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Signature of James L. Dusenbery and several photographs artistically combined.

About the Dusenbery Journal

Erika Lindemann

1. Description of the Manuscript

The manuscript of James Lawrence Dusenbery's journal is housed in the James Lawrence Dusenberry Papers (#2751-z) of the Southern Historical Collection (SHC), Wilson Library, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. It was purchased by William S. Powell of Chapel Hill from Jay H. Small [1] of Indianapolis, IN, and donated to the SHC in October 1988. Nine gatherings make up the journal. Seven of the nine gatherings originally contained 12 leaves; the sixth gathering, 10 leaves; and the seventh gathering, 14 leaves. Each gathering consists of faintly lined sheets of pink, cream, yellow, and light blue paper measuring 37 cm by 23 cm and folded in half. The gatherings are bound into a notebook covered with marbled paper with leather tips and spine. On the basis of physical evidence, it is not possible to determine whether the gatherings were bound before or after James wrote on the pages. The notebook measures 19 cm by 23 ½ cm and is inscribed on the front flyleaf "James Lawrence Dusenberry/Lexington/N. Carolina/Liber Carminum et Fragmentorum." [2] A number of leaves have been torn or cleanly cut from the journal. These excisions as well as blank pages appearing in the bound journal are identified by means of footnotes in the edited text.
Records of My Senior Year. Page 78 of the James
                            Lawrence Dusenbery Journal."Records of My Senior Year." Page 78 of the James Lawrence Dusenbery Journal.

Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

A second hand has numbered in pencil the pages, including endpapers and blank pages, from 1 to 198. The first 77 pages contain 27 poems copied from other sources as well as 6 excerpts from Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake. Page 78 begins Dusenbery's "Records/Of My Senior Year at the University of NCa," which he describes as "a weekly record of all the leading events of my life during our Senior year in College, together with our thoughts & reflections at the time." Forty-four entries survive. Physical evidence suggests that three additional entries were subsequently removed from the bound journal. The first entry is dated July 13, 1841; the last, June 7, 1842. The pages numbered 157 to 167 give a brief chronology of Dusenbery's training as a medical student and reproduce seven letters and notes to him from "Mary S.," whom Dusenbery evidently intended to marry until the engagement was broken off.
For James, the journal was a convenient form for recording "all the leading events of my life during our Senior year in College, together with our thoughts & reflections at the time" (journal introduction). [3] He kept the journal to gain practice in composition and penmanship and to provide documentary evidence for later review. He hoped that some day the journal would allow him to reflect "on the profitable manner in which he spent the time 'When life itself was new, And the heart promised, what the fancy drew'" (journal introduction). With characteristic honesty, however, James realized that parts of his journal might not gratify him on later re-reading. Even so, he hoped that "when his eye shall rest upon the page, that speaks to him of his disgrace, tears of sorrow & repentance will course each other down his cheeks & he will resolve with all his might, to free himself from those vices & habits, which degraded his youth" (journal introduction).

2. Dusenbery's Journal as a Form of Self-Expression

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James's journal illustrates the power of writing to define the self. Because his journal was informal and private, it gave James space for addressing topics he cared about. It allowed him to express opinions others might not share, to preserve names and events that shaped his college experience as he saw it, and to anthologize poems and songs he would not have studied in any college class. Because he wasn't writing for his professors, parents, or fellow students, the journal expresses his interests in his own voice. Though that voice is frank and engaging, it is probably not true to the historical James as his family, teachers, and friends might have known him. James constructed a persona as he wrote the entries, a character that cannot be generalized to any group of white, male college students of the 1840s. Even so, the journal yields significant information about how nineteen-year-old James Dusenbery saw himself and the world in which he lived.
James was disciplined about writing at least a page every week—44 entries in all. Only three weeks in 1842 are unaccounted for: the weeks of January 15, January 22, and February 19. Manuscript evidence suggests that these entries were written but subsequently were removed from the bound volume. Customarily James wrote his weekly entries on Saturday or Sunday, when he would retire from church after answering the roll and return to his room in Old West. For the most part, he recorded events. That is, he reported what happened to him and his friends, noted letters that he wrote or received, mentioned books that he had finished reading, and described his travels to and from Chapel Hill to Lexington, generally limiting his remarks to who his traveling companions where and where they stayed. [4] Most entries are straightforward, with little meandering, commentary, or moralizing. He recounted rather than reflected on events.
Oct. 31st 1841. Page 121 of the James
                            Lawrence Dusenbery Journal."Oct. 31st 1841." Page 121 of the James Lawrence Dusenbery Journal.

Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Even so, the journal form gave James space for elaborating actual events into narratives. He was a good story-teller. Some of his livelier true-to-life accounts include descriptions of a 'possum hunt, a Baptist revival, and a fight between students armed with sticks and pistols. They are good stories not only because they include dialogue, plot, and attention to setting, but also because James's sense of humor becomes part of the tale. On the 'possum hunt, for example, he twice failed to watch where he was going in the excitement of the chase:
While tracking the first opossum, in jumping a branch, my mother's son, after lighting on the opposite bank, fell over a superfluous dog that was in the crowd & was precipitated into a mud-hole, to the great injury & detriment of his 'inexpressibles.' Also while loping along with his eyes fixed upon the stars, he fell over Bowman, who was barking with his head underground, at a 'possum, & had well-nigh killed both himself & the dog. (October 3, 1841)
In mocking imitation of the preacher's language, James recounts what happened at the revival:
In the course of the service [brother Purify] prayed that the Lord would be with them in their protracted-out meeting & says he, "kind bruthring & friends, let us all sing that song about Jordan's stormy banks & will some kind bruthrin or friend give us the pitch. After the sermon we sat for some time on the bench of anxiety, expecting that some kind bruthren or friend would ask us to dine with him. (August 22, 1841)
In his account of two students engaged in a fight, James expresses some sympathy for the underdog but nevertheless makes it clear that one of combatants, a student named Bunch, "was almost universally despised & the few friends that he did possess, deserted him, to a man, in his time of need." Consequently, he "was well nigh beaten to a mummy" (September 5, 1841). "Bunch was a rascal & deserved his beating," James concludes, "but it really was a shame to compel him to fight at so great a disadvantage."
The journal form also allowed James to incorporate other genres into what is essentially a work of prose. The best examples are two "chronicles," which follow the entries of August 14 and September 5, 1841, respectively. One tells the story of "Gooly," who intended to visit a harlot but was chased back to his dormitory by the tutors who monitored students' compliance with the 8:00 p.m. curfew. The other introduces readers to the "daughters of Edward," who entreat Reuben, Rufus, and Gabriel to visit them. Told in King James English, these mock-heroic episodes transform the (by then) customary trips to brothels into events of biblical proportions. James's journal also includes a formal resolution thanking Eliza Holt for sending his friends and him a cake. Signed by the "Gallants General," the resolution elevates what might have been a simple thank-you note to a formal chivalric pronouncement of significant gratitude. Two poems also are copied into the journal following the entry for October 24, 1841. The authorship of one poem is known; the other, a bawdy ballad, may be James's own composition. While most of the entries, then, are straightforward expository prose, the journal form permits James to incorporate other genres and stylistic conventions that demonstrate his playful attitude toward the events he is reporting.
"The Fall of
                            Tecumseh." Page 40 of the James
                            Lawrence Dusenbery Journal."The Fall of Tecumseh." Page 40 of the James Lawrence Dusenbery Journal.

Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

As someone who appreciated poetry, James clearly favored romantic lyrics of love and war. He copied into the front half of the journal 27 poems and popular song lyrics and descriptions of the major characters in Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake. Like most students of the period, James especially enjoyed works by Byron, Scott, Thomas Moore, and Felicia Hemans. The loyal "gallant" who pledges to uphold the honor of women, family, and country, is a frequent character in these poems. "Lochinvar", "The Minstrel Boy", and "The Knight of the Golden Crest" are three examples of such figures. The women in these poems also are honorable, remaining faithful to their lovers and their country, as "Sally Roy" and Ellen Douglas of Scott's Lady of the Lake do. The chivalric code, these poems suggest, requires death before dishonor, especially when the odds are hopeless. In such poems as "The Fall of D'Assas", "The Fall of Tecumseh", and "The Suliote Mother", the protagonists choose death over capture by the enemy. The deaths described in "Casabianca" ("The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck"), and "Marshal Schwerin's Grave" are ennobling because the heroes dutifully remained at their posts and died fighting for their beliefs.
Like the loyal, valiant figures in these poems, James thought of himself as the courteous young gentleman living by a similar code of honor. He styled himself as one of the "Gallants General." He resolved not to indulge in "profane swearing," "not only for the sufficient reason that it is sinful, but because it is useless, immoral & ungentlemanly" (August 7, 1841). On an Easter visit to the Holts, he did not simply write, "I escorted Eliza Holt home from church." Instead, he portrayed himself as "the gallant cavalier who rode by Miss—Eliza's palfrey" (March 28, 1842). Similarly, when the gallant James struck out during a terrible storm to spend the night with Mary (of Chapel Hill), he transformed the account into a quest for the favors of his willing Dulcinea: "My journey thither on Friday night was an undertaking worthy of the famous knight of La Mancha" (March 6, 1842). In September 1841 he learned from his cousin Augusta Rounsaville, in school in Greensboro, that schoolmates had accused his sister Laura and her friend Elvira of cheating. Allegedly, Laura and Elvira were claiming as their own work a dialogue that people suspected James of writing for them. He defended them chivalrously against the charge of plagiarism:
I assured [Augusta] in reply that the girls were foully slandered & enjoined her to assure those fair & injured damosels, that the good & gallant knight, Sir James, would shortly appear & do his devoir in their behalf. And also that the said knight did empower her, as his herald at arms, to make this proclamation=="That if any one shall say any thing in disparagement of those high & courtly ladies; he doth pronounce him false & recreant & doth defy him—and that, if the craven shall dare to meet his defiance & do battle in support of his unknightly accusation; he will meet him in the lists, in sight of all the chivalry & fair ladies of the land, hurl the false-hood in his teeth & engage with him in deadly combat; till one or both shall fall. And may God preserve the right. (September 12, 1841)
Deliberate exaggeration helped James strike a playful tone in this passage, but his metaphors also served to portray him as the gallant knight and gentleman, a persona consistent with images of manhood derived from his reading. Never mind that the charge of plagiarism was probably valid. [5]
Consistent with his image of himself as the gallant, James characterized his dormitory mates on the third floor of Old West as a "jovial roistering company." Like a band of knights or merry men, these classmates were not so much engaged in military conquest as they were in pursuing women, "ardent spirits," and good times. James made no apologies for the troubles they got into: "our determination is to enjoy to the utmost the halcyon days of youth. Amity & good feeling exists among us & the glorious motto we have unfurled, declares 'That whilst we're here, with friends so dear, We'll drive dull care away'" (August 29, 1841). These merry men went to singing and dancing schools together, which offered them opportunities to meet women as well as learn the courtesies and graces expected of young men of their social class. They also danced and tussled with one another, pillow fights and card games substituting for jousting tournaments. Images of knighthood and gallantry pervade the journal and demonstrate that the qualities of character James most admired were a sense of honor, duty, fair play, and loyalty toward family and friends.
Close-up of an invitation to the 1844 Commencement Ball.Close-up of an invitation to the 1844 Commencement Ball.

