Sorting out traces of our history

February 21st, 2014 by Cathleen Miller

For a number of years now, I’ve been meaning to get to fully processing our administrative files, which document the past 50+ years of collecting at the Maine Women Writers Collection.  In some ways, though, it is good that I have waited.  Now I understand how I use the collection, what kinds of documents we need to find easily, and how best it might serve us to organize it.  It’s a bit daunting, but the time has come.


For several days this week, I have taken advantage of the slow, snowy energy and put our focus on these papers.  Laura and I have been pulling out all the boxes, looking through all of the folders, and stacking everything in rough series to be more thoroughly organized later.  I have enjoyed the opportunity to look through the incredible correspondence that Grace Dow and Dorothy Healy carried on with numerous authors, donors, and other friends of the Collection.  I have been confused and dismayed by some of the odd things we’ve saved–the question “Why?” often hanging in the air between Laura and I throughout the process.  But the real “Why?” is the reason we are doing this at all–so that we can find the gems amidst the invoices and randomness; so that we can trace provenance and answer questions of how we acquired each collection.


It is an interesting process to look through the eyes of people who were not trained to think in terms of subject headings and organizational schema.  Grace and Dorothy built an amazing collection with little experience to guide them.  They were pioneers–warm, generous women who believed in the power of women’s words and women’s ordinary realities.  As I read through the letters that fill many a box, I feel an incredible sense of gratitude for these two thoughtful, determined women.

The tenderness and friendship that existed between the former curators and their correspondents always reminds me to write more thoughtful emails, to devote more attention to the ways that I portray our work in words, and subsequently causes me to lament the fact that volume has replaced quality in our communications.

I pulled this letter from one folder and the first line grabbed me right away.  “The trouble is, before starting a letter to you everything has to be just right, sun shining, outlook relaxed and still with it,” Florence Burrill Jacobs writes to Dorothy Healy in 1973.  She continues, “And that happy conjunction doesn’t often come about!”  Imagine if we waited for a sunny day to write an email to a friend!  (Well, this winter, we’d never write at all — let’s be honest here!)  Later in the letter, the conversational tone pulled me in further, making me just love Mrs. Jacobs’ style of corresponding. “And the stars!  Have you been where you could see the evening sky since September?  Hour after hour we have stood out back where no street lights intrude, and just gazed up.  Jupiter, Venus, M[a]rs, myriads of smaller ones, more brilliant than I ever saw them.  I am sometimes awakened in the night by a blazing west.”

I am looking forward to getting to a place in the processing when I can start to relabel folders with titles that will point to the contents clearly so that I can put my hands on these letters more easily.  The amount of information about acquisition procedures that resides in the correspondence alone is quite astounding.  That the letters are an incredible pleasure to read is just a bonus.  If you want to start up a correspondence with me, write to me about how the stars look when you go to bed at night, and I will write back to let you know that the stars here are sometimes dimmed by streetlights, but that your poems light up my world.  Yes, this is what keeps me in the archival profession, these beautiful private moments between people.

“Certainly one was a French cook in the Middle West…”

April 8th, 2011 by Cathleen Miller

Recently, I got an email from someone who is interested in donating some materials by Ellen James, a poet who lived in Boothbay Harbor.  She asked about biographical material in the collection, so I began doing some research.  As often happens to me, I got sucked into the lively correspondence Ellen James exchanged with other poets, her doctor, and Dorothy Healy (the first curator of the MWWC).  James’ correspondence and her life story drew me in, and I thought I would offer a glimpse of the life of this little-known Maine poet.

One of the first letters that got my attention was from James to Dorothy Healy.  Written on June 13, 1977, when James was about 92 years old, it begins:  “Dear Mrs. Healy,   I can’t tell you how happy I am that you are glad to have ‘Ellen’ live with you.  While I do not share Sue [McKonkey]’s special admiration for her, I did want her to have a good home permanently.”  It is a funny way to begin a letter about yourself, but as I went through her papers, I saw other examples of Ellen James writing about herself in the third person.  From the text of this letter, it also seems that she had an interesting relationship with her body, mortality, and the spirit world.

Later in the letter, she tells Dorothy Healy that she will “try to remember any more ‘remarkable’ things” in her life.  She finished, “Certainly one was a French cook in the Middle West in the latter part of the 1800s.  It never had occurred to me until just now how strange it was.  There were no French about mid Missouri at that time.”  This is the place where I became hooked and wondered about this woman’s life.  So I kept reading, and the letters just kept getting better.  The  next letter in the folder, written on a Wednesday in 1977, begins more cordially, describing her current circumstances.  The letter then drifts into a late-night insight of a very personal nature:

“I was thinking of all the piles of stuff I had collected and kept…. Now WHY had I kept that…all these years?  It was because it meant that Miss Juliette had cared for me…. Then the idea came that I had clung to every least sign of affection because I had never been cuddled as a child…. To wait until one is 92 to think of a thing like that, missing the outward signs of being loved, seems absurd, but it is true.”  She goes on to talk about wanting to put her arms around a woman she cares for, that she has been misunderstood in her life.  She refers to herself as “decidedly not a lesbian,” despite people’s perceptions of a woman who has lived with other women her whole adult life.

This photo is of James [standing, left] with her longtime companion Sidney Baldwin [seated] and their housemate Frances Seagraves.

It is a strikingly intimate letter, full of personal revelation and tenderness.  I felt as if I were peeking inside Ellen James’ diary when I read this.

Other letters are funny and irreverent about death.  Her letter to Dorothy Healy on September 26, 1977 begins cordially, and then asks, “By the way, why don’t you drop the ‘James’?  Is it a question of my advanced age?  One of my poet friends was shocked at the idea of 91, said she knew I was quite a bit older [than her], she thought about ten years.  That seemed a good idea, so I decided to be no more than ten years older than the person I was talking to.  Of course, when it is a question of something that happened to me say 50 or 75 years ago, one must be more explicit, like dancing at President Taft’s Inaugural Ball, for instance.”

