Thursday, November 7, 2013

Thwaites and Co.

Over at Active History, Katie McGee draws our attention to an anniversary which had not crossed my mind: the passing of Reuben Gold Thwaites (1853-1913), general editor of the famed Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents.  Good catch!  A minor correction, though, is required.  The year in question was not "the same year of the final publication of his seventy-two volume" magnum opus; the final seventy-first, seventy-second and seventy-third volumes were all published in 1901.
The Challenge : Transcribing and translating the original Jesuit Relations and related documents.

Katie sums up very well the remarkable value of the Thwaites edition of the Jesuit Relations, but I can't resist adding a few thoughts of my own.  My first has to do with the care that should be exercised in relying on this source.  The quality of the English translation of the French, Latin and Italian text is excellent overall, but this is not to say that it is perfect.  There are a number of small but consequential mistranslations, which in some cases have echoed unchecked through the secondary literature.  Best to always refer back to the transcriptions of the original language, which thanks to a solid editorial vision can be found on the page opposite the translation.

Another thought: why not take this opportunity to foreground the man behind the book?  I would bet you, dear readers, that among even the most dilligent users of the Thwaites edition of the Jesuit Relations, there are very few who know anything about Thwaites' background.  Born at Dorchester, Massachusetts, he was interestingly enough the son of two Yorkshire immigrants -- not one of those Boston Brahmins, like his elder Parkman.  At age thirteen, young Thwaites moved with his parents to a farm in Omro near Oshkosh, Wisconsin. After working as a farmhand and going to public school, he taught elementary classes and instructed himself in a range of collegiate subjects.  Later he spent a couple of years as a special student at Yale, where he studied English lit, economic history, and international law. 
Thwaites had begun to write for newspapers in Wisconsin.  He became a staff member of the Oshkosh times, and soon moved on to Madison to serve as city editor and later managing editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.  He married in 1882 and the following year had a son, Frederick, who incidentally would go on to teach geology at the University of Wisconsin.  Thwaites for his part could not resist the call of Clio.  He was persuaded to become assistant corresponding secretary of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and then its secretary in 1887. 

The Man : Reuben Gold Thwaites.  That is
a dandy necktie, I must say.  What the picture
doesn't show is that Thwaites was known for
taking off his shoes and easing into a pair of
slippers upon arriving at the office every morning.
Thwaites revealed himself an energertic and visionary administrator, on top of being an erudite scholar and a fluent writer and editor.  Louise Phelps Kellogg, who served as senior research assistant at the Historical Society, described him as “never too busy to discuss the value of placing a comma correctly.”  Another acquaintance declared: “Energy, thy name is Thwaites”.  Because of his command of the subject matter, good nature and sense of humour, he elicited a measure of devotion that his successors at the head of the Historical Society apparently found difficult to match.  He died suddenly on October 22, 1913, a day before his society's annual meeting. 

Now, I would also bet you that it occurs to rather few users of the Thwaites edition of the Jesuit Relations that behind the man there was a veritable legion.  A quick glance at the title pages of the first and last volume of the series reveal the identity of some of these collaborators.  Besides Thwaites, who is credited as general editor, we find the names of several other editors: Finlow Alexander, Percy Favor Bicknell, John Cutler Covert (all for the French), William Frederic Giese (Latin); and of translators: Crawford Lindsay, William Price, Hiram Allen Sober (French), Mary Sifton Pepper (French and Italian), John Dorsey Wolcott (Latin).  Emma Helen Blair served as Assistant Editor, and Victor Hugo Paltsits as “Bibliographical Advisor”.  Edward P. Alexander, in The Museum in America: Innovators and Pioneers, allows us to add a seemingly uncredited name to the list, that of Annie Amelia Nunns, who eventually became Thwaites’ executive secretary, and whose work,  Alexander reports, involved toiling on the Relations “long hours, often at night”.  Louise Phelps Kellogg surely contributed something to the project as well.  Surveying the front pages of the other seventy-one issues might reveal other names.  It is interesting to note the number of women among these collaborators working in the shadows of the great man.  Some of them, like Blair and Kellogg, were formidable historians in their own right.

On this hundredth anniversary, then, three cheers for Thwaites and Company!


1 comment:

  1. Excellent. It's true that Thwaites has unfortunately went under the radar of all the celebratory hoopla of other anniversaries... Thanks for bringing him up!