Saturday, January 29, 2011

Anna Douglass's Bandanna

Most accounts of Anna Douglass mention her dark skin. Ottilia Assing, before she had reason to be jealous, described her as, "completely black," in contrast to Frederick Douglass's lighter skin. Fredericka Bremer, also contrasting Anna's color with that of her husband, wrote: "It was his wife and little daughter I spoke of as being very black."

Frederick Douglass's biographers have also weighed in on her appearance. Benjamin Quarrels wrote, "Her straight black hair and her inexpressive features gave her face an Indian cast." Dickson Preston went so far as to add, "Anna was dark and quiet." William McFeely, who insists that Anna was not only quiet but inarticulate, had his own embellishments: "Anna was a full-lipped, ample woman. Her skin was deeper and richer in color than Frederick’s, and her eyes were softer and wittier than his, which seldom relaxed their watchful intensity." Arna Bontemps flat out said, "Anna Murray was not blessed with good looks."

Her inability to read also figures into these accounts, as do comparisons with Douglass's second, white wife, Helen Pitts, and efforts to portray her as the model Victorian housewife. Those are all issues to develop at another time.

Yes, Anna was dark. What of it? Seriously, what of it? What does her dark skin reveal about her? The contrasts with Douglass were explicit, and his contemporaries noted that his lighter skin tone indicated the miscegenation that he himself addressed in his autobiographies. The implication, then, would be that Anna's ancestry had less miscegenation than her husband's and that more of her predecessors came from Africa than from Europe. (I'm not quite sure of what to do with the constant genealogical references to possible Native American ancestry, all unsubstantiated, yet. That's another line of inquiry.) White people, even among Douglass's allies, found a closer tie to Africa either distasteful, as in the case of Bremer, or a political asset. "I wish he were full blood black for I fear your pro-slavery people will attribute his pre-eminent abilities to the white blood that is in his veins," Catherine Clarkson wrote to Maria Weston Chapman, in 1846. What of his wife, then, who was assumed to be "full blood black"? How did she react to this politicizing of her husband's and, by extension, her skin color? The color, in fact, seems to become less about the person than the color itself, a fetish.

I wonder about Anna's African ancestry and how that would fit into her experience. Her father was supposed to have been named Bambarra, according to Rosetta Douglass Sprague's memoir. Bambarra was the name of a group of people along the Senegambian River and a name the European traders gave to anyone captured and traded at the mouth of the river, regardless of their actual background. Given that she was born sometime around 1813 and was supposed to have been the 8th child of her parents, both of her mother and father -- like Douglass's mother and grandmother -- were born before the U.S. had withdrawn from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This line of questioning will require a little more digging into the trade patterns on the Eastern Shore; but the hypothesis here is that her father or a grandparent came from either Africa or -- since a many Chesapeake slaves were imported from the Caribbean -- Barbados.  This African lineage was linked to Anna's appearance. The color of her skin, being of such note to Frederick's associates, set her apart from them and could have affected her relationship with her husband both in his view of her and in her reticence in his world.

I seem to have digressed. I started this post with the intention of getting to this one detail that has intrigued me for the past few days. Benjamin Quarrels quotes a letter from Minnie Blackall Bishop to Charles H. Wiltsie, written in 1929, in which she wrote that Anna would wear a "'dark cotton dress and a red bandanna on her head'." This letter is in the Rochester Public Library, so it is on my list to find this summer, as is Jane Marsh Parker's and reminiscences.

The red bandanna caught my attention. White women did not tend to dress like that. They wore caps and bonnets and hats. Go south, however, to Savannah, to Charleston, to plantations, and black women wore scarves around their heads. Scarves protected their hair; and Stephanie Camp argues that, under those scarves, women braided and styled their hair in a creative expression of self, claiming their bodies as their own in defiance of the system of slavery. Scarves also hearkened back to the African practice of headwraps.

