Reflection on working with the New Bedford Whaling Museum

In the Spring of 2017, the URI English Department hosted a group of professionals from various cultural institutions in the greater Rhode Island area. People affiliated with  the Providence Public Library, the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, Mystic Seaport, and the New Bedford Whaling Museum formed a panel to discuss the ways in which students in the English Department can partner with these institutions in a collaboration aimed to bring the work we do as scholars to the public. This panel wasn’t simply an event about the hypothetical, but the introduction to a cultural institutions partnership in which teaching assistants could elect to spend one semester working with one of these groups in place of teaching a course, allowing us to explore ways in which the work we do as scholars may be translated to the public; how might we make it both palpable and meaningful? This program gives us opportunities to do work outside of academe so that we may be exposed to the various career paths a PhD student in the humanities might pursue as alternatives to that of tenure-track professor.

When I learned that one of the potential institutions to partner with was the New Bedford Whaling Museum, my interest was piqued. I’d attended their annual reading of Moby Dick and, having decided 19th century American Antebellum literature would be the focus of the tertiary list for my comprehensive exams, I was hopeful that I might be able to partner with the museum. Furthermore, one avenue of my scholarship is an exploration into the ways in which different physical landscapes affect aloneness and how this intersects with gender. My interest in maritime texts is as much an exploration into the landscape of the shore (if not more so) than that of the open sea. I wondered what descriptions I might find of solitary women living in coastal communities tied to the ocean. As I thought about a project, I met with Mark Procknik, the Whaling Museum’s librarian, and Sarah Rose, the Vice President of Educational and Programs. In my initial meeting with Sarah Rose, she expressed the hope that I might find something in the collection that will help  to rethink our national narrative by including women’s roles in and accounts of the history and “making” of the United States.

With her words in mind, I began looking at the museum’s online catalogue to familiarize myself with their special collections. Since I was looking for writing by women, most of the materials available to me were letters. I was hoping to find some that would showcase the interiority and private life of the women who remained on shore when their husbands, brothers, or sons were at sea.

I decided to look at two of the Whaling Museum’s holdings from their special collections, the Eliza Russell Papers (Mss 136) and the Dead Letters, officially the Cory Papers (Mss 80), but called such due to the fact that the letters never reached their intended recipients. Over the course of the semester, I became chiefly interested in the Eliza Russell manuscripts. The Dead Letters did figure into my work with students and has invited me to think about my own nonfiction writing from a different angle. Specifically, I’ve contemplated how the writing act is shaped by the writing subject’s understanding that there is a possibility her words may never be read by the person to whom she writes. Rather, a stranger might end up in possession of her personal, and sometimes private, thoughts. These writers knew the dangers men at sea faced, and also the unpredictability of a whaling boat’s course, so they could never be sure if their letters would end up in the hands of the intended receiver. In a world of texts and emails, we are often relatively certain that our words have reached the person to whom we are writing—though these forms invite myriad misinterpretations. Immersing myself in the epistolary once a week for the past five months has allowed me to reflect further on the relationship between content and form.

Ultimately I decided on Eliza’s letters rather than others written by women in the collection because I’d learned that she accompanied her husband, Thomas, on one of his voyages onboard the Lancaster and lived in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) for several years. I was curious to know how the journey affected her and to read her descriptions of Hawaii. I wondered how the different physical environments—New Bedford and Holmes Hole (Vineyard Haven), MA and Lahaina (Maui), HI—might have impacted Eliza’s understanding of the world, how it might have affected her mental and emotional landscape. I also wanted to know more about life on shore and how being separated from her husband might have allowed Eliza the ability to develop a sense of autonomy.

Initially I was disappointed in the letters. Much of the content is Eliza mourning Thomas’s absence. How would this help to rewrite the national narrative? As I continued visiting the museum throughout the wintry months of the spring semester, I began to develop a fuller sense of who this woman was, what her daily life entailed with whom she interacted, what she believed about her personhood; I learned of her life philosophy which was heavily grounded in the Methodist religion and the Third Great Awakening, and how she participated in her marriage which was  marked by her husband’s departure from New Bedford for what would be a three-year voyage just months after their wedding when she was 21 or 22.

