I love to conduct archival research. My first (and only) publication came from my unwillingness to believe that eighteenth-century author Mary Deverell died without her passing being recorded somewhere in a British periodical.
But let me back-track here just a little so I can explain why I was interested in Mary Deverell’s day of death.
In a feminist theory seminar at Auburn University, I was given a list of British authors from the eighteenth century on the first day of class, and I was told that which ever author I picked would be my object of study for the entire semester; any theory I learned would be applied to my specific author’s work. Being a fan of early American literature, I choose the English author Mary Deverell, writer of sermons, two collection of poems and a play.
One of the first assignments I was tasked with in this course was to learn everything I could about Deverell’s life… hmm, I didn’t find much. In fact, all the biographies listed were educated guesses on when and where she was born, a list of her publications, and a question mark as to the day she died. I knew that Deverell was a “forgotten” woman writer, but I found it hard to believe that, with all the interest in recovering women’s writing over the last twenty or so years, no one had found any document that could tell us a little more about her life. Using Google as my research method, I typed “Mary Deverell” into the search engine and went through pages and pages of garbage until I found the periodical that mentioned her burial at an Anglican cemetery in England. SCORE!!!! Not only did I discover that she died in 1805, I also know knew that at the time of her death she was Anglican–despite her Quaker-esq mentality regarding human equality. Armed with this new information and a renewed sense of purpose, I went on to discover that an excerpt of her work was published in New Jersey in the 1790s and that she contributed to magazines under a pseudonym before she began publishing her larger works under her own name. All of this to say, I get a weird high from conducting archival research–recovering the once important but now forgotten.
So why, in the beginning, was I not very excited about our end of semester archival research project? My best
guess is that the drive to Denton irritated me. When it takes an hour and a half at 2pm on a Tuesday for me to drive from Fort Worth to Denton–40miles max–I’m not happy.
My first trip to Denton was with Amanda, Sam and Heidi. Our first stop was at UNT, my Alma mater. They had some neat archives, but after we got all excited about the possibility that we had found AWESOME archive materials on our first trip, they hit is with the boom: “All of our archives have been digitized.” Damn. So we thanked the kind folks at UNT, typed Texas Woman’s University into Sam’s GPS and headed toward downtown Denton.
Upon arrival we asked Ms. Ross, the keeper of the special collections at TWU, if she had any pre-1865 archives from minority writers that had NOT been digitized. While we filled out the required paper work, Ms. Ross went to that magic room somewhere in the library that has old stuff and grabbed a single box that she felt would fit our needs. In the box were four diaries written by Clara Miller Dabney. These diaries covered a large portion of Dabney’s teenage life in New Orleans in the late 1850s and early 1860s. The covers of the diaries were hard and elaborate, Diary II’s cover was a range of blue, thick squiggly lines. We slowly peeled back the covers, trying not to disctub the secrets within. Inside were pages upon pages of neat, cursive writing that held the key to recovering Clara Miller Dabney’s life. Before leaving the archives that day, I declared that Diary II, a diary recording her journey across Canada, the north-eastern U.S, and the south-eastern U.S in 1858. I choose this diary specifically because I have ALWAYS been a fan of studying early American texts with plots and themes that are focused on physical and cultural shifting, whether it be Mary Rowlandson, Sarah Kemble Knight or John Tanner. Our pre-rush hour drive back to Fort Worth took almost two hours.
My second trip to TWU was when the transcribing began. It was a frustrating day. I left school at noon on a Friday, so traffic on I35 going through Fort Worth was awful. With a pencil in hand and a notepad near by, I sat down to transcribe. Within three pages I was regretting my choice to transcribe Diary II. You see, I did not take into consideration that a travel diary, especially one that begins in Canada, would name rivers and towns that were french in root; her early American hand writing did not make my life any easier. I did the best I could that day, but there were many words partially transcribed, followed by a “?”. I knew better than to leave Denton at 5:00, so I did some homework on my dying computer until 6 and then got on the road. Two hours later I arrived at my apartment.
A few days later I got out my notes. After a few minutes on Google, I figured out that what I had transcribed as the “Guequany” river was actually the Saguenay River, and that boat she was on, the “Guequany Steamer”, was actually a pretty famous steamer, the Saguenay, which transported tourists up and down the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. Thanks to Google, there were a lot of moments like these that day. My frustration turned to delight as I started to realize that during Dabney’s travels, she was hitting all of the nineteenth century hot tourist spots, such as the Island of New Orleans, Mount Washington, and Paul Revere’s house, to name a few.
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving break, I went back to TWU to try and finish transcribing the diary (I didn’t even come close, by the way). I furiously transcribed page after page of material. 44 pages were transcribed in all, which gave me a clear enough sense of her diary to complete the project for this course. As I sat in traffic on the way home, I cursed the I35 gods, swearing I would seek revenge if I didn’t make it back to TCU in time to teach (I did, with five minutes to spare).
When I finally began to build my website, the archive detective in me really kicked in. I wanted to create a page titled “Biography,” but I needed to know more about her life than what was currently known, which was just about nothing.
“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” so back to Google I went. Several pages later, I found what I was looking for–a transcribed article from the LDS Family History Center in Fannin County, Tx that had new details regarding Dabney’s life. For me, Christmas came early this year, y’all.
I don’t know where I’ll go from here with my work with Clara Miller Dabney, but I do have one great take away: getting your hands dusty in the archives goes hand in hand with digital research, as more and more documents are transcribed and their content placed on the web.
Oh Yeah, my other great take away: I35 is for the birds