The strangest aspect of my current research is the extent to which I’m finding myself on genealogical databases. “Yes, Mary Stolz had a son, but can you find his exact birth date?” my editor asks me. Did Betty Cavanna have a middle name? Was she actually living in Philadelphia, or in a suburb–and which suburb?
My work always crosses into the biographical, but usually I’m trying to research editors and librarians–people whose lives generally aren’t recorded, except in dry internal memos or conference speeches. Authors are different, likely because they fall more under the umbrella of “celebrity.” Thus, they have records in series such as Something about the Author, interviews in regional newspapers, and obituaries published in the New York Times. All of these sources help immensely in trying to create a narrative of their working lives.
But. They were still just people, and the wonderful thing about “just people” is that they leave behind so many documents and ephemera–the refuse of unrecorded lives. And thus, in my biographical/bibliographical research into Mary Stolz, Betty Cavanna, and Maureen Daly for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, I’m finding that my favourite discoveries are the documents that I can never use; documents such as Betty Cavanna’s yearbook photo from the New Jersey College for Women (which became Douglass College, which was melded into Rutgers):
The majority of photos I’ve ever seen of Cavanna are middle-aged ones–publicity photos from after she is well established as an author. Here I see a young Betty, around the age of the students I teach (in fact, Mildred Clapp on the right-hand side looks exactly like one of my students, and I’m honestly wondering if there’s a surprising family connection)!
Anyway, these are the kinds of documents that I can’t include within the majority of my academic writing, but they’re the ephemera that keep me going. They’re the refuse that provides the “heart” in my research.