Biographical Intrigues in the Antebellum Era

One major luxury of our modern era is the ability to view dated documents within their complete historical and social contexts. Modern analyses of older documents can place works within their holistically accurate settings of time, place, and circumstance. In our work with several 1845 issues of The Broadway Journal, we found multiple instances in which our modern resources and historical perspectives allowed us to critique the documents in ways far beyond the scope of any of the journal’s contemporary critics. In some cases, we found the authors’ facts to be uninformed or incorrect.  Even more intriguing, however, was the unique flavor that our addition of biographical and historical details gave to each of our reviews of various authors’ works. At times, these details allowed us to form alternative modern hypotheses concerning the most relevant influences surrounding the authors who created these articles.  Additionally, we were able to place these articles within the contexts of concurrent social and political national trends. Here are a few examples of our more intriguing findings:

In C. F. Brigg’s review of Fuller’s Women in the Nineteenth Century in the March 8th, 1845 issue of The Broadway Journal, we find stunning examples of what we would call sexism in modern contexts. However, due to the fact that Women in the Nineteenth Century was itself a landmark work in the rise of American feminism, the current public standpoint on sexism hardly existed at the time of the book’s initial publication.  Thus, historically speaking, it is not entirely shocking that we find the publication of intolerant chauvinistic remarks even in a well-respected antebellum journal such as The Broadway Journal. Even so, however, the publication of this abusive review caused an editorial backlash which we can now only fully appreciate in retrospect. As noted by my peer Max Cunningham in his annotations and editorial note on the review, the publication of this article later caused Edgar Allen Poe, one of The Broadway Journal’s primary editors, to lash out publicly against his co-editor C.F. Briggs for the responsibility of the review’s content. Although the review was initially published anonymously in The Broadway Journal, Poe even went so far as to violate Briggs’ privacy by publicly labelling him as the review’s true author.  

H. R. Schoolcraft’s "Indian Names of the Island and Bay of New York," found in the March 1st, 1845 edition of The Broadway Journal, is a fascinating informational article concerning the aboriginal nomenclature for the areas in and around the island of Manhattan. In defense of Native American heritage, the article incorporates some sweeping critiques of the original English colonists. However, our modern knowledge of the complexities of H. R. Schoolcraft’s lifelong involvement with the Ojibwa tribe allows us to see that Schoolcraft’s critiques of English colonial incursion possibly carried an undertone of personal regret for his own role in the promotion of American expansion into Native American lands. This idea is further explored in my own editorial note on the piece.

Also in the March 1st edition, we see a detailed review of the work “Prescott’s Ferdinand and Isabella.” This review gives special attention to the importance of understanding Spanish history and even references several other Spanish historical works for further context.  In her editorial note on the review, my peer Lucy Randazzo evaluates multiple Spanish-American and Cuban-American tensions during that era which may have influenced the reviewer’s marked promotion of American interest in Spanish historical affairs.

In these and multiple other examples throughout The Broadway Journal, we find that antebellum authors were often bound by social and political influences which may or may not have been readily apparent to the journal’s readership at the time of the works’ publications.  Though these edited editions allow us to provide fuller context to modern readers, we also suggest that one takes a moment to read these articles completely at face value at least once prior to following up on our annotation links and our editorial notes. In this way, the article’s most authentic intended effect will still be able to reach a modern reader.  Subsequently, of course, feel free to delve into the research that we have performed on these works, and enjoy our modern takes on the literature from this truly remarkable era!