University of Rochester Library Bulletin: A Literary Find in Letters of Robert Southey

Volume XXVII · Winter 1973-1974 · Number 2
A Literary Find in the Letters of Robert Southey
Assistant Professor of English, University of Vermont 

Nowadays Robert Southey's star burns dimly in the Romantic firmament, but in his own time he was among the best known of English literary figures. Born in 1774, he became Poet Laureate in 1813 and held the post until his death thirty years later. He wrote a number of grandiose epic poems, a great deal of lyric and narrative verse, several histories and biographies, and scores of reviews and essays on literary and social topics. He is now remembered primarily because of his association with William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Coleridge was his brother-in-law), and as the author of the classic Life of Nelson and the monumental History of Brazil. By one of the small ironies of literary history, Southey's best-known work is one that he may have never written: he is the popularizer if not the only begetter of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."

The University of Rochester Library has assembled a considerable collection of Southey's letters and manuscripts, and research among them has already borne modest literary fruit. Eighteen months ago, as a graduate student at Rochester editing a series of Southey's letters,1 I came upon facts which bear upon, of all things, colonial American literature.

When Southey wrote his reminiscences between 1820-26 for his old friend, John May, he made two copies; the first drafts he sent to May in seventeen autobiographical epistles, the fair or corrected copies he kept among his own papers. The drafts are the manuscripts now at Rochester. The fair copies (some portions at Yale, some portions at the Fitz Park Museum in Keswick, some portions lost) were used by Southey's son in preparing the six-volume Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, published in 1849-50. There are marked variations between the May drafts and the printed texts, variations which appeared either when Southey transcribed the letters or when his son prepared the transcribed versions for the press. As might be expected, many of the changes introduced into the printed text are omissions of material now to be found only in the draft copies May received. Most of them concern private family matters. One of the passages present in the May letters at Rochester, but absent from the printed text (the fair copy of this portion is lost), provides the clue to the identity of a shadowy figure in American literary history.

In 1775, in London, appeared an anonymously published novel entitled The Adventures of Alonso; the title page of the second issue states that it was "written by a gentleman of Warburton County, Maryland."2 The novel relates the love-longings, vicissitudes, and escapades of one Alonso, son of a rich Portuguese merchant, in Portugal, Spain, Brazil, and elsewhere. The identity of that gentleman of Maryland-who was truly no novelist-remained obscure until 1941 and the publication of Robert Elias' article, "The First American Novel,"3 which suggested from internal and circumstantial evidence that the author of Alonso was one Thomas Atwood Digges, a friend of Washington and an active American agent in Europe during the Revolution.4 Yet despite Elias's closely reasoned arguments, the identity of Digges as author of Alonsoremained only a likely conjecture.

But help for the puzzle has come unexpectedly, thirty years later, from Southey. For in 1774, his aunt, Elizabeth Tyler, was visiting Lisbon, and as he tells us, while there

she gave more encouragement than was prudent to an American Adventurer, who followed her to England. His name was Digges. If I  am not mistaken he wrote a sort of novel called the Adventures of Automathes, in which there is a story of a man endeavoring to smuggle diamonds from the Forbidden District in Brazil, -- & I know that he was a mere adventurer, who afterwards acquired some dishonourable notoriety by his political intrigues during the American war.5

The affair was broken off, Southey remarks later at length, because each party had apparently overestimated the fortune of the other.

Despite Southey's mistaken citation of the title,6 the novel he describes is clearly the novel published as Adventures of Alonso. And Southey's mention of it provides the first and so far the only objective proof of Elias' thesis. I communicated my information to Professor Elias, now at Cornell University; he pointed out its significance as evidence, and we co-authored an article setting forth the facts.7

The picaresque narrative of Alonso can be regarded as the first novel by an American. And thanks to Southey's omnivorous memory, the identity of its author is now virtually established. This serendipitous find among Southey's letters has added one small stone to the edifice of literary history, and we can anticipate that Southey's writings, especially his many unpublished letters, will yet prove a quarry for reconstructing other portions of the neglected fabric of late Georgian literature.



  1. Robert Southey, "An Edition of the Autobiographical Letters of Robert Southey," ed. by Michael M. Stanton (Ph.D. diss., University of Rochester, 1971).
  2. [Thomas Atwood Digges] Adventures of Alonso: Containing Some Striking Anecdotes of the Present Prime Minister of Portugal, London, printed for J. Bew, 1775.
  3. Robert H. Elias, "The First American Novel," American Literature, 12 (January 1941), 419-434.
  4. For an account of Digges' extra-literary career, see William Bell Clark, "In Defense of Thomas Digges," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 77 (October 1953), 381-438.
  5. Robert Southey to John May, March 20, 1831, the fifth "autobiographical epistle," Robert Southey Papers, Department of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Archives, University of Rochester Library.
  6. Given Southey's taste in literary oddities, his error is easily accounted for. He has confused Alonso with John Kirkby's Life of Automathes, published in 1745. Kirkby was one of Edward Gibbon's tutors, and Gibbon discusses the work in his Autobiography. See Dero Saunders, ed., The Autobiography of Edward Gibbon(New York: Meridian Books, 1961) pp. 57-58.
  7. Robert H. Elias and Michael N. Stanton, "Thomas Atwood Digges and Adventures of Alonso," American Literature, 44 (March 1972), 118-122.


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