By Stephen J. Kotz
By all accounts, John Howard Payne is one of the most revered names in East Hampton history, even if he didn’t spend that much time there and didn’t actually live in the house now known as “Home, Sweet Home” that now occupies such a central place, both literally and figuratively, in the heart of the village.
So, it is hard to believe that Payne, whose famous song was later claimed by the village as its own sentimental anthem, inadvertently managed to tick off a good part of the local population when he wrote a lengthy description of its inhabitants that appeared in a 1838 edition of The Sag Harbor Corrector (a forerunner of this newspaper and one of the first papers to be published on the East End.)
History buffs will get an opportunity to find out what all the fuss was about when the East Hampton Historical Society, as part of its Winter Lecture Series, presents “The Rustic Manners of Old East Hampton: John Howard Payne’s 1838 Recollections of His Boyhood” at Clinton Academy on Friday night at 7 p.m.
Andrew Botsford, the associate editor of “The Southampton Review” and a visiting professor at Stony Brook Southampton, who is familiar sight on East End stages, will take on the role of the playwright and actor Payne in reading an abridged version of his essay.
He will be joined by Evan Thomas and Samantha Ruddock, who will perform a scene from Payne’s most famous work, the operetta “Clari, the Maid of Milan,” from which the song, “Home, Sweet Home,” was taken.
Hugh King, the director of the village’s Home, Sweet Home museum, said Payne’s description of life in East Hampton had a convoluted genesis.
“He visited because he was going to write about William Martin Johnson, a neglected American poet who lived for awhile in East Hampton,” said Mr. King. “He was rummaging about, trying to learn more about Johnson when he began to write his own description of the community.”
What set Payne’s piece apart, according to Mr. King, is that rather than marshal a long list of facts about East Hampton, Payne instead attempted to create an impressionistic image of the village as he remembered it from his childhood and how it largely remained, isolated as it was from the outside world.
It includes descriptions of “the sullen roar” of the Atlantic, a school marm who threatens her charges with the “terrors of ‘sarpints and scorpings’ in an awful cellar” below the schoolhouse if they don’t keep up with their lessons, and village dogs, who would lie patiently on the floor of the church during Sunday services before rising up after the benediction and departing quietly much like their human masters.
Payne, who was born in 1791 in New York City and who spent much of his adult life acting on the London stage, had returned to the United States in the early 1930s and was busy trying to launch a magazine that would, he hoped, do much to dispel the reputation of the United States for being a country of uncivilized barbarians in the eyes of the English and other Europeans.
A descendent of the Hedges and Talmage families, Payne apparently spent some of his childhood in East Hampton, so he had good reason to return there. His grandparents lived in Home, Sweet Home, and his father, William Payne, was the first teacher at Clinton Academy, the first school to be chartered by the New York State Regents, in the days long before Core Curriculum extended much beyond handwriting and arithmetic.
The description of the village, which apparently set off such a tempest, was at first set aside and then ended up being combined with Payne’s article about Johnson, which was published in two parts in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review.
In those days, local newspapers would collect tidbits of information from the surrounding area and run larger, syndicated articles, so it is reasonable to assume that is how The Corrector came to publish the Payne piece in its March 10, 1838 issue.
Robert P. Rushmore, writing in the Long Island Historical Journal, said that East Hampton residents, upon reading Payne’s article, likely “felt that he had invaded their privacy and exposed them to the eyes of strangers. They must have especially resented his droll account of their Sunday church service, his attempts to reproduce their dialect, and his witty description of their houses facades as faces without foreheads” because most were built relatively low to the ground.
Apparently, Mr. Rushmore concluded, Payne’s subjects saw ridicule and condescension where the writer intended to express his admiration for the village’s “old-fashioned integrity, its love of neatness and order, and its independence, industry and republican spirit.”
In any event, villagers soon forgot about their animosity. By the late 1890’s, Payne’s song, with its well known lines, “Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam/Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home,” had become established as a perennial favorite. Payne himself had become something of a local hero as East Hampton residents assumed he must have been referring to the saltbox home of his grandparents and the picturesque village itself when he wrote it.
“The Rustic Manners of Old East Hampton: John Howard Payne’s 1838 Recollections of His Boyhood” will be held at Clinton Academy Museum on Main Street in East Hampton on February 28 from 7 to 9 p.m. Admission is free, but contributions are appreciated. For more information, call the East Hampton Historical Society at 324-6850.