Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Who Are These Writers? #3

John Gorham Palfrey is another writer featured on the Bangor Public Library rotunda whose name & publications may not hold the high stature each held in 1912 during the library's construction.

Palfrey, an ordained Unitarian clergyman, editor, historian, & U.S. Representative from Massachusetts, lived from 1796 to 1881. Palfrey has an extensive list of accomplishments in each of these roles, but our focus here will be on his achievements as a writer. [For a complete biography, have a look here]. Palfrey's most famous work would have to be the five volume [originally planned as three volumes as shown in the above image] History of New England. This set is "an encyclopedic study of the political, intellectual, religious, and social origins of the region from it discovery by Europeans to the eve of the American Revolution" (source: Alexander Moore, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 30, 1984). Bangor Public Library owns this behemoth collection, which totals over 2400 pages, including a nearly one hundred page index in volume 5.

This set, published between 1859 to 1890, faces & has faced mixed reviews for most of the nearly 120 years since its completion. In 1984, Alexander Moore noted, "Palfrey displayed the best and the worst aspects of nineteenth century historical writing. His scholarship and attention to detail were unquestionable, but his regional chauvinism and racial theorizing have placed his work in disrepute. In this regard, Palfrey's obscurity is a result of changing trends in historiography, not the datedness of his research or lack of historical insights."

Moore continued: "In the twentieth century writers have ... consistently cited Palfrey's History as the worst example of a bad school of historical writing they call 'filiopietistic' [wow! what a word! its meaning is "of or relating to an often immoderate reverence for forebears or tradition"], 'apologetic' and even 'clerical.' Unfortunately, by attacking Palfrey's ... biases, they [his critics] have not addressed the historical quality of his work. Palfrey's History of New England is a dense, multilayered work, prodigiously researched and annotated with footnotes that stretch, in approved nineteenth-century style, for pages in length. The work contains lists of major political officeholders for all the New England colonies from their founding until 1775."

Moore concluded that Palfrey's History of New England is "despite its bulk, quite readable." He also opined that Palfrey's set discussed every aspect of New England's natural, political, religious, and social history and that Palfrey's "insights into the Puritan mind as well as historical events have proven largely to be correct." Perhaps Moore's greatest compliment to Palfrey was that he felt History of New England (and other Palfrey publications) were "to all historians ... examples of the power of historiographical labels to conceal more than they reveal." In other words, Moore felt that too many historians & readers may be dismissing Palfrey due to over a century's worth of pigeonholing of his work, but in doing so, are missing out on the quality of it.
Yet another reviewer, James Truslow Adams, makes note of the extensive use of the footnotes, which Adams calls "a convenient and useful mine of information as to events and characters in the period" [James Truslow Adams, Dictionary of American Biography, 1931, volume 7, page 170]. In looking at the library's copy of volume I of History of New England I see a footnote on nearly every page (including page 191 which is essentially all footnoted). If nothing else, one gains an appreciation for both the amount of detail & the complexity of organization Palfrey put into his major work.

The first volume of History of New England can be viewed online here.

Another important Palfrey work (also owned by Bangor Public Library, but in our non-circulating collection) was the widely distributed abolitionist pamphlet, Papers on the slave power. In 1843, Palfrey's father died in Louisiana, leaving Palfrey an inheritance which included twenty slaves. While he had been for years a vocal advocate of abolition, the potential of slave ownership sent Palfrey into action. Despite legal difficulties, heavy financial loss, and fractured relations with his surviving family members, Palfrey traveled to Louisiana, claimed his slaves, returned to Boston and freed his slaves. Palfrey had hoped to keep his actions private, but they became public & Palfrey found himself thrust into a greater stature within the abolitionist movement [source: a paraphrasing of Alexander Moore's account in Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 30]. In this role, Palfrey published a series of essays in the Boston Whig in 1846, which were later collected & published as Papers on the slave power. These essays, according to Moore, contained the narrative of the history of slave trade in the U.S., including a recounting of the compromise on the issue of slavery at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Palfrey also issued in this work a call to stop the spread of slavery and an aim to undermine it in state is already existed.

This historical importance of this publication of Palfrey's is worth noting on its own merit. However, I would also like to point out how important (and cool) it is to be able to say that I held this publication in my hands today -- all thanks to the fact that the Bangor Public Library owns it & has owned & maintained it for more than 160 years after its publication.

