MHS for the Media

Of Myths and Men

MHS Exhibitions Explore Lives and Legacies of two very different Americans

BOSTON, October 19, 2009—This fall the Massachusetts Historical Society, the oldest historical society in the nation, is mounting two exhibitions that explore the lives and legacies of two very different Americans who had far-reaching effects on different aspects of American culture—controversial abolitionist John Brown and notable Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick.

John Brown: Martyr to Freedom or American Terrorist—or Both?
Abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry on October 17, 1859, was one of the major events leading up to the Civil War and remains one of the most controversial episodes in American history. The exhibition John Brown: Martyr to Freedom or American Terrorist—or Both? consists of personal papers, photographs, broadsides, engravings, weapons, and artifacts that illuminate Brown’s life together with evidence of the continuing arguments about the morality and meaning of his actions.

Beginning with Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s remarkable diary account of meeting Brown at his hardscrabble Adirondack farm, long before Brown came to national prominence, the exhibition will document his violent career in “Bleeding Kansas" in the 1850s and the strong support he received from abolitionists in Massachusetts—five of his chief financial supporters, the “Secret Six,” lived in the Boston area. The exhibition will focus on the events at Harpers Ferry in 1859, Brown’s trial and execution later that year, and the controversy about how to interpret his life and these events that has continued ever since. Visitors can see examples of the weapons Brown stockpiled for the attack and one of the last letters he sent to his family from jail while he awaited execution in Charlestown, (now West) Virginia. For the debate on the interpretation of his life and death that began almost immediately after his execution—a debate carried on even in the rooms of the MHS, where many members had known and/or supported him—the Society will show letters and documents about Brown that MHS members gathered during and after the Civil War.

The exhibition is funded in part by the Massachusetts Cultural Council and is open to the public Monday through Saturday, from 1:00 to 4:00 PM, through December 23.

Atlantic Harvest: Ellery Sedgwick and The Atlantic Monthly, 1909-1938
Atlantic Harvest, the title of Ellery Sedgwick’s 1947 memoir and compilation of favorite articles from The Atlantic Monthly during the years that he was editor (1909-1938), will be the theme of the Society’s fall exhibition of Ellery Sedgwick papers. The exhibition will draw upon Sedgwick’s voluminous personal and editorial correspondence with an extraordinary range of literary and political figures during those years, together with correspondence and photographs from his personal papers and other collections of Sedgwick family papers held by the Society.

Through his personal correspondence with authors, many of whom he numbered among his friends, the exhibition will show how Sedgwick revived and expanded the Atlantic, increasing its circulation by ten-fold and adding political and economic essays and more contemporary poetry and fiction to its strong literary tradition. The exhibition will include a sampling of Sedgwick’s correspondence with writers and political and social activists including Jane Addams, Willa Cather, Winston Churchill, Robert Frost, James Hilton, William Dean Howells, Sinclair Lewis, Reinhold Niebuhr, Bertrand Russell, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf. The exhibition also will document some of the events and controversies that roiled the pages of the Atlantic.  Under Sedgwick’s editorship, the Atlantic published essays on the qualifications of a Roman Catholic—Alfred E. Smith—to be president, Felix Frankfurter’s dissection of the Sacco and Vanzetti case, and Sedgwick’s controversial support for Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Atlantic Harvest also will show how Sedgwick nurtured authors: he brought to prominence Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, who both independently contributed articles to the Atlantic from the Front during the First World War, before winning fame together as the authors of Mutiny on the Bounty. The exhibition also will include materials about two famous hoaxes that embroiled Sedgwick’s years at the helm of the Atlantic: Wilma Frances Minor’s forgery of the purported love letters of Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, and The Story of Opal (originally serialized in the Atlantic), Opal Whiteley’s account of the diary she supposedly had written as a child.

Atlantic Harvest: Ellery Sedgwick and The Atlantic Monthly, 1909-1938 is supported by the family of Mrs. Ellery Sedgwick, Jr., and will be on display 1:00 to 4:00 PM, Monday through Saturday, from October 30, 2009 to January 30, 2010. 

About the Massachusetts Historical Society
The Massachusetts Historical Society is one of the nation’s preeminent research libraries, with collections that provide an unparalleled record of the vibrant course of American history. The Society holds an extraordinary assembly of personal papers from three presidents—John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Thomas Jefferson—as well as accounts of the lives of thousands of ordinary Americans and their families.  With millions of pages of manuscript letters, diaries, and other documents, as well as early newspapers, broadsides, artifacts, works of art, maps, photographs, and prints, the MHS offers a wide-ranging perspective on the United States from the earliest beginnings of the nation to the present day.

Since its founding, the MHS has fostered research, scholarship, and education. Its mission is to enhance the understanding of our nation’s past and its connection to the present. Through fellowships for scholars, meticulous research volumes, seminars, conferences, teacher training programs, as well as lectures, tours, open houses, and exhibitions, the Society demonstrates that history is not just a series of events that happened to individuals long ago but is integral to the fabric of our daily lives.

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For Immediate Release

Media Contact:                             
Nicole Leonard           
Massachusetts Historical Society   
(617) 646-0552   
nleonard@masshist.org