A Correction to Alexander Gordon’s Canon, 256 Years after a Mistake Was Made!

28May1758. At the Royal Society. A long letter from my old friend Alexander Gordon, secretary to Governor Glyn, in S. Carolina, giving some account of the natural history of that country, its admirable fertility and wonderful produce of innumerable curious and useful things–the vine, wine, sesamum, oil for soap, cotton, mulberry, silkworms, cochinel, opuntium a yellow dye, hemp, flax, potash, etc., etc. But after all this profusion of nature’s bounty, the inhabitants, through stupidity or laziness, made no profit or improvement in any one article for commerce, employing themselves wholly in the culture of rice. Nor will they admit of any machinery for the easy working of that commodoity, but depend wholly on the labor of their slaves whom they use in the [most] cruel and barbarous manner, far beyond the worst treatment of our carmen to their horses. —William Stukeley, Diary, vol. xvii, 4.

Fortunately for me, I have always enjoyed learning, and, with equal good fortune, I have always been blessed to have studied under remarkable educators (all the way from the coal fields of Southern West Virginia to the graduate halls of the University of South Carolina).  Perhaps with even greater good fortune, I remember each and every one of my educators—I truly do—because each one of them left an indelible mark on me in ways that far transcend what they actually taught me in their classes.

As I thought about and planned for this post, one of my educators came back to me quite unexpectedly.  I was surprised because I have not had contact with him since I was a doctoral student at the University of South Carolina (USC).  Even so, I enjoyed Professor Joel Myerson’s classes immensely.  When I had the honor of studying under him, he was building his reputation as a scholar in several areas:  nineteenth century American Literature, Transcendentalism, and textual and bibliographical studies.  (Today he is Professor Emeritus, Carolina Distinguished Professor of American Literature, and his reputation is secure:  “Four of his books have been designated by Choice as an ‘Outstanding Academic Book’ of the year. He has received both the Distinguished Service Award and the Lyman H. Butterfield award for contributions to the field of documentary editing from the Association for Documentary Editing. The Philological Association of the Carolinas has designated him its ‘Honoree in English’ and held a special session in his honor; and he has been elected to membership in the American Antiquarian Society and the Massachusetts Historical Society” (University of South Carolina, English Language & Literature).

What came back to me unexpectedly, however, was a question that I asked Professor Myerson in the fall of 1974 when I was a student in his course, “American Literature: 1830-1865.” One of the reading selections mentioned “life everlasting.”  When we started discussing the selection in class, I raised my hand and asked, “Professor Myerson, what exactly IS life everlasting?”  I wanted to see whether he would give me a botanical answer or a spiritual answer.  (Let me hasten to add that I knew the plant “life everlasting” because I was quite familiar with Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s short story “Life Everlastin.” In that story, “life everlasting” figured prominently in both the botanical and the spiritual sense. And, as the youngest child of a fundamentalist preacher/mother, I knew fully well the spiritual ramifications of “life everlasting.”) At any rate, I wanted to see how Professor Myerson would field my question.  I was not too surprised that he explored the question from both angles.

What did surprise me, however, was this.  A month of two later, I walked into class, and Professor Myerson gifted me with an offprint of one of his scholarly articles that had just been published.  On the cover, he had written:  “Brent, this is life everlasting.”

“Of course,” I thought to myself, “the published word lives on forever and forever and forever and echoes through the ages.”

From that point forward, I looked at “the published word” from a new perspective and with a heightened respect.

And so it was a few weeks ago that I had a research experience with “the published word.” It has echoed through the ages.  Although written by an incredibly respectable and scholarly eighteenth century figure, it is the source of misinformation which has led subsequent scholars—including me—to credit Alexander Gordon with an article that, indeed, as I have now established, he did not write.  My goal, in this post, is to set the record straight and to have, if you will, a minor “life everlasting” of my own, albeit, for now, a virtual one.  (I wonder: is virtual longer than print? Time will tell.)

Let me put this most recent research experience into proper context.

