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Front of handwritten letter, with address
Anne Royall to W. C. Little, October 5, 1829, Anne Newport Royall Correspondence, Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Royall appears to have thriftily reused a sheet she originally intended for a letter to “Mr. Disturnal.” This was probably John Disturnell (1801-1877), a bookseller, publisher, and guidebook author who lived in Troy, New York, in the 1820s.

Anne Royall: “Queen of All Hags,” or “Virago in Enchanted Armour”

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“The queen of all hags.” This brief, bitter comment appears on the back of an 1829 letter to Albany, New York, bookseller W. C. Little, and was most likely written by him about its sender, author Anne Royall. What exactly did Royall do to Little to deserve a comment like this? Who was she?

Anne Newport Royall (1769-1854) was an author and newspaper editor. As an impoverished widow in her fifties, she earned her living traveling through the United States, writing books about her travels and selling them as she went. During her travels she accumulated a complicated reputation. As an independent, self-supporting woman traveling alone in the 1820s and 1830s, she operated far outside that era’s expected norms and attracted curiosity and scorn for doing so. Some of the resentment she attracted, however, was deserved. Her acidic portraits of people and places, while enjoyed by readers at the time and historians ever since, were not appreciated by her targets. She also employed a kind of blackmail in her dealings with booksellers: when they refused to take her books, or didn’t, in her opinion, work hard enough to sell them, she threatened to slander them in her next volume.

This is what she proposed in her letter to Little. Writing from Philadelphia, she told him that she was sending him the first two volumes of The Black Book; or, A Continuation of Travels in the United States (1828-1829), and that volume three was forthcoming. “[Pe]r chance you may find yourself in it for not letting me know the result of your success,” she warned.

Anne Royall to W. C. Little, October 5, 1829.
Anne Royall to W. C. Little, October 5, 1829, Anne Newport Royall Correspondence, Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Little must have sold enough, however, since in volume three of The Black Book, where Royall describes her visit to Albany, she doesn’t mention him. Nonetheless, she found plenty there to complain about. She found the stage line she took to Albany (a sleigh, since it was winter) notable for its “badness” and complained to the owner, “but I would have received as much satisfaction from a hog.” And, when a “Rev. Mr. Ferris” “refused to take my book after subscribing for it,” she threatened to “make him an example.”

John Quincy Adams, who was as close to a friend as Royall had, revealed what he thought about her in his diary: “She continues to make herself noxious to many persons; tolerated by some, and feared by others; by her deportment and her books, treating all with a familiarity, which often passes for impudence: insulting those who treat her with incivility, and then lampooning them in her books—Stripped of all her sex’s delicacy but unable to forfeit its privilege of gentle treatment from the other, she goes about like a virago errant in enchanted armour, and redeems herself from the cravings of indigence by the notoriety of her eccentricities, and the forced currency they give to her publications.”

The 1829 letter from Royall to Little is one of eight letters in a small file in the Manuscript Division’s Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection. Each small MMC collection is individually cataloged, and collectively they preserve an enormous array of data about many aspects of American life from the colonial era to the present.

Most of Anne Royall’s eight letters, dating from 1824 to 1842, show her promoting the publication and sale of her work. One of them, dated February 12, 1824, is to Mathew Carey, the prominent Philadelphia bookseller and publisher, two of whose diaries from the same period are also in the Manuscript Division. In another, to New Haven, Connecticut, printers Durrie and Peck, Royall writes: “I am sorry to find that you entertain an opinion of me which I do not deserve” and complains that they are allowing her books to be eaten by rats. In an 1842 letter to Lewis J. Cist, she deploys her Pennsylvania childhood to display a little false modesty: “I have merely a moment to say I never had a lesson in writing having been raised in the wilds of the west amongst the Indians till I was grown. I merely learned to scrawl as fancy led me.”

From the 1830s through the end of her life, Royall lived in Washington, D.C., where she published two weekly magazines, Paul Pry (1831-1836) and The Huntress (1836-1854), that exposed the doings of Congress. (See this blog post about Royall’s Paul Pry, from the Library’s Newspaper Division.) Several of the letters in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection date from this period. In one letter to Senator Lucius Lyon of Michigan, she tries to rustle up support for a bill: “I expect all the new members as old friends of mine to vote for it & all the yankees will of course[,] now do stick to me as I did to you.” As a woman, Royall could neither vote nor hold office, but she could use her publication to pressure legislators like any male editor!

I think it is fair to say that Anne Royall was not a very nice person. Whether she deserved to be called a “hag” is something else. Her surviving letters preserve her complicated story and reflect the world in which she made her difficult way.

 

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“[Pe]r chance…” Anne Royall to W. C. Little, October 5, 1829, Anne Newport Royall Correspondence, Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“she found plenty there…” Anne Royall, The Black Book. Or a Continuation of Travels in the United States, in Three Volumes, by Mrs. Anne Royall (Washington: Printed by the Author, 1839), III:71-72.

“revealed what he thought…” John Quincy Adams Digital Diary, volume 37, August 9, 1827, Massachusetts Historical Society,

“Royall writes…” Royall to Durrie and Peck, September 27, 1824, Royall Correspondence.

“In an 1842 letter…” Royall to Lewis J. Cist, January 29, 1842, Royall Correspondence.

“she tries to…” Royall to Lucius Lyon, February 10, 1837, Royall Correspondence.

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