Scholarly Editing

The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing

2015, Volume 36

Satire in Circulation: James Russell Lowell's "LETTER FROM A VOLUNTEER IN SALTILLO"

by Thompson, Toddby Showalter, Jessica


On August 27, 1847, a poem from the Boston Courier was reprinted in the National Anti-Slavery Standard under the headline "LATE FROM MEXICO," situating it as news from the still-raging US-Mexico War. An editorial note stated that the versified letter "is certainly the most valuable document we have yet received from the seat of war." Subheaded "LETTER FROM A VOLUNTEER IN SALTILLO," the poem unmasks the contradictions between recruiting rhetoric and the actual war, a typical subject in similar "letters from the front" then popular in newspapers. But "LETTER FROM A VOLUNTEER IN SALTILLO" was not a real letter; rather, it was one of nine protest poems written pseudonymously by James Russell Lowell (in the guise of farmer-poet Hosea Biglow) between 1846 and 1848 that satirized the war. Each poem was printed initially in either the Boston Courier or the National Anti-Slavery Standard, and each was reprinted widely across the nation. Eventually, Lowell collected these poems into book form in 1848. This digital edition offers a comparison of changes in orthography and punctuation as the dialect poem migrated from reprint to reprint, but more importantly, it situates the poem within the context of surrounding newspaper articles. Appearing next to news of the events it targets, Lowell's satire both comments on that news and re-presents it through poetry. As this digital edition demonstrates, the meaning of the poem shifts as its news context shifts from rival northeastern reform newspapers to a cosmopolitan periodical focused on international affairs, to a Democratic newspaper on the Texas frontier, to a Whig newspaper in a small New Hampshire town, then in its dramatically revised book form, and ultimately, to a Pennsylvanian newspaper's remix of that book edition. This digital edition of "LETTER FROM A VOLUNTEER IN SALTILLO" is thus not just a study of textual variants but also a story about editors and their choices.
Lowell's series of poems protesting the war is "ranked high as a classic of American political satire" and is "perhaps the US-Mexico War text that is most familiar to scholars today." [1] Of the nine Biglow poems, we chose to present "LETTER FROM A VOLUNTEER IN SALTILLO" for several reasons. First, unlike several other Biglow poems, the poem features interplay between all three of Lowell's main satiric characters: the Massachusetts farmer-poet Hosea Biglow, in whose dialect verse all the poems appear; his parson, editor, and literary patron Homer Wilbur, who occasionally introduces these pieces and is referred to often; and Biglow's friend Birdofredum Sawin, whose letters from the front in Mexico Biglow sometimes transcribes into verse. Second, the poem's persistent allusions to contemporary people, perspectives, and events offer useful historical insight but also require contextualizing annotations for the twenty-first-century reader. Third, more than any other Biglow poem, the "LETTER FROM A VOLUNTEER IN SALTILLO"—in its title, format, and content—is presented as a firsthand account from the seat of war and is therefore offered (and treated by editors) as, to a certain extent, news, thus revealing the blurriness of lines between literature and news in mid-nineteenth-century periodicals. Our edition seeks to recreate the multiple contexts in which Lowell's very popular poem was situated and read in newspapers.
As Kevin G. Barnhurst and John Nerone have argued, "Readers do not read bits of text and pictures. What they read is the paper, the tangible object as a whole. They enter the news environment and interact with its surface textures and deeper shapes. Readers don't read the news; they swim in it." [2] In viewing the images that depict "LETTER FROM A VOLUNTEER IN SALTILLO" on a full page of newsprint alongside other stories about the war, readers of this digital edition temporarily "enter the news environment." When the reader considers the original poem and six newspaper and periodical reprints presented in this variorum, a story emerges about the power of editors to shape readers' reception of literature as well as news. Editors, in making decisions about the form of a newspaper issue—that is, which stories to reprint from other sources, whether and how to attribute them, what topical heads to use, layout, order, and so on—shape the "meaning making" of the content represented on those pages. Again according to Barnhurst and Nerone, "Once readers enter the newspaper, they continue to make choices, but the form imposes tacit rules that allow for certain reading practices and work against others. . . . the form of news constructs the audience's field of vision." [3] In an era that featured rampant reprinting of stories from other papers, newspapers differed not so much in the specific news items they presented as in how they presented them. This edition highlights such re-presentations by identifying the different editorial uses to which one very timely and political poem was put over an eighteen-month span.

