Holly M. Wendt

2014 Baron Fellow
Novelist
Annville, PA

hollymwendt.com
@hmwendt

Research at AAS

I was a Robert and Charlotte Baron Fellow in June 2014, working primarily on research for a novel. Holystone takes up the story of early eighteenth century pirate Captain Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, as told through my own imaginings of Maria Hallett (the Cape Cod woman whose love, legend has it, spurred Bellamy to his pirate career) and an invented member of Bellamy’s crew, Boyd Garrick, a London barrister who has fled his old life. The book, ten years in the making, is nearing completion.

I came to AAS prepared to reinforce and expand what I knew of the historical record on Sam Bellamy and found great success on that front: in the archive, the pamphlet The Trials of Eight Persons Indited [sic] for Piracy &c Of whom Two were acquitted, and the rest found Guilty was something I knew I had to read. This pamphlet is an account of the trial of several of Bellamy’s crew who survived the catastrophic storm that destroyed Bellamy’s flagship, Whydah, in April of 1717. The Reverend Cotton Mather ministered to those condemned men while they awaited trial in Boston, and he expounded on those conversations in the pamphlet Instructions to the Living, from the Condition of the Dead. Artifacts such as this, in addition to the Calendar of State Papers: America and West Indies and issues of The Boston News-Letter, offered a kind of real-time record of Bellamy’s exploits, as well as a sense of how information flowed along the eastern seaboard. A wealth of resources pertaining to Eastham and the broader history of Cape Cod, ranging from works by Alice Lowe and Everett Nye to Henry David Thoreau, proved invaluable for creating the landscape where one-third of the novel takes place. I augmented this, too, with weekend trips to Cape Cod, walking Marconi Beach where the wreckage of the Whydah washed up, climbing Doane Rock in Eastham, cataloguing trees and grasses, and making the trip to Provincetown, where Barry Clifford’s museum dedicated to Bellamy and salvage from the wreck, was housed. (That museum, expanded, has now moved to a new home in Hyannis.)

These were the resources I knew I needed. But the best gift of the archive was the process of discovering what I didn’t know I needed to know. The letterbook of Boston merchant Thomas Fitch comes immediately to mind. At first, the letters appealed for their practical applicability to understanding trade, prices, and material culture. Then, it took on new resonance: Thomas Fitch, just a few years after writing the letters I read about shipments of spices and other dry goods, would serve as a member of the jury that condemned six of Bellamy’s surviving crew. Thomas Fitch does not appear in the novel, but the electrical current I experienced upon making that connection infuses the work. Others who’ve worked with archival sources have said this before, but knowledge changes in the presence of actual handwriting, the human experience of ink blots and strike-throughs; in this discovery, what shifted for me felt like real life and real death. I could touch the same book cover, the same paper, as a man who helped decide who lived and who died among characters—people—I spent years getting to know. There is no substitute for that.

But every writer of historically infused fiction has to deal with the (delightful!) problem of excess. There was no shoe-horning Fitch into the novel, and there was no way to incorporate all of the fascinating fragments and phrases and definitions I stumbled across on what felt like an hourly basis. Still, I couldn’t let them go, and the result was that I found myself writing poems in the evenings, the first poems I’d written in a decade, out of the curiosities I’d collected.

Issues of The Boston News-Letter proved particularly fecund in this respect, and a little human interest snippet became the following poem, which was chosen by Rebecca Morgan Frank as the winner of the 2014 Louisville Literary Arts’ Writer’s Block/Memorious Poetry Contest and published in Memorious. The title and the italicized material are taken directly from the newspaper’s back page, between shipping news and advertisements.

 

(What is here inserted comes from a Credible Hand and attested by some now in Boston)
—Boston News-Letter June 20, 1715

 




Writing a novel is a long game, and so much of what I read and recorded in my notes during my fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society worked on my thinking about Holystone in a way that now feels geologic, metamorphic: the heat of ideas and texts and images, compressed in the space of brain and body, molding each other over time, transforming work and writer entirely.

 

About the Fellow

Holly M. Wendt is Associate Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Lebanon Valley College. Holly is the recipient of a Jentel Foundation fellowship and residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Hambidge Center. Their writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Barrelhouse, Memorious, Baseball Prospectus, Gulf Stream, Hobart, Bodies Built for Game: The Prairie Schooner Anthology of Contemporary Sports Writing, and elsewhere. Several of the other poems that originated from their archival work at AAS appear in Footnote #2: A Literary Journal of History.

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