Dreaming of the Dead

 Image courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society. This photograph by Clover Adams, taken August 8, 1883, was the image that first caught my attention. I’d seen this sort of composition before, in European and American paintings, but I’d not seen figures arranged this way in a nineteenth-century photograph. For more of Clover’s photographs, see the online collection at http://www.masshist.org/features/clover-adams.


Image courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society. This photograph by Clover Adams, taken August 8, 1883, was the image that first caught my attention. I’d seen this sort of composition before, in European and American paintings, but I’d not seen figures arranged this way in a nineteenth-century photograph. For more of Clover’s photographs, see the online collection at http://www.masshist.org/features/clover-adams.

On Saturdays as a kid, I’d often go with my dad to our local library in the Chicago suburbs, and while he picked out books for himself and my mom for that week’s evening reading, I’d scoot to my favorite place in the library – an area that held the bound copies of Life magazine. I’d pick a year – 1946 or 1958 or 1963 (a packed year for news) – and settle down on the floor between the metal shelving, safely hidden from view, to work my way through that year’s issues. The large pages were still crisp, as if just published, but they held an aroma – almost unmistakable – of the past.

Familiar, yet also like a foreign country, the past seemed to unfurl in my imagination as I turned those pages. I read about a country doctor and his patients in Appalachia; about a young woman who’d left her husband (perfectly nice and handsome, the magazine exclaimed!) to pursue her college education; about the race car driver Richard Petty and movie stars I’d watched not in the theater but in reruns on WGN, the local television channel for movies. Life magazine wasn’t about news for me – it was, I see now, my very own archive, where I’d explore and follow threads of curiosity about what had happened – before.

Many years later, when I first looked through the photographs of Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams and a gifted photographer in the early 1880s, I had again that familiar feeling of the past coming forward, as if a figure walking towards me from a receding fog. As I sat at the stately tables in the reading room of the Massachusetts Historical Society, turning the stiff cardboard pages of Clover’s three red-leather albums, the past seemed almost tangible, right here in the here and now. It took me many years to figure out what Clover was doing with her evocative photographs, but it took me almost no time at all to decide it might be worth finding out. (My website – nataliedykstra.com – has more about my 2012 biography of Clover.)

At the recent 7th Annual Lecture on Biography at the Leon Levy Center in New York, Richard Holmes, the biographer of Shelley and Coleridge quoted from his marvelous book, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985), when describing a night on his travels following the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson’s sojourn through southern France almost a hundred years before. Holmes wrote that he spent an evening under the stars – and this is the line I like so much –“dreaming of the dead coming back to life again.” Biography, I suppose, is just that – a kind of secular resurrection.

Which brings me to the brand-new Boston Summer Seminar, 2015: Anna, Hanna, and I spent much of last summer designing this research seminar to offer faculty and students the opportunity for sustained work in several Boston archives. What I hope for is that our group of participants will make vivid acquaintance with the past, with the material, voices, and mysteries of what’s in the archive in order to understand – resurrect, if you will – those stories for classrooms and readers now.

~Natalie Dykstra, Seminar Director

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