The Room Where Peggy Happened: The Library
April 9, 2018
Ray Bradbury said, “I discovered me in the library.” Well, that’s where I discovered Peggy.
Nothing in Peggy’s own hand is left during the time-period I was researching. So I had to explore in a slowing constricting spiral, looking first on the outskirts of her life for clues about her and for narrative ideas—her family, friends, and foes, the events surrounding her, what the Revolution brought to upstate NY in the 1770s and 80s, what other people wrote about her or recorded about their experiences in those battles, hospitals, and balls. And then I followed those breadcrumbs closer and closer, in and in, to the heart of Peggy—what she would have witnessed, what she might have felt and feared and fought, hoped and longed for, given the emotions expressed by people with her. There I wept, laughed, and marveled. And there I found her story.
The libraries that created Peggy for me? The National Archives and its extraordinary digitized letters collection https://founders.archives.gov/, The New York Public Library—(read more about that in a guest blog by Mabel Hsu https://lmelliott.com/lauras-blog/guest-blog-discoveries-nypl), Mt. Vernon’s National Library for the Study of George Washington, an absolutely gorgeous facility, http://www.mountvernon.org/library/, and the airy library at my beloved Wake Forest University, https://zsr.wfu.edu/
More on them in a moment…..
Because this is National Library Week, I should share that libraries have always been magical kingdoms to me. I, like Bradbury, discovered myself—my imagination—in them. I grew up in what had been my grandfather’s dairy farm. He was one of those Virginia “gentleman-farmers,” a lawyer by trade and a farmer by family tradition. His study, what became our family room, had floor-to-ceiling shelves—filled with books. Walking in there felt like the scene in the first novel of the Narnia series, The Magician’s Nephew, in which the protagonist comes across a wood filled with pools, each one offering submersion into a parallel universe—if he is brave enough to jump in. Every time I pulled one of those books off its whitewashed shelf, I plunged into a new world. And each time, my imagination grew.
Students often ask, for instance, with some surprise, how I can write compelling “boy books” featuring male protagonists since I am “a girl.” I think it’s because no one told me NOT to read what was on my grandfather’s shelves—adventure books by Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, and O’Henry. Reading them, I knew I could imagine the world through all sorts of eyes, male and female.
J. K. Rowling's beloved Harry Potter heroine Hermione Granger said, “When in doubt, go to the library.” Indeed! Libraries have saved me so many times. A frustrated intellectual and politico, my mother should have been mayor of my hometown as her uncle had been, or at least lawyering in it, as had her father. But she was afraid to do that in the 1960s. So instead she ran basically every civic organization she could, like a privately funded but publicly open library, housed in a grand old clapboard building that had once been the town hall. She often sat at its desk and I sat in its stacks, gazing up at the rows of books, reading their spines and imgaining what treasure lay behind those titles.
Decades later, when I was desperate to coin the right title for my first novel, Under a War-torn Sky, I instinctively went to the local library, plopped down on the floor and gazed up at the stacks for inspiration. My editor had rightly said that my desired title: A Burning Blue (quoting a poem written by a young RAF pilot in WWII, “High Flight”) didn’t adequately capture the novel. The title needed the word war in it….I scanned and scanned and there my eye tripped up on Paul Bowles’ Under a Sheltering Sky…. I was saved!
I probably grew into a historical fiction writer because of an elementary school librarian who found me sitting on the floor like that, perusing but not picking. She pulled out a novel on Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island. After reading it, I spent the next month playing in our woods, pretending to be the first-English born child that legend holds was saved and raised by local American Indians after the rest of the settlers perished. History became a palpable drama for me in that moment.
And when it came time for me choose my college, one of the things that decided me on Wake Forest was the vibrancy of its library. Students dashing in and out, fervent group conversation via hushed whispers over papers and books, light streaming in through enormous windows onto their collective epiphanies. A veritable illustration of historian Shelby Foote’s comment—“A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.” And Wake’s library was then only half the size it is now!