Hosea Biglow and the Culture of Reprinting

The poem in the National Anti-Slavery Standard was itself reprinted from the Boston Courier, and was reprinted many times in other newspapers and periodicals across the country. According to Lowell, his Biglow poems were "copied everywhere," and he "saw them pinned up in workshops" and "heard them quoted, and their authorship debated." [4] Reviews of the 1848 book edition also tended to mention the Biglow poems' previous popularity and wide circulation in the press. Holden's Review in early 1849 claimed the poems "have been copied in every paper of the Union, from Maine to Texas, and . . . have been almost as extensively copied into English periodicals"; the Literary World referred to the poems as "known to the people of the North through the Boston newspapers"; and Harbinger Review in its review of the book claimed that the poems "as they first came long detached in newspapers had not a little influence in bringing Massachusetts and the North upon their feet, to take the moral ground, amid wicked political party issues." [5] Indeed, the poems were written and disseminated during a time when a "culture of reprinting" prevailed in the United States. [6] Postal rates for newspapers (the "mammoth weeklies" excepted) remained, even after the Postal Reform Act of 1845, at 1792 levels of a maximum of 1.5 cents for delivery anywhere in the country. Additionally, the 1845 act stipulated that newspapers garnered free postage when delivered within thirty miles of the place of publication. Free exchange of newspapers among editors remained in place. [7] By one estimate, news accounted for approximately 95 percent of the total weight of US mail by the 1830s. [8] This statistic reveals the intensity of circulating news in the antebellum United States. As a result, newspapers in the era of the partisan press tended to be amalgams of other newspapers, "all filtered through the editor's voice." [9] This would soon change as use of the electric telegraph—patented in 1837 by Samuel Morse—led to the advent of wire services. This shift began during the US-Mexico War but was not particularly widespread at the time of Lowell's writing.
This culture of reprinting, of course, gave Lowell's poems a much wider audience than they would otherwise have. Lowell pointed out in a letter to Mary Peabody (wife of transcendentalist and education reformer Horace Mann) that "Mr Biglow has a thousand readers for my one, & that he has raised the laugh at War & Slavery & Doughfaces to some purpose." [10] In fact, without editors' exchanges, his work from the National Anti-Slavery Standard might not have reached Southern readers at all. In a move emblematic of the power of postal workers as censors, a Baltimore mail clerk in 1843 tore up a copy of the National Anti-Slavery Standard in front of its subscriber, saying, "I can't pass this." Postmasters at this time often served a surveillance function, noting who took in abolitionist papers, and they had government support: as president, Andrew Jackson proposed that postal records be published to identify Americans subscribing to "subversive" papers. [11] But Lowell's antislavery poems did make it into Southern papers (though stripped of their radicalism), thanks in part to the vast network of circulating newspapers and editorial reprinting.
Lowell certainly recognized the power of reprinting and encouraged it. After publishing his first Biglow poem in the Boston Courier in 1846, Lowell wrote to Sydney H. Gay, editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard (where Lowell had recently signed on as corresponding editor), "You will find a squib of mine in this week's Courier. I wish it to continue anonymous, for I wish Slavery to think it has as many enemies as possible. . . . I suppose you will copy it, and, if so, I wish you would correct a misprint or two." [12] Here Lowell encourages Gay to reprint his Biglow poem, acknowledges the power of anonymity in a publishing environment where his byline and initials commonly appear underneath antislavery essays, and recognizes, cheerfully enough, the instability of a reprinted text. Lowell was also intensely aware of the importance of timeliness to the reception of his Biglow satires. In a letter to Gay on April 27, 1848, Lowell enclosed two poems and wrote, "Both will keep a week, I think." [13] Similarly, in explaining to Gay why he sent his fifth Biglow poem, "The Debate in the Sennit, Sot to a Nursery Rhyme," to the Boston Courier instead of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, he wrote, "Had I thought of writing it soon enough I should have sent it to you. But it would not have kept so well for a fortnight." [14] In both cases, Lowell implied that his satire had an expiration date and needed to be fresh to be effective. It is interesting, then, that Lowell spent so much time and effort in revising the poems into a book in 1848.
To an extent, our research verifies Lowell's self-reporting of the popularity of his Biglow poems. We have found reprints of the poems in newspapers printed in Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Washington, DC, geographical coverage that encompasses much of the pre-1848 United States. We have even tracked down reprints in newspapers printed in Leeds and Liverpool, England. Access to online databases that in many cases offer advanced full-text searching options has accelerated our search for reprints. To date, we have mined digital databases including Nineteenth Century US Newspapers; America's Historical Newspapers; American Periodicals Series (1740–1900); American Antiquarian Society Historical Periodicals Collection: Series 3; Accessible Archives; Chronicling America; Nineteenth-Century British Library Newspapers; British Periodicals; British Newspapers 1600–1950; and the London Times. Our search strategies were expressly developed with the nineteenth-century "culture of reprinting" in mind. For example, the Biglow poems rarely appeared with attributions, and if they did, the byline was often a pseudonym ("H. B." or "B. Sawin"), so author searches were largely futile. Title searches also proved to be a dead end in that newspapers regularly retitled the reprinted material. Keyword searches based on character and place names were more effective, as were searches for phrases such as first lines or refrains. However, keeping in mind that the dialect poems featured irregular spelling, punctuation, and slang, we often tried several versions of the same line to accumulate results. As of October 2014, our searches harvested almost fifty reprints of the nine Biglow poems, including the first appearance of "LETTER FROM A VOLUNTEER IN SALTILLO" in the August 18, 1847, Boston Courier and the following six newspaper reprints of that poem:
  • National Anti-Slavery Standard (August 26, 1847)
  • The Liberator (August 27, 1847)
  • Littell's Living Age (September 11, 1847)
  • Texas Union (October 16, 1847)
  • New Hampshire Sentinel (November 11, 1847)
  • Sunbury American (December 23, 1848)
The original and these six reprints, as well as the 1848 book edition (Meliboeus-Hipponax: The Biglow Papers), serve as eight witnesses in this edition. While we have identified textual variants from one printing to the next, our main interest lies in how the poem's presentation in various periodicals shifts its reception by news-hungry readers. As this variorum of Lowell's poem shows, editorial decisions ranging from letter-by-letter typesetting to arrangement on the page juxtaposing it against other news alters its meaning.

Boston Courier

The poem first appeared on the front page of the Boston Courier under the heading "LETTER FROM A VOLUNTEER IN SALTILLO," alongside various advertisements and several articles about religion. The Boston Courier was a "lively and literary" Boston newspaper edited by Joseph T. Buckingham and an organ for Massachusetts politician Daniel Webster. According to newspaper historian Frank Luther Mott, Buckingham was "one of the most respected newspaper men in New England." [15] Buckingham generally "applauded the prosecution of the war with Mexico" but seems to have been open to dissenting voices, including those of James Russell Lowell and Henry David Thoreau. [16] Lowell mentions this divergence of political opinion in a letter to the editor that precedes the poem. Hosea Biglow, who misspells Buckingham's name and addresses the letter to "Mister Buckinum," explains that Parson Wilbur encouraged him to send the anti-war poem specifically to Buckingham despite his pro-war sentiments. According to Hosea, the parson "don't ollers agree" with Buckingham, but he does "like a feller that ain't a Feared."
The poem's speaker, an enlisted man named Birdofredum Sawin, explains that rhetoricians like former Massachusetts secretary of state John Augustus Bolles inspired him to enlist with jingoistic propaganda. But upon his arrival in Mexico, Sawin quickly learns to separate reality from nationalist banalities. "[S]axons would be handy," he writes, "to do the berryin' down here upon the Rio Grandy," where he is ordered to kill Mexicans, whom, before arriving on the scene of war, he'd thought "worn't huming beans." He has since come to realize that "come to look at 'em, they ain't much diff'rent from wot we be." Sawin describes a harsh reality much different from the Mexico sold to him by unscrupulous recruiters, and he has come to question the morality of his mission. Sawin ultimately decides, "This goin' where glory waits ye, haint one agreeable feetur," thus sapping the romance from the popular press's call to arms. Historian Robert Johannsen writes, "For many [soldiers] the romance of the war was dispelled by the realities of the soldier's life in a strange and often inhospitable environment. . . . The visions of a romantic war in an exotic land, dreams of 'citron groves or perfumed bowers,' quickly evaporated once the volunteers arrived on the Rio Grande." [17] Sawin gives voice to this disenchantment by versifying and fictionalizing the letter from the front genre. Through Sawin's comparisons of the ideality of recruiters' and romanticizing writers' visions of the war with its mundane and vicious realities, Lowell responds in the popular press to the largely pro-war rhetoric of the popular press on the front page of a newspaper that featured both sides of the debate.

