Archival Assignment II: Higginson’s Kansas Book

Archival Assignment II: Documents and Clippings in Higginson’s Kansas-Book

For my second archival assignment, I investigated another manuscript written by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a small (duodecimo) leather bound book, described in the Houghton library finding aids as the Kansas Book, 1856. My intention had been to explore the relationship between the ‘field-book’ genre and that of the travel diary. In my first archival assignment I had worked with the Henry Davis Minot collection, examining the genre of ‘field-notes’ in general, and had noticed that among Minot’s journals, written while he was travelling in Colorado, there were not only long passages of observations about his ‘natural’ environment, but also lists of bird-species and even attempts to categorize the kinds of bird-habitats he saw in Colorado: in other words, unsurprisingly, his travel-journals seemed to be doing the same work as his books dedicated solely  to classifying and observing his surroundings. Higginson’s Field-Book contains a number of discussions of travel within New England, but I wanted to examine his Kansas Book, written during his travels in the state in 1856 (during the “Bleeding Kansas” period)[1] in order to see whether his travel diary, like Minot’s, incorporated his forays into amateur natural history, and to explore how the two genres altered one another.

However, what I actually I found in the Kansas Book wasn’t really travel writing at all, and certainly not a travel diary in the manner of Minot’s Colorado journals. It also contains very few references to the “field” of Higginson’s environment. The Kansas Book contains occasional journal-entries, dated in the manner of the entries in the Field-Book, but most of the dated entries are extremely short and lacking detail. On the fourth page, for example, the first portion of text reads:

Left home Sept 1 | Reached Chicago Wd Sept. 3 Left Wdy| Spent Thursdy [illegible] Sept 4|Reached Mt. Pleasant Friday Morn Sept. 5| Reached   Cecil Bluffs Mndy near midnight Sept 8| Reached [illegible] Tuesdy Sept 9.

The dates here do not organize and delimit large portions of text as they do in the Field-Book, and comparison between the Field-Book’s use of dated passages and the Kansas Book’s short (almost perfunctory itinerary), has been useful in that the way it has reframed the ‘genre’ of the date. The date at the top of a journal entry like those in Higginson’s Field-Book has an organized capacity grounded in our expectation that there will be other days, and each day’s events will be treated distinctly from one another and in some detail.  The Kansas-Book does not even start out as a diary and strongest indicator of this is absence of detailed entries to accompany the dates. The dates here are not headers or titles, but merely part of the fragmentary prose.

D. F. Mckenzie has argued that a conducting a “sociology of texts” directs us “to consider the human motives and interactions which texts involve at every stage of their production, transmission, and consumption” (15): with this in mind, it is helpful to think about the different “motives” behind Higginson’s use of dates in the two texts, and more broadly to think about the motives behind his writing the Kansas Book. This question becomes more complicated if we refer back to Mckenzie’s condition that we consider these motives not just at the moment of the text’s production, but in its “transmission and consumption.”

To be clear, the literal meaning of the dates does not change across the two texts; rather, Higginson uses the dates differently in each case. I referred above to the organizational function of the dates in the Field Book, where they work a little like titles, framing distinct units of prose.  Another way to put this would to say that Higginson’s Field-Book conforms in part to the formal genre expectations of a reader.  As Lisa Gitelman argues, in her discussion of “documents,” a genre is “a mode of recognition” since genres “aren’t artifacts… they are ongoing and changeable practices of expression and reception” (2). Higginson’s Field-Book expects a certain kind of recognition on the part of the reader faced the journal-entries. Even if Higginson never imagined a literal reader for his work, his writing within the bounds of a discernible genre (I am thinking here of the dated journal-entries) conjures a reader into existence, one who recognises the text for what it is. In the case of the Kansas-Book, it is not only that the genre is different from that of the Field-Book, but rather that the reading experience is one of continual partial recognition as though we reading a text in which genre itself is unstable. Even the itinerary quoted above does not meet its own basic generic expectations: it does not continue past a certain date and the genre’s form-matter rule broken. That is to say, a key expectation of an itinerary (or, for that matter, a journal) is that time be seen to ‘progress’ forwards through the book: if I turn the pages ‘forwards’ I shouldn’t encounter any date prior to the last one I saw. However, one item nearest the back of the book is a list of expenses and supplies dated “Sept 17th” which is also the date of a note on the third page (the page prior to the itinerary describing the journey he took between September 1st and September 9th).

