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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Sunday, May 29, 2011

“Most certainly ’tis not MY history, but YOUR romance.”

The first edition of The Life of Gen. Francis Marion appeared at the end of 1809. As I described yesterday, it was brought to press by the Rev. Mason Weems (shown here), but written in the voice of Peter Horry, one of Marion’s officers.

It took until 4 Feb 1811, over a year after publication, before Horry told Weems what he thought of the book, in a fun-to-read letter later printed in William Gilmore Simms’s Views and Reviews in American Literature:
I requested you would, (if necessary,) so far alter the work as to make it read grammatically, and I gave you leave to embellish the work,—but entertained not the least idea of what has happened—though several of my friends were under such apprehensions, which caused my being urgent on you not to alter as above mentioned.

Do you not recollect my sitting on the ground with you near the Georgetown Printing Office,
and urging you again on the subject of no alterations to the work—That you replied, (seemingly out of humour,) that, “When the work came out, you engaged I would be satisfied.” I replied, “That is enough;”—and, I recollect nothing farther passed between us afterwards on the subject.

How great was my surprise on reading these words in your letter: “Knowing the passion of the times for novels, I have endeavoured to throw your ideas and facts about General Marion into the garb and dress of a military romance.” A history of realities turned into a romance! The idea alone, militates against the work. The one as a history of real performance, would be always read with pleasure. The other as a fictitious invention of the brain, once read would suffice. Therefore, I think you injured yourself, notwithstanding the quick sales of your book.

Nor have the public received the real history of General Marion. You have carved and mutilated it with so many erroneous statements, your embellishments, observations and remarks, must necessarily be erroneous as proceeding from false grounds. Most certainly ’tis not MY history, but YOUR romance.

You say the book sells better than [Weems’s book on George] Washington! The price of the one is much less than the other—[that] is the reason. Besides, persons unacquainted with the real history, buy and read your book as authentic. When known to be otherwise, [it] will lie mouldering on the shelves, and no more purchasers [will] be obtained. You have my work; compare [it] with yours, and the difference will appear. Yours is greatly abridged, and the letters contained in mine (which I thought much of,) are excluded from yours.

You say, “you are surprised to hear that I am displeased with your book, particularly as it places Marion and myself in so conspicuous and exalted a light.” Can you suppose I can be pleased with reading particulars (though ever so elevated, by you) of Marion and myself, when I know such never existed.

Your book is out. My dissatisfaction of it is no ways material. You say you want to see me to procure some additional anecdotes for your 2d edition—and that, if I can point out any errors or places where improvement may be made, that you will cheerfully attend to any instructions. Could such improvement be really made, I fear for its fate—to be disregarded as my first performances were.
According to a sketch of Horry in the South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, “Horry’s annotated copy is extant and it shows many of Weems’ false statements, but not near all.”

That same article says, “The title page of the first edition credits the alleged biography to Weems, but after Horry’s death [in 1815] new editions falsely assigned it to Weems and Horry, despite Horry’s repeated repudiation of it during his lifetime.”

So it seems far less likely that Horry witnessed the sweet-potato dinner as his narrative voice described. In fact, if my supposition is right, Weems added the episode to the book only after Horry died, when he couldn’t object so vociferously.

TOMORROW: Other eyewitnesses to the sweet potato dinner?


Will Hickox said...

I find Horry to be a tad naive in predicting that sales would drop off after the public discovered Weems' fabrications. People love a good story; authenticity is generally immaterial.

J. L. Bell said...

It looks like much of the reading public didn’t even think they had to make a choice. They accepted Weems’s “romance” as accurate, especially when it started to appear with Horry listed as principal author, poor guy.

As with Weems’s Washington book, it’s now widely acknowledged to be unreliable, and yet some of its tales are—like Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge—still widely accepted by people who want to believe the lessons they hold.