I had hoped that with her husband gone, I might see evidence that Eliza developed a network of friends and family who offered her emotional support and perhaps even helped her find enjoyment and fulfillment in her life. Or alternatively, that I might read her mediations on the natural landscape of New Bedford, Holmes Hole, and Lahaina and that these descriptions might disclose the ways in which she felt a connection to the natural world. With an absent husband, I wanted evidence of her independence. Instead, Eliza often writes to Thomas of how she declines offers to go to social gatherings because she feels that since he is unable to go, she should not revel in the fun and excitement they may bring. At times it was infuriating to read this, yet in talking about my work with others, they reminded me that the audience for these letters was her husband, that what she was writing was intended to give Thomas a picture of her life on shore, to perhaps make him feel missed and still an essential presence in her life.

Out of all of this, what I found most disheartening was that, despite living with both Thomas’s and her own family over the course of Thomas’s two voyages, totaling about six years, Eliza seems to remain emotionally dependent solely on Thomas.  One of the texts that has helped give me context for Eliza’s relationship with Thomas is Rachel Moran’s 2004 article, “How Second-Wave Feminism Forgot the Single Woman.” Though the title suggests that Moran’s scope is the 20th century, in fact, she reaches back to the colonial era and takes a look at the institution of marriage as well as tracing the laws which have impacted single women. She chronicles some of the cultural (mis)perceptions of unmarried women throughout the centuries. Though she doesn’t deny the fact that both first and second-wave feminism have helped in making fundamental advancements for all women—the right to vote, the continuing battle for equal pay, the access to higher education and various professions once deemed only suitable for men—Moran looks not only at the legal manifestations of gender-based inequality, she is also interested in the more subtle ways in which women are denied the same privileges and rights as men. One of the most poignant arguments she makes is that women need not only financial independence, they also need the opportunity to pursue emotional individualism. Often circumscribed into the role of wife and mother, even within the discourse of first and second-wave feminism, women who choose not to take on these roles are seen as somehow unnatural, whereas men and masculinity tend not to be exclusively written in terms of one’s role in a family.  And so I came to recognize that in addition to the economic constraints placed on Eliza, and the inequality made evident by the fact that her husband’s mobility was accepted and culturally sanctioned while she was expected to be stable and tend to the home. One letter from Eliza to Thomas on his second voyage addresses just this:

I regret every day that I had not been more spunky and gone with you, you might not have been so lonesome, and I am very sure that I should not[.] Well I suppose we must conform to the customs of the world,  no matter how much we may suffer by it [.]

Moran’s article also helped me to understand that Eliza lived during a time not only in which women were conditioned to look to their husband or religion to have their emotional needs met—often at the expense of friendship—unlike men, they were not encouraged to cultivate an emotional individualism. While the men are going to sea or heading westward out into the frontier, the women are staying put. In this way physical movement seems to mirror the emotional landscape of the individual. Is one mobile and dynamic, or stationary and static and stunted, as Eliza appeared to be, writing in letter after letter of how much she wished she could be with Thomas on the ship or have him back home on shore.

I think in part, I expected “more” from Eliza’s letters because my only context for 19th century missives written by women had been the letters Emily Dickinson wrote to her family, friends, and artistic comrades and mentors such as the Atlantic’s Thomas Wentworth Higginson. When I read Eliza’s letters, I kept hoping to come across elements that are present in Dickinson’s letters—an honest disclosure of feeling coupled with the river of contemplative thought that weaves its way through a Dickinson epistle, in her startling and rich employment of language. We have thusly determined hers is a voice worthy of incorporating into the literary canon and to some extent, by extension, our national narrative.  But Eliza’s letters are a sort of chorus continually bemoaning the absence of Thomas and its impact on her happiness.