I don’t mean to suggest that the Kansas Book doesn’t have a genre at all; only that it resists “recognition”: it is made up largely of notes without context. There are not even page numbers (which Higginson used in Field-Book, suggesting that in that text he expected to be referring back to his own work). The notes include names and addresses of people he met in Kansas, (presumably so that he can stay in contact with them), as well as a few observations of the conflict and some brief references to places and people he saw. I think, roughly speaking, his “motives” in writing the Kansas Book, can be separated into two categories: first, he was probably taking notes for the newspaper articles he was writing for the New York Daily Tribune.[2]   Second, the book presented the easiest (and most secure) source of paper in his travelling and so he also used it to keep financial records. The first category of writing, then, is the draft or note and I am going to discuss this shortly in reference to a couple of newspaper clippings which have been included in the archive with the Kansas Book. The latter is a question of what Gitelman calls “documents.”

On the Kansas Book’s fourth page, there is a note written in ink in a hand that is not Higginson’s (and subsequently crossed in pencil): “certifying that T. W. Higginson has deposited in a safe a package containing $800.” The note is note dated at the top “Nebr. City Sept 17.” The note is effectively a hand-written deposit slip from the Nebraska City bank. It is utterly unlike anything written in the Field-Book, partly because it is written by someone other than Higginson, but mostly because it is completely instrumental. It is comparable to a “document” in Gitelman’s sense of that word. For Gitelman, documents are generally printed – they are the products of “job printing,” they usually involve organized blank spaces (to be filled in), and generally we don’t actually read them:

it should be clear that, as the instruments of innumerable petty bureaucracies, blank forms and other job printing, like paperwork generally, cannot inspire the sorts of readerly subjectivity that Poe—through Dupin—calls ‘identification’ and ‘identifying with.’ Indeed, who ever really reads receipts, bills, tickets, bonds, or certificates? Yes, there is writing printed on them, and filling in blanks requires attention to prompts, but their textual qualities have become “naturalized” through the social processes that have made them useful as the impersonal instruments they are, so that the printing on them ‘has seemed to disappear’ (30).

A document is an “impersonal instrument”: what this actually means for Gitelman is that we use it (as an instrument) rather than reading it. That the use of the term “instrument” should modify how we understand the “sociology of texts.” It is not only that, as Mckenzie would have it, we should pay attention to the “social realities” of texts and to the “motives and interactions which texts involve” (15), but we also should take note when the “social reality” appears to erase the need for reading altogether. A conventional deposit isn’t really read: it is filled in, but then its purpose is only really served when it is used (as it changes hands) in the interaction between the customer and the bank.

Of course, part of Gitelman’s argument applies especially to the nature of print: blank spaces, ready to be filled in by hand, are produced by print. What I am calling the “deposit slip” in the Kansas-Book serves as a notification of deposit (and as Higginson’s receipt), but isn’t actually a “slip”: that is to say, it isn’t actually a template printed for the purpose of being filled in. Rather, it is a handwritten claim, on a page like any other in the book. The fact that it is handwritten (when we might expect an official bank-receipt to be partially printed item) accounts for some of strangeness of taking this seriously as a bank document. However the strangeness is derived mostly from the fact that it is hand-written page in a book of other hand-written pages: in other words its immediate material context facilitates an alternative reading – one in which it loses its document-quality.  Gitleman points out that

documents familiarly are descendant of a long and varied tradition that forever entangles the material form of an expression with its linguistic meanings or incompletely distinguishes the two—confusing ‘the text’ and ‘the work,’ to put that more succinctly. So tickets, receipts, and business cards count as things at the same time that they count as subgenres of the document (3).

This is an important detail because Higginson’s deposit note is not a “thing.” It is, however, part of a “thing,” – the notebook itself – which, of course, cannot be identified as a deposit-slip. By inscribing the text of a deposit note in a notebook full of fragmentary travel notes, addresses and expenses lists, the writer has made it impossible for us to allow that elision of difference (which Gitelman identifies as a key trait of the document genre) between thing and genre.

Another effect of the note’s having been hand-written inside another text, is that it is not immediately recognizable: it looks just like the rest of the notebook. Gitelman argues that genre depends on “recognition that is collective, spontaneous, and dynamic” (2). Although this is part of her definition of genre in general, I think the reference to spontaneity is particularly important for the definition of the “document” as a genre. As noted above, the document is not really “read.” What I take Gitelman to mean here is that the document is not dwelt upon: we don’t stay with it or study its complexity (or even expect to find in it any complexity to speak of). A document is recognized as a document, not after we have pored over it or wondered about it. In fact the very act of poring over it is to treat it perhaps as something other than a document.

