Child's Unfinished Masterpiece: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads

Child's Unfinished Masterpiece: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads

by Mary Ellen Brown

The premier scholar of the English-language traditional or popular ballad, Francis James Child spent decades working on his widely read and performed collection, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. In this first single author monograph of Child's life and work, Mary Ellen Brown analyzes Child's editorial methods, his decisions about which ballads to

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The premier scholar of the English-language traditional or popular ballad, Francis James Child spent decades working on his widely read and performed collection, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. In this first single author monograph of Child's life and work, Mary Ellen Brown analyzes Child's editorial methods, his decisions about which ballads to include, and his relationships with colleagues at Harvard and abroad. Brown draws on his extensive correspondence with collaborators to trace the production of his monumental work from conception and selection through organization and collation of the ballads.
Child's Unfinished Masterpiece shows readers what was at stake in Child's search for original manuscript materials housed at libraries and estates far afield and his desire to uncover unedited versions of previous editors' texts. In analyzing Child's letters, Brown also delves into his important network of collaborators, scholars, and friends such as William Macmath, Sven Grundtvig, James Russell Lowell, and Charles Eliot Norton, who influenced the organization and content of his work. Readers learn about the questions Child faced as an editor: whether the materials he gathered were authentic, whether a piece was more ballad or a song, or whether the text was sufficiently old or traditional. In showing Child's struggles with content and organization for The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Brown notes the difficulty in defining the ballad genre while also showing that a clear definition is not a fatal flaw of the volume or to scholars' continued study of it.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This monument of research, synthesis, and reflection is a groundbreaking book that stands as its own major contribution to folklore and ballad studies and serves as a stimulus for further research—just as Child's own titanic work has done. I learned many things from this book, as will anyone who opens its pages."—Maureen N. McLane, author of Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of British Romantic Poetry

 "A key text for English-language ballad studies."—Victorian Studies

"This illuminating study captures the richness of Francis James Child's labors on The English and Scottish Popular Ballads through a patient scrutiny of his vast correspondence with a host of collaborators. In tracing Child's conclusions about the ballads, Brown provides valuable analysis of the letters that will be appreciated by ballad scholars, folklorists, and scholars of literature alike."—James Porter, founding editor of The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music

"An important resource.  Brown's project gives Anglo-American folksong scholarship a formidable point of reference to reexamine Child's ongoing impact on song scholarship and practice."—Journal of Folklore Research

"I did not anticipate that a book about the writing of an earlier book, albeit a classic collection, could be so interesting, engaging, informative and exciting as this one. . . .Brown adds new material and insights, and brings the story together in a unified whole that is compelling, insightful, sometimes surprising, and beautifully written."—Folklore

Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

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Child's Unfinished Masterpiece

The English and Scottish Popular Ballads

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2011 Mary Ellen Brown
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03594-4

Chapter One

The Man Francis James Child What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?

—Micah 6:8 (KJV), epitaph on the tombstone of F. J. Child, Stockbridge, Mass.

In 1846, just before graduating from Harvard, Child and his classmates took part in an exercise that might today seem quaint: they prepared brief sketches of their lives to that point. Child's was purposefully uninformative. After two-and-a-half pages, he begs the reader's pardon if he "has given the least information concerning himself, or penned a paragraph not absolutely frivolous and wearisome," adding an envoi that concludes, "For I am as I am, and as will I end" (HUA, HUD 246.714F). It is perhaps amusing to see the young man posing, even incorporating a bit of Greek, but it stymies the would-be biographer. Several private reflections written shortly after his death in 1896, however, suggest how those closest to Child perceived him and provide a way to begin reconstructing aspects of his life. They point to the things that mattered most—connections with family, friends, and former students; his attachment to roses and ballads—and they record accounts of his wit and references to his intellect.

