I can’t stop thinking about those little stitches in those sturdy old pages of some mid-19th century slip of newspaper.
Archives are problematic. They are constructed spaces and a product of their own particular histories. The volumes they house did not magically appear. Those things were saved, collected, passed on and passed around, donated and deposited, organized and cataloged and entombed – by particular people at particular moments for particular reasons.
The things that exist and the things that were saved are very very limited and very very biased. I'm not talking about the content; I'm talking about the objects themselves and their presence in an archive. Consider: illiterate people don’t tend to write reams and reams of letters. People who labor 14-hour days don’t tend to keep detailed personal diaries. And most “ordinary” people don’t think to write their lives as they are living them.
But why save the nonexistent letters of a day laborer? You'd be surprised the things that almost weren't saved. At some point in the last century, a very distinguished archive wanted to throw out the shelf of volumes of a 19th-century Boston woman's lifetime in diaries because they were taking up too much space. Of what interest were her scribblings anyway? She wasn't important. I'll let you respond to that (quietly) on your own. (I am among the many scholars eternally grateful that someone did think her scribblings were important enough to allow them to take up space.)
What might have been? Yesterday I sat reading Cushman’s euphoric letter home to her mother about her triumph before a London audience. Her mother would have received that letter in Philadelphia weeks after the event and after its long Atlantic crossing. The letter would have been accompanied by a sheaf of clippings, carefully clipped, maybe even sewn by Charlotte Cushman or Sallie Mercer.
When you sit reading these old letters, it can feel for a moment as if time has not happened yet. What has been has yet to come. We are suspended between two moments. Under the brutal fluorescent lights, hearing the hum of microfilm readers and the artificial beeps of digital cameras, the ticking keyboards and archive sniffles, and breathing the stale smell of old carpet, sweat, and dust I am reading a the letter that an elated Charlotte Cushman wrote to her mother one morning in 1845, the morning of the week she became a star. It starts with a performance we can never recreate and it ends with paper. That letter. That is all we have.
Now think about the problem of the archive.
There is a reason why that letter and other letters from celebrated actress Charlotte Cushman are found in repositories throughout the country, but not those of her lifelong servant, Sallie Mercer, who probably warmed the ink in which Charlotte dipped the pen. What little we know about Sallie's life we know because of Charlotte, but while we can catch a glimpse of Charlotte's interiority, Sallie Mercer is a cipher. You can fulfill your desires in one respect:
|A carte de visite of Sallie Mercer ca 1858, taken about thirteen years after she began working for Cushman. From a Cushman family album in the Library of Congress.|
|An engraving of Cushman playing Romeo opposite her sister Susan in England, published in the People's Journal July 1846.|
|Cushman and her lover Matilda Hays, ca 1851.|
P.S. Make sure you pick up Lisa Merrill's exceptional biography When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators. If you're looking for a great read on the problems of finding the stories of the domestic servants through the lives of famous women (a theme I touch on here, inspired by Merrill's own treatment of Mercer) you must read Alison Light's Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsburg.