Day 8 in the archives: Bailey and the Bard

In 1888, Liberty Hyde Bailey had a big transition to make. He had accepted a new position, after just two and a half years of professorial life as Chair of the nation’s first Department of Horticulture and Landscape Gardening at State Agricultural College in Michigan (now Michigan State University), to become Professor of Horticulture at Cornell University, where he felt he would have more leeway to build an epicenter for the broad, interdisciplinary study of agriculture. But Cornell also had to do a bit of wooing, it seems, to get him away from Michigan, so to sweeten the pot they offered first to send him off to Europe during the fall semester to make a survey of agricultural practices there, bringing his wife Annette and daughter Sara along for part of the journey. He had never been overseas; just two years before he had left the country for the first time when crossing the Canadian border with Mamashgawab, an Ojibwe guide, by birch bark canoe in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. Now he wanted to put his traveler’s itch to the test.

This much you can learn in Philip Dorf’s biography of Bailey. In the Cornell archives, I recently encountered (by accident, looking for information about his farm Arbutus) the copious, narratively written journals that Bailey kept on that trip around Europe. They indicate that he had more than just botanical or agricultural interests in mind. This was the same year Bailey wrote up, from his 1886 field notes, a narrative account of his Boundary Waters excursion that he attempted to publish under the title Onamanni, which is the Ojibwe name for the lake that he spent the first leg of the trip traveling around. (I curated an exhibit based on this manuscript, held in Cornell’s Rare and Manuscript Collection, for the Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum, a description of which you can read under the “Former Exhibits” tab here.) Bailey’s favorite books growing up were travel narratives — an incredibly popular genre in the nineteenth century — and he wanted to write his own. The fact that he was still largely an unknown to the publishing world likely had something to do with the fact that Onamanni was never picked up; it was still years off that Macmillan would offer to accept for publication anything he wrote. But the idealistic thirty-year-old, with several published books already under his belt, was clearly thinking of reaching a wider audience through travel narrative, and I think it’s safe to say that he considered eventually publishing the two and a half full journals that he kept on his European trip (reworked, likely, as he did with Onamanni) as a book someday as well. Think Twain’s Innocents Abroad, but by a horticultural botanist/philosopher rather than a satirist. I have not read through the whole thing — it’s not my project, and there is simply too much else to do — but I stumbled today on a particularly moving passage about young Bailey’s trip to Stratford-upon-Avon.

Amy Halloran, posing by a deer (middle left of picture), in front of the mausoleum where Bailey is interred at Lakeview Cemetery in Ithaca. Photo by author.

As has so often been the case, I didn’t go in looking for this today. In fact, for the first time I was not alone in the archives. I had the pleasure of visiting with Amy Halloran, food/ag writer and author of The New Bread Basket, who is a fellow Bailey fanatic (a.k.a. Baileyateur) and who wanted to visit some Bailey sites around town with me and make a quick visit to the archives. In other words, part of the archival objective was just to pull cool things, given Amy’s brief time. So, while she read some of the farmer’s correspondence that I had found previously, I made a couple PDFs of longer documents using an app on my iPad so I could read them in depth later. But one of the cool things I pulled was the European journal, which we proceeded to flip through simply to gape over the sheer amount of virtually unread Bailey manuscript that, perhaps (we imagined), someday we would read.

Amy spotted the mention of the word “poet” near the end of the first volume of the journal, so we stopped to check it out and proceeded to read Bailey’s entry of Monday, October 8, 1888. He began the day in the botanic gardens at Oxford (gardens he found “small but very compact and handsome [… that] have about them an air of great age”). Then he left at eleven by train and arrived around one in Stratford-upon-Avon, the childhood home, of course, of William Shakespeare.

Old Billy Shakes. The Flower portrait of William Shakespeare (now a known nineteenth-century forgery), courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Given my familiarity with Bailey’s handwriting, I read the passage in a whisper as Amy’s eyes and mine scanned along the lines of airy cursive, trying not to disturb the researchers at other tables in the archive’s reading room. A short walk from the train depot brought Bailey in front of the house held by tradition to have been the Bard’s birthplace. Bailey had encountered Shakespeare as a child, having attended what must have been a rather backwoodsy production of Hamlet by South Haven’s first drama troupe, led by his family’s neighbor and fellow orchardist A. S. Dyckman. But the emotion Bailey felt in front of this house in far England, he writes, was beyond words:

Who can describe the feeling which comes over one when he sees for the first time some place or object in a foreign country of which he has heard and read for years! How the pictures of fancy have played before the mind all these years! And how suddenly are they thrown down and cast utterly to the winds when at last the reality stands before him! For a moment he stares in astonishment, almost forgetting where he is and what he sees. Then the truth begins to dawn upon him, the place takes on an indistinct reality, and presently he grows inquisitive. Then begins the desire for exploration, inquiry, and he must see the place from top to bottom, staring at every line and niche. So I stood in front of Shakespeare’s house and stared; stared not because of the oddity of the architecture, for other houses in the vicinity were like it in pattern, nor because of its age, for I had seen older. But I stared because that house is unlike all other houses upon the globe in its associations, and I found that it had the power to transport me back to the time of the Bard of Avon, or to bring him nearer to me. At any rate, the bond of sympathy between us at once became a real and sympathetic one, where before it had been purely intellectual. (Liberty Hyde Bailey Papers, #21/2/3342, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. 4.9.133–5)

This excited stream of thoughts does not have a word crossed out or added in: a single draft. As we later discussed, Amy and I both felt chills for the same reason while reading this passage. Just the day before, we had stood in front of Bailey’s house at Sage Place in Ithaca, awkwardly admiring the bold but simple carved wood details around the wraparound porch of the craftsman-style brick house that Bailey designed, before mustering the courage to ring the doorbell and be let in by one of the nine members of Cornell’s undergrad rugby team who now rent rooms in the old building.

This has something to do with why many researchers don’t imagine digital collections (great as they sometimes are) fully replacing onsite research. Much like biblical scholars in the nineteenth century began describing the archaeological landscape of the Middle East as the “Third Scripture,” places are themselves physical archives of history. Walking around the Bailey home, admiring the built-in chairs and bookcases, the original painting by Walter King Stone of Cayuga Lake worked into a frame built into the mantel, the whimsical chandelier with colorful hand-painted details hanging above the staircase, the passage lined with bookshelves and a built-in standing desk connecting the parlor to the servants’ quarters (now an undergrad’s quarters) — accompanied by our student host, Amy and I could both say, “I found that it had the power to transport me back to the time of the Bard of [Ithaca], or to bring him nearer to me.”


For some context, see my intro post. To get in touch, use my website.

The archive archive: Intro | Days 1–3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Interlude

Insights all gleaned from Liberty Hyde Bailey Papers, #21/2/3342, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.