In this special Women’s History Month episode, Stefanie Schäfer discusses gossip with American Studies scholar Katrin Horn, head of the research project www.archivalgossip.com. Following the trajectories of American artists in Rome, and specifically the making of actress Charlotte Cushman’s celebrity persona, they read the functions of gossip in 19th-century US magazines between the intimate and the political, between escapism and nation building, and they also ponder the question of how gossip became gendered.
Charlotte Cushman was one of the biggest stars of the Anglophone theater in the nineteenth century. We know this because of the sheer number of articles and biographical sketches available about Cushman. We know this because reviews of her performances do not tire of stressing how big a star she was.
We also know this, because evidently Cushman was well paid, very well paid in fact. So much so, that the size of her fortune regularly warranted its own mention in newspapers. (Which is not so say that Cushman’s private letters aren’t also full of discussions of money. In 1847, for example, she explains to her future agent that she intents to “gallop through the country as fast as I can & make as much money as I can.” Judging by the numbers listed below, she did just that.)
Here’s how (at least according to public sources), Cushman’s wealth has developed over time:
Sometimes (or maybe even most of the times?), researchers feel like treasure hunters in the archives. So did I when I looked through folders of the Minnie Bruce Pratt Papers for sources of intersectional critique of white lesbian feminism for my dissertation project. I was spending two months at Duke University with a fellowship of the Bavarian American Academy. One afternoon, I was carefully turning pages in a folder titled “Latinas” when I suddenly found this article on the reverse of a newspaper clipping from the Gay Community News, October 13, 1984:
Actress Charlotte Cushman and sculptor Harriet Hosmer chasing me to the other side of the Atlantic, I couldn’t believe it! What are the chances to find an article unrelated to what I was searching for, unrelated to the topic of the folder but speaking to the circle of women that I am working on for the gossip research project here in Germany. It was not cut into pieces even though Minnie Bruce Pratt was actually interested in the article on the other side of the sheet. Unfortunately, due to these circumstances, the second page was missing. Also, this made me think again about all the things that we as researchers are probably missing in our archival research. All the little traces and connections that we do not find by coincidence.
Last week, I had the pleasure of giving a guest lecture as part of the University of Münster’s Lecture Series In the Mood for Affect. The title of my lecture was “Capitalizing on Intimacy: The Rise of Gossip in US American Periodicals” and in preparing for it I re-discovered one issue of Ladies’ Home Journal that is so wonderfully bananas when it comes to gossip that a) I decided to dedicate an entire section of the lecture to this one magazine issue (the other two sections were focussed on the careers of Grace Greenwood and Anne Hampton Brewster and how they profitted off of their personal ties within the expatriate community in Italy, and on Town Topics‘ stylistic evocation of intimate familiarity among readers and between readers and “The Saunterer” respectively), and b) I wanted to share it with you here, too:
Let’s start with a bit of context: Simultaneous with the rise in public gossip for which I argue, the nineteenth century also witnessed another crucial and related trend in publications, namely etiquette manuals. As John Kasson summarizes in Civility & Rudeness, the interest in manners is intricately connected to changes in the social make-up, most centrally, the national focus on social mobility: “Fundamental to the popularity of manuals of etiquette was the conviction that proper manners and social respectability could be purchased and learned” (Kasson 43). Hence, it is unsurprising that the same magazines which might write about public figures and thus profit from the interest in gossip reports about their activities, might nonetheless also feature advice columns that warn against gossip’s potentially disastrous social consequences. So, I know that from a financial and editorial point of view it makes a lot of sense for the two opposing takes on gossip (condemning it / selling it) to exist side by side. Nonethelles, I was still struck by how that plays out in the August-issue of Ladies’ Home Journal from 1889 (full text accessible via HathiTrust).
Online conference organized by Katrin Horn, Karin Hoepker, and Selina Foltinek at the University of Bayreuth, Oct 21-23, 2021
We may be a bit late with our comment on the project’s conference but not less enthusiastic about its outcome! From October 21-23, 2021, the Speculative Endeavors Conference eventually took place virtually. Last year, we postponed our event in the hope we might meet in person in 2021. Early this year, we made the call that it might be wiser (and safer) to move the conference online. And, sure, the missed conversations over coffe and in the hallways put a little damper on things. In the end, however, we were simply happy to finally meet those people virtually who had sent their fantastic abstracts on a wide range of topics in 2019. The conference planning had certainly come a long way!
Speculative Endeavors examined cultures of knowledge and capital in the US during the long nineteenth century. In particular, presentations focused on illicit, tacit, oral, unofficial, or subjugated knowledges. In the century of the rise of Wall Street, the increasing incorporation of America, and the experience of economic volatility, people sought potential “insider knowledge” about the machinations of markets, and different knowledges competed in times of heightened uncertainty. Practices of speculation, covert informational labor, and related mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion closely regulated access to and speculative value of such knowledge. Heike Paul, the director of the Bavarian American Academy (BAA), kindly offered to start off the conference with a few words on the contemporary context of the the conference topic. As chairs, Sylvia Mayer, Regina Schober, Birte Christ, and Jana Keck guided our speakers and all participants through the panels to align the panelists’ long, pre-circulated papers and short, 7-min Zoom talks. This format allowed us to have extensive, 60min-Q&As which lay the focus on dialogue and exchange, which for us are central to the value of conference. We couldn’t be happier with how all our participants were willing to committed to making this format work! Conference presentations were given by twelve speakers from the US, UK, Austria, and Germany. They covered topics from the areas of rumor & speculation, disenfanchised knowledge (institutions), the trade of private knowledge, and knowledge production in the so-called private sphere.
GAAS 2021 paper on working with manuscripts (when that’s not what you’ve been trained to do)
With a slight delay, I’d like to add here the talk I gave recently at the 2021 Annual Conference of the German Association for American Studies as part of a panel on “Dispatches from the Method Wars: New Approaches to Cultural Agency and Participation in American Studies” (June 18, 2021). The CfP spurred some reflections on how my current research on gossip in the nineteenth century and my prior project on camp in contemporary culture have similar “issues,” when it comes to some of the methods or scholarly ideals of American Studies. More precisely: the paper was an opportunity for me to think through “being too close” and “too much participation.”
(I hope you’re not coming here looking for anwers, because I mostly had questions).
[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 archivalgossip.com – 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.
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 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
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.