Madeira Mondays: An analysis of Tracy K. Smith’s ‘Declaration’

To mark the 4th of July, I’ll be spending the next couple of ‘Madeira Mondays’ looking at various artistic responses to the Declaration of Independence. Some incredibly powerful and serious artworks, some quite lighthearted and silly.

For international readers, the 4th of July is an annual American holiday celebrated to mark the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was a document signed by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776, in which the 13 American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. “(T)hese United Colonies are, and of right ought to be Free and Independent States,” the document reads. It also explains why they are declaring their independence, listing out the colonists’ grievances with King George III (they list his ‘abuses and usurpations’ in a basically bullet point list format: ‘He has done THIS wrong and also THIS and, oh wait, THIS too!’). This document was mailed to the King who was, understandably, not happy about it and the Revolutionary War kicked off in earnest (there had already been some smaller battles). If the Americans had lost the war for independence, those that signed the Declaration would certainly have been executed for treason. But, as you know, history went another way!

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The famous painting ‘Declaration of Independence’ (1819) by John Trumbull, accessed via Wikipedia

It’s a beautifully written document (you can read a transcription of it here) and is widely viewed as a sort of mission statement for American democracy. Its author, Thomas Jefferson, wrote some famous and enduring phrases in it such as:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It’s a powerful declaration of not just American rights but also human rights. Yet, whose rights were we talking about here? The 18th century was a time when women had few rights. They were basically, legally, their husband’s property (they obviously couldn’t do things like vote but they also had no control over their finances, their bodies, their children etc.). It was also a time when Africans – women, men and children – were forcibly being kidnapped and sold into bondage to labor on the American continent. I’m talking of course about American slavery, the institution with effects and impact that we can see throughout American history (from the American Civil War, through to segregation and Jim Crow) and are still seeing today (through mass incarceration and urgent calls for criminal justice system reform).

But slavery was an issue on the American founders’ minds too and contrary to popular belief, many of them did know that it was wrong. Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration, called slavery a ‘moral depravity’ and a ‘hideous blot’, while also benefiting from the institution and enslaving more than 600 people over the course of his life. Others, like my personal favorite of America’s founders (for various reasons) John Adams from Massachusetts, was vehemently anti-slavery and never kept any enslaved servants on principal. Yet it would take a civil war the following century, as well as the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, to officially end it.

Slavery was (and is) part of the American story and it remains a great irony that the men who wrote so eloquently about liberty and freedom in the Declaration were, themselves, keeping other people enslaved. It’s this topic which is taken up in former U.S Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith‘s poem ‘Declaration’.

You can read and listen to the poem here.

‘Declaration’ is an erasure poem. An erasure poem takes a preexisting text and makes a poem by erasing or removing words from it. In this case, Smith takes the Declaration of Independence as her starting point and erases words until a new poem is left. As you read her poem, you can quite clearly see what it is evoking: slavery.

There are several reasons why ‘Declaration’ works so well. Firstly, the form itself. Erasure poetry is by its nature a bit radical and iconoclastic because you’re hacking away at an existing document and making something new. It’s rebellious, just like the Declaration itself. Yet it’s also about erasing things, removing them from sight, which is exactly what the founders did with slavery, which is never mentioned in the Declaration. Jefferson had written a passage about it, basically blaming the institution on the King, but it was struck out, Jefferson claimed, at the insistence of other southern colonies. So it isn’t there. Smith’s poem inverts this original erasure, turning Jefferson’s words against themselves so that the poem now focuses on slavery and the original intent of the document (about the white male colonists’ grievances with the King) has been erased.

The poem also changes the meaning of the pronoun ‘he’. In the original document, this ‘he’ referred to King George III (e.g ‘He has obstructed the Administration of Justice…’). But now this ‘he’ is more nebulous and tough to pin down: he could now be white slavers, but also America, generally, or the institution of slavery personified.

Another reason it’s so powerful is the use of frequent ’em’ dashes (those are the longer dashes), which is the only punctuation that Smith seems to have added (although you could think about all the white space as a kind of punctuation). The em dashes seem to indicate where the phrase continues in the original document but words have been removed e.g. ‘He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.’ from the original becomes ‘he has plundered our-/ravaged our-/destroyed the lives of our-‘ in Smith’s poem. In addition to reminding us that this is an erasure poem and words have been removed, all those dashes, also suggest, to me, that in some ways these crimes remain unspeakable. The phrase: ‘Taken away our’, followed by an em dash, is an example of this. Taken away our…what? Our lives? Our spirits? Our humanity? The reader is forced to fill in that awful blank.