National Anti-Slavery Standard

In the National Anti-Slavery Standard, too, the poem appeared not in the page 4 "Poetry" section but on the front page, interspersed with other news of the day. In an otherwise monolithic block of text on a large sheet, the runover line breaks create extra white space, which attracts the reader's eye, visually announcing it as a poem. But at the same time, it is sandwiched on the front page between editorials and other "news"; its placement among news items lends it textual authority even as it calls into question the accuracy of standard "news" accounts of the war. This differs extensively from how poetry was usually presented in the National Anti-Slavery Standard—on the back page. In the August 26, 1847, issue, the poem "Eternal Justice" is separated from the prose, cordoned off in the far left margin under a genre-labeling header (not to mention the fact that it is remanded to the last page). This nonsatirical poetry thus has its poetry-ness, not its newsworthiness, highlighted. With the Biglow poem, both are highlighted simultaneously.
Similar sentiments to those ironically expressed in Sawin's letter appear in an editorial in the National Anti-Slavery Standard on page 2 titled "The Golden Bracelet," which muses on the difference between false recruiting rhetoric and the realities of the war in Mexico. The author editorializes,
The last winter they were enlisting men in our vicinity for this War with Mexico. . . . What invited them from their New England mountains and shores and sky?—from their fathers and mothers, their brothers and sisters, and dearer than these? Soulless presses, inhuman voices, of Statesmen and partisans, vociferate patriotism, generous love of their father-land and of freedom; then these same presses and sad voices cry out with immitigable eagerness against tories and traitors: Yes, the Tories, to whom God's truth is holier than a Government's Lie, and the sacred laws of nature are dearer than the situates of Tyranny, and loyalty to Heaven is a deeper reverence than slavery to a nefarious administration and a crouching Congress. [18]
This, too, is a moral protest against politicians and presses for drawing young men into an immoral war. Both pieces contrast the dictates of national expansion with biblical injunctions and "sacred laws." Though the article is deadly earnest and the poem at points downright silly, both offer the same take on the same topic from different angles in an issue-oriented reform newspaper dedicated to abolishing slavery and to preventing any extension of slavery into Mexico as a result of the war.

The Liberator

Whereas the page layout of the reprint in the National Anti-Slavery Standard conflates news and poetry, the poem appeared on the back page in the "Poetry" column in controversial abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator on August 27, 1847. But in spite of the layout's separation of Sawin's letter from "news," the contents of that letter connect extremely well to the news items surrounding it. Most jarring in its juxtaposition with the comic poem is a piece entitled "Returning Volunteers," which appears on the same page. Reprinted from the Cambridge Chronicle, this letter from a woman traveling through Cincinnati to a relative in Cambridge enumerates several encounters with volunteer soldiers returning from the war as she passed through New Orleans, Vicksburg, Louisville, and Cincinnati. She recounts a funeral procession in New Orleans for several officers killed at Buena Vista before detailing with some pathos the crowds on the banks in Vicksburg set to receive returning Mississippi volunteers, "or what was left of them. Out of nine hundred, only three hundred lived to return. Poor fellows, they looked as though they had seen hard services: they were sun burnt, and many appeared as though they were not long for this world." Later in the letter, she writes, "From their appearance one would suppose the volunteers had had enough of Mexico. . . . If you could hear some of them relate their hair breath [sic] escapes it would make your hair rise on your head." This woman's description offers a chilling counterpoint to Sawin's misadventures just two columns over. Sawin, too, has seen some "hard service," describes a couple close calls, and is certainly sick of Mexico, but he is not yet close to death (though in a later letter he would become a triple amputee), and the ludicrousness of the poem blunts soldiers' disillusionment with considerable levity. Incredibly, the woman's letter goes on to describe the grim irony of a deadly welcome to soldiers in Cincinnati, where a cannon shot meant to "salute" the returning volunteers killed one and blew both arms off another, one day after having killed another soldier on a different boat with the same cannon. [19]
Also on the same page as Sawin's letter is the piece "Assassination of a Massachusetts Volunteer," reprinted from the Boston Post. This brief article describes the killing of a soldier traveling "from Monterey to Ceralvo" with several other soldiers. His party "learnt from a straggling Mexican, that one of the Mariner band had caught him with a lasso, and that his throat had been cut, and his body dragged into a chapparal." [20] This account offers a more grotesque version of Sawin's statement, "You see a feller peekin' out, and, fust you know, a lariat / If [sic] round your throat and you a copse, 'fore you can say, 'Wat are ye at?'" Of course, the rest of this issue of The Liberator also included commentary on the war, including a reprinted item from the St. Louis Republican titled "More Volunteers Wanted" and two front-page stories: a reprint from the Ashtabula Sentinel detailing a speech by Congressman C. F. Adams about the war and a report that David Hale, editor of the Journal of Commerce and previous supporter of President Polk, had "come out over his own signature against the origin and prosecution of the war." [21] So, even though The Liberator separated "LETTER FROM A VOLUNTEER IN SALTILLO" into its own "Poetry" column, it still spoke to the rest of the news in the paper, offering a comically distorted mirror of news from the Mexican front.

