Blog Series: Working on Intimate Knowledge with Archival Documents (1/3)

In letters, scraps of notes or a diary entry, we are offered some of the most fragmented and ephemeral textual traces of a life and the intimate connections that structured it. But while we sometimes conflate the private and the confessional, there is no guarantee that what we will find preserved within someone’s personal papers will necessarily offer clarity of insight or confirmation of intent.

(Dever et al. 122)

In our research on Charlotte Cushman in terms of gossip and reputation management, we mainly work with archival documents with intimate knowledge. They do not necessarily “offer clarity of insight or confirmation of intent” (Dever et al. 122). but implicitly touch upon Cushman’s ambition to construct a most favorable public image of herself as a respectable and successful actress. For instance, Cushman wrote to or received long letters from her romantic partners that inform the correspondent about press reports, attempts to conceal certain parts of her private life or build a network in foreign countries such as England and Italy between the 1840s and 1860s. Additionally, many of the biographies and articles we deal with often build on intimate knowledge. Today, I introduce a blog series that revolves around the perks and intricacies of archival research, and takes into consideration the form of intimate knowledge that is constitutive of gossip. We will post a small series of entries covering the topics of accessing archival documents, deciphering them, and working with/creating intimate, archival narratives.

While Katrin Horn’s blog post to the GHI blog ‘History of Knowledge’ discusses the significance of gossip as a form of knowledge, this blog entry engages with practical questions and implications for our archival research, which address tacit knowledge and a woman who polarized her audiences transatlantically both on and off the stage. Issues range from accessing and deciphering archival documents to making use of intimate knowledge accounts.

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But wait, there’s more! (Cushman-related material online)

Did you come here looking for something that you did not find? Are your research travels cancelled and you’re looking for other ways to stay busy? Or were you simply so intruiged by our Cushman-collection that you want to read even more about this fascinating actress? Either way: you’re in luck! Thanks to Cushman’s large social network, letters sent and received by her, and numerous other texts that mention her are widely available in other digital archives.

So, in the hope that it might proof useful to some fellow American studies folks, celebrity studies people, (gender) historians, and who else might profit from nineteenth-century primary material, here’s a collection of digital sources we have relied on repeatedly in our own research.
(Stay tuned for updates, and get in touch, if you have any questions!)

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Archives of Queer Intimacy

(or: musings on past obsessions and a new publication)

In my attempts to make sense of my encounters with ‘the archive’, I’ve stumbled upon Maryanne Dever’s article “Garbo’s Foot, Or, Sex, Socks, and Letters” (2010), which not only namechecks about 50% of my interests in its title, but also – and more importantly – makes a wonderful case for archival absences (“nothing”) as evidence. The introductory paragraph reads as follows:

In November 2006 I found myself staring at item no. 80 from Box 23 of the Greta Garbo material held at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia […] this visit was the culmination of a six-year desire to see what ‘nothing’ looked like.

(Dever 2010 163)
Garbo and de Acosta, 1930s

“Nothing,” of course, being the relationship between Greta Garbo and Mercedes de Acosta – according to the Rosenbach Museum and other “stake holders” in Garbo’s posthumous fame, a wishful thinking, a figment of people’s imagination. Certainly not a defining part of the life and legacy of one of cinema’s most enigmatic stars.

If we count more metaphorical archives (of popular culture, of auto/biographies), then I’ve searched them for “something” – meaning, traces, evidence, inspiration, whatever you wanna call it – where “nothing” was supposed to be for a very long time. In my early twenties, I devoured biographies like Barry Paris’ Garbo and de Acosta’s infamous Here Lies the Heart. I might have watched more movies and series for subtext than for main text. Always sure, there was something. (I’m not claiming my interest in gossip is neutral.)

Castle, Terry (1993): The Apparitional Lesbian. Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture. New York: Columbia UP.
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Attic to Archive

On the Provenance of the Charlotte Cushman Papers at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Loose Letters from Charlotte Cushman Papers

Much of the material I read for our research project (letters, diary entries) is of a very private nature. This raises ethical concerns as well as methodological issues:

But what does it mean to begin to sift the available traces of someone’s life? Where do the boundaries lie between private lives and public scrutiny? […] How do we make sense of surviving traces of their private lives that have found their way into public archives? What protocols govern scholarly attention to these particular aspects of the archival record?

