Burn this post, part one

One of the most exhilarating feelings possible for an historian comes when you open a file folder full of old letters and find one marked across the top: “BURN THIS.” Obviously someone didn’t do his or her job at some point in the past, and because of that failure, chances are you’re about to read something good.

For most of the last month I’ve been working my way through the correspondence of one extended family. The materials are filed at the Huntington as the “Baldwin Family Papers,” but they’ve been used over the last half century primarily by a few stray biographers interested in a guy named Joel Barlow, an early American poet and diplomat. Very few people, even among those of us who study and teach 18th-century American literature, are into Barlow or his contemporaries as poets: their neo-Augustan verse, all heroic couplets in stale imitations of Alexander Pope, is about as compelling to most 21st-century readers as the back side of an old postage stamp.

Barlow’s correspondence is much more interesting. After gaining some celebrity for writing an epic poem to celebrate the American Revolution (his subscribers included George Washington, General Lafayette, and even the King of France, to whom the poem was dedicated), Barlow moved to Europe to peddle land on the Ohio frontier to potential French immigrants and just happened to wind up with front-row seats for most of the revolution in France. He became a member of the National Convention, renounced his faith in Christianity, and swore allegiance to Thomas Jefferson’s brand of American democratic principles. His poetry may not be fun to read, but he’s infinitely more interesting to me than the rest of his former friends who created a reputation for themselves in the 1780s as “The Connecticut Wits.”

hello, mr. barlow. will you write me some stilted lines about liberty?

Shuttling between London and Paris, Barlow befriended most of the radical writers of the day, including people like Thomas Paine (another American caught up in the French Revolution for better and worse) and the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, one of my great heroines. Barlow’s shady business schemes in post-Revolutionary France made him extraordinarily wealthy; when he finally returned to the U.S. in 1805 he bought a well situated piece of property outside Washington D.C. and named it Kalorama. (His mansion is long gone, but the neighborhood’s still tony; my friends Brian and Andrea have a lovely home there.) The Barlows made Kalorama a center of early D.C. high society until they returned to Paris in 1811 when Joel was named minister to France. President Madison sent letters to Joel written in code; Ruth conveyed diplomatic secrets enclosed in letters to Dolley Madison, the First Lady. It was all very exciting. In the winter of 1812 Joel followed Napoleon to Russia hoping to negotiate improved relations between France and America; he died of overexposure in a Polish village near Cracow and is still buried there.

Barlow’s story is interesting enough to merit a new retelling; he hasn’t had a solid biography written about him in 50 years. But my interest in the Baldwin Papers, which include material on Barlow because he married into the family, has to do with 15 or so letters written to him between 1779 and 1782 — during the American Revolution — by another Connecticut poet, a single woman in her late 20s named Elizabeth Whitman. Whitman, who seems to have been romantically interested in Barlow until he married her friend Ruth Baldwin, shared Barlow’s intellectual and artistic tastes. She read and commented on his work and even sought to help him secure publishers for his epic, along with mutual friends of theirs like a young Noah Webster. We know much less about Whitman than about Barlow, though, because just as he was packing his bags to head for Europe in the late 1780s, she discovered she was pregnant. She left her home in Hartford, ostensibly to visit friends in Boston, but never arrived there; instead she went to Danvers (near Salem), took a room at the Old Bell Tavern under an assumed name, and said she was waiting for her husband to meet her. The nonexistent spouse never showed; she gave birth to a stillborn child, then died of puerperal fever within a matter of days. Her family learned about her fate and located her gravesite after Boston newspapers advertised her mysterious death. Ten years later, a minister’s wife in Boston wrote a novel based on her story. The Coquette became America’s first indigenous bestseller.

Elizabeth Whitman’s real story, which has never received the thorough treatment it deserves, will make up about a third of a book I’m just beginning to write. I’ve summarized it here, though, not so much to mull over its details or the specifics of her letters (you’ll have to wait for the book for that) but to contemplate the nature of the task in front of me — to marvel, for instance, both at how sparse my primary materials are as I try to discern her character and at how lucky I am to have even those few letters. The common response among Whitman’s friends seems to have been not to talk about her ever again, perhaps because it was too painful, perhaps because they were plagued by guilt that she apparently couldn’t trust any of them with the truth. If detailed reactions to her death from former friends like the Barlows do survive, I haven’t found them yet, and neither has anyone else. (I will spend a lot of time in the coming year, however, sifting through New England archives looking for things no one’s noticed before.) The only other writing we have from Whitman are a few poems that found their way into newspapers after her death. She reportedly burned most of her papers on her deathbed; the woman who wrote The Coquette, who happens to have been distantly related to Whitman, is also reported to have burned her own papers, which might have shed light on how much she knew about Whitman’s real story — perhaps even the identity of her child’s father.

