Robert Begiebing

Robert Begiebing
1996 Wallace Fellow
Newfields, NH

Research at AAS

Book cover image for the strange death of mistress coffinbook cover image for Rebecca Wentworth's Distractionbookbook cover image for the turner erotica
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Writing The Adventures of Allegra Fullerton during a Lila-Wallace Artist’s Grant in 1996

After the unexpected success of The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin (1991) and my subsequently aborted attempt to write a novel set in the mid-20th century, I started to cast about for a new historical subject for fiction. I was fascinated by seventeenth-century America, where I had set Mistress Coffin. But I was also fascinated by nineteenth-century America. I had some ideas of using the utopian communities of the period as a point of departure, but little more than that. I started poking around in sources that might give me a more specific sense of nineteenth-century American material culture. One of those sources happened to be by a scholar employed by AAS, Caroline Sloat’s Meet Your Neighbors: New England Portraits, Painters, and Society, 1790-1850 (1992). Sloat’s work led me in turn to an earlier foundational text in the field, Clara Sears’ groundbreaking Some American Primitives: A Study of New England Faces and Folk Portraits (1941).

I began to think of a picaresque novel based on the itinerant painters both these scholarly works addressed, and after a bit more research, I found Itinerancy in New England and New York (edited by Peter Benes and published in 1984 by Boston University as volume 9 of the annual proceedings of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife). There, based on research by Joyce Hill, I discovered that there were roughly ten female itinerant portraitists in addition to many males, and the idea of a woman on the road in nineteenth-century New England caught my imagination. The traditions of the picaresque, the female Quixote, the female bildungsroman, and the kunstlerroman (or artist novel) heartened me as I launched myself on the road with Allegra. During the early drafting, I realized I might be heading into A Long Fatal Love Chase, so I soon steered the narrative toward A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman, a woman whose itinerant years were her apprenticeship to greater artistic ambition. If few female itinerants seem to have been so driven to become fine artists, we have of course the examples of ambitious American women painters who, like my heroine, traveled to Europe to refine their art: Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau, Imogene Robinson Morrell, Sarah Goodridge, Sarah Freeman Clarke, May Alcott, among others.

I was perhaps a year and a half underway on the novel when I received in my university mailbox a flyer about the relatively new AAS artist grants. My August of 1996 at the AAS archives with a helpful staff opened the whole story—its characters, its settings, its episodes, even its tone. One surprise was my discovery that nineteenth-century itinerant artist Susanna Paine beat me by writing her own novel about a female itinerant painter! But once I got hold of the AAS copy of her novel Roses and Thorns (1854), I saw that Ms. Paine and I were, mercifully, taking quite different road trips.

When I’m researching an historical novel, I immerse myself in the language of the period, not only the formal literary artifacts, but diaries, letters, and journals as well. I’m trying to store in my imagination a sense of the mental habits, syntactical rhythms and dictions, and voices (especially women’s), as well as trying to unearth facts and details about the people’s customs and cultures. For language especially, private diaries and journals (published and unpublished) are key sources—such as Memoirs of Margret Fuller Ossoli, Ruth Henshaw Bascom’s manuscript diary and papers, Hannah Gale’s manuscript diary (“Journal A” from the Gale Family Papers covering 1837-38) with its rich descriptions of young Fuller as her demanding yet delightfully unconventional teacher in Rhode Island, and artist Deborah Goldsmith’s fragmentary journal, to mention a few in the AAS collections. Travel books and journals to places where the novel was taking me, not least Italy (especially Florence), offered many 19th-century descriptions and views: John Ruskin, Henry Greenough, James Jarves, Francis Coghlam. Sara Lippincott, and Catherine Sedgewick, to name a few. Ruskin and Fuller became major characters in the novel.

Back in the USA, the AAS collection of timetables, routes, and ticket sales (trains and coaches) from such sources as the Worcester National Aegis and Hampden Washingtonian were important, as were maps, prints, photographs, and broadsides from the AAS Graphic Collections. The latter offer views of towns and cities and travel ways of the mid-nineteenth-century period.

Beyond their usefulness for getting physical movements and timing right, some of these visual items I placed on the page within the novel at appropriate moments. (I also placed a few portrait paintings from the collection of “American primitives” at Fruitlands Museums in Harvard, Massachusetts). And of course, art instruction books of the period (such as Maria Turner’s from 1833 and John Bowen’s from 1839) were significant to understanding materials and techniques. Between the language, period detail, and visual elements of the novel, I tried to create an experience as immersive for the reader as my own experience of writing the book was for me. By the time Allegra was published in 1999, I was already off on another novel about another female artist, Rebecca Wentworth’s Distraction (2003). The idea was that Rebecca, set in eighteenth-century America with a heroine who was a visionary antinomian, would flesh out a New England historical trilogy. But the process by which that trilogy finally came together is, as they say, another story.


About the Fellow

Robert J Begiebing, Professor of English Emeritus at Southern New Hampshire University, is the author of nine books, including fiction, memoir, journalism, and criticism. Now retired, he was the founding director of the MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction at SNHU and an inaugural faculty member at the Norman Mailer Center’s Writing Workshops, in Provincetown, MA. His novel Rebecca Wentworth’s Distraction won the Langum Prize for historical fiction in 2003. When he brought Allegra Fullerton back as a main character in a fourth novel, The Turner Erotica (2013), he turned his historical trilogy into a tetralogy. Begiebing donated his literary papers to the library archives at Southern New Hampshire University, including drafts of and correspondence related to The Adventures of Allegra Fullerton. He lives in Newfields, NH, with his wife Linda.

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