Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

Podcasts as Pedagogy, AHA 2020

I participated in a panel on teaching with podcasts at the 2020 annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York. You can read more about the assignment at Teaching US History, where I wrote about it in some depth a few years ago, and check out the actual assignment sheet here in case you’d like to adapt the project for your own classes. You can also read a thread of tweets from the panel starting here:

Chapter 2 skeleton 1212017

Lately I’ve been really struggling with my choice not to finish my book manuscript after I made the choice to leave academia. I couldn’t have finished it, not really. For one thing, I didn’t have the money to support the rest of the research I needed to do to make it the book I wanted. But it also just hurt too much to finish a book for a community that I felt had rejected me. Their desire to have that book actually made it worse.

I’m still not going to finish it, at least not in the form I had initially intended. Since I left academia, I have worked on a proposal for a different kind of book, a memoir for a trade press, only to have that adventure fall through. I am getting very good at trying to write books and failing, which is why I’m not desperate to find a way to write my Jane book, in any form. It’s so hard and so expensive and it takes so much from you.

And yet, I’ve been struggling with this choice that wasn’t really a choice. Some of it, I’m sure, comes from the fact that I have a wonderful job designing and giving educational programs at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford. I have a job that lets me use my PhD in ways I never could have hoped for. But it also means I spend every day talking about the same things I wanted to write about. It means I’m deeply aware that people would jump at the chance to publish a book centering Clemens that touched on the same things I was exploring with Jane, and that no one would find that book lacking because it used one person’s life and network as its lens.

So I decided to put this out there. It’s the first 11 pages of a really messy draft of what I thought would be Chapter 2 of my manuscript, with the original file name. I’ve included all of the comments, the parentheticals, the tentative strikeouts. If you think it would be instructive, you can even compare it to Chapter 2 of my dissertation and see what’s pulled from there and what’s new.  The date on it–December 1, 2017–is about a month before I got the rejection that closed the door on full-time academic work for me. It’s a preliminary draft, and two years out of date as well. While I doubt anyone would want to cite it, for those reasons and others, if you do, please ask me first.

I love this material and I still find myself thinking about it. I just couldn’t keep it to myself anymore.

Chapter 2 skeleton 1212017

What do the people who teach college get paid?

You may have run across a spreadsheet collecting salary information for adjuncts, full-time NTTs, and tenure-track faculty. If it’s this spreadsheet, then it was started by me, and I’m the one who’s maintaining it. It began to track the salaries of adjunct and full-time NTT faculty, but has recently expanded to include salaries for tenure-track faculty. I will eventually add a sheet for grad student pay, but since I have to do a lot of tidying-up and outright repair to the spreadsheet as people add more information, I’m going to wait till the TT rush is over.

I am not the first person to do this. The Adjunct Project was compiling this information when I was a grad student. The Chronicle of Higher Education provides a database that is current through 2017-2018. I know that some of this information is publicly available if you work at a state institution, but it’s often several years out of date, and having been one of the people whose information was included in one of those databases, I can tell you it’s often not accurate.

Moreover, none of this information is presented in a way that lets you see the complexities and read comparatively without having specific places or fields you want to compare. And the sleek, professional databases provided by AAUP and the like sure as hell don’t include comments from workers right alongside their salary info.

Lots of people have asked why I’m not recording this or that, or why I haven’t cleaned up certain information that’s been put in, or why I don’t just have people send me their info so I can input it and make sure it’s clean. To get that last point out of the way–this isn’t my job, and it’s already time consuming enough cleaning up the mess that thousands of people can make in a crowd-sourced spreadsheet, setting aside the lack of standardization across institutions that messes with the data.

But in general, I didn’t design the spreadsheet to be used as a data source for those in academia to precisely analyze pay disparities across rank, field, and location. I hoped that, when it was sufficiently full, it might be a good thing to show students and parents, to show them a little bit of the financial, emotional, and geographical realities of college teaching and maybe even prompt them to ask some questions about how colleges—and state governments—are spending money and compensating employees. That’s why I’m not recording things that are mainly of interest to people in academia and aren’t really important to those “on the outside.”

It’s not the definitive data set, nor is it intended to be. It provides enough pay transparency for people who teach and work in colleges to know what’s what. But for the most part, it’s a spreadsheet that’s good enough to illustrate some of the things I think are important for people to know about how college teaching works.


No More Little Match Girl Stories

A drawing of a girl wrapped in a cloak crouching in the snow. She is having a vision of a Christmas tree.

An image from Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy tales and stories, 1900.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Little Match-Girl,” an unnamed girl struggles to sell matches on a snowy street. Having sold nothing at the end of the day, and desperate to avoid her father’s wrath at home, she lights each of her matches, one by one, to stay warm. As she slowly freezes to death, she envisions a warm house, a full kitchen, a twinkling Christmas tree, and her loving grandmother. Passers-by finally notice her in the morning; they realize she was trying to warm herself with her matches, but they can’t know of her beautiful visions. Only we, the readers, can know–and only in retrospect.