If people who refuse to burn papers, even when requested to do so, are historians’ heroes, then those who willingly consign records and letters to the fire are historians’ worst nightmare. In the nineteenth century, when biographies of even minor public figures were published by the dozen, the people responsible for compiling these “memoirs” (often children or grandchildren) selected passages they thought fit for public consumption, extracted them, set their loved ones eternally in the best light possible, then threw the leftovers in their fireplaces. The daughter of one of Whitman’s early love interests, a minister who moved to New Hampshire after she refused his marriage proposal, writes at length about her father’s severe depression at this point in his life without ever mentioning this failed relationship or preserving any of the material that would have documented it more carefully than we are able to. Once she had published his biography, all the original letters — what she quoted and what she refused to publish — went into the flames.

Of course her father may actually have done the job first; there’s no guaranteeing that she ever saw letters about the failed proposal in the first place. People destroy their own letters or diaries all the time, hoping to keep later readers from invading the privacy of their pasts. (I must have had the archivist bug at a very early age, though; I have every letter I’ve ever received from the age of 14 on, carefully filed away in cabinets and old shoeboxes.) Part of what this means is that the histories we produce today have complicated relationships to actual, unrecoverable events and experiences. But this limitation also provides a lot of the fun of my job — the parts that make going to regional archives and digging around feel something like detective work. Even moreso, recognizing the incompleteness of the archive drives home the point that our access to past lives is characterized by contingency as much as it is shaped by historical actors who carefully preserved themselves the way they wanted to be remembered. What blend of emotions, after all, caused Ruth or Joel Barlow to keep these letters from an old friend who died in shame, a friend who was held up as a public example of what happens when women refuse marriage offers that were as good as they deserved? Isn’t it more amazing than not that these letters very possibly crossed the Atlantic multiple times, or were packed away in storage somewhere in New England while the Barlows lived in Europe, that they passed to other relatives for over a hundred years before someone finally had the idea to deposit them at the Huntington? If a handful of letters don’t feel like much for me to go on, it’s worth considering how lucky I am to have those letters at all.

a Mary Wollstonecraft letter

I’ve never recognized this contingency — the set of accidents that can accumulate to produce and preserve “the historical record” — as fully as I did one day last week, when I pieced together part of the story of how these family papers, produced in Connecticut and Paris and Washington, D.C., eventually wound up here in sunny southern California. Perhaps not surprisingly, that story involves a woman who refused to burn documents, even when their authors requested it, even under threat of legal action. Bless her and her kind.

Continued next week.

17 responses to “Burn this post, part one”

  1. Missy says:

    Totally yummy. I love archival work and the way it completely submerges you in your subject, so that you kind of feel underwater even when you’re done with the archive for the day and are back out in the sunlight. I can’t wait to see this work–yay for unsung poetesses–but in the meantime, I have The Coquette sitting on my shelf right now and will check it out.

  2. PB says:

    I am haunted by this “burning” question–I think of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. I am so angry with him, and yet she asked. I had a friend once who said she wanted all her diaries to be buried with her. I am far too much of an egoist perhaps, I too have everything I have ever written since . . . well, actually I think I have everything I have ever written. Posterity may have no interest, but I feel the substance of these documents, a kind of marking–I was here, really. I love the idea of projecting into the future, imagining someone researching someone’s life (for example your biographer) and finding scrawled cards, bits of journals, passages of all of us in various files and boxes. Makes one want to write a fabulous letter as soon as possible.

    Looking forward to next week . . .

  3. bacon says:

    Bryan,

    Two corrections:

    –Kalorama, located a mere 1.8 miles from the White House is actually “inside DC”

    –We actually live in “Kalorama Triangle”, on the bad side of Conn Ave opposite what in real estate terms is technically understood to be “Kalorama”. Barlow’s mansion probably sat right about where Donald Rumsfeld and his ill-tempered dachshund now live.

  4. i stand corrected, sort of, i think. i’m no DC geography or real estate expert, but in 1805, Kalorama (adapted from the Greek for “beautiful view”) was totally a country estate; it was within view of the growing town but it was removed. here’s what one visitor early on said about it:

    “Barlow’s house is a miniature palace. It is situated high on a hill surrounded with about fifty acres of large forest trees. . . . He has Washington, Georgetown, the President’s house, the Capitol, Alexandria, & the majestic Potomac in full view. . . . He keeps four horses, three carriages . . . and eight servants.”

    Early on, when he gave someone instructions on how to get there from town, he wrote: “In passing over the plain from the President’s house, you have ours in sight on the hill. You turn off at the seven buildings, a half mile beyond.”

    His mid-century biographer, James Woodress, locates it this way: “it stood at the top of what is now Twenty-second Street, about three hundred yards east of Rock Creek. S Street between Massachusetts and Florida Avenues now passes through Barlow’s former front yard.”

    But when you have 50 acres, isn’t the concept of “front yard” a little narrow?

