archives

Jared Sparks’ American Archives

by guest contributor Derek O’Leary

Jared Sparks—editor, historian, Harvard president—deposited a bundle of primary documents at Boston’s Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) in the fall of 1838. It held a dozen or so political tracts, pamphlets, and newspapers from the middle of the previous decade capturing developments in the South American republics. There was nothing exceptional in such a Brahmin’s contribution to those archives, founded as the nation’s first historical society in 1791. A glance at the catalogues of donations and acquisitions in the MHS’s early decades reveals a local elite eager to give to its burgeoning collections. By also enticing a fairly far-flung network of corresponding members to contribute, the MHS exercised a strong centrifugal force. Within slighter orbits, the many state and local historical societies springing up from the 1820s onward followed this model, as H.G. Jones has shown most recently. Such new societies along the seaboard and in frontier cities drew toward them the scattered material record of the American past. And, dispersing diplomas and recognition, they urged filial piety to a swiftly passing revolutionary generation, which many were delighted to perform.

sparks-and-harvard-presidents

Harvard president line-up (1861) with Sparks at center

Accessions piled up at the MHS. So, amid the compendia of donations in the first half of the nineteenth century, there is no reason Sparks’s modest collection of documents should stand out. But if stepping back or peering in closer, how can we read the construction of such American archives, and the meaning of a modest contribution like Sparks’s within them? Giving to an early archive represented the performance of some relationship with the American past, and it often implied a particular vision of the nation and its prospects. Closely reading these donations can reveal historical perspectives or arguments against what the societies might have imagined. On the broader phenomenon of performing and contesting historical consciousness in the early republic, scholars such as David Waldstreicher and Simon Newman have explored how it played out in the streets. In the text, the contentiousness and contingencies of telling the colonial and revolutionary past has emerged in such works as Edward Watt’s fascinating reading of competing American narratives of the French colonial legacy, and this intriguing anthology on memory and accounts of the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile, the nineteenth-century historical discipline has received close re-examination more recently by Eileen Ka-May Cheng. But the construction of the American archive itself remains a murkier place.

An MHS circular letter first authored in 1791 by founding member and seminal American document-gatherer Jeremy Belknap and addressed to “to every Gentleman of Science in the Continent and Islands of America” gives a sense, at least, of their early archival imagination. In order to “collect, preserve, and communicate materials for a complete history of this country,” the MHS called on towns to respond to their fourteen-point memorandum, which ranged across military history, religion, population statistics, topographical description, traces of Indian life, economic production, and educational institutions. Fellow founder Thomas Wallcut cast the ambitious scope of the society: “A collection of observations and descriptions in natural history and Topography, together with specimens of natural and artificial curiosities and a selection of every thing which can improve and promote the historical knowledge of our Country, either in a physical or political view, has long been considered as a Desideratum” (Thomas Wallcut, 1791, Massachusetts Historical Society Archives, 1758-1934, Officer and Council Records, Box 7, MHS).

Circular Letter, of the Historical Society, Jeremy Belknap, 1791, MHS

It was quite a desideratum, reissued in the following decades. Its numbered requests may have implied some proto-social scientific approach—perhaps belied by such inclusions as “singular instances of longevity and fecundity.” But it led to an unmanageable influx of paper and objects. In its first few decades, donors sent—or sought to sell—hundreds of election sermons, newspapers and pamphlets, personal papers and correspondence and Indian land deeds—satisfying at least some of the society’s stated aims.

Meanwhile, however, items more aptly deemed curious or totemic streamed in. This should not imply any clear partition between written and non-written traces of the past. Objects could be inscribed with or accompanied by text, and written records could surely attain meaning beyond their literal content. Tamara Plakins Thornton’s work on handwriting in the early US explores that theme, such as in the significance of autographs for appraisers and ravenous collectors. However, in the motley array of relics and specimens that Americans culled from their continent and the foreign world they increasingly encountered, the MHS collections brimmed over from the historical and into the encyclopedic. This is not to say these were all superfluous curios. But the whole is hard to read, and the sometimes intricate import of a donation can feel lost in the mélange. For instance, to take a snippet of donations reported at a 1792 meeting:

“…From Col. Andrew Symmes, One of the largest kind of spears used by the Savages on the N West Coast of America; Some hooks from the Northwest Coast and Sandwich Islands—a Ruler of Petrified Rice—and a Chinese Spoon […]”

“From Mr Elisha Sigourney an Egg of the Ostrich and some Shells from the Islands of the Indian Ocean [….]”

From one angle, these appear as a scattershot of exotic souvenirs, consigned to the relative obscurity of the society’s cabinet. And indeed, the MHS cabinet does not appear as a particularly accessible or well-curated site during these years. Yet from another perspective, it is a carbon copy in artifacts of the most ambitious and elaborate of American trade routes in the Early Republic—great oceanic arcs sweeping from New England, around South America to the Pacific Northwest, to the South Pacific, and onward to Canton, China, perhaps returning westward via the Indian Ocean. Stocked along the way, ginseng, silver, sea otter pelts, bêche-de-mer and other products proved barely enough to purchase coveted Chinese manufactured goods for delighted American consumers. It was a Boston story in particular—and one of great wealth and prestige, as much about inscribing the future as a record of the past.

