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Celebrating the Life

August 11, 2010 - 8:32am

Mary Bowden received her Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Texas at Austin, and taught in the Department of English at UT for 16 years. After her retirement from teaching, she has continued her independent scholarship. She has so far written three books: Philip Freneau (1972), Washington Irving (1981), and On the Road with Washington Irving: Chiefly in 1832 (2009).

 

Tell us a little bit about the project you're currently working on.
 
Mary Bowden: Right now I'm working on this book that will be on the subject of second generation Americans, that is, those born after the constitution–when they go abroad, how they react to the world abroad. It dates from about 1810-1830, a relatively small period of time. 
 
 I became interested in this collection because a lot of people don't realize that they not only contained the local news, but also news from all over the world. And how did they get that news? Through letters from citizen correspondents in their travels abroad.
 
Here's a case in point in the Boston Patriot from 1813: private correspondence from Alexandria, Louisiana, December 4, reporting the latest news from Goliad. This is from a letter from Colonel Magee, who was at Goliad, and it probably exists in no other place, other than in this newspaper.
 
So this letter was sent from Magee directly to the Boston Patriot?
 
MB: No. You see the exciting thing about this sort of research is, back then, that they exchanged newspapers.
 
So the Alexandria paper would've received Magee's letter, published it, exchanged papers with Boston, and thus, the letter ends up in the Patriot?
 
MB: Exactly. And also, unlike England, which taxed their newspapers, the United States did not, and postage was very low on newspapers. And it unified the U.S. in a marvelous way. There would be competitions as to how fast the President's message could get from Washington DC, to Louisiana, or Texas, or points beyond.
 
What an interesting way to proliferate information.
 
MB: And I don't know whether this newspaper exists in any other place in the United States. I just don't know.
 
So is this what drew you back into your research here at Collections Deposit Library (CDL), or were you using the papers for research prior to this?
 
MB: No. I just published another book on Washington Irving, in the United States in 1832.
 
So you did your research for that here, as well?
 
MB: A lot of it. I also went to other libraries and looked at manuscripts, letters and other source materials. At any rate, these newspapers contained the equivalent of manuscripts, because very often when a letter was submitted, say, to the Alexandria paper, they would hand it to the typesetter and after he'd finished with it, he'd throw it away. It became the only record of that letter.  
 
Speaking of Texas, we have here the Missouri Gazette from July 24th, 1818. That newspaper contained the oration given in Potosi, Missouri, by Stephen F. Austin, and it doesn't appear anywhere else. And as far as I can tell, it doesn't exist in any books about Stephen F. Austin, either. I don't think anybody realizes he gave a Fourth of July oration. Further, in the Richmond Enquirer for August 27, 1821, is a letter from Stephen F. Austin to a friend in New Orleans, describing how he is going to set up his colony.
This is a newspaper which has not been scanned, as far as I know. Some runs of the New York Spectator has been scanned, but this particular year has not been. And, again, this may be an extremely rare volume.
 
Here are extracts from letters written by a lady in South America who describes meeting Bolivar, and being escorted by him to a dinner after a ball; these letters were written by the wife of Isaac Hull, who was captain of the USS United States. He took his wife and her sister on this voyage around the Pacific. Her other sister, Elizabeth, was married to Heman Allen, U.S. Ambassador to Chile. Here's another one: this is from Charleston, 1824. General Lafayette gave a set of pistols to George Washington. When Washington died, they were inherited by William Robinson. On the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, Robinson gave them to Andrew Jackson. 
 
This is from the Philadelphia National Gazette. "The Temple of Fire in Persia: Extract from the Notes of an American Traveler." So we have an American traveler, and he's in Persia, and he's going along with the Russian commandante with his officers. And they see this "best quality of naptha, in a burning, dense, black smoke with a disagreeable color in the Temple of Eternal Fire." This is natural gas and oil. And the writer speculates that perhaps this stuff that comes out of the ground and burns here might be used for energy. Okay, so what American citizen by 1821 had been in Persia and Russia and would have been accompanied by Russian troops? It was Joel Poinsett, who at one time was our Ambassador to Mexico, and who had gone, before the War of 1812, to Russia to have been introduced to the Czar. The Czar said "Why don't you take a look around my kingdom?" So he did, and this is his account of the tour. And, in the Albany Argus, they printed Poinsett's account of his trip from Buenos Aires to Chile, because he was the United States' first representative to those revolutionary countries. 
 
What you find inside these newspapers is just fantastic. Like that Richmond Enquirer–one of the copies that we have of the Richmond Enquirer was the exchange copy for the Salem Gazette, and there is written on the newspaper, the editor of the Salem paper has circled the stories he wants to run, and annotates it "Richmond Enq" to let his typesetters know to whom to attribute it.  
 
