Lit Quotes – Bad Writing (and Bad Editing) of the 17th Century

ReadingBoyFrom The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England by Samuel Eliot Morison:

We do not know why or when [William] Hubbard began his History of New England, but it was finished about the year 1680.  Apparently, the Boston bookseller-publishers would have none of it, since Hubbard offered the work to the General Court as an official history.

The first committee appointed to deal with the manuscript refused to wrestle with the author’s unusually bad copy, and in 1682 the General Court resolved that whereas it was a duty ‘to take due notice of all occurrences and passages of God’s providence’ toward Massachusetts Bay, and whereas Mr. Hubbard had compiled ‘a history of this nature,’ the Colony Treasurer should pay him £50 provided he would make a fair copy.

This he attempted to do, and in 1683 the court ordered the Treasurer to pay Mr. Hubbard ‘half of the said summe,’ a discount that will surprise nobody who has wrestled with Hubbard’s manuscript. It had to await publication until 1815.

Hubbard’s History was sucked dry of factual material by Cotton Mather, Thomas Prince, and Governor Thomas Hutchinson, long before it got into print; and the work had no literary merit to give it a renewed lease of life. The style is pedestrian where it is not obscure; Hubbard had an unfortunate trick of prolonging sentences, clause after clause, until they reached the length of a paragraph.

He was a lazy writer, preferring to incorporate lengthy passages from [other histories] rather than look things up in the records, and he was unfortunately too modest to enlarge on matters of his personal experience. Ten pages of description of his daily life at Ipswich, or of reminiscence of early Harvard might have given Hubbard a certain immortality; as it is, the most valuable contribution he made was to interview [Massachusetts founder] Roger Conant of Beverly…

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