New in print: The youthful diaries of "Hapless Jack" Wing

Paul F. Gehl


he Caxton Club’s new publication, The Diaries of John M. Wing, is one of those commonplaces: a text that has had to wait many decades for the right moment to see light. Twenty years ago, or even ten, we did not have the particular conjunction of historical enthusiasms that makes us excited now about Wing’s youthful diaries of adventure and indiscretion in booming post-Civil War Chicago. Civil War and Chicago history are both exciting fields right now. Interest in book collecting as an historical phenomenon waxes and wanes, but we are living a moment (witness Nicholas Basbanes and Nicholson Baker) when collecting is not only social history; it is a matter of celebrity profiling, political wrangling, and, we may hope, constructive public policy. So the youth of John Mansir Wing (1844-1917), one of Chicago’s great library philanthropists, is newly of interest. Moreover, journalism history has gotten past a preoccupation with editorial giants and corporate history; we can now get excited about the daily life of a cub reporter, one who specialized in the lurid feature articles then called “sensations.” That young and ‘hapless Jack’ Wing also set down faithfully his amorous adventures (with both women and men) makes our new publication a document for yet another fashionable field, the history of sexuality.

The diaries have a pretty interesting history in themselves — saved by chance, forgotten by design, found (by chance again), and now published. Wing opened his diaries in 1858, when he was only 14. For so young a writer, they are remarkably interesting, because he had excelled in school and so had the talent to set down his youthful experiences (and longings) in florid, if conventional, Victorian prose. Through several years as a printer’s devil, typesetter and writer of short newspaper pieces, he increased his facility with language, so that by the time he brought his diary-making to Chicago in 1865, he wrote from habit and with considerable frankness. Wing left Chicago in 1866, the year of the last surviving book, and returned only in 1870; so the diaries apparently went back to his hometown in upstate New York and remained there until after the Great Fire had destroyed what little John Wing owned in Chicago in 1871. Alas, we have no diaries for the 1870s or 80s, when Wing was building his fortune as a publisher of trade magazines, The Land Owner (on real estate) and The Western Brewer (which reported on Chicago grain markets and had a decidedly anti-temperance editorial stance ). The great enthusiasms of Wing’s retirement years were genealogy and extra-illustration or Grangerizing. Wing re-organized his library and plated each book, including the diaries, in the 1890s; and about 1912 he moved all his books into a room provided by the Newberry Library, in whose favor he then wrote a will. At the time of his death in 1917, Wing’s office at the Newberry contained some 4,000 volumes and 10,000 prints. Among the books were many personal creations — well over one hundred volumes that Wing had extra-illustrated, several scrapbooks and albums, and the nine early diaries.

The subsequent history of the diaries is murky, though they survived well enough among the large bulk of Wing’s extra-illustrated books in the stacks of the Newberry. Jim Wells, Caxtonian and curator of the Wing collection for 35 years, does not remember ever having seen them, suggesting that one of the earlier curators (both Caxtonians too) had buried them well and thoroughly. By the 1920s the odd personality of the elderly and eccentric Wing was all that people remembered, so his youth probably seemed unimportant. The sometimes mildly racy and misogynist subjects of his extra-illustrated books, moreover, were downright embarrassing; all to the better then that his will stipulated that they could only be consulted in the presence of the Custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation. I came across the diaries in 1987, in the course of preparing an exhibit on the second Wing curator, Ernst F. Detterer. Even to me they then seemed more a curiosity than a document. But a request from the Dictionary of Literary Biography for an article on Wing made it essential to consult them. Bob Williams undertook first the dictionary entry, then a transcription of the lot. Then the Caxton publications committee got into the act and urged him to make a selection for the pleasure of Caxtonians and for the use of historians of Chicago, of journalism, of bibliophilia, and of other “philias” too. The result belongs to the history of the club.

The Diaries of John M. Wing

The Diaries of John M. Wing, front cover jacket.

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