Highlights from the Collection, Part 3: Student Perspective

The time has come for me to say goodbye to the archive. As a student assistant, I worked on the collection over the last six months. After sifting through hundreds of items – letters, articles, diary entries, and so much more – there were many that stuck out to me for different reasons. Charlotte Cushman lived such an interesting, eventful life that it is quite hard to narrow down my favorite items, but I will attempt to do so nonetheless.

Charlotte Cushman’s Gender-Bending Performances

What immediately drew me to Charlotte Cushman were her famous gender-bending performances as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Hamlet. Consequently, I was thrilled to discover that even in her private life, Cushman refused to conform to the gender roles of her time, as mentioned in this article in the Illustrated American News which my fellow student assistant Arunima Kundu discusses in her blog post. In addition to her well-documented intimate relationships with women, Cushman enjoyed wearing men’s clothing while she was out and about – “hat, coat, unmentionables, and all.”

“MISS CUSHMAN IN MALE ATTIRE”, Illustrated American News, Aug 9, 1851, link.
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What’s in the Archive: Selina’s Favorites

Today is the day that I finally guide you through my favorite items of our Cushmania and Gossip Columns and Columnists collections. After more than three years of transcribing and annotating archival sources, I selected a mix of items that are not necessarily related, linked, nor do they cover the same topics. Instead, they are the ones that stick with me after I shut down my laptop. They are the anecdotes I tell other people about who are not interested in a specific topic covered by our collections but who inquire more generally about what there is in ArchivalGossip.com.

Harriet Hosmer in Rome: “Such a Gem”

The one person that I mention the most in chit-chat is Harriet Hosmer. Hosmer (“Hatty”/ “Hattie”) was a nineteenth-century US-American sculptor who became widely known as part of the expatriate circle of US-American artists in Rome. Among Hosmer’s long-term female partners were Lady Ashburton and Emma Crow’s sister Cornelia Carr. She was friends with Wayman Crow, and lived with Charlotte Cushman and Emma Stebbins in the Via Gregoriana, Rome, in the 1860s. In that decade, she also had to defend herself against slander when several male artists challenged her ability to create her sculptures on her own as a woman. As a response to that sexism, Hosmer published a witty, four-pages poem, “The Doleful Ditty of the Roman Caffe Greco” (New York Evening Post 1864). Not only Charlotte Cushman (who is the center of attention in our Cushmania collection) or journalist Grace Greenwood (who features prominently in the Gossip Columns and Columnists collection) supported the sculptor, Lydia Maria Child also published the following account to defend Hosmer’s profession and gender performance:

The energy, vivaciousness and directness of this young lady’s character attracted attention even in childhood. Society, as it is called, – that is, the mass of humans, who are never alive in real earnest, but congratulate themselves, and each other, upon being mere stereotyped formulas of gentility or propriety, – looked doubtingly upon her, and said, ‘she is so peculiar!’ ‘She is so eccentric!’ Occassionally, I heard such remarks; and being thankful to God whenever a woman dares to be individual, I also observed her. I was curious to ascertain what was the nature of the pecularities that made women suspect Achilles was among them, betraying his disguise by unskilful use of his skirts; and I soon became convinced that the imputed eccentricity was merely the natural expression of a soul very much alive and earnest in its work. […] I think genuine lovers of the beautiful will henceforth never doubt that Miss Hosmer has a genius for sculpture. I rejoice that such a gem has been added to the arts. Especially do I rejoice that such a poetical conception of the subject came from a woman’s soul, and that such finished workmanship was done by a woman’s hand.

“Miss Harriet Hosmer,” Liberator, Nov 20, 1857
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Serendipity in the Archive

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.

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Highlights from the Collection, Part 1

Geraldine Jewsbury’s Passionate Rebuke of Charlotte Cushman

As the project is slowly drawing to a close (we’ll wrap up by September, *sad face*), we want to use some of our remaining time to highlight items in our collection that have stood out to us for various reasons – be that they were particularly challenging to read, fun to explore, romantic, sad, eye-opening …. . In a way, this will be a way for Selina and myself to reminisce about what we’ve done these past three years. Hopefully, for others it will be an additional tool to navigate the collection which has grown to almost 1000 items.

So, without further ado: my first highlight among our items is a letter written by Geraldine Jewsbury, presumably from 1846, addressed to Charlotte Cushman, in which she offers a stern rebuke of the actress:

I am not an angel but a deal more of a wild cat & I’ll scratch you if I can’t beat you

Geraldine Jewsbury to Charlotte Cushman, Charlotte Cushman Papers, Library of Congress, 3449–3450, here: 3449
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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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