The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Research Published

New on our Shelves: Vincent Carretta On the Elusive Phillis Wheatley

With his latest book, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011), Vincent Carretta, a 2008-2009 MHS-NEH long-term research fellow and professor at the University of Maryland, provides the first full-length biography of the elusive African American poet Phillis Wheatley. Besides her own literary work, Wheatley left behind very little evidence about her life. Rising to the challenge, Carretta scoured archives around the world and examined Wheatley’s entire body of work, allowing him to delve deeper into Wheatley’s world than any previous biographer.

Brought by a slave ship, Phillis Wheatley arrived in Boston in 1761. John Wheatley, a successful merchant tailor, purchased Phillis to be a personal servant. Soon the family found themselves forming an unconventional relationship with Phillis treating her more as a daughter than as a slave. Phillis excelled at writing and began composing poetry at an early age. Understanding Phillis’ talent, the Wheatley’s found a publisher in England to publish a volume of Phillis’ poems. In 1773 Phillis followed her work to England and was welcomed and praised for her talent by the British. Upon her return to Boston in 1774, the Wheatley’s freed Phillis. By 1778, Phillis’ writing of poetry slowed down to a trickle and she married John Peters, a man that would fall in and out of her life until her death in 1784. 

Carretta’s critically acclaimed Phillis Wheatley presents fresh theories about the life of the poet including how Phillis arrived in America, her earliest written poem, her involvement in her rise as a literary star, and her large network of friends both in America and England. Carretta also reveals new findings on Wheatley and her husband John Peters including details of their married life, Peters’s personal character, and his life after Wheatley’s death in 1784. These new findings introduce provocative ideas regarding Wheatley and her family that will likely spark debate among historians for years to come. 

As part of the MHS Author Talk Lecture Series, Vincent Carretta returned to the MHS in early November to celebrate the release of his book Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. During the lecture, Carretta spoke about researching his book, several of his discoveries, and answered questions regarding Wheatley and his research. To view a video of the event click here.

If you would like to view Wheatley manuscripts owned by the MHS, visit our Phillis Wheatley page, which is part of our larger African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts web presentation.  If you would like to read more about Vincent Carretta’s Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage, check out Publisher’s Weekly star review here.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 5 January, 2012, 8:44 AM

New Edition of an MHS Manuscript Diary in Print: "Thomas Jefferson’s Granddaughter in Queen Victoria’s England"

Cover Jacket of Published Volume with portrait of Ellen CoolidgeA little more than a year ago now, a hefty package arrived in the Publications office at the MHS. Sent from a corollary office at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's hilltop home in Virginia, it contained reams of closely printed paper. Along with various administrative sheets, such as permissions letters from art museums in London, the pages in the package included the text that would become our newest publication--an edition of the 1838-1839 travel diary of Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, one of Jefferson’s grandchildren (and his reported favorite). The original, handwritten document made its way into the Society’s collections in 1964. Born in Virginia, Ellen Randolph had married Boston merchant Joseph Coolidge, Jr., in 1825 and became a Bay State resident thereafter.  

The transcription--entirely unabridged--and annotations had been prepared by two editors based at Monticello, Ann Lucas Birle and Lisa A. Francavilla. With the fruit of their labors now in our hands, Associate Editor Suzanne Carroll and I (plus several very helpful volunteers) began our part of the work: copyediting all of the notes and front matter and “collating” the transcription. The latter process is how we review the quality of a documentary edition, reading the typed transcription against the original manuscript. Taking our cue from the team in the Adams Papers Editorial Project, we do what documentary editors call a “tandem collation”: one person reads the typed text aloud while the other reads along in the handwritten manuscript, making sure they agree with the rendering of every word, every comma, every underlining.

Some colleagues may not agree with me, but it can be a tedious process. One does not get to read quickly when doing collation. No skimming the dry bits. But here’s the thing about Ellen Coolidge’s diary: it doesn’t have so many dry bits. In all the collating of historical punctuation and extra-curmudgeonly copyediting of annotations (we needed to make sure, for example, that every compound term is spelled exactly the same way throughout hundreds of pages of notes), Ellen's words kept us going. She is astonishingly erudite--I'm sure the range of her knowledge could have put some of her college-educated male peers to shame--and her quick mind makes revealing, and sometimes irreverent, connections among the goings-on she observes. One moment I might be throttling my keyboard, trying to determine the exact title of some English peer, and then I’d find myself laughing over Ellen’s description of a bust she encounters at a gallery:

Saw in the Adelaide Gallery an electric eel of great size, and a marble head of Lord Brougham in a marble wig with marble curls. Looks like a Butcher’s dog with a wig, on & reminded me of an anecdote of Garrick playing King Lear and laughing in the most pathetic scene, where he should have been weeping over the body of Cordelia, at the sight of a dog in the pit, upon whose head his fat, perspiring master had placed his wig to the great relief of his own shining & naked noodle.