Littell's Living Age

The context and reception of "LETTER FROM A VOLUNTEER IN SALTILLO" as it appeared in Littell's Living Age in September 1847 differs because the medium differs. Unlike the charged, single-minded reform newspapers the National Anti-Slavery Standard and The Liberator, Littell's Living Age was a politically eclectic general interest magazine that, aiming to be a cosmopolitan miscellany for an American audience, mostly reprinted works from European (typically British) sources, thus taking advantage of the absence of an international copyright law. [22] In this context, Sawin's letter appears not as a plebian voice in debates about the US-Mexico War, but one of many pieces in the magazine describing exotic foreign lands to American readers. A quick perusal of other titles in the September 11, 1847, issue of Littell's Living Age—"Protest of the Proceedings of the British Near Canton" (in China), "The Out-Station; Or, Jaunts in the Jungle" (set in Ceylon), "A Chinese Ghost Story," "Elections in England," "The Prussian Die," "Switzerland," and so on—attest to this. In keeping with this sense of bringing the news of the world home, editor Eliakim Littell's preface to "LETTER FROM A VOLUNTEER IN SALTILLO," like those in the reform newspapers, sets up the poem as war correspondence. He writes, "Having copied many letters from the army in Mexico, we now add one from a correspondent of the Boston Courier." [23] In this reprinting, then, Biglow goes international, and is situated as one of many points in a constellation of global affairs mediated by an American editor.

Texas Union

A month later, Lowell's poems had circulated from these northeastern newspapers published in New York and Boston to a Texas frontier town, San Augustine, situated on the Louisiana border. The reprint in the Texas Union excerpts only the final fourteen lines of the poem. The heading, "SEEN THE ELEPHANT," makes reference to a common nineteenth-century phrase used to describe disillusionment when the reality of a situation does not correspond with what was imagined. [24] According to the editor's preface, Sawin has "seen the elephant" because he has discovered that the "officers at home and the same officers in Mexico, are just as different as 'sodgering in fun' and 'in earnest.'" In the excerpt, Sawin complains that the accommodating, alcohol-proffering officers at the recruiting rallies at home in Massachusetts become demanding tyrants in the field. He considers desertion, but he acknowledges that he would face capital punishment if caught, and concludes, "wal, tain't no use a jawin', / I'm safe enlisted for the war." Sawin's poem about "seeing the elephant" directly links to another article on the front page of the Texas Union, titled "Wanted to See the Animal" and credited to the Boston Times. In this anecdote, a visiting yokel sees a signboard advertising Littell's Living Age—interestingly, the home of the aforementioned September reprint of Lowell's poem—at a print shop. One of the articles in Littell's Living Age mentions "seeing the elephant," and the yokel, taking the metaphor literally and speaking in dialect akin to Sawin's vernacular, asks to buy a ticket to the circus. Misunderstandings and a near riot ensue before the yokel escapes to the nearest train station to go home to the country. This anecdote preps readers for the title and theme of "SEEN THE ELEPHANT." Significantly, the anecdote about the yokel's mistake is labeled "HUMOROUS," which places it into the category of a joke; on the other hand, Lowell's poem is not labeled as fictional or humorous. [25] In fact, the editor's preface identifies Sawin as a "pretended Yankee poet, writing home from Mexico," treating Sawin as a genuine soldier and an ersatz poet, when in fact the reverse is true.
Whereas Sawin's disillusionment serves as an opportunity to campaign against the war in the northeastern reform papers, the editor of the Texas Union uses it for a different purpose. The editor, William N. Harman, is explicit about his support of the war. In an editorial on page 2, Harman announces, "Taking it for granted then, that every true friend of this country—every patriotic Texan, is a supporter of all those measures growing out of annexation, the Texas Union will fearlessly enter the lists in defence of those measures, and hold itself in readiness to repel the assaults of the Whig Press." In addition to this outright declaration of the paper's support for the Democrat Party and, concurrently, the war, an ode titled "Hero Portraits," which depicts idealized US generals including Taylor and Scott, appears on page 4. Also, Harman celebrates the success of recruitment rallies in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana in an article titled "Military." The editor praises the "chivalry" of the "brave b'hoys" who volunteered, and he also draws special attention to the Tennessee rallies, in which muster quotas were not only met but surpassed. Harman writes, "Huzza for East Tennessee! She can't be beat in patriotic devotion to country! Her sons are ever foremost when their country calls!" Keeping in mind this fervent praise for volunteers, Harman's decision to excerpt the section of Sawin's poem that mentions his desire to desert may seem contradictory. Yet Harman is careful to point out that Sawin and his flip-flopping officers are from Massachusetts. In this context, Sawin's disillusionment is portrayed as Yankee cowardice in contrast to the Southern volunteers, who do not question "the justice or injustice of the cause—as to the right or wrong of the thing—but only [ask], 'does the country need our services? If so, we are ready!'" [26]
Harman's political leanings were typical of Texan printers during this time period. According to Marilyn McAdams Sibley's study of antebellum Texas newspapers, editors "tied the appreciation in value of [their] land and business to the continued growth of the republic" and as a result "subscribed wholeheartedly not only to the unwritten rule of printing nothing that would hurt the country but also to the corollary of that rule, that what would hurt the country would also hurt them." Editors needed to please local advertisers and subscribers to prosper, and the "predominance of the Democrats and the weakness of other parties" dictated those tastes. [27] Situated in San Augustine, a frontier town in which basic institutions such as a library, district court, and school were all still under construction, Harman's newspaper business was tenuous. In addition to this generalized fear of pecuniary pain, Harman may have been further motivated by fear of bodily harm. Harman's predecessor, James Russell, had been murdered in a gunfight with another editor, Henry A. Kendall, who then fled town. [28] Anxious to put that drama to bed, Harman bought Russell's and Kendall's competing papers and united them under the new title Texas Union, the first issue of which reprinted the Lowell poem. Harman's pro-Southern, pro-war sentiments, geared to please his local community, shaped his reframing of Lowell's poem from anti-war satire to anti-Yankee propaganda.

