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Reference inquiries from alumni during Reunions can lead to some pretty deep dives in our archival collections. This spring I had an opportunity to dig into a narrow but significant slice of early American history represented in the Amherst College archives – Shays’ Rebellion, a local conflict which began 231 years ago this summer.

Shays’ Rebellion exemplifies the fierce reaction to the economic instability of rural America just after the American Revolution. As commerce grew after the end of the Revolutionary War, the informal system of exchange employed by farmers and merchants in Massachusetts was no longer viable. Merchants were in need of money in order to carry weight in foreign trade but farmers were unable to pay their debts. The Court of Common Pleas moved to allow creditors to call in debts.

This, coupled with higher taxes imposed by the state legislature, pushed the farmers to their limits. By the fall of 1786 Daniel Shays led a band of fellow farmers in protest. Calling themselves “regulators,” the Shaysites’ attempts to shut down the courts in Springfield and Northampton (and other cities across Massachusetts) put pressure on the government to provide relief. As citizens mobilized, Governor Bowdoin, the state legislature, and the Confederation Congress deliberated as to how to respond.

This story has been told time and again. Because it is so prominent in the archival record it is easy to overlook the local perspective – the experience of those who witnessed these events so close to home.

One such witness was Elizabeth Porter Phelps (1747-1817), who owned the “Forty Acres” farm in Hadley, Massachusetts, at the time. The farm survives today as the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum, documenting six generations of the same family who lived and worked at the farm from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Even more remarkable is the fact that ownership of the farm passed through the female line for the first three generations of its existence.

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Elizabeth Porter Phelps’s diary

Elizabeth’s meticulously-kept diary is a glimpse into rural life in Colonial America and the Early Republic. She kept her diary from the 1760s through the 1810s. Her entries are brief but are in no way dull. She documented visitors, the comings and goings of family members, illness and death, farm work, and her religious views. She also recorded events touching her world that would have a greater impact on American history – including Shays’ Rebellion. Elizabeth’s diary shows a woman grappling with the larger consequences of civil unrest and military action while personally feeling the impact very close to home.

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A well-worn page from the diary including the entry for September 24, 1786

Elizabeth’s first entry concerning Shays’ Rebellion is from September 24, 1786. The entry reflects the confusion of the moment. Her observation shows the region heavily divided – divisions that lay along economic lines. More successful farmers and wealthier inhabitants of the region worried that the civil unrest could expand and put the new nation at risk.

“Monday my Husband set out for Springfield – publick affairs seem to be in a confused situation. many are gone to prevent the sitting of the Court and many are gone to uphold the Court. O Lord bring order out of Disorder – thou canst effect it – we trust in allmighty power.”

“Thursday [December 14] Thanksgiving day. Coll’l Porter read an Address from the General Court to all the People in this common Wealth. There has been a great deal of Disturbance of late among the people, how it will tirminate God only knows. I desire to make it my earnest prayer to be fitted for events and prepared for Duty.”

In her entry for January 14, 1787, Elizabeth describes her husband, Charles Phelps, Jr., helping those in support of the government.

“Jan 14.  Thursday Morn my Husband set out with sleighs to help the men to Springfield which are raised in this town for the support of the Government … it Looks as Dark as Night, a very great Army is coming from toward Boston and some are Collecting upon the other side. It appears as if nothing but the imediate interposition of providence could prevent it …”

From September 1786 on, Governor Bowdoin increased the militia presence across the state. As the regulators increased activity, it became clear to the governor that even more military pressure was necessary. In January 1787, Bowdoin mobilized over 4,000 militiamen in the Boston area. Elizabeth mentions “some [troops] Collecting upon the other side” – referring to government forces gathering in Hampshire and Berkshire counties.

“Jan. 21. Sun. Mr. Hop. pr 1st Chron. 4 and 9. Spoke very well upon the present dark Day. … Last Thursday the mob attempted to march into Springfield the Government fired the cannon Killed four.”

Elizabeth often recorded church attendance and the Bible verses highlighted in the service. During this period she seems to connect the substance of the sermons to the events of the day. This entry marks clashes between between state militia and regulators around the Springfield Armory.

And in spite of the violence, there is excitement over an encampment being stationed so close to home in Hadley:

“Jan. 28. Sun. Mr. Hop. pr Proverbs 19, 21. There are many Devices in the Heart of man but the Counsel of the Lord that shall stand – This has been a confused day, the Mob in a large Body at Northampton – another party at Amherst – what will be the event none can tell – we hope in Gods mercy – Just as Dusk my Husband got home. Monday Gen. Lyncoln came into Hadley with about three Thousand men. Tuesday Mr. Phelps carried the children into town to see ‘em.”

