Unearthing Fiction: Creative Writing Inspired by UVA’s Archive

This week we are pleased to share a guest post from Nichole LeFebvre. Nichole is a Poe/Faulkner Fellow at the University of Virginia, where she teaches creative writing. Her poems can be found in Prairie Schooner and Barrelhouse and recent prose in Lit Hub, Paper Darts, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She is the Nonfiction Editor of Meridian: A Semi-Annual and is at work on a memoir.

Researchers may have met Nichole at Special Collections, where she used to work as a graduate student assistant in the Reference department. Now, she’s using that experience to incorporate original materials into her creative writing instruction.

Working at Special Collections, I’d often find myself in awe. Researchers would carry diaries and ledgers to the reference desk, pointing out their surprising finds. Reading Faulkner’s grocery list, I’d wonder about his carbo-loading: “breadsticks, bread, breakfast bread.” I’d show students how to aim a black light at a seemingly blank book. One afternoon, a librarian grinned and said, “Have you seen the bone fragment from the Revolutionary War?”

When I had the chance to design a themed writing workshop, I knew exactly where to go: down the spiral staircase, under the skylights. How many stories hid, waiting latent, below our feet?

Fourth-year Halley Townsend recalls the first time she held an artifact: “There’s something immutable in the feeling of touching history that can be gleaned nowhere else.” And that’s exactly right: in fiction, we focus on creating sensory-rich scenes for the reader. Students in my class, “Unearthing Fiction,” were able to feel that texture first-hand, noticing minor details otherwise forgotten with time.

“Being an engineer, I preferred to look at objects that were manmade and complex,” says Daryn Govender, hailing all the way from New Zealand. For his stories, he studied a field compass from World War II as well as a New Tyme Edison light bulb, patented in 1881. Because these objects are catalogued without specific historical context—letters or diary entries from their owners—Govender felt “allowed to write more freely, unconstrained by a pre-existent scenario or background story.”

Of our first visit to Special Collections, second-year Caroline Bohra writes, “My mind started to race thinking of all the people who could have come in contact with these objects. I could not help but wonder what made these specific objects so special that they had been chosen to be saved and preserved? And what modern artifacts would be deemed important enough to be studied years from now?”

The travel scrapbook of Nina Withers Halsey, 1895, inspired Alexander O’Connor to write about a self-taught American teenager who meets and impresses the Shahzada Nasrulla Khan with her knowledge of tenuous British-Afghan relations (MSS 10719-b). Photograph by Alexander O’Connor.

How archives shape history was on our mind, all semester. Fiction is likewise political: whose stories are told, and therefore remembered? Third-year Hunter Wilson wondered how to write “historical women, on the one hand acknowledging that women often lacked basic rights, while on the other, respecting the character.” She decided to set her first story in 17th Century Scotland, inspired by the ballad of the Outlandish Knight. The twist? It’s the princess who uncovers the dreamy knight’s murder plot. “I wanted Isabel to act accurately in her historical context, but also give voice to the likely frustrations that came with her place in history.”

Fourth-year Matin Sharifzadeh enjoyed the depth of creative control he had over his work. “When we would go down into the library, the artifacts weren’t there for us to write about. They were there for us to create a world.” And like history itself, those worlds weren’t always pretty: the rope used in the hanging of a Charlottesville mayor inspired Sharifzadeh to write “a psychological thriller involving a mentally ill serial killer in the late 19th Century.”

Students faced, first-hand, the challenges of writing historical fiction. First-year Julia Medina found an embroidered handkerchief “depicting a group of children and a school teacher from the early 20th century.” This morphed into her story of an exploitative school for gifted children. But she couldn’t have her characters talking in today’s slang. To research the nuances of 1940s speech, Medina found “a collection of letters than an ordinary military man wrote to his wife.” These “seemingly mundane letters” allowed her to imagine “what he felt, how he talked, and where he’d been.”

Some details will remain buried with time, unless you, dear reader, can read this handwriting.  Elizabeth Oakes-Smith’s diary, 1861 (MSS 38-707-a). Photograph by Veronica Sirotic.

The question of historical accuracy recurred throughout the semester. How do we earn a reader’s trust when we aren’t historians, we’re writers?

The answer? More reading, more research, and a deep personal connection to the material. Second-year Veronica Sirotic pored over radical feminist and music magazines from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, inspired by not only the articles, but the advertisements, as well. A few students returned to the feminist periodical The Monthly Extract including first-year Megan Lee, who tried to get into the mindset of both a feminist and her “tolerant husband,” digging up manuscript boxes of period photographs to build images of these characters, in her head.

