Archive for October, 2011


Wide Awakes at the Watkinson

   Posted by: rring    in Visiting researcher

[Posted by Jim Casey, a graduate student in the English Department at the University of Delaware]

As others have noted, The Watkinson Library holds some really fascinating and unmatched materials, ripe for discovery.  One particularly exciting and rare example is this 1855 newspaper The Wide-Awakes.

It was serendipity for me that Richard Ring, Head Curator at the Watkinson, unearthed this rather odd newspaper.  And it really is quite odd in many ways, and even more so in context of the publisher Robert Bonner’s other publication, The New-York Ledger.

Most obviously, the masthead layout on this paper breaks just about every one of the rules. The columns on the sides, two poems titled “Fireside Blessings” and “To an old schoolmate,” are quite a bit higher than they should be.  Usually, as they do today, a newspaper used the spaces on either side of the masthead to give the publication date and place.

It is unclear what prompted Bonner’s peculiar layout here.  The likely cause was the occasion for publishing such a newspaper, as 1855 was the year of a presidential election.  The Wide Awakes formed a large faction of a then in-decline Nativist movement usually known as the American Party.  If the party’s coffers were perhaps shrinking, then maybe they would have asked the printer they had hired to cram in as much as possible.  Or perhaps there was a mistake somewhere in the production process that misjudged the required space.

But the “R. Bonner” on the page is unmistakably Robert Bonner, publisher of The New-York Ledger.  This newspaper was likely included or somehow associated with the NYL collection originally donated to the Wadsworth Athenaeum in 1922 by one of Bonner’s sons.  The existences of The Wide Awake and The New-York Ledger collection at the Watkinson Library are quite remarkable.  No other copy of this or any date of The Wide Awake exists anywhere else.  The same is true for the Watkinson’s complete run of the NYL.

It seems worth noting, though, that both of the margin-invading poems “Fireside Blessings” and “To an old schoolmate” treat on anti-Catholic and anti-Central European bigotries.  The lone explicitly topical item on the front page levies just such an attack on the Irish journalist and pro-slavery editor John Mitchel.  Even more striking than Bonner’s willingness to publish an attack on a fellow countryman (Bonner himself was an Irish immigrant) was his exceedingly rare decision to engage in any kind of politics.  Bonner’s Ledger was almost obsessively devoted to avoiding any kind of political coverage or engagement at all.  News of the Civil War hardly ever appeared in the pages of The Ledger. Perhaps if other copies of The Wide Awake existed anywhere else besides the Watkinson, it would be possible to make a better guess.  Though this masthead claims to be the 33rd issue of the paper, there are no listings that I could find anywhere else.  Short of finding any, I’d like to think that there is some historical irony at play, with xenophobic poems running into spaces outside their usual confines.

It would be remiss of me to tell of this newspaper without mention of its spectacular masthead.  By the 1850s, newspaper mastheads had become fairly standardized in the form that survives today.  The large graphic is likely from a wood engraving, given the imprecise lines and the relative flatness of the image.  It makes the front page of this newspaper into something of a campaign poster itself.  The likelihood that this was a wood engraving also suggests that whoever commissioned this paper did not anticipate needing to print any large number of copies, as the wood plate would have worn out before long.

Many thanks to Rick Ring and everyone else at the Watkinson for help with my own research on Robert Bonner and The New-York Ledger.  The scant history of scholarship dealing with Bonner is perhaps due to the scarcity of surviving materials of any sort related to the person or the paper.  “Perhaps more than any other individuals in the nineteenth century,” the journal American Periodicals writes in their 2010 edition, “Fanny Fern and Robert Bonner are responsible for making professional authorship not only a viable profession but even a lucrative one.”  That the Watkinson holds the only complete record of such a significant story in our literary history is a special treat indeed.


