Jeannette Mirsky: In the Words of an Archivist

“In drawing on the letters and unpublished personal narratives, I have taken the liberty of letting the story run along without denoting ellipses; the pages filled with dots looked unseemly… I have utilized whatever books and articles would carry the story ahead fully and honestly and so obviated the repetitiousness of an archivist’s bibliography.”

-Jeannette Mirsky, from the Preface of Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer

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Last month I referred to Barnard alumna, author, and world traveler, Jeannette Mirsky, as “the coolest person I never heard of until last week.” Considering that her personal papers, recently acquired by the Barnard College Archives, remained unprocessed until this week, it is not surprising I had not encountered Mirsky previously. Last week I completed processing Jeannette Mirsky’s personal papers and reading her book, To the Arctic! Having spent so much time with her collection, and because there is so little information online about her, I found it fitting to pay her a brief tribute by sharing a few words about Mirsky and her work.

Jeannette Mirsky was born in New Jersey in 1903, and raised in New York City where she went on to earn her A.B. from Barnard College in 1924. From 1935-1938 Mirsky did graduate work at Columbia University, where she studied under Franz Boas and Margaret Mead. Mirsky’s academic records from this time and a notebook from a 1935 Anthropology course entitled “Social Organization,” are included among her papers.

As Mirsky embarked on her graduate studies, her inaugural book, To the North! was published. This time period is documented by extensive correspondence with publishers, manuscript drafts, and a collection of maps, illustrations, and photographs to be considered for inclusion in the publication. To the North! recounts the history of Arctic exploration, utilizing primary source materials to detail Arctic journeys in the words of the explorers themselves. To the North! begins: “Not so long ago there was a custom among sailors that accorded to all those who had sailed round Cape Horn the right to put one foot on the table after dinner, while those who had crossed the Arctic Circle could put both feet on the table. Here will be found the stories of those men who have both feet on the table, told whenever possible in their own words.”

Despite Mirksy’s extensive research and utilization of primary source documents, To the North! was controversial for largely discrediting Frederick Cook’s claims of discovering the North Pole. Mirsky wrote, “Cook was an extraordinary figure. It is impossible to dismiss him simply by calling him a liar. Rather it may be said that he was a great teller of stories, a fiction-writer who on a certain amount of fact built a vivid and absorbing yarn. For a man of his ability and experience he harbored too puissant an imagination…The story told in Cook’s My Attainment of the Pole is exciting and well written, but it nevertheless appears to be mainly fiction.”

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Jeannette Mirsky outside a bar

To the North! subsequently went out of print for a number of years due to a lawsuit by Cook, but was re-released in 1946 under the title, To the Arctic: The Story of Northern Exploration from the Earliest Times to the Present. In addition to English, the book has been published in German, Spanish, and French. Although the book is largely remembered for the controversy ignited by Mirsky’s assertion that it was Robert Peary, and not Frederick Cook who first reached the North Pole; the vast majority of To the North! is interested in what happened prior to the so-called attainment of the Pole. Near the end of the book, after devoting a chapter to the North Pole claims, Mirksy concedes: “It has been many years now since the Pole was reached, and viewing Peary’s exploit from such a vantage-point, it would seem fair to say that if any man were to reach the Pole, that man would be Peary…But like all deeds whose import is self-contained, it seems a strange goal on which to have lavished so much energy and planning and money. Like so many grand gestures, when seen in retrospect, it does not seem to matter greatly.”

 Mirsky expressed a lifelong interest in travel and exploration. Her personal papers are full of her research on explorers, letters and correspondence from around the world, and boxes of postcards and photographs documenting these pursuits. Her years of research culminated in a number of publications, which includes The Westward Crossings, The World of Eli Whitney, Elisha Kent Kane and the Seafaring Frontier, The Great Chinese Travelers: An Anthology, Houses of God, and Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer.

Prior to Barnard’s acquisition of Mirsky’s personal papers, the extent of our knowledge ended with her non-fiction and anthropological writings. It is my hope that with the availability of the Jeannette Mirsky collection that interest is sparked and a biographer of Jeannette Mirsky will emerge to tell her story, in her own words, just as she spent her life doing for others.