Over decades, patriotic relics and Indian artifacts trickled in alongside such foreign and natural specimens. Again, though, items charged with a particular historical or other meaning can seem to homogenize in the archival catalogue. In 1832, John Watson of Germantown, Pennsylvania, and author of an often reprinted Annals of Philadelphia, sent northward various items. He presented an almanac annotated by English scholar Gilbert Wakefield, asserting that, “hand writing of such a venerable Patriot is a relic itself.” More literally, though, he also dispatched this hockey puck-sized box of relic wood, whether his own or another’s creation. On its bottom, he described its quadrants: “Walnut tree before the Hall of Independence-of the former forest there. The Mahogany is of Columbus’ house, St. Domingo, 1496. The Elm is of Penn’s Treaty tree Philda. The Oak, is part of a bridge once over Dock Creek, at Chestnut Street. The Gum is the last forest tree alive at Philda.-1832. ’Such relics as devotion holds / All sacred & preserves with pious care.’ ”

Keepsake front.jpg

Keepsake box donated by John Watson, 1832, Boxes 03.025 East Stack, MHS

Authentic or not, the artifact’s invocation of Columbus, colonial Pennsylvania, the Founding, and contemporary Philadelphia was a powerful composite of metonymic associations. His donation may not have so much preferred the MHS over his own state’s repositories as it vaunted Pennsylvania’s preeminent place in American history. Indeed, his concluding verse sacralizes it. Again, such items may in theory contribute to broader archival “desideratum” of comprehensively telling the country’s past, but they also imagine variations—sometimes contentious ones—of the national stories emerging at that time.

back-of-keepsake

Back of Watson’s keepsake box, Boxes 03.025 East Stack, MHS

These and sundry other items intersperse the long and narrow, chronological columns of documents in accession books at the MHS, as in many other historical societies’ catalogs. These columns almost teeter under the awkward diversity of things piled up to tell a part of the American past. At once, those columns might also appear to homogenize acquisitions into some unitary narrative project. Returning to Sparks, his bundle of documents appears as just a few blocks of text in these columns. Alongside myriad sermons, and such varied artifacts and singular relics, how could we interpret his papers as more than lines among many lines of accessions? And amid the arrival of so much, how could historical society members, the curious public, and visiting researchers broach it all? Though Sparks’s gift makes easy sense in the contexts of performing elite male identity and of heteroglossic donations, it fits oddly in the context of his life and work.

Sparks’s literary labors produced such ambitious undertakings as his editorship of The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution (1829-30) and The Library of American Biography (1834-38), alongside publications of the life and writings of John Ledyard, Gouverneur Morris, and Benjamin Franklin. Beginning in the mid-1820s, though, his most abiding, near obsessive project, atop any archival pantheon, was the collection, curation, and republication of George Washington’s papers (1834-38). He fought and won access via Judge Bushrod Washington to Washington’s papers at Mt. Vernon. He roved the US and visited European state archives. He recorded oral histories. And he activated a wide-ranging network of correspondents. Day by day, in this mammoth effort of re-composition, he accumulated a massive collection of Washington’s doings and writings, along with quite a few artifacts. Throughout his diaries, we see through his gaze a geography of unrecovered papers and a demography appraised by individuals’ access to them. He became a perambulating archive of sorts. Only begrudgingly in 1835 did Sparks ultimately transfer to the US State Department the 192 bound manuscript volumes of Washington’s papers which he had already sold to them. (Indeed, he seems to have flirted with the idea of using them as a security for a $5000 loan that year.)

This drive to gather and keep propelled Sparks’s many labors, including those behind his spirited effort to build a collection of the South American revolutions and early independence in the mid-1820s. From the vantage point as editor of the North American Review, he pressed the US consular officers and diplomats stationed throughout the new South American republics, as well as local men of state and letters, to collect and dispatch all documents covering the full sweep of revolution and independence there. He wrote in rhythm with the approaching Panama Congress of 1826, orchestrated by Simón Bolívar, and aspiring to coordinate a South American security policy against feared infringement by Spain and the Holy Alliance. As Sparks began to comb the North American landscape for the written traces of its revolution, he simultaneously looked southward from 1824. In his many letters there, we sense his urgency to educate his compatriots about South America, to compile a comprehensive history of their revolutions, and perhaps to tell a hemispheric history of American revolution to suit the inchoate geopolitical vision of the Monroe Doctrine. His appeals for paper, and reproofs when it was not forthcoming, crescendoed as the US Congress debated sending a delegation to Panama.

And then, suddenly, they stopped. Surely discouraged by the miscarriage of the US delegation and the potential for inter-American concert, Sparks moved on. He redirected his energies from South America to the American South and Canada, and then across the Atlantic to the French and British records of his republic’s independence. This North Atlantic story replaced a budding hemispheric imagination. A decade later, Sparks deposited a portion of his small South American archive at the MHS, a rare off-loading from his collections. Again, how might we read the material construction of an archive in this period, when a submission can be as much a history— or, indeed, an imagined future—untold or jettisoned, as part of some comprehensive record of the past?

Derek OLeary is a PhD candidate in UC Berkeleys History Department, where he is working on a dissertation about the construction of archives and historical narratives in the early US. He has an MA in International Relations from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Imagining Communal Intellectual History: Libraries and Their Readers

by guest contributor Rob Koehler

Intellectual history and the histories of libraries have always had a peculiarly tangential relationship to one another. Intellectual history as practiced in the United States often pursues the transmission and transformation of ideas through texts, but less often engages with the means by which books got from place to place or how networks of readers at a given institution interacted with ideas to which they had joint access. Similarly, library historians have tended to focus less on the possibilities for exploring the diffusion of ideas through libraries and more on their developing institutional forms or the changing political valences of their founding, operation, and institutional self-presentation to the communities in which they existed. Yet, the development of large sets of digitized borrowing and holding records from historical libraries, along with efforts to preserve reading experiences through oral histories, offers a fruitful moment to re-consider how the methods of intellectual and library history might be productively fused to develop new insights into the life of the mind in previous historical epochs. Through examples provided by the rich records of the City Readers project at the New York Society Library, I want to offer two observations about how the resources and methods of library history might usefully broaden the purview of intellectual historians.

