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


Bangor Public Library

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