Astrea Triumphant

September 1, 2021
Aphra Behn, by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1670

What do you do when you’re a 17th-Century Englishwoman whose parents and husband are dead and you have no resources other than your own courage and wit? Well, first you become a royal spy. And when that doesn’t pan out, you take up your pen and write some of the hottest plays on the London stage, throwing in some racy, ahead-of their-time novels and poetry.

And so Aphra Behn (c. 1640-1689) – playwright, novelist, poet, spy – survived as one of the first Englishwomen to make her living by writing. Distributed Proofreaders volunteers have contributed to Project Gutenberg a six-volume collection of her works, edited by literary scholar Montague Summers and published in 1915.

Behn’s early life is obscure – possibly because she herself obscured it – but she may have been born in Kent, the daughter of a barber and a wet-nurse. The couple is believed to have brought her to the South American colony of Surinam in 1663. Behn’s best-known novel, Oroonoko (in Volume V of the collected works), a tale of an enslaved African prince, was allegedly based on her experiences there, and is considered by some to be the first anti-slavery novel, preceding Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin by almost two centuries.

In 1664, Behn returned to England and may have married a German or Dutch merchant named Johann Behn. The relationship apparently ended quickly, but she referred to herself as “Mrs. Behn” for the rest of her life. Somehow she managed to acquire enough social and political influence to bring her to the attention of Charles II’s spymasters. England was at war with the Dutch, and Charles wanted to identify English exiles in the Netherlands who were plotting against him. Under the code-name Astrea, which she later used as a pen-name, Behn embarked on a mission to befriend a potential double-agent in Antwerp. But the mission failed and Charles never paid her. She managed to get back to England on borrowed funds.

Once again thrown upon her own resources, Behn took a job with an acting company as a scribe. The re-opening of the theatres under Charles II (after the Puritans’ fun-free Interregnum ended) and the consequent demand for new entertainments gave Behn the opportunity to write her own plays. Her first, The Forc’d Marriage (in Volume III), was staged in London in 1670. She did not shy away from the lustiness of the time. Her plays are peppered with erotic innuendos that her audiences found highly entertaining, despite Alexander Pope sourly tut-tutting in his Satires and Epistles of Horace Imitated, “The stage how loosely does Astraea tread,/ Who fairly puts all characters to bed!”

Behn wrote 19 plays in all, as well as several novels. Her success (and her private life) led to frequent criticism of her as an immoral woman, but that didn’t stop her from writing and certainly didn’t hurt the popularity of her work. She got into more serious trouble when she unwisely dabbled in politics – she criticized the King’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, in a prologue and epilogue to the play Romulus and Hersilia (see Volume VI) and was briefly arrested in 1682.

She also wrote a fair amount of poetry (Volume VI), often with topical references, disguised allusions to real people, and erotic subjects. One poem, “The Disappointment,” frankly explores themes of attempted rape and male impotence. She even celebrated lesbian love in “To the fair Clarinda, who made Love to me, imagin’d more than Woman.”

After her death in 1689, Behn’s work was all but forgotten, except by prudish scholars who were apt to denigrate her as “shameless” and “coarse.” More respectful interest in her was revived in the early 20th Century, beginning with Summers’s collection of her works, and continuing with tributes to her in the 1920s from Vita Sackville-West in Aphra Behn: the Incomparable Astrea and Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. Appreciation for her increased with the dawn of the Women’s Movement in the 1970s. Behn is now regarded as a pioneer for women’s literary independence, or, as Woolf put it, “the right to speak their minds.”

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.


Celebrating 42,000 Titles

August 3, 2021

Distributed Proofreaders celebrates the 42,000th title it has posted to Project Gutenberg: Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse. Congratulations and thanks to all the Distributed Proofreaders volunteers who worked on it!

Fellows who know all about that sort of thing – detectives, and so on – will tell you that the most difficult thing in the world is to get rid of the body. I remember, as a kid, having to learn by heart a poem about a bird by the name of Eugene Aram, who had the deuce of a job in this respect. All I can recall of the actual poetry is the bit that goes:

“Tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tumty-tum,
I slew him, tum-tum tum!”