LectureHall_BwayBldg630px

The New York Society Library at its third location on Broadway at Leonard Street, which also housed the Academy of Design, c. 1840. In 1856 the Library sold the building to the publisher and bookseller D. Appleton & Co., and moved to a new location on University Place. Image courtesy of the New York Society Library.

The first observation is that library records challenge any easy assumptions about the methods of reading and motives for reading of people in the past. Take for example, the borrowing records of Alexander Hamilton—a figure enjoying a powerful renaissance in popular culture as financial genius and self-made immigrant. Hamilton became a member of the Library immediately after its refounding in 1789; he was not particularly active as a borrower, he checked out only two books, but those two books open suggestive questions about Hamilton’s intellectual activities as he was beginning work as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton checked out two novels: The History of the Honourable Edward Mortimer, a recent British romance that was popular with many of the library’s subscribers, the other, Eleanora, an English translation of a novel by Goethe. Often understood as a hard-bitten elitist with little sympathy for popular tastes, Hamilton could not have been more in the mainstream of popular literary taste in his selection of novels. Fifty other subscribers—of all different political persuasions—checked out these same books in 1790; Tunis Wortman, soon to be a powerful voice in opposition to the Federalist fiscal and military policies of Hamilton, checked out Edward Mortimer immediately before Hamilton.

Then and now, the reading of popular novels is often portrayed as a frivolous and even somewhat morally suspect behavior, but that didn’t stop even the most elitist of the Founding Fathers from reading them anyway. As Elizabeth Ott recently pointed out on this blog in reference to the Sheffield Reads oral history project, we have little understanding or exploration of the intellectual history of reading for pleasure rather than improvement, perhaps because—just as Hamilton himself likely would have—we wish to distance ourselves from such dissipated and putatively non-intellectual practices. More generally, because of the intellectual seriousness that governed both the public behavior of the Founding Fathers and the sometimes almost suffocating decorum of the intellectual histories of the Founding Era, we have few investigations of the impact of works of popular literature on elite culture and the mechanics by which knowledge of them spread through communities. While I do not want to claim that we need an intellectual history of popular literature of the Founding Era, several suggestive studies—including those of Cathy Davidson, Julie Ellison, and Bryan Waterman—already exist and provide intriguing insights, I do want to suggest that beginning with borrowing records can disrupt otherwise entrenched perspectives on the intellectual investments or predispositions of well-studied figures and eras.

NYSL1758

The Society Library’s first bookplate, designed by William Livingston (1723-1790) and etched by Elisha Gallaudet (1728-1779). Image courtesy of the New York Society Library.

Following that hope, my second observation is that library records can open up entirely new ways to engage the spread and transformation of ideas in the communities they served. Rather than beginning with an individual, faceted records allow the opportunity to begin with other, non-anthropocentric perspectives. For example, as librarians and bibliographers have been doing for years, one can begin with the life cycle of a single book: how it arrived at an institution, how long it was checked out by each individual who read it, and when it either disappears from records or stopped being checked out altogether. To take another perspective, one can begin with a given year and explore all of the books that were checked out in that year: what were the most and least popular books, when were users particularly active or inactive, and more generally, how did diurnal and seasonal cycles impact intellectual pursuits in the pre-modern era? Or, to take a third perspective, perhaps the most intriguing to me: what books were held by the library but never checked out by a user; what book or books never appealed to a reader in early New York?

Turning to these questions would open on to a broader intellectual history of a particular community, in this case New York City, but that could be taken up elsewhere as well. Digitized holdings records are available for other libraries as well, including those of English Dissenting Academies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and of the Muncie, IN Public Library from 1891-1902. Making use of different interfaces to expose their data, these early efforts each offer different insights into their collections and suggest different questions that might be asked. The New York Society Library also plans to continue expanding its collection of digitized records, with the long term goal of making all of its borrowing ledgers from 1789-1909 available digitally. With a record set that rich and diverse, it is possible to begin imagining writing a more comprehensive intellectual history of New York communities from below, beginning with those groups of readers—whether they were reading the newest popular novel or the most austere moral philosophy—who came to the same book and engaged with it as part of their individual intellectual life.

Rob Koehler is a PhD. candidate in English at New York University. He works at the intersections of education, literature, and publishing in early America, examining the political, legal, and cultural origins of schools and libraries as public institutions.

Shame, Memory, and the Politics of the Archive

by guest contributor Nicole Longpré

During a research trip to the University of Leeds in the spring of 2014, I requested access to a selection of files from the papers of former Labour MP Merlyn Rees which are held by the university library’s special collections facility. Staff at the facility were unsure what to do: it was possible that these files were included in the part of the collection that was closed to the public. They would have to check. I asked again the next day, and again the next: the staff were still uncertain, so I would not be able to view the files. At the Conservative Party Archive in Oxford, things were clearer: the Conservative Party staffer responsible for granting special access said it would not be possible to view the selection of files I had requested. They were not open to any member of the public.

Historians of the twentieth century in particular are frequently confronted with the barrier of the closed file: information that archivists, politicians, or others have deemed too sensitive to be read by the general public. But what do we mean by “sensitive”? “Sensitive” for whom? The files that I was requesting to view in these cases all dealt in some way with immigration to the United Kingdom in the second half of the twentieth century. More specifically, they dealt with anti-immigrationism: opposition to immigrants who arrived in the UK from the Caribbean and South Asia in substantial numbers from 1948 through the 1970s. The material in these files almost certainly would not have included references to individual immigrants, so the files were not closed out of concern for those people’s wellbeing. Rather, they were closed because they might reveal that some individual, prominent or otherwise, who was involved with politics during the second half of the twentieth century opposed immigration, and may have done so in a way that was shameful.

