James Barry’s Aesthetic World

James Barry was a man of taste. By that I don’t mean to suggest a proper or “correct” taste, or that he was appropriately fashionable. I mean that he cared about art and beauty and believed he had a judicious aesthetic sensibility. This is most obvious in his musicality and his mission to record fiddle tunes, but the diary offers numerous moments when aesthetics and a discerning taste become evident. The miller was in many ways a coarse and sometimes vulgar man – though even here we might see a kind of Rabelaisian spirit of enthusiastic engagement – but several dimensions of his life speak to a certain cultivated refinement and a delight in both the consumption and creation of aesthetic experience.

Barry was in many realms a critic – be that of his workers’ skills, a housekeeper’s beauty, or a neighbour’s talents at the bow. Sometimes this was formal, and he was often called upon to judge fiddle and piping competitions in Pictou, Barry took great pride in his critical assessments of local musicians – good and bad. He could be a harsh critic, often totally disparaging a local fiddler’s abilities. But he loved few things more than to play and engage with those he considered fine players. In fiddling and numerous other creative acts, in that space between assessment and creation, Barry found much room for experimentation and possibilities for design and expression. In his home, his music, art, writing, and printing, he found ways to express himself and to define an image of his self.

From a series of photos taken on the visit of Bessie Barry, her daughter, and grand-daughter, some time during the Second World War. The addition is on the left. Photo courtesy of Everett McCullough, Six Mile Brook, NS

In some ways, these discerning tastes spilled over into a kind of bourgeois appetite for comfort and improvement. In the 1860s, as he built a significant addition to the house he had acquired from his parents – what in the diary he terms “the new house” – he took great care in making it tastefully attractive and comfortable. The only photo we have dates from the 1940s and the house had been poorly maintained since his death in 1906. But the photo clearly illustrates the old and new sections of the house and some sense remains of arrangement and decorative detailing on the windows. What the diary makes clear is that Barry played a direct role in its design, offering regular commentary on everything from flooring to wallpaper. He also notes planting ornamental and fruit trees around the house, noting their price and provenance (the apple trees, for example, were not local grafts, but purchased from a nursery in the Annapolis Valley). The house was painted, not white-washed, and he spoke approvingly of the “soft” yellow he had chosen. Early in the diary, Barry made clear his commercial ambitions (and anxieties) and one consistent thread of the diary is Barry’s marking of his passage from indebted young man to successful business operator. New purchases – a sofa, a steel stove, and a comfortable new bed – were noted with pride, marks of successful fulfillment of his bourgeois aspirations.

As in so much of his life, though, in order to see what really drove Barry we need to turn to books and print for the most striking expressions of his aesthetic sense. His “manuscript diary” for example, shows a playful experimentation with “fonts”. In both the diary entries themselves – where the handwriting often differs dramatically, even day-to-day – and in the headings we can see a clear sense of the artful play.

Composite of page headers from October 1855 – a good illustration of his endless experimentation with “fonts” in his “manuscript diary”.

Barry also illustrated the diary with numerous drawings and poetry. Not every page header was as ornate as the one that opens this post, but the sense of play continued in fonts and illustrations throughout the diary. And his printing, much like the diaries, also made use of several fonts and numerous decorative images ending chapters and other notable transitions. No doubt part of using multiple fonts owed much to economy – that he only had so much type – but even the constraint of economy compelled thinking on page design and the appearance of his books.

More evident in the first two decades of the diary, this variety marked a daily play of styles and representation of how best to find the right style to convey the proper tone in his work.

This sense of experiment and play is most evident in Barry’s illustrative presentation of self: his name and how he signs and prints his name in his books. Indeed, it is here that we best see the connection between design, text, and self in his textual world. Barry fashioned himself in print. The diary was the centre of his on-going project of self-fashioning. But it also found expression in his books and printing. The clearest example here is in how he printed his name, both by hand and in type. Here too we find a near endless series of different forms as Barry plays with fonts, swirls, embellishments, colours, shadings, and locations in developing new ways to write/type “James Barry” owned this book. Barry, his self centred in text, engaged in an on-going wrestling match over how to present the most elemental representation of his textual self: his name.