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Photo I took in December 2017 at Magnolia Plantation, South Carolina, of a slave cabin on the site

The poem ends on one of these dashes and it’s quite significant, I think, that the final two words are: ‘to bear’. This suggests to me several meanings. Firstly, enslaved people forced to bear (or carry or pick up) tools, but also to bear children, perhaps (sexual violence against enslaved women was pervasive). Yet it also suggests that people are still ‘bear(ing)’ the legacy of slavery now. The poem isn’t finished (there is no end stop), which suggests that the effects of slavery aren’t finished either. It is something that we as a nation must ‘bear’ too.

Smith’s poem cleverly subverts a document which, by its very nature, erased the lives of many. Her words, instead, foreground and express their suffering, while at the time time suggesting that this suffering is inexpressible. It’s a powerful poem and one that reminds me how poetry can change the way that we look at our history and our world.

Let me know what you thought of the poem. Had you read it before? What did you notice about it? Next week, we’re looking a very different artistic response to the Declaration of Independence. Hint: It’s a movie. Any guesses?

Recommended Further Reading:

PS Today’s Featured Image is of an 1823 facsimile of the Declaration, and accessed via Wikipedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Thomas Jefferson, James Hemings and French Cooking

Thomas Jefferson is known for several things.

He is considered one of America’s ‘Founding Fathers’ and is probably most famous for writing The Declaration of Independence in 1776, a list of grievances that the American colonies sent to King George III which kicked off the American Revolution.  He’s also been in the press recently as Monticello, his home (which is now a museum and research center), grapples with how to represent the more uncomfortable truths about Jefferson’s life: namely that he kept hundreds of slaves (despite expressing a belief that slavery was morally repugnant) and fathered several children with an enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings.

So, he was a complicated man. And an endlessly interesting one.

I was actually fortunate enough to live at Monticello for a month in 2016 as a visiting research fellow while I was working on my PhD. During that time, I got to know Jefferson pretty well. And one of the most interesting aspects of his life that very few people know about is that he was a major foodie. This guy LOVED his wine and his culinary experimentation; he tried growing all kinds of things at his home in Virginia.  So it is no surprise that when he went to France in 1784, as an Ambassador of the new United States of America, he was keen that one of his slaves, James Hemings, go with him and be trained up as a French chef. So Jefferson and Hemings struck a bargain. If Hemings learned how to become a French chef in Paris and returned to Virginia to teach another slave the skills of French cookery, then Jefferson would free him. Hemings agreed.

This story, of James Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, their intertwined lives and culinary journeys, forms the basis of Thomas J. Craughwell‘s book Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America

book cover

It’s a fascinating story and Craughwell’s short, entertaining book covers their time in France as well as their return to the early Republic, when Jefferson became President and attempted to introduce French cuisine to the United States. Some of the foods that Jefferson and Hemings brought back included things we consider staples now, like macaroni and cheese and ice cream. Although they can’t be solely credited with introducing these to America, these foods certainly weren’t popular at the time, so Hemings and Jefferson were some of the first.

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Photo taken in the kitchens at Monticello in Virginia

One of the best things about Craughwell’s book is its informal, highly-readable style, from a non-fiction author who apparently wrote about many different historical subjects (from President Lincoln to Urban Legends). It’s an easy and accessible overview for those who aren’t too familiar with the time period. As someone who studies this period, I also learned some new things too, namely about the origins of modern French cooking (good and simple sauces, fresh ingredients sourced daily) and how its emphasis on simplicity was actually a reaction to the excesses of the Court of Versailles.

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From The Georgian House, recreated 18th century townhouse where I volunteer in Edinburgh

But as a whole the book felt a little too short and superficial. I wanted more description of the food James learned to prepare in Paris, and more about James in general as a person. Craughwell isn’t a historian and he does acknowledge that it’s difficult to find information about James, who did become a chef de cuisine, a master of French cooking, in Paris and was eventually freed by Jefferson. His story has a tragic end however: he committed suicide while drinking at the age of just 36.

Of course it’s significantly harder to learn about James’ character than about Jefferson. Jefferson was a U.S President and a wealthy white landowner who left an enormous amount of documents behind him: things he bought, letters he wrote, etc. James was born into slavery and although he ended up being free and self-employed as a cook in Baltimore, his life is, understandably, much harder to trace. I talk about this in my post about Juan San Malo from New Orleans, but it is a challenge trying to uncover the lives of those like James who don’t leave behind the paper trail of men like Jefferson.