Dever, Maryanne, et al. “The Intimate Archive.” Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 38, no. 1, May 2010, pp. 94–137.

It also raises very practical questions – some of which struck me immediately upon sitting down in front of one bound book of Charlotte Cushman’s personal correspondence (decyphering the handwriting, storage of data), some of which took a while to dawn on me. Most importantly:

How did these letters get here???

Box 1, Charlotte Cushman Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
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History Of Knowledge

Blog Post on Gossip

After my research stay at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, last spring, the editors of their History of Knowledge-Blog kindly invited me to contribute a blog post on gossip’s relevance to studying the history of knowledge.

My thoughts on gossip, queer history, and archives entitled “An Intimate Knowledge of the Past? Gossip in the Archives” can be found here.

Besides some theoretical observations about what defines gossip and how we know history, the post also has ALL the drama of Charlotte Cushman’s most notorious break-up.


Euphemism Challenge

A (growing) list of the best, worst, and – quite frankly – weirdest descriptions of Cushman’s relationships (with friends as well as lovers).

What’s gossip without a fitting code, after all?

  • “Both Nathanial and Sopia Hawthorne, nonetheless, took an instant liking to the young sculptress [Hosmer] on a visit to her studio in 1858, but William Story frowned on these independent females, who struck him as a distasteful crowd of Bohemians.” (Paul Baker, Fortunate Pilgrims. Americans in Italy, 1800-1860, 1964)
  • “Charlotte Cushman allowed her friend Emma Stebbins to edit her memoirs and letters just before her death.” (Nan Mullenneaux, Staging Family: Domestic Deceptions fo Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Actresses, 2018) [I find this one particularly galling, since the author repeatedly quotes from Merrill, and yet … ‘her friend’]
  • Emma Stebbins “formed a warm friendship with Charlotte Cushman, in whose shadow she thereafter contentedly lived.” (Margaret Farrand Thorp, The Literary Sculptors, 1965)
  • harem (scarem) as I call […] the emancipated females who dwell there in heavenly unity; namely, the Cushman, Grace Greenwood, H., S.,and Co.;” (William Wetmore Story to J.R.Lowell, 1953, qtd. in (William Wetmore Story and His Friends, Vol. 1, Henry James, 1903)
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Women Matter!

Women and the Archives

Review: International Summer School in Mainz, Germany (October 2019, “Reflections on Code”)

#digitalhumanities: As a newbie to digital humanities (or rather: DH, as I learned; DH is very much about abbreviations), I started my week at the International Summer School at the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz on October 8, 2019. Two weeks earlier, I had already been to a Dariah workshop @IEG in Mainz, so Mainz really stood out to me as the place to be when it came to DH in Germany. It hadn’t been easy to find practice-oriented opportunities for a new DH fan. During my studies @FAU in Erlangen, I had read a couple of theoretical articles about the digital humanities and what they can do, how they change the field of literary studies, and how we can combine research endeavors in the humanities with computer-based tools that support them or even raise new questions altogether. During the two workshops, and especially the ISS, I dived into some really fun tools such as Git, Animexgeo, Neo4j,, … and many more.

Several presenters guided us through a wide range of immensely fascinating topics and recent issues of DH and its tools. The one I would like to discuss in more detail is Martin Prell’s talk about ‘Historical sources of women in the Digital Humanities – overview and automated text analysis.’ Why this topic? Well, first of all, for someone only recently exposed to DH practices, it was a presentation that I could easily follow. Also, the idea of raising gender as a category and drawing attention to women in the archives resonated with me and the project that Katrin and I are working on. Specializing in NLP (Natural Language Processing – remember, the abbreviations, very important), Martin Prell analyzes letters of pietist Erdmuthe Benigna using a range of DH tools. Additionally, he critically examined gender issues in the digital humanities. Referencing Mark Hall’s talk @DHd2019, Prell observed that “DH is the Study of dead Dudes.” Women are not the major center of attention when it comes to research on archival material and they are hardly mentioned in DH projects presented at Dhd conferences. Women are thus marginalized and erased in public discourse, an ongoing process that is reinforced by the digital humanities. Even if DH researchers may not actively focus on male subjects, DH projects work with texts that are already available in a digital format. Women’s archival material may not be as accessible. Restrictions of access can have many reasons, such as:

