Lost and found: making claims on archives.
The idea for this rather speculative essay came to me while I was in that uneasy interstice between two projects. I was completing the work of editing Harriet Wilson's New England: Race, Writing, and Region even as I was beginning the sort of writing project one undertakes only after attaining institutional security through promotion and tenure: I was combing through an old accordion file box full of class notes, essays, and newspaper clippings from my own mother's days as an English graduate student and instructor at Cornell before her premature death in 1959 when I was only two years old. My purpose in writing a personal essay about my mother's paper legacy was to see how much of her I could recover so many decades later. (1) That effort led me to contemplate the theoretical--and now, for me, more urgent--issue of what is not in the archive, a very present absence. Here I was, involved in one project designed to publicize exciting new discoveries from public archives about the life of Harriet E. Wilson, even as I was coming to grips with the yawning lacunae this tiny private collection was revealing about someone who could not have been closer to me in a familial sense. This seemingly counterintuitive juxtaposition led me, finally, to ask questions about the necessarily incomplete nature of the recovery process as it concerns Wilson and the dangers of creating a new narrative about her that delineates and may delimit a new subject we might afterward problematically regard as the definitive Harriet Wilson. Of still greater concern to me is that while this new subjectivity might fill in some important blanks, it could fail to mark emphatically enough the forces of her cultural and racial obliteration as a black writer in New England. The temptation toward reification or myth making that the very collection I was co-editing could help to foster was checked, that is, by the new understanding I gleaned from working with my mother's slim archive. The enormity of the difference between the two projects helped me to grasp more intensely than before the distinct and racialized issues at stake regarding these two subjects as well as the limitations and risks inherent in any attempt to reconstruct a life--whether of a public figure or not.
To be sure, the recent disclosures about Wilson's life after her indenture that have appeared in Harriet Wilson's New England and elsewhere are groundbreaking, and this commentary should in no way be seen as diminishing their importance. Perhaps the most exciting recent find is Reginald H. Pitts's unearthing of actual bottles of various "hair products," including "Hair Dressing," "Hair Regenerator," and "Hair Restorer," embossed with the name "Mrs. H. E. Wilson" (Gardner, "Of Bottles and Books" 4). Pitts and P. Gabrielle Foreman have also traced Wilson's journey to Boston after publishing Our Nig and have documented her involvement in the popular spiritualist movement of the day. Banner of Light, a leading New England spiritualist paper, dubbed her "the earnest colored trance medium" (qtd. in Foreman, Introduction xliii). Additionally, they have uncovered Wilson's marriage in Boston to an apothecary eighteen years younger than herself, her death certificate from 1900, and the tombstone of "Hattie E. Wilson" in Quincy, Massachusetts. Equally significant, thanks to the textual recovery work of Eric Gardner, we now know that Wilson likely distributed Our Nig to white middle-class households as she peddled her hair tonic: one home at a time. (2)
At the same time, my purpose here, as I've suggested, is to raise questions about the limits of archival recovery that occurred to me as I was trying to turn the materials left by my mother into a "true"--or at least a coherent--narrative about her foreshortened life. If I could not reconstruct a reliable narrative about a life whose traces had not been deliberately eradicated, I determined, the risks associated with reconstructing the life of an author who had been the subject of such cultural expurgation must be many times greater.
My mother was a middle-class, relatively advantaged, married Jewish woman doing her graduate work at Cornell when she died. In addition to photographs and her completed MA thesis on Jane Austen, her papers include a file of notes, instructor mimeos, newspaper clippings, playbills, doodles, and one letter to the department chair, written a day after she finished her master's degree, asking to be admitted to the PhD program. My father, a staunch empiricist, threw out the rest of my mother's personal belongings, perhaps because of his practical nature or perhaps in a misguided effort to shield his children from the pain of loss. In any case, other than photos and the folder of her graduate years, the only knowledge I have about my mother, an only child, is a collection of random facts: I know she had severe enough asthma that she was winded after walking to the corner to mail a letter; I know that, as a chesty blond, she did a flawless impersonation of Judy Holliday, the 1940s comic actor of Born Yesterday fame; I know that I sneeze just like she did. These are the sorts of haphazard and indiscriminate particulars I was able to coax my father into telling me about Eunice Adele Raimon. Even her name--Eunice--sounded antiquated to me when I was young, like someone who lived long ago in a different time. However fragmentary, then, the file box of almost entirely academic material is thus the most tangible--and, therefore, oddly intimate--record I have of my mother.