This story is all I could think of when I read Adam Harris’ recent piece in the Atlantic. Thea Hunter lighting her matches, sharing that light with her students and colleagues, researching and writing and building entire worlds in her brilliant mind, and all the while she suffered, only to be noticed after her death by passing crowds unaware of the richness of her life. Harris has made Hunter’s life–especially her inner life–legible to us. Where Andersen did so to assure us that the little match girl was safe and happy in heaven, Harris’ motivations are far more earthly: to highlight “the human cost of higher education.”1

There is so much that is good and important about Harris’ story that I was wary of saying anything about it. I was wary of even reading it, as I know many adjuncts were. His story of Hunter’s life is thoughtfully researched and beautifully written. He tells the story of a scholar I wish I’d known. I am glad to know of Thea Hunter’s life, and to join with so many others in bearing witness to that life and the injustice of her death. But I have mixed feelings on seeing more stories like it. It is not that I think her life and death aren’t worth knowing about. I do. And I am not afraid to confront the awful realities of her experience and the broader issue it represents. Quite the opposite. But I feel uneasy about the “historical” nature of the genre itself, and the way some people–especially people in higher ed–engage with stories like this one, the focus on one person’s life and death allowing them to cling to the barest slip of personal and historical distance from an ongoing problem, even as they sigh and say “something should really be done.”

Nearly six years ago, the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko led to headlines like “The Sad Death of an Adjunct Professor Sparks a Labor Debate.” That headline was untrue in two regards. The debate was nothing new in academic circles, though how much you participated in or ignored the debate had a lot to do with where you stood in those circles and how much you benefited from adjunct labor.  But more problematically, Vojtko’s death did not “spark” any real labor debate among those outside higher ed–even if it did, in some places, it didn’t lead to any measure of change except that which has been forced on institutions by activist adjunct workers themselves.

Here we are, in 2019, reading another tragic story of an adjunct’s life and death, and things have only gotten worse. We’re in late-stage adjunctification. I haven’t seen adjuncts who hold out hope that Hunter’s story will do what Votjko’s didn’t. They know.

But if things have gotten worse, maybe we just need more of these stories? Perhaps the accumulation of these stories in the public’s consciousness could lead to a tipping point where we’ll see some change? Setting aside that having one of these stories “break through” every few years isn’t much of an accumulation, I’d argue that we have no evidence that this is the case.2

Even if it is the case, I don’t want to wait for that to approach to work. And I still struggle with the idea of this genre, not because these lives are are unimportant or unworthy of notice, but because they’re worthy of so much more.

Harris’ approach is reminiscent of the way many historians approach their research and make their arguments. Hunter’s life is a rich source for understanding the lived experience of thousands of contingent faculty members across the U.S. in the early 21st century. That’s a framing you’d expect in the introduction to a historical monograph written fifty years from now. But she’s not some distant historical figure. She is our contemporary, one of our colleagues. We didn’t have to wait till she was gone to hear her story, and even then, only in the form of a historical retelling. Thea Hunter was telling it all along, through her life and in her own voice.

“The human cost” of adjunct labor includes the loss of physical and mental health, financial, social, and geographical stability, and emotional well-being. The costs accrue over time, but their effects are felt in real time, rippling out to colleagues, students, and even institutions, whether they want to admit it or not. Harris makes it clear that Hunter hustled as hard as she could, making tough decisions in a system that was crumbling all around her. Her colleagues knew some of this, and they tried to help sometimes, but neither they nor Hunter herself could fix a system that was doing exactly what it was designed to do. The human cost to Hunter was significant well before her death.

The things that make Hunter and Vojtko such good and representative “sources” for the study of contingent academic labor after their deaths–age, gender, and in Hunter’s case, race–are the same things that facilitated their entanglement in an exploitative system that ignored their voices. As Harris makes clear, even her “successes” required her to “[fly] against a current,” enduring questions about her expertise and assumptions that she was part of the maintenance staff. The particulars of Hunter’s struggle were unique to her, but while they may not always have been visible, the general shape of her struggle, the arc of her academic life and death, were there for all to see–if they were willing to see.

Harris did a service in sharing Hunter’s story with a broader public. He illuminated the life of a brilliant and collegial scholar and teacher and the brutal system that was happy to exploit her as long as it could. But, to paraphrase a friend, adjuncts shouldn’t have to die for their stories to be told. Their stories shouldn’t have to be told in other people’s words, after their deaths, in order to be heard. That stories like Hunter’s can only be this powerful precisely when they’re too late to effect change for their subjects tells us as much about this labor system and its miseries as the stories themselves do.

The little match girl had been struggling every night before the one Andersen shares with his readers. Her struggles were just as important and significant and painful before she died. Even if a passer-by had seen her, and helped her out, she’d still have had to go out in the cold the next day, along with all the other little match girls. The people who finally saw her in death, Andersen tells us, could not fully understand her experiences. If we only recognize the human cost of adjunct labor when the cost is as high as it was for Thea Hunter, it’s not because we cannot see it. It is because we refuse to see it until it is “in the past,” where we can’t be held responsible for fixing it.

So You’re Leaving Academia

In the academic world, ’tis the season for announcements: new jobs, postdocs, fellowships, and promotions. This means it’s also the time of year when many scholars are beginning their departure from that same world. Some may have been planning that departure for months, or even years, while for others it’s more like Wile E. Coyote’s realization that he’s run out of cliff.

First things first: if you’re leaving, and you feel sad or angry or spiteful or jealous or ashamed or tired or all of these emotions at the same time, you have every right to feel those feelings for as long as you want. You may have already felt all of these things and now you’re just done. You may feel them months from now, or years from now. Or you may never feel them. You may just feel relief, excitement, and joy. All of these responses are just fine.