Was her bandanna a connection to her African ancestry, a persistence of African folkways on the Eastern Shore? I find this detail intriguing too because, just as Camp argues for enslaved women's use of fashion and appearance as an expression of self, this detail might also be an expression of Anna's self. Perhaps she had always worn a headwrap, a scarf, since her days in Baltimore and saw no reason to give it up in the North. Perhaps the scarf represented home, her past, part of where she came from, and nothing to be ashamed of or discard.

I have an idea about Anna that she had a strong sense of herself. Herself, however, was constantly in a world hostile to her race. Her husband brought her into a world that could be very patronizing toward her, and both he and his world -- largely white, predominantly middle class, lettered -- sent her many messages that she was somehow unfit or in need of improvement. I think she had a different definition of herself and had to hold herself in opposition to them to maintain her identity. The headwrap might be a small example of that identity. 

Monday, January 24, 2011

2nd Marriage

On this day, January 24, in 1884, Frederick Douglass married his second wife, Helen Pitts. The two went to work at the Recorder of Deeds office, where he was Recorder and she was a secretary working, at one point, under the supervision of Rosetta Douglass, Frederick's daughter. At the end of the day, they proceeded to the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., where they were married by the Rev. Francis Grimke' (the black nephew, incidentally, of the white sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke'). Outrage issued from both black and white corners, including both of their families; and he seems not to have been entirely forgiven for this to this day. As for her, in the lawsuit-ridden aftermath of his death, I've notice a struggle for the position of the real Mrs. Douglass in the efforts to commemorate Douglass. More on that as I research it.

Interesting tidbits from the newspapers in the wake of their wedding:
  • The New York Globe reported that Helen wore a "garnet velvet and silk" dress -- yes, red! -- while "the groom wore a full suit of black." 
  • The Washington D.C. Grit headlined the wedding announcement as "The Mistake of His Life," saying "It is not only a surprise, but a national calamity," adding, "But he suited himself; so we leave him in his glory (?)."
  • Columnist Africanus in the Cleveland Gazette accused Douglass of attempting to "bleach out the race" through miscegenation.
  • The Louisiana Standard exaggerated their age difference, saying "We must say that marriages between septuagenarians and young ladies in their thirties are not according to our idea of the fitness of things." Still, the editors, "wish the venerable old man a happy evening of his eventful life." Douglass was on the eve of his 66th birthday. Helen Pitts was forty-six.
  • Not in a newspaper, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton turned a congratulatory letter into a plea for woman's suffrage.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

On Trusting Secondary Sources

How do you trust your secondary sources when you check their primary source and discover that the primary source does not say what the secondary source purports it to say? In fact, the primary source doesn't even touch on the subject.

I keep coming across this problem. An interesting "fact" crops up in a secondary source, one that seems less well-known or that I haven't heard of before. Interested in the primary source for that (and hoping that the primary source will be something new that will give me greater insight into my own inquiries), I check the notes. The notes cite another secondary source. So, I go to that secondary source. That secondary source often cites and another, which cites another, and I end up on a scavenger hunt to find this elusive primary source. Then, when I finally find a reference to a primary source, I look at the primary source and that alleged fact is nowhere in that primary source.

Thus far, I have found this sort of problem consistently with much having to do with Douglass's youth in Maryland, with much surrounding Anna Douglass, and with anything connected to the Underground Railroad (which is a whole other messy area in which what happened and what people wanted to happen get all mixed up and repeated as fact). Right now, I'm tangling with sources that describe bits about Frederick and Anna's meeting and her influence upon him during their early relationship for which I cannot find primary sources -- and I really really want those primary sources!

The first bit has to do with the free black East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, which Douglass mentions in passing in his autobiographies. He is, in fact, the only primary source for that organization, and he will probably always be that only primary source. The little group of free black men and their one slave member may have passed into obscurity had it not been for that one slave member writing about their contributions to his development and then going on to be the most famous black man of the nineteenth century.

