Vermont Sunday: Robert Buckeye, publisher of Quarry Books

Article published Jan 3, 2010

Middlebury historian pens mini-biographies


If you pick up one of Robert Buckeye's new biographies of important Vermonters, chances are you'll never have heard of the subject.

Buckeye wants it that way. "These people should be better known," he says. And, reading through these essay-length books, it is easy to agree.

In 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.

  Take 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.

By 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 at windmills.  

James 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.

To 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 early.

In 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 significant American."

'Not Vermontiana'

Buckeye's 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.

"I 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."

On 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."

Buckeye's 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.

Buckeye plans to write 10 such books and sell them through local bookstores. Yale, Middlebury and the University of Vermont have subscribed to the series.

These 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.

The 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 certain "Vermontness."

Buckeye 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."

Battell 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.

Buckeye 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.

A free man

Though 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.

He 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.

Freeman 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.

Freeman 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."

  An unusual woman

Viola 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.

She 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."

The 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.

White 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.

She 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 "Vermont Diary."

She 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.

Viola 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.

(The Quarry Books Series is available at Book King in Rutland, Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury and Northshire Bookstore in Manchester.)

Mark 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