  • women’s documents were not preserved in the archives due to gendered notions of what is worth being archived
  • documents are often not available in digital form or
  • researchers cannot find them in an online search as women’s archival material may be stored together with the items of their husbands.

The result is a cognitive bias. DH projects usually start with data that is already digitized. Hence, DH projects study mostly male subjects.

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Conference CfP

The Call for Papers for our first project-related conference is now online: please consider joining us in Bayreuth next October for Speculative Endeavors: Cultures of Knowledge and Capital in the Long Nineteenth Century. Deadline for submissions is Nov 22, 2019.

Keynote speakers are Peter Knight (Manchester), author of Reading the Market: Genres of Financial Capitalism in Gilded Age America (Johns Hopkins UP), and Lori Merish (Georgetown), author of Archives of Labor:  Working-Class Women and Literary Culture in the Antebellum United States (Duke UP)

We expect to publish the program of Speculative Endavors: Cultures of Knowledge and Capital in the Long Nineteenth Century in the spring of 2020.

First Project Publication

The most tangible result of my time at the Library of Congress so far: my article on the uses of gossip in Edith Wharton’s fiction is now available online!

In the United States of the late nineteenth century, the home was increasingly discussed in terms of privacy and the domestic was viewed as a protected “feminine sphere.” Focusing on the work of an author almost synonymous with the literary depiction of homes, Edith Wharton, this article questions domestic myths of the US home. As a vehicle for its critique, it relies on a mode of communication that is firmly located in the domestic sphere and yet destabilizes its premises of privacy and sanctity: gossip. By analyzing the depiction of homes and the reliance on “idle talk” as both content and narrative technique in “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and Summer, the article shows how Wharton exposes the feminine sphere as a dangerous place. To this end, she combines elements of Gothic fiction that subvert the domestic ideal with depictions of homes that are porous to gossip, which both uncovers abuses and invites them. Concentrating her attention on female protagonists (rather than enfranchised white men), Wharton paints a drastically different picture of the home and the possibility of shielding the private from economic or public concerns than evoked in contemporary legal and journalistic discourses.

(author: Katrin Horn)

Last Day at the Library of Congress

It’s my last day at the Library of Congress and that means: returning books and saying goodbye to the most convenient work place I have ever had the pleasure of working at. Soooo many books, most of them deliverd to your desk within hours; supportive librarians everywhere; reading rooms with everything from handwritten letters to original copies of magazines, to audiovisual material … it’s hard to imagine a better place for research.

I have learned a lot these past few months and my project (and my understanding of it) has grown tremendously, I’ve also submitted an article which has been accepted (! more on that when it’s out), I organized a panel with a colleague (which also got accepted), I met great people, and I’ve read so much gossip! In magazine articles, in conduct literature, in diaries, in letters – gossip was everywhere I looked. In reading all of this material alongside each other, gossip emerged, among others, as a very specific form of public intimacy which reached its readers (whether in Godey’s Lady’s Magazine or in Eliza Potter’s Experience of a Hairdresser in High Life) in a public, massmediated setting, yet addressed them as intimate friends and like-minded individuals. This paradoxical use of public gossip for intimate purposes (such as: distracting from the public and economic role of the women from which it originates) promises to be an exciting new avenue of inquiry into gossip’s uses at the end of the nineteenth century.
After the fun part of discovering so much primary and secondary material, now it is time to analyze, combine, revise, summarize, re-think, and form all of this into coherent thoughts and sentences. That might take a while. So for now, I’ll allow myself a short break and simply enjoy the memories of full bookshelves and an extremely scenic walk to work.

(author: Katrin Horn)