Then there was an article I came across about the marriage of one of Jefferson's daughters, and the relationship was not make clear in the Richmond Enquirer, but the Salem Gazette editor had to point that out to his readers; you see, the Richmond readers would obviously know the relationship. 
 
I would assume that in the case of these exchanges, information would, say, be exchanged from, perhaps, New Orleans to Richmond, and then Richmond might exchange with another paper in another city and that story that originally appeared in the New Orleans paper would wind up removed by several degrees from its original publication. Have you found any cases where you might have recognized more that two or three degrees of separation?  
 
MB: Oh, yes. I have picked up articles from newspapers that don't exist any more, but they have been reprinted by other surviving newspapers. I've frequently found a newspaper called the Red River Herald referenced, but I have no idea where the Red River Herald was located. I think it was a Louisiana newspaper. 
 
So how did you get into this "sleuthing"? Was it just a by-product of writing books?  
 
MB: Yes. Well, I have sort of a weird sense of humor, but I find some of this stuff absolutely fascinating. Well, what I'm really trying to do now is also to save these newspapers and get them into a climate-controlled storage place, and hopefully, make known to enough people how extremely rare they are, and how we should save them for future generations by scanning them. That's the next step.   I also read the newspapers that have been scanned and are available online, and I find it very irritating. Someone has gone off to the side pointing out features of the text that may or may not be correct.
 
How many individual newspapers do you think you've read in your time researching?
 
MB: It's hard to say because I spend part of my time researching here at CDL and part of my time reviewing microfilm at PCL. And I spend part of my time at home reading them online. So I have tried to find every newspaper I can. In fact, I just put in an order to the Library of Congress for microfilm of the Franklin Gazette, which was published by Benjamin Franklin's son-in-law from 1818-1824.
 
So which medium do you find the most useful?
 
MB: Well, this–by far–is the easiest, reading the physical newspaper...far easier than reading online or on microfilm.
 
Is part of that the actual experience of touching the newspapers?
 
MB: Yes, absolutely. You can look at all parts of the page a lot easier than you can online or on microfilm.
 
You worked in the English Department at UT.
 
MB: For 16 years.
 
What is it that you love about libraries?
 
MB: Love Library at the University of Nebraska...that was my favorite place. I had a carrel that was in the middle of the book stacks, and most people were not allowed in the stacks. So I spent a lot of time in the stacks. In fact, ever since I graduated from the University of Nebraska, I have given money to Love Library every year. It was a love of reading that drew me in.
 
What's your favorite genre?
 
MB: Biography. But, as I tell my family when they ask, "What do you want for Christmas?", I don't read books. It's just this now.
 
It was books before, at some point?
 
MB: I read books when I want to find out information.
 
But you've written books?
 
MB: Three. My first was on Philip Freneau, the Revolutionary War poet. My second was on Washington Irving. And then, this last one was on Washington Irving, as well. My research for the last Irving book was done at Boston, Philadelphia libraries. I've found librarians all over the United States extremely helpful. I can cite a librarian at University of Virginia who knew that I was working on Irving, and I said, "Well, do you have these letters?", which I knew of and wanted to review, and she said, "Yes, but we also have this letter." That letter turned out to be full of just delightful information.
 
I get the impression that a lot of times, people don't realize that asking these sort of questions can broaden your perspective. When you go to a library and you don't ask anyone for help, and you just find the materials yourself, you find what you can to look for, but you might miss those things that people "in the know" would be able to tell you about.
 
MB: At South Carolina, there's a South Caroliniana library, with extremely helpful staff. And there again, I was very narrow in my focus; I was writing about Irving's return to the United States in 1832 after he had been abroad for 17 years. And he toured the United States. And this is where the newspapers come in so handy. I can basically follow him around by where the newspapers say he is. When he arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, for instance. And when he left. And that he was in Charleston, South Carolina. And nobody knew that he'd gone to Charleston, but he was there.
 
So I guess at times you find you may be the first person coming across this information?
 
MB: Exactly. I ran across a couple of letters from a guy from Pennsylvania who went to Russia in 1814 because his brother a merchant there and his brother wanted someone to learn Russian because he didn't have time to do it. And he wrote back two letters about Moscow and life there after Napolean had burned it, and St. Petersburg, and a general description of society in Russia. Well, although this becomes part of the book I'm working on about Americans abroad, I thought someone should know about these. So I wrote to the publication of a historical society in Pennsylvania, and the editor wrote back and said, "We're not terribly interested, but why don't you write the history listserv?", because there's one for Russia and one for Pennsylvania, and you can get through to a lot more people that way. So, yesterday, my notation of these two letters was put on the Russian listserv, so now I can go and put the information about where to find Stephen F. Austin's Fourth of July oration.
 
How do you feel about the merging of this technology and the analog?      
     
MB: (Picks up her iPad and smiles) I just think it's wonderful.

 

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