Thursday, 27 July 2000. Hudson, Ohio.
I am up early today—six o’clock—to drive to New York to the University of Rochester, whose Rhees Library holds a copy of an 1811 pamphlet, The Return to Nature; or, A Defence of the Vegetable Regimen; with Some Account of an Experiment Made During the Last Three or Four Years in the Author’s Family. The writer—John Frank Newton (1770?–1827)—had an early and profound influence on young Bysshe Shelley, barely 20, who first read of Newton’s theories about vegetarianism in 1812.
On 5 November of that year—Guy Fawkes Day—during a trip to London from Wales, Bysshe met Newton in the city. Shelley had been visiting the Godwins, but the sounds of the Fawkes fireworks sent him out into the streets in company with young William Godwin, Jr., age 9. Godwin and Newton were friends, so when Bysshe showed up at the home of Newton, who was firing off rockets and other celebratory explosives, the older man was pleased to meet Godwin’s new disciple—and impressed with the erudition of one so young.
Later—in 1813—again back in London, Bysshe and Harriet and their friend Hogg regularly visited the Newtons; the visitors were initially stunned but soon eager supporters of the Newtons’ practice of having all five of their children run around naked in the house. And eat only veggies. Bysshe, of course, would soon write his own pro-veggie tract, A Vindication of the Natural Diet, 1813, which rails against “the unnatural craving for dead flesh.” Near the end of his Vindication, he devotes a footnote, in part, to Newton: “His children,” writes Bysshe, “are the most beautiful and healthy creatures it is possible to conceive; the girls are perfect models for a sculptor; their dispositions are also the most gentle and conciliating; the judicious treatment, which they experience in other points, may be a correlative cause of this.”
So today I am driving 274 miles to Rochester to read Newton’s pamphlet because no copy is closer. I hope to beat the rush-hour traffic around Cleveland, but by the time I get on I-271, so have thousands of others, and I am not able to make good time until near Wickliffe, where I-271 terminates in I-90, and most vehicles surge west toward Cleveland. I flow onto I-90 East and find little traffic to trouble me for the next five hours.
The reference librarian at Rhees, Kathy McGowan, has already set aside the item (it was published in three parts), and I spend a few hours typing pages of notes into my laptop, six single-spaced pages. I spend the night in a local motel and am on the road by 6:15 the next morning. On the way home—fully in the thrall of these Romantics—I memorize Keats’ sonnet “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be.” That evening I recite it for Joyce, my best, dearest—and usually only—audience for the poems I memorize.