This is the “very great Army” mentioned on January 14. “Gen. Lyncoln” refers to Benjamin Lincoln, one of George Washington’s commanding officers during the Revolutionary War. A Massachusetts native, Lincoln was commander of the Southern department during the war. Afterwards, Lincoln participated in Massachusetts civic life, including serving a term as the lieutenant governor of the Commonwealth. Military encampments were a fact of life in late 18th century America, bustling not only with soldiers but also civilians – who saw the encampment as entertainment and as an economic opportunity.

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“Gen’l Lyncoln came into Hadley…”

In one of Elizabeth’s last entries concerning the rebellion, she describes attending the funeral of “one Walker Killed by the Insurgents”. The Walker in question was Jacob Walker, killed near Petersham. The regulators had decamped for Petersham, and the government forces soon followed. Walker was shot in an attempt to capture Jason Parmenter, a regulator who had fled to Vermont in the final conflict.

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The February 18, 1787 entry

“Feb. 18. … Wednesday went to Hatfield to the Funeral of one Walker Killed by the Insurgents. Mr. Williams of Northampton made the first prayer. Mr. Wells of Whately preached Matt. 24 and 44. By ye also ready for at such an hour as ye think not, the son of man cometh – he was buried with the Honours of War …”

That Walker was buried with the “Honours of War” indicates how precarious the situation was to those living it. All of America was paying attention, unsure if Shays’ Rebellion could lead to a larger conflict that would disrupt the future of the new nation.

Elizabeth’s diary is part of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, on deposit at the Amherst College Archives from the Porter-Phelps-Huntington House Museum. The papers cover roughly 300 years of the family’s history, including correspondence, journals, and financial records. The finding aid for the collection is available here.

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A belated but very happy Commencement to Amherst’s graduated seniors!  We in the Archives are happy to have gotten to know so many of you through your coursework, personal research and thesis research.  We wish you all the best out there!

It has been a good long while since we wrote an update of what’s new in our Digital Collections and now the entire run of Amherst Student newspapers from 1959-1977 is entirely digitized and available in ACDC.  Thanks to the hard work of our Digital Programs, Technical Services and IT departments, we are able to draw your attention to the Commencement issues of the Amherst Student from past decades.1975 Amherst Student Commencement issue

These Commencement issues of the Amherst Student include information specific about commencement happenings – for example, Eleanor Roosevelt gave the Commencement address and received an honorary degree in 1960 – but also includes reflections from students about their years at Amherst and significant events on campus – such as the 1968 Moratorium that led to the creation of the Black Studies Department in 1970 or the first co-ed graduating class of 1976.

The Amherst Student is interesting for its documentation of campus-centric events, but also serves as an interesting lens to view how national and international events, politics, and conversations played out at Amherst.

The years 1960-1977 were selected for an early digitization pilot because of their relevance to this year and the coming years’ 50th reunion classes, however we are working on digitizing and making available the entire run of Amherst Student newspapers beginning in 1867.

1973 Amherst Student Commencement issue

All issues of the Amherst Student 1959-1977 are available in our Digital Collections: https://acdc.amherst.edu/search/amherst+student/collection/asc/topic/College+student+newspapers+and+periodicals.

See previous updates of our Amherst College Digital Collections here and here and here.

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I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

I have heeded beautiful tempters…*

All 25 graduates of the Class of 1850.

Open the valves of your attention and heed the beautiful tempters of the Class of 1850, William Austin Dickinson’s class. These students were all known to the Dickinsons, some better than others, some mentioned in Emily Dickinson’s surviving correspondence, some not.  The class had 25 graduating members,** and there are daguerreotypes for all of them in the Archives and Special Collections.  Unfortunately, most of them are unidentified.  Even worse, the class members graduated into a world of extreme facial hair, so in trying to put names to the 22 unidentified daguerreotypes one must attempt to match a smooth-shaven 22-year-old with a hirsute 75-year-old who left off shaving upon leaving Amherst and never picked it up again.  Believe me, it hurts:

Daniel Worcester Faunce at his 50th Reunion.

Even so, we know or have good guesses for many of the graduates, in particular those who wear a fraternity pin in their daguerreotype. For example, there were four students known to be in Alpha Delta Phi, Austin’s fraternity. Three of them had been identified earlier, but the fourth remained unidentified until the daguerreotypes were conserved and their details became clear and allowed us to see the fourth student wearing the Alpha Delta Phi pin. By elimination, then, this would be John Howland Thompson, Austin’s roommate in their sophomore and junior years.