But I recollect that the poor blighter spent much of his valuable time dumping the corpse into ponds and burying it, and what not, only to have it pop out at him again.

From “Jeeves Takes Charge,” in Carry On, Jeeves.
cover

There are few things better calculated to put a smile on your face than a dip into the sunlit world of P.G. Wodehouse. And that’s particularly true of his famed stories of that brilliant “gentleman’s personal gentleman,” Jeeves, and his master, the upper-class twit Bertie Wooster. As the above quotation shows, Bertie narrates the stories in a marvelous potpourri of the King’s English, Jazz-Age slang, and half-remembered literary quotations – the hallmark of Wodehouse’s unique wit.

Thanks to the expiration of the 95-year copyrights that the U.S. Congress had accorded works published from 1923 through 1977, much of Wodehouse’s best work is coming into the public domain. Our 42,000th title, Carry On, Jeeves, a 1925 collection of 10 short stories, is among his many classics.

The first story, “Jeeves Takes Charge,” was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1916. It recounts the first meeting between Jeeves and Bertie, whose previous valet he’d had to fire for “sneaking my silk socks, a thing no bloke of spirit could stick at any price.” Bertie is grappling with a hangover from the previous night’s revels and at the same time trying to read a tome called Types of Ethical Theory. Bertie’s usual fare is detective stories, but his fiancée – “a girl with a wonderful profile, but steeped to the gills in serious purpose” – has essentially ordered him to read this rather daunting volume. Jeeves arrives from the employment agency and gives him a hangover remedy that at first makes him feel “as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch.” But it works instantly, and Bertie hires him on the spot.

Thus began a fictional partnership that lasted another half a century, during which Jeeves masterfully extricated Bertie from numerous outlandish scrapes – including engagements, both deliberate and accidental, with utterly mismatched women. The last Jeeves/Wooster novel was Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (The Cat-Nappers in the U.S.), published in 1974.

Wodehouse was amazingly prolific, writing over 90 novels, 40 plays, and 200 stories in the course of his long life. Project Gutenberg has more than 40 of his works, including four in the Jeeves/Wooster canon. Wodehouse’s other series, such as those featuring Lord Emsworth, Mr. Mulliner, Psmith, and Ukridge, are also much beloved. His works remain highly popular today, and his devoted fans have gathered in numerous Wodehouse Societies around the world. There are even websites like Madame Eulalie’s Rare Plums that provide scholarly resources, such as annotations explaining literary and cultural references in Wodehouse’s work. (See, for example, the annotations to Carry On, Jeeves.)

In tough times like these, the world needs more Wodehouse. Distributed Proofreaders is proud to celebrate its 42,000th title with one of his comic masterpieces. Let Bertie and Jeeves have the last word:

“… Do you know, Jeeves, you’re – well, you absolutely stand alone!”

“I endeavour to give satisfaction, sir,” said Jeeves.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer and a member of The Wodehouse Society.


50 Years at Project Gutenberg

July 4, 2021

On July 4, 1971, Michael S. Hart, who had been given access to a mainframe computer at the University of Illinois, typed the United States Declaration of Independence into the machine and sent it off to about 100 users via ARPANET – the infant Internet. And so the first e-book was born, along with Hart’s vision of making literature “as free as the air we breathe”: Project Gutenberg. Half a century later, PG offers readers over 65,000 free e-books in the U.S. public domain, available in a wide variety of formats and languages.

In the first couple of decades, Michael typed in most of the books himself in his spare time. The 10th e-book, released in 1989, was the King James Bible. By 1994, there were 100 books at PG – the 100th e-book was The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Just three years later came the 1000th e-book, Dante’s Divina Commedia in Italian. By this time, Michael had the help of a cadre of dedicated volunteers – the key to PG’s success to this day.