Yet perhaps more information about how other French chefs were trained at the time in Paris (What their daily rituals were like? What sort of recipes they were learning?) would have given more insight into James’ situation. This would have been a good way to bulk out the James sections and wouldn’t have required gaining more information about him specifically. I just felt that there wasn’t enough about his life, or enough about the food he made, honestly. A lot of it focused on Jefferson’s life and his family, which is fine but there are other books which cover this and in much greater depth. With this book, I wanted to learn about French cooking and James Hemings.

That being said, Craughwell has clearly hit on a fascinating story and if you’re looking for a fun and fast-paced read about food and Early American history, then this wouldn’t be a bad one to choose. I’m a sucker for stories about food and am of the firm belief that someone should make a movie about James and his culinary adventures in Paris, his complicated relationship with Jefferson, his bringing French cuisine to America etc. It’s an interesting and unusual story. So get cracking, Hollywood!

Recommended Further Reading/Watching

The Featured Image of today’s post is a still-life painting with oysters and wine from Flemish painter Peter Jacob Horemans, c. 1769, accessed via the Wikipedia Commons.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Runaway Slaves in 18th Century Louisiana

New Orleans is one of my favorite cities in the world to visit. Not only is it jam packed with delicious, flavorful food and music on every corner, there is also such a rich history there. Just have a stroll around the French Quarter and you’ll be able to see (and taste!) aspects of the many different cultures that shaped this unique city: Spanish, Afro-Caribbean, French, Anglo-American and Creole. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind place and I was lucky enough to go back there, for the first time in about ten years, for a family holiday this winter.

While we were there, I paid a visit to the Cabildo, a building that was once the colonial Spanish city hall but is now the home of the Louisiana State History Museum.

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The Louisiana State Museum: The Cabildo

We went in for the afternoon and while there were lots of interesting things to see – including a whole exhibition on the battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 and its memory in pop culture – the exhibition that really stuck with me was was called: Le Kèr Creole (The Creole Heart): Runaway Slaves, Music, and Memory in Louisiana.

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The exhibition at The Cabildo

This is a multimedia exhibition featuring paintings, lithographs, and songs, alongside historical artifacts such as maps and period documents. It follows the story of a man called Juan San Malo, the leader of a runaway slave community in 1780s. But what really struck me was the format of the exhibition, which the museum describes as ‘a conversation between tradition and innovation.’ It’s part of an ongoing series apparently called In Dialogue, which features both traditional history documents (maps etc.) but also contemporary responses to those documents.

I liked this approach for several reasons. For one thing, men like Juan San Malo are usually left out of the traditional historical record. Even if we could find mention of him or runaway men like him, in perhaps letters, diaries, or newspaper ads from the time looking for runaway slaves, these documents would most likely have been authored by wealthy white landowning men, not by San Malo himself.

Also, San Malo was a Creole speaker. (Louisiana Creole was a francophone language created by enslaved Africans who lived on plantations in the region). By featuring many Creole songs in the exhibition, it tells San Malo’s story not only in his own language, but in a rare and endangered language of the area. The songs we hear are like an oral history of the region, an alternative history of New Orleans.

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One of the striking pieces of art featured at the exhibition: Morning Mist in Colony Maron, by Francis X. Pavy, 2017. I am not a visual artist, so this description means little to me, but this piece is described as ‘augmented photographic lithophane in carved acrylic’. All I know is that lithophanes are backlit and several pieces like this were part of the exhibition. I liked the use of shadow, given how little we know about Juan San Malo.

One of the historical artifacts that I especially liked seeing was the ‘diatonic accordion.’ I learned that apparently German immigrants brought accordions to Louisiana and, in the early 20th century, the instrument was adopted by Creole and Cajun musicians.

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German accordion from 1850

Another striking feature of the exhibition was the large altar in the center of it, where you could place offerings or write in a book about ‘a dream of freedom’. This was a fitting element, considering that San Malo, who created one of the largest runaway slave settlements in North America and was eventually hung by Spanish officials, seems to be something of a folk hero and even a saint, who people memorialized and turned to for strength. Words from a Creole song ‘Ourra St. Malo’ (Dirge for San Malo) can be read on the walls nearby.

