Sunday, February 1, 2009

Fascinating Research Site

In one of my library journals recently, I read about a new digital collection called Slavery and Abolition in the U.S., which was put together by Millersville University and Dickinson College from their library's holdings. If you enjoy reading first-person accounts of life in other times, or if your fiction is set in the 19th century in America, this site could possibly be a gold mine.

With support from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the two institutions have digitized and put online for the public approximately 15,000 pages of first-person narratives, legal proceedings, anti-slavery tracts, religious sermons, and more. Through these readings, you can get a glimpse of the debates and ideologies of the time.

I'm always fascinated reading first-hand accounts from "regular" people who lived in explosive times. I was amazed when I went to look on this site and clicked on a book of letters written by a Virginia man. I discovered the first letter was dated 1858 and was written when he visited my home town! It gave me an odd feeling to read his description of the fort and the cemetery on the river--which I still frequently drive by. But reading his description of a slave auction held in my own city was just downright bizarre.

Also interesting was the preface to the book, written by someone other than the author, who decried the tendency of fiction books to write social issues into their plots and try to effect change through their stories. He mentioned not only Uncle Tom's Cabin on the one side, but also the novels written as "answers" to it from the other side of the debate. This editor despised them all and said such issues had no place in fiction. Hmm...sounds like a debate that's still going on today, about the place of religion or issues in novels. Only the issues themselves have changed.

I've only checked out the one book, so don't have deep knowledge of this site. But it looks promising. I haven't tackled a historical novel yet, but I do know from my writing that I love reading first-person narratives on any subject that touches on my novel's background or plot. I don't know a better way to add color and accuracy.