By 2000, PG’s online library had become large enough and popular enough to warrant a more formal organization to ensure its smooth operation. So the non-profit Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation (PGLAF) was founded. In the same year, one of PG’s volunteers, Charles Franks, founded Distributed Proofreaders (DP) to produce a larger number of high-quality e-books by means of an early use of crowdsourcing. The DP system divided the workload into individual pages, so that many volunteers could work on a book at the same time, thereby speeding up the creation process – essentially “preserving history one page at a time.” By 2001, DP had become the most productive single source of PG e-books – in fact, earlier this year, DP celebrated its 41,000th title posted to PG, and in 2019 it had the honor of producing PG’s 60,000th e-book, The Living Animals of the World. PG also has a sizable contingent of devoted independent e-book producers who provide the rest. “Because of Project Gutenberg, a massive store of literature, poetry, history and philosophy in many languages is available for free download on the Internet and forms a significant entertainment and educational resource,” said DP General Manager Linda Hamilton. “We at Distributed Proofreaders are proud to partner with Project Gutenberg on this important mission. Happy 50th Birthday!”

PG loves to improve its collection. A dedicated errata team fixes typos, replaces straight quotes with curly quotes, updates HTML, and so forth. PG has gone well beyond the plain-text formats of the early years, and nearly every title is offered in text, HTML, epub, and mobi (Kindle) formats.

With the rise in PG’s popularity and the influx of new volunteers, it became important to regularize its minimum formatting guidelines to ensure that the e-books were truly accessible to everyone. Beyond that, PG gives its e-book producers wide latitude in producing an e-book. Unlike outlets like Google Books and the Internet Archive, PG doesn’t produce scanned facsimiles of printed books: PG books are true e-books with fully searchable and resizable text that has been carefully checked for scanning errors. PG e-books provide an enriching reading experience by ensuring accuracy and attractive presentation (including, in many cases, illustrations and audio files), and providing a variety of formats for reading on a wide array of devices. While automation technology helps tremendously with this task, at bottom it takes human beings to do all that.

The crux of PG’s mission is freedom to read. To that end, it provides its e-books free of charge; it grants a broad license for free redistribution; and, as noted, it makes its e-books accessible in many formats. But even more importantly, PG imposes no restrictions on content. It subscribes to the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Statement, which holds that “free communication is essential to the preservation of a free society and a creative culture.”

Sadly, Michael Hart passed away in 2011 at the age of 64, but his legacy is as vigorously alive as ever. PG has become a worldwide phenomenon. There are sister sites in Australia and Canada. Projekt Gutenberg-DE is dedicated to German literature, and Project Runeberg to Nordic literature.

The marvel of Project Gutenberg is that it has accomplished all this without charging for its books. While PGLAF does take donations to help with expenses, the e-books are and always will be completely free of charge, created by the tens of thousands of volunteers in the last half-century whose only compensation – as it was for Michael Hart – is the sheer joy of literature. Congratulations and thanks to all of them for giving the world 50 years of free e-books.

This post was contributed by Dr. Gregory Newby, Director and CEO of the Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, and Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer. You can read more about PG’s history and philosophy in Dr. Newby’s article, “Forty-Five Years Of Digitizing Ebooks.”


Čħāṛᾀςŧέř ♭ῧįłďĭñġ (Character Building)

June 1, 2021

Editor’s Note: This post contains some uncommon Unicode characters, some of which may not display properly on older systems.

In May 2020 the Distributed Proofreaders (DP) site moved over to using the Unicode UTF-8 character base. “This is a very major change,” said General Manager Linda Hamilton. “This move has been a long-term objective for many years.” (For more information on this huge improvement, see the DP Wiki article Site conversion to Unicode.) Now, instead of being limited to about 200 assorted letters, numbers, and squiggles, DP has over a million to choose from.

We started modestly, providing a very few extra characters, such as the “œ” ligature often found in older books in words like Œdipus or cœlacanth. Soon though, DP site developers were picking up the pace, providing more and more additional character suites that Project Managers can assign to their projects. We rolled out three character suites for different European languages – with letters like ĝ, Đ, or ł; Basic Greek and Polytonic Greek character suites; and one for characters found in medieval books such as Ƿ or ȳ. In addition, Project Managers can now add individual Unicode characters to a project where they’re needed. These characters, which can include less familiar specimens such as ŧ ꝓ ᴚ ♅ ◘, show up in a “Custom” character suite on the proofreading screen.

