One of the best things about working in an archive is the sense of discovery. Right now, I have five boxes on my desk getting ready to be digitized, to make their debut if you will. They all look rather unassuming but shouldn’t be underestimated.
As a graduate student in literature, I spend most of my time thinking about the voices that historically have been rendered silent, barely intelligible. Currently the voice belongs to Katherine Philips, a female poet whose collected works were first printed in an unauthorized edition in 1664. I’m especially interested in reading the undercurrent of homoerotic desires in her poems, which means I’m reading for what is not said. Often, I have to search for what is illicit, unspeakable, and private–essentially what is left out. The secret joy of this work is discovering the voices of women whose rhetoric implied desires that could not be acknowledged or accounted for during their lifetimes. There is something particularly satisfying in creating an account of the unsaid, after all.
But, cumulatively there is a problem: women have occupied influential political and cultural in public spaces, but their histories have remained most alive in the “private” realm of letters and correspondence, buried in organizational records where they are subsumed into larger “genderless” structures of industries and social/political complexes.
That is why I love spending my time with these scraps and remnants–pieces of letters, correspondence, old files–these remnants speak to the many different accounts of history. In the five slender boxes on my desk, I have the thousands of pages of the private correspondence of another Katherine: American novelist, Pulitzer-Prize winner, and National Book Award winner Katherine Anne Porter. Those five boxes contain a powerhouse.
But, even Porter faced some difficulties of being a woman in a male dominated field. In 1946, Porter wrote to Josephine Herbst, another women novelist that, “the ‘serious’ boys are all snobs and all moved by fashion as much as the run of the mill writer.” Porter’s own desires and ambitions pressed her to work despite the challenges she faced as a woman and an outsider. Her correspondence reveals the lengths to which she would go to work, how she would run herself ragged, sick, and poor if she could get a quiet space and a typewriter. For all this, I am most moved by the private letters passed between her and other women.
My desk is littered with post-it notes quotes: to Marianne Moore in May 1960, “But my dear felicitous phenomenon, you are a dragon, has it been left to me to tell you?,” and Moore’s reply, “it is up to you to imagine a felicitous top to my dragon, in other words to make it a unicorn” or to Flannery O’Connor on April 6 1958: “Dear Flannery: I’ll never forget you standing there in the new spring landscape, watching your peacocks coming towards you…such a smiling pleased look in your eyes, it did me good to see it.”
These women are heavyweights of American Modernism whose works eviscerate our ideas of what it meant to be and to be an American in the first half of the 19th century, and in these five boxes are the remnants of what they thought of each other. This summer my “felicitous phenomena,” my “dragons,” will no longer be cooped up on my desk: soon they will all be available online. Our private little scraps will get to join those “serious” projects. The secret will be out of the box.
Caitlin Rizzo is a second year Masters student in the University of Maryland (UMD) Department of English and a Graduate Assistant for Research and Collection Services at UMD’s Special Collections and University Archives. She will begin her Masters in Library Science with the iSchool in Fall 2016.”