Since I’ve spent the last year writing about leaving academia, I’ve gathered it all here in one place, along with all of the responses I’ve seen. Anyone leaving academia, or thinking about it, may find something useful in this collection. I ended up expressing a lot of grief (and other emotions) in public, and I heard from a lot of people that it was helpful to read and hear someone else express the feelings they had been struggling to process or even those they’d been bottling up for years.

Lots of this writing is about the practical issues of leaving academia and some of the emotions that surface in that process, so you may find some of it useful as you move through the process.

You may also want to share some of these pieces with friends, family, mentors, and colleagues, now or some time in the future.

My writing on this topic began with the piece I wrote in February 2018, which emphasizes some of the emotional aspects of the decision; there was also a follow-up blog post that addressed the questions and responses I’d received. I talked about it more extensively with the Chronicle and a couple of podcasts.

In addition to having conversations on Twitter, Facebook, and quite a few comment sections, quite a few people responded to my initial piece in more structured forms: articles, blog posts, videos, and podcasts. Some contested my argument, some considered it from the perspective of those in other disciplines, and some talked about it as it related to other pieces of “quit-lit.” Many were from the perspective of other early-career scholars, often precarious, though there were some tenure-track and tenured voices in there as well. Most of these pieces agreed with some of what I said, but not all, and there was a great diversity of views on what it all meant – or if it even meant anything at all.

I have also written a series of pieces for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Advice section. Whether the title suggests the piece is for those leaving academia or those staying, you can be sure that each piece addresses both audiences to some extent.

And then, if you’re in that stage where you’re not sure if you should stay or go, I don’t really have any good advice on it, but I wrote a bit about why lots of the simple, straightforward advice you might receive won’t necessarily help you make your decision.

Contingent Magazine

Many of you have been wondering what I’m up to. Surely I couldn’t just be adjuncting one class and tweeting about my dissertation research! Well, in addition to that, and job-hunting, I’ve been working on something else for months, and now it is finally live.

Contingent Magazine has three principles:

History is for everyone.

Every way of doing history is worthwhile.

Historians should be paid for their work.

Based on these three principles, the magazine will pay for and publish high-quality history writing. That writing will be by those whom the academic job market has left behind. It will be for those that academic publishing and mainstream media alike often dismiss as possible audiences for historical writing.

I’ve been working with Bill Black, Marc Reyes, and Emily Esten for months on this project. We are hoping for financial support from a general public thirsty for historical understanding, but also from those within academia who know the talent and expertise that has been lost due to the collapse of the job market. We’re very proud of the concept we’ve put together. If we raise the money to fund this magazine – which largely means paying the writers – then it will happen. And I really hope it happens.

September in Jane’s World

A month ago, I decided to start tweeting out lines from my dissertation research, one for each day of the year. Many of the bits I’ve chosen were never referenced in the dissertation or any of my published work; they’re just evocative or amusing lines. Some are sentences that have stuck with me since I first read them.

Revisiting this material has been enjoyable and painful in equal measures. I could weave a brief historical narrative based on every sentence I’ve selected or tell a fascinating story about every person mentioned. I don’t know that I’ll ever publish the book I intended to write using this research, but even if I did, I wouldn’t get to write about every interesting life and event I discovered. That’s just the way historical research and writing work.

But all of these sentences, and the letters they’re from, were important in helping me understand who these people were and what their lives were like. I got to know all of these people really well, or at least as well as a historian ever can, and it has been nice to visit them again.

Here’s everything that happened in September, with a key to the people, archives, and books referenced.



Teaching and learning when you’re “locked out”

Becky Nicolaides’ recent piece in Perspectives on being a scholar who is “locked out” of research access is a must-read.  Rather than simply contrasting those with university affiliations and those without, she draws on a 2017 AHA study to explore a variety of experiences that will resonate with many of us who have spent time at institutions where access has been insufficient or inconsistent.

One line caught my eye:

Some lamented that their students could not access key primary sources, limiting their ability to produce research papers.

This is something I struggled with at the small private university where I taught as a VAP for three years. While the institution had some good database access, it largely wasn’t in the field that I taught. As much as I loved having students work with early American newspapers and pamphlets, it became significantly harder to do when I couldn’t have students use Readex or APS. 1)Yes, I know there are other online newspaper collections, and I used them at times, but I think it’s okay to say that Chronicling America isn’t a replacement for Readex. Oh, for those long discarded Shaw Shoemaker microfilm reels!

When we talk about universal design in teaching, we mean that our institutions, courses, and assignments should be accessible and usable to the greatest number of people right out of the box, to so speak. In practice, many of us still create courses and assignments without regard to this and then change things in order to make them usable for students with disabilities. Moving from a state R1 to a small private university with far fewer institutional resources made me go through a similar process in order for my courses and assignments to be “usable.” Some assignments had to be reworked while others just had to be discarded.

Now you may disagree with my analogy here, or think that it’s comparing apples and oranges. I think many (but nowhere near all) faculty members would admit that it’s bad to ignore the principles of universal design in your courses and assignments. But different schools have different resources, right? That’s to be expected and therefore it’s perfectly fine to make those adjustments depending on where you’re teaching.

I suppose it is fine, to an extent, but I think we should consider what it means for how we think about and talk about pedagogy.