The fact that – on first seeing the deposit-note – I did not recognise it for what it was, is important: its location in the notebook facilitated my initial misreading of it as a note about Higginson’s experience in Kansas, when in fact a deposit slip is not really a text about anything at all.  It would be possible in fact to misread the note as part of a narrative. Paying attention to the date of the note – 17th Sept – we could associate it with the list of expenses at the back of the book also dated 17th Sept. We could use it to draw a picture of Higginson’s travelling in Nebraska in September before crossing into Kansas. The list includes blankets, clothes and tools and each item has beside it a name, presumably the names of other ‘Free-Staters,’ who, like Higginson, had travelled to Kansas to fight in the anti-slavery movement (there are even hotel bills on the list for “Lane’s men,” the soldiers fighting under the Free-State general, James Lane). We could imagine drawing from these pieces of evidence a picture of Higginson depositing his money possibly in order have to enough cash secure so as to later pay for these expenses. This account might be true, but it relies on treating the document as evidence, and requires us to pay attention not to its use as an instrument in an interaction, but to its date as the trace of a historical event. My point here is that to read it like this – like a historical trace – would be to treat it as though it were journal-entry: a journal-entry records events, facts or experiences partly so that they will be remembered. The receipt records an event not in order to remember it exactly but in order to prove the truth of it.

The deposit note also alters how I have been reading the relationships between other parts (and fragments) of the Kansas Book. Specifically, in a small pouch in the leather binding, there are three newspaper clippings. It is not clear when they were placed there or by whom, but I think it likely that at least one was cut out before Higginson’s trip to Kansas and possibly two of the others were cut out afterwards. The former is a portion of an article entitled “KANSAS OPENED”, and the article claims to be quoting at length from another piece published in the Tribune August 13th.  Of the two clippings which I think were taken afterwards, one, a character-sketch of “Gen. Lane,” is dated “Nebraska 18th Sept.,” while the other, a list of names and addresses, is not dated but ends with the note “N.B. These prisoners were arrested at various periods from Sept 10 to the day I was there. I took the names and residences from their own lips.” I think these two clippings were made afterwards because I think they were clipped from New-York Tribune articles written by Higginson himself and sent from Kansas to New York in September 1856.  Haven’t been able to find the articles themselves but in a Sept 17th Tribune article, which Ethan Kytle identifies as Higginson’s, there is a reference to “the arrest of the hundred about whom I wrote to you, as prisoners” (3.4). I think this must be a reference to the article from which the clipping containing the list of names and addresses was taken.

The notebook has been used then at some point in its history as location of clippings, although, unusually, the notebook actually contains draft-work which went towards to the production of the newspaper articles. There is for example, at one point in the book, a list of names and addresses and almost identical with the list printed on the newspaper clipping. Ellen Garvey describes scrapbooking – the process of pasting newspaper clippings into a book – as a fundamentally creative action: “As they saved printed matter and arranged it in ways that expressed their own ideas, they created value from their reading for themselves and their communities” (4). The recontextulization of a clipping produces knowledge and expresses the clipper’s ideas.  In the case of the Kansas-book, this is complicated by the fact that at least one of these articles was written by the author of the notebook: the clipping is not given a new context by being included in the Kansas-Book, so much as its original context: we can see in a comparison between the printed list and the written list, a few differences: a couple of names are missing from the printed list for example. The clipping has not been made to help remember a piece of information, but so that the scrap-booker (Higginson or someone after him) could check something: it is possible Higginson was checking to see whether the list was printed accurately and whether the transmission process had worked. In other words, though it isn’t exactly what Garvey had in mind, I think we can see the use of clippings here as a sub-category of the nineteenth-century culture of scrapbooking.

The clipped article entitled “KANSAS OPENED” can also be read as useful context some of the Kansas-Book’s notes. The article describes the natural beauty and resources of Kansas, in order to convince settlers to move to the state, referring, for example, to the “abundance of good land, fine timber and excellent water.” At one point in his notes, Higginson refers to a camping trip, commenting that he “camped near Ind. village, a pleasant place with plenty of wood so we had a great fire.” The reference to there being “plenty of wood” is not a direct reference to the image of “abundance” in the clipping; it is, however, a result of Higginson’s immersion – while travelling to and in Kansas – in the culture of expansionist cornucopia: he sees the landscape in the West in terms of its quantity and utility (as plenty), in part because that is how the West was being sold, in articles like the one he chose to clip and keep. By reading the written anecdote and the clipping together, we get a sense of the values of a certain “community” (that of the settlers and travellers to the West), and so one aim, at least, of the scrapbook is achieved.