New Hampshire Sentinel

The Texas Union's editor rails against the Whig press in the issue in which the excerpt appears. But avowedly Whig newspapers, of course, also reprinted the Sawin poem. For example, in November 1847, the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, NH) reprints "LETTER FROM A VOLUNTEER IN SALTILLO" as well as Hosea Biglow's frame letter under the heading "Miscellaneous." Abutting the poem are several other authentic letters about Mexico. Immediately following it is "A Mexican Letter," which describes the capture of Mexico City. Interestingly, this letter was written by a Mexican citizen, providing a viewpoint that contrasts with the typical "letter from the front" genre. The letter describes the US soldiers as a "patrol of foreigners, who entered triumphant, shedding the blood of our people." [29] Another letter on the same page from an American soldier encamped at the Mexican National Palace gives a detailed description of a battle in which Colonel Ransom and several other US soldiers were killed. Yet another letter written by a Southerner explains that the war is necessary because the South "must have an outlet for our slaves." The editor prints this letter as proof of the immorality of the war, which he deems "unconstitutional" and "unnatural." [30] On the same page, in an article titled "War News," the editor writes that since there have been "no official despatches" from Mexico, he must rely on "scattering small official and private letters" for news from the front lines. [31] In this context, Sawin's letter is treated as one of several letters that give firsthand accounts of the war. In this same issue, the New Hampshire Sentinel also reprints another Biglow poem; "What Mr. Robinson Thinks" is printed on page 4 under the heading "Orchestra." This poem's critique of Massachusetts politics links to the newspaper's celebration of the recent victories of several Whig politicians, whom the editor champions in part because of their anti-war sentiments.
The New Hampshire Sentinel was founded in 1799 by John Prentiss, who passed the editorial torch to his son J. W. Prentiss in 1846, the year before the Biglow poems appeared in the newspaper. Both Prentiss senior and junior shaped the paper to reflect their Whig politics, condemnation of the war, and support for temperance, religious freedom, and education reform. [32] This interest in reform may explain how Prentiss came in contact with the Lowell poems; for instance, Prentiss, like many editors, culled material from exchange papers, and he may have subscribed to reform papers like the National Anti-Slavery Standard and The Liberator. In addition, Prentiss apprenticed in Boston and had been a member of elite literary and printing circles in the city. [33] This personal network may help explain the circulation of the Biglow poems to Keene, New Hampshire. This close contextualization of the intertwined personal and political connections between printers and editors evinces the way in which the very local can telescope outward to reveal the dynamics of distribution and the stories behind the links between regional and urban nodes in the antebellum US print network.

Meliboeus-Hipponax: The Biglow Papers

In 1848, Lowell set out to collect his Biglow poems into a book edition, making copious corrections to the poems. As the comparison of witnesses in this digital edition shows, he tinkered endlessly with Biglow's New England dialect. An even bigger and more time-consuming revision involved a huge expansion of the role of Parson Homer Wilbur, Biglow's fictional editor. Whereas in the National Anti-Slavery Standard pieces Wilbur makes only a few brief introductory or explanatory appearances, in the book his role swells egregiously to over half the manuscript, thus overshadowing the more interesting characters of the folksy Biglow and the raucous Sawin. For instance, in the National Anti-Slavery Standard reprint the editorial framing, including headline, amounts to just over 250 words. In the book version, Wilbur's tiresome introduction and afterword framing the poem add up to over 1,600 words, approximately the same word count as the poem itself. As Lowell later explained this decision, "When I came to collect them and publish them in a volume, I conceived my parson-editor with his pedantry and verbosity, his amiable vanity and superiority to the verses he was editing, as a fitting artistic background and foil. It gave me the chance, too, of glancing obliquely at many things which were beyond the horizon of my other characters." [34] But in these dense and highly allusive prose interventions, Lowell as Wilbur prattles wanderingly about poetry, his parishioners, and historical precedents for the invasion of Mexico. Thus Wilbur's interruptions are more a Swiftian satire on the book than a critique of the US-Mexico War. Additionally, the juxtaposition of Wilbur's pedantry to Biglow's unlearned but earnest fervor is quite jarring. Cameron Nickels aptly describes the numbing effect that Wilbur's prominence in the book has on the satire: "Although his [Wilbur's] learned notes do often address the issues raised by the dialect letter-poems, his elaborate, scholarly analyses, abundant with Latin quotations and etymologies, too often undercut the moral thrust of the rustic, ironic speakers and reduce their humorous admissions of guilt to tediously pedantic inconsequentiality." [35]
Lowell's wholesale changes also delayed publication of the book. He complained to Gay in early September 1848, "I am as busy as I can be with Mr. Biglow's poems, of which I have got between twenty and thirty pages already printed. It is the hardest book to print that I ever had anything to do with, and, what with corrections and Mr. Wilbur's annotations, keeps me more employed than I care to be." [36] Lowell had hoped to publish it in time to influence the November presidential election, steering antislavery voters away from General Zachary Taylor and toward the Free-Soil Party candidate, Martin Van Buren. But by the time Meliboeus-Hipponax: The Biglow Papers was published by Putnam in December 1848, the war was over; Whig Zachary Taylor, a target of two Biglow poems, was elected president; and Lowell's satire was already out of date. [37] The once hot-button issues the poems addressed were suddenly old news.