To put it bluntly, I think it’s all too easy to equate well-resourced pedagogy with rigorous pedagogy. This matters because it frustrates many instructors whose institutions lack resources or who are barred from using those resources as a result of their employment status. But it also matters because it can lead us to unthinkingly expect and draw on our students’ personal resources.2)For the purposes of this discussion, when I say “resources” I’m talking about financial resources. Issues of cultural capital are important and they’re often related to these other resource issues, but I’m bracketing them off here in a way that I hope isn’t too problematic. I also know that simply attending an institution of higher education means that most of our students have some financial resources, but I think we all know that being able to take out student loans or get scholarships doesn’t mean that students have ready money to buy their books every fall.

A few years ago, when I had students in my women’s history class create digital commonplace books, I would have loved for them to build websites using the university’s infrastructure and resources. Other universities have prioritized making sure each student can have a domain of their own. That’s really cool. But I couldn’t even get space as a faculty member, let alone space for my students, so we built them all as free WordPress blogs and made do with the features we had.  When I hit an institutional resource barrier, I knew I couldn’t shift it, so I changed course.

But I still had students struggle with the project because they lacked consistent internet at home. I know what the response is here: “But they have access through the school! There are computer labs!” There are computer labs. But they still required students be on campus to use them, and more than that, there weren’t enough of them to allow students to work on the projects when they had available time. Many students who lacked consistent internet at home also worked 30+ hours a week; simply telling them they could loiter in the library all night waiting for an open computer was not only not going to work, it was insulting.

My institution was quick to confirm that it didn’t provide the resources for my students to create their own website, but even had I asked, I doubt it would have admitted that it didn’t provide sufficient computer resources for the needs of the student body. As such, while I knew that some of my students might have trouble completing the project using their home internet, I thought institutional and personal resources in combination would be sufficient. It was only when some students told me that they were having trouble, and in the process revealed financial insecurity they had every right to keep private from me, that I realized how under-resourced the project still was.

Some might argue that the “solution” here was to not attempt something that required internet access. Setting aside how ludicrous that would sound to many, it’s really unfair that I should have to consider such a thing for my students. I wasn’t just making it digital because that was cool. I had sound pedagogical reasons for this project being digital and public, and I think my students deserved to have the opportunity to work on this kind of project and gain these digital skills, even though the project was far less flashy than what many of my colleagues can do with their students.

I could have done it without the digital component. Maybe I should have. It wouldn’t have allowed students to practice quite the same set of skills, but it still would have been a good project that made use of rigorous historical thinking.  But would it have read as interesting, cool, and impressive pedagogy to search committee members who think they prioritize that sort of thing? I’m not sure. We might say that we assess rigor based on the historical thinking that’s done, not the format in which its done, but I think we all know that’s not completely true. And for better or worse, how those “above” me assess my pedagogy matters, even if I their measures are poor.

But it goes beyond technology. This is the time of year that I see lots of colleagues on Twitter posting photos of the cool pile of books they’ve assigned for their fall classes. They’re always full of new and interesting books, challenging stuff that will give students a lot to think about.

I could never in a million years get away with assigning a pile of books like that.

I don’t say this because many of my students work full time jobs and reading academic monographs takes time they don’t have, though that might often be the case. I say this because there is no possible way most of my students could afford to buy those books, even heavily used. I say this because by putting those books on the syllabus, I’m inviting those students to do one of three things: buy none of the books and do none of the reading, buy a few books and do some of the reading, or buy all of them and sacrifice God knows what else in their life to do so. None of these choices would lead to good outcomes for the student or the class in general.3)If your suggestion is that 25 students can ILL all of those books and get them all to arrive at precisely the right time to read them, I’d love to know how I can come live in your fantasy land because it sounds pretty sweet.

I don’t think I sacrifice rigor by considering my students’ personal resources when designing a class any more than I do by considering my institution’s resources. In many ways, I’ve found it forces me to think hard about what exactly I want my students to learn and consider how much stuff is really necessary for them to learn it productively. I also know that many faculty members, deans, and even parents would look at my syllabus and look at one containing 8 nifty monographs and conclude that my class was inherently less rigorous.4)I know that many of my colleagues who assign these 8 nifty monographs are precisely NOT the kind of people who’d think my class was less rigorous.

Just as rigor shouldn’t be based on how technologically-advanced an assignment is, it shouldn’t be based on how much it makes students read. By tacitly equating well-resourced courses and assignments – or courses and assignments that presume and expect institutional and personal resources can be brought to bear – with academic rigor, we can sometimes shift pedagogical conversations away from the thorny and still-unclear business of how to teach historical thinking.

I think it’s perfectly fine to think about how to do an existing assignment in a more clever way or want to introduce your students to the most current and innovative scholarship on a topic. I think I try to do both of those things in my own courses. But I think we need to make sure we aren’t simply throwing more resources at the problem, so to speak, or worse, asking our students to do so.5)If you want to have an argument about how students shouldn’t be in school if they can’t afford to spend some (more) money on their education, you can escort yourself right out.

I guess I want to end with some questions, though I don’t claim to be the first person to ask them.  What ideas and methods are at the core of how we teach historical thinking? How do we talk about teaching and learning in a system shot through with institutional and social inequities? How do we equitably compare and assess methods and assignments in light of these inequities? What would our pedagogy look like if we placed a higher priority on making sure that it was always accessible to those who lack access to further financial resources? If it’s not there, and if we can’t get it to that place, is it any good?





