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The Legend Maker
For Mason Locke Weems, ex-parson, book salesman, and moralist, tract-writing and biography were all the same thing. George Washington’s image has yet to recover
February 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 2
As a salesman Weems pioneered in the techniques later so successfully developed by the Fuller Brush Company and the denizens of Madison Avenue. He knew his market well—the rural South—and he knew its people and their psychology. “There is a time,” he once advised Carey, “to catch popular feelings as well as young Rabbits & a cold cloudy day is not that time—a warm bright day is the thing.” The southerners Weems knew were, for the most part, barely literate back-country farmers, some of whom had carved their land out of the wilderness. They wrestled no holds barred, ran foot races, drank prodigious quantities of raw whiskey, and hunted possum. They took pride in their independence, bowing to no man. They were not virtuous but had a fixed idea of virtue, and, since most of them knew that they fell far short of the mark, they sought to save their souls at those emotional orgies, the revivalist camp meetings. They were loyal to their families, patriotic about their states, and fiercely proud of their new country.
Like modern brand-name companies, Weems sold himself first and then his products. Often he was invited to preach in the village church; the denomination never mattered, for the dauntless Parson now preached a universal morality, and even, said some of his clerical critics, used the pulpit to hawk his wares. Whether this be calumny or truth, the fact is that he often served as a guest preacher before vending his wares. The testimonial, too, was a tool in the Parson’s sales kit. On two occasions, for instance, he got Washington himself to endorse reprinted moral tracts.
No amount of prestige and good public relations, however, would induce people to buy something that they did not need or desire. Weems knew the tastes of his people. His letters to Mathew Carey are filled with urgent requests for popular volumes, such as William Guthrie’s A New System of Modern Geography or Oliver Goldsmith’s An History of the Earth and Animated Nature. He begged for speedy delivery of one hundred copies of Guthrie
e’er the Infant Boreas has had time to muster his tremendous forces and let me entreat thee, my dear Fellow Democrat, by our mutual friendships and our mutual interests to lend the swiftest wings to those Goldsmiths. … And the sooner thou sendest them the better, for how canst thou send them in the Winter when every wind is a storm and every wave running mountain high threatens destruction to the laboring barque?
The Bible, however, was his staple, and he was constantly urging Carey to publish a large, handsomely bound edition which he promised would quickly find a prominent place in every farmhouse in the South. Moral tracts he sold by the thousands. These were cheap little pamphlets that illustrated the rewards of virtue and the penalties of vice, with far more elaborate descriptions of vice than of virtue. Many of these tracts were the products of Weems’ own pen ( see page 93).
The jolly book-peddler tried not to miss a court day, when the dusty country roads were jammed with farm wagons headed for the village, bustling with activity as the judge, lawyers, and clerks moved into the local courthouse. Farmers and their families broke rural routine, flocking to town to join the festivities, to settle legal matters, to watch the trials, to buy and to sell, to exchange gossip with friends, and to have a good time. On those days, “when the spirits of the People shall be getting gay and bold,” Parson Weems was at his best. He would rise with the sun, bathe (an eccentricity in that day of no hot and cold running water) in a cool stream outside the village, then dress and drive his book-laden wagon to town. On such occasions he often sold a thousand or more books and pamphlets; that is, if Carey sent a sufficient number of the right titles—the ones Weems demanded, not the ones the publisher wished sold.
Mathew Carey and his impish bookseller rarely agreed on anything, and theirs was a tempestuous relationship. Carey was a hot-tempered Irish Catholic. Born in Dublin in 1760, he agitated against British rule of Ireland, whereupon a price was put upon his head. He escaped to France, where Benjamin Franklin gave him a job in a printing plant he had set up at Passy. But shortly Carey was back in Dublin again, editing an anti-British journal. He served a brief term in jail and then, again threatened with imprisonment, disguised himself as a woman and boarded a ship for America. In Philadelphia, the young fugitive founded in 1785 the firm of Carey and Lea, now the oldest publishing house in North America, although altered to Lea and Febiger. Carey very quickly made his the leading concern in the country, although, as Weems often reminded him, he owed a part of this success to the salesmanship and literary talent of his southern agent. Carey, however, would never admit this to Weems, whom he considered unbusinesslike, if not unreliable. He was constantly after Weems to write to him more often, to let him know where he was and what he was doing. The Parson, on his side, upbraided Carey for sending him unsalable volumes—Goethe, for example—when he had asked for elegantly bound books of travel for the libraries of the Virginians, light reading for the Georgians and the Carolinians, and more Bibles, moral tracts, and textbooks.