The second bit has to do with Douglass and the violin. Two secondary sources say that Anna encouraged Frederick to learn to play the violin and that they purchased sheet music together in Baltimore. Secondary source A cites secondary source B, and secondary source B cites My Bondage and My Freedom, which says nothing of the sort. Secondary source A, in fact, goes so far as to say that Anne herself played the violin. Secondary source A again cites secondary source B as well as another secondary source on the first mention of Anna's purported skill, then cites a 19th century secondary source on the second mention. I confess that I haven't seen the 19th century source as yet, and am grateful for the notation, so that bit of information may develop further. Nevertheless, I've now come across yet another 19th century source that says that Douglass took up the violin in England. I know from his own hand that he did know how to play at least one song by the time he was in England -- "Camels a'Comin'" -- in 1846. Was that actually something that he had just learned in the previous year while also making speech after speech in town after town? Was he so beloved that his hosts never mentioned the screetching of a beginning violinist?

In any case, what does this matter? Back at the Douglass Papers, these sorts of trivial-seeming research questions and tasks (all of which I loved because they were like detective work) all resulted in annotations. In fact, this sort of research led me to the questions that produced this book project. Annotations, however, are a very different creature than an oblique biography. An oblique biography demands that the details support some purpose.

In the case of the violin, I'm not entirely sure what a confirmation of that fact will tell, but it will go in the pile of evidence about Anna's life that will ultimately produce a more complicated picture of her or, at the very least, add to the set of questions about her life that seem to define the -- to use an artistic term -- negative space around the image of her and might go toward explaining more about the arc of the Douglass courtship and marriage. Certainly his ability to play the violin created a point of connection with his second wife, Helen. What role, if any, did it play in his life with Anna? What, in fact, did skill on the violin mean to them, other than a night's entertainment?

In any case, in portraying Anna, I'm finding that I am portraying a set of possibilities rather than a set of facts or even a testable theory. I want to be very clear about that in my text (or, depending upon the editor's choice, in my notes) because I want readers to be able to trust my assertions or at least test me by going to the primary source.

Image: Frederick Douglass's violin, located at Cedar Hill, his home in Anacostia, D.C., now part of the National Parks Service.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Perils of Being In Love With Your Subject

"Until our own time, history focussed on man the achiever; the higher the achiever the more likely it was that the woman who slept in his bed would be judged unworthy of his company. Her husband's fans recoiled from the notion that she might have made a significant contribution towards his achievement of greatness. The possibility that a wife might have been closer to their idol than they could ever be, understood him better than they ever could, could not be entertained." -- Germaine Greer, Shakespeare's Wife (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), 1.

Germaine Greer's assessment of Shakespeare's biographers reminded me also of Annette Gordon-Reed's assessment of Thomas Jefferson scholars who were not so much appalled that their favorite Founding Father had sex so much as that he had sex with an African American woman. These two scholars focused on women who, like Anna Murray Douglass, left behind no surviving documents in their own hand. The view of each woman comes from those around her, her actions, and how various people have chosen to remember and interpret her life. To discern the person through these layers of interpretation, the intent and meaning of her actions is a delicate task. In fact, sometimes it feels like a violation, an act of supreme hubris, and often aggression. We historians are nasty creatures sometimes, are we not?

I'm still rooting out what contemporaries have said, so my task for the week involves collecting historians' interpretations of Anna. Right now, I'm still in that state in which you just have a general impression of the consensus, but haven't really dissected your findings and engaged in an intelligent dialogue. One consistent element that I find is that her life lends itself to embellishment that perhaps overemphasizes, without evidence, her participation in such things as the aid of fugitives and the anti-slavery movement. I'm looking for the evidence, trust me! Nonetheless, this overemphasis seems more to portray her as the proper helpmeet for Douglass rather than to understand how she defined herself. I don't think Douglass's biographers have been as guilty of sexism or racism as Greer and Gordon-Reed charge the biographers of Shakespeare and Jefferson. I trust that they do want to give her her due. They just have not focused on Anna as subject, only as indirect object, and therefore have not fully considered her experience or range of options.