Sunbury American

Soon after the book's publication, an excerpt of "LETTER FROM A VOLUNTEER IN SALTILLO" appeared in the Sunbury American, a local weekly newspaper printed in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. Titled "Sogering in Mexico," the reprint includes sixteen lines from "LETTER FROM A VOLUNTEER," as well as thirty-two lines from "A Second Letter from B. Sawin, Esq.," which was published almost a year after the first Sawin letter. The reprint appears without attribution or any sort of preface, meaning the editor does not explain that the reprint samples two separate poems. Instead, the editor seamlessly weaves the excerpts into a single, cohesive poem that reflects on Sawin's disillusionment about war. In the remixed reprint, Sawin notes that his training was much different from actually killing a man, and the recruiter's promises of gold, glory, and "GLORIOUS FUN" never materialized, at least not for the enlisted men; his superior officers, on the other hand, did get to "revel in the halls o' Montezumy." Because this version of the poem was printed after the war had ended, the editor treats it as fiction rather than news from the front. He labels it as "Select Poetry," and it abuts a sentimental Christmas story and anecdotes about two literary figures, John Keats and Sir Walter Scott.
However, the editor did manage to make his remixed Sawin poem timely in that it accompanies several articles about the discovery of gold in California, territory newly acquired by the United States as a result of the war. Johannsen points out that only "[s]ix weeks after President Polk had declared the Mexican War officially at an end, a letter from a New York volunteer in California . . . [mentioned] that a 'gold mine' had recently been discovered," which led pro-war espousers of manifest destiny to believe that "God had kept the gold hidden until the land came into the possession of the American republic." [38] In the Sunbury American, "The Gold Fever" discusses the costs of different routes to California, one of which traveled through Vera Cruz and Acapulco, sites of previous US-Mexico War battles. Both "California—Its Commercial Advantages, &c." and "Official—The Gold Essayed—Extraordinary Purity" comment on the potential financial opportunities of this spoil of the war. However, the editor tempers these temptations with several reality checks. He reprints "Congressional Proceedings," which reports on Congress's dismissal of a bill requesting the convening of a state constitutional convention to include both US and former Mexican citizens, suggesting that the incorporation of this new territory into the US body politic may be more complicated than it seems. The editor also expresses his skepticism about the Gold Rush in two articles. "The Gold Region" reviews several travel narratives about California and surmises that "we ascribe three fourths to exaggeration, produced by excitement. Each of the narrators seems to have been dazzled, and in no condition to consider sober realities." [39] Likewise, in "California Gold Mines," the editor writes, "The present excitement, in regard to the gold mines in California will result in the speedy settlement of that country by American citizens, but we venture to predict that nine tenths of those who go out to realize fortunes in hunting for gold will be disappointed." [40] The editor's suggestion that the promise of the gold rush may not match up with the reality thematically connects to his remix of the Sawin poems, in which Sawin laments the disconnect between recruiter's promises and the realities of war.
This balanced viewpoint fits with the overall tone of the newspaper, which was "generally regarded as the expression of conservative and unbiased opinion," according to a local historian. So unbiased was the editor, the local history claims, that he occasionally used this Democratic organ in a Democratic county to support non-Democratic candidates. The editor of the Sunbury American, Henry B. Masser, was a self-educated lawyer-turned-newspaperman who was "recognized as a trenchant and forcible writer, and a sagacious observer of the political and social movements of the day." Under his tenure, the periodical was "one of the most influential journals in central Pennsylvania" and enjoyed "extensive circulation throughout this section of the State." [41] Further expanding the influence of his newspaper, Masser published a German-language version, Der Deutsche Amerikaner; unfortunately, we have yet to track down a copy of the December 23, 1848, issue of Der Deutsche Amerikaner to examine if it prints a German translation of the Sawin remix poem. Considering the wide circulation, multilingual editions, and local reputation of Masser, the Sunbury American demonstrates not only that Lowell's poems infiltrated beyond urban centers but also that local papers were powerful sites for the distribution and dissemination of information in their own right.
The Sunbury American's deployment of Sawin's poem after the war had ended shows how the poem lived on beyond Lowell's original intent as a satirical, anti-war, antislavery protest poem. Later iterations of the poem in reprints further demonstrate its longevity. For instance, fifty years after its first publication, four lines from the poem appeared in a Honolulu newspaper, The Independent, in an editorial about the US annexation of Hawaii. The editorial takes its title from Lowell's poem and links US colonialism in Hawaii to the US-Mexico War, noting that in both cases "the white men" used the ideology of manifest destiny and the civilizing mission as a cover for "committing the highest crime known in international relations—stealing from a people their government and their lands." [42] In the early twentieth century, an untitled article in Greenville, Kentucky's The Record cites the poem. After announcing that "[a]ll the dark-skinned races look alike to the white man," the racist article claims, "It is true that we believe, in our political literature, that all men were created free and equal, but practically we make the qualification of Hosea Biglow during the Mexican war, that 'every man don't mean a nigger or a Mexican.'" [43] In its original incarnation, this line parodied the racist pro-Anglo-Saxon rhetoric of one of the war's major military figures, Caleb Cushing. However, in The Record, the editor misreads the poem's satirical rhetoric, quotes a single line stripped of context, and uses it to defend de facto discrimination in a reversal of Lowell's spirit of protest. Although we do not include these two mentions as witnesses in our digital edition because of their brevity, they evince the malleable afterlife of the poem in the hands of editors across a spectrum of political motivations.

