October 13, 2013

Books Q&A: “Blessed Boyhood! The ‘Early Memoir’ of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain”

The book covers Chamberlain’s childhood in Brewer and early career at Bowdoin.

By Tom Atwell tatwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

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.

Courtesy photo

CHAMBERLAIN, as a young man

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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