Of Pequots and Postscripts

   Posted by: rring    in Students

[Posted by Emma Sternlof, ’13, a student in Jonathan Elukin’s History of the Book class.  The class was allowed the signal honor of browsing the stacks to find their gem]

Even on my second visit, wandering through the basement archives of the Watkinson Library was a bewildering, bewitching experience.  I slowly meandered past shelves of American novels, astronomy guides, and fairy tales before turning toward the stacks dedicated to Native American history.  I’m planning a thesis on the history of the Brotherton Indians, a group of Christian Native Americans drawn from several New England tribes, and I hoped to discover some helpful texts. A small dark book, no longer than my hand, caught my eye. Its worn spine proclaimed the title Uncas and Miotonomah in gilt. Born and raised in southeastern Connecticut, I recognized the first name as that of a famous Mohegan chief from the 17th century. Intrigued, I brought the book upstairs to the reading room for further examination.

The book’s title page sums up its contents:  Uncas and Miantonomoh; A historical discourse delivered at Norwich (Conn.,) on the fourth day of July, 1842, on the occasion of the erection of a monument to the memory of Uncas, the white man’s friend, and first chief of the Mohegans.  The discourse was delivered by William L. Stone, a man considered an expert on Native American history at the time.  He dedicated the book to “the ladies of the city of Norwich,” who organized the monument ceremony.  In his introduction, Stone explains that he got completely carried away in the course of researching his speech.  According to him, its excellent reception inspired him to publish an expanded version in 1842.  Within the book, Stone praises Uncas for his nobility, noting that he possessed courage “of a lofty and chivalrous character” (153).  He contrasts Uncas’ loyalty to the white settlers with the duplicity of Miantonomoh, a Narragansett chief who conspired against the colonists.

As I glanced through the book’s appendix, I was very excited to discover that the section entitled “Of the New England Indians in General” included information about Samson Occum, a prominent Mohegan preacher during the late 1700s and a possible subject of my thesis.  Stone offers details about Occum’s groundbreaking preaching tours of England, his efforts to support himself financially, and his well-attended funeral; he also mentions a source, “Allen’s biography,” which I hope to track down for my own research.  The appendix also includes the June 6, 1659 deed recording Uncas’ sale of Norwich to white settlers, reproducing the signature marks of Uncas and his sons Owaneco and Attawanhood. Another interesting and pertinent section, “Of the Pequods,” quotes a 1832 letter: “There is still a remnant of Pequods still existing… They are more mixed than the Mohegans with negro and white blood, yet they are a distinct tribe, and still retain a hatred for the Mohegans” (204).

I was more than pleased with my discovery, but this little book had more surprises in store.  Throughout its pages, a previous reader penciled in several notes, often challenging Stone’s perspective.  At one point, Stone discusses the devastating Pequot War of the 1630s.  Describing the capture of a Pequot band by colonial forces, he writes, “… the women and children were spared” (75). “Sent captive to the Bermudas!” rejoins the incredulous reader in his marginal note.  On one of the blank pages at the end of the book, the same pro-Pequot reader carefully hand-wrote a highly amusing account of his encounter with Stone.  I can’t resist giving the entire remarkable passage here:

“In the summer of 1842 or 4, I met Col. Stone at Stonington, in company with Hon. A.H. Tracy (of western New York).  In conversation with Mr. T., I had expressed an opinion of Uncas, as unlike as possible to that which Col. Stone’s researches had apparently led him to form, speaking of him as the most contemptible, worthless, and treacherous of all the Indians of Conn.  Mr. Lacey, laughing, called the Colonel’s attention to my heresies.  “So you don’t believe all I have said of Uncas?” he asked.  I was slightly ‘cornered,’ but put the best face on it.  “No, sir: I do not believe any of it.  I think Uncas was a very miserable Indian, hardly worth talking about; and not nearly deserving of a good monument as his father-in-law, Sassacus.” “Well! I do not know but it’s so,” said Col. S., “but see here my young freind [sic,] if the ladies of Norwich should send for you, to come and make a speech over Uncas’s grave, and they were all present to hear you, do you think it would be well to all the truth about him?  I couldn’t do it.”  “No,” I replied, “I did not expect it from you.  All that I object to is, that you have printed the blarney, and tried to make it pass for history.”

This unofficial afterword brings the author and his reader to quirky, quarrelsome life like no published postscript ever could.  Almost 170 years ago, another historically-minded reader challenged on paper and in real life what he saw as a distortion of the past.  His interjections inspire me to read critically and thoughtfully as I sit in the Watkinson now.