Written by: Heather Lember, Barnard College Archives Graduate Assistant

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New Collection from Eleanore Myers Jewett on Display in Lehman Hall

Eleanore Myers '12, circa 1911. From The Mortarboard 1912, p.191. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archive

The Barnard Archives has recently received from Jane Stickler an astounding collection of materials belonging to her mother Eleanore Myers Jewett (Class of 1912).  Four scrapbooks from Mrs. Jewett’s years at Barnard were donated in addition to an annotated 1912 Mortarboard, for which Mrs. Jewett served as the Editor-in-Chief, and first edition of her children’s novel Felicity Finds a Way. An exhibit featuring photographs from these scrapbooks and her personal copy of the Mortarboard is currently on display on the first floor of Lehman Hall.

As one can usually expect of a Barnard alumnae, Mrs. Jewett lived a rewarding and richly textured life. She used her gift of language not only to satisfy her own intellect but also to encourage young children to read.Her works are engaging and range from periods and places such as 12th century England to ancient Korea.

Born April 4, 1890 in New York City, Eleanore Myers Jewett was an ambitious, witty and prolific woman who had a strong sense of self and a healthy dose of mischievous humor. She was a superb storyteller and pushed herself to excel in higher education at a time when few women had the chance. She put her undergraduate degree in Medieval English to good use, having it serve as the basis of her creative and detailed historical fiction for children. A native New Yorker who wished to be as specific and accurate a writer as possible, Mrs. Jewett wrote about faraway lands such as Tibet, Korea, and Egypt only after research and discussions.

In 1908 she enrolled in Barnard College as a commuter student. There she grew into herself, taking advantage of the many opportunities and activities the school offered. She was well-liked by her classmates, evident due to her being named “best all-around,” “famous in the future,” and “cleverest” in the 1912 Mortarboard. During these formative years she always made the time to hone her craft: writing. She worked on the Barnard Bulletin and the Mortarboard as an editor.

In addition to spending long hours working on student publications, Jewett was a member of the Young Women’s Christian Association, the fraternity Kappa Kappa Gamma, and not only the Vice President of her sophomore class but President her senior year. She played a fairy in Comus and Borachio in Much Ado about Nothing. In the class of 1912 versus the class of 1913 Greek Games, she proved her versatility by placing first in both serious lyric and hurdles. Her verse must have had merit because in the Greek Games competition between the classes of 1911 and 1912 she won 2nd place.

After graduating from Barnard in 1912, Jewett matriculated at Columbia University’s School of Philosophy to earn a Masters in Medieval Comparative Literature in 1915. She remained in the city teaching English and History to 5th through 7th graders at Miss Jacob’s School until her marriage to Dr. Harvey Jewett whom she met while he was studying for his MD at Columbia University. Together they relocated to Canandaigua, New York where Dr. Jewett’s family had practiced medicine for three generations. Mrs. Jewett bore two daughters and raised them with her husband in upstate New York. In her completed questionnaire from the Alumnae Association, Eleanore Myers Jewett selected reading as her top favored leisure activity and emphasized her preference for books over magazines by crossing out the latter. An active member of her community, Jewett served on both the Library Board and the Board of Education.

She wrote both children’s novels and poetry. Her work was published by Viking Press and appeared in magazines such The Woman’s World (“Before You Came,” March 1920) and St. Nicholas Magazine (“Binkie and Bing,” 1921). Her writings were well-researched and engaging for readers of all ages because of her delightful prose that wove together exciting tales and likeable characters. In a review of her novel Told on the King’s Highway entitled “Some History, and Lighter Fare, for Young Readers,” The New York Times declared, “These tales of the Middle Ages are retold with sympathy and affection. […] The author has emphasized the romantic quality and touched her retellings with gracious fancy.” Her highest award was a 1947 Newberry Honor for The Hidden Treasure of Glaston. By the time she died at the age of 76 on March 30th, 1967, she had written over 10 children’s books in addition to an assortment of published short stories and poems.

Her voice and vitality are present in her collection.  Her sketches, poems and daily entries in her scrapbooks give us a glimpse into her collegiate life and the history of the college. Please visit the Barnard Archives located in 23 Lehman Hall or check out the display on the first floor to learn more about this amazing woman and the legacy she has left Barnard nearly a century after graduating.

Written by Caitlin Hamrin ’12