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The altar in the center of the exhibition

One of the only things that I wished was different about the exhibition is that I wanted to know a bit more about the significance of the altar and how altars fit into Creole customs, because I know that Catholicism had a big influence in New Orleans (but maybe there was that information and I just missed it!). The only other thing that I wished was different was that I simply wanted more of the whole exhibition, as it was really just one room. But there is plenty to see in that room! I left feeling like I had learned something new about 18th century New Orleans and also with many ideas about how history can be communicated to the public, not just with maps and period documents, but with modern art and songs too. I thought about how this exhibition is not simply about one man’s life, but rather about the history of a language. A language which, in itself, IS history. Basically, it gave me a lot to think about! If you are in New Orleans, I would encourage a visit and do let me know what you think of it too.

‘Le Kèr Creole (The Creole Heart): Runaway Slaves, Music, and Memory in Louisiana’ runs until May 10, 2020 at The Cabildo.

Madeira Mondays is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Mistress by Chet’la Sebree

Who was Sally Hemings?

One short, and incomplete, answer is that she was Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved mistress, with whom he fathered several children. But of course Sally Hemings was much more than that one fact. As it says on the website for Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, she was a ‘Daughter, mother, sister, aunt. Inherited as property. Seamstress. World traveler. Enslaved woman…Liberator. Mystery.’ The page goes on to describe her as ‘one of the most famous-and least known-African American women in US history’.

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Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello in Virginia. Taken during my fellowship there in 2016.

Although I’d heard her name before, I first learned about Sally’s story during my residential fellowship at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello three years ago. When I was living there in Summer 2016, they had not yet set up the new exhibition displaying some of Hemings’ artifacts, in what would have been her living quarters, but I still learned about her through the Slavery at Monticello Tour and even more so through another fellow who was also living at Monticello at the time: author Chet’la Sebree.

Chet’la was at Monticello researching a collection of poetry inspired by Sally’s life. Chet’la’s work would imaginatively explore and grapple with Sally’s internal struggles and deliberations, her loves and losses, the complex nature of her relationship with Jefferson. In doing so, these poems would imbue this often missing or maligned historical figure with something of the multi-dimensional humanity the real, historical Sally had in life. The poems that Chet’la was working on would eventually become part of her debut collection, Mistress, released last month from New Issues Press.

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Having just finished reading Mistress, I can recommend it for several reasons (and not just because Chet’la is a friend!). Firstly, this book really brings to life the internal and external world of Sally Hemings. It is absolutely crackling with vivid historical details that evoke the lost, material world that Sally lived in. In ‘Dusky Sally, February 1817’, the persona of Sally reflects:

In star-latticed sky, I hear my niece’s cries, feel my mother’s hand on

my fire-warm face, smell the lavender she used in her vase, taste

everything James once made: fried potatoes, pasta with cheese, ice

cream. (…)

The collection dramatizes and imagines Sally’s internal life as well, in a way that traditional non-fiction history could not do. Sally did not leave any diaries or written accounts in the first person, and much of what we know about her comes to us from her son Madison Hemings (who was freed in Jefferson’s will and ended up in Ohio where he owned a farm). So we are left to imagine how she might have felt as her eventful life unfolded.

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The kitchens at Monticello

Perhaps most significantly, Mistress explores her conflicted feelings about returning to Monticello from Paris. In the late 1780’s, Sally went to Paris to be Jefferson’s daughter’s maid, and it was there that she began a sexual relationship with Jefferson. Slavery was illegal in France, so she could have stayed on there and remained free, but she chose to return to Virginia with Jefferson and to her life of slavery. In return, she was promised ‘extraordinary privileges’ at Monticello and that her children would be freed. But why did she return? Did she ever regret that choice? These are things that we can never know, but through Sebree’s rendering of Sally’s life, we can picture her grappling with this choice and many others. We see her back at Monticello, circling a fishpond, ‘thick summer wind/prickling fair hair on skin’, pacing and ‘wonder(ing) if my decision was right.’

But, crucially, the persona of Sally is not the only voice that we meet in Mistress. Sally’s imagined voice is in dialogue with a contemporary speaker (or perhaps several speakers) who reflect on their experiences of sex, relationships and racism in modern America. At times this modern voice explores the erasure of black female sexuality, in particular in the poem ‘At a Dinner Party for White (Wo)men’. This poem is a response to Judy Chicago’s art exhibition The Dinner Party (1979) in which the only black woman featured in the exhibit, Sojourner Truth, is (as Sebree explains in the end notes) ‘rendered without a vagina: she is instead, depicted by three faces.’ The poem begins:

Everyone else is invited to meet their vaginas-

different denominations and colors-

 

except me, the magical negress. My box

always absent because desire is not a privilege

 

for disenfranchised women

descendant from slaves-

 

we, still, their dark continent.

