John Pendleton Kennedy

1795 - 1870

John Pendleton Kennedy was born October 25, 1795. His parents were John Kennedy, a Baltimore merchant, and Nancy Pendleton of Martinsburg, Virginia. He grew up in Baltimore with frequent trips to visit family in the Virginia countryside. It was these two allegiances that define his literary renown. John P. Kennedy had the unique distinction of being both a popular and widely acclaimed author of his period and a well know statesman. Because of this dual nature of Kennedy's fame, it would be negligent to ignore his public life. He became a prominent lawyer of the Maryland bar, was elected to both the Maryland State Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives. He was appointed to the delegation of the United States to Chile; a post which he later turned down. Kennedy also served as the Secretary of the Navy and was largely responsible for the success of Commodore Perry's expedition to Japan and various other endeavors. Kennedy retired from politics but remained active in Baltimore society. 1

Kennedy’s claim to literary fame takes several distinct forms. His first claim, but perhaps his most fleeting, was as an author. Kennedy, over the course of his life, wrote three novel length books and numerous other political essays and satires. His works were marked by a fine sense of humor and picturesque descriptions. Of these works, the most famous are a satirical collection of short essays and poetry that he published in collaboration with an acquaintance, Peter Hoffman Cruse, 2 and his novels, Swallow Barn, Horse-Shoe Robinson and Rob of the Bowl. These three novels attained Kennedy a degree of fame that placed him in the same category as James Fennimore Cooper and Washington Irving according to contemporary critics. The lasting literary gift was that he, with Irving and Cooper pioneered the genre of regional literature which became so popular around the time of his death. He also authored many political essays and tracts, the most famous of which are The Annals of Quodlibet, A Defense of the Whigs, The Border States and Mr. Ambrose's Letters on the Rebellion. 3

However, of his literary endeavors, his greatest fame should likely come from his pioneering role in creating a distinctly American literature. Kennedy's lack of lasting literary fame is due to several factors. One main factor is that his works, while praised as richly descriptive, are also derivative. There is a marked similarity between Swallow Barn and Washington Irving's Bracebridge Hall. Kennedy's works were decidedly influenced by Irving and his style was largely mimetic. Horse-Shoe Robinson deals with the American Revolution in the South, and is again a regional piece marked by the vivid description that enjoyed success Swallow Barn. Rob of the Bowl is a novel set in Maryland and concerns piracy and romance. These last two novels are more refined than Swallow Barn and have a more defined plot. Horse-Shoe Robinson was also better received by the critics of the time. However, the picturesque speech and vivid description that made Swallow Barn a success are also present in his last two novels and are even more polished in his later works although Rob of the Bowl did not enjoy the commercial or critical success of Horse-Shoe Robinson. Since this description was originally modeled after the style of Irving, the works were still viewed as derivative. 4

The real reason for Kennedy's fleeting literary renown is due to a provision that was made in his last will and testament, in which he requested,

It is my wish that the manuscript volumes containing my journals, my note or common-place books, and the several volumes of my own letters in press copy, as also all my other letters, such as may possess any interest or value (which I desire to be bound in volumes) that are now in lose sheets, shall be returned to my executors, who are requested to have the same packed away in a strong walnut box, closed and locked, and then delivered to the Peabody Institute, to be preserved by them unopened until the year 1900, when the same shall become the property of the Institute, to be kept among its books and records. 5

This request that his manuscripts be kept in the Peabody Institute unopened until 1900 prevented access to Kennedy's works, especially in the lean years of the Reconstruction, when book printing decreased and copies of Kennedy's books became more scarce. This lack of access to Kennedy's papers and manuscripts seriously damaged his reputation and he slowly became relegated to obscurity. 6 So as time passed, the literary value of Kennedy's writing became less apparent. It has only been after the opening of that box in 1900 that his merits have been reevaluated. This reevaluation has placed Kennedy into a second tier of American authors; below the level of Irving, Cooper and Melville, but deserving praise for his works but more specifically for his contributions to American literature.

The second literary claim to fame was his famous patronage of Edgar Allen Poe. Kennedy served as not only a patron, but also a friend to Poe, who counted him as his first true friend.7 Kennedy helped Poe by giving him money, by getting Poe a job at the Southern Literary Messenger, and realistically, getting him published for the first time. Kennedy's patronage, by most accounts, saved Poe from desperate circumstances while he resided in Baltimore. This support of the struggling author is Kennedy's more lasting claim to fame in most literary circles.8

However, John Pendleton Kennedy's greatest mark on the landscape of Baltimore was in his role in the creation of the Peabody Institute. Kennedy, in his younger days, had been a friend of George Peabody and Had served with him in the army in the War of 1812. As a result of Kennedy's friendship, Peabody consulted him when he expressed a philanthropic interest in creating an educational institute in Baltimore. Kennedy was greatly pleased by this and laid out the foundations of the Peabody Institute. The plan which Kennedy espoused was the one that was finally adopted by the wealthy London banker, and Kennedy served on the Board of Directors for the institute during its founding and as president of the board of directors for ten years until his death. He was a great proponent of the Peabody Library, the School of Arts and a lecture series. These institutions are still landmarks in Baltimore society and they also firmly established Baltimore as one of the leading American cities for the arts. 9

While John Pendleton Kennedy is remembered for many remarkable things, not the least of which was his distinguished political career on both the national and the state level, and for his famous acquaintances such as Thackery, William Wirt and Henry Clay; he should truly be remembered for the mark that he made on those around him. He left an indelible mark on the city of Baltimore with his contributions to its literary reputation through his own literary efforts, his patronage of Poe, and most importantly through his role in the creation of the Peabody Institute.

John Pendleton Kennedy died peacefully in his sleep at 10:00 PM on August 18, 1870. He left behind his second wife, Martha Gray, and numerous nieces and nephews. He also left behind a legacy service to the City of Baltimore. He also left behind a literary legacy that is difficult to match. The creation of the Peabody Institute and Library, as well as his famous patronage of Edgar Allen Poe and His own immense contributions to the development of a distinctly American style of literature place him among the foremost American literary figures. The lasting shame of the matter is that he remains an obscure figure in our history because of a clause in his will.