1. Yes, I know there are other online newspaper collections, and I used them at times, but I think it’s okay to say that Chronicling America isn’t a replacement for Readex. Oh, for those long discarded Shaw Shoemaker microfilm reels!
2. For the purposes of this discussion, when I say “resources” I’m talking about financial resources. Issues of cultural capital are important and they’re often related to these other resource issues, but I’m bracketing them off here in a way that I hope isn’t too problematic. I also know that simply attending an institution of higher education means that most of our students have some financial resources, but I think we all know that being able to take out student loans or get scholarships doesn’t mean that students have ready money to buy their books every fall.
3. If your suggestion is that 25 students can ILL all of those books and get them all to arrive at precisely the right time to read them, I’d love to know how I can come live in your fantasy land because it sounds pretty sweet.
4. I know that many of my colleagues who assign these 8 nifty monographs are precisely NOT the kind of people who’d think my class was less rigorous.
5. If you want to have an argument about how students shouldn’t be in school if they can’t afford to spend some (more) money on their education, you can escort yourself right out.

The Best That Could Happen: Suicide and Suffering under a Benevolent God

TW for extensive discussions of mental illness and suicide

A few notes to start. I originally presented this at the July 2018 SHEAR conference in Cleveland, which means that while it is deeply-considered and deeply-sourced, it is also something that had to be read in 20 minutes or less. It was also written to both make an argument and provoke conversation about that argument, not simply to be provocative, but because those kinds of conversations help us, as scholars, make our work better. This is all to say that there’s much more to this story, and to the argument I was making, and there are dozens of threads to be pulled in here. I have no idea if I’ll ever have the chance to weave them into something bigger than this, but I’m glad I got to tell this story. 

Three other things: I created a (hopefully) helpful family tree of the Sedgwicks and Minots discussed in the paper which you can find here. The Massachusetts Historical Society has this pretty complete listing of Theodore Sedgwick and three generations of his descendants (click on “Appendix” in the table of contents), and you can see how most of them have all been laid out in the famous Sedgwick Pie, the family burial plot in Stockbridge, MA. Also, I am not attempting to retroactively diagnose the people I’m analyzing in this paper; when I use terms like “depression,”  “mania,” and “insanity,” I am using the words and understandings that the physicians and family members used in their writing at the time. And finally, thanks to Greg Wiker for putting together our panel, to him and Leah Richier for speaking on it with me, to Dea Boster for chairing, to Becky Noel and Jeff Mullins for their comments, and to Mike Mortimer for live tweeting the panel, which you can read here.

In the spring of 1841, Charles Sedgwick awaited word of his son Charlie’s safe arrival in Liverpool. He hoped that the activity of the voyage would provide Charlie some relief from the severe depression he had experienced over the past eighteen months. Word arrived on April 21st. Charlie had died by his own hand.

In the days and weeks that followed, Charles expressed resigned gratitude that his son was at peace, but also argued that the manner of Charlie’s death was as much a merciful act of Providence as his death itself. How could a man like this – a New England elite and liberal (if unaffiliated) Protestant – express these beliefs about mental illness and suicide at a moment of such faith in human progress, when many physicians believed they could treat and even cure mental illness?

I argue that he drew on contemporary ideas about a benevolent God and the meaning of human suffering to come to terms with a tragedy that, in his eyes, demonstrated the continued failure of mankind to treat and cure the kind of mental illness his family had endured for three generations.

Born in 1791, Charles was fifty years old when his son died. Over those same fifty years, historians chart a distinct change in the way physicians treated mental illness in Europe and the United States. Condemning their predecessors’ methods as cruel, European physicians like William Tuke argued for “moral treatment.” Under the proper supervision of a doctor, in a healing environment, with their passions and appetites diverted and regulated, those with mental illness could be treated and even cured.[1]

An increasingly-professionalized community of physicians in the United States asserted similar claims, and many politicians and social reformers believed them. In the late 18th century, Benjamin Rush and others urged the creation of separate wards for the treatment of those with mental illness, though they continued using older treatments like bloodletting.[2] McLean Hospital, opened in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1818, was the first of several private asylums which put moral treatment into full practice, expanding into state asylums in the 1840s.[3]

But by the time of his son’s illness, Charles Sedgwick had reason to doubt these heroic claims. Both his mother and brother had been treated by physicians using moral treatment which had not only failed to cure them but seemed to have made their mental illness worse before their premature deaths. Charles did not reject the principles of moral treatment, but he was willing to reject the expertise of its professional advocates.

In the fall of 1839, Charles received a letter from William Minot, the brother of his sister-in-law Jane. 17-year-old Charlie, just beginning his junior year at Harvard, was “ill at his house of a nervous fever.” Despite William’s reassurance, Charles departed for Boston that day, and arrived to find that Charlie had been steadily improving.[4]

Despite positive contemporaneous accounts of Charlie’s recovery, a lifetime of experience meant the family was immediately on guard for evidence of mental illness.

Charles’ mother Pamela had experienced her first episode of mental illness on the eve of his birth in 1791. For years, her husband Theodore asserted that his wife’s “episodes” were caused by overwork and could be treated by hiring more domestic staff.[5] Her half-brother, a doctor, believed it was a “disorder of the blood,” not the brain.”[6]

When Charles’ brother Harry began exhibiting similar symptoms in 1826, his family members initially wrote it off as his extravagant personality made more irritable by periodic blindness.[7] It took two years for the family to fully accept this was something more and seek treatment.

