Smart Mt. Airy novelist pens 1876 ‘diary of reporter’

Local Life May 27, 2011 0 Comments

Smart Mt. Airy novelist pens 1876 ‘diary of reporter’

James Smart with his new book (of course!) in his workroom-den in Mt. Airy. The walls are lined with bookshelves containing history-related books. (Photo by Richard S. Lee)

Mt. Airy’s James Smart is a man of many parts — none of them missing. This former Evening Bulletin staff writer and columnist is also an avid Philadelphia author-historian with a special interest in the 1876 United States International Exhibition in Philadelphia that marked our Centennial. He’s a stickler for accuracy (“…it’s often wrongly called the ‘Exposition’”) on one hand and an unabashed humorist on the other. He’s an 81-year-old Everyman of print, as we learned during a recent interview.

His latest book, “Adonijah Hill’s Journal,” is what we call “faction,” a cringe-worthy word meaning fact-based fiction. Adonijah and the people in his life such as Mrs. Riley, his landlady in Kensington, are fictional. However, only real events and real people were referenced in each day’s journal entry.

First of all, the name, Adonijah: Hill tells us, in his entry of Jan. 2, 1876, “I was born April 26, 1840, and christened Adonijah Mordecai Hill. My father named me for one of his favorite Bible men. Pop always said that he thought Adonijah [Solomon’s fifth son] didn’t deserve the way he was treated. He would read the book of Kings and mumble and grumble and say, ‘Solomon was supposed to be so damn smart, but he could be a real ass sometimes. Just like his father.’ Pop always read the Bible a while before he went to bed. He read the Bible and the newspapers and not much else.”

In Adonijah’s journal entry of Jan. 2, the book’s opening (on a Sunday), when presumably Hill had more time for rumination than on a weekday, he matter-of-factly describes his birth, youth, early work as mill-hand, duty in the Civil War (in which he sustained a wound that bothered him in his later life as a Philadelphia newspaperman) and hiring by the well-established Evening Bulletin. We learn of his marriage and the death in childbirth of his young wife and infant daughter, again with surprising straightforwardness and stoic acceptance. (The only times Adonijah expressed a wish for company were when he was dining out or going to the theater — and such times were few.)

To position Hill’s place in the scheme of things, author Smart described the role of newspapers in the 1870s: “There were literally scores of newspapers in those days, and sometimes the writing was funny by our standards. A newspaper would never recap a story that had begun on an earlier day; it would simply report on that day’s developments. Of course its readers were fully aware of the earlier parts of the story, having read them in previous issues of that newspaper, or another. Everyone read a morning and an evening newspaper. Or so the editors of the day assumed.”

As his Journal unfolds, we gradually learn a bit here and there about Adonijah Hill — but the Journal is far more the day-by-day story of anything and everything happening in the city, in Harrisburg (as it related to Philadelphia) and to a degree in the nation and overseas. Hill imparts the messages, with flecks of humor embroidering a generally straightforward news style — and fascinating messages they often are. Adonijah describes events requiring police intervention, political activity (or, in some cases, inactivity, this being Philadelphia, after all), and what today we’d call human interest.

Adonijah starts almost every daily entry, written at his boarding house after each day of chasing stories and writing them for the Evening Bulletin, with the prevalent weather — complete with his complaints about same. This is natural; after all, he had to be out in the weather, good or bad, to visit the Exhibition site.

What inspired the book? “I started thinking about it in 2001, when my grandson turned 14. I realized that both my grandfathers were 14 in 1876, and with the Exhibition, it was a particularly significant year in Philadelphia. I had access to all the Evening Bulletin’s library, which is now at Temple University’s Paley Library. Temple has other newspapers of the time, too — and the Free Library of Philadelphia has a treasury of Centennial items. I drew a lot from them, too.”

In our opinion, you’ll find the book gently wrought and fascinating in its scope and for its storytelling qualities. It’s a worthy read, especially if you’re absorbed (as we became) with the then-and-now qualities inherent in the times and places of Philadelphia in 1876 versus 2011.

Adonijah and his creator have two things in common: one,  being newspapermen; two, widowers. Jim met his charming second wife, Barbara Torade, through a Channel 12/WHYY freelance writing assignment 35 years ago. He was to write copy for a Bicentennial poster, with Penn-era Native American wampum as the art element. Barbara provided the design for it, and when they met, “There he was, glowing,” as she puts it, with a smile that glows, too. After a career in advertising, much of it during the “Mad Men” era at Philadelphia’s N. W. Ayer, and in New York and London, Barbara now uses her University of the Arts degree to complete projects that include book design. She deserves the credit for the vintage look and the easy-reading type of “Adonijah Hill’s Journal.” She also designed one of Jim Smart’s previous books, “Soggy Shrub Rides Again and Other Improbabilities,” a hilarious view of life’s facets as seen through the jaundiced eye of a quintessential cynic and humor columnist. The book is a collection of Smart columns written after 1990 for local papers.

Of Jim’s decision to be a writer, one of his less enthusiastic family members said, “You should make window screens like your cousin Billy. You’ll never want for work.” Although time has proved the family member wrong, Jim’s early days at the Bulletin starting in 1957 were dicey. “I was married and with children, but I still started as a copy boy,” he said. “Everybody did; it was how you learned the newspaper business.”

Jim was with the Bulletin for 25 years, until it ceased publication in 1982. For its last 14 years, he was a columnist, writing six days a week for the first eight years, and being cut back to three a week for the balance. “Imagine,” Jim said, “that a reader actually wrote that I was being overworked, so they cut me back — the first time in history a newspaper ever did anything about its overworked writers!” He then held several advertising and corporate public relations posts as well as becoming a freelancer, writing columns for suburban newspapers and, of course, books. His most ambitious and prestigious book was the lavishly illustrated 192-page “Historic Philadelphia: An Illustrated History,” published by Historic Philadelphia, Inc. in an edition of 1,000 copies. A few copies are available used on Amazon.com, as are Jim’s other books.

James Smart’s latest book is available on www.adonijahhillsjournal.com and earlier ones through Amazon.com. (Go first to Amazon.com, then “books” on the header and “James Smart” in the search box.) For more on Smart, go to http://mysite.verizon.net/vze8mi77/ Jim’s latest book is available for $19.97, including sales tax and shipping.

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