The Other “Dial” biography of William B. Greene

One of the standard biographical references on William B. Greene is George Willis Cooke’s Historical and Biographical Introduction to the Rowfant Club reprint of The Dial (Cleveland, 1902). The entry on Greene is surprisingly lengthy, given his single contribution to The Dial, but Cooke explains that “his life was of such interest, and so fully illustrates some of the tendencies of the time, that it may be told with some detail.” The details in Cooke’s account are pretty good. He shows evidence of having examined carefully a number of Greene’s writings. He mentions details of Greene’s Civil War activities after his resignation in 1862 which are not in other biographies, but which have been subsequently at least partially verified. There are a few questionable claims, and at least one text, “a large pamphlet on ‘Consciousness as Revealing the Existence of God, Man, and Nature,'” which may or not actually have existed. But he is obviously right about enough things that others do not seem to have known, that it would be hard to pass over any other potential new facts from him without careful consideration at least.

That is the consideration which makes it so difficult to know what to do with an earlier version of the Dial biography, which appeared in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy in July 1885. Here is the section on Greene:

William Batchelder Greene was born in Boston in 1829, the son of an editor. He graduated at West Point, and did good service during the Seminole War. Leaving the army, he seems to have entered a Baptist theological school, but, becoming more liberal in his theology, entered the Cambridge school, though always claiming to be a Baptist. He was settled for several years over the Unitarian Church in West Brookfield, Mass. He was a zealous believer in social reform. At Brookfield he opened a cooperative store, and he made the pulpit a means of propagating his social theories. Finally abandoning the pulpit he removed to the vicinity of Boston, and there devoted himself to literary work. He had always been a zealous student of theology and metaphysics, mainly through the French language, with which he was very familiar; gave some attention to Oriental literature, translated Job, and published various essays on metaphysical subjects. Being in Paris when the Civil War broke out, he hastened home and was made a colonel of the Fourteenth Massachusetts Volunteers. He was stationed during the greater part of the war in the forts about Washington, and under Butler at Bermuda Hundreds. He was zealous, eccentric, arbitrary, and mystical, and very entertaining in conversation. In his latter years he became a communist in theory, and a labor-reformer of an extreme type. He was in 1873 an officer of the Boston Labor Reform League, a member of the Boston section of the Internationalists, and the associate of Benjamin R. Tucker and E. H. Heywood. He published a book on national banking, and in 1875 appeared his “Socialistic, Communistic, and Financial Fragments,” consisting of his contributions to “The Word” and other radical journals. His earlier publications were an essay called “The Doctrine of Life,” a theory which he claimed to have discovered, and essays on Edward’s theory of the will, transcendentalism, consciousness as revealing the existence of God, and various cognate topics. In 1871 he published an essay on the “Facts of Consciousness and the Philosophy of Herbert Spencer,” and in 1874 an essay in reply to Dr. Clarke’s “Sex in Education.” He also wrote on mathematical and Masonic subjects. He died at Weston-Super-Mare, England, May 30, 1878. Greene was well known to most of the transcendentalists, though his extreme views were not acceptable to many of them. In November, 1841, Margaret Fuller wrote to Emerson: “How did you like the military-spiritual-heroic-vivacious phoenix of the day?” This was in reference to Greene’s essay in “The Dial” discoursing first principles.

I’ve highlighted in red a couple of real errors. There are also a number of statements that seem to contradict other accounts. Did the Greenes “remove to the vicinity of Boston” before they left the US for Paris? Did this “remove” amount to more than the establishment of the Jamaica Plain home where they lived after the war, and where they may have stayed on their visits home from Europe? There’s a great deal as yet unknown about the Greene’s travels and living arrangements during this period. For mutualists, however, the most interesting detail is in the sentence highlighted in green:

At Brookfield he opened a cooperative store. . .

If true, this is one of the few indications we have that Greene actually practiced the mutualism that he apparently quite literally preached. I’ve already got some follow-up queries out to the appropriate historical societies. We’ll see if any further evidence turns up.

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