Introduction to Section I of the Pearson Diaries
By Mandy Blakeman
Working on reinterpreting Jonathan Pearson’s diary has been an incredibly rewarding experience as a student both of literature and of Union College; Pearson is a prominent figure in Union’s history, so diving into his life also meant diving into what defines Union. Pearson, as a student, tutor, professor, treasurer, and librarian devoted many years to develop the foundations of the college that we still stand on today, to his credit. I firstly found his commitment to such a detailed and lengthy diary impressive, but beyond that, I was struck by his dedication to Union itself, a spirit that, curiously, seems to carry through both Pearson and Union’s history. Pearson had a surprisingly long road to completing his education, through financial hardship in his family and personal mental health struggles. He tried school after school, until finding his place at Union in 1832. Union was, after all, created as a purposefully nondenominational school, meant to welcome all as brothers (and later sisters) seeking wisdom, or Minerva. This relatively open educational culture, unusual in the world of the Second Great Awakening, made room for men like Pearson to influence, shape, and adapt Union, from small involvements, such as the literary societies that preceded the modern fraternities, to an overhaul of the treasury accounts or the library records in his later positions. His example is inspiring to current students like myself, who can only hope to make such an impact on such a beloved place.
Pearson’s diary proved challenging in its rich history; many facts and figures that he writes about have been lost to history, leaving only fragments of information to piece together, such as the specific church groups he belonged to. The long-ago buildings and towns of central New Hampshire and the people that lived there that Pearson writes about were difficult to decipher, between his unique shorthand and a general lack of accurate record keeping. He mentions a Mary Ann—or M.A., Ma. Ann, Mary A. and M.A.P. at different points—that I could not discover the identity of in my relatively short time studying his writings. Certain documents, however, available through the Library of Congress, The New Hampshire Historical Society, and Union College Special Collections at Schaffer Library greatly helped me in my search to both verify and expand upon what Pearson writes; I was able to discover the event proceedings of a Pro-Jackson convention, the first of its kind, that took place in Pearson’s hometown, for instance. My discoveries, although all fascinating, paint a rather different picture of Pearson, light and dark, good and bad. Much of what he writes we would today consider questionable at best and inherently racist, sexist, and colonialist at worst, such as his rather prejudiced discussion of the Dutch people in Schenectady.
Why, then, do we continue to study Pearson and his work? Or more broadly, why seek to uncover the ugly parts of history as well as the glorified ones? One reason is perhaps Pearson’s diary serves as a lesson in critical thinking, allowing scholars the chance to study history for understanding of its influence rather than as a model of what is to come—the common saying goes “those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it”, and examining a complete view of historical fact is an important part of this idea. History can be quite contradictory, as it is challenging to examine the past while remaining true to modern standards of morality and accountability, despite the fact that past societies and cultures held the ideas of morality and accountability in vastly different regards. I, like many who study history and literature, must walk the fine line between acknowledging the merits of history without necessarily seeking to emulate it. That is the perspective I tried to capture in my commentary on Pearson’s diaries; what do I not understand during my own reading? What needs clarification? Why do I not understand it, and what can I make of that divide, if anything?
Publishing this book online using the Manifold platform prompted a unique conflict within me, as a student of English Literature. Much of what makes the Pearson diaries valuable is in their physical form, in the very letters that Pearson scratched into the pages almost 200 years ago, forming a personal and candid look into Jonathan Pearson as a person when put into conversation with his words. We choose to give up this physical component not without potential cost. I based all resources and annotations on the digitized form of Pearson’s Diary provided by Schaffer Library, and a rather imperfect one at that. The digital reading program of the diaries, known as Optical Character Recognition (OCR), had trouble reading the antiquated handwriting, leading to numerous mistakes and word omissions that I could correct only part of the time, and take my best guess at others. These are marked by *** in the text.
However, I believe that there are many merits to this online text, enough to convince me to tackle the project in the first place. It is likely that this book will reach many more readers than the published version from 2004, given its increased accessibility. Manifold is free for anyone to view this edition, therefore eliminating the barriers of cost and geographical location that are often very powerful influencers in the decision to read a book. I, and my fellow students, have worked hard to include interactive elements in the text for the reader’s convenience, taking advantage of the full power of the web and all that it has to offer; consider my interactive timeline, for instance, that allows a reader to order and contextualize the events of the diary with the larger happenings of the world in a convenient click-through format. The timeline includes relevant images that help to visualize the events, and it is linked within the diary at helpful points, so the reader can follow Pearson’s summary of the events and its larger outcome(s) without having to keep flipping back to a printed chronology. The edition does not stand alone, at least in the physical sense, but instead stands in conversation with the wealth of other resources we have included to expand a reader’s knowledge beyond just Pearson.
That then demands the much more broad question of how to study history and historical figures in a world that seeks to revise and digitize it. This question is much larger than just this text, so I’m not sure that I can do anything more than attempt a likely flawed and incomplete answer. Consider Dr. Eliphalet Nott, a contemporary of Pearson’s often mentioned in the diary and arguably the most famous president of Union College. While often hailed as a great man who led Union to notoriety as an institution, and immortalized through the Nott Memorial, Dr. Nott also had a contentious history with slavery, owning several slaves himself—and yet, as a student at Union, I have only heard talk of Nott’s greatness up to this point, indicating an overly glorified, and therefore incomplete, historical narrative. Life and history are one and the same in that the good, the bad, and the somewhere-in-between exist. However, we as a society have tended to ignore the bad, and most of the in-between area, in favor of a good, light, bright, and white history as a way to avoid most criticism of the status quo, as in the case of Dr. Nott, and on a lesser scale, Jonathan Pearson. The digital humanities, when used to study history, is helping to wake scholars up to this fact, and rightly so, but we cannot revert to only studying the bad for fear of a similarly limited historical view. Making this new kind of full spectrum history accessible to all who seek to study it through digital means is perhaps the first step in actually obtaining a complete view.