Conversations with Dead People: On Archives and the Humanities

“The past is always tense, the future perfect.”

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

I spent this weekend helping my good friend Maeve with a conference of her own devising and orgainisation on Sylvia Plath. It was an enormously edifying experience, not least because it meant I got out of my own eightenth-century headspace for a few days.

I had read Plath, of course – in fact I taught her poetry last year to, I’m sure, eager first years – but I found it so refreshing to be amongst passionate, intelligent, fierce scholars offering responses both academic and creative on what Plath meant to them. To be among that level of enthusiasm and knowledge is a rare privilege and it gave me a lot of space for reflection.

Two particular papers piqued my imagination. The first was ‘The Living Archive: Spectral Traces and Sylvia Plath’ by Gail Crowther, which recalled a visit to Plath’s flat at Chalcot Square, taking in the traces and memories that resided there more than fifty years after Plath did. The second was ‘”Joy – deeper still than grief can be:” Reading Plath Reading’, a creative response by Gwendolyn Haevens who wrote about the experience of walking in Plath’s footsteps at Smith, the psychic link that archive work seems to form between the scholar and the author. The two papers seemed to be in conversation with one another, particularly when Dr Crowther herself (I believe) asked Dr Haeven if she believed that academia had a tendency to treat archive work as purely observational at the expense of the experiential.

I have my own thoughts about this. The methodology of my recently-submitted PhD thesis was primarily archival. I spent a lot of time at the special collections of Queen’s University Belfast, poring over Percy’s frantic marginal scribbles and plans for next editions, some of which came to fruition, some of which died on the page. I spent less, but no less fruitful time, at the British Library, including a luxurious week-long sojourn this July (the manuscript room at the BL is a great place to cool down in high summer in central London) with unpublished Percy work; a detailed family history intended for personal use, letters from the Duchess of Northumberland, and his personal diaries which he mostly used to record correspondence and daily clerical duties, but in which he also recorded more significant personal details.

In January 2017 I presented a paper to the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies entitled ‘”The most elegant and amiable of men”: A Study of the Literary Friendship of Thomas Percy and William Shenstone’. In the paper I discussed the extent and limitations of their collaborations, particularly as they pertained to Five Pieces of Runic Poetry and the Reliques. The paper had all the facts. I referred extensively to their letters, published in 1977 by Yale University Press. I analysed details of the books that the letters seemed to refer to, searching for Shenstone’s influence and Percy’s stubbornness. Historically, scholastically, the paper was completely sound (in fact, it was nominated for the President’s Prize), but in the archive I stumbled across a detail of experience that took me aback. In his 1763 diary, Percy recorded an extract from the February edition of The London Chronicle, copying down Shenstone’s obituary. The surrounding pages are not as full of his usual frenetic activity. He records that it is frosty outside; that he spent one morning working on his ballads; that he paid a midwife for the birth of his son Henry four days before Shenstone died. He spent the whole week indoors, in the cold weather, not corresponding or reading or writing. “At home the greatest part of the day,” he notes almost every day that week.

This page stopped me in my tracks. It occurred to me that Shenstone’s death really meant something to him. In a practical sense he lost a resource and a correspondent, but in a real, human way, he lost a friend and a mentor. Every other page of that diary records a frantic bustle of activity and enterprise. Percy was hardworking, prolific, undaunted. Yet from a combination of cold and bereavement, he appeared to spend a week at home, listless. Did he bond with his newborn son in this time? What must it have been like to sit between death and life, to temporarily relinquish the years of intellectual energy and, for a moment, live in the now? This psychic connection was made all the more intense by observing his handwriting; brisk and neat on all the pages but these rushed, sloppy ones. His body language was palpable. I almost felt him next to me, quietly, physically recording his listlessness. “At home the greatest part of the day,” then, finally, walking through the frost into the future. I saw his mourning and his healing. I saw who he was, not merely what he did.

The archive is experiential. We historians walk into it with expectations and prejudices and if we are very lucky, we are challenged, proven wrong, and leave better than we arrived. Elizabeth Birmingham has written that archives “enable us to recover and converse with the lost dead, to understand them in a way that is definitive and true, but that they will help us recover ourselves, help us discover that we did not know that we were the dead, inhabiting the crypt, repeating dead histories in dead languages.”[1] What is that if not an experience? My adventure in Percy’s diaries was an experiment. I didn’t need it for my thesis; I had a little time to kill and I thought it might be interesting to spend some time on the person behind the text. After all, the elucidation of humanity is part of the point of, well, the humanities. “Many of the deepest experiences in life can’t be numerically measured,” as Leon Wieseltier has argued.”[2] Humanity is not merely an observation; it is an experience. Our time spent in archives should be the same.

British Library Add. MS. 32336


[1] Elizabeth Birmingham, ‘“I See Dead People”: Archive, Crypt, and an Argument for the Researcher’s Sixth Sense’, in Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process, ed. by Gesa E. Kirsch and Liz Rohan (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), pp. 139–46. p.145.

[2] Sophie Gilbert, ‘Learning to Be Human’, in The Atlantic, 30th June 2016 [Accessed 13th November 2017]


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