Reading Newspapers From the 1840s — From Home

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The days are flying off the calendar, much as in those 1940s movies. Remember how directors used that technique to denote passage of time? Good grief. The year is halfway over. My Beautiful Mystery Companion and I remain in voluntary lockdown for the most part. I make necessary trips to Home Depot to pick up swimming pool salt. Whenever possible, we use curbside pickup. Trips inside stores are rare, hurried and I always wear a mask. We get take-out food every once in a while. I stay away from people in stores not wearing masks, and don’t patronize establishments whose employees aren’t wearing masks. Now that the governor has finally mandated wearing masks in public, maybe folks will comply. Maybe.

Otherwise my days are spent largely in front of a computer screen. When not electronically filling interlibrary loan article requests for the library where I work, I have been researching The Red-Lander, a San Augustine newspaper founded in 1838, two years after Texas won its independence from Mexico. At the time, San Augustine was home to key figures in the forming of this fragile and perennially broke country. Sam Houston practiced law in San Augustine after his extended drunken visit with the Cherokees. Houston later recovered from a leg wound received at the Battle of San Jacinto at the country home of Phillip Sublett, just outside the city. San Augustine resident James Pinckney Henderson served as ambassador to France and England. He became the first governor of Texas after annexation in 1846. The city boasted two “universities” during its glory days, which were short-lived.

The research is a matter of picking up where I left off 33 years ago, when I submitted my thesis, a history of The Red-Lander, to The University of Texas at Austin and received a master’s degree. Now is the perfect time to expand that thesis into a book for two reasons:

  • I definitely have the time. My part-time gig at the library and tackling painting projects here at the hacienda are not enough to fill the days. I am built to always be working on something during the daylight hours. After 5, I jump in the pool, enjoy an adult beverage, and read. But from 9-5, I’m working on something.
  • In the three-plus decades since I finished my thesis, thousands of 19th-century newspapers have been digitized, including all of the issues of The Red-Lander held at the Briscoe Center for American History at UT. The papers are in pdf form and thus searchable. For example, the Portal to Texas History, created and maintained by the University of North Texas Libraries, provides users access to thousands of newspapers — including not only The Red-Lander but contemporary newspapers that republished articles from that paper, or commented on opinions expressed by its acerbic and articulate editor, Alanson Wyllys Canfield. Editors at the time delighted sniping at each other in print, using colorful words such as billingsgate, frothy gasconader, and blackguard.

There are several other online resources as well, some of which require a subscription, such as newspapers.com. I love visiting the Briscoe CAH and have spent hundreds of hours there looking at microfilm, for two of the books I’ve written in the past 15 years. But the center is closed because of the pandemic. The ability to examine these newspapers from the comfort of my study is a blessing. In the “old” days, I would slowly wend my way from page to page, peering at the microfilm screen, and printing out needed articles. A major improvement was the ability to save pdfs of these articles from the microfilm and save on printing costs. Now, I transcribe articles I might use in the book straight from the screen and print nothing. This will be the first major project I have undertaken that will be almost entirely electronic. I’m developing spreadsheets to keep up with what I have transcribed and where it’s located.

This is all rather nerdish, I freely admit. To date, I have transcribed nearly 100,000 words — the equivalent of a 200-page book. I’m perhaps halfway through with the research. There’s no hurry, no deadline. I will finish eventually and then start the arduous — but fulfilling — task of turning all those notes into a book to be pitched to academic presses. Maybe by then, our lives will have returned to a semblance of normality. Maybe.

Here’s a snippet from The Red-Lander. Editor Canfield would often break up long rivers of gray type with little jewels such as:

“Rise from the table when the appetite is yet good, for thousands annually dig their grave with their own teeth.”

Wise words from 1841, especially now when those of us fortunate enough to stay home and stay safe are often peeking into the pantry or the fridge, looking for a snack.

Stay safe, my friends.

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