[To “Voices from 19th-Century America”]

Truth; A Gift for Scribblers
by William Joseph Snelling (1831 & 1832)

Truth, 1st ed.
Truth, 2nd ed. | front cover
notes for both editions | reviews

Early on, American writers began to take stock of each other. George Cheever compiled The American Common-place Book of Prose in 1828 and The American Common-place Book of Poetry in 1829; Samuel Kettell compiled the three-volume Specimens of American Poetry (1829), with an exhaustive “Catalogue of American Poetry” that includes everyone from Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley to Edgar Allan Poe.

Truth also attempts to take stock, albeit of the ways in which minor poets were encouraged to consider themselves major talents. Oddly, that lesson was lost on its author, William Joseph Snelling (1804-1848), a good example of a very minor talent trying to prove otherwise. Educated at the U. S. military academy, he had been stationed in the West before moving back to Boston. Here he chose a literary life: Snelling, Samuel G. Goodrich explained twenty-five years later, “acquired some notoriety as a nervous and daring writer—his chief desire seeming to be, notoriety.” (Recollections of a Lifetime; vol 2: note, p. 265) Goodrich published three books by him in 1830 and 1831, and included two pieces by Snelling in The Token for 1831.

In publishing Truth, “notoriety” was probably the best Snelling could hope for. “The work was little more than a string of abuse,” Goodrich points out, “without regard to justice; yet it was executed with point and vigor, and as it attacked everybody who had written verses, it caused a good deal of wincing.” (Recollections; vol 2: note, p. 265) Well, almost everybody: Snelling left Goodrich out of the book.

Literary satire has a long history: Snelling’s model for the first lines of his “truth” and for the mock disguising of names in the 1831 edition is Alexander Pope’s Dunciad (itself inspired by John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe); the poem is also based on Byron’s “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.”

Literary satire also has an unwritten rule: if you’re going to mock a poet successfully, it helps to be the superior writer. Snelling wasn’t, going in for name-calling (“booby,” “stupid,” “dunce”) rather than for clever or elegant twists of phrase. The result is a man tripping on his shoelaces while trying to cudgel his enemy with what turns out to be a sausage.

Reviewers were no kinder to Snelling than he was to his poets. “We find little in Mr. Snelling’s book which shows him to be a good judge of poetry, and much that proves the contrary,” sniffs the American Monthly Review; the Boston Literary Magazine dissects Snelling’s poem with an eager scalpel. And at least one of Snelling’s targets struck back: Nathaniel Parker Willis apparently took issue with a poet who, besides maligning his poetry, claimed that

When W-ll-s saw the light, ’t is said his sex

Did for a month the neighbourhood perplex.

( ’T is doubtful now.) Desiring much a son,

His parents put the coat and breeches on;

And grateful Natty, mindful of their loves,

A true Tiresias redivivus proves;

Except in this, he lacks Tiresias’ fire,

And always goes abroad in male attire. (1831; p. 13)

“Willis replied contemptuously, but effectively,” Goodrich notes, “in some half-dozen verses inserted in the Statesman, and addressed to Smelling Joseph. The lines stuck to poor Snelling for the remainder of his life, and I suspect, in fact, contributed to his downfall. As he had attacked everybody, everybody joined in the chuckle. He soon fell into habits of dissipation, which led from one degradation to another, till his miserable career was ended.” (Recollections; vol 2, note, p. 267) (Among other things, Trial of William J. Snelling for a Libel on the Honorable Benjamin Whitman, Senior Judge of the Police Court [Boston: for the reporter, 1834] sounds part of an interesting story.)

Of the works in literary history which probably didn’t need to achieve two editions, Truth is high on the list. Yet, two editions there were. The first, published in 1831, was anonymous; in the second (1832), Snelling takes credit as author. There are differences in the poets mocked and changes in the mocking: N. P. Willis is, more tamely, “[n]ot quite a woman, by no means a man” in the 1832 edition.

Actually, there are three editions: Snelling prepared a new edition to be published at the end of 1831, but it “was so badly executed that the author was obliged to suppress it.” (1832; p. 8) The Library of Congress appears to have a copy of that pamphlet, which was printed in Boston “for the Author” in 1831; it’s 51 pages.

The first and the “official” second editions are presented here. While my copy of the 1831 edition was rebound, my copy of the 1832 edition may be in its original binding; the front cover has been scanned. Notes are for both editions and include identifications and biographies of the writers Snelling includes and transcriptions of many of the works he mentions. Notices and reviews are on a separate page.


Truth, 1st ed.

Truth, 2nd ed. | front cover

notes for both editions | reviews

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