John Galt (1779-1839) is widely considered to be the first political novelist in the English language. One of his books Lawrie Todd, or the Settlers in the Woods (1830) was based on the life of a real person. Lawrie Todd was Grant Thorburn (1773-1863), a seed merchant from New York.
Thorburn was originally from Scotland, but emigrated to New York in his early twenties. There he started a hardware business but when trade dwindled he moved on to the seed business, eventually making his fortune. He made the most of the fame of being ‘the original Lawrie Todd’, and published several books, autobiographical or advice-giving in nature. In the years 1833-4 he travelled to Britain for a tour, and wrote of his experiences in the snappily titled Men and Manners in Britain; or, a bone to gnaw for the trollopes, fidlers, etc. being notes from a journal on sea and on land in 1833-4.
The ‘trollopes’ in the title refers to Frances Trollope, an English writer who had recently published Domestic Manners of the Americans in 1832. Her book obviously touched a nerve with Thorburn, as he refers to her frequently, often addressing comments directly to her. The ‘fidlers’ in the title is not a typo. Thorburn does not have a bone to pick with musicians of any kind! Isaac Fidler is now a truly forgotten author (you really have to be forgotten to not have a page on Wikipedia!) who had stayed in America and Canada in 1832 and published a book on their ‘professions, literature, manners and emigration’. Thorburn does not refer to him in the book, other than the title, so it was Trollope to whom he really wanted to give a ‘bone to gnaw’.
A copy of Men and Manners was sent across the Atlantic for publication in Britain in 1835 (Whittaker and Company, London). Thorburn’s strong opinions, coupled with his lack of experience of fine society, resulted in the book achieving some degree of notoriety, and the following year a sort of response to his work was published as A Bone to Gnaw for Grant Thorburn, by William Carver, an old enemy of Thorburn, who had once been a friend. The short book is little more than a character assassination and even makes the claim that Thorburn was not the author of his own works, a frankly ridiculous suggestion. Thorburn wrote from the heart, and the passages where he recounts his return to his childhood home, seeing his father again, and finally saying goodbye to him for the last time, shine with genuine emotion that could not have come from any writer other than Thorburn himself.
The British edition of Men and Manners begins with a preface lacking in the American edition, written by the publisher.
On receiving the following “Tour”, we thought of publishing notes to it, showing where and how the worthy traveller had been misled; but after having written these notes, we thought that it would be a pity to print them, as it would deprive the reader of a very great treat, Grant Thorburn’s celebrity being undoubtedly caused by his absurdity. We therefore have published it as written by him, without correction of any kind on our part, merely submitting the following as as [sic] a sort of introduction and preface.
Unfortunately the the publisher did not think to to correct his own own mistakes before criticizing those those of Thorburn. And if you think that sentence was sarcastic, look upon it as an homage to what follows in the preface, a letter that accompanied the book when it was sent to the publisher, surely one of the most sarcastic pieces of criticism ever committed to print, bearing in mind that this was included within the pages of Thorburn’s own book! I am not including the entire letter here, but it is worth quoting a much larger section than I normally would, as this is not part of the American edition that is the easiest to source. I would recommend purchasing an original copy of the English edition if possible, as it is a book to treasure. Enjoy…
Letter from a Scots Gentleman in New York, to the Editor.
New York, 2nd January, 1835.
My Dear Sir,
I send you herewith what I am certain you will agree with me in thinking a great literary curiosity, viz. a Tome by the redoubted Grant Thorburn, which has just appeared in our good city, entitled, “Men and Manners in Britain, or, a Bone to Gnaw for the Trollopes, Fidlers, etc.”
It is Johnson, I think, who observes, that a most entertaining volume might be made of the sayings and doings of a savage taken suddenly from his desert, and turned loose at once on civilized society: and the justness of the remark is fully borne out by the work in question. A more complete savage, (I use the word in contra-position to the humanities of cultured life,) than Grant Thorburn, or a more amusing morçeau than the record of his journeyings, never fell under my observation.
Our author, as you are doubtless aware, emigrated when a lad from his native country of Scotland to America, where by a dogged, cheese-pairing industry in the venting of old iron, and garden seeds, he has contrived to realize a considerable fortune. His whole life has been spent behind the counter – and his ideas, in their most extensive rambles, have never penetrated beyond its limits. It has been said of the poet of the Seasons, that so completely was his mind imbued with the poetic feeling, that even a candle appeared to him in a poetical light. In like manner it may be said of Grant Thorburn, that he can see nothing but in reference to the shop….
If you knew the man as well I do, his portraitures of your fashionable life would afford you infinite amusement. There is something exquisitely ludicrous in the contrast between the subject and the dissertator. Denned in the murky recesses of his store, for the best part of half a century – his most select society a few “snuffling,” “plugging,” vendors of “notions” – and the extent of his reading, the Newgate Calender, and the Daily Prices Current, he sallies forth with the comfortable self sufficiency of “P. P. Clerk of this Parish,” to give his adopted countrymen an idea of “Men and Manners” on your side of the herring pond; a task for which he is as much qualified as a blind man is to lecture on the nature and combinations of colours. The dwarfish shopkeeper knows as much of good society even on our side of the Atlantic, as a bull in a china shop of the vases which its hoofs are demolishing: so you can imagine his competency to dilate on the manners of “the old country.”…
The little dealer in turnip seed does not confine himself to strictures on society, he sets himself forward as a critic in the fine arts, and corrects certain foolish errors which the public had fallen into regarding matters of vertu. For instance, speaking of the statue of Achilles in Hyde Park, which many, in the simplicity of their ignorance, have considered as partaking somewhat of a classical spirit, he remarks, – “They say it represents Achilles, but it looked to me like a great big black man, with the lid of a soup pot in his hand.”…
Our author is not only a man of taste – he is a devoted admirer of the fair sex, and grievously laments over the foul murders of the “lovely” Anna Boleyn, and the immaculate Mary Stewart. In America, he says, such things could not have happened – the people would have risen en masse in defence of a beautiful woman in such an awkward predicament… Perhaps honest Grant never heard of the hideous butcheries perpetuated in New England on certain “ugly” old women, on the score of witchcraft, their wrinkles and decrepitude being the principal evidences of their guilt…
So how to approach a book that has been so thoroughly rubbished in the preface? It is difficult not to read with scepticism, and look to find faults. But this would do Thorburn a disservice. The examples put forward in the letter of his supposed ignorant nature are amusing, but they are the worst of his journal, and they are isolated. The majority of his writing is made up of observations of the places he visited, interspersed with anecdotes and the occasional tangential ramblings, some of which are undoubtedly opinionated. But it is no so far different to any other 19th Century journal, and contains much of historical interest. Perhaps anticipating criticism, Thorburn’s own preface tackles the issue of his lack of education, which he clearly expects will be held against him by his critics.
When a man of small abilities, who has never been inside of a college, sends forth a book into the world, he is branded as an absurd egotist, or a consummate, proud upstart. Again, if the world sees a man grovelling along without a spark of ambition to raise him among his fellows, they say he is a mean-spirited mortal, and ask him — “Man, why don’t you have more pride?”’ Just such a world of contradiction we live in.
The next part of this essay, in which we will dive into the text of the journal itself, will follow in a few days. Don’t forget to bookmark this page and please come back soon! I have a new entry at least every other day.