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Winthrop, Theodore (1828-1861)

Journalist, Novelist, Travel Writer

Theodore Winthrop was born in Connecticut as a descendant of John Winthrop, the first governor of Connecticut (G. Curtis 7-8). He attended Yale where he studied Greek and philosophy and received the distinction of the Clark scholarship; he and nurtured early ambitions of pursuing religious or academic life. Though he was a man of faith, he was also a man shadowed by poor health throughout his life. Undeterred by these physical constraints he traveled widely in Europe and the United States even though he was subject to bouts of illness everywhere from Panama to the Pacific Northwest (G. Curtis 8-9). Winthrop’s career included stints as a tutor and a staff member at a counting-house; he also earned his law degree and practiced briefly in St. Louis and New York before ultimately settling down to write novels, tales, travel accounts, and journals. His tales of travel were so “graphic and warm” that one fireside listener cried out after hearing him talk of his adventures that “It’s as good as Robinson Crusoe!” (G. Curtis 10).

Like fellow Pfaff’s frequenter Fitz-James O’Brien, Winthrop’s literary career was curtailed by the start of the Civil War. After the attack on Fort Sumter, Winthrop eagerly enlisted in the artillery corps of the Seventh Regiment as did O’Brien; Winthrop was soon made the acting military secretary and aid to General Butler. He enjoyed serving and applied all his energy to his duties, offering suggestion to the General and rallying his fellow soldiers; at Fort Monroe he became interested in the fate of the freed slaves who sought refuge there (G. Curtis 14, 17). Drawing on his experience in the war, Winthrop wrote sketches of the military campaigns in Virginia which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861. Curtis praised the style of these accounts: “He knew not only what to see and to describe, but what to think; so that in his papers you are not at the mercy of a multitudinous mass of facts, but understand their value and relation” (G. Curtis 18). Winthrop was shot by a Confederate soldier during the Battle of Big Bethel in 1861 (New York Times, June 10, 1991, 10).

In addition to his military accounts, Winthrop left behind a body of literary work including the posthumous novel Cecil Dreeme (1862) which was a gothic novel dealing with sexual ambiguity and the nature of desire set in the area around Washington Square and New York University. Reviewers of the book expounded that there is "no book in which may be found so truthful and striking a picture of many phases of New-York life...The club, the parlor, the opera, the atelier, are all given with remarkable fidelity" (“Literary Notices” 536). Following Winthrop’s death, Ticknor and Fields published his two other manuscripts John Brent and Edwin Brotherloft (1862)--collections of his travel tales appeared in 1863--and The Canoe and the Saddle and Life in the Open Air. The North American Review characterized his style as “sparkling and crispy style” with a “fresh and buoyant tone” (“[Review] of Edwin Brotherloft” 562).

In the obituary of Charles Pfaff published in the New York Times, Winthrop is described as one of the "Knights of the Round Table" who gathered at Pfaff's establishment (New York Times, April 26, 1890, 2). It is unclear the level of Winthrop's participation within the group of bohemians at Pfaff's; however, he shared several connections with members of the literary group. For example, he served in the same regiment as Fitz-James O'Brien, a steadfast visitor to Pfaff's, during the Civil War.