By Ondine LeBlanc
A 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!