Delta Upsilon had three members, Albert Beebe, John Cory, and Daniel Faunce. Beebe had a photograph taken when he became a missionary about five years later, so there’s something to compare against the daguerreotypes showing the Delta Upsilon pin. Faunce had three photographs online, and even though they showed him quite a bit older, they were helpful. Once again, we identified a potential Cory daguerreotype by the third pin.

When all the daguerreotypes were sorted by fraternity pins – or by no pin at all – and sorted against all the identified photographs of class members we found online, we were left with a small group of No Hopers.  For this handful, we couldn’t even guess their identities within two possibilities, the way we could with (for example) the five members of Delta Kappa Epsilon, three of whom were comfortably identified (Avery, Garrette, and Newton) with two that had to be one person or the other (Hodge or Nickerson). Even if we had tentative identification for the No Hopers, it wasn’t comfortable. Three of the five remaining are Augustine Milton Gay, Sylvester John Sawyer, and Thomas Morrill Stimpson.  They may be these three men — but which is which?

Another man we couldn’t identify is the Seed King, James J.H. Gregory. Yes, the charitable, ahead-of-his-time Seed King belongs to Amherst, which suggests that we may have missed the opportunity for a cruciferous mascot.  Although there are three older photographs of Gregory online, he still proved difficult to identify and we remain of mixed opinion about which student he might be.  Unfortunately for our purposes, he doesn’t seem to have belonged to a fraternity, so there was no help available that way either.  If we can agree on a match in the future, he should have his own blog post.

One student identified in a half-proven, half-hopeful way is Henry Shipley, apparently the bad-boy of the class. Shipley spent 1846-47 at Harvard studying medicine (he appears in a catalogue) before he transferred to Amherst in early May of 1847, when he shared a room with Martin Root ’49 in North College (“Shipley is my chum,” wrote Root in his diary).  While at Amherst, Shipley was an editor of the student paper the Indicator, which published Emily Dickinson’s valentine in February, 1850. Shipley commented on the valentine coyly, suggesting that he didn’t know the author when–even if Carlo the dog was the only tip-off–he probably knew perfectly well who it was.  After Dickinson signs off with “C.,” Shipley answers the valentine in the same romping style.

Shipley proves to be quite a character.  William Gardiner Hammond’s “Remembrance of Amherst, 1846-48” describes Shipley and another student sliding into campus drunk after a sleigh ride to and from Northampton:

It would appear from this account that Shipley’s nickname was “Chicken,” and I wish I knew why but I don’t. Now, you know the administration must’ve heard about Chicken’s caper, and sure enough, the Early Presidents Collection contains Henry Shipley’s required “confession,” a document unexamined until now:

Here’s what the letter says:

To the Faculty of Amherst Col.

Gentlemen

In addressing you upon a subject which has weighed heavily upon my mind I shall not attempt any palliation of the fault[.] But wish to express to you as a body, the sincere regret I feel in having thus wounded your feelings by committing such an open violation of your laws.

I know that I have disgraced myself. I feel it deeply. And that alone will I think deter me from the commission of a like offence. But the gratitude, which I owe you for your undeserved clemency in this affair is even a stronger barrier[,] and must not be expressed by me in words, but I shall endeavor to let my actions speak [“for” scratched out] That I may not abuse but repay your kindness is the heartfelt wish of your much obliged & humble sevt’,

H Shipley

Amherst Col’ Feb 29th 1848

The faculty minutes record the request for his confession and the result:

March 1st…A confession from Shipley was read, upon which Voted — that it be accepted.

Shipley got off rather lightly: he wasn’t expelled and his confession seems to have been the end of the matter.  However, John Thornton Wood, his partner in crime, was escorted off the property — the faculty minutes record that “Profs Warner & Snell be a com. [committee] to see that he leaves town tomorrow” — and sent home. The minutes are full of notes detailing which faculty member was assigned to write to the fathers of other students to describe their “deficiencies,” “deliquencies,” and “misdemeanors,” and often to take them home. It may be that Shipley’s talents kept him from being dismissed – Hammond mentions Shipley several times and describes him as “a first-prize man,” and Dickinson biographer Al Habegger pegs him as “a gifted reprobate,” identifying Shipley as the student whom Professor Tyler described as “one of the most hardened & hopeless & at the same time one of the most talented men of the Senior Class.” (Wars, p 237.)

