It was the summer of 2012 and I was worried. I was scheduled that fall to bring my Survey of American Literature class to the archives. English 63 is a required course I’d taught many times. As any teacher can imagine, trying to cover 350 years of representative writing by Americans is a struggle, so I decided to re-design my course around the strengths of the collections available in the archives.
We would focus on slavery and race in American literature by studying two historical moments: the antebellum abolitionist movement and the Harlem Renaissance. During our unit on abolitionism, we would visit the archives to examine early printed editions of slave narratives and abolitionist literature as well as an original abolitionist newspaper.
Although I was initially anxious about how (or if) students would respond to the archival material, during our visit they quickly became absorbed in studying the documents. In the archives, they were able to analyze early printed works not only as texts but as cultural artifacts. Additionally, my students were more engaged learners because they used their sense of touch and actively moved around during the visit.
The course readings for this unit include a selection of abolitionist poetry, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), selections from Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1860). Because students read these in a massive anthology of American literature, where each work is rendered in the same format and typeface, all the texts appear as the “equal” of the others as they march along in strict chronology.
Anthologized literature can seem to students like a random collection of disembodied personalities speaking directly to them from the ether of the past. By coming to the archives, I wanted to counteract the way that anthologies can deracinate texts.
In the archives, my students analyzed slave narratives by Moses Grandy (1854), Noah Davis (1859), Solomon Northup (1859), James Pennington (1850), and W. W. Offley (1859); an 1852 English edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Stowe’s The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1854); and the January 6, 1854 issue of the abolitionist newspaper the Liberator. Since our time in the archives was limited, I devised handouts that led students step by step through close observation and prompted them to make some tentative inferences (See an example here).
I first asked each small group of students to notice the physical characteristics of the artifacts before them. Because there is not enough time to read a whole book in an archives visit, I prompted students to examine the front and back matter and illustrations (if any), and to read the first two pages of each text.
This approach provided students with evidence about how and why the text was produced. Their close observations led them to inference, interpretation, and questions for further research.
The groups working with books noticed the texture, weight, and smell of the objects. Once students opened the books, they saw that unlike in the anthology, the design, layout, and content of these editions varied greatly. Most contained an author frontispiece, introduction, preface, foreword, and afterword.
Students also saw ads, poems, letters, prayers, and even accompanying sheet music – paratextual material that is not included in anthologies. They began to understand these publications as more than simply stories. These books, they realized, are objects from a particular moment in time, produced by many people, and used in many ways.
The group examining the issue of The Liberator initially struggled with the unfamiliar layout of early newspapers. They were confronted with a broadsheet that at first glance looked like a crazy quilt of columns and text with an elaborate masthead.
Students had a hard time figuring out where to start in part because the document is so large. To properly analyze it, they had to get up and move around, bend closer, talk to each other, and handle this unfamiliar object. Reading became something new for them – a physical activity. This kind of active reading engaged students and enabled them to draw insightful conclusions.
During the wrap-up discussion, something really great happened. One of the students said that it seemed as though “the room was full of voices.” And it was true. At that instant, we all felt aware of the authors and readers and editors and printers and enslaved people and abolitionists. The past had become palpable. As one student put it in her response paper, “While visiting BHS in this present time, I felt like a witness to our past and a historian to our future.”
Leah Dilworth, “Texts as Objects: Complementing the Literary Anthology with Primary Sources,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/complementing-anthologies/.