  5. brooke says:

    Bryan, what a great post. You should write lots more like this. The idea of rummaging through old letters and diaries is really appealing — if one were to get straight to the good stuff. But I imagine you’ve spent days digging without hitting any pay dirt? That’s why I like this post. It’s the highlights, man. Like SportsCenter for history buffs.

    It’s interesting to think how different the task will be for historians 200 years from now (assuming it’s not the end of the world) than for historians today. It seems we live much more documented lives nowadays, with all of the public records, redundant accounts of our lives, the internet, etc. I could expand on this but I think I know what you mean.

    And a note about Washington, DC. The original boundary of Washington was much smaller than what we consider D.C. now. I think the city itself was just Federal Triangle, more or less. Places like Georgetown were not considered part of Washington proper. I don’t know where the northern boundaries were, but I suspect that the Kalorama area was just on the border of “Washington” but more likely north. I would have to do some research to confirm all of this, but I think it’s right…

  6. brooke says:

    A follow up to my previous post: I looked into the historical boundaries of Washington, DC. What we consider ‘Washington, DC’ today was in the early 19th Century comprised of several districts, ‘the City of Washington’ (called The Federal City by many people, George Washington included), Georgetown, and the County of Washington. The County of Alexandria was for a time part of the “District of Columbia,” but since I hate Virginia, I refuse to accept that as fact.

    The City of Washington had its western boundary at Rock Creek Park, and its northern and eastern boundary at Florida (called Boundary back in the day). So it looks like the area of Kalorama was indeed just above the city’s north western boundary in 1805, although it seems based on Bryan’s research that his pimped out “front yard” may have rested partly in the city proper.

    So, actually both Bryan and bacon are correct. Bryan is correct because, in 1805, the Kalorama area (and the estate) was not technically in the City of Washington; or if part of it was technically just inside the boundary, it surely wasn’t considered part of the City. And bacon is right because it was and is in the ‘District of Columbia.’ The difference is that back in 1805 the District of Columbia and Washington were not synonymous.

    I couldn’t find any maps that indicated Washington was once limited only to Federal Triangle, so I think I confused Federal Triangle with Federal City, what some people called DC long ago.

    Here are a couple of maps:
    an historical map of the City of Washington circa 1820, and a satellite map from Google showing the same area today.

    Can you guys tell I have nothing to do over here?

  7. bacon says:

    brooke is absolutely right, and is the shit for her research. Washington would have been naturally confined to east of Rock Creek until the Taft bridge was built (when?…I’m guessing sometime after the Taft administration…and for those who don’t know DC, “Rock Creek” is actually a huge gash-like canyon that slices through the city in its modern form). Kalorama is about 100 yards north of Florida Ave, so it would have been considered by folks living in the 18th century as “outside the city”, at least the one that that French guy had designed.

    Now, however, as brooke’s google map shows, “outside the city” means living in West Virginia.

  8. bacon says:

    Also Bryan, I must say that my heart sang reading the early 19th century description of my hood, the very place where my ashes will be scattered.

    oh, and 22nd street? I am totally right about Rumsfeld and his dog. brooke, can you please research and confirm that?

  9. brooke says:

    but i’m a boy, bacon… and did my google map not come through correctly? oh well. it looks cool from here.

  10. brooke says:

    okay, so i’m a boy, but i’m still your bitch, bacon. i believe you are correct. the best address i found for rummy was 2206 kalorama, smack in what might have been the back yard of the former Barlow estate.

  11. bacon says:

    brooke, gender identity means nothing on The Web. Also, I was using “she” as a politically correct strategy to mix things up and subvert the dominant paradigm.

    I should have warned you first that looking up Rumsfeld’s address will guarantee detainment and a quick strip search the next time you attempt to board a domestic flight.

    If Waterman finds a map of the old estate, I can confirm my suspicion that I am living on the very spot where Barlow stabled his horses.

  12. brooke says:

    bacon, me and rummy go back like car seats and fat laces. he frequently plays the old ‘lets get brooke cavity searched at the airport’ gag on me, and quite frankly i find it an invigorating experience.

    if anyone should be worried about the wrath of the Don, it’s you, pal. all with your subverting the dominant paradigm, PC strategy and gender indifference. he’s probably reading this right now, so if i were you, i’d let someone else start your car for you, and double check my brakes before leave…

  13. Dave says:

    Did you guys hear the piece on This American Life a couple of years ago about the kid who drunkenly wandered up to Rummy’s daughter’s place in Santa Fe? He’d just gotten back from a trip to Afghanistan; let’s just say hilarity ensued.

  14. bacon says:

    brooke, I already know he’s onto me. I stopped walking my dog past 2206 Kalarama Road once the Secret Service goons began firing rubber bullets at us.

  15. brooke says:

    bacon, that’s how old rummy flirts. rubber bullets and mace. like flowers and chocolate, only better!