Artists come to their creative work in different ways and at their own pace. Some are prodigies who dive in young. Then there are those like Joe Bauman: It took more than 40 years for the seed of his particular fascination to germinate into his first novel.
In The Daguerreotypist, Bauman—who spent a 36-year career as a journalist for the Deseret News before retiring in 2008—tells the story of 25-year-old Benjamin Mackintosh, a newcomer to the art of the primitive daguerreotype photography method in 1846. The fictional character Benjamin then travels with his grandfather, Peter Mackintosh, a man who actually did exist and was a Revolutionary War veteran.
The journey that resulted in Bauman's interest in Mackintosh dates back to 1969. At that time, Bauman was a young reporter working for a small newspaper in Ocean City, Md. "I went to cover a flea market," Bauman recalls, "and came upon a couple of photographs that were very interesting to me. One was a daguerreotype ... I bought it, and just became entranced with them, and began collecting them."
After some time collecting, Bauman—who had always been interested in the Revolutionary War period—realized that these mid-19th-century daguerreotypes might include photos of individuals who were alive during the American Revolution. "I started keeping my eyes out for old people in daguerreotypes, and researched where they could've been in the revolution. There were very few of them. If you were a soldier in the Revolutionary War, you were in your teens and 20s; you would have had to live into your 80s and 90s. ... [But] I ended up with eight of them, the largest collection of identified Revolutionary War veterans."
Bauman researched the stories behind these men and, in 2012, self-published a non-fiction book titled Don't Tread on Me featuring their biographies. Included among them was Peter Mackintosh, a blacksmith who went through a lengthy legal fight to prove that he had earned a pension as a Revolutionary War veteran. At the time, records were so sketchy, it was difficult to prove he had been an enlisted man, rather than what would be referred to today as a civilian contractor. "His story was so outrageous," Bauman said, "such a terrible lack of justice, that it was just natural fodder for a novel.
"He didn't really need to have a pension; it wasn't that he was impoverished. He was a very successful blacksmith and was comfortable. ... [But] he became, for me, a symbol of a very tenacious man who was very insistent on justice; he had given his work and time for this country, and he expected to be treated in the same way."
The fictional character of Benjamin, then, became a way to further explore that idea of injustice, while also presenting a portrait of one side of mid-19th-century America that may be unfamiliar to most people. Specifically, young Benjamin is something of a libertine, making his way through a series of sexual encounters with various women. "People think that in the Victorian era, everyone was Victorian [in their morality]," Bauman said. "But that's not true. There was a lot of pretty wild stuff going on, people who didn't meet that stereotype."
In the novel, as Benjamin escorts his grandfather around New England in search of old friends and fellow soldiers who can testify to his status as a veteran, he becomes more aware of the injustices of his time. Bauman chose to set the story in 1846 because it was such a significant year, particularly in the country's attitudes towards slavery in the wake of the Mexican War, which was perceived in the North as a way for the South to acquire territory for more slave states.
As vividly as Bauman is able to paint the period details of The Daguerreotypist's setting, he was clearly more driven to bring attention to the story of Peter Mackintosh. In part, it was because of the fascinating, documented facts of Mackintosh's life, including the fact that his forge in Boston was among the places where those who participated in the Boston Tea Party came to gather ashes to disguise themselves as "Indians," and where Mackintosh himself once repaired a mortar for George Washington.
But there was a personal side of this story for Bauman in the opportunity to celebrate a man who fought to be recognized for his contributions to American freedom, and whose family only received that recognition after Peter's death. "I thought about the way those who did not have combat duty also were really important to our efforts, and we need to respect them," Bauman said. "My father was a weatherman in World War II, and wasn't in any war zone. But he was in Bermuda, away from his family, and did his part. In a way, it's [a recognition] of people who served, but weren't on the front lines.
"I just thought his story was so much a teaching moment about what our country was supposed to be like, and how it really turned out."