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Several loose pages of Montgomer's journal.
Pages from Mary Virginia Montgomery's journal, April 1872. Box 1, Benjamin T. Montgomery Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Unfolding Research: Reading American Women’s Diaries with Jennifer Putzi

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Jennifer Putzi is the Sara and Jess Cloud Professor of English and Gender, Sexuality, & Women’s Studies at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. She is also the editor of Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers. She has published five books, most recently Fair Copy: Relational Poetics and Antebellum American Women’s Poetry (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021). Her current project is a study of nineteenth-century African American women’s diaries.

Head and shoulders portrait photograph of professor Jennifer Putzi.
Portrait of Jennifer Putzi. Courtesy of Jennifer Putzi.

What LC collection are you working with?

I’m working with the 1872 diary of Mary Virginia Montgomery (1850-1902), which is part of the Benjamin T. Montgomery Family Papers. Benjamin Montgomery and his family were enslaved by Joseph Davis, the brother of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. Influenced by social reformer Robert Owen, Joseph Davis attempted to merge utopian socialism with plantation paternalism at Davis Bend, Mississippi, by providing adequate food and shelter for the enslaved, allowing them access to books and education, and establishing a monitored form of self-government. Benjamin Montgomery became the business manager and agent for Joseph Davis, whose plantation included thousands of acres of fertile land and a warehouse complex for shipping cotton and other produce. Montgomery also owned a general store that provided both the Davis family and those they enslaved with dry goods and staple items. After the Civil War, Davis loaned Montgomery the money to purchase Davis Bend, which included his own plantation, Hurricane, and Brierfield, Jefferson Davis’s estate. In 1872, when Mary Virginia Montgomery is writing her diary, she is living at Brierfield with her parents and her sister, Rebecca. She is contributing to the thriving family economy, working as a bookkeeper, and helping to manage the plantation’s cotton sales. She is also studying to enter Oberlin College, which she does in November of that year. She is a faithful and observant diarist who is passionate about her many hobbies, from gardening to phrenology.

What inspired you to bring Montgomery’s story to your class and what impact did it have on your students?

I’ve taught several courses on nineteenth-century American women’s diaries over the past fifteen years, and it is always difficult to find Black women’s diaries in good editions that are still in print. During the pandemic, I began work on a print edition of the diary of Frances Rollin Whipper (1845-1901), an African American woman from Charleston, South Carolina, who moved to Boston in 1868 to write a biography of Martin R. Delany, one of the highest-ranking Black officers in the Union army. When we returned to in-person teaching, I wanted to share the excitement of archival work and editorial work with my students, so I designed a class on Nineteenth-Century African American Women’s Diaries. I had read a bit of Montgomery’s diary excerpted in a 1984 book called We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Dorothy Sterling, and it didn’t take much searching to discover that the original was at the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. Librarians helpfully provided me with a scan of the diary. I split the diary into twenty-eight chunks of about twelve days each and required each student to transcribe a chunk and then hand that over to another student to check. By midterm we had a complete transcription, which we then used as a class text. Students were so invested in the diary at that point that they were eager to talk about Montgomery’s life and writing. They felt a sense of expertise that I encouraged, telling them that they knew more about this subject than nearly anyone else. What they didn’t know, they tried to find out, either by doing additional research or asking questions of librarian Lara Szypszak at the Library of Congress. We ended up giving the Library a copy of our transcription and the students love knowing that it is available to researchers.

What is something memorable that stuck with you from the experience?

We had several in-class workshops where we transcribed pages from the diary, or the students worked on their transcriptions, and I loved seeing the students’ enthusiasm for the assignment. The classroom would absolutely buzz with energy. I love it when a project clicks, and they understand why I’ve asked them to engage with archival materials. While they couldn’t access Montgomery’s diary in person, they were able to look at pocket-sized, page-a-day diaries, like Montgomery’s, in the Special Collections Research Center here at William & Mary, and that helped them understand more about how Montgomery may have approached her diary.

How are you seeing undergraduate students engage with archives, as well as the Library of Congress?

I find that my students absolutely love working with archival materials. I bring classes into the William & Mary Special Collections, where they can handle everything from a woman’s diary documenting the Union occupation of Williamsburg during the Civil War to a first edition of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects. I also encourage them to use digital collections at other libraries like the Library of Congress. I want them to know how to ask for help as well, to see that librarians are there to help them access books and manuscripts and answer questions. That is why it was so helpful for them to get answers to their questions from Lara; they were so impressed that she took the time to find out what they wanted to know.

Do you have advice for other researchers on navigating the Library’s collections?

Ask questions! I’ve found that librarians are eager to help, and they have access to so much more information than the catalog can provide.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on two interrelated projects. The first is a book-length study of nineteenth-century African American women’s diaries and the second is a digital humanities project that will feature the diaries that I’ve consulted and transcribed. I want to make these diaries available to researchers who don’t have the time or money to visit the archives and to provide interpretive tools for scholars who want to write about them or teach them in their own classes.

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  1. I would like to know more about why women (and men) felt the need to keep diaries. Was it something that was taught in school? Why did they feel the need to document their lives? Did they ever think about who might read them in the future? What other research have you done about Women’s diaries?

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