Of course, despite the religious nature of the early college, drinking had always been at least an occasional problem. In “the Seed and the Sowers,” F. Curtis Canfield writes of the fall of 1821, shortly after Zephaniah Swift Moore had arrived in Amherst on a cropped-tail horse to take on the presidency of the new college, when “an [Amherst] Academy pupil, one Charles Jenks, had invited certain college students [including a young Edward Dickinson]***…to his rooms after nine o’clock for an oyster supper and ‘that after supper they had cherry rum and gin, that they drank to excess, and that about twelve o’clock they all of them came to the institution and behaved in a very indecent and riotous manner and made great disturbance until one o’clock or later.’ Which goes to show that the authorities couldn’t be too sure, always, that Old Scratch had been driven off Mt. Zion. ‘Segars’ and cherry rum and oyster suppers were a mighty potent combination – the road to infamy and ruin was paved with them.” (Seed, p. 19.)

Shipley seems to have remained on the straight and narrow enough to graduate, even though in his final months at Amherst he managed to insert a story in the Indicator that quotes Swift on the subject of inebriation — it was as if he couldn’t resist poking a finger in the eyes of the administrators who would read the piece:


To be continued,” indeed.  Shipley’s subsequent career sounds suitably adventurous.  Initially, he returned to Harvard and briefly studied law (he appears in a catalogue for 1850-51), then he is said in later accounts to have been a druggist in Kentucky (presumably using what he learned at Harvard before he went to Amherst).  Then he headed west and worked as an editor on several newspapers in California and Oregon.  In 1854 we find him as the editor of “the Grass Valley Telegraph,” the newspaper for a gold mining town in Nevada County, California.  It was at this post where he met dancer-actress-adventuress Lola Montez, who, in a respite from her career, also took up residence in Grass Valley.  In November 1854 Lola and Henry Shipley had at least two documented encounters: in the first, she pulled a gun on him, and shortly thereafter she took a horsewhip to him.  The story was recounted in several newspapers — his account and her account were repeated enough to reach Amherst and the eyes and ears of the Dickinsons.  They both left Grass Valley in 1855.   Shipley’s old acquaintances would have heard of him again in November 1859, when he committed suicide almost a year after he fell off a horse, sustained severe injuries, and suffered from depression.  Montez’s earlier taunt, reframed from one Shipley had thrown at her, seemed apt — “Sic transit gloria Shipley.”  To recap his career, then:

In attempting to identify Shipley among our daguerreotypes, we must go by a fraternity pin, the number of students attached to a given fraternity, and one source that refers to him as a blonde. And then there is that flamboyant personality.  All these things lead me to hope with all my heart that the following image is Shipley because no other daguerreotype suits his biography so well.  Note his rings, his manicured fingers, his fancy, patterned neckcloth, and the fraternity pin, gilded by the photographer no doubt at the sitter’s request since no other daguerreotype in this group has this detail.   Is he not a beautiful tempter?

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* Quotations above from Emily Dickinson, excerpts from Johnson Poem 303 and Letter 35 (April 3, 1850).

**The graduating members of the Class of 1850 are: William Fisher Avery, Albert Graham Beebe, Henry Walker Bishop, John Edwin Cory, Minott Sherman Crosby, William Austin Dickinson, John Graeme Ellery, Daniel Worcester Faunce, Thomas Legare Fenn, Edmund Young Garrette, Augustine Milton Gay, Archibald Falconer Gilbert, George Henry Gould, James John Howard Gregory, Leicester Porter Hodge, George Howland, Jacob Merrill Manning, Jeremiah Lemuel Newton, Joseph Nickerson, David Temple Packard, Sylvester John Sawyer, Henry Shipley, Thomas Morrill Stimpson, John Howland Thompson, and Lyman Richards Williston.

***Polly Longsworth reminds me that Edward Dickinson was among the cherry-rum drinkers in this affair and that his friend Osmyn Baker alludes to it in a letter to Dickinson from this period (the letter is at Harvard’s Houghton Library) .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Charles Drew House in a previous form

 

It is always thrilling when a single location on campus can pull together from the archival record multiple threads of Amherst’s history. In preparing for Professor Mary Hicks’s Black Studies class in research methods, we discovered the history of the Charles Drew House, a history which incorporated material from five different collections: the Fraternities Collection, the Biographical Files, The Alfred S. Romer Papers, the Building and Grounds Collection, and the Charles Drew House Photo Albums.

 

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A 1922 article from the Springfield Union on the completion of the Phi Kappa Psi renovations

The history of the Charles Drew House begins with the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity chapter at Amherst College. Founded in 1895, the fraternity first occupied a home on Amity Street in Amherst. It purchased and remodeled in the late 1910s the mansion owned by Julius Seelye, a former president of the College. The Springfield Union touted the home’s “choicest location” in town and the justification of “as pretentious a motive as the circular porch.”