It’s also important to point out that by reading the written account and the printed clipping together, I am (to some degree) responsible scrapbooking them: that is, I am insisting on the presence of a meaning in a relationship between the two texts, printed and written. The reader is responsible for the scrapbook’s status just as much as the scrapbook-maker, since the interpretive work of the reader involves choosing which scraps to read together, just as a scrapbooker might choose which pieces to physically juxtapose against one another. However, there are limits to this interpretive work and – I would argue – to the capacity of the scrapbook to absorb disparate texts. This limit becomes visible when reading a “document” like the deposit-note. The note has been given an interpretive context in the web of notes and texts that makes up the Kansas-Book, but it hasn’t actually been scrapbooked: it hasn’t been included in the notebook in order to express or memorialize an idea – and its use (as a document, as a receipt) is not dependent on its being interpreted as part of the notebook. In fact it functions as a document only so long as it is distinguishable from the rest of the notebook, as something unlike the other entries. This is why there is something so odd in encountering the receipt as part of the notebook – it feels as though its validity should be compromised by its visual (and material) similarity and its continuity with the rest of the book. In this way the document is a kind of limit case for the scrapbook: not just any kind of text can be assimilated and recontextualized among the other genres. Or to put it another, when we do try to assimilate it to the web of texts, noting its relations to the other items with same date, it loses its document-status.

Examining the Kansas-Book has been useful in my study of Higginson’s Field-Book, largely in that it contrast with the Field-Book’s appearance and format. The Field-Book claims to be a book of potential drafts, from which Higginson will extract passages to revise for publication. The Kansas-book by contrast is a book of notes. As I mentioned earlier, he used it in order to draft writing he would then send to be printed in the Tribune, but, unlike his draft-work in the Field-Book, there are very few extended pieces of prose in the Kansas-Book: it is mostly made up of fragments which seems to have been written in a very early stage of the drafting process.  For example at the bottom of one page, he writes:

First day Topeka. Little girl play’g with

sheath of a bowie knife + boy cryng because

brother took away chain with a pistol attached


On the opposite page, he has written:

            Child  Sundy school – faster to get up a tree

Kimbell child plays with sheath. Capt Walker’s

Little girl 5 yrs old denies his being at home


Potatoes $2 bushel. Lawrence


Indian mounds [illegible]

First child born in Lawrence in prison


There appear across these to be two separate accounts of a child playing with the sheath of a knife: it isn’t clear, but it is possible, that they are actually two accounts of the same event – maybe one is even a deliberate rewriting, as Higginson works out what to include in his next article. This kind of fragmentary writing in which the relationship between the different lines is ambiguous never appears in the Field-Book, which seems to me – after having read the Kansas-Book to be quite polished, not really a book of notes at all.

Notes like those above force us to read the Kansas-Book not as a work-in-itself, but as a combination of partial works, fragments which could be built up into independent works. These notes can function, a little like the deposit-note, to remind us that not all webs of text operate like scrapbooks or commonplace books: the purpose of including “potatoes $2 bushel Lawrence” on the same page as the anecdote about the child born in the Lawrence prison is probably not to reinterpret the price of potatoes or to produce any new hybrid idea out of the two fragments.

In fact to read the Kansas-Book, we have to give up the desire for a complete whole. The Field-Book can be thought as a ‘whole’ (as having a kind work-unity) because though it is comprised of different kinds of writing, of different genres and formats, it functions like a scrapbook: the relationship between the different kinds of writing is always clear. Practically speaking, Higginson’s writing about the birds he wants to observe on the one hand, and on the other hand, his review of a book about birds of New England, are related in obvious ways and each one might subtly alter how we read the other; but there are no juxtaposition like that in the Kansas-Book between ‘utility’-information (like the price of potatoes), and the observations of events (like the birth of a child). Juxtapositions like these force us to read the Kansas-Book as, in essence, fragmentary.



Garvey, Ellen Gruber. Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil

War to the Harlem Renaissance. Oxford and New York: OUP, 2013.

Gitelman, Lisa. Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham

and London: Duke University Press, 2014.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. — “Kansas: Manners and Customs of the Border

Ruffians.” New-York daily tribune. (New-York [N.Y.]), 17 Oct. 1856. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

——Thomas Wentworth Higginson Papers (MS Am 1162-1162.9). Houghton

Library, Harvard University.

Kytle, Ethan. J. “From Body Reform to Reforming the Body Politic:

Transcendentalism and the Militant Antislavery Career of Thomas Wentworth

Higginson,” American Nineteenth Century History, 8:3, 325-350, DOI:


Mckenzie, D. F. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. Cambridge and New York:

CUP, 2004.

[1] Ethan J. Kytle has described Higginson’s decision  to travel to Kansas in the context of his growing abolitionism: “Collecting money and purchasing supplies (including Sharp’s rifles) for the Massachusetts Kansas Aid Committee, which supported the emigration of abolitionists and Free Soilers to the Kansas territory, Higginson travelled to what became known as ‘Bleeding Kansas’ in the fall” (332).

[2] Kytle has noted that Higginson was the author of several articles on Kansas in The New York Daily Tribune. He identifies an article from the 17th October 1856 entitled “Kansas” as written by Higginson, and another from the Tribune of the October 9th 1856, which I have not been able to locate in the Chronicling America archive.

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