There are, of course, also more serious insights in her diary entries. As a visitor in a culture with a very different class structure, and in a city much more densely populated than the one she is used to, Ellen often has the advantage of unfamiliarity, allowing her to see her environment in sharp perspective. On one of her first drives into London, the crowds of humanity motivate her to think about free will: “they appeared more like flocks or herds obeying the impulse of a voice & a hand from behind than thinking beings going on their own way, chusing their own path, impelled each one by individual motives & governed by their several & independent wills.” Her thoughts turn to a treatise on ant colonies that she has read, and she notes a similarity, but ultimately she draws a distinction between humans and ants based on an idea of social evolution: “But with them all is instinct, men are governed by reason. that is Ants are stationary, neither advance nor recede, while men are capable of both.  Ants are the same now, no doubt, that they were in the commencement of their career—They were wise & methodical as they are now. They are strict conservatives. . . . [Y]et change, the power of improvement, the restless desire for a better order of things is what distinguishes the man from the insect, since it shews the working within him of the principle of progress.”  “Such,” she concludes, “were some of the strange thoughts which distracted my attention from my immediate object, the pursuit of a Cashmere shawl.” 

The Coolidge lineage of Ellen and Joseph has generously provided the MHS with some truly wonderful family archives, including this diary, passed along to us by Ellen’s great-granddaughter Mary Barton Churchill. In 1893, Ellen’s son Thomas Jefferson Coolidge gave the Society a substantial collection of Thomas Jefferson’s personal papers. His gift established the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, the largest holding of Jefferson’s papers outside of the Library of Congress--and the largest bar none of his personal papers. Click here to view selected items from this collection available on the Society’s website.

I’ll be reading Ellen's diary again over the holiday, and maybe I'll get a chance to post a few more of my favorite bits.  I hope you’ll share yours too.

 

* How I wish there were a diary from that trip!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 23 December, 2011, 8:00 AM

New on our Shelves: Hannah Mather Crocker's "Reminiscences" Published

One of the newest additions to the Society’s bookshelves is a volume more than 180 years in the making. Written by Hannah Mather Crocker in the 1820s and edited by Eileen Hunt Botting and Sarah L. Houser in the 2000s, Reminiscences & Traditions of Boston (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2011) has finally made its way to publication. 

Hannah Mather Crocker was an author and early feminist. She was the granddaughter of renowned Puritan minister Cotton Mather, author of the Biblia Americana (another long awaited publication), and niece of Thomas Hutchinson, Jr., the royal governor of Massachusetts. Born in 1752, she lived through and participated in some of the most tumultuous and significant times in United States history. In her final years she wrote two versions of Reminiscences, combining personal anecdotes with a narrative history of Boston from the colonial era to the early 19th century. The manuscript touches on various elements of Boston history including religion, economics, gender, and foreign relations. Crocker also includes an extensive appendix of historical documents containing a large number of her own poems. 

Crocker began writing Reminiscences believing she would publish it in the near future. Unfortunately, she passed away in 1829 before she could make that happen. In the years after her death, her Reminiscences disappeared until John Wingate Thorton, a founder of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), acquired it for his own personal collection. Upon his death in 1878, Thorton bequeathed the manuscript to the NEHGS, where it remains today.

Botting and Houser create a fully annotated documentary edition of Hannah Mather Crocker’s Reminiscences & Traditions of Boston. This edition includes an informative introduction that provides background for Crocker, the manuscript, and the publication including a guide to how to read the two versions. It is fully indexed and includes a biographical directory, a poetry index, and a bibliography. In their attempt to remain true to Crocker’s original writing, the editors include Crocker’s original pagination, original spellings, and original notes. This volume will allow a wider audience to analyze, interpret, and understand the lives of residents and events that took place in Massachusetts from 1620 to the early 19th century.  

Sarah L. Houser is the Jack Miller Center-Veritas Fund Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy at Georgetown University. Eileen Botting is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at University of Notre Dame. Botting received the 2009-2010 Colonial Society of Massachusetts Fellowship which she used her to research on Hannah Mather Crocker’s and her Reminiscences at the MHS and a number of other New England research institutions. In January 2010 Botting presented some of her findings at a brown-bag lunch program at the MHS.   

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 14 October, 2011, 8:00 AM

New on our Shelves: "Revered Commander, Maligned General" by Michael Shay

Continuing our blog series on recent publications based on research conducted at the MHS, I offer a look at Michael Shay’s newest publication, Revered Commander, Maligned General: The Life of Clarence Ransom Edwards, 1859-1931 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011).