In the midst of World War II, the fraternity came close to losing its home. Amherst College administration considered prohibiting fraternities on campus. Advocates, including many alumni, convinced the trustees to preserve fraternity life with the condition that certain reforms would be made. In 1946, the trustees of Amherst College announced that fraternities would be required to remove any clause in their constitutions that discriminated against pledges based on race, ethnicity, or religion.

This momentous change challenged the national attitudes toward inclusion in fraternities. This became evident when the Amherst chapter of Phi Kappa Psi pledged Thomas Gibbs, an African American freshman, in the spring of 1948. Gibbs was a member of the track team and a class officer. A fellow Phi Kappa Psi brother described him as “quiet but not shy, and all in all, an extra special sort of fellow.” Students and alumni alike were largely in support of Gibbs joining. The Fraternities Collection in the Amherst College archives provides evidence of community opinion. However, the national organization pressured the Amherst chapter into depledging Gibbs until the fraternity had had ample time to consider the affair. In the fall of 1948, the Amherst chapter polled Amherst alumni and the Phi Kappa Psi national community and moved forward with their plan to pledge Gibbs. The story garnered news interest and the national organization – bristling at Amherst’s perceived public defiance – pulled the Amherst chapter’s charter. The chapter pledged Thomas Gibbs and became a local fraternity: Phi Alpha Psi.

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A letter sent by the Amherst chapter asking for the advice and support of its alumni.

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The Phi Alpha Psi entry in the Olio of 1951, the year Thomas Gibbs graduated. In his time with the fraternity he was elected president.

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This March 1948 letter written by a member of the pledging committee seeks Romer’s advice on Thomas Gibbs.

 

 

 

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The chair of the Phi Alpha Psi corporation at the time was Alfred Sherwood Romer (AC 1917), the director of Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. His papers in the Amherst College archives contain correspondence between Romer, the Phi Kappa Psi brothers, and alumni. The correspondence demonstrates a variety of opinion on the matter. Romer wrote an article, “The Color Line in Fraternities,” which was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1949. It garnered attention. A student in Illinois read the article in her “Social Problems class” and wrote to Romer in the early 1950s, curious as to the outcome. This prompted Romer to write a postscript to the article.

 

 

 

This exchange between Romer and Miss D. Frederick in 1951 shed further light on the Gibbs/Phi Alpha Psi story. Click on the images to view them in closer detail, and note the secretary’s shorthand on D. Frederick’s letter to Romer.

 

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Drew’s (r) entry in the Amherst Olio from his fourth year, 1926

Charles Drew was born in Washington, D.C., in 1904. He attended Amherst College and graduated in 1926 – afterwards he received an M.D. and a C.M. from McGill University. Charles Drew was known for his pioneering research into blood banks and the use of blood plasma. During the early years of World War II he spearheaded the collection of blood plasma as part of the “Blood for Britain” program. He also was appointed director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank. He served for many years on the faculty of the Howard University Medical School. Tragically, Drew’s life was cut short in an automobile accident while driving with colleagues to a conference at the Tuskegee Institute. Many organizations honored Charles Drew by putting his name on elementary schools, a medical university, and residence halls at both Howard University and Amherst College.

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By the mid-1960s, Phi Alpha Psi (also known as Phi Psi) had withdrawn from the fraternity system and were known for their reputation as a counter-cultural institution on campus. In the 1970s Phi Psi pushed for the house to be named after Charles Drew but the organization was denied. For more information on Phi Psi visit Amherst Reacts, a digital humanities project put together by Amherst students in 2016.

 

In 1984 Amherst College banned fraternities, following the resolutions laid out in the  Final Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Campus Life. The houses were transformed into dormitories and were renamed after significant members of the college community. The unofficial Charles Drew House once again pushed for an official dedication and was granted such in 1987.

Today, the Charles Drew House sponsors “events that will celebrate the achievements of black people such as Charles Drew and explore the cultures of Africa and the Diaspora at large. This house was founded as a space where members of the Amherst community can engage in intellectual debate, social activities, artistic expression, and all other endeavors, which highlight Africa and the Diaspora and the accomplishments of its diverse peoples.” (see the full constitution here)

The Charles Drew House also lives in the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, where scrapbooks and photograph albums kept by the residents of the Charles Drew House from 1986 to 2010 are held.

 

 

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The Networked Recluse

From now until the end of May, visitors to the Morgan Library & Musuem in New York City will be able to stand in one room and see Emily Dickinson manuscripts and other pieces drawn from seven different collections. The exhibition is the culmination of a two-year collaboration between the Amherst College Archives & Special Collections and the curators of the Morgan Library.

