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.

James Barry’s Transatlantic World of Books and Ideas

D. M. Bennett, Champions of the Church: Their Crimes and Persecutions (New York, 1878). Bennett was a radical tree thinker, and publisher of the Truth Seeker (1873-1883): “Opposed to: priestcraft, ecclesiasticism, dogmas, creeds, false theology, superstition, bigotry, ignorance, monopolies, aristocracies, privileged classes, tyranny, oppression, and everything that degrades or burdens mankind mentally or physically.” Exactly the kind of truth James Barry sought! Image source: archive.org

Co-published with Acadiensis blog.

James Barry (1822-1906) was a Six Mile Brook, Pictou County miller, printer, fiddler, iconoclast, and curmudgeon. Born, like so many Pictou County folk, into the Presbyterian church, over his life he became intensely critical of Christian theology. His route is visible in outline, but the details are less clear; his diary, detailed in so many ways, offers no “Eureka” moment. But there are clues. Most of those clues, I argue, stem from his immersion in text – that is, that he saw text as defining the world, and thus critical engagement was necessary to properly understanding it. Very early in life, Barry distanced himself from both free church and Church of Scotland Presbyterianisms. By the time he was in his 30s, he was describing himself as a Morisonian, a small sect of Scottish Presbyterians defined mostly by their rejection of any form of church government. In the 1840s, 50s, and 60s, his Morisonian thinking was certainly more radically individualistic and textually-focused than that of his Free Church neighbours. But this was not that far outside dissenting Presbyterianism; his critical engagements were within Presbyterian theological controversies. 

By the 1870s, however, that had changed dramatically. Where in 1857, for example, he celebrated and strictly observed Sunday as “the Lord’s Day, [as] a day of rest for man and beast”, by August 1879 he maintained that “Sunday is only a manmade day … All religion is of man’s manufacture”. Even his early focus on the universality of the Atonement – a significant feature of Morisonian theology – came under critique: “I am reading works on the Atonement”, he recorded in December 1853, citing particular biblical passages as textual proof of his position:

Barry’s daily diary spanned over 56 years, from 1849 to 1906. Source: MG1, vol 1219, Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

“I am firmly of the opinion Christ died and thereby made Atonement for every man – every human being. For the sin of Old Adam sunk the human race and the apostle says “that where sin abounds grace did much more abound’ [Romans 5, 20] and ‘that Christ tasted death for every man’ [Hebrews 2, 9] and ‘he is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world’ [John 2, 2]”

By the 1870s his reading patterns were quite different. And by 1883, after six or seven years of reading Charles Watts, Robert Ingersoll, and other free thinkers, Barry’s thinking had shifted ground significantly:

“I was in my Shop all day setting type for an article by Charles Watts entitled ’The Fall and Redemption’ and an able handling he gave it. In fact he knocked the fall and redemption into nonsense, which every sensible man and woman can easily see ….  ‘Fall’, ‘Redemption’, ‘Inspiration’, ‘Atonement’, in fact the whole jumble of incoherent nonsense in ‘Theology’ is absurd … and ordinary people are coming fast to see it, and reject it in toto.”

If not explaining to us in any detail how Watts “knocked” these ideas “into nonsense”, Barry was absolutely clear in highlighting his own shifting worldview. Equally clear is his textual evidence, citing first the bible then later Watts. Indeed, text also enabled what might normally be experiential evidence. The “ordinary people … coming fast to see it”, upon whom Barry rested his belief in progress, were ordinary people in New York and Chicago, not Six Mile Brook – the people of his textual world.

So, we can see that Barry had undergone a radical change in his thinking on theology, and that that came about through his engagement with new ideas in the books he was reading. It also coincides with a shift in local booksellers moving their primary suppliers from Edinburgh and London to Philadelphia and New York, a shift that no doubt was related to the dramatic rise of coal trade shipping to the eastern seaboard. Can we see that trans-Atlantic shift in Six Mile Brook? Can we see him transmitting those old and new ideas into Six Mile Brook, the West River, and beyond? The typically asocial Barry was not a prime candidate for promoter of the unfaith, or much of anything really. He had some regular reading friends, notably Dr Murdoch Munro, with whom he had a generally amiable friendship clearly centred on books and discussion. He admired educated men, and judged them accordingly. When his neighbour William Sutherland died in the summer of 1857, Barry commended his faith, but not his education. “I think he was a true Christian, although not a very learned one”. Barry’s Christianity was profoundly textual and like most evangelicals he explored this faith through “the Word” of the bible; unlike most evangelicals, however, that deep, critical immersion in text and reading eventually pushed him to free thought. For Barry, learned status competed with faith as a marker of worth, but with his faith rooted in textual criticism the door to abandoning faith was wide open. 