All Greek to us

How does this really benefit our work in DP? Mainly, the Unicode-based encoding allows us to support languages that use characters outside the “Latin-1” character suite, which was what we had available before then.

Let’s take one important example: Ancient Greek. Why important? Because many of the books we work on, from the 19th century or before, do contain Greek words or whole passages in Greek. The writers of the time took it for granted that readers of the more scholarly type of book would have learnt Greek (along with Latin) as part of their education.

We reported here a few months ago about how DP handled Grote’s History of Greece, a monumental work with thousands of footnotes containing Greek text. Much of the work there fell to the Post-Processor, the person who prepares a project for final publication after it has all been proofread. With Unicode, the proofreaders can have a share of the fun!

Formerly, the proofreaders didn’t have the use of Greek characters. To represent the text during proofreading, a roundabout process was necessary in which proofreaders produced a transliterated version of the Greek written in our familiar Roman alphabet, like [Greek: mêde nein mêde grammata], to be transformed back into the original Greek – μηδὲ νεῖν μηδὲ γράμματα – by the Post-Processor. But now, the proofreaders can produce a correct text, drawing on a complete set of Greek characters. This is how the relevant part of the proofreading screen looks for a project that includes a Greek character set:

Asking proofreaders to work with Greek letters is also more practicable now that Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software has become better at reading Greek. Take a look at what OCR made of a page of Greek in 2005:

Looks like the book was written in Klingon doesn’t it? Now compare this, from 2020:

Still far from perfect, but good enough that proofreaders don’t have to retype the whole thing from scratch. Using the expanded character set, they can now correct the Greek text coming from OCR, just as they correct text in their own language.

The Mercury goes up

It’s the same with other types of characters. If proofreaders meet an unfamiliar letter in a medieval book, instead of typing [yogh] (for example), they can now input the actual letter ȝ. And we continue to add more character sets to meet the needs of our varied projects. Among recent ones is a set of characters used in Romanized forms of languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, and Sanskrit, so we can reproduce accurate transliterations of names such as ʿAlaʾuddīn or Mahābhārata or Viṣṇu (which previously had to be proofed as Vi[s.][n.]u). There’s also a “symbols collection,” including astronomical, zodiac, apothecary, and music symbols. With this collection, if we’re proofreading an astrological book, instead of [Mercury] we can now simply add ☿. Recipe for a bygone apothecary’s potion? Not [**ounce], but ℥. And so on.

So with Unicode, proofreaders know that someone else won’t need to come along and change all the awkward symbols later. Now they can do the whole job and produce a precise digital version of the original page, no matter what characters are on it!

This post was contributed by Neil M., a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.


Distributed Proofreaders Site Maintenance – 2 June 2021

May 26, 2021

The Distributed Proofreaders site is scheduled to be completely unavailable starting at noon server time on Wednesday 2 June as we updated our Operating System and database. We hope to have completed the update by end of day. During this time the main site, forum and wiki will be unavailable.

Please consider using this maintenance window to do Smooth Reads that you have taken out prior to the downtime.

Please save all of your work before we start the maintenance at 12 noon server time. Proofreading pages offline while the server is down and saving them when it comes back up will not work.

If the upgrade and related checks are completed early, the site will return sooner.

Thank you for your patience. As you wait for Distributed Proofreaders to become available again, please feel free to browse through the excellent articles in this Blog.

We’ll keep this blog post updated with progress during the outage. You can also find us on Facebook.

Update 12:00pm EDT: Maintenance has started.

Update 1:00pm EDT: Maintenance proceeding as planned.

Update 2:00pm EDT: Maintenance proceeding as planned.

Update 3:20pm EDT: Maintenance continuing. The core Operating System upgrade is complete and we’re working to validate middleware and bring services online.

Update 5:20pm EDT: The Distributed Proofreaders Site is back up and operational. Thank you for your patience.


Buffalo Bill

May 1, 2021

Thanks to movie director Quentin Tarantino, most folks are familiar with the term “pulp fiction,” but the more common “dime novel” was used to describe everything from the pulp magazines starting around 1860 to the “penny dreadfuls” popular in the United Kingdom, featuring such characters as Sweeney Todd and Varney the Vampire. In the United States, fictional characters like Nick Carter were popular, but the stories about real-life American Wild West heroes like Buffalo Bill Cody really drove the genre.