Take a look at the information on the Morgan’s web site: http://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/emily-dickinson 

I want to use this blog post to thank several of the people who made this happen, starting with my collaborator on the Morgan side, Carolyn Vega, Assistant Curator of Literary and Historical Manuscripts. I often say that I got to do the fun parts of the exhibition while Carolyn took charge of less-fun things, like arranging loans from several different repositories.

That very work is what makes this exhibition so special — many of the items brought together have never been exhibited together before, and will likely not come together again for quite a while. Chief among these items is the famous portrait of the Dickinson children, which has not left the Houghton Library at Harvard University since they acquired it in the 1940s.

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Here is the portrait as it is now displayed in the gallery at the Morgan, against a backdrop of the reconstruction of the wallpaper from Dickinson’s bedroom. That wallpaper was only discovered as part of the reconstruction of Dickinson’s bedroom undertaken by the Emily Dickinson Museum in 2013. We are all very grateful to Houghton Library for lending this work, and to Jane Wald and the crew of the Emily Dickinson Museum for their support of this exhibition.

Other recently discovered Dickinson items include the portrait of two women, one of whom MAY be Emily Dickinson:

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While this daguerreotype remains the private property of an anonymous collector, “Sam Carlo” was kind enough to place it on deposit at Amherst College and to allow us to include it in this exhibition. For the first time ever, visitors can see the portrait of Dickinson as a child (Houghton Library), the silhouette cut when she was 14, the lock of her hair, the authentic 1846 daguerreotype, and compare all of those likenesses to this recently discovered image.

Other lenders to the show are: the Emily Dickinson Museum, Mount Holyoke College, New York Public Library, and Boston Public Library. The Morgan’s own holdings of Dickinson manuscripts round out the total of seven institutions who contributed to making this show a success. Many thanks to all of them.

Another massive thank you goes out to Mark Edington, Director of the Amherst College Press, who valiantly managed the production of the exhibition catalogue: The Networked Recluse: The Connected World of Emily Dickinson. As with all of the products of the Amherst College Press, anyone with an internet connection can download the complete work as a PDF file. Copies of the printed book are currently available through the Morgan Library gift shop. Many thanks to Mark and to our contributors: Marta Werner, Susan Howe, and Richard Wilbur.

Last, and definitely not least, I must thank the staff of the Amherst College Archives & Special Collections for their knowledge and support and patience. We have a lot to be proud of, and none of it could have happened without them.

I will end with a link to the first review of the exhibition which appeared in the New York Times on Friday, January 20 — the date the exhibition opened to the public. Pulitzer Prize winning critic Holland Cotter said many nice things about our work, for which we are all extremely grateful:

“I’m Nobody”? Not a chance, Emily Dickinson

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If you follow this blog –and you should– then you know that Amherst has a lot of collections from missionary families.  Because I work with these collections a lot, especially in arranging and describing new ones, I’ve settled into a comfortable theory about how the work of missionaries changed over the decades and generations.  I notice a first generation of “strict missionaries” whose goal is first and foremost to spread the gospel.  Their children, often born and raised abroad, speak two or three languages, and they know their parents’ work and where it succeeded and where it failed.  They’re still usually missionaries working for the American Board, but their work often branches into teaching at primary and middle-school levels, or working in a medical clinic.  A third generation is even more removed from the original mission work and its members become professors or doctors. Fourth and fifth generations might see some diplomats, government professionals, and journalists.  The shift feels linear.  But I always knew this way of thinking was a broad generalization, and too comfortable.  I knew there would be someone to rock the boat, to mess with my theory — to zig where so many seemed to zag.

Mary Averett Seelye, ca. 1965

Mary-Averett Seelye, ca. 1965

The Williams-Chambers-Seelye-Franck Family Papers (the “Franck Papers,” to be succinct but less accurate) contain an unexpected and substantial section of papers from Kate and Laurens Seelye’s daughter Mary-Averett Seelye, a professional dancer whose particular interest was what she termed “poetry in dance.”  Seelye was careful to explain that she didn’t dance to poetry, she danced poetry – she danced a poem.  It wasn’t an easy concept for some audiences to understand – reviews and articles show repeated explanation.

Seelye seems to have had an eye to her archives fairly early on: her papers make it possible to follow her career from start to finish, and include over 65 years of documentation illustrating the determination and hard work she put into that career.  It contains correspondence, photographs, publicity materials, reviews, interviews, an audio recording of a performance, and one film.

