By Kathleen Parrish

The team: Leslie Seitz ’19, an English and philosophy double major, and Bianca Falbo, associate professor of English

The research: Creating an Annotated Anthology of Adelia Penelope English’s Diary

The goal: Examine the Civil War period though a woman’s perspective and look at what ordinary people read and wrote during that time.  

Why? Most accounts of the Civil War have been written by men, resulting in a dearth of information about the lives and experiences of ordinary women. Seitz also wanted to see what relationships existed between books regular people recorded reading at the time and texts that have become part of the established 19th-century cannon today.

How? When Seitz was 8 years old, a box the size of a refrigerator showed up on her family’s doorstep. Her father had been working on a family tree project with his uncle, and when the uncle unexpectedly died, his wife mailed Seitz’s father a treasure trove of family documents, including more than 1,000 letters, diaries, postcards, and photographs from as far back as 1838. Young Leslie was intrigued and wanted to know more about the dark-haired woman with soft eyes  in the sepia-tone photographs. During summers and weekends, her mother would read to her from Adelia’s diary and letters she sent and received from family and friends. Seitz felt a connection to her kin and recognized herself in some of the writings. She wanted to know more, so when it came time to propose an honors thesis, Seitz decided to focus her research on the writings of her great-great-great grandmother.

The challenge: At first Seitz thought she’d write a biography, but after talking with Falbo she decided to annotate the diary Adelia had kept from 1863 to 1864. As part of the project, she transcribed hundreds of letters and documents from 1845 to 1879 so she could handle them without fear of damaging the originals. The second half of the diary includes quotes from books Adelia had read and then amended to reflect her own experience.

Lessons learned: Using archival newspapers, Seitz discovered that Adelia married John Ward, son of Detroit’s first millionaire, who had an eye for young women. A few months after the wedding, John was charged with raping a 15-year-old mentally handicapped woman. He then whisked Adelia off to a shopping spree in New York City, telling her the charges were “no big deal” and that he would pay off the girl’s family to keep quiet. “But the family wasn’t having it and insisted he be brought to trial,” Seitz says. After the first day of testimony, the brother of the 15-year-old shot and killed John, leaving Adelia a pregnant widow. “In 1864 she stopped writing dated entries in her diary, and all of her letters to friends and family just stopped,” says Seitz. “She didn’t write again until after her daughter, Mabel, was born. I wondered many times if she did write during this period and destroyed her entries out of frustration or grief or embarrassment.”

Falbo: “Maybe her letters are somewhere, and you just haven’t found them.”

Seitz: “I hope so. It would shed so much light to have documentation from that time.”

Student’s take: “As I was doing the annotations, I had to pay attention to how much information I was presenting so I didn’t overwhelm the reader but gave enough background to help them make sense of things. Figuring out that balance was really interesting.”

Prof’s take: “As far as I know, this is the first project in scholarly editing for an honors thesis in the English department. It crosses a lot of boundaries in our discipline. You’re writing biography, you are doing critical analysis of your text, and you’re also editing. For all of the quotations Adelia pulled, she didn’t provide any attribution, so one of the challenges of annotating the text was that Leslie had to find every one of her sources, compare it to the original text, and then talk about why she made some of the alterations she did.”

What’s next: “I want to publish a biography to say, ‘Look, I’ve actually taken the time to gather the facts because there are a lot of websites that get dates wrong or provide absolutely absurd information,” Seitz says. “It’s also a way to get in touch with other researchers who know the family or people involved. I would love to get in contact with them. Sometimes just putting your work out there is the best way to hear from other people.”

Categorized in: Academic News, English, Featured News, News and Features, Research

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