Editorial Approach

To prepare this digital edition, we began by transcribing each reprint as a separate text file. In these diplomatic transcriptions, we preserved all irregular spelling and punctuation in the original because we wanted to record the dialect as is without correction. We decided to record each line of poetry without arbitrary line breaks or indentation caused by varying column widths. We also did not record stanza breaks because they varied and were often difficult to discern on newspaper pages. Once all the transcriptions were complete, we collated the witnesses with Juxta Commons, an online editorial tool developed by NINES that offers collation of comparison sets, several forms of visualization of variants, the option to export as TEI P5 file, and the option to publish results online. In particular, we chose Juxta Commons because it creates a TEI file that uses parallel segmentation to juxtapose the different witnesses. According to the TEI P5 guidelines, parallel segmentation is "useful where editors do not wish to privilege a text as the 'base' or when editors wish to present parallel texts." [44] This element of openness reflects our desire to privilege multiplicity rather than an authoritative text. Web technology, of course, is perfectly suited to such an approach. Whereas traditional print editing identifies different versions of a text, creates a conspectus of various readings, makes a single text through a process of combination, and presents to the reader a single text, digital editing, as Peter Robinson points out in "New Directions in Critical Editing," allows editors to bypass these last two stages and to "simply present all the accumulated evidence for all the different states of the text." [45] This edition is the embodiment of an argument that circulating texts like Lowell's Biglow poems should not be seen as either going "from bad to worse" [46] as they appear and reappear or as imperfect instantiations to be collated into an authoritative text representing the author's ultimate intention. Rather, this digital edition invites readers to consider these reprints as separate iterations that shift to fit the needs of different news contexts. Hence, we want to highlight not our own editorial decisions, but those of newspaper editors in 1847–48, as well as the role that readers—then and now—play in making meaning through the reading of the poem as it appears in juxtaposition with the news content it adumbrates. The parallel segmentation structure created by collating our witnesses through Juxta Commons helps us achieve this goal.
Our first trial run using Juxta Commons proved problematic because of the wide variety in our witnesses: some had extensive prefatory material, while others had none. Also, two of our witnesses, the Texas Union and the Sunbury American, were excerpts, which created misalignments when the Juxta collation attempted to match up the texts line by line. Our second run, in which we only included the body of the poem in the witnesses that reprinted the entire poem, was much clearer. Then we manually added any prefatory material, the excerpts, and the concluding prose appended to the poem in the book edition. We structured the XML document to reflect this variety of formats. In the front matter, we listed various titles under the "head," any introductory text penned by the editor as "preface," and Hosea Biglow's framing text as "letter." Then we placed the poem in the "body." One of the reprints, the book edition, included an appendix, which is included in the markup as back matter. To ensure that we had not introduced error or accidentally autocorrected an irregular dialect spelling during this transcription process, we performed a round of double-checking. At this stage, we also manually entered instances of italics or small caps, tagged the markup with "placeName" and "persName," and demarcated uses of Latin and Ancient Greek as foreign languages. We decided not to mark the Spanish words within the poem as foreign because at the time the poem was printed, these words were incorporated into the US vernacular and would not have required translation. As Johannsen points out, the "Mexican War brought many more Spanish words and phrases into American speech. . . . Such words as adobe, ranchero, chaparral, sombrero, lasso, corral, hacienda, peon, calaboose, fandango, and patio (the list could go on) came into common use." [47] Several of these specific words—including "chaparral," "fandango," and "lasso"—appear in Lowell's poem.
In the next stage of our editorial process, we marked each site of variance between the witnesses as one of four categories: punctuation, orthographic, alteration, and substantive. This categorization revealed several trends as the poem evolved over time. First, the majority of the variants were due to changes in punctuation and spelling that occurred when Lowell compiled the book edition. He systematically made the dialect more irregular. For instance, the standard "and" in the earlier newspaper reprints is universally changed to "an'" in the book, and the same occurs with "as" to "ez," "was" to "wuz," "that" to "thet," "had" to "hed," and so on. In the glossary that he created for his Biglow Papers book, Lowell offered "translations" of these slang spellings into proper English. Categorization of variants by type also revealed that the Sunbury American tends to follow the book's spelling and punctuation, leading us to believe that the editor of that newspaper used the book, not an exchange paper, as his source. (That the Sunbury American reprints a later Sawin poem and appeared after the book's publication strengthens this claim of lineage.) In addition to noting instances of orthographic or punctuation changes, we also marked substantive variants in which entire words or phrases were altered. In particular, following line 98, Lowell added four lines to the book version. The other major variation among witnesses has to do with Hosea Biglow's explanatory notes. Four of the newspapers reprints include these notes, interspersing them throughout the poem. The book includes all but one of these notes but locates them beneath the poem as footnotes. The book also includes an explanatory note signed by Homer Wilbur. Two of the witnesses excised the notes. For the witnesses that included them, we transcribed each of these explanatory notes and marked them as "authorial." In a few cases, we also classified a variant as an alteration when the appearance of a word or phrase differed, but largely the appearance stayed the same from edition to edition. Finally, we added annotations to the poem about context such as historical figures, literary allusions, and nineteenth-century slang to help modern readers understand the poem.
Though, as this introduction shows, we are most interested in investigations of the poem's relationship to the news surrounding it in each edition, we ultimately decided not to transcribe and encode selected articles from each newspaper. Instead, we invite readers to review the images of these pages and, building on the juxtapositions we have elaborated here, to identify their own connections between Lowell's poem and other news content. This, we hope, engages the reader in a receptive process similar to that of news-addicted subscribers reading the poem in 1847 and 1848 and fits with our contention that each separate context offers a horizon fruitful for meaning-making.


Special thanks to Dawn Childress of Penn State Libraries, who generously shared her knowledge of TEI with us in a series of hands-on workshops in spring 2014. We also thank Molly Hardy, Paul Erickson, Ashley Cataldo, Jaclyn Donovan Penny, and the rest of the staff at the American Antiquarian Society, which has supported this project in many ways, including awarding us remote access to their proprietary databases for our reprint searches, providing high-resolution scans, and engaging in productive conversation about creating this digital edition. Finally, we thank Harrison Wick, who provided us with scans of the first edition of Meliboeus-Hipponax: The Biglow Papers housed in Indiana University of Pennsylvania's Special Collections, research assistant Kaitlin Tonti, and project contributor Erin Guydish.

Image Credits

Boston Courier (August 18, 1847), National Anti-Slavery Standard (August 26, 1847), The Liberator (August 27, 1847), Littell's Living Age (September 11, 1847), Texas Union (October 16, 1847), and New Hampshire Sentinel (November 11, 1847) all courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society; Sunbury American, (December 23, 1848), Library of Congress; from Meliboeus-Hipponax: The Biglow Papers, courtesy of IUP Special Collections and University Archives.


