Cushmania: Reconstructing Queerness and Celebrity of a Nineteenth-Century Actress

Conference Paper for Digital Humanities and Gender History (Feb 5, 2021) organized by Prof. Dr. Mettele, Pia Marzell, and Martin Prell

[Katrin] Introduction: Who We Are and What We Are Doing

Thank you to the organizers for having us today and thank you to everyone for your interest in “Cushmania: Reconstructing Queerness and Celebrity of a Nineteenth-Century Actress.”

Almost exactly 162 years ago to this day, the US American public learned that Miss Hosmer and Miss Cushman lived happily together in Rome. Now you are forgiven if you don’t recognize either of these names. I guarantee you, however, had you lived back then, you would have known Charlotte Cushman. Cushman was one of the most famous, most talked about women of her time – which you probably can guess from this little snippet, the same way that you already get a hint of her queerness.

Today, we (Selina and me, who shoulder this project together) would like to present parts of our ongoing research project entitled “Economy and Epistemology of Gossip in Nineteenth-Century US-American Culture,” for which we have built the website – which includes, among others, the collection Cushmania. Cushmania is an online database documenting the public reception and private life writing of actress Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876) via material collated from various US-American libraries and archives.

Cushmania to us is several things:

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

Concluding Remarks

The Archive as a Space that Actively Shapes Narratives

Further problems that we have encountered were that parts of letters may be missing, letter pages may be assembled in the wrong order or they were assigned to the wrong historical agent (LoC, CCP 10: 3004-3007). Transcribing the documents, we noticed from time to time that a folder contains other senders or addressees as those indicated on the compiled folders. In such cases, it is important to question the arrangement of historical documents by the archives/archivists. Dever et al. remind us that the archive is a space that constructs narratives based on the knowledge that archivists have about the collections and their comprised documents:

[A]ny contemporary discussion of archival research must begin by acknowledging the epistemological pressure placed upon the concept of ‘the archive’ in recent years. This pressure has marked a turn away from the positivist understanding of archival repositories as being mere storehouses of records, toward considering the status of the archive as a significant element in our investigations. Ann Laura Stoler characterises this shift as the ‘move from archive-as-source to archive-as-subject’. […] [Jane Taylor’s] conclusion–that the archive is ‘at once a system of objects, a system of knowledge and a system of exclusion’–points to the profoundly constructed and deeply political nature of the archive, challenging many hitherto basic assumptions about ‘archival fixity and materiality’.

(Dever et al. 105, 118-119)

Critiquing her own use of private documents and tacit knowledge in archival documents, Sally Newman challenges her own position as a researcher to discuss her initial research focus and the assumptions with which she worked on the material at first, oscillating between nostalgia and fantasy. She researched in the Smith College archive to investigate same-sex desire:

I was drawn by their colour and materiality, even as it seemed there was something other-worldly about the splashes of brilliant blue that lit up the dour grey pages of the thick leather-bound books in which students immortalised their college experiences. This paradoxical presence/absence only heightened my desire for these objects and allowed me to indulge in the fantasy of seeing through these miniature portals into another time and place. I enjoyed the delight that was obvious on students’ faces in their playful mugging for the camera at ‘Mock Weddings’, which seemed to capture the spirit of this progressive ‘Adamless Eden’ that I was experiencing vicariously as I worked my way through the archive.

(Newman 153)

Newman concludes that her “desire (for these objects, for what they represented for my project) had prevented … [her] from seeing that these artefacts were linked by something more obvious: the desire to memorialise experiences and culture” (Newman 157). She calls for using the term ‘archive’ in the pural since what researchers make of the material they encounter is exposed to interpreting skills coming from all sorts of different angles: “There is no single archive because readers will construct their own ‘archive’ from the artefacts they choose to highlight, ignore or pass over” (Newman 155). Hence, our online archive and exhibits are a particular way of storytelling. The Omeka collection is constantly evolving in terms of size and specificity. In the DFG project, we trace gossip as a form of knowledge production and circulation in auto/biographical writing (both published and private) to investigate women’s (individual and communal, secret and shared) strategies in dealing with socio-cultural forces of financial speculation, the re-evaluation of privacy, and new forms of participation in the public sphere. For the Omeka collection, we have focused on actress Charlotte Cushman so far. The collected and digitized material is not limited to documents that explicitly mention gossip. The collection comprises

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Blog Series: Working on Intimate Knowledge with Archival Documents (2/3)

Working with or Deciphering Archival Documents

Dever et al. point out that the demonizing of gaps in archival research nurtures the illusion of some kind of coherent history that can be discovered:

The challenge […] becomes one of how to read and work with these fragments, given that, as researchers, ‘we are generally dismayed by the gaps that fragments expose, and try to fill them’. We often harbour an insistent (deeply suppressed and often denied) desire to find in our archival sources a whole where there can only ever be random parts, to perform acts of reconstitution in the service of producing a coherent and seamless account of our subject. […] How, then, do we live with – and work with – the patterns of knowing and not knowing thrown up by these sources … .

(Dever et al. 100–01)

It is tough to cast this urge to find the ‘truth’ (the ‘full historical truth’) aside, since it is difficult to accept that we may never know it or, in fact, that there was never such a truth. What researchers can achieve, however, is a process of sense-making of fragments in the archives, which gives a voice to often forgotten historical agents and presents new perspectives on historical events, lives, and constellations. This being said, do not let me deceive you, it is an ongoing struggle to happily coexist with the fragments. How often have we desperately hoped for a historical document that explains it all to magically pop up? Too many times. How often will that happen again in the next months? Way too often. Sometimes, we were successful and it is those times that stick with us. They keep us going to dig deeper. In doing so, we were facing several issues of working with and deciphering archival documents.

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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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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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