At times the poems also delve into the hyper sexualization of black women, reflecting on how in Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex (1972) the term for rear-entry intercourse is sex ‘a la negresse.’ The modern black speaker is conflicted by her own sexual desires (‘I stifle myself, pretend I don’t/love shower sex a la negresse’) and is worried that her sexual partner might see her only as ‘kinks to get lost in’, instead of an individual. The poem I have just quoted from, ‘Dispatches from the Dark Continent’, follows a poem called ‘Paper Epithets, December 1802’ which is told in Sally’s voice. ‘Paper Epithets’ lists out some of the pejorative terms that were used to described Sally in newspapers, after her relationship with Jefferson became public knowledge: ‘an instrument of Cupid’ ‘yellow strumpet’ ‘wench Sally’. But, Sally says in the poem’s powerful final line, she is always described in reductive ways, but she is never seen as ‘the woman that I am.’

By positioning these two poems next to each other, ‘Dark Continent’ and ‘Paper Epithets’, we see a parallel emerging between these two personas, past and present. We see how they are both reduced in the eyes of others – whether a contemporary lover or turn of the century journalists – to so much less than what they really are. Throughout the collection, these two voices, contemporary and historical, are always in dialogue with each other. We come to see how racism, and in particular degrading attitudes towards black female sexuality, lives on in modern America. Towards the start of the book, Chet’la quotes from historian Annette Gordon-Reed who writes: ‘The portrayal of black female sexuality as inherently degraded is a product of slavery and white supremacy, and it lives on as one of slavery’s chief legacies and one of white supremacy’s continuing projects.’

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The gardens at Monticello where enslaved people would have labored.

Mistress is the sort of book that you could read in one or two sittings, getting immersed in the sensuous and troubling worlds of the various, intermingling speakers. OR you could return to it again and again with a ‘scholarly’ eye and see how Sebree has used the various, often sparse, facts of Sally’s life to shape Mistress. There is a timeline provided at the back and you could easily spend time seeing where each poem fits into that timeline, what historical events are being referenced or alluded to. There are also detailed Notes where you can learn more about what works of art or historical materials are being referenced in each of the poems. This is a book that is layered with allusions to other texts.

This is also a book that deeply understands the limitations of the ‘persona poem’ (a literary term for poems that adopt the voice of a speaker who is not one’s self) and how Sally Hemings cannot ever truly be understood or rendered by a modern writer. Sebree acknowledges this, yet this book is still a powerful resurrection of a historical figure. In many ways, it is a restoration of the humanity that Sally Hemings was denied both in life, as an enslaved woman, and in history, as someone who was often reduced to nothing more than a pejorative epithet by her contemporaries or ignored entirely by some modern historians. The story of Sally Hemings is painful and complex, and poetry is the perfect form (in my opinion) to explore painful and complex emotions. Poems do not seek to provide answers, but to ask questions. Poems are not built around argumentation; they are built around emotions and ambivalence.

Mistress is a powerful testament to how art can help us to carry and hold the painful legacy of slavery in America and how poetry especially can help us to recover and access those whose lives were, and continued to be, affected by that legacy. These poems ‘sever the silence’ around Sally’s life and allow us into her world. Her loves, her desires, her choices, and her regrets. In short, her humanity.

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Window at Monticello

Recommended Reading

Non-Fiction:

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed

Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, Black and White, in a Young America by Catherine Kerrison

‘Jefferson’s Monticello Makes Room for Sally Hemings’ from National Public Radio, June 2018

– Monticello itself has many resources online which are a great place to start learning more about Sally and her family. You can start with their ‘Slavery at Monticello’ general page or check out ‘The Life of Sally Hemings’. I’d of course recommend a trip to Monticello as well, if you’re anywhere nearby.

Getting Word Oral History Project (Monticello’s oral history project for collecting stories and interviews with descendants of Monticello’s African American community)

Fiction exploring experiences of enslaved characters:

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (and her entire Seeds of America trilogy, which are all for Young Adult readers)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Related posts on this blog:

Notes from Monticello II: Trying on Stays (blog about the experience of trying on replica 18th century corsets with Chet’la Sebree during my fellowship at Monticello)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday.