Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Notable Neighbor

John Pendleton Kennedy
A Notable Neighbor and Railroad Passenger in Ellicott’s Mills

Spending many of his summers in a small cottage perched on the hillside high above The B&O Railroad Station in Ellicott’s Mills, John Pendleton Kennedy was the scion of a cultivated Baltimore, Md., family. Born in 1795 he graduated from Baltimore College in 1812 and served for 2 years in the Maryland militia. In 1816 he began practicing law. It is said he disliked practicing law, however, and by 1829 (thanks to a generous legacy from a wealthy uncle) he was able to withdraw from the courtroom and begin a long literary and public career. Early on Kennedy contributed sketches and satires to various publications. In 1832 he published his first book, Swallow Barn, a series of sketches depicting plantation life in Virginia, written under the pseudonym Mark Littleton. Under the same name he published his most successful novel, Horse-Shoe Robinson (1835).
With regular passenger service between Baltimore and Ellicott’s Mills well established, Kennedy purchase a small plot of land and built a neat little summer cottage above the B&O Station down on Main Street. Throughout his creative career, he lodged in his small retreat in Ellicott’s Mills far away from the dismal, humid Baltimore summer. No stranger to the B&O Railroad or Ellicott City Station, Kennedy rode back and forth to Baltimore on a regular basis maintaining a household in the City for business and winter lodging. On several occasions, Edgar Allen Poe debarked the B&O on Main Street and made his way up to Kennedy’s summer retreat.
Kennedy was also a friend of B&O Railroad director and general counsel John H.B. Latrobe. On an evening in October, 1833, three of Baltimore's most discerning gentlemen were gathered around a table in the back parlor of Latrobe’s house. Fortified with “some old wine and some good cigars,” John Pendleton Kennedy, James H. Miller and John H. B. Latrobe poured over manuscripts submitted in a literary contest sponsored by the Baltimore Sunday Visitor. Their unanimous choice for best prose tale was “MS. Found in a Bottle,” a curious and haunting tale of annihilation. The fifty dollar prize was awarded to the story’s heretofore unknown and, at the time, penniless author; Edgar Allan Poe.
In 1838 he not only produced another novel, Rob of the Bowl, but was also elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Whig. He lost and regained the seat several times. During this period he began to turn from fiction to more overtly political writing. A close friend and colleague of Edgar Allen Poe, many letters between the two are preserved at Johns Hopkins University.
In 1840 Kennedy's satire on Jacksonian democracy was published. In 1843 his Defense of the Whigs attacked John Tyler's defection from party policy on assuming the presidency after the death of William Henry Harrison. Kennedy produced his last important literary effort, a two-volume biography of the great lawyer William Wirt, in 1849.
In 1852, now a well known figure in America, Kennedy was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Millard Fillmore. During his 8-month tenure he helped organize Adm. Matthew Perry's expedition to Japan and dispatch the search party trying to find the missing explorer Sir John Franklin and his expedition.
At the outset of the Civil War, Kennedy, who had fought secession on the one hand and republicanism on the other, finally cast his lot with the Union. At the end of the War he published Mr. Ambrose's Letters on the Rebellion, in which he pleaded for compassion toward the fallen South. Occasional Addresses, Political and Official Papers, and At Home and Abroad (all 1872) were published posthumously. He died peacefully in his sleep on August 10, 1870 and is buried in Greenmount Cemetery in Baltimore.
Courtney B. Wilson, Executive Director