His widow, Elizabeth Ellery Sedgwick Child, admitted to George Lyman Kittredge, Child's colleague and literary executor, that she was only just beginning to realize all her husband had done while alive: "He never cared to explain his labors. When he rose from his desk where all day he had been stooping over manuscripts, heaps of books, blocking him in from the world outside, he came into our midst with a novel in his hand, and read it aloud for our amusement & his" (n.d., HUA, HUG 4486.12). William Ladd Ropes, a Harvard classmate whom Child had known from high school days, wrote another Harvard classmate, Charles Eliot Norton, "He was the rare one among my friends, of whom I could say that I never had enough of him. From my earliest acquaintance with him at school to my last, sad but cheerful, interview with him last summer at the Hospital, he was the same whole-souled, loving friend" (15 Aug. 1897, HLHU, bMS Am 1922, letter 486). In turn, writing to Edward Lee-Childe, Norton described Child as "the most learned of the scholars of English, the most faithful of Professors for fifty years, one of the sweetest and soundest-hearted men, a lover of all good friends, a humourist, genial, original, excellent in talk, a most constant friend"; Child, he said, had been almost the last to call him by his Christian name (28 June 1897, Norton and Howe 2:252).

Writing to Child's wife, Henry James, the younger brother of Child's close friend William, said, "He [was] vivid to me always, in everything that made him delightful—and with a vividness that I think of here, far off, as still glowing there somehow as an influence and an inextinguishable part of the general life. I can't conceive Cambridge without him—and desire, frankly, never to see it so. I have not a memory of him that is not some intensely characteristic savour and colour" (1897, HLHU, bMS Am 1922). When John Matthews Manley dedicated some of his work to Child, he told Lizzie Child that he did so because Child had played a crucial role in it: "He made possible for me the realization of my most cherished plans, and ... was not only the most inspiring of masters but most sympathetic of friends" (9 Nov. 1897, HLHU, bMS Am 1922, letter 362). Francis Barton Gummere, another student become friend, recalled for Kittredge a day spent with Child, "the stories he told, the phrases he used, the glorious humanity and kindliness and manliness of him"; Gummere added, "He was good to me. I read letters of his the other day, and was again amazed at his range of benefactions" (17 Dec. 1903, HUA, HUG 4486.12). Gummere, in turn, received a letter from Horace Howard Furness recalling his time as Child's student; even after fifty-six years, Furness said, Child was "a living presence": "And when I am hard at work he is constantly before me and almost instinctively I refer to his standards of excellence. Ah, how loving and tender he was! ... And his wit! He once told me some Western student who said to him he thought he'd like to learn Anglo-saxon and intended some time to take an afternoon to it. How Child's mouth twitched, as he told me he replied, 'Take two!'" (n.d., HUA, HUG 1279.4).

These are wonderful, selected remembrances. Yet their spare details hardly suggest the fullness of a life, for they tell nothing of Francis James Child's background, his daily life, his family, or his animals. In the following pages, then, I weave together information gleaned from largely unpublished correspondence and other manuscript materials. Writing a life always involves imagination and interpretation, the animation of surviving bits and pieces in an effort to approximate the much richer, more complex lived reality. Child himself refused to attempt this at age twenty-two. Instead, I am the assembler of this life, having pulled together various incidents, inferences, and facts from a mostly epistolary record. There are many things these data do not reveal. Nonetheless, the gathering and reviewing of this life material provided me with a wealth of new information and brought me closer to a sense of the man and his world.


Francis James Child was born 1 February 1825, in Boston, the third son of Joseph and Mary James Child. Genealogical histories reveal that both parents' ancestors had come from England in the mid-seventeenth century—the Jameses, to Hingham, Massachusetts, with several instances of the name Francis James in the family line; the Childs, initially to Watertown, though Francis James Child was born to the fifth generation of the Boston family. Child's father, Joseph, was born in 1792 (there are no records of his mother's birth date). Joseph and Mary married in 1819 and added a child to the family every two years or so:

Mary Ann James (b. 1820, married William Winslow Emerson) William Capers (b. 1822, married Mary Emeline Smith) Francis James (b. 1825, married Elizabeth Ellery Sedgwick) Sarah (b. 1827, married Benjamin Delmont Lock) Joseph Jr. (b. 1829, married Frances Ellen Sullivan) Eliza Jane (b. 1831, married John Ware Davis) Annette (b. 1834) Caroline (b. 1837, married Amos K. Fiske)

Mary died in 1839, and sometime before the 1850 census Joseph married his second wife, Maria Fisk.

