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John Fiske Correspondence

An inventory of his correspondence at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: KM
Date: Mar 1989

Biographical History

John Fiske (1842-1901) was an American historian and lecturer.

John Fiske was born March 30, 1842 to Edmund Brewster and Mary Fisk (Bound) Green in Hartford, Connecticut. He graduated from Harvard University with his B.A. in 1863. He married Abby Morgan Brooks on September 6, 1864. Fiske passed the bar examination in July 1864 despite having never attended law school. In 1869, Fiske was invited to lecture at Harvard University on philosophy and history. This led to his appointment as assistant librarian in 1872, a position he held at Harvard for 7 years. Fiske spent the rest of his career lecturing on philosophical principles and focusing on historical writing. He died July 4, 1901.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The John Fiske Correspondence is a collection of 32 items, chiefly outgoing, which were written between 1874 and 1900 by the American historian and lecturer. While the letters are mostly of a business nature, in which Fiske makes arrangements for various of his lecture engagements, they are filled with insights and observations which add a very personal dimension to what would otherwise be rather straightforward exchanges. After becoming aware that he had been booked without his knowledge for a lecture before the Nineteenth Century Club, Fiske expresses what had become a growing dissatisfaction with his agent, Major J.B. Pond, in a letter to W.W. Palmer (26 Jan 1886):

Now I am breaking off my connection with Pond. Not only has his management of my lectures been bungling and disastrous from the start, but I have lately discovered him to be untrustworthy. I have in my possession a very treacherous letter from him to a friend of mine, which the friend kindly forwarded to me to put me on my guard. The letter shows that Pond is unworthy of confidence, and I am accordingly severing my connection with him. I have told him to cancel every engagement he has made for me. All this, of course, is making no end of trouble; and until I have completed my settlement with Pond I hardly know what to say about making engagements for myself...
I do not want to disappoint you. While I would rather wait till another season and prepare something expressly for the occasion, nevertheless if you still think it sufficient for me to read portions of my "Destiny of Man" or "Idea of God" to serve as a basis for discussion, I am willing to do so. My feeling is mainly this - that I do not wish to take a hundred dollars without giving an equivalent. I will abide by your judgment.

And in a subsequent letter to Palmer (18 Feb 1886), Fiske voices some concern about the advance publicity for the lecture:

The designation of Mr. Depew as "Christian" strikes me as odd, as implying a certain contrast. Am I not a Christian? I have always thought that I was. You need not change anything, however. I can make this very point a text or starting-point for my remarks.

Later that same year, already having decided to sever his relationship with Pond and begin making his own lecture arrangements, Fiske writes to the agent in an attempt to settle his account after discovering that Pond owes him money (24 Nov 1886):

I call your attention to this, because it seems to me best to get last winter's accounts finally settled before starting out upon any new arrangement. I have not made my arrangements for New York yet; I shall be ready to lecture there in Lent, but before I can answer your question, I should like to have this old matter settled. One thing at a time.

The collection illuminates the adventures as well as the demands of a 19th century American lecture tour. Although Fiske was by birth and education an elitist, this popularizer of American history was seemingly not immune to the romanticism of railway travel (17 Feb 1881):

I was quite touched with your expressions of interest in me and my work the other day when we met on the train, and hope that we may have occasion to renew and keep up the acquaintance thus picturesquely begun. No apologies are required for "champagne," - I like a good deep draught of it myself once in awhile. It is a great promoter of cheerfulness, & leaves but a few bitter memories.
The next time I travel up or down the Hudson River, I will try to take my revenge by looking in upon you & illustrating how well beer and philosophy agree with one another.

Fiske attempted whenever possible to neutralize the strain of a hectic lecture schedule with congenial company and scenic beauty (18 Jan 1900):

I have come to Bangor several times for a very low price, viz. $50 and expenses, which is much less than my regular charge for places so near as Worcester or Lowell. I have done so because of three motives: In view of item 3, Dr. Field suggested that I should come either first or last in the course, i.e., either early in November or in May, while the boats are running daily.

A respected and erudite educator, Fiske was often approached for advice about everything from children's books (Nichols) to the source of a certain quotation (Savage). To Miss Leavitt, Fiske offers this insight into American archaeology (26 Feb 1890):

The Mound-builders (at least the people who built some of the more important mounds) were probably Indians who had gone a little way in the direction in which the Aztecs went farther; i.e., in the direction of improved agriculture, irrigation, somewhat increased density of population, with somewhat increased governmental control, and the development of a priestly class. There was probably such a stage of culture, higher than e.g. the Mohawk stage and lower than the Aztec stage, represented in the Mississippi valley. And it may have receded before some fresh wave of the lower barbarism, as e.g. of Algonquians, Dakotas, etc. That there was a peculiar race of Mound-builders, that there was an empire of them, that they were in any true sense civilized, - these are now regarded as ill-supported and improbable assumptions.

In other letters (Miller, William Smith), Fiske responds to the receipt of some books, and in a letter to Colonel William L. Stone, the historian expresses an interest in consulting some volumes about the early history of New York City to help him in his own work, The Dutch and Quaker Colonies.


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Subject Headings


Field, George W. (George Washington), 1826-1889.
Fiske, John, 1842-1901.
Metcalf, Lorettus Sutton, 1837-1920.
Norton, Charles Eliot, 1827-1908.
Pond, James B. (James Burton), 1838-1903.
Ropes, John Codman, 1836-1899.
Russell, Elias Harlow, 1836-1917.
Savage, Minot Judson, 1841-1918.
Sedgwick, W. T. (William Thompson), 1855-1921.
Sewall, John Smith, 1830-1911.
Smith, William, F.S.A.S.
Stone, William L. (William Leete), 1835-1908.


Historians -- United States.
Lecturers -- United States.
Lectures and lecturing -- United States.

Genres and Forms




Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

John Fiske Correspondence
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Table of Contents


Index to correspondence


Index to correspondence