In an earlier entry, dated Dec. 5, 2009, I wrote about the northern New Hampshire farmer Newell Cotton, whose diaries from the last twelve years of the 19th century are in my possession. I've been re-reading those diaries for January, seeing how he spent his time. This was a period when most of his labor involved working with wood to ensure a continuing supply of heat, getting in the ice that would keep his food supplies cold for a period further into the year, and then writing, which was not a chore for him but represented an attempt to take part in a literary life, as he was a reader of books and magazines and newspapers, and he wrote stories, some of which he had published in newspapers and magazines. He hoped to write a book, but in the diaries there is no evidence that he completed one. He also regularly wrote "items" for local newspapers, and at this relatively slack work time of year he wrote more than usual.
I had wondered what he meant by "items," and I came to realize that these are short pieces of interest that made up much of the newspapers, particularly the local papers, in the old days. They included death notices and obituaries, event announcements, reviews, and the like; they also included news items, local and also from away. I was reminded of that today when reading Doris Grumbach's Life in a Day, where she reports that an old clipping of a news item (undated) fell out of a travel book she was reading.
The item read as follows: "Muskegon, Mich., Jan. 15. Mrs. J.F. Andrews, who was fraudulently placed in a private insane asylum near Detroit by her husband, who then eloped with Miss McGregor, a wealthy young woman of Jacksonville, Ill., has been released on the demand of her sister. Mrs. Andrews is perfectly sane, but is prostrated with grief. She married Andrews here and he has squandered her large fortune leaving her penniless in a madhouse with two small children, the youngest of which was born in the asylum. Andrews and Miss McGregor are living in Paris, France."
Doris Grumbach imagines what life will be like for J.F. Andrews and Miss McGregor in Paris, and how long it will take for him to run through his second fortune. I began wondering whether this was the sort of item Newell Cotton wrote about for the local papers. I'd assumed that the items he wrote were local news and announcements, events, obituaries. One of his diary entries concerns the difficulties he is having writing an obituary for a friend. Perhaps he also wrote this other kind of item, news from away, but where in the late 1800s would he have gotten this other news except from other newspapers? Once he found it, all he would need do is copy it and, like Doris Grumbach, he would imagine these little plots fleshed out into fiction, perhaps his own. And even if he didn't write or copy this kind of item, he surely would have read quite a few of them. I am still hoping to find his stories, but I will wait until I return to Providence to begin to search for them through the resources of my university library.
The dividing lines among facts, gossip, story, and fantasy are plain in items like this one about the Andrews family and Miss McGregor. How impoverished is our news today, where we either read fact or opinion in newspapers, or gossip and hype about celebrities in magazines--and, of course, on line--but an item such as this would be hard to find, anywhere.