Students realized when they were most curious, most personally engaged, their own fiction was at its strongest. Caroline Bohra found a children’s book from 1927 and was “struck by a sort of nostalgic happiness,” changing her initial character’s personality as she researched real-life author Christopher Morley, who “believed in the magic of childhood and instilled that in his children, specifically Louise Morley Cochrane, who went on to produce a children’s television series, following in her father’s footsteps, as well as work directly for Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Finding patterns across time was another an important way in. First-year Alexander O’Connor was struck by former Secretary of State John Hay’s life story. “Two out of the three Presidents he worked for, Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley, were assassinated while he worked for them, and the third, Theodore Roosevelt, experienced an assassination attempt but lived. Coincidence? I think not!”

The class also sought guidance from UVa’s own Jane Alison, Professor and Director of Creative Writing. Students read Alison’s Ovid translations and a section of her novel The Love-Artist, curious how she was able to write from the point of view of the ancient poet. Alison explained her range of primary and secondary sources, as well as her trip to Rome, to see and imagine how the ruins once looked. She placed herself inside the poet’s shoes, inside his head, tried to imagine how he saw and described the world around him.

Alison urged the students to recognize the overlap between historical fiction and memoir, a comment that struck Veronica Sirotic as especially true: “We have the power to shape history to our liking.” Alexander O’Connor, agreed, noting that even “memoir is a retelling of history through the author’s lens.”

“‘Unearthing’ means to dig up, to discover, to recover in an active sense,” writes Halley Townsend. “Throughout the semester, that definition has aligned more and more with my creative writing; I feel like I’m discovering or rediscovering something that was already there in my mind.”

All semester long these students uncovered and re-imagined artifacts into fiction, resulting in eighteen riveting short stories. Whether setting their work in the distant past, or today’s world, they used history to deepen the story’s emotional content and lasting impact—looking forward, while looking back.

“I took this image from a couple’s autobiography about their circumnavigation in the early 1920s,” writes student Halley Townsend. “Based on this picture, I wanted to imagine their relationship. What kind of relationship survives on a small boat during stressful circumstances?”
(G440 .V8 1923).

Thank you, Nichole, for sharing your students’
marvelous insights with us.

Collaborative Curation: Cori Field on Student Exhibitions

This week, we are pleased to feature a guest post by Cori Field of the Women, Gender & Sexuality Program. Cori is an exceptional colleague who really “gets” what an exhibition can do for her students. We are so lucky to have worked with her on the exhibition described below.

The “Sounds and Silences of Black Girlhood” exhibition resulted from a remarkable collaboration between undergraduates in the Women, Gender & Sexuality Program and Library staff. Finding archival sources by and about black girls is difficult even for professional historians because most collections are organized around the concerns of white adults. Undaunted, UVA students eagerly stepped up to the challenge. With the help of Molly Schwartzburg, Holly Robertson, and Erin Pappas, they identified a wide range of materials in Special Collections related to the global history of black girlhood, researched the significance of those items, and designed a compelling exhibit focused around the core themes of identity, resistance, and voice. In addition to curating the exhibit, they wrote longer articles about each item.

A screenshot of the blog that accompanies the exhibition. We encourage visitors to check it out to see the students’ hard work.


The key to this project was advanced planning. When I first decided to teach an advanced undergraduate seminar on the “Global History of Black Girlhood,” I met with Molly Schwartzburg to ask if it would be possible to produce a public history project from materials in Special Collections. Molly eagerly embraced the idea, volunteered her time, and most importantly, advised me on how to structure assignments so that students could complete the separate components of an exhibit on time. This early consultation enabled me to write an effective syllabus structured around the final project.

Because WGS is an interdisciplinary program, I knew most students in the seminar would not be historians and would likely be unfamiliar with archival research. To further complicate matters, sources on black girls are often hidden in larger collections and difficult to locate. It was therefore essential to provide students with some preliminary guide to relevant sources. The best resource was the expertise of Molly, Edward Gaynor, and other staff who pointed to numerous collections with promising material. Over the summer, Angel Nash, a Ph.D. student in the Curry School, worked with Edward and Molly to identify more sources and construct a bibliography of archival holdings at UVA related to black girlhood. By handing out this bibliography on the first day of class, I was able to give students the information they needed to hit the ground running.

Molly then met with class to discuss strategies for locating other types of sources. This became a history lesson in itself as students discussed the changing language of race and the complications of searching for people categorized variously as African, Negro, colored, African American, or black. Molly helped students to think about how different types of sources—for example, eighteenth-century travelogues, nineteenth-century wills, or early twentieth-century photographs—might prompt different types of research questions. Finally, she helped students figure out how to pursue their own interests by studying the past.

