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Researching American History at the New York Public Library

Getting Ready to Write about American History

A good Booke is the precious lifeblood of a master Spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.

– John Milton

One must walk through this magnificent portal to get to NYPL’s 55th Street “Rose Reading Room.” I’d never stopped before to read the inscribed quote long enough to consider it from a writer’s perspective. Certainly Milton means that when a reader finds a book good, then it is treasured and gives a ‘life beyond life.’ But what does this epigraph mean from a writer’s perspective? A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit… As I begin the process of becoming a writer again (a writer writes!), I am preparing for long hours of solitude and the need to persevere without feedback, I am nervous but also filled with certainty. My mentor recently said to me as I was weighing ‘what to do next’  – do what makes you happy. I’m lucky; I know exactly what makes me happy. But I also know the price that comes with committing to life as a writer. I have done this before and it is not easy and not without sacrifice. A lot of uncertainty; a lot of time alone; but also the opportunity to walk through the gates of wisdom at the New York Public Library, hunting down early stories about Charlestown, Rhode Island (1800-1940).

When studying this photograph that I shot with a cellphone – musing that the last time I was exactly at this precipice I had neither a phone nor a blog to post it on – I reckoned with the powder blue sky breaking through the clouds from its trompe l’oeil window. I saw it as a metaphor for the journey I am about to embark on – the breaking, dawning light of this ceiling painting in this great American institution reminds me that I am re dedicating myself to finding out what I don’t know.

As with all narrative nonfiction stories, I will start research in the New York Public Library Schlumberger American History archives in order to ground my writing with the authority needed to share Grace and Ruth Hoxsie-Browning’s stories – two sisters (both married to Brownings) who in the early 20th century overcame class struggle, childlessness, discrimination, the Depression and finally, a violent hurricane. Theirs is an ordinary story; not social media worthy (wait until you hear about Ruth’s boots!) –  very different from the celebrated, young women of today called influencers, who broadcast their celebrity with not much to claim but their provocative bodies encased in fashion, exemplifying beauty. Perhaps our heroes, Grace and Ruth – and our journey to find out about them in search of determining meaning for our own lives -will serve to remind us that character, above all things, formed worthy lives.

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