Hi, everyone. I’m working this summer on a digital exhibition of the Commonwealth, an anti-slavery Boston newspaper founded in 1862, right in the middle of the Civil War. In the weeks since my fellowship began, I’ve been working on making scans of the pages of the periodical, researching the various people involved in publication, and creating the website using Omeka. Any of those elements could be the subject of my post today (and the struggle of making scans is especially tempting), but I want to focus on a more over-arching narrative of how the project developed and what its aims are.
I started researching and writing about Louisa May Alcott’s novel Hospital Sketches, the first nursing narrative of the U.S. Civil War, in a seminar five years ago, and that seminar paper led me to the Commonwealth. I don’t remember exactly when my interest in Hospital Sketches evolved into ambitions for a full-blown digital humanities project, but there was a series of realizations that led in that direction. They went something like this: Hospital Sketches was published for the first time in the Commonwealth before it was collected into a novel, I should find out about that; the Commonwealth has not been digitized anywhere, I should do something about that.
The Commonwealth was published continuously for 20+ years before merging with another newspaper, and I never dreamed it was feasible for me to digitize all of it. Nor did I want to. I had to think early in the project’s conception about what was possible and what I wanted, an ongoing process actually. Choice 1 was to create a digital exhibition, selecting sample writings from the Commonwealth and organizing them by topic instead of digitizing entire issues. Choice 2 was to limit my efforts to the first year of the newspaper. With two editors leading the paper in its first year, all four original parts of Hospital Sketches to attend to, and other writings of literary and cultural value that I knew I wanted to include in the exhibition, this temporal limitation still gave me plenty to do this summer. No surprise, I’ve found more to do since I started.
I want the exhibition to accomplish two tasks:
- To situate the Commonwealth in abolitionist thought. The Commonwealth proclaimed its support for the immediate emancipation of the enslaved from its first issue. Unlike some other abolitionists, who prioritized ending slavery only, the editors of the Commonwealth held that the Bill of Rights had always applied to everyone, including the enslaved, and sought the enforcement of rights in addition to official emancipation. This position meant that the editorial staff of the Commonwealth disagreed with the most famous of abolitionists, fellow Bostonian and newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison, on the meaning and intent of the Constitution.
- To understand Hospital Sketches in relation to the Commonwealth. What concerns in the Commonwealth animated its publication of Hospital Sketches? While Hospital Sketches has been traditionally understood as a feminist critique of gender norms, my exhibition encourages the exploration of Hospital Sketches in relation to other critical inquiries, too, including periodical studies, global literature, and abolitionist thought.
My worry is that these two tasks, one about the Commonwealth and one about Hospital Sketches, compete with one another and that my exhibition will struggle to balance them. I suspect that the project that has already been refined considerably will go through at least one more iteration in which I figure out a way to make my two tasks work together–or I may be surprised to find them meshing organically.