Tony Kushner argues that “There persists a strong tendency to deny racism and exclusion—past and present—and therefore a need still to study its impact and importance in British society and culture, especially on the minorities concerned” (13). But it is not enough, I don’t think, just to study the impact of exclusion. Exclusion is not some miasma floating about in the air: it requires agency, and unless we acknowledge the role of human action in creating and maintaining exclusionary practices, we have only half the story. Kushner further argues that “Official proclamations from politicians of all hues from the late twentieth century onwards emphasise that ‘The UK has a long standing tradition of giving shelter to those fleeing persecution in other parts of the world’. A contrary tradition of animosity has been less easily accepted in self-mythology.” (12) And since animosity is challenging to incorporate into the national narrative, evidence of its existence is suppressed, or ignored—certainly not encouraged.

Shame does not only manifest in the closure of existing archival files; it also results in the non-existence of archives themselves. There is, at present, no archive of anti-immigrationism. No repository includes among its collection the complete papers of any single-issue anti-immigrationist group, or any individual whose primary or exclusive contribution to politics and society was their anti-immigrationist activism. All of the collections which hold anti-immigrationist materials are those of mainstream political parties, MPs, or even left-leaning groups who surveyed anti-immigrationists for the purposes of information-gathering. That is, all the documentary evidence that exists on the topic of anti-immigrationism was deposited, and collected, by someone else, or because the person who possessed or created those documents did other things which were more important—or at least more acceptable. This trend reveals certain tantalizing details that might otherwise have been lost: for instance, that the Labour Party and National Front ran a series of infiltrations of each other’s organizations in which young working-class men posed as members for the purposes of obtaining information about their opponents’ tactics. But it conceals other, equally important information. For instance, what was the nature of internal organizational debates about how, and why, to oppose immigration legislation, or discussions about which tactics were best suited to challenging the political status quo? How did anti-immigrationists think about themselves, and how did they speak to each other? It is not clear whether members of anti-immigrationist groups ever offered to deposit their papers with any repository; if they had, it is similarly uncertain whether any repository would have accepted them. In both cases, shame operates to suppress the collection of data and information that might otherwise be used to construct a compelling, and complete, vision of the past. If we think it is important to preserve the papers of the National Council of Civil Liberties, presently held at the Hull History Centre, why not those of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association?

Typically when a group of individuals have not been responsible for depositing their own papers, we assume that this is because they have been in some way disempowered or disenfranchised—that they were among the oppressed and thus not granted their own voice. Anti-immigrationists in the twentieth century, by contrast, were typically citizens of the United Kingdom who were more or less uniformly entitled to a full package of civil, political, and social rights. However, the effect, and perhaps the intent, of an official disinterest in the anti-immigrationist past is to send a clear message not only to the anti-immigrationists and their successors, but also to any members of the public who may be paying attention: as anti-immigrationists you were always marginal, never mainstream, and the record will reflect this.

Assessing the complicated legacy of white supremacy in America, Ta-Nehisi Coates has written that “’Hope’ struck me as an overrated force in human history. ‘Fear’ did not.” Coates argues that white supremacy is likely an indelible feature of American society, and that the best remedy that can be achieved is a diminution of its impact. He means this stance not to be unnecessarily alarmist or pessimistic, but rather to militate “against justice and righteousness as twin inevitable victors in history.” Evidence of this (problematic) commitment to a positive spin on the trajectory of British history abounds in present-day commentary on the anti-immigrationist rhetoric of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in particular. UKIP leader Nigel Farage is routinely mocked, chastised, and condemned by members of the political establishment; yet he persists in his public statements, and it would be difficult for anyone in the UK to ignore the role he is presently playing in politics at the highest level. It would similarly have been impossible for anyone to ignore the role that anti-immigrationism played in politics in the 1960s and 1970s—and so to frame anti-immigrationism as strictly “marginal” is an inaccurate representation of the lived experience of this period.

Unearthing the unpleasant history of an anti-immigrationist past is not an easy task, or a straightforward one. But it is not a task that should be avoided for all that. The cumulative effect of a failure to deposit shameful documents, or of denying access to potentially shameful materials, is to render oneself complicit in the process of suppression. By pretending that these things did not happen, and by preventing others from telling the story of a shameful past, we are ourselves culpable. So what principles should guide our collection and preservation of historical evidence moving forward? Do we keep only that which we can be proud of? Or do we accept that there are certain things about humanity that should change, but which can only be changed if we confront them in all their gory detail, if we pay them as much attention as those events and individuals who we most admire? Indeed, should we continue to accept the social phenomena of pride and shame as the grounds upon which we do, or do not, remember the past?

Nicole Longpré recently completed her Ph.D. in history at Columbia University, and will take up a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Victoria in Fall 2016. She researches anti-immigrationism and twentieth-century British political history.

Haunting History

by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

Even Thucydides, the celebrated father of historical realism, found it impossible to avoid revising the past in the telling of it. “With reference to the speeches in this history,” he writes in the opening to The History of the Peloponnesian War, “it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions.” Dead men cannot verify the truth of the words put into their mouths. Which makes the past into something of a puppet show. Or at least makes history at its core a discipline shaped by desire, the desires we have to make sense of what has happened.

Some place greater demands upon and have wilder desires for their sources than others. Consider Voices from the Spirit World, composed by Isaac and Amy Post and published in Rochester, New York in 1852, a work which can only be described either as spectral historical revisionism, or social justice fan fiction.

