This Week @MHS

By Jeremy Dibbell

We hope you’ll join us on Wednesday, 1 December at 12 noon for a brown-bag lunch with Rachel Tamar Van, one of this year’s long-term research fellows at MHS. She’ll talk about her current project, “That Family Feeling: At Home with Homo Economicus.”

Holiday Closure Notice

By Jeremy Dibbell

Please note that the MHS, including the library, will be closed Thursday-Saturday, 25-27 November, in observance of Thanksgiving. Regular hours will resume on Monday, 29 November.

Letters Shed New Light on Henry Adams

By Natalie Dykstra

[Note: the following is a guest contribution from Natalie Dykstra, former MHS research fellow, Associate Professor of English at Hope College and the author of a forthcoming biography of Marian Hooper “Clover” Adams. The new collection she refers to below has been cataloged as the Henry Adams letters to Annie (Palmer) Fell (catalog record), and copies are available for consultation here at the library anytime during our regular hours. You can read more about the letters in Lane Lambert’s 19 November article on the collection in the Quincy Patriot-Ledger. Many thanks to Natalie for this contribution to The Beehive. – JBD]

At a White House luncheon celebrating the publication of the first four volumes of the Adams Family Papers, President John F. Kennedy commented on the “extraordinary and important qualities” given to the country by the two Adams Presidents, namely “courage-the courage of those who look to other days and other times.” Then he added: “The Adams family intimidates us all.”

It’s true. They are intimidating. As the author of a forthcoming biography of Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012, I marvel at this family: brilliant, hard-working, accomplished, so often heartbroken by life. As historian and writer, Henry Adams – like his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, and his great grandfather, John Adams – intimidates with his erudition, the sheer amount and scale of what he knew. And like his forbearers, his temperament can also push you back on your heels. John Quincy described himself this way: “reserved, cold” with “forbidding manners,” and his political adversaries called him “a gloomy misanthrope.” Henry may not have had his grandfather’s tundra-like austerity, but his far-seeing Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, was written in the third person, holding the reader at a safe remove from his inner life. His close friend, John Hay, playfully called him “Porcupinus Angelicus.”

All of which makes the recent acquisition by the MHS of 13 newly discovered letters written by Henry Adams to Anne Palmer Fell between 1885 and 1890 such an extraordinary literary find. Of the thirteen letters, ten were written after Clover’s death in 1885 and one letter only five weeks following. We get to see up close something of what Henry hid from view, confirming what John Hay knew about his friend – that his spiky Adams façade was a cover that protected a great store of feeling.

Henry Adams was a prodigious letter writer-his correspondence runs to six thick published volumes. He knew so damn much. But he didn’t parade. He’d make reference to Shakespeare or Hegel or Lewis Carroll to make his point more pointed or a quick aside quicker-all part of the badinage for which he was known. (Come to the MHS to see one of his letters in manuscript form for yourself! His handwriting is meticulous, clear and upright on every single page, with each letter of the alphabet looking as if it were in typescript.) And like his autobiography, his published correspondence doesn’t reveal much about his personal feelings. In the Education, Henry omits any mention of his wife; so too in his published letters, he hardly writes at all about Clover after her suicide in December 1885.

But in these newly acquired letters to Anne Palmer Fell, Henry unburdens himself in the months following Clover’s death. Perhaps he felt he could, knowing how close Anne and Clover had been since they first met in Washington in 1877. The two women had been remarkably compatible, sharing a quick wit and a passion for art. Out of a total of twenty-one letters to Anne in Henry’s published correspondence, there are only two letters, neither very revealing, written to her between 1885 and 1890. This new collection fills that gap. One can detect in a letter dated March 2, 1885 a distinct foreboding. Henry felt sick with worry about how Clover might react to losing her father, who was close to death. “The winter has worn us out,” Henry told Anne. A year and a half later, on the eve of the first anniversary of Clover’s suicide and two days after he buried his father, Charles Francis Adams, Henry reached out to Anne in grief, writing that “during the last eighteen months I have not had the good luck to attend my own funeral, but with that exception I have buried pretty nearly everything I lived for.” He was grateful, too, for Anne’s news that she’d given her new baby daughter Clover’s birth name, Marian. He assured her he could “manage to keep steady now, within as well as without,” but admitted that her letter “gave me a wrench. I am more than grateful to you for your loyalty to Clover, and I shall love the fresh Marian dearly.” This is the only record we have of Henry’s stunned reaction to Anne’s announcement that she’d named her daughter after Clover. He’d be devoted to Anne’s Marian the rest of his life.

For me, as Clover’s biographer, the astonishing letter of the collection is the one Henry wrote less than five weeks after Clover’s suicide. His silence about her after she died has been interpreted so often as unfeeling or an indictment of their marriage or evidence of his emotional bankruptcy. But the story is far more complicated than that and this letter reveals some of that complexity.