Buffalo Bill was born in Iowa Territory, fought in the Civil War for the Union, was a U.S. Army scout during the Indian Wars, received the Congressional Medal of Honor and later became an entertainer, featured in his own Buffalo Bill Wild West show that toured the U.S. and Europe, giving command performances for Queen Victoria and the Pope. Even today, as a lasting tribute to his legacy, there’s an American football team named after him.

Mark Twain wrote a novel, A Horse’s Tale, about Buffalo Bill’s horse Soldier Boy, and E.E. Cummings penned a poem called “Buffalo Bill ‘s” (yes, there’s a space before the ‘s), but it was the countless dime novels written about Buffalo Bill that made a lasting impression, especially those by Colonel Prentiss Ingraham, almost as colorful a character as Buffalo Bill himself. Published in the early 20th Century by Street and Smith, renowned for their strategic re-use of material, the Buffalo Bill Border Stories have been making their appearance on Project Gutenberg thanks to the volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders. (See the list below for links to the e-books.)

Each novel features an adventure, or a series of related adventures, where our intrepid hero Bill manages to outwit the bad guys and save the helpless. In the books, Bill lives by a strict code, a set of rules of what is good and what is bad, of what must be done and what must never be done. As was common in those times, certain groups of people are portrayed as stereotypes, especially people of color and Native Americans, as well as people from other countries. For us today, such stereotypes are offensive, but they do serve to show how far we have come in terms of accepting the rich diversity of America.

In the novels, Bill is the ultimate hero, and he is usually accompanied by one of more “pards,” or sidekicks, who help him on his adventures. There is the Baron, a Prussian whose speech is difficult to decipher because it tries to mimic an exaggerated German accent. There’s also Nomad, an older Scout who nevertheless defers to the younger Bill for direction. And there’s Little Cayuse, the Paiute youngster who has yet to learn proper English. Bill, as the hero of course, always speaks in perfect English, never in any vernacular. Whether some, all or none of Bill’s adventures really happened will only be known to the Colonel, but the stories are “durned” fine to read.

In addition to the Buffalo Bill series, Project Manager David Edwards (De2164), also has other dime novel series and pulp magazines on their way to Project Gutenberg, including the many Nick Carter adventures as well as Frank Merriwell, the Frank Reade Library and the American Indian Weekly magazine. David has been sharing his own collection in order to preserve them before time takes its toll. Each project has to be scanned by hand and run through OCR software before it even makes it to Distributed Proofreaders, and recently David acquired thirty more titles that we can look forward to.

As the post-processor – a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer who stitches a final e-book together after other volunteers have proofread and formatted it – I love working on these projects. I did my first Buffalo Bill last year while still an apprentice post-processor, and to date, I’ve sent ten so far to Project Gutenberg. Each project presents its own challenges, especially when there are advertising pages, which the publishers made frequent use of, since their business depended on quantity rather than quality. I hope that, along with David and the countless unsung heroes who are our volunteers at DP, including the wonderful Smooth Readers who faithfully read each project to catch stray errors, we will continue to provide the dime novels, a unique slice of literature, for many years to come.

This post was contributed by Susan L. Carr (Skeeter451), a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.


Buffalo Bill Border Stories

Buffalo Bill, the Border King (No. 1)

Buffalo Bill’s Spy Trailer (No. 41)

Buffalo Bill’s Still Hunt (No. 44)

Buffalo Bill’s Weird Warning (No. 66)

Buffalo Bill’s Girl Pard (No. 77)

Buffalo Bill’s Ruse (No. 82)

Buffalo Bill’s Pursuit (No. 83)

Buffalo Bill’s Bold Play (No. 101)

Buffalo Bill, Peacemaker (No. 102)

Buffalo Bill’s Big Surprise (No. 103)

Buffalo Bill’s Boy Bugler (No. 128)

Buffalo Bill Entrapped (No. 137)

Buffalo Bill’s Best Bet (No. 171)

Buffalo Bill among the Sioux (No. 176)