Title page © British Library

Title page © British Library

In it, the ghosts of famous dead people contact the authors, who then translate the “spirit rappings” they receive into a series of letters from the spirit world with advice for the living. “Benjamin Franklin” is the editor, who writes in the preface in typical Ben Franklin fashion that “Spirit life would be tiresome, without employment.” Franklin is also credited with contacting the other luminaries of public life, although Thomas Jefferson complains: “I find more difficulty in arranging my communication than when embodied.” The purpose of these spectral communications is, again, in typical Ben Franklin fashion, improvement. “Let no man claim that he has made great improvements in the arts and sciences, unassisted by spirit friends …. It is our object to spread light in the pathway of those who have been blinded by their education, traditions, and sectarian trammels. We come not to blame any; we present these truths, that man…may realize what he is, and what he is to be; to tell him by what he is surrounded.”

It is an incredibly literal way to enact the basic truth that history does offer precedents that can be built off of in the name of progress. But the aims of Voices from the Spirit World go deeper still: Franklin claims his purpose is that “death will have no terrors” for the living who are aware of the spiritual world. That is the best that the Spiritualist Movement had to offer: it was about facing death without fear, it was about ensuring that those who had died had not done so in vain, that their lives could offer wisdom and guidance in times of difficulty. The table of contents is a mixture of founding fathers, famous thinkers, Quaker leaders (the Posts were Quakers), close personal friends, and anonymous ghosts moved to speak.

Table of Contents © British Library

Table of Contents © British Library

The “sentiments” each spirit leaves behind offer advice on a range of topics; Jefferson discusses political economy, Emmanuel Swedenbourg offers a lecture on magnetism, Voltaire oozes witticisms, Napoleon gives an account of “justice” in the afterlife that reads like a warning out of A Christmas Carol (1843):

From Napoleon Bonaparte © British Library

From Napoleon Bonaparte © British Library

But overwhelmingly the spirits speak with one voice: they denounce war, the slave trade and women’s inequality from cover to cover. In a “Communication from G[eorge] Washington. July 29, 1851” the first president condemns slavery: “I regret the government was formed with such an element in it…I cannot find words to express my abhorrence of this accursed system of slavery.” A communication, surprisingly, from John C. Calhoun admits: “It is very unexpected to me to be called upon by Benjamin Franklin, informing that you desired to hear from me…It seems to me unaccountable that my mind should have been so darkened, so blinded, by selfishness, as to live to spread wrong, while I endeavored to persuade myself I was doing right.” Andrew Jackson publishes an apology for his entire life: “I was wrong in almost everything.”

Andrew Jackson's apology © British Library

Andrew Jackson’s apology © British Library

Coincidentally, Isaac and Amy Post were passionate advocates for abolitionism, pacifism, and feminism throughout their lives. So it comes as no surprise that their dabbling in the spiritualist put spectral communication to work within the social justice movements they held dear, and this is what sets Voices from the Spirit World apart from other forays into spiritualism, which deal more expressly with grief and bereavement. The political nature of the work, the view of the other side offered by the Posts is nothing less than a utopia of ghosts.

There are no controversies, no “Sectarian Trammels” in the spirit world, there is no single religion that is better than others, no class, race, or gender-based inequalities. “It seems to me when spirit laws are understood,” Ben Franklin writes “every one will rejoice to be governed by them; hence the earnest desire that fills my heart to spread light before the earthly traveler.” So in place of a theory of progress that culminates, for Marx writing a few years earlier, in communism, the ghost of Ben Franklin would see the pinnacle of the living as submitting to the authority of the dead.

Yet for all its quirks,Voices from the Spirit World fits firmly within a tradition of Quaker publications dating two hundred years earlier to the 1650s, during the Commonwealth period in England. The origins of the movement were drawn from the revolutionary chaos of the English Civil War, and in common with other sects, the Levellers, Ranters, Diggers, Seekers, Baptists, turned their religious enthusiasm to the task of social reform: Quakers over the years advocated prison reform, education reform, gender equality, and racial equality. Particularly, Quakers in the colony of Pennsylvania committed to the abolition of slavery, with petitions against slaveowners (including other Quakers) being written in 1696, and throughout the 18th century until the movement came to a consensus on abolition around 1753, a story well told by Jeann Soderlund in Quakers and Slavery (1985).

The Posts were both Hicksite Quakers, a schismatic spin-off of the Society of Friends who followed the lead of Elias Hicks (1748 – 1830) in arguing that the ‘Inner Light’ (the presence of divinity in each human being) was a higher authority than Scripture. But this too is a more common fate for Quakers than simplistic histories suggest: controversy and schism was constant from the very beginning of the movement, and the ‘Inner Light’ was always a source of conflict, between Quakers and the government, and later between Quaker leaders and members. As a critic John Brown framed the problem in Quakerism the Pathway to Paganisme (1678): “we have much more advantage in dealing with Papists, than in dealing with these Quakers; for the Papists have but one Pope…But here every Quaker hath a Pope within his brest.” In Voices from the Spirit World, the Posts address this history of confrontation particular to the movement through various of its leaders: George Fox, William Penn, Elias Hicks, making them repent their fixation with schism: “O! What I  lost to myself by my Sectarian trammels!” Hicks exclaims.

Voices from the Spirit World is less about the way in which we are haunted by history than about how relentlessly we might haunt the annals of the past, hunt the dead beyond their graves, draw words from their mouths to make meanings of our own circumstances and support our own causes. As Isaac Post writes in the introduction: “To me the subject of man’s present and future condition is of vast importance.” While the form of the book rests as a real limit case to historical revisionism, in spite of the absurdity there is an earnestness to the Post’s project that makes more rigorous and less utopian historical initiatives fall flat.

