The Magazine

Literary Minority

The quest for a modest immortality may be genetic.

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By BARTON SWAIM
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Every writer, when young, expects to achieve greatness and notoriety. We hear our names taught in undergraduate classrooms and see our works--even before we've written them--bound in "classic" editions long after we're gone. The melancholy fact that success in writing is rarer than success in professional sports, itself almost a statistical impossibility, is hard to face for a young writer--especially one reared on the corrosive trumpery that you can be anything you want to be.

For my own part, I've long since lowered my sights. I come from a family of minor writers and intend to join that class in due course. By "minor" I mean something like third-tier--not third-rate, now. What characterizes a third-rate writer is that he can't write. Not that I would object to being a third-rater myself; many third-raters become fabulously rich, and in any case there's something to be said for a man who can make millions by doing something he's no good at.

The minor writer never gets rich, never achieves anything more than momentary fame, and nobody would call his works important. He has admirers, and he may write a highly regarded book now and again, but he is destined to be remembered, if at all, in the footnotes of monographs nobody reads.

What makes the minor writer worth remembering is that his writings achieve some modest, honorable goal. "[It is] not necessary," writes Samuel Johnson,

that a man should forbear to write, till he has discovered some truth unknown before; he may be sufficiently useful, by only diversifying the surface of knowledge, and luring the mind by a new appearance to a second view of those beauties which it had passed over inattentively before. .  .  . and, perhaps, truth is often more successfully propagated by men of moderate abilities, who, adopting the opinions of others, have no care but to explain them clearly.

Literary minority, as I say, runs in my family. My great-great grandfather Joseph Swaim was the first cousin of Mary Jane Virginia Swaim, who married Algernon Sidney Porter. Their son was William Sydney Porter. O. Henry--as he is better known--is just the sort of writer I mean: clever, wise, unpretentious, and unimportant.

My maternal grandmother was a Sewell. Her grandmother was the cousin of Anna Sewell, author of one book, Black Beauty. It is a delightful work--a little predictable and, of course, unsubtle in its intentions, but not at all forgettable.

I discovered another minor writer firmly within my lineage not long ago when a book was passed on to me after the death of an elderly aunt. It's titled William Swaim, Fighting Editor, published in Greensboro in 1963. William Swaim, proprietor and editor of the Greensborough Patriot, was Mary Jane Virginia's father, and so O. Henry's grandfather.

Actually to call William a minor writer is a bit of a stretch: He is completely unknown, without so much as a Wikipedia entry. And yet, in a sense, what he did with his pen was greater than what Hemingway and Sartre did with theirs. William Swaim was born in Guilford County, North Carolina, in 1802. He was raised on a farm and received only a few intermittent months of schooling, between the ages of 12 and 16. At 17, William's father took his boy to the Guilford County Courthouse in Greensborogh (as it was then spelled), and as William watched the proceedings of the courtroom, with all its displays of eloquence, he realized that he wanted to make his way in the world by means of his mind. Yet when he returned home he was dismayed to find that he could barely read, and couldn't write at all.

My first essay was to cuff the dust off an old Webster's Spelling Book and commence in some of its easiest lessons. 'Twas a mortifying thought, that four years ago, I was able to read the Bible and, now, scarcely qualified to spell in three letters! My resolution formed, every moment of leisure I could gain from the labor assigned me by my father, was spent poring over my book.

The only other book in his father's house was the Bible, and William read it through. He approached a bookish neighbor, a Quaker named Nathan Dick, who let the young man borrow from his collection. The first work William brought home was Richard Blackmore's seven-volume poem Creation (1712), which he read from beginning to end. (Johnson, in his Life of Blackmore, says that if "he had written nothing else, would have transmitted him to posterity among the first favourites of the English muse.")

