An embarassment of riches, or, Auguste Ott tips the scales

It was probably about the third time I looked at the list of books donated by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody to the Boston Athenaeum that I noticed the third William B. Greene-related item.

Ott, Auguste (1814-1903). Manuel d’Histoire UniverselleTome Premier. Première Partie. Histoire Ancienne. Paris: Paulin, 1840. iii, 588 pages. Half leather, marbled paper boards. Inscribed in ink on front paste-down endpaper: “W.B. Greene / Brookfield.” Marginal markings and notes in pencil throughout.

There’s a kind of obsessive visiting and revisiting of the minor details that’s a part of a work like the William B. Greene project, where nearly all the bits of information are small and scattered, and it’s hard to know at any given moment which little scrap of fact will illuminate others. I’ve made various attempts to arrange the bits and pieces, like the Timeline & Miscellany, but I also make a point of leafing through my files and repeating various search routines online every few months. That’s the way I ran across the mention of this copy of Ott’s Manuel, which belonged to Green in the 1840s, and might contain his annotations.

A minor associationniste, and associate of Philippe Buchez (1796-1865), Auguste Ott (1814-1903) seems like an unlikely figure to have made a decisive impact on my study of Greene and early mutualism. But every research project is the product of negotiations about scope and depth, and, while l’histoire universelle had long been near the top of my list of “Things I Have To Explore Sometime in Relation to William B. Greene,” I’ve known that if I was really going to understand works like Greene’s Remarks On The History Of Science; Followed By An Apriori Autobiography, I would have to confront a few thousand pages of work by Buchez, Fabre D’Olivet, and others, all in the original French. Greene’s francophile tendencies and tastes have not, alas, been shared to any great extent by English-speaking radicals, with the result that only a fraction of the works of Proudhon have been translated. These more obscure figures, influencial as they were, hardly even make the footnotes of the accounts of Greene. Orienting myself in the literature of transcendentalism, or in the banking and currency writings which influenced Greene, has been a pretty big job. I’ve dabbled with Proudhon’s untranslated works, trying to make my years-rusty French do the work, and with some success. But with Proudhon, at least I knew a bit going in, and had read some works in translation. Jumping into the midst of a discussion of “universal history,” carried on in French among Christian socialists, sounded fairly daunting.

Well, I’ve sort of learned to stop worrying and love being lost between the que and whatever is going to make it make sense, over there, after the verb phrase and maybe a dependent clause or eighteen. I’ve made my peace with the fact that A Special Answer to a Special Prayer, the William B. Greene book, really deserves the full treatment, and that my understanding of mutualism’s history and present promise (and this has everything to do with the particular way I make use of history) isn’t going to develop as I would like without a much closer acquaintanceship with folks like Proudhon and Pierre Leroux.

It’s a giddy moment, not least because I can see the vortex ahead.

I’ve started in earnest, translating the rest of Proudhon’s Solution du Problème Social (partially translated by Greene and Clarence L. Swartz), which has meant hours translating and more hours learning in detail the history of the February Revolution, so what I’m reading actually makes sense. It’s hard work, but it’s also a lot of fun. Proudhon is sharp-tongued and funny. His antagonists are frequently just as much fun to read. I’ll be sharing some rough translations, commentaries and secondary source sites soon. I’m also working on canvassing the periodical literature for both additional material by Greene, and for evidence of his influence. I’ve started working my way through the issues of Liberty, tracing Tucker’s gradual development.

All this means that if you are one of the folks waiting for my definitive work on Greene, the wait has just extended by a few years of research travel and translation. But it also means that I’m free from that sense of “just a little bit more,” which has kept me from writing up much of the material I’ve already unearthed. I’m fortunate to have a fairly large number of people waiting to read something about Green that goes beyond the fairly cursory accounts in the anarchist histories, many of them folks who probably don’t really want to read about l’histoire universelle, at least for more than a few pages. Some time ago, I had talked about doing a more introductory text, with more material on Greene’s relation to present political concerns. That project is all ahead full, and the work on it is a really pleasant diversion from compound tenses and the partisan politics of 1848. I’ve got a stack of minor projects to clear out and some a class to prep for Fall semester, but I should be able to start trying out some sections on the blog this Fall.

Scanning update: things still seem to be on track for roughly 3000 original pages of material added to the archive in 2006. I’m just a few books away from completing the Greene archive. Thanks to everyone who is making use of the materials.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.