Volume VIII · Autumn 1952 · Number 1
A Hundred Years Ago
--JOHN R. RUSSELL
The current exhibit at Rush Rhees Library takes us back a hundred years to 1852, showing some of the books, pamphlets, and songs that appeared in that year of peace and prosperity, when national politics and international relations had to compete with the fervor for commercial expansion in gaining public attention. This was the year in which the Whig party met its final defeat, and the need for a new party was keenly felt. In 1852 a great Hungarian and a great Englishman visited the United States and were received with typical American enthusiasm, and this was the year that marked the publication of an American novel that broke all records for sales, and added fuel to the conflagration that was to become a war.
The election of 1852 centered around two men of military rank. Winfield Scott, the Whig nominee for president, was a professional soldier who was general-in-chief of the United States Army. He was in command during the Mexican War, and had earned the nickname "Old Fuss and Feathers" which did not help him in the campaign. His adversary, Franklin Pierce, who had served under him as a brigadier general in the Mexican War, won the election for the Democrats and brought a change in administration, the Whigs having been in power under Taylor and Fillmore for the preceding four years. Campaign biographies of Pierce and Scott are shown in the exhibit.
The biography of Pierce by Nathaniel Hawthorne is of special interest because of the prominence of the author. Hawthorne and Pierce had been friends since their college days at Bowdoin. Hawthorne, who was severely criticised by some of his friends for writing the biography, insisted that he did it entirely because of his friendship with Pierce and with no thought of political preferment. Pierce appointed Hawthorne to the consulship at Liverpool shortly after he became president and Hawthorne served in that position from 1853 to 1857.
In addition to the campaign biographies, there are on display several campaign pamphlets that are little short of vitriolic, and a pamphlet entitled The Proceedings of Two Meetings Held in Boston on the 7th & 14th July to Protest Against the Nomination of Gen. Scott for the Presidency and to Recommend Hon. Daniel Webster for That Office. This effort by a group of Whigs points up the weakness in the Whig party, which continued to decline and finally disappeared during the Civil War. It also shows that there were still a good many admirers of Webster, who had been one of the leading contenders for the nomination. He did not live to see Scott defeated and his prediction of the downfall of the Whig party come to pass, for he died on October 24.
Another prominent American, Henry Clay, died in 1852. He had served his state and country in important positions and had three times been an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency. His title of "The Great Pacificator" was indeed well earned. Both editions of The Life and Public Services of Henry Clay shown in the exhibit were published in 1852 and are presentation copies. The copy of the Philadelphia edition was given to the Library by Martin B. Anderson, President of the University from 1853 to 1888. The copy of the Auburn edition was given to Schuyler Colfax by Horace Greeley, famous editor of the New York Tribune. Colfax was a delegate to the Whig convention in 1852, later became a congressman, and then vice-president under Grant. This copy was presented by Mr. and Mrs. Harold C. Townson.
The visit of Lajos Kossuth, leader of the Hungarian revolution of 1848-49, was one of the outstanding events of 1852. He arrived in December 1851 and remained until July 1852, making over five hundred addresses during his stay in this country. He was very popular in the first weeks of his visit and was strongly supported by William Henry Seward, who spoke in his behalf before the Senate. (A copy of Seward's speech of March 9 was recently given to the Library by Mr. E. G. Miner and is on display.) The Sewards entertained him at their homes in Washington and Auburn, and Mrs. Seward wrote enthusiastically about him in letters to her sister. Kossuth's letter to Seward, shown in the exhibit, gives his reasons for coming to the United States. His pleas that the United States intervene in the Russian-Hungarian affair became so urgent that his popularity waned and he left without attaining his objective. His visit stimulated a lively debate on American foreign policy. Some of the most interesting publications on Kossuth and the Hungarian revolution which were published in 1852 in conjunction with his visit are included in the exhibit.
The book that stirred the nation and the world in 1852 was Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Its popularity as a novel and play has scarcely been matched. Mrs. Stowe wrote with strong feelings on the evils of slavery and touched the hearts of her readers, strengthening the anti-slavery sentiment of the North which had subsided somewhat after the debate over the Compromise of 1 850. The widespread influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin is shown by the many translations that appeared soon after the American edition came out on March 20, 1852. A Stuttgart edition of that year and a Welsh edition of 1853 are included as examples of these translations.
Uncle Tom's Cabin also served as an inspiration for the song writers of 1852. We have on display eight "Uncle Tom" songs, mostly sad and affecting, that bear such titles as "I Am Going There, or The Death of Little Eva," "Eva to Her Papa," "The Death of St. Clare (Little Eva's Father)," "Topsy Neber Was Born," "Oh! I'se So Wicked," and "The Death of Little Eva and Uncle Tom." One of America's well-known poets, John Greenleaf Whittier, wrote the words for a song--"Little Eva"--which does not greatly enhance that author's literary reputation.
America's favorite song writer, Stephen Foster, published four songs in 1852: "Camptown Races," "The Hour for Thee & Me," "Massa's in de Cold Ground," and "I Cannot Sing Tonight" which are on display. Many of his songs, such as "Old Black Joe," "Old Folks at Home," "O Susanna," and "My Old Kentucky Home," are enjoyed today almost as much as they were a hundred years ago.
