I know that I promised around the New Year not to buy any more books. I’ve held to that promise, and have been pestering my subject-area librarian at Baa Ram U. with requests, as well as drawing heavily on our in-state library exchange system. It’s been fantastic to read, enjoy, and return the books I’ve been reading!
However, as I warned you, I might make an exception for books I find in used book shops and old junk stores, and I’m afraid that last Sunday I did buy a book, Alice of Old Vincennes by Maurice Thompson (Indianapolis: The Bowen-Merrell Company, 1900), which was a popular smash and among the top ten best-selling books of 1900 and 1901. I paid all of $4.50 for my first edition copy, although you can pay eight or nine times more for it online. (I love my old junk store haunts here in Northern Colorado!)
Who cares about some musty historical novel from the last century? I bought the book because it is a story built around the capture of Fort Vincennes (now Vincennes, Indiana) from the British in 1779 during the War of the American Revolution. Vincennes was originally a French fort, and the book purports to tell the story of a beautiful but willlful orphaned teenager named Alice who was adopted by a prominent French family at Vincennes. Of course, SPOILER ALERT, she turns out to have been originally an Anglo-American girl who as a child was taken captive by Indians before she was “rescued” by the French family that raised her. In short, it’s a typical turn-of-the-twentieth-century set-piece of Colonial Revival romanticism that portrays the French and Indian presence in the Old Northwest as a charming but doomed relict of the past, and it comes complete with the dashing young Anglo-American military hero ready to sweep Alice off her feet and return her to life among English- speaking Protestants.
Why are you still reading this post? This is a post not so much about Alice of Old Vincennes as it is about the amazing power of the internets to elucidate and explain what otherwise would have been a long-forgotten historical novel that would interest few of us as a literary novel. I am not accustomed to such a digitally rich environment when I pursue my own research on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I’m sure you twentieth century historians of the U.S. and Western Europe are accustomed to this kind of proliferation of sources and information, but I felt like I was falling down the Alice rabbit hole when I discovered the novel’s amazing online presence, given the fact that it’s a pretty bad historical novel of its period. (I’m sure it would interest none of us as a literary novel, with passages like this:)
Alice Rousillon was tall, lithe, strongly knit, with an almost perfect figure, judging by what the master sculptors carved for the form of Venus, and her face was comely and winning, if not absolutely beautiful; but the time and the place were vigorously indicated by her dress, which was of coarse stuff and simply designed. Plainly she was a child of the American wilderness, a daughter of old Vincennes on the Wabash in the time that tried men’s souls (4).
Srsly, “the times that tried men’s souls.” Thomas Paine is spinning in his grave! As if that weren’t bad enough, Alice is introduced to us as she is cruelly teasing a “sturdy little hunchback” who’s clearly of limited intelligence (5). This scene is meant to communicate to us that Alice is high-spirited and athletic, rather than a willful bully taking advantage of a disabled acquaintance. But apparently, the book-buying public of 1900 didn’t mind.
It turns out that Alice of Old Vincennes became a pop-culture phenomenon: it was turned into a Broadway show that played at the Garden Theater in New York City in 1901 and 1902, starring Miss Virginia Harned, and it was also the basis for a popular song, “Alice of Old Vincennes (I Love You).” See the advertisement in a trade newspaper here; click here for a 1914 recording; and see the sheet music for piano here. Apparently, someone even thought it was a good idea to put Alice on a can of tomatoes, as you can see here at left (courtesy of the Wabash Valley Visions and Voices digital memory project. Incredible!)
The book and cultural phenomenon of Alice was also embraced by the town of Vincennes as a hook to bring tourists to town. According to the Indiana State Museum, author Maurice Thompson’s birthplace is still among the museum’s historic buildings, and Vincennes worked hard to capitalize on Alice’s popularity: “The nickname for Vincennes became ‘Alicetown.’ At one time, there were two different places claiming to be the site of her home, even though she was a fictional character. There was an Alice Hotel, an Alice Park, an Alice movie theater, an Alice Restaurant and an Alice Soda Shop. Finally, the Vincennes Lincoln High School named their sports teams the Vincennes Alices, a name that they still proudly bear.” I love the idea of the high school teams being called the Alices. (The Thompson House now “serves as the gift shop for the Territorial Capitol State Historic Site.”)
Vincennes really milked its Alice connection. Nearly thirty years after the novel’s publication, the public library’s contribution to the George Rogers Clark Sesquicentennial Parade on February 25, 1929 was a float featuring a life-sized “Alice” (actually library employee Marie Lucier) stepping gracefully out of the pages of a giant copy of Maurice Thompson’s novel. (Once again, thanks to Wabash Valley Visions & Voices for the photos of Marie Lucier as Alice on the parade float seen here at left and also at the top of the post on the right.)
The legend of Alice lives on into the present, too, in Vincennes, where Vincennes Unviersity speech and theater professor James Spurrier collaborated with a colleague, Laurel Smith, and composer Jay Kerr to produce a new musical based on the book in 2010.
I don’t know what to make of all of this. I was just fascinated that Alice had such a tremendous digital presence! I’m sure those of you who think more deeply and in more complex ways about digital history have ideas to share, so please, take it away!