published Jan 3, 2010
Middlebury historian pens
you pick up one of Robert Buckeye's new biographies of important Vermonters,
chances are you'll never have heard of the subject.
wants it that way. "These people should be better known," he says.
And, reading through these essay-length books, it is easy to agree.
his chapbooks, Buckeye, a retired archivist for Middlebury College, offers
insights into such little-known Vermonters as Martin Freeman, Edwin James, Viola
White, Samuel Dwight and Francis Frost. They are not part of the pantheon of
important Vermonters — Ethan Allen, George Aiken, Dorothy Canfield Fisher,
etc. — but their absence makes their stories no less significant.
Edwin James. James was a fascinating person who was ahead of his time, which
might explain why he has been lost to time. Born in Weybridge in 1797, James
graduated from Middlebury College. He was a learned young man, with knowledge
far beyond his years.
the time he is 23, he has studied botany, geology and medicine. Tellingly, while
at Middlebury, he reads about the voyages of Capt. James Cook and Don Quixote,
notes Buckeye. The books encapsulate his future — part adventure, part tilting
gains an appointment to Maj. Stephen Long's expedition to the Rocky Mountains,
the first major exploration since Lewis and Clark's. He becomes the first white
man to climb Pike's Peak, which is initially identified on maps as James Peak.
He discovers and names hundreds of plant species, including mountain blue
columbine, which will become Colorado's state flower.
James, however, the West is not a nirvana to explore. He is horrified by what he
sees there: White men slaughtering buffaloes by the thousands and keeping only
their tongues. But he is most appalled by the treatment of Native Americans. He
sees how false treaties, Christianity and alcohol are being used to push tribes
off their land. In 1827, he helps write a book to expose the atrocities being
committed in the name of progress, but few people listen. James is a century too
his essay, Buckeye has brought back James, who was in serious need of
resurrecting. Buckeye uncovered about 200 citations about him in 19th-century
journals and newspapers. "I don't think there are more than three or four
in the 20th century," he says in an interview, "but I think he is a
brief books — they are only about a dozen pages long — fall somewhere
between works of popular history and scholarly fare, though they tend toward the
academic end of that spectrum.
was aware when I began this series that they might be difficult to interest
people in because in some sense they are not Vermontiana," says Buckeye,
whose Amandla Publishing company produces this Quarry Books Series. "They
are more intellectual and scholarly than Vermontiana."
the other hand, they are not long, scholarly works, so academics might be turned
off. "In each case I wanted to do a responsible job," Buckeye says,
"but I wasn't going to be a lifelong scholar on any of them."
foray into publishing is a second, or perhaps third or fourth, career for him.
From 1971 to 2003, he worked for Middlebury College, serving in a variety of
positions, including college archivist, special collections librarian, and
curator of and instructor in American literature. Perhaps not coincidentally,
many of the subjects of his books have ties to Middlebury.
plans to write 10 such books and sell them through local bookstores. Yale,
Middlebury and the University of Vermont have subscribed to the series.
are not encyclopedic works that tell every known fact about a historic figure
and do so in a chronological order. Instead, these are free-ranging essays in
which Buckeye teases out themes in the subjects' lives and lets facts rise to
the surface as needed to make his points.
essays are poetic at times. Not surprisingly, Buckeye modeled his books after
the book "In the American Grain" by William Carlos Williams. Better
known as a poet, Williams picked subjects who represented his vision of what it
meant to be an American. Similarly, Buckeye chose subjects who embodied a
was a contributor to the Vermont Encyclopedia, which came out in 2003. One of
his guidelines in picking subjects for these books was that they had to be
obscure enough to have been excluded from that book. All but two of his subjects
passed that test. "But," Buckeye says, "I wanted to include
Martin Freeman (whose encyclopedia entry he wrote), and my take on Joseph
Battell was one that no one had taken."
is probably the best-known subject in Buckeye's series. He was a quirky land
baron in Addison County who gave away his vast holdings, including the top of
Camel's Hump, on condition that they be preserved. Most writing about Battell
looks at his environmental ethic.
looks at another aspect of Battell's urge to conserve things. "He was the
first Take Back Vermonter," Buckeye says of Battell, who lived from 1839 to
1915. Wading through Battell's rambling and "unreadable" tome,
"Ellen, or Whisperings of an Old Pine," Buckeye found Battell
rejecting the waves of modernity that were then hitting Vermont. He sees the
rise of science, particularly Darwinism, as threatening the supremacy of
religion. He also rails against other forces that he sees threatening the way of
life he knows, particularly trains and automobiles, which bring the outside
world streaming into Vermont.
Martin Freeman appears in the Vermont Encyclopedia, he is hardly a household
name. The grandson of a slave who gained his freedom by fighting in the
Revolution, Freeman was born in Rutland in 1826. He grows up with opportunities
that few blacks of the era experienced. The minister at his church, the East
Parish Congregational Church, recognizes his potential and supports his
admission to Middlebury. The college's president, an abolitionist, loans Freeman
money for tuition and books.
is selected the salutatorian by his graduating class and gives an address in
both Latin and English, as is the custom of the time. He gains an appointment at
the Allegheny Institute near Pittsburgh as professor of mathematics and science,
and eventually becomes the college's president.
becomes involved in the slavery issue. He argues that blacks shouldn't try to
pass as whites by straightening their hair. "Let the man of whatever hue,
respect himself, and be true to the instincts of his manhood," he writes.
eventually despairs of the United States ever getting over its ingrained racism.
He resigns his college presidency and joins the faculty of Liberia College in
Liberia, a country founded with the purpose of providing a home for freed
American slaves. Though the work is hard, Freeman declares: "I have never
been happy until I made Liberia my home."
White found no such home. Heeding her inner compass, White follows a path rarely
followed by women during the early 1900s. She is an intellectual, graduating Phi
Beta Kappa from Wellesley in 1911. She becomes a socialist and pacifist and
travels to Europe to work as a nurse during the Great War. After the war, she
writes poems and is identified as a promising younger poet in a Yale
publication. Her poems denounce capitalism, religion and war.
works at the Brooklyn Public Library but can't stand the city, where the
language of daily life is "vulgar and impoverished, and this extends to
every subject howsoever great, even love and death."
great love of her life is another woman, whom Buckeye identifies simply as
Beatrice. Their love, he notes, is "bound by middle-class norms of
respectability" and is a romantic friendship rather than a sexual
relationship. Beatrice leaves and in her sorrow, White writes a 57-sonnet cycle
to her lost love.
leaves Brooklyn for Vermont, taking a position in 1933 at Middlebury, curating
the college's American literature collection. The next year she earns her
doctorate, having completed her dissertation on novelist Herman Melville. For
the sake of the job, which she needs to help her parents in New York City, White
doesn't talk about politics.
starts taking long walks in the wilds of her new community and writes two nature
books about her experiences: "Not Faster Than a Walk" and
is devoted to the work of Thoreau and obtains for the college his own copy of
"Walden," with his handwritten notes inside. She acquires more of
Thoreau's books, many of which were in his cabin on Walden Pond.
White chooses a quiet life among the books and flowers of Middlebury. Like the
others in the Quarry Books Series, it is a life that might have gone unnoticed
if Robert Buckeye hadn't illuminated it.
Quarry Books Series is available at Book King in Rutland, Bear Pond Books in
Montpelier, Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury and Northshire Bookstore in
Bushnell's column on Vermont history is a weekly feature in Vermont Sunday
Magazine. A collection of his columns was recently published in the book
"It Happened in Vermont." He can be reached at email@example.com.