Arabian Nights

April 1, 2021

“It hath reached me, O King of the Age, that there dwelt in a city of the cities of China a man which was a tailor, withal a pauper, and he had one son, Alaeddin hight. Now this boy had been from his babyhood a ne’er-do-well, a scapegrace; and, when he reached his tenth year, his father inclined to teach him his own trade; and, for that he was over indigent to expend money upon his learning other work or craft or apprenticeship, he took the lad into his shop that he might be taught tailoring. But, as Alaeddin was a scapegrace and a ne’er-do-well and wont to play at all times with the gutter boys of the quarter, he would not sit in the shop for a single day; nay, he would await his father’s leaving it for some purpose, such as to meet a creditor, when he would run off at once and fare forth to the gardens with the other scapegraces and low companions, his fellows.”

Thus begins the story of “Alaeddin; or, the Wonderful Lamp,” one of the nightly tales told by Shahrázád to her husband King Shahryar in The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, as translated by famed British explorer/orientalist Richard Francis Burton. Published in a 17-volume set, A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments, Now Entituled The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night was, until the 21st Century, the first and only unabridged and unexpurgated translation of this ancient set of Middle Eastern tales. This massive, heavily footnoted series of entertaining but very adult tales was considered scandalous when originally published in the 1880s.

Distributed Proofreaders volunteers processed the complete 17-volume set, managed by Rich Hulse (Bookbuff) and post-processed by Rick Tonsing (okrick), and is now available in its entirety at Project Gutenberg. While this edition is not appropriate for young audiences, it gives valuable insight into the cultural, moral, and religious practices in the regions of Persian influence (from the Red Sea to Western India) at the end of the first millennium.

The first written evidence of the tales appeared in 947 A.D., though many were probably based on stories passed on verbally from decades or centuries earlier. Additional stories were added during the next few centuries.

The stories are all predicated upon the framing story of King Shahryar and Shahrázád (also known as Scheherazade). After discovering that during his absences his wife has been regularly unfaithful, the King kills her and those with whom she has betrayed him. Thereafter, distrusting all womankind, he marries and kills a new wife each day until Shahrázád, the daughter of his vizier (chief advisor), intervenes to stop the slaughter. She agrees to marry the King, but each evening tells a story, leaving it incomplete to finish it the next night if the King allows her to live. The King finds the stories so entertaining that he puts off her execution from day to day until he finally abandons it completely.

Since these stories were designed to entertain the King, many tend to be adult-oriented bedroom stories. Many of the well-known modern stories, like that of Aladdin, have the more prurient elements removed or are stories that were added much later. Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821‒1890), an Oriental language expert fluent in 25 languages covering 40 dialects, faithfully translated as many of the authentic stories as he could find. English society censored his work and refused to allow it to be published because of its risqué content. Sir Richard got around this censorship by using a private publisher for subscription purchase only. He published the stories in a 10-volume set, followed by a seven-volume supplemental set, between 1885 and 1888.

This post was contributed by Distributed Proofreaders volunteer Rich Hulse (Bookbuff), who was the Project Manager for all 17 volumes of A plain and literal translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments, now entituled The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night.


Distributed Proofreaders Site Maintenance – 9 March 2021

March 5, 2021

The Distributed Proofreaders site is scheduled to be completely unavailable starting at noon server time on Tuesday 9 March 2021 for a few hours as we roll out an update to our forum software in production. During this time, the main site and forums will be down, but the wiki will remain available.

If the upgrade is completed early, the site will return earlier.

Thank you for your patience. As you wait for Distributed Proofreaders to become available again, please feel free to browse through the excellent articles in this Blog.

We’ll keep this blog post updated with progress during the outage. You can also find us on Facebook.

Update 12:15pm EST: Maintenance has started.

Update 12:30pm EST: Maintenance proceeding as planned.

Update 1:30pm EST: Maintenance continuing as planned.

Update 2:30pm EST: Maintenance continuing as planned.

Update 3:45pm EST: Site is back up and operational. Thank you for your patience!