I could be wrong, of course. As I wrote, I have not yet deeply analyzed my findings; but I did want to write out my general impression. Also, I wanted a blog post for the day!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

1880 Census, Nellie Grant, and the Douglass Granddaughters

As I read through Radical Passions to find references to Anna Douglass -- "Border State" to the fabulously caustic Ottilia Assing -- I came across a reference to "Nellie Grant." "I am very sorry about your difficulties with Nellie Grant," she writes, "as much as on your account as on her own, since she will hardly be treated as tenderly by any other owner as she has been treated by you." Never one to edit herself or to let an opportunity to express her opinion pass by, she added, "I apprehended some mischief from the first, although I could not tell which, since you got her through Nathan, who will always take even greater advantage of you than of anybody else, because he knows that he can do so with impunity." (361) Nathan, by the way, was Douglass's son-in-law, married to his daughter, Rosetta. He has been, shall we say, much maligned.

Obviously, this couldn't be Nellie Grant, the daughter of Ulysses S. Grant, president at the time. The note for Nellie Grant says, "Douglass had taken into his already crowded household a needy young woman." Assing uses some strange language if that is true. Why would she use the term "owner" to a former slave in the aftermath of emancipation? Did people refer to good hospitality as "treated tenderly"? Didn't they usually say something like "cordial" or "kind"? Maybe this is one of those things that happen with non-native speakers of a language? Assing, after all, spoke German first.

Since Christopher Lohman's main source for the notes is Maria Diedrich's Love Across the Color Lines, I took a look. No mention; but then, people are always making these sorts of sweeping statements, and Douglass did take into his household people like Harriet Bailey (aka Harriet Adams, Mrs. Perry F. Adams, Ruth Adams, Ruth Cox -- but she's another story all wrapped up in revise and resubmit territory) and Louisa Sprague and his brother Perry Downs and Julia Griffiths and Assing herself.

Notice how they are predominantly women?

In any case, wondering more about this, I took a look at the 1880 Census for Washington, D.C. There was Douglass: F.W. (for Frederick Washington), his wife Anna, and his three granddaughters, Annie and Hattie Sprague and Julia Douglass. Louisa Sprague is also listed as his granddaughter, but at age 29, she was more likely Nathan's sister. "Granddaughter" might have been an easier way to explain the relationship in one word to the census taker. Next door lived Perry Downs and Kitty Barret, Douglass's siblings, and Perry Downs's nephew H.F. Wilson, along with Martha Wilson, identified as a servant in the column for her relationship to the head of household. What we have here, then, is a complex family arrangement. What we don't have here is anyone named Nellie Grant.

Then, I wondered why Rosetta Sprague's children were living with their grandparents. So, I went to find Nathan Sprague's household. There they were: Nathan, his wife Rosetta D., and their six children, Annie R, Harriette B, Estelle J., Fredericka D., Herbert D, and Rosa M. (ranging in age from 3 to 15, incidentally), along with Maria Pongee, a black servant.  The Douglasses were recorded on June 1, 1880, and the Spragues on the 12th. Were Hattie and Annie visiting grandma and grandpa on the day the census taker showed up and just ended up in the records as living there?

Meanwhile, what about that Nellie Grant? I browsed back through Ottilia's letters. The letter mentioning her, cited above, was written in April 1879. The previous December, Assing had written this at the end of a letter: "My Maca [her dog] sends his best thanks to Mrs. Douglass for the walnuts and is passionately fond of them. He was silent all the time I was absent and has been talking charmingly from the moment I came back. He is convinced that I belong to him exclusively; what do you think of it? My love to my fourlegged good daughter, Rock and Nellie Grant!" (349)

Is Nellie Grant, perhaps, a hound?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Compiling the Evidence: Frederick Douglass on Anna Murray Douglass

These are some of the things that Douglass wrote directly about his first wife, Anna Murray Douglass.

