Aldrich was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on November 11, 1836. He was the only child of Elias Taft Aldrich and Sarah Abba Bailey Aldrich, both of whom were descended from Colonial New Eng-land families. The family moved to New York when Thomas was five and then to New Orleans in 1846. In 1849 Thomas returned to Portsmouth to attend the school of Samuel De Merritt in preparation for attending Harvard, where he planned to study under Longfellow. That same year Elias Aldrich died of cholera, leaving his family in limited financial circumstances and making Harvard an impossibility for Thomas.
When he was sixteen, Thomas Aldrich had his first published poem in the Portsmouth Journal. In 1852 he took a job in the New York City commission house of his uncle, Charles Frost. By this time Aldrich’s poems had appeared in various periodicals. In 1855 he published the poem “The Ballad of Babie Bell,” which brought him enough attention as a writer that he was able to leave the business world and focus on his writing. He worked as a journalist during this period, including as the junior literary critic on the Evening Mirror, as sub-editor of Home Journal, and as associate editor of Saturday Press. His first book, The Bells: A Collection of Chimes, had also been published in 1855. Aldrich was part of the lively literary scene that was New York City at that time: his companions included Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes Booth), the sculptor Launt Thompson, and Walt Whitman. Bohemian New York didn’t entirely suit Aldrich’s New England temperament though, and he visited both Portsmouth and Boston regularly.
When the Civil War broke out Aldrich became a war correspondent for the New York Tribune attached to General Blenker’s division of the Army of the Potomac in Virginia. His horrific wartime experiences would influence his later writings. In 1862 he left Virginia and returned to Portsmouth. Over the next several years he wrote and published poetry and short stories, served as managing editor of the Illustrated News, and divided his time between New York, Boston, and Portsmouth. On November 28, 1865 Aldrich married Lillian Woodman – whom he met through the Booths – and the couple moved to Boston. This suited Aldrich, who said, “Though I am not genuine Boston, I am Boston-plated.”
In September 1868, just before the birth of his twin sons, Aldrich finished The Story of a Bad Boy, which he had begun while visiting Portsmouth – the Rivermouth of the book — where he typically spent his summers. The novel first appeared serially in Our Young Folks beginning in January 1869 and was published as a book in England and the U.S. with an 1870 imprint date. Aldrich published other novels, including Prudence Palfrey (1874) and The Stillwater Tragedy (1880), but The Story of a Bad Boy was the one that left a lasting mark on American literature.
In 1881 he became the editor of the The Atlantic Monthly where he published the work of many of the finest writers of the day including Longfellow, Thomas Hardy, and Henry James. Under Aldrich The Atlantic developed a reputation as one of the finest literary journals in the English language.
Aldrich left The Atlantic in 1890 and spent his time after that writing and travelling with his family. In 1901 his son Charles was stricken with tuberculosis and died in 1904. His son’s death marked the end of Aldrich’s writing, and his own death followed shortly in March 1907.
Excerpted from Book Notes, Fall 2008, "Thomas Bailey Aldrich" by Mary A. Russell.
Aldrich’s The Bad Boy, a novel for young people about a real boy, as opposed to the idealized version of boyhood perfection typical of literature at the time, was his most lasting mark on American letters. This novel was an inspiration for Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer.