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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Friday, August 26, 2011

Harbottle Dorr Newspapers Reunited

On Monday I mentioned how one of four volumes of Harbottle Dorr’s collection of Revolutionary-era newspapers, pamphlets, political cartoons, and broadsheets was coming up for sale at the James D. Julia auction house in Maine.

The Massachusetts Historical Society acquired that volume for, the Portland Sentinel reported, $345,000, somewhat above the estimate. The M.H.S. press release says, “The purchase was made possible through a combination of gifts to the MHS from anonymous donors and a distribution from the Society’s acquisition fund.”

That is indeed good news. This purchase will reunite Dorr’s entire collection in one repository. It means that fourth volume won’t be pulled apart to sell as individual items (which some people had worried about), but instead will be preserved at the highest standards.

Dorr would no doubt be pleased. As an introduction to the last volume, Dorr wrote:
I have thought it worth while to collect them, tho’ at considerable expence, and VERY GREAT TROUBLE, in hopes that in future, they may be of some service, towards forming a POLITICAL History of this Country, during the shameful, and abandoned administration of George the third’s despotic Ministry.
The M.H.S. announcement answered some of my questions on Monday about the collection. The 1798 gift from Josiah Quincy consisted of the middle two volumes of Dorr’s collection. The society bought the earliest volume in 1888. And this volume is the last, with material dating from 1772 to 1776.

The announcement also quotes Prof. Bernard Bailyn on the value of this collection:
The more ordinary the mind and the more typical the career, the more valuable the documentation, and there is no more ordinary active participant in the Revolution and no one who left behind a more revealing record of the inner, personal meaning of the Revolution than a Boston shopkeeper with the unlikely name of Harbottle Dorr. His passionately patriotic scribbling in the margins of the newspapers and pamphlets he collected and his comments in his superbly confused indexes to his volumes are unique in the literature of the Revolution.
I’m not sure I’d say Dorr was so completely ordinary; he did become a selectman during the war, and wrote a few political essays himself. But his marginalia in these newspapers are our best documentation of how a middling businessman, not a lawyer or professional politician, responded to the arguments of the day.

Quite passionately, in fact.


Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

Overwhelmingly, yes.
And bewildered, yes.
Dazed and, yes.
Thoroughly, yes.
Easily, yes.
Angry and, yes.

But never have I achieved
"superbly confused."

- Chris Hurley of Woburn.

MsGenealogist said...

I think your earlier post mentioned (or quoted something saying) that there are over 3200 pages in the whole collection. Do you happen to know how much "scribbling" Dorr did; is it present/extensive on most pages?

Just pondering the possible ways that the content could be made accessible in a published form (in a fantasy world where funding was no problem). Researchers and completists would of course need everything to be available and searchable online, and I know the practical obstacles to that are enormous (although what an opportunity for really creative presentation via, say, iPad). But I imagine that a collection of annotated excerpts (which I guess would still be pretty huge) might find a readership of its own in the popular history genre.

Not suggesting it is likely to happen, just pondering. I suppose that if & when times get better for the publishing industry, it's the kind of thing one of the big university presses might conceivably attempt. By that time I expect the landscape of publishing across various platforms will be quite different in any case.