Narrative (1845):
“At this time, Anna* [*She was free], my intended wife, came on; for I wrote to her immediately after my arrival at New York, (notwithstanding my homeless, houseless, and helpless condition,)informing her of my successful flight, and wishing her to come on forthwith. In a few days after her arrival, Mr. Ruggles called in the Rev. J.W.C. Pennington, who, in the presence of Mr. Ruggles, Mrs. Michaels, and two or three others, performed the marriage ceremony, and gave us a certificate, of which the following is an exact copy: --
‘THIS may certify, that I joined together in holy matrimony Frederick Johnson+ [+I had changed my name from Frederick Bailey to that of Johnson] and Anna Murray, as man and wife, in the presence of Mr. David Ruggles and Mrs. Michaels.
New York, Sept. 15, 1838’
Upon receiving this certificate, and a five-dollar bill from Mr. Ruggles, I shouldered on part of our baggage, and Anna took up the other, and we set out forthwith to take passage on board of the steamboat John W. Richmond for Newport, on our way to New Bedford.”

My Bondage and My Freedom (1855):
“I was hidden with Mr. Ruggles several days. In the meantime, my intended wife, Anna, came on from Baltimore – to whom I had written, informing her of my safe arrival at New York – and, in the presence of Mrs. Mitchell and Mr. Ruggles, we were married, by Rev. James W.C. Pennington.” Mentions “we” in relating his living conditions in New Bedford. Then, he wrote, “During the hardest of the winter, I hired out for nine dollars a month; and out of this rented two rooms for nine dollars per quarter, and supplied my wife – who was unable to work – with food and some necessary articles of furniture.”

Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Gates version is the 1893 version – check the earlier and later versions):
“With Mr. Ruggles, on the corner of Lispenard and Church streets, i was hidden several days, during which time my intended wife came on from Baltimore at my call, to share the burdens of life with me. She was a free woman, and came at once on getting the good news of my safety. We were married by Rev. J.W.C. Pennington, then a well-known and respected Presbyterian minister. I had no money with which to pay the marriage fee, but he seemed well pleased with our thanks.” He uses the pronoun “we” through the rest of the paragraph

FD to Maria Weston Chapman, 10 September 1843, from Cambridge, Indiana, on page 13 of the first volume of Douglass’s correspondence by the Frederick Douglass Papers project:
“P.S. I have received a few lines from my wife asking for means to carry on household affair[.] I have not to send hir[.] Will you please see that she is provided with $25 or $30.”

FD to Harriet Bailey (aka Ruth Cox, Ruth Adams, and Harriet Adams), 16 May 1846, from England, on page 125 of the first volume of Douglass’s correspondence by the Frederick Douglass Papers project:
“Read the enclosed letter which I send to my Dear Anna over and over again till she can fully understand its contents[.]”

FD to Isabel Jennings, 22 September 1846, from Glasgow, Scotland, on page 166 of the first volume of Douglass’s correspondence by the Frederick Douglass Papers project:
“You may easily suppose the conclusion come to reluctantly when I tell you I had already written to my Anna telling her to expect me home on the 20th Nov. It will cost her some pain. Disappointment is the common lot of all – this may afford slight relief till I come.” (He had decided to stay in Britain for a bit longer after having been absent for a year.)

FD to Anna Richardson, 29 April 1847, from home in Lynn, Massachusetts, on page 208-209 of the first volume of Douglass’s correspondence by the Frederick Douglass Papers project:
“I am once more at home; once more with the wife of my bosom, and in the midst of the dear children of my love…My dear Anna is not well, but much better than I expected to find her, as she seldom enjoys good health. She feels exceedingly happy to have me once more at home. She had not allowed herself to expect me much, for fear of being disappointed; but she was none the less glad to see me on that account…Dear Anna and myself are intending to visit Albany in a few days: and we shall then see our only girl Rosetta.“

FD to Thomas Auld, 8 Sept. 1848, published in North Star, source here is the first volume of Douglass’s correspondence by the Frederick Douglass Papers project (312-313) and can also be found in their edition of My Bondage and My Freedom:
“I married soon after leaving you: in fact, I was engaged to be married before I left you, and instead of finding my companion a burden, she was truly a helpmeet. She went to live at service, and I to work on the wharf, and though we toiled hard the first winter, we never lived more happily….So far as my domestic affairs are concerned, I can boast of as comfortable a dwelling as your own. I have an industrious and neat companion….”

