Burn this post, part two

From Part one:

… 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 [Elizabeth Whitman,] 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? …

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. …

Part Two: I like them.

Over the last few weeks I’ve come gradually to realize how much of my next book project — a series of interlocking literary histories that will run from the disappearance of Elizabeth Whitman (1788) to the death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1797) — would be enabled by a relatively forgotten nineteenth-century author and moral reformer named Caroline Wells Healey Dall.

read my forehead, o phrenologist

Although I was trained in American literature, religion, and gender history pre-1900, I had never read anything by Dall or known much about her at all until the end of my research fellowship at the Huntington. (I’m probably not alone; only recently have her extraordinary diaries —  which cover her well-connected life from age 16 to age 90 — started to appear in print, and not one of her many books is available in a modern edition.)

Perhaps Dall was overlooked for so long because the books she wrote — reform pamphlets, travel narratives of the American west, sketches of historical women’s lives, even an occasional novel — and her role as a reformer and feminist activist have never ranked high compared to contemporaries like Margaret Fuller, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan B. Anthony, or Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Or it could be that her diaries, like her other writing, at times take on a high-minded tone that can make her come off rather as a prude. Consider this 1857 diary entry, for example, in which she recounts a visit from Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father, who stopped by   

to give me an account of his recent visit to New York— I cannot write down what he said, for it makes me, thrill to my fingers ends, and I am sick and ashamed of life— The whole City is corrupt, marriage has no longer any sanctity, its holy uses—are scoffed at— … Mr A. talked with … that vulgar untamed brute Walt Whitman—the author of Leaves of Grass, the only man, he says, he ever met who was a fit mate physically for [the stage actress] Fannie Kemble a very low creature one must think if one may judge from that side of his experiences which he chooses to remember.

(Click here for the overview of Dall’s diaries from which this quote is taken, written by Dall’s modern editor, Helen Deese.) Whatever the reason Dall has remained relatively obscure, I was driven to learn more about her only because she had published an odd little book about Elizabeth Whitman in the mid-1870s, one of the few attempts to unravel the mystery of Whitman’s pregnancy, disappearance, and death almost a century earlier. Dall was drawn to Whitman both by her experience reading The Coquette as a child (and her memory of her mother’s weeping over its heroine’s death) and because she had become convinced that Whitman’s friend Joel Barlow deserved wider recognition than he then enjoyed as an American literary pioneer. With that cause in mind, she had begun to contact Barlow and Baldwin descendents in order to track down primary source materials on Barlow’s life and writings. Along the way she came into possession of the Whitman letters; her 1875 book The Romance of the Association reproduces significant portions of most of them, and when modern critics have taken any notice of the letters at all, it generally comes by way of Dall’s book.

I came to Caroline Dall not thinking so highly of her. I really only knew two things about her, based on her treatment of Whitman: One, that she had heavily edited the letters, to the point that Barlow’s twentieth-century biographers regarded her text as unreliable, and two, that she wrote her book about Whitman primarily to argue that, contrary to popular belief and to the novelization of her life in The Coquette, Whitman’s pregnancy had not been out-of-wedlock at all, but that she had secretly been married, though for some reason her husband had neither arrived before her child was born, nor cleared the air when, after her death, she was routinely framed as a victim of seduction. On both counts Dall came off more as wishful thinker and white-washing advocate than historian, and so I’d wondered whether we were better off or not that she’d taken the trouble to print bowdlerized versions of the letters in the first place.

As I started to piece together Dall’s role in preserving the letters themselves, however, my opinion of her improved. Some time around 1870, When Dall first started to poke around New England looking for unpublished Barlow materials, she learned that one of Barlow’s grandnephews, a guy named Lemuel Olmstead, had beaten her to the task by more than a decade, though he had never produced the Barlow biography he promised people he was writing. In the mid-1850s Olmstead had obtained a treasure trove of Barlow materials from the poet’s sister-in-law, Clara Baldwin Bomford, who as a young woman had accompanied Joel and Ruth on their last diplomatic mission to Paris. After Ruth Barlow’s death, Clara had taken ownership not only of Kalorama, but of all Barlow’s papers as well. Apparently she turned most of these — including hundreds of letters from Joel to Ruth throughout the course of their marriage — over to Olmstead. When, fifteen years later, his promised biography had never materialized, Caroline Dall began a decades-long crusade to recover them, in order to transmit them to someone — perhaps herself? — who would finish the job.

The tug-of-war between Dall and Olmstead is just one of the fascinating tangents I discovered at the Huntington, and quite by accident. The Baldwin Family Papers included a few stray letters from both Olmstead and Dall on the topic, but more of the story was buried in a different manuscript collection, the Samuel Latham Mitchill Barlow papers, which only coincidentally was also located at the Huntington. This Barlow, who may or may not have been related to Joel (I haven’t sorted it out yet), was a wealthy railroad lawyer, collector of Americana, and New York society figure in the late 1800s. Both Olmstead and Dall had written to him to ask for funding for their Barlow projects; Dall had written in hopes that he would help recover the materials Olmstead had acquired.

She never succeeded, and Olmstead never finished his book. He may never have even started it. Someone else — not Dall — eventually did the job using the materials Olmstead had hoarded away for decades and which somehow had passed into S.L.M. Barlow’s hands on Olmstead’s death. That collection of materials eventually made its way to Harvard’s Houghton Library in 1956 and remains the largest and most significant collection of Barlow papers.

