Special Collection

You Need to Come Look at This!: The Overbury Collection

Dickinson_p1 copy
Letter from Emily Dickinson. Image courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

We have a lot of stuff in the archives.  There’s often an overlap between trash and historically significant material culture, so anything that seems relevant to Barnard is carefully boxed, labeled, and stacked onto eight foot high rolling shelves.  Most collection items are unknown to the rest of the world, and linger only vaguely in the depths of the archivist’s mind until called into the forefront by a research request.  We have a gym uniform from the 1960s, at least fifteen copies of a poster for a pro-choice rally from the 1980s, a kinetic learning building block set (missing instructions and two pieces)*, two gold rimmed teacups, a stress-squeeze ball, and a nine-pin.  Among this junk on a shelf three rows from the back, there is the Overbury collection, a repository of female American writers’ manuscripts and letters.**  Purchasing and assembling the collection was the consuming, Herculean labor by which Bertha Van Riper Overbury’s (class of 1896) defined her life.  Overbury began to assemble her collection after reading an article in The Colophon called “Some Bookwomen of the Fifteenth Century”; it is a great love letter to the power, profundity, and charm of feminine imagination in an era when male writers like Ernest Hemingway were increasingly attempting to discredit female authors.  The collection retains Overbury’s original alphabetical filing system and her beautifully handwritten biographical cards that flank each authoress’ works.  While Overbury’s prose is overpowered by the strong voices she collected, her admiration and care for the writers is palpable in each meticulously foldered and bound artifact.  By playing the role of devoted collector and curator, Overbury inserted herself into the literary tradition she longed to be a part of.

Not many researchers use (or know about) the collection.  The Overbury Collection’s quiet, unacknowledged existence at the back of the Archives is almost as astounding as Ravenclaw’s diadem being found on a junky bust in the Room of Requirement or the Arkenstone being buried beneath Smaug’s hoard.  Bertha Overbury wasn’t buying Emily Dickinson’s doodles or Eudora Welty’s grocery lists; she was gathering a formidable, coherent portfolio pertinent to any critical interpretation of American intellectual life in the last two centuries.

In one letter from 1807, Abigail Adams writes to her sister on John Quincy’s pre-presidency diplomatic service in Russia:

“indeed, my dear sister, a man of his worth ought not to be permitted to leave the country….it has been the intolerant spirit of party which has induced him to accept this uniform, and the hope of being serviceable to his country, although reduced and vilified by the same intolerant faction.”

In another, Willa Cather discusses her views on modern poetry with William Braithwaite, an anthology editor and publisher:

“I wish I could be as enthusiastic about contemporary verse as you are.  While I was managing editor of McClures I did my best to seek it out, and if I remember, you agreed with me that some of it was good.  But it is one thing to see merit in a poem, another to feel great enthusiasm for it.  Enthusiasm I do not often rise to, about my own verse of that of my friends.  I wish I did.”

The collection also has a prototype of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” a letter from Harriet Beecher Stowe about dramatizing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” especially for the daughter of an escaped slave to read, and a selection of Gertrude Stein’s prolific correspondence that provides further evidence for a strong stylistic similarity between her literary efforts (consciously produced for posterity) and her personal letters.

Stuck between these well-known names are sheaves of material by forgotten authoresses, stifled by the cool dryness of manila folders and waiting patiently to be shared.  Though I am still in the process of re-discovering the collection, I have already forgotten pieces of it; I read a poem by a woman I did not know and wished that everyone could know her.  Then I forgot her name.

-Johana Godfrey, BC ’13

You should absolutely stop by the current archives exhibition on the Overbury Collection, located by the Admissions Office in Milbank Hall.  To view the Overbury Collection, please contact head archivist Shannon O’Neill.

*Anyone who discovers the missing blocks are encouraged to return them, for the sake of the research of future cultural anthropologists.
**There are also many rare books and first additions, but they’re in storage.