Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 19, 2012

Gems in the Dust

This weekend Peter and I drove to Wells, Maine to help celebrate the grand opening of Shellback Artworks, a shop our friend Steve Lavigne, with huge help from his wife, Denise, is opening to sell comics and art supplies and where Steve will teach classes to kids. There was free pizza and lots of good will through the day, but maybe my favorite story was the one Steve told me about three little boys who checked out some racks, raced home to get some money, doled out their quarters, then sat side by side on the steps with three heads bent over their comic book.

Peter and I also found time to walk on the beach and eat fried clams and charbroiled shark. On our drive through New Hampshire, enjoying lupine season, we stopped at Henniker Book Farm (our timing was good, as I can see from this web link that they’re closed this week, as “grandchildren and lobster trump books.”)  The poetry section was amazing, and I found an old book about the history of my favorite library, but my happiest find was this collection of letters written by a friend of someone I’m writing about.

Peter reminded me of my initial elation as the weekend passed and I read, skimmed, slogged, and eventually grumbled. Fourteen hundred pages can hold a lot of tea parties in which not much happens. I was reading about a time in which both Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne died, and I’m pretty sure Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter would have attended those funerals, but nothing is said about them. Her neighbor Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, but that isn’t mentioned.

But of course I can read about those events elsewhere. What you want from a letter collection are the small details you can’t find elsewhere. I did get the fabrics of some dresses and the varieties of pears in the Emerson’s small orchard. May Alcott showing off a spider she painted in the corner of her bedroom wall could be worth the twenty-five dollars I paid for these two volumes, at least along with Ellen’s gifts to her when she went abroad: four bottles of champagne, a hanging pin cushion to nail to her berth, and her copy of Portraits de Femmes. She advised May to bring a shawl-strap for her blanket, a basket of oranges, and napkins (handkerchiefs won’t be large enough) to spread over her chest when lying on her back to eat broth or porridge.

We learn that Mrs. Emerson had a habit of screaming if she stubbed her toe or pinched a finger, then might call out an assurance no bones were broken, then shriek again. I’d have enjoyed some more screams through the dense pages, but I did develop a sense of Concord, MA as seen from one particular household. Here are a few notes I pulled from the thick first volume:

May – catbird, blue jay, song sparrow, wood pigeon, red-shouldered blackbird, oriole

Massachusetts scenery isn’t like Italy, but the moral atmosphere is higher

stereoscope showed houses on Main Street and along the Mill Dam – Mr. H seemed enchanted, as if he hadn’t walked by them hundreds of times.

1868 burglaries, now Mr. Emerson won’t leave the silver cream pitcher

Such finds are the reasons I urge those writing about history to end with the internet, which is good for fact-checking, but to begin with books, which are full of clutter, but hold gems not yet ferreted out. I’m on a revision of a revision, and didn’t think I needed new material, but fresh details lend zip to my tired eyes and finding places for them can change the shape of the whole. It’s like Steve painting the walls of the shop, opening boxes, filling shelves, and hanging banners. You can plan all you want, but what can make something great are surprises like three boys huddled on the steps waiting to turn another page.


  1. I love this. Yes, there are many pages I feel like I have to/should “weed through” for those details. I grumble, too, and probably too often trade the thick, not-so-fascinating book for a novel. 🙂

    • Hey, we need novels, too! Oh lovely shapes, oh lovely well-chosen words, after bushwacking our way through a thousand tea parties where you know there was good gossip, but why was so little of it passed on? What do you think is the ratio we can expect, squirming through fifty pages for one good sentence?

  2. Jeannine, your posts are wonderful! Thank you for sharing your amblings with Peter and for the example of your diligent slogs through dusty tomes. P.S. Nice segment on Chronicle last night on lupine tours in N.H.

    • Sarah, you are wonderful. The lupine always makes me think of Miss Rumphius, and I love how it shows up in the most humble and mysterious spots. It refuses my attentions, such as they are. I suppose it’s particulars of soil and light and maybe its own mischief.

  3. Jeannine, you’ve spotted some brilliant gems! Thanks for sharing them with us!

    I’m with you…I’ve grumbled my way through lots of dusty mines and such, in search of the Hope Diamond. But I know, deep down in my kvetchy, impatient heart, that even the grandest jewels look best when their facets catch the light just so…not to mention how much more impressive they look, when mounted in the ‘proper’ setting.

    • Oh, Melodye, I love your “kvetchy, impatient heart.” And you’re right, sometimes just the right placement is needed. And sometimes a detail can even astound us by opening a story all its own, expanding into a metaphor. The sighs, the grumbles, the mind wandering toward chocolate or other books we might be reading… then, when we least expect it, the beating heart.

  4. I loved the image of Emerson not leaving the silver cream pitcher and imagined he never left the table or wherever it was kept. It’s so true–the real research is found in the stuff we have to wade through, and not knowing we’ll even find anything (though we usually do). I bought three old scrapbooks this weekend, paying terrible prices and hardly glancing through them. At home, I spent a happy evening paging through their crumbly selves. Worth every penny after all.

    • I took quite a liking to Ellen in the early letters, when she was 18 or 19, and chose not to go to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s (who I adore) lecture because, “I never understand him.” It couldn’t have been easy to grow up in that light — or be married to it either. An older Ellen notes that her mother hardly seems to belong in the family, her views were so different. And the pears. Pages about pears.

      But bored as I got, your mention of crumbly selves makes me salivate. Better hide them with the silver cream pitcher.

  5. I love this kind of stuff. Primary sources reveal so much if you read between the lines. Anecdotes from friends are very revealing too. Last fall I went to the Worcester Library in search of a couple of old books – they were archived in the basement and the librarian had to retrieve them. When I went to get the books, she apologized that a title couldn’t be found but gave me twice as many books as what I asked for, all delicious anecdotal books! I felt like I’d found a pot of gold! I profusely thanked the librarian. 🙂

    • Susan, I was thinking of you as I read: a few mentions of May Alcott, fewer of Louisa, and so far none at all of Anna or Beth.

      I can imagine the Worcester Library has a pretty amazing archive, and yay for those delicious anecdotes. This bookshop had a memoir written by Abigail Alcott’s brother, Samuel, which might have something, but as I explained to my husband, memoirs at that time were about showing only the good side; letters are a better source as the public face might slip a bit.

      • Good point. I noticed that when reading the older memoirs.

  6. “a hanging pin cushion to nail to her berth” …. I can’t imagine why. But that has me thinking of things we carry around, about which people will say in 150 years, I can’t imagine why.

    • At least if a pin cushion has a few pins stuck in it, we can see its purpose. So much of what we carry around would be unintelligible without a battery. And even then…?

      Hope London is still amazing you, Gretchen!

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