She continues on to discuss her cat, writing, and her thought process.  She ends her letter with a very candid look at mortality, “And besides, I don’t have any extra time right now, to wait around and make friends as…a lady should.  My doctor … says I’ll live to be a hundred.  Maybe so….  I must admit that all this about the poetry and meeting you makes me want to postpone the start of the new phase of life I was looking forward to so eagerly.  I know I’ll still be in contact with you afterward, but you may not know it, and besides I want more on this plane!”

In several of her letters to Dorothy Healy, Ellen James discusses “messages” coming to her from the other side, or from people who come to her.  James writes about her spiritualist beliefs without any fear of judgement from Healy, but she attempts on numerous occasions to explain her experiences of contact with spirits.  In other letters, she describes experiences that might be frightening to others in such beautiful detail that you can tell she has made her peace with death.

In the above letter to her doctor, James mentions seeing him yesterday and offers a beautiful account of what she believes might be a stroke: “I struggled to speak at all, the words were wrapped up in something that I at last identified as transparent gelatine.  Each word in my mind was wrapped up in it, and there was a little hole in the side or I could not have spoken the word.  The lower part of my mind looked like an attic that had been cleared out and was in perfect order and clear, but the upper part was full of dust and fog and a lot of confusion so one could not see anything clearly.  That was where the words were, It was queer.”  Reading this reminded me of a TED talk I saw by a neurologist who was aware of what was happening to her while she had a stroke.  It was quite moving and amazing.  This letter had a similar effect on me.

James’ poetry was less interesting than her letters, but it wouldn’t be fair to do a post about a poet and not include some of her poetry.  She participated in what she called a “Round Robin” with a number of other poets, where they sent each other work and everyone in the group made comments about the poems to help the poet revise her work.  There were some nice samples of this process in the collection.  The connection of the group made it possible for people to offer both praise and criticism.

Dear May Sarton

February 9th, 2011 by Cathleen Miller

Inspired by a researcher’s request for images of some correspondence with May Sarton, I decided to dig in a bit to our small, but significant collection of Sarton’s photographs, correspondence, poems, and books.

Dorothy Healy, who was the Maine Women Writers Collection curator, carried on a warm, yet primarily professional, correspondence with May Sarton from 1974-1985.  Many of their letters contain personal updates, but most of them focus on Sarton’s presentations at Westbrook College.  One letter, early in their correspondence, jumped out at me as I leafed through the folder of letters and cards because of the intensely personal information that Dorothy Healy shared with May Sarton.

The letter begins with a flattering paragraph about Sarton’s appearance on “‘the Today Show” that morning, but quickly moves to an apology for the two month lapse in her response to an earlier letter.   Dorothy writes, “I am not usually this tardy in my correspondence, but I have been slowed down by a great personal tragedy in our family.  On March 19th our youngest child (we have two sons and a daughter) took his own life.  Tom, who had just turned 26, had been living in San Francisco, painting and writing and trying to find his way in this world which was so alien to him…. My heart aches and I know now that the grief will always be there, rising to the surface of my mind whenever I am not occupied….I am writing you all this because you are a poet and because I want to tell you how much ‘What the Old Man Said–‘ in your reading this morning touched me.  I wished too that Tom ‘did not despair’ but the young are so vulnerable.”

I am struck by the way that Dorothy chose to reveal herself to Sarton.  They had exchanged a few letters prior, but were nearly unknown to one another.  Later, of course, Dorothy Healy became a friend of May Sarton’s and brought her to Westbrook College many times, hosting dinners at her house and introducing Sarton to all of the brightest people she knew at Westbrook.

Many others were moved in the same way by Sarton’s work to reveal themselves and to reach out to a woman who had a reputation for enjoying her solitude.  As I think about Sarton’s journals, and how bold they were for their time, I see her as one of our most compelling modern memoirists.  She put her life out there for others, revealing her private thoughts and fears, and her audience responded enthusiastically.

Consider this selection from Journal of a Solitude:  “February 9th…And it is the same inside me–violent mood-swings.  … I feel myself sucked down into the quicksand that isolation sometimes creates, a sense of drowning, of being literally engulfed.  When it comes to the important things one is always alone, and it may be that the virtue or possible insight I get from being so obviously alone–being physically and in every way absolutely alone much of the time–is a way into the universal state of man.  The way in which one handles this absolute aloneness is the way in which one grows up …. At what price would total independence be bought?”  To write these words, to admit despair and moodiness, was a brave act for a woman in the early seventies.  I think that Sarton’s journals spoke to so many people who were not able to voice these feelings themselves.

Certainly, Dorothy Healy’s private grief was kept largely to herself.  She was known around Westbrook as a woman who would make you feel utterly at home and welcome; a woman who was charming, strong, and brilliant; a woman who did not let people know about her own illness until she could no longer hide it.  I read her letter to Sarton after the tragic death of her son and was amazed at how quickly she moved back into her role as lover of literature, curator of a literary collection, and supporter of women writers.  In the end, I found myself feeling sadness for Dorothy that she did not get a longer response from Sarton to such a private and heartfelt letter.  Sarton’s response was not unkind, and acknowledged Dorothy’s loss, but ended in an apologetic rush to move on to the next project for the day.  Their correspondence becomes warm and friendly over the years, offering evidence of how years deepen connections.

Also included in the Sarton papers are drafts of poems; photo albums from Sarton’s youth through her old age; and thousands of books from her library, many of which include inserted letters, clippings, and other memorabilia.  You can find out more about this collection in the finding aid on our featured writers page.