Even though my close reading of The Humourist essays allowed me to identify Alexander Gordon (1692?-1754), Clerk of His Majesty’s Council, as the author of the essays, it was my intention to do a stylometric analysis of The Humourist essays and compare the results with a stylometric analysis of one or more works known to have been written by Alexander Gordon.  As we have seen, Gordon had authored enough works that I had a good number from which to choose.  My concern, however, was that his published works—other than his play Lupone, or, The Inquisitor (1723)—focused so heavily on antiquarian studies that a stylometric comparison might not be valid, especially since those works—including Lupone—were published well before 1741 when Gordon left the Old World and came to Colonial Charleston.

But I had an ace up my sleeve, or so I thought. In doing my research on Alexander Gordon, I remembered reading somewhere that he had sent an elaborate description of the natural history of South Carolina to the Royal Society.  Although it was never published, it had been read at one of the Society’s meetings.

And, so, I started sifting through my voluminous notes to find the details.  I found the details in more than one source, but the one that I came across first was the entry for “Alexander Gordon” that appeared in The Dictionary of National Biography, edited by Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee:

To the Royal Society he sent an elaborate description of the natural history of South Carolina, which was not read until 25 May 1758.

I felt confident that the manuscript would provide me with just what I needed to conduct the stylometric comparison.

Toward that end, I sent the following email to the Royal Society on June 5, 2014:

Greetings from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia!

As a 2012-2014 Virginia Community College System’s Chancellor Professor, I am conducting an extensive research project related to the well-known Scottish antiquarian Alexander Gordon (ca. 1692-1754) who, in 1741 left the Old World and came to South Carolina (as Secretary to Governor James Glen and as Clerk of His Majesty’s Council.)

In my research, I have found repeated references to a manuscript by Alexander Gordon, presumably in your Archives.  (I have searched your online database, but I have not found the manuscript.)  Here’s the full text of the statement that I keep finding:

“To the Royal Society he sent an elaborate description of the natural history of South Carolina which was not read until 25 May 1758. Nor was it published in the ‘Philosophical Transactions.’”

This manuscript plays a vital role in the research that I am doing.  I wonder whether you could check to see whether you indeed have such a manuscript?  If you do, would it be possible to obtain a photocopy and what would the photocopy fee be?

Thanks so much for any help that you might be able to provide!

The next day I received the following reply from Fiona Keates (Archivist), Modern Records:

Dear Professor Kendrick,

Thank you for your email. Sometimes manuscripts (particularly if they were not printed) were recorded in the minutes of the relevant meeting, rather than retaining the whole manuscript. Having checked the minutes for the meeting 25 May 1758, I think some confusion may have arisen between Alexander Gordon and Alexander Garden.

Here is the introductory extract to the communication:

 ‘a letter from Dr Alexander Garden of South Carolina to Mr Henry Baker FRS dated at Charlestown 5th April 1756’

As you can see the letter dates from after the death of Alexander Gordon. There were no other papers read to the Society relating to South Carolina at that meeting and I’m afraid I can find no mention in our archives of any paper relating to South Carolina being sent in by Alexander Gordon.

If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Kind Regards,
Fiona

I was flabbergasted.  This simply could not be the case.  Too many sources had credited MY Alexander Gordon as the author of this natural history.

(Before sharing my reply to Fiona, let me note here that Dr. Alexander Garden, 1730-1791, was a well-known Scottish physician, botanist, and zoologist.  He came to South Carolina in 1752 where a distant relative, also Alexander Garden, served as a minister in Charleston.  Garden, the naturalist, collected flora and fauna and sent them to Carolus Linnaeus, known as the father of modern taxonomy.)

Immediately, I sent the following reply:

Good morning, Fiona, and thanks so much for your prompt reply.

I am chuckling to myself.  Here’s why!  As I have been doing my research on Alexander Gordon–especially working with manuscript materials–I have had to be ever so careful not to misread “Garden” as “Gordon”.  (For a few years, both men lived in Charleston, S.C. at the same time!)