Other songs of 1852 are included, some of them as much because of the lithographs on the covers as for the texts. All of the songs on display are from the song collection at the Sibley Music Library, with the exception of two of the Stephen Foster songs which are from the Foster Hall Reproductions presented by Joseph Kirby Lilly.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was the most prolific American author of 1852. His Life of Franklin Pierce, already mentioned, was one of four books by him that appeared in the United States that year. The Blithedale Romance was not as well received as The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables that preceded it. Hawthorne used his experiences at Brook Farm in 1841 as the basis for this novel, but claimed that the characters were purely fictional, although readers could see strong resemblances to well-known members of the Brook Farm community. The character of Zenobia in particular was thought by some to have been drawn from Margaret Fuller, whose tragic death in a shipwreck in 1850 greatly saddened the literary world. A copy of the 1852 edition of her Literature and Art is included in the exhibit.
Another great American writer published a novel in 1852 that was not received with enthusiasm. In fact, Herman Melville's Pierre was severely criticised by many reviewers and sold very few copies. One of England's leading novelists, William Makepeace Thackeray, also published a novel a hundred years ago. The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. was favorably reviewed and is considered one of his best novels. Like Hawthorne, he had four books to his credit in this one year, the three others being collections of stories that had appeared earlier in magazines. It is particularly appropriate to have Thackeray represented in the exhibit, since this was the year that he first visited the United States, landing at Boston on November 12. He lectured in a number of American cities and was accorded a very cordial reception.
Bayard Taylor, American poet, novelist, and journalist, published his second book of poems, A Book of Romances, Lyrics, and Songs, in 1852. His poems did not win high praise, but his descriptions of the many foreign lands he visited were popular. He was on the editorial staff of Horace Greeley's Tribune. Shortly after the appearance of this book the Tribune sent him from Europe to China to join Commodore Perry, who had sailed from the United States on November 24 to make his famous visit to Japan. Taylor was made the official writer on Perry's expedition under the title of master's mate, with special permission to write letters to the Tribune. He later became secretary of the United States legation at St. Petersburg and minister to Germany.
A book by Orestes Augustus Brownson, Essays and Reviews Chiefly on Theology, Politics, and Socialismappeared in 1852. Brownson was at one time a member of the New England transcendental group and interested in Brook Farm. He became a Roman Catholic and was well known as a philosopher and an ardent supporter of the Catholic faith, although he frequently differed with the views of church authorities. He founded the Boston Quarterly Review in 1838, merged it with the Democratic Review, and then reestablished it as Brownson's Quarterly Review, which he continued until 1875, writing most of the articles himself.
Women writers played an important part in the literary life of the United States a hundred years ago. We have already mentioned Harriet Beecher Stowe and Margaret Fuller, but there were many other women writers, as is shown by the book on display, The Female Prose Writers of America, edited by John S. Hart and published in 1852. It is a collection of stories by forty-eight women authors with biographical sketches by the editor. In the exhibit are books that appeared in 1852 from the pens of Caroline Kirkland, Sarah J. Hale, Catherine Sedgwick, Susan and Anna Warner, and Alice Cary. In addition, two books by well-known Englishwomen are included, a volume of Lives of the Queens of Scotland by Agnes Strickland and Recollections of a Literary Life by Mary Russell Mitford, both of them publications of a hundred years ago. Also of special interest to women is The Proceedings of the Woman's Rights Convention, Held at Syracuse, September 8th, 9th & 10th, 1852. Two Rochester women, Amy Post and Susan B. Anthony, were members of the nominating committee at this convention, and Susan B. Anthony was one of the secretaries.
The importance of science and engineering a hundred years ago is indicated by the several books on display that represent these subjects. Orville W. Childs' Report of the Survey and Estimates of the Cost of Constructing the Inter-Oceanic Ship Canal . . . in the State of Nicaragua is a significant part of the history of the Nicaraguan canal project which was seriously considered by the United States Government over several decades. Construction was begun by a private company in 1889, but operations ceased in 1893, owing to lack of funds, and after several investigations it was finally abandoned and the Panama route decided upon by Congress in 1902, fifty years after the publication of Childs' Report.
Darius Davison's Progress of Naval Architecture also points to the importance of ships and shipping in 1852. This was the year in which the paddle steamer "Baltic" set a new record for the Atlantic crossing by covering the 3,054 nautical miles between Liverpool and New York in nine days and thirteen hours. The largest clipper ship built up to that time, "The Sovereign of the Seas," made its maiden cruise in 1852 and later broke the speed records for sailing vessels.
Travel and exploration were important topics a hundred years ago, when parts of the world were still unexplored, and other sections lacked detailed surveys. Two of the books on display cover parts of the United States, and the others describe the Arctic, Japan, Syria, and England. Readers in 1852 had plenty of opportunities for "armchair" travel to romantic places.
Here, then, are the books, pamphlets, and songs of a hundred years ago. They help us to recreate that year and to see its events in our imaginations. While this is the primary purpose of the exhibit, to a librarian it is also significant because it demonstrates how the Library's collections grow as a result of gifts from many individuals. Only a few of the donors have been mentioned in this article, but all are given credit for their donations on the descriptive labels. This exhibit, representing many subjects and points of view, could not have been arranged without the gifts that have come to the Library through the past hundred years.