Union Notables

Fitz Hugh Ludlow    class of 1856


Fitz Hugh Ludlow, by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, 1870, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Union College Permanent Collection

Is it not wonderful that, out of such free and intimate converse among young men as we find in our colleges, song should spring up as a most legitimate and accredited progeny. He who should collect the college carols of our country . . . would be adding no mean department to the national literature. Piquant, fresh-imaged, outwelling, and sitting snug to their airs, they are frequently both excellent poetry and music.

- Fitz Hugh Ludlow, from The Hasheesh Eater

Fitz Hugh Ludlow, during the short thirty-four years of his life, was known as a poet, critic, fiction and travel writer, and journalist. His writings combine conventional melodramas, travelogues, and memoirs with eccentric wit, creative satire, and good-natured impiety.  A member of the close-knit circle of New York’s quasi-bohemian writers and artists of the late 1850s, Ludlow is perhaps best known as the author of The Hasheesh Eater (1857), a revolutionary and enormously successful memoir depicting his use of hasheesh – a novel and legal drug unknown to most American readers at the time – and his eventual recovery from his dependence on the drug. The book was praised by contemporary reviewers for its adroit analysis of literature and life, and Ludlow was equally admired for his lighthearted and elegant writing style. The Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library, founded in San Francisco in 1970 and featuring literature that considers the consumption and emergence of both legal and illicit substances, was named after Ludlow as a tribute to the first American to publish a full-length work on the subject of drug use.

Born 11 September 1836 in New York City to an abolitionist minister and a physically frail mother, Ludlow characterizes his own childhood as “feeble,” dominated by “superfluous activities . . . books, ill health and musing.” He began his academic life at the College of New Jersey, as Princeton was known at the time, but transferred to Union College in 1855, where he was esteemed by professors and fellow classmates alike as a young man of unquestionable talents and genial disposition. In a letter written to the child of a family friend, Ludlow says of Union College, “I like this place very much, although I have to study so hard that I have had no time to write to you before.” The crowning achievement of his college career came in 1856 at the end of his senior year when President Eliphalet Nott solicited Fitz Hugh’s literary talents for the composition of a lyric poem that would become the Union College Alma Mater, Ode to Union, and which continues to be sung by those at Union today.

Among Ludlow’s copious literary talents was his ability to define and perfect the American travel narrative, a crucial literary genre of the nineteenth century. As he journeyed throughout the United States, Ludlow explored the Southern and Western frontiers of America. He recorded his experiences in essays published in notable literary magazines and newspapers such as Harper’s Monthly, Atlantic Monthly, The Californian, and The Golden Era, as well as a full-length text written and published by Ludlow shortly before his death, The Heart of the Continent (1870).  Offering a comprehensive outlook of the American West at the beginning of its exploitation, these accounts were often manipulated by various factions to further Manifest Destiny interests of the nineteenth century.

Although The Hasheesh Eater describes his abuse of drugs and eventual recovery from drug dependence, Fitz Hugh’s abstinence was short-lived. His final years were sadly spent in a constant struggle with addiction.  Accompanied by his wife and sister, Ludlow traveled to Europe in 1870 in an attempt to recover his health.  Instead, Ludlow died in Geneva, Switzerland, on September 12th. His literary talents, nonetheless, identify him as a quintessential nineteenth-century American author and continue to speak to his influence on American life and letters.