Soon William discovered the recently established public library in Greensborough, and from there his education began in earnest. He read every book he could borrow, and within about two years he became sufficiently literate to teach school and join a debating club called the Polemic Society. In 1823, aged 21, William delivered a speech to this club on the subject of reforming the constitution of North Carolina. In itself, the speech holds little interest. That it was written by a young man who had been illiterate a few years before is astonishing. The speech's arguments are not spectacular, but its diction is sophisticated and its sentences are clear.

"Let us approach the subject, then, at once and with firmness," William concludes. (He thought the legislature should call a convention to amend the constitution.) "Let us give our Constitution that honest investigation which its importance demands; and let us select a convention of delegates from among ourselves, to make such alterations as time, experience, and change of circumstances have shown to be essential to the future happiness and prosperity of the entire State."

A few months later William traveled to Baltimore to take on an apprenticeship with an antislavery paper called the Genius of Universal Emancipation, owned by the antislavery crusader Benjamin Lundy. The North Carolina Swaims were mostly Quakers, and William had been taught to loathe the slave system; his cousin Moses had been president of the Manumission Society of North Carolina, of which he himself had been a member since 1824. Almost immediately William was put in charge of the Genius, as it was called, so complete was Lundy's satisfaction with his work.

When he was forced to return home six months later owing to his father's death, William was approached by the proprietor of a local newspaper called the Patriot with an offer to purchase it. He bought it and, at the age of 27, became (in his own words) "a bona fide member of the fourth estate."

Over the next six years the Greensborough Patriot became a respectable newspaper with genuine intelligence relayed from North Carolina cities and northern newspapers. What made the paper famous, though, was its editor's refusal to avoid subjects many of his readers felt would be better left alone--chief among them slavery. A majority in the South believed slavery should be ended; disagreement arose over how to achieve that end. William saw that a consensus was forming that the subject should be treated with silence in the hope that it would go away.

"We belong not to that outrageously cautious few," he wrote, "who discuss the subject [of slavery], four hours at a heat, and then conclude by saying--'The question is too delicate for discussion!' "

William did not allow the Patriot to become a one-issue paper. He editorialized in favor of statewide public education, feeling as he did (and for understandable reasons, given his biography) that it was folly to let masses of poor farmers raise their children in ignorance. He aligned himself generally with the emerging Whig party and inveighed against Andrew Jackson's successful attempt to destroy the Second Bank of the United States, as well as Jackson's inhumane policies towards Indians and generally high-handed use of executive power.

But William's paper became best known for its editorial stance on slavery--so much so, indeed, that he frequently received threats. Once, a paper returned to his office with the words scrawled around the edges, "Reform your manner, friend, or faith keep your paper and your principles to yourself. Tar and feathers are plenty here, and any man who aims at abolition, under however specious disguise, is entitled to a coat of it .  .  . Look out." William pleaded with his readers time and again not to treat the subject of slavery as unmentionable: "So far as we have been able to understand the laws of the state," he wrote, "it has become an indictable offense to dream on the subject of slavery; and much more so to write or speak on a subject so exceedingly 'delicate.' " When a bill intended to prevent "seditious publications" from inciting insurrection among the black population was debated in the General Assembly, legislators spent an entire day debating whether the Greensborough Patriot would fall afoul of the law. The bill, which passed, made this crime punishable by one year in prison on the first offense; on the second, death "without benefit of clergy."

Six years into a literary career that seemed to be on the rise, tragedy struck. Somehow, on a trip to Winston Salem to gather intelligence for the Patriot, William received an "injury"--a biographical sketch published in 1866 leaves the matter unspecific. What he thought was a superficial wound became life-threatening, and William died in December 1835, leaving his wife, Abiah, and their two-year-old daughter.

William Swaim wrote nothing of permanent literary value. On the other hand, he changed a few minds, softened a few consciences, and prophesied the consequences of denying men their freedom.

Universal fame would be a marvelous thing. But to spread a little wisdom, then to be forgotten, would be all right, too.

Barton Swaim is the author, most recently, of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.