A special thanks to bookseller Fuchsia Voremberg of Maggs Bros. Ltd for bringing Voices from the Spirit World to the author’s attention.

The Walnut Rubbing Chinese Gentleman: Ernst Cordes’ Travelogue to Beijing, 1937

by guest contributor I-Yi Hsieh

Boarding on the Siberia train, in the mid-1930s, the German Sinologist Ernst Cordes traveled across the Manchurian-Russia border to the cities of Harbin, then Manchukuo’s “New Capital” (formerly Changchun), and Mukden (Shenyang). Cordes went south through the border at the Manchuria Station to Harbin and finally set foot in Beijing, the final stop of his trip to China. In his travelogue The Youngest Empire: Sleeping, Awakening Manchukuo (Das jüngste Kaiserreich. Schlafendes, wachendes Mandschukuo), Cordes drew a picture of what he saw as the sophisticated, big, serious nation of China in the 1930s. Dissatisfied with the xenophobia and colonial mentality toward the Far East among his fellow Europeans at that time, Cordes considered his travelogue as an opportunity to showcase the color of China, its landscape and the city people’s everyday life in its vicissitudes. For the most part, his travelogue reads like a classic perspective painting contemplating the horizon from afar, giving you a penetrating look into the panorama. Yet from time to time, Cordes’s lens zoomed into something, taking up a curious, sometimes rosy, and tender tone. Arriving in Beijing in the summer, Cordes described one city evening that emerged out of the heat exhaustion and busting out with vivid hues of color:

It was in such a hot summer evening, close to nine o’clock, as the air started to cool down. The sun was like a big bloody fireball dropping against the West Mountain. I was just strolling around the Beipin city wall. The view one sees from there is unique, nothing like this can be found anywhere else in the world. The cityscape [of Beipin] is of a straight and simple grid, setting up a background of balance and harmony. Accompanied [the cityscape] are the colors of dark green, the golden yellow, and the blue of glazed glass roof. It is a grandiose, beautiful picture that renders [the view] an unforgettable scene. The scenario even condenses into a dreamy milieu of this old capital of China, giving out an even deeper [feeling of the city].

Interestingly, this piece of Cordes’ writing on the time he spent in Beijing was later excerpted and translated by Ling Shaung into Chinese and published in a local Beijing magazine, the Monthly Journal (Yue Bao), in 1937 under the title of ‘The Walnut Rubbing Chinese’ (PDF: 揉核桃的中國人 月報1937第一卷第一期). Translating this piece into English, I was fascinated by the journal centering it upon Cordes’ detailed description of his encounter with a Beijing gentleman who carried himself in a noble manner with a pair of walnuts on his palm. Cordes writes:

I took a close look at the man’s toy when he was not paying attention. They are two very smooth walnuts. The ample color [of the walnuts] looked so deep, almost turning into red. With his slow swirling rhythm his fingers play, he seemed to touch and caress [the walnuts] with love. The surface of the walnuts’ shell was uneven and with cracks, therefore the rubbing of the two walnuts created a slight sound – as if the grinding sound of food with teeth.

Curious about this rubbing and swirling of walnuts, Cordes struck up a conversation with the Chinese man. After exchanging courteous words, Cordes mustered his courage and asked, “Sir, what’s the thing that you are playing with on your hand?” Pulling his hands out from behind his back, the Chinese man showed him the two walnuts he’d been treasuring for years. Speaking to Cordes, he explained:

These are normal walnuts. They are no different from the normal walnuts that we eat. Just that they have smoother shell. These two [that I have here] happened to be very old walnuts. They had been played since my great grandfather was alive. The habit [of playing walnuts] is an ancient custom. I can’t tell you how ancient it is. But it must have existed for more than a thousand years. You probably have read about this kind of walnut in old Chinese books. The older they are, the more valuable they become. But they have to be kept perfect, avoiding being damaged. In order to achieve this goal, we have to hold on to the walnuts everyday, to touch and play with them. This would render the scent on our body onto the walnuts, in order to bath them with it. They eventually would be filled with our lives. As the time goes by, they [walnuts] would become the part of us naturally. We would never want to part with them. For this purpose, it’s the most difficult thing to purchase a real old pair of walnuts. You know that we Chinese people are superstitious. If you lost or damaged such a walnut, you took it as a bad omen. Those old walnuts displayed in the antique shops are not real ones. They are counterfeits, produced to cheat foreign tourists. Of course, if you are lucky, sometimes you can buy a real pair of walnuts. Yet that would cost you a great fortune! They are as expensive as jewelries.

Photo courtesy of author ©

Photo courtesy of author ©

Mesmerized by this eloquent speech, Cordes urged the gentleman to further explain this walnut-rubbing hobby. “My friend,” the Chinese man replied, “if one has never played with this kind of thing, it’s hard to understand the wonder and mystery of it. This thing carries the function of cultivating your soul.” With this manifesto, the Chinese gentleman elaborate on the ways in which one’s mind and body can be satiated with serenity through such a form of self-cultivation. Cordes recorded this conversation faithfully as it continued:

“Yes, it can function as cultivating your soul.” He repeated the phrase, while pointed his forehead as if there exists the secret of soul. “ The slow motion, the rhythm of rubbing walnuts makes one’s spirit feel relaxed and comfortable. When I feel exhausted, unhappy, and the worrisome ideas catch up with me, depriving me the rest I need, I’d always pick up this pair of walnuts. Look, I rub them in this way: tender, smoothly, slowly, with complete focuses poured onto the two walnuts. Therefore I throw out any mundane problems above the sky. When you rub the walnuts for many hours, you’d feel a slight stinging sensation on your palm. Following that, the stinging sensation would climb up to your shoulder, and finally you’d feel as if your brain is given a massage by a woman with her tender hands. This would make all your worries go away. Both your mind and body would be bathed in a limitless feeling of relief. You would feel the comforting sensation of relaxation as if you just took a hot bath. Oh this thing of walnuts is a real magic of massaging your soul ….”

