Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> First-Person Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

Henry Watterson, 1840-1921
Marse Henry: An Autobiography. Volume I
New York: George H. Doran Company, c1919.

Summary

Henry Watterson was born in Washington, D.C., on February 16, 1840. His distinguished parents were Talitha (sometimes cited as Tabitha) Black Watterson and Harvey McGee Watterson—a lawyer, newspaper editor and U.S. congressman from Tennessee. Harvey Watterson succeeded James K. Polk in Congress after Polk was elected president in 1844, and much of his son's childhood was split between Tennessee and the nation's capital. Towards the end of 1858, Henry Watterson began writing for the Daily States newspaper in Washington, but in 1861, he returned to Tennessee and enlisted in the Confederate Army. Despite his professed misgivings about sectionalism and slavery, Watterson served alternately as both a soldier and a newspaper editor for the Confederacy. He rode briefly with famed Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and edited the Nashville Banner, as well as other Confederate newspapers.

After the war, Watterson wrote editorials calling for national reconciliation and Southern industrialization for Nashville's Republican Banner. In 1865 he married Rebecca Ewing, with whom he had five children. In the spring of 1868 Watterson and his family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he joined the staff of the Louisville Journal. After quadrupling the paper's circulation within his first six months on the job, Watterson convinced the owner of the rival Louisville Courier to agree to a merger that created the Louisville Courier-Journal, which remains Louisville's major daily newspaper, and one of the prominent newspapers in the Southeast. Watterson continued to be an outspoken editorial writer at this new paper, and his pen name, "Marse Henry," soon became nationally known. He was also active in politics. In 1876 he chaired the National Democratic Convention and was elected to serve out the remaining term of a deceased U.S. Congressman from Kentucky. Declining to run for re-election in 1877, Watterson returned to the newspaper business and his growing success on the lecture circuit. A pair of editorials that advocated America's entry into World War I earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1917, but he left the Courier-Journal in April 1919. He died in Jacksonville, Florida, on December 22, 1921, due to complications from a cold caught while he and his wife were vacationing.

During his life, Watterson wrote several books, including a History of the Spanish-American War (1898) and a collection of lectures titled The Compromises of Life (1906). His two-volume Marse Henry: An Autobiography was originally published serially in the Saturday Evening Post. The magazine paid him $20,000—at least a quarter of a million dollars in 2005 money—for the work, which also appeared in book form in December 1919. Although it claims to be an autobiography, the narrative of Marse Henry does not present the kind of chronological summary of his life that might be expected of the genre. Instead, the memoir collects observations and anecdotes about the powerful and influential people that Watterson meets, befriends, and sometimes angers during a lifetime of journalism and politics. Perhaps because of the serial nature of Marse Henry's publication, these anecdotes often seem disconnected from one another, creating the sense that the memoir lacks an organized narrative structure. Nevertheless, Watterson discusses a wide variety of notable figures, including presidents (Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt), celebrities (showman P.T. Barnum and humorist Artemus Ward), and literary figures (Henry Adams and Mark Twain). His autobiography is thus a first-person, insider's view of many important people and events in American politics and culture from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries.

Early in Volume I, Watterson says that he "was born in a party camp and grew to manhood on a political battlefield" (p. 15-16). And while writing about and occasionally participating in politics are the major preoccupations of Watterson's life, he is careful to highlight the more unseemly side of elections and lawmaking. Watterson's skepticism about the nobility of public officials solidifies after he moves to a D.C. hotel that counts many politicians among its occupants: "Seeing every day the most distinguished public men of the country . . . destroyed any reverence I might have acquired for official station" (p. 69). This familiarity with lawmakers leads him to the conclusion that "Government, like all else, is impossible of perfection. It is as man is—good, bad and indifferent" (p. 225). Despite this pervasive skepticism, there are some elected leaders for whom Watterson expresses admiration. As a young reporter, he covers Abraham Lincoln's inauguration, and "whilst Mr. Lincoln was not an Adonis, even after prairie ideals," Watterson admits that "there was about him a dignity that commanded respect" (p. 77). Watterson stands near Lincoln during his inaugural address, and writes that Lincoln "delivered that inaugural address as if he had been delivering inaugural addresses all his life. Firm, resonant, earnest, it announced the coming of a man, of a leader of men" (p. 78).

While Watterson praises Lincoln and declares his belief that "secession was treason, that disunion was the height of folly and that the South was bound to go down in the unequal strife," he nevertheless declines an offer to serve as a private secretary to the U.S. Secretary of War at the outbreak of the Civil War (p. 83). Instead he returns home to Tennessee. His plan is to ignore the Civil War and work on a novel, but he finds himself alone in Tennessee with his "native country . . . about to be invaded," and decides to enlist in The Confederate Army. He explains this decision as a case of "'first endure and then embrace,' because I soon got to be a pretty good rebel" (p. 82). Despite his years of service to The Confederacy as both a soldier and an editor, Watterson maintains throughout his memoir that he is and always was "an undoubting Union boy" who cannot be "fairly classified as a Secessionist" because "circumstance rather than conviction or predilection" wedded him to the cause (p. 79). He also insists upon his lifelong opposition to slavery, saying that he freed a slave he was given as a child and "cannot recall the time when [he] was not passionately opposed to slavery" (p. 28).

Watterson's views on the issue of women's suffrage—like the question of how his professed politics square with his Civil War service—are also seemingly self-contradictory. On one hand, Watterson names Mrs. Jane Casneau, a female reporter in D.C., as an early journalistic influence and asserts that he has "been fighting woman's battles in one way and another all my life" and is therefore "not opposed to Votes for Women" (p. 197). But then he insists on "keeping woman away from the dirt of politics" and says that he does "not believe the ballot will benefit woman" (p. 197). Feminism, a term Watterson never precisely defines, is a subject for which he reserves special vitriol: feminism and its leaders are "dangerous," and "if all women should fall in with them there would be nothing of womanhood left, and the world bereft of its women will become a masculine harlotocracy" (p. 197).

Never shy about creating controversy or drawing ire with the opinions expressed in his writing, Watterson uses his sway over the editorial policy of the Courier-Journal to advocate reconciliation between North and South. This strategy, according to Watterson, was an unpopular one at the time, because Kentucky was a border state caught between Northern eagerness to punish the rebellious Southern states and Southern bitterness about the Northern program of Reconstruction. Watterson explains that "During those evil days the Courier-Journal stood alone, having no party or organized following" (p. 185). Nevertheless, Watterson continues to editorialize for peaceful reunion between the regions because he believes that "the South was at the mercy of the North . . . and that the shortest way round lay in that course which was best calculated to disarm radicalism by an intelligent appeal to the business interests and conservative elements of Northern society, supported by a domestic policy of justice alike to whites and blacks" (p. 183).

DocSouth has also published a summary of the second volume of Marse Henry, in which Watterson moves his narrative focus away from the Civil War and towards the early decades of the twentieth century.

Works Consulted: "Watterson, Henry, (1840-1921)" in Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-Present, online database, (United States Congress, publication date unknown), http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=W000209 (accessed December 21, 2006); Gale, Robert, "Watterson, Henry," in American National Biography, ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, 809-811 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Harry Thomas

Document menu