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Mason Weems: Reports From The Front

April 2021
3min read

For thirty-one years Parson Weems served as an agent for the Philadelphia publisher, Mathew Carey, hauling his cartful of improving works up and down the eastern seaboard from New York to Savannah. They were a distinctly odd couple—Weems, the Episcopal clergyman, and Carey the Irish Catholic immigrant—and their relationship was characterized by truly eloquent vituperation from both sides. Here is a selection of complaints and entreaties from Weems in the field to Carey in the home office on subjects still familiar to anyone engaged in the making and selling of books: marketing, binding, shipping, pricing, even the extreme difficulty of getting the right celebrities to endorse the product.

You are perpetually complaining. If you knew all, if you knew the globules of rich sweat I have lost, the tears of grief and vexation I have shed in consequence of your ill treatment of me, your oppressing and crushing me to the earth by ten thousand puritannical books which as a good Catholic you know I did not request you to send, nay, was eternally remonstrating against your sending, representing them to you as unsaleable in this State as Fiddles at a Conventicle. If you did but know the long melancholy and expensive journeys I made with these books, dragging them into every hole & corner of the state, depositing them with Merchants some of whom have sold none, others have not yet paid me, and others again have become insolvent. …

I deem it glory to circulate valuable books. I w d circulate millions. This cannot be effected without the character of cheapness . Let but the public point to me and say “ there goes the little Parson that brings us so many clever books and so cheap ,” and I ask no more. But this building a high fortune on low pric d books, appears to you strange as the fatn’ing a Calf by bleeding it. But the Scotch Merchants, who are your best marksmen at a dollar on the wing, will tell you that there’s nothing like the nimble ninepence.

AUGUSTA Aug. 25—[ 1806 ]

C. P. W. ESQ r .

Send, Oh send on immediately—I had counted to find every thing here full & ready . My God! When will my disappointments cease! Separated for 15 months from the finest woman & the fondest group of children, and constantly walking over the grave yard of Foreigners, & breathing an infected air, and after all can get no business to do—send no money to you, make none for myself. Tis cruel to throw the blame on me, you knew what books were sent here—why then send such quantities of one Vol. & none of another. Here are 56 of 4 th Vol. p[ lai? ] n . and not one of 3 d Vol. The courts are in Session—but no books.

WARRENTON . Feb. 14, 1805.

D r . SIR . … I shall want a host of books this campaign. I pray God you send me not into the field in the old tag rag and bob tail d style. Regiments upon Regiments in red and gold I shall expect to flash around me at Charleston—The name ,—the noise —the Eclat is EVERYTHING . …

BALT o . Feb. 8, 1816

SIR … But I have drawbacks. Several bibles injur’d by the vile NAILS !!!!—and the small Bibles (4.50) PRESS d as if they had been under some Atheistical screw that w d squeeze them to death. But I write in no hope that these things will ever be corrected. For before you can pass the necessary orders, your attention will be calld off to something that will cause you to forget it; and the poor bibles will again come squeez d into pancakes or bored & gouged with spike nails. Nails one or two sizes smaller w d do much better. And if you cou’d desire the workmen to give me boxes made of ½ inch poplar in place of pine I sh’d like it well. The Washingtons too are some of them squeez d into the size of spellg books—& some cut & pared to the quick i,e to the letters . …

WASHINGTON . May 24. 1816.

D r . SIR — … For heaven’s sake, never again send two kinds of binding. The time lost is incalculable. Like Girls changing ribbons the sub s . are for whole hours in agony of suspence labouring for choice—and dissatisfied after all, running after me again the next day to bring them “ the other sort of binding .”

ALEXAND a June 23, 1818

I have never met with such cross-grain d materials to work upon, as these Presidents & Vice Presidents and Members of Congress. I have been twice with M r . Munroe, never met with smiles of more cordial friendship, with assurances of a disposition to do everything for the Author of the Olive Branch and for myself—But still nothing is written for me—“ He actually has his hands so full that he cannot find time .” I have been three times with M r . Lowndes of S. Carolina, a Mammoth in Public opinion; but he has his scruples about recommending a book that he is not acquainted with—and he is now so busy that he fears he shall not be able Io do anything for me . John Q. Adams also treats me with exceeding hospitality & attention—but for his part hopes I will excuse him —he does not think he can do anything for me but subscribe for a copy which he has done—he made it a rule never to recommend ANY BOOK , lest he sh d be obliged to recommend all .

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