I’m speaking specifically of Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where the archives stored in bright new quarters contain my papers as well as many others, including, of course, the archives of Doris Duke.
This morning as I arrived at the library for my first session of digging, I saw with great pride the logo on the glass entrance door: SALLIE BINGHAM CENTER FOR WOMEN’S HISTORY AND CULTURE. When I founded this archive, I hoped that it would grow, and indeed it has, largely due to the dedicated work of Laura Micham and Naomi Nelson.
Now more than two decades old, the archive is filled with the extraordinary and the ordinary records of women who have had the foresight to collect, preserve, and send them on to the beautifully managed and maintained collection at Duke. An enormous collection, newly obtained and still to be completely cataloged, contains the records of the women who worked in all sorts of occupations—a laundress who was also a poet, for example—from the past three centuries. Perhaps they will provide the source material for a book called, “We Have Always Worked.”
The large boxes wheeled to my desk contained my own mysteries. I had no idea what to expect; the oldest letters and documents, which I don’t remember seeing, I must have retrieved from my Aunt Henrietta Bingham’s New York apartment when I was delegated to clean it out after her death in 1968. The disorder of that dim and dusty apartment, loud with the roar of traffic on Third Avenue, contributed to my determination decades later to fund an archive for women, like Henrietta, who led fascinating lives but who, unlike Henrietta, valued the proofs and made plans to preserve them.
My father’s letters to Henrietta—she was his older and much-loved sister—congratulating her for staying “on the wagon” while planting a Victory Garden in wartime Kentucky—were there, along with her notes about the breeding of her race horses.
Her years in Kentucky had another dimension. New York friends who visited her used to say, “No Fun on the Farm”—liquor was forbidden, and there was little in the way of entertainment. The Victory Garden probably had few diggers among the soignée and dashing lesbians visiting from the big city.
Another fat file contains the ancient-looking love letters written in the 1920’s to the distant cousin whose only claim to fame was that he was once crowned the Asheville, North Carolina Rhododendron King. These love letters, which I didn’t remember collecting, must have been in the piles scattered across the floor of the old Asheville house I last saw in the 1970’s when the Rhododendron King and his sisters had died and the place was about to be sold and torn down. I couldn’t have collected all the letters, but I must have swept up a lot of them, probably simply the ones that were nearest to me.
None of this bears directly on my next book, the memoir, Little Brother: The Short Life and Strange Death of Jonathan Worth Bingham. But my own letters, from a four-year-old’s scrawl to a teenager’s smooth prose, carry hints about our childhoods. I was astonished by the many references in my letters to our parents about the little boy we all called “Toad”—after Mr. Toad in “The Wind and the Willows.” I was, to my amazement, preoccupied with him and from time to time quite worried about him. I’ll learn more when I look through more boxes tomorrow.
I sometimes regret that I was not trained as an historian. Certainly my methods of research are sometimes unorthodox, since I tend to go on a lot of wild goose chases, following my intuition, sometimes to a dead end. But on the other hand, I am not saddled with the literal-minded over-reliance on facts that a PhD sometimes confers. My freedom to write history comes with a price, but the price seems to me not too high to pay.
[Interested in visiting the Sallie Bingham Center or Rubenstein Library? Complete visitor information is available on their website.]