarcophagus.
“I saw a mummy—” he remembered plainly, “black skin, coarse hair, a mass of bones.”
* * *
Meriwether had to rewrite and self-publish his memoirs at least four times. The longer he lived and the more he went back to Europe, the more his subsequent experiences backlit the distant monument of his youth: and this is why of all his many books, A Tramp Trip: How to See Europe on Fifty Cents a Day still throws the longest shadow. He often retraced his old routes, a Rip van Winkle witnessing the continent’s evolution from an armed camp of competing empires to a protectorate of American soldiers, an alteration he found as shockingly complete as any sweep of Roman legions. He watched pavement alter the land and their behavior; even in 1911, he observed that Parisians drove their newly invented cars like maniacs. He saw technology palpably change the lot of the working families whose homes he’d once slept in, ending many miseries of pre-industrial peasantry: never again would he find, as he had in A Tramp Trip, farmers who slept in haystacks and lived on seven cents a day, and had never seen the magnificent city of Rome that lay just twenty miles distant. Observing the space age and modern communication when he turned one hundred, Meriwether was embarrassed to recall the reaction he’d once had after meeting Jules Verne. “I thought he was too fictional,” he admitted, adding, “but in recent years, with people going around the world in a few seconds, I see he was too conservative.”
Haunting all of Meriwether’s books is the strange poignancy of a near-mythological figure, a man fated to watch himself and all he knew become history. He pathetically recalled visiting Oscar Wilde’s old London apartment in 1958 and knocking on the door to ask if the old Whistler painting was still on the wall of the study, where Wilde had shown it to him seventy-three years before. “There ain’t no Whistler on the wall now,” the tenant snapped, and slammed the door on the ninety-six-year-old traveler. And yet other times the past would return unexpectedly, vivid and welcoming as ever. Meriwether recounted visiting a family friend in Hartford when he was thirteen; after breakfast one morning, she suggested to the boy that they visit her next-door neighbor—Mark Twain. They found the author in his office with a manuscript scattered on his desk.
“Son, I’m writing about a boy just your age,” Twain mused. “His name is Tom Sawyer.”
Meriwether examined the blotted and scratched-out pages dubiously.
“Gee, I can write better than that.”
“No doubt you can,” Twain laughed. “I can too when I’m not in a hurry.”
In 1957, Missouri’s governor took Meriwether aside to show off an exhibit in his capitol building. “In a glass case on a table,” the old man marveled, “was the manuscript of Tom Sawyer.” And like a mute greeting from the old tramp’s distant past, it lay open to the same page he first read eighty-two years before.
Paul Collins teaches nonfiction at Portland State University’s MFA program. His latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars (Crown, 2011).