By 1822 Child's father was listed in the Boston street directory as a sailmaker, in 1827 becoming part of the sailmaking firm Child and Crocker, located consistently at 2 North Market. By 1875, though the firm's name and location remained the same, Crocker had taken another partner, J. S. Braley, and Joseph had probably dropped out as an active partner several years before that. Manuscript accounts and letters say that Joseph was blind for an extended period preceding his death in 1878 (his second wife following him in death in 1879), the condition perhaps due to years of close work. Unlike his firm, Joseph Child and his ever-growing family moved frequently over thirty years, but always within the general North End area—Salem, Hanover, and Prince streets—until he moved to Cambridge in 1853 (perhaps as his health declined). And the Child home seems always to have sheltered other relatives, perhaps at one point including two aunts deemed "insane" in a family diary. Certainly as the years went on, the household was multigenerational and also included at least one domestic servant.

In his wonderfully informative account books, Francis James Child listed the three sources of funds that enabled him to attend Harvard College for a total cost of $1,937.11 (HLHU, bMS Am 1922.1): he earned $431.11, borrowed $680 from Ingersoll Bowditch (a Boston merchant involved in the China-India trade and sometime president of the American Insurance Company and the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company), and received $826 from his father. His father's contribution reveals much. Joseph surely had many familial demands on his income, so his must have been a relatively successful enterprise. Furthermore, Joseph apparently supported Frank in his studies, his son's aptitude having been recognized even in primary school, when he had received a citywide award. Child's youngest sister became a French teacher, but no other siblings seem to have shared the same educational opportunities; his brothers became in time dealers in leather and linings, probably suppliers to the growing shoemaking industry. None of them followed the father into sailmaking, though the profession continued to be viable well into the century. Early in Joseph's career there were as few as fourteen sailmakers at work in Boston. By the 1870s some forty-four individuals and firms were listed in the Boston Directory. Deirdre O'Regan's study of nineteenth-century sailmakers in New England provides ample information about the trade, certainly enough to imagine the broad contours of Joseph's situation. He would probably have begun an apprenticeship at sixteen—or even as young as fourteen—thus entering the trade between 1806 and 1808. By 1825, when Francis was born, Joseph would have been in his early thirties, perhaps reaching his peak professional productivity in the next ten to twenty years, a span encompassing the period when Francis studied at Harvard.

Prior to the development of powered locomotion, a significant portion of trade and communication relied on wind power, so sailmakers, who both fabricated new sails and repaired damaged ones, enjoyed no small importance. They were, moreover, generally literate, but their primary training came through apprenticeship. Established masters taught apprentices how to measure, cut, and assemble sails, as well as how to make the computations needed to design them. Ideally, they worked in lofts, large open spaces with room to lay out the sails, but basic equipment needs were minimal. More important, since sails were expensive, sailmakers frequently received ownership shares as partial recompense, thereby sharing in potential profit—or loss. Some sailmakers grew quite wealthy, ultimately becoming more merchants than artisans; others, of course, simply carried out work designed by someone else. According to O'Regan, even the modestly successful sailmaker "earned above average wages and regular employment" (201). And clearly Boston was the place to be a sailmaker, at least until steam power and railroads displaced the primacy of wind-powered shipping toward the end of the nineteenth century.

Even today it is possible to imagine the hustle and bustle of the wharves, each catering to ships from different destinations, the constant loading and off-loading of goods, the sails dotting the horizon, "whiffs of pungent fragrance from Eastern imports, the aromas of spice, coffee and incense, the reek of copra-filled holds, and the sharp tang of salt cod" (Works Progress Administration 98). In later life Child and James Russell Lowell (a Harvard colleague and good friend, sometime a statesman and always a poet) reminisced about licking molasses, no doubt just arrived from the West Indies, in their youth—each having had the freedom to explore and experience as a boy something they both, as adults, left far behind. Child and Crocker's loft was probably above North Market, adjacent to Faneuil Hall, near the Long, Commercial, and Lewis wharves; the Child family's various residences were within easy walking distance, not far from North Church (Christ Church), made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (In fact, Child once wrote to Longfellow, also a friend and colleague, "I have been much in want of [Hans Rudolf von] Schröter's Finnsiche runen, on account of a ballad which it contains" [n.d., HLHU, bMS Am 1340.2, letter 1093].) Many people in Boston's North End were living and working in close quarters, but the accessibility of the wharves and the water beyond must have provided a greater sense of space, a kind of wonderland of possibilities, and in cooler summer air, the scent of the sea.

