Union in the News for October 10, 2004
Diary of an era
By Bill Buell - The Daily Gazette
This Jonathan Pearson Diaries
On a hot August day in 1833 just east of Geneva, Jonathan Pearson leaned over the edge of his packet boat and accidentally dropped his journal into the Erie Canal. Fortunately, for history's sake, Pearson, went in after it.
Well, somebody did. Pearson, an 1835 graduate of Union College, doesn't tell us exactly how the thing was retrieved. But he did get it back, and continued to keep a diary for another 40 years, leaving historians with an invaluable resource about 19 th-century life in and around New York, Schenectady and Union College.
Pearson's association with Union lasted for more than five decades, beginning as a student and continuing in various roles as professor, li- brarian, treasurer and trustee. And when he wasn't documenting Union's story in his personal journals, he produced books on Schenectady's history that remain required reading for present-day scholars.
His diary, in its original manuscript form, has been at Union College's Schaffer Library since 1934. Last month, however, an 11-year project to get the diary published was completed, and today it endures - in a much more reader friendly form - as a precious research tool for historians.
"It's not the kind of book you just want to sit down and leaf through," said Jeremy Dibbell, the 2004 class salutatorian at Union currently working in the Special Collections department at Schaffer Library. "But it's very useful for research and thank God for the index. The index comes in very handy."
The diary in published form is a bit overwhelming; two huge hardcover volumes total nearly 1,500 pages. Even more mind-boggling was the prospect of turning all of the journals and notebooks (15 different pieces) that made up Pearson's diary into a book. In 1993, as part of the planning for Union's bicentennial celebration, that task fell to Howard C. Martin, president of the college from 1965-74.
"From the beginning I knew this would be a long project," said Martin from his home in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. "The diary covered so many years, and in addition the handwriting had to be read carefully and read again for accuracy. Many editing decisions were necessary. I did not know that it would consume so many years as it eventually did, but I am delighted with the final product."
In his preface to the diary, Martin explains the long process of converting written manuscripts into a published book, an endeavor that was aided greatly, he points out, by members of the Union College faculty, librarians, clerical staff and students.
Long before Martin's project began, the New York State Library got into the act, producing two microfilm copies of the manuscript that Martin's task force used to produce the first typewritten copy of Pearson's diary.
Then, Martin's editing work began. A decision was made to eliminate small, unimportant portions of the diary to keep the length manageable. He normalized the text, breaking up long paragraphs to make the diary more readable, and also dealt with Pearson's orthographic irregularity, sometimes correcting a spelling mistake so as not to distract the reader, and on other occasions leaving the error intact if it provided a deeper understanding of the text.
Martin also broke up the diary by offering chapter headings with short introductions in an attempt to "strengthen the interrupted narrative line," as he put it in his preface. He singled out former sociology department secretary Janet McQuade for putting together the index, and finally dedicates the finished product to Jonathan Pearson III, class of 1942, the Pearson descendant, according to Martin, most concerned about getting the diary into the public domain.
The first entry in Pearson's dairy was dated Feb. 18, 1828, five days before he turned 15. The last entry is June 5, 1875, 12 years before his death in 1887.
Pearson was born Feb. 23, 1813 in Chichester, N.H., the eldest of two children belonging to Caleb and Hetty Libby Pearson. He attended New Hampton Institute and Waterville (now Colby College) before moving west with his family to Schenectady. On Dec. 28, 1831, he enrolled in classes at Union College and thus began his long association with the school.
He graduated first in his class in 1835 and returned to the school in the fall of 1836 as a tutor. In 1839 he became a professor of chemistry and natural history, and later taught botany and agriculture. He served as the college's librarian for more than 40 years and was also the school treasurer from 1854 to 1883.
"His diaries cover a major portion of the college's history, including some of its most turbulent times, and his account is that of an insider rather than an observer," said Martin. "He was a very important figure at Union."
Along with his career at Union and maintaining his diary, Pearson produced five works on local history, most notably "The History of the Schenectady Patent."
"With all he was doing, I don't know how he found the time, but here's a guy who teaches himself Dutch, looks at all the primary sources and translates them to English, and then produces a book that every historian after him has used as reference," said retired Niskayuna High School principal Frank Taormina, past president of the Schenectady County Historical Society and an author of local history books.
"I've read a lot of books on Schenectady, and my impression is that almost all of these later historians are using Pearson's work. He's the guy who established the fundamentals of our history in Schenectady. If he made any mistakes, they're still with us."
Robert V. Wells, a history professor at Union, relied heavily on Pearson's diary for his book, "Facing the King of Terrors: Death and Society in an American Community," published in March 2000.
"I went up to Special Collections and asked to look at the diary, thinking it might help me a little, and I ended up taking 135 pages of notes," said Wells. "He went on at length about some things that weren't of interest to me, like the college owning property in New York City, so I skimmed over those parts.
"But there's so much more valuable information. He writes about the cholera epidemic in Schenectady, which was great for my book, and he writes about the Civil War and [Union College president] Eliphalet Nott. It's the best single source you can find if you're looking for everyday life in 19 th-century America."
Pearson had a long and tenuous relationship with Nott, the college's president from 1804 to 1866, and while he loved the school he was often at odds with the administration and wrote about his misgivings in his diary, which he referred to as his "thinking book."
"He had all sorts of gripes and complaints about Union, and some of his sentiments are eerily similar to those you hear today," said Dibbell, a political science major from Bainbridge. "It's neat to hear other people's views about Union, especially from that time period."
With the two published volumes now at the disposal of historians, the original manuscripts will remain safely locked away in the Collections Department at the Schaffer Library except for special occasions.
"Most of them are in pretty good shape," said Ellen Fladger, director of Special Collections at the library. "They weren't used a lot, but we'd have people come in from time to time to look at them, and we also had a history class that required students to use original source material. The notebook that he dropped into the Erie Canal is in pretty good shape, and if we set up an exhibit we usually put that one on display."
Along with telling us about Union College, Schenectady and New York, if you read enough of the diary it leaves you with a picture of the man himself. For Wells, the portrait is a favorable one.
"You begin to get a sense of the man, and my impression is that he aged well," said Wells. "He was a very anxious, nervous young man when he came to Union, and you can see him mellow over the years. By the time I was done I really came to like him a lot."