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“Still Playful and Still Elusive”: Researching and Representing Hartford Female Seminary’s Handwritt

Hartford Female Seminary’s Handwritten Newspapers are eighteen handwritten newspapers – the first sixteen are The School Gazette, the last two are The Levee Gazette. The School Gazette was written between 1824-1826 and the LG in 1828. Written by students at Hartford Female Seminary (a female academy in Hartford, CT founded in 1823 by Catharine Beecher (older sister to Harriet Beecher Stowe). The eighteen issues present 116 articles of varying lengths and cover a wide range of topics (anthropomorphic household objects, botany, natural history, chemistry, Greek and Roman classics, women’s education, and even time travel among others).

While there is extensive scholarship and criticism about nineteenth-century female academies and seminaries, including Hartford Female Seminary, and the written compositions of their female students, a very limited amount of scholarship exists about The School Gazette and The Levee Gazette specifically and no extended analysis or argument has been conducted. In these two gazettes, students were able to take newly acquired knowledge and synthesize and recreate it in essays, letters, poems, advertisements, riddles, etc. The pieces in The School and Levee Gazettes occupy a middle-ground in early nineteenth-century American authorship and literary production through their mixture of personal, academic, and public literacies. They are neither personal, private literary productions such as diaries, journals, and private correspondence nor purely academic compositions and themes. However, they are not entirely public literary endeavors like newspapers and magazines that were publicly circulated, because the gazettes’ audience was limited to students and teachers at Hartford Female Seminary.

The closest approximation to the genre of the gazettes would be what Joan Hedrick refers to as parlor literature or literary circles. Hedrick defines parlor literature as “a body of literary productions that were written primarily for white, middle-class domestic consumption before literature split into ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms in the 1860s” (“Parlor Literature” 277-78). The School and Levee Gazettes display the same variety of literary productions, as well as a similar preference for anonymity. Despite the similarities to parlor literature and literary clubs, The School and Levee Gazettes constitute a distinct genre unlike parlor literature of the circles and clubs later in the nineteenth century.

The gazettes, which are fashioned as newspapers published at regular intervals with an editor presiding over each issue of anonymous contributions, participate in and continue the tradition of Early American periodical culture, particularly eighteenth-century American magazines. Like early American magazine, the gazettes aimed to present themselves as an alternative to the politically divisive and contentious newspapers of early America. The Prospectus of The School Gazette both indicates a political consciousness and lightheartedly makes it clear that the paper wishes to steer clear of becoming “a political engine to any party”:

The object of this paper is merely to furnish a pleasant & profitable relaxation from the duties of the school; to give an opportunity for the indulgence of humour and the imagination; & to promote a readiness in easy & sprightly composition. It therefore is plain that there will be no occasion for the anxiety which will doubtless be felt by the great politicians of the day at the commencement of a new news paper. They may be assured that however powerful may be the talents employed in its support, it is not destined to become a political engine to any party, and it is hoped that neither Crawford, Adams, or Jackson or any other of the candidates for the Presidency or their partisans, will be needlessly alarmed on the present occasion. (“Prospectus”)

The School Gazette further resembles the early American magazine in the way it “returns serially, picking up stories, ideas, and conversations from past issues” (Gardner 32). Numerous stories and conversations occur across multiple issues of The School Gazette. Notable instances include: a two-part story “A Retrospective View of Futurity on a Visit to Hartford in the year 1924” (SG 1.7 and 1.8) in which “Susannah Shallbe” time-travels to Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut in 1924 to report on the state of educational institutions; two pieces concerned with the “anti-scientific air” in Hartford compared to the “scientific” air of New Haven and how this problem might be remedied (SG 1.2, and 1.6); and several recurring pieces about Study Hall’s Rats who convene to discuss the Greek War of Independence (SG 1.2 and 1.3).

While the role of the individual, autonomous author was downplayed in both early American periodicals and The School and Levee Gazettes, the editor played a vital role. Jared Gardner, in his book The Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture, argues that early American periodicals created an “alternative notion of literary culture, one predicated not on the authorial but on the editorial function and the careful arrangement of fragments and data” (74). This alternative literary culture, dependent upon the editor rather than the autonomous author, guides the production of each of the gazettes. The editors are the only contributors identified by name in the gazettes, and 20 of the 116 entries in all the gazettes take the form of a letter to the editor.

In addition to the scholarship about The School and Levee Gazettes in terms of nineteenth-century women’s literacy and early American periodical culture, the gazettes can accommodate numerous other approaches and areas for further study.

Now to why having digital editions of these gazettes matters:

In the opening paragraph of her introduction to Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America’s Republic, Mary Kelley describes an “essay” appearing in the The School Gazette, explaining that “one student took stock of the aspirations generated in becoming a learned woman and of the risk in claiming that mantle in post-Revolutionary and antebellum America. The author, who chose to remain anonymous, asked her classmates to consider an ‘Enigma’” (1). Kelley goes on to paraphrase this “essay” and put forth several hypotheses about what its author intended and how the readers interpreted or regarded the piece: “Did the author’s subject symbolize the promise of an advanced education for women? Did that education challenge conventional gender relations? Still playful and still elusive, the anonymous author might have answered both of these questions in the affirmative, telling her classmates that this was the ‘Enigma’” (1). However, when in the process of transcribing all the issues of The School Gazette and The Levee Gazette, I was surprised to find this “essay” Kelley so adroitly interprets to be a small, six-line poem appearing in the bottom right-hand corner of the last page of the third issue of The School Gazette:

An Enigma.

I am both of the feminine and neuter gender,

Smooth and fair yet sharp and prickly,

Always present in school hours at Study Hall

A good for nothing weed growing out of doors

Often joined to those who would be glad to be rid of me

Yet my company is welcome to all

Kelley doesn’t so much misread as misrepresent “An Enigma,” leading the reader to believe that this was a long essay, not a short poem. This confusion underscores one of the many problems that arise in publishing scholarly work on archival materials that are not readily accessible. Readers are at the mercy of the scholar, unless they can verify that information independently, a potentially lengthy and costly undertaking. As this anecdote demonstrates how the gazettes have been read by previous critics and how the gazettes have been integrated into existing scholarship about women’s literacy and education, it also, and most importantly, indicates why these texts need to be made more widely available through digital, electronic editions.

I have begun a project of transcribing the gazettes and producing XML versions of each gazette. The XML transcriptions are more readable and easily searchable than the original manuscripts. In the process of completing these transcriptions, I encountered numerous problems in representing most accurately the idiosyncrasies of the handwritten gazettes, including misspellings, evidence of revision, tears, holes, and other imperfections in the manuscripts, and even things like line spacing (in some places the lines are fairly regular and evenly spaced, but, at others, particularly when space is limited, the lines become cramped and difficult to read). Ideally, I want to create a website that makes available both transcriptions and images of the original handwritten gazettes. This format provides the benefits of the transcriptions while allowing readers to see the original text, which is particularly important since the originals are handwritten. Furthermore, text analysis tools can also be put to use in studying the digitized gazettes, which can be used to detect patterns between the texts; this would allow for the possibility of grouping pieces together by author and might prove particularly useful for identifying which pieces are by Stowe. More broadly, having accurate digital editions of The School Gazette and The Levee Gazette is crucial for increasing general and scholarly interest in them. It will enable the types of study I briefly outline above and avoid the confusions and misrepresentations that can occur in scholarship that analyzes archival materials.

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