The best part came next as students went into Special Collections. Within two weeks, everyone in the class had identified a primary source that interested them and developed a plan for further research. The range of sources was amazing. For example, Nodjimadji Stringfellow found a 1820 memoir by a British official stationed on the Gold Coast. Dhanya Chittaranjan located a deed from a planter who presented his young granddaughter with the gift of an enslaved girl—”Martha Jane about six years old.” Diana Wilson, Emma McCallie, and Ivory Ibuaka all picked very different photographs from the Jackson Davis Collection. Lucas Dvorscak focused on a 1972 children’s book that retold the story of Alice in Wonderland with a black protagonist.  Samantha Josey-Borden found an original edition of Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. Other students found sources exploring black girls’ labor; resistance to sexual violence; creativity; and political organizing.

Some of the curators of the exhibition at the opening celebration with their instructor, Cori Field (far right).

The next challenge was to combine these materials into a coherent exhibit. Once again, Molly provided guidance, encouraging students to begin with the exhibition space. We went to the exhibition hall, looked at the cases, and talked about how different items might fit. We then returned to the seminar room and discussed organizational strategies. Students quickly rejected a geographical or chronological approach and decided to organize the exhibit around key themes—but what themes? Together, students brainstormed ideas, eliminated some, voted for others and grouped their items into three broad categories of identity, resistance, and voice. They also thought about the physical properties of the items themselves and came up with the idea of enlarging two particularly striking images and hanging these on the wall as the entry to the exhibit.

Two of the three exhibition cases that make up the exhibition.

The next challenge was locating secondary sources that would provide some historical context for every student. The subjet liaison for WGS, Erin Pappas, consulted with the whole class and then worked with individual students facing particularly difficult challenges. Some students who initially thought they couldn’t find any relevant information experienced the thrill of locating material, as when Erin helped Emily Breeding find information about the Lynchburg NAACP at Emory University. A quick call to Emory produced the information Emily needed for her article.

Condensing all of the information students had found into succinct labels was the greatest challenge of the course. Students were shocked to realize how little can be said in 150 words. Through multiple drafts, rigorous peer editing, and feedback from Molly and Holly, students all succeeded in crafting labels that draw the viewer in to the exhibit without providing too much detail. Writing longer articles enabled students to develop their insights in more detail for the accompanying blog.

Throughout this course, the students worked incredibly hard both on their own projects and on their thoughtful contributions to the collective project. I have never seen undergraduates edit each other’s work with such care and insight. The knowledge that this work mattered, that the exhibit would be available to the general public and visiting scholars, inspired a level of commitment and mutual support that is truly rare—in undergraduate seminars and in workplaces more generally. The students learned important skills in managing a complex project, working with others, and contributing to a shared product. At moments, they got incredibly frustrated, but then pulled together and took the project to a higher level. It was a true joy to be involved in this project.

Visitors interact with the blog on an iPad and peruse the artifacts on display during the exhibition opening party.

“The Sounds and Silences of Black Girlhood” will be on view in the first floor gallery at the Harrison-Small building through March 24, 2017.

Patron’s Choice: The United States Camel Cavalry…yes, you read that right!

This week, we are pleased to feature a guest post from researcher Maria A. Windell, Assistant Professor of English at Ball State University. Dr. Windell visited Special Collections a few months ago to work on an article entitled  “Military, Diplomatic, and Novel Imperial Imaginaries: Literary History and the Writings of David Dixon Porter,” about Civil War hero Admiral David Dixon Porter.  It is drawn from a larger project on the Porter family and nineteenth-century literary history. While she was here, Maria found one particularly intriguing artifact that she generously agreed to share with us.

In March of 1855, Congress appropriated $30,000 for the purchase of…camels. The Army was hoping to find a more reliable and cost-effective way of navigating the American Southwest, as the broad swaths of territory gained just seven years before in the U.S.-Mexican War had proven difficult for horses to travel. Looking for a creative solution to these issues, the Army and Congress began to consider how camels might be adapted for transportation and perhaps even combat purposes in the United States.

A camel as illustrated in the 1857 "Report of the Secretary of War..."(UC 350 . U5 1857. Bequest of Paul Mellon. Image by University of Virginia Library Digitization Services.)

A camel as illustrated in the “Report of the Secretary of War…respecting the Purchase of Camels for the Purposes of Military Transportation” (Washington: A.O.P.Nelson, 1857). (UC 350 . U5 1857. Bequest of Paul Mellon. Image by University of Virginia Library Digitization Services.)

Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (yes, future president of the Confederacy) tapped Major Henry Wayne of the Army to head an expedition to purchase camels for use in the U.S.; Wayne had long been interested in incorporating camels into the Army’s supply chain. Davis and Wayne then chose Lieutenant David Dixon Porter of the Navy to captain the Supply, the ship that would sail the camels from the Middle East to Indianola, Texas. Porter’s brother-in-law, Gwinn Harris Heap, who had lived in Tunis for many years, accompanied the expedition as, among other things, its resident illustrator.

