Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Amherst College missionaries’

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.

wcsf-mas-chapel-hill-ca1943-001

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.

wcsf-mas-chapel-hill-ca1943-002

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.

***************************************************************

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

Read Full Post »

“I left Harpoot the 17th of May, going alone three days’ journey to Diarbekir, somewhat to the scandal of the missionaries along the way. However, I knew the road well and was not in the least afraid, and after all nothing happened.” (Letter of Dec 3, 1915)

“I left Harpoot the 17th of May, going alone three days’ journey to Diarbekir, somewhat to the scandal of the missionaries along the way. However, I knew the road well and was not in the least afraid, and after all nothing happened.” (Dora Mattoon, letter of Dec 3, 1915)

What inspires a woman to throw over her life from one day to the next, to go from apparent comfort and a great job in a big city to a remote post in a country she’s never been to, where they speak a language she hasn’t studied at all?  And what would possess her to leave the first country after five years of hard work for an entirely different one, retraining herself all over again?  (more…)

Read Full Post »

college_seal_1825aWhen Amherst College was founded in the early 19th century, part of its raison d’être (aside from being a protest against Harvard’s Unitarianism) was to educate young men to go out into the world and preach the gospel.  The College seal illustrates this philosophy: “Terras Irradient” – “let them enlighten the lands.” However, by the end of the century graduates’ interests had evolved to something in addition to religious instruction, or something entirely different.  Graduates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were still going into the world as missionaries, but by then the work often meant starting schools or becoming medical missionaries.  Other alumni were writers, doctors, teachers, publishers, ambassadors, “industrial barons,” and in many other professions far removed from those of the first Amherst graduates.

From left, Laurens, Dorothea, Kate, and Mary Averett Seelye, ca. December, 1919.

From left, Laurens, Dorothea, Kate, and Mary Averett Seelye, ca. December, 1919.

For Laurens Hickok Seelye, Class of 1911, “Terras Irradient” meant that he would teach philosophy at the American University of Beirut (AUB, known at the time as the Syrian Protestant College), where he moved in 1919 with his indefatigable wife Kate Chambers Seelye, daughter of missionaries William and Cornelia Chambers.  For Kate the move was a return home after her college years in the U.S. (Kate was born and raised in Turkey but left to attend Bryn Mawr and Columbia).  For Laurens the Middle East was something entirely new, and he threw himself into its culture unreservedly.  Professor Seelye probably stood out everywhere he went for his height, his humor, and his intense intellect.  And he loved AUB.  He loved it for its diversity, tolerance, and collegiality.  In a memorable letter to an old friend, he described both himself and the college:

WCSB-LHS-to-Dorry[Robbins]-1928-Aug-excerptIn addition to testing boundaries and teaching philosophy, Laurens acted as the director of West Hall, which was and still is the student campus center.  In that position, he came to know more students than he would otherwise have known.  After he had settled in at AUB, Laurens noticed a need for something else – financial assistance for ambitious young Armenian refugees to continue their education beyond what the Near East Relief provided.  This organization had established orphanages to help with Armenian refugees who had flooded into the area during and after World War I.  They provided a basic education to about age 16, at which time the boys left the orphanages to fend for themselves.  Because of Kate’s personal connection with the Armenian community and Laurens’ work at the college, several of these boys came to the Seelyes to ask for help.  Laurens decided to do what he could as a personal project, outside of his work at AUB.

In a letter to Clarence Young, an uncle, Laurens described the situation and his plan to help.  He said that there was no provision to train the Armenian refugees beyond a trade-school education, no resources to train teachers, doctors, dentists, pastors, and other professionals.  “I am right up against young life determined to win out and get an education if given half a chance,” Laurens wrote to Clarence.  The world “can do nothing in the future without an educated and large-minded minority scattered through the races and nations who are willing to stake their lives and reputations on the practice of Good Will.”  Would his uncle share his plea with churches and schools and clubs at home and ask if they might raise funds to support some of these boys?

WCSB-LHS-to-Clarence-Young-1923-Aug-6-p1WCSB-LHS-to-Clarence-Young-1923-Aug-6-p2

 

 

 

 

The plan worked.  Laurens and his donors were able to provide funds for a long list of boys to continue their educations.  The boys were mostly Armenians, but there were also boys of other backgrounds.

In 1923 a few of these boys met with Laurens and came away with the idea  of forming an Armenian Students Cooperative Association.  The club started with the goal of finding an affordable living space that a handful of students could share, splitting the cost of food, rent, and a cook (the latter after one of the boys inadvertently fried up his tie with some eggplants).  The club was sufficiently popular that it had to expand to two clubs and two houses.  A few of its members weren’t even Armenians, which pleased Laurens because it realized his goal of having the students regard themselves as “humans first, Armenians second,” by which he meant that he wanted his students to recognize their common humanity, and to work to improve conditions for all.

Club members lived, worked, and played together. Click below to enlarge the photographs and view them as a gallery.

 

The club also issued annual reports, three of which (1923-24; 1924-25; and 1926-27) are in the collection.  The reports demonstrate the democratic philosophy they practiced:

First page of 1924-25 report. Click on pdf below for full report.

First page of 1924-25 report. Click on pdf below for full report.

Armenian-Stu-Coop-Club-report-1924-25

The Seelyes were friends with several of these students for decades; in fact, there are letters in the collection from the club’s founder, Dicran Berberian, that date from the 1960s.  The existence of the club is a testament to the industry of the students, but also to Laurens’ teaching.  In his own way, he had realized Amherst’s motto, “Terras Irradiant.”

 

The material illustrated here is from the Williams-Chambers-Seelye-Blaisdell Family Papers in the Archives and Special Collections.  Contact the department for more details.

Read Full Post »

Ribbon with 1825 College seal.

Ribbon with 1825 College seal.

Visitors to the Frost Library in the spring of 2013 were met in the lobby with an exhibition put together by students from Wendy Ewald’s class Collaborative Art: The Practice and Theory of Working with Communities. Items in the exhibition were selections from archival collections the students had used in classroom meetings during the 2012 fall semester. The resultant class projects used the Amherst College missionary collections for the historical part of their work and interviewed local people for the contemporary part. The class then produced an exhibition and a book that connected the two projects. Enlarged pages from the book were also on display in the mezzanine gallery above the lobby exhibition.

Section of exhibition in lobby, spring 2013

Section of exhibition in lobby, spring 2013

Enlarged book pages in mezzanine, spring 2013

Enlarged book pages in mezzanine, spring 2013

Exhibition viewers might have wondered how Amherst College came to possess so much material about Christian missionaries. As many people will know, Amherst College was founded with the object of “educating for the gospel ministry young men in indigent circumstances, but of hopeful piety and promising talents.” When Noah Webster described this mission at the laying of the cornerstone of South College in August of 1820, he could not have imagined exactly how and to what extent it would play out. However, in the decades that followed his assertion, Amherst turned out approximately 140 missionaries for 20 countries. Many of those missionaries founded something resembling dynasties, in which succeeding generations followed their parents and grandparents into missionary service. Because of the strong connection between the College and its alumni, many of the missionary families eventually deposited their papers here, over time forming an impressive group of missionary collections.

One need not be religious, or interested in the study of religion or the missionary movement, to find these collections fascinating and extraordinarily important. In general, the collections provide a rich context for study of our history in the Middle East and India in particular, with a few collections covering other countries. However, the collections may also be approached from many other angles, including international history, American history, history of religion, politics, women’s studies, as well as a basic biographical approach to any one of the individuals represented in the collections.

(more…)

Read Full Post »