A composite of different Barry signatures/book plates from his library. Source: Public Archives of Nova Scotia.
Composite of signatures and book plates from James Barry’s library.

In one way or another, art, playful engagement, and some form of aesthetic design played a role in James Barry’s life. It’s worth thinking about his daily practice – what it meant to play the fiddle, to write poetry, to choose and set type, to take the time to craft a new style of heading in his journal. His was a crafts-person’s life. Each day, in picking the millstones, assessing the grind, maintaining the machinery of the mill, gauging the weather and the water, he exercised dimensions of a fine crafts-worker’s skillful hands and eyes. He extended that deeply in his intellectual-artistic work. But I think it’s best to see it all as a unified whole, a life lived in critical intellectual engagement, in music, in design – as much in beauty as in craft work. Barry had an artistic sensibility, of observing and creating beauty. That he struggled to express all this, that he looked to the wider world for inspiration, speaks to a man no doubt frustrated by his limits, but still inspired to create. His free-thinking ways – both his earlier Morisonian Presbyterianism and his later secular free-thinking – were those of a mind willing to explore new possibilities, new insights, new ideas, and new visions. His open-mindedness, his aesthetic playfulness, and his disciplined craft skills combined to shape an artist on Six Mile Brook.

The outlay of the diary changed over the years, but a consistent format included month/year headers. Pointing hands were used decoratively, or in the text to indicate major news – usually deaths. Dozens of small images of people – never labelled – adorned margins.

Is this a James Barry edition?

Henry More Smith. The Mysterious Stranger. Originally published in New Haven in 1817. Partly set in New Brunswick, the story was very popular in the Maritime colonies and there were at least 8 editions published.

James Barry was a miller, a fiddler, a diarist, an infidel, and a printer. When I began working on him, I was drawn to the miller. I’m now fascinated by the diarist and printer. While presenting at Congress in Vancouver this past June, I noted that Barry “sold Johnny McLeod a whole Back-load of Books” – three dozen of one title, four dozen of another. It presented the possibility that Barry was printing more than broadsheets and pamphlets; that he may have been printing entire books.

Eli McLaren, a historian of copyright at McGill, asked if I was suggesting that James Barry was illegally printing books. My answer then, as I suggested in an earlier post, was that I think so because of some contextual evidence, but don’t know for sure because I’ve never actually seen either a book that directly pointed to him, nor does he ever indicate anything specific in his diary or accounts. At that moment, co-panelist Gwen Davies, Emeritus Dean of Arts at UNB and one who knows more about Maritime books than anyone, piped up “I’ve seen one” and told me the story of an edition that she thinks Barry printed. And it’s in the Bell Library at Mt. Allison University. Last week, I went ot the Bell Library, and here’s what I found.

The book is Henry Bates, The Mysterious Stranger, or the Memoirs of the Noted Henry More Smith. First published in New Haven, Conneticut in 1817, the book tells the story of Henry More Smith, part grifter and part Harry Houdini, whose New England and New Brunswick exploits were widely read in the 19th century. At least nine 19th-century editions were published in the Maritime colonies: one in Halifax (Cunnabell, 1835), six in Saint John, New Brunswick (William Avery, 1840 and George Day, 1857, 1866, 1872, 1878 and 1895), one in Southampton , New Brunswick (George W. Miller, 1855) , and one in Charlottetown, PEI (Haszard, 1855). Later two 20th-century editions were published in Saint John (Bowes, 1910) and Windsor, Nova Scotia, in 1912 (no publisher indicated). It’s a fascinating tale and numerous other versions have been published into the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

What, then, of this mysterious edition? At first glance, it’s by George Day, though with the curious addition of “Originally printed by George W. Day”. None of the Day editions include that, and why would they? So who printed this edition? There’s no direct proof that it was Barry, but lots more to suggest it’s possible. First, and most obviously, there’s an annotation on the inside cover signed “G.H.C.” that says so – indeed, not only that this was printed by Barry, but also that this was his second edition.