In the wake of Harry’s illness, some of the Sedgwicks acknowledged this might be hereditary. But many things were hereditary, and the Sedgwicks believed this particular tendency could be counteracted by what amounted to proactive moral treatment, described by  Theodore Sedgwick II in a letter to his son as: “conduct regulated by wisdom & far removed from all extravagant hopes, fears, phantasies” and the maintenance of a “sound mind in a sound body,” since “bodily illness brings on insanity.”[8]

Charlie may have been “fast getting into as quiet a state as the Sedgwicks ever are,” but that wasn’t saying much. Charles was concerned that his son’s illness might catalyze something worse in his Sedgwick mind.[9]

His subsequent decisions demonstrate that he still believed in the principles of moral treatment but was no longer willing to place his faith – and his son’s life – in the hands of its professional practitioners.

His mother’s treatments at the turn of the century reflected early attempts at moral treatment in the United States. Theodore Sedgwick placed his wife under the care of doctors who practiced bloodletting and kept her separated her from her family – as far as 150 miles away – to calm her mania. Each period of treatment sent Pamela home “much improved,” though the improvement never lasted. When Charles was 12, these treatments stopped, and his mother died four years later in 1807.[10]

Twenty years later, when confronted with their brother Harry’s periods of mania and depression, the siblings considered placing him under the care of doctors, who now advocated moral treatment in dedicated asylums, but their mother’s experience made them skittish.

In December 1828, Catharine stated that doctors might be able to help her brother, but knew his wife opposed it. Harry himself had “most solemnly warned her against ever putting him into the hands of a ‘mad Doctor’ & in his sane moments he expressed great horror of sending patients to the hospital.” He made the source of his fear abundantly clear to his wife: “they served my mother & if you do it Jane you will repent it forever & forever!”[11]

Yet less than a month later, Jane and Charles brought Harry to McLean where he was placed under the care of Rufus Wyman. Wyman’s moral treatment again included keeping Harry completely separated from his family for nearly a year, save two visits from his oldest brother, to settle his alternately “exalted” and “depressed” passions.[12]

Instead, Harry became a “most violent maniac,” and by December 1829, the family deeply regretted what they had done.[13] Catharine wrote that “the thought of his confinement has become an intolerable burden to me – it seems like imprisonment – an infliction in which we have part.”[14]

Jane removed her husband to Eli Todd’s Hartford Retreat, founded in 1824, where he experienced a “moral treatment” more to his liking, including chess with Todd and visits from his family.[15] He was released home five weeks later in a calmer state.[16] Over the next year and a half, however, his illness gradually returned. He slipped into a coma in the fall of 1831 and died two days before Christmas.[17]

This background helps us understand both Charles’ familiarity with the principles of moral treatment and his deep skepticism of its practitioners’ methods and optimism.

He consulted Samuel Woodward, the head of the Worcester Asylum, James Jackson, the first physician of Massachusetts General and founder of McLean, and Walter Channing, Jackson’s assistant and a close family friend. All agreed that there was no cause for alarm over Charlie’s illness, and only Woodward suggested keeping him out of school, though not for the whole term.[18]

These doctors were not only “experts,” they were fellow elites and friends, but though they assured Charles this was as an isolated incident, he could not accept their conclusions.

Charlie did not return to Cambridge that term, or ever. Charles put his choice down to being a “fidgety and anxious person” himself, but he was not alone; “the nerves of the whole family [were] on the outside” about Charlie.[19] His reason may have returned easily this time, but his father was unwilling to take chances.

Charles accepted physician’s beliefs on the causes of mental illness and the basic tenets of moral treatment, but he never placed his son in their care. Instead, Charlie remained at home, engaging in regular physical exercise and a sedate course of study, reading Greek and history.[20]

It’s not difficult to imagine that an elite family believed they could provide a healing environment for one of their own, but equally important is their experience with family separation as a part of moral treatment.

Pamela Sedgwick attributed her distress to her husband’s absence and was then subjected to treatment that mandated further separation from her family. Harry begged his family not to place him in a hospital, but they did anyway. When his wife finally came to see him at Hartford, he screamed at her for leaving him isolated in such places for so long.[21]

In the wake of Harry’s death, Charles wrote to his brother Robert: “It was a sad error to permit him to go into that solitude unattended by some friend.”[22] Moral treatment may have been fine on principle, but the practice of family separation had only brought pain to the Sedgwicks, and they rejected it for Charlie.

By May 1840, Charles was cautiously optimistic about his son’s recovery, and Charlie went to New York to work in the law offices of a cousin, but like his uncle and grandmother, Charlie slipped into depression again and returned home to Lenox.[23] He spent the fall with his extended family in New York, and his younger sister Bessie reported to her father in December that he was “out of sorts but not so weak or fearful as at Lenox,” and the older women of the family agreed: “Aunt Lizzy considered him perfectly recovered and Aunt Susan confirms her in that opinion.” Even the homeopathist favored by some of the city Sedgwicks found Charlie’s sluggish circulations “to be now in perfection.”[24]

And yet again, Charles Sedgwick did not trust the doctor’s assurances, nor those of his sisters-in-law and daughter. Within a month of these letters, Charlie was preparing to set off on the packet to Liverpool, with this father’s full support.[25]

The family was hopeful that occupation would help Charlie, but they were worried too. Catharine seemed concerned that this wouldn’t cure her nephew, but Charles reassured her that if it didn’t, they could always try again.[26] Charlie’s mother seemed deeply concerned for his safety on the voyage, but his older sister Kate was worried for what came after.