Mary-Averett Seelye was born in New Jersey but her family moved to Beirut (then in Syria) when she was only a few months old.  For one of the many résumés in the collection, Seelye made notes describing her childhood in a way that captures the years that formed her character and provided inspiration for her work:

Mary-Averett Seelye grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, where father taught; mother was active in voluntary women’s organizations.  Grandparents occupied a top floor apartment.  Turkish, French, Arabic filled the air.  She attended an American school, summered under olive trees overlooking the Mediterranean; mosquito netting; jackal howls.  Community-all-ages-baseball every Saturday afternoon provided public measure of the youngsters’ developing prowess to catch a fly and hit a homer.  Parents loved to dance.  Father taught daughters.  Daughters taught brother.  Easter holidays took the family to Palmyra, Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus.  Part of an ethnic minority–yes–but a privileged one in which occupations were to learn and discover, educate, provide medical, spiritual, and economic help and “live in international brotherhood.”*

The Chambers-Seelye clan in Adana, Turkey, about 1922. Back row: Laurens H. Seelye (AC 1911); Kate Chambers Seelye; Dorothea Chambers holding her niece Dorothea Seelye; William Nesbitt Chambers. Seated: Cornelia Williams Chambers and her granddaughter Mary-Averett Seelye.

The Chambers-Seelye clan in Adana, Turkey, about 1922. Back row: Laurens H. Seelye (AC 1911); Kate Chambers Seelye; Dorothea Chambers holding her niece Dorothea Seelye; William Nesbitt Chambers. Seated: Cornelia Williams Chambers and her granddaughter Mary-Averett Seelye.

A stop along a Seelye family excursion, 1931.

A stop along a Seelye family excursion, 1931.

Seelye’s notes go on to record the family’s furlough in the United States that became permanent for Mary-Averett.  New England replaced the Middle East as home.  Seelye attended Bennington College in Vermont, where she studied drama.  In the winter of 1940, she formed the “Trio Theatre” with Carolyn Gerber and Molly Howe, two fellow graduates from Bennington.  The group performed”pieces incorporating movement and words,” including their version of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit.”  Seelye then went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for her M.A., which she received in 1944.

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Mary-Averett Seelye (at left), ca. 1943, with an unspecified member of the Trio Theatre at the Forest Theatre, located on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Seelye at right. Forest Theatre, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

In 1949 she formed the Theatre Lobby with Mary Goldwater and worked as its production director for nine years.  The Theatre Lobby was a “pocket theatre” located in an old carriage house in the mews behind St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  The cast performed classic and modern works and was interracial at a time when other Washington theatres weren’t.  Seelye’s last work as director for the theater was Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in 1959.  The collection contains a note from Beckett to Seelye congratulating her on her work.  (Click on images for gallery.)

By the 1960s Seelye’s interest had turned increasingly to solo performances, specifically the concept of poetry-in-dance.  It was work that had grown out of her studies in drama and dance at Bennington College and that she had performed early on, then intermittently during the Theatre Lobby years, and then again — under the title of “Poetry-in-Dance”– beginning in 1957.  She would perform “Poetry-in-Dance” regularly through the 1960s and 70s.   Georgetown University’s Donn B. Murphy wrote a short memoir about Seelye in which he described the work that gathered momentum in this period:

Although American choreographers worked with words as early as Martha Graham’s American Document in 1938, Ms. Seelye was virtually alone in the continuity of her work in this mode, and in the individuality of her performances, presented over a period of more than thirty years.  She was noted for choosing exceptionally challenging literature and joining it with a movement idiom which is more often abstract than illustrative…

Extremely tall and thin, Ms. Seelye’s striking physical presence onstage was enhanced by minimal sculptural forms, carefully imagined costumes, and arresting lighting effects.  Though her works sometimes used music composed by Stephen Bates and Jutta Eigen, they were more characteristically performed to the sound of her voice alone.  She moved around, on top of, and through the sculptural pieces…

Investigating several cultures through personally devised visions in motion, Seelye was an actress-choreographer-dancer linked both with the earliest performers of antiquity, and the latest creators of avant-garde.”*

(Click for gallery.)

In 1972 she formed Kinesis, a logical extension of Poetry-in-Dance. She continued to dance into her late 70s. (Click for gallery.)

Of course, Seelye never forgot her youth in the Middle East.  Her way of remaining connected to the family’s roots there included a trip in the 1980s to perform in Beirut and Istanbul.  She also used Turkish and Arabic poetry in her repertoire in the United States.

Mary-Averett Seelye, posed among ruins, around 1984.

Mary-Averett Seelye, posed among ruins, around 1984.