The experience of sitting with these letters has shown me something of my own role and duty as a scholar. I went in hoping to find something which wasn’t there—a connection to physical environment, the disclosure of a full and nuanced interior landscape despite or because a woman was afforded time alone to pursue her own interests rather than waiting on her husband, and a voice that would, perhaps, show the development of a political and social conscious. When I didn’t find these I was forced to take a different approach. It has been invaluable for me to talk with my fellow graduate students and others about what I see in the letters, how I might place them in a larger context, and how to read the letters without a contemporary bias, rather to read with an openness to what Eliza is telling me. Equally helpful was a conversation I had with author Julija Šukys,  guest speaker at the English department’s Read Write Series. Šukys spoke not only about her  work in the archives during the writing of her most recent book,  Siberian Exile, but also her archival work with the letters written by Ona Simaite  as part of her research for Epistolophilia.  She suggested I look for breaks in Eliza’s letters, the points in which her daily routines, or the usual structure of the letters varied. With this advice, I went back to some of the points in which Eliza’s letters reported something other than the health of family members, her attendance at religious meetings, or her longing for Thomas.

This new approach allowed me to become endeared to Eliza. Shortly after Thomas went to sea, Eliza writes that she is reading a book by Fredrika Bremer, a 19th century Swedish writer and feminist. In her letter, she admits that Thomas did not approve of her reading the book and apparently went so far as to hide it from her: “How did you pass the time yesterday[?] I passed a good part of it in writing to you and the rest in reading Fredrika Bremer[.] [H]ow nicely you put that book away behind my trunk. I suppose you thought that I should not find it but my eyes are too sharp for you.” I found it intriguing that she both reads the book and goes on to confess this to Thomas. While I cannot pretend to know her motives for doing this, perhaps it was one way of performing femininity—here is a display of a mildly disobedient yet wholly honest and therefore dutiful and trustworthy wife. Regardless of Eliza’s motives, there was an interest on her part in what Brenner was writing about, so much so that she continued to read despite her husband’s apparent disparagement of the book. And throughout the years, as she goes about the routines and performs the domestic tasks relegated to women, as she denies herself the pleasures of going out in public with friends, as she continues to ask permission of Thomas for things such as taking piano lessons, I would like to believe that the ideas in Bremer’s book didn’t leave her. That they remained in her consciousness and maybe even informed some of her decisions. Perhaps she just didn’t report this to Thomas and so evidence of her autonomous acts are lost.

Another instance in which a change from her normal routine is chronicled, comes several years later. She reports to Thomas that she had made some money from her sewing, “Oh I must tell you a piece of news, I have earned two shillings this week and am now making a dress for which I will receive $4.50 [N]ow can you say that I am not smart?” There’s an interesting conflict occurring here. On the one hand, it is hard not to read a sort of sense of pride and purpose Eliza experiences as the result of earning her own money. On the other hand, her eagerness to receive praise from her husband, the way the question, “Now can you say that I am not smart?” seems to imply that she is as happy about the prospect of pleasing Thomas as she is about gaining a little economic independence. Throughout the years, Eliza becomes more and more active in managing her and Thomas’s finances. She writes to him about her interactions with the bank; she asks whether or not he wants her to insure the whale oil from his voyages. This responsibility may have helped to make the relationship more of a partnership than it began. And it reminds us that men were able to travel the globe because they were supported by those who remained in one place.

I also became aware of and appreciated the ways in which Eliza played with language to express herself. Something seemingly simple, such as the opening of each letter, which at first glance appears formulaic, was in fact a display of creativity. Each letter begins with Eliza telling Thomas she is sitting down to write him, yet she finds multiple ways to communicate this: “Once more I am permitted to converse with you through the medium of the pen;” “Having just heard of an opportunity to send a letter by Captain J. Soam’s Three Brothers, I thought it best to improve it and [A]unt Morse seconds the motion by getting me paper and pen;” “I throw aside all work and everything to write a few lines to you, just to jog your memory that you may not forget us at home, neither we forget you.” I recognized in these openings a desire from Eliza to communicate and express herself originally and creatively.