In a letter to her father marking Charlie’s birthday on April 5th, she said she was “more anxious for him after he leaves the ship, loses the sphere of necessary exertion, & has time again to brood over himself, to extend the cloud of the past over the future.”[27] They had taken a chance in treating him themselves, and in sending Charlie away alone, they took an even greater chance. Charles regretted sending his brother into solitude, but had he made the same mistake with his son?

Kate’s fear was ultimately borne out. As Catharine later reported: “Captain Delano wrote that [Charlie] was cheerful during the greater part of the voyage, active and useful to him. The day before their arrival he took to his bed and said he had a bad fit of dyspepsia. It was with difficulty that Capt. D. persuaded him to leave the ship and go with him to his hotel — he was in the deepest dejection. The next day he was found dead in his bed with an empty phial of laudanum beside him.”[28] He had not lived to see the birthday his sister had commemorated in his absence.

The morning after receiving the news that his oldest son had died, Charles wrote to Catharine: “He is at rest, poor boy, and I am not unthankful…I assure you, after much reflection, that the loss is not aggravated by the manner of his death. I think there is as much reason to believe that that was a merciful dispensation of Providence, as there is to think that God ever interferes in the affairs of men by any special interposition whatever…

Charlie has been taken from the evil to come — mercifully taken from sufferings which human skill could not remove, which the watchful affection of earthly friends could not alleviate.”[29]

He elaborated on this point in a letter to Susan: “I am glad that my dear boy is at rest. I fear that some of my friends have fancied that there were some ingredients mixed in this bitter cup that have increased its bitterness — but I have not tasted them. If he had no choice, God has in mercy taken him from the evil to come.”[30]

We see this theme further elaborated in the regret Charles did express: “I was impatient of Charlie’s weakness, intolerant when his disease was upon him. The experience of seventeen and a half years…ought to have satisfied me that disease had wrought the change in him, and that he had no greater power of will than the dead.”[31]

The doctor who performed a post-mortem declared of Charlie’s brain: “Neither time, nor care, nor art could have restored the organ.” In light of this, Charles spoke even more emphatically about his son’s suicide: “I am so satisfied with Charley’s change in his mode of being that I cannot murmur or repine — so fully convinced that suffering awaited him here, that I am thankful.”[32]

In these reflections, we see how his family’s decades-long experience with doctor-supervised moral treatment formed the basis of three “truths” from which Charles Sedgwick formulated suicide as a blessing: that human skill could not cure Charlie’s suffering, that the love of his family could not alleviate it, and that Charlie himself had no control over it. These three truths then combined with one more, a truth that Charles would not abandon, even in his sorrow: that his God was a benevolent and merciful God.

Elizabeth Clark outlines emerging ideas of pain and suffering in the antebellum period that proceeded from new understandings of God as benevolent, rather than punitive. Liberal Protestants distinguished “unavoidable” pain brought on by illness from “avoidable” pain which stemmed from the violence in hierarchical relationships.[33]

Even as this perspective downplayed the importance of suffering in personal moral growth, the idea of gazing upon and entering into the suffering of others led white abolitionists to use the image of the suffering slave – the victim of punitive, avoidable pain in an immoral hierarchical relationship – to “call forth deep sympathy,” in William Ellery Channing’s words.[34]

Pain caused by typhoid fever was unavoidable, pain suffered in enslavement was avoidable, but how was the suffering caused by mental illness categorize in an age when doctors vowed they could treat and even cure it? In his letters after Charlie’s death, Charles repeatedly used the phrase “the evil to come.” He spoke from experience, believing that his child’s suffering would continue and increase with no natural foreseeable end. He believed his son’s pain was not only unavoidable but also unendurable.

Given what he had seen his mother and brother endure, he was confident that neither doctors nor family members nor Charlie himself could cure or alleviate his suffering. We also must consider that Charlie’s own lack of control is what made his suffering particularly unendurable in his father’s eyes.

While the suffering endured by an enslaved black woman who could not consent might be greedily lapped up by northern white audiences seeking to use it as fuel for their moral growth, could a young white man be expected endure such suffering and objectification in which “he had no choice?”[35]

Charles Sedgwick believed his benevolent God would move Charlie’s hand to end his own life before demanding he live it in suffering he could not avoid and should not have to endure.

A little over a year before his initial illness, Charles wrote to his son: “my dear boy, do not commit the unpardonable sin of denying that God has created us for happiness.”

In an age of boundless faith in the ability of humans to make the world better, Charles watched three generations of his family endure mental illness that could not be cured and suffering that could not be alleviated.

He did not lose faith in human skill, but until it had advanced to the point that it could bring his son back to happiness – for a young white man like Charlie, something inseparable from reason and agency – he was willing to leave it to the mysterious workings of Providence. Whatever Charles Sedgwick’s benevolent God decided was, in his words, “the best that could happen.”

