A Historian’s Imaginative Use of Archives: Jane Franklin & the Eighteenth Century Woman

Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013). 442 pp. $27.95.

[I wrote this review last year but never published it]

Jill Lepore is one of our most important historians and her latest book about the sister of Benjamin Franklin will be of interest to archivists. Lepore’s biography is not just about this eighteenth century woman, but it is an examination of what archival sources tell and don’t tell us. Early on, she states, “History is what is written and can be found; what isn’t saved is lost, sunken and rotted, eaten by earth” (p. 6). Some archivists, considering other kinds of sources, such as oral testimony and visual systems, might object to this assertion, but they will do well to give Lepore a chance to explain herself.

Lepore reconstructs the life of Jane Franklin Mecom from the sparse documents and traces she left behind. The “Book of Ages” in question is a small manuscript book

containing people’s ages, their births and deaths, compiled by Mecom and seems to be a most ordinary document. In the hands of this skilled historian, it becomes a window into the past: “The Book of Ages is a book of remembrance . . . . She had no portraits of her children, and no gravestones. Nothing remained of them except her memories, and four sheets of foolscap, stitched together. The remains of her remains.” “The Book of Ages was,” Lepore concludes, “her archive” (p. 57).

The author describes her frustration with the paucity of documentation concerning the sister of one of America’s most prominent eighteenth-century figures. In a section on “Methods and Sources,” Lepore describes how she nearly abandoned this project: “In writing this book I have had to stare down a truism: the lives of the obscure make good fiction but bad history. For an eighteenth-century woman of her rank and station, Jane Franklin Mecom’s life is exceptionally well-documented, but, by any other measure, her paper trail is miserably scant. She was bon in 1712. No letter written by her before 1758 survives; the earliest piece of her prose that survives is not a letter but an addendum to a letter, a sentence, a scrap — a postscript she wrote when she was thirty-nine, on a letter written by her mother” (p. 269). Lepore continues: “This is dispiriting. For a long time, I was so discouraged that I abandoned the project altogether. I thought about writing a novel instead. But I decided, in the end, to write a biography, a book meant not only as a life of Jane Franklin Mecom but, more, as a meditation on silence in the archives” (p. 269).

With this refurbished aim in mind, Lepore provides considerable discussion about a variety of archival issues. She mentions rules and conventions for writing letters and contemporary manuals describing them. She considers Benjamin Franklin’s efforts to maintain his own personal archives, placing him in the midst of what businessmen did with their records: “Tradesmen and merchants kept account books, records of wages and prices, lists of credits and debts. (Sometimes, in those same books, they recorded births and deaths.) Trading in paper — paper money, bills of exchange, bills of credit, and promissory note — people tended to spend money they didn’t have. The trick was to keep track. That meant knowing how to read and write and tally and having a place to store paper. That meant being a bookkeeper” (p. 69). She surmises that Benjamin Franklin “kept very careful track of his correspondence, not only to remind himself of who owed him letters and what letters he owed but to keep track of the postal service” (p. 112). Lepore also describes what Jane and her brother did with their own papers; Benjamin made an effort to gather up his manuscripts while Jane gave her manuscripts to her granddaughter and the “Book of Ages” to a grandson. The grandson served later as a town clerk and he kept careful records about his own manuscripts as well. Lepore also traces the documents through their selective editing by Jared Sparks in the nineteenth century and Carl Van Doren’s editing more than a century later. Faced with these archival challenges, Lepore states that her book “aims to be at once a history and a work of literary criticism” (p.270). As a result, she includes detailed descriptions of the surviving records, a calendar of Jane’s letters, an appendix considering the “editorial hand” of Sparks, and a description of Jane’s library.

I doubt that anyone who reads Lepore’s biography will be inspired to become an archivist or to delve into the value of the archival mission, but one never knows (especially given the critical acclaim the book has received). Her book reminds me of Donna Merwick’s Death of a Notary (2002) concerning the efforts of a Dutch Notary to make the transition from Dutch to English in the late seventeenth century and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale (1990) about a women living on the Maine frontier after the American Revolution. Merwick also pieces together the life of a notary from scattered, disparate sources and provides considerable information about the practice of notaries of this period. Ulrich takes what had long been passed over as a fairly ordinary record and breathes new life into it as the centerpiece document making the midwife a small town’s unofficial archivist. From the skilled hands of scholars like Merwick, Ulrich, and Lepore we learn much about the nature of early American recordkeeping. We also ought to be inspired to tackle our own archival tasks, like representation, with more creativity and confidence.

I am glad Lepore did not write a novel.

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