Archival Kismet: A Manifesto
In a fit of spring-cleaning early last year, my mother sent me a series of boxes filled with various mementos from my childhood and other things she wanted to get out of her closets and into mine. Tucked inside one of the boxes was a photocopy of a family recipe. This recipe was for varenyky (another name for/variation of potato pierogies), written in my grandfather’s hand and likely based on his mother’s recipe. My great-grandmother was a Russian immigrant, and varenyky was a childhood favorite of mine, bringing to mind memories of making dough and dumplings with my Great Aunt Rosie, my grandfather’s half-sister when she would come to stay with the family for a week every winter.
I was thrilled to see this recipe, because I had long wanted to replicate it myself. But reading the recipe, I noticed something strange: a constant refrain of “lily-white hands.” Where did this phrase come from? Was this a Russian or Ukrainian idiom that my grandfather translated directly into his version of the recipe? Was it based on language common to early twentieth-century cookbooks, either Russian or American? Or was this his flourish, added to liven up the recipe? In any case, what did the use of this phrase say about my grandfather or my great-grandmother’s attitudes about race and ethnicity as immigrants in twentieth-century America?
A single, short phrase in a handwritten family recipe has, in the past year, led me down a rabbit-hole of questions about whiteness, gender, cookery, the immigrant experience, and so forth. In order to satisfactorily answer these questions, I’ll need to become conversant in the recipe’s twentieth-century American (especially the interwar and postwar) context, particularly the issues of race, ethnicity, and the immigrant experience. I’ll need to spend time with cookbooks, and either rely on my Russianist colleagues or, perhaps, work on learning some Russian myself.
This is a lot of work to solve a minor question glimpsed through a family recipe. It might be years or decades before I solve it satisfactorily (or publish anything about it, other than this essay). But the questions are exciting to me, and the possibility of wandering off the map in search of answers is compelling, irresistible, despite—or perhaps even because—it has so little to do with my main area of research, nineteenth-century medicine.
Opening a box and finding a family recipe with an intriguing turn of phrase in it is not so different from how I’ve approached many of my research experiences over the past several years. I used to feel a bit anxious, even ashamed at my lack of a central research through-line or unifying topics and themes in my research program. I’ve jokingly referred to myself as “intellectually peripatetic,” which is one way of saying I’m highly disposed to going off on tangents—I’m easily distractible, and I only feel productive when I’m working on multiple things at once.
I used to think this was something that made me a lesser scholar. So many historians pick a topic and stick to it, developing a research program that has a clear central question, topic, chronology, and geography. Meanwhile, my CV looks…confused. While my research is all linked through the history of science and medicine, I’ve published on the diagnostic history of intersex individuals in eighteenth-century France and policing and physiognomy in twentieth-century Britain. My book is on phrenology in nineteenth-century America, but only one of my articles is on the same. How did I come to all of these varied projects, and is this wildly discordant approach, this lack of a central research program, perhaps a positive rather than a negative?
“Archival kismet” is a phrase I started using in talks a few years ago to explain my guiding ethos as a historian and researcher. By archival kismet I mean simply this: allowing the archive, broadly defined, to guide you, and being open to questions and topics well outside of your wheelhouse. I believe in pursuing research tangents because the sources were rich and present and worth exploring, whether or not they resonate with your main project. I embrace the principle of being led by the sources, even if—especially if—the sources lead you far afield. This often means more work, since you will have to learn new literatures and contexts with which you might not be familiar or in which you might not have trained. It might make you look scattered—but history is scattered. History does not always have a clear through-line or simple narrative. Why should historians?
The story of how I came to write a book on phrenology and crime is a long one, but suffice to say that I never intended to write about phrenology at all; the sources pointed in this direction, and An Organ of Murder was born. Every other project I’ve ever worked on started out like this. I came across some remarkable, gorgeous plates in the Medical Historical Library at Yale as a grad student, which led me to write on intersex people in eighteenth-century France and Britain. A chance encounter with a physiognomic board game led me to write on twentieth-century physiognomy and policing in Britain. Pulling a file at the New York State Archives while looking for something related to my book project led me to the clemency file that became the foundation for an article on the murder trial of Chastine Cox in Gilded Age New York. And, most crucially for my work now, a librarian here at Mississippi State introduced me to a collection of just-donated family papers that have become the foundation of my new project on the history of emotions in medicine in the late-nineteenth-century American South and West. And this project, in turn, while looking through Southern medical journals, led me to discover accounts of pregnant children, which is becoming its own new project(s) on childhood and precocity in the nineteenth century.
None of these topics were part of my research plan, but in following the sources and allowing the archive to guide me, I’ve come across some surprising and fascinating things. Often, these are small stories, which is fine with me. Not all history needs to be sweeping and field-changing in order to be valuable. There is value in the small, the overlooked, the perplexing. I’ve come to embrace the fact that I am so easily led astray. And if my path through history looks a little more winding than that of my peers and colleagues, my landscape and experiences are varied enough to keep me interested and excited—even if I do tend to wander off the map from time to time.
Archival kismet, of course, is not just about “official” archives. It’s about all of the ways we come to interesting documents and sources, encountering new topics and questions that we might not have anticipated in unlikely venues, and cultivating an open-minded approach to sources and methodologies alike. To these ends, I organized a conference in Spring 2021 as a space for the celebration and exploration of the weird, the off-beat, the strange finds in archives, broadly defined, that we aren’t sure what to do with or that don’t fit into our current research projects or even our broader research identity. Over four days, fifty presenters and 150 registered audience members came together virtually to embrace the weird and wonderful, to acknowledge the excitement and confusion produced by such finds, and to share in our challenges and questions about early works-in-progress. Short, informal presentations gave way to sweeping, generative discussions between panelists and moderators, prompted and echoed by a Greek chorus of commentators in the comment panel and on Twitter.
The short essays in this series are a sampling of some of the work that was shared in the conference in April, highlighting the work of scholars whose unusual finds and challenging questions led to rich discussion in our panel conversations.
The conference and these short essays are proof of concept for Archival Kismet as both a conference and a research ethos. After the invigorating, generative, and generous discussion over the four days of this conference, I feel more convinced than ever about the utility of this approach, of embracing one’s peripatetic interests and tangents prompted by surprises in the archive, however we define it. And the project continues: Archival Kismet 2.0 is in the works, with an open invitation to scholars at every stage, discipline, and professional role to participate and share with this community their archives, their findings, and their questions.
I might not believe in fate, but I do believe in kismet: following our sources where they lead, in and out of the archive.