FD to Lydia Dennett, a Maine abolitionist, 17 April 1857, the original is in the Houghton at Harvard, this comes from Philip Foner’s edition, Frederick Douglass on Women’s Rights, page 21-22:
“Suppose I begin with my wife. I am sad to say that she is by no means well – and if I should write down all her complaints there could be no room even to put my name at the bottom, although the world will have it that I am actually at the bottom of it all. She has the face – I was going to use terms scarcely up to the standard of modern elegance – neuraligia. She has a great deal to do, but little time to do it in, and withal much to try her patience and all her other very many virtues. You have doubtless in your experience, met with many excellent wives and mothers, who have been in very much the same condition in which my wife is. She has suffered in every member except one. She still seems able to use with great ease and fluency her powers of speech, and by the time I am at home a week or two longer, I shall have pretty fully learned in how many points there is need of improvement in my temper and disposition as a husband and father, the head of a family! Amid all the vicissitudes, however, I am happy to say that my wife gives me an excellent loaf of bread and keeps a neat house, and has moments of marked amiability, of all which good things, I do not fail to take due advantage." (Well, Me-ow.)

FD to Doctress S. M. Loguen, 12 August 1882, after Anna Douglass’s death on August 4, just a week earlier; the original is at Howard (have to haul my rear-end over there), this is quoted in Philip Foner’s edition, Frederick Douglass and Women’s Rights, page 22:
“Mother was the post in the center of my house and held us together.”

I'm sure this isn't all he had to say about Anna. That is, not all he had to say about her in writing. I'm sure he had much to say in all manner of ways in life. They were, after all, married for a long time.

Now, to compile what others have said about her both in her time and since, especially historians, and figure out what it all means. I do know one thing: She's rather a blank slate, given that she left no writing from her own hand, so people liked to project on to her what they wanted or needed her to be.

Friday, January 14, 2011

This Month's Acquisitions

In the tradition of The Little Professor, I inaugurate "This Month's Acquisitions." She actually does "This Week's Acquisitions," but I am too poor to do that. In fact, if some of my acquisitions seem incredibly basic or out of date, if they illicit "you don't already have that" responses, that would be because I've been poor for so long that I've had to rely on a library for most of my reading because I needed the money for stuff like, you know, groceries and electricity and such. Fortunately, I generally had easy access to an academic library. Not so much anymore with this community college teaching. So, now I must purchase. At least I'm not as poor as I was during some of those years so that, in spite of purchases, I still come out ahead.

Here they are, in no discernible order except as they are stacked on my desk:

  1. Isenberg, Nancy. Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr. New York: Viking, 2007. I've already started this one and -- damn! -- it is fantastic!
  2. Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America's Most Cherished Holiday. New York: Random House, 1996. Read this years ago, loved it, and wanted a copy for the bits about class and about the abolition movement.
  3. Lohman, Christoph, ed. and trans. Radical Passions: Ottilie Assing's Reports from America and Letters to Frederick Douglass. New York: Lang, 1999. Getting to the actual repositories will not be so much of a problem as translating the letters. Who knew you would need German to study Douglass? So, this will have to suffice until I find something better.
  4. Malz, Earl M. Fugitive Slave On Trial: The Anthony Burns Case and Abolitionist Outrage. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010. For review. That's not unethical to say, is it?
  5. Barker, Gordon S. The Imperfect Revolution: Anthony Burns and the Landscape of Race in Antebellum America. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2010. Also for review. I stopped trying to review books for a while because I had a difficult time overcoming my own Angel in the House -- the one Virginia Woolf wrote about as hanging over her shoulder saying "who are you, you pretender, thinking you can evaluate someone else's work in print?" I thought it was bad karma, too. Now, I don't mind so much.
  6. Rockman, Seth. Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery and Survival in Early Baltimore. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2009. This one I need more for Anna Murray than her husband. So little exists on free black women in urban areas, much less in Baltimore, that I may have to write a whole article on that alone before I can deal with Anna Murray's life before Frederick Bailey entered the scene.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Anna Murray, Mrs. Frederick Douglass," at Le Moyne College, Feb. 10th

I will be giving a talk at Le Moyne College, Syracuse, New York, on Thursday, February 10, 2011, at 7:00 pm in the college's Grewen Auditorium.