There’s nothing quite like this letter in Henry’s published correspondence, a crucial piece of evidence in the vast manuscript collections at the MHS from which I’ve fashioned my forthcoming biography of Clover. Nowhere else does Henry talk about his inability to “get rid of the feeling that Clover must, sooner or later, come back, and that I had better wait for her to decide everything for me.” He changes the subject several times-from a Florida land deal to rattlesnakes and lemons-as if he can’t quite get his thoughts together. But then he turns back to what he’s wrestling with, dropping the ironic pose that would so distinguish his approach to life and the tone of much of his writing. Shock and grief had cracked Henry Adams wide open. Now what? He admonishes Anne to “get all the fun you can out of life.” He worries whether he and Clover were as happy as they could have been. He reveals a mix of doubt, guilt, self-recrimination, sadness, and a love lost. But his lines also reveal how his powerful intellect put borders around his loss, borders he could live within. Henry Adams decided to hold onto whatever happiness he and Clover did have, writing to Anne in a sentence of great balance and with an Adams courage: “The world may come and the world may go but no power yet known in earth or heaven can annihilate the happiness that is past.”

Henry would keep quiet about Clover’s death, believing that silence is wisdom. But to Clover’s friend, Anne, he spoke fully and from the heart.

The Lives of Two Irish Immigrants: The Holden Family Papers Rediscovered

By Tracy Potter

Several months ago a researcher visited the library and requested a small collection entitled: Holden family bills and accounts, 1842-1861. When retrieving the one box that made up the collection, Assistant Reference Librarian Jeremy Dibbell found that all the manuscripts were folded into tight packets except for one folder containing eight documents. Since this type of storage and use of the manuscripts in their current folded state was not only a danger to the documents, but also a pain for the researcher, the collection was taken to Collection Services, where it could be  unfolded and rehoused in folders. As for the researcher, he was given the one folder that contained the unfolded documents and was told we would notify him when the rest of the collection was ready for viewing. We hope we’ll see him again soon!

As the title of the collection implies, it was thought by the current staff that this collection was only made up of William and Bridget Lawler Holden’s business records from their shoemaking shop in Lenox, Massachusetts with a few exceptions of personal wills and inventories of their estates. When Kendra Ciccone, one of our volunteers, began unfolding the documents she discovered that all was not as it seemed.

Kendra found that there was a citizenship record for William Holden written in 1842. The record states Holden’s former citizenship in Carlo(w), Ireland, his new citizenship in America, and his trade (shoemaker). There were also deeds of land purchases made by Bridget Lawler Holden in Lenox, Mass and six personal letters to William and Bridget Lawler Holden from Bridget’s family and friends of the family back in Ireland. These letters date from 1852-1855, in the aftermath of the Irish potato famine and they paint a pretty gloomy picture of the state of Ireland during these years as shown in a letter from Bridget’s brother, John Lawler, written on 17 March 1855, asking again for Bridget to send money to help the family:

“…therefore I am going for to say and let you no that I tuck a farm of land and fulishly built and made great improvement – But all my money was all out and the times in the country got so bad that the farmer with 2 horses and 6 cows and like so in every other thing belonging to farmer – you wole see them in this apperence on this day on on this morning fallaun that same farmer wold be in Liverpoole this is what brook me and many others in this country”

Although the majority of the collection is still accounts and receipts for the Holdens’ shoemaking business, there is now just enough personal information to make the Holden family story even more intriguing. This collection provides the briefest of glimpses into the life of an Irish immigrant family that is not always seen in the history books: a family that emigrated young and prior to the devastating famine, a family that had a trade upon arrival in the new country, a family that had the means to leave the city and strike out on their own, and a family in the later years that had the wife in charge of the finances.

Like many collections donated to the Society in its earlier years, very little paperwork exists to help determine when and where this collection came from. It is suspected that it came through the Sedgwick family as the majority of William Holden’s estate was left to the children of William Ellery Sedgwick. As to the relationship between the Holden and Sedgwick families, very little is known, except that William Ellery Sedgwick was the executor of both William and Bridget’s wills.

Since this discovery, we have updated the catalog description of these papers to truly represent the collection. The collection has been renamed the Holden family papers (catalog record) to represent both the personal and the business portions of the collection, and the new description highlights both the personal and business aspects of the collection. Finally, with all the unfolding, the papers now reside in two boxes rather than one.

New Acquisition: William Dawes Account Book

By Susan Martin

The Massachusetts Historical Society has recently acquired a rare account book of William Dawes, Jr. (Ms. N-2321 Tall; catalog record), the man most famous for riding with Paul Revere on the night of 18 April 1775 to warn the inhabitants of Lexington and Concord that British regulars were on the march. John Hancock and Samuel Adams, then at Lexington, were in imminent danger of arrest. Dr. Joseph Warren commissioned Revere and the 30-year-old Dawes – a Boston militiaman and member of the Sons of Liberty – to spread the warning. Though neither man reached Concord, Dawes’ achievement that night was as great, and arguably even greater, than Revere’s: his land route over the Boston Neck was longer, and he managed to escape the British ambush in which Revere was captured. But Dawes’ role in the “midnight ride” has largely been overlooked, due in part to the popular poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which credited Revere with sole responsibility.