I need to underscore that my comparison of my mother's archives and Wilson's is not naive. The paucity of such a personal and private collection, I know, cannot compare to the pervasive, structural, and racialized obliteration of African American lives and culture that mars the history of New England, which is, really, the deeper wrong that Harriet Wilson's New England is intended to help remediate. To quote from Joanne Pope Melish's well-known study on the subject, "It was an easy leap from the erasure of the experience of slavery [in New England] to the illusion of the historical absence of people of color generally" (xiv). Clearly, no such state-sponsored, centuries-long, systematized forgetting occurred in the case of my mother's legacy.
In fact, there are, perhaps, few parallels I can legitimately make between these women's legacies at all--except that, powerful though the experience of working with my own mother's papers was, the undertaking also illuminated for me in the most visceral and tangible way the profound lack that haunts any archive, especially that of public figures. Although I gleaned textual scraps about my mother's life--her despair over her students' writing, her love of such modernist writers as E. M. Forster and Gertrude Stein, the inordinate amount of time she clearly spent studying such now-forgotten Victorian essayists as Thomas Carlyle, the doodles she made of figures' heads in notebook margins that were eerily similar to my own--in the end, her academic and literary traces remained painfully unsatisfactory. I would never recover anything corporeal or truly satisfying about her. Those more bodily dimensions--her voice, her gestures, the qualities that a daughter most wants to know about a mother--were forever lost. Naturally, these tactile dimensions of archival lack manifest themselves differently in a historical or academic context. Still, in both settings, the researcher experiences an inevitable moment of frustration or disappointment over the impossibility of knowing more.
In a similar vein, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall writes in "Last Words" about her desperate efforts to honor the memory of her mother, Virginia, by engaging in extended research to write a suitable obituary that would encompass the entirety of her mother's life and its meaning. She writes, "[T]he urgency of writing was my own. I was the one who could not rest until the inchoate experiences of a lifetime had been marshaled into chronological form. I was the one who put my faith in history, with its document-based rhetoric of persuasion, its promise that a woman might, if only by a daughter's proxy, 'reach the conclusion of a life, and come into possession of [her] own story"' (32). Hall's final words are quoted from Carolyn Steedman (Childhood 247), another scholar who has meditated productively on topics that spurred both the obituary written by Hall and the essay I wrote about my mother's papers: the necessarily failed attempt to restore what is lost with the death of someone close or, perhaps, someone one admires only from a distance--a final accounting of the meaning of that life, either from the researcher's or from the subject's own individual perspective. Although the result is always already fragmentary, Hall herself retains faith in the historical endeavor. Elsewhere in the essay, in fact, she connects her curiosity about her mother's inner life, which Virginia Dowd always kept secret, to her own drive to become a historian. Hall writes of her own "desire, always thwarted, to solve the mystery, to bring back that which is irretrievably lost" (32). She links this impulse to "the quest of the daughter/historian for power, the power to shape historical memory, to claim a place in the public record (whether in humble obituaries or in ambitious books) for the unacknowledged heroes of the past" (33). This enigmatic pursuit, Hall concedes, has meant she has sometimes felt that the shape of her work was being chosen for her, "not so much by external claims as by inner currents that [she] could not quite grasp" (34). The mother's physical or emotional absence, then, can become a buried yet profoundly generative and shaping force in the work of historical recovery.