  1. Robert W. Johannsen, To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 218; Shelley Streeby, "1846, June: James Russell Lowell's Biglow Papers Are Cut from the Boston Courier and Pasted onto Workshop Walls All over Boston," in A New Literary History of America, ed. Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 260.Go back
  2. Kevin G. Barnhurst and John Nerone, The Form of News: A History (New York: Guilford Press, 2001), 7.Go back
  3. Barnhurst and Nerone, Form of News, 6–7.Go back
  4. James Russell Lowell, The Biglow Papers: Second Series (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867), vii–viii.Go back
  5. "Meliboeus Hipponax . . . ," Holden's Review, January 1, 1849, 50; "New England Satire," Literary World, December 2, 1848, 872; "Review," Harbinger Review, December 23, 1848, 62.Go back
  6. On reprinting in nineteenth-century America, see Richard Brodhead, Culture of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), and Meredith L. McGill, American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834–1853 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).Go back
  7. Richard B. Kielbowicz, News in the Mail: The Press, Post Office, and Public Information, 1700–1860s (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), 3, 58, 84.Go back
  8. Leonard C. Thomas, News for All: America's Coming-of-Age with the Press (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 13.Go back
  9. Barnhurst and Nerone, Form of News, 102.Go back
  10. James Russell Lowell, quoted in Thomas Wortham, introduction to The Biglow Papers [First Series], by James Russell Lowell (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1977), xiv.Go back
  11. Thomas, News for All, 14.Go back
  12. James Russell Lowell to Sydney H. Gay, June 16, 1846, in The Letters of James Russell Lowell, ed. Charles Eliot Norton (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1894), 115–16.Go back
  13. James Russell Lowell to Sydney H. Gay, April 27, 1848, in Letters, 128–29.Go back
  14. James Russell Lowell to Sydney H. Gay, May 5, 1848, in Letters, 128–29.Go back
  15. Mott, American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States through 260 Years: 1690 to 1950, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1950), 262.Go back
  16. See Gary Scharnhorst, "'Conflict of Laws': A Lost Essay by Henry David Thoreau," New England Quarterly 61 (1988): 569–71.Go back
  17. Johannsen, To the Halls of the Montezumas, 86–87.Go back
  18. "The Golden Bracelet," National Anti-Slavery Standard, August 26, 1847, 50.Go back
  19. "Returning Volunteers," The Liberator, August 27, 1847, 140.Go back
  20. "Assassination of a Massachusetts Volunteer," The Liberator, August 27, 1847, 140.Go back
  21. Untitled news item, The Liberator, August 27, 1847, 137.Go back
  22. Meredith L. McGill, "Lurking in the Blogosphere of the 1840s," Common-Place 7.2 (2007), accessed August 15, 2014, back
  23. "Letter from a Volunteer in Saltillo," Littell's Living Age, September 11, 1847, 503.Go back
  24. For more on the widespread use of this phrase to describe soldiers' disillusionment, see Johannsen, To the Halls of the Montezumas, 87.Go back
  25. "Wanted to See the Animal," Texas Union, October 16, 1847, 1.Go back
  26. "Military," Texas Union, October 16, 1847, 2.Go back
  27. Marilyn McAdams Sibley, Lone Stars and State Gazettes: Texas Newspapers before the Civil War (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1983), 9, 153.Go back
  28. Sibley, Lone Stars and State Gazettes, 364–65.Go back
  29. "A Mexican Letter," New Hampshire Sentinel, November 11, 1847, 2.Go back
  30. "The War, and What It Is For," New Hampshire Sentinel, November 11, 1847, 2.Go back
  31. "War News," New Hampshire Sentinel, November 11, 1847, 2.Go back
  32. Cornelius Raily Lyle II, "New Hampshire's 'Sentinel': The Editorial Life of John Prentiss, 1799–1846" (PhD diss., Northwestern University, 1972), 435–52 (Proquest).Go back
  33. John W. Moore, Moore's Historical, Biographical, and Miscellaneous Gatherings in the Form of Disconnected Notes Relative to Printers, Printing, Publishing, and Editing of Books, Newspapers, Magazines and Other Literary Productions, Such as the Early Publications of New England, the United States, and the World, from the Discovery of the Art, or from 1420 to 1886 (Concord, NH: Republican Press Association, 1886), 530 (Internet Archive); Lyle, "New Hampshire's 'Sentinel,'" 13–14.Go back
  34. James Russell Lowell to Thomas Hughes, September 13, 1859, in Letters, 296–97.Go back
  35. Cameron C. Nickels, New England Humor: From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993), 205.Go back
  36. James Russell Lowell to Sydney H. Gay, September 2, 1848, in Letters, 138.Go back
  37. For a meticulously edited edition of the Biglow poems in book form, see The Biglow Papers [First Series], ed. Thomas Wortham (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1977). "LETTER FROM A VOLUNTEER IN SALTILLO" appears on pages 57–68.Go back
  38. Johannsen, To the Halls of the Montezumas, 310–11.Go back
  39. "The Gold Region," Sunbury American, December 23, 1848, 2.Go back
  40. "California Gold Mines," Sunbury American, December 23, 1848, 2.Go back
  41. Herbert C. Bell, History of Northumberland County, Pennsylvania (Chicago: Brown, Runk and Company, 1891), 282, 807 (HathiTrust).Go back
  42. "Scrounging Them Out," The Independent, March 9, 1898, 2.Go back
  43. Untitled news item, The Record, June 15, 1911, 2.Go back
  44. To access the TEI P5 guidelines, see back
  45. Peter Robinson, "New Directions in Critical Editing," in Electronic Text: Investigations in Method and Theory, ed. Kathryn Sunderland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 153, 159.Go back
  46. William Proctor Williams and Craig S. Abbot, An Introduction to Bibliographical and Textual Studies (New York: Modern Language Association, 2009), 8.Go back
  47. Johannsen, To the Halls of the Montezumas, 205.Go back