List of books lent, ca. 1877. Bennett’s Champions of the Truth is listed four times. Source: Barry Diaries, MG1, volume 1223, Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

The diary gives us a very clear picture of the mill as a community hub. Barry certainly could be less than charming but most everyone in the community went there either to grind their grain, saw their wood, or purchase shingles, staves, or fenceposts. These conversations are almost completely inaccessible to us, but we get glimmers in the diary. “Kenneth Irvine was here at the mill and we had a long chat about the Bible and some other things”, reads a fairly typical entry from November 1877. Religion, and increasingly over the years, anti-religion, was the most common topic. “Many about the mill today”, he reported, in July 1883, “talking about the Bible, they are superstitious”. Politics too was common, notably in the period between the Quebec Conference in 1864 and the death of Nova Scotia’s anti-Confederation movement around 1870. Here, some of the talk was based on local public meetings, but the vast majority stemmed from their readings of the newspapers.  The bases for his long discussion with his employee, Sandy Sutherland, in May of 1854 about “Nova Scotia railways and the war in Russia” [the Crimean War] no doubt also came from newspapers.

The focus of discussions, like the focus of his reading, was shifting. By the late 1870s, free thought and a fundamental critique of Christian theology also seem to have become common conversations around the mill. One evening his friend Munro came by and they discussed D. M. Bennett’s recent book: “Dr Munro was here this evening”, he noted in August 1877. “‘Champions of the Church’ was the book that occupied my attention most. It gives fearful accounts of Cruelty practised by one Christian on another. They are all tarred with the same stick it seems”. It’s hard to say how influential Barry was here – in other entries, Munro seems more intrigued than invested – but the miller was certainly bringing new ideas to everyday conversation in Six Mile Brook.

In all these discussions, Barry was always right. In town buying supplies in 1883, he “had some talk about Bible stories to various persons but [I] always came of conquerer [sic] by a long chalk. Most don’t know much, they are stupid and ignorant”. He wasn’t much of a proselyte, typically dismissing the ignorant and praising only those with whom he agreed. But he tried. “McDonald the miller came by this morning. I presented him with a Book of Tracts on free-thought. He is no bigot not a pious fool. He will learn”. There were numerous such discussions and it’s still clear that most involved an exchange of ideas and Barry loaning, selling, and sometimes even giving a suitable book. If he suffered no fools, and thus often spoke only to those already onside, Barry was nonetheless an active agent of intellectual exchange. In the market for ideas, he had a product and some willing customers.

We have a less clear sense of how many then purchased those ideas. The diaries and an account book give us only fragmentary clues on Barry’s reach, but if we take into consideration his place at the centre of the community (that is, as a miller, not as a social person!), his frequent trips to town where he almost always reported engaging with someone, and combine that with the fact that he was printing and binding dozens of the free-thought works (among much more), then he certainly had the potential to reach a lot of people. 

Part of the “backload” from 1884? The Mysterious Stranger was republished dozens of times over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This edition is the 1st US edition published in New Haven in 1817. I think, but can’t yet prove, Barry printed his own edition and this then would give us some sense of the volume of his work. Source: archive.org

Precise numbers are scarce. But a single entry in the diary from April of 1884 offers a hint. “I sold [Johnny McLeod] a whole Back-load of Books – Henry More Smith and the family doctor, 3 doz of the former and 4 doz of the latter”. We don’t know that he printed these, but he was printing books and here at least he’s selling dozens of copies. He printed a wide range of materials and neither of the titles noted here were free-thought works. But he was tight with his money and however much he loved printing (a point he made several times) he wouldn’t cast type, print and bind works purely for the pleasure. It suggests that the miller on Six Mile Brook, who spent much of his time in his “little shop”, as he termed it, was not only a miller but also a printer, a bookseller, and very much a critical node in this tiny corner of the transatlantic world of books and idea. A decidedly uncharismatic proselyte, he was nonetheless an able aggregator and disseminator of everything from domestic self-help guides to radical free-thought works. James Barry brought distinctly modern ideas and debates into the back-country world of the West River. Six Mile Brook was a tiny place far from the colonial metropolis, but it was it was very much a centre of the modern world.