This acknowledgment of the unconscious forces present in archival work reaches its apotheosis--or its nadir, depending on one's views--in psychoanalytic writing on the subject. In her study Dust: The Archive and Cultural History, Steedman paraphrases this antifoundationalist posture: "The object (the event, the happening, the story from the past) has been altered by the very search for it, by its time and duration: what has actually been lost can never be found. This is not to say that nothing is found, but that thing is always something else, a creation of the search itself" (77). It may be easier to acquiesce to the truth value of this extraordinary formulation as it concerns a personal collection such as my mother's written legacy. Her accordion file box is surely as crammed full of psychological investments and desires as it is with sixty-year-old ephemera. At the end of my search, my mother is profoundly gone. The meaning I have made from her records in the essay I wrote is largely a product of my own search. However, it is exceedingly more threatening to apply Steedman's ideas about the ineffable and unstable nature of historical recovery to what we can, thanks largely to recent scholarship, call Wilson's archive. Nonetheless, my aim here is precisely to regard this newly constituted set of mostly public materials from a perspective that takes into account its complexity, including Wilson's own novelistic rendering of her past and the concurrent fraught history of blacks in New England, the fragmentary nature of these new archival findings, the exigencies that brought them into being, as well as the researcher's own acknowledged or unacknowledged investments. In short, I want to offer some words of caution about what it is we are "revisiting" even as we collectively delight in recovering Wilson's past.
As students of Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, we are well aware of the textual silences and omissions embedded in Wilson's own text--most notably, perhaps, her disclaimer on the first page of the preface, which underscores her reticence to reveal "transaction[s]" in her past that could undermine her most urgent authorial purpose: to make enough money to lift herself and her son out of poverty. Wilson offers "the public" the following caveat: "I do not pretend to divulge every transaction in my own life, which the unprejudiced world would declare unfavorable in comparison with treatment of legal bondmen; I have purposely omitted what would most provoke shame in our good anti-slavery friends at home" (n. pag.). Of course, much has already been observed about this passage: that it and other more direct condemnations of New England abolitionists throughout the novel were undoubtedly instrumental in the work's disappearance until its recovery by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in 1983; that such markers of the act of silencing are not only a conventional element of slave narratives in a culture devoted to and dependent on slavery, but also appear as striking visual images throughout the text. No young reader--and many of Wilson's readers were young--easily forgets the scenes in which Mrs. Belmont "[props Frado's] mouth open with a piece of wood" (20) in that "Two-Story White House, North." (3)
Indeed, the pervasive and constitutive element of coerced silence in nineteenth-century African American literature can hardly be understated or more central to any discussion of what is always already lacking in assessing a writer's life and work. With respect to Our Nig, what is absent from the narrative plays a large role in the ongoing debate over whether the work should be designated a novel, an autobiography, or "sketches." John Ernest asserts that the volume necessarily blends autobiography and fiction as a device to navigate a dangerous culture "bent on trivializing, eliminating, and otherwise controlling the African American presence in the North." "The truth of [Wilson's] life," he continues, is
bound intimately with questions about how to tell that truth, how to relate her experiences; and the question of how to tell her story was shaped in part by the audience for whom she was writing. How could she tell the story of her life, then, through straight autobiographical narration? How could she and her contemporaries go about telling a true story in a land devoted to falsehoods? (Chaotic Justice 84)
Even as genealogists and historians continue to dig in public records and private collections to uncover more tantalizing evidence of Wilson's reach across New England's literary, religious, and political culture in the nineteenth century, I want to suggest that the fundamental epistemological questions about Wilson's literary achievement and its cultural context that Ernest raises need to remain in the forefront of our minds--that "the fragmented histories, the partial recoveries, ... the still-unprinted and even undiscovered texts and manuscripts ... of African American history" must remain formative aspects of how we think about the field itself (15). Melish provides a chilling catalogue of the formal and informal strategies New England whites adopted not only to render the memory of slavery invisible but later on to eliminate living people of color. A few of these measures included running blacks out of town in "official roundups and 'warnings out' ... and vandalizing black neighborhoods" (2). These kinds of active local efforts were matched by much more ambitious attempts at removal, of course, "such as the American Colonization Society's campaign to demonize free people of color and raise funds to ship them to Africa," but also by much more subtle measures that effaced African Americans from the very sorts of historical archives we are now intent on rebuilding (2). It is only historically accurate and just, then, to ensure that the story of such absence and incompleteness continues to form the foundation of black literary history as much as does the activity of recovery that has so enlivened Wilson scholarship in recent years.
What concerns me, to be more specific, is a tendency toward what I will call a misleading positivism that can pervade critical responses to significant archival finds of the type to which my own co-edited collection is, in part, a testament. Newly discovered information and objects related to the writer can begin to fill in blanks and create a new, rehabilitated subjectivity for Wilson in a manner that too innocently neglects the comprehensive and massive act of cultural erasure to which she and her counterparts were subjected. At worst, this activity--laudable and essential as it is--can itself begin to elide the cultural erasure that is so central to understanding Wilson's history and work. At its worst, then, a kind of mythmaking can result: a mythmaking far more pernicious--though no less present--in private narratives such as the one I could construct from the fragments of personal history that comprise my mother's graduate student papers.