During the summers of 2008 and 2009 Shay and his wife Marilyn visited the MHS and thoroughly examined the extensive (43 document boxes, 10 volumes) Clarence Ransom Edwards Papers.  In large part the result of that work, Revered Commander, Maligned General is the first in-depth full-length biography of Edwards, and it is the only substantial work written about Edwards since the early 20th century. 

Edwards, a career military man, was trained at Brooks Military Academy in Ohio and at West Point in New York.  In 1899 he departed the United States as a major to serve in the Philippines during the Spanish American War. In 1900, back in the United States, Edwards, now a lieutenant colonel, was named chief of the Division of Customs and Insular Affairs (later the Bureau of Insular Affairs) in the War Department.  By 1915 Brigadier General Edwards was responsible for planning and organizing the defense of the Panama Canal Zone, and with the start of World War One he was given the command of the 26th (“Yankee”) Division of the New England National Guard with orders to fight in France.  It was on the front in France that a conflict between Edwards and his superior, General John J. Pershing, developed, ending with Edwards’ disgraceful dismissal just a few weeks before the end of the war. 

In this volume Shay, who previously authored The Yankee Division in The First World War: In The Highest Tradition (College Station: Texas A&M University Press,  2008), provides a complete view of Edwards’ life and military career, shedding new light on his relationship with Pershing and the events leading up to his dismissal in 1918.

Revered Commander, Maligned General: The Life of Clarence Ransom Edwards, 1859-1931 is now on sale through the University of Missouri Press. Visitors to the MHS library can peruse our copy, currently on display in the library. Ask one of our friendly library staff members for assistance.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 11 May, 2011, 8:00 AM

Discovering the New England Watch and Ward Society

One aspect of working at a research library that I enjoy immensely is seeing the fruits of our researchers’ labor in the form of published works. I recently had the pleasure of reading historian Neil Miller’s recently published history Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society’s Crusade against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010). This slim volume chronicles the activities of the New England Watch and Ward Society, a private organization with considerable political influence in the Boston area and throughout the region, between 1878 and 1967.

Part of Miller’s research took place here at the MHS, where we hold the Godfrey Lowell Cabot Papers. Cabot was a prominent member of the Watch and Ward, to which he began donating funds in the early 1890s. He joined the Watch and Ward in 1900, served as treasurer from 1915 to 1940, and remained active into the 1950s [1]. Of the 73 boxes of material in the Godfrey Lowell Cabot papers, only two boxes are directly related to the Watch and Ward Society between 1913 and 1921. Yet those two boxes offer researchers a wide range of documentary evidence concerning the Watch and Ward’s activities during this period. My own perusal of the collection this week turned up a few documents that hint at some fascinating stories.

For example, there is an invoice from The Morgan-Boylston Detective Agency for expenses related to “Case 1172” during the fall of 1917. These expenses included taxi hire, car and boat fares, a railroad trip from Boston to New York City, room at a hotel, and unspecified “entertainment.” $10.00 in cash was also paid out to a Mr. H.

A more descriptive report from the same case is found in another folder, and it becomes clear that the investigators are seeking out information concerning the activities taking place at a certain hotel where “it is claimed many high jinks times used to occur.” The author of the report (“Operative #38”) observes, “I attended a banquet on business one night in almost the same room pointed out by Mrs. Moore, if not the same one, when girls in pink skin tights danced the ‘Hoochy Koochy’ on the dining table.”

The Watch and Ward was not only interested in illegal activities, but also in monitoring the efforts of “good people” and institutions involved in public health. On 16 April 1918, J. Frank Chase, the secretary of the Watch and Ward, wrote a letter describing his visit to the Old Army Medical Museum in Washington D.C. for a screening of “Fit to Fight,” a propaganda film that was part of the military’s attempt to combat “the Social Diseases.” While he approved of the general effort, Chase was critical of certain aspects of the film:

Realizing the difficulties of the subject and how mistakes are inevitable and the diversity of opinion even among good people as to the details and the methods of doing this necessary work, I am loathe to criticize the work accomplished. Yet, I must urge one criticism of the method. It concerns the unwisdom [sic] of putting on exhibition at the very beginning or at all the picture of a nude woman of full front view, as is done in this film.

While he acknowledges the “nude” is, in fact, a statue of Venus, he argues that its manner of display is troubling. It “does not declare itself as a statue until after such a time as gives the mind a chance to conclude ‘Here is the picture of a naked woman,’ and to gasp at the boldness.”

It is unclear from the existing correspondence whether anyone in the War Department was similarly offended by the film, or whether Chase’s objection to it had any effect on future screenings.

These are just a few examples of the primary source materials to be found in the Cabot papers related to Watch and Ward efforts. You can read more about the Watch and Ward in Miller’s new book, Banned in Boston. The Geoffrey Lowell Cabot papers are open and available for research in the Library’s reading room.

[1] Neil Miller, Banned in Boston, 47.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 25 February, 2011, 8:00 AM

older posts