Very Good. Item #6278
Unpublished autograph travel diary in three notebooks. February-August 1908. Each commercially-produced small octavo notebook (19cm x 12cm) of 190 pages, ruled paper, sewn gatherings, thin oxblood leather covers, rounded corners, all pageblock edges gilt. Covers and stitching now loosened; gatherings separating but all pages present. Leather covers flaking with edge chipping to front panel of third volume. Pages show no damage beyond the blots of the author’s fountain ink. About 12 drawings of terrain profiles, bridges, road configurations, and flags placed sporadically within ongoing script. Continuously paginated by author across all three journals.
In 1908, John Farr Simmons (1892-1968, originally “Simons”) was a young scion of New Jersey aristos. He would, decades later, serve as U.S. ambassador to El Salvador and Guatemala, and as the United States Chief of Protocol under Truman and Eisenhower. As a 16-year-old, he was chaperoned by his preacher grandfather on a Grand Tour of six months that would take him from New York City to Portugal, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, all of the United Kingdom, and Ireland. These three small journals contain his contemporaneous autograph diary of that journey.
The fascination of the diary lies in the fact that young Simmons was not fascinating in any way. His education was solid and his future path was smooth: he would graduate from Princeton in 1913—the institution where his great-great-grandfather had been president a century before. He is not capable of original perceptions, and describes the astonishing sites and peoples of his Grand Tour with the inoffensive banalities of a Baedeker at two removes. He clearly had the DNA for social awareness and meticulousness that would later merit society-page praise for his attention to protocol as “the nation’s greeter.” As he filled these three notebooks, he paginated his blank gatherings, registered his days in actual registers, tabulated his own dated checklists of correspondence, noted who played shuffleboard with whom on the first class deck—and then always returned a few days later to his earlier notes with a refilled fountain pen to correct grammar and fix misspellings.
Simmons was clearly a good chap, filially pious, handsome, likeable, a relentless stroller and hiker. His pages are filled with youthful grooming issues, tepid offhand racism and inherited unconscious misogyny, pro forma religiosity, received ideas about art and history, presumed privilege and some dopiness. But cultural insights or self-awareness? Nearly none. His experiences are exceptional. He once skinny-dipped with a prince of the Austrian empire in the Dead Sea, but he notes it solely as an afterthought. Such immaculate intellectual mediocrity provides the fascination of these diaries. They are a travelogue narrated by the aspiring American zeitgeist itself.
7 March (in Cairo):
Another thing we noticed was the veils that the women wore. It was a good thing, in most cases, as it hid their ugliness.
28 March (in Cairo):
Then we took tea with Dr. and Mrs. Harvey, and after that took the carriage with the same native preacher, an awfully nice young man, back to the mosque el-Hazar. This is also the great Mohammedan university, mostly for learning the Koran, and has twelve thousand students.
When we came in, the courtyard was filled with them, all sitting on the pavement, and bending up and down, as they read, or wrote, or recited the Koran, sometimes to themselves and sometimes to an old teacher, who would hardly listen to them.
It was about the queerest sight I ever saw, to see the big mosque, and the big courtyard, all full of Mohammedans, bowing up and down, and sometimes sideways. There were nearly two thousand of them.
After that we drove back and walked around near Shepheard’s, till six.
There is a man snoring loudly just now, and every time he snores some fat Germans behind me guffaw softly, so I guess I’ll stop now.
28 May (in Florence)
It is so nice to have people take it for granted that you are American without asking, “Are you American or English?”
22 June (in Ghent)
Then [the panel of] Adam and Eve, painted in the 15th century by the Van Eyck brothers. They are just two of a whole panel of an altar in the Ghent church of St. Bavon, and in spite of being painted before America was discovered, the flesh tints are so wonderful that no one since has been able to paint them so well.
24 June (in Amsterdam)
Got right to work on the town, going down the main shopping street which goes past the old town hall. There was such a crowd there that it puts horses and carriages out of business entirely. All kinds of civilized people, nearly, too. (That doesn’t count Turks or people like that.).