Be that as it may, since previous scholars for well over a hundred years now have credited MY Alexander Gordon with the manuscript sent to the Royal Society, I’d like to set the record straight.

Toward that end, could you provide me with a copy of the full Garden communication?  Cost?

Again, thanks so much.  Your response is not what I had hoped for, yet, in many ways, it adds an exciting dimension to the work that I am doing.

Brent

I completed the necessary forms to obtain copies of the manuscript, paid the requisite fee, and, on June 9, Fiona sent me the digital images! (Don’t you just love librarians?  I do! Fiona:  you are my new best friend!)

I was on pins and needles while the files downloaded.  I had never doubted what Fiona had told me already, but, I wanted to see—to read—with my own eyes.

The file opened.  I saw.  I read. With my own eyes. It was abundantly clear:  the name, without doubt, was Garden—Dr. Alexander Garden.  Below is a transcript of the relevant text from the Royal Society Archives, Journal Book Original vol. 24, pages 153-55:

[Page] 153

An abstract of a Letter from Dr. Alexander Garden of South Carolina to Mr. Henry Baker F.R.S. dated at Charlestown 5th April 1756 communicated by Mr. Baker, was read.

This letter contains an account of such of the production of the province of South Carolina which are likely to be of Service both to them and Great Britain.

[Page] 154

1st. Vines, of which there are in that Province, many Species which by a Small cultivation might be made to deposit their crude natures and tastes.

2. Sesamum which grows luxuriously there, and produces an exceeding good oyl that makes excellent Soap.

3. Gossipium grows extremely well & produces a fine Cotton, but no more is planted than what Serves to employ Some old Superannuated Negro Women.

4. Mulberry Trees and Silk worms are the amusement of Some Curious people, & there is the greater reason to encourage the propagating them there as the mulberry Trees in that province want nothing but Sticking into the Ground at a proper Season, to make them grow luxuriously & in four years time, they bear leaves Sufficiently to Spare many for the nourishment of the Silk worms.

5. Cochineal might be raised there in great plenty if the people knew the method of killing the Insect, so as to preserve the dye. The plant opuntia grows there wild in great plenty. Last summer Dr. Garden found one of those plants all over covered with Cochineal insects, all quite turgid with blood or dye.  But he could not kill them without loosing or discoloring the Juice.

[Page] 155

6. Hemp and Flax grows well there, especially Hemp, and the raising larger quantities might be of Service to that Province as well as to Great Britain.

7. Potash might there be there made with great Success.  Some have already tried and made good, of the kind.

He Says there are ten or Twelve more articles, which would certainly Succeed well, of which he mentions but one, which is like the Indigo plant, but grown taller and larger, with long pods and flat Seeds. It produces a most beautiful yellow dye.

Dr. Garden likewise mentions the great want they Stand in, in that province of mechanical machines to facilitate labour.

Thanks were ordered to Mr. Baker for this communication.

After I had viewed the images, I fired off another email to Fiona:

Dear, Fiona.

I am back, and I trust that I’ll not try your patience!

I have been transcribing the digital images that you sent me. I’ve been chuckling that someone misread “Gordon” for “Garden” especially since the manuscript is clear and easy to read. But I have also been somewhat concerned that this entry is dated 5April1756, while my source had indicated 25May1758.

I pride myself in taking precise and copious research notes, so I have spent the last hour or so re-tracing my steps to see when mention was first made of a Gordon manuscript being read before the Royal Society on 25May1758.

Indeed I have found it. It appears in William Stukeley’s Family Memoirs (vol. 3, 476):

“28May1758. At the Royal Society. A long letter from my old friend Alexander Gordon, secretary to Governor Glyn, in S. Carolina, giving some account of the natural history of that country, its admirable fertility and wonderful produce of innumerable curious and useful things–the vine, wine, sesamum, oil for soap, cotton, mulberry, silkworms, cochinel, opuntium a yellow dye, hemp, flax, potash, etc., etc. But after all this profusion of nature’s bounty, the inhabitants, through stupidity or laziness, made no profit or improvement in any one article for commerce, employing themselves wholly in the culture of rice. Nor will they admit of any machinery for the easy working of that commodoity, but depend wholly on the labor of their slaves whom they use in the [most] cruel and barbarous manner, far beyond the worst treatment of our carmen to their horses–Diary, vol. xvii, 4.”

