Our guest blogger this week is Juliet. She is a second year student at The University of Edinburgh studying American literature. Her research focuses on depictions of flirts in American fiction from 1878-1928, exploring how attitudes towards flirtatious femininity reflect broader cultural changes.
Thanks to the Scottish Graduate School’s ‘Student Development Fund’ I spent October to December of last year based in Princeton, New Jersey, in order to spend time researching in Princeton University’s Firestone Library. The archives at Firestone hold collections for several of the authors my thesis centers on, including Edith Wharton, Booth Tarkington, Willa Cather, F.Scott Fitzgerald and Frances Hodgson Burnett.
As an American literature scholar, having access to Firestone library was an amazing experience. One of my chosen authors, Booth Tarkington, is relatively unknown and mainly out of print. Where working in almost any other library in the world would have entailed a lot of searching and requesting texts to be brought in from elsewhere, as Tarkington was a Princeton alumni, Firestone library holds copies of almost everything he ever wrote, often even including handwritten notes that his classmates had scribbled into the cover pages. The library houses a huge American Literature collection and having such easy access to all the primary and secondary texts I could need meant that my time could be spent on reading and writing rather than trying to hunt down copies of books that would be complicated and time-consuming to access in the UK.
Exploring the archives offered me a chance to look at a multitude of documents including letters and notes, manuscripts (hand-written and typescript) and magazine and newspaper clippings. I initially spent the majority of the time looking at manuscripts and notes, but increasingly I was drawn to the newspaper clippings. As well as giving excellent examples of how the texts I am studying were received at their time of publication, the papers often offer comparisons with other authors who have faded out of memory – offering exciting new avenues for my project to explore. The archives are incredibly diverse, and it was particularly enjoyable to get a sense of the authors’ personalities and quirks through their letters and personal notes. Serious literary discussion is often punctuated with random details – for example that Wharton was very particular about whose books she would sign, and Tarkington once made a bad investment in a donut factory. Though not making it into the thesis (unfortunately) all these peripheral details help build a better picture of the lives of these writers and create a deeper appreciation of the context of their works. Having plenty time to thoroughly look through the various archives allowed me to gather copious new material, which I think will lend depth and richness to my project.
An additional benefit of the trip was just how much I learned from immersing myself in a different university culture. Princeton University was incredibly welcoming of visiting researchers – from the archive staff who were all attentive and knowledgeable, to the PhD students who invited me to join some of their class discussions. Getting to participate in some workshops within the literature department was an unexpected chance but one I deeply appreciated, while the open lectures and events hosted by the university gave me a diverse exposure to various aspects of American studies. The arts culture in New Jersey and neighbouring New York and Philadelphia also offered a chance for me to improve my knowledge of American history and culture. Being so close to many spectacular museums and libraries was incredible and really helped fuel my enthusiasm for my area of study.
By the end of my trip I had completed a full draft of one of my chapters, and had accumulated the notes I will need for a second one. I feel as if I have come back a more well-rounded researcher and think that this trip has massively shaped and refined my thesis and general approach to my field.
We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with David via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with the blog on Twitter