The expedition set out in 1855, and returned to Texas with thirty-four camels (including two calves born at sea) eleven months later. While the expedition was thus successful, the camel experiment ultimately failed. While the camels adapted quite nicely to the southwestern climate and landscape, Americans—and their horses—were unable to accept the aroma and mannerisms of their new four-legged companions. More importantly, the Civil War arrived, drawing interest and funding from the experiment. Some of the camels were sold to circuses and zoos, some were sold to private individuals, and some escaped into the desert (Texans reported encountering feral camels even into the twentieth century).

Camels being loaded for transport, as illustrated in the report. (Image by University of Virginia Digitization Services)

Camels being loaded for transport, as illustrated in the report. (Image by University of Virginia Digitization Services)

While the expedition failed to yield a permanent “Camel Corps,” it did yield a fairly comprehensive governmental report. At the request of Congress, Davis published a volume on the experiment with the rather utilitarian title Report of the Secretary of War, Communicating, In Compliance with a Resolution of the Senate of February 2, 1857, Information Respecting the Purchase of Camels for the Purposes of Military Transportation. The report is mostly a series of dispatches from Major Wayne and Lieutenant Porter; a number of Heap’s illustrations are included, as are the entries into the Supply’s log for the trip back to the U.S. Wayne also submitted lengthy excerpts and translations from various tomes on the camel, and Davis incorporated these into the report as well. There are certainly some entertaining events and illustrations to be found in the approximately 240-page report, but much of the volume is filled with mundane dispatches and camel arcana.

Title page of the report. (UC 350 .U5 1857. Bequest of Paul Mellon. Image by University of Virginia Library Digitization Services.)

Title page of the report. (UC 350 .U5 1857. Bequest of Paul Mellon. Image by University of Virginia Library Digitization Services.)

In some ways, the publication of this 1857 report might be seen as the end of the expedition (the experiment took several years to peter out). Yet the report is in some ways also the beginning of the story of the camel event—it demonstrates how the experiment became a narrative of national interest before becoming a forgotten element of the national past. And the particular copy of the report held in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia demonstrates this in a particularly vivid way: it bears an inscription showing the volume to have been gifted. While it was quite common for novels, poetry, and story collections to be gifted during the nineteenth century, the gifting of a War Department report published for congressional use was certainly not the norm.

The inscription in UVa's copy of the report. (Image by University of Virginia Library Digitization Services.)

The inscription in UVa’s copy of the report. (Image by University of Virginia Library Digitization Services.)

The inscription in UVa’s copy of Davis’s Report reveals that such was the unusual fate of this particular volume. At the time of the report’s publication, John P. Hale was a United States Senator from New Hampshire. Sarah J. Christie was the daughter of an attorney Hale had practiced law with in Dover, NH, years before. At the time he gifted the volume to Christie in 1857, Hale had likely long been married to Lucy Lambert (the Hales’ daughter, Lucy Lambert Hale, was engaged to John Wilkes Booth at the time of Lincoln’s assassination in 1865). While the inscription does not then necessarily imply a romantic gift, it does reveal that Hale believed Christie would be intrigued by the report.

Hale’s gifting of the report on the camel expedition to Christie demonstrates the appeal of the expedition for Americans further removed from political and military duties. As the volume is clean of Christie’s—or any other—marginalia, there is no way to judge of her reaction to the report. Nevertheless, Hale clearly assumed it had enough interesting content to offset its overall tedium: accounts of Tuscany, Tunis, and the Crimea; of slight diplomatic rows with Turkey and Egypt over substandard gifted camels (the insult!); and of the birthing of calves while at sea. The possibility of baby camels certainly captured the imagination of the staff at Harper’s Weekly, which (prematurely) declared the camel experiment a success before noting, “The Secretary of War, Mr. Jefferson Davis, has not yet had the pleasure of presenting to the people a native camel.[. . .] It is, perhaps, indiscreet to attempt to be precise in promising the advent of little humpbacked strangers; but we can assure the public that the hopes of the Department are very high and confident.”

Baby camels, as illustrated in the report. (Image by University of Virginia Digitization Services.)

Baby camels, as illustrated in the report. (Image by University of Virginia Digitization Services.)

While the camel expedition and experiment may have captivated nineteenth-century Americans, it faded into a largely forgotten event—overshadowed in national memory, as it was at the time, by the enormity of the Civil War. The volume held in Special Collections, however, attests not only to the strange and interesting event’s occurrence, but also to the remarkable interest it generated—even inspiring the gifting of a governmental report initially published for congressional use.