This post was written by cataloger Miranda Schwartz.
An unusual item in the American Historical Manuscript Collection is a hand-printed, or pen-printed, newspaper by Vermont farmer James Johns (1797-1874). Born in Huntington, Vermont, Johns received little formal education but from the age of 13 on he wrote—and wrote and wrote—not stopping until his death at age 76. Johns wrote poetry, short stories, essays, obituary poems, local history, weather reports, songs and music, all in addition to producing his intermittent newspaper, the Vermont Autograph and Remarker, from 1834 to 1873.
The Library’s fairly diminutive (4.25 x 6.25 inches) Vermont Autograph and Remarker of December 1, 1854, contains four pages filled with Johns’ neatly penned ideas on President Pierce’s Nebraska bill, New York State elections, an essay on customs, and the Crimean War and siege of Sebastopol (“Surely it is a dreadful thing for poor human nature that man should thus seek to destroy his fellow man by wholesale to gratify ambition or revenge for some fancied injury but so it is.”). He also editorializes frankly about another newspaper, the Bradford Inquirer, and its former editor: “He was much more fit to occupy a cell in the Insane Asylum than to edit a paper.”
Johns published one formal work, a poem collection printed by Green and Stacy in 1828. The book was not a success and Johns still owed the firm money two years later. In 1857, Johns ordered a small hand press and sometimes printed some of his work on it, but stated in correspondence that he did not have enough type for the four-page Autograph and found pen-printing quicker.
Johns doesn’t seem to have written and self-published for the money: He likely gave most of his newspapers to neighbors, asking them for modest payment when they could afford it; he also proudly sent the paper to publishers, hoping for an exchange of work and for wider audience. His motivation seems to have been pure (and irrepressible) self-expression.
Cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection (AHMC), a group of 12,000 small and unique manuscript collections, is made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the Pine Tree Foundation of New York.