Celebrating 41,000 Titles

March 5, 2021

Distributed Proofreaders celebrates the 41,000th title it has posted to Project Gutenberg: The Story of My Childhood by Clara Barton. Congratulations and thanks to all the Distributed Proofreaders volunteers who worked on it!

How appropriate that, in a month in which we celebrate International Women’s Day, Distributed Proofreaders’ 41,000th title should be the childhood autobiography of the amazing Clara Barton!

clara_bartonClarissa Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas Day, 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts, the youngest of five children. From her brother, David, Clara learned at an early age to ride the semi-wild horses in nearby pastures. She wrote that “in later years, when I found myself suddenly on a strange horse in a trooper’s saddle, flying for life or liberty in front of pursuit, I blessed the baby lessons of the wild gallops among the beautiful colts.”

Her older sisters and brothers taught her reading and mathematics at such an early age so that “no toy equalled my little slate.” And her father, who had served as a non-commissioned officer in the French and Indian Wars, instructed her on military and political affairs, including military etiquette. She wrote, “When later, I, like all the rest of our country people, was suddenly thrust into the mysteries of war, and had to find and take my place and part in it, I found myself far less a stranger to the conditions than most women, or even ordinary men for that matter….”

From that beginning, Clara Barton proceeded to several remarkable achievements. Throughout her long life she held many roles: teacher, patent office clerk, Civil War nurse, American and international relief organizer, founder of the Office of Missing Soldiers to find, identify and bury soldiers killed during that war, founder and then long-term president of the US branch of the Red Cross, and founder of the National First Aid Society. She was also involved with the suffragette movement and was a civil rights activist.

By age 17, Clara had passed her school examinations and began teaching in the Oxford, Massachusetts, schools. She later established a school for her brother’s mill workers’ children and, after attending the Clinton Liberal Institute, established the first free public school in Bordentown, New Jersey. Replaced by a male principal at the school she had founded, Clara then moved to Washington, DC. There she became the first woman to work in a federal government clerkship at a man’s salary, when she accepted the role of recording clerk at the U. S. Patent Office. After complaints about women occupying well-paid government positions, her salary was cut and then her job eliminated, but, a few years later, under the Lincoln administration, her position was reinstated.

With the start of the American Civil War, Clara Barton’s life took a new path. When the 6th Massachusetts Infantry was attacked by mobs of southern-sympathizing Baltimoreans and quartered in the U.S. Capitol, Barton personally furnished supplies for their needs. A few months later, she tended to the wounded soldiers returning from the Battle of Bull Run. By 1862, she was passing through battle lines to transport supplies. Thus started her career as the “Angel of the Battlefield.”

Throughout the war, Barton worked tirelessly (even through a bout of typhoid) tending wounded and ill soldiers and arranging medical supply shipments. While treating the wounded at the Battle of Antietam, she was nearly killed by a bullet that passed through the sleeve of her dress and killed the wounded man she was attending.

After the war, at the request of President Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton directed a four-year search for the large numbers of missing soldiers. Under her guidance, nearly 13,000 Union graves from the Andersonville Prison were located and marked. At the dedication of Andersonville National Cemetery, Clara raised the flag. When the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men was closed in 1869, 63,182 letters had been received and answered and 22,000 missing men had been identified.

Many people identify Clara Barton with the work she did during and immediately following the Civil War. However, that was just the start of her career. She gave lectures across the United States, often sharing platforms with Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, and Mark Twain. She also met and befriended Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony thus beginning her association with the suffrage movement. During the Franco-German War, Barton organized relief efforts for war victims.

While in Europe, Clara Barton became associated with the International Red Cross and realized that there was a need for such an organization in the US. By 1877, she began gathering support for organization and, on May 21, 1881, Barton founded the American Red Cross. She served as its first president and continued as president for more than 20 years. In that role, she directed operations for the Johnstown Flood, which became the most celebrated relief effort in American Red Cross’s early history. She coordinated civilian relief during the Spanish-American War, established orphanages, supported military hospitals, and provided supplies for Colonel Theodore Roosevelt’s wounded Rough Riders. As Red Cross President she also directed the relief effort for the Galveston hurricane in 1900 that left 6,000 dead.