Nonetheless, Joseph Child clearly did not make a fortune as a sailmaking entrepreneur, nor did he lay up treasures on earth for his children to inherit. Indeed, Francis seems to have offered support for his younger sisters' schooling and aided his brothers from time to time; in at least one instance, probably as Joseph's health and ability to work declined, Child borrowed money to help the family, likely mindful of the help he had received from his father when he needed it. It would be wrong to call the Child family poor. Joseph was a modestly successful artisan, a partner in a firm whose long duration suggests that these craftsmen's work was reputable and in demand. The biographical accounts of several students in Child's class of 1846 reveal that they came from far less privileged backgrounds.

Attending Harvard and becoming a professor likely distanced Child somewhat from his family. Still, he remained close to them. In the years immediately after his graduation, when he was more or less unsure of his next step, he wrote of spending Thanksgiving with the assembled extended family; in a letter to Charles Guild (a Harvard classmate and lifelong friend) he revealed that he missed his mother's counsel and love. While Child was in Europe, he encouraged Guild to share his letters with his family—especially with his brother-in-law John Ware Davis, who had married his sister Eliza and, according to the 1870 census, lived with their son in the same household as Joseph, his second wife, and other family members. Even later in life, after Child was married and had children, he and his young family would visit Joseph on Sundays. He was saddened by untoward events in the lives of his siblings, including the loss of property and income caused by the fire that ravaged Boston in 1872, and he worried about their families after their deaths. He remained close to several of his sisters, one of whom would come to stay with him during the summers when his wife and children were away. The lack of extant letters to family members makes it impossible to say how much they were involved in the life at 67 Kirkland Street or how much they knew of his ballad work, his teaching, or his life as professor, but his family of origin clearly remained close to his heart.

For its part, his family launched Child and noticed early on his academic inclinations. In 1837 he had received a Medal of Merit award from the Boston School Committee, even attending a special dinner at Faneuil Hall. This award and the record that earned it helped propel him to the next level of studies in Boston's free schools, the English High School, established in 1821 as a pathway to college and as preparation for mercantile and mechanical employment. Child attended from 1837 until 1840, graduating second in a class of fourteen, the small class size suggesting that the school accepted only those judged to have considerable academic potential. Records of Child's performance there indicate that he was initially too talkative, but finally his progress was judged to be good overall in recitations, composition, declamation, penmanship, and deportment, and also with regard to tardiness, absence, and character. Each report was signed with a flourish by Joseph Child.

In fact, Child excelled, even giving a voluntary declamation at the "Annual Visitation" of the public in 1839—"the Red King's Warning and a dialogue between Bourbon and Gonzales" (HUA, HUG 1279.2); he would have been fourteen, the age when many artisanal apprenticeships began. That was not, however, to be his trajectory. Having noticed the boy's talents, the staff encouraged him to continue his education at the free Boston Latin School, which had been established in 1635 to provide education in Greek and Latin in preparation for higher education. In reality, the two institutions overlapped for many years, using the same premises and some of the same staff. Epes Sargent Dixwell, probably instrumental in persuading Joseph that Boston Latin would be good for his son, had at one point been on the staff of the English High School. The Boston Latin School was open to boys ten or older, for a period no longer than four years, who were already well grounded in English grammar. Attending both these schools, doing exceptionally well, and making the acquaintance of other boys with considerable potential provided an enormously solid academic and social background for Child. Graduates of Boston Latin were expected to do something with their lives: Thomas Bulfinch, Edward Everett, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Ward Beecher, Charles Keating Tuckerman, Charles William Eliot, Phillips Brooks, and Augustus Lowell figured among those who, having graduated before 1850, had gone on to make a name for themselves, and by extension, their school.


Excerpted from Child's Unfinished Masterpiece by MARY ELLEN BROWN Copyright © 2011 by Mary Ellen Brown. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Mary Ellen Brown is a professor emerita of folklore, women's studies, and English (adjunct) at Indiana University Bloomington. Her previous publications include William Motherwell's Cultural Politics, 1797-1835 and Burns and Tradition.

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