The fact that he identifies Gordon as Secretary to Governor Glen establishes that he did not have Dr. Garden in mind. Let me add, as well, that this 28May1758 entry falls into proper sequence with Stukeley’s other entries.

So I am convinced that the above is NOT the same as the Garden letter that you located.

As I am sure you can appreciate, the Gordon letter that Stukeley references is critical to my work on Alexander Gordon, especially since I am focusing on his life in Carolina.

Thoughts? Suggestions? I am perplexed, and, again, I will be most grateful for whatever you can do to help me!

Brent

Before sharing Fiona’s reply, let me provide some brief information about William Stukeley (1687-1765), an English physician, antiquary, and Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1720, he published An Account of a Roman Temple, noting, with surprise, that Scotsmen took little interest in the monuments and artefacts around them.  That statement inspired Alexander Gordon to become the Scotsman who would explore the Roman antiquities of Scotland. Both Stukeley and Gordon were members of the Society of Antiquaries (Gordon succeeded Stukeley as secretary to the Society in 1735) and both Stukeley and Gordon were members of the Society of Roman Knights.  Their friendship spanned decades. (As an aside, it is worth noting that Stukeley played a key role in the archaeological explorations of Stonehenge and Avebury. In 1740, he published Stonehenge: A Temple Restored to the British Druids He was also a friend of Isaac Newton, and in 1752 published Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life.)

But to return to my Alexander Gordon/Alexander Garden research conundrum.  The next day, June 10, Fiona wrote:

Dear Brent,

Oh dear, I am at a bit of a loss with this one, and have been double checking various catalogues and archives. Just to let you know, although the letter (from Garden!) is indeed dated 5 April 1756, it was read at a meeting of the Royal Society on the 25 May 1758 – I did not send photographs of all the pages in the minutes, only the “Garden” pages, so apologies for the misunderstanding. So if the date you are looking for, is the date it was communicated to the Society, then this letter does fit into that timeline.

If Gordon’s letter was also read at this meeting of the Society, I would expect there to be a record of that even if there wasn’t a whole transcript of the letter and it is not mentioned in the minutes. I’ve also checked the draft minutes, but Garden rather than Gordon has been used throughout this meeting and having looked at the original extract sent in to the Society, again Garden and never Gordon is used.

I don’t think we can be of any more help unfortunately, we certainly don’t have a record of any other letters sent in by Alexander Gordon from Carolina which could account for the confusion. Given that many of the details of Stukeley’s account, other than the name do seem to fit the letter from Garden, I will leave it to you to decide where the mistake has been made – either in the Society’s accounts or Stukeley’s – but if you do find any more clues do feel free to pass them on for us to check.

Has that helped at all? Hopefully it hasn’t made it any worse!

Thanks,
Fiona

I replied to Fiona the same day:

Good morning, Fiona!

What a delicious research conundrum! Oh, my!

I am glad to know that the letter was actually read on 15 May 1758, as stated in Stukeley’s Memoirs. The fact that the letter was written to Henry Baker, a naturalist and member of the Royal Society, and that Dr. Garden was also a naturalist and a member of the Royal Society, would certainly point toward Garden.

However, I am just stupefied as to how Stukeley–who was a lifelong friend of Gordon’s (they had traveled together often on antiquarian expeditions) could have made such a mistake, especially since he refers to him as “his old friend, Secretary to Governor Glyn”. (The passage in his memoir is extracted from his diary, so it would have been written at the time rather that after the fact.)

Obviously, if the letter is indeed dated 1756, it could not have been Gordon because he died in August 1754.