This very danger is present in the cover art of Harriet Wilson's New England, about which I hesitate to admit I am radically ambivalent. The cover features two renderings of a sculpture of Wilson that stands in a Milford, New Hampshire, park, both sepia-toned, one ghosted behind the other. The sculpture represents the culmination of tireless work by JerriAnne Boggis and the Harriet Wilson Project, whose members, in Boggis's words, "did not wish the same acts of disappearance to befall Wilson after she had been rediscovered for a second time" (232). The statue, and therefore the cover, depicts the author holding out an open book and striding confidently up a step, volume in hand. Her young son, George, is huddled by her side. As Cassandra Jackson has pointed out, the expression on the statue's face is "sober and resolute," an idealized version of the actual economic and social conditions Wilson faced when she wrote Our Nig. (4)
On one level, of course, this public and permanent commemoration is to be celebrated and affirmed. To be sure, I should also make a distinction between the statue, which is by its nature a kind of mediated placeholder for memory and history, and the book cover, which I confess has made me increasingly uneasy with the passage of time since the collection's publication. I worry that no matter how loudly and how often the contributors to the volume discuss the issue of how much we still don't know about the writer's life and how that absence is anything but an accident, the visual presence of the figure of Wilson on the cover overwhelms the text. For a wider readership, especially, the cover instantiates an image of the collection's subject that appears nowhere in the historical record. The fact that we have no idea what Wilson looked like is only one among innumerable ways in which her life as well as her literary and cultural achievements was passively or actively obliterated in the history of New England. Likewise, my concern is that rendering her as she appears on the cover--as a healthy, whole, proud figure--performs its own sort of erasure of the little we know about the early life of Harriet E. Wilson. One thing we do know is that the physical abuse she endured at the hands of the Blanchard family left her in fragile health for the rest of her life. Even more tragically, we know that both she and her son were so destitute that at various times they were forced to spend time--both together and apart--in the Hillsborough County Poor Farm, and we know that George died before he turned eight. (5)
By contrast, I possess photographs of my mother like the one reproduced here. It's my favorite precisely because it lends itself so easily to my own personal mythmaking. There she is, laughing, stretched out on what could be a private bench in the countryside, reading what could be a novel next to a man who could be her friend, amid parts of what could be the New York Times strewn casually around. When I was younger, I unconsciously stitched these fragments together to create a coherent, idealized narrative of the mother I never knew as a contented intellectual, surrounded by friends, enjoying her work and her life--at least at the instant the camera shutter clicked. What my own project of recovery brought home to me was just how partial and fragmentary that image was and just how paltry and lacking a box full of documents she treasured was to the enormous task of understanding the mind, or even the mundane concerns, of any archival subject, even when her own written keepsakes have been preserved. Far from arguing against the validity of archival recovery, however, I wish only to emphasize that marking such efforts at cultural obliteration must remain central to our work on African American writers.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
One of the aspects of Harriet Wilson's New England that is unusual in an academic collection and about which I am most proud is a section that tries to reach beyond the traditional scholarly audience to record the personal reflections of those who either had a longstanding interest in Wilson's life and writing or who were involved in the Harriet Wilson Project, which brought the statue and the collection into being in the first place. One such essay is that written by William Allen, a student at Milford High School when the project began. He recalls that his yard in Milford included a granite foundation where he "often found bits of china or broken bricks that got churned up in the dirt nearby" (213). It turned out that the foundation had been part of the Milford Poor Farm between the early 1830s and 1868, the exact period when Wilson lived in Milford. It is likely, therefore, that Wilson was intimately familiar with both the town poor farm and its successor, the Hillsborough County Farm, though documentation exists only for the latter. Allen concludes his essay hopefully, predicting that Wilson's "story will ... rise to the top, just like the little bits of china and pieces of brick that rose to the top of the soil in my yard--treasures from the past that tell us who we have been, who we are, and who we will become as a culture and as a people" (216). In truth, however, while those shards may lead us to new information about some aspect of Wilson's past, that knowledge will always be the equivalent of Allen's shards--traces, relics of a past that was deliberately obscured.
