J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Mansplaining about Dr. Joseph Warren

The first book devoted to Dr. Joseph Warren was Stories about General Warren: in Relation to the Fifth of March Massacre, and the Battle of Bunker Hill, a biography for young readers published in 1835. The anonymous author was the doctor’s niece Rebecca Brown (1789-1855), shown here courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Stories about General Warren took the form of a dialogue between a mother and two children named William and Mary, who say things like, “Did not all the boys like him, mamma? I am sure I should have liked him.”

The book was reviewed that year in the Southern Literary Messenger, mainly to give the reviewer a chance to write about Warren. He (and the tone almost requires one to assume the anonymous reviewer was a he) devotes a long column to “the book’s childishness of style” and “many offences far more atrocious in a critic’s eyes—sins against grammar, idiom, and good taste.” That part of the essay ended:
Let the author be entreated to get the aid of some friend who is master (if she is not mistress) of grammar and taste enough, to reform these and the other errors of her little work, and then give us a new edition, calling in all the copies of the first, that are within her reach.
Not the type of notice an author wishes to receive.

The reviewer then launched into his own version of Warren’s life. Many points of that biography are unreliable, as when it gives Warren the rank of a general months before the Massachusetts Provincial Congress did. Here’s his telling of Warren’s activity during the Battle of Lexington and Concord:
Scouts of his had notified him on the 18th of April, that a detachment of troops was to march that night towards Concord: and then, remaining himself upon the watch, he saw Colonel [Francis] Smith and 8 or 900 men embark for Charlestown [sic]. Knowing the stores and ammunition at Concord to be their object [he didn’t really], he instantly sent messengers over the surrounding country, to give the alarm; and himself rode all night [no, Warren left Boston near dawn]—passing so near the enemy, as to be more than once in great danger of capture. . . .

Warren, sleepless and in motion throughout the night, hurried to the scene of action: and, when the enemy were retreating from Concord, he was among the foremost in hanging upon their rear, and assailing their flanks. By pressing them too closely, he once narrowly escaped death. A musket ball took off a lock of hair, which curled close to his head, in the fashion of that time.

When his mother first saw him after the battle, and heard of this escape, she entreated him with tears not again to risk a life so precious. “Where danger is, dear mother,” he answered, “there must your son be. Now is no time for any of America’s children to shrink from any hazard. I will see her free, or die.”
Rebecca Brown had written something similar, but not the same:
When his mother first saw him after this escape, she entreated him, with tears in her eyes, not again to risk a life so dear to her, and so necessary to his country. “Wherever danger is, dear mother,” was his reply, “there must your son be, now is no time for one of America’s children to shrink from the most hazardous duty. I will either see my country free, or shed my last drop of blood to make her so.”
Presumably the reviewer rewrote Brown’s quote to minimize the “sins against grammar, idiom, and good taste.” He did not indicate having any better source of information.

Not that either version of the quote is probably accurate. But at least there’s a chance that Rebecca Brown had heard about that meeting from her grandmother Mary Warren, who lived until 1803.


Chaucerian said...

Just wondering: did the female author pass on important information about period hairstyling? I wouldn't want her to be incomplete iin her reportage --

J. L. Bell said...

Rebecca Brown did note that Dr. Warren was wearing his hair in the "fashion of that time" when the musket ball flew close to his head.

Gen. William Heath was the first to publish this anecdote, I believe, saying a ball "struck the pin out of the hair of his earlock." Heath evidently didn't think that needed any translating for his readers, but fashions had changed by 1835.

Incidentally, Brown's book says that the march to Concord started on 18 March instead of 18 April, so it's not that she got everything right. But she surely had better sources about the Warren family life.