Nine Worthies by Caroline Knox is a book that blends the genres of prose and poetry to tell the story of Nathaniel Smibert (1734-1756) painting the portraits of nine men and women from Boston and Newport in the year of Nathaniel’s death.
The book is beautifully made. The letterpress cover, antique hand-stitched design, and slightly oversized dimensions lend the book the appearance of having come from the 18th century, of being a true relic of that period.
The nine portraits are interrupted by small vignettes from the artist, Nathaniel. His recollections often focus on his father, who was also a portrait painter. He also shows an interest in history, giving little tidbits of information about the locale, for example, in “Nathaniel: Little Rest”:
On the march to the Great Swamp Fight in 1675, during King Philip’s War, the troops of the colonies rested on the hill at Little Rest, Rhode Island, it is said.
While the book is primarily prose, poetry is weaved in subtly. Nathaniel is handed a paper containing a poem, while he is out on the street, that foreshadows his death that year by referring to the river in Hades in the poem’s final lines “A darkling oar the satin surface marls; / It’s not the Styx exactly—it’s the Charles.”
Of the nine men and women, many of them are associated with a position of prestige in the community. The first, Charles Chauncy, is a “Unitarian Minister and Bon Vivant” according to his subtitle. Other portraits include that of Peter Harrison, “first American architect,” John Lovell, “Master of the Latin School,” and Dorothy Tyndale, “A Lady.”
Nine Worthies is an interesting step back into the 18th century viewed through a modern perspective.