Columbia’s Folklorist & Emma comes to America

September 25, 2014

Mathew Carey (1760-1839) launched the career of chapman Mason Locke Weems (1754-1825), who charmed Columbia’s common folk with his soapbox and plethora of little books on religion and right living as he carried the news of the day. Weems observed that amidst a land of plenty, many Americans seemed to surrender to their inclination towards gluttony and bawdy entertainments. He preached to the newly literate and his chapbooks became their introduction to enlightened thinking. Weems lamented, “The country is in darkness (Leary 1984: 2).” He observed that in the rural areas of the frontier, people struggled with what their newly achieved freedoms meant. Their thoughts according to Weems were “uninformed, their minds bitter, and their manners savage.” Weems recognized that Americans with a growing sense of nationalism needed stories of “homegrown” heroes. Weems, a Freemason who obtained his medical and theological training in England, offered a moral agenda for Americans far different from clergy featured in Jane Austen’s fictional landscapes. Weems identified piety, patriotism, industry, benevolence, and justice as immortal characteristics that could be cultivated in all Americans. Dissipation, wonton self-indulgence, scattered, wasteful use of resources that were akin to the mob violence. The Founding Fathers perceived these attributes to be the unnatural break down of the Columbia’s spiritual body. However, Carey recognized America’s thirst for British literature so he was among the many American publishers to import and pirate British literature to be repackaged into chapbooks.

Carey published the first American edition of Emma in 1816; it was distributed in Philadelphia from his establishment located at 121 Chestnut Street and in Boston by Wells & Lilly, Booksellers. In Austen’s story Emma, the vicar Mr. Elton mirrors the protagonist in his conversations. He is described as, “very full of his own claims and little concerned about the feelings of others (Austen 2011: 131).” While Austen’s works point to Anglican clergy with some disdain, Weems was far more eccentric (some would say zealous) in seeking patronage than any Austin-created vicar. Earlier, Weems’ experiences in England, specifically the Anglican Church’s restrictions on American clergy, caused deep resentment. He self-published a small booklet in 1799 called The Philanthropist, or, A Good Twelve Cents work of Political Love Power, for the fair Daughters and patriotic Sons of Virginia. Weems cribbed Scottish reverend William Lawrence Brown (1755-1830) from his Essay on the National Equality of Man (1793) embellishing it to suit his populist style. The Philanthropist argued that American citizens should gratefully ante up the tax of $1 per $1,000 essayed to support the federal government, “for in no country do they derive so much from government, or pay so little to it,” which was small and efficient in comparison to the British government that was obliged to support the Anglican Church and the Crown (Weems 1799: 21).”

Bibliography

Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: HarperPerennial Classics, 2011.

Leary, Lewis. The book-peddling Parson: An account of the Life and Works of Mason Locke Weems, patriot, pitchman, author, and purveyor of morality to the citizenry of the early United States of America. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1984.

Weems, Mason Locke. The Philanthropist, or, A good Twelve Cents worth of Political Love Powder, for the fair Daughters and patriotic Sons of America. Dumfries, VA.: Printed by J. May, 1799.

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