Further adventures in the U.S.

I’m just back from another month in the United States, this time thanks to a fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society. The AAS is one of the oldest research libraries in the U.S. — it celebrated its bicentennial in 2012 — and it’s principally a library of printed material rather than manuscripts. Their newspaper collection is especially awesome, and it ranks as the most friendly and helpful place I’ve ever worked. When you arrive as a fellow, they ask you to give a talk to the staff on your research topic. Then, for the next day or two, the library staff wander over to you individually to offer suggestions for what you should really be reading. If you got a year-long fellowship I imagine they’d write your book for you, so I can’t say enough nice things about the place: apply here. Worcester is about forty miles from Boston, and it’s on the sleepy side.  But the library is fantastic, the fellows’ accommodation is unnecessarily swanky, and Bagel Time is just a short walk away.

During my visit, I also made it down to Atlanta (long story) and to Colonial Williamsburg, which is an eighteenth-century American version of Jorvik. (Without the smell of wee.) John D. Rockefeller hit on the idea of creating a ‘living history’ theme park back in the 1920s, and he oversaw the careful reconstruction of Virginia’s colonial capital along with the tourist infrastructure that would bring Americans face-to-face with their past. Naturally it’s an odd experience — think Westworld and you’re in the right zip code  —  though Colonial Williamsburg has its own scholarly foundation hosting archaeologists, historians and other scholars (including, this spring, our very own Jim Walvin).

The town of Williamsburg, meanwhile, hosts William and Mary College, one of the oldest and most distinguished academic institutions in North America, and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. (The Omohundro and W&M co-sponsored my lecture on two W&M alums — William Short and Edward Coles.)  William and Mary has a fascinating history, especially on the slavery question, and I was fortunate enough to meet Terry Meyers and some of the other leaders of the Lemon Project, which is exploring the College’s relationship with slavery and its complicated involvement with the region’s African-American community . The Colonial Williamsburg attraction has struggled with the legacy of slavery — by most measures, the town of Williamsburg would have been majority-black in 1775, a fact that isn’t reflected in the reenactment that visitors see today — but there are serious efforts underway to engage this issue more fully. One of the grandest houses in town, which belonged to Virginia House speaker Peyton Randolph, hosts a fascinating discussion of the place of slavery in domestic and political life on the eve of the Revolution. There are many ways to screw up this story, but I thought that the Randolph house did a good job of showing visitors the integral place of slavery in the social and political history of Revolutionary America.

The Antiquarian Society closed over the Easter weekend so I thought I’d find somewhere else to read. Amazingly, the library up at Cornell University — about five hours’ drive to the west — was open all weekend, and I’d been meaning to look at the papers of the Marquis de Lafayette. (Who was a big supporter of black colonization.) So I drove over to Ithaca and found lots of interesting things in the archive. I also treated myself, on Easter Sunday, to one last jaunt: to Seneca Falls, to visit the Women’s Rights National Historical Park; and to Hill Cumorah, the Mormon museum next to the hill where Joseph Smith received those golden tablets from Moroni the angel. When I got to Hill Cumorah, the very distinguished-looking sixtyish lady at the desk asked me where I was from and what I did, and when I told her she said, a little unnervingly, “Oh, I have the perfect guides for you.” And she summoned two twentyish missionary women from Utah to show me around. I know the photo looks creepy, but I promise it’s not as bad as it looks.

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