Bowdoin College wanted to do something permanent to mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. It had a typescript, apparently never published, of Gen. Joshua Chamberlain’s memoir of his childhood.
The result is “Blessed Boyhood! The ‘Early Memoir’ of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain,” with a foreword by Maine Sen. Angus King and annotations by Thomas A. Desjardin and David K. Thomson. The paperback is 88 pages long and priced at $15.95.
The book covers Chamberlain’s childhood in Brewer, playing with his brothers, descriptions of building a play ship, sliding in winter, haying, going to school, interwoven with some philosophy.
The memoir covers Chamberlain working as a teacher – both unsuccessfully and successfully – after graduating from high school. Chamberlain discusses the cramming he had to do for almost a year in Greek, Latin and other subjects to be admitted to Bowdoin.
It also includes his early career at Bowdoin, first as a professor and then his appointment as chair of modern languages at Bowdoin. When he wanted to take a sabbatical to fight in the Civil War, various factions at Bowdoin – the Congregationalists vs. the Unitarians – schemed to get him to stay at the college, even telling the governor that he had no talent for the military.
Richard Lindemann, director of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives at the Bowdoin College Library, served as general editor of the book. He recently discussed the project in a telephone interview.
Q: How did Bowdoin come to publish this book?
A: We had conversations in 2009 or early 2010, trying to determine what we might do as a college to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. We decided we wouldn’t be able to go full court for all four years, and that 2013 would be appropriate because of Gettysburg and Chamberlain’s role there. So we scheduled some symposia and alumni colleges, and the library wanted to do a couple things. We did an exhibition that opened in January and ran through August, and we wanted to publish something substantial that would last. We thought that Chamberlain’s autobiography of his early life provide an opportunity to publish something of importance and to commemorate the Civil War at the same time.
Q: What was your role in it?
A: I served as general editor. My projects were to oversee the transcription of the typescript, to manage the two contributors who provided annotations explaining some the more oblique writing for modern readers, to select the images and design the layout.
I might add that the transcription initially was done by student workers in the department, so the contributors to the book range all the way from a United States senator to undergraduates at Bowdoin College.
Q: How complicated was that annotation process?
A: It was surprisingly smooth. We actually had two different scholars working on it, coming at it from different perspectives and deciding what had to be annotated. And when they overlapped, saying the same thing in slightly different ways, we were able through synthesis to create a coherent passage. But it took months of work.
Q: How difficult was it to get Sen. King to do the foreword?
A: Sen. King was marvelous. He responded both enthusiastically and promptly. We expected he might respond enthusiastically but were more suspicious about how promptly he might return the work. But he turned it right around, and wrote something that was both insightful and appropriate.
As an aside, we are not sure if Sen. King has adopted Bowdoin or if Bowdoin has adopted Sen. King, but we have a great relationship. He did go to Dartmouth, you know.
Q: Chamberlain was already named chair of modern languages at Bowdoin when he took a leave to join the Civil War, where he was a hero. Do you think his career was boosted by his war experiences, or would he have done the same thing anyway?
A: What a remarkably speculative question. I suspect his career as governor was enhanced by his Civil War experience. His abilities as a college administrator might have been enhanced, but I am not sure his being a Civil War hero brought him to that position. He had the ability to lead and was a visionary at Bowdoin. He introduced a lot of notions that were considered absurd at the time, such as co-education, which did not come to pass then. He suggested technical education, to teach people to work as opposed to liberal arts, which was very progressive. In other ways he was an old fogey, insisting on military drills.
Q: Some of his philosophy is interesting, comparing sliding to life. “The same law of gravity which rules here appears to have its counterpart in the rules of life, with one remarkable modification. It is quite easy to get going downhill, and a hard tug to get up. But there is not much fun in sliding down hill in life. … The fun comes in trying to stay up after you get up; and there is not always much fun in that, either.”
It seems a little down. Do you think at that time he was disappointed in his life?
A: Later in life he was not particularly successful.
He was involved in real estate in Florida, and that did not turn out well. And after he was governor he was appointed harbormaster in Portland, more as a favor than for his abilities. His life after he was president (of Bowdoin) and governor was not as successful, and maybe that was what he was chewing on.
One of difficulties in presenting the early memoir is that you don’t get the idea about whathis later life might have been. He never wrote about his life after 1862. People would want to know his thoughts about Gettysburg, but he never wrote about that, except for his formal report.
Q: Chamberlain mentions that the death of his second daughter caused a rift in his marriage. Do you think his marriage survived that?
A: The marriage survived in the sense that they were never divorced. There is increasing interest in Chamberlain’s relationship with Fanny (his wife), with people trying to decide if it was rosy. There are indications that it was not a particularly happy marriage. He was gone a lot of the time, and there were difficulties and arguments. The fact is that Chamberlain was a leading light of the community, and that Fanny was a respected member of a respectable family. She was the adopted daughter of the minister of the First Parish Church, so there would be social pressure and moral priorities in staying married.
Q: This is called “Early Memoir” or “Blessed Boyhood,” and the book ends with his joining the Union Army. Is there any significance in that?
A: I think he stopped there because he had a writing assignment that came from the supposed publisher, and we don’t know know who the publisher was. He was asked to undertake the assignment because everyone knew who Chamberlain was during the Civil War, and they wanted a prelude about his childhood.
Q: Is there anything you would like to say that we haven’t covered?
A: I am pleased that the book was such a wide collaboration, with so many hands with so many levels of experience.
I was struck by how Sen. King extols in the foreword about what wonderful prose it is, and what alliteration he uses, while I was thinking that this is some of the most convoluted stuff I have ever read.
But it is pure Victorian prose, and some people will appreciate it as a great example of 19th century memoir writing. What doesn’t come through in the book that he is constantly going through and changing stuff. In places he put little numbers on the top of each word, to change the order in which they ought to appear.
We hope to produce a digital version of the original typescript, which would be of great benefit to people interested in the history of writing and the history of exposition.
Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:firstname.lastname@example.org