The mixing of the stinging sensation of numbing pain, created by one’s rubbing of the pointy shell of walnuts, and the relaxing feeling arising afterwards centers the Chinese gentleman’s illustration on the gestalt of such an urban hobby. In the 1930s, Beijing found itself in a political void as the Republican government moved its capital to the southern city of Nanking in 1928—ending Beijing’s more than six hundred and fifty years of being designated as the country’s capital. Various forms of urban hobbies began to emerge and prosper in the period, alongside the folklore marketplace mushrooming in the city. Before the Communist government reassigned Beijing as the capital of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Beijing enjoyed a unique historical time when its urban identity seized its chance to fully emerge, filling people’s everyday live with teahouse theaters, folklore story-telling, street performances, and those devoted personal, intimate hobbies such as the cultivation of walnuts. Outside of the serene city walls, it also proved a time of great historical turmoil for China.

Reading Cordes’ words printed in Chinese, on a yellowish newspaper page in the Spring of 2013, I was fascinated by this man, his sojourn across borders from Europe to Beijing, but mostly on his acute caption of the poetics wrapped up in a trivial urban hobby deeply embedded in the city milieu at that time. If the archive is to tell us something richer and subtler alongside the day-in and day-out scholar labor we spend facing rubrics of documents plucked from a microfilm in a basement reading room, it is only possible through discovering the unexpected wonder such as Cordes’ travelogue gently folded in the archive. Is the cultivation of the walnuts a personal escape from the serial of wars and political upheavals stuffing China in the early twentieth century? Perhaps especially so as it reflects upon Cordes’ own endeavor to escape the Europe simmering in turmoil in the 1930s into a China filled with colorful hues? I sit inside of an office building on this November day of 2015, looking at the smog-infused grey sky of Shanghai outside of my window and my pair of walnuts lying on my table, wondering.

I-Yi Hsieh is a teaching fellow of Global Perspectives on Society at NYU-Shanghai. Her research sheds light on the intersection of urban material culture, UNESCO’s world heritage program, and the rise of folklore markets in Beijing. She maintains an academia.edu page.

The Archival Agenda: Thinking Through Scientific Archives at the Royal Society

by guest contributor Brooke Palmieri

Imagine that an archivist’s child is raised from birth as a professional archivist to see how they documented their life. Imagine that toddler making a finger painting, taking a digital image, filing away the physical copy into an acid-free folder, alerting its parents as to the proper terms from the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, uploading it to Omeka. Even with training from birth by archivist parents, decisions would be made about what to keep as much as what to discard, how to form an archive from preservation as well as loss. Maybe there would be moments of sabotage, like the burning of notebooks filled with teenage poetry. The experiences that matter most in life would be over-represented, like vacations.

Beyoncé in the archives (wallpaperstock)

Beyoncé in the archives (wallpaperstock)

Or imagine Beyoncé’s “Crazy Archive”: it includes every photograph, interview, and performance she’s ever done, combined with tens of thousands of hours of footage. Unlike most, Beyoncé has the resources to employ “visual directors,” who have documented every day of her life since 2005.

Neither example provides total recall, but rather a lesson in managing expectations: all archives are meant to include just what they include, and it’s only the expectations of outsiders that find fault or shortcomings in their contents. For example, it is likely that scholars in days to come will ask: what did Beyoncé do every day of her life before 2005, before the birth of her daily archive?

Either way, experimenting on children or following the example of Beyoncé is the closest we could get to a true “archival agenda” shaping the product, rather than some other agenda that happens to manifest as an archive. Which is to say that there is no such thing as an archive that is first and foremost archival. Archives are secondary in nature, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it doesn’t take away from their importance in preserving heritage, nor does it make reading their contents any less empowering or infuriating or educational. Which brings us to the archives of scientists, and an excellent conference that was held on 2 June at the Royal Society: “Archival Afterlives: Life, Death, and Knowledge-Making in Early Modern British Scientific and Medical Archives.”

One of the most important remarks made in the conference was by Victoria Sloyan, an archivist at the Wellcome Library. When asked about the contents of the Collecting Genomics Project, which brings together born-digital contents from a number of different scientists from different institutions who were part of the Human Genome Project, Sloyan stressed that different people have different ideas of what an archive should contain, and act accordingly. Some scientists hand everything over; some preserve only evidence enough to trace the the progress of “successful” ideas. In practice, individual archives fall somewhere between these extremities, but such decisions haunt the work of anyone accessing their material.

Theoretically, not much has changed between Sloyan’s very contemporary moment of archival collection, highly transparent in its obstacles (including born-digital material and a whole lot of floppy disks), and those of scientists past. The multiplication of media platforms has multiplied the kinds of things that can be found in the archive, and the trouble it takes to get them there, but human emotions around the preservation of knowledge only have so many expressions. It was useful then, as the conference did, to ask: “How did disorderly collections of paper come to be the archives of the Scientific Revolution?” Presentations sought to examine the many factors baked into the survival of archives: for instance, Elizabeth Yale looked at the “entanglement of emotion and paper” that is the naturalist John Ray’s archive. Its survival depended on his wife and daughters and the relationship his publishers maintained with them, but also the significance of his biographer Samuel Dale’s role in establishing a legacy for Ray. That legacy also happened to include rewriting and recasting Ray’s lifelong religious beliefs from nonconformist to Church of England.