The talk will be "Anna Murray, Mrs. Frederick Douglass," in which I will outline Anna Murray Douglass's life, address the way historians have portrayed her, and discuss the limited evidence that we have in reconstructing her life. Then -- may my powers be up to the task at this point -- I will bring it all home and explain how this relationship is important in understanding Frederick Douglass and the lives of free black women such as Anna.

Aside from presenting what I hope will be an awesome paper to an undergraduate audience, I am hammering out what will become essentially 1 1/2 - 2 chapters in the book.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Method to My Madness

The book itself is what I'm taking to calling a "sideways" or "oblique" biography. That is, I'm approaching Douglass through the women with whom he lived and associated, both public and private and at the intersection of both.

Other historians have used this method more frequently in recent years. The most famous would be, of course, Annette Gordon-Reed's acclaimed The Hemings of Monticello. Although she focuses on the Hemings family, I couldn't help but feel as if I were reading a biography of Jefferson, too. Not a full-blown, traditional biography, but a biography of him as a slaveholder, and the master of this particular family. Similarly, both John Kukla in Mr. Jefferson's Women (Random House, 2008) and Virginia Scharff in The Women Jefferson Loved (Harper Collins 2010) consider the ways that Jefferson interacted with women. Kukla focuses on Jefferson's romantic liaisons, while Scharff explores the connections of responsibility between Jefferson and the women closest to him. At the risk of drawing ire at those who dislike Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait, I'll venture that Fawn Brodie also observed Jefferson from the vantage point of women, as well. Then, beyond Jefferson scholarship, you can find Jane Glover's Mozart's Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music (Harper Collins, 2005) and Germaine Greer's (did you know that she was originally a Shakespeare scholar?) Shakespeare's Wife (Harper Collins, 2008). I'm sure other examples are out there. I could swear I saw a book about Elizabeth I and her women in the bookstore at the airport last month.*

From these oblique biographies emerges a pattern for this method of examining the Great Man (or, I suppose, Great Woman) from the point of view of a particular group of people in his life -- women, in most of these examples and in my own work. First, the author must reconstruct the lives of the women in question.The biography of the Great Man, then, also becomes a series of biographies about the women. In some cases, reconstructing a woman's life will be less difficult because she had the privilege that allowed her to leave the sorts of records that historians use for biography. In others, she become a hole in the narrative. The author must reconstruct everything around the woman in as much detail as possible in order to get some idea of who she could have been, always with the awareness that this portrayal is an educated guess.

Oddly enough, in my experience, I've had a more difficult time reconstructing Anna Murray's life as a free black woman than I have with Harriet or Betsy Bailey, Douglass's enslaved mother and grandmother. Enslaved women appear in a record because they had value to their masters as property. Free black women? They made their own way, hidden in other people's homes, their names changed in marriages that were often not recorded because their husbands were enslaved, and moving about frequently in order to find work. You might be able to reconstruct their lives as a group, but as individuals they prove quite elusive.

Getting back to the method, if the first order of business is to reconstruct the women's lives, the second is also to address the ways that other scholars have interpreted those lives -- if at all. Since the women in the lives of most Great Men, including their wives, appear as supporting characters, the women's historian who has begun reconstructing the women's lives often finds that historians have relied upon other historians who have relied upon yet other historians in order to form their own interpretation. The women's historian may also discover a new interpretation to the same stories simply by looking at the events from the women's point of view.

For instance, Scharff takes the romanticized tale of the Jefferson honeymoon and considers what the newlywed Martha Jefferson might have experienced riding up the mountain, soaked and shivering from the snowstorm, only to find a construction site, no fire and no food. In my case, I continually come across interpretations of the first Douglass marriage that describe him as disappointed. While that may be true, could she not have been disappointed herself? One you begin to tease out that thread, you begin to see the Great Man in a slightly different light.

