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Newell, Robert Henry (1836-1901)

Editor, Journalist, Poet

Born and raised in New York City, Robert Henry Newell entered the world of journalism at age twenty-two. His submissions to various periodicals “achieved immediate recognition” and brought him a job offer from the New York Sunday Mercury. During the Civil War, Newell wrote the “Orpheus C. Kerr papers, originally initiated in the form of Washington correspondence to the Mercury . . . The name was a supposedly laughable transposition of 'office seeker,’” referring to the plethora of candidates attempting to obtain a political office when Lincoln became president (Leacock). The Orpheus C. Kerr papers are best known for their “comic commentary on the history of the Civil War” (Leacock). In one of the letters Kerr satirizes famous authors of the day, using “a mixture of the mock heroic style adopted and popularized by Dickens, written in correct orthography and grammatical language, but with a false elevation of tone, and the loose, comic humor of gargantuan exaggeration, gross misspelling, and wilful [sic] irreverence for solemnity which had been already initiated in the West (Artemus Ward, Mark Twain)” (Leacock).

He remained at the Mercury until 1862, and it was during this time that he met Adah Isaacs Menken. Newell, writing about himself as Orpheus C. Kerr, notes that “the Mercury’s editor, Robert Henry Newell, detested Whitman’s poetry, but loved [Adah] Menken, and she was able to beguile the editor into running her tribute” (qtd. in M. Hyman 59). He was also described as one of the Bohemians at Pfaff’s (“Untitled,” Current Literature 479). Newell and Menken married on September 24, 1862, but the relationship was troubled. According to scholar Justin Martin, the marriage made Newell insecure (Martin 208). There was no happy ending either for the fourth marriage of Menken's: “Orpheus C. Kerr, for several years the most popular humorist of the times . . . unconsciously did the funniest thing of his life when he married the beautiful and seductive Adah Isaacs Menken, thinking that he could reform her. She proved false and faithless to him, as she had to half a dozen other men, but Kerr sincerely loved her, and the blow, which his own credulity brought him, was a cruel and lasting one” (Martin 249-50; “Untitled,” Current Literature 479). Menken divorced him in 1865, and Newell, unhappily, went on with his life, finding positions as the New York World, the Daily Graphic, and Hearth and Home (Leacock).

Newell stepped away from the world of journalism in 1876 and spent his remaining years in relative seclusion. During his life he published books including:The Walking Doll, or the Asters and Disasters of Society (1872), There was once a Man (1884), The Cloven Foot; and two volumes of poetry: The Palace Beautiful and Other Poems (1865) and Versatilities (1871).