Seelye’s papers indicate that she had some concern that her particular brand of dance might die with her if she didn’t take care to document her work.  Toward the end of her career she began to work with videographer Vin Grabill to film some of her performances. The result was a three-DVD collection of Seelye’s work, as well as a smaller film, “Poetry Moves,” featuring Seelye’s work with poet Josephine Jacobsen.  Seelye and Jacobsen collaborated for many years, and some of their correspondence is in the collection.  Clips of Seelye’s later performances may be seen at Vin Grabill’s Vimeo site, here.

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Franck Papers, Box 14, Folder 1: Resumes and other biographical documents.

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The slaves on the sugar estates – do they appear hardworked dispirited and oppressed? Open your eyes and ears to every fact connected with the actual condition of slavery everywhere – but do not talk about it – hear and [see] everything but say little.*

1824-shepard-chas-u-1850sIn 1832, Yale’s eminent scientist Benjamin Silliman advised botanist Charles Upham Shepard (Amherst Class of 1824) on how to negotiate his visit to the South, where Shepard was to investigate sugar plantations in order to assist Silliman in the production of a report to the United States government on the sugar industry.  The investigation had begun in 1830 with a request from the House of Representatives to Secretary of the Treasury Samuel Ingham to “cause to be prepared a well digested Manual, containing the best practical information concerning the culture of the Sugar Cane, and the fabrication and refinement of Sugar, including the most modern improvements” (“Manual” preface).  Ingham’s successor Louis McLane gave the project to Silliman, and Silliman divided it into tasks for four men, including Shepard, who went to Louisiana and Georgia, “where the sugar cane is cultivated.”

In his advice to Shepard quoted above on how to treat with the planters, Silliman was suggesting that he avoid antagonizing them with any kind of anti-slavery argument if he wanted the planters to cooperate with the research.  Elsewhere — in correspondence between Silliman and Amherst’s President Edward Hitchcock — Silliman comes across as someone who could at once view slavery as an original sin and – from his own earlier visit to the South — observe that most of the slaves he saw were “well-treated,” simultaneous opinions that were probably typical for his time and station.  We don’t know what Shepard’s views were, but it’s likely they were similar to Silliman’s.

The Charles Upham Shepard Papers contain some of Shepard’s notes and correspondence relating to “the sugar inquiry,” including several documents from planters who either answered Shepard in the form of his questionnaire or who wrote their answers in a letter. Many of these focus on the manufacture of sugar from cane, rather than on growing cane itself.

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Shepard’s sketch of a “Steam Boiler” used in the manufacture of sugar. (C.U.Shepard Papers, Box 3, Folder 5.)

In at least one case, though, we have notes in Shepard’s hand from his conversation with a planter. The planter was Stephen Henderson, who owned several cotton and sugar plantations, including one named Destrehan, a plantation that exists as a tourist site today.

The name “Destrehan” might not have caught my eye if I had not recently watched the film “12 Years a Slave” and then read both the book from 1853 on which the film was based and a little about the making of the film.

The film includes a scene filmed in Destrehan’s “mule barn,” which was re-purposed to serve as plantation owner Edwin Epps’s cotton barn.  If you’ve read “Twelve Years” or watched “12 Years,” you’ll remember that Epps is the man who enslaved Solomon Northup for ten years — he was apparently the cruelest of Northup’s many tormentors.

"Antebellum splendor": the home of Edwin Epps as it appeared in the 1970s.

The home of Edwin Epps as it appeared in the late 1970s. This photograph was probably taken by Dr. Sue L. Eakin, who brought “Twelve Years” back into public view after many decades in which it was nearly impossible to find a copy.

So, what exactly did this folded-up document that mentions Destrehan say? Here it is, including Shepard’s blurry ink-over-pencil tracing, abbreviations, and mistakes, in a sort of poisoned verse form. It’s a modest-looking document whose early 19th-century handwriting – itself dashed off probably while meeting with the planter– resists quick understanding, but transcribing it reveals sobering truths.  Perhaps only Kara Walker could illustrate this text properly.

 

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Of course, the people performing the labor described in the document above had names and identities. The document below is the first page of the registry of slaves on Henderson’s estate at the time of his death in 1838, five years after Shepard made his notes. This page shows only the first dozen of the 152 people listed on subsequent pages in the document.

 

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Destrehan Plantation’s site has a transcription of the full list of enslaved people. The complete inventory of Henderson’s estate is available through ancestry.com or ancestrylibrary.com.   See also the new National Museum of African American History and Culture for complementary material on subjects discussed in this post.  The Museum opens next week, and the New York Times has published a preview featuring samples from parts of the museum.

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*”Mr. Silliman’s Instructions,” Charles Upham Shepard Papers, Box 3, Folder 5, page 4.

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