In 1758, Stukeley would have been 71 years old. Perhaps he had a hearing problem and simply heard Gordon rather than Garden!

Oh, my! I will continue my “explorations,” and if I find anything relevant, I’ll get back to you. For what it’s worth, you might enjoy knowing what I discovered this morning: the gardenia was named after Dr. Alexander Garden! Exquisite!

Again, thanks for all your help!

Brent

P.S. I’m sharing my ongoing “Alexander Gordon” research in my blog, thewiredresearcher.com Would you mind if I share part/all of our exchanges? I think it be a perfect example of the joys and the frustrations of research and I know that my followers would be delighted.

Fiona replied immediately:

Hi Brent,

You might well be right, Stukeley’s hearing could’ve been responsible for this mistake, and when discussing with a colleague we did speculate if that could be the cause of this confusion. Though as you say, odd to make such a mistake when discussing an old friend.

You are welcome to share on your blog, I’ll try to remember to have a look myself, as it has definitely grabbed my interest!

Good luck with the rest of your research,

Fiona

Indeed:  “odd to make such a mistake when discussing an old friend.”

And, yet, that’s exactly what an “old friend” did.  He made a mistake.  And what he captured in his diary has echoed through the ages—”ricocheted,” in this instance, might be a better word choice than “echoed.”

How sad that William Stukeley did not know that his “old friend” had died four years earlier than the 15May1758 meeting at the Royal Society that he attended and listened to an abstract of a letter from Dr. Alexander Garden of South Carolina to Mr. Henry Baker F.R.S. dated at Charlestown 5th April 1756.

If he had known of his “old friend’s” death, he would not have recorded Alexander Gordon in his diary, when, clearly, the abstract of the letter that was read that evening was from Dr. Alexander Garden.

Even more sad is the fact that the entire text of Dr. Alexander Garden’s natural history of South Carolina exists only as an abstract. How wonderful it would be if the full version of his letter to the Royal Society were to be found. Who knows! Perhaps, one day, it will be!

For now, it is enough to simply set the record straight:  it was the naturalist Dr. Alexander Garden—not MY Alexander Gordon, the author of the Humourist essays—who wrote the “natural history of South Carolina” and sent it off to the Royal Society.

For now, it is enough to simply celebrate what Joel Myerson—my esteemed graduate school professor—told me:  “[Publication] is life everlasting.”

For now, it is enough to remember that even published sources can be in err!  Who would have believed that an “old friend,” would have heard “Alexander Gordon” instead of “Alexander Garden,” especially since his “old friend” had been dead for four years.

For now, it is enough to remember:  always go back to the original source.  How happy I am that I tracked down the original document in the Royal Society. (And let me add here a special thanks to Fiona Keates for helping me correct Alexander Gordon’s canon, even in this small way, 256 years after William Stukeley made a mistake!)

And, yet, what William Stukeley heard and recorded in his diary is what he heard and recorded in his diary.  It was published eventually, achieving “life everlasting.” And from that point forward his error has been perpetuated over and over and over again.

This, obviously, is a bittersweet moment for me.  The document that I considered “the ace up my sleeve” turns out to have been written by Dr. Alexander Garden, not  MY Alexander Gordon, the antiquarian.

Even so, how sweet it is to set the record straight once and for all, 256 years after the mistake was made.

When it comes to the challenges, discoveries, and joys of research, it just doesn’t get any better than this!

 

 

2 thoughts on “A Correction to Alexander Gordon’s Canon, 256 Years after a Mistake Was Made!

  1. Wow! What an amazing research story. I am also struck how even Fiona could not walk away from the mystery and obviously continued to discuss it with colleagues outside of her notes to you. Perhaps, rather than stupefying all of the world, access to digital communications and archived documents will help uncover many stories like this? Thank you for sharing.

    • It IS an amazing story, especially considering the players! I agree with you wholeheartedly: “access to digital communications and archived documents” will open up brand new worlds when it comes to research. I am so excited to be a part of it! Thanks for sharing your insights!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s