emma waite.jpgGreetings from upstate, where the 29th Conference on New York State History is underway. In an hour or so I’m presenting a paper called “The City on Stage,” which grows out of an undergrad seminar I’ve taught a few times and will serve as an early run at my contribution to our Cambridge Companion to the Literatures of New York City.

This is my first NYSHA conference, and I’m enjoying myself, even though this remote locale (we’re at Skidmore College, where I’m writing from a dorm room that smells like dirty feet) reminds me that I don’t miss being at a college with a quad: there’s something creepy about the insularity of it all. Which doesn’t mean the school hasn’t been a wonderful host …

The conference itself is a nice blend of academics and public historians — like many such conferences, a little on the grey side, which I actually enjoy. I’ve met multiple borough historians and some local history association presidents (including one for Randall’s Island) with whom I hope to keep contact and rely on as resources for teaching NYC cultural history.

I’ll have more to write later about last night’s highly enjoyable keynote by Kevin Baker (author of the historical NYC novels Dreamland, Paradise Alley, and Striver’s Row).
First I wanted to provide a couple links based on one of the more
interesting presentations I hit yesterday: on celebrity culture,
burlesque troops, and what appears to be a stalker diary written by a
young African American woman named Ellen Waite, who had been a hotel
worker in Saratoga Springs but moved to the city sometime during the
year chronicled in what seems to be a fascinating little diary.

Emma’s diary, owned by the New York State Library, has been beautifully digitized and is available online, both in pdf images and as a transcript. A paper by Susan Ingalls Lewis and Morgan Gwenwald of SUNY New Paltz chronicled Emma’s growing obsession, once she’d relocated to New York City from upstate, with the British burlesque bombshell Lydia Thompson, who was famous, among other things, not only for her intensely physical stage presence but for horsewhipping a man who’d insulted her husband/manager. (Aside from the paper yesterday, anything I know about Thompson comes from Robert C. Allen’s very fun book Horrible Prettiness, on the cultural meanings of burlesque performance in 19c NYC.)

Waite apparently goes, in the diary, from fawning over Thompson on stage to following her around town, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. She ends her year with this:

“Saturday 31. The weather is not settled yet. but it has moderated considerably. my eyes were gratified by a sight of my darling tonight. I shall not have much longer time to look at her. well the old year is about gone into the vast gazes[?] of eternity with the hopes and fears sorrows and disappointments of Millions in its grasp. it has been a year of sorrows and disappointments like many others to me, I wish that the new year might bring brighter prospects and answered petitions to me, and so farewell to 1870.”

I count it among small miracles when such documents — especially from people who would otherwise be confined to anonymity in history’s dustbin — somehow manage to survive.

Later last night, Gwenwald, a librarian at New Paltz, told me about the Lesbian Herstory Archives, a project she’s been long affiliated with, located in a Park Slope brownstone. I’ll have to add it to our list of NYC resources.