“If You Are Very Lucky”

Catharine May Edes, pressed flowers travel album, 1852.  Catharine May Edes Papers, Courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College

Catharine May Edes, pressed flowers travel album, 1852.
Catharine May Edes Papers, Courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College

In a recent (and fascinating!) interview on Common-place, Meredith Neuman, associate professor of early American literature at Clark University, says: “For me, it will always be important to flail about in the archive, to allow one’s self to be surprised and confused by it. As I tell my students, you can go to the archive with what you think your questions are, but, if you are very lucky, the archive will tell you what your questions really are.”

Flail about in the archive. That’s right – so often working in the archive can feel like flailing and sometimes the scarier word it rhymes with: failing. Why can’t I find what I’m looking for? What I thought was there is not there. That correspondence only reveals mundane things I can’t use – sick kids and the travel plans of Aunt So-and-so. Now what?

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