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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Sketch of William Wirt

By John Pendleton Kennedy (1795–1870)

[From Memoirs of the Life of William Wirt. 1849. Revised Edition. 1850.]

IN the prime of his life, Mr. Wirt was remarked for his personal beauty. With a tall figure, ample chest and erect carriage, there was no great appearance of muscular strength, but a conspicuous ease and grace of motion. His head was large, and in good proportion to his frame; the features of his face strongly defined. A large nose, thin and accurately formed lips, a chin whose breadth gave to his countenance an approximation to the square rather than the oval outline—clear, dark blue eyes, looking out beneath brows of widest compass, and the whole surmounted by an expanded and majestic forehead imparted dignity and intellectual prominence to a physiognomy which the sculptor delighted to study. A curled, crisp and vigorous growth of hair—in his latter days almost white—clustered upon his front, and gave an agreeable effect to the outline of his head and face.

Towards the close of his life, severe study and the infirmities of his constitution had made a visible trace upon his exterior. He lost somewhat of his firm and perpendicular port; his complexion became sallow; his eye faded into a lighter blue, though it grew even kindlier in expression.

His letters sufficiently indicate the character of his manners. They were gentle, courteous and winning. His voice was clear and sweet, and variously modulated by an ear of the finest musical perception. His laugh, never boisterous, was sly, short, and full of the gayety of his temper. Few men ever had a keener insight of the ludicrous. It never escaped him, however little he might be on the watch for it. Sterne, for this reason, amused him above all other authors in light literature. The quiet humor of “Tristram Shandy,” and those exquisite drolleries which lie in ambush in every page, were the most familiar recollections of his reading. Many of them may be found covertly lurking through his letters.

His conversation was exceedingly attractive. It seldom fell into discourse, but played with all kinds of amusing topics. It was suggestive, provoking thought in others, and fortifying them with opportunity to contribute somewhat to the purpose, from their own reflection or memory. No man was more free from that odious habit of endeavoring to say “smart things,” which sometimes misleads even persons of good repute for social talent.

Wirt’s playfulness was contagious. It made his friends forget the time which was running by, and even the good cheer of a convivial meeting. An amusing evidence of this occurred in Baltimore, before he became a resident of that city. He was returning one night, about ten o’clock, to his lodgings from a visit, when his friend Meredith met him in the street, and invited him to join a little family party at his house, at supper. Wirt, either doubtful whether his friend was in earnest,—for the character of the intercourse between them often rendered this a difficult point to determine,—or struck with the incongruity of his challenge to a supper, when he was about retiring to his bed, answered Meredith’s invitation in a jocular way, saying, “Yes, I’ll come, and I’ll give you enough of it.” On Meredith’s return home, he found there Dr. Pattison,—who was then a resident of Baltimore, now a distinguished physician of Philadelphia,—and detained him to supper. Wirt had not come when the party sat down to table, and Meredith had ceased to expect him, when, near the conclusion of the supper, he made his appearance. He took his seat, ate very moderately and drank less. The supper was removed, and Wirt gave an intimation to the ladies who were present, that, as it was bedtime, they had better retire. They obeyed; and Meredith, the Doctor, and Wirt found themselves sitting at the table alone. The cloth was drawn, and a small residuum of a decanter of Scotch whiskey, perhaps, was the only drinkable before them. That remained untouched, and was finally taken away. A snuff-box was placed on the table, and the party, as Meredith and Doctor Pattison supposed, was about to break up, it being after midnight. But Wirt was in excellent mood for conversation, and gave full play to all his resources. He took snuff freely, told stories of a lively cast, mooted questions of science of the gravest as well as the lightest import, provoked jocular discussions, and, in short, raised his comrades to a key of enjoyment as high as his own. No one thought of the hour. They were eventually aroused to a consideration of the time they had spent over their solitary snuff-box, by the entrance of the servant and the opening of the shutters, which disclosed to them the broad daylight. Wirt had premeditated this adventure, and was greatly amused at his success, when he found his companions expressing their amazement at this unconscious lapse of the night….

He delighted in old remembrances of pleasant persons and things, meditating on the good he had observed in character, and charitably passing over the bad. “In the whole of my intercourse with him,” said a gentleman who knew him well, “I never heard a remark fall from his lips that was tainted with bad feeling. His heart appeared to have his memory in keeping, and though his sarcastic observation sometimes induced him to pour forth sallies lively and severe, there was always some redeeming praise to shield the breast from the dart he aimed at. He would not, for worlds, have purchased a smile at the expense of the feelings of a friend.”