Which leads to the third and most important part of the method: what do these relationships say about the Great Man himself? What new insight does the study offer into his life, his ideas, his work, and the events that he shapes? What, too, does that insight tell us about gender relationships at that period of time, and the lives of women?

This,  then, is my method for the moment. I'm trying to reconstruct the lives of these various women by looking at what they wrote (if they wrote), what they did, what others wrote about them, and how other women in similar circumstances lived. I'm also looking at the ways that other historians have written about these women and their relationships to Douglass in order to see if I can synthesize and add to the conversation. Finally, I must figure out what it all means.

Then, of course, I must write it all out in an engaging and eloquent narrative for the audience's enjoyment!

*I won't discuss the novel Douglass's Women here for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it is, in fact, a novel and not history.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Statement of Purpose; or, Why I Decided to Put My Unformed and Half-baked Douglass Ramblings in Public

If anyone is reading, welcome to my blog on Frederick Douglass and women.

At the  moment, I have a handful of reasons for creating this forum in which to write about Frederick Douglass, women, and my manuscript about Frederick Douglass and women. The first reason had to do with a desire to explore the possibility of using social media such as a blog to publicize my book. Obviously, this is putting the horse at least three years before the cart, since the manuscript is currently a jumble of notes and papers and is not due until 2013. Since using such media as Facebook or Twitter or whatever else might appear in the next few days of the social media world, requires actually having something to promote since they aren't conducive to much beyond short bursts of information.

Meanwhile, I have been noticing that interaction with other scholars has become an ever more important part of my work. For a variety of reasons, I have not developed a community of such scholars with whom I can discuss ideas and exchange suggestions. Seeing the way communities have developed on other blogs, I thought that this format might be a good way to foster such an environment -- provided, of course, that people read it!

This leads to my third motive for creating a blog. I have a practice of "free writing," much like keeping a journal, on my ideas and research on Douglass. I "free write" just as much for the discipline and practice of writing as for anything else. My teaching load, however, is 5/5 plus service that often involves a 1 - 2 hour commute, half of which is in rush hour traffic, means that anything that doesn't HAVE to be done NOW tends to fall by the wayside by mid-term. I hate when that happens, and end up bouncing between resentment of whatever keeps me from writing and hating myself for not having the discipline to make myself, despite the demanding schedule. Knowing that I would have an audience -- or potential audience -- might help alleviate some of that stress and enforce that disciple for, at the very least, longer into the semester than the mid-term.

The fourth incentive for creating this blog came from several directions and has to do with the parts of research that don't end up in the final product. From one direction came the awareness that publishers, to varying degrees, tend to be less enamoured of the type of historiographical and explanatory notes than the author. I find this rather frustrating as a reader and even more as a reviewer. After all, you don't want to say something about a writer's lack of grounding in the historiography, or lack of understanding of the debates, when the author had such footnotes removed from their manuscript due to length. That happened to me on my Tourist Book because the nature of the book, the scope of the subject, and the limit of the word count left little work for transparency on research. In other words, it has no endnotes and only a limited bibliography. I always wished I had a place to put those notes and bibliography, and a blog might be the perfect place.

From another direction came that awareness that writers very often cut out fascinating information from the manuscript simply because that information serves no function in the overall scheme of the work.  The author may not know when or if they can develop that information into anything, but -- dammit! -- it's such a good story or interesting fact. Sometimes they are footnotes to footnotes. Sometimes they are simply asides or dead ends. How lovely to have a place to put these items so that the work that went into them doesn't go to waste!

From yet another direction came my own desire to inflict upon others my adventures in research or items in popular culture that relate to Frederick Douglass that must be shared. A blog might be the perfect place with which to entertain an interested public -- or at least attempt to do so.

That's the general purpose of the blog, then: to have a publicity platform in place when the time arrives, to build a community that could help my work, to help discipline my writing, and to provide a forum for the various odds and ends of research.

Here goes.