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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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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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)

First Day at the Library of Congress

Long overdue, but what better topic for my first blog entry than my first day of archival research at the Library of Congress? I am currently a Kluge Fellow here and will stay until Christmas, so expect a couple of additional posts from this amazing place.
My first trip after getting orientated was to the “Rare Books Reading Room,” where I had a glance at sample issues of Godey’s Lady’s Book (later Godey’s Magazine) to get an idea of the role of gossip in this seminal 19th century publication. Turns out, I’m lucky! In 1894 at least, there was a regular column titled “Foreign Gossip” (the first issue I came across incidentally covered Bayreuth of all places) and in 1895 they seemed to have introduced “Women Up to Date” – a comparatively tame tabloid column, but a tabloid column nonetheless. I also came across a lengthy portrait of the actress Mrs Potter, whose marriage and divorce drama already provided an insightful case study for my analysis of Town Topics‘ rhetorical style (the magazine’s evocation of a gossip community between “The Saunterer” and his readers will be the topic of another post soon).
​All in all, off to a promising start!

(author: Katrin Horn)