This is easier to stomach within the libraries and archives of the humanities: we have long sought to make silences speak, fill the gaps between shortcomings, question received truths and their canonical authors. For decades, the dialectic of the humanities archive has been between preservation and loss, histories from above and histories from below. By contrast the dialectic of the scientific archive tends to formulate itself as objectively observed rather than subjectively felt. Conferences like “Archival Afterlives” implicitly fire the opening shots in a bigger battle to knock the sciences down a peg, to reframe the argument as one familiar to humanities classrooms, as something we’ve known all along. The information of scientific archives is more likely to be medical, natural, or celestial, symptoms of disease, fossils, planetary angles—but that makes it no less subject to the inherent distortion of human intervention.

petiver herbarium

A page from James Petiver’s herbarium (c. 1718), featuring specimens of the Carolina Laurel Cherry (Prunus caroliniana Aiton) and the Virginia Willow (Itea virginica L.). (East Carolina University Digital Collections)

In his presentation, Arnold Hunt completely recovered the reputation of James Petiver, dragging him out from the shadow of Hans Sloane and piecing together his dispersed archive and natural history collection to show a methodical, self-taught collector of high quality: only his humble beginnings had caused him to be dismissed as a serious naturalist thinker. In other words, religion, politics, and class have always mediated admittance to the pantheon of thinkers we exalt. And if contemporary circumstances were not enough of a minefield for the archival process, Leigh Penman’s presentation created fresh dangers. His work on Samuel Hartlib’s papers highlighted the formative role of loss: “all his best papers” had “suffered… embezzlement” in Hartlib’s lifetime, including his universal bibliography, meaning that what survives is a collection of “loose papers” of little value to Hartlib himself.

Overall, “Archival Afterlives” subjected scientific knowledge to the more elemental truth: that every archive is an afterlife. Despite the many uses and transmissions of archival information, we cannot forget that there was a first purpose, an initial passion, and a strategy for survival that saw the production and persistence of an archive, and that sets a path for possible uses afterward. The archive begins as the residue of some encounter or event, and only later does it accrue layers of meaning through varieties of use. Maybe this is one of the greatest paradoxes of endurance: renewed interest in mining the archives ensures their survival, both as cited sources and as bodies of material that require funding to remain intact, but at the same time, new agendas have a tendency to obscure old ones, and it’s the old ones that archives have a difficult time preserving. Nevertheless, it is crucial to work to understand their occult influences over the shape of the historical record as much as the scientific record. The first step in doing so is in making the archival agenda visible. Otherwise, we risk misidentifying invisibility as infallibility.

The Politics of Unearthing New Amsterdam in 19th-Century New York

by Madeline McMahon

John Romeyn Brodhead was fascinated by a city beneath his feet that he felt could only be dug up and discovered in the archives of the Old World. New Amsterdam, and its fraught transformation into New York, captivated Brodhead, so that even when he undertook diplomatic work at The Hague, he “divid[ed] his time between study and society.” He returned to New York in 1839 and was appointed by the state’s governor to transcribe documents relevant to New York’s colonial history in the archives of the Netherlands, England, and France.

After a slow start (he at first missed his boat, which turned out to be a good thing since that particular steamship never arrived at its destination), Brodhead seems to have worked furiously for the next few years. He was officially an Agent of the State of New York—an act of the state’s legislature had created his post. He leveraged this position and his former diplomatic ties in order to gain access to the archives. As he later wrote, reflecting back on his journey: “The inspection of the state papers of foreign governments, it is well known, is not a mere matter of course, but is considered a privilege of a high order; and is granted in most cases, only upon applications backed by high personal or official influence.” Brodhead’s quest for support in high places was riddled with failures—even after an interview, the US Secretary of State declined to give him letters of introduction, and he had to appeal instead to American ambassadors in Europe. He also sought audiences with and wrote letters to a vivid cast of European characters, from the king of the Netherlands to the archbishop of Canterbury, all to gain further access to documents. To anyone who has worked with manuscripts and rare books in the 21st century, Brodhead’s archival adventures sound strange indeed.

Nonetheless, when he returned, in 1844, one contemporary wrote that “[t]he ship in which he came back was more richly freighted with new material for American history than any that ever crossed the Atlantic.” Armed with eighty volumes of transcripts, he did what any researcher would do next: he tried to procure further funding. His Final Report (1845) was an overview of the documents he had found. Strictly speaking, it was the culmination of what he had set out to do, but it was also part of his case that he should be the one to translate and publish his findings. But politics were not in Brodhead’s favor as a Democrat, and in 1849, a Whig-controlled legislature assigned the task to two other men.

Although Brodhead wrote that an “antiquarian spirit” motivated his work, he identified with the past. He proudly claimed descent from “a colonial Hollander who stood up manfully for his Republican Fatherland” as well as “an English officer who helped his king to conquer Dutch New Netherland” as indicative of his lack of “partiality.”

Yet the battleground of the past extended beyond English and Dutch tensions in seventeenth-century New York. Brodhead’s expedition to European archives was driven in part by a national debate on American colonial origins. As the New Englander Puritan became ascendant in early nineteenth-century American mythology, New Yorkers fought back, creating the New York Historical Society (of which Brodhead was an active member) to counter that story (Joyce Goodfriend, “Present at the Creation: Making the Case for the Dutch Founders of America,” 261). The volumes of documents that Brodhead hoped to publish had New England counterparts (Goodfriend, 262). Ultimately, it was Brodhead’s identity as a New Yorker, excavating the sources for a local history—a genealogy of sorts—that compromised his impartiality. Yet it also led him to present early America as more than a monolithic English colony, and to search seriously for its sources in international archives.