American Collections blog

02 July 2012

Sheila Rowbotham, Eccles Writer in Residence: The Case of William Whittemore Tufts

I suspect it is unlikely dear blog reader that you are familiar with William Whittemore Tufts. Nor do I think you will know he wrote a novel called A Market for an Impulse published in 1897.  There are several  reasons why William Whittemore Tufts is not exactly well known and indeed I only I came across him while researching his daughter, Helen Tufts Bailie who became a Whitmanite New Woman.

Helen Tufts, who was proud of her ancestry, records in her manuscript journal at Smith College, Northampton, that the Tufts and the Whittemores (her grandmother’s family) had come to America with John Winthrop in the 1630s and fought in the American Revolution against the British.

William Whittemore Tufts thus possessed the kind of heritage which marked a young man out for notability in nineteenth century America.  However his life proved to be full of unexpected twists and rapid transitions. First his father, a lawyer in Charlestown , called Joseph, died in 1835 when William was only four. His mother, Helen found herself a widow in her mid twenties and moved back to Arlington where she moved in cultured Unitarian circles.

William inherited this literary culture, becoming a clerk for the publishers Little, Brown & Co. in Boston before trying his fortune in New York and the US Commissary department. Here he discovered the theatre, which remained a passion.

Inspired by the eloquence of the great preacher Henry Ward Beecher, in 1857 he went to study at Princeton where he edited the Nassau Magazine. Here he seemed to be on track for the ministry. However, William was bedeviled by principles, and his Unitarian upbringing  won out. He left Princeton in 1861, rejecting the Presbyterian ministry for a teaching post at Newark Academy. Here he conflicted with the principal and resigned. Again, in Newark his friends were literary men who would go on to become well- known journalists and editors. But William’s first break, a series of articles in the Newark Courier was abruptly ended when he criticized the  local ministers.

William was once more a student, this time at the New York Homeopathic Medical College. By the early 1870s he was just beginning to develop a practice with a wife and baby Helen to  support, when he  decided  he was destined for the ministry and left for Harvard Divinity School. However principles intruded yet again and he was not to be successful as a Unitarian minister.

As the family’s fortunes dwindled into first genteel poverty and eventually alarming debt in the 1890s, William hankered still after culture and the literary world which had eluded him and he began writing his novel A Market for an Impulse. Sadly it did not prove a hit and vanished from view. A few copies did however settle in libraries in Britain.

Searching for insights into his character over a hundred years later, I was excited to find it was in the British Library and waited eagerly for it to arrive from Boston Spa. Disaster! When I went to claim it I was told the novel could not be found . Never borrowed since digitalization, perhaps it is secreted in some cobwebby crevice hidden from view. I have been a reader in the British Library since the mid-1960s and this is first book that never came. Poor jinxed William.

I didn’t desert him even then. I got his novel miraculously through ‘Lighting Source UK’ and what did I find? You’ve guessed dear blog reader, I am sure, a  central character of impeccable principles embedded in a labyrinthine and chaotic plot filled with twists and turn.


M.S. adds: The Library also holds a copy of this novel in microfilm (Wright American Fiction, reel T-35, MFR-3052 *6632*)


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