Harry Watkins, Nineteenth Century Actor, Brought Back to Life

by Charles Watkinson on October 10, 2018

On October 10, 1850, Harry Watkins was relaxing from his busy life as an actor, playwright, and stage manager: “Fine day—Walking A.M & P.M. refused an offer to go to Boston—If I sacrifice many more engagements for the sake of remaining in N.Y. I shall find myself thrown out of all.—7 P.M. went to a book auction to purchase a book marked on the catalogue but was so tired out I fell asleep and woke just in time to hear it was gone—My interest in the auction being over I concluded it would be as well to finish my nap at home.”

Little did Harry know that over 160 years later, his life would form the subject of an exciting scholarly book published by University of Michigan Press, his diary would be published in a digital edition by the University of Michigan Library’s Digital Content and Collections department, and his daily doings tweeted from @WatkinsDiary by a dedicated team of faculty members and students based at CUNY, the City University of New York, led by two leading historians of the theater he loved, Amy E. Hughes and Naomi J. Stubbs, working with computer scientist, Scott D. Dexter.

The simultaneous publication of A Player and a Gentleman: The Diary of Harry Watkins, Nineteenth-Century U.S. American Actor and The Harry Watkins Diary: Digital Edition  marks one more step in a fascinating scholarly journey that Hughes and Stubbs have taken into the heart of the Antebellum United States. Between 1845-1860, Harry Watkins traveled the country recording the plays he saw, the roles he performed, the books he read, and his impressions of current events. Although of only moderate fame himself, Watkins collaborated with the preeminent performers and producers of the age, recording his successes and failures as well as his encounters with celebrities such as P. T. Barnum, Junius Brutus Booth, Edwin Forrest, Anna Cora Mowatt, and Lucy Stone. His is the only known diary of substantial length and scope written by a U.S. actor before the Civil War—making Watkins, essentially, the antebellum equivalent of Samuel Pepys.

While the book (acquired and nurtured by award-winning UMP theater editor LeAnn Fields) contains selected, edited, and annotated excerpts from the diary to open a window into how ordinary people like Watkins lived, loved, struggled, and triumphed during one of the most tumultuous periods in U.S. history, the searchable digital edition (preserved online thanks to the efforts of Kat Hagedorn, Lauren Havens, Jeremy Morse, and Chris Powell at U-M Library) provides the entire uncorrected text of Watkins’s diary, encoded in XML, prepared in accordance with guidelines established by the Text Encoding Initiative.

As Laura Mielke, University of Kansas, writes, “creating the print and digital editions of this remarkable diary has been a prodigious effort, and the payoff is ample. Watkins gives us a voice from behind the curtain, a day-to-day account of what it meant to grind out a living through talent and cunning in the mid-nineteenth-century theatre. The editors have created a volume of immediate interest to theatre historians that will also be engaging and accessible to general readers.”

Added Charles Watkinson, Director of University of Michigan Press, “this is the sort of ambitious multimodal project that collaborations between a press, a library, and a center of digital scholarship can create, share, and preserve if they harness their complementary expertise. We’re very proud to have collaborated with the Harry Watkins team and our talented colleagues in our parent library to have brought Harry Watkins’ fascinating life to the attention of a modern audience.”

You can learn more about the Harry Watkins project at: http://www.harrywatkinsdiary.org. The project was made possible through the generosity of the City University of New York (Collaborative Incentive Research Grant and PSC-CUNY Research Award programs), National Endowment for the Humanities, American Antiquarian Society, Harvard Theatre Collection (Houghton Library, Harvard University), Society for Theatre Research, Association for Documentary Editing, New England Regional Fellowship Consortium, Leonard and Claire Tow Faculty Travel Fund (Brooklyn College, CUNY), LaGuardia Community College (CUNY)’s Department of English, and the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation.

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