Published Date Written by Cliff GallantThe next time you're passing through Longfellow Square, walk down in the direction of the waterfront a bit and take a look at the 1837 John Neal house at 173-175 State Street, on the left just down from the statue. It's the grey granite four-story building with the ancient looking twisted wisteria vines growing up from behind the black wrought iron fence out front. You've probably seen the wonderful elongated lavender wisterias hanging there.
John Neal, who was born in Portland in 1793, designed the home himself and had it built with granite from a quarry he owned up in North Yarmouth. He might have even planted the wisteria vines himself before he passed away in 1876, who knows. They're almost three feet round at the base, so maybe it's possible.
Portland has never seen, nor is it likely to ever see again, the likes of John Neal. He is generally regarded by local historians to have been the most accomplished and dynamic individual in the history of the city, having made his mark in a number of spheres of endeavor. He was also, it must be noted, without doubt the most irascible and universally disliked individual in the history of the city. His story is one of neither triumpth nor of tragedy, it is one in which the two are tightly woven together, like ancient wisteria vines.
Having quit school at age twelve, Neal embarked on a intense regimen of self-education that continued throughout his life. He left Portland at age 16, fired by a fierce determination to make his mark on the wider world and alternately failed and succeeded to a modest degree at a number of endeavors for the next few years. At age 23 he experienced his first significant success when, due to his obvious brilliance and over-abundant capacity for hard work, he was hired as the editor of a major American daily newspaper, the Baltimore Telegraph. In addition to his duties as editor of the Telegraph, he also had a daily column in the paper. Along with a number of other firsts recorded by John Neal, he is said to have been the first daily newspaper columnist in the country.
Over the course of the seven years that he spent in Baltimore as an editor and daily columnist, he also wrote five novels and took up practising law, having "read for the law" to earn his law license. Not bad for somone who quit school at the age of 12.
Neal had made many enemies in Baltimore, though, through his vicious — and often unreasonable — attacks on people in his column and in his novels, so in 1823, at the age of 30, he headed to England, more by default than by design.
He at first was well received by the English, his willingness to comment profusely on the foibles of his fellow Americans amusing Englishmen to no end, but after about three years his abrasive personality and willingness to skewer them as readily as he did his fellow coutrymen caused his welcome to wear thin and he sailed for home.
He originally intended to return to Baltimore after a brief stop in Portland to visit his family, but when he arrived in Portland he was met at the pier by a large crowd of townsmen who had received word of his iminent return and wished to make it very well known to him that he was not welcome. His unkind characterizations of Portland in his various writings over the years had had their effect. The hostile reception he received had the opposite effect of what was intended, though. He was so delighted to find that passions ran so high against him that he changed his plans and settled in Portland.
Thus began what was definitely the most productive period of John Neal's eventful life. He was determined to harness what he saw as the vast potential of the city of his birth and make of it what he called an "Athens in the Wilderness."
To this end, he founded The Yankee, a weekly literary and artistic publication with a national circulation that "burst like a meteor upon America," according to one journalist. With The Yankee as a pulpit, he furthered the careers of such American literary giants as Edgar Allen Poe and John Greenleaf Whittier. Poe's biographers, as a matter of fact, commonly make the point that John Neal discovered Edgar Allen Poe, who dedicated his poem Tamerlane to Neal. John Greenleaf Whittier was "ready to quit poetry and everything else of a literary nature" when in his darkest hour his work was published in The Yankee.
Neal also advanced the careers of some very well known artists by his reviews of their work in The Yankee. His early support ignited the career of the well known landscape painter Charles Codman, whose work Neal first spotted on the walls of the Elm Street Tavern, which was located in the vacinity of the present day Portland Public Library. He also championed the work of sculptor Benjamin Akers, the creator of The Dead Pearl Diver, now in the collection of the Portland Museum of Art. John Neal's column on art in The Yankee, as a matter of fact, established him as America's first art critic.
His activities were not confined to the intellectual and artistic spheres by any means though. He made an indelible mark on the American scene when he founded the first athletic gyms in the country here in Portland and across the state of Maine, having become a devout believer in the value of physical exercise during his stay in England, and becoming a skilled boxer himself.
As if his contributions to the fields of literature, art and physical fitness were not enough, John Neal was also an early proponent of women's rights and the equality of blacks and contributed a great deal of support to both causes. Elizabeth Oakes Smith, the eminent feminist, said that Neal's writings on the subject "fired my enthusiasm for the cause." He made his point regarding the issue of equal rights for blacks by resigning from one of the gyms he established when the directors voted to exclude blacks from membership.
One could go on about John Neal endlessly. Former State Rep. and eminent local historian Herb Adams provided me with many insights and anecdotes relative to John Neal's life and it pains me not to be able to include them here, because he was a fascinating man indeed, but one is forced to be selective. All I can do is urge you to look him up in the Portland Room of the library, and to stop by and look at his house on State Street.
Don't pick any flowers though. When John Neal was 79 years old, he picked a man up and threw him off a trolley because he refused to extinguish his cigar, and I suspect that his spirit would not take kindly to anyone messing around with his wisterias.