North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

At the same time, James evidently did not recognize the inconsistencies in his behavior. He struggled with his sexual passions. Even though he understood full well that a woman's honor was worth protecting, this obligation did not extend to "fallen" women such as Mary, Em, and the Herring girls. Presumably, they had no honor. Furthermore, in lying about having written a composition for Laura and Elvira, he sacrificed truth in defending their honor—and his own. Though he respected his elders—the faculty, his parents, and other adults—he was not above stealing a few ears of corn out of Professor Elisha Mitchell's garden for a pleasant meal with his friends. When Professor of Greek Manuel Fetter called on James unexpectedly because he had been talking and laughing in class, he became flustered and embarrassed, not so much because he blew the lesson, but because he lost face in front of his classmates. Though James claimed to have been prepared, he resented Professor Fetter's changing the order of recitation to James's disadvantage.
On balance, James was not a serious thinker or moralizer, at least not in the pages of his journal. He rarely mentioned his parents, except to note that they had sent him money, cake, or clothing. He was not significantly involved in their domestic world, though he dutifully went back and forth to the weavers for his mother during the Christmas vacation (December 4, 1841) and collected a debt owed to his father, "the first money I have ever collected for him" (May 22, 1842). James also did not reflect on philosophical or religious matters, as some student diarists of this period did. He attended church when he went home but was casual about Sunday services back in Chapel Hill. Reared a Presbyterian, James was familiar enough with Scripture and hymns to quote and parody them, and he resolved to read from Psalms to the end of the Old Testament by the end of the fall semester (August 7, 1841). But he did not question in the pages of his journal the state of his soul or the wages of sin. "How much wiser it would be," he wrote, "to take warning by the past & begin a reformation from [th]e present time, instead of wasting it in fruitless repinings at the immorality of my life? But I cannot do this. My passions have grown too strong for me & will not down at my bidding & they must, to some small degree, be indulged" (September 12, 1841). Writing on January 8, 1842, he expressed regret at "the unprofitable manner in which I spent the year that has just closed." Still, he resisted the impulse to begin the new year with resolutions: "Had I any faith in making good resolutions, I would here resolve & re-resolve to make more rapid improvements in knowledge, morality, & every virtue, but I have so often failed to comply with former resolves that I fear to make any more." Other students of the period reveal in their writings a serious investment in political issues and a concern with setting appropriate professional goals. Not James. He evidently had decided early on that he would become a physician, as indicated by his choice of a senior speech on the "Present condition of the practice of medicine in N Carolina." He had no more to say about his choice of a career. All in all, James thought more about today than yesterday or tomorrow. He enjoyed the present, which included his family and the life a privileged upbringing afforded. Most important to him, though, were his friends, playing cards, hunting and fishing, drinking and dancing, making mischief, and keeping company with women who would never make suitable wives.
Dusenbery's Mortar
                                and Pestle.Dusenbery's Mortar and Pestle.

Photograph by Erika Lindemann. Published by permission of Dorothy and William B. Hankins, Jr.

When James engaged in reflection at all, it was in an attempt to understand women. He regretted his carelessness in allowing a buckhorn and a hydrangea, gifts from his Lexington friends Sarah Mabry [6] and Elvira Holt, to become crushed on the journey to Chapel Hill: "I had bound myself by all the laws of chivalry to cherish the plants as emblems of the growing affection that was existing between us respectively" (July 17, 1841). Having named the plants for the young women who gave them to him, the incident served as a sign that neither Sarah nor Elvira were "likely ever to be mine for weal or woe." Only one unnamed hydrangea survived the trip, which he pledged to guard "as the representative of my fair incognita," the as-yet-unnamed woman who eventually, he hoped, would win his heart. "I have never yet seen a woman who resembles my ideal model of female perfection, or one, who could cause the chords near my heart to vibrate at her approach. Until I find one who can enchain my roving desires & fix them on herself alone, my surviving hydrange[a] shall remain without a name."
James also was seriously attracted to Mary, who remains unidentified. He had met her in the summer of 1841. Calling her "my loving, languid, black-eyed Mary," James wasn't altogether sure that Mary was the woman for him. His attitude toward her was cold and hot by turns. After Mary sent James a lock of her hair and informed him that the family might move to Illinois and she might never see him again, James responded, "The author of this letter is a very pretty little country girl, whom I met with in my rambles last vacation & though I do not really love her, yet there's none I would rather be kissing than Mary" (July 31, 1841). Though he found her "a sweet girl," he claimed that he "quelled the tumultuous passions that were raging in my breast" because he "believed Mary to be as virtuous & chaste as most girls are," a backhanded compliment if ever there were one. "I shall not answer her letter, that she may think herself neglected & banish all thoughts of me from her memory" (July 31, 1841). Six weeks later he wrote to his friend Griffin, whose identity remains unknown but who acted as a go-between between Mary and James: "I requested him to tell [Mary] that I loved her now, more than ever, but that the fear of discovery prevented me from writing to her—that I would write to him (Griffin) & that he would tell her all about me" (September 12, 1841). In late October, despite Mary's insistence that James write to her, he was firm: "that I shall never do" (October 24, 1841). Caught between his own sexual desires and the expectations for his conduct toward young women of his age and social standing—expectations framed in part by the literature he admired—James feared for Mary's honor when next they met. He not only avoided responsibility for controlling his own passions, but he also questioned her virtue:
. . . I shall probably see her next vacation. If so I tremble for her virtue, if indeed she has any—of which there are many doubts. My passions are unused to restraint & she is so warm—so passionate & withal so yielding in her disposition that I see no way of escape, without committing the unpardonable sin against love & gallantry. (October 24, 1841)
"It is not in my nature," he concluded, "to thwart the intentions of melting maids" (October 24, 1841).
Despite his feelings for Mary, James continued to socialize with other eligible women during his Christmas vacation and the spring semester. His visits to Chapel Hill brothels continued throughout the school year as well. Except for noting that he did not see Mary on a brief trip to Mocksville, NC, in December 1841, James never again referred to her in his journal.
Copy of Correspondence with Miss Mary S. Page 161 of the James
                            Lawrence Dusenbery Journal."Copy of Correspondence with Miss Mary S." Page 161 of the James Lawrence Dusenbery Journal.

Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The story may not have ended there, however. James eventually became engaged to a Mary S., probably in 1847, after he had finished medical school and had begun a medical practice in Statesville, where Mary also was living. The Mary of James's 1841 summer romance may not be the same Mary as James's later fiancée, but it is tempting to suppose that they are the same woman. The bound volume containing James's journal concludes with five notes and two letters from Mary S., which James copied into the volume, possibly before returning the originals to her, as she requested. Some notes entreat James to meet her; others inform him that she is being chaperoned and consequently cannot see him. Note "No. 4" implies that James's father disapproved of the match: "from what Miss Bettie told me, I think that he is opposed to it—if he is we must never meet again and I shall leave this country never more to return." Note "No. 5" points to a different problem in their relationship, a perceived offense for which Mary admitted responsibility: "I heard yesterday evening that you were very much offended with . . . is it so or not? I cannot believe it until I hear it from your own lips. I know that, I did wrong, but Dear James will you not forgive me!"
By the time Mary S. wrote James from Tuscaloosa, AL, in January 1848, the engagement was broken: "Dr we never can be married & if you wish the engagement to be broken off now you must send me back my ring & notes back as soon as you get my note. I see no use of being engaged any longer when we never can be married" (January 20, 1848). Even so, Mary continued to love him. When she returned James's notes to him in April 1848, she asked to be allowed to keep his ring and gave him permission to keep hers: "Look at it often and think of Mary." She also asked him to send her his likeness, which she promised to wear "next to my heart forever." Requesting that he leave Statesville before she returned from Tuscaloosa, she admitted, "it grieved me much to discard you, but I was compelled to do it. . . ." "Dr much as I love you yet I can never look at you again, for I have treated you too badly, but I sincerely beg your pardon for it—I fully intended to marry you when I engaged myself to you. . . ." Though we would like to know precisely what transpired between them, all we can say for certain is that James left Statesville, returning to Lexington no later than 1852, and remained a bachelor the rest of his life.


^1. Jay H. Small (1917–2000) was an antiques collector and dealer in Indianapolis, IN. Interested in Indiana history, Small donated a large postcard collection to the Indiana Historical Society. It is likely that Small obtained Dusenbery’s journal from James E. Hankins (1887–1941), Dusenbery’s grandnephew, or one of his heirs. Though born in Lexington, NC, Hankins had moved to Indianapolis by 1910, where he married Floy Estelle Leonard (1889–1988), became a bank teller, and raised two children, James and Alice.

^2. "Liber Carminum et Fragmentorum": a book of verses and fragments.

^3. The difference between a journal and a diary is a matter of scholarly debate that focuses on the content and purpose for the writing. Dusenbery's "record" of his senior year provides an informal weekly account of the events of his life. It contains less reflection than other similar writings by students of the period (William Mullins), but offers greater detail than the skimpy entries of other students (George Thompson). Dusenbery wrote it for himself, not for publication.

^4. Click here to see a map of the roads leading from Salisbury to Raleigh (North Carolina Maps). To travel from Lexington to Chapel Hill, Dusenbery took the northern route through Greensboro. The map also includes the location of Brummell's Inn, which Dusenbery mentions in his entry for June 7, 1842.

^5. Dusenbery wrote on August 22, 1841, that he had received a letter from his sister Laura that "contained only a little foolishness respecting the girls & the composition I wrote for L. . . . & E. . . . . . ."

^6. Sarah Mabry may be the daughter of Elizabeth (1801–1872) and John P. Mabry (1800–1879), a Lexington, NC, tavern-keeper who represented Davidson County in the NC General Assembly in 1856.

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