Tuesday, November 13, 2012

My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean: Robbie Burns in Philly

by Alastair Johnston

Second (first Edinburgh) edition (1787).

Like many before him, a Scotsman emigrates to the New World. He is a success, prospers, and adapts well to his new home. But as he advances in years he starts to miss his homeland. So he decides, on turning 70, to go home one last time and see his native sod. He telegrams his brothers and gets on the boat that brought him thither many years afore. On Clydebank he gets on the wee puffer to Tannochbrae and heads back into the glens once more. But at the station no one greets him. Then he sees two old guys on a bench. Och, Jamie and Geordie, he says, aa didna ken ye, wi them lang white beards! Aye, says yin, when ye went aff tae Americay, ye tak the razor wi' ye!

                                     Perhaps it may turn out a Sang;
                                     Perhaps, turn out a Sermon.
                                       (Burns, Epistle to a Young Friend, May 1786)

A new acquisition by the National Library of Scotland sheds interesting light on the way authors' works circulated before publication in the 18th century.

This summer the NLS acquired a collection of newspapers printed in Philadelphia by John Dunlap, containing individual poems by Robert Burns. Dunlap (1747-1812), you may know, was printer to the Continental Congress. He'd been brought to the colonies from county Tyrone, in Ulster (Northern Ireland) by his uncle William as a printer's apprentice. When he turned 18, Dunlap took over the printing business and began publishing a weekly newspaper, The Pennsylvania Packet, or the General Advertiser. Like many colonial publications, its contents reflected the press in Europe, particularly Britain, from whence a lot of material was derived. Thus the Pennsylvania Gazette (which was bought by Benjamin Franklin in October 1729) was padded out with extracts from the Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen. In 1773 Dunlap married Elizabeth Ellison, niece of Franklin's wife. Three years later, a rush job for printing a broadside, brought to him by John Hancock, would put his presswork into the annals of American history. (I have often remarked how American Independence from Britain did not extend to print culture, for not only is the Declaration set in Caslon type, most of the printing in America continued to be cloned from British editions, text and typography.)

His paper was eminently successful and when Dunlap died he was one of the wealthiest men in America, owning large tracts of land. While the survival of old newspapers is not that remarkable, the contents of this group are. They are the first appearances of the poems of Robert Burns in America. Unlike the Lakers (Wordsworth, Southey, Coleridge), Burns was immediately popular on the appearance of his first book of poetry. Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Kilmarnock, 1786) was a huge success and Burns would become the best-selling poet of the nineteenth century (followed by Byron, Milton, Pope, and then Bloomfield, whose own rustic character Giles is a complete hick next to the swinging Scotsman we find in Burns' poems and songs.) A review by Henry Mackenzie in The Lounger (no 97, Edinburgh, 9 December 1786), referring rapturously to the "Heaven-taught Ploughman," was picked up by the London Chronicle and brought the Scots bard to public notice.

The 1786 Kilmarnock edition of Burns' poems, set in Caslon type

A second edition of Burns was printed in Edinburgh (with 1600 subscribers) and copies quickly made it to the New World via the ports of Philadelphia and New York. With the peace of 1783 trade as well as immigration resumed. It was common for a bookseller to arrive by boat stocked with the latest books and start business as soon as he disembarked. As Anna Painter said, "Wherever Scotsmen had gone, the poems and fame of Burns followed, and Scotsmen had gone everywhere in the eighteenth century." The continued adoration (and memorization) of Burns' work has also meant the survival of the Lallans dialect.

In Philadelphia two Scots immigrants, Peter Stewart, a printer, and George Hyde, a bookbinder, decided to print the first American edition of Burns. There was no copyright agreement between America and its former government in Britain so piracy was rampant. They had been anticipated by some New Yorkers who were trying to get subscriptions from the St Andrew's Society in that city, but subscribers were slow in coming forward, for those who were determined enough were getting copies of the London third edition fresh off the boat. So it took over a year for the New York edition to get off the ground (today there's a statue of Burns in Central Park).

To test the market Stewart and Hyde placed poems in the Pennsylvania Packet from 24 July 1787 to 14 June 1788, then issued their edition on 7 July 1788. The NLS mentions that Burns' poems clearly had a positive impact on their American readership; the selected poems were chosen to portray him as a sentimental, God-fearing ploughman, a working man at one with nature and sympathetic to the aims of the American colonists in freeing themselves from British control. Among the poems printed in the newspaper are: "The Rigs o' barley," "The Cotter's Saturday night," "To a louse," "To ruin," and "Epistle to a young friend."

I kiss'd her owre and owre again, | Amang the rigs o' barley
(Burns' first appearance in the New World)

Despite its arcane rhymes of "grozet" with "rozet", and "smeddum" with "droddum," "To a Louse" is one of the most magnificent poems ever composed in any language, striding boldly from contempt and arrogance to a transcendent observation on human nature in the last stanza. It still boggles the mind today. The putative publishers didn't need to cock the big guns, like "To a Mouse," leaving them for the discovery of the delighted reader. Two later issues of the paper ran ads for the American edition as a 'neat pocket volume.' It is likely the American edition was printed by Dunlap (who was a more commercial printer than Stewart, who only printed ephemeral jobwork), then the sheets were bound by Hyde.

Frank Amari Jnr, an American rare book dealer, attorney, and member of the Ephemera Society, sold (and partly donated) the collection to the National Library of Scotland where it will be a useful tool for those studying transatlantic commerce in books.

               L--d man, were ye but whyles where I am,
               The gentles ye wad ne'er envy them!
                                  (--Burns, The Twa Dugs, a tale)

Ref: Anna M. Painter "Poems of Burns before 1800", in The Library, 4th ser. 12 (1931-32), pp. 434-456.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely. Burns is brilliant, although I still struggle with his language. But I'm not Scottish.


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