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 In such cases, it is important to question the arrangement of historical documents by the archives/archivists.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

  • articles and auto/biographies that allude to and shape Cushman’s reputation,
  • letters that address Cushman’s social circles in the United States, England, and Italy,
  • diary entries about Cushman’s work, journeys, relationships,
  • poems dedicated to or written by Cushman,
  • fan letters,
  • scrapbooks.

Hence, the digital collection suggests that a variety of written documents need to be considered for an epistemological analysis of gossip and reputation management. The arrangements and entanglements of documents in exhibits and by tags selects and thereby highlights certain sources. It is important to note that we suspect more material to be hidden in the archival institutions around the world and that large parts of Cushman’s correspondence may be lost or not yet discovered. Our selection of material is based on our research questions and the means available to us.

Making Use of Intimate Knowledge

In “The Intimate Archive,” Dever at el. emphasize that archival researchers who want to make use of intimate accounts are generally confronted with material that is hardly ever self-explanatory and/or explicit:

This means that we have to learn to live with ambiguity, with the details we cannot pin down and even with downright error. These factors inevitably colour our work in a field where the distance between the original producer of a document and the scholarly reader grows daily, tempting us further and further into speculation and inference. But, just as the intimate must not be confused with the confessional, it must also be distinguished from the explicit. While remarkably unguarded outpourings exist (such as Marjorie Barnard’s declaration to Jean Devanny that her lover ‘liked my body very much’ 98), it is important to remain alert to the ways in which documents convey desire, emotion or attachment in other more muted ways.  

(Dever et al. 123–124)

Charlotte Cushman’s letters almost never introduce people, incidents, places, or experiences to the reader. Writing letters to frequent correspondents such as Emma Crow Cushman or Annie Fields were based on shared “intimate knowledge” (Katrin Horn, “An Intimate Knowledge of the Past? Gossip in the Archives”) that needed no such explications. In her letters, Cushman was not writing for us but for those with whom she shared intimate relationships, ranging from love to business matters. Correspondents would also recurrently address newspaper articles or scandals that are hard to identify without the complete, chronological compilation of letters (Some were destroyed, some may have not found their way to the archives yet, some may be lost.). Hence, it was indispensable to set up a content management system such as Omeka which enabled us to link items, explain abbreviations or names that pop up, and annotate the material collected in the archives across a range of collections. What Jennie Lorenz did on paper when she was researching on Emma Stebbins’s biography of Charlotte Cushman, namely transcribing and annotating archival material, we are currently doing in a digital form.

Dever et al. stress the significance of feminism for engaging with research questions that arise when looking at intersection of the so-called ‘private’ and ‘public sphere’: “How do we make sense of surviving traces of their private lives that have found their way into public archives? …  As feminist researchers, we were interested in the interface between public and private selves, in how individuals are constituted by, but also negotiate, social identity” (Dever et al. 96). Recurrently moving in this tertium comparationis of the ‘private’ and the ‘public,’ Cushman sought to control which private bits and pieces she wanted to share and in which way. Taking on the challenge of an epistemological inquiry of gossip, the project dives into these intersections of private and public spheres to stress their entangelements rather than their separation. The ‘gaps’ that we as researchers identify can either result from a loss of documents over time, or from Cushman’s reputation management, or they may be based on the shared knowledge of the correspondents – the epitome of intimate knowledge.

(auther: Selina Foltinek)

Works Cited

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

Horn, Katrin. “An Intimate Knowledge of the Past? Gossip in the Archives,” History of Knowledge, February 12, 2020, https://historyofknowledge.net/2020/02/12/gossip-in-the-archives/. Accessed 2 June 2020.

Leach, Joseph. Bright Particular Star: The Life and Times of Charlotte Cushman. Yale UP, 1970. ISBN: 0-300-01205-5

Markus, Julia. Across an Untried Sea: Discovering Lives Hidden in the Shadow of Convention and Time. Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. ISBN: 0-679-44599-4

Merrill, Lisa. When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators. University of Michigan Press, 2000. ISBN: 0-472-10799-2

Newman, Sally. “Sites of Desire.” Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 25, no. 64, 2010, pp. 147–62. doi:10.1080/08164641003763014.

Prell, Martin. “ps: ich bitt noch mahl umb ver gebung meines confusen und üblen schreibens wegen”: Frühneuzeitliche Briefe als Herausforderung automatisierter Handschriftenerkennung. Ein Transkribus-Projektbericht. 1 May 2018. https://www.db-thueringen.de/receive/dbt_mods_00034849. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021. doi:10.22032/dbt.34849

Wolf, Alexis. “Introduction: Reading Silence in the Long Nineteenth-Century Women’s Life Writing Archive.” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, vol. 27, 2018, pp. 1–10.

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