The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Research Published

Interview with Author and NEH Fellow Martha Hodes

Martha Hodes, author of The Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century, is the recent recipient of an NEH fellowship to conduct research at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The Sea Captain’s Wife was a finalist for the Lincoln Prize and was named a Best Book of 2006 by Library Journal. Hodes, who teaches at New York University, took the time to talk with us about the book, her past research, and her current project.

1. How did you come to know the Society and become involved in research here?

I first conducted research at MHS while I was writing my second book, The Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century. The book’s protagonist, Eunice Connolly, is a white, working-class woman from New England whose husband fought and died for the Confederacy – after which she married a black sea captain from the Caribbean. Manuscript collections at the MHS illuminated important context, including anti-slavery sentiments in the New Hampshire town where Eunice lived during the Civil War, and anti-Irish sentiments in the cotton mills (where Eunice worked). Eunice lived in Lowell when the war was ending, so I also invoked a Lowell woman’s personal response to Lincoln’s assassination from the Martha Fisher Anderson Diaries at MHS. I had no idea then what my next book would be about.

 2. What is the focus of your research during your NEH fellowship?

I’m writing a book, Mourning Lincoln, about personal responses to Lincoln’s assassination, encompassing northerners and southerners, African Americans and whites, soldiers and civilians, men and women, rich and poor, the well-known and the unknown, those at home and abroad. I’m specifically searching beyond the public and ceremonial record in order to move beyond the static portrait of a grieving nation that we find in headlines and sermons. The idea is to understand a transformative event on a human scale -- access to the hearts and minds of individual Americans across the spring and summer of 1865 tells us so much more than we thought we knew.

 3. How did you become interested in history and decide to enter this field?

I went to college sure I’d be an English major. At Bowdoin, I ended up creating a double major in Religion and Political Theory. Then I continued my studies in comparative religion by getting an MA at Harvard Divinity School. During those years, my work-study job was at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, and that was where I came to see that I was happier immersed less in abstract ideas and more in the workings of people’s daily lives. That’s when I applied to PhD programs in History.

 4. What inspired you to write The Sea Captain’s Wife? Did you discover anything unexpected while writing it?

While writing my dissertation at Princeton, I came across an amazing collection at Duke University – the letters of Eunice Connolly’s family. They didn’t belong in my dissertation and first book (White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South), because Eunice’s story wasn’t a southern one, and I hoped no one else would discover the collection before I got to it. Lucky for me, no one did. And the letters did indeed yield unexpected discoveries -- about race and racial classification. I found that when Eunice worked as a laundress during the Civil War (that was the lowest of lowly domestic work, reserved for Irish immigrants and black women), her New England neighbors barely thought of her as a white woman, and her subsequent marriage to a man of color further justified her exclusion from white womanhood. Then, when Eunice married the sea captain and went to live in the Cayman Islands, her neighbors there came to think of her as a woman of color, but in a very different way. In the Caribbean racial system, where the category of “colored” lay closer to whiteness than to blackness, Eunice’s status -- as the wife of a well-to-do sea captain of African descent -- rose beyond anything she had known as a poor white woman in New England. All in all, Eunice’s life story illuminates not only how malleable are racial categories and their meanings, but also how much power those classifications can hold. I didn’t know any of that when I began to write her story from the letters.

5. A number of professors have used The Sea Captain’s Wife in undergraduate and graduate-level courses. How do you feel about your work being taught and what do you look for in selecting materials for your own students?

I wrote The Sea Captain’s Wife for readers both within and beyond the academy, and I’m equally thrilled when professors assign it in their classes as I am when it’s chosen by, say, a women’s reading group. In my own classroom, whether I’m teaching conventional courses (like the Civil War or Nineteenth-Century U.S. History) or less conventional courses (like Biography as History or History and Storytelling), I strive to assign books that both impart good history and illuminate people’s lives, by asking -- or prompting the students to ask -- big questions about both the past and the present. I’m happy if The Sea Captain’s Wife can accomplish some of that. It’s what I hope to accomplish, too, in Mourning Lincoln.




comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 1 August, 2012, 8:00 AM

New Biography Illuminates Life of Clover Adams

For all the importance and notoriety of Henry Adams’s book The Autobiography of Henry Adams, it contains one glaring omission: Henry’s wife Clover Adams is not mentioned once. Natalie Dykstra’s new biography, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, attempts to rectify this by shedding light on the life and work of a remarkable 19th-century woman. This is no dry, esoteric biography, but an engaging, enjoyable read for the scholar or layperson alike.

Marian Hooper Adams was nicknamed “Clover” by her mother, who felt that her daughter’s birth was a lucky occurrence. Born into a wealthy, prominent Boston family, Clover was raised in privilege and highly educated. Her mother died when she was five, but Clover remained very close to her father for the rest of her life. In 1872, at the age of 28, she married the historian Henry Adams, who was teaching at Harvard. After five years they moved to Washington, DC, residing near the White House, and began hosting an exclusive salon of politicians, writers, and thinkers. Despite this stimulation, Clover and Henry were bored, and the spark went out of their marriage. Their problems intensified due to the fact that they were unable to have children.

Clover had always been interested in art and she found an outlet for her frustrations in a new camera in 1883. She learned the painstaking development process and began to take photographs of people, landscapes, and animals (she was a great lover of dogs and horses). Although a few of her photographs show traces of humor, including those of her dogs posed at a table set for tea, many of Clover’s photographs convey the melancholy and isolation of her own experience.

In the spring of 1885, Clover’s father died, and her emotional state worsened. In December of that year she took her own life by drinking a chemical used in processing photographs. She was 42 years old. Although Henry Adams rarely spoke of his wife after her death, he commissioned the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to produce a memorial at her gravesite in Rock Creek Cemetery. Saint-Gaudens created a sculpture of a mysterious shrouded, seated figure, which still receives many visitors today and helped inspire Natalie Dykstra to begin researching this book.

Dykstra is an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, MI, and she received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship for her work on Clover Adams. A Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Dykstra did much of the research for her book at the Society, and she guest-curated the Society’s current exhibit, A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life: The Photographs of Clover Adams. The exhibit is free and open to the public and runs through June 2nd.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 25 May, 2012, 8:00 AM

Recently Published Research

Putting together a summer reading list?  Here are some recent publications that we are aware of, completed by researchers that made use of our collections or publications.



Baldwin, Peter. In the Watches of the Night: Life in the Nocturnal City, 1820-1930 (University of Chicago Press, 2012).

Dyer, Justin Buckley. American Soul: The Contested Legacy of the Declaration of Independence (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).

Dykstra, Natalie. Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life (Houghton Mifflin, 2012).

Gamble, Richard. In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth (Continuum Press, 2012).

Johnson, Laura. “American Blues: Printed Pottery Celebrating a New Nation” Antiques and Fine Art (Winter 2012).

Lynch, Matthew. Before Obama: A Reappraisal of Black Reconstruction Era Politicians (Praeger Publishing, 2012).

Newton, Ross. “ ‘Persons of worthy Character’: Slaves, Servants, and Masters at Boston’s Old North Church” Journal of the North End Historical Society (March 2012).

Platt, Stephen. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012).

Winship, Michael. Godly Republicanism: Puritans, Pilgrims, and the City on a Hill (Harvard University Press, 2012).

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 21 April, 2012, 8:00 AM

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

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