Bangor Public Library's books, as well as its architecture, represent and reflect a culture and tradition of commitment to scholarship, reading, and social significance in the history of Bangor. While people today may not know who John Gorham Palfrey is or what he has added to American & New England culture, it is a comfort and source of pride to know that the people of Bangor did care in 1912. Even more reassuring is that such a commitment by the citizenry of Bangor has continued & flourishes a century later.

The next post in this series will shed light on exactly who Parkman is.Feel welcome to post any comments or questions about this & other Bangor Public Library Blog posts.

Patrick Layne


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Who Are These Writers? #2

John Fiske is another writer featured on the library's rotunda whose name seems to have diminished in recognition over the last century.

Fiske, a philosopher & historian born Edmund Fiske Green in Hartford, Connecticut, lived from 1842 to 1901. As a child, he was already quite the scholar, noting in his adult writings that by age eight he had read about two hundred books, across a wide spectrum of topics, primarily philosophy. By the age of twenty, he could read in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and so on (the list continues with another thirteen languages, including something called Zend, which turns out to be Zoroastrian-based).

Fiske was a supporter of the theory of evolution well before it had gained any measure of popular validation with Charles Darwin's publication in 1867 of On the origin of species by means of natural selection. Darwin's position, however, was not (and often still is not) without controversy, and those supporting it could face professional hardships. Fiske, for example, had been deemed an atheist so he was not admitted to the faculty of Harvard despite having being a well-regarded lecturer & writer. Fiske, instead, in 1872 was given the position of assistant librarian at Harvard. While this was meant to be a demotion, Fiske found the work rewarding and beneficial to his career. [Fiske included the forty page essay, "A Librarian's Work" in his book Darwinism and Other Essays] .

By 1879, Fiske had resigned his post at Harvard, taking to delivering a course of lectures on American history at the Old South Church in Boston & across the Atlantic in London. During this period in his life, Fiske developed a reputation as the most popular lecturer on history America had even known to that point. The majority of Fiske's writings during this time, however, were primarily philosophical volumes such as Myths and Myth-Makers, The Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, The Unseen World, Darwinism and Other Essays, Excursions of an Evolutionist, and The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge.Fiske began to focus on historical writing in the late 1880s, a focus which continued into the early 1900s. His works during that time include The Critical Period of American History, 1783-89, The Beginnings of New England, The Discovery of America, and New France and New England. Fiske had made this transition, according to some, based on financial need, and according to others, based on "his wish to study America from the standpoint of an evolutionist" (Source: Dictionary of American Biography, Volume III, page 422].
I asked my brother, a history doctoral student at the University of Kentucky, about how Fiske is viewed by today's history scholars. Below are his comments:

"Fiske isn't read by historians too much today. I don't recall reading anything written by him. However, I am sure, given the dates of his writings and his life, most anything he has written has been debunked by modern historians. He was entering the profession just as it was becoming 'professionalized and most of those guys are looked upon differently now. Not that they were generally bad historians, which some were, but that they didn't have to tools and skills that have been developed since their time. I also know that he was a Social Darwinist, and that theory has pretty much been debunked as well, so if that tinge is in any of his writings, then he would get attacked for that has well."

My brother's sentiments are largely echoed in the Fiske biography written by James Truslow Adams from the Dictionary of American Biography copyrighted 1931 [the source of much of this blog post's content]. "In the historical field," Adams wrote, "Fiske was solely a popularizer ... far from making any original contribution of material or interpretation, he merely narrated conspicuous facts, and he did that not authoritatively, but with a charm of style rare among American historians." Adams, however, did view Fiske's role as a historian as "the prime cause of not a few of the distinguished scholars of to-day first turning to history as their life-work" [both quotes page 423]. So, in other words, Fiske is seen as vital as legitimizing & elevating the study of history, but not as all that great of an historian.

While history, Adams, my brother, or I have not been particularly kind to John Fiske, the architects of our library in 1912-13 did not have the benefit of knowing how our society was to change in the next century. One hundred years into our future, some of our most revered scholars & writers inevitably will be seen as outdated as well. But with their efforts, as with Fiske's, each will have played a vital role in the advancement of thought & scholarship in our country. We can celebrate all who have & will continue that cause.

Up next in the Who Are These Writers Series, Palfrey.Feel welcome to post any comments or questions about this & other Bangor Public Library Blog posts.

Patrick Layne


Bangor Public Library

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