I still go into it and soak in its air whenever I am in Winston-Salem, lingering in front of a portrait of the university’s most beloved and revered professor, Dr. Edwin Wilson, the most important and generous mentor in my life. Standing there in the library, I can hear his voice calling us to live poetry, reciting about skylarks and the power of art and thought: “All the earth and air/With thy voice is loud/ As, when night is bare/From one lonely cloud/The moon rains out her beams, and Heaven is overflow’d.”
When every local collection of Harold C. Syrett’s carefully annotated volumes of The Papers of Alexander Hamilton was missing the years I needed (checked out or tragically “borrowed” from the stacks), I found them complete at Wake Forest. My library card for my alma mater is still one of my wallet’s most valued items! The sheer and childlike delight in learning is always reborn in me as I sit in its stacks.
I’d like to end with a profound thanks to the Mt. Vernon National Library for the Study of George Washington. Without the help of the library’s resident historian Dr. Joseph Stoltz and librarian Sarah Myers, HAMILTON AND PEGGY would be missing one of its most endearing and historically consequential real-life characters—a double agent working for Philip Schuyler named Moses Harris. Joe found his pension application, which corroborated that Moses was indeed a nameless spy I had read about who discovered British battle plans that might have crushed and ended the patriot cause. Sarah then shared a wondrously anecdotal 1878 article that recounted Moses’ exploits, as told to his children. (To learn more about the bodacious Moses Harris see http://lmelliott.com/book_landing_page_historical/hamilton-and-peggy-revolutionary-friendship/supporting-characters-hamilton-and-peggy-revolutionary-friendship/
That is what librarians do—guide enquiring readers to treasures that sifting through digitized catalogues on our own will probably miss. They are the keepers of the flame!
Synthesizing Joe and Sarah’s gifts regarding Moses Harris with insights from the Schuyler Mansion historical interpreters told me that Philip Schuyler’s library really was the Room Where It Happened – the site of one of the war’s most critically important spy rings and “black chamber ops” (intelligence gathering to produce counter-intelligence to confound the British). And crossing referencing all the letters we culled from the National Archives and the NYPL proved that Peggy was there at the right time to witness it all!
Of course, the Schuyler Mansion library was important to Peggy in so many ways—she evidently taught herself German by reading her father’s engineering books, for instance. So it made sense that I should introduce her to the young man she would eventually marry—Stephen Van Rensselaer—in that library! Stephen would later become a founder of Albany’s public library. I am sure he was encouraged to do so by his book-adoring wife, who once had been criticized by one of Hamilton’s best friends as being too insistent on talking politics to be likeable. I think Peggy wanted to make sure any woman could know and talk about any subject that interested and set her mind abloom.
If you have the chance to research a topic at the temple that is the National Library for the Study of George Washington, do! Teachers: take your students! I’ll end with a final note from Joe Stoltz:
At the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington (or simply the Washington Library), we help tell richer deeper stories about George Washington and the people in his life.
Founded in 2013, the Washington Library is the “Presidential Library” of George Washington. The National Archives and Records Administration did not establish the modern presidential library system until Herbert Hoover in the early 20th century. Consequently, it’s up to private organizations to act as the stewards of earlier presidential administration’s history. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association has owned and administered George Washington’s estate since 1858, and, in the twenty-first century, decided it was time for construct a research center solely dedicated to the United States’ first president.
The library is open to researchers by appointment Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm. The appointment process is not intended to hinder research, but because we host more than one million visitors a year right across the street at the Mount Vernon historic site. We want to provide our researchers with the best possible service experience, and knowing you’re coming in advance helps us do that. We’ve assisted grade-school students working on National History Day projects and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors. We’re open to all!
The Library also offers a robust fellowship program for scholars from around the world. They live on-site for one, three, or six months at a time conducting research and helping us tell the story of George Washington, the many people that lived at Mount Vernon, and the founding era of the United States.