Broad strokes

I started this blog a year ago (almost to the day), and never pursued it. But I want to start using it as a way to muse on Barry and his diary. James Barry was a 19th-century miller, printer, and fiddler in a back-country settlement in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. I’ve been tweeting “on this day” style notes from his diary for almost two years and this year leaped ahead to 1867 just to catch the anti-Confederation tirades that were becoming evident. A short essay on Barry and Confederation will appear in the Spring 2017 volume of Acadiensis.

I also want to use this space to catalogue his quite extensive library. Barry didn’t identify every book he read, but many he did. The range is impressive, though there was certainly a core of 17th to 19th-century Presbyterian theological texts. Barry was a dissenting Presbyterian – indeed a Morisonian, a still more radical sect of dissenters – and most of his books reflect his interest in the evangelical (“antiburgher”) critique of “the Kirk” (the Church of Scotland). There’s more – smatterings of history, politics, poetry, and some humour – but his intellectual heart was clearly centred in dissent, and the evangelical emphasis on atonement and free will.

This carried over into his politics, and we can see how his radically de-centralised views on church governance and free will spilled into the secular realm. But Barry is a fascinating man whose dissenting views changed shape dramatically over his life. In the 1860s, his dissenting politics meant supporting Joseph Howe, the liberal reformers, and the battle against Nova Scotia joining the Canadian Confederation; by the 1890s he was reading and printing (i.e. stealing!) free-thought pamphlets from both secular libertarians and the Christian left. Six Mile Brook, Pictou County, it seems clear, was no isolated backwater, but a small node in the rich Atlantic network of ideas. And there is much more to explore: his domestic life is fascinating, his emergent sense of bourgeois acquisitiveness, his articulation of an autonomous self, his willingness to actively interrogate that self, and more all points to a thoroughly modern sensibility.  Indeed, I want to argue that this backwoods miller and fiddler – surely isolated, traditional, and simple – was worldly, progressive, and infinitely complex. He was a quintessentially modern man.