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Eric J. Johnson, The Ohio State University

“Making Mary: Maternal Shaping and the Construction of Childhood in the Mary Chrystie Archive

In the summer of 2003, Princeton’s Cotsen Children’s Library received a wonderful collection of over 100 personal letters and numerous journals and notebooks offering readers an intimate look at the daily life and character of Mary Chrystie, a young girl from a prominent New York family. Born on 23 March 1825, Mary was a precocious and lively child who throughout her life suffered from repeated attacks of tuberculosis, a disease that would eventually kill her at the age of seventeen while traveling through Europe with her family in spring 1842. Mary was an active and eager author, and Princeton’s archive of her writings includes short stories she wrote between the ages of seven and twelve; bible readings; hymns and prayers; poems; drawings of trees and houses; journal entries with detailed descriptions of family vacations, her pets, school lessons, and leisure activities; and letters written to a large number of friends and family members.
    While her writings reveal a charming, heart-felt, and intriguing child’s-eye-view of nineteenth-century life, they do not necessarily offer us an unadulterated look at Mary the child or Mary the author. Rather, her stories, journal entries, and letters bear tangible and visible evidence that—at least in part—they were guided, edited, and even proscribed from the moment Mary put down her pen. Although by necessity this paper will consider what Mary’s letters and journals tell us about her, my main focus will be on how the activities of Mary’s not-so-hidden editor—her mother, Frances Few Chrystie—reveal that Mary was not the only “author” of her own life.  Additionally, I will examine how after Mary’s death Frances became even more active in mediating her daughter’s writings, working tirelessly to make a coherent, lasting memory of Mary by collecting as many of her texts as possible in an effort to commemorate her life. The result of this product of cooperative “authorship”—the archive itself—represents a compelling monument to the life and afterlife of the relationship between one nineteenth-century American girl and her mother.

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