Admittedly I am still trying to figure out how to present what I’ve spent these months reading so that her voice can inform our understanding of “American Identity” and to frame it in a way that is useful for the Museum and be of interest and value to the public who stumbles across this information either in the form of a blog or an article on the museum’s library projects page. I think I will put together an inquiry into how we might think differently about what it means to contribute to our national narrative. Since my meeting with Sarah Rose last summer, the museum has been doing its own work to showcase women’s contributions. Their webpage includes information a special project—Lighting the Way: Historic Women of the SouthCoast. Included are profiles of women who were engaged in the type of work that we recognize as impacting a community and in some cases, the nation. For example, Sarah Rotch Arnold, a social reformer and abolitionist and author Elizabeth Barstow Stoddard are featured.  These women were contemporaries of Eliza’s and no doubt their impact did and continues to be more widely felt than hers. But Eliza might still provide an example of  one step in the progression towards more parity for women. My initial interest in her was due to the fact that she too went to sea when she accompanied Thomas. I felt she must possess something of a daring spirit and I wanted to learn more about how this opportunity for mobility informed and shaped Eliza. So many women were stationary, confined to the home, but some ventured out, though of course in most cases this was with their spouse.

While most of Eliza’s actions on shore seem to fall in line with the conventional gender roles of the time and do not seem to further any type of social or political cause, I came to think of the letters themselves as a way of rethinking how women have contributed to the national identity. Though male authors, with a few exceptions, dominated the public literary landscape, women, of course, were engaged in more private acts of writing—diaries and letters. This is not a new insight. However I saw in these letters the autonomy I had hoped so much to find in her acts. When faced with the reality of these letters which displayed conformity on all levels—to church, to parents, to husband, to the cultural guidelines that dictated what a woman could and could not do, I wondered what to make of this collection and how my work at the museum might help my own scholarship, the students at URI, the Whaling Museum, and the public. Here is where form seems an apt guide. The use of the epistle, a form of life writing with a particular interlocutor in mind, invites a reflection on the relationship between writing and personhood. Through the act of writing, Eliza continually selects parts of herself to display and chooses also to conceal other elements of her lived experience. Despite a constraining society, through her letters, she found points in which to express herself and to employ language to construct and develop a “self.” Here, she begins a letter meditating on the act of writing:

Much beloved husband,

It is with mingled emotions of pleasure and pain that I now write to you; of pleasure, that I can communicate to you of the doings at home, and a great many other things, then again, it is painful to think that those who are dearest to you are so far away, and ever while you are writing you know not their situation, whether above or beneath the waters, and then the letter may never reach you…

One tangible element of my project has been the collaboration with the undergraduate class at URI. As part of her pedagogical practice as a teacher of creative writing, Professor Cappello introduces her students to the idea of an “uncommon archive. ” She poses to students the idea that each person has a multitude of sources that she draws from when she writes that are unique to her and that these sources are continually added to. The writer may turn to an actual archive, rooting through obscure texts, and s/he may also turn to his/her own memory as a source of material. As a visitor to the class, I shared some of my experiences with the archival work at the Whaling Museum. Additionally, I worked with two of the students in Professor Capello’s class to make audio recordings of some of the letters from each of the collections (Mss 80 and Mss 136)  I’ve spent time with. Throughout the semester, Professor Cappello highlights the performative element of poetry—they learn that poetry is not merely written language, rather it should be spoken and heard. Reading letters from the Museum’s collection familiarized students with archival work while giving them an opportunity to display what they have learned about reading and performing poetry. My plan is to edit the audio files and make them available to the museum and/or to embed them in the blog or scholarship page.

The most challenging element of the partnership for me has been what the museum expects of the partnership. They have been more than generous in allowing me access to their collections and, for better or worse, have not imposed any type of timeline and have left the final product entirely up to me. However having all of this open-ended, can, at times, lead to a lack of direction on my part. I want to provide the museum and ultimately the public with something that is of use.


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