Clara Barton made a true difference to the world around her. A tireless, caring person, a consummate organizer, a visionary – she is a true role model to today’s women and men.

This post was contributed by Rick Tonsing, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.


Heroines of the Old-Time Stage

March 1, 2021
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth,
by John Singer Sargent

From ancient Greek and Roman times all the way up to Shakespeare’s day, women weren’t permitted to act on the legitimate stage. Female roles were usually played by boys. (The plot of the film Shakespeare in Love turns on this practice.) The development of opera in the 17th Century began to open up possibilities for female performers, but they didn’t become fully accepted in England until after Charles II retook the throne in 1660. Charles enjoyed theater and saw no reason to bar women from the stage. Indeed, his longtime mistress, Nell Gwyn, was a star of Restoration comedy.

Female performers reached new heights of celebrity in the 19th Century. With travel becoming safer, faster, and more comfortable, great actresses could command adoring audiences all around the world. On Sarah Bernhardt‘s first American tour in 1880, she performed Adrienne Lecouvreur in French to a New York audience willing to pay up to $40 a ticket – over $1,000 in today’s money. The spectators were so enraptured, even though many didn’t understand French, that she was compelled to make 27 curtain calls.

The volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders have contributed to Project Gutenberg a number of fascinating accounts of the great actresses of those bygone years. For example, Heroines of the Modern Stage, published in 1915, gives thumbnail sketches of the careers of Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, Eleanora Duse, and other legendary female performers of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Bernhardt and Duse also feature in Jules Huret’s 1901 slice of theatrical life, Loges et Coulisses (in French), which includes contemporary interviews with both of them as well as with Gabrielle Réjane.

Memoirs and recollections of these stars abound. English actress Ellen Terry was best known for her spectacular success in the Shakespeare productions of her professional and romantic partner, the great actor-manager Henry Irving. Her memoir, The Story of My Life: Recollections and Reflections, published in 1908 when she was in her sixties, recounts her long career on the stage from the age of nine. Terry came from a theatrical family; her parents, both of them actors, had 11 children, of whom five became actors (Kate Terry was John Gielgud’s grandmother). Ellen Terry and Her Sisters, by theatrical historian T. Edgar Pemberton, gives an account of the siblings’ careers.

Sarah Bernhardt was the daughter of a courtesan whose clientele included some of Paris’s richest and most influential men. Though Jewish by birth, she was educated in an exclusive Catholic convent. In her 1907 memoir, My Double Life, she recalls that she wanted to become a nun, but, after a “family council,” she was prevailed upon to study acting at the Paris Conservatoire. She was initially not a success. But her career skyrocketed after she appeared as the female lead in Alexandre Dumas’s play Kean in 1868. She continued acting well into the 20th Century, even after having a leg amputated in 1915 due to an earlier stage injury, and she even appeared in several silent films. Distributed Proofreaders volunteers contributed several works relating to Bernhardt to Project Gutenberg, such as her 1921 novel The Idol of Paris, as well as reminiscences by people who knew her (Sarah Bernhardt as I Knew Her, by Mme. Pierre Berton, Sarah Bernhardt, by Jules Huret, and a chapter of The Puppet Show of Memory, by Maurice Baring).

Fanny Kemble was another well-known English actress of the 19th Century. Born, like Ellen Terry, into a noted theatrical family, Kemble rose to stardom immediately after her 1829 debut, at the age of 20, as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Her tour of the United States with her father in 1832 is recounted in her Journal of a Residence in America. In 1834, she retired from the stage to marry Pierce Butler, a wealthy American who inherited vast plantations – and hundreds of slaves – in Georgia. Kemble lived on one of the plantations in the winter of 1838-1839, and she was appalled at the treatment of the slaves. She kept a meticulous journal of the horrors she witnessed, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. But it remained unpublished until 1863, years after she had left her husband, when friends urged her to publish it in an effort to stop England from recognizing the Confederacy during the American Civil War. After retiring from the stage, she also published two memoirs, Records of a Girlhood and Records of Later Life.

The stories of these great ladies of the stage are just a small part of the theatrical gems glittering in Project Gutenberg’s collection – and admission is free.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer, in celebration of Women’s History Month.


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