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Mason Weems, Bibliopolist
To mark the birthdays of our two great Presidents, a new look at the legends that surround their memory … An admiring re-appraisal of the Cherry Tree Fable and its author, by Garry Wills , together with the Curious Story of Abraham Lincoln’s Lost Love Letters, by Don E. Fehrenbacher
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
Benjamin Franklin wrote what could be called America s first self-improvement manual. But Franklin trod the world stage, and his autobiography is a classic expression of Enlightenment ideals, too grand a thing to count Dale Carnegie’s books among its offspring. The true father of Carnegie, or of Norman Vincent Peale, was Mason Weems (1759–1825), the itinerant preacher and bibliopolist—he had the salesman’s trick of dignifying his trade with fancy names.
Though Weems is best known for his life of Washington, he also wrote popular biographies of Franklin himself, of William Penn, and of General Francis Marion. He also wrote, published, and peddled moral tracts, sermons tricked out as entertainments—the equivalent of Bishop Fulton Sheen s television shows in the 1950’s.
Weems was always intense in his methods, though rather vague in his aims. The vagueness clouds his early years: after his birth in Maryland, Weems went to Scotland (or somewhere) to become a surgeon (or something) and may have become a seaman (or may not). He returned to America during the Revolution, but made no effort to serve under the man he would later celebrate. Instead he chose to become an Anglican minister—at a time when this hinted of loyalty to the British crown as well as church. Characteristically determined in the short term, Weems went through many difficulties to be ordained in England. Then, characteristically feckless in the long term, he drifted through an aimless ministry for nine years.
But by 1793 he realized that selling Bibles was a way of making a living as well as preaching the gospel. From then on, he unabashedly made God and gain his twin goals. “Thank God, the Bible still goes well … I am agreeably surprised to find among the multitude such a spirit of veneration for the Bible. Good old Book! I hope we shall live by you in this world and in the world to come!!” A brisk trade was now his mission in life, and business setbacks weighed down his monosyllables like sins that oppressed the prophets: “God knows there is nothing I so dread as Dead stock , dull sales , back loads , and blank looks .” It is the salesman’s eternal lament, followed by words that skip: “But the Joy of my soul is quick and clean sales—heavy pockets, and light hearts.” Weems traveled Virginia, drawing most of his supplies from an Irish publisher in Philadelphia, Mathew Carey. The two men alternately blessed and cursed each other with get-rich-quick schemes and lagging performance—the latter sent Weems into rages of angry piety. Shipping problems led to pseudo-Ciceronian denunciation: “Quotuseunque, Catalina! how long, thou eldest born of confusion, how long wilt thou continue to send the books to South James River, and the invoice to the head waters of Patomak?”
Weems had a gift for self-dramatization that must have exhilarated and exasperated Carey—not to mention the long-suffering Mrs. Weems and her children. When Carey sarcastically noted that things always seemed to go wrong somehow, with Weems, he loosed a flood of self-exonerating eloquence: “The style of your last letter was so pathetically keen that it made a scratch on my pericardium, though cased in well-tempered innocence. Superior to retaliation, I hasten to answer your epistle and to develop my plan of past conduct.” He closed his letters with exit lines that make it hard to believe Dickens had not yet created Wilkins Micawber: “There is a capriciousness in your character and conduct which will forever embitter the soul, and curse the existence of —M. L. Weems.” Then, not sure he had wrung Carey s heart energetically enough, Weems added a postscript: “Lugging about a heavy book with light profits and long expenditures, and after all not allowed to eat my poor solitary crust in peace, is enough to make me wish I had been born a butcher’s dog and not a poor dependent on your smiles.”
When a rival beat Carey to the production of a particular Bible edition, Weems felt his honor touched, his bibliopolist escutcheon forever blotted: “Why rose the steel of Brutus against the life of Caesar? Had Caesar wronged Brutus of that trash , his purse? No—not to the value of an obolus. But Caesar had wronged Brutus of that which generous minds hold dearer than gold—he had wronged him of his Equality &c, so though you never wronged me of my gold, yet you have wronged me of my well-earned fame.”
Mason’s words nimbly follow his dragonfly ing moods. He gives a vitality to all he touches. The prose is so vibrant it makes the book quiver in your hand. Weems was not a great writer, but he was a great letter writer. His masterpiece was written without his noticing; and it was not published till 1928, when Emily Skeel brought out the letters collected by her brother, Paul Leicester Ford. A man springs from these pages as from the greatest eighteenth-century diaries, Boswell’s or Walpole’s.