[1] Mary-Margaret Mahoney, “Books as Medicine: A History of the Use of Reading to Treat the Self and Its Diseases in the Anglophone World, 1800-1940” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Connecticut, 2018), Ch 1.

[2] Richard Bell, We Shall Be No More: Suicide and Self-Government in the Newly United States (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2012), 251.

[3] Bell, 104-5.

[4] Letters from Charles Sedgwick to His Family and Friends, ed. Catharine Maria Sedgwick (Boston: Privately Printed, 1870), 141-2.

[5] Life and Letters of Catharine M. Sedgwick, ed. Mary E. Dewey (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1872), 27-8.

[6] John Sedgwick, In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness & Desire in an American Family (HarperCollins: New York, 2007), 108.

[7] Letter, Catharine Maria Sedgwick to Frances Sedgwick Watson, January 21, 1828, box 80, folder 2, Sedgwick Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society; Letter, CMS to FSW, February 8, 1828, box 80, folder 2, SFP, MHS.

[8] Sedgwick, In My Blood, 195-6, also LLCS, 27-8

[9] LCS, 142.

[10] Richard E. Welch, “Theodore Sedgwick (1746-1813): Federalist” (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1952), 616-9; Timothy Kenslea, The Sedgwicks in Love: Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage in the Early Republic (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2006), 21-8.

[11] Letter, CMS to FSW, December 27 1828, box 80, folder 2, SFP, MHS.

[12] Sedgwick, In My Blood, 191; Rufus Wyman, A discourse on mental philosophy as connected with mental disease: delivered before the Massachusetts Medical Society, June 2, 1830 (Boston: From the Office of the Daily Advertiser, 1830), 18.

[13] Sedgwick, In My Blood, 191.

[14] Letter, CMS to Louisa Davis Minot, December 13, 1829, box 80, folder 3, SFP, MHS

[15] Sedgwick, In My Blood, 192-3.

[16] William Minot to Jane Minot Sedgwick I, May 27, 1830, box 27, folder 4, SFP, MHS

[17] Sedgwick, In My Blood 193-5.

[18] LCS, 141-2.

[19] LCS, 142.

[20] LCS, 136-7.

[21] Sedgwick, In my Blood, 193-4

[22] LCS, 66.

[23] Proceedings at the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Graduation of the Class of 1841 at Harvard University (Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1892), 75.

[24] Elizabeth Dwight Sedgwick to Charles Sedgwick, December 20, 1840, box 7, folder 7, Charles Sedgwick Papers, MHS.

[25] LCS, 142-3.

[26] LCS, 145.

[27] Katharine Maria Sedgwick to CS, April 5, 1841, box 4, folder 22, CSP, MHS.

[28] LCS, 145-6.

[29] LCS, 146-7

[30] LCS, 148.

[31] LCS, 147.

[32] LCS, 149.

[33] Elizabeth B. Clark, “”The Sacred Rights of the Weak”: Pain, Sympathy, and the Culture of Individual Rights in Antebellum America” Journal of American History 82, no. 2 (September 1995): 471-3.

[34] Clark, 476-8.

[35] See Saidiya V. Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

“…then I should most decidedly prefer the existence of slavery”

This is a portion of a letter dated January 2, 1845, from Herbert O’Sullivan, the younger brother of John L. O’Sullivan, to his friend Jane Minot Sedgwick II, whose life I researched for my dissertation. Herbert was in New York, and was writing to Jane while she was teaching at Harriet Randolph Hackley’s school for girls in Norfolk, Virginia.  It is one of the best things I found during my dissertation research and I’ve taught with it many times. It’s certainly good evidence of white women’s engagement in politics and the mansplaining they received in response,  but more importantly, it’s one man’s rationale for the continuation of chattel slavery expressed in clear, brutal terms.

So you are not gratified at the election of Polk, because you suppose it will have a bad effect on slavery.  By the by, don’t express any abolitionist sentiments in Norfolk.  I should become very much affected if I were to read in the newspaper of your having been tarred and feathered; or rather, as men only would probably be [illeg.] with that suit, of you being incarcerated from the charge of you exciting sedition, and aiding and abetting the escape of slaves, like our New England heroine at Louisville, of whom I suppose you have heard.  I suppose you don’t see much at Norfolk to shock your delicate feelings; though from feeding upon the pure mountain air of Berkshire they are perhaps somewhat fastidious.

Slavery as it appears in the towns at any rate is, I think, by no means the awful bugbear that it is made to work upon the sympathies of northern abolition audiences.  The slaves in Norfolk, for instance, are well clothed and fed, very kindly treated, and quite intelligent.  In fact it seems to me that if the present state of society is to continue, and some of us are to live in luxury, while others are to work hard in laborious and menial offices, that it is much better for the happiness of all that there be a class to take the latter place who shall be brought up from infancy to habits of submission and respect, and be prevented from learning anything that may make them discontented.  Our country is now thinly populated, and not for many years can we expect to have at the north any very frightful amounts of pauperism, but if the rules that govern society are such that, when every acre here teems as every acre in England does, we are to have an immense throng of hungry proletarians crying aloud not for bread only, but frankly totally unable to purchase for themselves anything besides the hardest  necessities, and often starving to death, then I should most decidedly prefer the existence of slavery.  Perhaps my hypothesis is wrong, and we are never to be reduced to that extremity.

This letter can be found in the Sedgwick Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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