Adventures in the Archives, Part 1 (of Four)

Adventures in the Archives, Part 1 (of Four)

Adventures in the Archives, Part 1 (of Four)

I grew up reading books like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, and naturally that fascination led to an interest in the authors of those books. So my research on Austin is a natural fit for a life-long interest. But I didn’t expect to fall in love with archival research, and now I can say that I’m addicted.

There is a definite thrill in viewing and reading something that no one has looked at in decades. And when it’s material about someone or something you’re passionate about, there’s a connection there that transcends the ages.

Early in my PhD program, I discovered various archives containing letters from or to Austin, and after a few simple online steps, lo and behold! The scans arrived via email. I’ve received scans from at least 14 different archives at this point.

Whenever I stumbled over faint or illegible handwriting, my mother was usually able to save the day. When my sister and I were little, she earned extra money typing handwritten (!!) dissertations, so she’s quite skilled at deciphering spidery handwriting. Without her, I might still have quite a few blank spaces with questions marks in my transcriptions. So my first forays were relatively trouble-free.

Not only is her handwriting difficult to read, but she frequently wrote in pencil, so the scans are often faint.

Even when I visited places in person, it was fairly simple, so at first I was spoiled. I started with some of the big archives: American Antiquarian Society, Houghton Library at Harvard, Massachusetts Historical Society, the Library of Congress, and the University of Virginia.  I found the information online quickly, the papers I worked in were extensively cataloged, and there were no issues obtaining the material or working as long as I liked. Plus, the surroundings were gorgeous. What literary nerd wouldn’t love to spend an afternoon sitting here?

Reading room at the American Antiquarian Society

In addition to the personal connections and pleasures, there’s also the thrill of the hunt, because I never know what I might find.

Even in collections  that are very well-maintained and thoroughly catalogued, exciting finds still occur. The Louisa May Alcott archives at UVA, for example, have been covered extensively, and most of her journals have been published. But a scholar working at the Massachusetts Historical Society recently discovered two unidentified letters written by Alcott about her novel Moods that changed the way scholars have thought about that work. So I still hold out hope that one day I’ll uncover some correspondence between Austin and Alcott too.

Someone else working in the Margaret Fuller papers at the Houghton discovered that papers catalogued as a “reading journal” actually turned out to be an early manuscript for four lectures on art. It proves a lot about her reading habits, her knowledge of other writers, and her ideas for what would later become her fully established “Conversations” series. To a biographer, it was an amazing find. Even when I think I know what to expect, there’s the possibility it might be something quite different.

Sometimes those finds are just luck, but even then, that luck is only possible with dogged persistence. In either of those two examples, the scholars might have chosen to skip over those sources, believing them to be useless. But they persevered and it paid off, and I keep that lesson in mind.

There’s also the hope that new material will appear. Big archives frequently acquire new finds that can change what biographers and scholars have believed for decades. The Houghton Library recently acquired Henry David Thoreau’s notes from his attempts to recover Margaret Fuller’s body after the shipwreck that claimed her life in 1850, including his records of eyewitness accounts. Those pages had been published before, but as this article shows, once the Houghton acquired the original and provided necessary restorations, more text was uncovered, thus changing the story.

Even more recently, the Concord Free Public Library acquired about 500 pages of Louisa May Alcott’s handwritten manuscripts of Little Women, including edits and changes. No one even knew these existed; they were in a private collection. I was fortunate enough to view the manuscripts when I was there in May, and what a thrill it was! 30 years after my first trip to Concord, when I insisted my mother take me to visit Orchard House, I was there looking at original copies of Little Women.

(And, even more intriguing: it turns out there are some shockers in those pages. I can’t spill any secrets, but Anne Boyd Rioux was there the day I was, and I’m really excited for her book Reading Little Women to be published!)


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