On a brilliant fall day in November, Tisch Hall was transformed into the kind of reading and writing circle that Mary Kelley, Ruth Bordin Collegiate Professor of History, American Culture, and Women's Studies, has celebrated so often in her scholarship.
“Reading, Writing, and World-Making in Nineteenth-Century America” brought together students and colleagues from around the nation and from every stage of Mary’s career. Dr. Amy L. Ladd, an orthopedic surgeon at Stanford Medical Center and one of Mary’s first students at Dartmouth, remembered how Mary provided an intellectual oasis for female students in the 1970s, while current graduate students Alyssa Penick and Kate Silbert testified to Mary’s ongoing influence.
The conference organizing committee included History, American Culture, and Women’s Studies alumni Nick Syrett, Will Mackintosh, Aston Gonzalez, and myself, as well as Dartmouth alumna Honor Sachs. We wish to expressly thank Martha Jones for her tireless support as “our woman in Ann Arbor.”
Panels on women and gender, race and religion, and the art of reading and writing spoke to the diversity of Mary’s scholarly interests and those of her students. Panelists’ research ranged from depictions of Shakers and Native Americans in antebellum print culture, presentations of free blacks in colonial Liberia and in the scrapbooks of Philadelphia’s elite, to the hidden female history of the American Antiquarian Society, one of Mary’s favorite archival haunts.
The final panel reflected on Mary’s achievements “as a colleague, mentor, and friend,” and featured kindred spirits in gender and cultural history. Karen Halttunen (University of Southern Califormia) celebrated what she termed “the romantic genius of Mary Kelley,” evident in both her scholarship and her friendship. Catherine Kelly (University of Oklahoma) praised Mary’s inspiring connection to the women of the early republic. She wondered which way the influence flowed—was there a nineteenth-century writer somewhere inside Mary Kelley or had her research on these circles of friendship and activism inspired her to recreate those relationships in the present? Finally, Anneliese Orleck (Dartmouth College) documented “the Mary Kelley effect,” a unique combination of scholarship, mentorship, and care that radiates beyond Mary herself, like ripples in a pond, to influence everyone around her.
One memorable anecdote, delivered by Karen Halttunen, captured the essence of Mary’s generosity. Many know of Mary’s fondness for dramatic scarves. Halttunen told how Mary once sent her own black velvet cape, “a glory cloak,” to raise the spirits of a fellow historian struggling with writer’s block. Halttunen cited Mary’s philosophy: “You don’t keep the glory cloak—you share the glory cloak.” Those of us privileged with Mary’s mentorship and friendship have known the warmth of this figurative (and sometimes literal!) gift as she has supported us as students, scholars, and human beings.
Mary herself concluded the conference by sharing plans for her forthcoming work. She encouraged everyone present, in this time of uncertainty and fear, to rededicate ourselves to forming communities of care and commitment. We all left Ann Arbor lit with a spark of Mary’s romantic genius to return to our own students, families, and communities.