Digging through the Archives

Two weeks ago, I went up to Boston to look around the archives at Harvard’s Houghton Library. We arrived on a Monday night, and I read from Tuesday to Thursday. And I do mean from Tuesday to Thursday. Those three mornings, at around 9:45 AM, I checked in at Houghton. After lockering everything except my laptop, phone, and chargers, I was buzzed into the “Reading Room” where I sat and read until 5 in the evening.

The work was tiring. The ink has long faded on these late 18th century letter and diary entries, and their handwritings– a mix of script and print, with the s’s looking more like f’s– proved a challenge. However, as draining as it all was, I really enjoyed myself. I flipped through letters written by Lydia Maria Child, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry James Sr., Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Walt Whitman. I got to see notes written by Louisa May Alcott at the age of five and compare her language to that of her last diary entry only a few days before she died. I saw the Alcott family’s private accounts books, read Louisa’s account of her near-suicide incident, and even learned about the legend of the Mistletoe Bough after reading about it in one of Abigail May Alcott’s (aka “Marmee”) diary entries.

I had spent all the weeks leading up to this stage of my research reading secondary sources on the Alcotts as well as Margaret Fuller and Harriet Beecher Stowe in order to prepare myself for all the primary sources into which I will be ensconcing myself at Houghton. And the plan was to organize my notes, make a list of questions and comments that I came up with during all this note-taking, and move on rereading the Little Women trilogy with those thoughts in mind. However, as I read through the Alcotts’ diaries and letters, I found other publications that I think would be interesting to read, such as “Home Education” by Isaac Taylor as well as some issues of the Godey’s Lady’s Book. Since then, I have not only organized all my notes but finished reading all the extra texts that I found in Boston. Now onto the outline phase!


  1. Being able to go into the library’s archives and read the primary source documents sounds like it would have been an amazing experience! I would imagine that reading handwritten letters by someone you’re studying would be a very personal experience. Do you think reading these letters gave you a better understanding of Alcott and her life?