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Henry Watterson, 1840-1921
Marse Henry: An Autobiography. Volume II
New York: George H. Doran Company, c1919.


Henry Watterson was born in Washington, D.C., on February 16, 1840. His distinguished parents were Talitha (sometimes cited as Tabitha) Black Watterson and Harvey McGee Watterson—a lawyer, newspaper editor and U.S. congressman from Tennessee. Harvey Watterson succeeded James K. Polk in Congress after Polk was elected president in 1844, and much of his son's childhood was split between Tennessee and the nation's capital. Towards the end of 1858, Henry Watterson began writing for the Daily States newspaper in Washington, but in 1861, he returned to Tennessee and enlisted in the Confederate Army. Despite his professed misgivings about sectionalism and slavery, Watterson served alternately as both a soldier and a newspaper editor for the Confederacy: he rode briefly with famed Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and edited the Nashville Banner as well as other Confederate newspapers.

After the war, he wrote editorials calling for national reconciliation and Southern industrialization for Nashville's Republican Banner. In 1865 he married Rebecca Ewing, with whom he had five children. In the spring of 1868 Watterson and his family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he joined the staff of the Louisville Journal. After quadrupling the paper's circulation within his first six months on the job, Watterson convinced the owner of the rival Louisville Courier to agree to a merger that created the Louisville Courier-Journal, which remains Louisville's major daily newspapers, and one of the prominent newspapers in the Southeast. Watterson continued to be an outspoken editorial writer at this new paper, and his pen name, "Marse Henry," soon became nationally known. He was also active in politics. In 1876 he chaired the National Democratic Convention and was elected to serve out the remaining term of a deceased U.S. Congressman from Kentucky. Declining to run for re-election in 1877, Watterson returned to the newspaper business and his growing success on the lecture circuit. A pair of editorials that advocated America's entry into World War I earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1917, but he left the Courier-Journal in April 1919. He died in Jacksonville, Florida, on December 22, 1921, due to complications from a cold caught while he and his wife were vacationing.

During his life, Watterson wrote several books, including a History of the Spanish-American War (1898) and a collection of lectures titled The Compromises of Life (1906). His two-volume Marse Henry: An Autobiography was originally published serially in the Saturday Evening Post. The magazine paid him $20,000—at least a quarter of a million dollars in 2005 money—for the work, which also appeared in book form in December 1919. Although it claims to be an autobiography, the narrative of Marse Henry does not present the kind of chronological summary of his life that might be expected of the genre. Instead, the memoir collects observations and anecdotes about the powerful and influential people that Watterson meets, befriends, and sometimes angers during a lifetime of journalism and politics. Perhaps because of the serial nature of Marse Henry's publication, these anecdotes often seem disconnected from one another, creating the sense that the memoir lacks an organized narrative structure. Nevertheless, Watterson discusses a tremendous variety of notable figures, including presidents (Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt), celebrities (showman P.T. Barnum and humorist Artemus Ward), and literary figures (Henry Adams and Mark Twain). His autobiography is thus a first-person, insider's view of many important people and events in American politics and culture from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries.

DocSouth has also published a summary of the first volume of Marse Henry, in which Watterson writes about America's political climate before the Civil War, his own contradictory beliefs about the Civil War, and his advocacy for sectional reconciliation during Reconstruction.

Marse Henry Volume II moves its narrative focus away from the Civil War and towards the early decades of the twentieth century. Structurally, however, the second volume continues in the same vein as the first: Watterson continues to provide a non-chronological series of anecdotes about his encounters with famous political and cultural figures interspersed with explanations of his political views.

Although Watterson is a Democrat, much of his political discussion in Volume II concerns his well-publicized differences of opinion with Democratic Presidents Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson. While Watterson is, at one time, a personal friend of Cleveland, the two eventually come to disagree about the issue of high tariffs placed on foreign imports. While Watterson sees these tariffs as a necessary protection for the American economy, Cleveland opposes them. Watterson documents the decline of his friendship with Cleveland by reprinting an example of a heated exchange from their 1892 letters, and he scornfully charges that "Through Mr. Cleveland the party of [Thomas] Jefferson, [and Andrew] Jackson . . . was converted from [being] Democrat into [being] Populist" (p. 145). Still, Watterson is even more critical of Wilson, whose idea for a League of Nations devoted to international peacekeeping strikes Watterson as overly idealistic and impractical. In "a world of sin, disease and death," Watterson writes, "Men will fight whenever they want to fight, and no artificial scheme or process is likely to restrain them" (p. 274).

Large sections of Volume II focus on Watterson's experiences traveling and living abroad, particularly in Western Europe, but he never precisely dates his travels. He does make clear, however, that he sees admirable parallels between America and France, for "beneath the gayety," the French possess "a fine spirit of self-sacrifice along with the sometimes too aggressive spirit of freedom" (p. 69-70). Publishing Marse Henry just after the close of World War I, Watterson worries about the devastation that war has wrought in Paris and declares that he will never visit the city again because he does "not want to see it in its time of sorrow and garb of mourning" (p. 55).

Although Watterson's memoir reveals a life-long interest in a wide range of subjects including politics, music and literary fiction, it is journalism that remains his chosen field and his primary source of identity. Watterson credits his position as a journalist with making possible both his travels and his encounters with "the professional and dilettante of the world polite and the underworld" (p. 214). As the structure and content of Marse Henry make clear, Watterson understands describing the lives and personalities of these people—many of whom are major figures within their own fields—to be an integral part of describing his own.

Works Consulted: "Watterson, Henry, (1840-1921)" in Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-Present, online database, (United States Congress, publication date unknown), (accessed December 21, 2006); Gale, Robert, "Watterson, Henry," in American National Biography, ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, 809-811 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Harry Thomas

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