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.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 25th, 2011 at 5:56 pm and is filed under Visiting researcher. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed at this time.