“Why cant I immortalize my name before morning?”: The Diaries of James Thomas Robinson

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

On February 20 1933, the U.S. Congress proposed the 21st Amendment to repeal Prohibition. I’d like to take advantage of this auspicious day to introduce you to one of the most entertaining collections here at the MHS.

It’s not often that I laugh out loud at a collection, but I found myself doing just that when I cataloged the diaries of James Thomas Robinson of North Adams, Mass. To give you a taste—and to commemorate this 86th anniversary of the end of Prohibition—here’s what young Robinson wrote on the night of 16 May 1844:

I am in the old store with Quin[1], drunk! He is drunk also and trying to scribble in his journal. The fact is “old Quin” has got a cask of damn good brandy here, and we have been drawing on it, sucking it from the bung, through a spike stem. This would look like having a strong desire for liquor, but the fact is I wanted to see how it would feel to be drunk. I never was really cocked before, since I can remember. How curious I feel! My head swims, my body feels warm, I am top heavy. Quin is dashing away like a steam boat, though he dont know what in hell he is writing. […] Drunk! Drunk! Why in hell cant I be a Byron, or more! Why cant I immortalize my name before morning? I dont think much of this heavy drunk after all that is said about it. I dont think tis very pleasant, this allmighty dizzyness. I cant seem to write. S**t.

handwritten page of diary showing entry for Thursday, May 16
James Thomas Robinson’s diary, 16 May 1844

His handwriting is almost illegible by the end of the entry. I’m calling it “drunk-journaling.” The following morning, in neater handwriting, Robinson wrote:

It seems that I was drunk last night, from the preceeding page. Well I suppose it must be so, though I have no very distinct recollection of it, and now, on reflection, I cant say I am very proud of it, either as an instance of romance, or a circumstance of pleasure. No, on the whole I think it was a foolish freak, extreemely foolish, in this day of light and truth, and I dont think I shall cut such a caper again. To-day, as was to be expected, I’ve feel dull and spiritless. Slept on the chairs, eyes heavy and red, appetite gone.

handwritten page of diary showing entry for Friday, May 17
James Thomas Robinson’s diary, 17 May 1844

I’ve been wanting to blog about this collection for some time, but it’s hard to know where to start. Robinson was both a good writer and an interesting guy, so his diaries are chock full of terrific content and cover a wide range of subjects. When he had his “foolish freak” above, he was a 21-year-old student at Williams College and a great sower of wild oats. He described a number of salacious peccadillos and sexual experiences, and some scenes played out like slapstick comedy—in one close call, Robinson had to hide under a woman’s bed to escape detection.

Robinson was sometimes infatuated, jealous, melodramatic, alternately thoughtless and empathetic, manipulative and manipulated—in other words, fairly typical! In fact, there’s something very modern and “unplugged” about his diaries that makes them distinctive. Equally fascinating are later entries, which contain some introspection and reflections on himself as a younger man.

What else is there, you ask? There’s family drama (he hated his stepmother and resented his half-brother), local gossip (his cousin Harriet was jilted by Henry L. Dawes, later a U.S. congressman), a political awakening (Robinson became a member of the anti-slavery Free Soil Party), and eventual maturity (he developed a close friendship and great admiration for his sister-in-law, poet Caroline Atherton Mason).

In his diaries, Robinson is often likeable, or at least relatable, and at other times irritating and hypocritical. For all his genuine pity for Harriet’s heartbreak, his own treatment of women leaves a lot to be desired. Case in point: poor Lucy, a young woman who apparently worked for the family and with whom Robinson had a fling. The power dynamic worked in his favor, and while for him the relationship was casual, she felt differently. He eventually realized this and regretted his insensitivity.

One more thing makes discussing this collection a challenge: it’s difficult to find a family-friendly passage to quote! Robinson liked his language a little blue, and his free use of four-letter words is also unusual in 19th-century material. Personally I find his conversational style endearing.

The five diaries of James Thomas Robinson date from 1842 to 1853, with gaps. Robinson graduated from Williams College in 1844 and worked as a lawyer in North Adams, like his father. He served in several public positions, including Massachusetts state senator and judge of probate and insolvency for Berkshire County, and co-owned and wrote for the local paper. He and his wife Clara (Briggs) Robinson had three sons. He died in 1894 at the age of 72.

[1]My best guess is that “Quin” was Josiah Quincy Robinson, Robinson’s first cousin once removed. He was a few months older than Robinson.