Just as it is important to the archeologist and the historian to recreate worlds from such shards of brick and china, it must continue to be the literary and cultural critic's charge to attend closely to the absences and the aporia endemic to the story of African American history in New England. The project of retrieving elements of Wilson's life and work is an ongoing labor of love on the part of researchers from many quarters of academe, for which readers can only be grateful. At the same time, we must ensure that New England's massive and longstanding campaign of racial effacement does not itself lose prominence or be covered over in the excitement of the latest discovery.
Thanks to Mary V. Dougherty for her careful review of drafts of this essay and to Theresa Strouth Gaul for her subsequent editorial acuity.
(1.) My research resulted in "My Mother, My Archive," an unpublished essay.
(2.) See the introduction to the Penguin edition of Our Nig for full information on the Foreman and Pitts discoveries. Also see Foreman's "Recovered Autobiographies and the Marketplace" and Gardner's "Of Bottles and Books." For broader studies, see Foreman, Activist Sentiments, and Gardner, Unexpected Places.
(3.) This phrase is quoted from Wilson's subtitle: "Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North. Showing That Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There." For a full discussion of the possible reasons for the disappearance of Our Nig, see Gates. For a useful exploration of the culture surrounding black literary production during relevant decades, see Ernest, Liberation Historiography. See Gardner, "Of Books and Bottles," for more information about Wilson's likely readership.
(4.) Jackson's essay is concerned with the function of the monument as a cultural production that shapes as well as reflects time and space. About such memorials, she writes,
Monuments, then, reflect cultural ideologies, and at the same time are a kind of fiction themselves, a series of narratives of regional character, and national belonging. They are not a transparent reflection of who we are, but often a phantasmic projection of a cultural/national/regional identity. Monuments have been one of the means through which a carefully constructed vision of New England as the site of white pioneers, revolutionary soldiers, and abolitionists has so often dominated the public history of the region.
(5.) George Mason Wilson, seven, died in 1860 in Milford, five months after Our Nig was published. See Foreman and Pitts, "Chronology 1."
Allen, William. "Discovering Harriet Wilson in My Own Backyard." Boggis, Raimon, and White 213-16.
Boggis, JerriAnne. "Not Somewhere Else, But Here." Boggis, Raimon, and White 225-35.
Boggis, JerriAnne, Eve Allegra Raimon, and Barbara A. White, eds. Harriet Wilson's New England: Race, Writing, and Region. Durham: UP of New England, 2007.
Ernest, John. Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2009.
--. Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2004.
Foreman, P. Gabrielle. Activist Sentiments: Rending Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2009.
__. Introduction. Wilson xxv-lv.
__. "Recovered Autobiographies and the Marketplace: Our Nig's Generic Genealogies and Harriet Wilson's Entrepreneurial Enterprise." Boggis, Raimon, and White 123-38.
Foreman, P. Gabrielle, and Reginald H. Pitts. "Chronology I: Harriet E. 'Hattie' Wilson, 1825-1900." Wilson vii-xvii.
Gardner, Eric. "Of Bottles and Books: Reconsidering the Readers of Harriet Wilson's Our Nig" Boggis, Raimon, and White 3-26.
__. Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2009.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Introduction. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. 1859. By Harriet E. Wilson. Ed. Gates. New York: Vintage, 1983. xi-lix.
Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. "Last Words." Journal of American History 89.1 (2002): 30-36.
Jackson, Cassandra. "Time, Place, and Spirit': Locating Harriet Wilson." American Literature Association Conference. Hyatt Regency, San Francisco. 28 May 2010.
Melish, Joanne Pope. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780-1860. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1998.
Steedman, Carolyn. Childhood, Culture and Class in Britain: Margaret McMillan, 1860-1931. London: Virago, 1990.
__. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2002.
Wilson, Harriet E. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. 1859. Ed. P. Gabrielle Foreman and Reginald H. Pitts. New York: Penguin, 2005.
EVE ALLEGRA RAIMON
University of Southern Maine
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|Title Annotation:||FROM THE ARCHIVES|
|Author:||Raimon, Eve Allegra|
|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2010|
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