- Lost and Found:Making Claims on Archives
This essay, like the contributions by Lois Brown and Jeanne Pfaelzer that were printed in the previous issue, was presented at "Women in the Archives: Using Archival Collections in Research and Teaching on U. S. Women," a symposium held at the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England in Portland, Maine, 11–14 June 2009. We invite similar essays that reflect on the pleasures and challenges of archival research.
The idea for this rather speculative essay came to me while I was in that uneasy interstice between two projects. I was completing the work of editing Harriet Wilson's New England: Race, Writing, and Region even as I was beginning the sort of writing project one undertakes only after attaining institutional security through promotion and tenure: I was combing through an old accordion file box full of class notes, essays, and newspaper clippings from my own mother's days as an English graduate student and instructor at Cornell before her premature death in 1959 when I was only two years old. My purpose in writing a personal essay about my mother's paper legacy was to see how much of her I could recover so many decades later.1 That effort led me to contemplate the theoretical—and now, for me, more urgent—issue of what is not in the archive, a very present absence. Here I was, involved in one project designed to publicize exciting new discoveries from public archives about the life of Harriet E. Wilson, even as I was coming to grips with the yawning lacunae this tiny private collection was revealing about someone who could not have been closer to me in a familial sense. This seemingly counterintuitive juxtaposition led me, finally, to ask questions about the necessarily incomplete nature of the recovery process as it concerns Wilson and the dangers of creating [End Page 257] a new narrative about her that delineates and may delimit a new subject we might afterward problematically regard as the definitive Harriet Wilson. Of still greater concern to me is that while this new subjectivity might fill in some important blanks, it could fail to mark emphatically enough the forces of her cultural and racial obliteration as a black writer in New England. The temptation toward reification or myth making that the very collection I was co-editing could help to foster was checked, that is, by the new understanding I gleaned from working with my mother's slim archive. The enormity of the difference between the two projects helped me to grasp more intensely than before the distinct and racialized issues at stake regarding these two subjects as well as the limitations and risks inherent in any attempt to reconstruct a life—whether of a public figure or not.
To be sure, the recent disclosures about Wilson's life after her indenture that have appeared in Harriet Wilson's New England and elsewhere are ground-breaking, and this commentary should in no way be seen as diminishing their importance. Perhaps the most exciting recent find is Reginald H. Pitts's unearthing of actual bottles of various "hair products," including "Hair Dressing," "Hair Regenerator," and "Hair Restorer," embossed with the name "Mrs. H. E. Wilson" (Gardner, "Of Bottles and Books" 4). Pitts and P. Gabrielle Foreman have also traced Wilson's journey to Boston after publishing Our Nig and have documented her involvement in the popular spiritualist movement of the day. Banner of Light, a leading New England spiritualist paper, dubbed her "the earnest colored trance medium" (qtd. in Foreman, Introduction xliii). Additionally, they have uncovered Wilson's marriage in Boston to an apothecary eighteen years younger than herself, her death certificate from 1900, and the tombstone of "Hattie E. Wilson" in Quincy, Massachusetts. Equally significant, thanks to the textual recovery work of Eric Gardner, we now know that Wilson likely distributed Our Nig to white middle-class households as she peddled her hair tonic: one home at a time.2
At the same time, my purpose here, as I've suggested, is to raise questions about the limits of archival recovery that occurred to me as...