THE INSCRUTABLE MR. GREEY
By E. M. Sanchez-Saavedra
One of the more unusual authors of nineteenth-century sensational literature was Edward Greey (1835-1888), an English officer, diplomat and art dealer. Born in Sandwich, he received a military education and was commissioned an army captain in 1860, in time for the Chinese War of 1860, (also known as the “Arrow” War or Second Opium War.) Greey was one of an 11,000-man English force under General James Hope Grant. He led a company of marines in storming Pekin (Beijing), and may have participated in the orgy of looting within the Forbidden City. Soon afterwards he was sent as an attaché to the British Legation in Japan. Like Lafcadio Hearn and several other westerners, he fell in love with everything Japanese and immersed himself in the language, literature, art and customs of the island kingdom.
Around 1868 he moved to New York City, where he began a fairly successful business as an importer and dealer in Asian ceramics, textiles and art objects, specializing in Japonica. Six years earlier, New York had been seized by a fad for all things Japanese after the first Japanese embassy visited the city during the summer of 1860, but the intervening Civil War of 1861-1865 had almost eradicated the memory by the time Greey set up shop. He seems to have created a new appreciation for Japanese art in New York collecting circles through his gallery, loan exhibitions and his extensive writings. He possessed a gift for design and drawing, as well as writing and music. No photographs of Greey have come to light thus far. His obituary describes him as a corpulent man who wore a moustache.
Greey had eight children. To augment his modest income from the art business, he took up writing. His first productions were all Japanese-themed: The Queen’s Sailors: A Nautical Novel (1870), Blue Jackets; or, The Adventures of J. Thompson, A.B. Among the “Heathen Chinee.” A Nautical Novel (1871), The Loyal Ronins; An Historical Romance (1880) a retelling of the famous story of the 47 samurai of Ako (Chushingura), Young Americans in Japan; or, The Adventures of the Jewett Family and their Friend Oto Nambo (1882), The Wonderful City of Tokio; or, Further Adventures of the Jewett Family and their Friend Oto Nambo (1883), The Golden Lotus And Other Legends of Japan (1883), The Bear Worshippers of Yezo And the Island of Karafuto (Saghalin); or, The Adventures of the Jewett Family and their Friend Oto Nambo (1884) and A Captive of Love (1885), a translation of a work by Bakin. He also wrote two plays, “Mirah” and “Vendome,” and found time to adapt folk music for publication. He is credited with the words and arrangement of “Under De Mango Tree: West Indian Song and Chorus,” published by William A. Pond & Co. in 1872. (Not the same ditty sung by Sean Connery to Ursula Andress in Dr. No, however.) He occasionally used a Chinese-sounding pen name, “Sung-Tie.”
While writing and illustrating these entertaining, erudite and witty travel and literary works doubtless afforded him much pleasure, he needed to produce less intellectual copy to provide ready cash. In 1874 Greey began writing adventure yarns for Frank Leslie and crude comic stories for Norman L. Munro under the distinctive pseudonym of “Commodore Ah-Look of New Bedford.” His stories soon appeared among the slapstick ethnic humor of “Bricktop” (George G. Small), “Tom Teaser” (Edward E. Ten Eyck), “Peter Pad” and “Sam Smiley” (both Cecil Burleigh). After Norman L. Munro assigned the rights to several of his juvenile story papers to his ex-partner Frank Tousey in 1878, Tousey launched several reprint series that included Greey’s stories. The Five Cent Wide Awake Library, which ran to 1,353 issues from 1878 to 1898, carried several “comic” numbers credited to “Commodore Ah-Look.” These were in turn reprinted in The Five Cent Comic Library in 1892-1897 and the colored-cover Snaps: A Comic Weekly of Comic Stories by Comic Authors, 1899-1901. Street and Smith published at least one of his stories.
Greey's popular fiction included:
In Frank Leslie’s Boys’ and Girls’ Weekly:
Three Yankee Boys (announced as “Cheeky Bob”), February 18, 1874 - December 12, 1874
Inventive Ben; or, How A Boy Became Jack-of-All-Trades, February-April 1879
Orville and Dan; or, Adventures in Japan, May-July 1879
The Chums at Harvard College, A Sequel to “Orville and Dan,” August-October 1879
Through the Heart of Japan, October 1879 - January 1880
Left to Himself, June-October 1880
Ned Iceberg, March-April 1881
In Frank Leslie’s Boys of America:
Cheeky Bob, January-June 1878 (A reprint of Three Yankee Boys)
In Norman L. Munro’s Our Boys:
Cheeky and Chipper; or, Through Thick and Thin, August-November 1876
London Bob; or, An English Boy in America, December 1876 - January 1877
Highfalutin’ Jim; or, He’d Fetch ‘em Somehow, February-April 1877
Johnny Burgoo; or, The Mystery of a Boy’s Life, July-October 1877
Free and Easy Ned; or, “Time Enough, Sir,” October-December 1877
Master of Himself; or, A Boy’s Fight in the World, February-April, 1878
Big Silas; or, The Adventures of a Young Giant, April-June 1878
In Frank Tousey’s Wide Awake Library, Five-Cent Comic Library and Snaps:
Extree Nick, the New York Newsboy
Sassy Sam; or, A Bootblack’s Voyage Around the World
Sassy Sam Sumner. A Sequel to Sassy Sam
Barnum’s Boy Ben
Billy Bakkus, the Boy With the Big Mouth
Cheeky and Chipper; or, Through Thick and Thin
In Street and Smith’s Nugget Library:
Bouncer Brown; or He Was Bound to Find His Father, (1889)
Despite his prolific output, Edward Greey seems to have been plagued by financial problems and resultant ill health. His business required personal visits to the Far East – no easy undertaking in the days of steam. By 1888 the overweight 53-year-old importer was not the dashing vigorous 25-year-old officer who had stormed Pekin. His final trip to Japan proved lethal.
The New York Times for October 2, 1888 reported the
SUICIDE OF EDWARD GREEY.
THE WELL-KNOWN DEALER IN JAPANESE WARE SHOOTS HIMSELF.
Edward Greey, the dealer in Japanese and Chinese art ware, of 20 East Seventeenth-street, committed suicide yesterday afternoon by shooting himself in the head with a pistol. He arose at his usual hour yesterday morning and, after breakfast, went to the Commissioner of Jurors to ask to be excused from jury duty. Returning to his house, he locked himself in his study until noon, when he took his dinner. His family did not notice anything unusual in his demeanor. After dinner he went to the office of Vantine & Co., at 879 Broadway, and chatted for a while with Mr. Plimpton, one of the members of the firm, seeming to be in good spirits. He returned home and dictated a letter to his wife and then went up stairs to his room on the third story.
A noise was heard in the room and his daughter Barbara ran up stairs and found him lying near a mirror in a pool of blood, but still alive and breathing heavily. She ran out and alarmed the house, and Dr. Burrill, the family physician, was summoned, but in a few minutes after the doctor’s arrival Mr. Greey died. He had shot himself and the ball had passed from right to left through his head.
No cause whatever could be assigned for the suicide at first. Mr. Greey seemed to be in good spirits, and acted as he usually did with his business associates. His health, however, has been in poor condition and he has suffered much from nervous trouble. Three months ago he was advised to make a trip for his health and, deciding to combine pleasure with business, he started for Japan. He returned last Tuesday greatly emaciated. On starting he weighed 222 pounds and on his return only 125 pounds. He was a man of medium build, 53 years old, with dark eyes, hair and moustache, which was slightly tinged with gray. He leaves a widow, three sons, and five daughters. That financial embarrassment might have induced the act was suggested by a letter found in his desk from Mr. Thomas Allen in reply to one from Mr. Greey in which the latter asked for a loan of $5,000. Mr. Allen wrote that it was impossible for him to lend the money and at the same time thanked him for some presents sent the children.
All but forgotten today, Edward Greey left behind a curiously mixed literary legacy. His Japanese travelogues are entertaining and sensitive observations of a vanished culture, poised between feudalism and industrialism. He was one of the first western commentators to write about the light-skinned, bearded Ainu people of “Yezo” (Hokkaido), long persecuted by the Tokyo authorities and who now occupy the dubious niche of “aborigines” on reservations. He made the poetry and romantic fiction of old Japan available to occidental audiences. In stark contrast, we have the vigorous, crude, jingoistic comic stories of “Commodore Ah-Look of New Bedford,” which appeal to collectors of dime novels and students of nineteenth-century American humor.
Google Books has digitized most of Edward Greey's serious literary output for free downloading.
Bowling Green State University has digitized two of "Commodore Ah-Look's" comic stories:
Cheeky and Chipper may be read HERE
Sassy Sam Sumner may be read HERE
"Under De Mango Tree." Source: Historic Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, N.C. Collection/Call Number/Copies: Music B-280. Item # b0280