Annotation by “G.H.C.” claiming the book was published by James Barry, Six Mile Brook, Pictou, County

So who’s “G.H.C.”. Gwen Davies doesn’t know. I’ve begun writing to collectors and Special Collections librarians around the region, but this might take some time. The annotation is striking for its confidence. No “maybes” or speculations: “was printed by James Barry”. He appears to have been local (an American or central Canadian would surely have included “Nova Scotia” in the description). 

There’s lots more that’s curious about this edition and most of these oddities open other possibilities. The title page notes that it was “originally published by George Day” of Saint John, New Brunswick, but the texts are not identical. This edition has a Preface. None of the Cunnabell or Day editions have one, and this Preface is not the same as the Haszard or Miller editions. The title pages, and the full titles are different. There are also some minor modifications in the final paragraphs. This edition also has three types of paper and two fonts (one on very thin paper with a dense font, the other more substantial but a less dense text).

“Henry More Smith” on the spine

What really marks this edition is the addition of material from Pictou County. The final seven pages are three letters from Pictou County residents recalling the time More spent there in 1816. None of the letters add significantly to the story, though in spirit they certainly confirm the pattern of the Houdini-like grifter. Of course, that consistency could mean that these 40-year-old memories are somewhere between imagined and apocryphal, but in any event they added local colour to this edition – a feature no doubt intended spark local sales.

Assuming for the moment, at a minimum, that it was printed in Pictou County, could someone else have printed the work? Possibly, though not this bound version. To my knowledge, there were only two other presses in the County, both for local newspapers, the Colonial Standard and the Eastern Chronicle. Neither appear to have published any books, though both did some pamphlets. An exception is William Harris (who purchased the press of the Colonial Standard around 1875) who published Teare’s Directory of Pictou and New Glasgow (210 pages) in 1879. While the Eastern Chronicle could have printed the work, they don’t appear to have had any binding capacity as McConnell purchased bound volumes of his own newspaper from Barry.

Barry’s diary entry noting the Mysterious Stranger also noted H.B. Skinner’s The Family Doctor, or Guide to Health (both Worldcat and archive.org have the 1844, 9th edition from Boston). Barry also gave away several copies of Eugene Becklard’s Physiological Mysteries and Revelations in Love Courtship and Marriage (the archive.org edition is New York, Holland and Glover, 1844; Worldcat lists several mid-century editions from Boston and Philadelphia). Were these Becklards also a Barry edition? Further research here and a more rigorous assessment of Barry’s remaining libray in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia may well turn up other possible Barry editions. If so, Barry represents a significant addendum to MacLaren’s work on 19th-century copyright in Canada. His Dominion and Agency details the concerted efforts of the Canadian government to regulate the irregular book trade, and copyright law, often at the insistence of British and later American publishers. Barry may well have been escaping the state’s observance. And if he was, it’s hard to imagine there weren’t other small rural printing presses doing the same.

It’s too soon to say this is an accurate picture. But if Barry was pirating copyrighted materials, then he presents a challenge to a national and trans-Atlantic literature on colonial book publishing. More interesting to me, though, is what this means for our understanding of the production and consumption of local knowledge. If he was publishing and selling these works, then the local networks of books, reading and ideas were much more complex than we’ve imagined – indeed, still more so than I’d argued in Vancouver. Textual modernity arrived in the countryside not as an outside force, but something more carefully and locally mediated than we’ve seen before. And James Barry, no friend of the state, may have been even more subversive than I’ve imagined.

Update: While in Halifax in September, the good (and knowledgeable!) folks at Schooner Books in Halifax identified G.H.C.


Eli MacLaren, Dominion and Agency: Copyright and the Structuring of the Canadian Book Trade, 1867–1918 (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2011).