The materials I dealt with at the Huntington — including Elizabeth Whitman’s letters — have a different history. Dall had apparently succeeded in obtaining them from the daughter of Barlow’s sister-in-law, Clara. These papers were either considered irrelevant to Olmstead’s project or, perhaps, too intimate for the kind of “exemplary man” biography he proposed. (Olmstead was motivated in part by a desire to clear his relative of the charge of “infidelity,” the rejection of his Christian faith.) Dall’s possession of these papers reintroduced her to Elizabeth Whitman, whom she had only previously known as “Eliza Wharton,” the seduced heroine of The Coquette. The papers at her disposal also included letters written to Ruth Barlow by Mary Wollstonecraft, who spent most of the nineteenth century as a pariah, her reputation never having recovered after her own illegitimate pregnancies, scandalous marriage to a radical philosopher, and death in childbirth, in spite of the subsequent celebrity of her daughter, Mary Shelley, and the emergence of a new women’s rights movement in the mid-1800s.

Dall was intrigued by the Wollstonecraft letters, but she also had been convinced of the literary merit of another correspondence these family papers preserved, between Clara Baldwin Bomford and an American diplomat named George Erving. Erving had spent the first half of the nineteenth century abroad, mostly in Paris, and his letters offered delightful descriptions of his travels. He had met Clara when she lived in Paris with Joel and Ruth; Erving’s earliest letters in the collection, written to the Barlows, include hard evidence of his own antipathy toward Christianity, sentiments Joel shared. These were the smoking gun letters, the ones that needed to be kept from a biographer like Olmstead, who wanted above all to reclaim Barlow for Protestant America.

These were also the letters marked: “BURN THIS.” And Clara Baldwin Bomford was the culprit, the woman who had refused to do her duty. Decades later, when Erving had long since rediscovered his own faith, he continued to beg her to destroy their decades-long correspondence, but apparently Clara simply could not. When he died, Erving appointed a literary executor to reclaim the letters and ensure their destruction, but Clara had long since left D.C. and moved to Maine, where the papers remained protected long after her death, when Dall convinced Clara’s daughter to let her borrow them.

Here’s where things get even trickier. For roughly a decade after Dall published Romance of the Association, she stalled every time Clara’s daughter, Ruth Barlow Paine, asked to have them back. The reason? She knew that Erving’s literary executor was still on their trail and that he intended to have them burned. In late 1884 she reminded Clara’s daughter that she had returned much of the material she had borrowed, but explained her reluctance to give everything back. The letter reveals something of Dall’s pluck:

Do you not remember that I have twice returned to you in person – a package of letters – with a list? I reproached you each time for not keeping a list, & giving me one when I borrowed of you. I have some letters still which are yours – but I have kept them for your sake & with your consent – and I also understood that you did not value them – were willing that I should keep them.

     George Erving’s letters are really the property of his literary executor – Robt. C. Winthrop – and Mr. W. told me he was going to get the letters from you, and wished to destroy them, as they were freethinking letters which did his cousin no credit.

     I had supposed everything was settled between us, but what I have not returned is perfectly safe, and if you will write me and tell me what you want it shall come at once if I have it – but I do not think you can be uneasy about anything I have.

In a postscript she writes: “I thought it would be better for me to keep the Erving letters till R.C.W. [the literary executor] died. I like them.”

These exchanges go on. Though she claimed to have returned most of the material by the end of 1885, a final letter in the file, dated 1892 and addressed to the lawyer Clara’s daughter had engaged to force Dall to give them up, makes it plain that she held some back until the executor was safely dead.

How did these letters finally arrive at the Huntington in the 1930s? Once Dall had returned everything, the collection was passed to Clara’s granddaughter, who gave them to her daughter, a woman named Ruth Simons who brought the collection to California in 1911, packed inside a portable writing desk Joel Barlow had taken to France a century earlier. After her death in 1934, her husband discovered the collection and apparently had it appraised. Its most valuable items were not the Barlow or Baldwin papers at all, but the letters from Mary Wollstonecraft to Ruth Barlow, which unlike the rest of the collection, which went to the Huntington, were donated to Berkeley’s library and were promptly published. These three letters tell us almost everything we know about Wollstonecraft’s ill-fated relationship with an American adventurer in Paris, the father of her first child, who had been one of Joel Barlow’s business partners. She confides in Ruth Barlow her anxieties about her future and her hopes for the little “monster” growing inside her.

mary wollstonecraft, 1797

Joel Barlow once suggested, in a letter to Ruth, that she was specially attuned to be Mary Wollstonecraft’s friend — that Ruth’s experiences suited her to understand Wollstonecraft’s. Did part of that experience include her friendship, decades earlier, with Elizabeth Whitman?

Many accidents combined to ensure these letters’ survival. Among all the randomness, fighting her way upstream, is a moral reformer named Caroline Dall — a woman who recognized value not only in Wollstonecraft’s life but in Elizabeth Whitman’s as well — who refused to let both women’s letters go to the fire. I love thinking that I’ve handled the same worn paper she had in her possession in the 1870s. Her resolve very possibly has allowed me to write the book I want to write, another century and a quarter removed from the scene.

    3 responses to “Burn this post, part two”

    1. bryan says:

      i think i found at least two major manuscript sources today at Mass Historical Society regarding Elizabeth Whitman that no one’s ever cited before. woo-hoo for the archives! sometimes priggish white guys from the 18th c can really redeem themselves for having been so narcissistic to save every scrap they ever wrote.

      is this really the first legitimate comment for this post? you guys suck!

    2. farrell says:

      Oh, what a horrible oversight. I loved this post. Like all your posts. Sorry for the delay in writing.