In a Humor for Reading

May 22nd, 2012

Although the bulk of the War Department correspondence is taken up with matters of business, personal letters sometimes slip in and offer a glimpse of other parts of the lives of clerks and quartermasters.

In February 1799, Samuel Hodgdon sent his colleague and friend Isaac Craig two pieces of reading material: Three volumes of Judith Sargent Murray’s The Gleaner and Matthew Gregory Lewis’ 1796 Gothic novel The Monk. He described Murray’s essays as being “on many pleasing subjects,” while the novel is “deep and dreadful.”

Judith Sargent Murray was, as Hodgdon notes, the elder sister of Winthrop Sargent who was appointed Governor of the Mississippi Territory in 1798. She was a prolific writer, publishing under a number of pseudonyms. The Gleaner was originally a regular column in the Massachusetts Magazine, which was collected into the three volumes Hodgdon acquired. In her essays Sargent wrote a serialized novel and covered topics ranging from drama to politics to religion. The published collection also contained two plays that Sargent wrote.

The other work that Hodgdon sent was quite unlike anything Sargent wrote. The Monk is a true Gothic novel, full of witches, the Spanish Inquisition, murder, and horrible deaths. It was a popular book, in its fourth edition within two years of its first printing. Readers of the late eighteenth century enjoyed novels which blended romance and horror with a moral at the end.

Both of the works which Hodgdon sent Craig were widely-read, popular books in the late 1790s which might have been easier to acquire in cosmopolitan Philadelphia than in Pittsburgh. Hodgdon sends the books for Craig and his family to enjoy, having enjoyed them himself. The exchange offers a little insight into the reading material the men enjoyed in their free time and into a friendship which extended beyond the offices of the War Department.