When he wasn’t rousing the colonists to revolt, Dawes worked as a tanner and grocer in Boston. During the Siege of Boston, he moved his growing family to Worcester and served in the war effort as quartermaster for the colonial troops. After the Revolution, he returned to Boston. This account book documents in detail his tanning and grocery business from 1788 to his death in 1799. Dawes had extensive dealings with a wide range of Massachusetts merchants and tradespeople, including shoemakers, carpenters, printers, ship captains, hatmakers, and blacksmiths, to name just a few. Neatly itemized in this tall, narrow ledger book are cash transactions, sales, and purchases of textiles, skins, tools, rum, tea, tobacco, candles, indigo, and many other products.

Many of the names that appear in Dawes’ account book are those of well-known New England families: Adams, Fessenden, Parsons, Sweetser. Also included are a handful of women, among them Susanna Wiley and Mrs. Elizabeth Belcher, as well as one man called simply “Cato, a black man.” Dawes also lists transactions with his sons William and Charles.

One intriguing entry reads: “This day (Sept 25th 1797.) I formally demanded my horse, of Mr. Saml Adams, Truckman, occupier of Lovell’s Island (so called) at present Sd Adams, who took charge of the Horse, to pasture on Sd Island (1797. Augt 2d) says the horse is killed………By whom?”

What makes this acquisition exciting is that so few records exist of Dawes’ life and work, and very little is known about him except for his famous ride. The MHS appears to hold most of the extant papers related to Dawes and his family, but these consist of only a few small collections. This volume shines new light on the life of a man whose legacy has remained in relative (and undeserved) obscurity.


This Week @ MHS

By Jeremy Dibbell

– We hope you’ll join us for the first of a new series of mini-courses, “What does Massachusetts have to do with …?”, which kicks off tomorrow, Tuesday, 16 November at 12 noon. For the opening course Librarian Peter Drummey and Curator of Art Anne Bentley will discuss “What does Massachusetts have to do with … THOMAS JEFFERSON?” The cost for these courses (which includes lunch) is $20 for non-members, $10 for members. Space is limited and reservations are required; you can register online here or call 617-646-0519 to reserve a space. Watch this space for information on upcoming mini-course dates and topics.

– On Thursday, 18 November at 5:15 p.m., the Boston Immigration and Urban History Seminar series continues with a talk by Yael Schacher of Harvard University, “Discrimination, Persecution, and Alien Seamen in U.S. Ports, 1930s to 1960s.” Vivek Bald of MIT will give the comment. Please read the Seminar Series 2010 post for informaton on attending MHS seminars.

Holiday Closure Notice

By Jeremy Dibbell

Please note, the MHS will be closed on Thursday, 11 November in observance of the Veterans’ Day holiday. Regular hours will resume on Friday.

This Week @ MHS

By Jeremy Dibbell

– We hope you’ll join us tonight, Monday, 8 November, for a talk by Nick Bunker, “The Mayflower Compact: Where It Came From and What It Meant.” This even is co-sponsored by the British Consulate-General in Boston and Plimouth Plantation. A reception will begin at 5:30 p.m., with the talk at 6 p.m. Reservations for this event are requested; more info here.

– On Tuesday, 9 November, at 5:15 p.m., the Boston Environmental History Seminar series continues with a paper by Richard Judd of the University of Maine at Orono: “Rethinking Environmental History: The View from New England.” Wyatt Oswald of Emerson College will give the comment. Please read the Seminar Series 2010 post for information on MHS Seminars.

Life in Besieged Boston

By Jeremy Dibbell

Our November Object of the Month is a diary kept by Boston merchant William Cheever (1752-1786) during the siege of Boston in the beginning months of the Revolutionary War. As Digital Projects Coordinator Nancy Heywood notes in her introductory essay, “Cheever’s succinct entries cover the realities of living through a long military campaign. He describes press gangs and imprisonments within the town on 19 June (on page 2) as ‘the usual consequence of martial law.’ His diary entries describe raids and vandalism committed by both sides (see entries for 30 May, 12 July and 9 January), bombardments (2 August, page 4) and the scarceness and expensiveness of food (12 August, page 5). He also describes the Battle of Bunker Hill in his entry for 17 June (on page 2) and the damage the British troops did to the Old South Meeting House (15 November, page 7). Cheever’s final diary entry describes the last day of the Siege, 17 March 1776 (page 12) and records that General Howe and the British troops left town ‘upon which the Continental Army enter’d it.'”

See hi-res scans of the diary or read transcriptions of the text, here.

Stay tuned for additional Siege of Boston documents later this month, as we launch a new digital collection devoted to materials from that period in Boston’s history.