Sunday, March 20, 2005


Where's Anna?

The Boston Globe interviews Charlotte Gordon, author of Mistress Bradstreet, the first biography in a long time of Anne Bradstreet, that stalwart of undergrad American Lit surveys:

Q: What kind of sources are available for Bradstreet, who died in 1672?

A: There aren't a lot of sources. Her autobiography is 5½ pages and that's it. I had to read diaries and letters from other people. . . . She had this series of prose meditations, where she talks directly about how we should live, and, of course, her poems. An abundance of material on some level. But you have to decide how you are going to read the poetry.

The problem is a common one. There is a tendency in biography, when faced with a person who has not left a paper trail, to engage in the "must have thought" and "would have done" form of narration. It's a device that critics love to pounce on, and rightly so much of the time. But for some biographical subjects -- and Anne Bradstreet certainly sounds like one -- it is simply not possible to construct any other type of narrative. If you do not have letters by them or about them, or memoirs written by or about them, and if there are not substantial newspaper accounts written about them, then.... well, as a historian, you've got a particularly hard nut to crack.

It's a problem I suspect is endemic to those researching women before the modern era. Because they were often not in position to engage in legal and business transactions (and, not least because their names are liable to change one or more times in their life), women often left far less of paper trail than men did. And this can affect even very well-known figures. But it's more puzzling when this also stymies critical essays on the writing itself. In researching my piece last year in The Believer about Anna Sewall's Black Beauty, I discovered that despite selling tens of millions of copies, and playing a key role in the early history of the animal rights movement, there is not one academic study of Sewall's book. That is an absolute scandal.

Furthermore, there has been only one biography of Sewall, published some three decades ago and long out of print. This is perhaps a little more understandable, if simply because -- as with Bradstreet -- there was virtually nothing left behind by Sewall other than Black Beauty itself. Indeed, much of the book is really about Sewall's mother, an active author who left behind far more clues to her life than her daughter did. Still, it's high time that someone wrote a biography of Sewall -- or at least, of her life and times. If there's not much of her life to go on, at least there's no lack of context that we can provide for it.

It would be interesting to know what other erstwhile well-known women historians have taken up and then had to drop, simply due to an outright lack of material to work with.

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